Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Madness in Dhaka

It was close to one o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived at my hotel in central Dhaka. I felt like collapsing onto the small bed, and recover from the 27 hours of travel, but I knew that to do so would be folly. Needing to stay awake and shake off the jetlag, I washed up and hit the streets.

Stepping outside the hotel, a rickshaw driver approached me. “Where you go? I take you.”
I waved him off and kept walking not really too sure which direction I was going, but I thought if I keep moving I might lose this guy whose I saw was still trailing behind. I soon realized that I had better stop and look around for some landmarks or I might not be able to find my way back to the hotel.  

“Where you go?” I heard as the rickshaw driver was now standing next to me.
I just wanted to wander. I wanted the freedom for my feet to take me wherever. The one place I knew I wanted to see was Sadarghat, the city’s frenetic riverfront port. It is here that multi-decked ferries, century-old Rocket Steamers, barges, and small wooden boats ferry people on the Buriganga River.

The driver said he’d take me to Sadarghat, but before he’d also take me to the National Museum, Lalbagh Fort, and a host of other places that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

 “How much money,” I relented, tired of the chase.
“You no worry about money,” he said, reassuringly. “If you like, you pay 100 Takas, or 300 or 700. Your choice. You  no worry.”  

Salim and my wheels in Dhaka
He spun the rickshaw around, and pedalled out into the notoriously crazy traffic. It was like gladiator on wheels as everything that moved—colourful rickshaws, small three-wheeled motorized taxis called CNGs motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, and even people walking on the road—fought for every bit of open space. And the incessant honking and ringing of rickshaw bells. Everyone appears to have accepted the madness. I even saw a cow standing in the middle of the road seemingly oblivious to the chaos.   
Salim had short cropped black hair, sprinkled with grey, and a similarly coloured beard. He wore a short sleeved red shirt and a lungi, a traditional long tube-like skirt similar to a sarong. This was the dress of every rickshaw driver in Dhaka. It’s estimated there are more than half a million rickshaws rolling through the streets of Dhaka, and each is colourfully painted. Like many rickshaw drivers, Salim’s teeth and gums are stained bright red. This from chewing a green leafy plant called Qat, a mild stimulant. After chewing for a short time one’s saliva turns bright red.  

Central Dhaka
Salim pulled up in front of the National Museum and got off his bike. He came back a minute or so later and told me the museum is closed. I didn’t tell him, but I was glad. Apologies to curators worldwide, I find most museums intensely boring.
We pushed on, and Salim pointed to a monument a short distance away telling me it marks the 1971 war with Pakistan. He would point out two others. Bangladesh, like Pakistan, used to be part of India. When India was partitioned in 1947, the division was primarily made based on religion, so the predominantly Muslim areas became known as West and East Pakistan. But religion aside, the two regions had little in common. The geographic and cultural divide led to war, and the birth of a new nation, known today as Bangladesh.

Crowded streets in old Dhaka

The air was hot, humid and heavy from the grime and pollution that washes over this city. At times, I was assaulted by the pungent smell from heaps of rotting garbage. Stopped in traffic, Salim turned to me and asked my religion. I always find it awkward to answer in such pious places, because people don’t understand that it’s possible (and quite okay) to not worship a God.  Not wanting to complicate matters, I told him I’m Christian. It’s not entirely a lie I suppose, given that I was baptized.  
Minutes later he brought me to a small Armenian Church. It was locked, but someone went away and came back with a key to let me in. The church dates from the late 1700s, and services are usually held just twice a year.

Having been to church, I climbed back onto the rickshaw and we wended our way through old Dhaka. The streets are narrow and crowded with people, cars, rickshaws and vendors. On one street, several tailors had set up their sewing machines and were doing a brisk business on the side of the road.
Popular mode of transportation to cross the river

We finally came to the Buriganga River. I gave Salim a bit of money, and he headed off to negotiate with the many operators of small wooden boats for a tour of the river. A single oar at the back of the boat cut through the coal black water, pushing aside the garbage that littered the river. We crossed to the other side and with the leftover money I had given Salim, he bought a large bottle of Coke and some biscuits. He had found two discarded plastic bottles in which he poured some of the Coke for him and the guy that operated the boat. He handed the rest of the soda over to me, and in the afternoon heat, it went down easily. It was magical being on the river as the sun was setting. A perfect way to end the day, I thought.

Life on the river

Sunset on the Buriganga River

“We go now to Hindu temple,” Salim said, back at his rickshaw.
I told him I’d rather go back to my hotel.

He pedaled through the chaos on the streets, and every few blocks turned to me and said, “I take you now to Hindu temple.”

Trying to mask my annoyance, I told it had been a long day and I’d like to go to my hotel.

“Ok,” he said, “but tomorrow I take you to national Parliament and zoo (which always sounded like Jew when he said it).
It had turned out to be a good afternoon, but I had no interest in going to the zoo or anywhere else with Salim. I ached for the freedom to explore on my own.

Four hours after leaving I was back outside my hotel. I gave Salim 1,000 Takas, about $15. He rolled his head back and forth and said ok. We both knew that it was more money than he’d make most days, but given that he had ridden me across the city for hours, I thought it was fair.
“I wait for you tomorrow and take you around to see zoo and national parliament,” I heard Salim say as I walked into my hotel.

View more photos from day one in Dhaka

Next Post: White man in Dhaka

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