Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for March, 2009

Photo time

Tony during the 'Shopping and cooking in Bangladesh' induction session, preparing food in the VSO office kitchen.

Tony during the ‘Shopping and cooking in Bangladesh’ induction session, preparing food in the VSO office kitchen.

New Market, after the rain. A lot of mud of dubious origin...

New Market, after the rain. A lot of mud of dubious origin…

Hailing a CNG to get to language class. An auto rickshaw is called a CNG here (no idea what it stands for).

Rocking the salwar kameez while hailing a CNG to get to language class. An auto rickshaw is called a CNG here (I still have no idea what CNG stands for).

Richshaws in Dhaka. Richshaws here are actually cycle rickshaws - which is our main form of transport in the city (for shorter distances). The breaking system does involved using the rickshaw in front to stop, so it's a skill to try not fall out of rickshaw. There isn't much holding you in.

Richshaws in Dhaka. Rickshaws here are actually cycle rickshaws – which is our main form of transport in the city (for shorter distances). Their breaking system involves hitting the rickshaw in front with the front wheel to stop. No use of breaks just the dude in front. So it’s a skill to not fall out of  the rickshaw. A skill I must still master.

Bookshop area of New Market.

Bookshop area of New Market.

Tony shopping for a new bag in New Market. Everyone tends to get involved. (Note to self: take photos of people other than Tony)

Tony shopping for a new bag in New Market. Everyone tends to get involved. (Note to self: take photos of people other than Tony)

These city streets

These city streets


And then the rains came…

So BBC got it right, at last. But I was ill prepared. Tony and I were out doing some shopping last night when the thunderstorm struck. First we hung around a street corner (under cover) marveling at the amazing thunder and lightening (it really was amazing). Then we decided that we’d sit it out in a cafe eating ice cream. Bad move. Sitting out a Bangladeshi thunderstorm just means that it rains more and the roads get even more flooded. So after an hour or so we decided to make a break for it and had to wade through mid-calf deep storm water. It wasn’t pleasant. Firstly, the roads are in really bad state here (open manhole, large potholes etc) so it’s quite dangerous to not be able to see where you’re stepping (and obviously our wading coincided with a power outage). And secondly, the open sewers on the sides of the street…with the water level so high, that meant wading through sewerage tainted flood water. Argggh. I had to delay my freak out until I got safely into the flat, otherwise I just wouldn’t have been able to do it. It was a loong shower for me last night. Pity we don’t have hot water.

PS I’ll get some more photos up here soon, as I’ve been pretty kak at that.

Your place or mine?

So after all these entries I’ve posted up here, I haven’t really said a thing about what I’m actually doing here in Bangladesh. I’m here with VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas), and I’ll be working under the Indigenous Community Rights programme with one of their partner organisations (Moanghar) as a management advisor for 12 months. I’ll be placed in Rangamati, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Hill Tracts have historically been the tribal homelands of various indigenous tribes, that had never been ruled over anyone but their own tribal chiefs until the British lumped them under their rule of the area. After partition, as East Pakisan they were ruled by  (West) Pakisan, and since Bangladeshi independence (1971) they have been ruled over by the Bangladeshi government. None of the tribes share the Bangladeshi culture, religion or language. Each has it’s own culture and language, but most do same the same religion (Buddhism).  Physically they are far more aligned to South East Asia, than South Asia.


The indigenous population are largely marginalized in Bangladeshi society, with a history of government sponsored and supported land grabbing by Bangladeshi settlers, lack of access to education, primary health care etc. It’s a long and sorid tale, of which I still have a long way to go in understanding, but that is the Reader’s Digest version for now.


So the organisation I’m going to be working for is a Buddihst organisation, started by Buddhist monks in the 1960s. It started off as an orphanage and school for indigenous children, and they are looking to increase their management capacity and extend their organisation into a more comprehensive development charity. That’s where I come in… somehow. I’ll be having a meeting with the organisation and VSO in the coming week or two (we’re 2 weeks into our 4 week in-country induction here in Dhaka, before we head out to placement) to nail down the details of my role and objectives etc.


To eeeeventually reference the ‘Your place or mine’ heading… Moanghar have asked me if I’ve like to stay in a private room of the girls dormitory of their complex (from what I’ve heard it’s a pretty big set up they have there) for 1 month, so as to get a better understanding and experience of how they live and work. After which I can choose if I’d like to stay on, or have alternative accommodation found for me outside of their complex, somewhere in Rangamati. So here in lies my dilemma. Do I:


a) Say yes to the private room in dormitory option for 1 month, and run the risk of alternative accommodation never being found and staying on the complex for the duration of my placement (As I say, things don’t happen fast here, and the incentive to find me alternative accommodation might be low as I already have somewhere to stay)


b) Say no to the private room in dorm, to ensure that I will definitely get my preferred, long term preference of alternative accommodation.


Would option B be seen as a snub to their hospitality and might it negatively impact my placement from the get go, and thereby limit my effectiveness within their organisation and the goals VSO are trying to reach?


But option A does go against my natural need for privacy and personal space, which I have been know to be quite fiercely protective of. On a personal level, surely some level of self preservation/protection is important as I’m old enough now not to try kid myself that I would be happy if ‘A’ stretched out to the duration of my placement? If I’m not happy at home*, I won’t be as effective or do as good a job, would I? But then if I’m happy, but I’ve inadvertently offended the organization from the get go, that also impacts my ability to be effective. I’d hate to walk away from this in a years time and question what good I’ve actually here. But maybe that is always a risk anyway when working in international development (I think).


So what should it be, their place or mine? Or am I just making too big a deal of this?


* As you can probably tell from this and the previous post, my home is my sanctuary. I think I can handle pretty much anything  ‘out there’ as long as I have a place to come home to that is a peaceful retreat and where things work MY way. This could be one of the many reasons I am still single…. 

Maybe it’s just me, but…

Today is Saturday, which is really like a Sunday here (as Sunday is really Monday here etc) and there are currently 2 unidentified men in our bathroom with power tools ripping tiles off the walls. At 9am. Needless to say I am well pissed off. First and foremost, the safety issue. Two random men bang on our door with power tools, and somehow they are given access to do as they wish in our flat. Who are these men? Who sent them? Why were not told they are coming? How do we know what they are really here doing? We’re 5 females (and 1 guy) in a flat with Bangla expertise that extends to ‘Can I buy a bottle of water’ and being able to catch, direct and pay for a rickshaw to our Bangla language school (Ok, we can say other stuff, but nothing remotely useful in these circumstances). They’re two guy who have no English. Communication is impossible. But some smart arse decided to let them in anyway. ‘I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you’re saying, I don’t know what you’re planning to do, but sure, come on in, I’ll put the kettle on’….Ok, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Tony, but I take my safety seriously, and I don’t really care who that may offend. Now at least one of us has to be in the flat as long as these men are here, which really means that has to be Tony as no female should be in a flat alone with two unidentified men, with or without power tools.

I’m frustrated as there can be a tendency amongst foreigners/westerners/northerns/whites (whatever the PC term is) to be so terrified of offending people in a developing country that unsafe decisions can be made….’but it might be culturally acceptable here to let strangers in, we don’t know how they do things here, maybe this is the cultural practice’… Blah blah fishpaste. My feeling safe in my own home (temporary or not) is non-negotiable.

Ok, rant over. Perhaps it’s the South African in me. You wouldn’t let unknown, unidentified people into your home in South Africa would you? Actually, for that matter, you wouldn’t do it in England either. So why do it here.

Secondly, now I have the added pleasure of listening to power drilling on my ‘Sunday’ morning. All I wanted was a nice relaxed morning in bed with my book and a cup of tea. Yes, I know, I’m just too rock and roll.

PS I have now calmed down and have already apologised for Tony for the potentially unfair berating I gave him earlier. I think we can still be friends.

Note from the editor

Turns out the BBC weather report for Dhaka is a load of old tosh (I have a link to it under my blogroll, gots to love blog talk…). The temperature seems close enough, but I ain’t seen no thunderstorms. But I’ll keep it up there just incase they get any better.

Also, I’ve corrected the time on the site. I wasn’t really updating this at 7am. I hadn’t heard of UTC time until I had to do that. It’s Coordinated Universal Time. See, even the acronym doesn’t make sense. It is based on International Atomic Time (TAI…) with leap seconds added at irregular intervals to compensate for the Earth’s slowing rotation. The Earth’s rotation is slowing? No one told me. As they say, everyday is a school day.


I know that the UK is health and safety mad (being treated liked 5 year olds in Accenture offices with the no microwave rule in case we burn ourselves) but there is a happy medium out there between that and Bangladeshi standards. See photo below taken of a railway crossing. Taken while we were in the VSO bus, stuck on said rail lines in a traffic jam. I’m not entirely sure what happens when a train does actually come down the tracks. Maybe everyone knows the train schedule? Or maybe it is actually an unused line (I hope). I’ll find out. This also extends to road safety (sweet bejesus, how have we NOT been in an accident yet), electricity safety etc.


I know I need to re-calibrate my standards and expectations for the year though. Things take muuuuch longer than I think they should, even after I have added what I think is a reasonable ‘developing world’ factor to my equation. There is none of that near-panic urgency that London has (e.g. I must get my skinny mocha-chino latte this instant or I might spontaneously combust). But I do think that the urgency in London (and other big cities) is largely self imposed and we could all do to relax a little. Not to the extent where we have get togethers on the tube lines, but somewhere in the middle seems like a good place to meet. 

Rail Rules

Rail Rules



It’s gonna get you…

The thing about travelling or living in developing countries is that a serious stomach upset is going to find you, sooner or later. And certainly more than once. And when it gets you, it gets you bad. It got me on Wednesday afternoon. It was a particularly unpleasant 24 hours. Again, I’ll spare you the details.


Power outages are on the increase here. It’s approaching the hot season, so the use of fans and air conditioning (for the lucky ones) is high, which causes issues with the already low Bangladeshi power supply. There is daily load shedding here, much like we had in SA for a while, except there appears to be no communication about when it’s going to happen. There is no rhyme or reason to the timings, which are different every day.  And it happens a lot. During my day indoors yesterday, it seemed like it was an hour on, an hour off (when the power goes out, it’s always for at least an hour). And I retract my previous statement about water cuts being more irritating than power cuts. Power cuts are far worse. It’s not the lights going out that is the issue, it’s the ceiling fans going out that is the real problem. It is already really hot here, about 35 degrees during the day, and it doesn’t cool down that much during the night (about 25 degrees). So without fans our flat is like a hotbox.


And Dhaka can surely claim the title for the most windless city in the world. Air just doesn’t seem to move at all here. It’s also a seriously dusty and polluted city, and it’s particularly bad at this time of year because there hasn’t been a drop of rain since December. So with no wind, the dust and pollution just hangs above the city like a murky cloud. I know I complain about the south-easterly wind every time I’m in Cape Town, but I’d swap the stillness here for the south-easter any day. Any Capetonian will understand what a serious statement that is.