Friday, May 9, 2014

Dhaka: as real as it gets

After breakfast on my second day in Dhaka, I slipped out the front door of my hotel hoping that Salim wouldn’t be waiting. He seemed nice enough and I know he was trying to earn some money, but I yearned for the freedom to just walk, and not be paraded from place to place. I looked around and didn’t see him. Fantastic, I thought.

I had only got half a block, when I heard someone calling behind me. I turned and saw Salim pedalling his rickshaw toward me.   
“I take you today. Where do you go?”
I told him I just wanted to walk, but I could see that it was hard for him to understand. He was probably wondering why this white guy would want to walk around a chaotic city in such hot and humid conditions.
“I take you and then you can do walking,” he pressed.
I told him not today and carried on.
I came to a large intersection and stood in the middle for a short time on a raised platform a few feet off the ground. I was in awe at the feverish pace of the traffic that was moving in every direction. Oddly it seemed choreographed, but as one local told me about the traffic: “It’s a big problem. There is no discipline.”
The challenge now was for me to get to the other side of the road without getting hit. I watched others standing next to me take the plunge and start crossing. I hesitated too much and missed the opportunity. For a fleeting moment, I wished I hadn’t spurned Salim. It would have been much easier sitting in his rickshaw. But travel isn’t supposed to be easy, I told myself.
Armed with that bit of philosophy, I made my move and stepped into the traffic. Never before had I felt so nakedly vulnerable, as I did in that moment. It was frightful watching buses, cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws coming at you like precision guided missiles. Keep walking. Keep walking. I kept reassuring myself. Relieved was I, knowing that I had survived. To be sure, Dhaka is not for the timid.  

My intended destination was a slum settlement in the area of Kawran Bazaar, where small dwellings no more than five or six feet high had been scrapped together on either side of the railway tracks.
Before setting off I had written down the streets I needed to get this area, which was about four kilometres away. Find VIP Road, then right on Hare Road, which turns into Minto, then a right on Kazi Nasrul Islam. Sounded easy enough until I started walking and realized there were no street signs. I knew to keep Ramma Park on my left, but then I came to a major intersection and all was lost. I went up to a traffic officer and asked if he knew what street this was.

“Kazi Nasrul Islam Street,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Kawran Bazaar,” I replied.

“You’re going there on foot,” he questioned, incredulously?

He pointed to the general direction. I thanked him and pushed on. 
A hard life next to the tracks
I finally came to a set of railway tracks, and sure enough there were rows of small shack-like homes. There were no trees to offer protection from the sun. No electricity. No running water. I could only imagine what it would be like when the monsoon rains came. At first, I felt like an uninvited guest but that was short lived as people came up to me without hesitation. Not to beg for money, but out of curiosity.
Everyone was very welcoming. Some asked where I was from, while others reached out to shake hands.  
Trains run regularly through the slum

One young guy, who I suspected to be in his early twenties, followed me as I walked along the tracks. He warned me a train would be coming soon. In fact, trains pass through regularly during the day mere feet from these people’s homes.
Not surprising disease lives here. I could see it in the cloudy eyes of many people, yet despite the terrible environment in which they live, they all had such warm smiles. I saw this too when I was in Jakarta, Indonesia [the place that gave rise to the White Man Walking moniker]. What is it about people who have so little, yet have such a bright spirit? They have every reason to finger the world and yet they choose to smile instead. There’s a lesson there for all of us. 
I noticed a young girl cooking over a small fire. I knelt down to take her picture and she opened herself up with a shy smile. Further on, a group of children posed for a photo and clamoured around me trying to see their faces on the screen. This is as real as travel gets. This isn’t the fiction of an all-inclusive in Mexico. 

Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a section of brightly colourful flowers planted along the sidewalk. I touched them and realized they were artificial. It was the only thing I encountered in the city that was fake. Warts and all, Dhaka is as real as it gets.   

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