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Dhaka to Nowheresville: The Great Escape


Today I escaped the grinding capital and took refuge in the velvety silence of the countryside. I sit here now, in my tiny room in a rural hostel, writing under a naked light bulb speckled with insects. Outside, the pulsing darkness muffles every sound except the lightly falling rain. There are lamps glowing in the distance, and the last birds in the crooked trees are turning in for the night.

Rewind a bit and our day begins, as ever, in a tangled traffic jam. Wedged between a knackered, belching bus and a cart piled high with rusty old scrap like a game of Jack Straws, we nudge forward, battling for each inch of space. The rickshaws provide splashes of colour and the clanking trucks all around are painted marigold yellow, as if conjured up by a child with her first paint box. Signs on the back of the lorries advise those vehicles following behind to ‘Blow your horn’. Never in the history of language were three words more unnecessary than these, right here in mid-morning Dhaka.

The rickshaw and cart drivers heave their iron vehicles onwards, like mediaeval soldiers, their calves taut with strain. Occasionally they lift a rapid practised hand to wipe away the sweat, their eyes fixing on an ever receding point in the distance. Each journey is a gruelling ordeal: each day looks the same. God knows what they think about when they eventually get home to their tarpaulin or metal shacks; perhaps they simply collapse into statuesque sleep.

A woman covered head to toe in a bright floral burka negotiates her way across the minefield of impatient vehicles. On her feet she has sandals of outrageous immodest pink. An amputee hops in her wake, his crudely-fashioned wooden leg tapering to a rubber stopper, matching his home-made crutch. The air shimmers with exhaust fumes. At the roadside there is a fight between two irate drivers – more pushing and shoving than punching, until at last someone self-importantly wades in to arbitrate, and the combatants retire, with all the strutting bravado of schoolboys, their blustery points proved.

Back on the road again, the view is still blocked to either side by clamorous buses and trucks. But then slowly, grudgingly, the city begins to disintegrate. Now there are gaps between buildings, sudden watery intervals, a view of far-off snooker-green fields.

The car begins to pick up speed, suddenly hungry in the opening space. Buses bear down the middle of the road towards us, affording us the tough choice of swerving into the grassy verge or being concertinaed into oblivion. On every bus there is a ‘helper’ – a wild ragamuffin kid who hangs out of the door at a suicidal angle as the coach speeds along, banging on the side to get you out of the way, the wind streaming through his hair. Occasionally rusty upturned buses like dead insects in the roadside ditches provide textbook reminders of those who ran the gauntlet once too often.

The flashing ponds are a join-the dots puzzle, amid the patchwork of baize fields. Little huts nestle among tall palms. Birds circle overhead, revelling in the sudden freedom of unlimited skies. One of them glides down and rests on the back of a stationary cow, a scene from a forgotten fable. The bower of trees to either side of the straight road allow pools and diamonds of sunlight down on to the road.

Eventually, the city shrinking to a mere ragged line in the distance behind us, we reach one of the huge rivers which cut Bangladesh into ribbons. Far below the bridge, down on the chocolatey surface of the water, a small boat chugs along, herons swooping in its wake. I could jump now from the bridge onto its deck, head into the tangerine dusk, and leave it all behind.

And then at last we turn off and head down a darkening leafy road, which brings us here to the remote hostel and this monkish cell. The heartbeat slows, the night vibrates; somewhere a cicada trills. The walls are powder blue, mottled with greenish damp. A miniature gecko, crossing the vast ocean of pale wall, waits, motionless, for the chance to snap some tiny prey between its jaws. Sleep is equally intent on capturing me.

Suddenly it’s morning. Lemony sunlight piercing the trees; crows in full voice, like witches, hidden among the huge leaves. There’s a knock at the door and someone brings me a tiffin box with an omelette, some curried vegetables, and three fresh slices of delicious flat bread wrapped in local newspaper, with a small cup of sweet tea.

Four more days of this before I head back. But who’s counting?

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