Bicycling in Dhaka
Having recently returned to Bangladesh after many years abroad, I have finally gotten the hang of bicycling on Dhaka streets. Here are some guidelines I find useful. You may use them at your own risk. Since Dhaka streets are prone to traffic jams, it is best to be flexible about destinations and times. Even better, try not to have a destination at all. Because if you have a firm destination in mind, then all other cars, busses, trucks, CNGs, rickshaws, motorcycles and pedestrians will simultaneously decide to go to the same place. Thus none of you will get there in the foreseeable future. For bicycling purposes, street and footpath are interchangeable. In fact, footpath is preferable. Think about it. Unlike a nasty "Tata Mahindra" bus, no matter how hard pedestrians run into you, or you into them, they cannot crush your bones.
Also, using the footpath makes you adaptable. If your progress towards an unknown destination stops due to a jam, you can keep moving by switching to a footpath. Always wear a helmet. This will make sure you get the attention you deserve. Note however people are not staring in admiration of your impeccable safety standards. They are wondering how mad you are to be wearing this gizmo on your head on a hot day as sweat streams down the sides of your face.
Wear those zip-off-leg pants. Then open the front of the zip so your knee pops in and out in sync with pedaling. This provides much-needed air-conditioning in your body. Also, those wondering about your sanity will stop wondering and just avoid you.
Use a bell liberally. The soothing sound provides a musical counterpoint to the ongoing concerto for car and bus horns. The preferable spot to use the bell is on the footpath, when you are right behind a pedestrian. As a bonus, you will see their jumping and dancing skills.
For safety, use buffers when crossing or turning in insanely busy streets or roundabouts. Buffers are other pedestrians, bicycles and rickshaws, crossing the street at the same place as you, but are closer to the approaching traffic. So if buses are coming from your left, your buffers should be crossing the street on your left. Thus, if a runaway bus cannot stop in time for your crossing, it will hit the buffer first.
Although it is sometimes tempting to go slow and savour the noise and fumes - I mean, peace and greenery - try to maintain a good pace. There is nothing more embarrassing than being left in the dust by a young rickshaw-wallah carrying two overweight parents and a kid while you amble away on your fancy foreign made bicycle wearing that helmet.
Speaking of rickshaws, another great way to make friends with them is to follow one carrying many jute sacks full of rice. At an opportune moment - eg, when it is taking a turn and its balance is compromised - rear-end it firmly. Be sure you have a quick escape route before attempting this maneuver. Observe the falling sacks from a safe distance.
If traffic heading in your opposite direction is completely stopped while you are breezing along, you can make many more friends by smiling and waving at the people stuck in the jam as you pass them. Loudly sing "Pichdhala ei pothTare Bhalobeshechhi" for extra effect. (Translation: Oh how I love this open paved road!)
Us Bangalees take our expectoration seriously. Try to anticipate when a person near you is going to spit, clear phlegm or throw pik (the red stuff resulting from chewing betel leaf) and which direction they will aim. Sometimes you will hear a throaty warning signal, but it can also strike silently. Avoid being in the same spot at the same time as flying expectorant. Along the same lines, exercise caution when near a bus - specially a long distance one with open windows. Sooner or later someone will throw up through a window. Try not to get any on yourself. Double decker buses are even more dangerous. Aren't you glad you are wearing that helmet?
Never assume that just because you are on the left side of the road, other vehicles on the same side are headed in the same direction. Every 11th bicycle, 14th rickshaw and 7th motorcycle is headed the wrong-way. No, they did not spend many years in America and think it is ok to drive on the right side. Actually I don't know why they do it - for shortcut purposes?
Be extra careful around traffic policemen with big sticks. They can become excited unexpectedly. Excited traffic police swing their sticks wildly. Try not to get your face smashed in.
Delay your normal morning shower until after the bike ride. If you need a grey shirt, wear a white shirt during your ride and find an older bus spewing out black smoke. Follow this bus for a few minutes.
When you are getting tired of waiting to cross the road, never underestimate the power of stepping in forcefully in front of a moving vehicle. This is the only way to make them stop. Hopefully the buffer you have kept on your left will do this. But if not, be brave. And if the vehicle doesn't stop - hey, you did leave your insurance policy with your SO before leaving home, didn't you?
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