To Kolkata on the Maitree Express

We had a whirlwind trip back to Dhaka. Two things happened to cause this:
1) We missed the train
2) We boarded the bus with no money left
How we got into this situation was a series of bad luck and possibly bad decisions.

We arrived in Chittagong on a Friday evening, expecting to buy train tickets to Dhaka on the night train leaving the same day. There were no tickets left in any class, on any train to Dhaka until Sunday. We didn't want to wait until Sunday, we didn't want to take a night bus, so we spent a night in Chittagong with the intention of leaving early the next morning on an express bus to Dhaka.

That evening we forgot to go to an ATM to withdraw money, by the time we realised it, the banks were closed. Luckily we knew of an ATM in the train station, we would head there the next morning and find it to be out of order.

We had just enough money to buy bus tickets to Dhaka and have a few hundred Takas left. Then we got a little bit risky: we decided to make a stop half way to Dhaka to visit Buddhist ruins. We would need enough money to hire a taxi to and from the ruins and get back on a bus to Dhaka. We quickly did the math and it seemed like we would make it, just. Everything was going according to plan, we got off in Mainimati and hired a taxi to the site of the ruins. When we arrived we were made aware of the item we had left out of our calculations: admission cost. The cost of two tickets to see the ruins was more than what we had left in our pockets. In fact we were now doubting whether we could even afford the taxi back to the main highway.

Now, standing outside the gate to the ruins, we decided to meticulously break down the cost of getting back to Dhaka. Things weren't looking good, getting in to see the ruins was definitely a no-go. We made an attempt to have our secret stash of American money exchanged, but the rate we were offered was so ridiculous that we passed. In retrospect we probably should have just exchanged the money, but the ticket seller was being kind of an ass, so we didn't want to give him any money.

We concluded that we couldn't afford a taxi back to the highway, so we would have to walk. The rickshaw from the highway had taken quite a while, but our driver had gotten lost, so we thought it wouldn't be too bad. And our map showed the highway as being quite close, so we set off. After at least 30 minutes of walking we didn't seem to be anywhere near the highway, it appeared that the scale on our map was way way off. After more walking we flagged down a rickshaw and got him to drive us as far as 10 takas would take us. This left us with only another 20 minutes or so to the highway. From the side of the highway two business men helped us flag down a bus to Dhaka which somewhat stopped for us. We hopped onto it as it was still moving. Being a "local" bus, and not a fancy direct bus to Dhaka, we didn't have to pay much for the ride to Dhaka, we just had to stop every few minutes to pick up and drop people off. We ended up in Dhaka with about 300 takas, enough for 2 admission tickets to the Buddhist ruins.

In Dhaka, we booked tickets on the Maitree Express to Kolkata, the only Bangladesh-India train, reopened in 2008 after being out of service since partition. Even though it was slower than the bus, we wanted to take it. We had actually timed our departure from Bangladesh to make sure it fell on one of the 3 days a week on which the train ran. After a confusing discussion with the ticket salesmen we settled with "snigdha" class tickets:

"What do you mean what is snigdha class?
"Well, sir, would you be able to explain to us the difference between Seat Class, Snigdha Class and Chair Class?"
"Snigdha is Relax Class."
"Oooooh I see, Relax Class, we'll take two of those!"

The name Maitree Express is a bit of a misnomer. A more suitable name might be "the slowest possible way of getting to Kolkata from Dhaka other than walking". The train was almost empty, there were probably less than 50 passengers. But the train had the capacity for over 200, which meant that the break scheduled at the border had to be long enough to accommodate that many passport checks. The entire train was processed in less than 30 minutes, but we then had to wait about 2 hours in a stuffy waiting room in 40 degree weather. Which I suppose is better than waiting in a customs line for 2 hours in 40 degree weather. I don't think the train actually ever went much fast than 30km/h or so, but we had big reclining seats and air-conditioning (snigdha class = relax class), so other than the border crossing we were comfortable. We had reported at the train station in Dhaka at 8am and we didn't arrive in Kolkata until almost 10pm. The train station where we arrived did not even figure on any map of Kolkata, we exited the station to a dark empty parking lot. We had no idea how far we were from the city nor was there anyone in sight to help us. We eventually spotted a taxi that got us to our trusty hotel on Sudder St for a very reasonable price. We settled into our filthy, 200 rupee accommodation ready to tackle India for the second time.


Jean said...

Just enough money left over to see the ruins! Do you think you're O.Henry? lol

Rajiv said...
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