SYLHET, BANGLADESH // “This bus goes to Sylhet,” the conductor said outside Dhaka’s international airport. He examined the ticket. The fare and destination were correct.
The look on his face was still doubting, though. It seemed to be saying, what are you thinking? Do you realise what you are getting yourself into?
It would have been a good question as this journey to get to the Bangladesh town where the World Twenty20 tournament Group B qualifying matches were being played was about to dissolve into the decidedly dodgy.
“You know this trip is eight hours?” said another passenger just across the gangway. He had an evil grin of the sort that is painted on the double doors at the start of a fairground ghost train ride, ready to consume its next victims. Get ready, it said.
Outside the bus, the remaining passengers took a last few puffs on cigarettes. They had the look of the condemned.
Everything seemed foreboding, but nothing more so than the state of disrepair the vehicle was in.
The windows had more cracks than a fifth-day wicket in Perth, particularly the windscreen, which had a lone platelet of clear glass just wide enough for the driver to see through.
As soon as the engine was fired up and the 36-passenger blundering missile (a blunder-bus?) was sent into the breach, it was obvious why it was so heavily pockmarked.
Given the carnage that passes for the motorway code in Bangladesh, the lifespan of any vehicle would seem measured in months. This bus was probably only a week old.
With all the traffic and street detritus, the broken windscreen is easy to understand but the massive splits in the side windows not so. The glass panels splay out from a central impact point, obliterating the advertisements for Bangladeshi Idol – the commercial department, not to mention the Bangla wannabes whose images are blemished, would not be amused.
One explanation could be the regular “hartal” days – the days of protest that happen as a matter of course about once a month on average.
On such days, two-wheeled vehicles can go about their lives as usual, but four-wheelers are regarded as scabs and get pelted with stones by those on strike.
Presumably, this being a “business-class” bus – as the sign at the top of the front window proudly announces – it has to work its route come what may. So on strike days, it is a moving target.
Replacing the windows entirely, given the prospect that they are just going to be smashed again within hours, would be a false economy.
Far easier and more cost-effective, then, just to patch up the panel rather than replace it. As such, to prevent the windows caving in, small round segments of glass have been glued to the pane. That should fix it.
In 2005, about Dh1 billion of mostly World Bank funds were spent on transforming the Dhaka-Sylhet motorway into one of Bangladesh’s fastest transport routes.
Fast does not equate to safe, though. According to official figures, 180 people are killed on this road a year, although its users believe that to be a gross underestimate.
To all intents and purposes, the lone safety feature on a road that links the Bangladesh capital to the country’s north-eastern sector is the car horn.
Essentially, the drivers sound their horns as loud as they can, for as long as they like, as a warning they are coming, while doing whatever speed they fancy. The devil takes the quietest.
At one point in an eight-hour shift in which he gets one 20-minute break, our driver stretched out his spare arm and twiddled his fingers around the cage separating him from the passengers. The other hand was employed blaring the horn.
To be fair, we were probably only doing about 60kph at the time, on a densely peopled, single lane track/road, with no barriers separating the tarmac from a drop to the floodplain below. Why worry?
Happily, the pasty foreigner was not the first passenger to succumb to motion sickness. A diminutive man in a white tagiyah emerged from a violent vomiting fit into one of the bus company-issued sick bags with the grin of an experienced campaigner.
The conductor played his part and sprayed an air-freshening aerosol after the event.
Finally alighting in Sylhet, Bangladesh’s fifth largest city, was sweet relief, although the escape from the ordeal was not immediate.
“Sir,” the conductor said, looking more harassed than at any point in the previous eight hours. “You have forgotten the baksheesh [tip].”
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