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If you don’t laugh you’ll cry: things that amuse me about Dhaka

BANGLADESH | Saturday, 15 June 2013 | Views [2223] | Comments [1]

After a week in beautiful, sleepy-green Chandpur, returning to Dhaka is an assault on the senses. As the ferry approaches the city, the first thing to hit you is the smell rising up from the water… a sulphurous, putrid mix of chemical and organic waste. From the clamouring Ghat (port), the CNG ride through Thursday evening jams is a rude welcome home – the ear-ringing traffic din, the dirty-hot, exhaust air, grit and dust and sweat. It sounds pretty awful, but there is a part of me that is loving this adventure… knowing that I can be at peace in this madness, even enjoy it! Dhaka may be many things, but you can never say it is boring! So I have been inspired to finish a blog that I started weeks ago…. Things that I should hate, but don’t, about Dhaka:            

Biodiversity and things that bite: Welcome to the ecosystem that is our apartment where you will find all manner of things that creep, and crawl, and bite. Ants! Who knew that there were so many different types of ants – normal black ants, tiny little orange ants, giant beasty ants the size of ladybirds, crazy little brown ants. Ants that attack old, sick cockroaches, bringing them down like a pack of hyenas with an elephant. Big ants that bite you on the butt and leave massive welts; little ants that bite you on the feet, leaving a trail of red spots that make you look like you have chicken pox. Mosquitos bite too, sneaking up on you noiselessly in the evening. Geckos are much friendlier, chattering away on the walls. But bats are not welcome – their frightened flight around the room, dodging fan blades, makes even this creepy crawly lover squeal and run for cover.

Rickshaws: The essential Bangladesh transport experience, pedal rickshaws are the ultimate in eco-friendly transportation. Rickshaws are powered entirely by the sweat and effort of wiry men who, for 30 takka (50c NZ), will cycle you to work, ducking and weaving through the busy Dhaka streets. These tricycles have no gears, no breaks and very little suspension, but are a surprisingly relaxing way to travel. The cushioned seats are just big enough to fit two Bideshi (foreigner) butts – or an entire family of Bengalis. On sunny days you can ask to put up the decorated canopy, and on rainy days they will tuck you in under sheets of blue plastic. But you have to keep your wits about you – buses don’t stop for rickshaws, neither do cars at intersections. Be prepared to land on your feet if your rickshaw stops suddenly and flings you onto the road.  

Smashed up buses: Not willing to pay 30 Takka for a rickshaw? Take the bus! As a woman you have the honour of sitting at the front – squeezed onto narrow benches (not always bolted to the floor) right on top of the hot engine. From this vantage point you can watch the jandal-wearing driver swerving the mammoth bus around obstacles with one hand, while smoking and turning to talk to the man behind him. I am yet to see a steering wheel that is not held on with rope, or a windscreen that is not smashed-in in several places. I’ve even seen one with a plant growing out of the dashboard.

Foreigners who have learned to read the Bangla script always giggle at the signs on the busses; there’s no character for the ‘s’ sound, instead they use one that sounds more like ‘sh’. When translated, the ‘city service’ becomes the ‘sh*tty service’ and the ‘sitting service’ becomes the ‘sh*tting service’. 

No one takes the bus during Hartals (strikes) as they are frequently the targets of angry mobs. Busses are covered with the scars of many battles – every inch of panelling dented, every window cracked or splintered, no mirrors, no headlights. I am constantly amazed at what people consider to be a perfectly serviceable vehicle.

Thunder storms & weird weather: Bangladesh has the coolest storms! You can feel them coming before you hear them – the air charged with electricity and the skies eerily broody. At night, the horizon starts to pulse and glow, back-lighting the buildings. As the storm gets closer the wind starts whipping around, slamming doors and stirring up dust. The thunder cracks and booms like bombs. I have often leapt out of bed thinking that the building next door is collapsing or that something has exploded in the street, only to be drawn out onto the balcony to watch the lightning show. As the storm passes overhead, the clouds pulsate with light, building up charge, then let rip with dazzling lightning forks that leave you temporarily dazed.

May is supposed to be hot season – and stormy season. But this year has been unseasonably cold and wet. Don’t get me wrong, we have certainly had hot weeks; the type of hot where you discover parts of your body that you didn’t know could sweat. At this time of year, evening storms are supposed to cool things down, but we have been having evening storms, and day-time storms, monsoon-like downpours that flood the streets, and rain that settles in like a winter’s day in Auckland. Even the locals think it’s weird. In fact, every country I’ve visited this year has been experiencing weird, unseasonable weather… and people say there’s no such thing as climate change!

Fashion and torture, Bengali style: “Aunas are instruments of torture designed by men” so says a kiwi woman who has been living in Bangladesh for the last 10 years.  Essentially a shawl or large scarf, aunas are worn draped over the shoulders and across the chest to protect your modesty. No self-respecting woman leaves the house without one. If you leave the house and realise that you’ve forgotten to put your auna on there is no question that you must turn around and walk back up five flights of stairs to make yourself decent! Aunas add an unnecessary extra layer of insulation in 400C heat; they get caught on things, fly up in your face, and fall off when you bend over. Aunas are stupid. The only redeeming thing about them is that they are quite useful for drying your hands on when there is no towel – and for mopping up sweat. Despite my adherence to culturally appropriate dress, there are many times out on the street when I feel decidedly underdressed! Many of the more conservative Muslim woman wear tent-like burkas over their shalwar khemeez – long sleeves, faces covered, I don’t know how they don’t roast. Even though there are times when I want to rush in and liberate them from these oppressive cloaks, I have to admire the way that, even covered from head to toe, many women still manage to look beautiful and individual.

And the rest: …. and then there’s the politics of persuasion (want justice? riot; want your parties policies considered? shut the country down with endless strikes)…. And the construction madness (I can’t even begin to describe the way buildings are put together here! Let’s just say ‘health & safety what?’)…. Power cuts…. People staring at you because you’re a bideshi (foreigner)…  Five AM pray calls from grainy mosque speakers… tap water that can kill you…

… all of which you HAVE to laugh about.

Dhaka has been named as one of the least liveable cities in the world – life here is full of challenges and inconveniences, but as GK Chesterton said, “an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”

Laugh at the madness, and embrace the adventure.

 

Tags: bangladesh, dhaka, transport

 

Comments

1

Funny list! And to add with it, here is a list of the 7 best things to do in Dhaka for the ultimate experience: http://nijhoom.com/7-best-things-to-do-in-dhaka/

  Raw Hasan Jun 26, 2016 7:16 PM

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