Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for November, 2009

The knitting circle

As winter is coming, some of the women around Moanoghar have started knitting little hats to sell to make some extra income. Leading this knitting initiative is Memory. Of course. She really is pretty savvy when it comes to earning some extra cash. She also collects weaving products from local women to then sell on in town, and is heading off to a UNDP tribal fair thing in Dhaka to do more of the same. Perhaps one day I should dedicate a post of Memory and her life, as she features on my blog quite often and she really is quite the character. I can just imagine her in the ‘real’ world, where if she had been given the same opportunities that for example I have, she’d be a real ball breaker in the corporate world who lets nothing and no-one stand in her way. She’d be unstoppable! And I find her plenty unstoppable enough as it is.

Anyway, so somehow this little knitting circle has taken to knitting in my lounge on weekend mornings. Not really sure how this happened. It usually starts with Memory coming to say hello in the morning, usually at about 8:30am on my day off. A lie-in, as a concept, doesn’t exist here. So the morning hello starts off with her banging the life out of my front door. There is no ‘knock knock’ and maybe wait a few minutes to give me time to actually get to the front door. It starts with incessant banging, accompanied with shouts of ‘Hello?! Hello?! Hello?!’. I often want to open the door and ask her where the fire is. But I expect the joke wouldn’t translate well. In fact, it would be easy to think that perhaps the fire is IN my house, and she’s desperately trying to get me out to save me, based on the way she attacks my front door.

Right. So once in my house, Memory tends to make herself comfortable and other ladies drift in and out for gossip and knitting. I kind of hang around for the first 10 minutes, then get bored and end up doing what ever I was doing before the knitting group arrived. After a while, the ladies realise that it’s actually far colder in my house than it is outside, so they move outside into the sun to continue the knitting and gossiping.

The Knitting Ladies

My life back in London or Cape Town will seem unbelievably quiet, neighbour wise, compared to life here.


Wedding season

So the two bideshis of Rangamati eventually met last night. Lovely. And about time. And Tania has… wait for it…a washing machine. I’m not actively seeking out new friends with washing machines. Even though it might appear that way to a casual observer.

In Rangamati Society News: Wedding season has kicked off, well and proper. Went to a Chakma wedding  yesterday, but just the lunch part not the actual reception part. Still trying to work out weddings here. Seems that the ceremony starts off at the bride’s house, then moves onto the groom’s house. This ceremony is for family and close friends only. Then a lunch party is held the next day, which a LOT of people attend. At the wedding lunch I was at yesterday, about 1,000 people were expected for lunch. So it all happens in shifts. This feeding of hundreds/thousands of people is where I have seen Bangladesh as it’s most efficient. You turn up at your allotted time, eat, and leave. No messing about. As you’re finishing your meal, the next shift (of say 50 or 100 people, depending on how big the entire party is) is arriving. It runs like clockwork. How refreshing! After the quick feed, we went to see the bride. Who is put up in a little room, for the entire day, sitting on a bed, all dressed up in her wedding outfit, for people to come in and out to see. It seemed to me like she’s all dolled up, and put out on display. Doesn’t seem like that much fun to me.

In Eid News: On my way to the wedding, I saw a bit of slaughtering going on. Well, it was the after math of the slaughtering. Like I had guessed, my fascination with it all disappeared pretty quickly. Lots of blood and guts, just on the side of the road. One scene that might stay in my mind for a while, was of recently picked apart cow (or bull), with only the hide, head, hooves and tail remaining. All in tact and still connected, like a animal skin you’d see on a wall. With it’s ‘contents’ sitting neatly in a pile beside it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal split open, and all it insides on the outside before. There is a lot of stuff in there. It brings the whole meat eating business much closer to home. It reveals all the steps in the meat production chain, and suddenly we realise that animals aren’t just teleported from the happily-grazing-in-a-field state to neatly-wrapped-in-cellophane-in-a-supermarket-fridge state.  There are  some pretty unpleasant scenes in-between, that most of us don’t even think about. Or try not to think about.

So Bangladesh does get cold

While incessantly bitching about the heat for most of my time here, I made a little promise to myself that I would never moan about being cold again. Ever. Cold must be the best feeling in the world, after sooo much heat and sweat.

So I won’t moan about being cold. Well, it’s not really that cold, in the big London-in-February scheme of things. Or other places much, much colder than England. It’s still nice and warm during the day here (warm, not sweltering = loving it), but it’s getting pretty chilly at night now, especially in a house that has massive gaps under doors, around shutters (of windows that have no glass in them) and is just generally not insulated. At all. It certainly doesn’t help that I don’t own a single thing with long sleeves, and that I have no hot water in my house. Since I came back from Dhaka, it’s officially become too cold for cold showers. Most of the time during summer I felt the cold water wasn’t cold enough. But now in (almost) winter it’s plenty cold. Thank you very much. I have been putting off the whole boil-water-for-a-warm-bucket-shower-in-the-mornings for quite a while now, but after yesterday morning’s freeze-fest, it’s officially time for me to start doing just that.

But today is Eid, so I officially don’t have to get up or be anywhere anytime soon. Luke warm bucket shower can wait. Tonight I’m eventually meeting up with the other foreigner in town, who, somehow in my 7 months here, I have never met, bumped into or even seen on the streets. I also really do need to go shopping for winter-like things today, such as a decent blanket, something with long sleeves, and perhaps a shawl of two, but being Eid I expect not much is open.

Also I must take some pics of the winter fashions here in Bangladesh. In Sirajganj I could easily have got confused and thought I’d ended up somewhere else, somewhere else REALLY cold. Everyone at the local tea shop was draped in blankets (well the men were, no women to be seen out on the streets up there), with scarves wrapped around their heads, including lengthways around the face and under the chin. Like cartoon characters with toothache, as Julie described. While I was sitting there in my short sleeve salwar kameez. I guess for bodies acclimatised for such extreme heat in summer, it’s the (very short) winter months that they find the hardest. AND I saw goats dressed in shorts and tee shirts. Seriously. Honestly. Potentially one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I must try get a photo of such dressed up goats, there are bound to be some here in The Hills. Must keep them goats warm.

Every man and his cow

…was out on the roads yesterday. And it seemed, specifically, they were out on MY road yesterday. Dhaka to Chittagong. So many cattle markets along the way, with people walking their Eid cows and bulls home on the road. Plus the usual traffic chaos, plus the Eid exodus, plus some garment worker protests somewhere in Dhaka. The usual 6 hour journey between these two cities took 13.5 hours yesterday. Thirteen and a half hours to travel 260km…most of it was bumper to bumper, and for large sections of the day the ‘highway’ turned into a very long car park. Engines turned off, drivers and passengers out maxing and relaxing on the side of the road.

My bus driver though did his utmost to make up for time on any stretch of road that opened up even just a little bit, and went hell for leather on the Chittagong to Rangamati section. The driving is usually bad, but yesterday it was well scary, especially the last few hours. I strongly considered getting off at Chittagong and phoning some Chittagong based volunteers to see if I could spend the night with them, to then travel to Rangamati this morning. But then who knows what new chaos today could have brought, so instead I spent the last 2 hours of trip with my eyes closed, trying not to fall out of my seat.

But it could have been worse. Obviously. Loads of buses on the way had people standing for the entire journey, and many had passengers on the roofs. So you know, I’m trying to be grateful for what I did have. A seat.

See that’s part of The Secret isn’t it? I recently bought the DVD in Dhaka. Am I the last person to watch/know anything about The Secret? Anyway, so being grateful for what you do have is a part of it. Then I think it’s like Ask, Believe and Receive or something like that. So I did ask the universe for a pain-free travel day, and I really did start my day with all sorts of positive thoughts. But I expect I was asking the universe just a bit too much to rearrange itself to such an extent as to provide a pain-free travel day, on the last working day before Eid, in Bangladesh. But I’ve only watched half of The Secret so far, so perhaps I’m missing some important steps in my asking favours of the universe. I fully expect I should be starting a bit smaller.

A Special Thank You: To Julie for my Gulshan holiday. Highlights were Julie’s hospitality, hot showers, use of a washing machine, comfortable bed, shopping tips and laughing about life in Bangladesh. It was fun, and it goes to show that sometimes it’s the random connections that make life most enjoyable.

Do I have to answer it?

I’ve never really been much of a mobile phone person. And here in Bangladesh I’m not surgically attached to my phone, like most other people appear to be (to their own phones, not my phone). Sometimes I don’t know where my phone is, or it’s on silent, or the battery is dead. And sometimes I just don’t want to answer it. To most people here this is just inconceivable.

So what this means is if I miss someone’s call, they try again, and again and again and again. And again. Until I’m either beaten into submission to answer the damn thing, or I switch it off. I especially don’t like to answer work related calls on weekends (i.e Friday). I have enough difficulty ‘switching off’ from work sometimes as I live and work in the same place, so when I’m in Dhaka for example, I kinda want to totally forget about work and just get a break from it all. Not that the types of work calls are the same as say London work calls…but really sometimes I just want to forget the very existence of it. And there doesn’t appear to be a cut-off point for when people think it’s appropriate to call. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning to a missed call from midnight the night before. I mean, that’s just rude, right? Here it’s a case of ‘have mobile phone, will use it’. And sometimes there appears to be a network of people behind one missed call. On Friday I missed calls from one individual related to work about a meeting scheduled for today. After these missed calls, I then got a text from someone ELSE saying that X is trying to call me, so please accept their call. So a missed call results in calls to other people to complain about me missing their call?

It gets even worse in Rangamti sometimes. Especially with Memory. If I (god forbid) miss her calls, then she comes round and bangs on my door. If I still don’t answer the door (sometimes I really do just want to hide away from the world), she comes around to my bedroom windows, yanks open my shutters, pulls open my curtains (I don’t have glass in my ‘windows’) to determine my exact whereabouts. It’s just all to mysterious for her why I could possibly want to spend some time alone. This makes my ‘me’ time fraught with worries of a Memory-shaped-shadow appearing in my windows at any minute. Not ideal.

Travelling cows and other suprises

Ok, so that wasn’t actually all that bad. The VSO SFG that is. Not perfect, but then if I’m expecting perfection here in Bangladesh I should just give up now. And give up on the rest of world too while I’m at it. But a vast improvement on the previous SFG, where I was ready to slit my wrists with a blunt spoon. I was even mentioned (was it a thank you?) for my ‘constructive feedback’ on the last SFG. But I must say, the volunteers involved in taking our collective moans about the previous SFG really did any amazing job in the little time they were given. And of course, there was the mandatory ‘cultural event’ last night, but only a few volunteers were coerced into performing, and luckily I was not one of them. It’s at these little cultural events where I am again reminded how different the Bangladeshi culture is to my ‘western’ one. People here LOVE performing, and put their heart and soul into it. It really is quite touching.

We didn’t get to see too much of Sirajgonj, but did get to visit some Slum Development Committees (SDC). Which are like citizen’s committees, where slum dwellers have organised themselves into pretty effective lobbying committees. Apparently the one SDC we visited staged a mass sit-in protest in the main road of Sirajgonj to protest that the river banks next to their slum had not had flood defences built (while the rest of the town’s river banks had). Nice to see the little people making the big corrupt people stop lining their own pockets and instead do what they are actually supposed to do. My camera battery has died, but I’ll post some pics up when I’m back in Rangamati. One note though, I was amazed at how clean the slum was. I didn’t see one piece of litter. Hell, the area where I live is far filthier than the slum.

Travelling back to Dhaka there were lots of cattle being transported on the roads, in preparation of Eid ul-Azha. Which is the Festival of Sacrifice in Islam. Remember in the bible when Abraham (or Ibrahim to Muslims) was willing to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God? Well this Eid commemorates that willingness.

Someone here has described it as a mass moo death. Each family (if financially able) buys an animal (sheep, goat, cow etc) and slaughters it on Eid. Then one-third is eaten by immediate family and relatives, one-third is given away to friends, and one-third is donated to the poor. What this equates to is a LOT of slaughtering on Eid in Bangladesh. I’ve heard tales of blood running through the streets. No idea if it really is all that dramatic, but let’s see on Friday/Saturday, which ever day Eid falls on. I’ll be back in Rangamati so I’m not too sure how much moo death will be around, given that it’s only about 50% Muslim. I think it’s probably far worse though in the affluent areas of Dhaka for example, where each family can indeed afford to buy a great big bull to slaughter. An adult bull is a whole lot of animal, with a whole lot of blood in it. Bear in mind the Islamic (halal) method of slaughtering is (amongst other ritual traditions) a sharp knife to the neck cutting the jugular veins and draining the animal of all blood.  I do have a bit of a morbid fascination to go and check it out, but if it’s as bad as some people say, I expect my fascination to last a few minutes before quickly being overtaken by revulsion and nausea. But I’ll give it a go.

An animal market ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival in Dhaka (photo stolen off


Had to drag myself away from Gulshan today to get across town to the VSO office, and then travel on from there to Sarijgonj (a few hours outside of Dhaka). There is a rather large VSO Strategic Focus Group (SFG) for the next two days in Sarijgonj. With over 40 people attending, thrown together from many different partner organisations (there has recently been a rather controversial and haphazard merging of two programme areas), I don’t imagine anything very Strategic or Focus(ed) will be happening. But yes, it is a Group. I’ll give them that. One out of three. And for VSO (Bangladesh), it’s practically a stellar performance. Naughty, shouldn’t be moaning about VSO in a public forum. But my feelings on some issues re VSO aren’t a secret. Hardly. I’ve recently engaged in a very public email bombardment to VSO on just how bad the last SFG was. Apparently I’m not known for my subtlety. In fact, an English volunteer told me on Thursday night that I was the most untactful person he’s ever met. Nice one. Cheeky forking Manc. He’s lucky I even understood what he was saying…

Yesterday I spent the day following Julie’s instructions and maps for cool shopping places in Dhaka. I’ve even got quotes for shipping 2 cubic meters worth of Bangladeshi goodies back to Cape Town. Everything is sooo expensive in CT, I mean I’ll practically be saving money by spending so much here. It all makes sense in my head.

I met some of Julie’s friends on Friday night. It was so nice to meet other people unconnected to VSO. Who seem pretty cool too. And yes, I’ve already had the piss taken out of me about what I wrote on here previously, about wanting to spend time away from the VSO circle-moan. I can’t really tell if I’ve actually offended people or not. But then, I’m the most untactful person in the world, so they should be used to me by now. And FYI – I don’t respond well to/pick up on subtlety. So if I’m offending people, I must be told. I’m unlikely to work it out on my own.

I’m thinking of coming back to Dhaka for Julie’s leaving do in a couple of weeks. It’s a real pity (for me) she’s leaving so soon, as we’ve only just met. Why didn’t I meet the cool Kiwi chick who let’s me stay in her amazing flat in Gulshan sooner? Bad, bad timing. But the leaving party sounds fun. Who knows, maybe I’ve even meet other crazy people who’ll let me live vicariously through them on my trips to Dhaka. I do feel a bit Single White Female, as I’ve practically moved into Julie’s over the last few days (will even stay there alone when she’s away in India later this week), and I plan to buy all of her cool dinner sets, sari bedcovers, rugs, etc. It’s like I’m stealing her life, shopping trip by glorious shopping trip.