by Bobbie Bergesen
It is the 1970’s and you are stationed in the newly independent nation of Bangladesh. Take a scenic trip with the author and her husband on a paddle wheel ship through the delta region called the Mouths of the Ganges.—Ed.
In late December 1976, my husband and I went to our first South Asian capital on assignment. Alf was to be deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Dacca (now Dhaka), Bangladesh. In this predominantly Muslim (though officially secular) state, we found striking contrasts to the Buddhist and Catholic capitals we’d previously lived in.
At first, the muezzin’s amplified wailing call to prayer rudely woke me daily; I soon got used to it. Another noticeable difference was that relatively few local women were to be seen out and about in the city. Hardly any drove a car as I did, if only on the main thoroughfares. Even an evening stroll around the block alone or with my husband occasioned stares and comment. One or two women in our neighborhood walked for exercise on the flat-topped roofs of their houses.
In two and a half interesting years in Dacca, we learned a lot about the teeming country. One of our most enjoyable experiences was a trip on a regular river ferry, one of the “Famous Rocket Service” craft, about which I wrote below in 1977. Some statistics mentioned there no longer apply, such as the size of the population, estimated at over 110 million in the 1970’s and at over 131 million in 2001. But in a nation that forms the largest river delta system in the world, the waterways remain a favored mode of travel.
B. B., January 2002
The steamer moves steadily down the wide brown river, its side paddles thrashing rhythmically through the turbid water. From the bow, we watch the ripples in the river widen outward and lap at the foot of the eight to ten foot high embankments on either side. Beyond the mud-brown banks, and on out to the horizon, the paddy fields stretch emerald green and flat as tabletops. Above them, billowing against the bright sky, the sails of Bangladeshi countryboats float along, seeemingly unattached to any craft: the high stalks of rice hide the boats below.
With us on the steamer’s upper deck, two other passengers, an American priest and an Englishman, are also enjoying the view from one of the two Famous Rocket Service paddle steamers that ply the rivers of Bangladesh.
Most of Bangladesh consists of delta land barely thirty feet above sea level, crisscrossed by shifting rivers that empty ultimately into the Bay of Bengal. According to the brochure of the Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transport Corporation, which operates the steamers, the Rocket Service started in 1956 when the country was still East Pakistan in order to connect Dacca with other major cities in the “riverine districts” by “quick, safe and comfortable journey.” Since independence in 1971, river travel remains the major means of transportation in a nation considered to be the most densely populated in the world: A population estimated at over 107 million—ninety percent rural—inhabits an area about the size of Wisconsin or Nova Scotia.
A Rocket Service trip is the best way to see life in the countryside, people say. So here my husband and I are, even though it’s May, a month when pre-monsoon tornadoes and cyclones occur. But on this sunny afternoon, under a clear blue sky, the reasons for traveling by river seem obvious; and only a few silvery clouds lie on the distant horizon.
A few hours ago, we boarded from Saderghat dock in the old part of the capital. We go downriver in the steamer Mohmand via Barisal to Khulna, third largest city in Bangladesh, about 250 miles southwest of Dacca.
Three long boards pushed out onto the pier from the lower deck form the gangplank. A dark red jute runner is thrown over the center plank for a firmer footing, especially during monsoon rains. Although the two outer planks are fitted with collapsible rails consisting of heavy ropes strung through metal rings, passengers start boarding even before the ropes can be raised.
The huge side paddles of the Mohmand are boxed over by a yellow brown, carved-wood framework which we pause to admire before stepping onto the open lower deck. This area will fill later with a swelling tide of third-class passengers. Its capacity is 700 persons according to the brochure; the load is more like 850, a reliable source tells me later.Up iron steps to the top deck. At the stern, wooden benches bolted to the deck accommodate travelers in “Inter Class” (reserved seats, no sleeping arrangements). The first-class cabins are forward. Painted enamel white, they run parallel to the pale green dining-sitting salon, which is cooled by lazily circling ceiling fans.
Our corner cabin is about four by seven feet. Aside from two iron cots with sheets and pillows, it has two cane stools (called mouraslusable as chair or table) and a vintage fold-away wash basin. One cabin door leads to the deck and another to the salon. Both open with one impressively heavy brass key.
Overlooking the deck are four cabin windows, each fitted not only with curtains, glass and screen, but also with a rolled-up, built-in shutter of wooden slats. Very secure. (Later, a Bangladeshi friend told us that on Rocket trips in the unsettled early days of independence, lower-class passengers were apt to overrun the other sections. Perhaps that’s why the shutters were installed.)
Heavy metal mesh stretching deck to ceiling separates our section from the stern. Locked and bolted gates in the mesh are opened by a man with a key on demand. Just on the other side is the women’s bathroom, in a neutral, no man’s land (pun intended). To reach it, I get the key man; he unlocks a door at the end of the diningroom; we turn a corner to starboard, and there he unlocks the restroom door. After he modestly withdraws a few feet away, I detail my husband to stand watch in front of the door; its transom is permanently ajar.
Our first stop is at Chandpur, a railway junction and port. Here the Englishman, a fisheries expert, gets off, while a tidal swell of passengers fills the lower deck. Slight women clutching babies, tiny children clinging to their mothers’saris; men lugging baskets, cartons and bulging jute sacks. Chickens, ducks, metal sheathing, and containers of all kinds including gasoline drums are all brought aboard by manpower. Although reed-thin and smallboned, most Bangladeshi men are astonishingly wiry. In no time, two or three working together roll and wrestle the drums into place.
Thunderstorms delay our arrival at the next stop, Barisal. At about dusk, as we are finishing a dessert of mishti doi, a smoky-flavored yogurt custard served with chunks of sweet papaya, inky clouds build up to port, swiftly blotting out the sky. After continuous lightning and a sprinkle of rain, this cover is blown away by a much blacker pile-up of enormous clouds pushing in from the west. Gusty winds and sheets of rain lash the paddle wheeler. We sit it out between the banks of the Kirtankhola river. Flickering like strobe lights through the deluge, lightning lights up the shore, which looks close enough to reach by swimming if necessary.
Finally, at about midnight, the sky clears. The full moon is the color of twenty-two carat gold—like the bangles that Bangladeshi brides wear.
As advised, we spray the cabin with a bug bomb. A lone cockroach flees behind the washbasin and a few lightning bugs drop offthe windows. Although one of the cabin’s two fans screeches horrendously and has to be turned off, the cabin stays comfortably cool. During the night, the sounds of two stops— presumably at Jhalakti and Hularhat—dimly penetrate my consciousness. Distant voices call out and things creak and whir outside; but nothing rouses us.
Much too soon, the twenty-four hours en route is over. The Mohmand docks at Khulna. Bangladesh can offer no more pleasant experience than that of being a Rocket passenger, watching the water curl endlessly out of the carved fretwork while being borne securely along to the steady throb of the paddles strongly churning (apologies to Walt Whitman). Arrival in Khulna means leaving the boat to sightsee and overnight in town. The next day we drive one and a half hours to the nearest airfield, at Jessore, to catch the flight for the half-hour return trip to Dacca. But it is not to be a brief flight; bad weather in the capital causes what turns out to be a six-hour delay.
Next time we’ll Rocket back to Dacca.
Previously published in The Asia Mail, Jan. 1980, and Great Expeditions, Mar/Apr 1980. Republished by permission of the author.
The author accompanied her late husband to a number of assignments abroad in the U. S. Foreign Service. She has written for American Diplomacy several accounts of her expereiences as a Foreign Service spouse.