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Story No 16 Adrift in Bangladesh

An adventure-packed overland journey through nine countries had brought me to the shipping port of Chittagong; a city that lies tucked away in the southeast corner of Bangladesh close to the Burmese border. I was low on funds and in need of somewhere to sleep.  
The author traveling through Persia
     I traipsed the dust filled streets and alleyways of Chittagong until I found cheap accommodation at the Hotel Flushing, so called because it had what was laughingly considered a flush toilet. In fact, it was nothing more than a pair of concrete footprints astride a long open gully into which water from a bucket could be sluiced. However, it was a great improvement upon many of the places I had stayed at in the months since leaving England.
      I peeled the rucksack from my aching back and dumped it at the foot of the rope-strung Charpoy bed, then without undressing, I stood under the cold shower and felt the dust, perspiration and worries of the day wash away. I was in need of a miracle; the Burmese border was closed to foreigners and I had but £9 to get me to Singapore.
      Refreshed, and in clean but wrinkled clothes, I sat on the window ledge, desperately hoping to catch the merest suggestion of a breeze in order to keep the heat and humidity at bay. Below, in the busy Betel Nut splattered street, all of humanity seemed to be passing. In amongst the cacophony of rickshaw bells, horns, animal bleats, and general human hubbub, I heard some familiar North Country voices, cursing and complaining.
Rush hour in Chittagong
      I scanned the crowds and spotted three scruffy and harassed-looking Europeans, whom I recognised immediately as Sam, Jim, and Alan; the ever-quarrelling, oddball overlanders from Manchester.
      I had run into them outside the desert township of Kerman in southeastern Persia a month before; they had been travelling in a dilapidated second-hand army jeep, accompanied by Australian George, who was attempting to return home on a motorcycle.
      On that occasion, I had managed to persuade them to reluctantly give me a lift on the bonnet of their shared jeep. We were all attempting to cross the desert of Baluchistan into Pakistan.
      Their vehicle had been weighed down with provisions, sleeping bags, bodies, and about twenty flimsy cans of petrol tied haphazardly in, on, and over the vehicle. Everyone smoked like troopers, without a thought to the danger around them.
      ‘Hey, Sam,’ I shouted out. ‘What’s new?’
Ready to cross the Baluchistan desert into Pakistan
      ‘Hey! My goodness, Look who is here? We've sold the jeep for £100 and bought a boat, but we've no cash left for food and ropes. Do you want to join us?’
      Without a second thought, I yelled, ‘Yes. Count me in.’ 
          I instantly stuffed my mosquito net and metal water canteen into my rucksack and rushed down to the street to join them.
      The ‘boat’ turned out to be a bare, open-topped, 23-foot locally-made Sampan, used for river trade and fishing, and built of what appeared to be old railway sleepers. Before setting sail, it would need just about everything one could think of. I promised to obtain all the food and ropes they needed as my share of the venture.
Enjoying tea with some Persian ditch diggers
      The fact that none of us knew anything about sailing had not really occurred to us. Surely, it was just a case of following the coastlines of Burma, Thailand, and Malay as far as Singapore, turn left and then, ‘Look out Australia, here we come!’
      My first call was to the Bangladeshi office of the famous Lipton tea company. There, I persuaded the local management to donate a large wooden chest full of tea-dust.
       ‘This is the best I can offer you,’ said the man from Lipton. ‘You might be able to exchange some of it for other goods in the market. In any event, I wish you every success with your sea voyage, though rather you than me.’
An Apple Seller
      And that was how I came to be squatting in a dusty, backstreet bazaar of Chittagong selling paper bags which I had filled with Lipton tea-dust, little realising that my as yet unknown future wife was at that very moment across the border in Calcutta swotting for her exams. I wonder what she might have thought, had she known that I was squatting like a Chai Wallah selling tea dust in Chittagong.
       It was the week before Christmas and all was well, it may not be everyone's idea of how to spend the festive period, but for me it was pure magic. I had the best gifts of all: vim, vigour, the ambition of youth, and the prospect of embarking on yet another adventure in my journey of hiking around the world. I had set out with the intention of travelling for two years, little realising that it would be seven years before I returned home.
A bazaar neighbour
       Within a week of meeting up with the others, I had managed to beg, borrow, and practically steal everything from food and ropes to shackles and bamboo poles. Our greatest acquisition was the friendship of a Mr Macdonald, a locally based Australian shipping agent. With his network of friends we procured a lorry load of gravel to act as ballast, timber and empty oil drums to make a life raft, ocean charts, tools, bags of rice, flour, tins of biscuits, and sundry other items, all of which were deemed necessary for this epic but reckless journey we were about to undertake.
        Australian George had meanwhile turned up in Chittagong; he took one look at the boat and said: ‘My goodness, you chaps must be mad’ and with that, he took off to book himself a deck passage on a freight ship to Penang.
Kids have more fun
      Within three weeks, we had just about everything we thought necessary – with the exception of experience of course, which we would obtain as soon as we set sail. However, to do so, we required four different export documents, none of which were forthcoming.
      The longer we delayed, the more we ate into our food stocks; we could delay no longer. In desperation, we decided to slip surreptitiously away under the cover of darkness, disguised as Pakistani fishermen with blackened faces and wearing loincloths.
      Let the voyage commence …  
This account will continue next week in No 17 - Adrift in Bay of Bengal Click here to read what happened the last time Roy decided to go to sea.  Your Comments are always welcome 

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Story No 14 Homeless in Billings 
Greyhound bus station

A chill wind blew off the surrounding plains of Montana, sending eddies of paper and debris along the dimly lit streets of Billings, its principal city.      For almost two hours, I had scoured the town by telephone and on foot, looking for a hotel or motel, but everywhere was full with attendees for two conferences and the Montana State Rodeo.
      I shivered. It was almost midnight; time to admit defeat. I had left Jean looking after our bags at the Greyhound bus depot; she would be wondering what had happened to me.
       I turned into a side street to make my way back and spotted a dimly lit sign swinging in the wind. It read ‘Lincoln Hotel’.
      As I approached, I saw a young boy standing in a pool of yellow light, banging on the entrance door. A tall, gangly, grey-haired black American fumbled with the lock and bolts to let us in. 
     I made my way across to the reception desk, only to be glared at by a short, round, scowling woman who snapped: ‘What do you want?’
         Despite being cold, hungry, and tired from two hours of fruitlessly searching the city for lodgings, I replied optimistically, ‘I would like a room.’
       ‘Why? Are you homeless?’ she snapped in a throaty mid-western twang.
      Cussedness from an unfriendly receptionist was the last thing I needed at that time of night.
      ‘Yes, I am,’ I said, trying to be polite. 
     ‘Well, you can't stop here,’ she growled at me. 
     ‘Why not?’ I enquired.
      The aroma of fresh coffee from a large, modern coffee urn sitting on the counter smelled inviting. It contrasted sharply with the shabby furnishings of the reception.
      ‘Because this is for homeless women and families,’ she snapped. 
        Desperate for somewhere to stay, I grasped at the only straw that came to mind:  ‘Well, my wife is homeless too,’ I quickly rejoined. 
    ‘Do you mean you're married? Have you got a marriage licence?’ she quizzed.
      ‘Well, we do have passports to show that we are married,’ I replied.
       ‘Huh! I don't know about that. I’m shall get the supervisor.’ 
      With that, she disappeared into a back office.
      I was unsure whether she had said a room would cost us $6 or $60. She could have said $600 and I would have gladly paid it.
      A few moments later, she returned with a kindly faced, giant of a lady who said firmly: ‘My name is Betty. Now, what's all this I hear about you being homeless?’ 
     ‘Well, yes. You see, we have just arrived on the Greyhound bus and...’ 
       'Goddam it! You’re British!’ she interjected.
      ‘Yes, I am, as a matter of fact...’
      ‘I have got a second cousin that lives England, she comes from some where called Birdchester or something similar.’
      Warming to the woman, I ingratiated myself by saying: ‘Yes, I know it; it’s a very nice place.’
      ‘You know it? It’s near to London I guess.’ 
      ‘That's right,’ I fibbed.
      ‘Well, I am surprised! An Englishman here in Billings,’ she mused. ‘I hear your wife is with you, too. Well! Don't you worry. You go and fetch her and I’ll see about arranging a bed for you both.’
       She turned to the black doorman and yelled: ‘Chuckles! unlock the door and let the gent out.’
      I had no idea what sort of place I had walked into, but now was not the time to question it. A warm bed and a roof over our heads were in the offering and that had to be better than a cold hard bench at the Greyhound bus depot.
      As I crossed the street, I looked back – on the side of the building, a large sign read: The Montana Rescue Mission for Homeless Women and Families. My traventurer’s luck had struck again!
      Jean sat in the harsh light of the Greyhound bus depot waiting my return. She looked tired and resigned. ‘Did you find anything?’ she asked anxiously.
      ‘I’m not sure, we may be in luck, but don’t expect the Ritz, Hotel’ I said.
      We gathered up our small backpacks and plastic shopping bags, one of which contained several weeks’ collection of brochures and maps from across America, the other with a new coat Jean had bought. We hurried over to the Mission, exhausted and disheveled; no one could have looked more homeless than us. 
     Before being allocated a bed, we had to fill in a probing registration form as to how long we had been homeless: where had we spent the last few nights? Did we have any food stamps or social security money? Were we claiming medi-care, and would we like to speak to a clergyman, a rabbi, etc? 
     Firmly believing that we are all but actors on the stage of life, we entered into the spirit of our new situation and answered everything with as much candour as possible, without jeopardising our potential bed for the night.
      We were issued with freshly laundered sheets, and pillow cases, and then taken upstairs to a rather sad looking room with a huge, chrome, double bunk bed – big enough for the parents to sleep on the bottom, with two or three kids on the top.
      ‘Would you like a comforter for the night?’ Betty asked, with a friendly smile.
       ‘That would be real nice,’ I replied. I had no idea what a comforter was, but knew that to allow any opportunity to pass was a fool’s way of learning.
      ‘I guess you know that there's a rodeo in town,’ she continued. ‘Do you want to go?’
      It was because of the rodeo that we had come to Billings, but due to an engineering seminar and a state conference for 600 teachers, we had found ourselves with no room at any inn, motel, or hotel around the city. 
     ‘We’d love to go to the rodeo,’ I replied. 
     ‘I’m working tomorrow night, so you can have my ticket, and I guess Chuckles is working too, so I’ll see about getting his ticket for you.’        
    With that, Betty disappeared, leaving Jean and I standing in our new abode, clutching our sheets like a couple of ‘Orphan Annies’, (lost children) not believing our good fortune. We looked at each other, and, like two children up to mischief, got a fit of the giggles. Here we were, eight years into our life of travels and once again, ‘Lady Luck’ had stepped in to save the day.
      Betty returned with a comforter, which turned out to be a cosy duvet, she also had two complimentary tickets to the rodeo. Jean was so overwhelmed by her kindness that she gave a recently purchased sweater to one of Betty’s children. 
     It was time for bed; time to snuggle down under our comforter, to fall asleep to a ‘zzzz’ sound buzzing from the red neon light outside the window – or perhaps it was from Jean, who was already asleep.   
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 Story No 15 - Heart of America... 
Continued from ‘Homeless in Billings’.
Montana Rescue Misission
    Being ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ or ‘Homeless in Billings’ had not featured in our plans when we set out to leisurely cross America by Greyhound bus. However, on arrival at Billings, Montana, we found that two conferences and the Montana State Rodeo had filled all available hotel rooms.
         There was therefore no room at the inn for us. And so it was, that on a cold October night, we found ourselves officially ‘Homeless in Billings.’ We could either, sleep on a cold bench at the Greyhound Bus depot, or, accept the situation and allow ourselves to be rescued by the ‘Montana Mission for Homeless Women and Children. We chose the latter, and were allocated a warm cot space in the ‘Bozeman Room’ at their Lincoln Inn refuge. (Read full details in previous story, no.14) 
        It seemed we had hardly closed our eyes, when the shrill sound of a tannoy system just outside our door awoke us: 
     ‘It’s 6.30 a.m. Please rise, and get your rooms cleaned and ready for inspection. Breakfast will be served in forty-five minutes. Check your name on the chore list at the front desk,’ shrilled the tannoy.
Breakfast Time
      I peered over the bedcover into the early morning gloom, and saw a chipped washbasin, thin floral curtains, and a threadbare carpet.
      What a dump! I thought. What an awful time to be woken up! What a... what a cozy bed! Weren't we lucky not to have slept at the Greyhound bus depot?
      We peeled the bed from our backs, tidied the room, and went self-consciously down to the dining room. It was heaving with eighty homeless families busy helping themselves from large buckets of cereals, crates of milk cartons, and trays of huge blueberry muffins; all donated by local businesses. Jean and I shared a muffin, but were too embarrassed to put our names down for the lunch and dinner, which was included in the $6 charge for board and lodging.
    The Mission had arranged for us to visit the rodeo that evening, so we were committed to staying another night. We checked the chore list and were listed to help serve lunch the next day. We had a free day ahead of us.
      Billings proved to be a remarkable place. We enquired at a local store for directions to catch a bus to an out-of-town shopping mall.
      ‘Do you mean you haven't got a car!  I've never met anyone without a car before. Here take my keys, but be back before 5 p.m. when I close up my shop.’
     We thanked the owner for his kindness, but politely declined. 
     Later in the day, we met the manager of the mall who, like myself, was a member of the International Rotary Club. We were so busy chatting over coffee that we forgot that our status was ‘Homeless in Billings’. It was only when he insisted on driving us back to our hotel that we had to confess to staying at a mission for the homeless. Why is it that the earth never opens up to swallow you when you most want it?
      Waiting at the mission home were our homeless compatriots anxious to take six chubby waifs and ourselves to the rodeo in a beat-up, over-loaded Buick. 
     What a wonderful evening! We sat next to a retired rodeo rider who gave a running commentary on the finer points of bull wrestling, calf branding and bucking broncos’ horsemanship – Billings was indeed a remarkable place.
Our $6 receipt
      But it was the following morning when the best and most remarkable incidents were to occur: I had left Jean in reception with our bags whilst I went to pay our bill and apologise that we would not be around at lunchtime to do our chores, but would gladly pay a full hotel rate.
          ‘No! You can’t do that, I guess you’ll just have to pay your $6,’ the supervisor said casually.
      I stayed in ‘character’ and offered a $20 bill to pay for two nights, but found they didn't have any change. Apparently, no one ever paid; therefore, no money was kept on the premises.
      ‘Don't worry, keep the $8 change,’ I said.
      ‘Its $14 change you need, because your first night is free,’ came the reply.
      I could not believe it. I remained in my ‘homeless’ guise, found some smaller notes and paid up – the donation we had planned to make needed reviewing.
All heart but no Home
         Just as I turned to leave, a phone call came from Richard, the mall manager, to say that his wife Maggie was insisting that we become their house guests for a few days and that he was already on his way to pick us up. 
     Was there no end to Montana hospitality?
      I explained the situation to Jean, and as I did so, an elderly, but stooped and disheveled man with glazed eyes, sidled up to me, took one look at my bags and said: ‘Are you going to Arabia?’
      ‘No, I don’t think so,’ I replied affably.
      ‘You ought to go to Arabia, I’m going’. Do you want to come with me?’ he continued.
      ‘When are you going?’ I asked good-humouredly.
      ‘I’m going this afternoon. If you want to come, I can arrange it for you.’       Seeing my opportunity to escape, I said: ‘Yes, please.’
      ‘OK, you wait right here,’ he said and shuffled off.
      Within a few minutes, Richard's car pulled up outside.
      Not a moment too soon, I thought, as I started to quickly load our bags into his car. But I was not quick enough, for our newfound friend came scurrying out and grabbed hold of my arm:
Stop! Help the Homeless
      ‘There, I said I would arrange it for you,’ and with that he held out his hand with two complimentary tickets for the film, Lawrence of Arabia. I felt very small and humble, and died inwardly from a thousand lashes of shame. How well the poor look after each other.
        I wanted to scoop him up and take him home with me; I hugged him unashamedly and explained that we couldn't go as we were leaving with Richard.
       How could we ever adequately repay all this Montana kindness? None of the gifts or monetary donations we have since given, will ever suffice for what had been the most memorable of American experiences.                Billings epitomizes the true ‘heart of America’. 
 CLICK HERE to read another tale of when Roy and Jean were homeless in Morocco

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