A week earlier, I’d met Matt, a transplant from Ohio. He’d suggested — for a truly home-cooked Dhaka experience — hopping on the bus from my cushy expat ‘hood, Gulshan, to Sadarghat Boat Terminal in the old part of town.
“Why not?” I’d shrugged. I’d been in Bangladesh only a few weeks and was eager to get a feel for my new home.
Today is Friday and, from what I’d heard, the best day to venture outdoors in Dhaka. It’s a day of prayer for many and the streets are relatively peaceful — the operative word being relatively. Still, you need to pay attention to avoid stepping into crater-sized potholes or getting shoulder-checked by speeding SUVs.
Matt, his roommate Tina and I walk between a pair of sad, polluted lakes and through a maze of narrow, muddy lanes behind my house to chaotic Pragati Sharani Street. If you’re going to get steamrolled in Dhaka, this is where it could happen.
Buses, cars and thousands of hand-painted bicycle rickshaws battle for limited pavement. Add the clamour of perpetual air horns and ad hoc pedestrian crosswalks and you’ve got a precarious recipe for a potential dhakastrophe.
We need to cross Pragati Sharani to catch our bus. Matt takes the lead, sprints to the strip in the centre. Tina goes next. I lag a bit, owing to my habit of expecting traffic to swerve and flow around me, as it did in Vietnam. Not going to happen here. I feel as if I’ve got a bullseye painted on my shirt and Dhaka’s drivers are keen archers driving arrows
Buses don’t come to a complete stop, but rather slowly troll the roadside as passengers impatiently jump on and off. Timing is crucial when boarding. You have to judge whether there’s enough space before committing to flinging yourself onto the steps, desperately lunging for the grab rail. We commit. The fare collector grips my forearm and pulls me in.
I inch my way to the rear where there’s an empty window seat. The coils have long burst through the Naugahyde covering. A rope is knotted around the seat frame and riveted to the floor, providing some measure of safety if the driver slams on the brakes.
The seat in front is crippled. It’s tilted almost all the way back, like a La-Z-Boy recliner. Its frame isn’t bolted to the floor and there’s no rope holding it down. Only the weight of the passengers keeps it static. My knees are pushed against my thorax. I look like a praying mantis in a hat and sunglasses. Matt grins.
“I’ve been on worse buses,” I offer stoically, if not truthfully.
Like the city itself, Dhaka’s rolling rust buckets are bursting at the seams with bodies. Bus travel accounts for nearly half of all city commutes, a statistic easy to believe when I look out of my window and see overcrowded double-deckers rumbling down the road and swarms of roadside passengers denied carriage due to overcrowding.
According to Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there are almost five dozen numbered routes and 26 private bus companies operating in the city. Buses are painted with route names and numbers in Bangla, bad news for riders who only understand English.
For these determined (and possibly naïve) travelers, catching the right bus depends on a combination of having a translator app (at least for numbers), a friend like Matt (who speaks fluent Bangla), and a little help from a bilingual local. Perhaps best of all would be to source one of those limited-edition colour bus route maps that US-based Urban Launchpad (urbanlaunchpad.org) and local advocates Kewkradong (kewkradong.com) recently distributed. These two groups have taken on the mammoth task of charting Dhaka’s public transit jumble.
White foreigners on a Dhaka bus are something of a rarity, it seems. Locals stare not because they’re rude. They’re incredulous. Curious. This is what I keep telling myself. One unsheathes his camera to capture me as evidence. Another purposefully moves close and watches my phone as I fuss with Google Maps. Privacy, like taking the subway, isn’t an option in Dhaka.
On the pavement it’s survival of the most aggressive. Our bus is near the top of the food chain, up there with the cement trucks. Three-wheeled micro taxis called CNGs — they run on compressed natural gas — shimmy and drift across the road, oblivious to the whimsical flow of larger, deadlier vehicles. Eco-friendlier cousins of the tuk-tuk, CNGs are kitted with steel window screens to prevent muggings. If a CNG were to get headbutted by a cement truck and flip, you’d be trapped inside. The good news is that bag snatchers would be kept at bay while you waited for the ‘Jaws of Life’ to arrive from overseas.
A man across the aisle yells something in my direction, pointing to my window. Matt says that he says that I should keep my camera inside the bus. Most snatch-and-grabs occur at stoplights, and there are plenty of those. On second thought those stops aren’t lights, just the lurch and lull of the brutal traffic. Are we there yet?
Sadarghat Boat Terminal is the starting point for river travel to many corners of Bangladesh. In a country of 700-plus rivers it makes sense to go by water. Plus, riverine traffic jams are far more scenic and easier on the lungs than those in Dhaka.
It costs BDT4 (about VND1,000) to enter the terminal. A minimal number of children attempt to hold my hand as we hopscotch between iron moorings, sharp concrete slabs, boisterous ticket hawkers, and thousands of scurrying passengers. Not a soul asks me for money — not even the kids — unlike in my expat neighbourhood.
Though there is plenty of life here at the waterfront, there is little beauty. It’s not the sort of place to grab a coffee and a bench (if you can find one) and idly watch the multi-level launches (motorised ferries) come and go while you toss your cares to the wind and sunflower seeds to the birds. That said, if you’ve got a decent SLR camera you’ll find an abundance of unique faces and colours.
From out of nowhere a man with a thick, saffron beard approaches and asks me, “What is your country?”
“China, duh,” is the only thing that comes to mind. He laughs and trails off. No one can say that Bangladeshis don’t have a sense of humour — amazing really, given the perpetual stream of downers that include factory crumblings, jaw-dropping poverty and waves of political protests.
We get the go-ahead to summit one of the moored launches to take pictures. It’s a wide-open view across the Buriganga River to the communities of Kathuria, Kaliganj and Char Mirre. From the action on the water below (despite this being a Friday), you really get a sense of how scarily busy Sadarghat can be.
A crowded ferry from the southern beach town of Kuakata quickly approaches port. Like minnows darting from a footstep, small, wooden sampans clear the ferry’s path.
The Delights of Old Dhaka
Sadarghat is located in Old Dhaka, which in the early 17th century was the capital of Mughal-ruled Bengal. Over time the city flourished as an administrative centre and trading port, specialising in exporting fine muslin cloth to Europe. Its fortunes shifted over the next 150 years, but today remnants from Old Dhaka’s glory days can still be seen in the nearby Hindu bazaars Tanti and Shakhari, famous for their skilled craftsmen.
Matt is determined to help me build an iron gut by making sure I eat some street food. Banana trucks line the roadside and men in lungis (sort of tropical skirts) pitch heavy bundles of the green fruit down to a human relay chain for storage at riverfront warehouses. They won’t sell me a single banana, however. Wholesalers. Matt says bananas don’t really count as street food anyway. They’ve got natural wrappers.
Farther on we hit up a guy dishing out jhal muri, a tasty local treat of puffed rice coated with mustard oil, chilli powder and dried coriander leaves.
Everything about this guy’s operation is homegrown, down to the paper sleeves made with — I kid you not — old test papers from a nearby university. Nazir got 82 percent, incidentally. And who needs a plastic spoon when you’ve got a paperboard shovel (probably made from a Rice Krispies box top)?
There are no worries about finding a non-existent trash bin. Just pitch everything on the ground (it’s all paper) and Mother Nature and her magical process of biodegradation will take over.
A tall man wearing a white kufi (skull cap) is scraping the translucent flesh from aloe vera plants to make juice, which he’s selling at BDT15 (about VND4,000) a go. We approach and a friendly crowd of locals gathers round.
Making aloe vera juice isn’t as easy as setting up a Kool-Aid stand. There’s no powder mix, for one thing. It’s a time consuming ballet, about as visually appetising as watching oyster shucking, slobber and goop flying everywhere. The end product, purportedly a cure-all, doesn’t quite beat a glass of wheat grass in the looks department.
Nonetheless Matt and Tina shell out for a cup. What they’re drinking looks like ectoplasm, a viscous concoction — a healing ointment that belongs on skinned knees, not inside stomachs. Still, I can’t resist and take a sip from Tina’s cup. Tastes like a roll of Scotch tape, which is to say not necessarily repulsive. But it’s no mango smoothie.
Our Unexpected Destination
Islamapur Road, one of the most famous in Old Dhaka, winds its way up from the river to the transport terminus where we’d jumped off the bus hours ago. This is the street to visit when you need bed sheets, curtains, textiles, aromatic incense, cigarettes, Hindu icons or a 100 percent natural loofah.
Matt chats in Banglish to a young man who’s running a micro mini-mart, the size of which might just fit inside a Japanese pod-hotel room. Next door is a long mouse hole of a passage, bathed in chiaroscuro, which in my mind leads to a golden fountain something out of Hollywood fantasy. In fact, we’re told, it leads to apartments.
With a smile and a warm heart we’re invited in.
For BDT2,000 (VND550,000) a month, you can rent a room. Digs are, how shall I put it… cave chic?
The winding concrete staircase is straight out of a medieval watchtower. You cook in the dark, using your gas burner’s flame as a light source. How you shower and take care of other personal matters isn’t made clear. The only significant sunshine is on the rooftop, where one of the tenants keeps a flock of pigeons in an immaculately organised cage.
The young man and several other spelunkers join us on the roof, politely asking questions, smiling, staring and taking our pictures (by now standard procedure), curious as to why we’ve come inside.
What can I tell them? I guess the truth is sometimes it’s good to say yes. Sometimes it pays to indulge curiosity.
Tina says she’s going to move in to the Yoda complex soon. She’s tired of paying more than BDT2,000 a month in the expat-bubble zones.
The booming sound of the azan (Muslim call to prayer) echoes off the concrete buildings. The freed pigeons dip and swirl in an orchestral fluttering of feathers in the dusky sky as we descend to the street.
I’m heading home inside another jam-packed bus. Everything on wheels is jockeying for position. It seems everyone is going to the same place at the same time on the same damn roads. The incessant and irritating cacophony of horns isn’t helping anybody get anywhere faster. Perhaps only a subway or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system, along with an en masse exchange of cars for bikes could do that.
It takes two hours to travel the eight or so kilometres back to Gulshan. If my maths were better I’d say that’s about an hour-and-a-half too long.
There’s little comfort knowing that even if I’d travelled the modest length of Dhaka by stretch limo, pimped Honda or full-suspension mountain bike I wouldn’t have moved any quicker.
But I surely would’ve got a better seat, one without a sprung coil sticking out of it.
For general information about the Bangladeshi capital, Wikitravel have a fairly comprehensive travel guide to the city — wikitravel.org/en/dhaka
Getting to Dhaka
You can fly to Dhaka with Biman Bangladesh (biman-airlines.com) from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Alternatively, you can travel with Singapore Airlines (flights from Singapore — singaporeair.com), Malaysia Airlines (flights from Kuala Lumpur — malaysiaairlines.com) and Thai Airways (flights from Bangkok — thaiairways.com). Alternatively you can take a train from Kolkata in neighbouring India. The line was reopened in 2008 and the journey takes around 11 hours.