Few experiences on earth rival the Bangladeshi hair salon.
Those of you who know me well understand that I rarely cut, shave, trim, style or in any other way adulterate my full head of hair or lush beard. In spite of this, every once in a while, I cease to view myself as a professional due to my wolverine-esque locks. For some inexplicable reason, I envision myself as a scruffy, incompetent, wide-eyed sheepdog as I interact students and parents. I’ve also been gently told I look the part.
So once every few months I step out into the frenzied Dhaka streets and walk down to a place in Banani for a haircut at a hole-in-the-wall place for a hundred taka. I’m given exceptional service but sometimes receive than I bargained for.
For starters, the name of this place is Starlet. I must re-emphasize that this is a salon for men. The dictionary definition of the noun starlet is: “a young actress promoted and publicized as a future star.” Score!
Secondly, the door has Justin Bieber, Edward Cullen and the One Direction gang plastered all over it. Possibly not a good sign as one of my worst nightmares is to be locked in a room with “Baby, baby, baby oooooohh” pulsating relentlessly through loudspeakers. (Insert horrified shudder here.)
An average, bi-monthly trip to the local barbershop usually unfolds something like this:
I open the door by giving Justin Beiber’s smug grin an aggressive shove and stroll into a dark yellow room to be greeted by surprised stares from customers and over-eager workers bickering over who has the privilege of cutting the white guy’s hair. Sometimes I’m forced to wait and am served scalding chaa in an impossibly thin plastic cup with several generous teaspoons of granulated sugar stirred in.
After I’m seated, my neck is wrapped in two sweat-soaked towels, taken directly from the neck of the customer before me, and some tissue paper. My head is massaged briefly (often accompanied by the comment that I have dandruff or that my hair is dirty… this, while conceivably true, does come into play as a sales tactic later!) before he begins snipping at my hair with a set of slightly rusty, un-sanitized scissors. The combs are encrusted with some greasy yellow substance and talcum powder is constantly, but randomly, applied to the back of my neck. I sport a permanently bemused look as I stare at myself and my enthusiastic hosts in the cracked, yellowing mirror.
After the haircut, (during which, I always must fight against ending up with the trademarked Bill Emberley poof…Bill, your luxuriant head of bouncy hair would be all the rage here!) is when the real fun begins!
I am offered a litany of massages, face washes and other spa-like treatments for which I do not understand the purpose or rationale. Most of the time I refuse because of the price tag but once I decided to say “yes” to everything and anything they offered.
I believe, after a long, hard thought and careful consideration, I can sum this experience up in a single word…no, I can’t. I need to use several.
First, they gave me another scalp massage, this time with a lukewarm oil of some kind. It felt pretty good and likely eliminated some of the (aforementioned) dandruff. My head was rinsed again and then an odd set of forceps that look like antiques from the Spanish Inquisition was fetched. This scared me a little bit, to be honest, but it was just for my nose hair and, apparently, some hair in my ears. Next, my face was scrubbed with some sort of shampoo.
And then came the fun bit; I had this, odd smelling cream slathered onto my face and was directed to wait for five minutes. As I contemplated my life choices in the cracked mirror, it dawned on me: my skin was being whitened with bleach! I frantically flagged down the barber who acquiesced to my frantic pleas, albeit with baffled confusion, and wiped my face off with a warm towel. My face was whiter…or was it just clean? I couldn’t tell; I ended my open-tab barber experience there though!
In the end, I’m happy I have had the FULL Bangladeshi barber experience. I’ll stop at a haircut next time though!
On the bus home from work a few days ago, I saw something I’d rarely seen in Dhaka. I gave my eyes a startled rub and looked again. Yes. There it was, in all its magnificent, freshly-painted glory… a newly installed public garbage bin!
Many of you may be scratching your head wondering why this is so notable. Some of you are likely considering the possibility that Dhaka has finally done me in; that I am now truly insane and babbling about absurdities. But public garbage cans are a revolutionary idea in a city as overloading with litter as Dhaka.
Waste management is a huge struggle for Dhaka and, with only 310 garbage disposal trucks serving a rapidly expanding population of 18 million people; it is a major issue that needs to be addressed by the Bangladeshi government. Currently, only 37% of waste is collected and disposed in landfills while the rest is piled pell-mell in the streets and slowly burned. Sewage is left untreated, industrial waste is dumped indiscriminately into lakes and biomedical waste is carelessly added to the mix. The Buriganga River, the heart of Dhaka, is one of the most polluted rivers on earth with 4500 tons of sewage and factory waste dumped into the river each day. Trust me; the environmental situation in Bangladesh is not pretty!
This affects us in a few minor ways, including being regularly exposed to nasty, unidentifiable smells, occasionally stepping in sludge we pretend is not sewage and carefully avoiding toxic, lung-searing smoke from the burning rubbish. We daily see grimy rickshaw-dumpsters laboriously traveling from one apartment to another and small crowds of grubby children sifting through piles of trash searching for recyclable prizes of glass, metal or paper. But no matter how many people we see working to collect garbage, find recyclables or sweep the streets; more trash appears to fill the recently cleaned roadways.
Bangladesh is a long way from cleaning up its cities. I understand that these tiny little public trash bins will, in the immediate future, have a negligible impact on the cleanliness of the streets. But it is exciting to have an option other than throwing my random bits of garbage on the street…there is hope! Even if few Bangladeshis use the revolutionary new trash bins, I know I will!
Dhaka reigns as king of the unexpected. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before in friendly conversations and with the few of you who actually end up reading SSN, Dhaka never ceases to surprise me with her unique, utterly peculiar sights.
One of the inexplicable highlights of randomness that I see on a regular basis is the bizarre Kyrgyz Consulate Beautification Scheme near Banani Bridge. This “beautification” of Dhaka consists of several weather-beaten, scratched concrete animals including a horse, a tiger and a pair of zebras with their…um…man-parts rather well polished. I shake my head with barely suppressed laughter every time I bike or rickshaw past these haggard creatures. I truly love them, obviously not because they turn Dhaka into a tourist hotspot but simply because they make me smile each time I pass by.
The beautification scheme is random for several reasons:
First of all: Kyrgyzstan. Why would the consulate of the gorgeous, mountain-country of Kyrgyzstan (one of my dream travel destinations coincidentally) bother to install a series of poorly constructed concrete animals in the megacity of Dhaka, Bangladesh? Why adulterate the reputation of such an amazingly beautiful and historic nation? What do the citizens of Kyrgyzstan gain from placing these animals in a remote corner of the South Asia?
Secondly, there is no Kyrgyz Consulate in the country of Bangladesh. “Where is this Kyrgyz consulate,” you might ask? Apparently it’s in New Dehli, a solid 1,700 kilometers away. So the Kyrgyz consulate in New Delhi decided, in their infinite wisdom, to place a series of concrete statues in a neighboring, country that bickers incessantly with the consulate’s host government of India? Great choice!
Thirdly, the choice of tigers makes sense; Bengal tigers do in fact live in Bangladesh. The choice of a horse is very fitting for the equestrian-heavy culture of the nomadic Kyrgyz people. But ZEBRAS?!? How will zebras ever be relevant to the relationship between Dhaka and Bishkek?
In my humble opinion, Kyrgyzstan’s mission to beautify Dhaka has largely failed to make Bangladesh more scenic but it has certainly given me many a laugh. If I ever end up in Kyrgyzstan I’ll do my best to construct a concrete llama or ostrich. You know…to improve Kyrgyz-Canadian political relations. It would be the obvious choice!
A few weeks ago, I hit a goat with my bicycle.
Let me preface the aforementioned incident with an explanation. Danielle and I use bicycles as our primary mode of transportation through the gritty streets of Dhaka. When we first purchased our bikes in October, each time I wheeled onto the street my heart would pound with excitement and my bloodstream would course with adrenaline. Now, almost a year later, each time I pedal onto Dhaka streets, my senses still heighten to an almost supernatural level of sensitivity. I keep my head on a swivel, listen for the slightest changes in the noise around me and even rely on rancid smells to alert me to incoming gutters.
The more I pedal through Dhaka’s traffic, the more I realize that it functions a bit like an ecosystem. There are unspoken rules that result in a sort of food chain that I thought could be useful in cataloging my Dhaka street experience. I wish I had some animation skills, so I could create something more visually appealing, but I suppose language will have to suffice. Here is the Dhaka Traffic Food Chain…in text form!
1. The Environment: The streets in Dhaka are filled with trash of various sizes and smells. The streets have massive cracks, deep pot holes and copious amounts of junk. Oozing gutters filled with sewage line the roads, police barriers bristling with barbed wire jut out randomly into the street. These and a myriad of other random obstacles could lead to your downfall if you don’t pay close attention. I suppose that, in our food chain metaphor, the state of the Dhaka’s infrastructure could be interpreted as, you know, volcanoes, meteorites and other catastrophic stuff that can have grave consequences if you are not sufficiently evolved.
2. Buses: Buses are the apex predator of the Dhaka ecosystem. Their size, aggressiveness and skull-shattering horns are the road equivalent of a megalodon! A bus will not avoid you; you must avoid it! Seriously, Dhaka has one of the highest traffic accident fatality rates on earth, and I suspect that buses are the primary culprit. I have experienced few things more terrifying than a bus sneaking up a few feet behind me and then blasting its horn. In these moments, my heart stops and I literally go into survival mode like the small fry that I am. Afterwards, I check the seat of my bicycle. And feel lucky my underwear remains unsoiled!
3. Begging Elephants: For real. These elephants are trained to beg and accept money from passing cars. They don’t tend to mess with buses but beware the windscreen of your vehicle if you refuse to fork over cash. These elephants are essentially in the business of blackmail: give us money or lose your windshield. Hence, their place near the top of our ecosystem’s hierarchy.
4. Cars: The next level of our Dhaka Food Chain is plain old cars. Vehicle drivers in Bangladesh appear to have no qualms about running you over. I’ve been hit on my bicycle, albeit gently most times, on close to a dozen occasions with no apologies or even a glance to see how I fared. Once, an aggressive driver almost knocked Danielle off her feet as she was walking, and he berated us for hitting his car!
Dhaka vehicle drivers are also selfish and will often stop traffic for half a kilometer rather than let another car turn or back out of a parking space. As a result, a chorus of horns sing communal displeasure and frustration. The noise levels of Dhaka traffic are astounding. An independent study measured average daytime noise pollution from traffic at from 83-108 decibels. For comparison, a commercial jet emits 110 decibels during takeoff. Cycling in Dhaka is loud! If buses are the megalodon of Dhaka in our little allegory, then everyday cars are the, you know, normal sized sharks. Sharks that scream. Loudly.
5. CNG: The algae-green CNGs that pepper Dhaka roads are, for me personally on my bicycle, the least of my worries. They are the tuna or swordfish of Dhaka’s roads, a force to be reckoned with if threatened but relatively benign if left to their own devices. As tuk-tuks, they have the dual advantage of mobility and speed – I don’t often run into conflict with them as I pedal around town. However, their growl adds to the chaos and noise and confusion.
6. Rickshaws: The 500,000 rickshaws operating daily in the city cannot be described as anything but a massive school of herring. Herring with small sharp teeth. This analogy holds true not only because there are so many of them, but because they have no engines to warn of their arrival and seem to move in ways that appear pre-orchestrated. The rickshaw wallah’s just know how to move in the traffic; watching hundreds of them move together simultaneously is strangely mesmerizing, much like watching a school of herring in a Blue Planet documentary.
For me, however, rickshaws tend to be my biggest threat because, unless the wallah chooses to ring his little bell to alert me to his presence, they expect you to react to their movements and choices rather than paying attention to your actions. They can be insanely aggressive. Much of the danger comes from being forced into vehicular traffic by overly enthusiastic wallahs jockeying for position but I’ve also been knocked off my bike, once into a car, by rickshaws. Perhaps a rickshaw is so close to a bicycle that there is some ambiguity as to who top dog in the food chain is but, in my books, the rickshaw comes out on top.
7. Me! Whoo! I’m here! This is me in the food chain! Now that I know my place, I can survive accordingly. Hopefully.
8. Pedestrians: Pedestrians are the only sentient participant in the Dhaka traffic food chain who are below me in the dominance hierarchy. They are the plankton of the streets. They are everywhere. It is difficult to walk in Dhaka without bumping into others at every turn; the same principal holds true for biking here. Luckily for me, so long as I ring my bell loud and clear, the pecking order holds, and I cruise on my merry way.
9. Goats: And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for. Goats. And other animals such as chickens, cows, the occasional sheep and, on one special occasion, a vibrantly pink rooster.
As I was biking home from a squash match on a recent, sleepy Friday morning, a goat, fleeing from some unseen threat, smashed into my front wheel and tumbled into a bleating pile of hooves and fur. I managed to stay on my seat but couldn’t believe my eyes. I mean, how many other people can say that they have hit a goat while riding their bicycle down the street? I was inspired enough to write this blog post.
Despite the risks, Dani and I learned to brave the chaotic traffic and now understand our role in the traffic ecosystem. Now that I’ve learned my place in the food chain, biking is one of my favorite aspects of life in Dhaka. It gives me a degree of freedom and autonomy previously unavailable due to our over-reliance on rickshaws and CNGs for transportation. It has saved us a surprisingly large amount of taka and time. As hard as it is to believe, I might miss the pandemonium and adrenaline of cycling in Dhaka when I relocate!
And don’t worry, in the end, the goat I struck was okay. His pride was hurt and nothing more.
I’ll never forget the first time I stepped out of my apartment gate and found her devouring food-scraps from my garbage. She blissfully ignored me as I did a double-take and stood in somber, shocked silence for several seconds that felt like an eternity. My mind whirred as I attempted to fully register the magnitude of what I was witnessing. Another human being was eating from my garbage. She perched precariously on the edge of the rickshaw-dumpster and contentedly rooted through watermelon rinds and crusts of fuzzy green bread I had thrown out hours before. She let out an enthusiastic shriek of delight when she discovered the shredded carcass of the small chicken we had used for noodle soup. As she gnawed greedily at her newfound prize she glanced my way and her eyes brightened. With a beaming, toothy smile she waved her grimy hand at me and turned back to the dumpster.
The biggest lump I’ve ever felt settled firmly into my throat.
I know her. Her name is Ratia. She is one of the beggar-girls who ply the blocks around my house. Each time she sees me she gifts me the brightest smile you’ll ever see and blurts out a cheerful “good morning!” (It doesn’t matter if it’s nine o’clock at night; it is still “good morning”!) She proudly tells me that she is nine years old and that she lives with her brothers and sisters in Korail slum, about a ten minute walk from our house. I taught her how to count to ten in English and she performs admirably, with the exception of the number seven, which she always skips. As I saw her eating my rubbish scraps, a powerful wave of emotion struck me and I fought tears as I continued on my errand.
I wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with frustration over the knowledge that I am powerless to truly help her. If I give her money, it is simply handed over to her organized-crime handlers. I have given her food in the past only to see it snatched away by her older peers. I tried to teach her English but, after a few sessions, her handlers pulled her away from my street in an effort to keep her away from me because she wasn’t earning money.
The anger, sadness, helplessness and frustration I feel about Ratia’s fate is difficult to express or quantify. She is literally one of the sweetest children on the planet. She is bright, energetic, optimistic and perceptive. And because of a corrupt government, a morally impoverished society and oppressive poverty, she will never be educated, will never be empowered and will never have the opportunity to attain her full potential. And Ratia is only one.
There are millions upon millions of Ratias in this country who currently do not have the access to health care, clean water, employment or education. So much intelligence, so much talent, and so much potential is being wasted in Bangladesh. I have no solutions. I can’t express how badly I wish I did.