At first light we set off leaving the enclave of the Fairlawn Hotel. The streets of Calcutta were silent. How was this possible after the chaotic mayhem of the night before. Stalls were bundled up and covered with tarpaulins lashed round and round with rope for security. Sorry sights of people sleeping rough, often whole families huddled under cloth. A rickshaw wallah lay on a few sheets of cardboard, his rickshaw chained to a post next to him. What time had he finished work and how did he ever get a proper night’s sleep before tackling the next day to make a pittance? The city sprawl went on and on. Gradually the place was waking up, a few chai stalls with small groups of people. A little traffic, the occasional shop opening the loud roller shutters, buses blowing their horns. Gradually the silence gave way to the mad frenzy, more and more people, children going to school, rickshaws, trams, cars, all kinds of carts and trucks carrying huge loads, businesses bustling. Another day was well underway and we were weaving our way through it heading to the Bangladesh border.
A quiet tree lined road led towards the border and soon we were across this arbitrary line on the map, and in a new country. The people are the same on both sides, all Bengali, but it felt quite different. A lot poorer than India, no Roman script, only Bangla, and more colourful. Trucks and rickshaws were beautifully painted. It’s clearly important to have these well decorated. So often the poorest places have the most colour.
We were soon amidst the vast delta of of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Narrow channels of water with small wooden boats, lush vegetation and arching palm trees hanging over the waterways, vibrant green rice fields stretching into the distance with people bent over working the wet land, the vivid colour of their clothes like specks across the bright green background.
We were in search of an old paddle steamer that could take us some of the way through the rivers and waterways. In 1989 we had travelled on one of these relics and we wondered whether thirty years on they still running.
Our hunt took us further into the watery landscape with villages perched on slightly higher pieces of land, surrounded by water and farmland that must flood during the monsoons. It’s a fragile existence life here, a bad tidal surge from a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal or a worse than usual monsoon can cause havoc and wipe these places out. We continued with anticipation down narrow strips of land, asking people on the way. Mixed replies of no the boats have stopped, sunk, caught fire or oh yes they go from Hularhat. We headed there and found an old barge wharf where it looked like the paddle steamer would depart from. A guy sold us a ticket, we couldn’t believe it, this might actually work. We waited for a few hours on the rusty barge and sure enough in the distance along the wide river, strewn with clumps of water hyacinth, the steamer approached like something from history, gliding across the murky water, closing in on us. Other craft, some being rowed and sculled, loaded with all kinds of produce were plying up and down the waterway, motorised heavily loaded sand barges with very little freeboard and graceful wooden boats with arched canopies made of bamboo. A continuous stream of large sea going cargo vessels, rusty and roughly painted, were going up the main river channel in the distance. Light lines were thrown ashore first and heavy strops pulled over to and made off. The Captain with his orange dyed beard stood on the bridge wing calling out instructions. The paddles churned up the water as the steamer came alongside. Gang planks were thrown ashore and we were able to board.
In a state of decay hanging onto its former glory, the Paddle Steamer “Tern”, built in 1935 with parts made in Glasgow and assembled in Calcutta, had presence on the water. Almost regal, a sense of superiority above all the other river users. Known as the “Rocket Ferry” due to its speed of the time connecting Dhaka and Khulna, now it can’t make the whole journey as some of the waterways have silted up. There was no pride for this steamer’s former glory, it’s just a workhorse like any other ferry, gradually rusting away, sadly not even used so much now as other ships go faster. The orange paint patina of the hulk of a vessel blends with the rusting deterioration, broken white hand rails, slightly twisted from impact were crudely welded where absolutely necessary. People lay out their brightly coloured cloth sheets on the wooden deck and settled down for the voyage. Cabins were at the front and back of the ship and surrounded a dining area. There were small decks for cabin class passengers where you could sit out and look out over Bengali life passing you by on the river.
When we were on the Rocket Ferry in 1989, there were still the wicker chairs and touches of grandeur like folding stainless steel sinks in the cabins. Still you could imagine the former glory and status of travelling this way. The feel was still there.
With some long blasts on the ship’s whistle we were on our way. A good walk round is always required when you arrive on a ship. Starting at the Bridge, Captain, pilot and Helmsman navigating round the shoals and through the channels using their knowledge rather than instruments. The brass telegraph used to communicate to the engine room, the writing for engine speed and direction like full ahead, astern, or stop partially rubbed off making it impossible to read. The words “made in Liverpool” still proudly displayed on the brass instrument.
The spoked ships wheel was thrown from side to side to keep the course true by the helmsman. Regular pumping was needed to maintain the hydraulic steering mechanism, presumably because it was leaking somewhere. This turned a large spool of chain on the aft lower deck which was connected to the massive spade of a rudder protruding from the stern. Painted voice tubes could also be used for shouting to the engine room, although the mobile phone is the preferred method now the Captain told us.
The engine room, oily, noisy with impressive bulks of vibrating engineering turning the massive paddles. A large green spot light was positioned in front of the anchor capstan on the lower foredeck.
That night we sat down to dinner with our fellow passengers, some young Bangla tourists, and an American and a Canadian visiting their families in Dhaka. Chicken curry, rice and dhal were served at long tables with stained table cloths.
Tucked up in our bunks in our First Class cabin at the front of the ship we went to sleep expecting to arrive in Dhaka early in the morning. Awoken in the early hours by the clanging of chain rattling loudly over the bow, shaking the whole ship as the anchor crashed down to the riverbed. Silence, the engines stopped, eerily we lay in our bunks, the ship’s bell rang violently for a few seconds every minute or so, then silence, we were in thick fog, in the dark lying at anchor. We lay there for four hours, the bell ringing that signalled to other ships of our presence became sporadic as fatigue set in the person assigned the duty. The Captain took the chance to sleep on the Bridge floor.
As dawn broke the fog cleared a little and we were underway again. A foolish move; the visibility was still really bad. You could hear large freighters around us, but see nothing in the pea soup of fog. Suddenly it deteriorated drastically and we started to hear the noise of other ships anchoring behind the grey curtain of thick mist. We were blind, just the penetrating noise of large chain running over metal, bells ringing and blasts from ships’ whistles in the murky near distance.
Suddenly the vague outline of a large ship right across our path. We were on the bow. The bridge halfway back along the ship hadn’t seen it. “Tern” was going full ahead. We ran back to mid ships where there was a way to the roof and braced for the impact. Shouting, panic, communication to the engine room, “Engines Full Astern” on the telegraph. The wheel was flung over to reduce the angle of impact and prevent a complete broadside collision. Luckily no damage done, Tern slowed surprisingly well and the impact was minor. Too close for comfort we thought, and the words of orange beard, the Captain, from the previous day “live long, live long” rang through our heads! We lay at anchor once more for several hours in the thick gloom. On all these trips we are regularly posting on Facebook and Instagram as adventures unfold but after this we went silent, not wishing to worry people at home.
Eventually we approached Dhaka some eight hours late. The fog and mist merged into haze and pollution. The river blackened and chucked up a rancid smell. Ship builders and dismantlers lined the shore, people working like ants over the huge structures ungainly perched on the filthy banks , bright sparks from welding and steel cutting flew from the ships’ skeletons. Tall chimneys from brickworks through up thick smoke. Ships were everywhere. Small craft jostled for space too ferrying people and goods about. It was a busy scene, the black water was alive with all sorts of craft. The banks were lined with people carrying out strenuous industrious work. Dhaka was a machine, some might say economic success, but it looked like madness, total disrespect to the surrounding environmental damage and the misery it must cause the people working in horrendous conditions at the coal face of these different industries. Individuals trying to better themselves and provide for families, but being trapped in the most exploited way. As we closed in on Saderghat the steam dock in Dhaka, the city stretched out forever in the distance, shrouded in pollution haze which is the norm of these third world mega cities, blocking the sunlight to a cool shimmer.
The usual commotion followed as we came along side. Masses of people shouting. Porters and rickshaw wallahs scrambling on board touting for business. Choked streets of old Dhaka where the cycle rickshaw is king of the road. We wheeled our bike down the gang plank, twenty four hours after boarding Tern, and set off picking our way through the narrow streets to leave the city.
It was a disordered confusion of traffic and noise dominated by cycle rickshaws at first and then as we got further out more lorries, buses, cars and all kinds of carts and goods vehicles. There was a kite festival going onto to add to the commotion. This involved sound systems from roof tops high above the clogged streets, where kites were flying too, but the air was mainly filled with heavy base music.
At the junctions and weaving between lanes we had camaraderie with cycle rickshaws. We seemed to be accepted by them as fellow cycling machines. They often let us go first and made gaps for us to get through the tangled mess of congestion.
Eventually the metropolis of high buildings, low shacks and squalor crammed so closely together gave way to smaller satellite settlements and then once again we were in the beautiful watery Bengali landscape of boats plying waterways, and cantilevered fishing nets supported by huge bamboo frames hanging over the water. Every speck of land cultivated with rice or other vegetables, people digging clay, loading into boats and transporting it to brick works that dot the countryside, smiling kind people labouring all day. There is little mechanisation, the occasional Chinese rotavator, but mainly simple hand tools for all farming and wood work. Villages erupt as we pass through, people calling out greetings, children running out chasing us laughing, and when we stop for tea and some food, crowds develop and we have pleasant friendly exchanges with very little language. So much goes on in the village, round haystacks of drying grass are dotted about, dung patties and dung drying on sticks for fuel are everywhere, seeds are drying on tarpaulins on the mud, crops are being threshed, and all kinds of household chores, like washing and laundry go on in the open.
This rural idyll is punctuated by small busy towns. The quietness is interrupted by transport, hooting, lots of people going about their work frantically. The town provides all kinds of services, metal workers, rows of them welding and grinding, fixing various forms of the motorised trade rickshaws, furniture makers intricately chiselling the decorative headboard of a bed, barbers, tailors, food stalls, general shops, fruit and veg, always rows of the same type of outlet, but everyone is busy.
Then we return to calm as we carry on along a muddy road through bright green rice fields. Children walking to school, humble people with joyful smiles and villages with haystacks and chickens running about.
Eventually we reach the eastern border of Bangladesh with the state of Tripura, India. We are met by a customary elaborate parade of the border forces on the Indian side. Over exaggerated marching of soldiers wearing long feather plumed helmets in some sort of traditional display against Bangladesh, similar to what takes place on the Kashmir border with Pakistan. I don’t know whether they slam the border gate closed here in a theatrical way, but it did signify the border closing for the day.
With formalities finished and the obligatory posing for photos with border guards we set off into Tripura, briefly looking behind us to see the entire border forces sweetly waving us on our way.