MARCH 10TH 2003 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
BANGLADESH - RIDING THE LEGENDARY ROCKET
A visit to Bangladesh without a trip on “The Rocket” is, well, like leaving Venice without experiencing a gondola – simply unthinkable! I dump my bags at the hotel and race, with crossed fingers, to the BIWTC office (The Bangladesh Inland Waterway Commission), determined to snag one of the 8 First Class cabins on tomorrow’s sailing. Failure, would mean ignominiously hot-bunking with a crew member for a little baksheesh! Luck is on my side. I part with 400 takas, around US$10 for the 16 hour voyage and smugly fold the foolscap-sized ticket into a safe pocket.
In my room I grab pad and pen. Travelling is all about planning and lists. Ramadan can leave a chap, not used to a predawn breakfast, starving ‘til sundown. Perhaps “The Rocket” would cater to a western non-Muslim tourist? At the Mullah’s call, I shove through madding crowds hungrily vacuuming food stalls, and fill a bag with hard-boiled eggs, bananas, biscuits and bottled water. I am prepared!
Bangladesh boasts 250 rivers and 8000 well used kilometers of navigable waterways. “The Rocket” is a generic term used to describe any of four ancient paddle wheelers that ply the 26-hour journey between Dhaka and Khulna four times weekly. Barisal is just one of the numerous stops along the way. Two “Rockets” have been recently refurbished to provide comfortable accommodation from a bygone colonial era.
5am. I grab my bags and rush past sleeping rickshaw drivers, to the dock. Erect porters are already moving up and down the steep gangplank at a half-jog . Crushing loads balance precariously on their heads. With every round trip, each receives a painted wooden baton to be cashed in as evidence of a job completed
.On the lower deck, sleeping bodies lie huddled in orderly rows amid bulging cloth bags and battered suitcases. Heat radiates through the steel floor from the diesel engines. On the upper deck a uniformed official takes my ticket and leads me to cabin #4.
The MV Mahsud, around 180 feet, is driven by two giant central paddle wheels. Built in Calcutta in 1928 she was revamped along with her sister, The Gazi, in 1995. It was worth the wait. Twin bunks, a fan, desk and gleaming wood panelling. I open the drapes and lower the casement window a couple of notches. We’re under way at last!
Oooom ah – ooom ah – ooom ah! The lookout takes on a ghostly appearance. Swirling fog reduces visibility to near zero. Bells clang anxiously. The ship slows to a crawl. Oh well – The captain must know what he’s doing? I turn to my cabin door. Frenzied shouting. Continuous frantic bells. A new tone to the engines. A gap in the fog. Stunned expressions on the faces of villagers. We’re heading straight for the shore!!
Momentum slows. Reverse thrust of the paddlewheels finally takes hold. The bank slowly fades along with the stunned faces. A close call! The refurbishing had not included radar! The sun begins to break through. Palm trees, fishermen checking their nets, battered rusting ferry boats emerge in the ethereal dawn, carving their way through floating Water Hyacinth.
The dew on the covered aft deck finally dries with the heat of the day. Passengers emerge from the other seven cabins. Most are well-heeled Bengalis, but the young English couple produce biscuits to accompany pots of tea. Ah the good life! Comfortable wicker chairs. Small tables. A pauper's paradise!
A busy river makes a fascinating scene. Naked children swimming. Laundry. Fishermen casting their nets. Covered rice boats. A flottilla of small craft with logs attached at either side cunningly strung one behind the other. Only the leader burns precious fuel. On the banks, fishermen mend their nets. Giggling women winnow rice. Oxen struggle at the head of a single bladed wooden plough urged on by a scrawny master. When the monsoon comes, this rich delta land will be flooded and maybe rearranged by the rushing waters of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges.
Lunch orders are taken from the three western tourists. A thoughtful departure from the rule of Ramadan. “Bengali or Continental?” “Chicken curry or fish and chips?” He’s a vegetarian. “Just chips.” “Chips and what?” “Just chips!” Bangladesh is not a good place to be a vegetarian! We sit alone in the beamed central dining salon. Things will be different at dinner. The same menu but, when the Mullah announces sundown on the tiny TV screen, both the crew and our fellow passengers will clean out the galley. Note to get there early!
We zigzag down the river picking up freight and passengers from makeshift docks, generally an assembly of rusting steel barges. A glorious sunset. The river shimmers. I return to my cabin and pour a finger of Scotch from the plastic bottle cunningly secreted in my pack. The lights of Khulna are in sight. Another goal achieved. A perfect day.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Must be obtained from The Bangladesh High Commission, #302 - 275 Bank Street, Ottawa K2P 2L6. Tel (613) 236-0138 Fax (613) 567-3213 email email@example.com
ACCOMMODATION: Dhaka is equipped with international hotels. Major centres provide surprisingly good accommodation in the government owned Parjatan hotel group. Most guests will be wealthy Bengalis or foreign aid workers. Outside Dhaka a comfortable room with en-suite and aircon will run around US$25.
WHEN TO GO: The best time is mid October to the end of February to avoid extreme heat and monsoons.
GETTING AROUND: There is a good rail system – trains in the North are antiquated whereas trains from Dhaka south are relatively modern. The quality of buses vary. The drivers are all tinged with madness! Uniquely decorated rickshaws are a great way of getting around – bargain hard! Hire a mini taxi for a day. Flat delta land provides a cyclists paradise.
DANGERS AND ANNOYANCES: A western tourist is a rare commodity – expect to be surrounded by curious onlookers at all times. You’ll feel intrusion then acceptance. Coming home will be a letdown!!
WOMEN TOURISTS: This is a friendly but Muslim country with all that pent-up testosterone! Be firm – they will back-down!WHY TO GO? For the adventure traveller Bangladesh is an untouched gem. Abandoned Rajbaris – palaces and mansions from The Raj period. Kaptai Lake in The Chittagong Hill Tracts. The golden hue of dusk over the padi fields and fish ponds. Bengal tigers in The Sundaban Islands. The golden sands of Cox’s bazaar. “The Rocket”!!
USEFUL INFO: Lonely Planet Travel guide 2001.
USEFUL WEBSITE: www.bangladeshonline.com/tourism