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Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 3: Dhaka When the Sun Goes Down

Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 3: Dhaka When the Sun Goes Down

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The road is deserted.  A vast expanse of asphalt and not a single car or bus to spoil the sight.  Flat and empty.  Almost lonely.  This isn’t a Manitoba secondary highway on a summer Sunday evening.  This is Dhaka at 3 am in April.  And for once there is no traffic in view, no diesel fumes hanging thick in the air, and no horns to test your sanity.

There is something about the coming of darkness that brings a measure of peace to this city.  As the last light of dusk fades and the night creeps forward like the rising tide, gradually filling every alley and backstreet, the frenetic activity of the city continues unabated.  The roads are still congested with vehicles, vendors are still doing a brisk business, and markets – fish markets, meat markets, fruit and vegetable markets, spice markets, dry goods markets – are illuminated by strings of bare bulbs suspended under bamboo and tin or plastic canopies.  The silver scales of carp, the deep red flesh of tomatoes and the dark green of bundles of cilantro defy the coming darkness, if only for a moment, and add more colour to an already kaleidoscopic market scene.  The people in the markets – young female domestic workers in multi-coloured saris, men with dark moustaches – stand in mucky sandals and trade soggy taka notes for bundles of produce or flyblown cuts of meat.  Barefoot, shirtless children straight out of a tropical rendition of Oliver Twist watch from the sidelines.  The air is humid and there is a pervasive smell of goat piss, onions, damp earth and dried fish.

And then, as midnight nears, the traffic begins to wane and the markets and shops empty out.  All but the most diehard vendors pack up their stands and head for home, running lengths of chain through eyelets bolted to pieces of plywood and then securing the crude storefronts with a padlock.  After 10pm, before which freight traffic is forbidden from entering the city limits, consumer goods flow into Dhaka on the flatbeds of massive Tata trucks with leaf springs so thickly stacked over the rear axle you would think this masterpiece of Indian engineering is the mechanical embodiment of the Greek mythical figure Atlas. 

Traffic accidents are a common occurrence in Bangladesh.  Part of the problem is the completely erratic and unpredictable driving habits of most whom get behind the wheel of a car or truck or the handlebars of a motorcycle.  Looking at the tires on some trucks or passenger buses, however, and one sees another part of the problem:  tires completely bald with the sidewall weave beginning to show through and deep cuts in the rubber.  Once the road gets wet slowing one of these large, bald-tired vehicles down could be like hitting the breaks on a fully loaded coal train bound for Roberts Bank.

Those salespeople with more modest means of transportation stuff as many chickens as possible into wicker cages and then ride into Dhaka clinging to the sides of a locomotive or seated on the roof of one of the passenger train cars.  But it is more than just vendors that stay out into the wee hours to try and make that last 50 or 100 taka:  rickshaw wallahs and CNG drivers, bus ticket hawkers and street food vendors – anyone who figures they can make a few extra taka – will spend a sleepless night waiting for that lucky break.

This is the best time to wander the city.  Just like there is a Golden Hour for photography or that brief period in the early-morning when the sound of drizzle falling on the lake surface has a crackling electrical quality to it and the fishing is just right, so too is there a perfect time to wander Dhaka.  Around midnight, and for some time after, one can drift from crowd to crowd, hanging at the edge of the shadows and watch the bargain banter for a 25 kilo bag of red onions or observe a self-proclaimed medicine man use strange and confusing diagrams to try and sell his herbal version of Viagra to a crowd of young men.  At night, in Dhaka, the anonymity that travelers often seek in their journeys comes easily.  Until the sun comes up, or until someone tries to engage you in a conversation, you might as well be Bangladeshi, and this socio-cultural camouflage is your friend.  You cease to be B’Deshi (foreigner) and have the freedom to wander as if Dhaka was your own, as if it was an extension of yourself and everything and everyone in it was part of the same shared fiasco that is city living.

There are other changes that nightfall brings to Dhaka.  Perhaps most enjoyable of all is the drop in temperature.  Daily highs in April (the month which according to BBC Weather had on average the highest daytime temperature, at 35 degrees) were often into the high-30s.  With humidity levels varying widely, but generally trending upwards as the month wears on, the daytime heat is like nothing you will ever find in Canada.  Not even a mid-July heat wave in Ottawa or Osoyoos can beat the heat here, or so it feels.  To try and give the reader a better notion of what this kind of heat feels like imagine doing this:  wrap a scarf around your face and put a snowsuit on, run on a treadmill and work up a sweat, strip down and spend the rest of the day sitting in a sauna, flicking water on the hot rocks to keep the humidity level as Bangladeshi as possible.  This is the oppressive, invasive, inescapable feeling that a heat wave in April inflicts upon Dhakaites.  You never stop sweating and any air conditioned establishments you may visit are a bittersweet experience because at some point you know the good times will end and it’s back outside and into the inferno. 

Around 7pm, when the sun finally goes down, the heat stays, thanks in part to all the concrete and asphalt that continue to radiate heat.  Then around midnight the temperature begins a gradual slip towards tolerable.  Twenty-seven degrees, 26, 25, maybe bottoming out at 24 or 23 if you’re lucky.  Suddenly Dhaka’s weather seem tolerable, even enjoyable.  “Why would you ever want to leave?” you think to yourself.  It’s warm enough that you never need to worry about having extra layers with you when you go out in the evening.  Yet, now that it is late at night, it is cool enough you can relax.  At a roadside Bangladeshi eatery, while washing your hands at the tiled trough sink, you glance up at the dirty mirror and notice the familiar sheen of sweat on your brow is gone.   

Back in the CNG a breeze might pick up.  It is then – when your driver’s face is illuminated by the match he struck to light a cigarette and the only sound is the hum of rubber on asphalt and the steady drone of the small motor as you accelerate into the distance – that you appreciate Dhaka when the sun goes down.