Saturday, 2 May 2015

Teknaf Road

A journey is as calming as a palm tree?

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”  - Robert Louis Stevenson. Across continents and centuries great thinkers, philosophers and wordsmiths have set their minds to the meaning of journeys. But what if they’d boarded a Bangladeshi regional bus?

The nameless company's pineapple-toned non-stop special service from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf.

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck.

At the Cox’s Bazar bus station, it isn’t so much that I choose the bus to Teknaf… the bus chooses me. I’m hustled aboard by two youths, one with a gammy eye, who then demand cash for a ticket. In any other country it’d have to be a scam. But this is Bangladesh: it’s probably the system or a system or some invented variation of a system… it’s creative and poetic so I oblige.

Still, as they run away across the parking area with cash in hand I can’t help wondering if I’ll see their overworked faces and one gammy eye again…

The non-stop special service stopped, the road blocked.

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau.

The bus is small, the company seemingly nameless. There aren’t too many dents in the vehicle – a favourable omen – and it’s painted with a kind of soothing tropical motif in pineapple tones, somehow befitting a way-down-south journey. In the front is a sign: “Non-stop Special Service.” I can’t imagine how special it’s going to be.

The seats are cramped but as a concession to longer legs the guys who’ve just run off with my money thrust me to the seat by the door. They made a point of mentioning the legroom advantage.

As could probably only happen in Bangladesh they soon return with my ticket. At first I suspect they’ve stashed a little commission in a hiked fare but when others pay I realised that no, it’s whole-hearted honesty. When will you stop doubting this country?

A lovely spot with mud and traffic under a tree.

“I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.” – William Shakespeare.

The bus sits and sits. We bake and bake. The sun grows hot and hotter – as more people are invited, hustled or cajoled aboard. And finally, we move!

But not far. Just out of town on the Ramu Road is the Teknaf turn-off to the right. It’s a lovely spot under a large tree with mud to get semi-bogged in even on a dry day and enough traffic hovering to be irretrievably parked in within seconds.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” – St Augustine.

I learn that Teknaf is a town of readers. It must be. Why else would that annoying man be yelling negotiations for half an hour as three enormous sacks of books are loaded – two blocking the aisle by the door and one on the roof, heavy enough to feel the bus slightly squat in pain. They can barely lift the book bundles aboard. Do they ever read about journeys in Teknaf? Do they consult manuals on bus freight limits?

With horns blasting and snack sellers squeezing up the aisle between the tome-tonnes and the ever increasing number of seat-less passengers, it seems negotiations have finally come to a close. It’s time to leave, after several more minutes when the bus can honk its way out of the vehicle entanglement and find some version of open road. It’s hard to breathe now.

Perhaps the Non-stop Special Service becomes non-stop after this?

Readying the bus in front for an acrobatic feat. It's rear wheel fell down a road shoulder hole.

“The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The first one-and-a-half kilometres hold promise. True, the chassis is a bit close to the roadway on account of the books. True, the driver doesn’t feel the need to slow much for the bumps. It’s promise that ends with a bang! Far be it from me to criticise literature but an excess of literature just busted the engine somehow – irreparably.

Standing, standing, in the sun, on the roadside… they’re saying a replacement bus will come but does the pineapple themed no-name bus company have a replacement bus?

There’s a fight brewing, about literature. The regional businessman is yelling that he paid extra for the cargo so it’s not his fault – they should’ve taken fewer passengers. The passengers have a near book-burning expression on their faces. There are no fans of the written word among them now.

After a good part of an hour it turns out they do have a second bus – only they’ve filled it with other passengers before they left.

They could sell tickets to the daredevil bus show.

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu.

Hammer and tongs there’s a boarding of the new bus: elbow and shove, people are piling inside to claim a centimetre of space though the vehicle is started out full. My jostling skills aren’t up to the challenge and at school I played rugby.

Fortunately the guys who once ran off with my money are now with hand gesture telling me to wait patiently. They’ll find a seat where there are none.

“It’s so nice to know where you’re going, in the early stages. It almost rids you of the wish to go there.” – Samuel Beckett.

With two book sacks loaded on the new bus roof and the third destined to stay behind, roadside, the conductor tries to convince two young lads in the front row – one of the seats with legroom – to give up their diamond of a prize on account of one foreigner. Thankfully they argue.

There’s yelling and manhandling and I say nothing since what they’re asking is unfair… not that I claim the strength of character to refuse the seat had those lads’ determination faltered. But there’s no greater chance of them moving it turns out than of the former bus.

Somehow the gammy-eyed conductor hustles up a seat further down the line. I don’t see that happen – but I’m ushered inside.

Coincidentally the man beside me is the same as on the first bus. “Ah! This is my sitting friend from before,” he says jovially.

The outskirts of sprawling Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia can be seen from the road.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert.

We can hardly have reached Ukhia Upazila before the bus stops again. Ahead the road is blocked. There’s some roadwork going on and a bus in front is dangling precariously with one back tyre hovering over a gargantuan road shoulder gap. All its passengers managed to escape without the bus toppling and now there’s a crowd of local onlookers too, wondering what to do.

They’ve decided to use a plank to ford the hole; with the bus wheel hopefully balancing along it until it finds solid earth. The only hitch is nobody really has a sturdy plank so the locals improvise. They choose the best large stick they can find at short notice. It looks about as trustworthy as a Himalayan swing bridge built during Queen Victoria’s reign and never repaired.

If they did this in a stadium people would buy tickets, I think. It’s a daredevil stunt. It’s an action film. I’ve certainly taken up a roadside posit to see if the bus falls. The anticipation thrills.

Suddenly the driver puts his foot to the pedal and the bus bursts forwards with back wheel walking the plank. Just inches behind the wheel the plank is splitting, giving way; but in the nick of time the bus reaches the far side. The show is a success! Macgyver would be proud.

The road, closer to Teknaf.

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” – Anaїs Nin.

Being so close to Myanmar there are four Border Guard Bangladesh check posts along the way. It’s the first that’s the most interesting. While conductor is busy having paperwork checked at the office over the road, two young BGB guards are ordering boxes from the roof.

When conductor spies this activity he gallops back, frantically pleading for them to stop. But it’s late. They’ve already decided a large box of medicines will go no further. They wave the bus on and there’s nothing to do but proceed.

“It’s good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ernest Hemmingway.

As we rumble through bazaars in fully-Ukhia-now, the conductor’s standing a few rows up the aisle. “If you are going to vomit use a polythene bag!” he’s saying urgently to a passenger. “If you are going to vomit use a polythene bag!” It’s said a third time it’s said and thrice said can’t be good – anticipating the pong of sick, it’s really a special service now.

The Teknaf Range as viewed from the Naf River. Things start to look spectacular as they get peninsular.

“Travelling – It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta.

Somewhere around Hnila passengers wish to get out – it’s a non-stop service but it’ll only take a moment… and if we don’t stop the people will only have to travel back again from Teknaf and that would be hardly fair. “Life is short, time of the essence,” is the unspoken rule. And everything in Bangladesh is flexible and personalised – it’s about being considerate really and that's nothing to consider.

Mangroves grow along the Naf.

“Not I – not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself.” – Walt Whitman.

Trouble brews as one passenger wants his cargo retrieved from the roof – I’m not sure if the bag broke on the way or as it’s hurriedly taken off – non-stop services may stop, but not for long. The clouds of anger have gathered over the journey once more.

The driver fears for his vehicle so pulls off too soon, leaving the gammy-eyed conductor to sort out the brouhaha.

Meanwhile – and I’m not sure if that passenger owned the sack of jam fruit – black plum – on the roof but a couple of other passengers have discovered it has a convenient hole in it. Journeys make us hungry; and they’re reaching out the window and unseen, up onto the roof feeling for jam which, handful by handful unexpectedly find their way to open mouths.

Boats beside the Naf waiting for the tide. On the far side are the hills of Myanmar.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus.

Some hundred metres on and the conductor at a run reboards. His belt buckle is broken. His shirt is torn. His face holds that post-punch-up relief, yet there’s no ill-will for the driver who left him to his fate.

The scenery is stunning now – the Naf River to the left and grainy Teknaf range to the right. The abode of wild elephants, it’s feeling delightfully peninsular.

Stop-start stop-start… people want to get out… it’ll only take a minute… life is short, time of the essence… but eventually we make it – not to the Teknaf bus stand quite; to the scrap of dusty yard in front of the Awami League office which serves as a terminus when… Who needs to go all the way to the terminus? I alight to stretch my legs, finally.

A market in Teknaf.

“Though the road’s been rocky it sure feels good to me.” – Bob Marley.

The most memorable part is the look on the conductor’s face. He’s so overwhelmed with thankfulness at getting there – the pineapple colours certainly didn’t sooth him. As much as anything he seems happy to have survived; and enthusiastically he shakes my hand as if to invite a sharing of that great congratulation. It’s a wonder he’ll go through it all again on the following day. Absolutely! A journey it was!

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” – Gautama Buddha.

Selling shupari - areca nut, Teknaf's signature crop.

A shorter version is published in The Daily Star, here: The Philosophy of a Local Bus Trip to Teknaf

Shupari - areca nut grows well in Teknaf.

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