In Bangladesh, a country laced with rivers and given to frequent flooding, it's no surprise that boats are the most common means of travel. About 5,000 miles of riverway are navigable in the crowded little nation the size of Wisconsin, compared with 3,700 miles of roadway, only 2,500 miles of which are paved.
Having sampled both last summer, I'd rather go by boat.
The national highways are washboard-rough and barely two lanes wide, with no margin of error for passing. Steeply banked, they lie about 25 feet above the surrounding flat landscape, elevated to prevent their being washed out during the monsoon rains.
There are very few cars in Bangladesh, but plenty of traffic. Trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, bullock carts and buses overflowing with passengers, some literally clinging to the sides, careen precariously down the rural highways.
Motorized vehicles routinely drive down the middle of the road, honking their horns incessantly and swerving to miss each other only at the last possible moment. Human- and animal-powered vehicles skitter out of the way as best they can. To call it nerve-racking is to be kind.
A transcendental -- or fatalistic -- state of mind helps. Mas Allah, which means "God willing," is a cornerstone of Islamic belief, which prevails in Bangladesh. After a harrowing nine-hour, 180-mile road trip from Dacca south to Barisal, it was easy to see why.
Except for the occasional coup, cyclone or monsoon-triggered flood, life in Bangladesh goes virtually unnoticed by the outside world. It is generally considered to be the poorest country in the world, and about the most crowded, with nearly 107 million people inhabiting its 55,813 square miles.
For the adventurous traveler, the little nation, formerly East Pakistan, is a challenging, rewarding destination. Bangladesh lies in the crook of eastern India's arm, at about the same latitude as Hawaii and the Bahamas. One of the world's longest shark-free beaches lies in the southeastern sector of the country, in the Chittagong division. The largest littoral mangrove belt in the world lies in the southwest in the Sunderbans area, which on a map appears to be falling in chunks into the Bay of Bengal. The national park and wildlife sanctuary here, noted for its royal bengal tigers and spotted deer, can be visited only by boat.
The terrain overall is flat and lushly tropical. Trees are richly laden with bananas, coconuts, mangoes and jackfruit. Fields are verdant with jute, medicinal plants and other crops. The soil is incredibly fertile -- but the chaos brought on by monsoon flooding makes it hard to realize its full agricultural potential.
Two great rivers of India, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, meet in Bangladesh and flow together toward the Bay of Bengal. They change their names at the border; the Ganges is called the Padma, and the Brahmaputra is called the Jamuna. They join another broad river, the Meghna. With dozens of other rivers, they form the Mouths of the Ganges.
The best part of our trek through the country was when the road ran out and there was a river to be crossed. Two days into our trip we came to the first: the mighty Ganges, or Padma.
Hundreds of brightly painted trucks idled at the vast informal truck stop surrounding the ferry docks. Barefoot, shirtless truck drivers dressed in lungis -- long strips of cloth wrapped and tucked around their waists -- crouched in the shade of their vehicles as they sipped warm Coca-Colas and smoked.
Beggars shuffled past, hands extended, mumbling supplications. One was led by a small boy; the man was blind, his face horribly distorted, but his expression serene. Tradition dictates that travelers give money to a beggar before boarding a ferry, to insure safe passage.
Crossing the Ganges/Padma, it seemed like a good idea. The far shore was barely visible, and the river churned south toward the Bay of Bengal with incredible force. Truck-laden ferries chugged against the current, leaving toylike sailboats in their wake. The ferries aren't equipped with lifeboats or other apparent rescue gear; if one goes over in a storm, that's it. The water was ominously opaque, cream-and-coffee brown with silt. Nevertheless, women washed clothes along the shore, while children splashed and swam in the muddy water like otters.
It was late June, just before the monsoon, and on shore the heat and humidity were suffocating. On the top deck of the ferry, though, the breeze was strong enough to dry sweat-drenched shirts and skirts, saris and lungis. The crossing took nearly an hour, and had a calming effect after the body jostling and nerve jangling of road travel. Some truck drivers slept in their cabs; others lounged atop their rigs, watching in amusement as the Americans pointed their cameras at everyone and everything in range.
I was traveling with a group sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, visiting some of its family-planning project sites in the capital and the countryside. We had our own air-conditioned minibus, an object of great curiosity in the more remote areas.
In the most remote areas, though, the bus did us no good, and we switched to water transport.
After spending a night in the city of Barisal, capital of a district (like a state) of the same name, we headed north, setting off by boat for the upazilla (county) of Mehendiganj. Again we were privileged; a regional government official gave us the use of a roomy private launch and crew.
The 60-foot craft motored north up the Kirtankhola River, a smaller, slower waterway than the Padma, but equally silty. The rainy season still lay ahead, but the river already seemed incredibly high; the banks were barely a few feet above the water, dotted with flimsy straw-and-mud huts, genuinely disposable housing.
There's not much solid land in this part of Bangladesh; silt islands are settled and farmed in the calm between monsoons, when delta geography abruptly changes. For that reason, maps are undependable, and houses are necessarily impermanent. In 1985, a cyclone swept through this area, killing 25,000 people and thousands of cattle.
Odd, graceful sailboats with their patchwork square sails drifted past, sometimes loaded with vegetation, sometimes with bricks, sometimes with families, but almost never empty. Skinny boys herded skinny cattle along the shore. (Cows are not sacred to Muslims.) Men clutching at ropes towed a boat upstream. Men in low flat dugouts tended fishing nets. The specialty catch of the region is a delicious, slightly oily fish called hilsa, which is served smoked, grilled or stewed.
Some river people stared in disbelief at the strange white faces on the government boat; many waved, seemingly delighted and amazed. Whites are sometimes called "red monkeys" by the rural Bangladeshis, a Peace Corps worker told us, but we wouldn't have known if they called us that or anything else. A wave, though, is universal.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something large and dark leap out of the water. Very large. It didn't fit; I didn't know of any freshwater creature that matched the profile I thought I saw. I stared at the water. The next time, I saw it for sure: a porpoise! I was fascinated and baffled, till I remembered that we weren't that far from the Bay of Bengal, and realized the river was estuarial.
I daydreamed of launching a sailboard here -- there's nothing to stop the wind blowing across the flat terrain -- and of traveling by kayak. The logistics of such a trek, though, would be nightmarish. Safe drinking water is very difficult to come by, and the high heat and humidity would necessitate drinking gallons a day. It would be impossible to carry enough without a sizable motorboat as a support vessel.
So much for the fantasy. Conventional travel in Bangladesh is adventure enough. The Department of Tourism's slogan, "Come to Bangladesh before the tourists," hints at the challenge of traveling in a country that, outside of the capital, hasn't yet developed even the most basic amenities and infrastructure most travelers expect.
We were lucky; our trip was painstakingly arranged months earlier, with advance teams double-checking all accommodations and transportation a few days ahead of us. We also had interpreters with us, enabling us to do more than wave. It is possible for individuals to travel independently in Bangladesh; it just isn't easy.
The launch turned up a canal that was dotted with sailboats and low-slung houseboats. Up to 50 percent of all Bangladeshis are landless; a small minority are lower-caste Hindu river gypsies, living on boats such as we passed, while others have migrated to the cities.
As the canal narrowed, the launch was forced to dock, and we transferred to smaller boats with outboard motors. When we finally alighted in the village of Karkhi, a flock of blue-uniformed schoolboys stood ready to greet us and present us with flowers. This was only the third time that whites had come to visit their community.
Their enthusiasm and hospitality made us feel like visiting royalty or movie stars. We were apparently the best entertainment they'd had in a very long time. Children chased after us, chattering and laughing. Men shared their parasols, shading us from the pummeling sun. Women fanned us during our meetings with local family-planning workers.
Like much of rural Bangladesh, Mehendiganj is without cars, without running water, without electricity (except from an occasional individual generator.)
Bangladesh has its share of historic temples and mosques, but ours was not that kind of trip. We focused instead on the daily struggles and small victories of its people, fully half of whom are younger than the 16-year-old country itself.
Although some girls and nearly all women tended to duck behind their veils at the sight of our cameras, boys and men posed proudly, holding schoolbooks or hammers, smiling broadly, showing straight, bright teeth.
In fact, it was nearly impossible to take any candid photographs in Bangladesh. Our subjects always seemed as absorbed by the details of our appearance as we were by theirs.
Magda Krance is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.