Travel: Jeremy Atiyah column

It's a great feeling, riding in one of Dhaka's colourful rickshaws. Shame it's such a dangerous way to get around
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The Independent Travel
Welcome to Dhaka, Bangladesh, the rickshaw capital of the world! But what luck that I'm not planning to do any driving myself, of either rickshaws or other vehicles. Last night I took what was supposed to be a casual drive round town, in a real car, and the experience amounted to a two-hour dodgem car session in which the penalty for hitting anyone was permanent unemployment for them, their children and grandchildren.

As any manufacturer of dodgy bicycle brakes will tell you, rickshaws are not easy beasts to steer - or stop - especially when your back-seat contains a small proportion of the population of downtown Dhaka. Frequent minor collisions are inevitable and local car drivers have (literally) bounced the problem back onto the rickshaws by fitting their vehicles out with special bumpers, along the lines of kangaroo-bars in Australia. Rather worrying for those whose rickshaws represent their entire livelihood.

A crash involving a car and a rickshaw is usually bad news for the rickshaw, which is about as solid and substantial as a mosquito. Essentially, it comprises a bicycle with a trailer attached. The trailer in turn comprises a seat on wibbly-wobbly wheels, backed by a raisable hood. It's the hood that gives the apparatus an unlikely suggestion of class, despite the slight danger of death through encrumplement. Yesterday I noticed grand ladies in saris stepping into rickshaws with the pride and dignity of Victorian duchesses. I wanted to jump out of my car and join them.

What is it about a rickshaw? Having a personal driver is important. And a driver who actually has to pull you using his own brawn - and getting rained on while you remain dry - is even better. But that isn't the end of it: a personal driver who has spent half of his life meticulously designing the artwork on his rickshaw is the best guarantor of his passengers' dignity that any citizen of Dhaka can possibly offer.

As far as I can see, every single rickshaw in town has been decorated with more detail than a maharajah's palace. Designs range from Bollywood- style film hoardings of dark handsome heroes and swooning maidens, to Koranic calligraphy to tin-foil representations of Hindu gods and goddesses. Some of these skinny men in head-wraps - to judge by slogans on the sides of their rickshaws - even seem to have signed contracts with advertising executives of the world's largest corporations.

In a hundred thousand rickshaws the detail varies, but the style - a kind of Bengali Sergeant Pepper - is essentially the same. I wonder what would happen if some inventive rickshaw owner got out of bed one morning and decided to paint his vehicle differently. Say, gleaming white all over? The White Album of rickshaws?

I very much doubt it would be good for business. Rickshaw drivers are expected to be artists but not radical individualists. Having a local version of John Lennon as the driver, I fear, would not impact well on the dignity of the passengers.

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