Bugging Bangladesh

The Great Kathmandu-Dhaka Volkswagen Beetle Spinal Injury Fundraising Drive

When the idea hit us, it did so in our bellies. A massive whump planted itself in the solar plexus, and we knew we had to take it up, beat the challenge and take this ride. It is 1200 km from Kathmandu, where the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) is, to Dhaka, where its experienced older cousin, the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, is based. The newly started SIRC desperately needed 12 lakh Nepali Rupees for sheer survival and to invest in much needed physiotherapy equipment. The numbers fit together so beautifully, the poetry of it could not be ignored. And thus it was decided that The Great Kathmandu-Dhaka Volkswagen Beetle Spinal Injury Fundraising Drive would be done. We would yet find support from all over to sponsor the ride at the rate of 1000 Nepali rupees or a rupee a kilometre, raising (we hoped) NPR 12 lakh in the process.

Plans finally bore fruit auspiciously on 12 July 2002, with Himali, Miku and me being flagged off with much enthusiasm at the SIRC in Jorpati, with garlands from the patients, tika, khada and Salil, Kathmandu's best (actually only) didgeridoo player, weaving his music and magic into the morning while doing a circumambulation of the 1973 Volkswagen Beetle. We drove out with the best wishes of the patients and a good many friends who had come to see us off. Leaving behind Kathmandu Valley's congestion was going to be great, a point that reinforced itself when we found ourselves right in the slipstream of a truck full of slopping cow dung (where did it come from, where was it headed?), its aromatic contents splattering our path all the way around the Ring Road. But we managed to lose the truck at Kalanki, not a moment too soon too, and made our exit from the valley via Thankot. There were no clouds in the sky, so the fear of encountering landslide blockage on the road receded. The car seemed to dislike inclines, and it was fortunate that our trip was decidedly downhill all the way to the delta!

Heading southeast, we coasted past Mugling, Bharatpur, Hetauda and into the plains of Nepal, past vast tracts of sal jungle that still survive in the Tarai. At Hetauda we came to a military roadblock meant to check for Maoists.

Soldier: "Where are you headed?"

Me: "Bangladesh".

Soldier: "Bangladesh? Okay, you can go".

Just like that, as if he saw hundreds of cars doing this everyday. We grinned at each other as we drove off.

It was dark by the time we crossed the Kosi Barrage, with the roaring river below engorged with monsoon flow. We parked for the night a little further from there, at Itahari – by day a bustling Tarai town. While we were tucking into our dinner, two policemen unceremoniously produced for us a 'bandit': he had been nabbed opening the 'boot' at the rear of our Beetle. Imagine his surprise at finding the engine there instead.

The next morning we made it in good time to Kakarbhitta at the India-Nepal border. The Nepali officials shooed us through, expressing some surprise that the party they had just read about in the morning paper had already arrived. The Indian immigration and customs officials took a while to verify our car papers, but we were soon on our way through the chicken's neck that separates Nepal from Bangladesh and connects the Northeast to the rest of India, driving over the gushing waters of the Mahananda and the Teesta as we headed east. The nearest border point of Fulbari-Bangabandha having been closed, we had to drive further on but the Beetle behaving well, we arrived at Chyangrabandha within three hours of leaving Nepal. Looking across no-man's land, at Burimari on the Bangladeshi side, we espied a blue Dhaka Beetle parked and patiently waiting to greet us, and behind it some more. Immigration and customs once again took time, mainly because Nepali cars do not make this trip, period. Apparently though, some Bhutanese vehicles do.

Across, then, to Burimari, the entry point into 'North Bengal'. The Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh was there to greet us in force – Zubeir, Razu, Zayd and Murtaza. When we shook hands at no-man's-land, it was as if we had been friends for years, for this is how it is with Beetlewallahs, hail-fellow-well-met, regardless of age, distance, gender or point of origin. The Dhaka friends immediately turned their loving attention to our Bug. Murtaza bhai was excited that most of the car's gadgets and gizmos seemed original. The Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh noted, however, that the air pressure in the tyres seemed far too high. Sheepish before these aficionados, I cooked up a theory about how the air in them tyres must have expanded during our descent from cold, high-altitude (low atmospheric pressure) Kathmandu into the hot, low-lying plains of Bangla; the subject was politely changed. However, despite the embarrassing first impression made by the Kathmandu party, it was treated to a fine lunch at the dhaba by the immigration post at Burimari. A television set at one corner producing a scratchy reception of Nepal Television's Saturday special Hindi film, we settled into an easy camaraderie. Lunch done, we started off southwards for Dhaka, four colourful Beetles driving past the dewy green paddy fields of North Bengal.

This, June-July, is really the time to be visiting Bangladesh. Let not one be scared off by the threat of floods for at stake are stunningly profuse vegetation, low clouds and dramatic horizons. We sped against the fading light with Razu's 1600 cc supervoxy in the lead. Everywhere, people looked shocked as the first oddly shaped Bug barrelled past, only to be stunned three times over as three more went by. Wherever we stopped, Bangladesh being the densely populated country it is, a hundred people would gather around in a matter of minutes, excited by the cars and the strange spectacle of a female in trousers, Himali. Many were intrigued by our light blue Beetle, which, in addition to the usual eccentricities, sported the words "Spinal Injury Sangha Nepal" on its sides in English and Devanagari, and had the Nepali white-on-red license plates with Devanagari letters and numerals.

Soon we were in Rangpur, the hometown of General Ershad, erstwhile dictator, who dismantled many things but built the great highway that runs down the spine of North Bengal, from that town to Bogra and beyond. Whizzing along, interrupted only by knocking engines – the result of spurious gasoline taken in near the border – and one tyre puncture (not ours), we arrived at Safeway Motel in Bogra for the night. A reporter was waiting to scoop the rest of the Bangla press, and he did all right except for reporting me the next day as a 73-year-old driver. It seemed to have had something to do with the fact that the Beetle was a '73 model; on the other hand it may have had something to do with my very silver hair.

Over dinner at the Safeway, the members of the Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh proceeded to grill me on the finer points of Beetle Care and Maintenance. What spark plugs did I use? (Don't know.) What was the mpg of my Bug? (Uh-huh) The seats in the 1973 models do not come with headrests so how come mine had them? (Time for confession: the seats were cannibalised from a dead Beetle.) The rest of the evening was given over to Beetle lore and trivia, and highly charged discussions on matters relating to steering columns, windshield wipers, camshafts and sideboards. Unlike a similar group of, say, Nepalis, these guys did not need beer to rev up, and none was served. They were intoxicated with their love for the Bug, and I must say, it was catching. Razu recounted the story of a fuel gauge needle that refused to budge even with a full tank, and then suddenly sprang to action, crossed the dial and went out of view, so that you had to bend down into the leg space and peer upwards and sideways into the gauge. The audacity of the fuel gauge had the Beetlewallahs of both Dhaka and Kathmandu rolling on the floor. By when that uproar died, the rice and fish (rohu) were cold.

The next morning, we headed out early and stopped for a breakfast of paratha and mutton curry at a crowded all-male establishment where Himali bravely upheld the right of her half of humanity to do the same. Having feasted on the steaming food, we topped it off with special tea brewed in the manner of espresso coffee (I cannot describe it better than that) and headed off for the Bangabandhu Bridge, the Pride of Bangladesh. Its five-kilometre span over the Jamuna (called Brahmaputra in India) is stupendous, built on rocks brought all the way from the Bihar Plateau, Bangladesh having lots of mud but no stone. The bridge has no structural shoddiness to it, and it will clearly be also the pride of the Asian Highway when geopolitics succumbs to economic rationality in the Subcontinent, and the dream of driving from, say, Delhi to Bangkok via Dhaka and Rangoon finally becomes a reality.

After the bridge we came to a half-hour stretch in Tangail, which, other than a strip at Naxalbari (outside Siliguri and the point of origin of India's Maoism), was the only really bad patch in the drive from Kathmandu to Dhaka. But we were quickly past the Tangail tangle, and speeding once again towards our destination and soon reached Savar (pronounced with the Bangla 'sh'), where stands the National Monument commemorating the 1971 War of Liberation. At the monument, we discovered that what looks like a curved pinnacle from afar is actually seven concrete isosceles triangles that you can walk inside of.

Savar, just outside Dhaka, is where the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) is located, and this was the official end of the fundraising drive. Three more Beetles came out to join us on the road leading into the centre and we drove in a procession of seven into the large compound of the CRP. Our car was singled out and asked to pull into a large auditorium-like space filled with over two hundred souls, about half of them in wheelchairs and wheeled stretchers. On the wall behind our Beetle was a banner announcing this as the 'Finish' line of the Kathmandu-Dhaka drive. The patients and staff of the CRP had been waiting patiently, and rounds of applause greeted our arrival.

Garlanded and greeted by several spinal injury patients, we were reminded of the send-off by the patients in Kathmandu. I was asked to speak, so I described our drive over, my own accident and recovery, and how our centre hoped to learn from all that the CRP had done in Bangladesh over the last two decades. Later, and also the next day, we took tours of the CRP's (what can only be called) township, and were astounded at the low-key, practical approach taken to addressing all aspects of spinal injury, from medical treatment to rehabilitation and resettlement, and that it even had a school for caregivers. Here was an organisation that had already grappled with the challenges of responding to spinal injury in a South Asian context, and we in Jorpati could learn much from Savar.

From Savar, we drove on to Dhaka, and stayed with family friends Naila and Badal Khan. The next few days in Dhaka were a whirlwind of parties, interviews, press conferences, and dealing with press and television coverage (thanks Ekushey, and hope you overcome the challenge to your survival!). Himali and Miku enjoyed their first trip to Dhaka, guided by new friends Almer and Aneire, and they revelled in the city's cultural intensity. They also spent a memorable morning touring the Buriganga ghats in a downpour by boat, guided by writer Mahtab Haider.

Before you could say bhalobashi, it was time to head back the way we had come. But first, Raouf Bhai, the Volkswagen doctor of Dhaka, had us in for a check-up. He is the ace who services the Bugs in that city, and our Nepali Beetle got a thorough medical. Raouf Bhai adjusted our gears and engine timing and gave us the thumbs up for the trip back.

As we drove out of Dhaka, we felt melancholic. Especially, since I remembered the cow dung truck waiting for us back in Kalanki. But we had accomplished quite a bit while having had fun doing it. We had proven that the Kathmandu- Dhaka drive was easily done — it was thought to be difficult only because hardly anyone had tried it. Contrary to popular perception, the roads were superb throughout (the Tangail stretch would be repaired by December, everyone assured us), and also contrary to popular belief, it was not difficult to obtain papers for transit through India. It took some time to gain permission from Dhaka to drive our Beetle into Bangladesh though, but that is explained by the fact that ours may have been the first private Nepali vehicle wanting to do so. Let more people (from both sides) take their cars through; the wrinkles are bound to get ironed out.

One is not always able to get the message across, however. An imaginative caption writer who obviously did not attend the press conference called by the VW Club of Bangladesh, wrote in a Dhaka paper the next day, underneath a picture of the Nepali Beetle, that we had made a "spine-chilling drive down from the Himalayas to the Ganges Delta…" Not true.

We managed to raise some amount of awareness regarding spinal injury in Bangladesh and in Nepal, and had by the time we reached Dhaka raised a little over half our target of NPR 12 lakh; friends from Nepal, Bangladesh, India and overseas came through with sponsorships.

At a time when people are flying between South Asian capitals attending seminars and workshops (and there's nothing wrong with that), it is important to ensure that the overland possibilities not be neglected. It is cheaper, closer (certainly) to the earth, and more fulfilling in so many ways. Already, the many Nepali students in Dhaka make the trip over on the public transport of the three countries. And quite a few Bangladeshis make the reverse journey. The Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh is tentatively planning to bring a convoy of Bangla Bugs up to Kathmandu in the fall. Many more friends are planning to drive across in assorted other vehicles, now that they know that the paperwork can be dealt with and that the journey is easy on the tyres and the muscles.

Goats! Almost forgot the goats. From the Nepal Tarai through the chicken's neck and past North Bengal and Tangail into Dhaka, besides the identical ecology and terrain and the good roads, everywhere we found similarly inclined goats on the roads. Goats rather than dogs, and everywhere they were flat on the gravel against the tarmac, using it to scratch the lower part of their neck. That this is goat-neck-scratching-season all the way to Dhaka is the only observation I can make on the subject.

Himali, Miku and I are very happy we made the trip. We are glad the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre will be kept afloat for another few months. And we are thrilled that friends from the low country are now thinking of driving to Kathmandu. I will end this report with a note sent by Zubeir Moin, President of the Dhaka Beetlewallahs, after we got back to Kathmandu: "It was a pleasure for Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh to receive you at the border. We all enjoyed it very much and shall cherish the memory all our lives. Please change the engine oil and also rear shock absorbers of your Beetle".

Point taken, Zubeir bhai.

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Himal Southasian