This city whizzes by you at a break-neck pace. You can be trying to cross a street where five people are running towards a moving bus, attempting to gain enough momentum to squish their way through the packed doorway of the hulking thing as it swerves through the hoards of cars zooming by, while four vendors are trying to sell you various goods and a rickshaw wallah is offering to drive you about the city for an hour, for a very good price. All at once. All the time.
Yet somehow, at the same time, things move painstakingly slow here. I heard this from countless people before leaving for Dhaka, but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it until I was in the midst of it – everything here takes about twenty times longer than it would in the US. Any errand you need to run will more often than not consume a significant portion of the daylight hours. Be prepared, they said. Learn how to be patient.
The traffic, yes, is one thing. It is continuous and mindboggling – we moved about 50m in 40 minutes the other day – but the most amazing thing is just the sheer amount of time it takes you to do even the seemingly simplest of things. How between getting there, tracking down the place, finding the right person to talk to, getting the actual task done, and finding your way back – it is an ordeal each time.
For example, I just spent two hours trying to mail a letter through DHL FedEx. How exactly? Well, I figured I’d dodge the traffic and walk to the DHL in Gulshan 2, about a twenty minute walk from my flat in Baridhara. The walk there was no problem, past a small lake littered with bizarre signs about the benefits of walking and couples stealing discreet moments on the curb.
But upon arrival at the address indicated by GoogleMaps, there’s no DHL to be found. I backtrack and then walk down the street again, scrutinizing the clusters of signage lining the roads. I imagine myself walking by the storefront repeatedly, playing out the scene in my mind as it would in a movie, the kind where you find yourself yelling at the screen the sixth time the protagonist has strolled by the exact location s/he’s looking is looking for. I ask various guards and food vendors DLI kotai?, where is the DHL?, and after many replies of ami janni na, I don’t know, my gaze lands on The Westin. I decide to head up to the concierge desk to see if they can point me in the right direction.
Ten minutes later, I set back out again, this time with a new address. I dodge the chorus of, 1 hour rickshaw, madam! show you the city! yes madam! from the rickshaw wallahs lining the street of the hotel and head back to the main circle. After another fifteen minutes of walking in loops, I find myself standing in front of the address that is scratched out on the hotel stationary clutched in my hand. Yet again, no DHL in sight. DHL kotai? It’s moved. To a different part of the city, Banani, another twenty minute walk from Gulshan 2.
I shift my plan, pull out my guidebook to find the address for the nearest FedEx. And hah! – there’s one in Gulshan 2, in the very circle in which I’m standing!
But still, not quite there yet. I ask how to get to the building it’s in – Botajil Towers – and receive a vague, shoja, straight, with an arm thrown vaguely in the direction of a tall building across the circle. I wait for the line of traffic to slow, pick my way across the street with the hoards of other pedestrians. Again, FedEx kotai? And this time, a hand points to a doorway, through which I see – a FedEx sign! Yes!! Finally!
I nearly skip past the guard and down the stairs to the dingy room, which looks more like a processing facility than a customer service counter. Which, as it turns out – it is. You cannot place orders here, madam, the clerk tells me, you must go to the other location to do that.
With a half-laugh half-sob I press him – is he sure I can’t do it here? It’s just a letter, a small one – I pull it out of my bag to show him – see?! He shakes his head and tells me, no, it must be posted at the other store.
Defeated and vaguely amused at the absurdity of the process, I ask him for directions. Again comes the vague, across that way. I ask him again, tell him I don’t know the area well. He decides to walk up the stairs with me to point out the place. As we trudge up the stairs, I imagine the complex route he’s going to offer up, curving through this city’s tangled mess of streets. How I’ll spend another forty minutes retracing my steps, only to have to give up the search to make it back before the sun dips out of sight.
But instead he simply points across the circle, to the Landmark building 50m away. I break out into a huge smile and thank him profusely, waving goodbye as I weave through the mass of people just emerging from their offices, out of work for the weekend. I greet the guard with a quick asaalam and follow the signs up the stairs, past the familiar logo, and through the door to push my little electric blue envelope onto the counter.
Two hours after I set out, I’m in a rickshaw back to my flat, laughing at how steep the learning curve here is, how I’ll never spend that long looking for that FedEx ever again – but probably will for a dry cleaner, or camera shop, or new acquaintance’s home. Because even the littlest of things can turn into an adventure here.