Wow, I am sure this will come as a surprise to you, but this is my 75th blog post. I certainly did not think it would go on for so long when I started. Out of curiosity, I looked back at a few of my early posts. This blog essentially started with a plea to help some people in Manila, the Philippines that had just experienced a devastating flood in 2012. And It has always been about sharing little vignettes of people’s lives and challenges, and by doing so hoping to highlight the strong common core and values we all have despite the obvious differences in appearance, culture, and norms.
So, for this 75th post, as I did in my first post from Manila, I share my experiences and images about some people facing extreme hardship in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Like Manila, Dhaka is an exploding city. With 19 million inhabitants, to say it is overpopulated is a vast understatement, and there is a relentless stream of people coming in from rural areas hoping for a better life. Although Dhaka is home to lots of friendly welcoming people, the crowding makes commuting and pollution an incredible challenge and housing an even bigger one.
But first, a few things about the peculiarities of Dhaka, most having to do with transportation. Bangladeshi in general and Dhaka residents, in particular, are seriously into bicycle-powered rickshaws. As I mentioned, commuting is insane; hours on end can be spent in a vehicle going from point A to a relative nearby point B (and walking presents its own special challenges). The rickshaws are a very popular mode of transportation, and the number of them in the streets, competing for space with cars and buses, is staggering. But besides the sheer number of these vehicles, the so-called rickshaw art makes them even more special. Every rickshaw is colorfully and uniquely decorated, painted, and accessorized, and there almost seems to be a competition for which of the drivers can have the most glitter. Entire shops are devoted to transforming rickshaws into works of art.
Another popular mode of transportation is small boats that cross the Buriganga river and bypass the congested bridges. From early morning on, boaters, oars in hand, are at Sadarghat, the main port in Dhaka, waiting for passengers to take them from one side of the river to the other. Taking the water route, however, does not eliminate the traffic; it merely trades cars and buses for huge cargo and passenger ships. On land or sea, it is probably best to close your eyes for the journey unless there is a shot to be taken.
But perhaps the most famously idiosyncratic way of commuting in Dhaka (and in the rest of the country) is the way some people travel by train. Trains are always crowded so some people claim any perch they can on top and all around the train cars. It looks so dangerous; it is hard to believe that people are allowed to do so, yet one sees it everywhere. I asked whether this was legal and was told not really, but the conductors would not complain if they got a little payment for it. So, trains can be seen with people sitting (when not standing) on the top of their cars, some including luggage! I had seen images of this practice documented by several talented Bangladeshi photographers, but I was still shocked to see it in person.
And now, back to people in need. Because of the overcrowding, it is estimated that 25% of Dhaka’s population lives in horrific slums that lack basic needs, like water, electricity, or toilets. By western standards, these people are essentially homeless. One of the slums I visited was in a particularly challenging location as the people live on railroad tracks. When I initially saw the tracks in the middle of the slum, I assumed that they were abandoned tracks but then, to my surprise, a few minutes after my arrival, I was told to move away as a train was coming. I quickly turned around and could not believe my eyes as a commuting train was coming full speed, and the locals were slowly abandoning the tracks momentarily. Trains, both cargo and passengers, go by regularly, and once they have departed, life is back to normal, including children playing and lots of people walking on the tracks as a shortcut to their destinations. This is not what people mean when they say life on the fast track. I wish it to no one.
So as not to end on a sad note, I have included a few images of a wholesale vegetable market in Dhaka. This market caught my attention because I wrote a blog post not long ago about the Koley market in Kolkata (Colorful Fares) where tinted pieces of cellophane cover lamps make the vegetables look more attractive. Kolkata was the first place I had experienced this, and I had thought it was unique to that particular market, but the same thing is done in Dhaka. So, as in Kolkata, one is surrounded by vegetable sellers in all kinds of shades of green and red, while shoppers are busy looking for the best vegetables.
Thanks to all of you who have spent time looking at my images and reading the result of my ruminations for as many as 75 times, and special thanks to my husband who read it all very closely.