Anatomy of Traveling

I have long suspected a clear distinction between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘traveler’. But I had never looked it up. So, when I decided to visit Birishiri last weekend – I had the time to give it some more thought. I knew Birishiri wasn’t going to be a ‘tour’ – but travels. It isn’t exactly a tourist destination – but just a mildly scenic border-town. I can’t remember how I had set my mind upon going there, but it had been there, like an unaccepted challenge, at the back of my mind for over a year.

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Elementary sketch of my route map

The Tourist revels at being away from home; the Traveler, despite it.

Don’t get me wrong: Birishiri isn’t the remotest of Bangladeshi locations. But it’s no honeymoon either. It’s certainly one of the most difficult journeys I would make. But I had already announced it. I had already excused myself from my eldest aunt’s 70th birthday celebrations and a close friend’s party. I felt a little guilty. But I was determined. So, a friend (who seldom talks) and I started out on a fairly-maintained bus. Unfortunately, five hours into the journey, the buses’ tyres began steaming and screeching and a 2-hour pit stop was announced. Oh well …some sort of an obstacle was quite expected. But that wasn’t going to deter a traveler.

The Tourist exudes his own culture; the Traveler takes in the local one.

And, we walked: along the darkened trucking-lane illuminated by strings of headlights and abuzz with an orchestra of Japanese, Korean and Indian engines. Sometimes the pitch on the road quivered as heavy trucks rumbled by. It was past 11p.m. already. So we decided to stay the night in Mymensingh. We hailed down a ‘tempo’ – a 2-stroke engined 3-wheeler that crackles rhythmically enough to justify its name.  We advanced about 10 yards – ten people crammed into a space for six – when that, too, broke down.

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‘Tempo’s on the street (photo: libcom.org)

Inside the Tempo, someone whispered in my ear, “not safe to sit here.” It was pitch dark and I had no idea what to fear: spirits, robbers or drunk-truckers. But we stumbled out anyway, luckily caught another Tempo and managed to find a hotel in Mymensingh. But they wouldn’t give us toiletries, towels or mosquito repellents. In fact, the receptionist mumbled that we were lucky for getting a room after midnight (I would learn later that it was to deter criminals/terrorists from using such establishments as hideaways).

The Tourist stops to smell the rose; the Traveler waters the plant.

The next morning, I felt a lot better and a lot more optimistic. This time I am going to learn …stuff. In the midst of a torrential downpour, we reached the bus-stand – only to find that the local ‘murir tin’ (think: a tin box full of squished pickles) buses couldn’t accommodate my legs. So we opted for another 3-wheeler – booking the entire thing so we had it all to ourselves. Of course, over the next 3 hours, old men, burqa-clad women and school children continued to try and wave us down for a rare, much-awaited ride. But our driver brushed them off and headed straight into Birishiri. I suspect some old woman had to walk five miles to get home and some parents didn’t make it to the school for pick-up in time. But then, no rural parent ‘picks up’ his/her child. If they’re old enough to go to school – they’re old enough to travel back and forth.

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A common plant at Birishiri – bright like rural attires

The Tourist longs to be entertained; the Traveler entertains himself.

Birishiri was a small, rural village. Or it could be a sub-district. No one knew the answer. But everyone knew everyone else. Addresses were given out not in numbers but in names. Time was told by looking at shadows (though they had time-keeping devices). Shopkeepers knew their customers’ brand of cigarette. There were no hotels and only one recently-built restaurant. We eventually found refuge in a YMCA training center and our room’s highlight was ‘running water’.

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Even the fallen Coconut tree by the roadside can seem beautiful

The Tourist worries about the journey back; the Traveler revels at the journey ahead.

Upon hitting up the local bazar (market) – which comprised of ten shops – we were told to head to the ‘Neel Pani’ (Blue Waters) and were pointed towards a rickshaw (think: big tricycle capable of transporting two people). We got one for about $5 – which would soon seem pretty expensive, even for a round-trip. The roads (if you could call it that) were undulating like small hillocks and dunes. Recent rains had made things stickier. So, we had to get down and push the thing every five minutes. I wondered if it rained again, whether we would be in danger of being stranded. Out of options, we continued riding and trekking in tandem. Till we got to the beautiful and serene Someswari river.

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Kutub: our guide, rickshaw-puller and resident philosopher

The Tourist sees a journey as a service; the Traveler sees it as an attempt.

The ferrying boat arrived and our rickshaw-puller Kutub (meaning ‘know it all’ in urban lingo, but ‘master’ in the traditional sense) – calmly pulled his rickshaw on board! I would’ve never imagined the scene in my life. Bicycles? Yes. An entire rickshaw? Nuh-uh. Anyhow, once across the river, the road ahead was grueling still – filled with potholes and bumps. But village roads are whimsical, intriguing and original in a way that demands attention, unlike boring, predictable city-streets. Also, here, the animals get priority over people and their transports on the roads. So the lazy cow, nervous geese and inquisitive dogs must be allowed to pass or move out before one can advance. It’s a steep right to abdicate for $5.

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Transport on transport – it begins to get meta

The Tourist judges; the Traveler marvels.

The only disruption we caused may have been stopping the guy with steel wiring in his hands. He was manually pulling electrical wires up to a wooden pole. One man! One lonely man, burdened with the task of taking Electricity to the less fortunate. This guy’s ‘electrification’ personified! In six months, this power would light up the Catholic Mission – set up 200 years back, deep in the rural heartland, atop a thickly-vegetated hill with swirling roads – that had brought Christianity to the Garo tribe. For now, we laboriously overtook the Bringer of Power. The much hyped ‘Neel Pani’ now lay beyond four or five hills. Kutub, being the resident know-it-all, knew we wouldn’t be able to find the place. So he got us a tour guide.

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Bringing power to the masses: this looks like a job for Superman

The Tourist spends; the Traveler invests.

The guide was nine years old. After a minute or two of ‘just point in the general direction’ – we acquiesced to following the kid’s lead. I quizzed the boy about school and what friends he had. After all, we were going to pay him 40 cents (a handsome fee). He smiled sweetly every time.

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9-year old guide, lost in meditation

We trekked up and down a couple of hills. The third one was quite steep and I was really struggling. Near the top, I slipped and tried grabbing some Purple-flowered plants. As I lay there gasping – spread-eagled on the hill face, dangling from some flimsy weeds, hanging on to dear life – the kid skipped over me to the top and turned to witness my antics. I could’ve sworn he rolled his eyes. I did a mental ‘ahem’ and picked myself up. ‘Schooled’ indeed! Over vast, quiet meadows, the occasional water-hole and a gradual rise in altitude, he led us to a turquoise-watered lake fenced in by pink rocks. It was quite stunning – the sheer improbability of it being there. The lake was pristine and the fish & frogs on the bottom could be seen clearly.

The Tourist complains; the Traveler adapts.

We looked around for a while. Took some pictures. “So, is this it?” My friend asked the tiny guide. The kid nodded with a smile – the water wasn’t blue today because overnight rains had muddied up the lake – his eyes seemed a little hurt at our obvious lack of awe. We who came from the big city to see Neel Pani and saw only turbid water. We who frolicked in blue-watered swimming pools. We who had lost our ability to be awed.

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For the little guide’s sake, a professional photo: ‘Neel Pani’ – sometimes blue, sometimes turbid (photo: bdtraveltours)

The Tourist is all about himself; the Traveler, about everything else.

I looked around. In three directions there were just endless swathes of green velvety grass or crops. To our North, was an undulating line of green hills, topped off by craggy, blue peaks. And I thought to myself that this ‘Neel Pani’ (blue water) isn’t the main attraction here – it’s all of it: everyone knowing everyone else; poorest of shopkeepers refusing money from ‘city guests’; elders who still demand to know your name and identity; the know-it-all Kutubs who speak with the gravity of weathered Bedouins; the whole desolate, plush valley eavesdropping on our three souls; pinks rocks and turquoise waters from some off-the-Richter earthquake millions of years ago; soft rolling hills lined by sweet, Purple flowers that could’ve easily been God’s own country; the 8-year old tour guide who beams even though you’ve scoffed at his precious Neel Pani – if all that isn’t the everyday main-event of Life, I don’t know what is.

The Tourist is himself in another place;

The Traveler is the place in another self.

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8 comments

  1. A great description of your journey. I’m glad to see it’s not just us ‘bideshis’ who have that kind of adventure with all those characters you meet on the way. I empathised with your story all the way.

    However, the picture of the nil pani was amazing! I’ve NEVER seen such clear water in Bangladesh. I didn’t think it was possible. Very impressive!

    • Hey Ken – it was worth experiencing ‘Neel Pani’ – and especially all that came with it. I sometimes feel that mere traveling is not a part of our culture. It used to be. But now it’s all calculated tourism. Tagore once wrote the following (and I borrow the translation):

      “I’ve gone to see the mountains, the oceans I’ve been to view.
      But I haven’t seen with these eyes, two steps away from home lies
      On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew”

      Thank you so much for reading.

  2. We hailed down a ‘tempo’ – a 1-stroke engined 3-wheeler that crackles rhythmically enough to justify its name.

    You may have missed a stroke here.
    In Bangladesh do they build those smelly, noisy things around the Bajaj Chetak motor-scooter?

    A really well written story. I enjoyed it heaps.

    Where do the quotes about tourists vs travelers come from?

    • Hey Cabrogal – haha yes indeed we have those noisy things here too. I suspect they may be an elaborate Indian ploy to keep us distracted. I’m really glad you read this and commented too. The quotes are my own …not sure how much sense they make to readers though.

      • Well they make a lot of sense to me.
        But having spent about eight years backpacking around Asia I’m probably a bit of a snob when it comes to ‘traveler vs tourist’.

        • Wow! Eight years around Asia! That is seriously impressive …and reason enough for you to be a snob about it. What countries did you travel to? Were you alone? I had always hoped to travel alone …but still haven’t mustered up the confidence/courage.

          • Well, I must admit I only spent nine days in Dhaka. So as far as Bangladesh is concerned I’m a tourist.

            I’d planned on nearly a month but when I got to what was still called Calcutta I found that Bangladesh Biman had messed up my booking and it took almost three weeks to sort out. In the end I and about half a dozen other ticket holders in the same situation had to stage a dharna in the BB offices to force them to find seats for us in order to avoid overstaying our Indian visas. It only lasted five or six hours so we didn’t get too hungry but we were sitting on their desks so they couldn’t do much work. Really they were just after baksheesh, but we decided we weren’t paying on principle.

            I spent almost five years all up in India and saw much of the country – the big exceptions being Kashmir and the north east – both of which were unstable and hard to get permits for most of the time I was there.

            Thailand was the next biggest attraction with over a year altogether.
            In decreasing order of time spent after that was Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia (Sumatra only), Laos and Burma (about half of my time in Burma was illegal, having sneaked across the Thai border to visit Manerplaw).

            Only about eighteen months of that was solo travel. Most of the time I was traveling with one girlfriend or another. But traveling solo was certainly more like real traveling. Even just two people tend to create a little bubble around themselves.

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