In the 1920s the phrase was a black American euphemism for suicide.
Travelling by road through Bangla Desh can take longer than expected. Not so much because of the roads or the traffic — the roads, though narrow, are often asphalt or at least pounded-down rubble, (one sees gangs of women labourers at the soul-destroying job of smashing bricks), and the traffic, once one is away from the pullulating honking chaos of the cities, is almost non-existent — as because of the rivers, many unbridged. One must wait for the little flat shuttle-ferry with a ramp at each end to come back — it’s invariably at the other side, or worse still has just left this side of a wide river.
Where there are bridges they’re usually ones made by the Brits in colonial days; the ones made later tend to fall down, more by design than accident, as then a new UN bridge-building grant can be applied for. But even some of the old Brit bridges can be alarming — I know one that carries road, rail, and pedestrian traffic, but is only about six feet wide. Pedestrians simply squeeze up tight against the side railings when a car or train comes along, but if a train starts at one end just as a car has entered the other end…
The ferry disaster that has just happened in Bangla Desh — and similar disasters have happened so often I was surprized this one made international news — did not involve a river crossing: this one was a boat that goes up and down river. It’s the standard means of long-distance travel for most people, though no-one who can scrape together enough to buy a car would dream of going by ferry. They are notorious death-traps: foreigners, of course, never, ever, use them.
What, never? Well… yes, I have, but I didn’t tell anyone about it until I got back. If I listened to all the people who are so concerned for my welfare I would have nothing to write about here. It was an overnight ferry — the most dangerous of all — going from Dacca down the Jumna river to a village on the delta. You buy your ticket, find the right ferry, and barge your way up the gang-plank among hundreds of others, most of them carrying suspicious-looking white-cotton-shrouded long floppy bundles over their shoulders, and try to find a place to sit or, if you’ve paid a bit extra, lie down: space can often be found on the very lowest decks, below the water-line, to which only the foolhardy descend.
If you have seen ‘Fitzcarraldo’ you will remember the ship: imagine something like that — shallow draught, and far too many upper decks, all of them full water-line area. And imagine such a craft left abandoned, unrepaired, unpainted, up some forgotten creek for decades before suddenly being brought back into service.
There was no attempt to count the number of people boarding; it was much like the London Underground at rush-hour. Nor did there seem to be any navigational rules: every few days one heard of yet another collision, usually at night: the ferries would sink in minutes, and people on the lower decks stood not a chance.
I made my journey — evidently I survived it — more than thirty years ago. Even then the government was under pressure to introduce some sort of regulation of the river-ferries. Radio news reports of the latest disaster show that nothing has changed.