The road taken.

Traffic here is intense. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and I guess the facts speak for themselves. In Bangladesh as a whole, approximately 12,000 people die each year due to road accidents. That’s 32 fatalities daily and these are of course the ones which are reported and recorded. The actual figures are in all probability even more depressing, and it’s not unfathomable to assume they’re much greater than the ‘official’ records state. I’d like to say that I’m surprised by these revelations, but the truth is I’m not. If anything, all I can muster is a resigned feeling of acceptance and acknowledgment of such shocking information. 

Each time you travel anywhere you’re forced to enter a cauldron of stress and general mayhem. Even travelling by foot doesn’t shield you from the carnage as you stare longingly across to the other side of the road, faced with a solid wall of noise and fumes and a random mix of vehicles, people and animals. You glance left and right and can only wonder how you’ll ever make it to the other side. In the end it takes a moment of inspired bravery along with sharp eyes, some stern hand gestures, a little tactical weaving, plenty of luck, and a positive attitude, and eventually you should make it across. I guess some people don’t get all of these in sync though as it’s said that pedestrians account for approximately 60% of all road deaths each year. Again, this is a highly unsurprising figure and a recent trip north proved this.

I spent a couple of days in Dhaka this past week, and it was my first opportunity to see Bangladesh’s capital city in full swing. Allegedly home to 14 million Bangladeshis, an even more staggering and alarming estimate is that 1,000 new arrivals are said to make their way to the urban juggernaut each day in a desperate search for a better life. It’s fairly evident that many never fulfil this dream however, judging by the very visible poverty all around. Personally I found travelling across the city a largely stressful and unenjoyable encounter. Packed tightly into a CNG (Compressed Natural Gas, see photo below), the driver proceeds to push his and your luck to the limits. I’m not sure wing mirrors are ever really utilised, and most drivers adopt a policy of accelerate hard, brake even harder. As you peer out of the metal cage, the sense of fear intensifies as huge coaches and dent-covered buses hurtle past you on both sides, and you become a very vulnerable filling in a huge metal sandwich. The drivers don’t ever seem to anticipate even the slightest error or misjudgement as they travel bumper to bumper, leaving only the finest of margins when steering their way through the maze of traffic.

It’s a tough life being a pedestrian in Dhaka. In many ways it’s as if you’re invisible as drivers display total disregard for your presence. I lost count of the amount of times during our short CNG rides a pedestrian had to make a last ditch dive to safety, or our driver chose to accelerate upon seeing a group of maverick road crossers. It’s a heart-stopping moment when you see the whites of a person’s eyes and you have no idea if you’re going to plough straight into them, and you have no way of  influencing this. At some points I didn’t really know whether to laugh or cry at the craziness of the situation.  I think this Dhaka experience made me well aware of one thing. I’m still new to Bangladesh. In this whole blog update I’ve spoken of the chaos and the stress experienced on the roads. However, to the veteran expat that’s just the way it is. I think it becomes second nature and your senses simply become accustomed to the mayhem. As I peered out of the CNG and shuffled in my seat, occasionally jerking and flinching due to another near miss, Christa and Alyssa (fellow AUW teachers) sat displaying the perfect picture of relaxation and calmness, snacking on some freshly bought lychees. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel across Dhaka without a care in the world, tucking into fruit. One day.

I suppose I should award some credit where credit’s due. The drivers here, although effectively stark raving mad, are in some ways wonderfully gifted too. They possess nerves of steel and a resolute determination to get you from A to B in the quickest and niftiest way possible. Timidity gets you nowhere on the roads of Bangladesh. You clearly have to fight and struggle to earn your place on them, and if you can’t handle this, it’s time to remove yourself from the battle arena. Politeness also gets you absolutely nowhere, and if you’re reluctant to sound your horn in an unashamedly brash manner, you may as well give up before you’ve even started.

I’m not sure who I’d award the ultimate bravery prize too although I think the rickshaw wallahs may deserve the crown, as they’re at a much greater disadvantage to the others. Undoubtedly more vulnerable, they have to lumber their way through the mayhem, saddled to a rickety old frame and melting in the severe humidity of the Bangladeshi heat. On top of this they have to pull up to four passengers at a time. Their bodies are soaked in sweat, and only the lucky ones keep an old rag over their shoulder for the occasional wiping of the brow. They appear to get very little respect on the roads and as their vehicle is powered by pure physical effort, they receive least reward for their work. It’s a tough life. They’re the mules of the highways.

So this is my general impression of life on the roads in Bangladesh. It’s harsh, unforgiving, and certainly petrifying. It’s predictably unpredictable, and you’re all the more grateful when you reach your destination. T.S Eliot once said, ‘The journey not the arrival matters.’ However, in the case of Bangladesh I would argue that the arrival is far more important! I’m in agreement with writer Peter Hoeg, who exclaimed, ‘Travelling tends to magnify all emotions.’ Travelling in Bangladesh certainly does.

2 thoughts on “The road taken.

  1. Another great blog, John. I’ve just tweeted it out to my world.
    It reminded me of a trip we made when we left Sreepur Village orphanage on our return to Dhaka. Our bus driver get too close to a rickshaw and dumped it down a bank into a paddy field. Passengers at the back of the bus were shouting at the driver to stop, but he accelerated even faster to get away!
    Fortunately, a second bus with our friends aboard stopped to help.
    The rickshaw rider was slightly injured but his mount was a wreck. A crowd gathered and became hostile, understandably, at the misfortune of the distraught rickshaw rider who’s livelihood was now in bits.
    Thanks to the intervention of the founder of the orphanage, Pat Kerr, who is treated as royalty by the Bangladeshis, our colleagues were saved from the fury of the crowd. She promised he would be compensated and his rickshaw would be repaired.

    Under different circumstances, had the rider been killed, our driver would have made his escape and we probably wouldn’t have known any different.

    What amazed me was the way they overtake. We were overtaking a vehicle which was overtaking another vehicle! Worse than that, the same thing was happening in the opposite direction. A bizarre game of ‘chicken’ was taking place with our shredded nerves as the drivers managed to avoid each other and complete their manoeuvres with inches to spare!

    I look forward to your next blog, John.

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