To say I was scared would be a great understatement. Perhaps paralyzed with fear is a more descriptive phrase. I stood on the edge of the infamous fishing troller, both feet side by side on the last bit of open space that was left on the overcrowded single mode of transport to and from Saint Martin’s Island. I was momentarily frozen, I felt the blood rush from my face down to my feet, I even felt light headed. There’s not a lot that bothers me but I was petrified.
The trip didn’t start there at that trash filled port, however, it began 4 hours earlier in Cox’s Bazar. We checked out of our two bedroom, $18/night hotel room (breakfast included), and ventured out to get the bus to Teknaf, one of the easternmost towns along the coast in Bangladesh, 5 miles from the Myanmar border. Humaira, my host, told me we would take a bus, but on the busy streets of Cox’s Bazar, filled with the whizzing buzz of vehicles and the bells of rickshaws, she motioned for me to get into the back of a covered truck. It had two bench seats on the inside and a row between the main cab and those of us in the back.
There were 14 people in that small space, the attendant hung on to the ladder on the outside of the vehicle, and another young boy sat on the top. Three plus hours in that cramped space.
The thick air barely filtered through the open windows and when it did, it brought along dirt and dust that filled the nostrils and the corners of my eyes. As we traveled, some people got off and on, freeing up some space, but it was still cramped nonetheless. Humaira spent some time standing on the back, and I eventually did the same for a few minutes, needing a breath of fresh air and to stretch my legs. The portion of the trip we spent along Marina Drive was amazing, with the endless beach and seemingly calm sea in the background.
As we traveled, people were inquisitive. Why was there a foreigner in the area during low season, and furthermore, why was there a foreigner in the area given the Rohinga refugee situation? People kept repeating, “Be careful, it’s not safe.” But our minds were clearly made up and we were making the journey to Saint Martin’s Island, a speck of land in the Bay of Bengal, just a few kilometers from the Burmese shore.
The Rohinga are considered a stateless people. When the British drew up the Burmese borders, they fell within that country, but they’ve always been denied a nationality. Within Myanmar, they are not allowed movement, state education, nor civil service jobs. The group, predominantly Muslim, has long been persecuted in Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, and violations against them have been termed “crimes against humanity.” In the recent past, the situation has escalated and more than 900,000 refugees have fled from Myanmar to escape the current genocide the group is facing. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t get a lot of press in the West, but the situation is likened to apartheid.
During one of the bus stops, a young woman with red, bettle nut stained lips and worn teeth sat opposite me. She had two young children, a small rice sack of belongings, and wore a black hijab. She had an empty look in her brown eyes and that face with her fine features and small nose will forever be ingrained in my mind. Her husband was killed in Myanmar and she’d recently crossed the border. Although there are various checkpoints along the roads to prevent the Rohinga from totally infiltrating Bangladesh, the woman and her two children were allowed on the bus. They were traveling from one refugee camp to another, closer to the border to meet other family members. She got of the truck and we drove away. She was clearly not Bangladeshi and I’m clearly not Rohinga.
When we finally arrived in Teknaf, the port town where we’d take the fishing troller to the island, we were running out of time. The boat was about to depart so we hopped in a rickshaw and headed to the pier. There was a buzz of commotion. A dock so narrow you couldn’t tell if the crowd was going left or right, there was trash everywhere, and the midday sun was beating down. Humaira bought our tickets and that’s when the fear set in. As I stood paralyzed, I was told to sit down, but there was no place to sit. The hull of the boat was filled with various items. Chicken cages stacked one atop another, supplies for the island, peoples’ personal belongings. My bag was tossed to the side somewhere and I found a spot about as wide as my butt on top of a grain bag. The boat was packed. Every square inch of the deck and sides was covered with people. There was no shade from the sun, umbrellas of all colors served as a roof for the troller with hijab clad women beneath them, children patiently waiting for departure, men chattering amongst themselves.
We were packed in like sardines, except sardines are meant to swim in water. If that overloaded boat sank in the sea, I don’t know who would have made it to safety. It looked like we were refugees fleeing some war torn country, but refugees were actually fleeing to Bangladesh. I sat quiet for a long time, thinking about my life and all the things I still wanted to do. I had a vision of myself sitting in a cool, clean, small apartment somewhere in San Antonio, calm and peaceful. I assured myself I could swim to safety no matter what, but I became paranoid about my passport. If that ship sank, I could be stuck in Bangladesh without it. I was thinking about things that seriously. I even emptied a ziplock bag of peanuts in case the situation turned for the worse. Hey, it was all I could think of. The waterway to the sea was a narrow river, so the boat was protected for 14 miles from whatever conditions may be out in the great wide open. We met two other Indian travelers and eventually chatted amongst ourselves. When the river opened up to the Bay of Bengal, there were swells off in the distance. The troller began rocking back and fourth, waves splashed over us and within minutes, I was soaked. We had about an hour to go in those choppy waters and it was intense to say the least. The Indian lady was near hysterics, my frustration and nervousness were released in the form of tears rolling down my cheeks as the sun burned my face. The stench of the poultry below wafted up through all of the items in the hull. Khushe, the other girl traveling with Humaira and I, began crying. Because I was stuck, wedged in between bags and on top of the grain sack, the Indian man gave us updates on our arrival. I couldn’t see anything. 50% left, 30%, and so on. I eventually calmed myself and tried to comfort Khushe and the Indian lady. Finally, we made it. Our troller hit the pier, cracking the cement railing above. People began jumping of the boat. It was pure chaos. Stuff and people everywhere. When the one white girl was seen on the troller, news spread like wildfire. The first officer of the Coast Guard was alerted and only later did we learn the Second officer appointed himself as our guardian to keep us safe on the small, 3 mile long island. We attracted a crowd, people looking at us, at me, as if no other white person had ever been there. But there had, we were just visiting in the low season, that’s why the proper ferry was unavailable. We searched and settled on a hotel room. The sun was setting. We went to that island to go to the beach and that’s what I wanted to do. I put on some leggings and a sports style t-shirt and we took off. No swimming in a bikini in a Muslim nation.
The sky was incredible. Colors you only see in professional photos, all shades of red, orange, and yellow, and as the sun sank lower into the sea, we saw pinks and purples and a blend of nature’s beauty that was out of this world. The death defying troller ride was worth it.
A few minutes later, the hotel manager and the Second Class Coast Guard officer showed up at the beach. Humaira was scolded for us females being out there alone and from that point on, it was determined we’d have our own personal body guards and protectors while there. We were reminded of the Rohinga again and told that there had been cases of bodies turning up on shore. There were some navy and coast guard boats patrolling the waters as well. I was hoping we could hitch a ride to shore with one of them!
We had dinner, showered, and got an invite to the Officer’s Club but we only sat outside. The officer had given Humaira his number in case of emergency, but he called her constantly. He knew of our fears leaving the island the next day and taking that same boat ride back. What if the weather were worse? What if there were more people. He promised we’d be safe. He said he himself would be the one to say when the boat was cleared to go and if necessary, we could even be the only ones on board.
It was late. We went to our room and crashed for the night, praying the sea would be calm the next day.
We woke up early and walked the beach. The hotel manager eventually met us and we ventured down, yet again, to the area outside of the Officer’s Club. The second officer had the hotel manager fetch us some breakfast. Paratha, lentils, and an omelette “burrito” on the beach, not a bad way to start the day. While the sea was calm, there were dark clouds in the sky. The officer ensured us we would get off the island and he would be at the pier when we left. He said to be there at 10:00 so we went to get ready. Then there was a torrential down pour. We waited longer but made our way to the pier. The officer was waiting. It was half as crowded as the day prior and they split up all the people into two boats. We puttered away under dark, drizzling skies, not having paid a single taka for the ride.
The fun wasn’t over however! Thankfully the sea stayed calm. We did get a bit wet from the rain, but all things considered, that was the least of what could have gone wrong. When we arrived back to the mainland, I was so relieved. We were all grateful and starving. After we ate, we tried to find a similar bus like we’d taken the day prior, but there was nothing in sight. Apparently, some Rohinga had died in one of the camps and available vehicles were being used to transport the bodies. It’s like that trip couldn’t get any more complex. We’d saved money on the boat but had to shell out a bit for a personal tuk tuk back to Cox’s Bazar. But we made it and we were safe. Humaira got yet another call from the officer and he wanted to provide dinner for us. His friend had a restaurant on the beach so we filled up before our overnight bus ride back to Dhaka.
Of all the places I’ve been and all the experiences I’ve had, this little trip was exceptional on so many levels. The fear, the beauty, the conflict, the people, the food. At the end of it, the officer called Humaira and asked her to tell me he hoped, and they, the Bangladeshis hoped, that I had a good time. They wanted me to know Bangladesh can be a place to visit where people can be friendly and caring. All of the tourist police and soldiers manning the check points along the way were equally friendly and concerned about our safety as well. Humaira was concerned about the danger we’d faced getting to Saint Martin’s Island and she wanted desperately to be able to get off. Once we were in the clear, however, she confided she couldn’t wait to go back, but in the season! No more traveling by fishing troller.
I left Bangladesh with so many experiences. I wanted to write them all down, but more than anything, I wanted to share my story of our crazy trip to Saint Martin Island. Bangladesh is a country that ultimately does not see a lot of tourists and I’m sure even fewer make it to the easternmost point to the island. Furthermore, the Rakhine State along the border of Myanmar is closed to travelers as well for obvious reasons.
If you made it this far (I know this was a long post), thank you for reading. I hope you at least enjoy the photos of a place that you may otherwise have not known existed. I’m glad I have a unique story to tell, but no more overcrowded fishing troller trips for me. And mom and dad, if you read this, sorry!! I won’t put myself in danger again!