Monday, March 25, 2019

A Creaky Riverboat Fantasy

Bangladesh is the largest river delta in the world. So with a midweek day off and the sun shining it was time for a road trip...make that a boat trip out of Dhaka. Chandpur is a little town 3 hours down river and a perfect destination for the day. 

However, this meant heading back to Bitwa terminal in the Dhaka river terminal. The stink and filth had not left my nostrils or pores since the last trip there 2 weeks ago. I had called my pal Nooh who agreed to meet us and help us find the right boat. It was simple enough but it is always good to ask for a helping hand when you are not 100% sure. For those who might want to try, you go to gate number 10 and walk down the gateway. Find a ferry, go to the ticket seller and just say "Chandpur", if the answer is yes you ask "fast boat". If either of these questions are no, move along to the next boat. No worries, boats leave every 30 minutes all day.


Funny thing about these ferries to Chandpur. They are known locally as the "sex cruise for young people". The bottom of the boat is filled with benches and seats and for the cost of 100 Taka you find a place on a bench or the floor, or for 150 Taka you get a reserved comfortable seat. Think of the most battered airline seat possible. On the second, third and fourth levels there are cabins. Each a bit nicer the higher you go. For 500 Taka plus the 100 ticket you can get a private room with a river view.  Bangladesh being what it is, young people have very little, if any "alone time". As is human nature you find a workaround and this is the place. Tell your family you are going out for the day and rent a room on the ferry and stay there for the 3 hours to Chandpur. Rinse and repeat for the ride back. Nooh had explained this on our previous meeting. As we stood sipping coffee he started pointing out the "candidates for rooms". It was funny when I asked "what about them" and he was horrified. "No Mr. Ken, they are married, they do not need a cabin"

Safely aboard, I said good-bye to Nooh, gave him a 200 Taka tip for helping and off he went. If you are ever in Dhaka and want a helpful tour guide call or text Nooh  880 179 516 8920. Caroline, Sven and I settled in among the smiles, the hellos, the curious looks and the stench that is the port of Dhaka.

It took the better part of an hour to get down river and out from the wretched claws of Dhaka. The river banks were filled with brickwork factories spewing filth from tall smoke stacks. There were lots of river traffic including party boats filled with teenagers dancing and waving frantically at our boat. It was hilarious when they saw three foreigners waving and dancing back. They went into a frenzy of excitement to get noticed.

If you come to Bangladesh you must accept that people will just stop and stare at you. Seriously, they will not say anything and just stare. If you smile and say hello they will return the courtesy and belt out the standard "what country". It is a rarity for them to speak first. Naturally when one person does speak the curiosity heightens. Suddenly and without any warning you have throngs of people staring and smiling. At one time we counted 14 people standing on the rails in front of us just looking at us. There is a video somewhere and hopefully I can find it. We joked that we now knew what zoo animals felt like. I think they were waiting for us to do something dramatic and "western". After about 5 minutes they move along and another curious crew slowly emerges.

A few kids got over their shyness and approached, mobile device in hand and parents sharp eyes at the ready. It was selfie time. With the success from the first kid it appears these foreigners posed no threat and with that came the expected gentle rush of kids and adults to take photos and selfies. It was all in good fun. Sven drew the most attention with his red hair and large ear rings and his hippie vibe which suited both myself and Caroline just fine.

When I read The Lunatic Express by Charles Hoffman he was constantly amazed how the people around him, the poorest of the poor showed him nothing but kindness. It was an emotional feeling to have these real world experiences myself.  There were a few people sitting with us that bought me coffee, bought us bananas, ice cream, water and tea. They did not want any money in return. They only wanted us to enjoy our journey and tell people about Bangladesh. At one time Caroline and Sven went to the bow of the boat to take photos and I found a comfortable spot up on the rail where I could rest against a heavy rope and enjoy the view. There was a pause before they left as they looked at their bags and before I could say I have them, our friend next to us said "There is nothing to worry about, they are safe". We had no reason not to believe him. As they left, a random guy who I had not seen as of yet, came over, put the packs together and leaned back on them. Two other guys moved a bit closer to him for added security. We were in very good hands with complete strangers who now considered us friends. I adore the nuances of travel and trust.

As we moved down the river the water slowly changed from dark black to a more reasonable green. The wake of the boat actually produced white foam and not brown. The air became clean (Dhaka has some of the worst air in the world) and I could have easily napped on my temporary rope bed without a care in the world.

Aside from being the destination and turn around point for the "sex ferry trip" Chandpur is a renowned river port and sits at the confluence of three rivers. the Dakatia, the Padma and the Meghna. The Padma is the main distributary of the Ganges so its importance cannot be understated. Chandpur is famous for the abundance of Hilsha fish which is a type of shad as well as a major junction for road, railway and river communications and transportation.

As we started approaching the dock, people started getting up and lining up to disembark. It looked orderly and calm and considering everything I have experienced here quite impressive. Well that didn't last long because as soon as the gate was lifted the onslaught began. Every person began fighting for any small space they could wedge into. People were pushing, barging and a few actually fell off the gang plank onto the pier only to be scolded and yelled at by the masses. Helping them was out of the question. I know it's a cultural thing and this is what they know but we were just leaving a boat. There were no zombies, tidal waves or river monsters attacking the boat. The fear and anger to get off the boat before the person next to you was beyond comprehension. I started off by being a bit reserved in the onslaught only to be aggressively pushed aside. All the kindness disappeared from these people as quickly as my patience.  I yelled to Sven and Caroline " I'll see you on the beach" in my best Tom Hanks impression and joined the onslaught. I pushed, shoved, moved with the human mass and made my way to the pier. It appeared I was almost respected for my aggressive behavior by the smiles on the people as they passed by me.

We had about 2 hours to check out the town before catching a boat back that would get us in at a reasonable time.  The riverfront seemed like a logical choice. There was quite a bit of activity and being around water is always calming and fun. Once we got past the barrage of rickshaw drivers looking for a fare it was an easy and short walk to the river. I have no idea why but I wore running shoes instead of sandals and I did not feel like taking them off so I did not get the nice gooey mud between my toes.

We walked past a few ladies doing their washing who looked both confused and concerned, a normal thing I am now understanding. We rounded past a few beached boats and were immediately hit upon by a group of kids, mostly boys that grew in numbers every minute. What started as timid "hello foreigner" turned to pandemonium when we responded with the same thing. We started being followed, were asked to go swimming and then it was selfie and photo time. There were a few that could speak English and the entire half naked, soaking wet group of them thought that was hilarious.

A boy kicked a football to me so we went back and forth for about 5 minutes to the delight of a group of girls who stood back a bit but giggled nontheless. The air was fresh and a nice breeze was blowing, so down the beach we went. We came upon random people doing random things. Washing, feeding their cow, doing laundry, swimming and fishing. A gathering of 5 young girls followed us a bit but when we pointed our phone cameras at them they scattered screaming. One of them did keep following us but ran alongside us in the water, then across the beach and then after about 15 minutes scampered over to her friends to report her findings. There were wide eyed looks and lots of giggles. I pointed my phone at them and they scattered like bunnies.

This saunter down the riverfront gave me another great look at a side of Bangladesh that I could not have imagined. These people were not living in abject poverty. Chandpur is a successful town. These kids were enjoying the day off school as it was a national holiday. They were all students, as told to us by one of the English speaking kids. However, you did need to take into consideration that the laundry was being done in the river, the fishing nets were in tatters and the boats were old and rustic. It all seemed very functional and everyone was smiling. Maybe it was seeing the weird foreigners, maybe it was the nice day with no school or maybe it was the simplicity of their life. These were happy people.

The three hour ride back was sleepy time on our comfy seats. At one time we did not recognize the shoreline and laughed nervously thinking we were on the boat to Chittagong going the wrong way. We ate a few odd snacks that were crazy delicious and were mesmerized by a bookseller who balanced a huge stack of books on his hip and shoulder impressively. There were attempts at conversation from a few teenage students and an old dude from India. I was way too tired for all the repeating questions and comments I hear all day, every day. I put on my ear buds and listened to Grand Funk Railroad. Oddly, that did not stop the odd young guy from tapping my shoulder to say he wanted to talk to a foreigner. The novelty of it all gets old quickly

Leaving the ferry in Dhaka was worse than the stress that was in Chandpur. I should have taken a video because no words can describe the absolute shit show that it was. We made our way, regrouped and headed up the tunnel to the street. BOOM, holy rickshaws. There was one legitimate taxi who said he would take us to Banani for 1000 Taka. When I told him Uber was 350 he said "OK, best price, 900". It was a good effort. With the last bit of battery I had left I ordered an Uber. As usual as we stood around waiting people stopped and just looked at us, from 3 feet away. We complained to each other about it until one guy offered to help the Uber driver find us. He called from my phone and 3 minutes later our smiling driver appeared.  The moral of that story was stop whining about the cultural norms here because when it comes down to it, the Bangladeshi people will stop at nothing to help you at any time. Lesson learned. Stare all you want you lovely odd people.

There are 4 decent hotels in Chandpur and I think I am going to take this trip again and stay overnight. I cannot believe that too many foreigners make the boat trip let alone stay over night. To say it could be interesting over nighter would be an understatement.

The entire trip cost was minimal. 250 Taka each for the return boat ticket. 200 Taka to Nooh. 700 Taka split 3 ways for Uber plus about 150 for incidentals like snacks and coffee. We packed our lunch and water primarily because another teacher took this trip and was sick for 3 days with the poops from having eaten fish at one of the shops. I don't need to be told twice. That total is 1800 Taka divided by 3, or 600 Taka each which is C$9.00.  A full day trip of fun for under 10 bucks.

What can you buy for 10 bucks where you are?

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