My final evening in Bangladesh started going downhill immediately after I’d done one of my favorite parting activities—overtipping the housekeepers. I had 3,000 Taka (roughly $40) or more, far more than was likely to need before the plane took off. So I gave them a tip that meant very little to me and a lot to them. Everyone was happy.
Almost at once, everything got worse. My driver arrived promptly at 6:30 p.m. and we saddled up, but the departure was affected by the fact that the garbage cart was parked outside. We’re talking an open handcart oozing raw garbage on a ninety-degree day, with magpies cawing and plucking at the ooziest of the fragments of organic waste.
Meanwhile, traffic seemed to be suffering from some illogical post-hartal sclerosis, and even little Road 12 was jammed. How a road can be jammed by only a dozen cars wasn’t clear to me, but in a mysterious eruption, no fewer than six small yellow trucks had parked across the road outside the wall of the Seabreeze International School (Cambridge Approved), as if some 12-year-old mastermind was planning a mass jailbreak.
As you can tell, I was still taking all this humorously, but once we’d made our way up Road 9, passing the Catalina Island Bistro for the last time, and forced our way onto the main road that runs from the Gulshan-1 roundabout to the Mohakhali flyover, it became clear that the traffic was disastrous even by Dhakan standards. That stretch of road, which had taken me perhaps 15 minutes to walk, and ran for maybe a kilometer, was solid. Took us 35 minutes to shunt our way through that kilometer, the road now full of vast shoebox buses held together with duct tape and Bondo, each one packed with people. At one point I saw a bus that so spectacularly violated the no-standing-in-front-of-this-line principle that the front of the bus, driver included, was six abreast. It was like teenagers in those bench-seat American cars of the Sixties and early Seventies.
I did my best not to worry about catching my plane, and instead stared at the tiny shops, trying to impress them on my memory. One was so chock-full of woven furniture it looked as though four day-release convicts had simply hurled the entire inventory out of the back of a lorry in through the front door. One sported a pile of jackfruit, easily the world’s ugliest fruit or vegetable: large, dirty-yellow and nubbled, jackfruit have a curious sagging quality as if the greengrocer has undergone a sudden fit of rage and beaten them up. Literally one shop if four was what in England would be called a “corner shop” or possibly a newsagent/tobacconist/confectioner. I wondered why, in defiance of my usual travel habit, had not bought a packet of biscuits to subsist on in my room, late at night. I realized it was because I knew those biscuits all too well: their colorful wrapping is unreasonably hard to open, and a single bite makes the biscuit explode in your mouth like sweet white dust.
Motorbikes and scooters and bicycles their way between the cars and buses; everyone else sat and honked. This traffic, I understood, was like four-dimensional Tetris. First imagine a version of Tetris in which seven columns of blocks descend from the top of the screen but there are only four docking columns at the bottom. Then imagine another set of blocks coming in from both sides. That’s what it was like, and the situation only got worse, rather than better, when people wanted to leave the playing area. Every time anyone wanted to turn right (remember Bangladeshis drive on the left) there was no light, no cop, no turn lane: instead, two or even three lanes built up over on the right, pushing their way into and across the oncoming traffic whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself.
My tolerance for the vagaries of Bangladesh’s infrastructure was fast wearing thin. Omar had promised me that when we reached the flyover and Airport Road, all would be plain sailing, and sure enough for about thirty seconds my driver actually used more than one gear. I felt like the joke about the snail sitting on the shell of the turtle, going, “Wheeeeeeee!”
But almost at once we ran into the right-turn problem again: the heavy rush-hour traffic had to essentially squeeze into the leftmost lane because at least two and perhaps three of the four lanes would be choked with people wanting to turn right across four lanes of rush-hour traffic. I found myself mentally pleading for just the tiniest expenditure in street infrastructure. If I had seen a roundabout, I think I would have cheered.
Because these roads violated the entire principle of segregation of purpose. Put simply, you want one kind of road to be high-speed limited-access, another kind of road to act as an urban highway with plenty of on and off opportunities but nothing to impede the flow, and yet another kind to move through commercial or residential districts where people are going to want to be stopping and starting all the time. Airport Road was a fatal collision of all three.
But the big surprise in urban infrastructural planning was still ahead. After countless right-turn squeezes, each one of which drained just a few more cars, motorbikes, mopeds, compressed-natural-gas auto-rickshaws, bikes and cattle from the traffic stream, we started to move more or less continually, and in the night-sky distance I saw the lights of a plane taking off from the airport. Then we stopped.
Complete stop. Utter stop. The kind of stop that feels as if no movement will ever be possible again. The zero degrees Kelvin of a stop. As far ahead as I could see, the traffic was not only stopped, it was being abandoned by its inmates, who were striking up conversations and probably starting roadside games of cricket.
What the heck was going on? After about ten minutes, a series of lights appeared among the vehicle taillights up ahead, apparently going sideways. Not only chemistry but physics and geometry had broken down. I started wondering when the next plane to Dubai would be, and the next plane from Dubai to New York, and the next plane from New York to my bed. Could planes even take off at Absolute Zero?
Finally I saw movement ahead, but once again it was movement in an unexpected direction: up.
Something was rising above the abandoned traffic. Then another something. They were rising in a pair of arcs…they seemed to be strangely striped….
Oh, my God. It was a railroad crossing. The main rail line to Dhaka ran right across the main road to Dhaka Airport.
My mind was still boggling at full speed by the time we pulled up on the Departures level, but I had no more time to devote to urban planning. It was now time to devote my attention to bribery.
The previous time I had flown out of Dhaka airport, I’d been dropped off amid roughly 71 million people jamming the curb, as if the entire adult male population of Bangladesh was about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage. The press of bodies made an already sweaty situation sweatier, and I was about to dissolve into a pool of grease and lipids when a burly guy yanked me and my luggage from the line (more of a wedge, really), hauled me inside to the front of the queue, threw my bag into the metal-explosives-and-contraband detector and then demanded a large bribe. 71 million Bangladeshis, now behind me, glared balefully.
This time I wasn’t going to abuse my privileged position. I was going to stand in line with all the locals, sweat or no sweat. I had even stuffed a spare shirt into my backpack so after I had struggled into the airport proper I could change and fly in comfort.
My driver, who like all Bangladeshis had taken the ghastly drive pretty much in stride, dropped me off at a curb that was suspiciously empty. No Hajj pilgrims. No travelers of any kind. I handed my bag to the uniformed dude by the detector, which looked like a vast tubular vacuum cleaner, or possibly an iron lung. Dude sent the bag through. All done.
I stood for a moment, stunned by this unexpected success. What was I going to do with my spare shirt?
Interpreting my lack of movement as confusion, a uniformed second-dude asked me which airline I was flying. Emirates, I told him. He pulled a luggage cart from its nesting cluster, I put my backpack and travel guitar on it, and he walked me over to the Emirates line, fifteen feet away. The Emirates line, too, was surprisingly short and moving surprisingly quickly. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been in a shorter airport line since the last time I was in Urbana-Champaign, which has airport lines of one.
“Tip, sir?” The dude, having walked me the fifteen feet, broke into me pre-TSA nostalgic reverie and demanded compensation. I sighed. Well, at least he had done me a sort of a service, and that service hadn’t included jumping in front of 71 million pilgrims. I gave him 100 Taka.
He was not satisfied. “Two man, sir.” He gestured at a uniformed third-dude who had strolled over with us. “Two man.”
By now I was starting to see red—which is, of course, the color of blood in the water. Once again I had slipped from being a capable world traveler to a dumb tourist. Once again it became clear that the very vulnerability that makes travel a fascinating and even a spiritual experience also sets one up for being a victim.
I handed over the smallest bill I had left, checked in, and made for Immigration. A small group of uniformed Immigration dudes were going over people’s departure forms. I hadn’t yet filled one out. The nearest dude pulled out a blank form and asked me the questions. I gave him the answers, and he filled out the form. As I reached for it, he pulled it back slightly.
It was only his uniform that prevented me from assaulting him—a uniform, I realized, that meant nothing and that could be bought anywhere. I had only 500 Taka notes and dollar bills.
“I take American money, sir,” he said in tones that blended Uriah Heep and Ebenezer Scrooge.
By now, I couldn’t wait to get out. I went over to the bank counter to change my last 2,000 Taka. The clerk sneered at it.
“Is small amount, sir,” he sniffed. “Charge you 250 to change.”
At that apex of exhaustion and rage, I had a sudden moment of clarity. I knew exactly what I had to do about everything that had happened that evening. I had to snatch back my Taka bills from him. I had to run back to Immigration and grab my dollars from the fake immigration guy. I had to seize the baggage handlers and squeeze their throats until they gave me back my unwilling tips. I had to round up all that ill-spent money, add a little more of my own—which, now I saw things clearly, I was only too willing to donate—and I had to go back to Burlington, to my friend Dan Bradley in the Burlington Department of Public Works, and I had to buy Bangladesh a roundabout.
I wasn’t yet sure how big it would need to be, but Dan could advise me on that. Shipping would be a bit of an issue, of course, but by now I had friends with friends in high places in the Bangladeshi government who could probably slip it into the diplomatic pouch.
It’s only a small beginning, of course, but I know how to set up a non-profit, and the title alone—A Roundabout for Bangladesh—would guarantee news coverage, a worldwide response, phones ringing off the hook offering sympathy dollars.
I released my Taka and the bank employee surlily handed me a few dollars. But I was above all that now. I went to my gate, imagining cars, dented buses, bottle-green compressed-natural-gas auto-rickshaws, even cattle, all processing in an orderly, even stately fashion around Dhaka’s new roundabouts, wheels within wheels, the circulating machinery of a great city.
And the train—well, the train would need a tunnel, or a flyover. Now, that might be more of a challenge.