Chittagong_Railway
Culture Travel

Bangladesh Transportation {Cement Mixers and Electric Drum Kits}

 

I was brought up listening to “The Wireless” back in the 50’s and 60’s, and one of my first recollections of radio comedy was the Goon Show, hilarious at the time but a bit of an acquired taste these days. After the customary popularity, they faded, drifting into the dark corners of the shed that is my head

The Goons received a renaissance in the late 90’s when a colleague and I were enjoying a beer together and he admitted to being a Goon fan too. Better still, he made good on a promise he made me while somewhat bladdered, and actually posted me 4 double audio cassettes with 8 Goon show radio recordings dating back to the 50’s

I was listening to one of these one evening, while sitting on the balcony of our staff house in Chittagong, Bangladesh, late 1999. The house was in the Khulshi Hills to the north of the town and overlooked the main railway line running through patches of jungle mixed with polythene clad shanties.

During the audio show, there was a typically bonkers Goonish flight of fancy that involved something happening on the “Chittagong to Rangoon Steam Railway”, and there was I listening to whistle blowing on that very same railway right under my balcony just as we slipped into the new millennium of 2000.

Not only was I in the right place, but I was there at the right time, for just as the tape came to an end I could hear the sound of the 2200 hrs arrival from Rangoon.

OK it wasn’t a steam train, but the timing was good, as was the muffled roar of a solitary Bengal Tiger somewhere down there

Locals told me that the train slowed down on the approaches to the town, because the track was often littered with people, donkeys and stranded tuk-tuks, and local people would jump aboard and get themselves a free ride into town. Sometimes this would go badly wrong, with people falling from the train.

Consequently, the local Tiger population had added bruised and winded train passengers to their evening menu, easy meat

Recent photographs of Chittagong show that it has grown up considerably in the last 18 years, but it still remains on a flat area of river delta. The only real hill in the city is the road bridge over the railway, close to the mainline station, and we had to travel over that bridge several times a day.

Multiple avenues converging on to 2 roundabouts at either end of the bridge and in the middle each one stood a white clad policeman on a white painted pedestal blowing a whistle and waving in all directions while thousands of vehicles streaming by ignored him completely.

On one end of the bridge the roundabout also carried traffic lights that worked for about 40% of the time and mostly gave the same colour in all directions at the same time.

The resulting traffic jam was exploited to the full by the street beggars, most of whom were very young amputees. Not a pretty sight, especially in view of the stories we had heard about some of these poor kids having had limbs deliberately removed to increase their earning potential.

The bridge itself was steep, and traffic crawled over at a snail’s pace, creating another way that the children could earn extra cash by pushing heavily laden Tuk-Tuks and rickshaws up to the brow of the bridge, and to act as brake-men for the descent on the other side.

 

Cement Mixer

One morning driving to work we approached the bridge and came across a large, ancient cement mixer on cast iron wheels being pushed very slowly up the bridge ramp by a group of about 30 locals with an average age of 50 and an average weight of maybe 50kg wringing wet.

The mixer was an old diesel-engined site model weighing in at about 5 tons, and each of the 4 iron wheels had so much old concrete and mortar on them that it made the whole process even more difficult, each wheel a different shape and none of them being round.

There was a lot of shouting of advice from the man at the front “Steering” the thing with a massive iron drawbar that should really have been attached to a truck, instead of which there was a very small and loud Bengali pensioner on it.

We were so stuck in traffic in our Air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser, that this heaving clattering shouting mass actually overtook us on the inside lane.

Having reached the Apex of the bridge, the mixer gang stopped for a well-earned breather before commencing the even more hazardous descent.

The group moved from the back to the front of the mixer and gave it just enough pull to set it moving toward the bottom.

The whole rig picked up speed with 40 hurriedly back-peddling men struggling to contain the beast that they had unleashed. Children dashed into the street perilously close to the clattering sparking iron shod wheels to help or scream encouragement.

As they approached the white policeman’s podium the whistling started with a frenzy and his white gloved “Stop” finger pointing squarely at the runaway cement mixer.

From quite close by I could see that the sadistic bastard had a huge smile on his face.

By this time the momentum of the cement mixer was such that had even if it had been coupled to a 10-ton truck the Police finger would have had minimal effect.

The look of panic on the face of the tiny man trying to steer the thing quickly gave way to one of intense loathing as he tried in vain to bring the thing to a halt.

Having swiftly realised that stopping was not an option, the question was where to steer it as to cause minimum damage?

A couple of the other helpers realised what was about to happen and braved dashing in front of the runaway mixer to assist with the steering operation.

With a concerted effort, they heaved the draw bar to one side and ran the 2 nearside wheels into the gutter and against the kerb.

With a shower of sparks and old concrete, the whole assemblage ground slowly and noisily to a halt just inches away from the tail end of the traffic jam that the policeman had created with his smile and his whistle.

Having witnessed this whole event, I had reached the conclusion that these men had possibly done this before.

 

 

 

On another fine morning we were treated to a particularly good example of mans ingenuity, though sadly lacking in forward planning.

In the midst of the morning Chittagong rush hour, with the air blue from the 2 stroke oil used by the Tuk-Tuks, we were once again crawling at a snail’s pace.

A few metres in front was an aged man with the thinnest brownest legs I have ever seen, pushing a hand cart with large wooden wheels shod with steel tyres.

By the shape of the shafts, it appeared that the cart was originally built for a horse to pull as the cart itself was pretty heavy. Stacked on the cart were empty oil drums, about 30 of them.

They were so beautifully loaded, and lashed to the cart and each other, that my attention was drawn to the sight immediately. ***

The bed of the trailer was covered with drums lying on their side, with extra drums fore and aft lashed to the cart to keep the whole thing tight. Extra drums were accommodated along the sides, lashed to the side rails, with the whole thing rising in a pyramid to the solitary single drum perched atop.

How he got that one up there I will never know, let alone how he passed the yards of baling twine over the top to secure it all.

But he did, and not only was it stable, but he had balanced it so well that when he had to stop, he could almost let go of the handles and it would not tip over. He had a small forked stick that would fit under the handles just so that he could take a breather now and then.

As we shuffled forwards in unison with the Oil drum wagon the old man’s spindly legs were straining to keep the thing moving, for if he was forced to stop it took a ridiculous effort to get it rolling again.

Our driver cursed as the old man, slightly ahead of us, took his chance to veer out in front of us and occupy the lane we were in, avoiding a parked vehicle.

I leant forward to tell our driver that it was OK and he didn’t need to get impatient with the old man when there was a blinding flash and a muffled explosion.

Our car bucked on its suspension as something landed square on the bonnet, and a smoking mass of grey hair banged against our windscreen. There were secondary crashes as Oil drums landed all around us filling the gaps between people and vehicles and creating total panic

The driver and I leapt out to find the old oil drum man splayed across our car with smoke coming from frazzled hair and an atrocious smell that told me the old man must surely be dead.

Crackling and fizzing with sparks raining down around us made us look up to a High Voltage electrical transformer that was now on fire with its hundreds of cables dripping molten plastic and rubber.

Several of the tumbling oil drums had struck pedestrians and rickshaws, and the immediate vicinity looked like the scene of a car bombing. Quite a lot of people had been hurt but none seemed too serious.

Turning back to the old man on our bonnet, he was stirring, mumbling incoherently and slowly sliding toward the ground. We got him under the armpits and walked him to the back of our car and sat him on the tailgate. By the time he had a drink of water and gathered his wits he seemed fine, with his main problem being the carnage all around him and precisely what the bloody hell just happened to him?

My driver filled him in on the details while I sat down pondering just how this old boy had survived the event at all, let alone eaten a whole packet of biscuits I had on the back seat, meanwhile the whole street had collected up all the drums and the last thing I saw was the old boy strapping a few to his cart with one hand and selling off the few drums with the other, seems he learned his lesson.

*** I confess to having a thing about how people move large loads about, and my journeys have served to satisfy that itch very nicely.

In Tanzania I once saw a lad riding a bicycle on slippery muddy roads in the monsoon, with 14 large sacks of charcoal strapped to the bike and even himself.

In Pakistan, Flying Donkeys are a regular occurrence.

And again in Pakistan, trucks get loaded so high and wide that they cannot pass each other in the street

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