Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for December, 2009


Is the time I was woken up this morning, by the sound of something chewing in my room, here in the VSO flat. Was convinced it was a rat chewing on the chocolate and biscuits I’d recently received from my sister. No, turns out it was wood termites in the desk in the room, going about their business of eating the desk from the inside out. They make enough noise that they can wake me up at 4:20am, with earplugs in and over the general and constant noise of Dhaka. You can actually HEAR them eating away, munch munch munch. Niiiiiice. Remind me NOT to store any furniture I buy in this flat.

Speaking of furniture, I’m off to find the reclaimed teak furniture place here in Dhaka. Part two. I tried this yesterday, headed off to old Dhaka with just a shop/school name but no idea of what area the factory is in (not entirely sure how I thought I’d find the place). Called a friend whose boss has been before (in 1982….) for directions, who told me to back to where I had just come from (Mohammadpur). Got out of the CNG, couldn’t find another one going in the right direction, caught (and was ripped off by) two separate rickshaws, walked the last bit to find out that I had originally been heading in the right direction (old Dhaka) in the first place. Doing things in Dhaka just don’t work out the first time for me, so trying again today. Armed with at least a basic knowledge of where I’m supposed to be going. Always helpful.

Still considering the haircut: part two. I’ll see how lucky I feel later.


Damage control

Have decided that ‘the shaggy’ looks like a mullet. Or like a bob from the front, and long hair from the back. Business at the front, party at the back. NOT good. Problem in Rangamati is that while I do have a mirror, it’s in a very badly lit place, and using it and my hand mirror to see the back of my hair is difficult. I have had this mullet suspicion for a while, but couldn’t say for sure.

Have obtained 2nd and 3rd options here in Dhaka. One friend said ‘well if you were going for the beach look (?), you cooooould get away with it’. ‘Getting away with it’ is not an option when it comes to a haircut. So I’m taking my chances to get it corrected here in Dhaka tomorrow morning. The clear and present danger is, of course, getting it even more fucked up….

Not the Nine O’Clock News

My little spiel about Raj Punyah made it onto the 9 o’clock news last night. I didn’t see it (thank god) as I don’t have a TV, but a colleague phoned me to inform me. Lordy, the things that make the news here…Not the Nine O’Clock News

Chakma King’s festival thingy

Yesterday was the start of a 3 day festival, called Chakma Raj Punyah, which I think translates to Chakma King’s Festival. Or something. As far as I can tell it’s something that is meant to be held yearly, but due to logistical and/or technical issues this festival hasn’t been held since 2003. So I’m lucky to be here this year to witness it.

The Chakma King has traditionally received tax from all people in his kingdom (or circle, of which the Chakma King is the circle chief for Rangamati and also parts of Khagrachari). All the headmen of each mouza (or district) gathered yesterday to symbolically pay their constituency’s (I’m well aware that my terminology is somewhat lacking here …) taxes to the King. And please liberally add ‘I think’ into all statements of fact in that description, because, as always, it’s quite hard to ascertain exactly what is going on.

Nevertheless, here are some photos.

It was all quite a kafaffle when the King arrived (pictured under first umbrella)

The best photo I managed to get as the scrum for a photo...

... looked like this

Chanchu and I got into the VIP shaded, seated area. Which is easy to do when one is a foreigner in this land. During our pre-departure VSO training we had a case study session where we are presented with scenarios such as ‘You have contracted malaria and are taken to the local hospital. There is only one doctor, and hundreds of waiting patients, some seriously ill. You are rushed to the front of the queue when you arrive. How do you react?’. And we all say ‘No, I should not get special treatment just because I am a foreigner/white. I will wait my turn in the queue, like everyone else’. As IF. I do think we all believe that’s how we’d react before we arrive in country (and given a hospital situation, I still might) but I, for one, am MORE than happy to get a comfy chair on account of my foreign-ness. Yes, I doubt I’ll be winning Volunteer of the Year award any time soon…

And speaking of VIP, I was interviewed by TV news channels yesterday. 5 to be precise. A friend of Chanchu’s asked if I’d mind being interviewed, and I, thinking he was a newspaper man, said sure, why not. Next thing I know, 4 mikes are pointed at me, along with a camera getting way too close to get a good angle of me. They asked for my thoughts on the festival and how I was enjoying it. I started with ‘Well, I’ve only just arrived, and nothing has actually happened yet…’, but clearly THAT was the wrong answer, so I ended with ‘so many very important people enjoying the festival from all over the country, with lots of marching bands and festival activities, it’s all very exciting and I am so glad I am able to experience this amazing occasion’. When another guy wondered over later to ask for another interview, I come over all ‘sure, where do you want me? Is this angle good? Where is the makeup girl?’.

I will I adjust back home, where I can’t skip queues, or get into VIP areas and aren’t interviewed by news stations just because I’m there. I expect my ‘reintegration’ will involve a serious fall back down to earth, back onto a planet where I’m ignored in the streets, no one asks me where I’m going and small children don’t follow me around. It’ll all seem so… dull.

Local version of the Big Wheel, powered by hand

Tonight I’m meeting The Other Foreigner in Town, to play bingo at the festival. Don’t reeeally understand how exactly this will pan out, but bingo it is. Then travelling to Dhaka tomorrow for a few days, and to celebrate New Year. Twice.

Daylight what? (Part two)

Following on from the debacle of the implementation of daylight savings for the first time in Bangladesh (here and just how much the ensuing confusion pissed me off here), the government decided on Thursday to change the clocks back to Bangladeshi standard time again. On the 31st December.

Again, a whole week has been given to let people know about this… I doubt the news will reach everyone in time. Which in fact might not be a problem, as a lot of people simply never changed their clocks the first time round. On the arbitrarily decided date of 19th June, the clocks went forward a hour. But apparently some communities in Bangladesh refused to follow the new time, as they believed it was a conspiracy by the Awami League government. We thought this was an urban myth, until we went for a guided walk through Old Dhaka and noticed that most of the clocks were still set to the old time. Which, come midnight on 31 December, will again become the new time. None of this manual changing of clocks for the folks of Old Dhaka, they have their time and they’re sticking to it. Which means that for at least 6 months of the year, they’ll be on the right time.¬†Daylight savings in Bangladesh is to become an annual event, from 31 March to 31 October. You know, pre-determined, set dates like other countries. Not random, decided-yesterday dates like 19 June to 31 December. This is, at least, a step in the right direction. And changing the clocks back in winter does make sense, as 7am looks like this right now:

Cold, dark and misty

Did you notice there that the clocks are changing back at midnight on the 31st December? I’m trying to figure out if that means I get two ‘Happy New Year!!’ moments, or if I get none. Let’s work this out… the clocks go back, so at midnight the clocks change back to 11pm. Ah, so I’ll have two ‘Happy New Year!!’ moments. What a blast. On the night, we must remember to do the celebrations twice. This, I’m sure, is the only country ever to change back to standard time at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This will be an experience one can only get in Bangladesh. Along with so many other treasured experiences…

Christmas: Chakma style

Since my Christmas plans ended up in a heap in the corner after being beaten senseless by Bangladeshi bureaucracy, I have spent my Christmas here, with my Chakma friends. I am so touched at the effort that people went to, in this hastily organised Christmas lunch. About 30 people attended the lunch, held at the meditation centre up the road. And I even got some presents, which I really didn’t expect.

The gift list is as follows:

– 1 x woven Chakma blanket (much needed as I’m currently sleeping with two pairs of bottoms and 3 tops at night because I’ve been too lazy to buy another blanket)

– 1 x box of Bangladeshi sweets

– 1 x mobile chain/accessory thing

– 1 x Moanoghar T shirt

– 3 x 2010 diaries (surplus has been distributed)

– 4 x pens

– 1 x muffler (the scarf like thing worn around the head, like a cartoon character with toothache). As modelled in the office by Moanoghar’s accountant today:

When Memory gave me the muffler, I thought ‘ah, that’s really sweet, but I’ll never actually wear it…’. Not so. I wore it in the office today. It’s forking freezing in there. With the glass-less windows with shutters that are always open, ‘in there’ is pretty much the same as ‘out there’ but without the added benefit of the lovely warm sun.

– 1 x pair of socks with fingers (also from Memory). Which is how these wonderful socks have been described to me before. I obviously didn’t have a clue what was being described to me.Um, ok, socks with… fingers you say? Until I received my very own pair yesterday. That look like such:

With the sole purpose to wear like so:

Genius. Clearly socks and sandals are a big enough fashion tend to require specialist socks. I shall wear mine with pride.

So all in all, despite being away from family and friends, it was a great Christmas. It was slightly surreal getting Christmas presents from a Buddhist monk though. I’d love to return the present giving one day, but what do you buy the man who isn’t allowed to own anything?

PS Did very much miss my sisters yesterday though. One having a braai (BBQ) by the pool in Cape Town, and the other having a snowy Christmas in England. And my little nephew who I spoke to briefly on the phone. It’s the first time I’ve been able to notice his accent (he’s a few months short of 3) and he sounds so…ENGLISH. Ok, I know he was born in and lives in England, his father is English and his mother has lived there for about 10 years, so yes, he IS English. But man, I really didn’t expect such a cute little English accent. I guess in my head he always sounded like a Saffa. When my sister made him say ‘you alright?’ it was just the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. I guess that is very much the downside of volunteering/living abroad, you miss out on so much, family and friends wise. So much happens that you just aren’t aware of, like your nephew turning into a Souf London toddler. I fully expect to meet a Oliver Twist-esque character when I see him again in London. That’s how he looks, sounds and acts in my head now.

The Haircut

What WAS I thinking?

Lessons learnt:

– impromptu haircuts while out shopping after work are ill advised. This is especially true when living in Bangladesh.

– when the hairdresser in the ‘salon’ is threading someone’s eyebrows when you arrive, and giving someone else a facial when you leave, caution should be exercised.

– there are three options for women’s haircuts in Bangladesh a) straight b) step and c) shaggy. No further descriptions are given on these three options.

– wet hair is not a prerequisite for a haircut in Bangladesh. Nor is a quick comb through first. The first thing that comes out is the pair of scissors. It was sit down, and BANG scissors to hair. Chop, chop, chop.

Рa haircut for £1.20 is unlikely to be a good one.

As a special Christmas treat for myself, I am now the proud owner of a ‘shaggy’. Can’t say it’s my best haircut (it’s currently vying for worst haircut, along with the time when I ended up with short hair, by mistake), but it certainly was the most fun. I was officially the first foreigner in the salon, and the hairdresser plans to not throw my hair away, but keep it as evidence.

Re Christmas: Upon hearing that I am staying in Rangers for Christmas, Buddha Datta (monk) has arranged a Christmas lunch for me in his meditation centre, with the Moanoghar ladies. And I have been given my first Christmas present, some sweet curd. From Jhimmi, who talked me into the haircut tonight…I’m glad I’m staying here for Christmas, in my lovely Rangamati with one special monk and some crazy ladies. It might sound like a sad Christmas, but really it’s not. Sure, I’d rather be with my family and friends, but that is what next Christmas is for. This Christmas is for this experience, which I’ll never get a chance to repeat. Christmas: Chakma style.

I’ll leave you with the words of VSO Bangladesh’s Christmas email to us:

Dear all,

Happy Merry Christmas to all of you.

Heavenly Joy and Peace comes in the World through the Born of Jesus Christ

Wishing you a bright Merry Christmas and A Bright Happy New Year 2010.

Take care and have a peaceful life.

Blessing GOD bless you.

Love it!