I thought I would tell you a bit about my time on the rivers. Getting to the boat was a voyage all in itself; a flight across the country and then a 3 hour drive down little country roads that looked like they had been picked up and shaken until the tarmac came off.
The driver spook no English so I could only guess how far we had travelled and how close we were to the destination. At every gleam of water in the dark I thought we had arrived. Since 60% of Bangladesh is covered in water I thought we had arrived many many times!
Finally I was shooed out of the car onto jetty leading out into blackness and water. At the end was the rusted hulk of a used-to-be. My heart sank at the sight that that wreck would be taking me through hundreds of miles of river delta. So I was sincerely relieved to be hustled onto a little motor boat and driven deeper into the dark over the still slither of the river to where my boat stood at anchor.
It was a good enough boat for ‘basic’ but a tiny space for the forty people making the trip. Beds were stacked on top of each other in cabins that left just enough room to stand.
When I climbed up into my bunk, the flocked flowers that papered the ceiling bloomed old-yellow only twenty centimetres from the end of my nose. I felt as if I was packed in a drawer in a morgue, death shrouded in a mosquito net.
The flickering power blinked off after about an hour and the heat seemed to crawl off the river, an animal weight squatting on my chest, panting hot breath wet onto my face.
As it was I didn’t spend much time in bed. Sick again, I spent at half the night groping my way to the tiny toilet and wishing there was enough floor to kneel – its funny the things you miss when you’re talking to god in the toilet bowl…
One of the crew doing rounds at about 4am accidentally locked me in. But, in the grip of food poisoning, I was thankful for being locked into the toilet, rather than out!
When the sun rose, the swollen cabins disgorged their loads to breakfast and benches and banter.
The guests were an odd mix of this and that: the bashful Bangladeshi who learned the waltz and sang soulful ballads to his ipod, the elderly Indian lady who bullied me into letting her win at Scrabble, the Italian whose kind-of-almost English leant a flourish to any anecdote, the pirate-eyed crewman who climbed effortlessly from deck to deck as if pulled by invisible ropes, ribbed me for old age and flirted outrageously all the same.
There were a slew of nationalities, a span of ages, people with little in common but lives lived off-centre. Doing something a bit different can be a common culture of its own and we were soon tracking back to countries, continents, other moments when paths might have crossed, when worlds met.
When asked what I was doing, where I would be going next, I just smiled and said “actually I haven’t a clue”. It was an easy company for open ideas but it still felt like a rebellion, to not have the future pre-packed, ready and waiting to be eaten, spat out.
The landscape itself seemed to defy certainty. Islands gave way to waves and rivers shooted to forests. What is now is shifting, re-shaping as the banks and boundaries are made and unmade by the endless ebb flow of creative destruction. This was no place for permanences.
In the spirit of change, I decided on a new strategy after the first hellish hot night. I dragged my mat up onto the roof and slept under the spread of the sky, well rubbed in repellant and with the words ‘do not roll’ prominently planted in my head. Falling off a roof is rarely fun but it would be even less so with crocodiles in the water!
In the deep mangrove forest there was no electricity to blot out the sky, no noise but the chorus of cicadas, the splash of jumping fish and the shuffle of dear dreaming of tigers.
Sleep was still elusive. The night kept me captive, hooked, gazing up into the fathomless veils of black on black, drawing down the stars from the sheen of the milky way and feeling the tug back up into the sky.
There is no way not to get lost in the wide stretch of space, humbled by a glimpse of infinite fleeting eternity, awed by the thought that I have a share of the streaming silent beauty.
I long-short hours watching the stars slowly spin, the bright crescent rise from the dark water and the brightness of Venus give way to the slow pink creep of dawn. Delirious with skies.,I was filled with big questions; thoughts too wide to reach around, concepts and connections that flow charts or diagrams could not catch.
Under such a sky this state of asking everything, knowing nothing, seemed true, raw, real.
I thought of a line from a poem sent to me a decade ago:
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
And told myself that alone I would not doubt..