Friday, October 06, 2006

Traffic Problems

Dhaka City, the central part of this massive sprawl, is not particularly large: the up and coming areas of Mohammudpur, Lalmatia and Dhamondi are in the north east, with the expatriate and embassy areas of Golshan to the north west. Old Dhaka hugs the river to the south, with the university and European town north of that as the link between our busy quarter and the more relaxed and grander Golshan area. So in all, crossing between Lalmatia and Golshan (where the British High Commission, Embassy Clubs and our clinic are) should not be more than five kilometres, fifteen-minute dash in a CNG Baby Taxi, or less in a proper taxi. But of course, this is Dhaka, and every bit of travelling is a chore incomparable to anything else.

A CNG is a small green motorised rickshaw. It has three wheels, a small gas powered engine and usually a driver of dubious ability. Having got lost (again) somewhere in central part of the European city, and made up for it with one of Dhaka’s most expensive but least tasty donuts (from the Pan Pacific Sondoran Hotel), myself and Tim (another VSO YfD volunteer who will be working in Sylhet in the north) felt reinforced enough to take what could be our last journey into the old town. Walking out of the hotel and along a small stretch of undulating pavement, we were greeted with an excited shout from a small CNG whizzing along the outside lane of the three-lane road. With one hand waving at us, and two eyes ensuring our movements were not lost to him, he swerved blindly across the traffic, missing lorries, numerous CNGs and anything else in his ridiculous path. He was clearly convinced that we were the lakhipoti (millionaires) to make his day, but nearly lost his sale by driving straight into the six inch wide and three feet deep gutter than runs next to all Dhaka’s streets. Yet rather than sheepishly attempting to remove his battered CNG from its new home, he instead kept asking us where we wanted to go! Such driving clearly should not be considered as a negative point when selecting a CNG. His eagerness was, however, endearing, and so Tim and I took his hobbling vehicle into the old town. After we had helped him lift it from the gutter, check the engine and clean part of a seat. But we got a discount…

Other drivers are similarly vivacious characters. A one-eyed man with three different impact marks on his windscreen seemed disappointed that we chose to avoid his services, whilst another was busy re-attaching the handle-bars of his crate to the front wheel with a tennis racket handle strap. Another kept turning round to have his photograph taken whilst doing 45 mph on what amounts to a glorified vacuum cleaner.

The other, slower mode of transport is the rickshaw, a large tricycle driven by a rickshawala. There are nearly 700,000 rickshawalas in Dhaka alone, making it a major form of employment in the city. Few walas own their rickshaw; instead, a select number of bosses run massive cartels, carving out areas of the city where they operate. Rickshaws are rented to the drivers for eight hours a day, and once this rent is paid, a wala can expect to take home around 100 Taka (about 70p). They are some of the hardest working, least respected and socially and economically oppressed people in the city. Nothing sums up the relationship between the city’s vast urban poor and the small, wealthy elite than the sight of suited business men being driven to work by walas wearing their only longi and sandals. However, the rickshaws are also a major cultural expression, and they are all covered in bright, colourful paintings of folk stories, film scripts and political figures, with tassels, bells and horns in reds, yellows, greens and purples.

Riding them is precarious, and getting a fair price a challenge. Every pothole sends shudders through the wooden frames, and drivers use their bell rather than their eyes before pulling out of a road. They think nothing of heading down major motorways or competing for road space with buses belching out thick grey smoke.

All other traffic uses horns as a warning of approach, and brake reluctantly. The roads are so clogged that the journeys alluded to earlier take 45, 50 or 100 minutes, with detours being made through parks, along railway lines, through slums – whatever will get the driver to his destination quickest. But because everyone is doing it, the whole city is a constant traffic jam, with idling engines spurting out all sorts of noxious fumes: by the end of the day feet are usually a dull grey such is the filth in the air and on the roads.

But there is a strange sort of culture to the nightmarish traffic situation that surrounds the city: in the chaos there is an enforced hierarchy of which vehicles can push (sometimes literally!) others of the road and who will brake for whom at junctions. And the geometry that the rickshawalas and CNG drivers beats anything Beckham or Zidane manage: they are constantly calculating angles, projectories, speeds and braking distances to allow this jammed city to keep moving. Only sometimes, more romantic qualities override their classical mathematical minds, and when seeing a potentially large, Western fare walking dazed along a road, a miscalculation of the road and the gutter can perhaps be forgiven.

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