Tuesday December 2nd 2014 – Dhaka
I asked for an adventure, a small one and today I succeeded at that.
After breakfast I caught, well let's be honest the doorman caught a tuk-tuk for me and negotiated a price for a ride to the river front. The birthplace of the city. The negotiated price was 300 Tk ($2.50). 300 ?!?!? What? Who do you think I am? The Bank of Bangladesh ? You know, it's surprising just how far 300 Tk will take you in a Dhaka tuk-tuk.
The driver unlatched the welded lattice door and I got in. The then threw a bold into the U shaped bracket in the door and I was locked in. There was no way for me to access the latch to get out. Steel mesh surrounded me and I was in solitary confinement.
He twisted the throttle and one of the more interesting (read frightening) rides of my life began. At small amusement parks in the US there is generally a ride called The Mad Mouse, or perhaps The Wild Mouse or some variation there of. The ride is a small roller coaster the has no loops just flat track the suddenly veers ninety degrees and giving you the thrill that you almost plunged off the edge. This ride was similar to that only without the safety bar.
Mr Toad of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride would squeeze in between huge buses layered in scrapes and Bondo. If you looked and counted you could easily see all the colors that the bus had been painted over the years. And by years I mean decades. I half joked yesterday that the buses were scrapped by the British in 1947 and resurrected here. We were so tight that even if I could reach the latch I couldn't open the doors. I could see the Behemoths start to move and slowly converge as Mr. Toad would crank the gas and we would squeeze between them and then like on rails turn right in front of them and stop. I waited for the bus' nose to squish is between it and the cargo truck in front of us. Then he'd gas it push the handle bars to the left and zip between a Toyota sedan and two rickshaws. All the time with the horn blaring. I really wonder if it worked in any way or just the thing to do when driving.
It took around forty five minutes to get to Saderghat, give or take. The area was jammed with tuk-tuks, trucks, cars and rickshaws. I shakily pushed through the mesh the 300 Tk and a few more as an offering to the God's and gratefully heard that magic sound of the bolt withdrawing. I paid my bail and I was again a free citizen of the world.
The sidewalks and the street was packed with people, tuk-tuks and rickshaws, with the majority being rickshaws and people. Every conveyance whether it feet or wheels was either moving at a fast pace or totally stopped. A few women in saris and even fewer in head coverings and scarves. Men in workman’s clothing, men in loose fitting pants and tops and men by the thousands with 20 or more pound boxes and baskets balanced on their heads worming their way through this morass. With all this chaos the only collisions I witnessed was my occasional mis-step into someone. It was a marvel of choreography.
After a short walk the huge Saderghat ferry terminal ended and the normal citizens began their lives. People on the sidewalks selling everything from tea to new to used clothing. I doddle along at about 1/3rd speed of the rest of the passers by. Occasionally I hear a, not angry, but certainly authoritarian voice behind me and turn to see a man trying to get past me fat ass as he has a load five or six boxes of oranges swaying on top of his head. I quickly recover from the dream state I was in and step the heck out of his way as I say “Sorry, sorry” which seems to translate well. Either I get a smile or he just hurries on. He might have been saying bad things about my mother in his head, but never, never any outward showing of anger at me.
The entire morning I would hear called “Hello, how are you?” and turn and acknowledge them with a “Fine, how are you?”. I would generally get a smile and a “Good” back and occasionally I think they were just trying out their English and didn't have a grasp on that the correct response was. Once in a while there was more conversation than just that one line exchange. Where are you from ? What is your name ? That sort of thing. A handshake was not uncommonly offered. Sometimes with a light grip, sometimes with a good strong business grip and sometimes with that grip I see in many Muslim countries where the hands are grasped and held for the entire time. A little uncomfortable for my western upbringing, but I am adapting. When whatever type of handshake was released the right hand always, and I mean always went and covered their heart. A sign I was told was the same as “Greetings from the heart to you”
People begging were almost non existent. The occasional cripple in a doorway of the mouth of a walkway. I only had interactions with three that I recall. One very young boy who was shooed off by a passing lawyer who then explained to me the political situation and why this boy was not in school because of the corruption. Frankly I'd have rather dealt with the kid. Then there was the young man with a empty blue orange crate in his hand who insisted that I give him some of my flavored water. Sorry only one set of lips go an my bottle, mine. If he had a cup, I might have. The one that I did give a small bill to was a woman and infant. Towards the end of my sauntering I had circled back to the area where I knew some tuk-tuks hung out. I was looking at the river and went and bought a single cigarette and then wandered towards the tuk-tuks. She was always there on the edges of my sight. Never obtrusive, just hanging back. As I was getting in the tuk-tuk she beckoned for something. I gave her a small, a very small bill and she was more grateful than she should have been for it. – then some guy in the crowd said “Give me 100”. I looked at him and said :”You're crazy” and touched the side of me head. The crowd around all laughed at that. I'm not sure it was the word crazy, but thing the tap to the temple is a universal sigh of wacko-ness.
Walking down the trash strewn loading area was where I first saw the little canoes that carry people and goods across the river. Like the roads, it appears to be chaos, but there is an internal organization to it. The boats are paddled abreast and then like parts on a conveyor belt one fills with the requisite number of people or people and goods and it pulls away and the next boat starts filling up. This seemed to be endless. There certainly was no break for the 10 of fifteen minutes I watched.
Though offered many times to board I declined. I'll accept you calling me a wimp and wear the title proudly. Maybe the next time I'm in Dhaka I'll give it a try. Inshallah.
I caught a tri-shaw (pedal rickshaw) for a ride over to an area called Shankhaira Bazaar. This is the heart of old Dhaka. Reminiscent of the souks in Morocco, only the streets are straighter. I wandered and looked. Once in a while buy a single cigarette or a bottle of water. The space alien passing glances I would defer with a smile, a nod or every now and then a 'Salam”. 90% of the time I got the same back. Just curiosity. – This is the truth, no exaggeration. I was in the area for between two and a half or three hours and never, ever say a western face. Not one!
I was offered chai from the vendors when I stopped to watch the process. One vendor was making a concoction that he was pouring between two cups. At first I thought it was raw egg whites, but didn't see any eggs. It was thick and I am not going to say what that dense liquid looked like. I started a new batch by peeling a leaf similar to an Aloe leaf into a cup and adding a few other secret herbs and spices into it and then like a good bartender mixed it by pouring it between the two metal cups.
Then there was the snake oil salesman with the cure for all the world's illness if you bought his special tonic and a couple leeches from him. He had a pretty good sized crowd, but no buyers from what I could see.
Some way know only to the God's of stupid tourists I ended up away from the cacophony of Hindu street into a quiet residential refuge. I was sitting on a step just trying to get myself re-centered and a huge argument started in the area I had just passed. I looked to the rooftops and the monkeys were going at at. I guess somebody be a messin' where they shouldn't be a messin'. Then the dominant one came across the rooftops and stopped and stared at me. I stared back and then pulled my head down to mark aggression. The monkey jerked it's head down ready to fight. I crouched down a little lower and brought my arms out a bit to show it I was bigger. That really got it's ire up. Then I heard laughing, From being totally alone with me and this monkey, who obviously didn't see many white chicks. Half a dozen people had been watching me. Fuck a duck. I was so embarrassed.
Time to close this missive I've gone on much too long.