Bangladesh: Pedal power, slow but moving!
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Bangladesh: Pedal power, slow but moving!

Dhāka : Bangladesh | Apr 10, 2012 at 4:35 AM PDT
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Bangladesh's captain Rahim celebrates after Bangladesh won against India in Dhaka

While columns of inches of print media and television air hours are devoted everyday to highlight the problems of Dhaka traffic the much maligned Dhaka rickshaws may be slow but provide a moving experience to visitors, writes Syed Neaz Ahmad

Travel, they say, broadens your mind. I am not sure if it really does but it is certainly an experience in itself. An opportunity to try local delicacies – if the delicacies play havoc with your delicate digestive system, seasoned travellers tell you that is part of the experience and you must not moan and groan excessively about it.

Avoiding an assault on your digestive system while on holiday in Dhaka can be a problem. Ducking and diving to escape colourful food thrust upon you at every turn by enthusiastic relatives and friends, you will soon become worn out. Not to worry – like urban guerrillas, they will always ambush you when you least expect it.

Jst like the food, the public transport is also an experience if it does not broaden your mind, it may succeed in congesting your lungs! Dhaka streets are full of carbon emitting busses and trucks and noisy three wheelers often known as CNGs.

Dhaka’s phenomenal growth has, by any standard, outstripped the capacity of its transport system. Traffic jams are a part of daily life. Residents say vehicle-related pollution has soared to alarming heights and traffic snarls have tripled over the last few years. Perhaps to ease the situation, some of the many NGOs – non-profit non-government organizations – and the civil society ought to launch a “Save the Capital campaign”.

People often suggest improvement in bus services, however, would that mean higher fares? On my last trip to Dhaka a few months ago I heard someone mention that planners intended to deregulate bus fares and encourage entrepreneurs to engage in “healthy competition”. Whatever the result, these projects with prevailing “healthy competition” will definitely make more people poorer and some rich richer.

Leaving that aside, it is true that in Dhaka at any hour of the day and in many areas – from the city centre to the tree-lined affluent residential districts – there are always crowds of people going somewhere - or just waiting for something to happen. One thing is sure: You will never feel lonely!

Although thousands do walk to work in the capital but Dhaka streets provide no real facility for pedestrians. The occasional pedestrian (zebra) crossing are more of a joke than a reality or solution; they are ignored by motorists, rickshaw pullers, cyclists and the pedestrians themselves.

These “designated crossings” are more of a suicide trap than anything else. One form of transport which is extremely popular, widely available, cheap, private and eco-friendly is a three-wheeled contraption called rickshaw. The most interesting feature of these slow-moving pedal-powered transport is the bright and colourful “moving art” which decorates their side and back.

The drawings range from romance to the wildest flights of fantasy. The scenes are common: airplanes, helicopters, and gun-battles, masked men in sports cars, rosy cheeked well-endowed women, palatial mansions, rivers and green landscape.

Some also feature scenes from new and old Indian, Bangladeshi and Hollywood movies – Shahrukh Khan, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise and strangely even Disney characters and Sporty Spice can help you smile away the miles.

When you hail a rickshaw, make yourself “comfortable” and tell the driver your destination, you have then become a part of the moving art exhibition. The rickshaws are decorated in vivid colours, from front to back. The medium is cut-out plastic stuck or sewn on equally colourful backgrounds. Plastic tassels, flowers, mock carriage-lamps and bits of mirror pieces remind you of a Mogul palace.

The slippery rickshaw seats are not meant to hold more than two and the two need to sit intimately; still it’s not unusual to see several college students on the rickshaw perched in some acrobatic formation, or people transporting goods such as cupboards or even larger objects which defy the laws of gravity.

Comic animals, subtle political caricatures and futuristic drawings are in great demand; an Anglo-French Concorde (grounded years ago) taking off from Dhaka is popular on the rickshaw back panels.

With two women prime ministers to date, the country’s women have come a long way from their traditional roles. It’s no surprise that rickshaw art also features speech-delivering and gun-toting females – Lara Croft style.

The pride of the moving art galleries is the scrap metal placed between the rear wheels. This is where the rickshaw driver shows his real macho personality. Unfortunately the fare-paying passenger has little control but it’s his money that is moving the show. These works of art by unknown and unsung artists are a far cry from those of the very famous.

We cannot deny that the rickshaw art however modest it may be reaches millions everyday – something only dreamt of by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Turner or Monet.

While at the local level the rickshaws provide a readily available cheap means of transport and a way out of the congested Dhaka streets on a broader and international level the rickshaws are contributing to help bring down the city’s pollution levels, alleviate global warming and oil the wheels of economy.

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Slow yet moving Dhaka Rickshaws
neazahmad is based in London, England, United Kingdom, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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