Different, I had expected. Surprising, yes. Even a little shocking would not have been too out there.
I was not, however, expecting to arrive just as the second largest Muslim festival in the world was letting out, right there near the airport. Muslim men, in their long shirts and prayer hats, were as far as the eye could see, filling in every conceivable space, creating a sea of humanity--male humanity.
|The largest Muslim festival in the world: Mecca||(Those are all people down there)|
And there I was. White. Female. Wearing American clothes. Practically begging to be stared at as the foreign curiosity I was.
Fortunately, I was not alone. People from our company were there to meet me, and as I said I had been joined by others along the trip--two visiting couples and one daughter. We were all herded through the chaos--beggars, street kids, way overhelpful men wanting to take my every piece of luggage for me (for a small fee of course). It was quite the challenge just to keep from being "helped!"
When we had all piled into the van, the real adventure began. Imagine trying to drive through a sea of hundreds of thousands of men heading home. Like the traffic when you leave after a ball game, except take away the nice orderly lines of vehicles, the defining yellow and white lines on the roads, blinkers, and traffic lights. Instead picture hundreds of rickshaws inching between golf-cart sized baby taxis, a few cars, the van we were in, all pushing and prodding trying to gain any forward movement. Make sure your imagination has every window rolled down, exhaust so thick you can see the black fumes, horns blaring from every possible direction, oh, and of course people wandering through all of this, the walkers traveling faster than any of the above.
If we got too close to another vehicle, the nearest passenger would simply reach out and bang a few times on the side of the van. That was rather startling . . . the first ten times or so. People were yelling, shoving, merging--if you could call it that--in and out of spaces so small you would never believe anything could fit. But somehow they did. It was stop and go, and stop, stop, stop.
I was enthralled. What a great way to begin this amazing adventure! Well, except for being stared at the entire time, choking on the pollution, and having a tendency toward motion sickness.
The one visiting couple, who had served as missionaries in Hong Kong for many years, were sitting near the front of the van. The man muttered, "I have never seen anything like this." Well, it felt like he muttered it, but likely he was shouting and a mutter was all I heard over all the other competing noises.
The first time he said it, I felt a sense of pride that this fascinating place was my new home. By the sixth or seventh time he said it, however, I was starting to feel a bit nervous. Was I ready for someplace so "interesting" that even a veteran world traveler was this dumbfounded?
What should have been a fifteen minute ride to the guest house took over three hours. THREE hours. (My memory may not have perfectly accurate numbers, but I'm pretty sure those are correct.) At one point we were on a road that was equivalent to a four lane, with a median in between. We were on the left side of the road, of course, when we looked ahead and noticed that oncoming traffic had found a break somewhere, and flooded over to our side, trying to get an edge forward. So now not only were we in bumper to bumper traffic--or rather bumper to rickshaw wheel to baby taxi door to pedestrian traffic--now we were facing that same mess coming right toward us. Obviously, this resulted in a game of chicken less than rousing because no one was going over one mile an hour!
Eventually we arrived at the guest house with relief. Our trip, however, was far from over. Next up was our final jaunt, from the capital city to Chittagong. At the time, there was no flight to that city, so we got to ride on a bus. A swerving, horn-blaring bully that charged toward Chittagong without fear, passing into oncoming traffic with a bravado that it probably should not have had, and that I certainly did not share.
I remember that we rode through the night, not a pleasant experience for a first-timer. I watched down the middle aisle and through the front windshield as the bus again and again passed over into the right lane, did not slow even when oncoming headlights barreled right toward us. I seriously doubt I slept at all that night. But I didn't throw up, despite all the swaying and swerving, so that was a plus.
After the six-hour bus ride through the night, I was in Chittagong, the place that would be my home for the next two years. I was tired, but happy. I had made it on my first across-the-world trip. I had endured. I had survived. And I was excited about whatever would come next.
Just so long as I got a good night's sleep first.
Next Up: Come with me on a tour of Chittagong--to the market (goat-head soup anyone?), via a deleted chapter from Book 2 of the Stolen Series, Stolen Child!