The bus would leave in 15 minutes I was informed by the sharp young lad who had corralled me into buying a ticket. Buses in Bangladesh typically have a staff of three. A driver. A boy whose sole job is to fill the seats. A second boy, hired as another pair of eyes. His job is to peer up the inside of traffic ahead and thump out instructions on the dashboard. One thump accompanied by what sounds like “Sala Sala” is danger ahead whilst two, accompanied by “Woolly bully” is OK to pass! This job also includes loudly abusing any rickshaw, bicycle or oxcart that might be slowing things down.

Ten minutes later the bus is still only half full. Low mutterings from my fellow passengers who know the form. We will stay put until every seat is filled. Much yelling, “Chandpur Chandpur Chandpur” – Passers-by remain unimpressed. We drive three blocks and stop. Our ticket booster goes into high gear. Leaping off the bus he confronts amblers, shoppers, and people just sharing a morning chat, who, judging by their surprised expressions, had no interest in going to Chandpur. Little by little the bus fills. Perhaps a cheap fare could justify a visit to a little seen aunt or nephew?

Long legs and the rarity of a tourist in Bangladesh, gained me the front seat. A nerve- wracking spot I was to discover. The booster frequently leant across to spit through the window into the roadside – usually with precision, but I always held my breath! The “eyes” peered nervously up the inside of towering smoke belching trucks whilst the driver held his hand permanently against the musical horn. In the front seat, I got to verify decisions made by the “eyes”. Sometimes a double thump was countered by an urgent corrective single thump and a shouted “Sala Sala” which brought a sphincter tightening moment to this passenger and curses from the driver who fought to pull back from a head on collision.

It was my first experience of Ramadan in a Muslim country. I had lit a cigarette at the bus stop and received glares from normally friendly people in a country that had never heard of a “Health Canada Warning”. “You are insulting Islam” I was told by an angry young man barely able to control himself. “No smoking before sunset”. I got the message, professed genuine ignorance, and guiltily apologised.

Restaurants and food stalls were closed. Anyone who was selling food to the minimal non-Muslim population must do so from under a fully dropped tarp. Temptation was not permitted.

The ever present blue sky imperceptibly darkened. We sped through small agricultural villages. Palm trees. Fish ponds A water buffalo straining at the head of a wooden plough. The brightly coloured saris of  women, bent double as they harvested rice, took on a rich golden hue. Oil lamps, tiny charcoal fires and smoking woks began to appear on roadside food stalls. Talk in the bus grew more animated and raucous – like a school playground. The thumping became more urgent and the horn ever more tenacious. A new energy had taken hold.

The Mullah’s call rang melodiously through the dusk. Streets became a mass of humanity. Stalls, which by now were piled high with delicious, steaming, colourful offerings, disappeared behind crowds of hungry customers, anxiously pushing and shoving their way through. The driver jammed on his brakes.

The booster was first off. He returned with a large plastic bowl of spiced deep fried lentils and placed it beside the driver – the boss. Passengers returned to their seats to literally “hoover” the first meal since sunrise. Suddenly the bus was crowded. Old men and children squeezed up the steps. Each held out a small plastic bag with an entreating stare. None went without. A small portion from each passenger was placed in every bag. Ramadan is a time for giving. I gratefully took up the driver’s offer and waded into the large bowl with the “eyes” and the booster, confused by this scene of generosity in such a poor country and wondering how it would play out at home.

Now refuelled – so to speak, conversation reached fever pitch. Bananas, oranges, chapatis and biscuits were shared around. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. We must be nearing Chandpur. The driver stopped to pick up stragglers along the way. I never saw the booster collect a single taka! I found Ramadan, as a Westerner, to be a humbling lesson in sharing and kindness.



Copyright © 2001 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.