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Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 1: Dispatches from Dhaka

Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 1: Dispatches from Dhaka

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Blog post
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Travel, among other things, is a sensory ‘trip’ and in the city of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, this is especially true.  Below I introduce the reader to just a few of the different sights and sounds you might have during a day in Dhaka.  Sit back, read this blog, and let your imagination take you to the dusty, hazy sprawl that is Dhaka.  Please check back regularly…

Perhaps the most pervasive sensory stimulants in Dhaka are the sounds (or noise, depending on what kind of sounds they are and how you choose to perceive them).  You cannot escape the sound waves:  in your room, at the office, upstairs or downstairs, in the bathroom, everywhere you go the sounds follow you.  It might be the incessant honking of horns and ringing of rickshaw bells; it might be the hard and resolute tock-tock of a hammer on bricks as a labourer breaks them into tiny bits to be used as road fill; it might be the cries of lunghi-clad construction workers or the calls of crows picking through a fly-blown pile of garbage.  Or it could be a hawker shuffling his sandalled feet through the streets, enticing you to his cart of fresh produce (tomatoes, cilantro, cucumbers, potatoes, papaya, carrots, onions, okra, and so on), yelling out repetitively and rhythmically. Or the two beggars that I heard this morning, alternating their cries: “Allahhhhh…” one said softly, “Allahhhhh…” said the other, with a bit more conviction.  As they walked down the road, hoping for a handout (whether of taka or food I do not know), their calls drifted up from the street, through the cobwebs and iron bars of the second floor room in which I was sleeping, across the mosquito-proof barrier protecting me from the wily Asian mosquitos, and into my left ear, my right ear being pressed into the heavy pillow.  Maybe they were brothers, friends, or partners in poverty, forced and then forged together by the madness and desperation that seems to be a big part of this city.  Towards midnight the sounds decrease incrementally until at last there may be, depending on where you are in the city, a few hours of relative peace. 

My apartment is located near a main railway line.  On the other side of the wall that separates my neighbourhood from the railroad there are those whose tiny homes (tin and wood and plastic shacks) are built at the edge of the tracks.  They are frosted with a thick layer of sandy brown dust, like you might see on vegetation at the side of a logging road, during a dry British Columbia summer.  One hundred metres, maybe less – that is all that differentiates my life of relative privilege from a life of picking lice from your sister’s hair and washing naked children in water the colour of Happy Planet’s Extreme Green fruit and vegetable smoothie.  As passenger trains leave for destinations unknown to me, screaming their lonely goodbyes (no matter where you are in the world a train whistle in the night will make you feel utterly alone) the dust billows around the tracks and settles on the roofs of these shanties.  The train, as it passes, stirs up a small windstorm momentarily giving life to the soiled toilet paper, snack wrappers, cigarette butts and coconut husks that litter the ground.  Other nighttime sounds:  the high-pitched whine of those perpetually irritating, ever-present mosquitos, seeking to drill a minute well into my flesh, extract some sweet West Canadian blood, and, should I be so unfortunate, leave behind a debilitating tropical disease.  Then towards sunup there will be the early morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque welcoming a new day and a fresh blend of aural stimulation, for better or worse.

The sights of Dhaka are disturbing, interesting, and enticingly beautiful.  Several come to mind:  the hunchbacked child, standing shirtless in the barren earth at the side of a busy Dhaka thoroughfare, drinking water from a cistern.  Another child – with a prominent cleft palate, walking amongst the beaten, bruised, haggard looking buses, and the cars, and motorcycles and rickshaws and people that make up a Dhaka traffic jam – sells single cigarettes to the city’s smokers.  And there are the women in bright saris and headscarves, walking along the edge of the road, and the pious in their Middle Eastern style tunics and kufi or kaffiyeh.  The Islamic gathering of Bishwa Ijtema was underway when I arrived and Dhaka became a destination for Muslims from across the ummah.  When stopped at a rail crossing, with many lanes of noisy, smoky traffic and a milling crowd waiting to cross, I watched a train roar through the inner city intersection.  Every last bit of available surface area, in and out, was occupied.  The young, the old – only men.  Most in crisp, white-like-the-inside-of-a-coconut panjabi and kufi.  Some clutching Bangladeshi flags, others holding scarves to their faces to protect against the dust and soot.

The variety of enterprises and small businesses that take up residence in many very public, very busy locations is impressive.  Chai stands at the edge of the train tracks, a shoe polisher/cobbler whose storefront is a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, someone selling socks (clean of course) and the vendor next to him belts, toques and sandals, a popcorn maker, a beggar missing a leg, sparks flying as an adolescent cuts rebar with a chop saw, someone sleeping under the stairs that lead up to a pedestrian overpass, an old man with a bathroom scale – for pennies you can know how much of the rich Bangladeshi diet is going straight to your waist – coconut vendors, piles of hot samosas inside greasy glass cases, bus ticket hawkers, rickshaw wallahs, a street corner mullah preaching his message.  Each vignette is an important part in the sum of Dhaka’s visual delights and I have found watching the street life to be a simple and immensely enjoyable pastime.

I could do more to describe the chaotic streetscape – the horns, the drivers jockeying for a spot in traffic, a pack of pedestrians standing in the middle of an asphalt expanse as vehicles rush past on either side, the smoke, the dust, the dust, the dust, the fumes.  But until you are here to be blasted all at once with the intensity and magnitude of a simultaneously decaying and thriving urban maelstrom – an especially difficult task for those of us who are sitting comfortably in an office or study or in a university computer lab – my descriptions will only brush the dirt and soot off the things that happen here.

I could describe Dhaka using Lonely Planet hyperbole (not to belittle the creators of the guidebooks that have prepared many for a journey to a distant place).  For example (I paraphrase):  Dhaka is a sprawling city of between 15 and 20 million that, like a black hole, sucks in anyone who travels too close to its peripheries.  This city will leave you breathless, longing for earplugs, and never at a loss for stimuli.  From the  bedazzled, multicoloured rickshaws, to the incessant honking and jostling of the stop-and-go, never ending, rush hour traffic, to the manic, musical lilt of the call to prayer at five in the morning as you lie in bed, swatting mosquitoes, Dhaka’s charms are many, but don’t expect to have them revealed to you right away.  This brash city is a no-holds-barred world of business-suited men pissing at the side of railway tracks and blind beggars on crutches, looking for that bit of luck that might turn their day around.  Sit back and relax?  Unlikely.  But then again, you didn’t come here to feel at home.

Or I could describe it the way a paranoiac or government foreign affairs website might:  Dhaka is a polluted, rapidly expanding metropolis that should be avoided by those with a fear of crowds, asthma, migraines, chronic indigestion and any other ailments that may be aggravated by heat, humidity, poor water quality, often sub-standard food preparation methods, a high population density, and smog.  You are strongly recommended to avoid driving, particularly at night, and crossing streets should only be done by way of the few pedestrian overpasses.  Do not drink the water.  Avoid non-essential travel after dark.  Disinfect, boil, bathe in DEET bug spray, and repeat.  Salads are bad, rice is good.   Seafood – forget it.  Eye contact – not a chance.  Walk with purpose; don’t resist.  Remember you are a like an ATM without the security guard and the air conditioning.

However, in working through my disjointed and disparate thoughts – looking for some central theme or idea to bind everything together – I realize that Dhaka may be a city that eludes description.  And fair enough.  Who am I to show up, spend a dozen days in a South Asian mega city, and claim to have any idea what is really happening here?  On the other hand, how long must one spend in a place before they can truly claim to know it and does knowing it make their observations any more valid?  What does time have to do with determining the authenticity of an observation or an experience?  Ultimately, my main goal is to avoid making this online journal sound like a work George Orwell once described as having “all the normal stigmata of the travel book, the fake intensities, the tendency to discover the “soul” of a town after spending two hours in it, the boring descriptions of conversations with taxi drivers.”  Good thing for me I still can’t have a conversation with any taxi drivers. 

As winter turns to spring, and as temperatures and humidity levels begin their slow, sticky climb toward the uncomfortable, perhaps Dhaka will start to make its character – its “soul” – more apparent to me.  Until then, take this quote into consideration when you are contemplating what I have written: 

“One of the pitfalls of long journeys is the tendency of the traveller to miniaturize a big city – not out of malice or frivolity, but for his or her own peace of mind.”                                                             – Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster

Development of other blog and podcast ideas is ongoing.  If there is something you would like to see covered, please say so, and I will do my best to satisfy your curiousity; likewise, if you want to offer any feedback or constructive criticism about how you think this blog can be bettered please contact me at beaudinbennett@gmail.com.

Allah hafez,

Beaudin Bennett