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Hacktreks in India

Corridors of Power
Colin Todhunter in Bangladesh
Entering 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 once more.

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 just me.

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 road space.

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 feet.

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.

More stories about India by Colin in Hacktreks


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