Sometime many months ago I learned about an amazing line of old paddle steamer boats in Bangladesh affectionately called “The Rocket“. I immediately fell more in love with the idea of taking this ship than where the ship would take me. So, exactly two months before I wished to take this cruise I arose at 5am and Skyped the number listed on the website. “Assalamu alaikum.” “Wa alaikum assalaam. Do you speak English?” “Yes, madame. How can I help you?” “I would like to buy a first class passage to Hularhat on the Rocket on September 25th.” “Where do you call from?” “New York City” “New York City?!” “wow” laughter. nervous laughter. genuine laughter. genuine laughter. “You are very early to book passage, madame. I will put your name in the line for this date. Please call again when you get to Dhaka. What is your name?” “Sarah. S-A-R-A-H.” “OK. Meesus Sada. See you in September.” The kindly gentleman hung up the phone and I happily went about the months leading up to this trip feeling slightly uptight about calling so early, but taking it in stride.
If you are reading this because you want to ride the Rocket and want to know how to do it yourself, you’ve come to the endpoint of what you will be able to execute on your own if you do not speak and read Bangla. Don’t be a hero. Lonely Planet is wrong. There is nothing “well marked” about the process from here on out. You will need help. Specifically, the office where the kindly gentleman works is hidden in a labyrinth of unmarked doors and if there is a sign, it is most certainly in Bangla. Despite this, the power went out three times during the 30 minutes I was in the office, so good luck finding it even if you do read Bangla. Because of this, I decided to sacrifice some of my city tour time with a tour guide so he could run this errand with me. He knew exactly where to go, plopped me in a seat opposite the kindly gentleman who grinned when he saw me and said “Sada, from USA?!”, the tour guide leaned in and said, “he remembers you.” Lo and behold, the kindly gentleman opened up his ledger book and there in penmanship that looked like curly wood shavings and probably comes stylistically from writing in Bengali as well as western characters, were the words “MRS. SARA , U.S.A.” in the first position on September 25th. I did not correct the spelling or my marital status and any dwindling feelings of being uptight became self-congratulatory because I got the best cabin on the boat and it’s just so great when things work out.
Fast forward several months to the afternoon of my journey. My kind colleagues hired a CNG tuk tuk for me and wagged their finger at the driver insisting that he keep to the agreed upon price. The bus drivers had decided to strike in solidarity with the garment workers so the journey across town took two hours. The CNG tuk tuk dropped me at an unmarked dock on a muddy street with fruit sellers squatting in the mud amidst meticulously organized baskets of apples and oranges. It felt like a Bengali remake of a scene in Oliver Twist. Between me and the boat was a sea of people all taking keen interest in American Lady With Yellow Bag (as I am known in some circles here) and they were making me really uncomfortable. Every hair follicle was activated (and mine have the best pedigree–they have been trained on dark Brooklyn streets and in the Tenderloin of San Francisco where everyday is like walking through the Thriller video) and the adrenaline began to pump. So, I put on my most stern face and marched with every ounce of purpose I could muster towards the boat. I was not stopping until I saw orange and the Artful Dodger better get the hell out of my way. I climbed the gangplank and found someone organizing biscuit packages in the snack bar on the bottom floor of the boat. I handed him my ticket in silence and he said “Ah. Sada! Welcome!” and ushered me to my cabin. My blood pressure started to decrease to normal levels and my face relaxed. Suddenly, I was the must see attraction on the boat. I got loads of visitors from the crew who all wanted to practice their English and I sat in the comfy black chair on the deck and took many of the pictures you see in the group above this blog post.
Was I the only tourist on the boat? Yes. Was I the only woman? Yes. Was I the only person under 40? Yes. Was I kind of nervous sometimes and glad my door had a deadbolt when the dinner conversation outside my cabin seemed to get a little heated? Yes. Did the moments I spent sitting on the deck watching the mist rise from the river at dawn and seeing lightning storms in muted clouds way off in the distance make up for it? Yes. Was watching the hundreds of fisherman cast and pull in their nets like taking a mini vacation in of itself? Yes. So, go for it, ride the Rocket.