Surfing on a Rocket / by David Johnstone

A Journey to the Sundarbans

Let’s face it, Dhaka’s a bit of a shithole. With a population of 17 million, uncontrolled urbanisation and pollution, grinding poverty, insane traffic and deafening noise I could think of better places to be. I’d arrived there from Yangon and had no intention of going back but circumstances took an unlikely turn. 

It was a matter of literally getting on the next boat out of there.

An astonishing, almost biblical scene on the banks of the Old Ganges, Dhaka. The sheer volume of boats was a sight to behold. The stench of fabric dye and the inky blue waters are caused by uncontrolled dumping of waste from garment factories that line the river’s shores.

An astonishing, almost biblical scene on the banks of the Old Ganges, Dhaka. The sheer volume of boats was a sight to behold. The stench of fabric dye and the inky blue waters are caused by uncontrolled dumping of waste from garment factories that line the river’s shores.

THE TOUR OPERATOR  

On paper, Bangladesh Ecotours seemed like a bona-fide set up, catering for the needs of international travellers in a country less visited than most. I’d met the somewhat nervous Mr Didar before I headed down south to Cox’s Bazar (his suggestion) and arranged things to get going on my return, a one-on-one tour around the more interesting parts of the country starting the next day. I had now returned and it was one in the afternoon.

 “Why don’t you catch the 5 o’clock train today to Chandpur and hopefully you can get on the paddle steamer to Mongla at 10pm though there’s no guarantee, of course. You might be able to catch a boat to the Sunderbans in a few days if you’re lucky.  By that time I can arrange your permit to Rangamati.”

”Sorry?” 

”Mr David, you need to give me a copy of your passport so I can get you a permit for the Hill Tracts.”

”What?’ 

I sat there stunned. 

“Mr Didar, I gave you my passport copy last week when you told me I’d best head down to Cox’s Bazar for a week so you could arrange it for my return. What the hell have you been doing?”

He shook his head gingerly. 

”Look, here’s the email I sent” I passed him my phone. “Are you telling me you you haven’t set up my tour? Is that what you’re telling me? For Christ’s Sake Mr Didar!”

He now appeared so sheepish I could have sheared the fucker with my bare hands. I remained calm but took the time to explain some basic customer service techniques to him.

 

He now appeared so sheepish I could have sheared the fucker with my bare hands

 

’I can’t help you” he said as I caught my breath. He went to his desk and refused to speak let alone make eye contact.

After what felt like a lifetime I stood up and, stumbling half-dazed into the broiling heat, hailed a CNG and headed back to my hotel room. Deflated. 

The Pink Fort sits on the banks of the Buriganga River and once housed local dignatories associated with the British Imperialists.

The Pink Fort sits on the banks of the Buriganga River and once housed local dignatories associated with the British Imperialists.

THE PADDLE STEAMER

Struggling through hordes of people and vehicles, the incessant fumes and horns obliterating human decency, we arrived at the jetty just as dusk turned to night. The ‘Rocket’, an old paddle steamer from the 1940s, swayed gently like an old lady in a rocking chair surrounded by a throng of thuggish sea-going vessels of various shapes and sizes. I got on board and stepped back in time.

The quaint, atmospheric cabin aboard the Rocket

The quaint, atmospheric cabin aboard the Rocket

Circumstances had brought me here so I’d best make the most of it. I had now joined an expensive 17 day tour with another operator based in Dhaka, hence the need to return to Hell. It was the only way I could get around the country without wasting any more time and the last thing I wanted to do was to leave Bangladesh with nothing to show for the not inconsiderable effort of getting here in the first place.

 

I briefly pondered which one would batter me over the head with the Coxswain’s spanner

 

My first class cabin brought flashes of Agatha Christie/Cluedo to mind and, since I was now with three other western tourists - one older British woman and two older American men - I briefly pondered which one would batter me over the head with the Coxswain’s spanner.

It was certainly atmospheric with the gentle plud, plud, plud of the steamer and the warm headwind mingling in with the occasional haunting siren and the flash of blowtorch on the banks, timely repairs being undertaken in the dead of night. I took dinner, conversed with some locals in my broken Bengali and retired to bed contented.

Next morning, a thick winter mist had descended, curtailing our journey overnight. No matter, I was happy to be aboard. I headed down into the lower decks where the locals slept and wandered the boat followed by a phalanx of curious passengers. As the fog lifted we passed fishing boats, passenger ships, brick factories, flea-bitten towns, tiny ports. 

We disembarked mid-afternoon and headed onwards by car to the port town of Mongla and the brooding jungles of the largest mangrove forest on Earth, the Sundarbans.