I think a trip without anecdotes can be a good trip, but a trip with anecdotes is a great trip. When life imitates art, you may encounter the Kafkaesque situation that you cannot go to a site without a permit that is only issued at that site, as happened to me in Bangladesh.
And then that situation becomes a challenge, you look for a way to solve it and, if you succeed, it rises to the rank of anecdote.
I found myself in such a situation travelling through Bangladesh when I wanted to go from Chittagong, an industrial and port city in the south of the country, to Bandarban District, a semi-wild area of mountains and jungle where, in some areas, there was tribal guerrilla activity.
No, my planned route didn’t include any of those areas.
One morning I approached the Chittagong Bus Station and looked for the locker.
“A ticket to Bandarban,” I asked the employee.
“Do you have the permit?” he replied.
As you can guess, I answered her question with another one because I didn’t know what she was talking about, and that’s how I found out that going to the Bandarban District required a special permit that could only be requested and obtained at the government offices of the Bandarban District and nowhere else.
The Deputy Commisioner (or D.C., Vice Commissioner) of the Bandarban District, who was in his government office in Bandarban, was the only person who could give me permission to travel but without permission to travel I could not get to him.
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I was faced with a paradox with no apparent way out, in which the very norm to be followed made it impossible to achieve what was intended to be regulated by the norm itself.
An American, or a connoisseur of the work of writer Joseph Heller, would automatically know that I had gotten myself into a book “Catch-22” situation.
Never better said, because Joseph Heller entitled his satirical book “Catch-22”, set in World War II. In it, an aviator sees how each time he reaches the number of missions needed to return home, his superiors increase the number of missions needed to return home.
But that’s not the situation or trap, Catch-22.
When the aviator starts looking for ways to stop flying and researches how to get himself declared mentally incompetent in a medical examination, he discovers that an aviator who requests a medical examination to prove that he is mentally incapable of flying…is healthy enough to continue flying.
I had no intention of a bureaucratic trap, at least that one in particular, making me lose my mind.
It came to my mind that when I traveled through Burma a few years earlier, just after the civil protests of the repressed “Saffron Revolution” (because of the color of the robes of the Buddhist monks), I had found myself in a similar situation.
A large part of the country, renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the socialist military dictatorship that led the country, was forbidden to foreigners because of the attacks and military repression carried out between guerrillas of different ethnic groups and government troops.
To take a motorbike ride through the mountains around Kyaukme, in the middle of Shan State (one of those ethnic minorities), I had to ask for special permission, but I got it before I started.
Considering that only one official knows to what extent another official can border on the rules and regulations, and not knowing very well what the relationship between the politicians of Chittagong and Bandabar was like, I made the only decision that occurred to me and that I judged rather more sensible than shouting at the poor man at the box office.
I asked what the address was, what vehicle I should take and where it was parked and got on a bus to the Office of the Vice Commissioner in Chittagong.
The enormous dark pink brick building, of pre-colonial exterior and postcolonial interior abandonment, was only the possible prelude to the bureaucratic labyrinth that awaited me but luck smiled on me, in the form of a small gentleman who came to make some arrangements and became my self-proclaimed representative.
Together we drew the first windows, explanations and indications and I ended up sitting on a bench, next to the access door to the group of offices of the Deputy Commisioner, waiting for his assistant to receive us. I repeated the explanation about my situation, he was absent to make some arrangements and returned after a few minutes indicating that I should follow him.
Surrounding small tables in large rooms where mountains of files and files necessary to feed back the machinery of any self-respecting State were piled up in doubtful balance, we arrived at the office of the Deputy Commissioner.
I explained the situation to the man and played the tourism card, indicating that I was writing in a travel blog. He asked me which one, turned to his computer and typed in the browser www.viajablog.com
For a second I panicked because I didn’t know what would appear on the screen (because look, we’ve written curious articles, both on body hygiene and on hard aspects of life in Bangladesh the day before, but fortunately that morning we had published an innocent article on accommodation and gastronomy in Chichiriviche (Venezuela).
Satisfied with what he had seen, he picked up the phone and made a couple of calls. Then he wrote something on a piece of paper, signed it, and handed it to me, saying goodbye to me, while I thanked him enthusiastically.
With that paper in hand, I went back to the bus station, to the same ticket office, to the same employee and repeated the same request for a ticket to Bandarban, but this time I showed him the paper I had obtained.
“Mr. José Pérez is a journalist who wants to access Bandarban in order to get to know the area and its tourist attractions better. I ask that you be given all the facilities necessary for your trip.
the Vice Commissioner of Chittagong.”
A few hours later I got off the bus in Bandarban and the next day I went to the office of the Vice Commissioner of Bandarban to officially process the permit authorizing me to travel to Bandarban.
I don’t keep the paper that the Vice Commissioner signed for me, they left it at one of the police checkpoints that were on the road before they got to Bandarban. What I do remember are the smiles of people in Dhaka and all over Bangladesh.