Cycling in Sydney Australia
Work recently took me to Bangladesh, for the fourth time. Having just about criss-crossed the country on previous trips, this time I was based entirely in Dhaka.
The city has a frantic, frenetic and entirely unfocused energy that I love; given the speed with which the place grows (15 million residents and counting) and the sense at times that there are few rules, it feels a bit like a frontier town… just a really, really big one. Dhaka has the dubious distinction of having been recently rated – again – the least-liveable city in Asia by The Economist. (Yes, this annual index does come across as a little like a checklist of 'Stuff White Expats Like' – but it’s not as though the locals are uniformly happy with things as they are, either).
Wherever you are in Bangladesh the quality of road construction leaves a fair bit to be desired and with a range of odd and exciting obstacles to navigate – potholes you’d need a packed lunch to get out of, other vehicles, roadside stalls, random perambulatory animals, open drains (and a belief that only the poor walk) – the national form of transport, the rickshaw, comes into its own.
When I say that rickshaws are everywhere, I do mean everywhere; aside from the sound of car-horns, the constant sonic backdrop is a chorus of tinkling bicycle bells and the tin carcases of empty rickshaws rattling over the uneven roads. The Lonely Planet Guide to Bangladesh relates how the Dhaka police once estimated there to be around 600 000 rickshaws in the city, but the Dhaka City Corporation (a bit like the city council) insisted the ‘official’ figure to be 88 700. In response to a journalist’s question about the enormous disparity between these statistics, a DCC spokesman replied, ‘As far as we are concerned there are only 88 700-and-something rickshaws in the city. If you disbelieve me, why don't you start counting?’. (I guess this makes Dhaka the capital of the rickshaw capital of the world!)
This is Saidur. He and his rickshaw were based outside my hotel, and I asked him if I could take a photograph because he had just had his rickshaw re-decorated. One of my Bangladeshi friends once rather neatly summed up the national aesthetic as massimum (‘maximum’) – more is always more; for a new rickshaw, this means gilt-trim and bright colours and fantastic designs and shiny metal are absolute musts:
During the week, work supplied a car that I was (sadly) required to use, since Dhaka traffic is also massimum – more gridlocked and noisier and slower than just about anywhere else I’ve ever been, getting worse as the country becomes wealthier and those who can afford it rush headlong to acquire that social status symbol par excellence, the car – although, amazingly to a Sydneysider, almost completely lacking in aggression.
I had Saidur take me a few places over the weekends I was in Dhaka; as we went (reasonably slowly) on our way, he told me his baby daughter had been sick – diarrhoea, depressingly common in the very young although almost every Bangladeshi knows how to treat it; the country invented oral rehydration therapy – and that he’s working now to pay off the loan for the rickshaw’s refurbishment: 15 000 taka (about $250). He was really proud of his overhauled vehicle, to the point of having his name and phone number (which I've blocked out) painted on the back; ‘rickshaw art’ – which features on the lower panel behind the seat and usually show images of Bollywood stars, animals, or scenes from Bangladeshi village life – is a minor genre in itself:
Rickshaw-wallahs like Saidur are usually slum-dwellers, sometimes recently-arrived from the countryside or perhaps without any other marketable skills; they make the proverbial rakes look reasonably well-fed and are out plying their trade in the most draining of monsoonal humidity and the most furious, driving rain alike. Riding a bicycle is fun. Being a rickshaw passenger is pleasant; I suspect that driving one is not. For the many mechanically-minded on this forum, here is a photo of the ‘workings’ of a rickshaw (taken out of a car window, so apologies for the quality of the image) – no gears (no need, ever; the entire country is dead flat), no suspension and almost no moving parts:
We all know that an appropriate ‘seat’ is important on a bicycle – sitting in a relaxed manner and shifting in the saddle as appropriate to conditions – and this applies to riding in rickshaws as well, given how every bump and pothole jars straight through their frames. The principle also applies to being in Bangladesh more generally; flexibility and being able to improvise on the basis of whatever the situation presents are valuable skills. Bangladeshis are remarkably patient people accustomed to dealing with uncertainty, and an attitude I’ve heard expressed there as ‘I will manage it’ (and they usually do) is a mindset worth emulating. Sitting in the back of a rickshaw and surveying the scene seems to fit with that approach perfectly.