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My serendipity story: Bangladesh Buddy

posted Apr 25, 2013, 5:41 AM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Apr 25, 2013, 5:42 AM ]

Between May 2010 and April 2013, I worked on the SerenA: Chance Encounters ion the Space of Ideas project. As part of this project, I asked people to tell me their memorable examples of serendipity (their 'serendipity stories'). You can read many of them and contribute your own at Here I share one of my own serendipity stories with you - from my travels to Bangladesh:

In July 2010, I travelled to Bangladesh. I decided that I would try and go somewhere that I hadn’t been to before and it would be a very big kind of cultural difference to me. So I wanted to be immersed in a very different cultural environment. And on my travels I had to figure out how to get things done in a country that’s very chaotic. So, things that wouldn’t normally be a challenge in many countries were actually quite difficult over there. So even figuring out where I could go and use the toilet or where it would be safe for me to eat. And something else that was quite a challenge was booking things like bus tickets, so just being able to get around the country was quite difficult. And so before I had left I had tried phoning up bus companies that I’d found on the internet that seemed to be… that seemed to have buses that would take me to the place… to the place that I needed to go. And I was really surprised that when I phoned up all it took was two phone calls and I had a ticket reserved and just I thought this is just too easy, I expected difficulties here. And so when I turned up in the city that I’d reserved this ticket, and so I really needed the bus ticket in order to get back to the capital city to get my flight back, so it was a very important bus ticket for me, I spent a very long time trying to get to the bus station.

So I had the name of the road and I had flagged down… I’d flagged down a rickshaw driver and he had said that he knew where the road was and I’d asked him two or three times and I’d even said it in Bangla rather than in the English way, so I’d turned the address around, and he repeated it back to me that it was Kanisaba route. And he understood, I thought, where we were going. And we spent perhaps half an hour, perhaps 45 minutes, circling town with this rickshaw driver and I had a feeling that he just didn’t know where he was going. So I told him the name of the bus company. I told him the name of the road. He’d been asking… stopping and asking people after a while. And eventually we got to the bus station and to the, to the bus ticket shop. And I got there. I got there just as the sun had set. I was pretty sure they’d still be open. I’d got in, I went to the counter to buy a ticket; I asked them, can I buy a ticket please? He said, well, look, there’s no lights, there’s no air conditioning, the power’s down, I can’t sell you a ticket until the power comes back up. And so, I didn’t know how long it would take for the power to come back on. I decided that I would just wait it out and I’d sit in this very stiflingly hot room waiting for the power to come back and for me to buy my ticket, so that I knew I was guaranteed to actually be able to get home. And so I sat down and thought to myself, well, how can I kill my time? So all I really had with me was my mobile phone and I had a bunch of leaflets that… with me because I was trying to arrange a trip for the next day to go to some mangrove forest. And I’d read in my guidebooks… I’d done my research and my guidebooks had told me that it was something that you’d often get ripped off by and expect to pay roughly £100, which is about a month’s wages for the average Bangladeshi, just to be able to arrange this trip, but actually you wouldn’t manage anything cheaper than that, you’d have to go with a travel agency. And there was at least one person a day in that area who gets eaten by a tiger. I was leafing through the different options I had and a lot of them were just written in Bangla and there was no English. So I could make out there was a phone number but I just couldn’t act on a lot of the, a lot of the things that I needed. So I was going through and I didn’t even bother phoning the ones that weren’t in English. So I phoned one of the ones and struggled to make myself understood by speaking English because I didn’t know a word of Bangla. And I was quoted a price like the Lonely Planet told me are extortionate.  And I didn’t really want to pay that much money because that cost more than my flight cost to get there. But then someone that was sitting in the same room, and overheard what I was doing, started talking to me and he didn’t directly offer to help me at that point, but he said… he asked me what I was doing and I explained that I wanted to arrange this trip and I explained the difficulties and very quickly he offered that he would speak to them for me. So, we both had nothing to do, he was waiting to buy a ticket for his father on the bus, he was waiting for the power to come on as well.


So we used the time where he borrowed my phone and made several phone calls and had several long negotiations with the people on the other side to get to a rough kind of price. And he stayed with me for about two or three hours through every stage of negotiations acting as a translator. He came with me to the company. He helped me book the tickets. He took my phone number afterwards and said, well, can I just phone you to check that you’re safe when you’re on this tour and haven’t been eaten by a tiger. And he was just brilliant. And so he ended up really helping me and I ended up going on this tour that certainly  I wouldn’t have been able to organise on my own, there would have just been no way that I could have done it. But also that led on to some knock-on useful things happening. We became quite good friends and his English was very good so I was able to… he found it really interesting having a friend that was from a different country and we shared lots of cultural differences.

He would phone… he phoned me up on the last day that I had there and insisted that I would go around and visit his friend’s different villages. And I had a really nice authentic experience just from, just from that, kind of, encounter in the, in the bus ticket place. But then that’s almost where I thought the story had ended. So I had got a lot of value and at the end he said to me, well, when are you going to come back? So, really good friend, when are you going to come back to Bangladesh? And he could see it in my face, he said, we’re never going to see each other again, are we? He said, I would love to come to London but I just don’t think it will ever happen. And I said to him, well, it’s a big world out there, I love the country but the chances are I’m probably going to go to other countries.

And so, it almost ended there, but then he said, well, actually I did try and come to the UK once. And we got into this story about how he had tried to apply for a visa by paying a bogus college. So often in Bangladesh, and in other countries from what I understand, students are enticed to being able to come over to the UK. They’re told that if they sign up with a bogus college they’ll get the visa, it will be plain sailing, they’ll then come in, they can then work and then send the money back to their parents.

So that had been what he’d been sucked into. And he told me about the company. He gave me the name of a college that I’d never heard of and I said to him, I bet you this was bogus, so what happened? He said, well, the visa was rejected. He said, but I don’t know what to do. I said, well, now you’ve had a visa rejected it’s very difficult for you to actually get into the country, but this is the step I would suggest. And he was intent on going.  He said, well, I’ve been told there’s this other company that will definitely help me and will not do the same thing as the last company. And I said to him, you have to forget these companies. They’re all just trying to… at best, they’re trying to make money from you and they’ll deliver something you could have done yourself anyway and at worst they’ll just make it worse for you by not… by giving you the name of a bogus college that the immigration authorities are already onto.

So, we spoke about it and I think I happened to know… I had, I had, at some point a few months before, had looked at different immigration rules for the UK and I knew enough about the procedures because my friend had got married to an Indian woman. And he’d come over and she had lived in the UK. So I was, I was in a position to be able to give him some good advice. So I told him exactly what to do and which websites to go on and how much roughly things should cost. And I told him there’s nothing… you know, it will not harm you to try it the legitimate way and as far as I see it that’s your best chance of getting in, but you may well not.

And that was the last I heard of him, other than the odd message flying through cyberspace between us. And then about two weeks ago I got a text message saying, hi, it’s me, I’m in London. And so he’d managed to come in and we’ve now arranged to meet. It was meant to be tonight but I realised that there was no way I’d be able to go to Poplar and get home at a reasonable hour to do my exam marking tomorrow, so I rescheduled. But it looked as though… although I haven’t confirmed it, it looked as though the advice paid off. And so it ends up that our meeting may have ended up being useful for him as well.

And so it looks like it’s still a, kind of, open story. But I, kind of, feel… so I felt happy at the time because I was able to, I was able to help him and he had helped me so much. He had helped me so much without actually expecting anything in return and then I had noticed something that I might be able to help him with and then actually being able to give him some good advice. So I felt that that was an example that I was really happy with because I felt as though it had benefited both of us in different ways, but that I’d been able to pick up on something he said and offer my help where I thought it would be most useful. So that’s my story.