The rickshaw drivers were just laughing at me. “I’ll give you 500 taka for your bell” I was saying to varying degrees of understanding to the skinny men perched on their bicycle seats.
Dhaka, Bangladesh has some of the worse traffic I have ever experienced. The roads are dusty and moon cratered with potholes and oftentimes a street that one would assume was designed for two opposing lanes of traffic would instead be host to four or five. The busses all look as if they have been rolled sideways down a proverbial steep embankment then righted to their wheels and sent back onto the roadway. For the most part, traffic in Dhaka is a hot steaming mess.
Thus, one of the most efficient and economical ways to get around the city is via the bicycle rickshaw. These three-wheeled contraptions can barely fit two people sitting in the passenger section and are piloted up front by impossibly lean men (I never saw a female rickshaw operator – I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but I never saw one). Men whose BMI would be approaching negative numbers.
Now while the rickshaw more or less comfortably sat a single passenger, one could squeeze in for an intimate ride with a companion and many did, it is not uncommon in fact, to see three young men piled into the back of one of these things as well – all being pedaled along by a single sinewy pilot standing on the pedals, pumping them up and down as if he were climbing a ladder.
The rickshaws themselves are rolling pieces of art painted and decorated in garish colors, some festooned with flags and fringe, many though are mere faded reminders of past glory, their paint peeled, hues muted, gold fringe now a dust incrusted gray. The bells on their handlebars, about the size of half an orange, minus all but a few flakes of chrome the rest being the same dirty brown one would achieve by mixing soil into a drinking glass of water.
The ringing of these bells punctuates the streets of Dhaka. And it was while I was lying in bed one evening listening to them cricket calling into the night that I decided I needed one as a souvenir of my visit.
For the most part the rickshaws only operate on the smaller side streets; they are not permitted on the major thoroughfares of the city. They may not even cross some of these bigger roads so they will cue up at these intersections hoping to solicit customers. This is where I first went bell shopping – amongst the couple dozen rickshaws hanging out at one of the crossings.
Most drivers do not own the rickshaws that they pedal around town; they rent them from an owner for about 200 taka a day (one hundred taka equals about twelve US dollars). Now, the amount pone pays for a ride with these guys isn’t really written down anywhere and the prices vary not only by time and distance but by whom the passenger is. A local will always pay less than an out of towner, something like fifty to hundred taka for a twenty minute ride while I would be expected to pay at least the hundred and most likely two. But it’s all relative; I mean we are talking the difference between one and two dollars.
I had done a bit of research and I learned that a new bell would run around 300 taka. I didn’t want a new one, I wanted and old used one, a bell that had some miles on it, a bell that had stories to tell. So I offered what I thought would be an exorbitant amount of money for one, 500 taka. At first the guys thought that I meant I wanted them to ring the hell out of their bells while they gave me a ride to wherever I was going. Pushed on their levers, each trying to show me that they had the best sounding bell. Eventually I got my mission understood though, and this simply assured all involved of my insanity.
The drivers thought this was the funniest thing they had heard all day. Number one, the rickshaws most likely were not heirs, they had no right to sell pieces from it and secondly, the bells were an essential piece of equipment for the “safe” operation of the vehicle. I might as well be walking up to people in the states idling at a stoplight and offering them a couple thousand dollars for their steering wheels. I returned to my room bell-less.
The next day I had a better idea.
I perused the bells on the rickshaws parked near the entrance and found one with an exquisite pedigree, patina perfect, a couple flakes of chrome still clinging to its melodic dome. I then enlisted the help of the hotel’s two doormen who between them spoke just enough English that I was able to include them as accomplices in my plot. I promised to give the driver 300 taka for a new bell, but he had to drive me to the shop where he was going to buy it, install it on this rickshaw, give me his old bell and drive me back.
I climbed into the rickshaw and we were off.
We slid down back alleys, through narrow streets just barely wide enough for us to navigate. We passed kids playing cricket and rickshaw bone yards, a row of burn out automobiles neighborhoods constructed of corrugated metal, goats, chickens, and machine shops for about twenty five minutes until finally we pulled up to a little shop with tires hanging outside of it. I gave my driver 300 taka and he bought TWO new bells. We borrowed a screwdriver from the shop and he took off the old one, gave it to me and installed his twin ringer dingers and we were headed back.
The new bells rang piercingly clear and at double volume while my new friend employed them with great abandon. I think he was feeling a bit invincible because I am pretty sure we took a few more risky moves than on the way out. The sonic umbrella of our duel bells protected us from automobile, busses and livestock the whole way back while we pushed our luck, taking chances that one without such fine ringers would never dream of attempting.
On the way through security, at the airport as I was headed back to the States my bell showed up on the x-ray and the officer asked to see what it was. I pulled it out and gave it a ring. He smiled and I smiled back. It was seeing me safely home.