In Bangladesh, the country is your airstrip… if you're a floatplane.
There's no better mode of transport. With over 800 rivers and tributaries forming 24,140 km of waterways, and at least 18% of the country flooded every monsoon season, Bangladesh is like one massive landing strip for a floatplane. During the height of its operations, MAF accessed over 300 hard-to-reach water landing sites in the country.
In June 2014, I stepped onto a MAF floatplane for the first time in Bangladesh.
Just the idea of a plane landing on water is amazing; it's like setting down on a huge cushion. You hardly know you've landed.
A boat and a plane
MAF has been flying in Bangladesh for 25 years, inspired to help following a devastating cyclone in the 1970s. Country director and pilot Chad Tilley has flown this plane for many years, and watching him makes you realise he's both a pilot and boat captain.
He has to know his landing waterways as well as a bush pilot knows his dirt strips.
But these landing sites move, and Chad vies for space with multiple other water vessels. It can be a bit tricky. Just like a boat, it uses an anchor to stabilise in the water.
Hired boats sporting large red flags keep the competition out of the way for take-offs and landings. But in between, there is no keeping the crowds away.
Nearby boats will fill with people to get closer to the plane. Children swim out and hover around the plane for as long as they can until they are ordered away for take-off. They try to hang onto the floats and even when the plane starts up and begins to move, the teenagers will often attempt to swim after it.
When the plane is anchored on land, the crowds pour out of the trees and villages. One lucky boy or man is usually the designated anchor-boy. When MAF's flight crewman, Raju, was growing up in a remote village, he used to be the anchor-boy.
Flying for life
The best part, of course, is what this remarkable little plane does, how MAF supported the work of many organisations that try to improve the lives of Bangladeshis with medevacs, clean water, sustainable livelihoods, and holding back the water.
In particular in the south, the situation looks catastrophic from the air. Much of the land is only identifiable by random man-made items barely protruding above the waterline. Houses and herds of cows stand in the middle of what appears to be wide bays and channels, but in fact, it's just land gone under.
When this kind of flooding happens in the western world, a state of emergency is declared. In Bangladesh it's a yearly event, lasting for months. People leave their flooded homes and fields, returning when the water recedes.
It surprised me how often I saw smiles and joy on Bangladeshi faces, despite all the hardships and recurring tragedies they experience. Children, especially, flocked to the MAF floatplane, danced in front of cameras, performed flips into the water, and laughed.
These things tend to put life into perspective for me. I hope I remember them the next time I can't get a hot shower, or think that tap water doesn't taste good enough.