Hello! Today marks the eleventh day I’ve been here, though in a funny way it seems at the same time as if I both just arrived & left home ages ago. But I guess that’s just what being in a totally new environment does to you! I’m definitely in the good ol’ honeymoon phase of international experiences – nothing bothers me, and everything is new and delightful.
This post is extremely long as it took me a while to get it up- so sorry in advance for any spelling / grammatical errors, and the length! I’ve split it up into very first impressions, work thus far, play thus far, and some miscellaneous observations on fashion, food, rickshaws and the like. I wish I could link within this page so you could go directly to whichever section you’re interested in, but I’m afraid I don’t have that much technical knowledge.
I would post pictures, but I realized I forgot the cable to connect the camera to a computer. It’s a pretty standard one, so I should be able to find it in the nearby market, but until then, forgive the lack of pictures, and check out Madelaine’s blog for a few!
Airports, traffic, beggars & Santa Clause
I must admit I felt quite grateful for being a non-Bangladeshi when at airport customs the foreigners’ line was relatively short and organized, while the Bangladeshi national’s line sounded like a stock market floor, only looked more packed. Either police or airport security (not sure which) came by a few times to try and restore some order- people were being pushed and falling over the flimsy line barriers- but it really looked more like the people (all men at the front) were calling out bids at an auctioneer’s to win the next spot in line, instead of just standing in some organized fashion. Unfortunately for us, however, the baggage claim was not similarly segregated, and Madelaine and I waited about an hour and a half for our bags to appear. But they made it, from Montreal to London to Dubai to Dhaka, and that’s what matters!
Through the airport doors, Kafil was waiting for us. He’s the project team leader for the ECDSP-B project, and has been taking great care of us. Despite having had to have waited about three hours (the plane was an hour late as well), as soon as he saw us he waved the AKF(B) sign very enthusiastically and gave us a huge smile. Kafil, if he were to grow a beard, would quite resemble a middle-aged Santa Clause: not yet as round ‘round the middle as the elderly version, but equally jolly and always ready with a smile. He and Yesmin, the administrative assistant at the office, seem to have done most of the arrangements for our arrival: the apartment was found, fumigated, cleaned, and stocked with sheets (though no top sheets as Bangladeshis don’t seem to use those), pillows and food, which meant upon arrival we could pass out with nothing pressing to worry about.
Earlier, as we pulled out of the airport, my mind was racing with all the things I’d heard before about Bangladesh, and I immediately started comparing what I was seeing to what I’d seen in Argentina. My first thought was “hm, the poverty doesn’t seem to shock me anymore – those makeshift huts by the river quite resemble the ones in the villas outside Buenos Aires.” Only then I noticed mounds that looked a bit like large anthills made of straw and dirt and things, with a cloth hanging over an entrance into them, and I realized people were sleeping in them, and then decided that perhaps it was still rather difficult to comprehend the absolute poverty that some people survive in.
Part of our orientation at the office touched on the poverty, and how there is virtually no social safety net for the poorest of the poor, hence the many hundreds of beggars scattered throughout the streets of Dhaka and particularly prominent in the areas of greatest traffic congestion. The locals seem to have an amazing ability to not see the beggars tapping on the window if they don’t want to (some do and will give a few taka). Being white, I’m often targeted for prolonged tapping accompanied by a droning “ma’am… the baby is hungry, ma’am” or something similar in Bangla. Many of the babies appear to have been given sleeping pills, which is particularly disturbing.
The traffic really is incredibly bad. I’d been told that people in Bangladesh drove as if they were driving in one of those speed video games, but honestly I haven’t seen anyone able to go more than 45mph at any time. Usually, you go for a little bit at around 20mph – 40pmh, then are stuck for a while as the traffic police let another direction of cars, trucks, CNGs (small, green, 3-wheeled caged-in vehicles- quite quaint and funny to watch drive until you notice how close they come to tipping over or being hit), and rickshaws. The airport is apparently only some 17km away from our apartment, yet it took us about an hour and a half to get there! Dhaka sounds like a continuous symphony of horns, honks, screeches and the brrriing! of bicycle horns as the various vehicles communicate with each other. Aside from the rickshaws, all the vehicles have mirrors and tickers, but though they use them a little, they seem far more fond of honking to announce their actions or protest others’.
TGIT! Thank God it’s THURSDAY!
We’re being slowly eased in to work, which when accompanied with jet lag, stomach bugs, and other such brand-new-environment adjustments, has really been quite nice. Because we arrived on a Thursday, the last day of the working week here, we had the weekend to rest up and settle in, and Sunday the 8th was our first day of “work.” By that I mean we were met at our apartment by Kafil and Yesmin. We went over all the logistics of being here (the apartment, internet, safety, etc), and then headed to the office for lunch. The office is only a ten minute walk from our apartment, which is pretty awesome. It’s in a cream colored office building (probably cement) and our office is on the fifth floor, and has AC, which is glorious. I’ve never appreciated air conditioning as much as I have these past ten days. Walking around, Madelaine and I have often gone into shops and pretended to look around, just to stand in the AC for a bit.
Lunch, tea, and other goodies
After meeting everyone, we set up our laptops in the conference room (which doubles as the dining room), and caught up on emails and the like. Lunch is cooked in a small kitchen in the back of the office, and brought to the conference room where everyone serves themselves. It usually consists of rice; thin daal (lentils); some sort of cooked vegetables; a mix of raw cucumber, tomato, onion, green chillis, and lime that serves as a “salad;” and either chicken or fish cooked in a spicy (often oily) sauce. It’s pretty tasty, though the fish is filled with many tiny bones that are annoying. Bangladeshis eat with their fingers, but luckily there are some forks and spoons available at the office. Cutting chicken with a fork and spoon can be a struggle though, so I’ve started eating that with my right hand. Maybe I’ll learn to eat everything that way. Maybe not.
KFC is right next door, and when one of the woman working at the office had her last day before going to a new job, there was a “special” lunch of KFC takeout. Not your average KFC meal though- there were individual foil tins of fried rice with a hard-boiled egg and a chunk of mutton. It was quite a lot, and I couldn’t finish it, which always makes me feel bad because everyone else cleaned their plates. They eat everything, even gnawing on the chicken bones to crack them and suck out the bone marrow, which makes a combination of sounds that really makes my stomach turn.
The way the work day is structured, you can either work from 9-5 or 8:30-4:30; you just have to choose one and stick to it. Tea and cracker/cookie-like biscuits are served at 11:30 by Khalil, the office assistant / IT assistant / general helper of everyone. Lunch is around 1 (depending on when the food is cooked), and there’s another tea break at 3. It’s a pretty sweet set-up.
The second day, we met at the office, called the PIU for Project Implementation Unit, and headed over to the “head office” of AKF(B). There we met Salimah, the project director, who is also from Canada and has been here two and a half years, as well as Amir-Bai (Amir, with the “Bai,” meaning elder brother, attached as a sign of respect), the CEO of AKF(B). Yesmin came with us to the head office, as despite having worked at the PIU for two years, she’d never been. Salimah and Amir-Bai then began our orientation, describing the difference between the offices (the PIU only hosts project staff, all costs attributable to the project and therefore funded by AKFC and CIDA, while the head office is considered overhead, and is paid for by His Highness the Aga Khan), their roles, the project background, and general information on life and living in Bangladesh.
That night, my stomach decided it was unpleased with something I ate, and punished me for the whole night and following day, making me miss the day trip to visit the field sites in Dhaka. If you want to read about those anyway, check out Madelaine’s blog.
The next two days, we listened to presentations from all the staff on their respective aspects of the project: organizational development; early childhood development; gender; research; and monitoring & evaluations. It was very interesting, but a lot of information to digest.
Groceries stores are great places to make friends.
After arriving from the airport, we slept. The second day, Kafil took us to lunch and then shopping for some groceries & other house stuff we needed. At the grocery store, which was an upscale, expensive one, we met two other foreigners who were grocery shopping for the first time (though they’d been here six weeks). We chatted for a few moments, and they invited us to dinner with them and some friends, and after to a party happening at the International Club that night. Though those two ended up leaving two days after we met them, many of the friends they introduced us to will be here for a good bit longer.
Unlike Buenos Aires, where there are tons of clubs open to all (depending on how much you want to pay), nightlife in Dhaka seems to be limited to those expats / friends of expats with expat club cards. Alcohol is illegal for Bangladeshis, which is why the only places to go out are the expat clubs and a few hotels. It’s not ideal if you want to meet locals, but as there’s no local alternative and I do like going out at night on occasion, I don’t feel too bad going to them. Plus it’s the easiest way to meet peers; with a few exceptions, everyone at work is significantly older than me, and even the youngest are married (or divorced) with kids.
We’ve gone to two expat parties so far, and met many lovely people. The clubs are quite annoying though, as they tend to charge anywhere from 300 to 1500 bdt (Bangladeshi Taka) just to get in, which translates into $3.75 – $18.75, roughly. The lower number isn’t so bad, but I usually refuse to go anywhere in North America where you have to pay cover, and it’s worse here as it certainly isn’t covered under our stipend! Then, to make matters worse, drinks are often priced in dollars, which makes them crazy expensive by Bangladeshi standards. Luckily, many of the expats I’ve met are living on quasi-North American salaries, and thus often willing to buy a few drinks for the poor interns!
The other big fun we’ve had so far is signing up to take part in ITADI, a two-hour special Eid TV show that is hosted by a popular Bangladeshi TV host named Hanif. Part of his annual Eid show includes a skit or two with foreigners, who he dresses up in traditional Bangadeshi outfits, and then has them act out skits in Bangla, going about what would be normal daily life for the majority of the 85 million people that watch the program. It’s quite funny – last year’s version is on youtube somewhere – and as we were a smaller group than expected, even those of us who speak no Bangla have a line or two! I’ll speak more to that next time I write, as the rehearsals and filming start after we get back from Sylhet. Nonetheless, it was another great way to meet some more people, though again they’re all expats.
That’s not to say that people at the office haven’t been extremely friendly- they’ve been doing much to make us feel comfortable and welcome. Our first Saturday, Nasirul, one of the drivers, picked us up and took us to a fancy store selling high-end salwar kameezes, the three-piece suits that most women in Dhaka wear. The store was a BRAC store, and all the clothes were handmade by women in rural areas working through BRAC programs. The designs were gorgeous, though the shapes of the clothes were quite different to what I’m used to. Nasirul then took us on a driving tour of our area, showing, through his very limited English, the various expat clubs, embassies, the hospital, and other useful points of reference. The next day, Yesmin, along with Chandon (another driver), took us shopping for “normal” salwar-kameezes (i.e. not the “designer” ones from Aarong, the BRAC store). She took us to the district where she lives, called Mirpur (which is also where the slum with the community daycare is) to a street with a number of shops selling ready-made clothes. The other two outfits for women are futawas (not sure how to spell that, but it’s pronounced foot-awa), long shirts that are worn with jeans or leggings, and the Bangladeshi sharee (like Indian saris). We haven’t tried to wear a sharee yet, but I do have two futawas now, along with four salwar-kameezes.
Yesmin is not only our fashion consultant, but she’s been extremely helpful at markets, helping us tell whether the price offered is too high or not, and even accompanying me to the hospital and sitting with me for three hours while I waited to see a doctor. By all other accounts I’ve heard of expats’ first days here, we’re being taken much better care of than most.
And finally, some miscellaneous observations
I know this post is already ridiculously long (which is why I’ve tried to split it into sections as best I can), but I just thought I’d offer some more general reflections on what I’ve seen so far.
One of the main things that has stood out for me is how while the women almost exclusively continue to wear very traditional clothes, the men wear a range of outfits from a long piece of clothing knotted in the front like a sort of wrap-around skirt paired with a button-down shirt, to the men’s version of salwar kameezes (less colorful generally than women’s), to western pants and button-down shirts. The men are not fans of tee-shirts generally, and will at least wear polos. Many women continue to cover their heads, usually just by draping the orna (long scarf) over their head, though you frequently see a few with the more tight head covering, and every now and then a woman in the full burka. Young girls have more freedom, and many wear dresses that don’t even reach their knees (all women’s clothes cover at least to half way down the calf). Aside from the odd expat wearing a short skirt or booty shorts, almost every girl over the age of about 12-15 has their knees, shoulders and front well covered.
I haven’t gotten up the courage yet to eat any of the food sold on the streets or small restaurants (though I plan to try some soon). A woman who works cleaning the office has also come a few times to our apartment to clean, and has taught us how to make some Bangladeshi dishes. Those she has cooked tend to have a lot of oil, and though the amount she uses may be particularly excessive, even the office food and the Bangladeshi restaurant we ate at with Kafil tasted as though there was a generous amount of oil in most of the dishes. After getting sick, the doctor supposed that the large amounts of oil probably were a significant factor leading to my disgruntled stomach. However, there are lots of vegetables to choose from, and the quality of what we’ve eaten is very good. One of my favorite things I’ve had so far was a rice pudding that Hanna (the woman coming to clean/cook) made with mango. She cooked milk and sugar together for a long time, then added some rice and mango and cooked it even longer, before adding some fried mango to the top. It was definitely the best rice pudding I’ve ever had.
There is a market not too far from our apartment, about a ten minute walk, with everything we could need. There are hundreds of small stalls selling everything from vegetables to furniture to pots & pans, cell phones, grocery stores, hardware stores, and anything else you could think of. It’s quite large, though each individual store is tiny, and the three floors are a maze of dead ends and many turns. It’s not a particularly clean place, and walking by the meat shops usually makes my stomach turn, but it’s in our district, which is one of the most expensive in Dhaka, and thus many of the foods are not much cheaper than what we’d find at home. A lot of the stores sell only imported goods, making them more expensive still – though they remain less than they’d cost in dollars. We’ve been modestly successful at bargaining sometimes, and learned to walk away from prices we know are just ridiculous. We haven’t learned the numbers yet (or anything much), but when we start language classes at the end of July, I’m sure it will get much easier. Like everything else, the market parking lot gets extremely muddy as soon as it starts raining, which leads to a good bit of puddle-jumping.
Riding in rickshaws
We’ve been generally advised that unless you know where you’re going, the CNGs tend to take advantage of you, while cabs are often not safe (they have a habit of taking people to get mugged). Thus, rickshaws have been our main mode of transportation. They’re all wonderfully brightly colored, with all kinds of decorations on the place where one sits. When it isn’t raining, the tops are pulled back, folded like a fan, and I can sit up straight, and if it rains, they can be pulled forward and opened. Though I then have to slump so I don’t hit my head, it seems a fair trade off for not getting wet and walking in the muck.
Our first rickshaw ride ended up being more of a tour of our area at night, when the poor driver/bicyclist (whatever he’s called) had no idea where the road we wanted to go to was. He asked directions after directions, and we went all over before finally reaching our destination. Other than that though, rickshaws have been pretty easy to take. They tend to demand more from us than they would of Bangladeshis, but can usually be bargained down to a more reasonable price; if one rickshaw driver refuses to take you at the price you demand, eventually another will.
There was one slightly amusing incident where about ten of them asked, all next to each other and consecutively, if we would pay 100bdt to get where we were going. Despite saying no each time, they seemed to think that if they just asked again, we’d say yes (we didn’t; finally one agreed to 50bdt, still more than locals would’ve paid). I was initially worried about riding rickshaws in the rain, but I actually stayed drier in the rickshaw than I had under my umbrella. The driver had a tarp over the seat, so it was dry, and then after I climbed on he kind of tucked me in with the tarp, which I then held up in front of me, and stayed completely dry.
We’ve tried walking a few times to various places, and though the walks aren’t long (up to half an hour), and often take as long as it would by rickshaw (due to the insane traffic), it’s so extremely hot under all our salwar-kameez clothing that we’ve basically decided it’s best just to rickshaw. Anytime after it gets dark, one of the two late middle-aged men who act as security for our apartment goes and gets a rickshaw for us, though we wouldn’t ride one alone at night or anytime after about 10:30pm. Luckily, our new expat friends have been very generous with their drivers, and we haven’t found ourselves in a pickle yet.
Overall though, I’ve found Dhaka to be an extremely colorful, welcoming place.
No matter how poor the people we see are, their clothes are always brightly colored with pretty patterns. Though we get stared at and asked “what country??” quite frequently, there does not seem to be the overt jeering and cat calls of Latin America (though perhaps that’s just due to my lack of Bangla).
I’m looking forward to this visit in Sylhet – more on that and the Itadi filming when I’m back! Much love to you all, hope everyone’s enjoying their summers!