Miles away from the sea exists a unique ecosystem, between the mountains of Meghalaya and the low-lying lands of Sunamganj - the wetlands of Tanguar Haor. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bangladesh remains completely flooded during the monsoon season.
Tanguar Haor is home to around 40,000 people whose lives are tied to the freshwater wetland. Livelihood in Tanguar Haor is spread across 46 villages, housed on elevated land of its 100 square kilometre area.
Separated by trails of stagnant water from dry land, for the haor people, the only means of commuting to and fro the mainland are boats. A culture practised for generations - locals adapting to the extraordinary ecosystem of the haor - each house can be seen with a boat docked near its shore.
Boats are, in one way or another, the staple source of income for the haor people.
Residing in Sunamganj's Boithakhali village, Abdus Salam, belongs to a family of boatmen. "When I was seven, my elder brother bought a boat. I would often help him around with it," he said.
Salam spent countless hours on his brother's boat learning how to operate it and work the engine. "I never got paid. However, with the experience I have gathered over the years, I can proudly say that not once have I faced any issues with my boat on water," he said.
Salam has been driving boats in Tanguar Haor for the past 17 years. "I really enjoy my work. I cannot think of anything but boats all day. I do not like any other kind of work," he said.
Over the past five years, the wetland, where the water level rises rapidly and runs off slowly, has attracted many tourists during the monsoon season.
"People from all over Bangladesh are now coming to Tanguar Haor. Though we ride boats throughout the year, we only get tourists for six months. I spend the rest of the year cultivating crops, transporting goods using my hauling vehicle, and helping out with work at home," said Salam.
He usually spends four to five days on water every week. "We always get trips on weekends. We take tourists to various scenic spots as we cruise through the wetland. Besides, we also get wedding trips throughout the year which is an added bonus."
Booming tourism has opened avenues for boatmen residing in Tanguar Haor to secure means of income other than hauling goods. The haor people have a few other options as well; some drive auto-rickshaws while others set up small shops to trade. Many have moved abroad in search of better opportunities.
When asked whether Salam ever thought of leaving his village, he said, "This is our ancestral land, we cannot just leave it and move from here. Even if we do move, wherever we go, our expenses will increase; however, I doubt that my income will."
Salam's elder brother now works as a supervisor on a small cargo transport boat. While his younger sibling used to be a boatman as well, "he left this profession as he could not sustain with the earnings from the boat. He now drives a car."
Salam does not make a fixed amount of income from his boat. "The income is not much but I, along with my family, can sustain our lives on it," he said.
Like Salam, many haor people reduce their living expenses by growing their own food.
They cultivate rice during the off-season that lasts till the next season. The haor people have homestead gardens where they grow a variety of vegetables and the fish from the river provides them with a good source of protein. Most of the homes rear ducks which is the most available food item other than fish.
For supplies such as edible oil, spices, sugar, salt, onion, potatoes, etc. - Salam purchases it from the Boithakhali bazar. There is a bigger market on the other side of Tahirpur Bridge where most of the supplies are bought in from.
As for healthcare, midwifery is practiced in Salam's village but there are healthcare facilities on the other side of the river.
Salam lives with his wife, two children, parents, two brothers and their families.
"There are times when I spend endless day after day on water. Even though my family lives 10-15KM away, I cannot meet them, or see my children. They often catch a glimpse of me when I come back home late at night and the following morning, I am back on the boat before they wake up and this goes on for half of the year," he explained.
Salam's nephew, Md Ali Hossain Ahmed, has followed in his family's footsteps - he works part-time on his uncle's boat. "I would often see my uncle drive his boat and eventually, my interest in boats grew. I started working on my uncle's boat when I was in grade eight," said Ali.
Ali is a second-year student at the Sunamganj Government College which is located on the other side of the river. He is currently preparing for his HSC exams.
"Since I do not have much pressure from college now, I do not spare any chance to get on the boat with my uncle and sail through the haor," he added.
Haor's boatmen and Covid-19 pandemic
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, boatmen's incomes have fallen drastically as people have not been visiting Tanguar Haor like they used to.
"When the government imposed a lockdown, my maalik (owner of the boat) forbade me from sailing it. Life has been quite difficult ever since," said Abdur Rahman, another boatman hailing from Borpara village of Sunamganj.
Rahman claims that there are not any waterways that he does not know of in Tanguar Haor. He has been a boatman for 17 years as well. "One of my bhais (brothers) used to own a boat and for two years, I learned from him," he said.
Rahman's boat has been sitting idle since the wake of the pandemic leaving him in a daze. For the past year, his daughter and two sons have been homebound due to school closure amid the lockdown - which hopefully will change, given the government's announcement of reopening schools in the country from 12 September.
"It has been over a year since they have been stuck home. This setback will be a huge problem for them in the long run," expressed Rahman.
During the season Rahman can make around TK2-2.5 lakh from his boat, "I can sustain my family for around eight months with this amount. Other than that, I usually set up small shops beside the road and sell various items," he said.
Tourism has been flourishing in Tanguar Haor but since it is not regulated, boatmen face obstacles every now and then. According to Salam, there once used to be an association of Tanguar Haor's boatmen but it has been inactive for years.
As the number of tourists keeps increasing, waste disposal has become an issue. "Tourists often dispose of unwanted items into the water. We advise them not to pollute the water, but it is up to them to decide what to do," said Salam.
"It would be great if the government could look into the prospects of tourism in Tanguar Haor. If the government steps in, I believe Tanguar Haor's tourism will increase; more people will come and enjoy haor's beauty without hampering the environment,`` the boatman, further added.