From my apartment, I descend onto the side street I live on. It is a dirt road, often filled with puddles from yesterday's rainstorm. The guard salutes me. So many guards, because there are so many people, and they need some way to earn their living. There are so many, there seem to be guards for the guards. But this one, unlike most, actually has a uniform. Crisp and blue, police-like. Always smiling and kind.
Five story buildings loom overhead, in various states of dilapidation. One can actually hear birds chirping, and with the soft wet dirt underneath, it all lends itself to a florestral sensation, despite the lack of greenery. But this street is deceiving in its peacefulness- it is a dead-end road, so only residents come down it, many of whom pass the day in the street, just sitting and watching, as birds on a telephone line.
100 yards to go, and I'm on the main street, one of the principle arteries connecting Gulshan, the embassies, and Banani. I wish I didn't have to use it. Because as soon as the road changes from dirt to pot-holed concrete, the obstacle course begins.
Hundreds of people- street urchins, businessmen, old beggars, students, shopkeepers, street vendors, guards, police- crowd the sidewalk, the sidewalk that ends and begins abruptly and that, if I'm not careful, could easily lead me to step (or fall) into the open stormwater channels that stink of rot and feces. Some walk, some stop, some haggle for a handout, some crouch down to relieve themselves in the stormwater drains, adding to the trash and muck already filling them. As I weave around the people, sometimes passing into the road, I duck to avoid the tangle of telecom cables that droop over the sides of the street. Hundreds of them, one for each person on the street, it seems. Swarms of rickshaw drivers and beggars buzz around, each hoping for a bit of money.
Trees sprout miraculously out of the sidewalk, the paving having been done meticulously around them, the bricks laid right up against the tree trunk. The trees here must feel strangled, but the green is welcome in a city of neutered colors: grays and browns and tans.
I walk past a tea walla. A small crowd is gathered around the rusty cart, drinking tea and smoking, as the walla deftly and expertly mixes his elixir of sugar, condensed milk, and tea, all for ten cents. Plastic bags packed with cheap pastries hang from the roof of the stall or sit in plastic bins on the counter space, and crushed cigarettes and plastic wrappers litter the ground around the tea walla like a Persian carpet, attesting to his success.
I cross a road, immersing myself in the impossibly loud traffic, each vehicle honking in unison, rickshaws adding to the cacophony with their bicycle bells, motorcycles growling past menacingly. The cars, jockeying for position, ignore my presence until the last millisecond. It is a harrowing game of chicken that often leaves me leaping out of the way of an impatient driver.
Safely crossed to the other side, I continue down the side of the street, which feels more alive than dead. Indeed, when entering Dhaka, one has the impression of entering the belly of the whale. Nowhere else will you find every square foot of the street so efficiently used, and not just to get around. There are all the street vendors: the tea wallas, of course, and food stalls (or even bowls of food set on a stool): puffed rice, boiled eggs, fujka, spicy diced vegetables with egg, pastries of all sorts, and even cooks making biryani rice in the street; there are the cigarette stalls and the stands where you can recharge your phone, there are shoe shiners and garment sellers, the ubiquitous beggars, the people-watchers, the smokers, the under-employed (those whose job consists of sitting around all day long), the drivers waiting for their employer, the rickshaw drivers on break, the snappily-dressed office workers returning from lunch. It is an electron cloud, cracking with energy and moving too quickly and chaotically to pinpoint with any accuracy.
Slightly out of breath with it all, I hurry to my destination, one more cell in the organism that is the street of Dhaka.
...sees much and knows much