Dhaka Stories: Try to ignore that sinking feeling

The staff behind the bar at our Dhaka guesthouse seemed perplexed. We wanted to know how to get to Sadar Ghat, the point of departure for hundreds of battered and overcrowded ferries that ply the cyclone-blasted waterways and isles of Bangladesh.

The staff behind the bar at our Dhaka guesthouse seemed perplexed. We wanted to know how to get to Sadar Ghat, the point of departure for hundreds of battered and overcrowded ferries that ply the cyclone-blasted waterways and isles of Bangladesh.

You would think that Bangladeshis might understand why a foreign journalist might be vaguely curious about these vessels, given the frequency with which they sink, swallowed by monsoon-bloated waters or tipped over by high winds.

This year alone, hundreds of passengers have died in at least four ferry sinkings. Yet these calamities merit only a footnote in the international media and a fraction of the space devoted to New York's Staten Island ferry accident a fortnight ago, in which 10 lives were lost.

The bar staff saw our choice of destination as odd. Perhaps they were also trying to spare us the taxi ride, which involves negotiating the old city's appalling traffic jams. On this particular day, all 350,000 of the city's cycle rickshaws seemed to be going in our direction.

It was worth the effort. The Buriganga river, on which the ferry terminal sits, has the same vitality that the Thames must have had when Pepys was tucking into platefuls of beef. Many scores of water taxis - small, low, hand-built teak boats - paddle back and forth from bank to bank, cheerfully bumping into one another.

Tiny children swim and wee in the river's filthy, weed-choked shallows. Stripped to the waist, men soap themselves up, rinsing off the suds with bucketloads of the same polluted waters.

The quay itself bustles with passengers, and pedlars selling dates, bananas, apples, cigarettes - in fact, most of the basic needs of a traveller facing a lengthy boat ride. Amid all this activity stand the ferries themselves, dozens of stark-looking hulks moored side-by-side on both banks.

The lower decks of these Bangladeshi ferries looked like cattle pens. We watched a fairly small boat - about 50ft in length - sail in from a local trip. It looked capable of carrying 150 people on its three decks. But it was badly overloaded by many, many more than that. I couldn't keep count as the people noisily disembarked but there were at least 400 of them. It was also impossible to see how they could have escaped from the lower decks, had the ferry sunk.

The passengers seemed resigned to these death traps. "They can be dangerous," said one man, a mechanical engineer on one of the boats, "especially in the rainy season, when there are storms and high winds." But it did not appear to be an issue that worried him much. Nor did it seem to concern Zahir, a smart young man waiting to meet a friend. "We know that they pack in far too many people. But what can you do?" There are, of course, a number of answers to that question - rigorous training, safety equipment, strictly enforced rules and penalties on passenger numbers, to name but a few.

None of these seemed to be preying on the minds of the bored-looking officials in the threadbare and fetid offices of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority inside the terminal; their chief interest was watching TV coverage of the England-Bangladesh cricket match.

Although victory in the two-Test series was duly sealed - Bangladesh are not yet in England's class - the Barmy Army sent a small platoon along to cheer on Michael Vaughan and his cricketers. Some of its members appeared vague about where they were.

Interviewed by a Bangladeshi newspaper, one English footsoldier - described as a blonde woman - declared that Dhaka seemed nice enough. "But," she added, "could someone show me where the nearest pub is?" The answer, in this Muslim country, is - er, not really.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
News
Danczuk has claimed he is a 'man of the world'
news
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager - Refrigeration

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Finance Manager - Central London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Business Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Buyer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning IT company are currently re...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor