One of the most stressful moments of our walking day comes about 4 p.m.
That’s about the time we have to start planning where we will sleep and scouting out possible locations.
The dynamics around this daily task changes with every region and country we pass through. These last two months, Bangladesh compelled us to rethink our strategy.
We started our walk in this South Asian country at the end of monsoon season. We got caught in several storms, and the threat of rain hung over us many days the end of September and in early October. Free camping in these conditions would be tough. Rice paddies, a few weeks away from harvest, and fisheries were filled high with water, and stretched many hundreds of meters towards the horizon.
And, it’s impossible not to be seen in Bangladesh. It’s a country of 160 million people, and where there are no rivers or rice paddies, there are people. Groups of people gather around to (politely and curiously) stare at us within 30 seconds of stopping anywhere, and the crowd grows exponentially every minute we’re there.
There was simply no place we could hide or pitch a tent out of view from the heavily-trafficked roads we walked. Sleeping undiscovered would require creating a magic force field to keep us invisible, sadly a superhuman capability we lack but often wish we had.
Knocking on a random door
We had to be more creative in figuring our daily nests.
Initially, we used sleeping strategies that worked in Tajikistan. We would knock on someone’s gate and ask if we could pitch our tent on their land. In the absence of a safe place to sleep in the wild outdoors or a budget hotel/guesthouse along our route, knocking on strangers’ doors is our next best option. We do the best we can to find an appropriate house and family that may let us bunk up for the night. We try to find someplace where we won’t be a burden, and with people who have kind eyes.
It’s a strange thing knocking on a random door, explaining our situation with a few local words, some English, a handful of photos like a picture of people walking and a tent), and then seeing suspicion and confusion slip away and turn into welcoming smiles and warm hospitality. It demands from all parties involved an intuitive trust and an instinctive sense of reading a situation very quickly to determine what gut feeling rises up. We don’t always have luck; sometimes people say no. But, more people have taken us in than turned us away. And, we have had much more good luck than bad luck, both in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Part of that “yes, come in,” we think, stems from the idea of Muslim hospitality. There is a belief that guests are considered blessings, and welcoming people in with food, drinks and a place to rest is a way to express gratitude for the guest who arrived on your doorstep. We have experienced this in various Muslim countries before our walking trip and during it. We never, ever abuse that nicety. Rather, we are incredibly grateful every time this goodness is extended to us. It’s a human kindness we intend to bring home with us, and an ideology we intend to share with our future guests, be they existing friends or strangers who will become friends.
In Bangladesh, we had a handful of these experiences early on walking out of Cox’s Bazar and later after we crossed the grand Padma River (the main tributary of the Ganges) and headed towards Jessore.
Families took us in, fed us delicious food and rearranged their normal resting routines so we could sleep on one of their beds, despite our constant insistence that we could pitch our tent alongside their gate and not trouble the family too much.
What we still haven’t gotten at all used to is being the human zoo on constant display. We like being anonymous and hate being the center of attention. But walking the world through villages and places rarely visited by tourists makes us a novelty and puts us in the uncomfortable position of having “rock star” status. People want to take selfies with us, share the news of our arrival with their neighbors and extended family, post about us on Facebook and show us off to their friends.
This happened on a smaller scale in other countries, but in a place like Bangladesh where large families live close together and there are people everywhere, all the time, the parade of people coming to greet us becomes an unavoidable circus spectacular.
It goes on for hours during the part of the day when we are extremely tired and have to muster up the last drops of our energy to keep smiling. Several dozens of times we answer the same four questions over and over about which country we’re from, what our marital status is, the zero-number of kids we have and what religion we have (or more accurately, don’t have). When everyone runs out of common words, we stare and smile at each other for several more hours, us from the special chairs we sit in and the extended family from the standing or squatting circle they form around us.
One night in a small rural village, we have to force the goodnight about 9 p.m. Grateful for a safe place to stay, the few roti breads we had for dinner and the nice smiles, we are exhausted beyond belief having walked 30 kilometers, without much food along the way, and staring at a 4:30 a.m. wake up alarm in the morning.
Having already agreed that we would pitch our mosquito net on the kitchen-living room floor to keep out the creepy-crawlies, we put up the screen part of our tent; about 30 onlookers gather around to watch. We say goodnight and goodbye and crawl inside. Some bystanders go home, but several stick around and start staring through the mesh screen, shining headlamps directly into our faces. New people still come into the house, put their faces up against the tent and peek inside; we hear the family talking about us, repeating the four or five things they know about us. More headlamps shine in, and I try to bury my head, turning over, mumbling “The zoo is now closed. The animals have gone to sleep. Thank you for your visit, but there’s nothing more to see here.”
The next night turns into a weird situation.
Close to sunset, a young man in his 20s agrees to take us in. His family is very happy to meet us. They let us take a shower, offer us plates of sweets and fruit, and tell us dinner will be ready in an hour or two. The women of the family take me under their wing calling me sister, and, with the help of one of them who speaks a good amount of English, we go beyond the four-life questions and talk about cooking ingredients, the names of vegetables and university studies. More women come but there is a respectful distance of curiosity; they come, linger for a few minutes and then bow out to continue with their own lives.
The young man takes Lluís to meet his father, who owns a shop, and several uncles and cousins. One of the uncles has lived abroad, speaks very good English, and is now a teacher at the local elementary and high school; Lluís asks me later if I would like to volunteer at the school the next day, something we both agree would be a good experience for us and for the kids. The men walk around the market, introducing Lluís to everyone they walk by.
About 9 p.m., the ladies present us with plates of rice, vegetables and pieces of fish. They don’t eat with us. Instead, they sit around us and insist that we eat more. There is, however, a tension in the room that was not there before. The woman who speaks enough English starts talking about problems with the police, but assures us everything will be okay and that we should finish eating and get ready for bed.
An hour later, we say goodnight. The family has freed up one of their beds and pulled out clean sheets for us. I’m prepping my daypack for the morning and setting my alarm. Lluís is in the bathroom brushing his teeth.
There is a knock and a hello at the curtained doorway. Three uniformed policemen holding rifles and one plainclothes officer stand there looking serious. They ask to come inside our room. The plainclothes officer, who has an air of authority, and another one in blue sit on the small couch at the foot of the bed. Lluís comes back looking as surprised as I am. We ask for their names and identification cards. They brush over our request, but we get a nod from some of the family members that seems to say these men are who they say they are.
The cops tell us it is dangerous for us to be there, that we have put the family in danger by staying there. Bangladesh, they say, is not a safe place. There have been problems, political ones, that have put other visitors in harm’s way. We are tourists, foreigners who may be the victims of terrorists who may want to make a point by hurting us, they add.
We don’t get the impression, nor does our gut feeling tell us, that the terrorists they speak of are anywhere in this village, among any of the people we met today, or in the family we are staying with. As with most fear-induced worries, the people they speak of are the unknown terrorists we should fear, the ones from some other village who could possibly attack us at night. For our safety, the cops tell us, we should go to the hotel about 5-10 kilometers down the road. They will take us there and pay for our room, we are told.
We’re not convinced staying in a hotel, which is for locals only and probably has never hosted a foreigner, makes us less of a target.
We think it’s just a way for this group of police to move us into some other police department’s jurisdiction, and wash their hands of any potential problems our presence may cause during their watch. But, we certainly don’t want any problems for this wonderfully kind family. So we change out of our pajamas, pack up our stuff and give warm, heartfelt hugs and handshakes to the key members of the family. Sad looks of regret flash among all of us, some vague sense of the strange world we live in shadowing the best of intentions between good people.
For the first time during our trip, the fear of strangers has beaten kindness and friendship. I’m near tears as we climb into the police pick-up truck, overwhelmed by an idea that light and love has let us down tonight. I blow a kiss down the dark road, sending gratitude to all the families who have helped us have safe passage so far and saying goodbye to the family we left behind. I stare over the rail of the cab, the wind stinging my eyes, wondering where the night will lead us next.
Some of the families we stayed with and the rooms they made available to us:
Change of Plans
Although we had mostly good luck knocking of random doors and staying with families, the pressure of doing this every night becomes too great.
We want to return the kindness we’re offered by being involved in the nightly conversations and greet each person we meet with a smile, but we are losing many hours of much-needed rest and it’s hard to recoup this energy during our walking hours.
We have to change our plans. We adopt a strategy we had to use in Burma, another place where we had many problems finding sleeping spots. There, we were often forced to stay in tourist-sanctioned hotels. While we did frequently camp when we could safely do so, it was technically not allowed. It was also illegal for locals to host us in their homes overnight.
With limited options, what we had to do in some places was find a hotel and then do a series of walking out and backs. We would take a bus to the point where we finished the day before, walk 30-35 kilometers (sometimes 40), and then take a bus back to the hotel. Doing this meant we had a place to sleep for several consecutive nights, and the extra benefit that we could leave our heavy backpacks behind and walk light, with just some water in our day packs.
This became our game plan in Bangladesh. We found low-cost hotels in the major cities of Chittagong, Comilla, Dhaka and Jessore, and were able to cover the country’s slightly more than 700 kilometers in about five weeks. We would stay in these places for five or six days and connect our route with footsteps and buses driven by manic drivers or an occasional train. We would take a rest day at the hotel before hauling our backpacks and new walking trolley to the next big city likely to have several hotels to choose from.
This is far from an ideal walking situation. Theoretically, we would like all of our route to be foot-powered. But, that’s not always possible. We have to stay flexible as we adapt to constantly-changing circumstances every single day, find ways to keep ourselves energized and safe, and reduces some of the stress we put our bodies through on a daily basis.
Doing this kind of hopscotching between hotels resulted in another benefit beyond knowing we had a place to sleep multiple nights. Like in Burma, it meant we could walk super light without weight and without the trolley.
Although my new trolley, who I call Saha, has greatly reduced my back strain, it has added a whole new dimension of stress to my life. I’m constantly concerned about how I will squeeze through a sea of humans, rickshaws, carts, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, buses and cars crowded on the streets of every Bangladesh city. Some days it’s really slow going carving a path as a half-pedestrian and half-vehicle. I can’t just hop the curb and skirt around whatever new obstacle is in front of me. I have to think through my next steps and fend off all the other things vying for every centimeter of road space. Leaving the trolley behind for several days in the hotel made walking a pleasurable activity and less of a burden.
We suspect India, our next country, will come with similar sleeping and walking challenges. We’ll see what solutions we come up with and what our daily nest will look like each night. Wish us luck.