John Openshaw


Arriving in Dhaka


FEBRUARY 20, 2013

FILED UNDER: travel, bangladesh



Exiting the Dhaka airport I was greeted by air thick with dry dust and a swarm of mosquitoes.

On the drive home, I become reacquainted with the smells of this large city which are often overpowering. Refuse is burned in the street and the acrid smoke hugs the ground like fog. Stagnant water and piles of trash litter street corners. All of this blends with the smell of street food and mechanical workshops.

I spent the next few days recovering from jet lag and laryngitis which I blame on the air quality.

By any measure, Dhaka is not an easy city to live in. In their August 2012 report on livability the Economist Intelligence Unit (you can download a free summery here) ranks Dhaka last in the 140th position. Out of an ideal score of 100, Dhaka gets a score of 29.2 for healthcare and 26.8 for infrastructure, both among the lowest when compared to the scores for the bottom ten cities.

The Economist Intelligence Unit goes on to to rank Bangladesh near the bottom in terms of its ability to provide healthy and safe living conditions, only Ukraine, Kenya, and Nigeria rank worse.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this. The top cities tend to be mid-sized population centers in wealthy countries, the lowest densely populated large cities in poor countries. And before you assume that the rankings are full of cities in the United States: no US City makes the top ten in regards to livability in the Economist survey; and the US comes in a cool 16th between Belgium and the UAE in terms of its ability to provide healthy, safe, and prosperous living conditions.

Rankings (and not just the Economist, but also Mercer’s rankings) seem to favor older European cities and New World centers throughout Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

I’m not sure if it deserves to be the last on the Economist’s list, but the reality, as I see it in my wanderings of the city, is that Dhaka is a polluted place filled with abysmal poverty.

The streets of Dhaka are a chaos of buses, rickshaws, men balancing loads of bricks and cement, grazing animals, and small children begging for handouts juggling for position. This in an environment full of open drainage ditches and pits, half finished construction sites in the middle of roads and sidewalks, and deep pools of water.

All of this activity proves a fascinating mix of sights and sounds, but the chaotic nature of the whole place means that you have to always be on guard — maneuvering the street and ducking and weaving through markets as masses of humanity swirl around you is exhilarating but at the same time feels dangerous and uncontrollable.

The combination of color and chaos is something that few places can match.