Monday, April 4, 2011

A Sense of the Riverfront

Mix together one-of-a-kind sights and smells, vegetables, betel nut, add a dash of spice and you’ll end up with the unique blend of flavors that make Puran Dhaka what it is. Though I visited Old Dhaka a few weeks ago, I felt my time in Bangladesh wouldn’t be complete without seeing the riverfront.

The drive there was once again very interesting. En route we passed a two-storied “apartment complex” that looked as though it was constructed from multi-colored shipping containers. People were milling around and children were playing on the building’s balcony walkway. Men trotted along the street balancing baskets loaded up with cucumbers, eggplants, potatoes, and other vegetables on their heads. Their gait was remarkable – the upper body remained virtually motionless as they held on to the baskets, their legs and feet moved with seeming effortlessness. The strain was visible only in their faces.

There was shockingly little traffic on this particular Saturday morning. And so it was that I arrived at our designated meeting place in front of the Sutrapur Police Station about twenty minutes early. Like a spy, I observed the going-ons outside the car window as I waited.

The storefronts had been opened – and by that I mean that the garage doors had been lifted – but store hours had not yet begun. The tailor and his assistant, who’d been setting out bolts of fabric, took a break to brush their teeth and oil their hair. The police car parked in front of us was simultaneously being washed and examined by a mechanic. The tailor, once his personal hygiene needs had been taken care of, set up his sewing machine on the sidewalk. Rickshaws rolled by laden with sleepy businessmen, precariously stacked egg crates, and eager morning shoppers. A proud man, with dyed black hair toted around his granddaughter, tea in hand, to survey the scene. He stopped periodically to chat with one of the merchants. As I took in all sights, two women watched me from the opposite side of the street.

At 8 AM I joined up with the rest of the group. Taimur from the Urban Study Group and two couples from South Africa. The buildings we visited were similar to the ones I’d seen on my previous Old Dhaka tour, but what we found at and near the water’s edge was totally different.

Heaps of limes, baskets of tomatoes, carpets of garlic, and piles of potatoes lined the uneven rows of the market place. We clamored through the crowd taking care not to step in any muddy puddles. After successfully avoiding collisions with any of the stream of unpredictably zigzagging rickshaws, we arrived at the river.
Most of the banks on this side of the river were garbage – literally. But between the piles, stairs lead to the water. At the base, two canoe-like boats were loaded up with pumpkins. These were being relayed up to the market place balanced on the workmen’s heads. With 5-6 pumpkins in each, Taimur estimated that the baskets weighed as much as 100 kg (that’s about 200 lbs). The work is dangerous. In fact, these workers often sustain significant neck and back damage, including paralysis. But with few other options, they risk their mobility for a few taka. I was taken by this unbelievable sight and at the same time horrified by the bodily harm that this work was causing.

The smells in the air changed drastically – in a good way – as we left the river and entered the spice market. Chilies, coriander, ginger, turmeric and an array of other scents combined to create a spa-like fragrance. Mild at first, the potency escalated as we pushed through the people towards the heart of the market. Through eyes made blurry by the chilies, we viewed stall upon stall filled with bags upon bags of Bangladesh’s everyday spices. Sacks of dried, red chilies were literally bursting at the seams.

Following Taimur out of the spice market, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a betel nut leaf auction. As you walk around Dhaka, and presumably cities across the Indian Sub-Continent you’ll find red spots on the ground. It’s not blood, but spit. Paan – a package of areca nut, lime paste wrapped up in the leaf – dyes the saliva red. The place was bustling and we were constantly moving out of the way to avoid being bowled over by men, once again, carrying heavy bags of goods on their heads. This was our last market stop.

It was time to clear the senses.

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