7. The metropolis of Dhaka: the big Mango!

How can I begin to describe Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh and my home for 13 months – a city which I love and hate in equal measure? Love it or hate it though, you could never be ambivalent. Dhaka is one of the top twenty most populous cities in the world and is home to 14 million people. It is the fastest growing of the mega cities and population is projected to double by 2025. Nothing I could write in a blog post could do it justice or capture the essence of this crazy city. I can only hope to offer a snapshot of my personal experience. (Click here to see the location of Dhaka on Google Maps.)

Here’s how the introduction in my Lonely Planet guide begins:

‘Dhaka is charged with a raw energy that is at once enraging and engaging. Millions of individual pursuits constantly churn together into a frenzy of collective activity – it is an urban melting pot bubbling over.  Nothing seems to stand still.  Even the art moves, paraded on the back of the city’s sea of 600,000-plus rickshaws, which throb with colour and restlessness even when gridlocked.’ (5th edition, 2004: 42)

The above-mentioned rickshaws (three-wheeled, bicycle-driven, passenger vehicles) are my favourite mode of transport. (See post 12.) Taking any trip through Dhaka is like being presented with a high-speed photographic slideshow. So much is happening in every frame. Travelling slower by rickshaw allows you to spend a little longer on each frame, and if you get stuck in traffic you can zoom in. In fractal Dhaka, there are scenes within scenes within.

For longer journeys I usually take ‘baby taxis’ (mini three-wheeled taxis resembling cages on wheels, called CNGs – after the fuel they use i.e. compressed natural gas) and public buses (see post 54). On the main thoroughfares the traffic is incomprehensible – you would think nothing could move – but it does, albeit very slowly and uncomfortably at times. Those traffic lights that are functioning are ignored and the streets are an impossible gridlocked tangle. Ramshackle and overcrowded buses, CNGs, commercial vehicles, air-conditioned mini-buses, private cars, jeeps, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws all jostle for space and position. Indignant exchanges accompany frenzied hand gestures. There is a continuous cacophony of loudly blowing horns – each with its own ear-piercing pitch. Fumes fill the air from belching exhausts and a dark fog rises. Drivers and passengers light cigarettes – adding tobacco pollution to petrol pollution. There is also the sound of constant throat-clearing and spitting as people struggle to keep airways clear. On such occasions it is easy to see why it is said that Dhaka is the most polluted big city in the world.  (See post 15.)

Sitting, as described, in lines of over-revving traffic in intense heat in a CNG, which is open and low on the ground, is therefore not the most pleasant of physical experiences. It is inevitable that at times you would curse this city – especially when it can take two hours to travel a distance that should take fifteen minutes. Trying to get to and from work or meetings can become a nightmare. And yet, despite the mental and physical discomfort, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had during commutes in Dhaka. And when I think about it, I’ve had many tedious and uncomfortable commuting experiences in Ireland – e.g. on the crowded commuter trains from the city out to Maynooth. Traffic jams at home can be dull, impersonal and uninteresting: stuck in a long orderly line of cars with nothing happening. Here though, if you’re in the right frame of mind, there are intimate insights to be had into the life of the city in all its humanity. When stationary, the CNG is quickly descended upon by street vendors and beggars – men, women and children – a lot of whom have severe deformities. Many linger and stare when they see a foreigner. However, you can end up getting to know both them and your driver a little: I don’t think I’ve ever taken a CNG journey without an exchange of some sort – the only limitation being my knowledge of the language (Bangla). In the midst of this madness, I cannot help but feel sorry for rickshaw-pullers who have to haul passengers or heavy loads on carts while breathing in this air. In downtown Dhaka it’s much quicker to deliver by hand, or shoulder, or head, and people infiltrate the traffic carrying extraordinary loads of anything from computers to air-conditioning units to large baskets of fruit. Meanwhile, over on the footpaths (if present), crowds of pedestrians compete for space. They must avoid holes, contend with displays of merchandise that spill over from shops and stalls, completely blocking the paths, or stoop under heavy tangled networks of electric wires, strung loosely, and often dangerously low (at eye-level), across streets. Picture this entire chaotic scene enveloped in a thick, grey-brown blanket of smog. This, then, is the seething and exhilarating streetscape that is downtown Dhaka.

During the journey from the airport, I was struck by the buildings: Soviet-like blocks of modern, multi-storey apartments – all looking much like each other in structure, some new and others in varying stages of decay – none possessing anything of architectural interest. This is very much the facade Dhaka presents at first glance. However, when you take the time to explore and look beneath the surface of this hectic, scuffed city, you will be surprised and thrilled by the beauty that lies beneath. There is much of architectural interest (from Mughal, Colonial and other periods) – especially in Old Dhaka – though unfortunately, many remarkable buildings are now engulfed by modern buildings and in ruin, modernisation winning the race against preservation. See Waziuddin Chowdhury’s album on Facebook, for some great photographic insights in this regard.

As well as hidden architectural gems, Dhaka has its share of ‘must see sights’. These  include the Louis Kahn designed National Assembly Building (1963); Ahsan Manzil – a beautiful pink palace on the banks of the Buriganga dating from 1872; the walled Mughal Lalbagh Fort and its extensive grounds, the first stone of which was laid in 1677; many beautiful mosques e.g. the 18th century Sitara (Star) Mosque, the national mosque – Baitul Mukarram, and my favourite, a Mughal-style, all-white mosque, Sat Gumbad, not far from where I live, dating from 1680;  the colourful Dhakeswari Hindu Temple;  the Buddhist Dharmarajikha Monastery; and the beautiful and peaceful Armenian Church; in all of which I’ve taken refuge, on more than one occasion, from the crowds and noise of the city. Then there are the spectacular and teeming markets, or ‘bazars’ as they are known locally, e.g. ‘New Market’ – a mammoth market spanning Mirpur Road, both sides linked by an equally heaving footbridge, and the delightful Mohammadpur bazar, close to where I live. It would not be difficult to lose oneself in a bazar for a day.

All of these highlights are indeed impressive, and the many people I have met while visiting have enriched each experience. (For example, I bumped into a white-robed, devout Muslim with bright-red, henna-dyed hair at Sat Gumbad mosque who, during the course of our conversation, asked me all sorts of informed questions about Irish history and politics. Incidentally, a lot of older men dye their hair and beards red: seemingly, the prophet Mohammed himself used henna to dye his hair and beard red.) In a city like Dhaka though, quotidian, everyday life is equally as interesting as the ‘must-see’ highlights. I get as much of a thrill from a chance encounter, or a new insight into someone’s day-to-day life, as I do from the spectacular. Being addicted to the unpredictable, it was with a sense of adventure and excitement that, during my first few months in Dhaka, I would set out a few evenings a week and take a rickshaw to a random location. Armed with my map, I would then attempt to find my way back to Lalmatia on foot. I’ve never been disappointed – though I suspect I may have walked a lot more than was necessary on many occasions. After sunset it’s cooler and therefore easier to walk. There have been so many magical moments on these walks. On many streets there is little or no street lighting and I have lovely memories of being treated to cha (sweet milky tea) at shadowy, candlelit, street-stalls, while discussing politics or religion or geography or history. There are memories of other encounters too, often silent because of the language barrier, but nonetheless engaging. For example, one night I came across a warehouse in a dimly-lit back lane, where a white-robed old man sat cross-legged alongside sacks of grain, chewing betel nut and doing calculations on an abacus. He looked up, at first showed surprise, but then gave me a broad, warm, toothless, red-mouthed smile. I never once felt uncomfortable or threatened being out alone in the dark. (Luckily, I suppose, I never do though.  For example, I have never felt afraid being out in Dublin late at night either – even when I have had to leave gatherings on my own, Cinderella-like, to rush for the last night-bus/train to Maynooth. Thankfully, I have never been given reason to feel such fear.) In Dhaka, perhaps a lot of this is down to being discreet: I wear the local shalwar-kameez, leave my camera at home and carry only my map and a small amount of money for rickshaws and cha. During these early months in Dhaka, I would never arrive home from my rambles without having seen something new, or met someone new, or learnt something new, or experienced something new. Happy times: happy to be here and full of the joy of travelling.

Old Dhaka deserves a special mention. It’s about 2 km south of the ‘modern city’ and is an exhilarating place to spend time. Its narrow, cobbled streets are overflowing with life and commerce and I’ve had some wonderful experiences on my many trips here: taking in the views of old Dhaka from the roof of the Mughal-era Bara Katra, one of the oldest buildings in Dhaka (1644); sitting quietly in a shaded spot in front of the pillared archways of Sitara Mosjid (Star Mosque), enjoying its proportions and beautiful mosaics; chatting with students in Jagannath University beside the memorial to the liberation war dead; eating fresh pineapple at Bangla Bazar; seeing shiny new rickshaws being assembled and painted at workshops in Lakshmi Bazar; taking a trip on a small, wooden boat with Ali (and on other occasions alone) on the bustling Buriganga river; wandering around Sadarghat, mesmerised by the frenzy of riverside life; having lunch with Dihan and friends at the One Stare Hotel (this is not a mistake!);  drifting down a narrow laneway by one of the old stone houses, characteristic of Hindu St, only to arrive at a cool, medieval-looking courtyard with a large, deep, stone well at which a man stood washing; meeting two extraordinarily beautiful, elegant women in blindingly colourful saris, on the doorstep of one of these grey stone houses; being introduced to the local ‘big man’ on Hindu Stree,t who had travelled and spent many years overseas, and later chatting to him over cha, late into the evening, about, amongst other things, his favourite musical artist – Bob Marley; watching the local Hindu artisans, the shankharias, making conch-shell bangles; being surrounded by circles of curious locals and trying to answer their questions; taking hundreds of photographs of everything and anything. I could go on at length about the joys of drifting in Old Dhaka.

Since I will be spending most of my time in Dhaka, the majority of my blog entries will touch on aspects of the city. For example, there are posts that discuss poverty (See post 30), political culture (See post 51), the Arts (See post 31), the rains (See post 27), the garment industry (See post 52), my experiences upon arrival (See post 6), and many more. And of course the people of Dhaka populate these stories.  I want to briefly mention another side of Dhaka that I had an opportunity to experience during my early days in Bangladesh. I was invited to visit an Irish development worker’s home–a lavish, air-conditioned, two-bedroomed apartment, overlooking Gulshan Lake, in an affluent suburb of Dhaka. His expatriate lifestyle afforded him a car (SUV) with personal driver, security and household help. I also attended a party in the luxurious home of an Irish woman, married to a wealthy Bangladeshi, in another affluent suburb of Dhaka – Baridhara. These two experiences were surreal. I stepped into a world of privilege and luxury, having just witnessed extraordinary scenes of hardship and poverty on the journeys there through the streets of Dhaka. (Between a third and a half of Dhaka’s population lives in severe poverty – mostly in slums.) The juxtaposition of such starkly contrasting experiences was difficult to assimilate. These neighbourhoods – Gulshan and Baridhara – together with Banani, constitute the diplomatic zone and tend, consequently, to be foreigners’ ghettos. (However, even in these more upscale suburbs, a misstep in the dark can drop you through a pothole into an open sewer.) I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience and witness this other side of life in Dhaka, but I came away feeling glad to be living in Lalmatia and on the volunteer side of the fence – for now, anyway.

With its many problems there are those who say that Dhaka is unliveable. [The Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, has identified Dhaka as the second worst city in the world to live in, for three years running now – 2009 to 2011. (Harare was the worst.)] You need time to fully experience Dhaka. Yes, conditions are tough. It’s not easy to get information and when you do it is more often than not incorrect. It invariably takes much longer to get to places and carry out tasks that you might have planned. If you’re stuck for time and really need to get something done e.g. if you’re working and living here, like I am, then it can drive you crazy at times. But if you have the luxury of free time, there’s an invigorating, edgy excitement to the crucible that is Dhaka city, and it makes you feel truly alive. All you have to do is step outside your door and you’ll be immediately swept into the flux of daily life.

I’ve put some photos together with difficulty: I have so many and each one tells a story.  It’s almost impossible to choose and it’s equally difficult to sum up each photo in a short caption. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (79 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1 Dhaka aerial view

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3 responses to “7. The metropolis of Dhaka: the big Mango!

  1. I love your blog. You are able put into words what I would, if I could. It’s such a pleasure to be working in Dhaka with the Bangladesh Health Project and sharing a guesthouse flat with Dorie LaRue.

    • Lovely to e-meet you Sara! Thank you for your lovely comment. Much appreciated. I’m glad you are enjoying your time in Dhaka. I’ve had a look at the Health Project’s website – interesting work. I ‘met’ Dorie virtually too through my blog: please pass on my regards. I’d love to be able to join you both right now for a cha and a chat. (Happy Times) to you both! Best wishes, Ann

  2. I love your writing, your detail and the depth of your contemplations. Many travel blogs are so shallow. I also love your sense of adventure. Intrepid!

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