I shouldn't be alive: Bangladesh

Thursday November 20, 2010. Bangladesh.

I stepped out of the van carefully, holding onto a tree so as not to fall down into the river five feet below me. For the second time today, our van was stuck, bottomed out on a large pile of soft sand blocking the narrow dirt road. The rural areas of Bangladesh are breathtakingly beautiful in both scenery and culture, but they are very difficult to traverse.  As we surveyed the situation, about a dozen Muslim villagers gathered around us to help. My friend Robi and I, along with four village boys, made our way to the back of the van and prepared to push. "Ek, dui, tin, dhaka dao!" I yelled, meaning "One, two, three, push!" Shoilan, our driver, hit the gas and we threw our bodies against the back bumper of the van. No dice. Too much sand under the car. "Alright, we'll have to dig." With the help of some villagers, we started shoveling the sand out from beneath the van's belly and tires using our hands, shoes, bamboo sticks - anything we could find. It took about 25 minutes of trial and error, but were finally able to get out. We climbed back in the van sweat soaked and dust ridden, but finally on our way again and only about 10 minutes from our destination. 

It was almost dark and the jungle roads are near impossible to navigate at night. I closed my eyes and tried to lay my head back on the seat, which was bouncing around with the car on the uneven dirt road. BANG! My body jolted as something smashed into the bottom of the van, which ground to an abrupt stop. I peered out my left window and saw that our van had once again bottomed out, this time on the extruding rails of a train track. The driver tried to accelerate but nothing doing. Suddenly very aware that a train track is not a great place to get stuck, I turned to my right to say something to Robi.

That's when I saw it: a light in the distance moving toward us with speed... I've never moved so fast! I reached for my door, which stuck for a moment before I wrenched it open. I could hear Robi, Shoilan, and other voices yelling in Bangla as I ran behind the van, throwing my backpack off somewhere into the darkness.

Robi and I reached the back bumper together, lowered our shoulders, and pushed with everything we had while keeping our eyes on the circle of light, which was growing larger at a frightening rate. We had 20 seconds, if that. The wheels of the van were spinning frantically as Shoilan, door open and eyes on the train, held fast at the wheel with the pedal to the metal.

15 seconds...

"Dhaka doa!!!" My mind was racing, adrenaline pumping, realizing that we might have to abandon the van and dive for cover. I could hear the horn of the train, but it sounded muffled as if I were underwater.

10 seconds... 

Suddenly, we were joined by what seemed like an army of young boys who, hearing our screams had raced from the village. We surged. "Ji! Ji! Yes! Yes!" The van lurched forward, it's wheels catching as we drove it with our legs. And suddenly, it was free. "Move! Move!" Our army was scrambling to clear the tracks. One boy had fallen when the van had shot forward but he quickly regained his legs and sprinted across the tracks.

Within 8 seconds, maybe even less, the train came roaring through, horn blaring angrily. It was a passenger train. People crowded inside, on top, hanging from the sides - everywhere. My mind was blank in that moment. I couldn't think. I could only feel. The wind in my hair. The dust in my eyes. The gravity of the situation pressing on my entire body like a physical weight. Then, as the final cars of the train came and passed, my consciousness returned, formerly replaced by sheer instinct incited by danger.

I am alive.

An unexpected smile came to my face. I looked around and saw that the others were smiling with me, shaking their heads and wandering back to the tracks to watch the train disappear into the darkness. After a few minutes of collective appreciation for the moment, we thanked our young Muslim friends and shook their hands before making our way back to the van with a slight reluctance, as when of parting ways with an old friend.

Ten minutes later I was lying in my bed, staring up at the ceiling through my mosquito net, finally thinking clearly again, taking it all in. What if we hadn't been able to move the van? What if those village boys hadn't come at the last second? What if the van had dislodged the train from it's tracks and killed all those passengers?

Thank God. Thank. God. Thank you, God. For life. For every day. For every moment. Thank you, thank you.

TravelMark WeberBangladesh