Riding the wave of humanity in Bangladesh
24.07.2009 - 30.08.2009 35 °C
Dhaka. The traffic knocks you on your ass. It’s the first thing – among many – about this city that overwhelms you. The sheer intensity of it – millions upon millions of people crammed into a small space, all hustling and striving and pushpushpushing to eke out an existence. Waves of traffic with no discernible rules, where you force your way in and honk your way through, those with the highest tolerance for potential collision win. The collective energy of it is dizzying.
The humidity is like walking through soup. The garbage lies in rotting piles, the sewage is open. The staring is constant. And hard. But it gives way to the most unguarded face-splitting smiles in the instant I say hello.
Ancient battle-scarred busses plough through the chaos – rusted rivets, flaking paint, home soldering, adverts and posters pasted to their sides, crammed to bursting with people and young men riding on top. Motorized three-wheelers called “baby-taxis”, bits of their bumpers held on with wire, knotted rags or duct tape, buzz in and out of the rush like angry green hornets. Vehicles fight for inches, grinding by so close they set off car alarms mid-stream. There’s shouting and hawking and honking so incessant and insistent it loses all meaning. Beggars knock on your car window, holding up sad-eyed babies, waving amputated limbs, pointing to deformities, hands outstretched and pleas on repeat. Street kids with hard eyes and quick easy smiles dart in and out, selling snacks, maps, dodgy water in Evian bottles, and flowers.
And the rickshaws. Dear lord, the rickshaws. It’s estimated there are a quarter of a million rickshaws in Dhaka. Each has a story painted on its sides – cricket heroes, Bollywood babes, prominent political figures, birds, trees, flowers, memories of pristine rural landscapes far, far away from Dhaka’s crowded streets.
The city outskirts at twilight, watching floods of workers pour out of the garment factories – 12 hours sewing the same button on shirt after shirt after shirt. Construction sites where the lack of technology is obliterated by the sheer abundance of cheap labour and brute force. Men and women in equal numbers carrying unbearable loads on their heads – bricks balanced on wooden planks, baskets of rocks and wet cement. Market porters struggle under staggering heaps of produce, rickshaw-wallahs dismount from ripped bike seats, sacks of garlic piled a man and a half high with a man perched atop for good measure…forcing it first into and then forward in the flow.
Unbearably blessed me, with AC & driver, ensconced in the backseat with nothing but time and a bottomless well of amazement. To each street corner its market and barber and shoe-repair and tea cart. Each a whole economy, each a whole world.
Dhaka is a force of nature. You can’t fight it, you just need to let go – of frustration, of your punctual schedule, of your notions of justice and of your sense of your own deserving – and ride it.