Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dhaka River Port And Spice Market

I love when a day with little expectations turns into an epic adventure. A trip to the Dhaka City Wharf was just that.

Let's be crystal clear, the Port of Dhaka is as nasty as you would expect it to be. Do NOT touch the water for any reason. Do not dangle your fingers, dip your toes and if something falls in, leave it there. Let it float, let it sink, just leave it alone. Worse yet, if you fall into the Buriganga River you had better have a serious health insurance plan and quite possibly a pre-arranged funeral. Aside from the blackish green color and slick surface, there is garbage everywhere. The horrific smell was a pleasant mixture of oil, human waste, rotten garbage and a few mystery smells. Seriously, if you were to ever fall in I could not image the diseases that would immediately permeate every orifice in your body. If you go under, stay under and swim for the bottom. I am positive that would be the best option.

Sandarghat means City Wharf and that is where we headed. It was an easy 40 minute Uber from Banani. The ride cost us 380 Taka, or about C$6, which was split it 3 ways. Caroline, Sven and I all work at the new school in the Wari district. We seemed to have bonded, probably out of necessity for survival more than anything else. Three people could not be more different. We jumped out of the Uber full of excitement and without a plan. We stumbled upon a sign to buy tickets to get onto the wharf for 5 Taka. Yes we had to pay .07 to enter. We took no more than 5 steps towards the discovered ticket wicket, (that's funny to say) and like a cougar stealthily hunting its prey, we were pounced upon by Nooh. He saw us coming a Bangla mile away and was going to take advantage of our glassy eyed looks. Seriously, how dangerous can a guy named Nooh be?

Not dangerous at all as it turns out. At first we were all a bit put off by his pushiness and as we are all experienced travelers, each of us have had our adventures with touts. He helped us buy our ticket like we were 5 years old, shooed people out of the way without prejudice and walked us to the wharf all in a practiced routine all the while telling us he can get us on a boat to tour the river for 200 Taka each. It was quite impressive.This is what we were looking to do so sure, let's trust this complete stranger on the river of doom. If we had to pay him a bit of a finders fee to hook us up, that was fine.

Nooh showed us around the wharf like he owned the place including all the boats, large and small. He explained in great detail about the various rowboats, barges and ferry boats. We were then led onto  a massive ferry boat and we now followed like sheep (this is where I figured we would get whacked). This particular rusted stink box would hold over 6000 people heading south on a 2 day journey. It was wide open and passengers were just finding a place to lay their mats on the deck. "Too many people, and some might die"  was calmly and casually said. We all looked at each other confirming that is exactly what we heard. OK, now is when I wake up in a tub of ice without a liver, kidney or any various body part...minus the ice.

It turns out our new pal was a legitimate local tour guide, well as "legitimate" as one is in Bangla. While he was regaling us with tales of tours past,  Sven was already online checking him out. He found quite a few reviews about him, all positive. He is called upon by many of the embassies when they want various tours in the area, which were confirmed on various sites as well including photos of him with happy looking and somewhat confused tourists. The more he spoke the more charming he became. He was also really funny in a dark kind of way usually about the state of Bangladesh and its people plus he was genuinely excited to show us around. We had no idea what he had in store for us.

The initial plan was to tour around the sump that was the river for an hour in a low flat boat with an oarsman in the rear. I guess I showed a bit of curiosity and excitement when I saw the dockyards across the river because immediately we had a new plan. It was Friday, which is the holy day here and most places are closed. The Dhaka Dockyards and Engineering Works were quiet and it was a perfect time for a spontaneous visit.

This was the real deal. New ships being built. Others were being refurbished or in various stages of repair or disrepair, who could tell. Health and safety were non-existent, what the hell was I thinking?We were upwind so the air was clean...well clean"ish". The hulking monsters were just the appetizer. In and around the ships there were lots of people regardless of the fact the shipyard was idle. Not just workers but there were kids playing, women, old dudes and the odd lazy dog. It turns out that the dock workers lived in and around the yard. If someone is working on or repairing a ship, there is a good chance that person has taken residence on that ship, staying until the job is complete. The workers, along with their families go ship to ship and relocate as required. I saw the same situation with buildings in India, which Nooh told me also existed in Bangla. Families would move into a building as it was being constructed and live there until the concrete shell was finished. It could take a year or more and it was as safe a place to live as anywhere.

It turns out that there was also a permanent community that took root near the yards. This is where Nooh lived and he asked if we wanted to visit. That was an easy "yes please". This was the Bangladesh you read about and viewed in National Geographic. It was an incredibly poor  and cramped community that services both the dockyards and Old Dhaka across the river. The conditions were an interesting mix. There were mounds of plastic that stretched the length of the inlet and other garbage everywhere. The narrow laneways were neat and relatively clean swept and milling with smiling people. There were storefronts in various states of idleness as it was Friday. It was also quiet, eerily so.

We were given the warmest of welcomes by everyone with a few older women being a bit standoffish, but no worries. The kids, naturally curious, came out in droves. At first a bit shy it only took a few hellos and high fives and then it was all about the selfies. Considering the conditions, these kids were clean and their clothes looked freshly washed. Again, something that I have experienced all over the world, poor communities, clean children. These children all had strong family support and were incredibly happy just being kids. They were surrounded by love, friendship, and safety..and now these weird white people with new mobile phones. Don't get me wrong, I know that there are deeper societal issues at work here, most of which I could never comprehend. On the surface, kids are just kids, universally, and thankfully so.

We wandered narrow laneways and were warmly greeted at every turn. We stopped for water and tea which drew a crowd, young and old alike and the selfies were flying. "Your country" was the common question. Gasps of excitement when they were told Canada, England and Germany. Aliens in a strange land indeed.

We wandered past small variety stores, barber shops and bakeries. The bread was excellent. As I mentioned these are only tourist observations,  not all was euphoric here. If you took the time to observe you could see the harsh realities that we all tend to ignore while we snap photo after photo. Old men with child brides who carried new babies on their hips. Fathers who were brutal to the kids when they got in between them and us. Woman who would peek out but dive back into their little rooms that housed families of 6 to 10. Finally, nobody, absolutely nobody asked for money. Our water, cola, tea and bread were all gifts. They would not take our money even when we tried. These beautiful people, the poorest of the poor, and will only know a short, hard and possibly violent life,  only wanted to show us kindness. "Remember us" were the loveliest and loneliest words I had ever heard said to me coming from a smiling group of people posing against a backdrop of garbage and mounds of plastic.

These situations tend to renew  my faith in the human spirit of survival. We headed back to the shipyard and the sly Nooh had a final treat for us. He decided to take us climbing 40 or 50 feet up the most unsafe, unstable and unusable latter ever to be constructed. As I took the last few and most dangerous steps,  I emerged on the deck of a massive freighter. "We can look around, it is OK today, nobody is working". Bah bah bah...and off we went. We climbed up 4 oily decks, ducked in and around what was the kitchen and living quarters, which begged the question..What the fu** did I just see"? The smell of oil, diesel, garbage and human waste was putrid and these poor guys lived, worked, slept and ate in these confined spaces, constantly inhaling life debilitating air. Life expectancy for men in Bangladesh is 71.4. Here, on this ship, under these conditions it cannot be more than 45.

My senses shocked yet again, I finally emerged on the top deck which gave all of us much needed fresh air. When the dizzy spells stopped it allowed me to take in the dramatic views of the surrounding river and river fronts. The breeze was nice, the sun was shining and the moment was enjoyable. Watching the river captains it was obvious there were just as nuts as the drivers in Dhaka. NO rules apply. There are oarsmen and their personal craft scurry back and forth across the river with passengers going to and from work. With the hulking masses of ferry's, tankers and other assorted monsters patrolling the river I can only imagine how many oarsmen get demolished and sink to the bottom of the septic tank that is the river. Never to be looked for or thought of again. "Some of them will die" suddenly seemed more of a term for everything on the river, not just ferry passengers.

This trip would not have been complete without a wander around the wholesale market. If you can eat it, you can find it here. Fruit, veggies, live chickens, ducks, goats, lambs, and spices of every colour and aroma. Thankfully they were located near the fish section of the market.

Now, what is a little trip without seeing an ear cleaning station? I have heard of this in India and Nooh said, it is big business here. Men need their ears cleaned in Dhaka because the air is so dirty. You know, I am full of adventure and probably would have lined up, but it seemed we were suddenly in a hurry. The thrill of Nooh had worn off as he was now walking double time, explaining just as fast. It was time to say good bye.

The original agreed upon price was 200 Taka each for the one hour tour, about C$3.15. He sheepishly asked for 300 each, C$4.71. Sven gave him 1000 to cover all three of us. I shook his hand, winked and slipped him an extra 1000 Taka note and with that wandered off into the madness that is Old Dhaka.

We seemed to have lost our steam with without our cheerful little guide and in Old Dhaka you better have your "stick on the ice". Personally, the enormity of the day had a grip on me. The riverfront, our little boat, the ferries, Nooh, the shipyards, the community, the poverty and the wretched pollution. I found myself sitting on cart with Sven, day dreaming while Caroline walked around taking photos. In front of us was  a traffic circle  and I was taking in the madness that is now a normal site for me. We grabbed an Uber and headed home.

The history in Old Dhaka can be found on every street, down each damp laneway and in every welcoming shop. Itss fantastic both in scale and it's chaotic reality, and you can bet I am going to return often as I can. 

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