Thursday, September 24, 2009

Uneasy Rider

In moments of peril, the cliché is that one’s life passes before one’s eyes, but in my case, my only thought was that I was going to end up as the grand prize winner of this year’s Darwin Awards, the annual compendium of stories showcasing people who have died as a result of their own stupidity. Not the sort of internet fame that I had desired, but at least my name was sure to be mentioned at any future reunions of my various alma maters.

There certainly hadn’t been any hint earlier on that danger and a dumb decision would determine the defining moment of the day. In fact, the entire trip to the Sylhet division in the northeastern part of Bangladesh had been remarkable to that point for the lack of stress that usually accompanies a journey to parts unknown. Though the ten-hour bus trip from Chittagong required a start time of 11 pm, the three travelers in our party still managed to sleep through most of the Ramadan messages and Bangla movies broadcast inches over our heads. And the rest stop at 3:30 am for the last meal of the day for our Muslim companions on the bus made for an interesting cultural observance: no matter your background, everyone looks funny when they are jolted from a sound sleep.

The first two days in the city of Sylhet were pleasant enough, though the most memorable part of the experience had to be the overwhelming creepiness of our chosen hotel. Billing itself the East End Hotel, a more appropriate moniker would have been the Dead End. Arriving there at 9 am, we found the place in complete lockdown, a gate drawn across the front entrance and no sign of a welcome mat anywhere. After a couple of phone calls to a number earlier used for making our reservation, a bleary-eyed clerk came to the gate and unlocked it for us. Our concern for the guests who were locked inside the hotel was short-lived, as we soon discovered that we were the only guests favouring this place. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Lonely Planet. After signing us in to a guestbook that required us to share not only our passport numbers but also the lower branches of our family trees, the clerk marched us upstairs to our rooms. “Looks like something out of the Shining,” said Carrie, as we checked the darkened hallways for any sign of dead twins imploring us to come and play with them forever. Unlocking our room, Kristel and I found the charming addition of an equal access peephole drilled through the centre of the door, effectively allowing people to peep into the room as well as out of it. Finding the room clean but shy of the usual amenities such as towels and toilet paper, we approached the clerk and asked for some supplies. “No, I’m sorry, but you asked for rooms with no air-conditioning”, he replied with a rueful shake of his head, “Only air-conditioned rooms get towels and toilet paper.” Hard to argue with that kind of logic. We eventually negotiated for some tp to be brought up to our rooms, but this appeared to be a major concession on the part of the hotel and likely the last one we would be receiving.

After unpacking our bags and admiring the “roses and guitars” motif of our bedspread, we received our first guest, one of the boys from downstairs who appeared to be employed by the hotel as a bellhop, though this designation didn’t actually extend to him helping us with any of our bags. Pointing his finger down, we understood that we were being summoned to the front desk, so Kristel followed him to learn our next bit of good news. Arriving back in the room five minutes later, she shook her head with a laugh and said that we had been asked to pay for our stay in advance so the hotel could afford to pay its electricity bill. The thought of the Dead End plunged into darkness was enough to convince her that this was a worthwhile investment, though she negotiated the advance payment down to cover only one night’s stay, correctly reasoning that paying for a second night would be a bit of a waste if we didn’t survive the first. We also chose to dash the hopes of any would-be Peeping Toms by carefully taping some of our valuable (and stylishly pink) toilet paper over the hole in our door. Apparently, our voyeurs were not so easily dissuaded, however, as we discovered the next morning when we found our stopper pushed back into the room, though thankfully not far enough to uncover the hole. Shudder.

But on to better days. Making the two-hour bus trek south to Srimangal, we found ourselves in the centre of the tea universe for Bangladesh. All of the major national brands have their tea plantations here, so the lush greenery stretches for miles. Having made a reservation at the Nishorgo Eco-Resort, we arrived with a certain amount of trepidation, hoping that our Dead End experience wouldn’t be repeated. Thankfully, we found our cottage to be a gem, a cabin with a thatched roof and all of the modern conveniences, including towels and toilet paper. Settling in for the afternoon, we made our plan for the following day, a visit to the Lowacherra National Park that is walking distance from our doorstep. Heralded as one of the few places to see the subcontinent’s only ape species, the hoolock gibbon, the park was also said to be home to dozens of other mammals and birds, as well as some monstrous insects that would we likely recognize from our flat.

The next morning came with the overcast skies that are common at the end of monsoon season. Hiking into the park, we soon found the headquarters for the local guides and hired one to take us further along the trails cut into the forest. After a short hike in the nearby bush that offered up one curious monkey (not the famed gibbon) and some spiders that paled in comparison to the ones in our bedroom, the guide offered to show us his village down the road. He opened up his home to us, offering us tea and biscuits, and then introduced us to his neighbours. Around this time, the skies started to blacken and the threat of imminent rain began to loom. And this posed a bit of a problem, as we had no way to get back to our cottage. The prospect of walking in a downpour wasn’t an attractive one, especially since it would likely take over an hour to make that hike. So, we turned to our guide for help and he agreed to help us flag down a vehicle. Cue the ominous music.

The threat of rain became a reality, and the skies opened up on us. Finding shelter beneath the canopy of trees, we waited as our guide gamely waved at any vehicles passing by. One early offer came courtesy of a motorbike driver, though the redness of his eyes and his fascination with the chests of Kristel and Carrie made us reluctant to accept a lift from him. Finally, our guide gave us the signal and we scrambled down to the roadside to find our transport – a truck that was already overloaded with people. With no room inside, our only option was to climb on to the roof and take the remaining space at the front. Hopping on to the hood of the truck, we climbed to the roof and greeted our fellow travelers. With barely enough time to get settled, I did manage to find a small rail that ran along the edge of the roof and braced my feet against it. It wouldn’t be enough to stop me from catapulting off the roof if we stopped suddenly, but I gained some solace from knowing there was something between me and the front of the truck. Waving goodbye to our guide and our sanity, we started off down the road.

The rain continued to pelt us as we raced along, its velocity increasing with our own. Soon, whatever vision I started with was lost in the fog of my glasses and the water blurring my sight. Being blind is not terribly comforting when one is perched on the roof of a speeding vehicle. At one point, our truck was forced to stop momentarily due to a jam of buses blocking its path. Though I couldn’t turn around, I could hear Carrie and Kristel behind me, so I knew they were still there. The pause in our trip gave me a chance to release my white-knuckle grip on the rail and shake off some of the rain, though the downpour actually felt worse while we were sitting immobile. Seizing the opportunity, I opened up my umbrella to ward off some of the drops, but my victory was short-lived. Lurching forward suddenly, the truck geared up and sped off again and my umbrella imploded with the force of the wind buffeting us. Not knowing what else to do with it, I held it out in front of me like some kind of lance, a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at imaginary foes. Actually, the blown brolley did serve a purpose, as it fended off the passing low branches of trees that otherwise would have swept me off the truck. Sensing my discomfort with the rain, some of the passengers behind me helpfully extended their tarp over my head and kept pulling it down until I couldn’t see anything at all. Luckily, the oncoming gale soon caught the tarp and turned it into a flapping sail, so I could catch glimpses of the curves in the road before we reached them and guess the proper direction to lean.

After a ten-minute eternity, we spotted our corner and thumped on the roof of the truck to stop and let us off, our shaky legs inventing a new dance step on the hood as we jumped down. We fumbled our way to one of the tea stalls to get out of the rain and were pursued closely by one of the riders from the cab of the truck. It took a minute for us to understand why he was coming after us, but we soon realized that we still hadn’t paid for our trip, so we laughed as we wrung out the proper number of taka notes to give to him. Reliving the thrill ride over cups of calming tea, we marvelled at how we ended up in such a position and our good fortune in surviving our journey. I also made a silent oath to ensure that this experience would forever remain a unique one. The Darwin Award is one trophy I can live without (with the emphasis firmly on “live”).


Hans said...

Dear, dear Glenn!

You (and Kristel!) will never enjoy life in the "common world" any more, after all the adventures you survived till now...
But, also keep in mind the thoughts your (blog)fans and family will have during reading these kind of stories!?
However, the remarkeble nice and humorous way you describe a "special journey" like this, makes us forget how worried we are about your health and safety, in fact.
Remain cautious, both of you!

PS: and enjoy!

cochrane said...

I see evidence of serious character development here, man! What would make me crazy leaves you guys rolling your eyes (and compiling blog material)...maybe to keep from going nuts yourselves.

Thanks for sharing your adventures and reminding me how easy my life is (though with much less adventure). :-)