Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Train Track Life

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac

If you have read any stories or watched any videos about Bangladesh, and in particular Dhaka, they usually contain over crowded trains, insane traffic (yes, again with the traffic) and poverty. You may have also seen pictures about people living and working along busy railroad tracks. I decided to find out for myself and I am here to tell you that these stories are absolutely true. Life along the tracks is very real.

I have been exploring the different areas of Dhaka when I can. Most recently Moghbazar and Hatirjheel. It can be said that after a while all neighborhoods start to look the same. I don't think that is true at all. Regardless, life along the rail lines in Dhaka is completely different than anything else I have witnessed here.

What makes it different? Well to start, they live, work and play along very active rail roadtracks.

I had met my friend Nasrin in Dhanmondi to get some exercise and we walked around the lake there. It is not as nice as Gulshan but the change of scenery was needed. I have walked so many times around Lake Gulshan I am having "gerbil on a treadmill" nightmares. We walked the lake a few times then found a rickshaw to a North End coffee house. It was on the third floor of an office building which gave us some nice views of Dhanmondi.

Dhanmondi to Banani is about 7.5km so says Google Maps. An easy hour and a half walk, give or take. So off I went. I had been in this area and on these streets in the past, having walked back from Old Dhaka and Lalbagh Fort. I actually knew the shortcuts across street bridges and various landmarks. I was walking and just doing my thing when I noticed the slow changes in the streets around me. Gone were the modern buildings giving way to low rise shops. With each block the area was getting more desperate. The road changed to a dirt path (Thanks for the map Google ) and after a while, I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself in the middle of Nakahalpara Kanchabazar, a community that thrives in and around the railroad tracks.

It started out easy enough. Dirt paths that were home to shacks, vendors and garbage piles. Kids were shaking a huge palm tree for the coconuts while small family crowds watched them, and then watched me. When I smiled, they smiled and all was good. I walked under an overpass which protected a long lane of shops and vendors going in both directions. This was off the beaten paths - even for me. I took a step forward, stopped and decided against it. The Spidey senses kicked in enough to stop me in my tracks.Instead, I turned towards Banani, still an hour away.

I was taking pictures, enjoying the surroundings, smiling and waving or stopping to chat with curious locals who always asked "what is your country?".  Just as I was leaving the dirt track I paused and saw the rail lines. I figured "OK, you have said you wanted to do this and now it has dropped into your lap". There I was in my perfect tranquil moment and as I took my first confident step I hear a low growl right behind me. I had seen the ratty fat old dog about 100 meters back but now the tricky little bastard had crept up right behind me and was claiming his domain.

This dog was 20 years old if it was a day but the old boy was confident enough in his stride that I just kept walking. I kept is slow and stead, the old "show no fear thing". So there I was with a mangy nasty dog walking no more that two feet behind my calves giving me a low relentless mean growl. Then, as if on cue, I reached the end of its territory and it stopped, sat down, let out a lame tired bark and walked away. Me and dogs man. Me and dogs.

I met kids tossing rocks as cans, shoe repair guys and plastic bottle collectors, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, students, teachers, vendors and businessmen all living harmoniously along the rail line. A few of the jack fruit vendors even posed as a train came by a mere 3 feet away from them, and as it turns out, me.

Of course, given the opportunity, the people in and around Nakahalpara Kanchabazar, or any other poor area of Dhaka dream of a better life. A better home in a safe community with clean water and good schools. Naturally, it's the opportunity that never presents itself. So in lieu of knowing a better life they accept where they are and how they live. Making the most of out meeting a strange foreigner walking along the rail lines without a care in the world. They accept it as just another part of their strange and enchanting life.