Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

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Holiday plans in disarray due to f&*$%^^ Bangladeshi visa people. Impossible to get tourist visa once INSIDE Bangladesh.

So Laura has to leave Bangladesh, to come back in as a tourist. Which means screw St Martin’s, we’re going to India instead! Calcutta to be precise. Oh what fun. In the words of Laura, from an email she sent me to convince me to go with her:

– Calcutta has lots of silver jewellary
– It has bars
– Things in India are a lot cheaper
– Rum is about £2 a bottle
– We will have lots of fun
– There is a lovely fabric shop called weavers studio
– FAB INDIA – OH MY GOD how could I forget FabIndia!!!

Not that I needed much convincing. At all. For all of the above reasons, and more.

Now the drama to get visas for India starts. As we know I am about 10 hours from Dhaka and the Indian High Commission, who are notoriously difficult and full of vile people who make getting a tourist visa for India almost as difficult as getting a tourist visa for Bangladesh. Luckily my passport is in Dhaka, so I can let Laura deal with this new visa trauma. Only problem is passport photos for me. But there must be a way I can take my own, put them on my lovely Mac, make them into official passport sizes and email them to Laura to submit with my application form. It must be possible, it’s almost 2010. Google at the ready…

PS Any and all help on just how to get the best, and fastest, out of the Indian High Commission will be greatly appreciated.

Updated to add: Arse. I don’t think Laura can apply for an India visa on my behalf. AND we need to get ‘change of route’ permission from some Bangladesh Department of Whatever. We arrived in Bangladesh by air (plane) and will leave by land (bus). Apparently this is not ok to do without someone, somewhere signing something to say it is ok. There are clear and present dangers to the advancement of Bangladesh – one of which is this bureaucratic bun fight to get anything visa related done.

Planning a holiday in Bangladesh

Is a LOT of work.

My festive plans are such:

1) Travel from Rangamati to Bandarban on the 24th, to spend the 25th (I keep forgetting that is in fact Christmas day… It. Just. Does. Not. Feel. Like. Christmas. Here) and 26th with a friend.

2) On the 27th travel from Bandarban to Rangamati, with said friend, to check out some festival thing (I still can’t really be sure just WHAT the festival is all about, but I do know it has something to do with the Chakma king. And bingo. Somehow.) and maybe also check out some indigenous weaving (friend is into textiles).

3) On the 28th travel from Rangamati to St Martin’s island (Bangladesh’s very own coral island, at it’s southern most tip).

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? If your answer is yes, then you obviously don’t live, or have never attempted to holiday, in Bangladesh.

Let me explain for why:

Number 1) involves me getting security permission from Bandarban’s District Commissioner. Copies of my passport and visa have been emailed to a Bandarban NGO who is applying on my behalf. Travelling there also involves carrying numerous photocopies of passport and visa to hand out like sweets at the various army check points along the way.

Number 2) involves me applying for security permission from Rangamati’s District Commissioner for friend. By ‘me’ I mean Moanoghar is applying for the permission. Again copies of friend’s passport and visa are required. Except friend is currently having massive visa trauma at the hands of Bangladesh’s Most Bureaucratic Department. She’s trying to change her NGO visa (expiring soon) to a tourist visa (so she can stay and research Bangladesh’s textile industry for a few months for her MA back in the UK). Easy? Hell no. She’s been asked, by the official visa man handling her application, why would anyone want to be a tourist in Bangladesh (GOOD question). And why doesn’t she rather just go back home to England instead. And what is wrong with her family that she is here in Bangladesh alone, and not in England with them. And has been asked if her British passport is real. And has been told that she doesn’t look like a British person (what does a British person look like anyway?). This man is just not playing ball (besides perhaps with his own pair), and Laura is ready to kill.

And number 3) involves a 2 hour bus from Rangamati to Chittagong, then catching a 3 hour bus to Cox’s Bazar, then spending the night in Cox’s, then catching a 2 hour bus the next morning to Teknaf, then catching a 2 hour ferry to St Martins, then catching a 30 min (I guess, because I really have no idea on timing for this one…) local boat from the port to the resort we’re staying at. Hells Bells. Could it be any more convoluted? We’re meeting friends from Dhaka in Cox’s then travelling together. The crazy thing is that from Dhaka to St Martins is only about 320 miles, but it will take a day and half to get there. Just getting all the bus and ferry times has practically become a full time job for me, as obviously none of this information lies at the end of a Google search. And getting the timings right to get to Teknaf to catch the ferry is of VITAL importance, as there is only 1 ferry a day from Teknaf to St Martins and Lord help everyone around me all if we miss that. Ok, there isn’t only 1 ferry, there are actually 3 ferries a day. BUT they all leave at the same time…. logic people, LOGIC?! There is an option to just get the resort to lay on all the transport  (hired mini vans, speed boats etc) but us VSO volunteers get paid peanuts* so that’s not an option.

And this is without any consideration for just how we’ll get some booze for the holiday. Man alive, now this gets complicated, so pay attention… There is local Bangladeshi booze (as shown here, and the effects of which are discussed here). But it is all predictibly rubbish, and it’s Christmas/New Years after all, and we think we deserve alcohol that might not have the added benefit of poisoning us. Sooooo…there is a (proper) booze warehouse in Dhaka, that only special people like diplomats and UN staff have access to. So I know someone who works for the UN’s WFP, a.k.a the other foreigner in Rangamati. Now she has a non-UN friend in Dhaka, who has been authorised to buy booze with her UN pass. So lovely friend of a friend in Dhaka is going to buy our booze on Wednesday, and there will be a booze-money exchange on Thursday with one Dhaka based VSO volunteer. Who will bring the booze down to St Martins. Did you manage to keep up with all that? THAT’S how complicated it is to buy decent booze in Bangladesh. The UN folks really have been AMAZING at helping us out. They obviously know how hard it is to face this country sober sometimes… They feel our pain, and I’m loving them for it. Not enough can be said for the kindness of virtual strangers.

* as the saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Note to self VSO, note to self…

PS And note to Julie – All Guide Tours trips to Sundarbans fully booked for Xmas 😦 Should have listened to your sooner.

Missing the Silly Season

I love, love, love the run up to Christmas in London. It all just feels so right. The end of another long and hard work year. It’s dark and cold outside, so drinking at 4pm is perfectly acceptable, and encouraged. The Christmas lights start going up around town. Starbucks has a special Christmas drink, and special Christmas cups. Christmas tree shopping. And decorating. Everyone is out, having a good time. Laughing, dancing, singing (ok, and drunk). London in the silly season really is a special place for me. It’s all so magical. Until of course you wake up on the 2nd Jan, with the shine and sparkle of Christmas and the New Year already well and truly faded, and you’re staring down the barrel a loooong dark January and February, suffering from silly season overindulgence (in the eating, drinking AND credit card departments)

But, prior all the new year gloom, doom and depression, the silly season in London rocks.

Here, the silly season doesn’t exist. I could easily just miss Christmas all together and not even realise it. And yes, I know I’m in a Muslim country and yes, I knew Christmas won’t even hit the radar here. But I guess I under-estimated how much I love this time of year. Here it’s just all so… nothing. It makes my heart a little sad.

And now the question is just WHAT to do for said Christmas and New Year. A lot of volunteers are going home for the holidays (I’m expecting significant weight increases as they hit the booze and gorge on not-available-here-food, if they are anything like me…). I might stay here in The Hills, but head down to Bandarban with a friend. It will be nice to do something to mark the occasion, maybe a roast dinner. And then maybe get drunk, then have a fight that ends in tears. I mean, that’s a typical Christmas day right? As for NYE, hmmm. Potentially in Dhaka. I’m thinking of spending the week up there for a short, sharp, concerted and focused shopping frenzy. I worry I’ll run out of time to fill the 2 cubic meters of shipping space I’m going to be buying. Well, if nothing else, a mad dash around the shops will recreate some of the Christmas feeling for me.

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.

Seasons

Yesterday I had some bad news. I discovered that this season we are currently in is not autumn and it isn’t going to be getting much cooler any time soon.

Bangladesh has 6 seasons: 1) spring 2) summer 3) rainy/monsoon 4) the one we are currently in, which no one has been able to translate into English for me yet  5) autumn and 6) winter. This season (4) is the one where I thought it would be getting cooler. But this is a hot season I am now told (strongly beginning to believe they ALL are). Only by October (autumn I think) will just the nights start to get cooler (I’ve been told in October, a night will be hot for 1/2 the night, and other other half will be cold…) and then oooonly by November/December will the days be cooler. I’ve been labouring under a misapprehension thinking that it will be getting cooler any day now. This is quite a blow.

And I discovered a nasty little Bangladeshi rule about holidays. Here, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. If one was to take leave on a Thursday and the subsequent Sunday (i.e. on either side of the weekend), the Friday and Saturday are counted as leave days. So taking leave on a Thursday and Sunday counts as 4 days of leave. This is standard government practice and most other organisations also adopt this rule. What is THAT about? Terribly unfair I say. Not that anyone in my organisation actually counts/notices the number of days someone is not in the office. But still.

Cooking lesson

Today Memory taught me how to make biryani. Impromptu cooking lessons happen here every so often in my kitchen.

So today was biryani, which is a rice based dish. Or at least it is everywhere else in the world. Here in the Hill Tracts, no rice. Its made from some type of pulse. Anyway, delish non the less. And now I know how to make it.

IMG_2498

Cooking lesson in action

Stuff happens on the floor here. Memory has no need for tables when cooking. Everyone here still uses traditional wood burning floor stoves, which I must take a photo of soon. Luckily I have a gas hob. 

Knives here are also interesting. I had to procure a ‘floor knife’ for Memory, as my lovely Kuhn Rikon knife is of no use to her. Instead of putting knife to object as us foreigners do, they put object to knife. Not sure if that makes sense. Photo below might make it clearer. Or not.

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Why are you taking a photo of me cutting a potato?

Yesterday afternoon I was told today is a public holiday. Some Muslim festival of sorts. Bonus! Promptly followed by lie in this morning.

 At lunch time (during cooking lesson) I found out today is NOT a holiday. Someone told someone who told someone who told everyone in the office yesterday that today is a holiday. Result – office closed for day. No one consulted the calendar to confirm.

Actually to be fair some people did show up even though it was a ‘holiday’ to work for a few hours. But everyone still decided to only work a half day, due to previously assumed holiday status. 

Nice. I like it.