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Love Boat Bangladeshi style
Barisal (Bangladesh), February 22nd 2008

Today we are going to do something that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Bangladesh. This is the day that we are going to make a long boat trip with one of the many ferries. Bangladesh is famous its big delta and its many rivers. When water is somewhat navigable, there will be Bangladeshis who will try to conquer it with all kinds of boats. The ship that will take us from Chittagong to Barisal is apparently the newest ship of the BIWTC (Bangladesh In Water Transport Cooperation). While travel guidebooks state that this trip will take 24 hours, this ship only need 17 hours. We would have preferred a slower boat, as we will arrive in Barisal at 02:00 a.m.. This small disadvantage isn’t enough to put us off, as we really look forward to this trip over the Bay of Bengal and the Meghna River.

The scheduled departure time is 09:00 a.m., but a lot of activity starts hours before departure. Passengers pick a good spot on the open deck and porters carry heavy loads to the ship. The porters carry the loads on their heads, while they balance over a narrow gangplank to the baggage hold. We have treated ourselves with a first class ticket. Don’t think of something that you saw on “The Love Boat”, but the cabin is clean and has two beds. Moreover, we eat in the “first class restaurant” that looks like a company restaurant where you only can buy one kind of simple day menu. Some ships also have “first class decks” where you should have the best view, but that is not on this boat. After we have put the backpacks in our cabin, we head out to the open deck. Together with hundreds of others we wait for the moment of departure. When the horn blows, the last passengers jump aboard and then it is really time to leave.

Other passengers on the open deck

This ship can carry 1,000 passengers and today there are as nearly many people aboard. For the peace of mind, it is better not to think about the number of life jackets that are on this ship and don’t even consider thinking about the size of the lifeboats. It is not strange that on average hundred people die on every major ship accidents. However, this day is just too nice to think about these sad sides of boat travel. The sky is blue and the temperature is nice. This is the kind of weather that you hope for on a holiday. While we see the harbour area of Chittagong pass by, a crowd gathers around us. Bangladeshis are known for their curiosity to everything that is different as usual and two foreigners on the open deck are remarkable enough to attract an audience. When we have answered all their questions about who we are and where we come from, we can enjoy the view again. We enter the Bay of Bengal and after a while we can’t see the coast anymore. Everybody lazes around on deck and the sellers of candy, snacks and fruit are doing good business. After three hours on sea, we arrive at Sandwip Island. This is the final destination of some of our fellow passengers. They leave the ship with help from wooden motorboats (a kind of mini pirate ships). These boats shuttle between our ship and the island, as the harbour of Sandwip isn’t deep enough for our ship to enter.

After an hour we can continue our journey. We take a simple lunch of rice, vegetables, fish and dahl (watery lentil soup) and afterwards we read a bit. Simple things like eating and reading are just nicer with a sea view! A few hours later we arrive at Hatiya Island. The wooden “pirate ships” that shuttle between the island and our boat have busy times as almost all passengers need to get off at this island. When we leave Hatiya island, there are only 75 passengers still aboard. It gives an “exclusive” feeling to have the open deck almost of ourselves as the sun sets. When the sun is behind the horizon, we are called by one of the crew members. We are welcome to visit the captain and to take a look at the bridge. The captain explains us about the function and use of every button and meter. For us, this boat trip is more like a pleasure cruise. When we get off the bridge, we are showed around the crew’s cabins. The assistant captain (Ashraf) is taking a rest in one of these cabins and he invites us in for a chat. He speaks good English and he likes to talk us about his country. Despite the problems that Bangladesh faces, he is proud of his country and its people. He is a nice, hospitable and helpful person. Tea is being served and when he hears that we plan to visit the village of Kuakata in the coming days he immediately takes his mobile phone to make a hotel reservation. Normally, we don’t make hotel reservations but we can’t stop him as he just wants to be sure that we end up in a good place and that we don’t have to pay too much.

Ivonne with Munnie and her sister in our cabin
When we are back in our cabin for a short while, somebody knocks at our door. It is Ashraf who wants to let us know that we can stay in our cabin as long as we like. This means that we don’t have to wander through the streets of Barisal in the middle of the night. We didn’t ask for this favour, but still he arranged it for us. Bangladeshis in general and Ashraf in particular are remarkable friendly people! While we make some pictures and exchange addresses, a shy 20 year old girl walks in our cabin. The Bangladeshi girls and women live their lives mostly in and around their homes, so it isn’t that often that those women enter into a conversation with us. Ivonne says that she is welcome and soon the girl (Munni) is sitting next to Ivonne on the bed. Munni is visiting her father who is working on the ship. Munni speaks a bit English and we have a good time talking with her. When we try to speak a few words of Bengal this leads to hilarity. With some coaching of Munni, we can say the following sentence “Bangladesh koeb shoender desh” (Bangladesh is a very beautiful country). At 19:30 it is time for dinner and afterwards we get back to our cabin. We see the beautiful sight of boats passing by while the full moon is shining over the water.

When we wake up, we are already many hours in Barisal. The sun shines and around 07:30 a.m. somebody knocks at our door. It is Munni who comes to say goodbye and she brought along her sisters and her stepmother. Soon, everybody is chattering so load that it seems as if we are in a pub. Munni noticeably has difficulties with saying goodbye, but finally she leaves with the words: Ami tomar bhalo bondhu (I am your best friend). Ashraf has worked all night and he deservedly sleeps late this morning. He is still dreaming when we leave him a note to thank him for all his good care. Bangladesh is a country without many famous highlights, but it is a real highlight to travel in this country. Buildings or monuments can’t beat the Bangladeshi people.

After we have found a hotel in Barisal, we head out to explore the city. When we walk trough the main street at the end of the afternoon, we come across someone with a very big smile. Ashraf is strolling around Barisal with a friend, hoping to see us. He wanted to be sure that we found a good hotel and, more importantly, he wants us to taste one of the sweets that Bangladesh is known for. He takes us to a small sweets shop that is very popular with the local people. Together with Ashraf and his friend, we taste two kinds. Both are mainly made of milk, sugar and flour. The sweets are very sugary, so when you taste it you know which ingredient is adding most of the flavour. However, it tastes nice and we have a good time. Our tooth enamel may have cracked because of the sweets, but nobody can get the smile off our faces today.

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