“Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon…” Martin Sheen lies on a bed focussing at the ceiling fan, which becomes the blades of a helicopter, and back again. It’s a brilliant beginning to a brilliant film, and whenever I watch it it’s as if you can sense the heat and fatigue and chaos that’s enveloped him, and will do as soon as he leaves the room.
Dhaka in 2006 is obviously nothing like being in Saigon in the 60s, but the other day I found myself lying in bed staring at the ceiling fan through the mosquito net, the whirling blades just visible in the moonlight. Just as Coppola mixes the sound of the fan blades with those of a helicopter, an emblem of the Vietnam war, it struck me that the rhythmic chug of our fan here in Dhaka replicates the ‘tuc tuc tuc’ of the Baby-Taxis and all the other little engines that create the beat of the city. There’s no escaping it, even at the dead of night. And then before I knew it I was woken up by the first call to prayer at five, which shatters the silence and fills the room like a wave. Our flat’s right by a Mosque, so our routine becomes regulated by the guy in the Minaret. I actually quite like the sound, but it’s a constant reminder that what-ever you were dreaming or doing, you’re definitely in Dhaka.
When you step out in to the street you can’t help but get swept up by the heat and dust, and feel the fatigue and teeter on the edge of the chaos. Dhaka’s hard, if not impossible to love, but I do kind of like it. If you wanted to personify a city, then New York could be Frank Sinatra – all glitz and glamour and wealth and fun but with a sinister, not-mentioned undertone. I think Dhaka would probably be… Pat Butcher – overweight, ugly, poor, but has come through the shit, is hard working, well-meaning, and with great character. As I’ve said, exactly because it’s such a bastard of a city the fact that the people who live here (that I’ve encountered) are so friendly, polite, energetic, proud of their country, keen for it to improve and manage to put up with such difficult conditions makes me feel incredibly pathetic and enviable of their spirit and patience and vitality.
Given that the Bengali’s have withstood genocide to establish their country, poverty and poor planning gets put in to perspective. Most people do seem to recognise what’s wrong, and have an opinion on how it might be put right, which is critical, and the forthcoming general election in January is dominating the media. There are a lot of strikes at the moment and on Oct 27th the current Government is being dissolved with a contentious caretaker one being installed, and with an extra 5000 police/troops apparently being drafted in to the city, everyone’s advised to stay at home. Personally I feel that it’s no bad thing that people are taking to the streets to protest their views. They’ve got some damn good reasons to protest. French trade-unionists would consider this place nirvana.
Some things inspire me to take to streets and stage a one-man demonstration myself though. I’d consider myself a fairly laid-back, patient person, but three things in life I can’t stand are wasting time, being ripped off, and unnecessary noise. And almost as if the Gods are deliberately winding me up, this is what happens every day in Dhaka.
Whoever designed the Dhaka road plan probably wasn’t the most qualified person for the role. In fact, I would let him near a Scalectrix. If you want to go from the north to south or vice versa, almost all the traffic gets sucked in to one big intersection in about the middle of Dhaka, and this can cause tailbacks for miles. There are very few lane markings except on main streets, and traffic lights only on main junctions, but these seem to be suggestive rather than proscriptive. You also get a mix of everything from herds of goats, horse-drawn carts (admittedly these two aren’t common) to bikes, 300,000 rickshaws, motorbikes, three-wheeled baby taxis, cars, busses and lorries. Most public transport vehicles look like they’ve been reformed out of a crusher at least three times. There’s absolutely no sense of any rules of the road. Every square foot of space is battled over, so on busy roads the traffic can be bumper to bumper whether you’re at a standstill or 20mph.
So we waste huge amounts of time stuck in traffic. Then there’s the noise. I have no problem with things like pneumatic drilling, because that’s being done for a reason so there’s no point stressing about it. But in Dhaka, to use your brake brings down upon you the level of shame, indignity and humiliation that can only be comparable to owning a Simply Red album. To counter this, the driver will slam down his (I’ve never seen a female driver) horn to make everyone else aware that it wasn’t his fault and he only stopped accelerating to avoid certain death to everyone.
Drivers also seem to have this Moses complex, this unwavering belief that even if there’s total gridlock for a mile in front, if they just use their horn for long enough all the traffic will suddenly miraculously part in front of them and they can then drive along happily. To adjust/stop for pedestrians seems to imply that you’ve just impregnated your neighbour’s Jack Russell, so it never happens, and yesterday one guy actually drove in to Georgia, shunting her in to a puddle, rather than wait till she got out of the way or swerve to avoid her. Then he drove off.
So it’s constantly noisy and drives me mental. The worst is that you can walk down a little street right on the edge of the road, and drivers will still insist, even though they’ve got ample room, to honk their horn a couple of times just to let you know they’re there. It’s as they’re saying: “Toot toot! Look at me, I’ve got a shit car and I don’t know how to drive it! Toot toot, I’m so excited about how shit my car is I think I’m going to accelerate and drive straight in to a dog/rickshaw/sewer/wall! Look at meee! Toot toot tooooooooot!”
Lastly we still get ripped off left right and centre. I don’t have an objection to people living in extreme poverty seeing westerners and having a go. If I was on holiday here, earning a western salary, I wouldn’t even mind paying through the nose because it’s still comparatively cheap and you might as well be generous. But as we’re on a standard lower-middle class Bengali salary ourselves, we can’t afford to pay western prices. And when taxi-drivers refuse to haggle down from a price triple the actual fare, and just scowl and drive off, it can become extremely frustrating.
Consequently we ran out of our month’s salary after about two and a half weeks, precisely because we’re paying around 70% more for everything. We have a taxi-driver who’s spotted our routine and takes us to our language class every day and back, and he now makes in a morning more than we make in a day. Expect to see him teeing off at Stoke Park next summer.
Other than that trinity of stress things are pretty sweet though. You get used to the power cuts every night. When the water’s off its frustrating, but only 10% of Dhaka has internal plumbing anyway, so you can’t complain. My body’s mostly adjusted to being a walking European buffet for mosquitos, and the repellent (which I prefer to call Lynx Bangladesh) stings more than the bites itch so you just manage. And it’s still made worthwhile by the view of palms every morning. For half an hour, before going out and taking Dhaka on the chin, you can sit and breath in the heat and stare at the palms and listen to the crescendo of this part of Asia awakening. And that’s so exciting, so much better than London, that for half an hour at least everything is just bloody wonderful.