It was Friday morning, Winter Solstice, and way too early for the sun.
A sonorous chanting of Buddhist monks floated across the lake and into my open window. As the echo of the chants was dying down, a Muslim call to prayer extended the musical performance—a curtain call in a medley of tolerance. Were it a Sunday, perhaps a nearby church would have joined in.
It’s not exactly what I envisioned as I thought about spending Christmas in Bangladesh.
“Christmas in Bangladesh...” my friend Gay said to me last night on the phone. “It would make a great title for a book.”
Yes, I am spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Bangladesh. Not an obvious choice, I will admit, but one that works for me. Spending time in places I know little about is always enlightening and gratifying. I love breaking impressions created from great distances.
My trip to India in the preceding weeks circled Bangladesh from all sides, including a visit to a shared border at remote Agartala. In a confusing geography, India surrounds Bangladesh for all but a strip of land in the southeast that abuts Myanmar. Imagine Pennsylvania torn away by a distant king to become a foreign country, with Orthodox Christianity as its dominant religion, completely surrounded by the United States except for a tiny strip that connects it to Canada. Then imagine a long border open at random points with militia goose-stepping in elaborate uniforms to close the crossings every night.
In your mental image, add an upcoming election in which Pennsylvania will decide whether to cozy up to the United States, as its current government is happy to do; or shift toward Russia, which is tempting given the two countries’ shared Orthodox religion.
You might now be coming close to understanding the confusion that surrounds the upcoming election on December 30. Add in a totalitarian streak in the government—not unlike what our president would enjoy seeing in ours—and you get closer still.
But Bangladesh, which tore away from Pakistan in December of 1971, declared itself a secular state and acknowledges alternative beliefs. My travel companions and I have visited Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic places of worship, as well as a Sufi temple.
Attending the border-closing ceremony on the Indian side started the shift in my awareness. Soldiers and barricades made it all look forbidding and impassable. Yet gradually, step by step, we were allowed closer to the actual border gate. Armed soldiers stood at the ready to make sure we didn’t step too far.
We got close enough to see another group of soldiers across the border. Their camouflage uniforms were distinguishable only by a slight difference in color—while the Indians and Bangladeshi both wore khaki and tan, the latter added a pale burgundy to the weave.
The formality and distance reminded me of a similar experience on the border between India and Pakistan. But there the similarity ended.
As the minutes ticked by and the sun dropped lower, the gap between the countries slowly shrank. First, one of our group was allowed a photograph close to the actual barrier. Then another one of our friends crept into the gap between the countries. The Bangladeshi soldiers approached, their curiosity aroused by our white faces.
As we smiled and took selfies of soliders on both sides of the border, our guide expressed concern that we not favor either group too strongly. We took pictures of both until darkness had fallen. Then we left, aglow with camaraderie.
My trip picked back up on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. Here I feel comfortable wandering around greeting people. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but since our arrival we have seen no Americans, no white faces since we left Dhaka, the capital.
I look forward to the increasing fervor surrounding the election.