Travelling has always been my passion, my utmost desire. I grew up in a family where I wasn’t allowed to go outside without a male chaperone, not even to school. It left me with a deep desire to see the world. Mostly I wanted to see my country, Bangladesh.
My family taught me to love my country but not to explore it, and this didn’t apply to just my family. Most of us had to go through this without complaint. Our society even considered a girl ‘rotten to the core’ if she roamed around the house a lot.
It was 2011 and I’d gotten myself into the best and most highly-competitive medical college in Bangladesh — Dhaka Medical College. My parents were relieved now, they thought that I’d at last given up on the idea to travel and concentrate more on my studies… which I did initially. We had to study a lot — hundreds of books — and it took some years to get accustomed to.
Even as time went on, I couldn’t rid myself of the burning desire to explore, and as I was living without family in a hostel, I concocted a plan.
In 2014, I started looking for female partners to travel with. Because, seriously, my mother would’ve killed me if I travelled with a guy. Every girl I knew declined my request. Some thought it was a waste of time, some advised me to concentrate more on my studies, some were thrilled by the idea but not brave enough to travel with me. It was a real struggle. I knew I had to find someone who shared my passion. So I called out internationally on different Facebook groups saying I needed female partners to see and explore my beautiful country with.
Many replied, but only one person came through — Corina Tomasschett. This Swiss native changed my life.
The next year in February, we travelled all around Bangladesh for a month. Even with all that time, we couldn’t cover the whole country. It was impossible as there are so many unique things to see and do. Regardless, we still had a great time. Corina and I travelled affordably as we have currency differences, and it was hard to manage expenses with me still being a student at the time. She didn’t complain at all. We stayed on boats, sat under the moon and stars, travelled on the top of buses (which was risky; I’m not recommending it), and cycled along the beach.
Towards the end of the trip, my friend Manoshi Saha joined us. After Corina left, I never looked back. I convinced my family that travelling is a good thing. They were initially furious, but now that I had a desi (local) female travel partner, my family was easier to manage.
We travelled through Bangladesh deep and wide. Exploring Bangladesh saw us going up hills and mountains, we discovered hidden springs and even stayed with the tribal people. We caught fishes from the streams, ate snails for dinner, and experienced myriad festivals. It was amazing and we did all these things without ever one neglecting our studies. We just took the opportunity to travel every time we got some time off our studies.
After a while, I knew it was time to bring more women into the circle, to liberate more of us. So, Manoshi and I started a platform for like-minded female travellers, where we could arrange to travel safely and witness more of Bangladesh’s beauty for ourselves.
The Travelettes of Bangladesh was born on 27 November 2016, with hopes that we could take female travellers around the country safely. One of the most important things we do is also help convince each others’ families that women can and should travel. Naturally, Bangladeshi parents are obsessed with their children’s education, so we tell and prove to them that a girl can travel while still being the best at their studies. This usually works.
What we thought would be a platform for 20 to 50 women (easier for us to manage and take on trips) is now a platform of over 30,000 members. In about two years, we’ve taken around 2,700 women on trips with us and I’ve lost count of those whom we’ve inspired.
Shortly after we launched came a bigger and better plan. Bangladesh has 64 districts and we (Manoshi and I) plan to travel all of them… on motorcycles. No woman ever in our history has done that or even thought about it.
People have tried to talk us out of it, saying, “What if you get raped on the way?” “What if you’re kidnapped and things get snatched?” “What if you get into an accident?” “How can you travel without being an expert at travelling?”
We shook all the questions off and started outside the capital city, Dhaka, on 6 April 2017. People laughed at us, we were so slow, and even bicycles rode way ahead of us!
However, we hung in there. We started getting better quickly. We realised it only takes patience and practice. Also, we didn’t want to make this journey just about travelling through; we wanted to raise awareness for women empowerment. As a traveller in Bangladesh, there are certain things you need to be mentally prepared for.
Along the way, we talked with school-going girls about their menstrual health (a taboo topic here), we showed them how beautiful Bangladesh is, we told them about our liberation war, taught them about being a patriot, and even conducted a workshop on self-defence!
We visited a few districts, then come back to the capital to continue our studies, and then hit the road again after a few months. Eventually, Manoshi and I graduated as doctors and heading out became more difficult with our hospital duties. Regardless, we pressed on. Despite being faced with difficult roads, getting into accidents, facing dangerous situations, and uphill bike climbs, what we experienced was worth it!
Ask any local and they’ll tell you it’s harder to travel within Bangladesh than to travel the whole world. You won’t find guidelines, Google Maps might not work, sometimes there may not even be roads to take you where you want to go. In these last few years, I believe I’ve managed to prove that Bangladesh is a safe country to travel in.
On 5 May 2019, we finally completed all 64 districts! It took us two years and one month and we have interacted with about 38,000 young girls.
What did we get out of this? We fulfilled our dreams, we inspired many, and although we didn’t quite break the taboo of women travelling, we definitely put a big dent in it. Most important of all, we received love from people all around Bangladesh and proved that the impossible is really possible if you just keep trying.
*All images provided by the author.