I realized I had taken a similar ferry from Germany to Denmark years before. As we crossed, the ship’s master, Saleh Mohammad, explained his job. “I judge which way to go by the color of the water. The darker it is, the deeper. New islands appear and channels change. ”
The control room was clean and modern, with the latest equipment. The service began in 1964. “I started out as an apprentice,” said Mohammad. “I have been doing this for 12 years. The ferry makes eight to ten trips a day,” he said. Sadarghat, on a side stream, is the old port of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The water was thick with oil. Hundreds of small craft plied the river, each with a boatman who propelled and steered with a single long oar. One carried a lone woman whose white veil blew in the wind. Others were stacked high with barrels of oil and coconuts.
Everywhere there were men in long skirts, the descendants of ancient Aryans and Arab, Turkish, and Burmese traders. Long boats with masts 30 feet high and giant square sails flowed majestically upstream. Nearby, children bathed, men walked down planks with wicker baskets of coconuts, melons, and squash.
A muezzin called the faithful to prayer. There were a hundred men inside a small mosque, and outside there were ten thousand more. A singing beggar with one leg rolled over and over, moving his bowl with him. Three women fixed dinner in metal pots over a fire. The smell of mango, diesel fumes, and spices filled the air.
In an upstairs old town apartments prague of his building B. M. Abbas, one of the country’s water experts, wiped the moisture from his glasses. “If we could only dam this river . . . but we have no money. Nearly 60 percent of our rice is produced during the monsoon; the rest of the time there is not enough water.”
We reached Chittagong, on the Bay of Bengal – http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/baybengal.htm. As we walked toward the water, Khaled Belal, my guide, turned. “Bangladesh has affectionate soil. It grabs you, holds you, and lets you go.” I smiled, wary of what lay ahead. It was 16 miles to the first island, Sandwip. We climbed into one of the waiting boats. The helmsmen shouted, and two Bengali oarsmen pulled on their oars. Bare chested, with cotton lungis wrapped up around their waists, they rose in the air, and their muscles glistened. A quarter mile out an old rusting trawler, the Hatia, waited. “Thirty years ago I left Sandwip for the first time,” Belal said. “It is the same.” The boat rocked slightly. The cyclone season had not begun. The tidal waves would come later, after the monsoon. Captain Shamsul Huda had a long thin beard and a withered right hand. “More than 60 percent of the seamen in Bangladesh once came from Sandwip. They worked under many flags, all over the world.”
We were joined by a man named Mohammed Islam. “I am going to Sandwip and other islands to settle land disputes. If the land disappears and then reappears, it belongs to the government, but former owners get preference if it is reallotted.” Every year the Brahmaputra shifts its course and with the Ganges carries two billion tons of sediment to the sea, more than any other river system in the world.