Wasting Away On The Streets

I am a firm believer in believing in the good in something. Even when most things point to the negative, I always have a small, niggling doubt in my mind that hopes to justify the inappropriate and illogical. I believe things just do not suck by default and if they seem that they do, there must be a logical explanation behind it that may somehow make it easier to accept.

Sadly, this is not something I feel about the traffic situation in Dhaka.

In the past two days, I have spent on average 4.5 hours commuting to and from work. The map in my phone says the distance is approximately 8 to 9 km, and takes 19 minutes without traffic. Now since no one in Dhaka has ever fully accepted the words ‘without traffic’ as a truth [unless it’s three am], the estimates by the map is in all accounts, invalid. Even then the actual time should be somewhat closer to the estimate. It’s not even in the same continent as close.

The traffic situation prompts the urban, facebook-trigger happy commuter with a steady slew of frustrated status updates damning this City to hell and beyond. Some enterprising people put up updates to ask about the waiting time for a particular area in hopes to predict a faster route. Mostly it’s just anger and frustration and a hopeless desire to walk out of the vehicles and break someone’s windshield.

The opportunity cost is insane. Brace yourself for some intense second grade math. Two plus two four hours taken from twenty four. Five days a week. If we work fifty weeks a year [because who can skip work and get sick or go on vacation when so much time is wasted on the roads?] that is 1000 hours just coming and going from work. That is 60,000 minutes of one person’s year spent sitting inside a car or a bus or an auto-rickshaw. The most you can do in this time is listen to the radio, if you’re lucky enough not to drive, read a book, go through your phone and answer calls. Maybe bicker about the state of the world with your commute-mates.

The issue should not be whether we are making optimum use of our time while being stuck in traffic. Instead there needs to be an actual shift in not taking this horrible waste of time and money for granted anymore. I read up on cases where some cities of the world improved traffic conditions drastically by programs and initiatives. Unfortunately when I tried to imagine implementing those ideas within the context of Dhaka, I found that in most cases it would not work. It is not that there is no scope of change by following the programs of other cities. But the overhaul would need to be so major it would require the combined effort of the government, private enterprises, the commuters and a league of angels to bring about a significant shift.

I am not hopeful. The naïve, believe-in-the-best side of me has been horribly beaten down in this case. I realize how precious my time is. In the four hours I spend in the car, I may come up with the greatest novel ever written. Or I may just take a nap. Either ways it would be my choice to do so. I would not be a slave of a system which can arguably be considered one of the best, or should I say, worst examples of inefficiency and lack of planning and progress of urban transportation. I sound bitter and there will be people talking to me about headway by referring to upcoming flyovers being constructed and so on. But I say to them, as the traffic situation has gone from bad to disgusting, how many campaigns have you seen that promotes car-pooling, encourages use of public-transportation, encourages people to walk instead of taking their cars and enforces proper traffic laws? I’ve seen none so far, and I’ve been alive to wait for it for twenty six years. This is in a city with probably one of the worst continuous traffic conditions in the whole world.

There are many who say we as a people are incapable of improvement in certain aspects. We do not follow rules of the road and we drive like maniacs. It’s like blaming the kid who blows up a toilet for not knowing any better instead of the parents who never told him that this was not what good kids do. The people of this city do not have a special gene that makes us contribute to bad traffic. In a proper system, everyone will behave. But there needs to be a start somewhere. Someone needs to tell us – we are doing this, you can do your part by doing that. Case in point, there are no major traffic issues within the armed forces cantonment of the city. People follow rules because they are enforced. They do not magically turn into law-abiding citizens as they pass through those gates.

It’s not often I go about bringing a negative image of my country where the whole world can see it. My country has enough to deal with without me adding to the pile of damaging things it is known for. But I also feel I had to do something, even if that means five people read this and just empathize. Also, it’s been almost two hours that I’ve started for home, and writing seemed a better use of the time.


Attack of the Elephants

I had an encounter with three elephants in the middle of Dhaka City a few weeks ago. I didn’t get to take a picture so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But as things go in Dhaka, it’s not that hard to believe.

My family and I were going to dine out for Iftar a few weeks before Eid. Going through a residential street this fine afternoon, it was the usual commute. The streets are crazy with traffic right before Iftar (it’s crazy with traffic most of the time but let’s just go with this for some well-meaning contrast). My brother in law navigates the streets and then stops dead on the tracks as the car faces a giant elephant in the middle of the street. We notice three more behind him. The handlers on their backs expertly maneuver them behind our car while the first offender stands in front of us. I had a moment to notice how amazingly beautiful they are just before panic strikes the general air inside the car. My nephew who is five and is amazed to find a walk-in zoo stares in wonder. My dad and my brother-in-law struggle with themselves to try to appear calm and composed for the rest of us. The first elephant in front of us puts its trunk on the hood of our car and we all feel the bump. They want money. I can sense my father and brother-in-law trying to stare down the elephant in an attempt to avoid the human-animal-crushed car debacle.

The handlers try to goad us for some money. But for some reason after a few tense minutes, and I suspect it’s their own apparent surprise at finding themselves in such a position to extort us, they let us pass, unharmed.
I’ve seen those elephants around after that incident. The next time they were simply traipsing through the streets, no doubt being hoarded towards another street to be used as thugs by their handlers. I wonder how they are treated and if they are unhappy.

If anything, it reminds you that you can never really be surprised at anything in Dhaka anymore.

Empty Streets

I’ve been away from too much writing and contemplating and thinking inwards recently. Eid just passed, and I guess the near empty streets of Dhaka just made me wonderfully empty headed. Although Dhaka is possibly the worst place to commute in, when half the population leaves for the Eid holidays, it’s a magnificent city to behold. Going from Point A to B is not a test of patience and nerves and doesn’t take longer than the actual task you are commuting for. The streets seem full of character that you can actually see without the millions of cars, rickshaws, taxis and people to distract you.

The city seems softer somehow. More hospitable. You can see the golden light at sunset and notice that there are a lot more trees than you first thought. It’s also a bit thrilling. Like you are a kid running through an amusement park the day it’s closed. I would avoid the roller coasters and just simply walk around and notice things that get lost when everything is shouty and loud and exciting and fast.

The aeroplane

The skyline of Dhaka knows no rules. The buildings follow an almost-there similar pattern whose differences somehow give the city’s skyline its unique character. A silent cloud of haze and smog hangs over the buildings that give the horizon a permanent grayish tint. Blue and gray and white and gold all mingle all throughout the day for the fleeting eyes of someone who cares to sneak a peek from the dedication of looking straight ahead.

Between these colors, almost every morning I see a plane taking off. It rises off the top of tall apartment building, or appears out of nowhere from behind a cloud. Usually the planes would swing a wide arc and head west, or north, or towards some unknown, and in my mind, exciting destination. I follow it from my place in the traffic for as long as I can, watching it sink in between clouds and rise higher and higher. I try to guess the type of plane, if possible the airliner and the destination.

There is nothing I love better than the beginning of a journey. Even if it is tedious at best and includes boring stop overs and cramped leg space and weird seat neighbors. The start of a journey, for me, is the best part of a journey.

Like many others I too would like to pack up and see all there is to see. I will get on planes, and I will look down and compare the cities from thousands of feet in the air. It would get dreary and annoying and the hassle through baggage claims and long hauls would just not seem worth it anymore. Then I’ll tell myself, one day I looked up and saw a plane. And now I’m flying..

Googling Dhaka

If you Google Image-search Dhaka every 80% of the pictures on the first and subsequent pages are about the streets of Dhaka full of thousands of vehicles and thousands of people. Sure you’ll get a glimpse of a closeup of a Rickshaw or a random snapshot of a bride and groom at a Dhaka wedding (that was the 12th picture that came up!!!) but mostly its traffic..traffic… TRAFFIC.

Anyone who lives in Dhaka develops two perspectives on traffic.

  1. They complain about it ALL THE TIME. Even when they’re sitting at home sipping their milky tea and wondering about the state of the world or their slowly diminishing hairlines. They bicker about it when they’re stuck in the middle of traffic to their chauffers, their rickshawpullers, their CNG drivers (CNGs are three wheelers that use Compressed Natural Gas as fuel, and are hence called CNGs. What else will you call them?), their annoyed kids sitting with them with the traffic, and to no one listening in particular.
  2. They ignore it like an embarrassing moment of a young age. Like say if you ever walked into your parents grabbing each other in the kitchen. Would you ever acknowledge that? I wouldn’t. People in this category develop a sort of patience that, well, only Dhaka-ites who are patient with traffic can develop. There is no appropriate simile for this.

Most people belong to category 1. A few handful alternate between 1 and 2. No one is on 2 alone. If I had the time, or the artistic abilities that I so desire right now, I’d draw a funny little venn diagram cartoon to make this more interesting. I don’t so let’s just move on.

But why is an entire being of a city- a city that has so much going on it- be represented to the rest of the world by just its traffic scenario? Granted it’s a big deal but there are other cities that have major traffic issues as well like Tokyo and Sao Paulo. Do you know what you get when you google Tokyo and Sao Paulo? Exactly what the cities look like. Hundreds of sky scrapers and brilliant lights and people and everything you see in the city. Not just traffic.

Maybe one day it’ll change. Not any time soon, but maybe one day. Till then I’m just going to keep my headphones on as my mother panics over being stuck on the road for an hour. I can be category 1 tomorrow.