A River Cruise in Dhaka

We were up and ready to explore Dhaka by 7 am. We thought that this would be the best way to tolerate the heat and humidity of the city. Apparently we were the only ones with this idea, at least in the area around our hotel. All the shops were still closed and there was almost no action on the streets, in sharp contrast to our arrival at rush hour the night before. We delayed our departure an hour or so, but it didn't really matter, because it was already hot and sticky.

By 9 am, we were standing in front of the Sadarghat boat terminal, being swept away by a boatman, promising us a tour of the Buriganga river. I think he saw the hesitation in our eyes, because he didn't even let us say a word as he ushered us through the crowds of people and onto a tiny wooden craft sandwiched between too huge passenger ferries. Yann looked utterly terrified (although swears he was only slightly worried) as we slipped through the narrow gap separating the two boats and into the open water. The man who had intercepted us at the entrance tot he boat terminal, was in fact not a boat driver, but an "English speaking guide" named Jewel, who had subcontracted our oarsman. According to Jewel, his mission was not to make money, but to make sure that Bangladesh was known to the world as a wonderful place for tourists, "yo pwoblem is my pwoblem". Almost immediately into our river ride he began pitching us his tour of Old Dhaka. We didn't pay too much attention to him, we were too busy watching everything going on around us. There aren't as many boats on the river as there are rickshaws on the streets of Dhaka, but the traffic is equally disorganized and chaotic. We felt slightly vulnerable as we were rowed down the river next to boats that probably couldn't even tell we were there. We docked on the opposite river bank and visited a small fish and produce market. Right next to the market was a grade school, where Jewel's two boys attended. He was happy to introduce us to his children, who spoke the best English among their schoolmates. Within a few minutes of our arrival, it seemed like the entire school had come out to greet us. Women at the local market lined up to have their photos taken and shake our hand. A produce vendor threw potato peels at me until I finally understood that she wanted me to bring her to Canada with us. The village lined up on the edge of the river to wave goodbye as we pulled off. One of the most enthusiastic sendoffs we've ever had. Jewel then brought us further down the river to his neighborhood, where he wanted to show us his home. He lives in the ship-building district, where huge ship hulls seem to be formed anew by hammering scraps of metal together. Its unbelievable that these ships eventually become sea-worthy. Thousands of men, young and old, work all day hanging off the ships bashing pieces of metal together. You can hear the sounds of hammers clanging against the ships frames from every direction. Most of the local shops sell old ship parts. Jewel brought us to his friend's shop where men were actually building soldering machines from scraps. We navigated through the maze of ships and ship parts until we arrived to Jewel's house. One small room where he sleeps with his wife and two boys. A kitchen is shared between a few other families housed in similar one-room homes. His room was perfectly tended to, with all the pots and pans carefully hanging on the wall and all the family's possessions neatly tucked away out of sight. We spent a few minutes resting while the neighbors gathered at the window. Everywhere we visited, crowds gathered around to have their photo taken or to inquire about us. We were always greeted with smiles and laughter. Jewel proudly informed us that these were "his people" so we need not worry about anything happening to us. Although, he couldn't guarantee "full protection" on the other side of the river, back in Old Dhaka. This is where we were heading next. We had given in to Jewel's tour offers and decided he would show us around for a few more hours, even though it wasn't his turf and he was slightly annoying.

Montreal to Dhaka

We briefly considered a direct flight to Dhaka, until we saw the price difference between a flight to Delhi. We landed at midnight in the suffocating heat of the Delhi summer, spent a few hours in the usual cockroach infested room in Pahar Ganj, Delhi's budget travel ghetto, before boarding a train to Kolkata the next afternoon. Yann and I had been debating whether or not to travel in air-conditioned cabins (I was for it), but in the end it didn't matter, because there were no berths left in any of the air-conditioned classes. After a day waiting in the sweltering heat of Delhi, we were already exhausted by the time we boarded the train. In non-ac train travel, sections are divided into open compartments containing 8 berths. Six people, including us had already arrived in our compartment when a family of 5 showed up. Forcing our sweaty bodies to be that much closer together, I demanded to see their tickets, which of course they claimed to have, but never produced. After a brief argument, the other foreigner in our compartment began to cry. I blame the heat and exhaustion for my frustration, I watched the family all night trying to get sleep huddled together on tiny bunks, with the father curled up on the floor beneath them. By the next morning I was trying to make amends for my rudeness and was thankfully forgiven. The family shared their homemade lunch with us and invited us to have dinner at their home upon our return to Kolkata.

Even with a bunk to ourselves, sleep was pretty much impossible. Up on the top bunk where I was hidden away, there was no air from a window nor a fan. I lay rolling in my own sweat, soaking up all the dirt from the sheetless bunk, until I was a filthy, soaking mess. Yann, on the middle bunk did a little bit better. But we still had a long 8 hour day sitting 9 people on the two bottom bunks. By the time we arrived in Kolkata, I had convinced Yann that we absolutely needed air-conditioning. But lugging our bags around checking our hotels proved to be too exhausting and I booked us into an ultra-cheapie room with only a crappy fan and filthy sheets. Yann was perplexed by my change of room choice, but all I wanted was to lie down.

The next morning we had a bus to catch to Dhaka. No one at the hotel could confirm the departure time, but we had read that buses left at 5:30. So we set our watches for 4:45 and arrived in plenty of time to board the first bus of the morning (we opted for the AC bus). It took about 3 hours to travel the 84km to the India/Bangladesh border, we were surprised that the road linking these two main roads was barely the width of two cars.

Border crossing was particularly jovial, especially on the Bangladesh side, where the customs officers invited us to have tea with them. The Indian officers were a bit more of a pain, forcing Yann to go back through customs to change his Indian rupees into Bangladeshi takas (we haven't confirmed if this was an actual rule, if he wanted a bribe or if he was just being difficult) We were too worried that our bus would leave us behind, so we didn't argue too much (although I put in a valiant effort). As I filled out our immigration forms the sweat was pouring into my eyes and all over the forms, I don't know that I have ever sweat so profusely in my life. Yann was having a good laugh, claiming that he "loved the heat".

After getting our immigration stamps, we exited into Bangladesh, where we now had to track down our bus. We were faced with dozens of bus company stalls, all identical in appearance, all with Bengali signs. English seemed to have completely disappeared within the span of 100m. Being the only two foreigners on the buses passenger list, we were tracked down pretty quickly by the bus company employees who ushered us to the waiting room. We were soon joined by dozens of Bangladeshi men, who we believed to be bus passengers, but who turned out to be people coming to talk to us, or just get a glimpse of us. Every conversation began with "your country please?" and would end with "your relation please?" to which we would answer "we are husband and wife", great approval and nods followed by a "thank you thank you". The young boy at the bus stand taught us the Bengali sentence "Ami Bangladeshke volobasi","I love my Bangladesh".

The rest of our bus ride to Dhaka passed through similar scenery to that on the Indian side, on an equally narrow road. But when we arrived at the ferry crossing, we got our first view of the Bangladesh we had pictured in our minds: a vast muddy river, stretching out for miles, occupied by dozens of passenger ferries, fishing boats and cargo ships. The banks of the river dotted with thatched roof mud houses and children swimming. Not a hill to be seen anywhere. The children playing on the river banks were amazingly quick to spot us on the upper deck of the ferry and waved continuously at us while our ferry slowly passed them view. Other ferry passengers were eager to ask us where we were from and what we were doing in their country. As we approached Dhaka, our bus slowed down to a crawling speed. We had now been joined on the road by hundreds of auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, pedestrians, trucks, all honking. When we pulled into the bus company terminal, we had no idea where we were nor how we would possibly be able to navigate the traffic. We stood on the sidewalk for minutes watching the gridlock made up mostly of cycle-rickshaws. We weren't even able to cross the street. Meanwhile, on the sidewalk, a steady stream of pedestrian commuters were blowing by us (and the traffic), we were in the way no matter where we stood. Yann couldn't even utter a word, we felt (and must have looked) completely lost.

It didn't take long before a few people had stopped to help us. They flagged us down an empty cycle-rickshaw (there were not many of these available), a teenage boy who couldn't speak a word of English. Somehow our crowd of helpers managed to understand where we were going, and explain it to our tiny sarong wearing driver. Without a word, he dove into the traffic. We sped through the city, our tiny sarong-clad driver changing lanes and forcing his way in front of oncoming buses and cars. Under over-passes and through garbage-filled back lanes, our driver's shirt was now completely soaked with sweat as he rode his one-speed bike for almost half an hour. It was the most spectacular ride through a city we've ever had. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we paid him the demanded fare, 25 takas, that's correct, 40 cents. Five days after leaving Montreal, we were finally in Dhaka.