The indoor taxi-drivers retreated back under what I will laughingly call cover and were replaced by their outdoor brethren, who instantly turned out to be much more helpful.
"Taxi?" they asked.
"Driver," I replied, shaking my head.
They were, sensibly, not convinced. If I had a driver, why was I standing in the rain with all my bags trying to read a wet handkerchief upside down?
"Call him on your cell phone?" they suggested.
I was hesitating to do this for three reasons. One was that the driver's number was in very small print hanging upside down, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to find it or read it. The second was that, if I had understood AT&T's instructions correctly, would have to carry out a complicated procedure that involved dialing the United Sates, then the international code, then the Bangladesh country code, then Archimedes' constant, Feigenbaum's constant and the Gauss-Kuzmin-Wirsing constant and finally the driver's social security number. But the most important cause for hesitation was reason number three, which was that as soon as I took my iPhone out of its little padded pouch its innards would immediately achieve 104% humidity and it would never work again, except perhaps in the shower.
Luckily, one word of my now nearly illegible instructions was in capitals. LEFT, it said. Some kind of ramp led away to the left, and though it seemed to lead into the kind of parking structure in which Bangladeshi gangsters drowned their rivals, I could dimly see a small knot of locals waiting at the end of said ramp, one of whom looked as if (remember, my glasses are dangling from the little finger of my right hand, my only spare loading digit) he was holding a white sign.
And sure enough, this was my driver. He greeted me with the combination of enthusiasm and respect that never fails to fill me with sodden gratitude, placed my bags in the trunk, and peeled out of the gangster drowning structure and into the city.
The road to the city, which I remembered from my last trip five years previously, was the usual constant merge of high-speed cars, slow colorful bicycle rickshaws and buses that had been so frequently battered they looked like shoeboxes wrapped in blue duct tape. Visibility was nil to the minus nilth. Everyone operated by echolocation—that is, everyone sounded their horns or bike bells constantly, the blind leading the deaf.
Once into the city proper, the landscape became even more amazing. Every street was awash. And I know my awashes, let me tell you: before I left, Burlington suffered a series of thunderstorms so heavy that I photographed someone kayaking up my street. But this was a different kind of awash. Water seemed to have created and defined the very contours of the roads, so in many of the side streets (and, by western standards, Dhaka is mostly side streets) the bicycle rickshaws in particular had to weave from one side of the street to the other just to be able to find solid ground.
We passed an area in central Bangladesh that is a lake even in the driest of seasons, where people were commuting from the roadside to the shanty-town on the far side in a series of antique hand-paddled barge-canoes, like the principal Thames transportation in Shakespeare's London. It seemed only a matter of time before cars would become obsolete altogether, and everyone would be rowing.
As we sloshed around something that must have been another street corner, I finally made a connection: no wonder the main institution I've been dealing with is called the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh. No wonder one of the country's main concerns is water-borne disease. At that moment, water could have born any disease anywhere. I coughed, and felt a strange sensation in my lungs: some furry fungal disease, its humid hour come round at last, had swum its way into my airways and was setting up for business.
Tim Brookes is the director of the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a longtime essayist for National Public Radio, and a writer for National Geographic. His book A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow was chosen by Booklist and the New York Times as one of the best travel books of 2000.
Creative Commons photos from Flickr. Click on individual shots for photographer's page.
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