Thursday, November 11, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

As is the case with most rich people, the wealthy here in Dhaka are extremely paranoid that everybody is after their ill-gotten wealth. This fear is especially illustrated by the obsession with security and the widespread use of private security guards at every building, walls and gates on buildings and gates and guards at the entrance to neighborhoods as well. There just seems to be a generalized fear (among the rich folks) that people are out to get you here. We are always being warned about how bad and dishonest all Bangladeshis are (by other Bangladeshis, which is somewhat like the “This statement is a lie” paradox) and even occasionally chastised for our apparent naiveté regarding the boogeyman waiting around the corner. We would, and in fact do, argue that if you don’t go around screwing people over and live a good and honest life, then usually people don’t want to screw you over. Anyway, since we live among the bourgeoisie in Dhaka (who are constantly screwing people over, as is the nature of the bourgeoisie), we frequently have to deal with the obsessive security culture.

Our neighborhood, which was a gift from the former military dictatorship to military officers, is one of these gated communities. So is the diplomatic neighborhood that Atticus’ school and Jon and Sam’s work is in. This means that almost everyday we have to go in and out of at least two security gates. Usually it is not a problem, in fact, they oftentimes seem more symbolic than anything. A majority of the time people come and go fairly freely from both of these neighborhoods, but every now and then, for reasons unknown to us or to others, a new “system” (the word system is used to describe various seemingly unreasonable or anachronistic ways of doing things) will sometimes be instituted.

Random changes seem to be devised and implemented overnight. Our particular neighborhood has experimented with suddenly making one part of a road into the neighborhood one way, so that everyone would be forced to travel further out of their way to enter through the same gate, but at a slightly different angle. This was ostensibly to control traffic congestion, but in fact, just led to back-ups as everybody was forced to turn around. Shortly after implementation though, it was abandoned for a different hair-brained scheme - now they have reversed the direction of the former one way road to be one way in the other direction. They have also arbitrarily decided on many other bizarre configurations of the traffic pattern at each gate, and to date- nothing has really made sense or made any perceptible difference in the constant traffic jam that is Dhaka city between the hours of 8 am and 10pm.

Who are the people making these decisions? Well, they certainly aren’t city planners or traffic specialists with any sense of theory or practical experience with this sort of thing, nor is it even the majority of residents in the neighborhoods making a democratic decision (which the recent elections in the US have illustrated - oftentimes don’t necessarily make sense). Instead they are the self anointed leaders that make up the various neighborhood improvement societies. While we wouldn’t usually take a negative stance on neighborhoods organizing themselves for improvements, (we were, after all, both community organizers!) these societies seems to be the same wealthy elites that run everything and make decisions based on their personal wants and needs rather than on what may be best for all (oh, well so we guess it is kind of like the congressional election in the US!).

So recently the gates leading to both Baridhara (the neighborhood where Atticus’ school and the University Jon is working at are located) and our neighborhood have become major points of contention in our lives. Both gates have decided to start policing their boundaries more, possibly to deal with the continually worsening traffic situation or possibly just because they are carrying out social experiments, or possibly because some guy somewhere felt insecure about his manhood. Who knows? The traffic has certainly created a tense situation- it can take an hour and half to go the same distance that used to take 20 minutes, jams last forever, there are fuel shortages and people are getting road rage like crazy.

We’re assuming that because there have been regular traffic jams between our neighborhood gate and the Baridhara gate the neighborhood societies felt they had to do something, even if that something was not effective in dealing with the actual traffic problem. Apparently this meant that the Baridhara society decided to start enforcing their rickshaw ban at the road 13 gate, which has come and gone through the years. There used to be a sign on the gate that said no rickshaws, but it was never enforced. Then they got a new gate. Taborok (who has worked in the neighborhood for years) said the old policy was that foreigners were allowed to come through on rickshaws, but nobody else. In the past, the guards often hassled us for baksheesh (bribe) when we went through the gate, but we usually just ignored them or told them we would give it to them at another time and they kind of gave up after a few months.

Here are some pictures of the gate, and the cars turning to create the jam. It is actually not that trafficy in the pictures, but you can still see the gate and the general situation.

Yet one day on our way to drop Atticus of at school they suddenly stopped Sam and Atticus on the rickshaw and informed us that rickshaws were no longer allowed. ‘But’ we whined, ‘we’re foreigners. You’re supposed to let us through. That’s the system.’ They informed us no, no exceptions, not anymore. Of course, they did let us through this one last time and said that if we wanted to get permission we would have to call the Baridhara society.

Later that day, Jon was headed to work wondering what would happen at the gate. When he reached it, he was stopped and told he had to get off the rickshaw. See, we should explain. It isn’t that rickshaws are banned in the neighborhood- its just that specific gate that they can’t go through. So, they guard tells Jon he’ll need to get down, walk to the end of the road, where he could just catch a different rickshaw. This is a pain and impractical for us because we pay Taborok monthly, so another rickshaw is an added expense.

The guard told Jon to call the Baridhara society and gave him the number. Jon called, assuming it was just a formality. As soon as they knew it was a foreigner calling they would surely make an exception, right? Surprisingly, Jon was informed there would be no exceptions. Of course, our bloated sense of entitlement would not stand for this. Jon argued with the man on the other end of the line and pleaded and sought an explanation of the policy, but to no avail. Of course he had to also make a public spectacle of all of this, screaming in to the phone and blocking the road. Finally, he gave up and just walked the one or two blocks to work. Meanwhile later, Taborok also called the Baridhara society and they were equally unhelpful.

We decided this could not stand. This was such an injustice! They are only banning rickshaws and CNGs, not private cars. This was clearly class warfare. Not only that, it was inconvenient to us! We marched on down to the Baridhara society and made our case to a midlevel bureaucrat of some sort. They would discuss it at the next meeting, we were told, and asked for a formal request. We returned later with a letter in hand requesting, 1) special privileges for us to use the gate 2) a withdraw of the policy and 3) that they restrict cars turning at the gate (which does create quite a back up since it is nearly a 180 degree turn and always ends up blocking all lanes of traffic). They copied our letter and stamped it with a seal that said received. Aha- we thought, we’ve got paperwork now!

As we waited for a response we told the guards that we had talked to the Society and that we were just waiting for approval. We showed them our stamped letter as proof. This allowed us access for a good week as they assumed we knew what we were talking about. Then finally one day as Jon was about to enter through the gate he was stopped. Jon proceeded to tell the guard that they had a letter… ‘I know, I know, but you can’t come through’ the guard said. No exceptions.’ Our jig was clearly up. They informed us that we would have to use another gate. Jon explained that would be incredibly inconvenient as it would increase our travel time by double, and make us have to use a major thoroughfare instead of side roads. The guard listened and said, that for us they would open the pedestrian gate that is about two blocks up.

This really illustrated the absurdity of the new policy. This wasn’t about keeping rickshaws out, since rickshaws are allowed through other gates. Nor was it about controlling traffic or making the guards’ job easier, since this new practice would cause both traffic disruption and an increase in the guards’ responsibility. But since we had yet to hear back from the Baridhara society we decided this seemed like the best possible solution. So the next day we left a little early to leave time for this extra step, or any other problem that may occur. Instead Sam approached the road thirteen gate in the morning they let her ride through without a notice. But then on the way back out one of the guards shouts something at her and Taborok, which they ignore and continue down the road. The next day we made several trips through the gate without a single hassle. Then one day, Jon noticed them stopping all outgoing rickshaws and CNGs on his way in. As he and Taborok approached road 13 he was dreading another argument with the guards just to get out of the ‘hood and back home. As he rolls up on to road thirteen, he notices the guard has a number of rickshaws stopped with the rickshaw wallahs and passengers all arguing with him as well as a couple rickshaws slowly sneaking around the crowd. Taborok takes advantage of the guard being distracted and swings around them all and down the road, seemingly without a worry of being stopped. Jon says ‘yeah, if all the rickshaws just didn’t didn’t listen…’ After that he looks back and notices that all of the rickshaws that were stopped were no following the road was just a long line of defiant rickshaws – it was great! Later that afternoon. The guards had completely given up. Rickshaws and CNGs were passing through the gate.

It didn’t last though, and off and on for the last few weeks we would get hassled going through the gate. Then they started asking for baksheesh again. Over the last year and half we had sort of taken a principled stance against paying the guards a bribe, but honestly, we were getting tired of the gate uncertainty. Even Taborok admitted we should just pay them a little tip and then we wouldn’t have to deal with the gate problems. It was convenient that we could call this Eid baksheesh (you give out little tips and gifts around Eid to people you encounter often) and not have to admit that it was a bribe to get us special gate access.

So Sam and Taborok went the other day and paid a bribe. The guard we paid was one that has been asking for baksheesh most consistently (it is friendly though) since we moved here. He was delighted to have finally succeeded. We gave them 500 taka and it was being divided among the guards that work that gate. 

Here he is happily posing for his photothe day after receiving his bribe:

Since then, no gate problems. They either smile and wave us through or literally turn their head to pretend they don’t see us when stopping other rickshaws. So that’s what it all came down to. All the calls, the arguments, the visits to the Baridhara society, the letter requesting permission, the fourteen page blog entry about it– we ended up just buying the guards off. We probably just should have done it on the first day and avoided all the effort. We also had to admit that when push to came shove, we weren’t really so principled after all. We totally paid the bribe, despite our constant ranting and raving about the widespread corruption and bribery as the example of how the rich people here (and everywhere) are so disgusting.

Oh well, this is just the system…

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