While maps make it seem like the most obvious way to get around, boat travel down the length of the Bangladeshi rivers Jamuna (Brahmaputra in India, Tsangpo upstream) and Padma (Ganga) from their entry points into Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal is not possible. There is no regular service to take the traveller the full length.
The Jamuna and Padma, Bangladesh's two principal arteries, collide in the country's torso before shattering into thousands of distributaries that descend south toward the sea, in the process forming the world's largest delta. Bangladesh's north is given over to road and rail, but its south, with its fingers of land and thousands of mangrove islands amidst the silt-laden mesh of watercourses, is boat travel territory. If you come to Bangladesh to cruise its waterways, it is easiest to start at their exit and work your way up. One approach is to start southeast of the delta, at the southern city of Chittagong along the Bay of Bengal.
Built on the northern bank of the Karnaphuli river and home to three million people, Chittagong is the country's second largest city. It is also Bangladesh's largest port, with more than 4.5 million tonnes passing through it annually. The city's history dates back to at least the 16th century, when European traders, mostly Portuguese, established a commercial foothold on the Karnaphuli and began building Chittagong's clustered old town. Today, the metropolitan area is a curious blend of domestic tourist destination, regional commerce engine and transportation hub. Patenga beach, 24 kilometres to the southwest of the city, is a scaled-down version of Bangladesh's 130 kilometres of 'uninterrupted' southern beach around Cox's Bazar, touted by the local tourist industry as the longest in the world.
Bangladeshi holidaymakers flock to the sands after the monsoon, and women in dhotis or purdah stroll along the sea's edge with families amidst the whiskey-sale cries of entrepreneurial pubescents; the sale of alcohol in Muslim Bangladesh is legal only in Chittagong, although it is sold illegally in many places. With its air connections to Calcutta in India and its bustling port, Chittagong is unique among the country's cities outside the capital metro for its extensive ties to the outside world. Media reports also highlight the port's role as a major trafficking point for narcotics and weapons. In October, Time magazine charged that Al-Qaeda was making use of the under-regulated harbour to transfer wanted militants. But whatever crimes occur in Chittagong transpire under the façade of a sprawling port town considerably less frantic and seemingly less impoverished than Dhaka.
The unpredictable ferry service from Chittagong to Barisal, a delta town 150 kilometres to the northwest, traverses a patch of the Bay of Bengal before entering the delta. Scheduled trips are often called off due to inclement weather, and the under-maintained and overcrowded boats sometimes sink in placid waters, resulting in several hundred deaths every year. This past May witnessed a particularly tragic accident, when the MV Salahuddin-2 sank on a foggy night, taking down 320 souls; the worst ferry disaster, in 1986, claimed 600 lives.
Ferry travel is cheap, and is a lifeline for Bangladesh's population. A deck seat to Barisal from Chittagong, for example, sells for 108 taka (about USD 1.5). For that sum, the trip offers the temptations of the open water: ploughing alongside hundreds of coastal fishing vessels in pursuit of their afternoon catch, a view of the shifting deltaic channel labyrinth, and the colourful companionship of Bangladeshis on the deck. With several stops along the way, including one at the otherwise isolated island of Sandwip, the trip to Barisal usually takes 24 hours, although monsoon water levels and mistimed tides pushed our trip above 30. On arrival in Barisal, the difference of deltaic life from Chittagong's metropolitan vibrancy is obvious; the mosques are smaller but more numerous, ricksas far outnumber automated transport, and strolls along the beach are replaced with subdued cha-sipping at roadside joints.
Boat service, whether scheduled or spontaneous, connects most settlements dotting the delta. Travelling to Dhaka from Barisal, however, is more expeditious by bus despite three ferry-assisted river crossings. On 17 October, during my visit, the central government initiated an anti-crime drive, dispersing 40,000 troops throughout the country to bring in lawless elements. The opposition Awami League tentatively backed the move, but by 20 October the Home Minister had to respond to allegations of torture and murder (two of the deaths in custody, he said, were caused by heart attacks). Ruling party activists around the northern city of Bogra resisted the military action, provoking brief fighting in which a ricksa puller was killed. The Barisal-Dhaka road corridor, however, proved to be free of violence, although the frequent boarding, searching and questioning by soldiers disrupted the sleep of passengers during the night ride to the capital. The bus pulled into Dhaka just as a new day and rain clouds were breaking.
Dhaka University (DU), about a kilometre north of the Buriganga river, offers a good orientation point for the neo-initiate in the capital. Its lush, tidy campus abounds with buildings in colonial, Mughal and Bengali styles, and wide, relatively orderly avenues dissect the grounds. Student politics have disrupted many Bangladeshi institutions in the past few months, but a group of DU business majors sipping Nescafe blew off my queries about campus revolt; "that's all over", one dismissively assured me.
Between the university and the river falls Dhaka's old city, a tangled jumble of city streets home to such historic treasures as an Armenian church, the famous Ahsan Manzil "Pink Palace", countless mosques from different periods intermingled with Hindu shrines – all of them existing in the middle of teeming humanity. To the university's east are the more modern business district of Motijheel and the Kamlapur train station, while the areas to the north and west of the university's ordered existence melt into the expanding urban zone of ever-shrinking parks, Dickensian textile factories and decomposing infrastructure. The university, an oasis of relative quiet in what one lifelong resident terms a "criminally insane city", falls on several of Dhaka's fault lines, its green fields literally and figuratively lying at the intersection of history, business and turbulent poverty.
In Delhi, the rich are too numerous to squeeze into a single square-kilometre enclave, and in Kathmandu, wealth is too tied to feudal land holdings to draw the privileged onto one plot, but Dhaka suffers under neither of these constraints. Thus, the city's upper-crust primarily resides far to the north of the city centre in the walled-in compounds of the overlapping neighbourhoods of Gulshan and Baridhara, exclusive enclaves whose architecture blends hacienda rooftops, Parisian balconies and wedding cake frill. Guarded by their own private security force, the buildings are visually and economically so divorced from the rest of Dhaka as to provoke wonder that they arise from the same urban fabric.
A senior Dhaka journalist offered me a ricksa tour of Gulshan and Baridhara, lamenting their irreversible rise over the past 10 years while pointing out by name the residences of successful businessmen, expatriates, less-than-honest politicos and smugglers of all sorts. The oddest detail of the neighbourhood is the miserable condition of its roads, a backbreaking experience by ricksa, though an inconsequential one by Pajero. Poor road maintenance around such notable addresses trumpets the triumph of the SUV, plastic and steel cradles that lift passengers above the pitfalls of degraded avenues.
About half a kilometre north of DU is the relatively upscale retail zone of New Elephant Road. Bangladesh earns three quarters of its foreign exchange from the export of readymade garments (RMG), and export managers maintain strict quality control to keep foreign purchasers satisfied. The result is that rejected RMGs, fine but for a misplaced stitch or slight miscolouration, are among the best clothes to be had in Dhaka. With industry- rejected RMGs in great demand, in fact, a cottage industry of fake rejects has emerged to flood the market. New Elephant Road is one centre of this commerce, though it also houses the shops of traditional tailors. If the RMG market is relatively new, catering to demand certainly is not, and Dhaka clothiers find ways of blending old and new approaches to business.
The national museum, in the same neighbourhood, is well worth a visit; skip the first floor's uninspiring flora and fauna display to reach the impressive independence struggle gallery upstairs. Bangladesh's first national flag, unfurled by renegade Bengalis in Calcutta in 1971, was obviously of hasty construction, with its jagged sanguine spot slightly off-centre in the forest green background. In the same room as the flag are several commemorations to the dead of that year, although tributes take shape in understated ways, including through mementos and news clippings. A collection of a dozen human skulls bears a label saying that an estimated one million Bengalis died in the independence war. The effect is something both mournful and motivating, a collection that does not pause too long on pain but instead attempts to highlight the inspirational themes of Bengali self-determination.
While the dark red of Bangladesh's flag represents the price paid in blood for independence, the green symbolises the country's lush vegetation and agriculture, and the fecund northern district of Rajshahi is where a fair share of this flora is located. The deltaic region is a blend of marsh, fields and swamp-like rivers, but Rajshahi, famous for its grain and mangoes, is solidly green from top to bottom. Its fertility makes Rajshahi home to one quarter of Bangladesh's 130 million people and renders it one of the most densely populated spots on earth. Hamlets extend throughout even much of its uncultivated forest area, and the occasional large plot of cultivated land looks incongruously empty of people.
In north-central Rajshahi, the town of Saidpur, straddling a stretch of rail line, has been dubbed by one guidebook a "sleepy little backwater". It is in fact a desperately poor settlement of 100,000, located halfway between the more prosperous and populous regional hubs of Rangpur and Dinajpur. Most of Saidpur's ambitious youth are attracted away from home by the pull of the big city. On a bus to Rangpur, I chatted with one such Saidpur émigré, a high school student on leave from Darjeeling for the Dashain holiday. When we got to Rangpur, he first took me to have a look at the abandoned rajbari (palace) and then offered to show me around nearby Saidpur while I waited for the night bus out.
It was a seemingly altruistic offer that I was to regret accepting. For a quick tour of only Saidpur was not on the cards; two hours later we were on a bus to Dinajpur, 50 kilometres to the west, to visit extended family, my bags having been left behind in his address-less house in Saidpur. My failure to force a return to his home to collect my possessions made me self-conscious of being an 'occidental' alone in the middle of north Bangladesh, at the mercy of a young man who had effectively rendered me captive to his hospitality and willingness to return me safely at some point to my belongings. That was to take a full day and a half.
At Dinajpur, the foreigner alighting from the ricksa proved a spectacle for the 'host' family, which sacrificed no expense and extended every conceivable courtesy – Bangladeshi hospitality at its finest, if compelled by disconcerting circumstances. One of the uncles, against my protests, abandoned the master bedroom for my resting, and I dined on all manner of super-saccharine Bangla sweets. The Dinajpur branch of the family has made its money from glasswork retail and rental properties; their prosperity – a three-storey house and multiple televisions – contrasted starkly with the grinding poverty of the relatives in Saidpur.
Dinajpur, at least superficially, is a poster-city of communal harmony. During the climax of Durga puja, this Muslim family put tike on their daughters' foreheads and one uncle took the children on a three-hour ricksa tour of the city's competing puja ceremonies, where, he confided to me, "about half" of the attendees were Muslims out past midnight partaking in the carnival cheer. In this annual contest of puja displays (pandals), this year's offerings included sadhus moving in beat to blaring Hindi pop, swinging their smoky vessels in front of fearsome idols of the deities; a light show of neon beams timed to Kenny G targeted at life-sized drawings of menacing dinosaurs; and yet another at the city's rajbari where the rites were solemnly performed, despite the intrusion of Britney Spears from an adjacent lane. Although international boundaries do not demarcate religious settlement patterns with any precision, Dinajpur is only a dozen kilometres from India's West Bengal, and this Muslim-majority town of 700,000 seems to enjoy its holidays in a convivial and sharing spirit, which was heartening to note in these communalism-threatened times.
Eventually, I was taken back to my possessions, although not before a ceremonial exchange of gifts and thanks at the uncles' abode in Dinajpur had taken place. But once back in Saidpur my friendly abducting Bengali family had one request of me: would I sponsor the eldest son, my Darjeeling-educated tour guide-host, for an immigration visa to the US? His father, a tailor, made counsel with me with the boy acting as interpreter. My evasions proved futile, as the son translated his determined father's directions on how to fill out of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service forms and where to mail the necessary multiple copies. In many Bangladeshi towns, US 'diversity visa' applications are sold alongside eggs and tobacco, but this familiarity with overseas bureaucratic procedures startled me. Is this the extent of despair in small town Bangladesh? I remained noncommittal on the matter of sponsoring the young man, but every evasion only strengthened the family's determination; finally, the father by-passed his intermediary and spoke to me directly in broken English. "Look how poor we are", he said, lifting his hands in frustration at the tin-roof, "please help us".
No traveller likes to be put on the spot in such a manner, and it occurred to me that rather than militants adhering to perversions of Islam, travellers in lands of crippling poverty are more likely to face abduction and harassment from the more banal demon of economic desperation. I had been foolish to step onto the bus to Dinajpur, and was now experiencing a liberal mix of persuasion and guilt. After a few hours of cajoling, they good-naturedly released me, putting me on a bus to Dhaka with a family friend on the same night ride assigned as my escort. The bus eventually pulled out, heading south in the dark, leaving both the family and myself with a considerable measure of uncertainty about the meaning of my visit to their town.