Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rocket Propelled Tourist

A deliciously lazy way of getting around Bangladesh, and seeing much more of the country into the bargain, is by boat. Not surprising really, given the topography of the country, where seemingly short and straightforward bus journeys can be long and tortuous due to the need to cross a couple of half-mile-wide rivers, which Bangladesh has in abundance. The main boat route connects the capital, Dhaka, to the southwestern city of Khulna, and is plied by the woefully misnamed Rocket. The Rockets are paddle boats in the Mississippi paddle steamer vein, but lacking the glamour. Most locals travel either "deck" or "inter" class. In the former they stake out a patch of deck with some bags or straw mats on which they sleep during the trip. Inter class is similar, but there you stay below decks next to the engine. These classes, however, are not available to foreigners, though this is more due to overprotectiveness towards them rather than any sort of discrimination.. And personally, despite being a hardcore budget traveller, I'd rather have a bed than sleep on hard boards, with little room, for two nights in a row.

The trip was altogether uneventful, which suited me fine, I just sat back and watched the river life and read my book. For the locals, however, the journey was monumentally exciting. There was, namely, a foreigner on board. And no matter what I did I had the undivided attention of about a dozen Bangladeshis watching my every move (or lack of it). I was also a captive guinea pig for them to practice their English. Once you get past the "what is your name? what country? what is your religion? what are your qualifications?" barrage of questions, conversations with locals often centre on my home country: how we live, the food we eat, the crops we grow, our customs, our weather. Usually I have to explain how we have no rice, no coconuts and no bananas, an almost impossible concept for the rural inhabitants of the tropics to understand, as these crops are not only their source of food, but also provide building, thatching and other important materials. They know of ice, but cannot imagine it covering the countryside. But here in Bangladesh I have come across the oddest difference yet: rocks. Because the country is one vast alluvial plain all the ground is entirely composed of silt carried along by the rivers. Therefore, no matter how hard you look for them, you will not find even a pebble in Bangladesh (OK, that's not 100% true, there are corners of the country in the southeast and northeast where you can find them, but consider this artistic licence). This poses some not inconsiderable problems for the construction industry. For example, they need to find some sort of substitute when making concrete. They get around this with bricks. The country is pincushioned by a multitude of chimney stacks from brick kilns that line the waterways. Then the totally surreal takes over when chains of men feed the newly made bricks straight into a crusher to make "brick pebbles".

The arrival in the morning to Dhaka is certainly a rude awakening, literally. It wasn't the foghorn, or the other riverine noises, or even the bumping and chattering of my other fellow passengers that woke me. I was woken up by the Buriganga river, the largest open sewer in the world. On this trip I have been to many cities which have more than a hint of eau d'égouts (or should that be l'eau dégoûte?), but Dhaka really takes the biscuit. I'm just thankful that I hadn't showered for a week and so was partially immune, but I'm definitely not going down to the river again in a hurry.

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