I was booked on the overnight Rocket Paddle Steamer later in the afternoon so I had the morning free to explore – I hired a cycle rickshaw again and headed off to see some more sights.
Apart from being amazed by the sights all around me I went to two “Tourist” destinations – Lalbagh Fort and the Armenian Church.
Lalbagh Fort is a beautiful peaceful oasis. I spent a couple of hours there – you can see the sights in 30 minutes but it is so nice to be somewhere tranquil that I spent a lot of time there just reminding myself that I was in Dhaka – it seemed so surreal – I knew as soon as I walked out the gates it would be bedlam again, so I enjoyed Lalbagh very much.
I found the Armenian Church a little underwhelming – I found the man who had keys and had a look inside, but it had that unloved and unused feel about it – the Mosques are used all the time whereas the Armenian Church is only used a couple of times a year. Being a Christian type Church in a strongly Muslim country it is lucky to still be there, and it’s slow demise is probably a true reflection of Christian type religions. The thing I found most interesting at the Armenian Church was the graves that surrounded the main building. They spanned a long time and reflected the bygone era when Europeans had a much stronger presence in Dhaka.After touring around for the morning I headed back to the Hotel, packed my bags and made my way down to Saderghat (the wharf) by cycle rickshaw – the traffic was insane with the usual bumping and jostling with everything from cycles to humans to goats to cars and buses all bumping into each other whilst endlessly honking their horns. When you are in stationary gridlock in all directions I have no idea the benefit derived from tooting non stop – I guess it might make them feel like they are important – ie the tooter is in charge, only thing is every one is tooting so they might all be mad! It took 1 hour to get to the wharf and I kindly paid the man NZ$2.50 instead of the NZ$2 we agreed on so he was as happy as they ever are.
No matter how much you pay them – once you hand over the money they always want more and either give you a sad or an annoyed look, I normally pay them more than the agreed price then walk off without looking back.
Once I got to the wharf it was absolute bedlam.
I found my way to the “Rocket” paddle steamer that I was to travel overnight on from Dhaka to Hularhat. All the ferries are white but the “Rocket” is orange so was easy enough to find right down the end of the wharf. I wanted to travel on this particular day of the week because it is the MV Ostrich-the fastest in the fleet. The paddle steamers still operating were all made by the British in the early 20th century, they are all a bit run down, but it is a great experience for sure.
I couldn’t get a first class cabin, so I found my 2nd class cabin and dumped my gear. It was basic – just 2 hard beds and a sink – no air con. I had paid for both beds so I had the cabin to myself.
At 6.30pm we departed and promptly collided with another big ferry boat, oh well!!
None of the crew wear uniforms but I found a guy who had just passable English who was happy to show me around. He took me fore and aft, up and down, inside and outside. It was a comprehensive tour – but then it all got a bit strange. He kept on telling me “come here” and “follow me” and all I wanted to do was sit down and relax in my cabin away from the millions I had been surrounded by since I arrived. I decided he had become “Mr Creepy”!!
Next thing, he bought me some fruit from an on board vendor, and asked me to follow him again. Eventually I was directed to sit down outside what he explained was his cabin. A few minutes later two women appeared and he introduced me to his wife and her sister. He was 28, his wife was 20 and her sister was late 20s. After sitting there in an awkward silence I asked him did many of the crew have their wives on board. He sat saying nothing for a few minutes, so I asked again. Eventually he said in broken English that he wasn’t crew – he was a paying passenger like me – oops – I cocked that one up!! – then he instructed me to join them in their cabin – real small – the 3 of them sitting on the double bed, and me on a little chair. He couldn’t understand what I was saying, his English was hopeless, and I just wanted to escape without offending him – especially since he had shown me around. The women didn’t speak – they had no English, and he was clearly in charge.
Eventually I escaped and found my way up to the first class area which was basically the whole of the very front of the boat – my area was the back. I knew he couldn’t get to me there, because tourists can go anywhere, but the locals cannot.
At the front I chatted to a man from Dhaka who told me that there had been a big earthquake in Dhaka just after we left, there was quite a bit of damage apparently. He said it was centered in Myanmar (Burma) so it must have been big to cause damage in Dhaka.
To travel from 1st class to 2nd you have to go through about 200 poor people that put blankets out on the deck and sleep rough. Needless to say I made many friends – especially after I didn’t feel like eating all the huge dinner I was served – so I had the surplus put into a bowl which I then distributed among the needy.
Not all of them were needy though and I made friends with a merchant and his banker son. They insisted on giving me another guided tour (I tried to explain I had been around the ship but they didn’t understand), they bought me cups of tea and wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
Then I became aware I was being followed – “Mr Creepy” had found me and followed me around with more very awkward silences and scary deep looks and pauses from him. Constant questions about “what religion are you” were tactfully avoided as best as possible. I made an excuse I was going back to my cabin and lost him again.
By this time it was midnight – on the way to my cabin I was stopped for more chats to a Solicitor, his teacher wife and journalist Daughter – Mr Creepy found me yet again and stood there staring but saying nothing. Eventually he quizzed me on where I was getting off I told him the wrong place just in case he was an ISIS informant!!
Finally I got to bed at 12.45am, just in time for the boat to dock and take on more people. It sounded pretty exciting so back out I went camera in hand to watch the spectacle. A couple of hundred people packed onto a small wharf – all fighting to get on board. They were getting beaten back by crew with big sticks but as soon as they saw a chance they would leap on board or climb up the side.
The Police there had almost no control – the whistles which they blew endlessly didn’t seem to do the trick – they hit a few with their truncheons but to no effect. Next the crew put down 4 boards to make a gangplank, the outer boards had posts and chain to stop people falling off the edge. Problem was there was a stampede, the posts got broken off and how no-one didn’t end up in the water is a mystery. Welcome to Bangladesh I guess. Big problem was with another couple of hundred on board it was a mission to walk over everyone to get back to my cabin – but fear not Mr Creepy had found me yet again and cleared a path. After that I went to my cabin, locked it, dead bolted it and confirmed that I could fit out the windows in my cabin if needed.
I had 4 hours sleep (if being shaken from side to side by the unbalanced paddles all night could be considered sleep) on a rock hard mattress. At least the pulse of the engines was slightly melodic.
Up at 5.30am, sunrise was supposed to be 5.38am, but the polluted sky obscured that. Back to first class to avoid Mr Creepy, more chatting including getting a local to write some instructions in Bengali for me to show people when I had difficulty. For lunch I ordered french fries. Turned out I got 6 fries and a bowl of rice – bugger!
A couple of stops later – including a collision with the wharf and it was time for me to get off at Hularhat.
I had all my written Bengali notes and easily hired an “auto” – a battery powered rickshaw to take me to the bus terminal about 12 ks away – that cost 100 Taka (NZ$2), then I caught a bus to the middle of nowhere where I knew there was a mosque down a side road – my Bengali note did the trick and off I went down through a small village to a crappy mosque with lots of beggars. I took a couple of photos from the outside and caught another Auto about 10 k’s down the road to Shait Gombuj Masjid – the 60 dome mosque (which actually has 81 domes), after checking the protocol and paying to enter, and after the obligatory million “selfies” with the locals I entered the mosque to find out that the 60 pillars that support the 81 domes were all being restored. The pillars were all wrapped in blue plastic and the whole interior resembled a building site.
I took a couple of photos then got approached by a youngish guy telling me I shouldn’t be inside with my (long) shorts on – I explained I had checked with the Police outside, and the man at the door who both said it was ok, but he got grumpy so I said I would leave. Then an older guy came over and got into an argument with the younger guy. I had zip on long legs in my bag, but the old guy kept telling me “no problem” while the young guy kept arguing with the old guy. In the end I thought it was better to leave and not have the two men quarreling inside a Mosque. I was surprised to be told to go in with shorts on and assumed it was because they were long and because the Mosque was being renovated – but it all ended up ok, apart from the fact that I might have angered Mohammed (with a capital M!!) I decided to always convert my shorts into longs in the future regardless of whether they said the (long) shorts were ok or not.
From there I flagged down a passing bus, showed my trusty Bengali note saying where I was headed, and was on my way to Khulna in a crappy old bus that was falling apart, it did cost 60 Taka NZ$1.50 for 30 kilometers so I couldn’t complain. Except it didn’t go where I wanted and I had to change buses part way and pay 30 Taka (NZ$.40 cents) to go the remaining 11ks to Khulna. When I arrived it was the Bengali new years day so the bus couldn’t get into town – Police roadblocks everywhere, so I caught another auto to the Railway Station to try and get a ticket to Rajshahi tomorrow morning at 6.30am. That turned out to be a full train so I couldn’t get on. So instead I did managed to get on the 2.50pm train. I wanted to travel 2nd class but in the end had to pay to go first class – 410 Taka (NZ$7.50) for the 7 hour train ride.
From there I caught another auto to where I am now – not that I quite know where I am. I met a man on the boat who insisted that I stay where he stays in Khulna. He was very insistent and called and arranged it while we were on the Rocket. It was all quite weird really, but he is a Government Minister and had great English. We discussed rugby, politics, money and had a great time. He wrote down the address of where I was to go and that is where I am – I think it is some sort of Christian place – it is like a shopping mall – but with rooms instead of shops. I am on the 4th floor and it is really quite flash.
UPDATE – the place I stayed at was called CSS Ava Centre (Christian Service Society) – located at 82 Rupsha Strand Road, Nutan Bazar, Khulna – it is a Humanitarian development organisation founded in 1972, it was immaculate, safe and well priced – I paid 1,725 Taka for my night in a beautiful room in park like surroundings including a mini Zoo with deer. It was about 10 minutes on an auto to the Railway Station.