My first view of Old Dhaka was from a bicycle rickshaw adorned, as most of these vehicles are, with portraits of Dhollywood movie stars.
Earlier when I had asked about taking a bus to Old Dhaka, the most conservative Islamic and historical part of the city, an affluent Bangladeshi asked:
Are you going there?
Yes, that's where my hotel…
Even we're afraid to go there.
An Italian and a Japanese had been murdered in Bangladesh by ISIS supporters and three secularists had been hacked to death by religious fanatics in the months before my arrival. If I hadn't snuck into the first class section of the Rocket Steamer, during my entire time in Bangladesh I wouldn't have seen another foreigner.
The inhabitants of each place a traveler visits have their characteristic way of giving directions. In the major cities of India, no one ever admits to a foreigner that they don't know the directions. Lost travelers had best ask the way of several Indians and then average the results. In Old Dhaka anyone I asked directions of stopped what they were doing and took me where I'd asked to go, turning me over, if necessary, to another Bangladeshi who could complete the journey with me.
It was sometimes difficult, at first, to buy from the street vendors near my hotel in Old Dhaka. Conversations usually went like this:
"America good country. Obama!" [And they'd make a thumbs up gesture and often refuse to accept any money. If I persisted a someone would come out with the word:]
In the "Decent Bakery" the baker flexed his well developed muscles as he said:
"Obama, best man in the world."
Usually their English was pretty much limited to the handful of phrases listed above. From those more skilled I came to understand that they love Obama because they think he is the most powerful man in the world, but he doesn't want war. Also, you hear again and again from Bangladeshis that are proud to have a relative or a friend who is now or who has been to America. Fortunately, the rickshaw wallahs, street vendors and coolies haven't yet heard of Donald Trump.
|The trio are standing over one of the Rocket's paddle wheels|
|Looking out from 2nd class deck|
|One of 2 beds in 2nd class cabin|
In the west you can be pampered on a cruise ship anytime you can afford it, but what for me would be real luxury, an authentic journey on a vintage ship—and that means an overnight passage on a boat still used for transportation—I haven't found. That is why I've come to Bangladesh—to book a passage on the Rocket Steamer.
"You must book two beds to have a private compartment."
I figured it would just be an opportunity to meet another Bangladeshi. What I didn't expect was that a series of men would successively occupy the compartment's other bed—one coming in at the same stop at which another departed.
|1st class dining room before table cloths laid down|
|3rd class unreserved deck space|
The second class compartments are towards the stern, the first class rooms are towards the bow and in the center, above the ship's engine and beside it's paddle wheels, for a photographer, that's the heart and soul of the ship—the third class unreserved seating.
Atop the ship, on the catwalk in front of the captain's steering wheel, that's me happy at the thought that I'm surrounded, at a safe distance, by man eating tigers. In this forest laced with a thousand waterways 300 to 400 Royal Bengal tigers eat 30 to 40 men each year (mostly the brave collectors of wild honey and poor fisherman).
After this river boat journey, in the half darkness before dawn, with the required forest ranger armed with a bolt action rifle, I will slip silently through the jungle in search of the deadly beasts. I will do this sitting down. I'll be in a "row boat" that moves silently because it's propelled by a man swinging the tiller as a shark swings its tail fin.
I know now, as I write this, that I'll hear a tiger's roar shortly before rounding a bend of a twisting stream to see a tiger's paw prints climbing up the muddy stream bed.
Not so hard to see are the tiger's usual prey, the spotted deer.
As the deer have learned to stand on two legs to trim the leaves of the mangrove trees, so the roots of those trees have figured out how to grow deep and then straight up out of the mud and water like breathing tubes. Sometimes it seems that those roots are all that holds this considerably sea level land together.
For the individual plant or animal, the species and the planet, life and death are finely balanced. If this man-made global warming continues much longer enough of the ice caps will melt to raise the ocean level one meter and that will be enough for the sea to swallow the tigers' habitat and 15% of Bangladesh. But to turn your attention back from tomorrow—this morning, on the third class deck below, a blind Bengali man is sharing from the depths of his soul sacred Islamic hymns as he sings for his supper.
From Bangladesh, Happy New Year.