Dhaka has apparently 600,000 rickshaws ferrying people around, and Bangladesh itself must have millions. You can get nearly everything and anything on a back of a rickshaw, and if you can’t, you use a rickshaw van. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a single street, anywhere, at any time of the day, and not seen one. Rickshaws are simply an embedded feature of the Bangladesh environment, culture, and economy.
The average rickshaw driver (rickshaw-wallah) makes about 100-200 taka a day (130 taka to one pound sterling), and most fares are very short distances of under a mile, for maybe 5-10 taka, unless it’s me on the back because I always pay a bit more. They usually rent their rickshaw from a gang-master, who takes a bit of their pay in return for providing the most basic food and lodging.
They work completely exposed to all elements ranging from monsoon, 100% humidity, 40 degree heat, and currently fairly cold fog, usually wearing extremely little, and also battle through horrendous traffic and sickening pollution. It should be said that half the congestion is their fault, because busy streets can literally become locked with rickshaws nose to tail, and nothing gets along.
But overall, I’ve got a lot of respect for them, because they’re truly the cogs in Bangladesh‘s machine.
Since I arrived in Bangladesh, as a really keen cyclist I’ve been desperate to drive a rickshaw to see how what they’re like. On Boxing Day I found out.
I was with Tom doing a few random jobs in Dhaka, and we wanted to keep the same rickshaw for the afternoon and give him a hefty sum at the end of it. Tom had to go and pick up some flight tickets, so I waited with the wallah, as a form of human collateral. Tom would be five minutes.
After ten minutes of waiting I made rudimentary small talk with the driver, where I’m from, where I live now etc, and mentioned that he had a nicely decorated rickshaw. He said I could get on the drivers seat. My eyes lit up as if I’d just been told I could come and sit on the pilot’s lap as he landed Concord. It was an empty side street, and I happily clambered on as a few Bangladeshi’s came to see the spectacle of a rich Western Bideshi (foreigner) casting himself as the lowest-status Bangladeshi.
I then pressed on the pedals, and the huge, wrought iron frame creaked a bit and moved forward. I was off! I was surprised by how light it was to turn, but it’s impossible to tip over, so I zig-zagged along getting the hang of it and then went back to our crowd, who by this point were cheering. I had a grin on my face. Tom still wasn’t there. I thought it would be fun for people to let the rickshaw-wallah sit in the cab and be towed by me. He loved it, and we set off slowly up the empty street.
I was enjoying it to, and getting some speed up. Naturally, I stayed on the left hand side of the road, rather than the centre. Obviously, I stayed about two feet clear of the parked cards. Stupidly, I forgot that although I was on a normal bike, my back wheel-base was about five feet apart. Alarmingly, I heard my wallah suddenly shout and try and steer me to the right. Sickenly, I looked down to my left and saw the iron mud card begin to dig itself in to the door of a nice blue saloon. Slowly we scraped to a halt, after leaving a ten cm long, five cm wide gash in the paint-work of the door.
And tragically, the owner of the car was sitting in it at the time.
He had to get out of the passenger side because we were still attached to the door, and we had to get out and push the rickshaw back out of the scratch to avoid any more damage. He was understandably apoplectic, and I immediately learnt the Bangla for ‘you fucking idiot look what you’ve fucking done to my fucking door’.
This being Bangladesh, within seconds a crowd of about 15 guys turned up to watch. It was the middle of the afternoon, with no-one really about, least of all Tom, and I had absolutely no idea what to do. For small accidents, mob-law rules in Bangladesh, and the advice is if you have an accident, drive on, because the victims or witnesses tend to find the culprit and beat the shit out of them, or even kill them on the spot. Nearly everyday the papers have a story about two-suspected muggers being ripped to pieces by a mob and then lynched, or a bus that crashed in to another one being set on fire by a mob, with the guilty driver locked in it. I’m not exaggerating.
So I was a little alarmed. I couldn’t run, because I had no where to go, it was obviously my fault, and then I’d be leaving the rickshaw-wallah to get a right kicking, which just isn’t cricket. If the car-owner demanded I paid for the damage I’d be in trouble, because I didn’t have any cash on me, and there was no way of determining the extent of the damage anyway. The guy was already pushing the rickshaw-wallah around, and if he smacked him, I’d have to step in, as it was originally my fault, but then I didn’t want to start a brawl.
So I stood there like a muppet, watching the owner hop about in histrionics, looking at the gash on his door and me, and then push the rickshaw-wallah again, who wasn’t really putting up much of a fight back. I did the only thing I could do. I said, in my boldest, clearest, most English I’m-genuinely-not-shitting-myself-voice, “I’m terribly sorry”. He turned to me and shouted back in Bangla that sorry wasn’t going to fix his door. There was about three seconds of silence during which we stared at each other and I hoped the world would open up and take me away. I repeated that I was truly sorry, quite aghast actually, and awfully embarrassed.
Incredibly, this seemed to work. He stared back at me but didn’t really shout much more, and then shouted a bit more at the wallah, and then the wallah gestured that we it was time to go, and so we did. I don’t know what changed. Maybe it was a delayed Christmas miracle.
The owner would have known he could have got nothing out of the rickshaw-wallah, and presumably didn’t want to start a fight because it would have been socially awkward to hit me, a Westerner, in front of all those people, as there was no way of knowing who’s side they’d be on (we were in the poshest bit of Dhaka. If we’d been in the old town I would be kebab by now). And as I didn’t immediately offer to pay (I really couldn’t have afforded to go down that road) we were stuck.
So the crowd parted as we wheeled the rickshaw away and both me and the wallah walked down the road in silence, not looking back, with me feeling pretty disgraceful. I could hear a separate argument erupting between the driver and the crowd behind me, but we didn’t turn around until we were a good fifty yards away, a safe head start, basically.
Tom still wasn’t there, so I gave him a call, watching the driver who by now had a got of all things a feather duster out of his car and was trying to buff his door up – but I was stressing he’d change his mind and get a crowbar or something and come after us. “Hi Tom“. I said, incredibly sheepishly in a low, tiny voice. “Look mate, best get a move on, if you can, bit embarrassing, long story, but I’ve had a bit of a prang.” “Yeah, I know, in a rickshaw.” “Don’t ask. I’ll tell you when we’re a mile away.” “Just come as quick as you can, if we’re not here it’s because we’re being chased, and I’ll call you.” “Yeah, see you soon, hurry along, quickly now, ta.”
Tom didn’t come for another 15 minutes, as he was still getting his flights sorted, and so I spent the whole time staring intently at the driver and his feather duster. I suppose his insurance would cover it, as nearly every car in Bangladesh has some rickshaw related damage on the body-work – he’d just acquired another mark. But I bet he’s the only guy in Bangladesh, if not South Asia, who’s had damage inflicted by a rickshaw driven by a Bideshi. Maybe he wasn’t covered for that. But he should put the door up on e-bay. Make a fortune.