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

Now read on.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Domestic Bliss, or the joys of a universal plug

Where do I start? I live in a second floor walk-up five minutes from the office. The door to this five floor apartment block is guarded by a couple of boys and occasionally their father. This means that they live, wash, cook and sleep - all of them - in a small cubby hole next the front door. I'll try to take a photo of it sometime, but don't want to do it when they're around.

I live with my two colleagues, Karen and Wendy, in a big apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Sounds great doesn't it? Well, it's actually not bad if you don't look too closely at the peeling walls or greasy kitchen. the worst thing is that we don't have any hot water and the shower is a basin in the bathroom. I don't know how any woman has any time to do anything living in a place like this. My daily water routine (which I share with the others but is still a chore) consists of getting up to empty the big pan of previously boiled water into the water filter, re-fill the pan and put it on to heat up more water for my bucket shower. Then I fill the kettle from the water filter to heat it up for coffee. After my shower I put the water on again for one of the others, then again to provide hot water for Khalada our cleaner. Khalada, who is paid the princely sum of £6 a month for three days a week, spends most of her time battling with the bloody dust which constantly seeps through every nook and cranny leaving a carpet of the stuff on everything. Bring on the rain - not. I don't ask her to do my washing  as I can take it to the laundry to be washed and ironed for less than 40 pence per item. I wash my smalls myself as I don't think they'd cope terribly well with the robust cold water washing techniques of both Khalada and the laundry.

Our bathroom is pretty basic and I'm not doing terribly well with this shower in a bucket thing. Plus the toilet cistern leaks. Remind me never to put in a wet room back home.

Aaah, hot water. What bliss. I'm now a member of the Bagha Club (British High Commission club) and have become a real ex-pat. Truth be told, besides the access to alcohol, the best thing about the place is the hot shower. You can tell those who don't have access to hot water by the hours they spend in the shower gurgling with pleasure. Count me in. Unfortunately I can only get there about once a week.

The photos are to reassure my mum whom, I'm sure, thinks that I'm living in some dark bug-ridden hovel.

Our sitting area

The dining area with maps - as instructed, Richard!

My bedroom, with mozzie net

Since I took this photo I've bought some lovely pale sari fabric to use as curtains

Our luxury kitchen. It has no redeeming features whatsoever

The water filter

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Village people

Although Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, its people are no longer starving - just desperately poor. Living a real hand to mouth existence, means working very hard every day to get the food for tomorrow with no time to think about change. In the rural areas life is much the same as it has been for centuries. Apart from the motor bikes and bicycles which are the only vehicles that can negotiate the tracks, life has a Thomas Hardy quality to it. People are just dressed more colourfully. Children can walk 30, 40, 50 minutes to get to school. Small markets where produce can be sold are found at the larger track junctions and can take over to an hour to cycle to. Houses are either wooden constructions with a palm leaf roof or have corrugated iron walls and roof to match. Underfoot it’s beaten earth, brushed clean every day by the women. As I mentioned the personal and household washing is done in the nearby pond which also holds the fish villagers eat. There may be a couple of dogs and a cat mooching around. They’re the same as the people really – just enough to eat but wouldn’t mind a bit more. The men work in the paddy fields and the women tend to both the numerous fish and shrimp ponds, grow and shell (is that the right word?) the enormous snails that provide much of the fish food, crush the shells for fertiliser, tend to the vegetables, keep the place clean, look after their homes, cook and have more children.

We visited a couple of primary schools and a high school, met local youth club organisers and the Village Committee. All very interesting – no, really. Our host NGO was Renaissance, an small organisation set up years ago by dedicated local people. They try to improve the lot of the local villagers through education, awareness raising and empowerment. They sponsor bright youngsters through high school and have just had their first university place acceptance for a future local doctor. They also provide non-formal education. This is school for what they call drop-outs. We wouldn't call them drop-outs - they are children who for some reason (usually having to work in the fields, or being married at under 16) are not able to go to school. One of the young women we met is doing economics among her 'A' levels and is intending to be a banker. This from someone whose village has no electricity, mains water or sanitation, and who has seen TV or listened to the radio about 6 times in her life. The dedication of these children to their education is humbling.

Out there in the sticks there is not much rubbish. Everything is used. The children in one of the primary schools had old lighter gas or fly spray aerosols as pencil cases. It’s a different picture around the markets, towns and cities though. There is rubbish everywhere. As there is no national or local infrastructure to have it collected and disposed of people just drop things as and when it’s finished with. In fact the rubbish from our apartment is taken by the boy who guards the building, he dumps it in the street around the corner, a couple of beggars will go through it for anything salvageable and the rest is left to rot where it is. As I have already said, I’m here in the best season and it’s true for all sorts of reasons, but the lack of smell must be a key one. I’m not looking forward to the warmer weather.
By the way, I touched a crocodile the other day! In the grounds of an ancient mosque there is a big lake with an almost as ancient crocodile who is hand-fed chickens for lunch. She had just had lunch and was taking a siesta on the side of the lake. The old man looking after her allowed us to approach – from behind her, very slowly and carefully, and stroke her, very slowly and carefully, and then back away very slowly and carefully. We lived to tell the tale. Phew.

Then on the coach on the way back to Dhaka there was an elephant by the side of the road. Unexpected. Marvellous.

High school students, volunteers and Renaissance staff.

The future banker

 Primary age children in the non-formal school

Drop-outs - parents can't/won't send them to school.

The children in the school are so keen to learn.

Friday, 17 February 2012


It’s hard to find a way of describing my emotions on experiencing this strange country. I’m soaking it all up like a sponge but words like aargh, oooh, wow, noooo and the like don’t really do it, do they?  Anyway……

The four-day field trip with my eight other VSO volunteer colleagues was to Khulna in the rural south-west, the poorest, most isolated area. In geographical terms Bangladesh sits on one of the largest river deltas in the world formed by the confluence of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers. In total the delta has over 57 rivers emptying into the Bay of Bengal. So the area is very fertile when it’s not underwater. Although this area gets its flooding from the sea the main flooding, by the way, comes not from the sea but from the north of the country when the Himalayas melt and the flooding river water sweeps through the country.

What I find so gob-smacking is that Bangladesh is only the size of England and Wales combined but has over 160 million people. No wonder the place is teeming with people wherever you go. Khulna district is very isolated but actually the distance we travelled was less than 85 miles door to door (only slightly further than London to Birmingham. It took ten hours on a coach. Apparently that was good going. Leaving Dhaka we passed through one of the seven circles of hell - the brick factory area. The photo below doesn't look too horrific but the blurry-ness is due to the pollution the chimneys give off. The men working in the kilns have hellishly hard jobs and are, of course, underpaid and overworked. In today's newspaper there was an article about child trafficing into the brick factories. The police had rescued 23 kids aged under 10 who had been forced to work long long hours loading and unloading the kilns. Not for the first time - or probably the last - I'm saying to myself 'we don't know how lucky we are'.

After an arduous journey including a ferry crossing, which was an experience in itself, we arrived in Khulna district. I’ll attach some photos showing the journey.

The south-west is so beautiful. Very flat, very green. As far as the eye can see, there are copses of tropical trees surrounded by rice paddies edged by raised levees or dykes topped with little footpaths lined with banana trees or pumpkin or tomato plants. The roads are mainly made of dirt and even the 'main' Dhaka to Khulna road only had tarmac for about half the way. The tracks off the main roads are shaded with beautiful trees and often paved with brick cobbles laid herringbone style. Apparently the last government launched an initiative to do this throughout the country but the latest government cancelled it. Shame to stop as it’s obviously made a huge difference. I was there in the best season as half the year this area is flooded to the top of the levees and often ankle deep on the footpaths and in the village hamlets.

The flooding is particularly bad in this area as it is saline and therefore ruins everything. Pumped 'drinking' water comes from Tube Wells which take the water from the low water table but the salinity increases every year and it also contains arsenic. The locals drink this, washing themselves and cleaning clothes and cooking utensils in the pond water. As you can imagine the volunteers are strictly forbidden from drinking, teeth cleaning or washing in the local water. Even the filtered water is bad and those that have ignored the warning not the wash in it have come out in rashes and had significant skin problems.

Enough of the geography lesson. More on the people later.

Main road from Dhaka to Khulna - showing tarmac!

One of the hundreds of brick factories.

Not quite Dover - waiting for the car ferry

Restaurant on the ferry - and no, I didn't sample anything

 Ships that pass......

View from my hotel room -  it's morning mist mixed with an unhealthy dose of pollution

Meeting local women on the track between two village hamlets

Yes, it's a cow. Very unusual in this neck of the woods. It's all part of an initiative trying to encourage alternative livelihoods.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

First Day of Spring

Tomorrow is the first day of Spring for the Bangladeshis. Girls and woman will celebrate the day by stepping out in their new Spring clothes. Yellow or white or red will be the order of the day, and there will be flowers in the hair and garlanded around the neck. It should be gorgeous.

I'm off to Khulna on our school trip. It's in the south-west of the country near the famous Sundarbans which is the largest mangrove swamp in the world and home to the Bengal tiger. At last I'm going to be seeing something of the country. Back on Thursday.

'Happy Springtime' she says, somewhat ironically.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Getting around

 I’m giving up attempting to be poetic, clever or funny in this blog. Trying too hard just meant that I didn’t write anything. Sooo…….

I arrived two weeks ago into the worst air pollution I have ever experienced in my life. It turns out to be from the traffic (of course) and from brick dust coming from the brick factories that surround Dhaka. It’s visible and although only occasionally smell-able it certainly catches in the throat. The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 15,000 people die in Bangladesh each year because of air pollution. It should be worse, but the main form of transportation in Dhaka is non-motorised cycle rickshaw, of which there are at least 320,000!

Although not the poorest of the poor, rickshaw pullers are viewed as the bottom of society, living in the slums and taking home only around 100-120 thaka a day (less than £1). The rickshaws are colourful and fun to use for short journeys now I’ve got the hang of the tiny, sloping ‘seat’. I say fun but it’s tough to sit behind the backs of these extremely thin long-suffering pullers. I really don’t know how they keep up their stamina without proper food and not much water, but keep going they do. Karen and I have decided to use them as much as possible as our way of giving to the poor. As trips are only about 25-pence per rickshaw it is hard to resist giving more but there are arguments about not paying more than the price people normally pay as it ‘inflates’ the market and this “isn’t a good idea”. Not sure about that.

For longer journeys around the capital there is the CNG. It’s a three-wheeled taxi powered by Compressed Natural Gas (same as LPG?) in what looks like a 2-stroke lawn-mower motor. These were introduced in 2001 when it was realised just how much the old petrol-driven taxis were contributing to the air pollution problem.  There are tens of thousands CNGs on the streets in Dhaka. Although they are real bone-shakers and noisy to boot they are fairly reliable, whizzing around, in and out of the traffic, cutting up everything in sight.

The traffic itself is un-bloody-believable. Traffic lights and road markings have long since lost their meanings, if they ever had any. Five lanes of traffic crowd the roads marked out for three. No-one EVER looks in their mirrors. The CNG’s mirrors are directed inwards and used only to let the driver look back at their passengers. Lane discipline, ha ha ha. EVERYONE cuts everyone else up and the cars drive sooooo close to each other that I am constantly breathing in and holding my breath to try to will the CNG through the smallest space between an overcrowded bus battered to within an inch of its life and a big smart Toyota driven by a mobile-phone wielding young man or woman. All the while everyone is hooting, honking and bell-tinging. 

Photo of early morning at New Market, you can just see the green CNG in amongst the rickshaws. one hour later, this enormous, wonderful indoor and outdoor market was teeming with people. It was great.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Neighbourhood Watch

At night Lalmatia (my area) is dark. There are no streetlights, a few unlit rickshaws, fewer cars and even fewer people. Lying in bed I can hear occasional voices, maybe a solitary dog bark and, every night, bricks and sand being delivered to the building site across the road. Yes, it wakes me up and yes, it's a pain but my disturbed night is nothing in comparison with the workers who live on all six floors of the site. They have to get up and unload all the bricks by hand, then shovel the sand (or whatever it is) from the lorry onto the ground next to the bricks. Every night.  Ahh, the truck has just arrived, 11.56pm. The brickies will be busy again tomorrow.

Dhaka is a very safe city, not least because of the local night-time neighbourhood-watch system, which involves local people blowing whistles if someone 'suspicious' is seen in their street. So the, almost musical, accompaniment of the night is the sound of the whistles ebbing and flowing as neighbours pass the message along.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

First few days....

I've sort-of been writing this in my notebook having been too busy to struggle with the internet. All those problems now solved thank goodness. So here is my diary for the first few days....

Dhaka 26th

I was a mere child. I knew nothing. Coming from the airport in order: the pollution; the people; the traffic; the driving (!!!); the people; the people; the begging; the dust; the pollution. But despite the immediate and stunning assault on the senses there is something about the place, it’s so alive.

Friday Dhaka 27th

I have a shocking head cold, my nose is streaming and anti-social but it’s 22 degrees. It’s also Friday and therefore the Sunday equivalent so we’re being broken in quietly. We could walk down the dusty streets of this apparently quite middle-class area without having to jump out of the way of the cycle rickshaws and cars. As foreigners we attract a lot of attention. Bangladesh has very little tourism so our mixed group of British, Ugandans, a Sri Lankan, a Philippino and a Chinese man really stopped the traffic. This must be what celebrities experience – people stopping and staring, commenting and taking photos.

Here's a photo of me not quite getting the hang of this scarf business.

 Saturday Dhaka 28th – Mohamadpur market

My first rickshaw trip. Goodness that was scary. Not because they are dangerous in themselves, but because I am sooooo tall and big. Those seats, which slope down towards the driver/cyclist by the way, were made for the tiny, slim Bangladeshis. Once I’d got over feeling sorry for the poor driver and I had wedged myself into place it was fun. Definitely an eco-friendly mode of transport while feeding the poor at the same time. Good market too, but more of that later.