Bengali Stardom

Bangladesh…

It’s hard to know where to start with summarising everything that’s happened in the last week.

Let’s start with some numbers.

Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world with 156M people, more than the whole of Russia.

All those people are crammed into 147,000 square km making it one of the most densely populated places on earth.

To give context, the population is equivalent to half that of the entire USA (323M), crammed into a space the size of England and Wales (150,000 square km).

Around 45M people in Bangladesh are living below the poverty line.

Much of the economy is dependent on agriculture, but Bangladesh’s main export is clothing. In 2015 clothing comprised of 81% of exports, companies such as Nike, H&M, GAP and Walmat produce their clothes here.

The capital city is Dhaka, and has population 17M, double that of greater London (8.5M).

Bangladesh is not a tourism hot spot…

The World Travel and Tourism Council ranked Bangladesh 169th, of 184 countries for tourism income as a percentage of GDP…

But that didn’t stop us!

Although we had no idea what to expect, we flew into Dhaka with open minds and ready for a whole new experience.

Which is definitely what we got.

The fun started from the minute we flew into Dhaka. We didn’t have enough time in Yangon to get our visas, so were planning on getting them on arrival, which according to various websites was fine.

We had arranged to stay with the cousin of a friend of a friend, Mahtab, who we’d never met, but had been emailing.

In preparation for immigration we’d printed an itinerary of our trip through Bangladesh, detailed by night, along with our “letter of invitation” from Mahtab.

We handed over our passports and various papers…

“Where are the details for your onward flight?”

“We don’t have an onward flight – we are cycling to India via the border at Burimari. We already have our Indian visas – here”

“hmmm”

This seemed to be a problem. Additional guards were called over and much talking in Bengali ensued. Most of the interest was around Ewan’s passport.

One of the guards made a phone call. We couldn’t understand the Bengali but caught the occasional word in English: “foreigner”, “bicycle”, “no onward flight”.

Phone call over, more guards were called.

Ewan asked:

“Is there a problem?”

“No problem …. you look like Lalon Fakir!!”

And they all burst out laughing.

“Who?”

“Bangladesh folk singer. Very old. Smoke lots of weed. Haha you look like him!”

Then after about five minutes of pointing and laughing, passports were stamped and in we went.

A guy in Thailand also randomly commented – “you look like Dev Patel!”, and another girl in Vietnam: “Ahhh Jon Snow!”. We’ve compiled the lookalikes here so you can decide for yourself. Can you guess who is who?

We’d told Mahtab we didn’t need a taxi, as we planned to build our bikes in the airport, then cycle round to his.

Just before we picked up our bike boxes, we were greeted by two gentleman in suits.

We assumed they were taxi drivers trying to get our business, until one said:

“Miss Katie! Mister Ewan! Mr Mahtab sends his regards. My name is Kamal, this is Alex. Please follow me. You collect boxes then meet me outside”

We collected our boxes, and headed outside where Kamal presented us each with a bouquet of flowers, and said:

“We are very excited to host you, you are most welcome in our country. Please, you can build your bikes here, then I will take you to Mr Mahtab’s.”

As we built our bikes up, a line of curious people came to watch. Each introduced themselves: “My name is XXX, you are most welcome to my country”.

It was a sign of things to come.

Mahtab’s house was close to the airport, we followed Kamal on his scooter to get there and were greeted outside by Mahtab and his kids.

“Did you get some problems with immigration?”

“Oh, they were confused we didn’t have a return ticket, but it seemed to be all okay in the end, we got our visa.”

“Yes they called me, and I had to explain you were staying at my house! They were very confused, but I said you were my guests and that they should let you in.”

“Oh we didn’t realise it was you they were speaking to – thank you so much Mahtab.”

“It’s no problem. They said you look like Lalon Fakir… I wasn’t sure what to expect…”

Mahtab’s wife greeted us upstairs with a huge smile, and gave Katie a big warm hug and kiss. Ewan walked in the room next, and went in to give her a greeting hug and kiss on the cheek, to which she looked shocked and backed off.

Cultural faux pas number one, if you’re a man, don’t hug the wife of your host in Bangladesh!

Men generally don’t touch women - It’s probably the cultural equivalent of a guest you don’t know coming to your house, and slapping your wife on the backside on arrival…

We all laughed about our lack of cultural awareness and had an absolutely incredible dinner and a fantastic few days hanging out, chatting about our trip and playing with the kids.

On the day of our departure, Mahtab had explained that there was a Dhaka cycle group who met every Friday morning, and would we like to join? We agreed.

Mahtab joined us for the morning, and showed us the way to the meeting point.

We were introduced to Imrul, who was the leader of the group. He explained they were called "BD Cyclists", and cycled twice weekly, each ride regularly attracting 100+ riders. Imrul said:

“We have 51,000 members on facebook and are a social community that promotes healthy living and cycling in Dhaka. We hold the world record for the longest single line of bicycles, 1,186! We broke the record in January this year!”

It was covered by the BBC here.

BD Cyclists were an awesome welcoming crowd. Within minutes of our arrival, cyclists were coming up to us:

“Hi where are you from?”

“You are very welcome in my country”

“Thank you so much for visiting our country!”

“We are so happy you are joining us!”

The start time of the ride was delayed so we could complete the round of selfies.

Before departure, Mahtab called us over.

“Okay, please can you speak for the camera.”

There was a guy with a video camera, which we assumed was for the BD Cyclists website or something. He asked a few questions and then we set off, after getting a team photo.

The ride itself was impressive. 100 or so cyclists, weaving in and out the horrendous Dhaka traffic, turning off on a side street through the villages and towns, and then stopping for breakfast in a small village

BD Cyclists is just a brilliant group. Some people wear “cycling kit” as we would think of it, lycra etc, but the majority wear normal clothes – jeans, sweaters, trainers, sandals, motor bike helmets – anything goes.

Nothing pretentious, no one trying to impress or show off expensive kit - just a bunch of lovely people who really like cycling.

We left the group mid morning and after shaking hands with literally every member of the group we went our separate ways. We headed north to our first stop point, Tangail, and they headed back to Dhaka.

Tangail is a small city 90km north of Dhaka. We had changed our route slightly so didn’t have any accommodation booked, and were planning on finding something when we arrived.

We eventually found Buro Bangladesh, and met Kamal who was one of the managers. He was incredibly excited that we were staying with him, and insisted we joined him for tea, before showing us to our room.

“It is so wonderful that you are staying with Buro. I have notified the local police you are staying here, you will be very safe. You are most welcome, please if there is anything I can do please let me know.”

We said we’d like some food:

“Yes we can bring it to you room, 100 taka (£1) for two meals”

Once in our room, and on the wifi, we received a text from Mahtab:

“Watch the news at 7pm and 10:30pm”

It was 1845 … we turned on the TV, just as Kamal returned with our food. Before giving it to us, he first handed back the 100 taka.

“Please have the food, it is my pleasure to host you, I do not want you to pay for it.”

Despite our protestations, he wouldn’t accept, so we asked him if he’d like to join us whilst we watched the news. We explained that we think we might be featured, to which he became even more excited!

Eventually, the news came on – and there we were!

A full feature on our world cycle, and our ride with BD cycles! Beamed out on the national news to 162M people.

Kamal’s excitement levels went through the roof – we hugged, took many selfies, and he ran to get the area manager who subsequently thought we were celebrities, and upgraded us to a posh room.

It was a surreal day, and something we’ll never forget. Being on Bengali national TV, and meeting all the great people from BD cycles. Here is the full news segment:

The next day we had to cross a 9km long bridge in order to get to Bogra. It’s illegal to cycle across the bridge, but Mahtab arrived yet again in our hour of need.

“Okay I have spoken to my friend Engineer Bapi. Please ask for him when you arrive at the bridge – he will fix you transport across.”

We arrived at the bridge, to be met by the security guard:

“You cannot cycle over the bridge.”

“We know – we are friends with Engineer Bapi – please can we speak to him?

“Okay follow me. Can I take selfie?”

Bapi wasn’t on site, so we explained our situation. Much conversing in Bengali, pointing at us and gesturing ensued whilst we sat there without a clue what wasgoing on.

A man then came up to us.

“Hello I am Abu Syed. Your mission is complete, I will transport you across the bridge in my car”

“Brilliant thank you so much, should we put the bikes in the trailer?”

“No please sit down, you are my guest, first we drink tea.”

So we sat and drank tea, then loaded the bikes, headed over the bridge and cycled to Bogra.

The road between Dhaka and the bridge was wide, fast and safe.

The road to Bogra was not.

Bengali drivers are the worst we’ve encountered in the world so far. Some of the driving from the trucks and buses, is beyond reckless. It can only be described as suicidal – or homicidal if you are a cyclist.

Impossible overtakes on single lane roads, at terrific speeds, and with dangerously overcrowded buses and cars. Multiple times we were forced off the road, as the oncoming overtaking truck had two wheels in the hard shoulder we were cycling in.

This ironic photo sums it up: Bengali idea of safety first, is an old bus, speeding past a cyclist who is forced to ride the hard shoulder made of sand whilst the people who cannot fit in the overcrowded interior are forced to look on whilst hanging onto the roof and out the doors.

We made it unscathed to Bogra, and met Ronnie, the manager of our hotel.

“It’s so great that you are staying here in my hotel, I would like to take you out for dinner”

Over a delicious dinner, Ronnie spoke about Bangladesh.

“Many of the drivers on the roads are crazy. Lots of them, they are illiterate and they don’t think that any harm will come to them. Before each journey they pray to Allah and they think they are protected. They are crazy.”

“My ambition is to build a school for the poor children in Bangladesh. We have many people here who are hungry and do not have enough money.”

“The government here is corrupt, and so many foreign companies and countries do not want to invest in Bangladesh.”

The current Prime Minister of Bangladesh is Sheikh Hasina, a women who is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, Pakistan and India were all part of the same country under British rule between 1858 and 1947.

When India became independent in 1947, it was split into two countries; India as we know it today, and Pakistan, which comprised of today’s Pakistan, and Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan.

Bangladesh was declared an independent country after a war with Pakistan in 1971.

We asked why you see so many more men than women in the streets of Bangladesh.

“Apart from in Dhaka, most of the women they are housewives. Probably only 5% of women in Bangladesh are working.”

Those that are working have tough lives, like these bricklayers in Dhaka, or those who work in garment factories in rural areas.

“In your country, do you mostly have arranged marriage, or affair marriage? In your country I think you call it “love marriage”?”

“It’s pretty much all love marriage in the UK”

“Oh okay. Here, 95% it is arranged. My wife is from arranged marriage. It is like the lottery.”

“Were you nervous before you met?”

“Yes. In the city, we can meet with our wife before we get married and if we do not like each other we can say no. In the country they do not have this, the first time the people see their wife is on their wedding day. I am very happy with my wife – I think I won the lottery!”

We spent the full evening and following morning with Ronnie and his friend Nadim. Before we left, one of the hotel porters came running up to Katie.

“Miss Katie! Miss Katie! My picture with you. I posted on facebook – I got over 1,000 likes!”

As we cycle through the countryside, we generate a lot of attention. Kids stop their cricket matches to shout and wave. Men in trucks and cars look round aghast, particularly at Katie. Women rub their eyes as if we’re a mirage.

But it’s when we stop that people really get interested.

Every time we stop for a drink, people clamour to get a look at us. Some approach and ask for selfies, some ask where we’re from and welcome us to Bangladesh, others just stare, mouth open, as if they can’t believe what they’re seeing.

We stopped for lunch on the roadside, within three minutes, over 100 people had come to greet us, welcome us, or just stare at us.

This video shows the crowd that gathers everywhere we go. The man who owned the restaurant had to shout at everyone to get out as there were about 30 people who had come into his restaurant to watch us eat.

This is how it must feel like being David Beckham, or Beyonce.

It seems very weird to us that people would just come and stare, but it’s interesting putting yourself in their shoes.

Imagine you have lived all your life in a Bangladesh village. You’ve never left your country, and have rarely left your village. The only people you know are Bengali, and the only white people you have seen have been occasionally on TV.

You earn the minimum wage in Bangladesh, $68 USD/month, and the only people you see riding bicycles are the poorest people who can’t afford mopeds, and ride battered old things that creak and groan with every pedal.

All the women you know are housewives, and rarely leave the house.

You are going about your daily chores, when suddenly, out of no where, cycles a blond white girl who looks like someone from a Hollywood movie and a hairy white guy who looks like … Lalon Fakir.

They are riding, or gliding along compared to other cyclists, on what looks like bikes from the future and with all sorts of strange gadgets and bags on it. You’ve never seen anything like this bike, and don’t know how much it’s worth, but it must be expensive.

Suddenly – they stop! Right in front of the shop you walk past every day.

I think I’d probably stare if it was me.

Here’s a picture of the crowd gathered outside the restaurant once we’d finished eating food.

Arriving in Rangpur, again we had no accommodation booked so were making plans to call into a hotel, when we were approached by a kindly old man.

“Hello hello. Please, I would be honoured if you would join me in my shop for some tea.”

We joined him and his colleagues in his jewellery shop where they asked us about our cycle ride and where we were from. We asked the old man:

“Are you the owner of this shop? It’s very beautiful”

“No no, I am not the owner I am only the caretaker”

“Ah right okay”

“The owner is Allah – he is the owner of my shop, I am just looking after it for him.”

As we were drinking tea, a funeral procession passed in the street. They carried the coffin, and there followed a couple of hundred mourners. As they passed, everyone in all the shops fell silent and stood up out of respect.

The old man’s name was Abdul Kubdos. He went into the back of the shop and returned five minutes later.

“I have just spoken to my wife and told her about you. She would very much like to meet you and would be honoured to cook you dinner. Please would you come and meet her. It would be my honour to have you as my guests tonight.”

We agreed, and ended up having another unbelievable meal with Abdul, his wife, his daughter, her husband Hussein and his granddaughter Suba – eaten with our hands, as is custom.

Abduls house was clean and simple, he said.

“I live a very simple life. When you die you cannot take any possessions with you. You saw that funeral that passed – I could go today, tomorrow – who knows, only Allah.”

“Please, if you need anything in my home you need only ask. Everything I own is yours as well.”

We had a great night sleep, and before we left, Hussein gave us his brothers contact details in Patgram – our next stopping point.

We took this team photo as we were leaving.

The ride to Patrgam was uneventful, aside from our snack break. We decided to stop on a bridge, as we thought there would be less people.

Not the case.

Cars, buses and cyclists stopped to chat, and caused a minor jam on the bridge until the police came and moved everyone on.

We called Hussien’s brother in Patgram who came to meet us.

“My nickname is Cyclone, because I was born in a storm! My daughter is very excited to meet you, please it would be my honour if you would be my guest tonight”

We agreed and followed him to his house where we met his daughter Trifa, and wife Sabina.

The last night in Bangladesh, was typical of our time here. Fantastic food, incredibly warm, welcoming and kind natured people.

Trifa, their daughter was incredibly sweet.

“I am a massive England cricket fan. When they play Bangladesh I do not know who to support. It is my home country vs my dream country.”

Her idol is Stuart Broad – if any of our readers have any contacts to England Cricket and could get a signed postcard or something from Stuart Broad it would make her the happiest girl in the world – please let us know if so! We would love to send her something like this.

We spent a chilled afternoon cleaning bikes and doing laundry, whilst a steady stream of local kids came into the yard to meet us.

Over dinner, Trifa was telling us about Bengali people.

“Bengali people are so friendly – we are so emotional and care too much. I will cry when you have to leave tomorrow, I feel like I have a new brother and sister.”

“It makes me so sad that so many people have divorce in your country. Why does this happen? Here there are 800 people in our village and no one has divorce. My favourite football player is Kaka (former Real Madrid and Brazil). When he got divorce I cried for days.”

Before we left the next day, Sabina the mother gifted Katie a Sari (Bengali national dress) and sent us on our way.

The incredible hospitality continued right to the end. Cyclone and Trifa escorted us to the Indian border and helped us negotiate the various layers of bureaucracy. We said an emotional goodbye and headed for the final checkpoint. The man questioned us as he wrote in his giant book:

“What is your home village?”

“Erm – London” (easier to understand than Edinburgh or Southampton)

“Okay. What is your police station?

“Erm - London police station”

“Okay. Can I have selfie?”

“Sure”

And we crossed into India.

All in all it’s been our favourite week of the trip so far. Terrifying at times on the road – but the Bengali people have made it one we’ll never forget.

Kamal, the excitable hotel manager said upon us leaving.

“Please write me email, it would make me so happy.”

We wrote him one and received this response today which just sums it all up.

You can view the full Bangladesh photo album here. We've also been having fun putting together some videos from New Zealand and South East Asia - check them out here if you're interested.