An American Abroad

Bangladesh: Aboard the P.S. Mahsud

The P.S. Mahsud is old, stately, and steeped in British colonial charm. It’s plied the Ganges River delta since it was built in Calcutta, India in 1928. Two paddle wheels located amidships, one to port and one to starboard, have propelled it upriver and downriver for 86 years.

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Originally steam powered, it’s been diesel-driven since its refit in the 1990s.

My first class cabin is richly paneled in walnut and contained a small sink, a luggage rack, windows shaded by wooden louvers, and elegant fixtures.

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It opens onto a large common room with an epically long dining table dressed in white linen. The steward wears livery. And though the cabin is marred by an ass-ugly TV, the white linens are ketchup-stained, and the steward is just a little too demanding of baksheesh, those things only serve to remind me that this is not a museum or a replica or a restoration–this is a working, living piece of history.

“I’ve been to nineteen Asian countries,” said Alex, a young American financial journalist who’s lived in Shanghai for the last four years, “and Bangladesh is the most rugged place I’ve been.” He’s the only other American on the boat, according to the steward, and we have a lot in common: both small college grads (he went to Kenyon), both with Massachusetts roots, both living in China. We ate dinner together and chatted. Alex had just returned from a trip to the Sundarbans in the southeast part of the country, an area with large national parks where Bengal Tigers still roam.

After dinner, we stepped out onto the foredeck. Though there’s a mist rising off the river, the sky is clear. And out on the Ganges delta on a moonless night, away from cities and their light, the sky is breathtaking. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in several years, but there it was. The heavens were so bright and clear I could count the individual stars of the Pleiades without a scope. If I’d had a good sleeping bag, I would have gladly foregone the comforts of my first class cabin for the privilege of laying on the deck all night and looking at the sky.

Instead, I went back to my cabin and reflected on the day. I liked Alex’s choice of adjectives to describe Bangladesh: rugged. It fit my impressions so far. The country has little tourist infrastructure. There are few, if any, street signs, and few signs of any sort that are transliterated into the Roman alphabet. Even numbers are written in Bengali, which makes even figuring out how much money you have in your wallet difficult. Traffic is heavy, unruly and unregulated. Streets are pocked with holes and ruts and many are unpaved. It’s a tragically poor country and the going is hard.

I slept very well, waking only when we were within sight of Dhaka.

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When we docked, I went down to the engine room, where many of the people in “deck class” spent the night.

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Comments

  1. To tell the truth, Bangladesh is not for the tourists who seek luxury. Instead, it is for those who seek adventure.

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