The Dhaka Commute: Part 2

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February 13th 2014
Published: February 14th 2014
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In many cities I would say that filling fields with cement apartment blocks is not progress, but here I see too many people sleeping in the streets. Whatever the homes look like, at least they're homes.
The streets of Dhaka change dramatically between 7am and 4pm. By 6 o’clock in the evening many streets are at a bumper to bumper standstill. Gone are the street sweepers and the construction workers brushing their teeth on the side of the road.

Although it can take less than ten minutes to drive to work in the morning, there have been days when it took over an hour to drive home. I can usually walk in half an hour or less. On more than one occasion I have actually left the car stuck in traffic (with the driver at the wheel) and walked home. Driving on the main roads in the evenings, it feels like our average speed is two inches per minute.

Most days it only takes about 20 minutes to get home, because we drive down a back road, through fields that are rapidly becoming high-rise apartment buildings. It’s an awkward transition. The goats still act like they rule the place, but trucks and an increasing number of cars choke the narrow road. It is mostly one way, leaving the area I work in and bursting out on the main road. That being said, I have yet
Grazing by WorkGrazing by WorkGrazing by Work

I see this mini-herd of sheep every day as I leave work, wandering among the partly constructed apartment buildings. In a country as hot as Bangladesh I wonder how these sheep survive. They are the only ones I have seen anywhere in the country.
to see a one way road in Dhaka that does not have cars and rickshaws going the wrong way on it.

This road was entirely dirt when I first arrived in Dhaka. It was full of bumps and holes. When it rained the whole place turned into an impassible bog. During the monsoon we had to take the main roads the whole way home, which usually takes an hour or so. Last summer they closed the road to pave part of it. That meant we had to take the main road home every day from work. By August they had finished paving and opened the road up again.

The part of the road closest to where I work is still unpaved. In the dry season dust fills the air and every passing car throws up clouds of choking fine silt. We ease carefully over the bumps, often scraping bottom going down into the holes. When the rains come back we might have to abandon our short cut again.

The most peculiar part of my commute in Dhaka is having a driver. I wouldn’t be able to share a car without one, since he takes my carmates’ children

The road I take in the afternoons is home to several recycling collection centers. These are not official buildings, but areas where giant bags of empty plastic bottles are taken to be sorted by type of plastic. Just like the transportation of these giant bags, the sorting is done by hand. The sorted plastics are then sold to manufacturing companies.
to school after we’ve gone to work. As I mentioned in my previous blog, rented cars come with drivers. I had no desire to buy a car when I arrived, mostly because the roads are so terrible. Then I learned that many foreign workers here share cars with colleagues. Car sharing has always sounded like a great idea to me, especially in places where public transportation options are limited.

There are city busses here, although they are not supported by the city government. Just last year the group Urban Launchpad released their map of the bus system here. The project was funded mostly through Kickstarter. Previously you had to find out about busses by word of mouth. If you are illiterate in Bangla (like me) then you can’t read the destination signs posted in bus windows. I have yet to try the bus, partly because I can’t read the signs and partly because they are famous for being battered and getting in accidents. Usually when I see one coming I just try to stay out of the way.

There are no busses going between where I live and work anyway. Bikes are a better option, if you’re brave

Just like the transportation and sorting of recyclables, the transportation of construction materials is often done by hand.
enough to ride through the traffic. Several of my colleagues bike to work and I admire their dedication. It’s not an easy place to ride a bike. For the last few months of my contract here I’ll continue to commute by car. In a city with such terrible traffic and air pollution I’m often embarrassed to be seen in a car, but at least I’m carpooling. We take rickshaws and carpool with other friends on weekends too.

Getting around Dhaka is like no other city I’ve ever seen. I thought the Istanbul transportation system was complicated, which it was, but at least it was dependable. Dhaka is an unpredictable adventure every morning I step out the door. It’s not complicated: I have a car and I know how to give directions to a rickshaw driver in Bangla. But Dhaka is changing fast, much faster than the roads can keep up with. It’s an exciting place and I am sure that a blog about transportation here five years from now will have a very different story to tell.

There are more photos below.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Corner ShopCorner Shop
Corner Shop

All along the road are little shops where you can stop for a cup of tea and a snack. The recycling shops are built with the same bamboo and corrugated tin. Those are easy to spot because they look like organized trash heaps with scales.

Most people in the area still cannot afford the apartments in the buildings going up all around them.
Quality Living for GenerationsQuality Living for Generations
Quality Living for Generations

They're not joking. These fields may have supported rice farmers for generations, but now people in the city are looking forward to a much more industrialized lifestyle.
Old and NewOld and New
Old and New

Dhaka is so packed with people that even construction zones are fully inhabited. If the construction workers aren't living in the building, somebody else will.

As impressive as most of the construction is, the goats still rule the land.
Brick CarriersBrick Carriers
Brick Carriers

The first time I saw it I could hardly believe it. I still shake my head seeing men pile bricks higher than they can reach on their heads, throwing the last few up to the top of the stack, then walking up to the top floor of the building to start on the next story.
Building MaterialsBuilding Materials
Building Materials

In a muddy, silty delta such as Bangladesh, gravel is hard to come by. Bricks are hand made in kilns under excruciating conditions, and then some are broken into gravel. Of all the job I would never want to have, brick breaker is high on the list. People actually sit on piles of bricks all day with little hammers, or rocks, breaking bricks into gravel. I did see a brickcrusher once, which looked like a woodchipper. We just need more of those.
The elephantThe elephant
The elephant

Apparently, the way to support an elephant in Dhaka is to stop traffic with it until the drivers give you money to move on. This has only happened to me once, so far, but I was shocked by it enough that I hope it doesn't again. That poor elephant looked so abused.
The RainThe Rain
The Rain

Last year this road was closed for months as they paved part of it. Traffic was horrendous during that process, but now about half of this side road out to the main street is smooth and solid, even in the monsoon.

The section of the road that has been paved has a collection of shops built right on the road that are interesting to peer into as we drive past. Many are workshops and on the way home in the afternoons I can watch furniture being made and engines being repaired.
The Hardware StoreThe Hardware Store
The Hardware Store

Along with the furniture makers and car engine repair shops are little shops that where you can find just about anything.

This is where my little side road comes out onto the main street. Trucks whiz past, busses honk and rickshaw drivers try to stay out of the way.
On the Main StreetOn the Main Street
On the Main Street

Of course, just because we've left the burbs where construction sites are mixed with fields, doesn't mean we've left the livestock behind. There are cows and goats in every neighborhood in Dhaka.
Walking AcrossWalking Across
Walking Across

On days when I give up on sitting in traffic and leave my car to walk home, I go over this bridge to get back to my neighborhood.
Gas StationGas Station
Gas Station

Every gas station (or petrol, depending on where you're from and what you call it) has a long line. It's best to go early in the morning, if you don't want to wait for an hour or more.

In Bangladesh sometimes there are general strikes, known as hartals. Roads are empty as most people stay inside or go to protests on foot. Vehicles transporting people to work run the risk of being stopped by the protestors. For me, it just means my commute to work is that much faster. (Yes, that's cotton candy).
Rickshaw AlleyRickshaw Alley
Rickshaw Alley

Off the main road and back to another side road I am once again surrounded by little shops for the last bit of my ride home.
The ButcherThe Butcher
The Butcher

Every morning on my way past this shop I see a cow being butchered, with two or three more tied to a post, watching. By the time I get home from work there isn't much left of those three or four cows.

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