This blog entry picks up right where the last one left off: after some wonderful adventures in Tea Land, I returned to Dhaka to get down to the business of becoming an expat.
I was staying in a cheapish hotel in the commercial district of Motijheel, which is crazy-busy and full of roundabouts, banks and six lane roads. It also hosts most of the regular street demonstrations, which I watched with waning interest from my ninth floor window. Even though my room was a bit of a rat hole, I kept going back to Hotel Pacific because the guys on reception were unfailingly cool and I felt safe. And it’s not that I had a huge range of options – often the cheaper-end hotels won’t accept solo women unless they are sure they can handle the special cargo…
I chick-bombed the room with my scarves and then cranked the clunking fan to cancel out the heat… Then I cranked the TV volume to cancel out the fan. Usual routine. And then I stared at the ceiling and stopped denying the truth: I had absolutely no idea how I would ever find my own place. Until very recently, when anyone asked about my long-term living arrangements, the only answer I could muster was that I hoped to live in a building. But with my characteristic naivety I had cheerfully assured friends and family that the situation would somehow work itself out.
Privately, I was so clueless that I didn’t even know which mode of communication to use to get the ball rolling. Presuming, of course, that I could communicate in English rather than Bangla. Should I phone or email? Who exactly did I want to contact anyway? I considered walking the streets until I found a shop called “Real Estate 4 U” or whatever. And was there anything culturally specific about doing business that I needed to know – like, would I have to bargain for my rent?
I wanted to kick myself when I noticed the Yellow Pages on the table – I had forgotten about those. I rang “Century 21” and was sitting opposite a property representative within the hour.
But although he tried his best, in the end he couldn’t help me. After an afternoon of being chauffeured around in the AC company car, I was told that my needs were too unusual.
Firstly, I didn’t want an unfurnished four bedroom apartment, even if it was lemon yellow and beautiful.
Secondly, I didn’t want to live in Gulshan or its sidekick Banani.
At first this latter requirement was just a hunch I developed after reading a book written by a snobby British expat. He seemed to think it would be impossible for a foreigner to survive anywhere else in Dhaka.
But then when lots of other people started telling me to live there (my language teacher went so far as to say that I needed to live there), I knew I had to find a really good reason not to do so. I’m stubborn like that.
Fortunately (for my reasoning), Gulshan is expensive, a long way north of the newspaper office in Karwan Bazaar, and prone to muggings (of foreigners) at night. And the streets themselves look like “Bangladesh Lite” and thus are a big turn-off. You can buy Volkswagons, treadmills and Hush Puppy shoes, but it’s hard to find a quick and tasty hot meal – let alone a market.
My colleague at The Daily Star dislikes the area even more than I do. He said: “I feel like I’ve left my own country when I go to Gulshan.” Funnily enough, if my friend actually did want to leave Bangladesh, he would first have to pay a visit to one of Gulshan’s 22 (yes 22) embassies…
Day by day I was discovering the prevalence of the foreigner-in-Gulshan assumption. Strangers at the tea stall would say to me: “You live in Gulshan?” and CNG (auto-rickshaw) drivers would be so baffled when I asked for Karwan Bazaar that they would find an English speaking person on the street to double-check my instructions.
Time was running out. My bill at the hotel was racking up, I’d started working full-time and my sister and the Space Man were due to arrive in a fortnight. I had promised them a pad. Mr Century 21 was sending me text messages saying “Ma’am, I have an apartment in Gulshan that will meet your needs if you will pay a little more…” In other words, it didn’t meet my needs…
Until now I haven’t acknowledged the help from my colleagues at The Daily Star.
I had been shown several hotel suites in elegant Dhanmondi (all of which were too glamourous for my plastic wallet) and I had been offered lodgings in family homes. I declined this second offer because I am alternately obsessed with Al Jazeera News and silence, so I knew I would be a bad guest.
And then, a week later, a colleague told me he knew of a two bedroom apartment in Ramna that was available until the middle of January.
I moved in.
This red brick apartment is completely fantastic and the whole complex, complete with swing-sets, is very peaceful. In the morning I wake to the sounds of birds crowing and women sweeping the path with long wispy brushes.
By my guestimation, it’s also ultra-secure (you’ve got that in writing, Dad). Apparently a government minister lives here, so it must be. There are always a handful of security men with old school rifles at the gate and I have to poke my head out of the CNG before the vehicle is allowed to pass through.
When I walk past the five-odd security men in the morning they each nod, half-salute and say “Slamalaykum.” I’m never sure whether to nod back at one or all or none of them and the effort mysteriously causes me to trip over my feet. I can’t seem to stop it and have decided that I would be a shit soldier.
I also can’t stop checking whether there is a freshly chopped-off goat’s head at the open-air butchers on the corner. I have to find it amongst the hanging meat slabs and entrails to know whether it has been sold that day… Mostly it’s gone by the afternoon.
I also enjoy seeing the men on my road carrying 15 chickens on their heads in large wicker baskets. I think the chickens must be sedated or something because they don’t flap their wings even though they’re in a weird situation. There are three men who carry them as they walk about 10 metres apart, and at intervals they call out something long and low – to me it sounds like the rumblings of a tenor. I presume they must be saying “Chiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiicken” but I like to imagine what else they might be saying, like: “Huuuuuuuugggg meeeeeee.” Once a chicken seller offered me one of his sedated chickens and then laughed really hard at his own joke.
I’m not sure what the neighbourhood thinks of this vastly inferior version of Nicole Kidman moving in. Most people probably couldn’t care less, but when I see some of them pointing and nudging, I do wonder a little bit. They might have their own theories, just as I have my chicken-calling theories…
2013 update: There’s now a company that provides online real estate searches, so much of the confusion mentioned above can be avoided.
Click here to visit Lamudi’s home page – it has properties in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet.
Or click here to read more about it in The Daily Star