Hacktreks in India
Colin Todhunter in Bangladesh
the corridors of power - by cycle-rickshaw! This is the story of the
day I hopped out of reality, into a cycle rickshaw and straight into
the heady corridors of power; and after having rubbed shoulders with
a world leader, hopped back into the rickshaw, then back into real world
The silent cycle rickshaw - the transport lifeline of many a town. It
has almost all but disappeared from some of the big cities in India,
to be replaced by the growling yellow and black auto-variety. But it
still reigns supreme in places such as Madurai, Allahabad, Bubaneswar,
and Varanasi. In Varanasi there appear to be millions clogging every
thoroughfare and back street. It is like some sci-fi disaster movie
- the invasion of the cycle rickshaw (and the cow!). You cannot move
for fear of being mowed down by one (rickshaw or cow).
Most times I board a cycle-rickshaw I feel like telling the driver to
sit in the back so that I may cycle. Even if the driver is young, he
looks old, and if he is old, then he looks to be at death's door. Skinny,
bony men, often ten years younger than me, yet looking twenty years
older. But then I see a whole family sitting in the back with the driver
struggling to pedal, and think that my driver can surely manage with
||Most foreigners in India end up paying more for a cycle rickshaw than
an auto over the same distance. This is based on the assumption that
it is much harder for the cycle driver than it is for the auto and going
by how the cycle driver looks - malnourished and feeble - his need is
greater. I once met an English girl in Delhi, working for an NGO to
help street children, and she told me that the main hope for some of
the kids is to get them off sniffing aerosols and glue to enable them
to earn a living - usually by driving a cycle rickshaw.
That kind of
puts both the children's and cycle drivers' lives into perspective.
I never thought that I would see a city with more cycle rickshaws than
Varanasi. But I did. A few years ago I went to Dhaka in Bangladesh to
apply for an Indian visa. (Dhaka - I spent a year there one week - well,
it seemed that way.) If I thought that the cycle rickshaws had invaded
Varanasi, then they have positively colonised Dhaka. And taking a ride
in one is a nightmare.
I am one of those unfortunate people who gets travel-sick; never on
trains, sometimes in buses, and often in cars. I didn't think it was
possible to get sick while travelling in a cycle rickshaw. I have taken
scores of rides in them in India, but Dhaka is something else. There
are that many of them that they often travel "bumper to bumper."
And this results in the front wheel continuously bumping into the rear
axle of the one in front, particularly when they slow down at junctions.
Constant bumping, with me being thrown forward as we hit the one in
front, then backward as the one behind hit us.
The day I met Li Peng was the usual bumping, swaying and feeling-sick-day
in the back of a rickshaw. (For those who may not know, Li Peng is a
top Chinese leader, thought by many to be responsible for ordering the
crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when thousands of people were
killed by troops.) But today was slightly worse because half of the
roads had been blocked off so that good old Li could drive unhindered
with his entourage along any road of his choice. That meant the gruesome
scenario of having the same amount of rickshaws crammed into even less
I had been making my way to a five star hotel to use the health club
there. At this point I must explain that I am a fanatic - I simply have
to go to the gym to exercise wherever I am. And in Dhaka the only one
I could find was in this top-notch hotel where they charged me some
top-notch price for the "privilege" of using their precious
equipment. The price was scandalous, but what could I do? To miss training?
- it is not an option. So like all idiotic fanatics, I endure excessive
pain to do what I must. In this case the pain consisted of parting with
a wad of cash and enduring the bump and grind head-splitting rickshaw
journey through Dhaka to get to the gym.
It took twice as long as usual to get the hotel. With half the roads
closed, the traffic jams were horren
dous. At one stage I had been waiting in the rickshaw for twenty minutes,
hemmed in by hundreds of other rickshaws. The opposite side of the road
had been blocked-off and cleared of traffic. At the very point I was
thinking to myself "I want to go home," a cavalcade of police
vehicles and shiny black cars with darkened windows pass on the opposite
side of the road. It was Li Peng and his entourage. After they had passed,
we were allowed to proceed on our not so merry way.
Finally, I arrived at the hotel. It was one of those places that was
five-star, but could easily have passed for seven-stars if such a classification
exists. It was a den of opulence. But soldiers were everywhere, standing
with guns flung over shoulders and lining a red carpet that stretched
from the foyer, past reception and beyond into the corridors of the
hotel. It seemed a bit strange, but I thought to myself that maybe this
is the way it is with five star hotels in Bangladesh. I walked straight
in, unchallenged. The soldiers were standing in a formal "on-duty"
manner. Each one was spaced out at a distance of 5 metres from one another.
I caught the eye of one or two - they just stared back, like an average
Bangladeshi does on the street when he sees a white face.
Doubts began to creep into my mind. Red carpet? Soldiers? Really, this
can't be normal for a five star hotel in Bangladesh, can it? Anyway,
what did it matter to me? I was going to the gym; nothing else mattered.
As I walked along the carpet, I felt that somehow I shouldn't have been
walking along the carpet; in fact, I felt that shouldn't have been in
the hotel. And, as it turns out, I was probably right. But I happily
went on my way carrying my training bag and wearing flip-flops on my
Perhaps at this stage it I should explain something. In certain parts
of the world, being white is a distinct advantage. No matter what you
may look like, the being-white-factor can open doors - flip-flops
or no flip-flops. And Bangladesh is one of those places. In this case
the door was very much open. Indeed it was flung so open that as soon
as I got near the lift, I casually passed good old Li, his wife, bodyguards
and officials as they exited from it. I stopped and turned back to see
Li Peng about two metres behind me. A vulnerable old man with his vulnerable
old wife. No one paid me a blind bit of attention to me. That's when
it hit me - I was in those much talked about yet seldom seen corridors
of power! I never knew they really existed before. But there I was -
inside them at last. It would have been the easiest job ever if I had
been in the assassination business.
Li Peng - an ordinary, living, breathing yet all too vulnerable person.
An ordinary person who had climbed to the top of the political ladder,
with extrordinary power at his fingertips - the full military, political
and legal backing of his respective state. And so as Li Peng disappeared
into his world of diplomats, diplomacy, and politics and politicians,
I disappeared into one of rickshaws, traffic-jams, and travel and travel-sickness.
After I had finished at the gym, a bony rickshaw man cycled me away.
A man who probably had no idea of who Li Peng is, what the corridors
of power are, or indeed where they are. I never thought that when people
mention "the corridors of power" they mean a red carpeted
five star hotel in Dhaka. Maybe they don't; but it's probably the closest
I'll get. And for the rickshaw man - waiting outside at the gates of
the hotel is the closest he'll get.
© Colin Todhunter June 2003
Where Cows & Princesses Glide through Mud - Colin Todhunter
Look up, but certainly look down as well. Just watch your step. There are a million stones to negotiate and a thousand bits of loose concrete.
about India by Colin in Hacktreks
all rights reserved