While railways are the nerves and sinews of India, rivers are the lifelines linking the cities and towns in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Last spring, I was in Dhaka, the congested capital, with my brother. The city of 14 million people lies on the banks of the Buriganga. After getting lost in the atmospheric narrow warren of streets in the old city for a few hours, our perspective eventually opened up upon reaching the wide, pitch-black river. Dozens of small canoes were parked on the trash-strewn riverbank. Skinny boatmen in lungis beckoned out for business with raised hands, offering to take people across. A one hour cruise can be had for a little over a dollar, probably less if you’re a miserly jerk who wants to argue over pennies.
As we were getting ready to embark, another passenger was arriving on shore with two chained-up monkeys. We ran up to have a look. A few local kids ran up as well, less interested in the monkeys than in gawking at two curious Westerners. My brother was wearing shorts, typically reserved for young children in Bangladesh, making the kids laugh.
The first thing that strikes you about the Buriganga is the smell, a potent mix of all the toilets in Dhaka combined with the sulfurous industrial waste from the tanneries upriver. You may have heard that the Ganges in India was notoriously polluted, but the Buriganga takes things to another level. People still bathe, wash clothes, and brush their teeth in the Ganges. This is not something you see in Dhaka. The water is an opaque tar-like toxic sludge. “I can’t believe we just agreed to a cruise on an open sewer,” exclaimed my brother, incredulous.
But once you get over the stench, the sights and sounds along the river make such a journey worthwhile. Large passenger boats linking Dhaka to the rest of the country are moored up on the edge. Buckets of trash are thrown into the water. All kinds of cargo boats toot their horns as they float by. Tiny houseboat restaurants float along the water’s edge. Larger canoes take passengers across, with painted banners strung up on bamboo poles providing shade.
Although the river itself is dead and nothing could possibly survive in such corrosive muck, there’s still plenty of life to take in along the surface.
Tags: Dhaka, Ferries, Pollution, Rivers, Water Taxis