Personal Journeys


July 25, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

A rickshaw ride around Dhaka

By Ginda Simpson


There were three fish in the rickshaw -- large ones with huge pink-pearl eyes and scales iridescent in the shimmering light. They lay atop bulky sacks, riding to the shimmy and bounce of the rickshaw's carriage as the wheels turned on the uneven road in early morning traffic.

The fish were dead, so obviously someone had paid their fare. To market? To skillet? I was in the rickshaw that wheeled alongside the fish, riding aimlessly about Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to take in the sights, sounds and smells.

A concert of car horns and bicycle bells provided an endless soundtrack for scenes to be stored in my memory. Cars and buses belched toxic fumes, creating a thick smog, adding to an atmospheric stew that smelled of burning garbage, human sweat, fried food and local spices.

Dust covered every inch of Old Dhaka -- a dreary monochromatic scene had it not been for the vibrant splashes of reds, oranges and yellows of women's dresses.

Most of the rickshaw drivers -- wallahs -- don't speak English. There are an estimated 600,000 rickshaws in Dhaka, many of which are decorated with gaudy paintings, hammered tin designs and fancy tassels. Popular motifs are birds, flowers, folkloric designs and garish portrayals of popular singers and movie stars.

The rickshaws are typically part of a fleet owned by a malik who rents them out to the wallahs. These cycling "taxi" drivers are lean and muscular. Who wouldn't be?

I admired my wallah's strength and quick responses as his legs pulled us in and out of the chaos of pedestrian and motorized traffic, avoiding deep ruts in the road and escaping collision at every turn.

I watched other passengers sitting carefree in their seats, hands relaxed in their laps. I was tense. My vinyl seat was slippery, slanting downward toward the front, and the missing footrest left me no choice but to brace myself with locked knees and feet glued to the metal bar beneath the bicycle's seat.

I gripped the bar on the side of the hood -- one more thing besides my hair and Western clothes that marked me as a foreigner. After a while, I let go of my hold to wave to a friendly face that stared at me.

And the fish? No one seemed to notice or bid them the time of day. It was just another morning in Dhaka.

Ginda Simpson lives in Cockeysville.

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