The oppressive summer heat had been tempered by the wash of the monsoons. Dry winds blew across the city and the pendulum was beginning to swing from heat to dust. I had come to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to teach for a year in a university and the year had just gone beyond the halfway point. I had a final semester to teach, and every experience began to feel like the last. The last syllabus I would write. The last beginning of term meeting I would attend. The last (and only) Halloween party. As the number of months began to shrink, the number of places I wanted to visit increased. The one I was looking forward to most was the Rocket.
The Rocket was a steamship built in 1929 that slept 900, twenty-four cabins of which were in first class. The boat traveled down the Buriganga River from Dhaka to the southern port town of Khulna. It was a 28-hour journey and I was travelling with a group of about ten expats from the U.S., the U.K., Holland, and Australia. We had booked half of the first-class cabins. I was eager to enjoy the calm of Bangladesh’s waterways from the vista of a secluded cabin and knew that this would be one of the only times in my life that I would be able to afford a first-class ticket on any kind of vessel. However, before the journey itself began, we first had to get to the dock, Sadarghat, in Old Dhaka, during rush hour traffic.
The boat was to depart at 6 p.m. Knowing how unpredictable and tangled Dhaka rush-hour traffic could become, we planned two hours to drive the six miles to Sadarghat. We did not want to miss that boat and thought this would give us ample time to arrive. The first hour of the drive was bumper-to-bumper traffic with people leaping through the stopped and half-moving cars, but it was nothing I had not seen before. However, the closer we got to the old part of town, the more clogged the streets became and the denser and more chaotic the traffic was.
The van was full, and I sat in the back where I couldn’t get enough air and was only able to half track the conversation. People talked about water projects in the south, parties attended the weekend before, and holidays in the future. I was happy someone had brought licorice for us to chew on. Its tanginess calmed my belly and achy head. I longed for fresh air, as the air conditioning barely made it to my part of the van, and the air smelled like leaded gas from the idling cars around us.
By five o’clock we were no longer in a jam of cars—we were surrounded. Rickshaws traveled every direction on both sides of us, and we had come to a stop. The two-lane street was at times one-way going our direction and, then at others, broke into two two-way streets with four lanes of traffic; hence, rickshaws passed us on both sides. Every two minutes we moved about 500 yards. Then we moved every four minutes and every eight. By 5:15, I had sweat rolling down my back and sides, and the licorice no longer tasted good. We thought we had only one mile left to go, but the traffic in front of us was stopped for what looked like infinity.
“Do we get out now?” someone asked.
“Not if we don’t have to.”
“How will we get out?” I asked, and we all turned to look out the window. The crowd was so dense I thought it might soak us up if we tried to get out. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to open the passenger side door, let alone the back to pull out our bags.
At 5:20 our driver rolled down his window and talked to the passing rickshaw wallahs. “Khub Jam,” they all yelled back, “Khub Jam.” Big Jam, they said while pointing the direction we were headed. At 5:25 we started to move again. Another 500 yards, then we stopped.
“I think it’s time to walk,” someone said.
“No, it’s only 500 meters. Let’s wait a few more minutes.”
And we did. We sat in silence. The van’s engine was running, but it was barely keeping us cool. I looked out the window and tried to see if I could tell exactly where we were. I thought we had at least another mile but was not sure. I knew we had passed the bus station, large market, and outdoor haircutters and were now at the bookstalls. I could not remember if we still had a temple and park to pass, Or was that on another road? We could only see about 50 yards in front of us and this could have been the last bend right before we saw the ferry terminal, or it could have been one or two before that. If it was the latter we would have been hard pressed to walk in the heat and traffic and make the boat by 6:00.
“If we get out, what will we do with the case of beer? Will your driver take it back for us?” a man asked, a case of Rolling Rock at his feet.
“Sure, you can leave it.”
At 5:35 we were in the same place we had been at 5:28 and 5:30 and at that moment, without a signal, or a shout, as if we were all on the same rhythm, moved by the same impulse, we started to collect our bags and in silence we got out of the van. One, two, three, seven people with packs full of clothes, food, wine and camera equipment emptied into the stopped traffic. We were a collection of marbles poured into the street. What did the Bangladeshis think as they saw this stream of white bodies laden with bags and boxes pass? Why would we leave the luxury of our van for the intensity of the pulsing streets? What could be so important?
Unable to safely cross the street to the sidewalk, we walked into oncoming traffic, which did not move very quickly, as it was mainly rickshaws. The air was heavy and hot, and a line of sweat immediately appeared on my forehead, but a surge of joy bubbled through me when we rounded the bend and I saw the 450-yard sprint to the boat terminal. We had been at the last turn. This was the final approach to Sadarghat. We were almost there, we could almost see the terminal, but this last sprint was jammed with stopped traffic. The sidewalks pulsed with vendors and pedestrians. Bicycle bells rang, men’s voices shouted, and the smell of cooked food was in the air. But we pressed forward, stepping over bike wheels, putting our hands out to stop moving vehicles, and dodging people who came at us from the other way.
When we climbed up the packed stairs of the ferry terminal, I was shocked to look back at our trail. The street was a dizzying sea of metal and movement; it looked impenetrable. In the States it would take a parade or a protest to bring this many bodies to a public place, but in Dhaka this was normal. This was not even newsworthy; it was an everyday jam.
Once we got to the terminal, I thought we would be removed from the crush, but it became worse. People moved at a furious rate while carrying bags, children, animals, boxes and furniture on their heads. We were elbow-to-elbow, knee-to-knee, armpit-to-armpit with the crowd as we tried to find the right door to enter. It felt like we were leaving a stadium at the end of a football game, and I was so focused on making it to the entrance that I almost did not see a pair of men coming towards me with a dresser above their heads. There was not enough room for all of us on the sidewalk, so I ducked under their load to let them pass while not getting trampled.
After we walked through the main gate, requiring a two-taka entrance fee, and popped into a small pocket of space, I admitted to myself and my friends that the crowd had gotten so close that I had felt their hands on my butt, breasts, and hips. I shook the imprints of the palms that clutched me out of my memory and checked my watch: 5:50.
We crossed the first visible bridge to the ferry dock and realized we did not know where the Rocket was anchored. The dock was full of boats in both directions. The sun was setting, and the smell of fried spice hung in the air. My body tensed. We were so close, but our journey was not over yet.
A woman in our group called out to a man selling mangos, “Rocket?” Then she lifted up her hands in bewilderment. He pointed to a bridge on our left.
I assessed my group. Brows were tight. Bags were strapped over shoulders, perched on hips, or flung over backs. My body was slick with sweat and most of the others looked like they had just run a 50-yard dash or played a few sets of tennis. We were a group of adults with years of travel experience among us, but at this point we held on to each other’s shoulders, backpacks, and hands as we walked towards what we hoped was the correct bridge to the dock.
The bridge was empty and gave us a momentary respite from the frenzy. But as soon as we stepped onto the dock the volume shot back up again. Banana vendors next to fan vendors next to pomelo venders. Men called out to tell us they were selling bread, cigarettes, samosas, and tea. To our right was a line of boats with their lights on and to the left rows of vendor stalls. The smell of gasoline cut into the air. We merged with a large mass of people all carrying large bags and packages while they rushed to the boats and ferries.
For one instant I tried to stop and take it all in. I wanted to capture this moment. I was pulling my camera out of my bag when I almost tripped on a piece of the dock that was sticking out. I discarded the photo idea and focused on my steps, alternating my view from looking down to looking up. People carried buckets, baskets, bags and boxes balanced on their heads. I dripped with sweat and I started to feel tears in my eyes. We had almost made it. We were in the final leg of our journey. And yet, we were still surrounded. I had seen a lot of crowds during my time in Dhaka, but this was beyond any I had seen before. I was having a hard time accepting that this was normal, that for those who worked and traveled regularly by boat this was a daily occurrence.
Then I saw it. The Rocket was an enormous orange metal boat with lights lining each level. Bodies scurried up and down a gangplank, and we followed the flow of people onto the ship. The majority remained on the main floor, where they would spend the night on wooden benches or the deck. But our journey would not end there. We continued up two more flights of stairs to the first-class level where we had sleeping cabins, a communal dining area, and a private deck with chairs.
We dropped our bags. Some people collapsed into seats. As I leaned over the deck rail and watched the crowd below, which was just as thick as it had been moments before, I continued to feel choked up. We had made it to the privileged sanctuary where we would spend the next two nights watching, not engaging with, the crowds. I wiped sweat off my brow; I felt my breath clam. I had been swept up in a Bangladeshi crowd before, but nothing came near to Sadarghat at rush hour.
It was 5:58. One journey was over; another was about to commence.