It would be my first day in Dhaka after having flown in from KL a few hours earlier. Freshly showered, I hardly felt the lassitude of having slept 3 hours, my adrenaline pumping up my energy reserve. Breakfast was unsatisfactory. My tongue needed getting used to eating parata. I washed it off with Sprite which my waiter at the New Alamin Restaurant was eyeing suspiciously. Who would drink carbonated soda before 8, he must have thought. I handed money when I heard someone was expecting me at the lobby. I was at the 2nd floor and they succeeded in tracking down my whereabouts.
Mafuz, my tour guide, arrived before 9. I was curious with this stranger. Would I be able to trust him? I took my forward stride when I saw him stand up from his chair. “Hello,” I greeted. He wore a long sleeved shirt, and a firm grip of a hand shake. I winced at how under dressed I felt, though as backpackers go, I look pretty decent on a cotton shirt, jeans and doc martens. Still, my guide looked like he was going to attend a conference in a couple of minutes.
I’ve never corresponded with Mafuz prior to this meeting. He was recommended from the Thorn Tree travel forum by another Bangladeshi named Mahmud, who replies to most queries regarding his country. I shall need Mahfuz's services for the next couple of days. And though I prefer finding my way alone around new places, I knew I wouldn’t see much if I were arrogant enough to accept the help of someone who knew his way around. Getting lost, especially in a city as intense and congested as Dhaka, will take time; something that I didn’t have much of. Mahfuz will navigate for me. What I like about him is his air of arrogance, not towards me, but when he is dealing with people. He shielded me from the obvious curiosity around me. He dealt with the rickshaw wallahs, ordering food at restaurants, and for once, I was peacefully observing.
Our first stop: Sadarghat!
Most Dhaka tours should in fact start with either Sadarghat or Lalbagh, right at the heart of Old Dhaka! Sadarghat is this riverine community that plays host to the Sadarghat Launch Terminal (aka Sadarghat Port) a large ghat (wharf) at Dhaka's approach to the Buriganga River. Originally, it was built as a place for landing of boats, launches and even ships coming to Dhaka from other places. But large vessels can no longer use it because of shoaling up (shallowing) of the river bed and an overall downsizing of the navigational capacity of the inland waterways. An average of 30,000 people use the terminal for departure and arrival every day, each paying taka for entrance. About 200 large and small passenger launches depart and arrive at the terminal every day. I barely noticed where my entrance payment was done.
From Motijheel, I was grateful that Mafuz chose the rickshaw to take me to Sadarghat, but it was the most sensible. Sadarghat’s narrow alleys would hardly accommodate a taxi, and I personally wanted to experience riding the rickshaw. For some reason, it took us awhile to get our ride to Sadarghat. We gracefully slid past the congested recesses of Old Dhaka, through streets filled with election-related banners. When the roads finally shrunk further, the surroundings turned into shanties, and even more rickshaws. People were transfixed with my gorgeous face (har har).
There were only two main roads, one running from west to east and the other, south to north, meeting almost at right angles near Sadarghat. A labyrinth of lanes branched off from here into the mahallas (city sectors). I knew that the stalls to my right directly led to the Buriganga River. Pure delight seized me.
Upon reaching the river, I jumped off my rickshaw and hopped into my boat, and for the next 2 hours, I was to be afloat this whole riverine community that’s as congested as the land beside it. The sun was bearing down its heat, but the flurry of activity tantalized me. Boats carrying people, market produce, and to my surprise, even big boulders of rocks for construction. Bricks were being hauled off at the river side. After having settled and calmed down, I sat and just watched my surreal surroundings. I am so far away from Manila, and it’s moments like these that imbue such travels with a sense of poetic or existential flavor. Within an hour, I was already skimming through my Lonely Planet when, in my reverie, a British tourist on another boat, shouted at me, “Hey, Lonely Planet guy!” When I realized I was his point of contention, I lazily waved my hand, and nodded. I would, later in the day, see him again in a less affable mood.
BURIGANGA RIVER: POLLUTION AND ACCIDENTS
Buriganga River, which literally means “old Ganges”, is the main river flowing in Dhaka, and long distance boats called Rockets will travel 27 to 30 hours all the way to Khulna (Bangladesh’s 3rd largest city, located 333 kilometers southwest of Dhaka). Unfortunately, Bangladeshi boats aren’t the safest means of transportation as sinking ships occurs every so often. Buriganga has an average depth of 25 feet (7.6 meters), and a maximum depth of 58 feet (18 meters). It has been estimated that 80% of the city’s waste is untreated, including tanneries (animal skins and hides are tanned). Unfortunately, Buriganga is its main outlet of sewage and chemical waste.
Boat and ferry accidents due to poor safety standards and overloading are common in Bangladesh, which is criss-crossed by a network of 230 rivers. The most recent was the accident at the Daira River in Kishoreganj district, north of the capital. Just a month prior to this, another boat sank in the Tentulia River near Nazirpur in South Bangladesh. The reason: overcrowding. In Bangladesh, these accidents seem like a vicious cycle.
How does a Rocket look like: click here - http://www.traveladventures.org/continents/asia/rocket-boat-ride08.shtml
WORLD’S MOST POLLUTED
Neglect has made Buriganga River as the 6th most polluted river in the world, placing Citarum River in West Java (Indonesia) at the top spot, followed closely by Mississippi River (USA). Closer to home, Marilao River made the list at the 7th spot, while Pasig River gleefully placed 8th. Isn’t it such a joy?
From my boat, I saw the Pink Palace (Ahsan Manzil) when my boat turned to the opposite direction. There were different sizes of boats all over the congested water way. At a different area, a ship yard was in the process of constructing huge ships which felt wrong. Wouldn’t these constructions further pollute the river? As my ride completes an hour, I started to fidget. Mahfuz noticed so he told me we can actually visit one of the launches docked. These are bigger ships much like the Rocket, with accommodation services for overnight trips.
As I got off my boat and stepped into the empty commercial ships, I marveled at the space available inside. After all, these are sleeper ships. Mahfuz lead the way, barging into mostly empty rooms. We saw some people and Mahfuz actually acted like he owned the ship, which was funny. I told you he had an air of arrogance, though he was never rude or condescending. He was just a bubble of self confidence, which makes a good tour guide.
I gazed at one of the rooms and sensed an inspiration of claustrophobia, something I hardly encounter except when crawling inside some of Vietnam’s Cu Chi Tunnels. The few inhabitants that we saw were accommodating. It was relaxing to know I didn’t have to pay for this special tour inside a commercial ship! Didn’t you know? The best things in life are free.
This is the Eye in the Sky.
Entrance fee at Sadarghat: 4 taka
Boat ride: 90 taka an hour
Attention from the locals: free and overwhelming
Overview on Bangladesh: http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2010/09/bangladesh-fortuitous-jolt-of-surprise.html
Arriving at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and Hotel Pacific: http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2010/09/dhaka-bound-anxious-plus-hazrat.html
Ahsan Manzil or the Pink Palace - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2010/09/ahsan-manzil-pink-palaces-rich-history.html