The border from hell

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

After 18 days in Bangladesh, I was quite excited at the prospect of arriving in India. As much as I loved the hospitality and friendliness of the Bangladeshi people, it's fair to say I was almost at my wits end with the constant staring and unending line of questioning. Bless them! There were actually a number of other factors which led to me leaving the country without seeing The Sundarbans or any of the countries ancient temples and mosques, notably the fact my Indian visa expires on March the 31st and I was in massive need of some variety in my diet! The constant rota, dahl, rice and sobji all just became a bit much.

So it was, with Faith No More taking me back to the days as I gazed out the bus window counting down the kilometres to the border town of Benapole. Just after we reached the 26km to go mark the trouble began. Our little bus helper man came up to me and asked for my passport. No problem. He then asked me for 300 taka (about $5US). After some confusion, I gathered that this must have been for a departure tax (commonly referred to as a corruption and bribery tax). The problem was that I had a grand total of 4 taka left in my wallet! I tried to tell the guy that my guidebook said that I didn't have to pay any tax, and I wasn't informed by anybody, but he just smiled and said that I had to sort it out with the immigration officer at the border.

Thus the ipod was put in my bag, and I stared out at the rice paddies and small houses stressing like a man who's about to be stuck in limbo land at a border outpost between two of the dirtiest and most intense countries in the world. To stop myself going to awful places in my head I messaged Cristy to see if she had to pay the tax when she crossed the border 10 days earlier. The reply was somewhat encouraging; Yes, but, there were loads of money changers there more than willing to rip me off as I had no other choice!

We rolled into the dirty (insert this adjective before any noun in Bangladesh) border town at about 1pm, and as we disembarked our luggage was loaded onto a wooden rickshaw and a guy pedalled away with it. "No problem" our little bus helper man told me, it'll be waiting at the border. He told me to stick with him and he'd help me out, so that sounded like a good idea to me considering I had by this stage attracted some 20 onlookers. What was I expecting, I hadn't left the country yet!

After hanging out in the bus companies office for about 20 minutes, bus man asked me to follow him. We grabbed a rickshaw who pedalled us the few hundred metres to the immigration post where a handful of money changers were located. The rickshaw driver told me I didn't have to pay him as it was a special service yet when I jumped off and began walking towards the money changers he hounded me for some baksheesh. As I went into my money belt to discreetly get some US dollars, I realised my smallest note was a $50 (I did have a dollar bill, but I may as well have given that to rickshaw wallah). The dude told me there was no way he was going to change $5 and give me $45 in US, so he just sat back with a grin on his face that said "your screwed". I had the same problem with the second money changer, although he was a little more helpful in that he took me to another guy who would at least change $5 into Taka and the rest into Indian rupees at a terrible rate. What choice did I have? What's a loss of $5US in the grand scheme of things? Mentally disturbed people would pay that for the experience I was having. The rickshaw wallah was still with me, so I gave him my last 4 taka.

I found my pack and bus man took me over to the immigration office. I filled out a form, and then went to the departure tax counter (or so I believed, as I can't read Bangla). Given another form on paying the 300 taka, I went back to the first counter, got my stamp and I was home free. Until I walked back outside and a guy physically ripped my pack off my shoulder making me lose my footing. I gathered he was a porter and wanted some baksheesh, and when I tried to get my pack back he wouldn't let go. I gave in and followed him, telling him that I wasn't paying him, but in the end I got fed up and tried to get it back. I'm not sure where it all went wrong. At what point in my life did I make the decision that led me to trying to rip MY backpack out of the hands of a poor Bangladeshi man at the border outpost with India. I still don't know.

To cut the next 45 minutes or so short, I got my pack, had it thoroughly checked on a table right next to the border gate, wandered through, then had it thoroughly checked again on the Indian side. As I wandered through the gate that said "Bangladesh to India" I thought I'd made it. In fact, the trouble had barely begun. By this stage I'd lost bus man, as he didn't cross the border so I was on my own. On finding the Indian immigration office I had plenty of fun simply finding a form to fill out, then finding the correct counter. I was told to leave my passport next to "the man at the desk".

The fucking man at the desk. As I channel surfed on my TV in Cambodia last year, I remember coming across an add on CNN that described "Incredible India" a magical land with endless opportunities to see amazing people, historical sites, cultural wonders, beautiful beaches and mountains that reach to the sky (said with a terrible CNN type deep voice over). My introduction to "Incredible India" was to spend TWO HOURS sitting on a plastic chair, watching that man at the desk, slightly pompous but with a perfectly straight back and glasses on the end of his nose take more time than he needed to copy every detail from everyone's immigration form into a book. There was a crowd of twenty people gathered round him, but he knew well enough what his job was, and he was in no rush.

It was some time after 4pm when he called my name. "There is a problem with your visa" he said to me flicking through the pages in my passport. I protested that that was impossible, as I'd got it from the Indian embassy in Phnom Penh, pointing at the stamp. he looked at me and said "Noooo, Phnom Penh."  "Phnom Penh, Cambodia" I replied. He sat back, as if to focus closer on the purple stamp on visa.  "I dooooooon't knooooooow" he mumbled shaking his head. It seemed he'd never heard of the place before.  "Cambodia is a country in South East Asia" I told him. "Phnom Penh is the capital city. They have an Indian embassy. That's where I got this visa". I decided not to tell him about the trouble I went through getting my visa in the first place.  I pointed at the purple stamp again, and one of the guys at the table started talking to him in Hindi. After a minute or so, the guy questioned me on every part of my form, and my intended purpose in India. Upon being told I was an English teacher, I received the worst look of all, but he stamped my passport and waved me on as if I was an annoying mosquito.

I'd made it! And I didn't even realise a strange little man in a red polo top was waiting for me the whole time, as the bus wasn't going without me. As I stepped aboard I was met with cheers, as the other 40 passengers or so had made it through in less than half an hour. It had taken me more than three! If the pompous immigration official was an example of the typical Indian male and the form filling indicative of Indian beauracracy, I was going to just love incredible India!
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eye_sky on

Had to read your horror story from your Benapole-Haridaspur crossing! It's a nightmare crossing that border. I wasn't asked for a bribe but my bags were thoroughly inspected, inside out. When they couldn't seem to find anything they wanted, they asked for my "money bag"! As I travel alone, it was one of the most scary moments I've ever experienced while crossing borders. When I finally got back to my bus, Indian soldiers with big guns stopped me from getting inside the bus, but for some reason, the bus conductor was able to stop them. I don't know why the authorities can't do anything about all these harassment on legal tourists. It was a jarring experience for me as well.

will on

I totally sympathise, it's an awful border crossing. Of all places you'd think that the authorities would clean up the border crossings and make them more secure. Or perhaps they leave them that way for a reason.

Saber Seth on

I agree with you about all the hassle you had to go through is complete nonsense. Most of the guys there don't even know what are they doing. Although the 300TK you paid after all that trouble was not a scam. If I remember correctly they call it "Travel Tax". Not only tourists but even Bangladeshis have to pay the tax. ( The amount is different for every country, and it is less if you travel by road). For traveling to India you have to pay 300TK. If by any chance they took more than that, then you probably got conned.

I really loved reading your blog.

will on

Thanks for reading my blog. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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