Waking up in Dhaka I hear the ringing of bells on rickshaws, people yelling, and dogs barking. I am staying on the 9th floor of an office building that rises high over the slums on Dhaka’s southwestern outskirts. I look out the window, and I can see a rainstorm ominously blowing in from the south. The Muslim call to prayer eerily wafts from the local mosques over the half-finished buildings surrounding my vantage point. These buildings look like construction sites because they are. Or, were. The projects had long since been abandoned, but families have crowded into the available spaces nonetheless. Then there’s a gust of wind. Thunder rocks the city like bombs going off. The sky turns an uneasy yellow color. The children below laugh and yell every time lightening flashes across the sky. I run for my camera...
As the rain starts to pour on the slums below me I see people start to run to find umbrellas and keep their shops dry. Then, quite suddenly, the storm reaches me, and rain begins pelting against my windows. Below me the adults wait out the downpour from whatever shelter they find, but the kids couldn’t care less. They run through the streets without shoes or shirts. They precariously walk on top of walls like tightrope walkers. On my left there was a giant dirt soccer/cricket field which has quickly devolved into a giant mudflat / pond. Children roll around in the giant muddy puddles and splash each other. Meanwhile I do my best to capture what I can.
Being in Dhaka during monsoon season definitely came with downsides, but these rain clouds had a silver lining. Getting caught in the rain with my camera meant that I could get shots like these... right before I ran to find shelter.
During a heavy rain, streets can turn into rivers in a matter of minutes. Bangladesh is pretty much one big flood plain, and that causes a lot of problems for them every year, especially in the rural areas. The night that I arrived in Dhaka, it took my driver a few tries to find a road whose water level was low enough to drive down. We weren’t sure we’d be able to make it. To make matters worse, many of the roads in Dhaka are not paved – only the large ones are. Once you stray from the beaten path, Dhaka becomes a daunting labyrinth of dirt alleyways. After an intense rain, these passageways turn into more of a muddy ATV course than an actual street, but rickshaws go down them nonetheless. I’m pretty big, so my fat ass has gotten rickshaws stuck in the mud on more than 1 occasion. When this happens, I have had to get off and walk until my rickshaw driver could dislodge his wheels from the muck. It never takes long for a traffic jam to start forming on either side of this blockage.
Luckily, during monsoon season, the rains come and go relatively quickly, and they are almost always followed by a long, intense dose of sunlight. So I was able to get out of the office pretty much any day that I wanted to. I didn't always want to though. This post is going to give you a little tour of the slum area that I briefly called home.
Dhaka basically has 2 main slum areas: Rayer Bazar and Korail. I was living next to Rayer Bazar, on the western outskirts of the city. This is the smaller of the 2 slums. When I would go out, or was taken out into the city, it was always a challenge to find a rickshaw driver that was willing to drive there. It’s not a nice area, but let me give you a tour anyway.
A Walk Through Rayer Bazar
Walking out the door onto the muddy streets I am immediately swarmed by smiling children, but none of them are trying to sell me anything. Most of them just want a high-five. One of them starts speaking a mile a minute and I am told that he is not speaking Bangla, he is trying to speak English, but since he doesn’t know the language it’s just gibberish. One kid asks (translated) if I arrived by plane or bus. I respond that I arrived by plane. The kid, never having actually seen a plane, asks how many people can fit onto a plane.
On a walk down a randomly chosen street, we come to a market. I’m 6-4, so I have to duck in order to walk in. People look up at me, clearly surprised to see a white face in their midst. Although it is bright outside, inside the market it’s very dark. The tarps draped over the vendors touch my head as I walk through the crowd inside. Take a look:
Another 20 minutes of walking brings us to the last road out of Dhaka. Their “highway” is barely big enough for 1 vehicle to pass, let alone 2. The road is dusty but all manner of vehicles whiz by, narrowly missing the people walking on the side of the road. There are dump trucks, there are bicycles towing huge loads of garbage, there are buses with sharp shards of broken glass for windows. The only similarity between all these vehicles is their bright colors.
It is here that we find a large expanse of dirt, full of the same vegetables that we had seen in the market, but in much bigger quantities. I am told that this sort of like the distribution center for the slum markets. When goods are brought into Dhaka from the surrounding rural areas, they are brought here. There are no women here, only men, who stop what they are doing to look up and stare at us as we walk past.
We are looking for a road to go down in order to start heading back ‘home’. We turn a few corners, but have trouble finding a passable road. Most of them have a mucky pond in the middle of them. Children run through the putrid garbage water without a 2nd thought, but the adults try to stick the high ground on the sides of the street, hugging the doors, windows, and walls as they go, for balance.
There are far more children than adults in Dhaka, so there are kids running through, climbing on, and hanging off of pretty much every structure available. They have some interesting ways of passing the time. Many of them fly homemade kites. They tie old grocery bags to one side of a string, and wrap the other side around empty soda bottles. At one point we came across a hole-in-the-wall arcade. Wedged into the 2 square meters of space (that's a generous estimate), were Japanese arcade games from the early 1990s. Who would have thought they’d end up here one day! The children crowd around the pixely screens, taking turns playing. But of all these things, the most common pastime is Cricket, even more so than soccer. In every available dirt clearing, children and young adults alike can be found playing what are sometimes pretty intense games.
Pretty much everywhere I go, people call out to me from their stoops, shops, or windows, asking me (via Bangla / Sign Language) to take their picture. Sometimes they didn’t even want to see it after it was over. As a result I have a lot of strange portraits of random men from around the slums.
As the sun starts to set, the streets grow more crowded and I get closer to 'home'. The changing light can make taking good pictures challenging, so a few times I have to stop to play with a few things on my camera. Every time make a longer stop, when I take my eyes from the lens on my camera, I am confronted with a sizable crowd that had silently formed around me. Nobody is saying anything. They are all just looking at me silently. It's somewhere in the uncomfortable limbo between intimidating and awkward.
I learn quick that the best way to avoid those awkward situations is just to keep moving. I do my best to take some decent pictures on my way home.
Every night I go to sleep to the sound of bells ringing, horns honking, people yelling, and Muslim prayers being sung over loud speakers over and over. Around midnight this all quiets down save for a few noisy night owls. Around 12:30 the dog gang wars start. It starts with 1 dog barking, but it’s never long before it sounds like 2 rival packs of dogs are having a small battle on the street below. The barking, howling, whimpering, and crying lulls me to sleep every night like a lullaby.
Hanging Out With The Local Kids
Everyday, in the giant dirt field across the road from me, there were children playing cricket and soccer all day long. At one point during my stay, I got to play soccer on these fields, and even though I was arguably the LVP of my team, I had fun. I thought it would make a cool video to go down there again and see if I could attach my GoPro to somebody's head while they played soccer. Once I went down there though, I was far too much of a spectacle for any actual games to continue being played. I did my best, but in the end they ended up teaching me how to play cricket by pitching me a soccer ball. Watching me strike out with the normal cricket ball was getting too painful I guess. I hit that soccer ball out of the park though! Anyway, they did take some interest in my camera. They had a good time passing it around and playing with it, so here's a little bit of that:
I don't usually write my opinions into these pieces, but I'm going to make an exception here and share some of my musings.
When people in the developed world talk about places like the slums of Bangladesh, I tend to hear the same 2 things over and over again.
People living in abject poverty like this actually lead happier lives than people born into privilege. This usually comes from the mouth of that hippie friend who just came back from [name of impoverished country here] to tell you how soul-crushing it can be living in America.
People living in these areas are just miserable and desperate all the time. I think that, a lot of the time, I hear this from the mouths of nonprofits, charities, and the people trying to raise money for these people. It's a rallying cry for PR campaigns and donation coffers the world over.
These are polar opposites from one another, but I think they both have some truth in them.
For #2, I get it. Nonprofits need to raise money somehow, and they're all good causes, but I think that they sometimes are in danger of promoting a false perceptions about what life here is really like. The truth is that people here don't seem to be any more or less happy than anything I've seen anywhere else, even in the developed world. The boring truth is that almost everybody in the world, is just doing their thing, getting by. That being said, there are some serious problems in places like Bangladesh, and maybe these people should be miserable and desperate... which brings me back to #1.
For #1, I don't 100% agree, but I think that there is something to that hypothesis. One of the biggest differences between me, white, privileged, and American, and these people, born into the lowest socio-economic group of Bangladesh, is expectations. I am expected to jump through certain hoops, which I have done, and now, in return, I expect good things to be happening all the time. The endless highlight reel of all my friends' lives I see on social media doesn't help. But sometimes things actually do work out the way I planned, and I am content. Every once in a while my expectations are even exceeded, and then I am happy. Other times though, much more frequently in fact, these good things don't happen the way I had imagined, and I am upset because my expectations have not been met.
On the flip side of that, I would say that, in general, people here in Rayer Bazar, Dhaka have pretty low expectations. As a result, it doesn't take much to make them happy. So yeah, by my standards, maybe they should be miserable and desperate. But I am lucky to be able to have such high standards. I am privileged to have the expectations that I do.
Obviously nobody's expectations are going to change overnight—mine haven't changed much in the 14 months I've been in the developing world so far—but next time you're facing a big disappointment, think about this. It might make you feel a little bit better about your situation.
Food for thought.