Rickshaws are absolutely everywhere. A customer on board and they whiz by with purpose, empty they cruse the streets. Their pace of speed renders them fairly easy to hail and with the driver also on the lookout for a fare you always seem to be only an arms reach away from a clutch of them almost anywhere in Dhaka. ‘Jaben?’ this, your initial enquiry, in a nutshell means ‘are you for hire?’ The usual response? A tiny nod or inclination of the head. Pulling up and stopping next to you the transaction continues to unfold.
And so on to the next step, telling the rickshaw driver your destination. Occasionally, with a slight shake of the head he declines and gently pedals away, no explanation given, but this also happens to the locals in equal measure. And this before the fare has even been discussed so it’s not a matter of money or that he doesn’t like the look of you. Driving a rickshaw is hard physical labour, so the judgement is formed based on the impact your proposed journey would have on his current physical condition coupled with the particular time of day: it’s harder driving during the height of the mid-day sun. But more often he agrees, tipping his head toward the rickshaw seat inviting you to climb up.
And now you have to make a decision as there is divided thinking between haggling first and agreeing the fare before getting underway or hopping in, making your journey and paying the driver on arrival. Myself, I firmly fall into the former camp having arrived too many times at my destination only for the rickshaw driver to start protesting that the fare is too low and demanding more taka. Mind you this can happen even after he has initially accepted the haggled price, agreed on some occasions only a matter of minutes before.
So, you haggle, with your success depending not only on how advanced your Bangla language skills might be, but in the main on your ability to play act, and especially to call their bluff. And where this is concerned less is definitely more! As a bidesi (foreigner) the price is always premium and most of our haggling is not really done to obtain a competitive price, just to get as close to what the locals pay as possible. Knowing what the price should be isn’t always as easy as it sounds but as Dhaka is so huge most of our longer journeys across the city are taken by CNG so on these shorter rickshaw journeys even if you are ripped off it’s important to remember we’re only talking small change. That said funnily enough it isn’t so much about the money but more a feeling that you’re functioning and integrating within your new society that matters most, that you are being taken seriously and not for a ride (metaphorically speaking!)
Koto taka? You’re asking him to quote for your journey, which I say while gazing distractedly down the road and never looking straight at the driver. While you would naturally expect their pitch to start high, exactly how high is your first point of reference regarding how feasible this rickshaw is going to be. Five taka over for a short journey normally costing around the fifteen to twenty mark is simple, agreeing the price is almost polite and very straightforward, rarely will they refuse to drop as this is exactly what haggling is about. Ten to fifteen above and I know that expectations are high for a bumper fare and my usual response in these cases is first the raised eyebrow, then…widened eyes, next comes a frown all without a word of response. Then after appearing to consider for a moment or two I simply say ‘Jaben na’, I don’t go’, turn around and walk away. In most cases but the very hardened the response is immediate and they call you back, binning the silly quote, immediately accepting the sensible one and I climb aboard.
Hauling yourself up into the rickshaw while laden down as you inevitably are with laptop and shopping bags isn’t an easy maneuver in itself! Then there’s ‘three in a rickshaw’ which has a seating technique you most certainly have to build up to. As simple as it looks I have actually seen locals tumble out so when you consider the combination of spectacularly rutted roads and mad crazy traffic you’re going to want to cling on fairly tight as there isn’t a seat belt in sight!
There’s so much dust around at the moment that the more considerate drivers fix the hood up before getting underway, but once you’re off you bump along down impossibly uneven roads with any sudden stop leading to an impact from the rickshaw behind. This often cuases arguments to flair up between rickshaw pullers which I’ve christened rickshaw rage. Passengers sit passively while the drivers tell each other what they think about their poor driving, although there are absolutely no rules of the road to contest.