Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

The quality of Bangladeshi journalism

This news piece appeared in yesterday’s online and print versions of a daily national newspaper, the Daily Star.

It reports that 5 Bengali houses were set alight and burnt to the ground by indigenous criminals.

While in fact it transpires that 1 house, housing 5 families, was burnt in down in an accidental kitchen fire.

Which is a without a doubt a tragic story, but not the story that was reported.

Given that the political situation here is incredibly sensitive, and recent ethnic violence in the area resulted in (reports vary on this) the death of 6 indigenous people and one Bengali, one would think the journalist in question would perform at least some level of due diligence and like, I don’t know, check his/her facts before submitting this article, an article that was printed on the front page.

And that’s just another reason I barely read the news here. It’s not actually news per se, it seems more to be ‘what someone told me the other day, that may or may not be true’. Lord.


Did I feel the earth move?

At about 5:15am? I was kinda awake as the broadcast of the morning chanting session, the ringing of the wake-up bell and the students singing the school anthem had all taken place already. Like all outside my window. Morning here are fun, aren’t they.

Anyway, there was a definite earth tremor this morning. Freaked the fuck out of me. There was also a lot of ‘whaoooos’ from the students in the hostel behind my house. Only lasted a few seconds, and afterwards I wasn’t actually sure it happened. Nothing fell down on me, or off walls etc. Was it an earth tremor or an earthquake? Are they the same thing? Does an earth tremor become an earthquake at a certain level of intensity?

Anyway. Prior to that, at some middle of the night hour, I had one of those weird wake-up-with-a-shock moments. A bolt upright in bed moment. I frantically lifted up/untucked my mozzie net, grabbed my torch (in this country I always know where my torch is) and was freaking out about what I wear in the event of a middle of the night earth quake. I can’t run out the house naked. I was about to get up and pick out my earthquake clothes, and place them strategically along my run out of the house route. When I remembered an earthquake poster I recently saw that said ‘drop, roll and take cover’. Or something like that. Ok then, I thought, I won’t run out of the house, I’ll launch myself under my bed instead. I made a mental note to clean under my bed (as I reckon it’s pretty scanky under there) and I went back to sleep.

It really was one of those totally random, weird, bordering on crazy middle of the night discussions with myself. That do happen every now and then. But in retrospect, I reckon that must have been triggered by another earth tremor at the time. My psychic abilities are pretty awesome, but they are not THAT awesome to think about an earthquake exit strategy the night before an actual earthquake (earth tremor, whatever).

The UN have been doing some earthquake building assessments here in the CHT, and I must check if Moanoghar have actually completed their building survey. Building regulations don’t exist here, and the impact of an (actual proper) earthquake would be devastating. Dhaka would be flattened like a house of cards. I can’t imagine any building these surviving an earthquake.

In exercise news: The Davina SuperFit workshop features Run-DMC not once, but twice. The same actual song twice, in one workout. Love it.

In ‘the real world out there’ news: Have you seen Lady Gaga’s new video. Now tell me. Have I been in my Bangladesh bubble for too long and forgotten what music videos look like, or is that not the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen? Ok, maybe not the weirdest, but surely must it must rate up there. My internet connection keeps dying and I don’t get past the first few minutes, but even that is more than my sheltered mind can handle. Who comes up with this stuff? And now I’m desperate to see the rest of it. Obviously. I get better internet connectivity in the office, so I’m pausing it until it’s fully loaded and will then take my laptop to my house (next door) to watch it in full. Imagine if I watched it in the office. Christ. That would be beyond awkward and weird. I can barely handle it, imagine what my Bangladeshi colleagues would think. No, I can’t imagine. It’s too much.

The return of…

– the umbrella, as means of sun protection. If the monks can do it with a straight face, so can I.

– the hand fan. Yes, a hand fan. Probably the best 50 taka I’ve ever spent.

– 7Up. And lots of it.

All in an attempt to deal with the escalating heat. See, told you I’d be moaning about the heat. Another 45 days of moaning to go. Yep, today I counted the days.

If all goes according to plan with my application for an exit visa, and my application for an Indian visa, I’ll be leaving the country on the 25th of April. The whole ‘getting a visa to leave the country’ thing is slightly beyond my comprehension right now. I thought I had submitted my application for a visa extension when I was last in Dhaka. I mean I went to the visa office with forms, passport, (VSO’s) money etc. In an ‘only in Bangladesh’ turn of events, it transpires that this wasn’t actually an APPLICATION application. Sure, we filled in the forms, submitted them, paid, n’ stuff. But now my passport is back with VSO, sans visa. AND this was the plan all along. So my visa extension application is ‘under process’ but at no point will I actually GET a visa extension. I’ve given up trying to understand. So what this means is that I am currently visa-less, and have to apply for a visa to leave the country. Turns out I don’t need one to stay, but I need one to leave. Uh. Ok. VSO will apply for this visa, and when I get it I have 7 days in which to leave the country. Except I’m going to India, for which I need a visa. And an Indian visa takes a minimum of 5 working days to process. You do the math. This might not work out. Having said that, if I do over-stay my ‘exit visa’ to get my Indian visa, I’m told the penalty is 200 taka a day. Which is fine, no sweat at about £2 a day. But I’m catching the train to Calcutta, and if I’ve learnt anything in this country I’ve learnt that I’ll probably be the first foreigner to overstay their visa and to then attempt leaving by land. I expect maximum confusion, and maximum ineptitude at the border. Oh wait. Shit. I’m leaving Bangladesh by land. Apparently I also need a ‘change of route’ permit. Because I arrived by air. And I’m leaving by land.

And no, I’m not making this stuff up. So as hard as it’s been to live in this country for a year, it might be even harder to leave.

And I did it again

I exercised. Here exercise does deserve a blog post, because I do it so infrequently. I’m super proud of myself every time I exercise. So every day that I haven’t blogged about exercising, you can safely assume that I didn’t exercise.

Today was Davina’s Super Fit workout. Needless to say I am not super fit. That I knew already, but Davina confirmed it for me. Ta. But any workout that has both Run-DMC (…it’s like that, it’s just the way it is…) and Janis Joplin (…break another little piece of my heart now, baby…) on the sound track gets my vote. Music makes exercise so much more fun.

Any Davina McCall DVD is the exercise of choice for (female) VSO volunteers. One volunteers had a copy, which then got copied by the rest of us.  And recently a volunteer returned from England with a NEW Davina DVD. Maximum excitement. Oh the joy of a little bit of exercise variety. Well I exercise infrequently enough that lack of variety in the exercise arena isn’t exactly my main problem, but you know. Variety is always good.

But over my time here I seem to have transformed into the spazz in the class. If I was actually in a class, I’d be the one in the back bobbing when I should be weaving, with arms up when they should be down, on the step when I should be off it (btw – do step classes still exist?). It’s all a bit embarrassing, my recently acquired lack of co-ordination. In my previous gym life I used to secretly snigger at such people. And now I AM such people. It’s not good. It’s just another thing, on an already long list of things, that Bangladesh must be held accountable for. Bangladesh has a lot of explaining to do.

In other exercise news: My trainers don’t feel right. I’m so used to not wearing closed shoes, that last time I exercised I got blisters. From my trainers. How will I ever cope in proper shoes again? But good news, thus far I have successfully avoided being seriously hurt by the ceiling fan in my room while exercising. Obviously I want to directly under the fan when exercising (have I mentioned that it’s getting hot here now? Expect in future posts that I’ll be moaning about the weather. A lot). But, at my height, ‘hands up’ means ‘hands in the moving fan blades’. So it’s bit more of an obstacle course that I’d like it to be. But you, it’s hardcore out here in the Desh. And, for extra special bonus points, next week (when I feel a little fitter, and braver) I’ll be trying out my TRX suspension training thingy. It all looks a little complicated, and I must admit to feeling slightly intimidated by it. But a lovely volunteer did bring it all the way from England for me, so really I MUST use it. Must not wimp out. Must. Not.


Over my lunchtime tea in the tea stall today, I discovered that the tea stall owner used to be a monk. He was a monk for 15 years until he saw his future bride across the room at a friend’s wedding. He then disrobed (the actual term for leaving monkhood, which I also find childishly amusing due to the strong mental image attached to it) and the rest is history. I found the telling of the story very sweet until the guy translating the story for me said (and I’m paraphrasing here, but just a bit) that the monk’s future wife looked beautiful from across the room, but up close turned out to be quite ugly. Ja, so a case of ‘nice from far, but far from nice’. In most situations I would find that a not-nice thing to say but given that the wife was involved in the conversation, I found it particularly not-nice thing to say. But somehow the wife wasn’t too fazed with it all. Not even when her husband confirmed it…

Discussing people’s beauty, or lack there of, is a strange beast here. After I was told that the wife is nice from far but far from nice, I was told that I am beautiful; both from far and from up close. Now this doesn’t actually mean that I’m beautiful, it most instances it just means that I am white. White is big here. I’d have to go a looooong way before I, as a white, would be considered not beautiful*. And believe me, my appearance here in Bangladesh is appaling. Besides showering daily and washing my hair when required (ish), there is nothing I do regarding my appearance. Most days I don’t even brush my hair. What’s the point? Everyone thinks I’m beautiful regardless, right? Well, there was that once when I was not beautiful. When I came back from Bali, with a tan. Totally NOT beautiful. 10 out of 10 for not-beautiful. In fact, a few of the women here couldn’t quite hide their disgust until my skin turned back to it’s naturally milky/pasty white glow.

But my hideous appearance in Bangladesh aside, this white thing can get pretty weird. One of the hostel attendants here keeps telling me that her daughter is not beautiful, all because her skin is dark (ish). And she tells me this in front of her daughter. Constantly. Every time I see her, at some point in the conversation she’ll tell me that I am beautiful (because I am white) and that her daughter is not beautiful because she is not. She’s even shown me photos of when her daughter WAS beautiful, when she was younger and her skin was paler. But, alas, her skin has darkened and now she’s not beautiful. And she does this ALL the time, in front of her daughter. I never know what to say in these situations, except telling the mother to shut up and telling the daughter that she IS beautiful. Imagine being the girl growing up listening to your mother telling you, every day, that you’re not beautiful.

Why is there so much emphasis on paleness of skin in some countries? Is it a colonial hangover, or is it a class thing? Rich women do not have work out in the sun and their skin would therefore remain pale? Poor women have to work in the sun, and therefore their skin will be darker? I think that was actually a thing of British yester-year, but that has totally been replaced by the urgent need for a tan. To the extent that women wear bikinis in the park. In. The. Park. As a South African it is something I have never done, and could never do. It’s not right. Unless you’re planning on diving into either a) a pool or b) the sea there is no reason to be a a bikini. Ever.

So why are people on both sides of the scale unhappy with the skin they were given? And I include myself in this too. I think I look better with a tan. In fact, I KNOW I look better at least some skin colour. Except in Bangladesh, where I look my very best as deathly pale as possible.

* Not beautiful: No one uses the term ugly here, it’s always not beautiful.

The season of sweat approaches

I’ve just been given some tamarind pods by a colleague. I had no idea what tamarind looked like before today, and I assumed it came only in a glass jar form. I now have 4 large pod things, and am eating one of them as is. Man alive, it’s sour. And almost bubbly it’s so acidic. I’m currently Googling what to do with the rest. Chances are they will linger in my fridge until they change colour, at which point I will throw them out in the middle of the night, so as to not offend anyone.Or I’ll show them to Memory, who will no doubt take over and do something with them for me.

Chances of me actually cooking them (or what ever one does with tamarind) are slim, as it’s getting hotter here now. This means ‘egg and noodles’ season is almost upon me. It’s not super hot yet, the sauna that is Bangladesh is nowhere near cracked up to full blast yet, but it’s in the mail. I’ve been slowly sleeping under less and wearing less (as much ‘less’ as one can wear in Bangladesh). The constant sweating hasn’t started yet, but again its only a matter of time. Annoyingly the dizzy spells have already started making more frequent visits though. Perhaps it’s just the thought of another summer that is too much for me. I’m sure it’s because I’d only mentally prepared for one, but the thought of two summers here is more than I can handle. But as I sit here today, I do wonder how I survived last summer. Some might say I’m being a touch dramatic, but really, for me, it was tough. A new batch of volunteers has arrived, and are suffering with the heat. Already. It’s only the beginning of March. There is oh so much more fun to come people. I don’t envy them, going through their adjustments to their placements, while simultaneously dealing with Bangladesh itself, VSO and the heat. But you know, that’s what we sign up for. We all have to be slightly mad to do this.

By the time I leave here in 6 weeks I’ll be ready to fall in love with the insipid, heat-less and rainy summer that no doubt will present itself in London this year. It’ll be my perfect summer.

Back ‘home’

I’m back in Rangamati now. I travelled a few days ago and I’m loving being back. Dhaka is so NOT my kind of city.

But it’s sad being back, listening to colleagues talk about the recent unrest. The saddest part is they have seen this all before, and they know they will see it all again. There wasn’t much unrest in Rangamati town, but Kharachari town saw quite a lot. We had one VSO volunteer who was stuck in the situation longer than she should have been. The VSO support to get her out was diabolical. Sometimes I really think they just don’t have a clue. Really. The logistics they arranged were poorly thought out, another volunteer had to basically instruct them what to do and who to contact, and also had to cause a bit of a scene to get them to understand the seriousness of the situation. All rather pathetic, and just another thing to add to the VSO Bangladesh Shit List.

Anyway. Let’s try not to think about VSOB. It’s Friday, and I’m enjoying a day off. Today will be a day of hand washing clothes and watching DVDs. I’m currently well into How I Met Your Mother, season 4. I don’t think I’ll ever watch an actual TV again, series box sets are the way forward.

In other news: I’m slightly scared of the electricity today. Well, I’m usually always a bit scared of the electricity, this IS Bangladesh. But today, when I plug my laptop charger in, it dims my bedroom light. And it makes it flicker. If I unplug the laptop, then it’s all back to normal. Hmm. Is it possible for the current to be too weak today to charge both a laptop and keep a light on? Anything is possible in Bangladesh.

Oh, and I’ve started trying to learn how to meditate. Again. I’ve tried this in India before, but failed miserably. Yesterday I spent half an hour with one of the monks in the meditation centre. Can’t say I meditated per se, but I did sit in a half lotus position for half an hour with my eyes closed. Ok fine, my mind was ALL over the place, but I kept my eyes closed for the entire time. And that, in my book, is a success. This evening we are going to try an hour’s walking meditation. Where you take baby baby steps, super super slowly while focusing your mind. Let’s see how that goes.