A river way of life

The destination of our first trek in Bandarban was the river that cuts through the area and runs right down to the main town. It was about an hour’s hike through the jungle from our resort. There was a farmer working near the river and he helped flag down a small boat to take the four of us to town. We were told the journey would take about an hour and a half and should cost around 250 taka. The boatman seemed happy enough to have us so we got in and off we went down the river.

The boat ride was quite possibly the highlight of the entire weekend. It was sunny and hot but it felt amazing to be sitting in an old wooden boat, floating down a wide lazy winding river, breathing in clean air that smelled lovely from the fresh water and the dense surrounding jungle. In my opinion, it was basically the exact opposite sensory experience as being in the city of Chittagong. There was no stench of burning trash filling your nostrils, no car horns rattling in your ears, and no dust clouding the air and stinging your eyes. (I know I may sound a bit harsh here about life in Chittagong, but really I just mean to highlight the beauty of Bandarban.)

The greatest part of the experience though was the life we got to see in the water and on the riverbanks. I don’t mean the fish swimming by our boat, or the cows, goats, and boars grazing on the distant land, but the people who lived and spent all their time around the river. There was just so much life to see – I can’t think of a better noun to use. People seemed to do absolutely everything at the water. Women were washing pots and clothes, people were bathing, children were swimming, playing, and wrestling, and a lot of men were working: building things, transporting goods up and down the river, and supposedly “finding natural gas beneath the riverbed” (so said the manager of our resort later that evening when we showed him my photograph).

Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)

Photo taken in Bandarban, Bangladesh on October 30, 2009.

I was just amazed by what seemed like such a potent illustration of river lifestyle or culture. I wondered if most people would spend their entire lives on that river, from the time when they were tiny kids playing in the mud until they were old men and women working on that same shoreline. I couldn’t decide whether I found this idea to be somewhat depressing or absolutely beautiful and somehow liberating. To be honest I found myself leaning toward the latter. I think I spend so much time feeling anxiety over what my “next move” is going to be in life and how I can become bigger, better, and more successful. Maybe it’s American culture in general or maybe it’s especially the hyper-achievement-obsessed school I grew up in but I just feel there’s so much stress placed on the idea of advancement and upgrading and more in general. To forget about that worry seems like a dream to me, and I feel like once you were rid of it you could live a happier fuller life with whatever you already had.

This train of thought led me to want to say things like “these people are all so happy” but I kept checking myself because I felt like that was shortsighted. I’m sure the people who live on that river have a host of problems in their lives, including health and nutritional issues as well as social concerns within their communities. It can’t all just be fun in the sun on the riverbanks. I guess what I really meant to exclaim was that those people all seem to have so much energy and vitality, and I am impressed by that, and perhaps a little envious.

River boat ride in Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)

GPS track of our river boat ride in Bandarban, Bangladesh on October 30, 2009.

The entire boat ride to town did last about an hour and a half, and the only slight glitch occurred when we disembarked and tried to give our boatman his deserved 250 taka. He shook his head no and said we needed to give him more. He had been nice and had also happily let me take as many photos of him as I liked, so we only somewhat begrudgingly offered him an extra 50 for a total of 300 taka. He again shook his head and said that we owed him a whopping 800 taka! This was absolutely ridiculous and we didn’t know what to do. We eventually (and at this point extremely begrudgingly) tried to give him 350 but he still wouldn’t accept. At this point several young men came over from where they had been sitting at the river’s edge and asked me (in impressive English might I add) what was wrong. I explained to one of them that we had been told the boat ride should cost 250, but that our boatman was asking for such an outrageously greater price. The man shook his head and angrily spoke to the boatman (this time in Bangla) and then told me that we should give what we had already offered and that everything was OK and we could go. I thanked him and as we walked away he added that the boatman was a “bad man, very bad man” for the stunt he had tried to pull. Polly told me later that one of the other men had explained that the boatman was not part of one of the local tribes (as they were), but was actually Bengali instead and had simply relocated to Bandarban. This I guess especially fueled our new friends in having no sympathy whatsoever for our boatman trying to rip us off. In any case I was very appreciative for their help, and the experience only further bolstered my respect for the local people.

Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)
Bandarban, Bangladesh (Oct 30, 2009)

Photos taken in Bandarban, Bangladesh on October 30, 2009.

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2 Responses to “A river way of life”

  1. Tom Bretl says:

    We forget that there are still places in the world where life (in almost all its aspects) revolves almost entirely around the geographic location. Can’t think of many places in the U.S. where that is true. Resort areas, perhaps? Or the coal mining regions of West Virginia? No, not really, because they are not as isolated from the rest of the country.

  2. Dan Bretl says:

    Who knows, maybe I’m completely jaded and after those young men are done hanging out by the river they go to an internet cafĂ© and sign onto Facebook, and on weekends they take a CNG to another town or pay a visit to Chittagong. I doubt it, but who knows. I’d love to go back and hang out with some people on the river for an afternoon and just talk to them about their lives. That would make for an amazing extended photojournalistic project as well. I may have just found my excuse to go back to Bandarban sooner rather than later!

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