Sometimes it can be hard to characterize a place in a word or two. How would you characterize Paris or Sydney? With Dhaka it’s easy: Gridlock.
Dhaka is absolutely jam-packed with cars and buses and motorized rickshaws and rickshaws and more cars, and more buses, and… Really the number of people in vehicles is unbelievable. And they all have horns and bells and they all use them constantly, so the whole place resounds to the sound of horns and bells and sits in a fog of exhaust fumes. I don’t know why they use the horns because it makes not the slightest jot of difference to anyone – but perhaps there’s some psychology in an illusion of control by pressing on the horn.
You may think I’m kidding but quite seriously journeys of a couple of kilometers in Dhaka regularly take a couple of hours to complete. It is absolute slow-motion vehicular chaos.
The main entertainment when stuck in the jams is watching the local buses compete for business. All the buses are dented and scraped from shouldering their way in to be first to the waiting passengers. With cars and rickshaws there’s some sort of obscure local pecking order that dictates who gets priority – with the buses it’s all about muscling past the competitors.
Anyway, yesterday we spent the day in old Dhaka seeing the tourist highlights. I have to be honest and say that most of these reinforce why Dhaka is not a major tourist destination. The mosque, the temple, the Fort, the Pink Palace – they are all very run-down and not well maintained. This is a very poor country and it shows in the maintenance of the old buildings. And in several cases they weren’t really all that impressive even before they started running down. Sorry, sad but true.
The people we talked to were lovely and the lack of tourists meant we got greeted on the streets. People would come up and shake our hands and ask where we were from. We took a couple of rickshaw rides to get from place to place and even in the rain we got waves and stares. When Declan couldn’t go into the mosque because he was wearing shorts, a generous old man unwrapped his head-scarf and gave it to Dec to use as a lungi.
We had a really lovely guide who was thrilled because Declan was the youngest person he’d ever shown around Dhaka. As Obaidul was from the top-rated tour company in Dhaka that wasn’t because he was inexperienced – I guess people just don’t bring their kids to Dhaka.
The absolute highlight for me was a trip on a little boat on the river from the main ferry terminal. The wooden boats are driven by a man with a single oar held in place by his foot. and are used by everyone to shuttle from one side of the river to the other. A sort of mobile bridge like the traghetto in Venice. They are for short trips so most people don’t even bother sitting down – although the rain could have had something to do with that too. Certainly the rain made for muddy streets
Instead of across the river, we went sideways and got taken out amongst the shipyards where the ferries, barges, and cargo boats are built and repaired in a cacophony of metal being hit and bent and welded. The ferries, which go for a couple of hundred kilometers upstream, carry up to three thousand people at a time – which is just gob-smacking because they are simply not that big. Around us kites dived and took fish out of the murky river, oblivious to the human activity around them. Although the river was a hive of activity, after the streets of Dhaka the boat seemed amazingly peaceful.
After the boat trip it was a drive back to the hotel. Ten kilometers – two-and-a-half hours. That’s Dhaka.