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.

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