The monsoon arrived while I was in a shallow-draft boat traveling over a village that was now underwater. In its place was a mile-wide channel, created by erosion over the years, separating the mainland of Bangladesh from a char—a temporary delta island that would someday dissolve just as easily as it had formed.
As ink-dark, vertical cloud formations slid in from the Bay of Bengal, waves began slapping hard against the rotting wood of our small boat. Breaking days of dense, soupy heat, rain fell like nails upon us. We started bailing. The boatman, my translator, and I made it to the char before the channel water that was splashing into the hull, heavy with silt, could threaten the boat’s buoyancy. It was a lot of work just to see something that was no longer there.
On another day, in order to see a series of dam collapses that had forced the evacuation of more than a dozen villages, I rode on the back of a motorcycle along a maze of embankments framing a checkerwork of paddy fields that glinted in the steamy rain. Again, the sight that greeted me—a few crumbled earthen dams—was not dramatic, unless, that is, you were holding the “before” picture in front of you.
Yet from one end of Bangladesh to the other, I saw plenty of drama, encapsulated in this singular fact: remoteness and fragility of terrain never once corresponded with a paucity of humanity. Even on the chars, I could not get away from people cultivating every inch of alluvial soil. Human beings were everywhere on this dirty wet sponge of a landscape. Squeezed into an Iowa-sized territory—20 to 60 percent of which floods every year—is a population half the size of that in the United States and larger than the one in Russia. Indeed, Bangladesh’s Muslim population alone (83 percent of the total) is nearly twice that of either Egypt or Iran. Considered small only because it is surrounded on three sides by India, Bangladesh is actually a vast aquascape, where getting around by boat and vehicle, as I learned, can take many days.