Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for July, 2009

News flash

There’s another Bideshi in town. Woohoo! Serious excitement.

An Australian. Well, beggars can’t be choosers… as a JOKE. Works for the World Food Programme apparently. Haven’t actually met her yet, but another volunteer is going to put us in touch.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen her before. Us foreigners do tend to stand out. Guess we don’t move in the same circles. So to speak.

To be fair, there is also another Bideshi in town. Mr. Rob, as he is known. He came over as a VSO volunteer about 7 years ago. Met, fell in love with and married a local. And never left. Now works for UNDP.

Another VSO volunteer also arrived a few years ago. Met, fell in love with and married a local. And never left. Now works for UNDP.

Clearly a theme.

There is another VSO volunteer who came over in 1969. And never left. 1969! Bangladesh was still East Pakistan then. Sjoe. The things she must have been in her times here. Not sure if she married a local, but she started this amazing NGO, Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed in Dhaka. Talk about finding your life’s work where you least expect it.

Ja. Not sure I’ll be staying quite that long. A year will do me just fine. Unless, of course, I find that elusive hot, 6 foot local. Then who knows.


Be careful what you wish for

Today the rain returned. Sjoe. I was beginning to seriously wonder where the fuck it was. Last few weeks have been HOT again, with Saturday night one of the hottest I’ve had here. Sweating in the dark under a mosquito net is not one of my favourite ways to spend an evening. 

So after much wishing and praying, rain arrived this morning. And hasn’t stopped since. 

I was out of drinking water last night, and just could not be arsed to go and fetch more (my levels of lazyness can get quite extreme out here in the heat). I’ll get some in the morning I thought. This morning it was raining. I’ll get some at lunch time I thought. At lunch time it was raining. Yes, I know I won’t melt in the rain, but I was hoping for a bit of a break in rain to do the water run. So, not prepared to get wet to get water… I sat in my flat, dreaming of having a cup of tea. Arse, no water for tea. FYI – I do not recommend normal tap water here, even if is has been boiled, it has so much iron in it it comes out of the tap dark brown. No jokes. I once decided to try boil and then filter the tap water, and my little water filter almost didn’t recover the onslaught of iron-y water. 

Anyway, back to the tea. And a clear expression of my lazyness, I ended up taking ice cubes out of the freezer, and melted/boiled them for my tea. Genius. I thought.

So after work I eventually went to fetch water. In the rain. Now, local women (never men) make this look really easy. As Memory demonstrates here:


Making it look easy

Casually slung over one hip, with an arm nonchalantly draped around it. That jug holds about 20 litres of water. That’s 20kg that teeny, tiny Memory makes look so elegantly easy.

This does not work when I try it. At all. I’m more of a holding it with both arms wrapped around it, balancing it on my belly kind of  water carrier. Now try this in the rain, trying to hold an umbrella (this is not the pitter patter of London drizzle we’re talking about here), while doing a bit of a slip every 5th step. Amounts to hours of entertainment for all spectators. 

But at least I can manage it. In fact, I’m getting less and less pathetic as time goes on. But when the water supply here runs dry (happens every now and then for reason I’ve never really worked out and/or understood) we have to go to stand pipe across the road and down a muddy embankment that I can only describe as a recent landslide (seriously, how do they do it?!). Now that, I can’t manage. For that, Memory is required. And I go along and provide the moral support. And entertainment.

P.S. The previous photo of me (in Chakma gear) with water jug, was of me on the way to get water. I.e. me and an empty water jug. No way I could look so cool and composed carrying a full water jug.

Let’s do this thing

Yesterday, was the meeting. THE meeting when it would finally be decided if I’d have to sack everything in, pack up and find pastures elsewhere to attend to this need of mine to ‘make a difference’.

And it seemed to all go the right way. The current Executive Committee is staying (with a few minor, non-controversial changes), and (barring any radical departure from the productive and positive AGM yesterday), I think I can finally start doing some actual W.O.R.K. here.

I have used the recent down time pretty* productively. I’ve planned the remaining 8 months (when I get back from Bali) of this placement down to quite a fine level. I’ve done a lot of reading and research on organisational development and now know, broadly speaking, what I want to do and how I want to do it. It’s ‘participatory workshop’ this, and ‘focus group discussion’ that. VSO should be proud.

It’s also, however, a little daunting now. IF everyone here is receptive to this plan, and will commit the time to making things actually happen, then I’ll have no convenient backup excuse if it doesn’t work. I’ve tried to be as realistic as possible about what I want to do, added enough padding in the plan, and tailored it to their capacity and of course, needs. I’ve made various revisions, lots of ‘is this concept too complicated’, ‘will they get this’, ‘am i using the best tools to get the message across’ type of conversations with myself.

In retrospect, this recent lull has been a bit of a blessing in disguise. I feel much more confident and ready to start tackling the issues in a more cohesive and structured way. Who knew.

Life does hand out little challenges sometimes that force us to slow down and really look what what we’re doing. Gives us a chance to reflect. To learn. To change. Life is good like that sometimes.

So let’s see.

* Not 100%productively. I did have a holiday in Bali to plan after all.

The joy of Bangladeshi DVDs

They’re like a box of chocolates…

But they are cheap, you can get 1 DVD with 6 movies on it for about 100 taka (about £1). So I know I can’t complain toooo much. 


– Sometimes they just don’t play at all.

– Sometimes the quality is so bad that I can’t really make out facial expressions or what’s in the background of a scene. 

– Sometimes it’s not possible to remove the English subtitles. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the subtitles actually followed the script. Who writes these things? Wow. ‘I understand’ becomes ‘I don’t understand’. ‘I know how you feel’ becomes ‘Sally Field’ (honestly). And it’s physically impossible for me NOT to read the subtitles if they are in English. I can’t drag my eyes away from them. I thought before I came out here that I could lend some English DVDs to people here who want to improve their English, and they could read the subtitles and listen to the words. What a great way to learn. Ja, no. Not a good idea. Who knows what the result of that English lesson would be.

– Sometimes there is nothing ‘sub’ about the subtitles. They are literally ACROSS the screen. And obviously with the above described usefulness and irritation factor. 

– Sometimes, and this is my person favourite, the ‘subtitles’ are a mixture of subtitles AND the director’s commentary. Which goes something like this: ‘Yes, Sally Fields, it doesn’t seem fair when what I wanted to do with this scene is use the flat light from the snow to really emphasise the depression of the main character tell Jimmy I’ll see him there.’ 

And you know what, despite any (or all) of the above affecting a DVD, I’ll still watch it.

DVDs are certainly my little escape here. It can be tough going here. Just getting through the day can be very tiring and draining. Don’t underestimate the toll that trying to understand people around you, and trying to make yourself understood, can take on you. Words have to be chosen carefully, said slowly and preferably aided with some hand gestures/body language/charades. There is also the intense interest in just about everything you do (I slipped *always* and almost feel outside my neighbour’s house yesterday. Today someone told me they heard that I almost fell yesterday. So my almost-falls are as big news as my actual-falls). And as someone who values/loves/needs her privacy and ‘me’ time, it’s hard. A little escapism can go a long way here. 

And no, I’m not complaining (again) about being here. If I could go back in time and have the chance to re-make the decision to come to Bangladesh, I’d make the same decision.


Memory tells me yesterday she went to visit her aunt, who has Typhoid fever. 

So I start thinking…typhoid, typhoid… I know I’ve heard of it. But what IS it exactly. Is it a communicable disease? Am I at risk? Did I get immunized for this? So I consulted my ‘The Traveller’s Good Health Guide’* book. Not in a paranoid, hypochondriac kind of way. More in a ‘I’ve run out of DVDs and have resorted to watching Meg Ryan DVDs I’m so bored at night’ kind of way. 

Anyway, turns out I am immunised for this. Good news. It does not sound like a fun thing to have.

Paging through the book, I came across something that appears to chart my exact emotional state since being here. Called the U-curve of adjustment to a new culture. It looks like such:


That’s me up there! They’ve charted my time here. I think I’m in between ‘depression’ and ‘recovery’ right now. 

Description for Depression:

The excitement and newness wear off. Irritation at the hassles and inefficiency and annoyance with your companions take centre stage. You feel homesick, miss your friends, the parties and good times – and all your home comforts. You wonder whether you can possibly last out the rest of your assignment – and so do your friends and relatives, who get worried about what you say in your text messages, phone calls and emails.

I couldn’t have written it better myself.

So I can now look forward to Recovery:

You start to value the good experiences and cope with the bad. You are missing the people and places back home much less. Of course, despite integrating these aspects of your life, you still have some bad days. 

That doesn’t sound so bad, now does it.

When I hit ‘acculturation’, I’ll let you know. 

* A book VSO supplies to us before we depart, and a book I’d highly recommend to anyone travelling to areas where medical care might not be top notch and/or immediately accessible. To prevent any serious paranoia about why you will usually always have unexplained bites, bumps, itches and never quite feel hundreds when you’re in the back of beyond.

Operation successful

After much and many tears (ok,some tears, I wasn’t a total emotional disaster), I’m happy to report that the little boy’s eye operation was successful.

Started off a bit wobbly, when it transpired that the doctor in Rangamati was unable to perform the operation. Not sure why, perhaps it was too complicated for the medical set up here in town*. So after waiting a week for this doctor to return from Dhaka, to then find out he couldn’t operate after all, little boy with golf ball for eye was taken off to Chittagong city. Brights lights, big city. I’m pretty sure it would have been the furthest he has been from here (a 2 hour ride). 

And he returned a few days ago, no longer with a golf ball for an eye. He’s such a happy little bunny now. Which is SO nice to see. I really needed some good news (because it’s all about me…). He’s still in the mini-hospital, but doing fine. See below. 


2nd from right. He IS a happy bunny, people just don't smile in photos here

I’m off to learn a new verb now. I’ve realised that two verbs a day was too ambitious for me. Languages are not my thing. I’ve tried to learn Spanish before. Twice. Yes, two London language schools failed to get me much past hola (my high drop out rate could be to blame….). And I can barely string a sentence together in Afrikaans either. And I’m a Visagie for god’s sake. There was an incident a few (many?) years ago that involved a joint, my sisters, and me trying to tell a joke in Afrikaans. It’s still laughed about. Not the joke. Me.

* VSO medical insurance ships me straight to Dhaka for any serious issues, and promptly onto the nearest ‘medical centre of excellence’ if the care available isn’t adequate. Which quite nicely happens to be Thailand. 

All dressed up

Today, for the first time, I wore the traditional Chakma outfit.

I phoned Memory in the morning to come and assist. As an outfit, it’s a little complicated to ‘put together’. It consists of:

–  1 x petticoat. Except there is nothing really pettit about it. Full length, cotton with a draw string waist. 

– 1 x pinon. Not sure how to spell that. It’s the bottom ‘skirt’ part, which is one length of material that is wrapped around and tucked into the petticoat.

– 1 x blouse. Which is exactly like the shirt type thing that is worn under a sari. Short, just under the boobs type belly tickler

– 1 x hadie. Again, not sure of the spelling.  Another length of material that is tucked into the petticoat at the back, and then draped up and across the body and over one shoulder. To cover and disguise the general chest area (same purpose as the orna or dupatta). This is always required, irrespective if you actually has anything to disguise or not. Keeping this thing draped around correctly takes vigilance and quite a lot of looking down to make sure everything is still in place. In fact, I didn’t even manage to get it right for the first photo. Must try harder.

I, in this outfit, went down quite the little storm. Everyone was pretty impressed. Well, the children thought it quite hysterical, but then everything I do is quite hysterical to them. 

I think I might make a habit of wearing this more often. Will be particularly useful when I’ve run out of clean clothes. 


Indistinguishable from the locals in this gear

Indistinguishable from the locals in this gear


On the way to get water


P.S. Excuse the blurry photos. Photography is not one of Memory’s many talents.