Asalam walekum (hello). Welcome to Dhaka city. You are lucky to have chosen today for your city tour, as we have a three day holiday, so the traffic is not so bad and many people are sleeping as they were up last night feasting with friends and family for Shabe-e-barat. It is one of our main muslim festivals when we believe god comes a little closer to earth and will listen to our prayers. Perhaps he heard mine as I have a good customer today – life is a little difficult for a rickshaw wallah: there are over 600 000 of us in the city and the government has banned us from working in many areas of the city. So I am glad you have chosen to take your journey with me.
As we head into the snakepit that is Dhaka´s congested peak hour traffic, you will have to make sure you keep your hands in – the buses tend to bite around here as you might have guessed by the number of dints and scratches covering their bodies. I´d also hate for you to have your bag stolen, so tuck it behind, sit back and prepare yourself for the infusion of colour and movement that will surround you at every turn.
If you get a little hungry while on our tour, just let me know. There are plenty of opportunities to fill the stomach – a market stall on every corner. Look at the size of the mangoes, fresh pineapple, guava or perhaps you might like to try a giant plum, which when squeezed and cooked on the stove with some sugar makes a delicious local treat, a bit like jam. One of the best quick snacks around is poprice. Look to your left at the young boy helping his father control the heat from the gas tank. We mix the rice with some sand and turn it very quickly until it pops. No oil. It takes a little while but well worth it. Sometimes we add fresh tomato and onion, but I like it with some spices and chilli crisps mixed in.
What is your favourite colour? You only have to look around to see every shade and colour imaginable. Saris, rickshaws, even our trucks are covered with decoration and colour: images from our lives, our country and our hearts.
Can you hear that noise? It is the humming tones of our city´s entrepeneurs. Let´s head towards the market and I will show you where it is coming from. Each vendor is calling out what he is selling and the prices – perhaps you would like some tshirts, jeans or dresses. We have so many garment factories in our country – in fact many western clothes are made here. Perhaps a vibrant sari or some rickshaw art?
I am glad you aren´t too heavy, it´s pretty hard work on this bicycle. Pity some of the beggars cant work a little harder. For some of them, it is their job. And they make pretty good money. For some, it is their only means of existence – with 50 million living in the city, there is not opportunity for everyone to have a job. So the only opportunity for some is to beg. Mothers with babies, young children who look like they have never washed, amputees, disabled – the city is filled with them.
Let´s head somewhere that will get you out of this congested traffic, and to another form of transport. Water is the lifeline of many Bangladeshis considering the number of waterways in our country. We have the largest delta in the world, with a multitude of rivers winding across the country´s landscape. Sadarghat is a main boat terminal in the old town and the panorama of life on the river is vibrant. You can see all aspects of life in a 360 turn – cooking, washing, trading, eating, sitting. Down to the right is the wholesale market – traders coming in from all over the country to sell their fruit and vegetables to the city´s market stall holders. Would you like some fruit to take back to your guesthouse?
Perhaps a hair cut? Or do you need something mended? Look at them cutting up that cow – oh, perhaps I shouldn´t have pointed that out. Anything you like can be found in the laneways of the old town and everything you would do at home in a shopping centre is done out in the open – we have no space to hide ourselves away in buildings, nor the money to pay rent, so our offices are the lanes, the footpaths, the bridges: infact any space where a stall will fit, you will find someone selling something.
As we head back towards your guesthouse, you will have noticed it´s a little quieter in this part of the town. The government does try to clean it up as it is where all of the embassies are located. I don´t think it shows most visitors the real Dhaka – but they will learn soon enough. I don´t think you should hide yourself away from our city, but attack it with a desire to learn, admire and be shaken.
Donnobad (thank you) for riding with me. Enjoy the rest of your journeys. May you always remember your visit and our journey.
Life does not stand still in Dhaka – it is a constant flurry of movement and colour. We could learn something from it – the raw energy oozing from every square foot of the city is addictive, engaging and dynamic. Life should be like Dhaka.
Notice and feel what is around you. Every movement. Every colour. Every emotion.