After almost a year long hiatus at my beautiful home in Ireland, my itchy feet have once again led me to Asia- this time with a travel (and I guess life) companion. Our first stop is Bangladesh, which has been an assault on the senses, as has often been my Asian experience. Despite drawing many similarities between Bengali life and its Asian counterparts, Bangladesh has thus far eclipsed the madness of China in many ways.
Although there is a heavy Western influence (with the presence of food giants KFC and Nando’s) and large remnants of colonial Britain still existing in Bangladesh, the mayhem of an overpopulated developing country is in full swing and has had my head on a swivel since our arrival.
Asian traffic is notorious for its chaos, but what we’ve experienced in Dhaka has been another animal entirely. The culmination of incomplete roads, non existent traffic/street lights and the presence of numerous species of vehicle makes for an interesting time when it comes to transport in this country. Throw into the mix a few pedestrians, a guy ‘directing’ the traffic with sticks and an appreciation for the game ‘chicken’ and you begin to have an idea what we’re dealing with.
Dhaka has several species of vehicle which can be seen in variations across the world:
CNG: Not unlike the infamous Thai “tuk tuk”, this cage on wheels is enclosed on all sides, making for a cosy experience. It gets its name from the fuel it runs on; compressed natural gas.The CNG’s cage-like doors encourage street sellers and beggars
to approach you on both sides while stopped-making for an awkward experience if you’re stuck in the one spot for ten or more minutes.Despite their gas power and tiny size, CNGs travel at a frightening pace, easily slithering between cars to make it that metre or two further in the Dhaka traffic rat-race.
Rickshaw: Rickshaws take many forms across Asia (and in sneaky parts of Europe too), but in Dhaka they are one of the most common forms of transport. Rickshaws are part of Dhaka’s undeniable charm, the “ding-a-ling” of their bells can be heard through the city, a refreshing change from the incessant honking. The city is overrun with these enormous tricycles, each one boasting it’s own individual art. Rickshaws are particularly cheap, and although the price is often at the customer’s discretion, the “going rate” is roughly 20 taka for a a ten minute ride(about 20c). Easy seeing how the rickshaw pullers are amongst society’s poorest here.
Bus: Ah the one we’re all familiar with, the good aul bus. For those of us who’ve experienced the ‘stinky aul bus’, Dhaka’s buses take this expression to a new level. Packed to several times their capacity and sufficiently battered, buses here may not offer the most luxurious ride.
Their appearance may be weathered, but their bright paint adds a splash of colour to dull traffic jams. Unlike the tried and tested system of stopping at bus stops to let passengers off, the buses in Dhaka merely slow down for passengers to ‘hop’.
As if there weren’t enough elements slowing down the Dhaka traffic, the recent terrorist attacks in Gulshan, Dhaka has increased security. Road blockages and regular checkpoints mean much of the traffic is restricted, particularly to the city’s dependable rickshaws. Coming from Ireland, where you’d sooner have an aul chinwag and a cuppa tea with a police man than feel any fear, cops patrolling the streets with large guns, checkpoints with up to ten officers surrounding one vehicle and the odd tank or two parked casually on the side of the road is slightly unsettling to me. Luckily our pasty faces often mean a ‘free pass’ travelling through the checkpoints, and while rickshaws aren’t usually allowed pass from one side to the other, the presence of a pleading tourist seems to help this process along. This was put to the test in the wee hours of a morning, when travelling through a checkpoint with eight people wedged into a five person car (sorry mammy). We stopped at the checkpoint and the torch of ‘law enforcement’ looked the passengers up and down. With little hesitation we were waved on.
The final curve ball which makes a simple A to B trip a mission in Dhaka is the weather. Visiting between May and September means monsoon season, which of course means rain.
A lot of it. The muddy roads rapidly evolve to swamps and a walk becomes a wade. People cover themselves with plastic sheets, umbrellas, scarves, bags, the lot- and they carry on, no matter what their task.
The key to surviving the scramble of Dhaka and its many obstacles, is persistence. Weaving through traffic jams as a pedestrian means commandeering any available space large enough to fit into and barging through at all costs.
Dhaka traffic can smell fear, and can easily swipe the upper hand in this tedious battle of wits.