If we survive today, then we can start thinking about tomorrow.
That’s a saying in Bangladesh Mostafizur Rahman Jewel, my brilliant local guide told me.
Bangladesh is a muslim country, 97% muslim. Names are often common and can be generally used to identify the social class and occupation of the name bearer. Jewel, the name he goes by is his nickname, given to him by his mother.
When we first met in the lobby of my hotel, Jewel asked how I’d like to get around the city. I nonchalantly replied, “I’m up for absolutely anything” and refereed to my multiple escapades in auto rickshaws and rotting taxis in India. “Anything?” He questioned. “Just about anything?” I rebutted not sure what exactly he was suggesting. “You’d go on the back of my motorcycle?” he asked. “Is it safe?” I knew that it was a question that would not be fruitfully answered.
So before I knew it I was trusting my life with a stranger I’d known for a little less than 180 seconds. I was holding onto the bike’s rear wheel handle with a ferocious death grip as we engaged in a high stakes game of Tetris as the bike weaved in between an array of vehicles. The buses stood out like whale sharks among minnows. Windows were cracked; chassis were dented. For four days, I rode around Dhaka, a city famous for having the worst traffic in the world on a motorcycle. Each time I did not once think about tomorrow.
Dhaka city has 400,000 Compressed Natural Gas auto-rickshaws and even more cycle rickshaws. The average person drives around on a motorcycle. If you can afford a car, you can afford a driver to chauffer you. The range of vehicle types and disorganization of the roadways creates unthinkable congestion and leads to some of the most atrocious traffic in South Asia.
It takes over an hour to go less than 6km. On a good day.
The motorcycle has serious advantages shaving travel time off of a trip. Jewel could slide past the queues on the far left or the far right. The center is far too maze like to be navigable or time effective. Once or twice, we’d be up on the sidewalk to slide past, honking at pedestrians as if they weren’t supposed to be there.
On the bike, you’re out and exposed to the experience of the city in a way you can’t be in a car. You have to fight to suck in breathes out of the in the hot, exhaust-filled air. Beggars are tapping you on your elbow rather than on your window. I’d look down at the hard tarmac rushing by and think about how quickly it’d rip all my skin off.
When people would ask me to compare what Dhaka was like in comparison to other Indian cities I would say it feels similar everything is multiplied by three. There are bigger more people, more traffic, more bone chilling sights of poverty. Besides that, everyone is more curious about you and friendlier.
Dhaka is a city of about 18 million people. But its population is expected to almost double by mid century. There is a natural population push from sea level rise. Bangladesh is predicted to lose 30% of its land in the southern region as that will force a migration of the 4 millions inhabitants of the tide country seeking refuge in the city. Additionally, Dhaka has a magnetic pull that draws low skilled laborers from all corners of Bangladesh and further afield looking for more job security than they can find in rural areas. The city’s garment factories, rickshaws, and boat ferries offer workers to flow between employment opportunities. Whereas if crops fail in the village, that same man or woman is out of poker chips.
Climate Change Photographer, Din Muhammad Shibley, captions one of his photographs of Dhaka: A deathtrap for 30 million.
Shibley has come up with a creative solution to document climate change, effects in the natural world that are slow-onset and not conducive to being recorded with photography or even videography. So, Shibley has identified individuals living in volatile regions of Bangladesh and has recorded photos of the lives of the same people over the past decade. He has shot their rebuilt homes, their empty pens after cyclones have swept livestock away, their arid fields because the rains have yet to come. Shibley is telling stories of those effected. He, too, is interested in the impact that climate change has on individual human lives.
I looked over Shibley’s shoulder as he showed me his portfolio. We look at a portrait of one Bangladeshi man, but the concept represents hundreds of thousands, or millions. One image that was particularly striking showed a flash flood that hit the center of Dhaka in 2008. Cycle rickshaws were pushing through the waist high water. The image looked venetian but instead of Gondolas.
I met Shibley my first morning. That afternoon, we hopped back on the bike and went out to the western fringe of the city. The western fringe is dominated by industrial areas. Hundreds of brick kilns pierce the sky, piles of coal and cement-sand dwell in stark contrast to each other, the country’s largest cattle market sits conveniently next to the country’s biggest tannery.
We’d zip by groups of doti-wearing workers as they called after me, “Hey, Hey!! Where from? What country??” in an familiar showing of the Bangladeshi extreme friendliness.
We weaved through the mud alleys of the cattle farm then stopped along a port area of the inky black Buriganga. There were a series of barges docked on the side of the river. Each barge was stained black from coal, imported from Northern India then brought down on the river from the northern region of Bangladesh. I walked across the rickety bamboo gangplank. It was no wider than 2 feet and wobbled like a trampoline as I stepped across. Here, humans labor like ants.
Along the river, workers were reinforcing the embankment, making concrete blocks with limited equipment, relying almost entirely on cheap manual labor. The men building the embankment would sleep on top of it at night in bamboo rivers.
Men were bathing in the stained, polluted river. Once steam shovel was pulling sediment out of the bottom of the river, other more permanent dredging equipment was laying along the far bank. The river systems here, part of the largest delta in the world, deposit so much delta that the dredgers need to constantly work to maintain the waterway and keep it passable for the shipments coming in and going out.
It was May Day. A parade came rumbling through the area trying to rally the workers along the river to join in on the protest to increase minimum wage.100 taka ($1.20) a day is minimum wage at Garment factories that produce clothes for global brands we enjoy in the western world like H&M, American Eagle, Gap and many others.. But many workers in Bangladesh make much less than that.
I was lucky to have a Bowdoin friend, born and raised in Dhaka, to meet up with in the evenings and get his insight on the city. Farhan was in the class of 2010, a senior when I was a freshman. He was roommates with my rugby captain, so we first met as I was embarrassedly running around his apartment complex scandalously underdressed during ‘optional team building.’ Funnily enough, that same rugby captain’s ex-girlfriend was also in Dhaka on a business trip so we had a miniature Bowdoin reunion, all stemming out of Pine Street apartment ‘A.’
I can’t tell you how fantastic it was to have a friendly face greet me at the Dhaka airport after 3 months of wandering solo through India.
I spent my second day in Dhaka with Farhan and Ilse, touring old Dhaka, the 350 year old Armenien Church, and an uncompleted Mughal outpost. That evening I went to an architecture opening about green architecture in Bangladesh at a chic art gallery called the Bengal Art Lounge.
The day was a model of what became a trend of my Dhaka trip. I’d spend the day exploring out in the heat, filth, and squaller of the unique localities of Dhaka then by night hot,I’d attend nice dinners, art galleries, and dip my feet into the Bangladesh ‘high society.’ It really complicated and fluffed up the narrative of my five days.
It took about an hour and a half to get from the Northern district of Dhaka where I was staying to the main river terminal. We passed through some tremendous sights: a neighborhood with a rickshaw hub, where rickshaw wallahs come at 4 or 5 in the morning to rent out a rickshaw each day to make a living. Imagine 3 new york city blocks replaced with wooden stables, but filled with metal carriages fixed behind impressively loose-chained bicycles that were painted with scenes from Bollywood movies—often violent ones. We passed the biggest electrical market in Bangladesh. There were hundreds of thousands of wires leeching like ivy across the raggedy brick buildings. I looked up into the grey sky in the hopes that a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike and blow us to bits.
There are many times during Dhaka road trips were your very close, face to face with people on the Dhaka roads. People sit on the top of buses, in the back of pickups, women are side saddled on motorcycles. Lots of grins were exchanged. They clearly got a kick out of a whiteman braving the traffic without the guard of aluminum doors and glass windows and I was enjoying their creativity—total stupidity—of where they were chose to seat themselves on vehicles. We stopped for a train to pass. There were four adolescent kids standing up on the roof leaning into the wind with their arms and legs stretched out as the train hurtled by at a significant tick. Other boys were seated on the roof, clutching onto their small loose bags that held their belongings.
We finally got to the river. As each minute passes after one hour on the back of a motorcyle, the ride gets less and less comfortable, but the statistical chance of an accident also multiplies so I was more than happy to hop off.
We crossed over the river by bridge and left the Dhaka city for the ‘outskirts’ (nothing had changed except the riverside road was sandy rather than paved). The buildings along the river edge were ten story apartment complexes which were saturated with non-export quality garment factories and powered by generators floating on the black river.
Using Jewel’s help, I was able to get a couple of amazing vantage points like the roof of a building (thankfully it did not collapse–there is a huge problem of building collapse in Dhaka. Due to squatter’s rights, where property becomes yours if you live in that location for 15 years, buildings happen to fall down after 13 or 14 years of migrant workers moving in. Those who aren’t killed are forced to move on and find elsewhere to go). We got up on top of a ferry boat, out on the water.
I was invited into a garment shop. The Bangladeshis are so generous and accommodating to guests—they believe guests are sent from god—that the supervisor of the garment shop was about to send a boy out to buy me a coke (equivalent to 3 days of his wages) until Jewel was able to stop him.
We took a ferry ride on the river and luckily didn’t get hit by anything or fall into the polluted river. The wooden taxi boat, powered by a driver with a single paddle took us across the river to a ship recycling yard where men were breaking down gigantic freighters with hammer and torch and using the pieces to build new ferries. In Bangladesh, labor is cheap; the place is built with by hand with limited equipment—gigantic infrastructure is built with hammer and man power. At one shed in the yard, men were melting down recycled pieces of metal and recasting it into propeller molds carved into the sandy soil. The site was absolutely incredible.
The pictures of the river don’t do it justice. Pictures can’t describe the heat, the deafening noise, the horrible air quality, your heart beating in your throat, or the sweat soaking your brow. Everything was moving in the river, with method, but without organization. Larger motorboats were so overloaded, water would spill onto the surface. They would barrel through the lanes of wooden water taxis with little regard. Gigantic ferries are docked to each other like a pile of leaves. It was madness.
For lunch, we went into the crowded congested streets of old Dhaka for a country-famous Biryani dish adorned with a fantastically delicious onion sauce. The establishment has been passed down from father to son over the past 400 years. They make two dishes only–both are top notch.
In the afternoon, we returned back to the Northern neighborhoods, between Banani and Gulshan to visit a slum. The Slum is essentially on an island and the slum dwellers cross the waterbody everyday by boat you can see the boats—a dotted line—on google maps. The women go to households right across the water to provide domestic help, the men go pull rickshaws, collect recyclables, or do other lowest-tier-of-society jobs. The sight at the foot of the slum is one of extreme contrast. On one side of the water you see tin shacks–a shanty town that is home to 200,000. On the other you see high quality apartment buildings, some of the most expensive apartments in the world, even more than in New York City because of the severe demand for space in Dhaka.
In the Slum, I was immediately greeted by about forty of the happiest most cheerful kids I’ve ever met. There were jumping and smiling, grabbing my calves and waving to kindly greet me. All around the place I was greeted by ‘Hi!’s’ and big smiles. These people with nothing are happy; people in wealthy societies suffer from clinical depression. I felt welcomed and comfortable there. The people mostly lived on dirt floors, up to ten families lived in a space about the same size as my Hanover, NH bedroom. There was some construction going on, one triangular-roofed house was built on stilts on top another triangular roofed house. UNDP clinics and USAID sanitation bathrooms were set up around the slum. The only open space, the ‘playground’ was a trash-filled sandy patch, the brim was lined with feces from bathroom sites.
Most of my time in India, I was traveling with a huge translation barrier. My experience was dumbed down to only what I saw, smelled, and heard but couldn’t understand as language. Traveling with Jewel changed that. As I was walking around the slum, returning the kids Hi’s, one woman directed her thoughts, slightly aggressively at me. I asked Jewel what she said. He thought for a moment of the best way to translate it and said, “You can say Hi, but that does nothing to change our circumstances. How else can you actually help us?”
It immediately made me realize how stupid and foolish I was to feel so nicely greeted by all the hellos and kindness. I had nothing to offer these people and knew of no system to help them. Over the past couple of days, I’ve thought about what that woman said.
Just exposing myself to the way over 3 billion people in the world really live while I’m young is important. While I don’t have the means or position to do anything about it now, it’s better to learn about these lives than be ignorant of them.
At the end of the day between the river and the slum I felt an emotional toll. I was exhausted. I went to bed recalling the events, sights, and occasional horrors of the day. I saw toddlers walking unaccompanied on the sides of major highways, a man with a broken back walking ape-like on his hands and knees begging at red lights, young kids swimming in the river to collect recyclables—drowning is the number 1 cause of child mortality in Bangladesh—families sleeping-stone cold-on the ferry docks and in the ferries themselves seemingly with no place to go.
The next afternoon, I met up with one of Farhan’s friends, Ashish who is working for his father to start up a new boutique hotel that is currently under construction in Gulshan. From the 12th floor of the hotel, I was able to get a great view of the slum and sat down to paint.
On my last day, I met with an architect who works for Urbana, a firm based in Dhaka that designed a cyclone shelter. They don’t have a donor yet to build their design, but it was cool to learn about their research that went into their design. During a cyclone the main dangers are wind, flooding and livestock safety. Most shelters are only needed for a few years every other year, or perhaps only once in a decade so they need a function that doubles as a school or a mosque. Imagine the Guggenheim museum in New York but octagonal and half the size. That’s a little bit what the shelter looked like. The structure itself embodied a cyclone.
In the afternoon I met with a government official who works for the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, jointly funded between the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations Development Program. He told me a little bit about the country’s plans for disaster preparedness in both the coastal regions and up north were there are a lot of droughts.
After my meetings, I got a private tour of the National Parliament building, a Louie Khan designed structure modeled off the lotus, the national flower of Bangladesh. It’s a magnificent structure that looks both historic and futuristic. It could either be a renovated medieval castle or designed by aliens. It’s built within a reflective pool that mirrors the geometries of the building. Inside, there are spectacular spaces in between the outer-shell offices and the center. My favorite part of the parliament house was the library. There were hundreds of thousands of spectacular artifacts. Laws and codes from all parts of India.
I flew out that evening. Before I left, Farhan said that I had seen more in Dhaka that many see in a year. I even went to some places that many of his friends have never been or will never go in their lifetimes.
The flight left the Dhaka airport at midnight and arrived at 3am Dhaka time, really a hellish flight as far as timing goes. But the flight itself was spectacular. There was a 20 minute low ascent over southern Bangladesh, I saw the lights of Chittagong and thin trails of lights outlining the costal fringe of the Sundarban. We bumped through some weather as we got up over the Bay of Bengal. We broke through the clouds and into the heavens–a spectacular moonless sky lit up by the constellations and the milky way at its brightest. The plane followed the coast of Burma into Malaysia. Out over the left wing I saw the lights of Bangkok. Orange clouds hovered over the city and vicious cast bolts of lightning down into it.
We began our descent into Singapore as the sun just broke the horizon. The clouds were pinkish. I saw the organization of the boats in the harbor neatly lined up, the elegant glass facades of the skyscrapers. I could see the cleanliness from the air.
It took a little while to get off the plane. It wasn’t even that filled up, but many of the passengers in my cabin were trying to steal the blankets. I heard a couple of rounds of “you can’t take that.” I didn’t know what was happening until the guy in front of me had a tan blanket snatched out of a shopping bag with the stewardess saying “you can’t take that.”
I read the notice on my entry card, “drug trafficking punishable by death” and swallowed my adams apple as my bag got scanned upon leaving the airport. I feared that Dhaka airport crew put some drugs in my bag to play some sort of sick joke.
On the ground, I was struck by the lack of traffic, the Lamborghinis, the quietness. The 12 hours spent traveling to the Dhaka airport, flying to Singapore, taking the clean efficient metro into the city, and walking the final well swept blocks to my hostel was one of the most shocking experiences of the year. From the bottom 1% to the top 1% in a flash.