Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bittersweet symphony

Apologies. I haven't written in over two months and now I'm actually leaving the 'Desh in only five days! Ah, so so much has happened - actual events, dramas and emotions, it's hard to know where to start or know what to tell. So, here's the Coles notes version...
I moved out of the Mohammadia flat hell hole and in with my friend Misha in a much nicer part of town. Overall, a lot less moaning and valium requirements on my part. Hurrah, I hear you cry! It's been a whole different experience for me living there it's unbelievable; I've been living with AC, a generator, a housekeeper, a foam mattress... even bacon, yes bacon, in the fridge! You could call it a taste of the 'good life' before I leave and what a nice treat it's been.
I also officially completed all of my VSO work and finalised the Strategic Plan for my organisation - 160 pages and three months ahead of schedule! Boom! It feels great to create a business plan that's so comprehensive, and hopefully sustainable. It's also been good practice for me to think so strategically across so many areas; branding, mission, vision, values, HR, you name it. To finalise the placment process, I also have my VSO exit interview tomorrow and have submitted my final report too. All in all, a lot of writing, a lot of meetings, but I feel proud of myself for achieving what I came here to do. Result!
Since the rains came the weather's cooled down a lot but it's still hot and humid so don't worry, I've still been enjoying what I do best - lying by the pool, getting a tan. Hehe. My life's also been a lot more social recently, living in a different area of Dhaka. Lots of hot, late summer nights, enjoying cheap illegal beer, good conversation and live music.
I feel good. I feel happy. I feel that there's been a considerable change in me over these last few months on so many levels; what I've realised about this experience as a whole, what I've realised about myself and what I've realised about life. I can't really articulate yet though, I think I need more time. But what I can say is that this has been, without a doubt, the hardest nine months of my life, and also, the most amazing, incredible, unforgettable, inspiring, life-changing. It almost feels like I have become more alive, like I'm living on a higher plain. I know it's sounds over dramatic but it's actually true. I feel energised about my next step; my trip to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and my eventual move to London. Even though I think it will be bittersweet to leave Bangladesh, this journey has redefined me but now it's time for the next adventure to start...

Friday, April 2, 2010

1500 Taka for a kiss?

I went down to Khulna a few weeks ago to visit my friend and fellow VSO volunteer, Lesa. Now, as much as I love Lesa, Khulna is far. Really, really far. It take about 10 hours to get there, crisscrossing rivers and bumping along in a crowded bus for hours on end, but, I hadn’t been down to the south west before and I wanted a break from Dhaka so I asked my boss for a few days off to make the journey worthwhile. ‘You cannot take the bus though, you must take plane,’ he said. ‘Plane? I can’t afford the plane,’ I answered. ‘Ah, do not worry about cost,’ he said, ‘this is Bangladesh'. Within hours I had a return ticked booked and it was free. Borhan has got connections at some Bangladeshi airline so a hectic all-day journey had suddenly turned into a 30 minute flight! Bonus!

The only issue was the departure time. 9am. Being anywhere in Dhaka for 9am is a joke. The traffic is so bad I thought I might have to leave my house at 5am to get there in time but I asked, no begged and pleaded, with VSO to drive me there instead of trying to get a CNG and they agreed, but only if I left at 7am because the car was booked later for something else. 7am for a free ride? No worries, piece of cake. Cut to the next morning: I had slept in, the car had arrived and I was throwing shit into a bag, trying to brush my teeth and get dressed all at the same time. I kept the driver waiting for half an hour. Needless to say he was not impressed. Once in the car, I was cruising through the streets in comfortable AC and amazingly, the traffic wasn’t too bad. Off to a good start, I thought. I got to the airport and went over to Domestic departures. There were only about five people there, there was NO security check and they didn’t even ask for any I.D. to board. I’m serious. Slight concerning but as Borhan would say, ‘This is Bangladesh’- so I had some cha, waited in the lounge, realized I has left my lap top at home (annoying!) and waited for the flight to be called. Problem... The departures board was all in Bengali script and I couldn’t read a thing. What gate was I supposed to be at? No idea. No announcements were made and I almost missed the bloody bus to get to the runway. Thankfully being white, they assume you are stupid and someone came over to help me find where I needed to go. About 20 people boarded the small plane and to my surprise they gave out free drinks and newspapers to everyone. Quite impressive! This flying malarky was traveling in style. Nice one! As we started to prepare for take off, an older man sitting next to me, struck up some conversation - What is my country? What am I doing in Bangladesh? etc. etc. Then he proceeded to tell me every single detail about his life and the lives of his children but, to be fair, he was a nice man and we spoke mostly in English which was enjoyable. He was a retired doctor and he had two daughters, also doctors, working in the States. Before I knew it, we were about to land and had chatted the whole way. Then, the part I dread when meeting anyone new here, the question that’s so hard to dodge; ‘Can I have your phone number? You must come to my house.’ EVERYONE wants your phone number and everyone invites you to their house here. Why? I have no idea. But, the man was kind, interesting, spoke good English and I thought, why not? He seemed harmless enough, We walked off the plane together and he said he would wait for me while my driver arrived to pick me up. Now, luckily for me, Borhan had also organized a driver to get me from Jessore to Khulna (about 2 hours drive). However, after hanging around at the gate for about 20 minutes or so, there was no-one waiting for me. Not a soul. The driver wasn’t coming. The older man, now, I think his name was Mohwad but I’m not sure as he told me quick quickly - bad of me to forget, I know. Anyway, Mohwad said he would wait with me and his two brothers until the driver came but I was already starting to hatch a plan how I would figure out getting a bus instead. All of a sudden, there was a lot of discussion going on between Mohwad and the airport manager. A special wooden table was brought into the waiting area of the arrivals lounge (now, I use the term ‘lounge’ in the loosest possible sense), and ‘special’ chipped china tea cups were brought in for the four of us to have cha. I was getting the sense that mowed was kind of a big deal in Jessore. Anyway, over cha, all three men we asking me the same questions at various times. Where was my driver? Where was I going? Who was meeting me? What is the drivers name? His phone number? What kind of car is it? Aaaaaaah! I didn’t have the driver’s contact information because Borhan said not to worry but Borhan was in the UK and I had no way of getting in touch with my unreliable driver. I think between feeling like an idiot not having this basic information and all the questions , it was stressing me out. It was now 1pm at this point, I’d been up since 6am to get the VSO car, and we’d been waiting for over an hour for the driver, who clearly, was MIA. Shit. How was I going to get to Khulna now? I was feeling tired and spoiled. I wanted the CAR! Ugh. One of Mohwad’s brother asked me what my friend was doing in Khulna and I mentioned her name and that she worked at Rupuntar, an NGO. ’Ah, Rupuntar!’, he exclaimed. ’I know Rupuntar!’ The next thing I know, he passes me his phone and I’m speaking to the HEAD of Rupuntar. I told him I was coming to see Lesa but I think he thought I was saying I WAS Lesa. Who knows. My Bengali was not on form at that moment. The double-name thing was way confusing for everyone to understand. Then, Mohwad grabbed the phone and was asking Rupuntar why they didn’t have a car for me, it was unacceptable etc. etc. Oh God, this was turning into a bit of a nightmare. I decided to phone MY organization but since Borhan was in the UK, no-one in the office knew what I was talking about and then, magically, I ran out of phone credit. Awesome. Then, my office must have called VSO thinking there was an ‘emergency’ so Martin - the chief coordinator - called me, asking me where I was, was I okay and so on. I was trying to explain the situation and general mix up between the two Lisa/Lesa thing and the lack of driver, but Mohwad pulled the phone out of my hand and started yabbering away to Martin in Bengali too fast for me to follow. Then, Mohwad exclaimed that it was clear that the driver would not be coming and I was to go with him and his brothers to have lunch at some relative’s house. Then, Mohwad would arrange a car to take me from Jessore to Khulna. I know this sounds overpopulating the issue. I could have got the bus but I was feeling lazy couldn’t really be arsed. I had a feeling I trusted Mohwad - a doctor, an older man, seemed to be important in Jessore enough for china cups, so I thought, why not? I’ll get some food - I was starving - and then get a car to Khulna. Done, easy. JUST GET ME TO KHULNA.

Before I knew it, the four of us piled into a very small car complete with driver, and we drove off to some village outside of Jessore. We arrived after a short while and as I got out of the car, people from other houses came out to see the ‘bideshi’. They were probably watching, wondering what the hell I was doing there… um, me too! Anyway, I followed the men into the house and up the stairs to the flat. A slew of women were there to greet us and we were seated at a huge table, full of food - ruti (like pita bread) and a massive curry-type stew, abundant with chilli. They just kept piling more and more and MORE on to my plate and even though it was quite good, I was told (while I was already eating it) that it was curried fat. Mmmm, yikes. Curried FAT? I’ll bet that’s not on ‘Weight Watchers’. Haha. Anyway, I preceded to eat a horrific amount of said fat curry and it was really spicy. My eyes were watering but I kept plowing through. All I could think of was getting the car to Khulna and I needed to embrace Mohwad‘s hospitality to get there. After the curry fat situation, dessert was rolled out. Paish. Now, I quite like paish (like a rice pudding thing), but after 2 tons of fat curry? Oh Jesus. There was no way. But, in typical Bangladeshi style, they just piled a huge dollop on my plate and stared at me until I started eating. Oh God. I thought I was going to be sick. To my saving grace however, Mohawd needed to go to the toilet and this required ‘assistance‘. So, everyone practically jumped up from the table and all followed him off to the toilet. Now, to hazard a guess, I’d say Mohawd was about 70 years old. I would hardly call him frail though and he was by no means about to collapse but I wasn’t interested in the toilet helping lark. This was my chance to scoop the majority of my paish BACK into the bowl without anyone watching. Looking over my shoulder, I lumped a whole load of it back into the bowl. Panicking if someone caught me but the thought of eating it would have killed me. In a second, Mohawd and co. all came back after succeeding in the toilet department and the paish was back in the bowl. Result! ‘Shesh?’ Everyone asked. Yes, yes, I was definitely finished and I smiled, nodded and rubbed my belly. It was now 3pm. Where was the bloody car? Swiftly after lunch, we were ushered into the lounge area and everyone sat around me as they offered me a TIME magazine and watched me as I flicked through it. No idea why. Novelty of someone English reading an English magazine? Then, Mohwad decided to strike up a conversation about me feet. Yes, my feet. He commented on my painted toenails so everyone started staring at my feet as I tried desperately not to curl my toes away in embarrassment. Mohwad kept saying I had beautiful feet and that he wanted to buy me a gold anklet when we got back to Dhaka. What in the!? Time to go. No really, time to GO! Did this old guy have a foot fetish? Yikes! Where was the effing car? Then, more men started coming to the flat, obviously relatives all greeting me with the usual ‘Asalam Mayakums’ and sitting around the living room, one by one. Thankfully their arrival distracted everyone from me and my feet but I was starting to get anxious. A 30 minute flight was turning into a never-ending journey. I needed to get to Khulna damn it, but now I was stuck in some random house outside Jessore, waiting for some random car. Ah, this is Bangladesh, as Borhan would say! Eventually, after about an hour or so, I must have looked bored and everyone thought my boredom ‘look’ resembled tiredness so they were about to try and get me to nap in someone’s bed(!) but thankfully that’s when the car arrived. Phew! I was suddenly ushered out of the house, everyone in tow and crowding around to say goodbye.

The driver got out and spoke with Mohwad briefly as Mohwad pulled out his wallet and gave him 1500 Taka. Yikes. 1500 Taka? That’s a lot of money in Bangladesh. I know how much it was because 1000 notes are pink and 500s are purple. A gal never forgets the colour pink. As this exchange took place, I looked over at Mohawk and he caught my eye. I gestured as if to give him some money but he shook his head insistently, no. I knew not to insult him in front of everyone by causing a fuss so I just smiled and mouthed thank you. After my bags were put into the car, I thanked everyone one by one and bid them all a formal farewell saying, ‘Khoda Hafez’ (Peace be with you). I was also careful not to shake anyone’s hands - it’s major a faux pas for women to shake hands with Muslim men, especially in the south west which is more religious. BUT, all of a sudden as I said good bye to Mohwad, he dove in for a massive hug and as I hugged him back awkwardly and pulled back, he pulled me towards him AGAIN and went in for a KISS ON THE LIPS! For REAL, a kiss on the LIPS! I couldn’t bloody believe it! Thankfully, I reacted quickly and turned my cheek so he suckered me there instead but I was mortified! Not only did he do that in front of EVERYONE but this man is Muslim, doing this to a foreign white woman more and he is about 70 YEARS OLD!!! I quickly got into the car, red as a tomato, and told the driver to go go go! I didn’t dare turn around after we drove off but looked towards the passenger seat. Another man I hadn’t met yet was sitting there and told me he would be my escort to Khulna because they didn’t trust a young male driver to take me there safely alone (He said this in English to me so the driver couldn’t understand). Oh God, I thought, an ‘escort’? When will this journey END? My English ’escort’ was a nice enough man though, and bless him, he had traveled all the way from Khulna to Jessore to get me, and then back again - a total of 4 hours. But, the man would not shut up the whole way and he was making me car sick. I don’t know if it was his rambling, the incredible bumpy road (which I’m normally pretty used to by now), or the fat curry and paish rolling around in my stomach but I suddenly got a pang that I was going to be sick. Immediately. ‘Tamen!!!’, I shouted, and the driver slammed on the breaks. I got out of the car, hiccupping fat curry and paish, standing on the side of the dirt road in the middle of complete nowhere. How did I get here? Really. It was just any old Tuesday afternoon and there I was, somewhere on the side of the road in rural Bangladesh, about to puke from eating fat - a girl just trying to get from A to B for God‘s sake. If I has been back in Toronto, I’d probably be stuck in a meeting or sending some monotonous client email. How life had changed. Anyway, after some haaad hiccups, thankfully I wasn’t sick but I had to sit in the front of the car for the rest of the journey, seat right back, eyes closed, praying to get to Khulna ASAP. When we finally arrived, Lesa got me to her flat immediately and we cracked a bottle of wine. Ah, just what the doctor ordered. Thankfully the rest of my week there was nice and chilled out. We cooked together, hung out on the rooftop, went to the market and she showed me around. As the trip was coming to an end, I was dreading the journey back to Dhaka - considering the journey I had on the way there - but sometimes karma kicks in and I got home without a hitch. Even though my ‘sugar daddy’ Mohwad called and texted me a few times since I saw him that fateful day, I haven’t heard from him since. I honestly can’t be in contact with that man. Seriously. Maybe he thought my payment to him for the ride from Jessore to Khulna was getting a bit of ‘action’ but seriously, it’s going to cost more than 1500 Taka! Haha. Ewww. Sorry, that’s gross.

Chittagong complexities

Before I leave Bangladesh I am determined to visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It's an area that absolutely fascinates me even though it is a notorious 'troubled' part of the country but apparently, the 'hills' are so different from the 'plains' it's like being somewhere else, somewhere completely magical.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts lie in south-eastern Bangladesh, and borders India and Myanmar. It was a single district of Bangladesh until1984 but in that year it was divided into three separate districts: Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban. The early history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a record of constantly recurring raids on the part of the eastern hill tribes, and of the operations undertaken to repress them. The troubles date back hundreds of years and are even ongoing today despite the current 'peace treaty' initiated by the current Bangladesh government.

Here's the 'Coles' notes version from a recent Amnesty International investigation that was sparked from an outbreak of unrest in February:

For decades, tension has been high in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where the Jumma indigenous communities are at risk of being outnumbered by Bengali settlers who continue to take over their land. More than two decades of insurgency by the indigenous people came to an end when the previous Awami League government signed a peace accord with their representatives in December 1997. Two of the most important provisions of the accord remain unfulfilled. One is the formation of a land commission to identify land taken away from the indigenous people during the insurgency, which should be returned to them. This commission has just been set up after a delay of more than 12 years, but has not begun its work yet. Another provision of the accord relates to the withdrawal of temporary army camps, of which some 400 remain in the area. The government began to withdraw some of the major temporary camps last year, but the process has reportedly been halted again.

Bengali settlers have continued to take over indigenous land and drive indigenous people out of their homes, but the army which is in control of law and order in the area has allegedly not stopped them. Indigenous people say the army has in this way condoned human rights abuses committed by Bengali settlers against them.

On the 20th of February, the Jumma indigenous people were peacefully demonstrating in their villages against the attacks by Bengali settlers and the army reportedly came to stop the demonstration. An army commander ordered the indigenous people to leave the area but they resisted. One of the demonstrators was reportedly attacked and injured the army commander with a knife. Army personnel then fired live ammunition at the demonstrators, which hit at least two people who later died and at least 25 people were injured during the shooting. The Jumma indigenous people began to flee the area but Bengali settlers moved in and torched at least 160 of their homes, allegedly with army personnel taking no action to stop them. They also looted the Jumma people’s belongings and destroyed their religious icons, including statutes of Buddha.
Then, on the 23rd of February, Bengali settlers attacked a procession of indigenous people who were demanding government action against the 19th and 20th of February arson attacks and killings. The procession was taking place in Khagrachari which is in another district in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bengali settlers then reportedly set on fire at least 37 houses of the Jumma indigenous people. The attack triggered a clash between the settlers and the Jumma people and the Jumma people were also reported to have set at least 29 houses of Bengali settlers onfire during these clashes on the 23rd of February.

Local authorities imposed severe restrictions on indigenous people’s access to the media and independent observers and journalists are not allowed to enter the area. Army staff apparently told them these measures are for the security of the journalists themselves, but human rights activists have told Amnesty International that the army has in this way prevented an independent assessment of what has happened and who has been responsible for the attacks. Since the 19th of February, at least four journalists covering the attacks have been attacked and injured by the Bengali settlers. Given the allegations that state officials including army personnel may have acted in support of the Bengali settlers, there is a risk that incriminating evidence could be destroyed before independent observers including journalists can visit the sites of the violence.

More than 100 Jumma indigenous people are believed to be in detention, with dozens more missing. Apparently, relatives are afraid to go to the police stations or army posts to inquire about their missing members, so they have little information about their whereabouts. According to reports, some of these detainees are people who went to hospital for treatment after the attack but were taken into custody and police have also reportedly arrested about 30 Bengali settlers.
As of now, more than 1500 Jumma indigenous people have fled their homes and are living under open skies in deep forest, with no shelter and little access to food. The injured are reportedly afraid to go to hospitals as they run the risk of being arrested.

I was reading that Amnesty International have stepped in, calling on the government of Bangladesh to:

- Carry out prompt, impartial, and independent investigation into these attacks and killings to identify individuals who set houses on fire and army personnel who may have used excessive force, and bring those responsible to justice in a fair trial without resort to the death penalty;
- Ensure that the detainees have access to lawyers of their own choice, can challenge the legality of their detention, have access to family visits and medical treatment, and are not at risk of torture;
- Compensate the victims and survivors of the attacks, rehabilitate the people who have lost their homes and belonging and provide them with medical treatment for their injuries;
- Allow independent observers to visit the sites of the violence, and ensure the security of the Jumma indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

So now it's a waiting game to see what happens next...

To end this post, I also wanted to post a link from today's Daily Star (the same English newspaper I posted th other day). A friend I worked within Edinburgh actually wrote this article and I think it truly captures the essence of the troubles in this region...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dhaka disaster?

I discovered this article today about Dhaka in today's English newspaper, The Daily Star. I know I've tried to describe how hard it is living here but take a review this article and read for yourself...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hot and bothered

Over the past two weeks I've been unbearably hot. So hot it's been absolute agony. There's absolutely no break from it. Ever. No AC, no cool air, no refuge whatsoever. I constantly feel like someone's been holding a huge hairdryer over me; the muggy air is like waves of heat rolling over my body. From the time I wake up in the morning, having a cold shower in order to breathe, to when I'm stuck in traffic for hours in a sweaty CNG, my back sticking to the shitty plastic seats, it doesn't stop there. At work, the power goes out several times a day and I feel like I'm roasting in an oven, and when I get home, we hardly ever have power in the flat either so when I'm trying to get to sleep, I just lie awake for hours, praying for something to cool me down, my sheets soaked in sweat, my skin, permanently saturated. All it's been horrific, and it's only been two weeks. It's making me angry, frustrated, and short tempered. I can honestly say that I have never been in so much physical discomfort in my life. 'Living like a volunteer' means no luxuries so we all just need to grin and bear it, but seriously, it's breaking me. I can't concentrate at work, I have no energy to cook or clean, even get dressed. Everything's a major effort. I even looked into buying an air conditioner for my room so that I can sleep at night but found out that they are so expensive here - about $350 - which for a few months, I just couldn't justify; $350 is the cost of about two plane tickets or in Bangladeshi terms, more than three months of my salary. It wouldn't be so bad if we at least had the fan working even though it's hot air but the power goes out so frequently, I spend most nights getting home from work, sitting in the dark, getting eaten by mosquitoes, with a melting ice pack on my neck. It's been out for three hours tonight. Three hours and I have only been home for five hours. Yeah, it sounds bad having no power, being hot, whatever, la la la, but really, when you feel like this, it is indescribable. Rubbing the sweat from my top lip is turning into a nervous twitch. I am sick and tired of being so bloody hot! The worst part is, it's only going to get worse. To top it all off, we've been having water outages too. No power, no water. Awesome. So when you're really really hot, you can't do anything; you can't have a cold shower, you can't flush the toilet, you can't even wash the dishes by candlelight (a new skill I've picked up by the way). So yeah, Bangladesh is fantastic right now. Yeah, it's great, I totally love it.

Get me the fuck out of here.

Haha, okay okay, sorry. I am alright, I'm not losing my mind, I'm just in the 'temperature adjustment phase' right now which I'm having 'challenges' with... is that a better way of saying it? The good thing is that I have discovered sleeping pills to help me sleep through the hot nights. Now, before you all worry that I've become addicted to prescription pain killers, fear not. First of all, I am only using them for a few weeks until my body adjusts to the heat and second of all, there's no prescription, you just get them over the counter. :)

I also know I only have a matter of weeks left before I leave, if everything goes to plan, so I just need to stick it out another twelve weeks or so and I'll be fine. Right? Twelve weeks... Mmmm... I'm screwed aren't I? Oh Jesus. Can someone mail me AC and electricity please ASAP? I'll be eternally grateful.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


After six months of life in the ‘Desh, I thought I’d have mastered Bengali a lot more than I have but in actual fact, it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. The structure is totally different and also, I can’t read a bloody thing so I rely on mimicking others without really knowing the meaning of what I’m saying, or writing things down phonetically on scraps of paper, hoping they’ll stick in my pea-sized brain. Note: My purse is full of random bits of paper with different words on them – a killer when trying to find money in a hurry.

However, the locals seem to have pretty low expectations of a ‘bideshi’s’ language skills so most people I meet are pretty impressed with my limited vocab. ‘Khub shondur Bangla!’, they always say – telling me I speak beautiful Bengali. Yes, this is a good thing but after about 3 minutes, I have nothing left to say and just stand there smiling or bobbing my head from side to side. I wish that I could have more of a ‘conversation’ but my key skills lie in the following areas only:

1. Bargaining to buy things and when getting transport

2. Telling people to bugger off

When these fail, I resort to speaking a mixture of English and Bengali to communicate what I need to. I like to call this special skill, Banglalish. Banglalish does have its benefits and you’d be amazed by how much you can communicate with a couple of key words and hand gestures, but mixing the two languages together has started to have a detrimental effect on my English skills. I’ve been writing a report for work recently and I feel like I can’t write properly anymore. I can’t articulate myself and forget how things should be structured. I have so much Banglalish floating around my head that I can’t see straight. I lie in bed at night with so many words ringing in my ears… Ami onek tired (I am very tired) or ‘too much busy’ instead of ‘very busy’, or instead of headache, the Banglalish version would be feeling ‘pressure’ or ‘tension’. It’s hard to explain but it is so confusing. When Rosa and I were in Thailand I was determined not to speak any Thai as I couldn’t handle the thought of another language messing up my Bengali. When I first arrived I was debating taking advanced French classes here at the Alliance Francaise but after speaking French to the tailor the other day, I don’t think that would be a good idea either. So, roll on with the Banglalish I say, not much else I can do in the meantime so apologies if I seem more incommunicado over time but I’m sure I’ll grow out of it eventually!

Monday, March 15, 2010


It was humid today. So humid I could hardly breathe. We had three power cuts at work and then when I finally got home after an hour or so in traffic, it started raining and we had yet another power cut in the flat. Soaked and exhausted, I threw myself down on my bed as soon as I got home, and lay in the dark, listening to the rumble of thunder and lightening outside. Lying on my bed in the candlelight, I studied my room through the blur of the mosquito net, trying to distract myself from my flat mate‘s awful Euro pop through the wall… I could see that my shoes had all been lined up in a row, my garbage bin had been emptied and my laundry was ironed and folded. Laila had come today.

Laila is our house maid. A young, pretty girl in her mid-twenties who barely speaks English, but between that and my basic Bengali, we somehow manage to communicate quite well. If I’m at home when she comes to clean the flat, we often have tea together to give her a break from cleaning, but it’s rarely a chance to gossip, more often than not, it’s a silent appreciation for the cha as she sits quietly, obediently, as if I were her mistress. It creates an odd feeling for me, unsettling. There’s so much prestige here with being a foreigner that already makes me feel uncomfortable, that when this feeling is replicated in your own home, it’s an even harder pill to swallow. I do what I can for her, as did Rosa when she was here; offering her any shalwar kameez cast-offs, helping her take out the rubbish, giving her a special tip for religious holidays, but overall, Laila is very insistent that I don‘t help. Although our verbal communication is fairly minimal, it’s truly amazing how much I can sense her; how kind and appreciative she is that I even offer, but I can also see so much pain in her eyes.

Through our conversations I’ve pieced together that Laila is married to a Muslim man who is considerably older than her and from what she’s told me, he has severe health problems. I don’t know how many wives he actually has, but I get the sense that there are more than just her, and Laila also has two young children. Do they all live in the house together? Separately? Was it an arranged marriage? These are questions I cannot ask I’m afraid. I only know a glimpse of her life and although I am incredibly curious, I would never want to cross the line with her and make her feel uncomfortable with me. There are certain things you just don’t ask.

Laila also wears the full burqua. Now, I know this sounds naïve, but it’s quite strange for me to know someone who wears the it. The burqua fascinates me. What it is and what it stands for is physically and metaphorically, a veil shielding a whole different kind of life, beliefs and morals, that I will never really understand. For me adapting to life in Bangladesh, it has been difficult to cover up more - not showing your legs, shoulders, making sure you have an orna over your chest - and it all seems so restricted, but can you imagine wearing all of that AND a burqua? Thinking about how uncomfortable it is now that it’s getting hotter, I can only imagine how much Laila must suffer. She does take the burqua off when she cleans and hangs it on the door though. Sometimes there‘s an odd part of me that wants to put it on, see what it feels like to be shrouded in a sea of black, but at the same time, the burqua absolutely terrifies me. I don‘t agree with the fundamental principle of women being covered up at all. The notion of women not being allowed to expose or celebrate their sexuality, is something I will never understand for the sake of religion or culture.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Therapy Post Thailand?

This blog post has been rattling inside my head for over two months now. The way I’ve been feeling recently has been extremely hard to articulate and I probably won’t do a good job of describing it now, but I feel it’s time to try.

When you live somewhere that’s hot all the time, you don’t think about the possibility of having the ‘winter blues’. Being depressed by dark days and cold nights doesn’t even cross your mind but the feeling must be suppressed somewhere in one’s subconscious. Well, my subconscious anyway. Perhaps it was because I ‘missed’ Christmas or maybe it was because of the New Year’s resolution tradition, forcing you to look back on the year that’s passed and into the year ahead. Regardless, I had a bad case of the blues. Realising this fmade me feel like I had been in a dream these past few months - numb - and finally woke up to reality in terms of how I felt.
At the end of December, Rosa and I went to Thailand and arrived on Christmas Eve. Bangkok airport shocked us. No, really. Starbucks, sushi, Boots, lattes, short skirts, white people… we could hardly speak. I know this sounds extremely overdramatic but that is honestly how we felt. We hardly said a word to each other and just stared. It was if we had been transported back to the future by a time machine. After getting a connecting flight from Bangkok down to Surat Thani in the south east, we made our way by boat over to Kho Pan Gnan.

I felt a nervous sort of exhilaration as we made the journey south. Everything seemed so… easy. Even though it was Thailand, so many people spoke English, we could find exactly where we needed to go, we could buy whatever we wanted, we had air conditioning, hot water, garbage bins, beer; convenience was EVERYWHERE. It was like travelling for dummies. Truly surreal.

Sitting on the roof deck of the massive ferry on Christmas Day, I sat with my legs over the side, iPod in hand, watching the water and islands go by. It was calming, peaceful, serene. When we docked at the port on Kho Pan Gnan we fired into a pick up truck to take us over the rolling hills of the island to Haad Rin. Rosa and I just kept looking at each other while we were flying around the corners of paradise island. Were we really here? It didn’t seem real.

But, we arrived at ‘Coral Bungalows’ with a crash. It was like a nightclub for drunken teenagers. The main restaurant was playing some hyped up late 90’s rave and the rooms resembled prison cells with everything bolted down so nothing could get destroyed. This was way too much for us but, love it or hate it, beggars can’t be choosers around peak season so we had to embrace it. We dumped our bags, got changed and headed along Sunset beach to find the real oasis of our holiday, Seaside Bungalows. Seaside was the epitome of hippyville; hammocks, Bob Marley, candles, and mats on the beach to dine by the water. Perfect heaven. The first few nights we stayed on the Sunset side of Haad Rin, sunbathing by day and floating between the Seaside and another favourite, the Tree House bar at night. Even though we’d always get back to Coral quite late, we went to bed with ear-plugs because our room was conveniently situated right next to the DJ booth. Coral only started to get going around 2am and my stamina for all night partying had been lost somewhere between Toronto and Dhaka. Had living in Bangladesh made me ‘old’?

After a few days though, the reverse culture shock started to wear off and we started to get into the swing of things, embracing all that is Thailand; pad thai, beer and Sang Som rum. I’d like to think of Chang and Singha as personal friends of mine now – only 40 Baht for a nice cold one. We frequented nightly beach parties on the other side of Haad Rin, on Sunrise beach. Bar after bar featured constant happy hours of infamous buckets of booze and DJs pumped a variety of music accompanied by fire throwers, entertaining the masses dancing on the sand. We met loads of people from all over the world; Americans teaching in Korea, travelling Vancouverites, a smattering of Europeans and a sea of Brits.

Over the days we spent there, one thing really started to hit home with me; this trip to Thailand was just about having fun. It wasn’t about ‘struggling’, ‘trying to make a difference’, proving that you’re ‘hardcore’ enough; it was simply about people having fun. Realising this re-awakened me. It doesn’t need to be a competition of ‘I’ve done this’ or I’ve done that’ but sometimes being in Bangladesh is like a personal test or challenge, and frankly, it’s exhausting. Since Thailand was so easy it was a welcome relief and shifted the balance of my priorities. Of course I wanted to be in Bangladesh for a variety of reasons, but the possibility of leaving for somewhere else, a different experience, never crossed my mind.

On the otherhand, Rosa was having problems with her placement in Bangladesh from the start. VSO didn’t properly assess her role before she arrived so technically, her job didn’t exist. After months of meetings back and forth with VSO and her organisation, they decided to withdraw her placement. She had talked about starting another placement but being in Thailand also changed her perspective too and raised questions. Maybe it was a sign things weren’t going to work out? If VSO screwed up the first placement, what guarantees were there for another one? And finally, after a lot of talk over Changs and Singhas, Rosa decided she was going to leave Bangladesh.

Realising that she was going to go meant that my life in Dhaka would change too and questions also started to weigh on my mind. What if I left early? What if I travelled for a bit longer? What if I just spent some time enjoying myself? Mmm… The seed of doubt had been planted and there was no going back. I felt like I was in a state of turmoil, my mind swirling with possibilities about the course of my life changing once again. Even though three months had passed in Bangladesh, did I really want to stay until September? What would happen if I left in June? July? The option of leaving early never crossed my mind before but of course, it was a possibility.
Once we got back to Dhaka after Thailand and started to re-adjust to life here, I was still confused. What did I really want to do? I couldn’t sleep at night. I would lie awake, staring at the ceiling, contemplating my life. On one hand, my job was great and I came here for the work but on the other hand, living here is a constant battle; the lack of freedom, the lack of comfort, the language, the food… I needed to make some decisions.

After talking it through with some family and friends, I realised that for the sake of my sanity, I have decided to leave in June. I will ensure I get all of my work completed by then and financially, I only miss out on one quarterly payment from VSO which is about $300. I haven’t talked to by organisation about this or to VSO but I know that I need to give them as much notice as possible. I don’t know how I’m going to broach the subject with them but I think I am going to wait until the draft of my strategic plan is complete, which is at the end of March.

So, with the advent of this news, what lies in store for me next?
The rough plan right now is to leave at the end of June, travel around South East Asia for a few months and then go to the UK. I have made some valuable contacts at the BBC here so I am going to try and leverage those sooner than later. I'm not sure but I'm excited.
Watch this space…

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Saying 'I Do'

It’s been a while since I’ve written because so much has happened over the last month but I’m going to back track slightly and tell you about the Bengali wedding I went to in December. My boss asked if I wanted to attend and I jumped at the chance. I’ve only ever been to a Christian or Catholic wedding before, so I was eager to experience the Muslim version.

First of all, it’s a multiple day shebang. The first ceremony, starting in the evening, is ‘prep’ for the big day. I rushed home from work and got changed into my bright pink sari and jumped in a rickshaw, on my way to my boss’s house to be escorted by his family to the ceremony. After a bumpy rickshaw ride with the hood down so I didn’t attract too much attention to myself, I arrived at my boss’s house and his wife helped me re-adjust my crumpled sari from the journey, threw extra make-up on me - apparently it was no where near enough for a Bengali wedding - and before I knew it, we were off again. All piling into the car, we quickly arrived at the event in Mohammedpur. Multiple community centres in Dhaka seem to act as wedding venues, nothing like a religious setting, more of a function hall, and they are absolutely dripping with fairy lights and flowers for the occasion. We were ushered out of the vehicle and into a room to meet the bride and groom before going into the hall. What a sight. The bride was absolutely covered with flowers, beads and jewels that connected around her head, hair and nose piercing. The traditional colour of the ‘pre’ ceremony is yellow, so she was dressed in a yellow and blue sari, with thousands of accessories. The groom, also very dressed up, wore a traditional Punjab, but she clearly stole the show. After a quick hello, we were led upstairs underneath a red tent fabric, held up by the bridesmaids along the staircase, and flower confetti was thrown on us as we were marked with a copper bindi on our foreheads.

Once we got into the venue, it was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people; talking, mingling, a sea of colour, loud Bengali dance music... At the front of the room there was a flower-adorned stage with two thrones and a table covered in plates of food. In front of the stage were rows of mismatched couches and chairs for people to sit down. Something must in the works for later, I assumed… Then all of a sudden, mayhem! The lights went out, the strobe light went on, the smoke machine went berserk, the baseline was cranked and the dance floor was pumping. Everyone was dancing like crazy, young, old, singing, jumping around. I couldn’t help but be completely bemused. What was going on?! Did I miss something? There was no way this would be happening at this hour at home, so early in the night and without alcohol. Ha. Then, again, all of a sudden, bam! Lights went back on, the smoke machine went off, the music was turned back down, and people were chatting, mingling again. A ten minute moment of disco fever and then back to the wedding ceremony? How odd. But before I could make sense of it, I was being ushered towards the stage. Towards the stage!? Oh God, why? What did I have to do? Something about being the only ‘bideshi’ there was making me nervous. Surely they didn’t expect me to give a speech? But, thankfully no. My boss’s wife said I would take part in the ceremony but reassured me that everyone had to. I asked if I could follow her lead to be sure I didn’t do something sacrilegious, so we both went up together and sat on either side of the bride and groom on additional thrones. Basically, we had to feed them something from the array of food in front of them as an offering, and then dab turmeric on their faces as a symbol to make their skin glow ‘golden’ for the wedding day. I felt a bit strange, rubbing turmeric on the bride’s face when she looked so perfect and made up, added to the fact that she doesn’t know me from Adam, but she smiled and the camera clicked a million times to capture the moment, before we were helped off the stage and the next participants followed to do the same ritual. Done.

Then again, before I’d even said turmeric, the disco fever again! Boom boom pow, shake it all about. The place went crazy again and as hard as I tried to dance to join in, I felt stiff as hell in my sari and… dare I say it, really damn sober. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with the movers and shakers so I drifted to the sidelines and took photos instead. I have never seen so much energy before. Everyone, all holding hands, spinning each other round, singing their hearts out to songs I’d never heard of. After my long day at work, it made me feel exhausted, just watching them. I needed a break, needed to talk English for a second even, but that wasn’t going to happen, so I settled for a seat on some random couch, facing the spectacle and kept snapping photos.

After a while, I think my boss’s wife suspected I was tired and suggested we leave, especially since it was 2am. 2 am!? How did that happen so quickly? I felt as though we’d been there for an hour or two but I willingly left. Exhausted, we piled back into the car and I got dropped off, falling up the stairs to my flat. My head hit the pillow and I was asleep in seconds. Roll on day two - the ‘big’ day.

My British flat mate Rosa was going to come with me as my ‘date’ so we got ready in the afternoon in our extra special saris - read: heavily ordained with beads and even harder to wear because they weigh a ton - and repeated the journey to my boss’s house to be escorted to the ceremony with the family. The ceremony this time was held at another venue in the city, but the décor was similar; flowers were everywhere and fairy lights were shining bright, along with the general chaos of people, all waiting at the main doors for the bride and groom to arrive. As we tried to squeeze in to get a look at the couple arriving, a full brass band arrived! Trumpets and drums in full force and oddly enough, hardly anyone else noticed but Rosa and I, so the two of us snapped away and before we knew it, they had circled around us, continuing to bust out the tunes! After several photos and momentous clapping, the attention focused back at the entrance. The groom had arrived. Tall and elegant in his turban, he was surrounded by women buzzing around him, ushering him inside and through the crowd. Then, a few minutes later… the moment we’d all been waiting for, the bride. A small van arrived and she got out quickly, shielded by people so we couldn’t see her, and got into a gold carriage, box type thing. It looked like something out of ancient Rome and was surrounded with curtains with huge gold pillars at each end so she could be carried into the ceremony. We all frantically tried to get photos of her in the carriage but it was complete mayhem; people pushing, shoving, anything to get a photo. Then, all of a sudden, she was lifted right up into the air and through the crowd. We followed the carriage into the ceremony and she was placed, still enclosed, at the stage / altar. There were thrones again and the groom sat, waiting for her. Beside the altar I also noticed several suitcases; the brides belongings. I found out that after the ceremony, she would move into the in-law’s house with her new husband – this was tradition. Shortly after her arrival in the carriage, the curtain opened and we got the chance to take some photos of the bride. She looked incredible; absolutely covered in gold jewellery, wearing a bright red sari. Stupidly, I left the room at this point to try and find my boss to let him know that she was here and missed her getting out of the carriage(!), but when I came back, she was seated on a throne, next to her groom on the altar. Snap, snap, snap, general paparazzi overdrive continued. Slowly, I began to realize that there wasn’t going to be any actual ceremony; it seemed like a photo shoot was the only item on the agenda which seemed a bit odd, and then after an hour or so, dinner was announced. Everyone was rammed into an adjoining dining hall. The whole meal was fast and furious; plates of rice and chicken flying around and the only beverages on offer was either water or a strange, spicy green yoghurt drink. Pass on the yoghurt, thanks. After dinner, people lingered around for a bit but it became obvious that nothing else was going to happen and the night was winding to a close. I asked my boss why the significance of the two day ceremony when everything important seems to happen in the first? Symbolic, he said. Now that the couple are ‘united’, the second ceremony marks the bride moving in with the in-laws, that they truly are married now.

After getting a ride home and taking off the entire sari garb for the second night in a row, Rosa and I reflected on the evening and how it’s such a different series of rituals compared to a Christian or Catholic wedding. Regardless, from the turmeric to the dancing, photos, saris and flowers, I was glad to have participated in it, and made the decision that if I ever get married, I’m getting married in a sari!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The emperor's new clothes

When I first thought of living in Bangladesh, I had an image of myself; flowing silk saris, beautiful scarves, beads, really long hair, loads of gold jewellery, hundreds of bracelets… basically becoming the epitome of ‘boho chic‘, and putting Kate Moss to shame. But alas, the dream hasn’t come true. Far from it. I've come to realise that there are so many steps to get from buying material, to actually wearing clothes, it’s exhausting. The term ‘pret a porter’ has never seemed so attractive to me than ever.

Now, don’t get me wrong, going to the market to buy material is entertaining. The fabric stalls are all run by men, constantly shouting, ‘Sister!' or 'Apa!’, trying to get your attention as you walk through the market. Once you approach the stall, they're excited, and they start pulling out piles of material before you've even asked for anything, plus, they're also obsessed with you sitting down for the fabric ‘performance‘. ‘Please come! Sit down sister, please. PLEASE sit down, sit down!‘ They have little stools for customers to sit on as they dramatically select, pull and then roll out fabric and saris from their walls of material, as they stand on a raised platform. Note: it’s practically sacrilegious to walk on this platform with shoes on - big no no. From the piles and piles of stacked cloth, you can get every colour and fabric type under the sun; cotton, silk, synthetic, patterns, prints, sequence, beaded, tie-dye, you name it. It’s overwhelming. My eyes dart around so much at everything flying at me, it‘s so hard to choose. Especially for me; I love anything shiny or bright, so my head feels like it’s spinning, trying to look at EVERYTHING all at once.

After the initial frenzy and excitement of choosing the right fabric, bargaining for it - which involves a hell of a lot of discussion - there’s a nice sense of satisfaction once the purchase has been made, and then it’s time to go home with it all, ready for the next step in the clothes-making process. However, to be honest, once you actually get home, take the material out of the bag and place it on the table, it sort of becomes a bit disappointing. You can’t WEAR any of it. It's material, sitting there, on the table. Mmm... Sometimes when you look at what you actually bought, there’s also a sense of mild panic. What looked so good at the market, now looks a bit silly once you realize you have to wear all of this canary yellow paisley print, not paint a picture with it. Sometimes shiny gold trousers in reality, don’t really feel like practical attire to go the corner store to buy milk in. I went so over the top when I first got here that most of my clothes look like I should be an extra in a Bollywood film. Gold, beaded, patterns, trim, gold, gold and yes, more gold. All the other volunteers seemed to have opted for plain cotton mixes whereas I’m sitting at work today wearing a pink, yellow and gold sequenced number. Bling meets Bang is my style here it seems.
Anyway, let’s move on to the tailor. Ah, the tailor. The man I love to hate. Everyone has their ’tailor’ here and loyalty runs deep. Even though my tailor hardly speaks English, cuts the fabric incorrectly on most occasions and is often downright rude, I feel like I’m stuck with him now because of this whole ‘loyalty’ crap, and live in the hope that the more I go to him, the clothes might, just might, get better. Ah, optimism. Explaining what I actually want to this man has not always worked out as planned. It’s usually been a case of me going into his abode, dumping the fabric out onto the table, getting measured, and then the worst part, asking for the style I want. All in all, despite the Bengali I’ve learned; ‘chapano banan‘ (which means make it tight) and ‘dhola na‘ (which means not wide), all my clothes keep coming back absolutely, bloody ENORMOUS. I feel like I should be in a Subway sandwich commerical half the time. Seriously. We’re talking, HUGE. The tops - kameez - are generally fine, but the trousers - shalwar - are gigantic. I don’t know why he bothers measuring me!? Argh! All of my shalwar are so big in fact, that even my boss commented on the ridiculousness of them when we were in our company van, and the fabric of my shalwar covered the entire seat.

Through all of this fabric drama with the tailor, it’s made me start to loathe the shalwar in general and I’ve started wearing the kameez tops with leggings. Now, since I only own two pairs of leggings, I knew that this was only a short term fashion solution. I talked to my lovely work colleague and she offered to come with me to the tailors for moral support - one last ditch attempt to sort these Goddamned shalwar out. I was tired of the miscommunication breakdown with the tailor, mostly resulting in a lot of bad pen illustrations and pointing from my end, so I jumped at the chance for her to help me. Last week she came with me to see him and explained to the tailor everything that I needed, and that the material needed to be CUT OUT of the shalwar, drawing it with chalk. He nodded to my colleague, and I felt embarrassed, like a bit of a 'boka' (fool), but thankfully, the whole experience was over quickly and it was relatively painless. All I need to do now is go back this week to collect the ‘revised’ attire. Cross your fingers for me it works out so i don't go on drowing in a sea of fabric! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!

In the meantime, while I’ve been trying to sort out all of these bloody shalwar, I’ve branched out and embraced the world of the sari. Elegant and beautiful, it seemed like the way forward. Who needs the shalwar kameez anyway? Not me! After wearing a sari to the office last week, which caused a furor of excitement amongst my co-workers, I also wore one to the market and got the best deals ever. I suppose you look a bit more ‘with it’ versus ‘just got off the boat’ when you‘re rockin‘ the full-on traditional dress. But, pretty much everyone just kept asking the same question, ‘How did you put it on?’ This, my friends, was a challenge. No word of a lie. The first time I wore the sari, I wrapped it round and round and just tucke dit, hoping for the best, and it kept unraveling at my boss’ house(!) which resulted in hundreds of awkward trips to the washroom to 're-wrap', and a comment from my boss‘ son that I looked like a mummy. Hot. The second time, I wore it without the petticoat underneath in an attempt to wrap it tighter, and even though it was an improvement on the last attempt, the material at the bottom was so tight, it chaffed my ankles and made me walk like a geisha. This, coupled with the fact that upon telling my female co-worker about the non-petticoat situation, she was horrified for my decency incase I unravelled in the street, and insisted on shutting my office door to show me how to put on the sari properly. Thankfully, the lesson made me I understand why you need the petticoat - to tuck the sari into something of course, or else it unravels. Seems like common sense, right? Ha. Anyway, I’ve mastered it now. Well, mastered it as in, I can wear a sari for a whole day and it doesn’t come off. Phew. Who knew clothes could be such hard work?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Into the wild

I woke up on Tuesday morning at 6am. Dhaka was dark and the prayer hadn’t even begun. I was going to Kuakata.

Kuakata is in Patuakhali, one of the most remote places in Bangladesh (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either). I had been warned by my boss that the journey was going to be brutal. The roads to get there are largely bumpy, dirt roads and you have to get six ferries to cross the many waterways that connect the region, all the way down to the Bay of Bengal. Kuakata is somewhere most volunteers don’t usually travel to because there’s no tourism there and because the infrastructure is so bad. Was a hidden gem awaiting me? The sea, rural villages, fresh air and my first film shoot for our documentary project on climate change. I couldn’t wait. Finally it was time for me to see some more of Bangladesh, the real Bangladesh.

I got picked up in the company van with the rest of the film crew - my boss, the director, producer, two junior assistant crew members and the driver - and the seven of us headed off on our journey. No matter what time it is in Dhaka, there’s always traffic, so we eventually got out of the city after a few hours and to my delight, I saw green. GREEN. I felt like I hadn’t seen green fields for so long and it was actually pleasant to drive with the windows down, something the complete opposite in Dhaka.

We rolled up to the first town, a shabby place, full of sheet metal huts selling snacks and housing trading for local food and fish, and wandered into a ‘hotel’. ‘Hotel’ in Bangladesh doesn’t mean an actual hotel, it means a diner. Dhaka is littered with these kinds of eateries everywhere but I’ve always been a bit intimidated to go into them before because you rarely see women in them and because I have no idea what they serve and how much things cost. They’re not really ‘menu’ sort of places if you catch my drift. But, because I was with the crew, there was no hesitation and no other choice for that matter, so we sat down and my boss ordered for everyone, the waiter, shouting out orders to the cooks at the front of the ‘hotel’ on what to make. The cooks use huge round fryers that look like massive flat woks and throw all of the bread mix on it to make raita (kind of like of like Irish potato scones - delish!), which you eat with daal (daal is basically THE staple here), and they make omelets with chilies and onion. We polished off the food in no time and washed it down with cha. Cha aka tea, is like water here. A necessity for everyone at all times. I was proud that I weaned myself off coffee here but considering the amount of tea I drink on a daily basis, it probably evens it out. Bangaldeshis love cha. Tea stalls are everywhere, not only on every corner, even in the most remote places, but tons of them line the streets and they’re always full of people, mostly men, drinking tea, chatting, reading the paper, smoking. I love it. However, going to a tea stall is also something I was nervous about in Dhaka because of the lack of women that frequent them, and I was also not sure of what to order. Well, as I quickly found out in this ferry port town, you just ask for cha. Easy, plain and simple. And they make it their way, no Starbucks half fat triple shot venti jargon here; all cha is served in a glass, half full, very milky and with a shitload of sugar. It’s lush.

After our breakfast pit stop we boarded the ferry and quickly got out of the van to go up to the top deck. It was so refreshing to be on the water, feeling the wind on my face, looking out on the river, seeing fishing boats in the distance, and watching all of hustle and bustle at the port. Now, the actual ferry is another story. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the QE2. The ferrymen are old weathered souls, gruff and abrupt, it was rammed full of people and beggars and the washroom, Ah, my ‘ole favourite, the squat toilet. In all honestly, I have come to hate, no REALLY hate, the squat toilet at the best of times, but this one? Oh Christ, it was bad. Trying to maneuver myself to do my business in the smallest, dirtiest toilet hellhole ever, WHILE trying not to let ANY part of my body or clothes touch ANYTHING in there, well, it was a ‘challenge’ to say the least. I think I was actually sweating by the end of it. Anyway, let’s move on.

Once we got back into the van, we docked at the next port and now it was time for the real driving to begin. Because people never really go to Kuakata much, the roads to get there are dire. No, awful, terrible, horrific… you know where I’m going. Imagine off-roading in a bloody mini van. Yep, that was our journey for about um, twelve hours. Yes, I’m serious. I felt like my bum was getting bruises because of all the humps and bumps along the way so we couldn’t even sleep because it was like being on a bad fairground ride. Thankfully, five more ferries broke up the drive a bit which gave us the chance to stretch our legs and get some air. The rest of the rivers were much narrower though, so the intervals only lasted for about fifteen minutes each, but it was amazing to see all the different port towns along the way, each getting smaller and smaller and more and more remote. Who the hell else was traveling here I thought? Even in the most ’isolated’ parts of the country, there were still always so many people. Truly amazing to me.

As the sun was setting, we were still on the road but finally, after an eternity, we arrived in Kuakata at about 9pm, fourteen hours after leaving Dhaka - almost the amount of time it took for me to fly from Toronto to Hong Kong when I first arrived. Surreal. The guest house we were staying at was set back from the town’s main road and was surrounded my incredible plants, flowers and palm trees. Even though it was incredibly basic, my room actually had a SOFT mattress, TV and a sit down toilet. Hallelujah. The next morning, after watching some cheesy Bengali soap opera, we wandered down the road to have breakfast at a local ‘hotel’, some cha and then piled in the van to go to our first stop, a nearby village where the women there started their own irrigation project to manage the effects their community was having due to climate change.

As we got out of the van, the villagers started to gather, falling over each other to get a glimpse of who was coming to film their home with camera equipment and… a foreigner. Once they saw me, mouths dropped open. But it wasn’t frenzied enthusiasm, I honestly think it was shock. They were almost silent, looking at me intently, my shoes, my painted toenails, my jewellery, my hair… We set up the equipment and shot the women’s group meeting, me outside with my boss, watching through the monitor, and half the village surrounded us, dying for a look at the small TV. At the end of the discussion group, someone said ‘shesh’ which means finished but I turned around and said ‘shesh na’ which means not finished. Me speaking Bengali caused an instant uproar from the villagers; they were all laughing, shouting ‘shesh na!’, obviously very excited that I spoke in their language, which broke the ice and they started to warm to me. Some of the kids gathered around, saw that I had a camera under my arm and they kept looking at it, so I pulled it out and gave it to one of the girls, showing her how to press the button and take a photo. They were all SO excited once the photos started happening; they were running around, pushing each other, laughing, trying to get their photo taken and take photos of each other. So, I just let them run riot and it was absolutely hilarious. Hearing all the chaos of the children, the women of the village also came over to see what was going on, and upon seeing the camera, they wanted to get their photos taken too, plus get photos taken with me. The older women in the village brought me biscuits and rice and eventually sat me down on a chair underneath a tree. Then everyone gathered around me in a circle, touching my hair, paying me compliments and asking me questions. I’ve never seen such pure fascination on people’s faces before and I don’t think they had ever laid eyes a foreigner before based on their reaction. After a lot of cooing, it was time to go on to the next village, an aboriginal village, so I had to say my goodbyes and they all asked me to visit them again. I waved goodbye for as long as I could see them in the distance and felt very humbled by the experience. It was so genuine and kind. I had been thinking about what it would be like to go to one of the villages for so long, even before I arrived in Bangladesh and it was exactly what I had hoped for. It was only for a short time but it was almost magical. I looked back at the photos on my camera as we drove away and my eyes almost started watering. I felt really lucky to have been there for that moment and to have given them some joy.

When we arrived at the next village, I found out that the women there also had designed a similar irrigation project with help from the other village women. We started setting up the equipment again when all of a sudden we started hearing children shouting ‘Lisa Apa!’. the kids from the last village had followed us and ran the whole way. An older girl also joined them, and she spoke some English. She explained to me that the children wanted to see what was going on and wanted to see me again. She then gave me a tour of the aboriginal village along with all of the other children in tow and I went to the local school. Even though classes were finishing for the day, some the children still remained and they were singing their hearts out so we stood outside, listening for a while. Soon thereafter, the older girl ushered me into the village leaders house along with ALL of the children, and I sat down on a wooden bench inside the barn like building, surrounded by them all. After the hi, hello, how are you chat with the village leader, they all just looked at me. And kept looking. In silence. I didn’t quite know what to do next. I sort of felt obliged that I should entertain them or something but I had run out of my ‘Bengali’ and didn’t know what to do. Then, the older girl said, ‘I think you should sing for us.’ ‘Sing for you?!’, I asked. ‘Yes, yes, SING!’, she said and clapped her hands, then said to the rest of the children and to the village leader that she had asked me to sing. They all started clapping and then I thought, oh God, I’m going to have to sing, aren’t I? Sing what? Suddenly my mind went blank. What could I sing that didn’t have swear words or anything about love, that’s basically every song ever written, right? Shit. Um… They all kept looking at me, waiting. Then I knew. ABBA. I’ll sing ABBA. So I broke into a mediocre rendition of ‘Thank you for the music’ and they were loving it, clapping, smiling, but I don’t really know all of the words so the song repeated itself a bit and then stopped. ‘Another one!’, the older girl shouted and again, I couldn’t think of a song for the life of me. I tried to think of a song they might know, um, no, that won’t work. Um… so I sang Michael Jackson. Yeah, I know, Michael Jackson. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, in Bangladesh, surrounded by random villagers and children singing ABBA and Michael Jackson on a Wednesday afternoon. Oh, how bizarre life had become. Anyway, after the whole singing debacle, we headed off further into the village, and all the kids continued to follow and we walked through the paddy field to a Buddhist temple that was frequented by the aboriginal inhabitants of the village. It was an amazing site. Bright bright blue, high on stilts, made of wood, right in the middle of a field. There was even a monk there, looking like he’s walked straight out of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, and before I knew it, my shoes were off and I was at the temple’s altar. Snap, snap, snap, took some photos and we were off again, walking back through the paddy field. Suddenly I was worried about the time. I had completely wandered off from the shoot, without telling ANYONE where I was going and I didn’t have my phone, my bag, anything with me expect my camera. I told the older girl that I should be heading back so she started to lead be across the walkway and I started to run, getting the children to chase me. They were hysterical, laughing, running, and I think altogether shocked, probably wondering, what the hell is this foreign girl doing!? Before I knew it we had found our way back but the van was gone, nowhere to be seen. Oh shit. Lisa decides to go walkabout in a rural village with no phone and don’t tell anyone where she’s going... And now. Mmm. The situation is not good. We waited around for a bit, and then decided to walk up to the main road. Thankfully I saw the van in the distance so we all trundled along after it, my feel feeling heavy in the hot afternoon sun. Turns out my ‘crew’ were getting some final scenic footage before we had to leave again for the fisherman’s port. We said our goodbyes to the kids again and were off on the bumpy road to find sea.

The next town we were to visit was another victim of climate change. The fishermen there were battling with rising water levels that had damaged river supplies which meant fishing in the sea instead of the river, a completely different territory, requiring bigger boats (which equals more money to finance them), and less fish because the water had turned to salt water. Upon arrival we took a series of interviews and then my boss turned to me, ‘Lisa, we are going on a fishing boat.’ I looked out into the river and saw a small, wooden boat pull up to the bottom of the cliff so we scuttled down the hill and slide over the mud into the boat. Before I could blink we were out on the open seas, camera in tow, getting footage of the waterways from the ‘inside’ perspective. We went right out into the open water and it seemed to go on forever and ever. One of the fishermen said I was brave for not wearing a life jacket. I laughed and said I trusted him. And then looked down. Water was coming INTO the boat. INTO THE BOAT! And, no one seemed to care! Two of the other fishermen had little plastic tubs, scooping it out and throwing it overboard. Don’t panic, I thought. Do. Not. Panic. I could see the shore of where we were getting dropped off and honestly, tried not to think about it, I just looked towards the dock. What else could I do? I know I can swim but Jesus, I was not expecting to swim in the Bay of Bengal out of a bloody sinking fishing boat! Miraculously, we made it to the dock and I jumped out of that boat faster than Jack Flash. We climbed up the muddy hill to find more fish than I have ever seen in my life. Endless rows of wooden poles acted as drying racks for fish caught from the sea. There were thousands of fish hanging out to dry, from skate to squid and everything in between. The hot afternoon air smelt of sea salt and fish, a whole lotta fish. After walking through the fish maze, we found ourselves back at the van, ready to head to our last stop of the day, the beach.

Kuakata is an interesting beach because it is where the sun rises and sets in the same place. Once we bumped along the long, winding road, we got to the beach about 6pm, ready to watch the sunset. I took off my sandals and walked down to the water. It was so nice to feel sand between my toes and once I got to the sea, the water was warm. WARM! Ah, bliss. I just stood, by myself, looking out into the sun. After a few minutes though, I realized I wasn’t alone. Because we had the TV camera with us, and the rest of the crew, I think other people on the beach thought I was famous or something, and started to line up to get photos taken with me! Husbands, wives, children. Couldn’t I get two minutes alone in this country? I know they were excited to see a foreigner but all I wanted to do was have a few minutes alone. Anyway, after some photo opps and some weird men lurking around taking way too many photos of me on their camera phones for my liking, it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner and bed. Even though we all needed an early night, some beers were in order at the guest house before getting back on the road again the next day to do the journey all over again.

Fourteen hours and six ferries to get there and back, and two hundred photos later, I eventually got home on Thursday night. Glad to be back my own bed, I dreamt about the little place by the sea that captured my heart.

Nine and a half weeks

I knew that headline would grab your attention but sadly, no tales in that respect. Ha. Nine and a half weeks really means, that’s exactly how long I’ve been in Bangladesh today. It’s so weird thinking about it. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here five minutes; when I don’t know what the hell someone’s saying, or directions somewhere, or when I'm seeing things so completely foreign and different from home, sometimes I stop and think, where the hell am I and what am I doing here? And then other times, I feel like I’m getting it; when I’m eating rice and daal with my hand and drinking tea from a tea stall, when I’m bumping along in a CNG or rickshaw through the chaos of Dhaka and actually know where I‘m going, when I’m buying things from the market for a good price… my old life seems so far away. It’s truly a strange thing. In another three weeks I’ll have been here for three months, that means a quarter of my placement will be over already, and time seems to be running through my fingers like sand.

I’ve also been looking at my blog that I’m using to document this journey and its thirteen posts. Thirteen posts. Thirteen posts of what? Are these really my thoughts? Is this really capturing everything I’ve seen, tasted, touched, and what I think or have experienced? Or is it just a load of crap that I’m writing? I read a few previous blogs on my site and some of them are okay but some of them are just plain shit. I’ve never had a blog before, only a diary when I was about twelve years old and that was BEYOND shit. Am I managing to evoke my personality through my writing in this so-called blog? Sometimes it feels a bit like a series of mediocre high school essays, not a story, my story. Sometimes I don’t know. I clicked on a few other ‘Bangla’ blogs this morning and feel a bit of blog envy. God, I hate admitting that. Blog envy. Ewww. I know it’s not a popularity contest but the other blogs seem funnier, more interesting. My flat mate’s had over a thousand hits on her blog. A thousand hits!? I have no idea how many people have read this but I think I need to shape up a bit more in my writing, try and make it a bit more witty, risque, grittier… SOMETHING! I’m making no promises but as of today, I will try and make bangininthedesh more ‘Lisa’ as of now. Right now. Yep, I’ll write something today, something great. Mmmm, um, ok… I guess I’d better go write something…

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eid Mubarak

I woke up on Saturday morning to a strange sound. A moaning, animal sound...
Eid-al-Adha sacrifices had begun.

Over the last few days, the streets of Dhaka have been filled with animals. Huge bulls and cows have littered my neighbourhood streets, inter-dispersed by goats, and at first it seemed entertaining that there were so many animals everywhere in the middle of the city, but then the realization started to hit that all of them would be killed in the street by Sunday for Eid.

Eid-al-Adha is a ‘festival of sacfrice’ that is celebrated by Muslims to commemorate the willingness of Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God.

Four thousand years ago, the valley of Mecca was a dry and uninhabited place. According to Islamic history, the Prophet Ibrahim was instructed to bring Hajar and their child Ismael to Arabia from the land of Canaan by God's command.

As Ibrahim made ready to return to the land of Canaan, Hajar asked him, "Who ordered you to leave us here"? When Ibrahim replied: "Allah", Hajar said, "then Allah will not forget us; you can go". Although Ibrahim had left a large quantity of food and water with Hajar and Ismael, the supplies quickly ran out and within a few days the two were suffering from hunger and dehydration.

According to the story, a desperate Hajar ran up and down between two hills called Safa and Marwa seven times, trying to find water. Finally, she collapsed beside her baby Ismael and prayed to Allah for deliverance. Ismael struck his foot on the ground, causing a spring of water to gush forth from the earth. Other accounts have the angel Jibral (Gabriel) striking the earth and causing the spring to flow. With this secure water supply, they were not only able to provide for their own needs, but were also able to trade water with passing nomads for food and supplies. When the Prophet Ibrahim returned from Canaan to check on his family, he was amazed to see them running a profitable well.

The Prophet Ibrahim was told by God to build a shrine dedicated to him adjacent to Hajar's well (the Zamzam Well). Ibrahim and Ismael constructed a small stone structure–-the Kaaba--which was to be the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in Allah. As the years passed, Ismael was blessed with Prophethood and gave the nomads of the desert his message of surrender to Allah. After many centuries, Mecca became a thriving city and a major center for trade, thanks to its reliable water source, the well of Zamzam.

One of the main trials of Prophet Ibrahim's life was to face the command of Allah to devote his dearest possession, his only son. Upon hearing this command, he prepared to submit to Allah's's will. During this preparation, when Satan tempted Prophet Ibrahim and his family, Hajar and Ismael drove Satan away by throwing pebbles at him. To remember this rejection of Satan, stones are thrown during Hajj.

At the time of sacrifice, Ibrahim discovered a sheep died instead of Ismail, whom he hacked through neck. When Ibrahim was fully prepared to complete the sacrifice, Allah revealed to him that his "sacrifice" had already been fulfilled. Ibrahim had shown that his love for his Lord superseded all others: that he would lay down his own life or the lives of those dear to him in order to submit to God. Muslims commemorate this superior act of sacrifice during Eid-al-Adha.

Men, women, and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing to perform Eid prayer in a large congregation in an open area or mosque. Muslims who can afford to do so sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows and goats) as a symbol of Ibrahim's sacrifice. The sacrificed animals, have to meet certain age and quality standards or else the animal is considered an unacceptable sacrifice. Generally, sacrificial animals must be at least one year of age.

The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid -al-Adha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished person is left without sacrificial food during these days. Poor people were walking up and down my street all day yesterday shouting, 'Allah, Allah', and calling out for meat.

During Eid-al-Adha, distributing meat amongst the people, chanting Takbir out loud before the Eid prayer on the first day, and after prayers throughout the four days of Eid are considered essential parts of the festival.

When I looked out over the balcony yesterday morning, the street was covered with blood and animal carcasses. It was such a surreal thing to watch, as groups of men sliced open and dissected the cows and goats, young boys helping out by running back and forth into the houses, bringing in the severed meat so that the women could start cooking.

People warned me not to go out into the street, nor to watch the sacrifices, but I felt as though I needed to witness this ritual because I’ll probably never be so close to it again. It seemed to go on for hours as I periodically peered over the balcony wall, watching to see if it was still going on.

By the early evening, we had to venture out because I had been invited to my boss’ house for the Eid feast and I invited the British girl I live with to come along. The two of us wrapped ourselves up in our new Eid saris and shuffled out into the street (they are very hard to walk in!) We felt like Japanese geishas in our constricting saris and it took a few attempts to ‘hop’ up onto the rickshaw but before we knew it, we were off, and the streets of Dhaka were covered in people, all carrying Eid meat in bags on their way to give it to friends and family, in keeping with the tradition.

As we arrived at my boss’ house, we gathered in the front room and met some of this close friends and family, but the patriarchal roles ensued. Even though my boss is an incredibly liberal man, it seemed as though all of the women were in the kitchen and the men stayed in the front room, smoking and drinking whisky. Not the collective party atmosphere I was expecting but before we knew it the food was ready and we sat down to endless plates of food and desserts. Now I knew that this festival was about - food.
In a full bellied haze, we rolled home and slept until the next day, waking up to a quieter street with blood nowhere to be seen.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thursday's the new Friday

In a land of no pubs, bars, or liquor stores, there IS alcohol to be found in Bangladesh if you look hard enough. It’s mostly found in hotels and expat clubs really, and I've discovered the delights of the Regency of course. Recently, I’ve also heard rumblings about ‘locally’ produced wine, but I’ll bet that makes you go blind or something, so I’ll focus on legit poison for now!

Anyway, last Thursday we headed out to the British club aka The Bagha. Some of the other volunteers outside of Dhaka were in the city so there was a guaranteed crowd, which motivated us to head all the way across town in the onek jam. After a ‘minor’ freak attack on my part - we couldn’t get a CNG for almost an hour from our flat and I was panicking at the thought of missing out on the delicious Bagha restaurant food before 9pm so I started shouting and swearing in the middle of the road… not one of my finest moments - let’s just say, I needed to relax and unwind. Sometimes Dhaka makes you go crazy. I can't explain it.

Now, the thing about the Bagha, and these other kind of venues, is that they’re like a bubble. A strange, surreal bubble, that houses such a contrast from typical Bangladeshi life, that it fights with one’s conscience. When half of the population here live on less than 40cents a day, it’s hard to be surrounded by so much wealth at the expat clubs or hotels, but then on the other hand, it‘s also kinda nice to have some Western-type surroundings. Really nice. I hate admitting that but it's true. I got so excited about apple crumble and custard being on the Bagha menu the other day, that I almost fainted. No exaggeration.

We arrived at the Bagha in time for food - hurrah - and the wine was flowing. Since I’ve started drinking less here, I am now an official lightweight. After a few glasses of 200taka vino ($2!), I was starting to feel giddy and my stresses seemed to fade away. I had also picked up my illustrious Bagha membership card upon arrival so now I have… wait for it folks, a tab! Trouble was on the horizon and the night was getting into full swing. The place was packed, loud, full of people talking, laughing, music playing, clouds of smoke everywhere (everyone smokes here except me it seems), and all of the volunteers were gathered on the terrace, enjoying the hot winter night’s atmosphere.

The thing about the volunteer circle is that, even though we’re all so different, coming from a range of cultural backgrounds, experiences, countries, there’s one thing, one really strong thing that unites all in a very special way; we’re here. And that’s what bonds us together. Now, I know I have the blog to tell other people about what it’s like in Bangladesh, and there’s email, Facebook, Skype, you name it, but nothing can really describe what it’s like to really be here. The sights, the sounds, the language; being a foreigner in a foreign land.

Anyway, as the random bunch of us continued to enjoy the flowing alcohol of the Bagha and swap stories of our time here, eventually we started to branch out away from our ‘table’ and befriended a group of production people from the BBC London. It turns out that they’re here creating a drama series for BBC World. I hazily remember asking them for a job when I’m finished VSO which was awkward and unsubtle but hopefully it got lost in the other bouts of conversation, smoke and wine! We also met some other NGO workers from Oxfam and the UN, plus embassy workers and corporate types - basically people earning a lot more money than us so we got a few drinks off their tabs. Hehe.

Before I knew it, it was 2am. An old man fell off his stool at the bar and the place was clearing out. Time to go. There were four of us left and we all rolled out of the Bagha, in search of a CNG home. Could we find a CNG? Could we hell. Rickshaws a plenty swarmed around us but we live way too far to get one of those home. Walking, walking, walking up the longest road ever, hiccups in tow, we eventually found a yellow cab. Yes, seriously, a yellow cab, and home was one step closer. After navigating the driver to our flat in Bengal-ish, going around in circles a few time, we arrived at our front gate to see our landlord, standing, waiting for us. Seriously. He locks the gate after 11pm and only he has the key. He refuses to give anyone a copy. We have to tell him when we are going to be late and then he waits up for us. No joke. It’s like being sixteen again. He asked us where we’d been and we just said ‘Gulshan‘. He nodded, peered into the cab looking suspiciously at our chaperone volunteer guy friends, and ushered us through the gate.

After getting into the flat and several glasses of water later, I fell into a coma until I started stirring with the sound ‘Murgi! Murgi!’. Oh God, I thought, where am I? I’m in Bangladesh. With a hangover. Lord help me. I eventually woke up late Friday afternoon to find my flat mate in the same state. Having a hangover in Bangladesh is like electrocuting yourself on purpose. Terrible, horrible, pain. Pain, pain, pain. I don’t know why it’s so bad here but it was a firm wake up call that the Bagha CANNOT be abused on a weekly basis. I can’t handle a whole day lying in bed hearing ’Murgi!’ from the chicken salesman in the street with a throbbing wine headache. An addition to this is that I have yet to get a ’bill’ for my ’tab’ at the Bagha too. Something else I’m also worried about, earning $150 a month.
This Thursday night, I'm watching a DVD.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I have a plan

I got my work plan approved which means I now ‘technically’ have some structure around what I‘m doing here, something documented and official that I’m working towards so I can start to ’make a difference’. Sigh. It’s going to be a challenge and over the last few days, I’m really starting to realize that. Even though I have projects to work on like the pneumonia campaign, my ‘big‘ project for the year is that, I need to give my whole organization a complete overhaul from a strategic and vision standpoint, that will transcend into branding and advertising, followed by an internal review of all the project management practices etc. etc. etc. etc… oh God. I’m feeling slightly under qualified for all of this(?!) but I’m trying to think positively. I have a year, right?

To start off this process I have been interviewing all of the partner organizations to get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of my organization, from their perspective, helping me navigate my route on how I'm going to tackle this ‘plan’. In particular, I met with a fantastic organization called Action Aid last week and felt really inspired and motivated. Good start.
Action aid operates through a rights-based approach to mobilize and support the efforts of the poor and marginalized people with the ultimate aim of eradicating poverty and the injustices that cause poverty. Since its inception in 1983, AA has been working in some of the most remote areas in Bangladesh with some of the countries most vulnerable people. A particular focus for AAB is women vulnerability in Bangladesh and the organization has aimed to initiate programs to contribute to improvements in their position and condition in society. AA’s work on women’s rights is particularly interesting to me, and has been concentrating on promoting effective participation in the social, political and economical sphere, enable equal gender relations and active citizenship of adolescents, and also zero tolerance against violence such as domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. Acid attacks are also another act of violence against women that has prevailed in the last decade. It’s such a horrific crime that’s on the rise here and I had no idea how severe the attacks were until I met some of the actual victims at the Action Aid office. Truly devastating. To ensure this issue gets recognition it deserves, in order to be stopped, I found out last week that my organization helped publicize it and actually taught acid burn victims how to use audio visual equipment themselves, so they could create their own documentary about what had happened to them. Then, they used the documentary as a tool to influence policy makers to see acid violence as a real issue. Change IS starting to happen.

As for the other partner organizations, there are so many NGOs in Bangladesh, fighting for something. Health rights, education, HIV & AIDS, you name it. The benefit of my organization is that I’ll get exposure to all areas so I’m really looking forward to finding out more about stories like what happened to the acid burn victims, and seeing if I can play a role in actually doing something. When you see so much poverty around you on a day to day basis, it’s hard not to be doubtful that you can change any of it. I know I need to be realistic in my goals here but God, if I can do one thing, just ONE thing, at least that’s something, right?

Let the 'plan' begin…

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The sounds of Dhaka

They say New York is the city that never sleeps but really, it’s Dhaka. Every moment of every day is filled with noise. It pours out of every corner of the city, at every hour, and never stops.

The fan in the my bedroom acts as a constant hum of white noise. Even though it’s cooling down weather-wise now, it helps to muffle the sporadic noise from the street below. The morning prayer echoes in the distance around 5am and I stir a bit, rolling onto my side, pushing my ear plugs into my ears a bit further. My alarm usually goes off a few hours later but by that time, it’s more of a reminder to wake up that anything else.

After the morning prayer, the city becomes even more alive. Men with wooden carts start the day by cycling up and down the streets, selling the most amazing array of fresh vegetables, shouting up to the windows above. More street sellers start to gather, my favourite being the chicken salesmen, shouting ‘murgi!’ (chicken!) at the top of their lungs, over and over again. They have huge baskets of live chickens balancing on their heads, with their feet tied together so they can’t escape as they cluck away. The bells of the rickshaws on the street start to get progressively louder as the morning commute begins too, as do honking horns from CNGs and cars. The beggars also want to get in on the flurry of action of course, and walk up and down the street shouting ‘Allah, Allah’ to the windows above, hoping some change will tumble down to them from a balcony above.

In the flat, our water drips constantly and the cold shower makes for a swift 'in and out' followed by a much needed hot cup of tea in the morning, and as I stand over the hob of hissing gas, waiting for the kettle to whistle, I can hear the neighbours chatting and cooking through the window next door. Once ready to brave the outdoors, I run down the flight of stairs to the main gate and the Dhaka noise really begins.

People are constantly shouting to me, ‘Apa!’ (Madam!), ‘Sister!’, anything to get my attention. And as I walk up our lane to the main road, does it strike me that everything’s alive and on the move. Street sellers making food, selling clothes, fabric, books, gadgets. People walking everywhere, cars, buses filled with people (sometimes even on the roof), hundreds of rickshaws, CNGs weaving through traffic with no defined lanes. Men drinking tea, smoking and reading the newspaper at tea stalls. Children on their way to school, shouting and waving to the ‘bideshi’ through their little school carts (like a rickshaw but with a little cart at the back that has bar windows). Traffic wardens shouting, waving their wooden batons as they scold beggars for running through the fluid lanes of chaos. The journey to work has truly begun.

Arriving at the office is becoming a routine affair and once I settle in, becomes a sea of language, floating in and out of English and broken Bengali with colleagues and the tea boys. From my desk all I can hear is traffic down below; the horns and voices continue, with no end in sight. Lunch is a communal affair with all of us sitting around a table, the language mix and passing of clanging dishes, mmm’s and ah’s enjoying the food - all in all, a general hive of activity. Before I blink it’s the end of the day and off back into the busy streets I go, trying to negotiate on getting a CNG home through the ‘onek’ jam, bargaining on price at length, trying not to get ripped off.

No matter where you go in Dhaka, there is traffic; any time, on any route. I have no idea where people are going at all hours but traffic seems to act as the heartbeat of the city, keeping it alive, but hanging buy a thread.

Sunset through the streets and smog signal dinner time for me as I roll up to the grocery store to pick up something to eat. The shop workers know me by now and ‘hello madams’ echo throughout the store, people offering to give me advice on everything I put in my basket. Nothing is anonymous here. Outside, the neighbourhood streets are waiting and the local street children follow me home, chatting away in Bengali as I try to communicate with them the best I can.

Arriving at the flat doesn’t symbolize the end of the day. The noises from the street below continue to bubble and the frequent power cuts usually means cooking in the dark so there’s lots of fumbling, dropping things and the buzzing of mosquitoes in the candlelight as i prepare my meal. Dining with my flat mates accounts for an often hilarious discussion of the weird and wonderful things we’ve all encountered throughout our day. A time to share the experience.

Then, all of a sudden, it’s time for bed already and for the next day to begin.
Let the noise continue…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting to know the 'hood

Last week, the British girl I live with and I, got followed home by two street children. We had been shopping in Meena Bazar aka the grocery store, and two young children were peering at us through the shop window, excited to see two ‘bideshis’ (foreigners). They waited for us outside and started chatting away to us in Bengali all the way down the lane. Even though we didn’t know half of what they were saying, it was love at first sight. The eldest must have been about eight years old and the younger one was only about four. Shoeless and happy, full of life. I adored them. My heart ached. As we approached our gate, they were still lingering around so we gave them a chocolate bar we’d bought. You have never seen so much delight on a child’s face. They were so chuffed and munched the whole thing in seconds. We waved them goodbye and walked up our stairs, looking behind us to see their chocolate covered faces peering through the gate, smiling...
Over the last few days, I’ve been looking for them on our walks through the neighbourhood. Each time we pass the grocery store, I'm waiting to see their little faces. I feel disappointed when I don’t see them. I can’t help it.

Then, on Friday evening on the way home from work, we bought some children's books off of the best salesman ever; a boy about seven years old, with full-on attitude. He was even wearing a gold chain. Classic. How could we say no? Haha. We were'nt sure what we were going to do with the books but itwas only a few taka so we'd hadn't spent too much money on them. Later that night, as we were walking past the grocery store back in Mohammedpur, all of a sudden I felt a little hand grab my top. It was one of my boys.

We asked him how we was and he started chatting away, then the other little one ran over, followed by two more friends. The British girl suggested we give them the books we'd bought and as we pulled them out of the bag to give them to the boys, I have never seen four children so excited, happy and grateful in all my life. Smiling, and jumping around, they beaconed for us to come over to the street vendor on the corner, an older woman, making chapattis. We walked over and she was also overjoyed that we had given the children books. Now, I’m not sure of the relationship between the woman and the children, perhaps she keeps an eye on them, gives them food? Regardless, we were now in the middle of a furor of excitement and the woman insisted we have some food with them so we hung around the corner, eating chapattis, mixing with the locals, with the kids running around us in circles with their new books. After a few minutes we realized that a crowd of about fifty people had gathered around us. Seriously. I think we must have attracted attention because it was a combination of two foreigners, eating food on a street corner with street children, and also the fact that we were interacting with the people of the neighbourhood, something which foreigners don't seem to do here that often.
After our food, we continued to mingle for a short while and then said our goodbyes, walking down the lane to our flat.
I felt happy. It was only a moment. But moments like were the reason I was here. Pure and simple.