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Dhaka, Part 3: The maddening traffic guide to Dhaka

The Southasian traveller’s experience (& part-guide) to moving around Dhaka (since we have quite some ‘by and for’ the fairer ‘farangs’) 

Growing up and living in Mumbai, we all learn to make our peace with traffic; honking; pollution; and compromised quality of air to breathe in, but we also take pride in our ‘lifelines’ – the railways and the BEST buses. Never before have I missed the crowded local trains of the city, as much in the last two weeks. I missed the run to the train; the sweaty underarms of fat (& thin) women; the stamping of feet; the joys of chatting with ‘train friends’ (very unique to Mumbai).

I love urban spaces and can overlook the traffic for other positives, but traffic in Dhaka is something else. It is right in-your-face, making it very very hard for you to ignore the traffic for anything else that the city may have to offer. Hundreds of cars on the roads are quite an eye-sore. The reason for this is a nearly absent system of public transport. Public buses are but nowhere as efficient as apna BEST ( Three cheers to BEST); other modes of transport are the cycle rickshaws; autos, also known as CNGs since they use CNG and not petrol; blue & white non-air con taxis; yellow & black air-con taxis (did not see too many of them) and innumerable privately owned cars.

Almost all private cars are the long sedans and other big SUVs. The hunch-back cars are consciously avoided as they are considered of a lowly status when compared to a sedan. Quite a few sedans are refurbished Japanese cars available in Dhaka for a price as low as 2-3 lakh takas. They are also locally converted to run on CNGs than diesel or petrol.

Bigger is worser

The colourful cycle- rickshaws are the most popular to move within suburbs or sometimes even across small suburbs. Lean men wearing the traditional lungi, cycle tirelessly, carrying 2 or sometimes 3 people on their cycles. I hear they grow old and fragile very soon as cycling takes its toll on their health, as do the uneven roads; speed breakers; up-hill roads; and heavy-weight passengers. Rickshaw-art seems to be quite a hit here with the most Caucasian and European ‘farangs’. The seats tend to have a downward slope than an upward, leaving you wonder about the exact moment when you may slide off the seat.

Fare: The minimum fare for a short ride is 10 takas; a ride to the other end of the suburb will be 20-30 takas (you obviously pay more because you are not a Bangalee); to the next suburb will be 50-100 takas depending on how well you bargain. I refrained from bargaining too much with the rickshaw-walas as they mistook for me a Bangalee, hence avoided over quoting the fares.

Rang Birangi (colourful)

Raat Raani . . . the reigning 'queens of the night'

CNGs resemble small caged units on wheels. They have jaali (lattice) doors fitted on for both the passengers as well as the drivers. My host in Dhaka said that this was because at one time (before the jaali doors came into fashion) people were likely to get mugged in the autos. The doors now make it difficult for anybody to hop in from outside (the doors can be opened only by the driver from the inside). I must admit, it made me feel safer and the one time I took a CNG without the jaali door, it made me nervous enough to cling on to my bag. CNGs are more easily available than taxis.

Despite this, my friend in Dhaka became a victim of innovative mugging. She was speaking on the phone and suddenly just felt her hand rise up. Some scrawny guy stood on the bumper of the auto; cut a hole through the roof; pulled her hand up; snatched the phone; and ran away. (This was late evening; apparently too dark for anyone to spot him)

Fare: The minimum fare seemed to be around 50-70 takas; 100 to 300 takas for longer distances depending on what time of the day you hire a CNG. Be prepared to pay more for rides during peak hours and also if you are a non-Bangalee looking farang. I was once quoted 70 takas for a short distance and on discovering that I am not a Bangalee, the auto wala said, “Oh, you are a Farang! The going rate for Farangs is 100 takas. I thought you are Bangalee and hence asked for 70 takas”.  I, of course, paid him only 70 takas at the end. (Aah – the joys of being a Southasian traveller) Tip: Start the bargain by quoting at least 40% lesser than what the driver would ask for. 

Driver Chacha

View from the passenger seat, looking at the CNG next to mine

Taxis are mostly rickety due to low (or no) maintenance and made me worry if the door is going to come off if we hit a bump (few of our taxis in Mumbai as bad). Not being used to taxis, a ride in one gave me a scary headache. When you are stuck in never-easing traffic, the taxi can make one feel very claustrophobic. I took a taxi-ride just once, and swore to keep off them for the rest of my stay. Riding in the private cars was no better: made me feel equally claustrophobic.

Fare: Could be anything between 100-600 takas depending on the traffic and whether you hire it for a one-way trip or a roundabout. 

Coming up next: Dhaka, Part 4: Women, Bindis and YUPpies

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About Sarita

My 10,000th day on Planet Earth was June 28, 2010

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