Follow me.... a VSO volunteer in Dhaka.

Now read on.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Land of the Flying Dragon

She's always on holiday, I hear you say. Yes, actually, as my time here whizzes by I'm getting in as much tourism in as possible.

So I just got  back from Bhutan. What a magical place. First off the journey. The landing was spectacular, giving the passengers views from  both sides of the aircraft as it angled its way passed the mountains and into land. Known as one of the most dangerous aircraft landing spots on the world, currently there are only eight pilots licensed to fly the route.

Anything I'm going to say about the holiday will sound like a travel book overdoing the praise. Take it as read that I loved it. They call it the last Shrangri-La. It is. It's heaven.

Maybe it's the mix of a small land of 70% forest lots of it unexplored, the low Himalayas,  people who mainly wear national dress which includes skirts and long socks for the men, the curious religion that is Bhutanese Buddhism, prayer flags everywhere,the shy, friendly people, the red-robed monks, the 32-year-old King and beautiful new Queen, the official National Happiness Index by which the country's success is measured. Whatever it is, it works.

I read an article which said that - in Bhutan the first couple of days are spent 'noticing' and the rest of the time is spent 'becoming aware'. It's true. There's something about it. Whatever I come to Bangladesh to find, I have been too busy to look for. But it came to find me in Bhutan. On the mountain-top sky burial site surrounded by the Himalayas I said goodbye to Donald; in a 1,000 year old temple I found purpose;  in the dense virgin forest walking three hours to find a hidden nunnery where girls as young as nine and women as old as 82 live happy lives, I found clarity and focus. 

So, expect a new me when I get back to the UK in ten days time, and France in three weeks.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

At last, a reason to recommend a visit to the Desh....

.......  I've been struggling to find tourist-friendly things to say about this country. It's too hot, too humid, too poor, too difficult to travel around, too 'basic' in its amenities, food too same-y - all too, too, tooooooo.

But, at last, I can say it. Come to Sylhet and Srimangal in Bangladesh! You'll love it. The land of the tea gardens, pink lotus lakes, pineapple fields and rainforest. Gibbons, langurs, makaks playing in the trees above our heads, butterflies and birds galore. Indigenous communities hidden in the forests. Enormous trees, brilliant flowers and NO TOURISTS. Our guest house was perfect. Our eco-guide was wonderful. The air was fresh, the food was delicious, fresh pineapple juice to die for. Fireflies dancing in the forest opposite the balcony where we had our dinner. 

Just what I needed, to get out of the city and breath some proper green country air. Cox's Bazar didn't do it as it was too hot and humid. But this was a weekend to remember. 

So here are some photos and a few words.
Tea garden
Buy Fair Trade tea. These tea pickers are paid the the measly sum of 48 Thaka (less than 3 pence) per day. At 2 Thaka per kg, and having to pick about 24 kg per day, this is slave labour. Okay, their accommodation is free, but it's basic to say the least and the pathetic daily pay means they have no hope at all of lifting their eyes from the tea bushes to think about what choices, if any, they have.

After our walk to the lotus lake we drank wonderful tea from dirty china cups and bought delicious tea flower honey to take back to Dhaka.


In the rainforest. It rained. The intrepid explorers got soaked. Note the trousers tucked into socks - tres chic - to stop the leeches. Yes, millions.

Whatever it is, it's beautiful. And it smelt delightful.

Rather blurred, but this is a flying flower. Move near it and it leaps out of the way. Bizarre.

In our CNG, I'm about to drive off into the sunset, probably to look for a beer. But that would have been to miss out on the next day - a boat trip in the wetlands.

Our taxi arrives....

Our boat took us through miles of lotus fields. So quiet, so beautiful.

And finally - our room with balcony and night-time show of fireflies. Why did no-one tell me how spectacular they are.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Watch this space....

Next post - more monkeys, plus butterflies, leeches and tea gardens.

Hard drink, soft rules

This is Cox’s Bazar, a long thin strip of land in the far southeast of Bangladesh, squashed between the Bay of Bengal and Myanmar. We’re here for three days at the annual VSO-Bangladesh conference. The conference was as good as something of the sort can be, I suppose. Forty people ranging from the very mixed group of international volunteers, to the volunteer support staff, to the office support staff and the drivers, with all the consequent difficulties of language and understanding of the issues. Hmm.

So, Cox’s Bazar. The longest sand beach in the world. All 150 kilometres of it. The sea here is tidal, moving astoundingly quickly, cleaning the beach and stopping beach life taking hold permanently. The beach-chair minders, hawkers of trinkets and beach kids are pushed in and out like flotsam and jetsam, landing for a few hours to ply their various trades only to be pushed inland by the waves to wait for the next sandy opportunity.

It’s very beautiful in an early Benidorm sort-of way. The hotels are springing up. No, scratch that. The hotels are slowly lurching their way into existence, Sea Crown, Seagull, Sea Breeze, Sea Shore, Sea Gate, Sea Palace, always surrounded by tin shacks containing tea shops, barber shops, grocery shops, bicycle repairers etc. The only roundabout in town, of course ignored by the cars, rickshaws, CNGs and tom-toms, is topped with gruesome plaster sharks and dolphins. The money would have been better spent improving the drainage. But stand on the beach with your back to the concrete monstrosities and the view is wonderful. The dark-sanded beach stretches endlessly to the left and right, the sea rolls in and the sun sinks gently into the misty horizon.
Early morning before the shacks open for business. It's already 35 degrees so the dogs flaked out as usual.

We're holed up in the Sea Crown - air-con, foam mattress, hot water and TV but dry. Can't have it all. We heard that there was a hotel in town that did sell beer, so off we went. The thought of a beer in the astonishing heat and humidity mix was bliss. But no, hard drink was only available after 7.30pm and it was only 5.30. So back to our place to find that someone had found a hidden bar. A small entrance next to the front door of the hotel. Through the door, across a small courtyard, through another door and into pitch darkness. As my eyes got used to this almost light-free environment I could see people sitting huddled in low seats drinking and smoking!!  I thought as much. Judging by the Dhaka traffic this is a country of rule breakers.

So our evenings were spent on the beach, sharing the beach chairs, drinking warm beer or gin and Sprite hidden in water bottles, watching the Supermoon pass across the sky (Real name: perigree. A once-a-year cosmic event which lights up the night sky as the full moon passes at its closest to the Earth, making it 14% larger and 30% brighter than usual). A much too scientific description of the most enormous, beautiful full moon. A dozen or so of the volunteers chatting until the early hours putting the world to rights. It was lovely. I've not done that for a long time.

The beach kids, coastal version of the street kids, were the same as ever, mainly boys as girls aren't allowed out much. Chatty and needy. Wanting to sell their songs and dances, their shell necklaces or other tat, but really craving some love and affection. A small boy, bullied into crying by another taller, bigger boy fled to Karen for a cuddle and to have his tears dried until he remembered that boys don't cry and disappeared to sorrow in private. 

We are so lucky.

Sampans - the traditional fishing boats (pronounced 'shampan')

Local woman fascinated by the sight of Kenyan volunteer Eve eating a mango

When I was a child small holes in the sand meant sand flies. Here it's crabs, millions of them.

More shampans. I couldn't stop taking photos of them.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Wonder what the poor people are doing?

I've been avoiding the subject, haven't I?  Marginalised people, the poor, extreme poor, hard-core poor, street kids, slum people, beggars. The poor are always with us.

I was over-prepared before coming to Bangladesh. It's unavoidable - poor Bangladesh. Literally.  I'd seen Slumdog Millionaire (I know it's about India), and listened to old India hands talking about stepping over abandoned babies on the pavements in Delhi. I heard about the millions of beggars besieging people as they left their hotels, and about the gangs of street kids who mill about amongst the traffic, tapping at windows and pointing at their stomachs then hurling abuse when it becomes apparent that money isn't forthcoming. Thousands and thousands of homeless people sleeping on pavements. So I was ready for it.

Well, Delhi may be like that, but Bangladesh isn't.  Of course there are just too many people who are desperately desperately poor. There are beggars. There are street kids wearing practically nothing, toiling away to earn practically nothing for picking rubbish or brushing outside the front of a shop. Once a week there is a rolling beggar who rolls his way past the office, calling out to Allah. He's obviously disabled as his legs are thin and bent, wears only a loin cloth and is covered in dust and muck. He rolls along the street, receiving alms from most people who pass, even from the rickshaw-wallahs who can ill-afford to give away any of their hard-earned cash. I thought he was some sort of pilgrim but no, he was working conscientiously at his job. As soon as the wad of cash is large enough his 'agent' arrives, takes it off him and on he rolls.

There are beggars. But just not as many as I had expected. A couple of kids poking their fingers through the grill-door of the CNG when we stop in the traffic jam, "please madam please".  Relent and give one of them 10 Thaka (1 penny) and half a dozen more arrive. Often they and the always near-by adults will be selling something - popcorn, candy floss, pirated books with half the pages missing, pens, sets of plastic Tuppaware boxes, laminated cards showing pictures of animals with badly spelled words in English and Bangla - elpant, "learn English" they shout. I hate staring ahead and ignoring them, so I just shake my head and repeat 'no, sorry' until they get bored and move on to the next potential money-bags.

There are beggars. Gulshan area, home to the Bagha Club and lots of the international development organisations and therefore being a quite salubrious area, has more than its fair share. Old people sitting on the pavements with their hands out, or shuffling along the road trying to catch your eye, kids trying unsuccessfully to sell strips of childrens' sticker-book stickers. I was walking along one day, looking for somewhere that did phone unlocking (don't ask) when a boy of about 8 years old and holding a couple of grubby strips of stickers approached me. "Madam, you looking for something?" He became my guide to the underbelly of posh Gulshan as we looked unsuccessfully for this imaginary unlocking shop in the back street market. I was about to give him 20 Thaka when I remembered. I needed an umbrella and he was the perfect person to find one for me. So off he went to find a good umbrella at a good non-bideshi (foreigner) price. Ten minutes later and after some to-ing and fro-ing as he whizzed back and forth negotiating at a distance, I agreed the price, followed him to the stall and bought the "good Japan umbrella, madam".  I  offered him 50 Thaka. 'No money, madam. Food."  In my head I was running through what I thought a small Bangla boy would want to eat as he led me through and out of the market into a supermarket. Oh, biscuits or chocolate I thought. No. Although we passed the aisle of biscuits a little wistfully, we headed to - cooking oil. He was obviously the breadwinner of his family and definitely took his responsibilities seriously. Humbling.

I could go on and on with examples of extreme urban poverty. 'We don't know how lucky we are' is still my constant refrain. But describing it in all its gory detail is the same as taking photos of the poor - voyeuristic and inappropriate. So I haven't done it. Except for the photo at the top of this post - street boys whooping it up in the lake opposite the parliament building.

After I wrote about the water leak outside the apartment, Sara sent me a poem by woman Pakistani writer, Imtiaz Dharker. Thanks, Sara.


The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.

Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.

Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
plastic buckets,
frantic hands,

and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
flashing light,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Shoeboo Noboo Boshore

That's a very bad phonetic spelling for Happy New Year! Today is the first day of the year 1419 in the Hindu calendar and, loving any excuse for a party,  everyone's out in the streets in their new red and white clothes. And yes, that means the Muslims, the Christians and the Buddhists too. Bangladesh is that kind of country.

We went for lunch with our new friend Sultana, a north London Bangladeshi, and then she, her maid Eve, Karen and I went for a walk amongst the crowds around the nearby lake. 

Millions of people; young boys hooting away with their plastic trumpets; gorgeous girls in all their glory; groups of young men laughing,  joking and ogling the girls; cute children (impossible not to photograph); street hawkers selling bangles, plastic toys, balloons, pop rice and ice-cream; so many approaching to practice their English - "hello, how are you? where are you from?" and then laughing with shyness when asked a question back; me saying 'shoeboo noboo boshore' to everyone and gaining smiles and applause for being able to speak Bangla.

So many people, so many photos......

Arranged Marriages-R-Us

Intent?    or.......






Outside our local supermarket

Friday, 13 April 2012

Working, wilting or raining

The weather has caught up with us. All of a sudden it's 36/37 degrees (that's in the top 90s to you and me) and the humidity is on the up and up. 50% today and due to be 60% + from tomorrow.

....... I started this post nearly two weeks ago and since then the weather has been the constant topic of conversation.......

First of all, I must tell you about my friend and colleague Karen. Would I have made it alone through this whole experience? Well yes, you know me. But would I have still been sane at the end of it? I'm not so sure. We arrived on the same day, we're both short-term volunteers, both based in the VSO country office in Dhaka, both share a tiny office (the one with the server), both share the apartment. So it was crucial that we got along. It turns out that Karen is the same age as me, was born and brought up in Stockport, just down the road from where I was brought up. She's an HR expert, working as a consultant and interim, I'm a free-lance consultant and trainer working on people issues. She worked at the Commission for Equality & Human Rights, I work in equality and human rights, she trains in HR, strategy  and management skills, I train in management and strategy skills. She now lives in Malvern - we used to live down the road. Her brother lives five minutes away from my sister. Her partner died  a very few years ago and mine eighteen months ago. I could go on and on. All I can say is thank goodness. And thank you Karen, you've made it all not just survivable - but fun.

So, back to the heat. Weeks ago, when the heat was still bearable, we had started an exercise regime. We can't go out and walk around during the evening, so my bedroom became our gym and we were religiously following a 'six weeks to the perfect body' workout programme. 15 or 20 minutes every day. Sweaty but do-able. But, as the temperature and humidity increased, we had to stop. There is no air-conditioning in the apartment, just ceiling fans which aren't enough. The warm-up exercises are ok, but any more exertion and we immediately started to feel ill and had to stop. It's very strange, it must be a combination of the heat and the humidity and maybe because our bodies are just not used to it. So we spent our evenings lying on the sofa wilting and complaining.  At the weekend we drag our increasingly flabby bodies (well, mine anyway) to the Bagha club to use the pool and the gym which does have air-con. 

Then, a water crisis. WASA the state water company is ridiculously inefficient and corrupt, like most of the utilities here. No leaks are ever repaired. Outside the apartment, we've had a mains water pipe leaking gallons and gallons of water. It runs along the road for a couple of metres before dropping into the street drain every minute of every day for the past two months So, no wonder the water stops so often. For the past three week we've not been able to swim as the Bagha Club swimming pool water has been used to flush the toilets. Lovely. 

Then it rained. Cats and dogs. Stair-rods. Almost every day for the week we've had some rain. Not lasting more than a couple of hours or so, but torrential. With amazing thunder and lightening. Black as night during the day and the roads immediately becoming lakes. The temperature has gone down a couple of degrees and, bizarrely,  it's made all the difference. I'm not sweating all the time and my energy doesn't disappear so drastically as it was doing. I could almost say it felt quite fresh in the morning (almost).

And I missed the latest earthquake, damn it. It was 8.7 (epicentre offshore) and apparently it lasted five minutes. But where was I? In a damn CNG rattling through the streets of Dhaka trying to get from one meeting to another. I miss all the fun.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Chicken Man

I love this photo, taken at the nearby market.  I had to show you.

Down to work

Good morning! This was the fabulous greeting I got on one of my visits. I felt like the Queen, except that I'm sure she wouldn't normally take photos of people saluting her. She's probably stifling a yawn.


People have been asking what I'm actually doing while I'm over here. No, I’m not teaching slum children to read or helping peasants to build floating vegetable gardens (climate change is causing arable land to disappear). I actually spend most of my time sitting in a tiny bunker sharing the space with my mate Karen and the computer server, where mainly I'm looking at a computer screen or on the phone. We are lucky enough to have air conditioning but that was installed not  for us but  to keep the server cool. Out of the window is one of the ubiquitous blocks of flats where every day I see, in each apartment,  the women who aren't allowed to go outdoors without their husbands. They spend their days cleaning and shouting down to the one of the bicycle-barrows that ply their trade around the streets (veg, bread, toys, household items) . They discuss the quality, agree the order and barter the price at the top of their voices, with an errand boy running up to deliver the goods. They then spend much of the rest of their days looking out of the window obviously bored, bored, bored. It's cruel.

The photo shows one of the veg barrows - and a woman! She's probably a cook/maid.

Back to work.  My job title is Corporate Engagement Advisor. Which means that I am working to persuade big companies to join in partnership with the 'charity' sector to help alleviate poverty. There is a long history of philanthropy in Bangladesh, but mainly in the past it's been the company chairmen who have given lots of money to their favourite school or good cause. My efforts are to help companies focus their efforts on more sustainable projects - on health, alternative livelihoods, education, climate change adaption, small business development, etc. etc. 

Why does Bangladesh need the support? To be blunt, 85% of the people live lives that would have fitted in perfectly in medieval times in the UK. Because of the need to be constantly concerned with where tomorrow's food is coming from people have tended to stick with what they, their parents and their parent's parents, know.  The farmers are completely non-mechanical. Everything is done by hand.  Produce is transported by carts pulled by bicycles, fertilisers are almost unheard of, cooking is done in clay ovens with a particular solid fuel - shit. Sorry, but animal dung is squeezed on to long twigs or branches and then left in the sun to dry out, these are then put on the fire as necessary. Many of the Development Agencies including VSO are helping villagers by installing village biogas plants with gas piped to each home.  (Biogas typically refers to a gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Organic waste such as dead plant and animal material, animal feces, and kitchen waste can be converted into a gaseous fuel called biogas.  Wikipedia) People also do their personal and household washing in the ponds where fish are grown for sale. I'm not exaggerating. Of course some of the big companies have bought up land and get their tenant farmers to use modern fertilisers but, because labour is soooo cheap, they just don't bother to think about tractors or other farm machinery.

The job. I  have what could almost  – but not quite – be considered glamorous job here. Apart from writing strategy documents, I take people out to dinner, have tea and biscuits with the wives of industrialists, go to Gala evenings to smooze with Chief Executives, listen to interminable speeches, organise business breakfasts, go on tours of factories and am generally wined and dined. Well, not wined. This is a Moslem country, which although very moderate in its religious practices is still dry. So no alcohol. Sigh

Last week I visited a very successful company in Bangladesh's main export industry - ready-made garments (known as the RMG sector). So I'm finding out about what goes on the the enormous places that make clothes for Asda, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Decathlon, H&M and many, many more. I visited a company called DBL Group which employs 14,000 people in their complex about twenty miles outside Dhaka. They pride themselves on the good conditions for their workers and have health care, a shop that sells household goods at wholesale prices, a free day-care centre for babies and tiny tots too young to go to school, a zoo (??!!),  a play park for the children, a fish farm where they sell the fish to their workers, etc. etc. They are now concerned, rightly, about conditions in villages around their factories, and we're working on developing a project to provide safe water, better sanitation and better conditions generally for their workers in their homes. The reason things are so poor is that most of the workers are very young and have usually come in from the rural areas. So they send all their money home to their families and don't keep much at all for themselves. DBL will provide the money and we'll organise the technical expertise plus health awareness workers (teaching things like the importance of hand washing before handling food).

 The day-care centre

DBL is one of the few garment factories that makes its own cloth from raw cotton. Usually it's imported from China or India.

 Workers coming back after lunch. At the factory gate they have to split up into lines of men and lines of women. So there is no 'trouble' (??)

That’s enough on my job for now.  More on the dinners, galas, breakfasts etc. later. I’m wilting as the electricity is off – again, and so the fans have stopped. I’m sitting here with my feet up in case any cockroaches come out to play.

Here’s a photo of a lovely monster. We sprayed it and sprayed it, but goodness they are buggers to kill. In the end it spent the night under the mug. The next morning, armed with the huge can of killer spray just in case, I moved the mug and then got rid of the dead bug. Yuk. I've just realised that bug is short for bugger. Well it is as far as these bastards are concerned.