Today the heavens downpoured for my entire commute to school via rickshaw. 99% of the time I am fine not having a car or access to a car – it is nice not having to worry about the maintenance, insurance, gas, and here, the employment of a driver. The rickshaw driver I had took a sheet of plastic out and gestured that I should cover myself up to stay dry. If you were to look head on at me, all you would have seen is my head peeking out over the plastic, under the “hood” of the rickshaw itself. Meanwhile, the rickshaw driver himself put a baseball cap on and pedaled away. He was soaking to the bone when we got to school. I suppose a minor relief in the rain is that it happens when it’s hot outside and so the rain feels better (marginally!) than if it rained mostly in the winter when it was cold.
On one of the expat groups I belong to here, there’s been a heated discussion about what to pay rickshaw drivers – the standard “deshi” fare, and then the foreigner “white person” fare. Putting aside momentarily that I am not white, and yet I am lumped in with the “white” people group because I look more like them than I look like a Bangladeshi (this is a frustrating post for another time), I was reminded again about the privilege we have of living in this heartbreakingly beautiful country, with all of its challenges and successes. The rickshaw driver is a mix of both. He often travels from villages far from Dhaka, pays 1-200 taka to rent his rickshaw, and endures all manners of weather (have you tried to ride a single-gear bicycle, carrying 4-500 pounds worth of people and/or products? In the sweltering heat that envelopes Dhaka most of the year?), all manners of driving (dodging buses that don’t ever stop, CNGs and cars that are beeping constantly, and people who jaywalk, playing Frogger with the oncoming traffic), and all manners of abuse. I have seen rickshaw drivers being threatened and actually hit, very hard, by passengers, people in positions of authority, and other drivers (car, CNG, and rickshaw) as well. I have seen heartbreakingly young (think, 14 or 15 yo boys) driving rickshaws, and the elderly driving rickshaws. It is all incredibly humbling. The average age of a rickshaw driver here is about 15 years less than non-rickshaw drivers – they die earlier because of the extreme toll on their bodies. I would imagine it’s less, somewhat, for those driving motorized or auto rickshaws/CNGs, but all the same, years of pedaling, years of inhaling noxious fumes from the cars around you – that shit takes a toll.
One thing I hadn’t anticipated growing accustomed to was thinking in terms of Bangladeshi taka instead of pulling out my phone and converting the price to US dollars. I think more in terms of taka now. I know how much (roughly) rickshaw rides cost. I know that, as a general rule, I will pay more than Bangladeshis. And really, I am mostly okay with that. When I hop off a rickshaw, both the driver and I will have exchanged a fare that we are both comfortable with. Within our neighborhood, I know how much fares usually go and that’s what I pay. If I have a lot of groceries, I pay more. If I’m in another area and have a rough idea, I negotiate with the rickshaw driver until we come to a fare we can both agree on. I mostly don’t like being taken advantage of or being mistreated because of my skin color, so if a rickshaw or CNG driver asks for more than I am comfortable with, I walk away. And if a rickshaw driver or CNG doesn’t want to drive me somewhere, he says no and rides away. It works for me. I have also picked up some very, excruciatingly basic Bangla and can do this mostly in Bangla now – I have noticed that since doing this, I don’t feel like I’m being fleeced. I’d like to think that the drivers appreciate my efforts. Sometimes in the negotiating process, a rickshaw driver will ask for much lower than I would have expected, so I end up tipping.
All this is not to say that what I’m doing is right, or what other expats are doing is wrong. I struggle with this daily. Public transportation here is virtually nonexistent, and we do not have the desire nor the funds to pay for a car (Dhaka doesn’t need another car in its mix) and driver, so we rickshaw. It is at a cost, though, and one that we are keenly aware of every time we lift our hand to call for a rickshaw.
(reposted from my Facebook profile)
I came home from the grocery store and found a few rickshaw drivers marveling at Will – Suma had brought him outside to run around in the driveway for a bit while waiting for Matthew and Lindsey’s bus to come home. He and I spoke at length, of a family he used to regularly pull a rickshaw for, from Michigan (the guy he worked for had a wife and 4 daughters). He told me of his own family, that he lived down the street from us in a shack with his wife and 4 kids (ages 11, 8, 6, and 4). Three of those kids are daughters, and he says he has a lot of stress and tension over how to afford marrying them (needs to have 1 lakh taka (100,000 taka, or $1286.18 USD) for each of them). He pays 110 taka a day to rent his run down rickshaw. He’d have to pull a rickshaw about 5 times from where we live to Bashundhara gate or to the grocery store to earn back the money he lays out for rickshaw rent.
Shonju (his name) talked to me at length about how the foreigner scene has changed in Gulshan, that he doesn’t find many foreigners who need rickshaw rides in Gulshan, and he doesn’t earn enough money pulling rickshaws for Bangladeshis. So he sticks close by to Bashundhara and just tries to work hard. He says his fondest wish is to own a small plot of land and a home in his home village but he is struggling to pay the rent on the shack he lives in with his family. He said, “I am sad about not having such a good job, not having so much money, but I have my four kids and it’s for them I work.” Shonju’s oldest three children attend a local school that meets for a couple of hours each day.
We talked for a good fifteen minutes before he had to go. In the meanwhile, our conversation back and forth brought six or so other people on the street closer to the entrance of our driveway, to listen to us talk. Terrifically humbling in every way. I always try to remember how privileged we are in our community here, but it’s oh so easy to forget. For months I was angsting over Matthew’s and Lindsey’s schooling. Completely overcome sometimes with jealousy over the resources at the school where I substitute teach, versus what we could afford here in Dhaka. Feels sort of stupid, all of this emotion pent up. What a reality I live in now. Humbling.
This morning, I rode to work in a rickshaw while the rain poured underneath me. I hid underneath it, with only my eyes and nose peeking through at the downpour while I covered up with a plastic sheet. My rickshaw driver pedaled without regard, only gesturing me to lift the cover higher so that I could stay as dry as possible. The rain stopped shortly before we arrived at my destination. I paid him. He folded up the plastic sheet and lifted the seat to put it back into the compartment underneath, and rode off, looking for another fare.
Bangladesh is heartbreakingly beautiful.