We had spent two days and one night in Barisal. Overnight, I stayed at the Ali International Hotel. A very, basic hotel that at a stretch, could be rated half a star. I had stayed in this hotel previously and used to joke that it was probably simply known as the Ali Hotel and was only renamed the Ali "International" Hotel after I stayed there, possibly the first ever foreign guest. No hot water and very basic. A small balcony off the lobby area overlooked a chaotic narrow street and a tangled mess of wires on a nearby pole that resembled a tangled bowl of spaghetti.
On the second day, our business completed, we headed to Barisal port (river port not airport) on the Padma river. It was late in the afternoon. We would be taking the overnight ferry back to Dhaka. That way, we would avoid having to spend an extra night in Barisal, as there is only one flight per day in the morning, so not suitable timing for us on this occasion.
The ferry was huge, capable of carrying several hundred passengers. Built in the 1930's in England, it was well past its prime but a sight to behold nonetheless; three decks and very long. We fought our way through the throng of people, up the rickety half rotten wooden gangplank, onto the lower deck of the ferry, being careful not to fall into the river.
I felt like a VIP as we were escorted to our own private cabin on the second level. Two people to a cabin, Shams, my business colleague and I. The VIP cabin was very basic but comfortable. Just large enough for two single beds and a tiny bathroom, even a small television, that unfortunately, didn't work.
At 6.00pm the loud horn signalled our departure and the massive ferry slowly pulled away from the port; the powerful engines churning up mud in the shallow water. It was winter time and a cool, early evening fog had descended upon us. For the departure, we climbed to the upper deck into the open air to observe proceedings. As a result of the thick fog, visibility on the busy river was very poor and it was somewhat disconcerting to suddenly see quite large vessels gradually appear out of the mist and pass close by, heading in the opposite direction.
Darkness descended upon us. I guess the very powerful spotlight at the bow was visible to oncoming traffic. At frequent intervals the captain of the ferry would also sound the foghorn then call out loudly on a loudspeaker to announce our position. It seemed to be effective, as we avoided colliding with other vessels plying the river, at least for now!
The town of Barisal is located at the confluence of several rivers. During the monsoon the rivers flow much faster. Throw in the perfect storm with ferocious wind and a huge whirlpool can develop, or so Shams insisted. Shams proceeded to relate an incredulous story of such a condition many years ago. An unfortunate ferry, similar to this massive ferry, was sucked into the whirlpool with hundreds of people on board. Ferry and passengers were never seen again having been swept out into the Bay of Bengal. I was never able to verify that story but I can certainly believe it, despite knowing that Shams was prone to exaggerating. Boating accidents on these busy rivers are common place. "Thanks for that story Shams", I said, "I am now very relaxed about this journey we are just about to embark on; overnight in thick fog, on a very busy river ...... how wonderful!" Visions of the Titanic flash through my mind.
7.30pm; It was time for dinner. As VIPs, in a first class cabin, we were invited to the executive dining room, along with two dozen other VIP travellers. It was very basic but the steamed rice and deep fried fish was certainly delicious, washed down with water; not river water I am pleased to say but purified bottle water.
Having completed our sumptuous meal and now feeling rather weary, it was time to get some sleep. Come morning, we would arrive in Dhaka, a mere 12 hours after departing Barisal, just several hundred kilometres from Dhaka, as the fish swims! Despite the periodic foghorn, falling asleep was easy as we were exhausted.
At some point, our deep sleep was shattered by a strong jolt as the ferry lurched slightly to one side. Both Shams and I suddenly sat up straight in bed. Thinking we must have overslept and just berthed in Dhaka port, we stumbled out of bed and began collecting our belongings. "We must have arrived early", I said to Shams, as it was still pitch black outside. Shams suggested I wait in the cabin and he would go to investigate. I happily obliged; visions of the Titanic once again filled my mind.
After what seemed like an eternity, Shams returned to the cabin with some unexpected news. "Apparently", said Shams, with a worried look on his face, "we have collided with a small tanker and our ferry is stuck in the mud on the river bank. Not only that, the tanker is stuck in the mud beside us". "What?, you can't be serious?" came my reply. I had to go and survey the scene for myself. I went out onto the deck and sure enough, he seemed to be telling the truth. It was about 4.30am, still very dark and foggy, but I could clearly see our predicament.
Gradually the darkness and the fog lifted to reveal the full scene that confronted us. Our massive ferry, and slightly less massive tanker were well and truly stuck in the mud on the river bank. In an attempt to dislodge us from the bank, the captain put the engines into reverse and gradually ramped up the power. The engines screamed, water churned, the ferry groaned but alas, the ferry refused to budge. Likewise for the tanker.
It was very amusing to watch a deckhand try to push this 300 tonne ferry away from the river bank with the aid of a long and flexible bamboo pole. I had to admire his optimism and innovative thinking but really?, a bamboo pole the thickness of a stick of spaghetti, to move a 300 tonne ferry; how futile!
It was even more amusing to watch and hear the crew of our ferry argue voraciously with the crew of the tanker. I couldn't understand what was being said however, I think the accusations were flying thick and fast. Shams explained that our ferry crew blamed the tanker for our unfortunate situation and weren't holding back letting the tanker crew know just what they thought about them! I think I learnt one or two unpleasant words in Bangla language that day! The tanker crew seemed to have a somewhat different opinion as to who was to blame. The situation reached boiling point and culminated in our ferry crew, or at least the braver ones, jumping from the ferry onto the river bank and running towards the tanker. It seemed a physical fight was about to happen and I had a front row seat. Being outnumbered and perhaps fearing for their lives, the crew of the tanker also jumped onto the river bank. However, instead of running to meet the ferry crew head on, as I was expecting, they turned and ran in the opposite direction.
With no solution in sight, some impatient passengers decided to "abandon ship". Small river taxis pulled up along side the ferry. Large, heavy suitcases were handed down then passengers climbed aboard to be taken to a suitable landing spot a short distance away. The unstable river taxis rocked back and forwards and I feared they would capsize. Shams and I remained in the ferry and I was left wondering why those people didn't want to stay to enjoy this spectacle!
About an hour later another equally large ferry, from the same ferry company, arrived at our stern. A large rope was thrown over to our ferry then attached to an appropriate anchor point. Both ferries then put their engines in reverse. Once again, engines screamed, water churned, wood groaned; and before we knew it, we were off the river bank and free to move in deeper water unencumbered.
Having commandeered the rogue tanker, now minus its' cowardly crew, the tanker was also dragged back into the main channel. A large rope connected the tanker to our ferry. We then towed the tanker the renaming distance to Dhaka port, where it was promptly handed over to the authorities. I suspect the police are still searching for those pirates of the Padma river.
We finally arrived in Dhaka at 11.00am. That 12 hour journey became 17 hours. Next time I will consider staying that additional night in Barisal, in the Ali International Hotel, then take the small plane back to Dhaka the next morning. I just hope the fire truck will be in place at Dhaka airport.
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