An American Abroad

Bangladesh: On the Ganges Delta

[I]t was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, ‘I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,’ that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I met Ahmed when he came to the fore deck to pray. The boat was docked in Dhaka and the muezzin’s call had sounded. A stately iman with white robes and matching beard came out and carefully aligned a prayer rug toward Mecca. Four other men stood behind him and went through the ceremony with meditative intensity. Then they knelt down one last time, pressed their foreheads to the steel deckplate, and departed. The rug remained.

Ahmed came bounding on to the deck, saw that he’d missed the prayer, stood before the rug, and proceeded to go it alone. I stood by discreetly and tried to photograph the scene on the ghat, but it was 6:00 and the light was fading.

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When he finished his prayers, Ahmed rolled up the rug and took it away. He returned a moment later and we got to chatting. He was in his 30s, a lieutenant commander in the Bangladesh navy. His service had taken him all over Bangladesh, to China for several months on an officer exchange program, and to Cote d’Ivoire as part of the UN peacekeeping mission there where he served as an MP. He reminded me that Bangladesh contributes more troops to UN peacekeeping operations around the world than any other nation but one.

The M.V. Sela blew its whistles and began backing out of its berth. It was dark by then. Tiny flat-bottomed rowboats (called noga in Bengali), each with a candle burning in a glass jar for illumination, flitted around the ferry like fireflies. Across the river, the oxyacetylene torches at the shipyard reflected like fireworks on the Ganges River delta. We were off.

It grew chilly, so Ahmed and I moved into the common area by the first class cabins. A steward, young and shy, came in and we ordered dinner. We sipped sweet milky tea and munched on a trail mix of dried nuts, rice puffs, and chili peppers while we chatted.

The conversation turned from what-do-you-do to more personal matters, i.e., women. Ahmed had been married for a year and a half. His marriage was an arranged one, per Bangla custom. He met his wife just three times before the wedding. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked. Ahmed denied feeling that way initially, but later when the conversation looped back to that topic he copped to some serious anxiety.

Dinner arrived, a tasty chicken curry with rice. Ahmed and I talked til I was too tired continue. I said good night to Ahmed and took one more tour of the deck. It was a foggy night with light cloud cover. There were a few dots of light clinging insubstantially to the shore, but mostly there was darkness. There are many villages in this part of the Ganges delta, but most of them (I was told) lack 24/7 electric service.

The river was wide here, maybe a 3/4 of a mile from bank to bank. Occasionally little nogas could seen as blacker silhouettes against black paper. The M.V. Sela would fire up its prison-break searchlight from time to time and sweep the course ahead, and the little rowboats would scatter like minnows. How many millions of travelers over how many hundreds of centuries had sailed this route? I looked in vain for a sign and tried in vain to feel something holy.

It had been a long day for me, one that had seen me on foot, in a taxi, on a shuttle bus, aboard a 737-800, and stuck in Dhaka’s legendary traffic congestion. I was beat. I wasn’t feeling it. I repaired to my cabin.

My cabin and the boat that contained it, I have to admit, were disappointing. They were serviceable but charmless. The M.V. Sela was built in 1951, while other members of the Rocket fleet date back to the twenties. I was too tired to care much about aesthetics, though, and laid myself down for the night. I was thankful that the rats in the walls had quieted down. Maybe they’d had a long day too. I fell asleep almost immediately.

Two hours later I was awoken by faint music: a flute or pipe of some sort, emanating from the lower deck, where dozens of other passengers were crammed into a dank metal space and tried their best to stay warm and get some rest. The musician seemed to be imitating a sitar, with frequent returns to the drone tone followed by notes that leapt whole octaves, coiled, uncoiled, and danced around the staff. Underneath me, the diesel thrum provided a contrapuntal bass foundation. I debated going below deck in search of the piper, but decided that hearing it in the dark of my cabin was somehow better. The piper was leading me back to sleep now, hypnotizing me and summoning dream fragments. Were the dozens of souls in deck class also being led to sleep’s republic by the mysterious piper? The last thing I remember was another line from Conrad: “It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”

The Concept for Bangladesh

Most of my colleagues are heading off to Vietnam for our upcoming Spring Festival break. To my knowledge, no one has asked them why that’s their destination. Vietnam is chic, reportedly beautiful, and possessed of Buddhist cool. I’d like to go there someday.

But not now. Instead, I will be traveling to Bangladesh.

The reactions I have gotten to these plans range from perplexity to dismissiveness.

Some of my Chinese friends have scarcely heard of the country, despite the fact that it’s only about 100 miles away from the People’s Republic. “I think it is a mysterious place,” said one of my local friends with uncertainty in her voice. I have had to show a number of them where Bangladesh is on the map.

Some of my American friends have nothing good to say about the place. “Dickens-like poverty with brown people and water-borne diseases; one of the places I thank god I wasn’t born.” Another confused Bangladesh with Pakistan and then, after I pointed out the error, wrote “Pakistan? Bangladesh? Meh. Starving populations, corrupt governments and miserable earthquakes. What’s the diff?”

It’s clear that the eighth most populous country in the world has an image problem.

And I can understand why. I’ve read and enjoyed Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World, but other than that, what little I’ve ever heard about Bangladesh has been overwhelmingly negative. I can understand my friends’ impressions.

But I can’t believe that there is nothing wonderful, fascinating, or entrancing about the eighth most populous country in the world. I’ve decided to go looking for that other Bangladesh, the one that (I hope) exists outside of the disaster headlines.

Part of my inspiration for the trip came from reading Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asian Institute, a charity that has established over 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He relates a comment made by one of his early financial backers, Jean Hoerni: “Americans care about Buddhists, not Muslims. This guy’s not going to get any help. I’m going to have to make this happen.” Bangladesh is an officially Islamic country where 90% of the people are Muslims. I wonder if part of the reason Vietnam is chic and Bangladesh is not has to do with Americans’ religious and cultural preferences, rather than with the character of the people or the lay of the land.

There’s a painful, dangerous truth here. In the last fifteen years, the US has bombed, invaded, or otherwise intervened militarily or covertly in many other Muslim nations, including Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria. I’m not making any claims here about the propriety of any of those actions; I’m simply observing that from the perspective of the ordinary people who live in those places, America is the country that bombs them.

I’m not going to Bangladesh to work for peace, but I do believe that travel can be (although it isn’t always) a conduit for international understanding. I’m going to see what is to be seen, to talk to people, and get a sense of the country. It will be my first trip to a Muslim nation. And I’m very much looking forward to it.

I will fly direct to Dhaka from Kunming. From the airport, I will go directly to the docks and board The Rocket, a paddlewheel ferry built in the 1920s that still plies the rivers and tributaries of the Ganges Delta. I will sail overnight to Barisal and spend a day there exploring. Then I head back to Dhaka on The Rocket. Dhaka will be my base for the next five days. I am definitely planning a day trip to Sonargaon, the old capital, where decaying Raj-era buildings are said to be picturesquely moldering away. I’ve picked out a few other sights to see in Dhaka, but to a large extent I will let my feet take me where they will.