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Holidays and Hartals
By Gregg - 15 Feb, 2000

Page 4 of 4

On our last full day in Dhaka, Joe returned home from his office with a newspaper clipping. A two-day dawn-to-dusk hartal had been called for the Sylhet District. Hartals, or general strikes, have become icreasingly common in Bangladesh. These strikes, called by the opposition party as a tool with which to force the current government from power, means that everything shuts down. It is advisable on these days to remain indoors. Violence often erupts on the streets.

We were leaving for Syhlet the following day and the hartal was scheduled for the two days following that. Having booked a couple train tickets for when we were back in India we were on a schedule; we only had one overnight in Syhlet. We'd planned to cross the border just north of Syhlet the following day—the first day of the strike.

Arriving in Syhlet in the afternoon, after taking a room, we asked around about the hartal. There would be no transport the next two days due to the strike. We couldn't afford to wait two extra days in Syhlet and the thought of being holed up in our somewhat seedy hotel for the duration wasn't particularly appealing. A policeman told us there was some chance that the hartal would be called off. We would know at 6pm when the evening newspaper came out. But by then it would be too late to leave. We made a quick decision to grab our packs and head straight to the border—a two hour bus ride away. Even if we couldn't cross that evening, we'd be in a much better postition to do so the next day.

The guys at the hotel desk looked at us funny when we came down with our packs—we'd checked in only an hour prior. We shrugged and basically said, "Hartal. Must be going now," and they didn't ask for payment. We reached the border after dark and were unceremoniously dropped off next to one of a handful of shacks. The shack was a general store and its lantern was the only light around. There certainly was no hotel here but we soon learned there was one in the town of Jaflen three kilometers down the road.

The folks hanging around the store were very friendly and quite amused to have two foreigners appear in their midst. Two of them rounded up a truck to take us to Jaflen and insisted on riding with us to make sure we were properly settled.

The next morning we hiked back to the border and crossed. A rather low-key crossing, —we were numbers 3 and 4 in the foreigners' log counting from the beginning of the year, eighteen days before. Despite the hartal we'd made it to and across the border. Our destination was Shillong—the attractive capital of Meghalaya known as the Scotland of India. We asked at the border post about transport. "There isn't any," they told us—"Today there is a strike."

But it was just a two kilometer walk to where we could catch a bus to Shillong. We reached town before nightfall.

Two weeks later we received an email message from Joe in Dhaka. He had a follow-up for us. Not only had the Sylhet hartal happened as planned but two days had stretched on and it was now "indefinite". I'm not sorry to have missed Sylhet.




Holidays and Hartals

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