07:49 — Driver realizes it's a long journey.
07:59 — Get dropped off near a row of auto-rickshaws, nowhere near my destination. Get charged TK50.
08:01 — Get an auto-rickshaw to the Indian embassy.
08:25 — Go past a steakhouse.
08:30 — Arrive at the embassy, enter, and ask where to go for a visa. Get told that application centre opens at 10:00.
08:31 — Find the application centre - it’s already open. Take a form. Fill in the form, photocopy my passport, and attach some photos.
08:53 — Return to submit my application. Get told to return at 11:00. Go for a walk, hoping to find beef.
10:04 — Find an internet café.
10:25 — Discover that Barnet lost 5-0 to Grimsby. Feel sad.
10:32 — Discover that England beat the West Indies. Feel happy.
10:45 — Start talking to another customer.
10:47 — Get given his business card.
10:54 — Get in a cycle-rickshaw. Agree price of TK10.
11:06 — Arrive back at the Indian embassy. Get charged TK15.
11:07 — Enter the applications centre. The security guard strokes my pockets with a handheld metal-detector. It beeps a lot. The security guard strokes the main section of my bag. His metal-detector beeps again. The security guard doesn’t investigate to see what has caused the beeping. He doesn’t check my bag’s side-pocket, which is where I’ve stashed my bomb. ;-)
11:08 — Sit down. Wait to be seen.
11:21 — My turn:
“Hi. I’ve come to get a new Indian visa. Please can you stick it on page four, where the Bangladeshi consul in Kolkata made a mess?”
“No, it’s been used”. It hadn’t been used, it was just a little messy.
“Ok. Put it on any page then.”
The clerk searches through my passport:
“Actually, you already have a valid Indian visa”.
“Yes, but it’s about to run out, so I’ve come to Bangladesh to get a new one. I didn’t want to be in India when my visa ran out”.
“We can’t issue you a visa whilst you have a valid one in your passport. Come back in three weeks and we can do it then”.
“My Bangladeshi visa is only valid for two weeks, so I can’t do that. If you can’t have two valid visas at the same time, please issue me with a visa which is valid from the day after my first one finishes”.
“We can’t do that”.
“What can you do?”
“We can issue you a visa once your first one expires”.
“But I’ve told you that I’m not allowed to be here then”.
“Sorry”. He wasn’t sorry.
“Can I speak to your manager please?”
“He’s in the main embassy”.
11:31 — Enter the main embassy. The security guard strokes my pockets with a handheld metal-detector. It beeps a lot. The security guard strokes the main section of my bag. His metal-detector beeps again. The security guard doesn’t investigate to see what has caused the beeping.
11:32 — Ask the receptionist to talk to the ‘Visa Officer’.
11:37 — Explain the situation to the officer, using the receptionist’s phone:
“We can’t issue a new visa whilst you have a perfectly good one already”. The officer explains in much the same way as his subordinate.
“But my visa isn’t ‘perfectly good’. It runs out in three weeks - less than 10% of its lifetime. I came to Bangladesh to get a new one, so I wouldn’t be in your country illegally”.
“But we have a procedure. Our procedure says you can’t have a new visa”.
“I appreciate your procedure, but you must be able to see that my request is reasonable. Please can you look into having my current visa cancelled so a new on can be issued?”
“Ok, I’ll call you back in five minutes”.
13:07 — Approach the receptionist to see if he can contact the officer for an update. His 'five minutes' has turned into a hundred minutes.
13:23 — I’m told that the officer had already called and explained the procedure:
“I know the procedure. The officer was looking into cancelling my old visa. He promised to call me back an hour and a half ago. Please can you get him on the phone?”
“He's on his lunch”.
“I can't believe he would leave me waiting whilst he went for his lunch. That’d be rude. Please can you send someone to find him?”
My only other run-in with institutionalized bureaucracy was in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, where I was told I couldn’t buy a ferry ticket because they hadn’t gone on sale. I was told I could buy them at another village, but when I arrived there the clerk, who was selling the tickets I wanted, refused to sell me one because he’d filled his ‘quota’ (even though there were plenty of spare places on the boat). I was told to return to Port Blair, a day away, but when I arrived I was told their quota had sold-out too (people had camped overnight to secure them). I was told to come back two days later, but returned the next day to complain, only to find there were tickets on sale that very day (if you queued for hours). I politely asked to see the manager. I was rebuffed. Then I turned a little angrier, noisier and persistent. That did the trick. I was taken to see the manager. I made my complaint in a polite manner. The manager didn’t help. Then I turned a little angrier, noisier and persistent. That did the trick. I was given a police escort to the front of the queue to buy a ticket. The clerk wouldn’t sell me a ticket. I turned a little angrier, noisier and persistent. Then the clerk sold me a ticket.
I concluded that manners are a hindrance to progress in the sub-continent. And so, with this in mind, I upped-the-ante:
13:25 — Insist the officer talks to me.
13:39 — Officer returns. He explains the procedure in a very patronizing tone. I reply:
“I understand the procedure. Please can you explain what efforts you’ve made to find a solution? I’ve been waiting patiently for two hours now”.
“I’ve spoken to my manager, who said we can’t issue a new visa whilst you have a valid one”.
“I know that”.
“Well that’s all then”.
“No it’s not, I still haven’t got a visa. If I leave now I’ll be in India illegally when my visa expires”.
The officer turns to leave.
“Can I speak to your manager please?” I don’t know why I keep on saying please.
“Yes”. The officer disappears.
13:40 — Ask receptionist to speak to the officer’s manager.
“You can’t, he’s not here at the moment”.
“But the officer just said I could speak to him”.
“He’s not here”.
“Ok. Can I make an appointment to see him?”
“He’ll be here tomorrow”.
“Can I make an appointment to see him tomorrow then please?” Stop saying please!
“Just come back at 09:00”.
“I’ll come back at 09:00 if you make an appointment for me”.
13:41 — Repeat previous conversation.
13:42 — Repeat previous conversation, speaking slightly louder.
13:43 — Sit down.
13:48 — Repeat previous conversation, talking even louder than before.
13:49 — Repeat previous conversation, talking as loudly as I can without shouting.
13:50 — Crowd gathers.
13:51 — Repeat previous conversation. Almost shout.
13:52 — The manager, the one that was not in the building, appears with the officer and the clerk. Hooray to rudeness!
13:53 — Talk in a side room:
“We can’t issue you a visa whilst you have a valid one. It’s against procedure”.
“Why can’t you have two running concurrently?”
“That’s not procedure”.
“Ok, so issue one which starts just after my existing one”.
“We can’t. That’s not our policy”.
“I’ve only come to Bangladesh because it’s your ‘policy’ to not issue new visas in India. I’ve filled in your forms, gotten photos, made photocopies, and have money. Hard currency! This isn’t a ‘policy’ scenario. Surely your rules are flexible enough to accommodate common sense?”
“Well then cancel my current visa then. That’ll fix everything”.
“I’m not going to do that”.
“If you issue a visa I’ll spend a long time in your country. I’ll spend thousands of pounds of my hard earned money at Indian businesses. But if you don’t issue me with a visa I’ll head straight for Pakistan. I’m not going to return here with an expired visa, because I’d be trapped if you refuse to issue me a new one again”. (Bangladesh only has land borders with India).
“If I went to the British consul and asked them to break their rules, would they? Of course they wouldn’t. You want us to change our rules because it suits you”.
“I want you to be reasonable”. This was not a reasonable man. “The British embassy wouldn’t break their rules. But the British embassy wouldn’t have dangerous rules that can trap people. It’s not a fair comparison. You’re asking me to stay in Bangladesh, illegally, after my visa has expired”.
“So you want us to break our rules, but you yourself are not prepared to break Bangladesh’s rules!”
“I don’t want you to break your rules! You can cancel my current visa and issue a new one without breaking any rules at all. Refusing to help me because of standard ‘procedure’ is just plain uncivilized”.
“So we are uncivilized now? You must be uneducated to call India that, it’s highly offensive”.
“I didn’t call India uncivilized. And I am educated – I have a degree from LSE”.
“But you don't know what education we have”.
“I don’t care what education you have”.
13:59 — Feel I’m not getting anywhere. Leave the embassy without being given a business card.
14:06 — Enter a restaurant which is advertising steak.
14:07 — Am told there is no steak.
14:18 — Eat lunch at a Vietnamese buffet. Pile my plate high with pieces of beef.
14:52 — Get given a business card with the receipt.
14:55 — Take an auto-rickshaw to the stadium, to check out sporting events.
15:31 — Arrive at the stadium. A man offers to sell me some hash for TK500. I explain to him that I'm leaving the country in a week, and so don't want that much. I’d made that mistake before…
Whilst in South America, I took a personal supply of weed across the Bolivia-Paraguay border. Everyone on our coach was made to line their bags up on the floor. A sniffer-dog pranced slowly towards me. My heart dropped five feet underground! The concept of Paraguayan prison did not appeal to me in the slightest.
Fortunately, the sniffer-dog walked past. But he turned around and returned! He passed me once more, taking devilish pleasure in messing with the yoyo that was my heart. Whilst the soldier’s guns glistened in the early morning sun, the sniffer-dog walked up-and-down, up-and-down, in figures of eights and figures of insanity. My heart bounced against my stomach. My head spun.
What followed was the most thorough bag search I have ever experienced. The soldier removed and investigated every single item in my bag. Finally, he found my weed. He looked at it, looked at me, and then put it down with my other things! He didn’t say a word! Then he made me remove my shoes.
We drove off. But I was so shaken that I was sick just five minutes later. I was ill for a whole day. And, not wanting to experience that sort of scenario ever again, I made a decision never to take weed across borders.
15:32 — Agree price of TK300 for the journey to the supplier and a small amount of hash.
15:38 — Get a small amount of hash.
15:41 — Drugs and sex and rock and roll!!!
“You like small girls”, the driver asks.
Confused as to the smallness of the girls, in age or size, I reply: “What do you mean by 'small' girls?'”
The driver swooshes his left hand. It’s inconclusive. But, as an economics graduate with a keen interest in price comparison, I ask: “How much?”
“For a small girl”, the driver replies. “For her first time, TK3000. For others TK1000 or TK600.”
The fact that it would be her first time suggests to me that the driver is indeed peddling children. However I never pay £20 for my underage virgins, so I turn the driver down.
15:43 — The driver tries to take the whole TK500 note. Mange to get TK100 back, but still pay TK100 more than we’d agreed. Escape for a walk in the park. Feel relieved.
15:57 — See the hundredth person of the day with something on their head. People in Bangladesh carry everything and anything on their heads, including rhubarb and crates full of suitcases:
With just three weeks left on my visa, I decided to go to Bangladesh (because Indian bureaucracy means it’s impossible to get a new visa whilst still in India itself). Of course the Bangla region has much to offer, such as the chance to eat beef. Then a bit more beef. And, what the hell, some more beef after that. But I was only given a fifteen-day visa, so any visit was always going to brief. Brief, but not uneventful, as my first day in Dhaka was to prove. Like my first day in Dakar (Senegal), it was pretty damn insane…
18:51 — Get off the bus. Get wet. Get my bag.
18:52 — Step into the darkness (lightning seems to have destroyed every streetlight in the city). Underestimate the height of the curb, and end up with six inches of soggy trousers.
18:53 — Agree to the taxi driver's fee, it's expensive but dry. Oh so dry.
18:55 — Put on waterproof clothes.
19:10 — Get out of the taxi in the wrong place.
19:11 — I can't see the water, so my sandal-clad feet get drenched. The road is a river.
19:14 — Turn on my torch. I can see the water now. It's wet. And dark.
19:18 — Arrive at 'Suitable Hotel'. Okay, it’s not actually called ‘Suitable Hotel’. But when I bought my Bangladeshi visa in Kolkata, I’d written ‘Suitable Hotel’ on the form. It was good enough for the Bangladeshi consulate. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for this blog.
19:20 — Register. Enter my 'father or husbands name'. Get given a business card.
19:21 — Find my room.
19:41 — Notice that the curtain is made of three sections. Can't work out why.
19:57 — Go for dinner.
20:36 — Eat beef. Mmmm.
20:47 — Get bill and pay.
20:48 — Get given a business card.
20:50 — Return to my hotel.
22:07 — Go to Sleep.
01:19 — Wake up. My upper torso and legs are being attacked by insects. My ankles are particularly affected. I think biting insects have an ankle fetish.
04:20 — Wake up again. My ears are being attacked by the sound of the Islamic call to prayer.
06:03 — Wake up again. My eyes are being attacked by the morning sun.
07:43 — Leave to get a new Indian visa.
07:44 — Get into a cycle rickshaw and agree a fee of TK20. There are about six-hundred-thousand rickshaws in Dhaka. They’ve all been decorated with patterns, pictures and portraits, which makes this one of the most colourful places in the World:
SOUTH ASIA BLOGS
Back in 2007, aged 25, I was in a sort of cul-de-sac. I'd graduated from university with a top degree, but I didn't want to commit to the wrong career. So I went to India to 'find myself' instead.
As I travelled I uploaded a series of random blogs to my new MySpace page (remember that?) From the mystical Kumbh Mela festival to Delhi's Toilet Museum, these include a mixture of humour and insight, fact and emotion. I'd like to think there's something for everyone here. I hope you find something you enjoy...
16:33 — Arrive at the Cultural Centre, to see if there’s a play on. Ask the man on the gate where the box office is. We start to talk:
“There is a play on tonight, I’m the writer and director”.
“Oh, ok. Is it in English?”
“No, it’s in Bangla. But it’s experimental, so you’ll understand it”.
“Oh, I see”. I didn’t see.
“It’s about the war of independence”.
“Where can I get a ticket?”
“Please come with me, I’ll give you a ticket. I’m the director”.
“I want to pay, that’s ok”.
“No, no. I’ll give you a ticket.”
(Such generosity isn’t unusual here in Bangladesh. Whilst writing this blog, for example, the internet went down and so I wasn’t charged. People who aren’t ripping you off, or slavishly following ‘procedure’, can be really generous. But they can be stubborn too. There was no way I was going to be allowed to pay for my ticket.)
16:35 — Follow the man to the theatre. Sit down:
“They are putting up the set. I am the producer”.
16:36 — Man gives me his business card:
“Have you heard of so and so?”
“No, I don’t know so and so”.
“I can’t believe you haven’t heard of so and so”. Turning to his friend, the writer/director/producer says: “He’s English and he hasn’t ever heard of so and so. Can you believe it?”
16:40 — Get given a ticket. Leave.
16:45 — See a gaggle of men who are all reading the same newspaper:
18:45 — Return to the theatre at the requested time. The man tells me to wait in an adjacent room:
“I’m the writer you know?”
18:46 — I’m introduced to a group of friends of the writer/producer/director/ doorman. We sit down together.
18:57 — A camp guy starts to talk:
“Do you like Bangladesh?”
“I’ve only been here a day but it seems nice. It’s very colourful, and some people are really friendly. Although others rip you off, especially the rickshaw drivers”.
“But do you like the boys and girls?”
The camp guy leans in closer.
“I’ve only been here a day”.
“Can I be your guide?”
“Oh, I don’t need a guide”.
The camp guy leans in even closer.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Pause. Think. Lie.
“Oh”. And then the probing question. This guy wants me on the ropes: “What’s her name?”
“Um. Err. Steff.”
The camp guy stops talking.
19:09 — We’re called into the theatre. I try to escape my suitor, but he allows me in front of him, and then saddles up behind my bum.
19:10 — The security guard strokes me with his metal-detector. It doesn't beep, even though I do have some electrical items on me.
19:11 — Show my ticket to the ticket lady:
“Please turn your phone off sir”.
“No, no,” says the writer/producer/director/doorman. “He’s British.”
19:12 — I’m shown to my seat, which is in the front row - well away from the camp guy.
19:13 — The man approaches:
“Thank-you for coming”, he says, whilst rubbing my back in a circular motion.
“Will you come and meet the actors after?”
The man pats my back.
“Ok. Meet me up there after the show”.
“What’s up there?”
“That’s where I’ll be doing the sound and lighting”.
Now my only knowledge of the Bangladeshi War of Independence comes from 'Midnight's Children’. In that book, a man-dog gets lost in the Sunderbams with three companions. They make themselves deaf, hallucinate that they have beautiful girlfriends, and then die. India comes to the rescue, overpowers the Pakistani army, and liberates Bangladesh.
But that's just fiction.
Now that I’ve seen the man's play, I know what really happened. It goes a little something like this:
19:14 — There are lots of animal noises.
19:23 — Four people construct Pakistani flags, which they give to a tailor to sew. One person makes a Bangladeshi flag, and then gets beaten up.
19:34 — Two guys are amazed to see a radio.
19:41 — There are lots of people in masks.
19:47 — A group of people grab a newspaper from well-dressed man. They tear it up, so they have one piece each, but the pieces aren't of equal size.
19:59 — Of the two people who found the radio, one starts dying.
20:00 — The other man starts crying.
20:16 — The first man stops dying.
20:17 — The second man stops crying.
20:25 — A man who died gets married.
20:37 — The man who cried attacks the tailor. He puts the sewing machine on his own shoulder, and then sits on the tailor’s shoulder.
20:50 — The radio reappears.
21:04 — Four people construct Bangladeshi flags, which they give to the tailor to sew. One person makes a Pakistani flag, and then gets beaten up.
21:12 — The play finishes. I find the man:
“What did you think?”
“I enjoyed it. It was really artistic”.
“Thank-you. I wrote the play. Were you able to understand it?”
“I didn’t follow the whole story. But when you don't understand the words, your senses become more alert to other things; the voices, sounds and music; movements and shapes. I found it really interesting”.
“That's so kind. Thank-you!”
The man glowed. He seemed genuinely happy.
Thank-you for reading this blog. I wrote it, don't you know? Please help yourself to a business card. It’s procedure.