Thursday, March 02, 2006

The City That Never Lets You Sleep

My guidebook says that one of the highlights of Dhaka is "getting the hell out of there", and I couldn't agree more. This is one crazy place, and easily my front-runner for ugliest city in the world. Not that I'm sorry to have come, on the contrary, I have seen some strange things that I am sure I won't be able to see anywhere else in a hurry.

Just getting around is a mission and a half. I've seen some pretty atrocious driving whilst travelling: in Vietnam it looks as if there's no way through but the traffic parts a split-second before impact; in Rio the bus drivers are possessed by the spirit of Ayrton Senna; in India I've been on buses that spend most of their time in the opposite lane playing chicken with cyclists and pedestrians; I've even been in a hollywoodesque car chase in Tehran, complete with rammings and all, but I have to say that Dhaka pips them all. The main means of transport, especially in the old town, are cycle rickshaws. If you don't keep a tight hold of your sanity these contraptions can seem imbued with malevolent spirits out to get you. They come upon you quietly, their only sound being the tinkling of their bicycle bells, a sound so pervasive in Bangladesh that your ears end up blocking out that wavelength of sound altogether (I'm sure there's a Hitchcockian horror movie in there somewhere). You have to be very nimble getting out of the way as the axle bolts, dreaming of being chariot scythes, jut out viciously, ready to tear at your shins. I was going down one narrow alley where the walls of the buildings all had a groove, almost an inch deep, from them. And walking on the pavement, when that's possible, is no guarantee of safety either, as I saw one of the metal beasts mount the kerb in search of its quarry. Riding in them is perhaps safer, but not necessarily kinder on the nerves. A rickshaw ride is like riding the dodgems at the fairground, with hostile bogeys coming at you from all directions. But busy intersections are the most entertaining (partly because the low speeds mean any resulting injuries are likely to be less severe). Here one can observe regular battle royales between the rickshaw-wallahs, each jostling, pushing and shoving for every inch of road, nobody willing to cede despite that being the obvious way of relieving the gridlock. You can easily be there upwards of 10 minutes as a microcosm of Darwinian selection determines who gets to exit the maelstrom 10 seconds before the others. Thankfully the rickshaws are often garishly painted with film posters or various animal motifs, so there's plenty to keep you occupied.

The buses are another interesting proposition. I don't think anybody but the driver and his henchman (conductor) really know where the bus is going. What you have to do is find a busy road and stand on the side where a bus route to your destination ought to pass, should it exist. Waiting by the lights is a good bet as you have more chance to actually ask where the bus is going. It might also be stationary, which makes getting on and off that much easier (only when at least 10 people are getting on or off will the driver deem it worth his while to actually come to a halt, otherwise he just imperceptibly slows down). At busy intersections the conductor jumps off and tries to round up as many people as possible onto the bus. Most of them look as if they're not exactly sure they want to go where the bus is going.

Conductor: "The airport! The airport!" (holds his arms out wide as he tries to shepherd two ladies onto the bus)
Lady: "But we don't want to go to the airport, we're off to do our grocery shopping."
Co: "Ah, but they have shops at the airport too." (holding her arm and steering her determinedly to the bus door)
La: "But it's awfully far away."
Co: "That'll give you more time to rest your feet." (as he puts his shoulder to her ass and forcefully shoves her in)

Other Dhaka oddities include women who stand at the side of the road with a stack of flyers hurling them through the windows of passing cars and tuk-tuks. Or the shop that sells only flip-flop thongs, and nothing else. Or the old, stately caravanserai that's been taken over by a clandestine paper and pulp sweatshop that dries its cheap ludo boards on the roof (now that was a surreal encounter!). Dhaka, you either love it or loathe it (or both), but there's no denying that it'll take you at least a week to get the smell out.

No comments: