To travel is to expose oneself to the great adventure of the open road—sometimes literally. In Dhaka, the chaos capital of not just Bangladesh, but perhaps the entire Indian subcontinent, it is the open sewers that pose a unique hazard to unaware visitors. And I’m sorry to say that I’ve already had the rather miserable experience of falling into one.
A few weeks ago, I was cycling around the upscale neighbourhood of Gulshan, where a good deal of the foreign missions situate themselves in the capital. Normally, I am a fairly agile and coordinated person and I find it quite easy to nimbly pilot my half-size, folding bicycle between rickshaws, busses and donkey-driven carts.
As I came up to a major road from a side street, I spotted the culprit sewer before I even began my crossing. It lay in the center of the road, between the opposing traffic flow and sandwiched between two pedestrian barriers. A two-foot wide strip of concrete bridged the sewer, via which pedestrians could make their crossing.
As I cycled up to the gap, I was entirely conscious of the oil-black pool’s presence, not wanting to imagine what kind of microbial cultures bubbled away beneath its surface. Unconsciously, however, I knew I needed to stop in the middle of the road and wait until traffic travelling on the other side of the street cleared enough for me to pass.
As I rode onto the thin concrete bridge, my hands instinctively squeezed my brakes so I could check the oncoming traffic. I put my right foot out, and rather comically, there was nothing there to meet it except the fetid puddle. With a screeching yelp—the volume of which probably turned every head within 30 metres—my entire right leg plunged into the breach and I toppled over. Fortunately the sewer’s opening was not human sized and I didn’t tumble into the gaping hole whole.
Unceremoniously, I picked myself up and hobbled over to the other end of the street. Distraught and disoriented, my stomach churned with the thought what just happened. I finally gathered up the strength to meet the eyes of the 15 or so Bengalis who had witnessed my fall and gathered to watch what I would do next. I managed to blurt out, in my broken Bengali, that I needed some water. Immediately the small crowd parted to offer a three two-liter bottles of water, and, without reservation, they poured it over me and I bathed right on the street, Bengali style.
To their credit, I do not recall a single person laughing at me. Everybody, including a nearby policeman, came over to offer me ashen faces and politely ask after my nationality. I even recall that some of the crowd shook their heads at the fact that a bideshi (foreigner) could have such an undignified experience in their country. Once I had collected myself enough, I shrugged my shoulders and simply laughed it off and eventually they smiled too. I then hailed a baby taxi and tossed my bicycle inside. The driver’s confused expression gave me away—no doubt most of his recent customers didn’t stink of sewer like I still did.
Random gaping holes in roadways, back streets and footpaths, are a fact of life in Bangladesh. During the incredible downpours of Bangladesh’s monsoon season, they often become dangerously obscured to the inattentive visitor. The caustic effect of corruption and a corresponding lack of enforcement are the greatest contributors to this phenomenon in the capital. I reckon that most people who live in Dhaka have had the unsettling experience of stepping in something foul at one point in another, or at least missing by only the narrowest of margins.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to assume the city I currently call home is full of gaping chasms ready to swallow its unwary citizens, but there sure are a lot of them. Since that untraditional Bengali baptism, I’ve noticed that the local papers often publish photographs of these perilous holes, in the hopes that the authorities in charge will finally take the steps to get rid of them before they injure anybody else—local or bideshi.
The current caretaker government in Bangladesh certainly gives me hope that the country’s deep disparities—both physical and economic—will eventually be closed. The administration is currently pursuing a drive to cleanup corruption, and recently added former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to jails that are already overflowing with corrupt businessmen, politicians and whoever the administration deems to be an enemy of the people. Hopefully they’ll continue plugging the other random holes as well.