Category Archives: Bangladesh 2009-12

Finding a flat-ah in Dhaka

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.

Now that’s what I call a real vegetable stall!

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.

The sign for Al-Addin Hospital, Ramna

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.

The cables of Motijheel

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.

Karwan Bazar has more romance than Venice…

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.

A tea break on the roof in Old Dhaka

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.

Beautiful unknown vegetables

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

Jessica’s second Bangladesh blog: it’s all about the tea (and spiders)

The fairest of them all...
The fairest of them all...

I’ll begin this entry with a well-known travel fact: switched-on travellers don’t arrive in small towns after midnight.  Only disorganised risk-takers do it; those who don’t mind bedding down for the night in, say, a petrol station.  After meeting such a fate in Nepal, I’d said to myself, “Never again.” 

But then, three years later, I found myself on a luckless mission to find the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse in the depths of Srimangal’s tea estates at 1am.  The experience reminded of the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, when Alice is having trouble with keys and doors and potions that make her grow too tall…

When I arrived at what I thought was the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse I saw that it had no sign, and the men guarding the gates told me it wasn’t the place I was looking for (even though it was). 

 The Tea Resort had a sign, but the guys there said it was wrong and that it was in fact the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse (it wasn’t). 

 I went to another unnamed place that looked nothing like a guesthouse, and I spoke to a man with a big pot-belly and a frog jumped on my foot. 

 I returned to the first guesthouse and was told that even if it was the right place, I couldn’t stay there because the Prime Minister was coming. 

 For some reason I took this news as the most promising development yet, and somehow managed to convince them that I’d made a booking and that it would be bad form to make me sleep under a tea bush.

A tea plucker
A tea plucker

 Why did I persist? Because Lonely Planet describes the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse like this:

 “What better place to stay than right here in the heart of the Bangladesh tea universe.  This charming guesthouse is right opposite the research institute and has large, well-furnished rooms with thick carpets, regal green curtains, inviting bathtubs, and best of all, lovely verandas with tables and chairs where you can sit back with – what else – a cuppa and admire the beautifully maintained gardens.”

 Of course I wanted a piece of that.

 But sadly, once inside Room 3, I realised that time had not been kind to the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse. 

 The bathtub had no plug, the taps were rusted, and the water was cold.   The shower lacked a water supply.  The ‘thick’ carpets were thinner than thick and ants were crawling all over the stains. The toilet also had wet brown stains on the seat and it didn’t flush – the bathroom stank of stale septic gas.  When I used the toilet, aggressive ants crawled out of an old electrical socket and onto the floor around my feet. The bath rail fell off.  The mattress had frightening lumps.  I used a chair as a bedside table, but after checking underneath the seat, decided against it.  A thick storm cloud of spider webs had gathered.

'Heave'
'Heave'

 But wait, there’s more…

 In the morning I was told that I couldn’t have a key for my room because it’s shared with the adjoining room.  Two rooms, one key – go figure.

 So I cut my losses and checked into Hotel Tea Town.

 The epilogue to that little is saga is that when I was back in Dhaka I whinged about the weird vibe at the Tea Research Institute Guesthouse to my Australian friends, Robyn and Mark.  They said: “We tried to stay there but they wouldn’t let us.”

                                                          *         *         *

 One evening I was looking for Cyber World on Srimangal’s main street and a guy walked past and said: “Tourist?” and I said: “No, journalist,” and he said: “Me too.” And I was like: “NO WAY!”  And so the next morning this rather dashing Bangladeshi journalist came along with me to the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (opposite the mucky hostel).  I interviewed the director, and a scientist gave us a tour of the tea factory.  I took photos but I’m not allowed to show you, lest you set up your own tea-making factory based on my photos…  However I can tell you that Stage Two involves sifting the dust from the tea leaves using a big vibrating machine, and Stage Seven involves a bloody great furnace blasting heat onto the tea leaves at 93 degrees Celsius.

 If you want to learn a little more about tea production in Bangladesh, make sure you pick up a copy of the January edition of Tea Talk Magazine.

 For this same article, I was on a mission to find and consume the magic tea of Srimangal.  It has seven different flavours and colours, and incredibly, they don’t mix.  You can jiggle the cup and they still don’t mix.  This beautiful brew was invented by a man called Roshem Ram Gour in 2006, and the only place in the world that you’ll find it is at the Nilkantha Tea Cabin. My new friend Russell came along and he made finding the tea cabin a whole lot easier than a guesthouse in the night.

21 layers of tea
21 layers of tea

 Over the next three days I drank five cups of the stripey stuff.  In one sitting I drank three cups because I thought it would be nice to line them all up and take pictures.  So I am well placed to tell you that the tea tastes as good as it looks.

 For someone who invented something so fun, Mr Ram Gour was a serious looking fellow who didn’t talk much.  But he did confirm the rumours that he’s been offered thousands of dollars to divulge the recipe. However he refuses to spill the beans on his secret, so the seven-layered tea will not be coming to a Waitrose store near you. 

 I became friendly with a guy called Rashed and he and I rode bicycles to Lowacherra National Park.  I wanted to see the freakily large orb spider (a.k.a. ‘banana spider’).  They can grow to the size of a human head and their poison packs a punch – when Rashed’s mother was bitten by one her whole hand blew up.  Although I saw plenty of them, my photos are rubbish because I didn’t adhere to Capa’s mantra: “If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  (Anyway now we know he faked his best photo).  

 I’d also hoped to see a hoolock gibbon, but I assume they were too frightened to make an appearance. 

My favourite bug of the day
My favourite bug of the day

Rashed insisted on blasting Shakira out of his phone as we pitter-pattered along the trail… It didn’t bother the butterflies though.

 We also visited a Khashia tribal village.  I know it’s a big claim, but one of the young girls had the loveliest face I’ve ever seen (please refer to photo).  It was quite a surprise to discover the Khashias are Christians, though their ancestors are from the steppes of Mongolia.  We bought some of their hand-made beaded jewellery and were generously let inside their spotless homes.

 Afterwards Rashed and I paid £1.50 for a luscious swim at the Tea Resort and I lost 40 takka playing ping-pong badly.  But I couldn’t sulk over it because Srimangal had been so good to me.

 I’m going to end this blog entry with the worst joke in the world. I made it up on the bus back to Dhaka, when my brain went moudly.

 Q: What’s Srimangal like?

 A: Tea-rrific

Not the biggest specimen; just the only one I got close to
Not the biggest specimen; just the only one I got close to
Going against the grain
Going against the grain
Rashed with a baby in a Khashia home
Rashed with a baby in a Khashia home
Rickshaw art
Rickshaw art
Rashed, bikes and sunbeams
Rashed, bikes and sunbeams

Russell

Beautiful Srimangal
Beautiful Srimangal
Russell
A tailor
A tailorLivin' la di vida loca at the Tea Resort

Bangladesh – the first bit

A boy from Puthia
Hello from Bangladesh

I’ve started this blog so that I can tell you the best (and worst) bits about my extended stay in Bangladesh.  After two weeks of travelling and a spot of freelancing, I’ll start a six month internship at The Daily Star, an English language daily national newspaper based in Dhaka.

Let’s get started then…

October 19: arrive Dhaka from London

Total journey time: 35 hours

Sleepy time: 3 hours

When I landed at the airport, bleary-eyed and sweating, an official pointed something at my head that looked remarkably like a gun.  It had a trigger, and he pulled it with a click.  I saw a small red light flash underneath its shaft, which meant that I didn’t have a swine flu fever and I was free to pass go.  I was the only person to have a passport stamped at the foreign counter, and I was one of two females on the flight (excluding hostesses).

I made my first venture out into chaotic Dhaka in the cloistered backseat of an auto-rickshaw.  I could peer out just enough to see, but not to be seen (pretty much).  I wasn’t ready for that just yet.  The first thing that struck me was the enterprise at intersections.  The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of items I could have purchased at a (loooooong) red light:

•    Popcorn
•    Sticker books
•    Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope”
•    Safety pins
•    Bananas
•    My conscience

The last item refers to how I might have felt if I’d given in to the dozens of requests from beggars, whose outstretched hands crept into the rickshaw to tap at my arm.  Many are maimed and disfigured; often they are children, or the sun-worn aged.  The old women struck me the most.  Their saris are gaping rags and their hair is so matted that a bird looking for a nest would need not make any alterations.  A couple of them had exposed breasts.  To commit such a taboo in this conservative society and not care a jot (so I assumed) made me wonder what their past had done to them.

A boy hanging out in the college at Puthia

I did give a few takka to one man who looked about forty.  I made the split decision after he swung his shoulder towards me in order to show me an arm that was long enough, but not wide enough.  A sapling may have been thicker than what he had to work with.  But on the other occasions I just sat there, my gaze averted, wondering what the driver thought of someone who could very easily give but didn’t.

A few days later I took a train to Rajshahi in western Bangladesh.  I love trains and I was excited about my first trip.  I also knew from past experiences as a solo female traveller that if there was any harrassment to be had, it would be had on the train (or bus – what is it about these ‘romantic’ settings?)

And sure enough, a Don Juan behind me struck up a conversation that almost immediately involved discerning the whereabouts of my boyfriend (he is, er, called, um David… which in the past has been mimicked back as “Um-David”).  He moved to sit beside me.

I remembered the advice of my Bible, a.k.a. Lonely Planet: “A woman who is politely assertive can ask for space and usually gets it.”

So I asked for it, and I got it.  He moved back to his seat.  A couple of women who were watching giggled.

About an hour later, he broke the reverie of my iPod miming by pushing this note through the seats:

“Dear Sister,

We are the man that is true.  We should not hate each other.  I have three sisters.  When I saw you first, I was surprised that I got another sister.

Actually, I treat you as my sister.  As up to now I did not mind, because you don’t know who am I.  But I can tell you I am honest and would like to help people.

My father is a Deputy Director.  I am MSC holder person.

So I know how to honour people.

Kajim”

I felt like a bit of a hard-arse.

It was a six hour journey, so, being me, I was starving half-way through it.  Food wallahs had kept shoving fried chicken literally onto my elbow, so naturally that was what I went for.

That evil chicken was my unravelling.  And of course it was – it was a hot day and meat goes off in the sun.  I had all that night and the following day to writhe around in bed, cursing my stupidity for biting off more than I should have chewed.  I also watched a lot of Al Jazeera reports, the Muppets Christmas Special, a documentary on the great white shark, and ‘Lil Champs’, an Indian young talent contest (awe-inspiring singing by kids who are probably too young to tie a shoelace).

Four days later, and I’ve had my first full meal.  It was mouth-wateringly good, and I was pleased with myself for abandoning the spoon in favour of my right hand, as per custom.  I had dhal, a vegetable dish , a chicken dish, steamed rice, milky tea and a two litre bottle of water.  Guess how much? Lower.  Lower. 80 pence.

The highlight of my day
The highlight of my day, though it was hard to choose...

I took the public bus to visit the villages of Puthia and Natore from Rajshahi.  I was over the moon to photograph the stunning Hindu temples, crumbling Raj-era palaces, and the friendly and interesting faces. There were no tourists and no ticket booths – in Puthia, someone found the caretaker and he unlocked the gates, temple by temple.  I signed the guestbook on his bed, in a tiny room that also contained a stove and hanging clothes.  Earlier in the day, a local boy led me to his village and a pretty older woman with betel-stained teeth lent me her daughter’s sari so that I could swim with her in a bright orange pond.  She scrubbed the sweat off me with a bar of soap and a stick of loofah.  Afterwards she brushed my hair and her daughter painted the soles of my feet a deep claret red.

So far I’ve encountered nothing but kindness and hyper-courtesy from Bangladeshis.  At first I found the staring a bit unnerving, particularly when large groups gathered to watch with fascination as I drank a cup of tea.  But I’ve realised that it’s a novelty for me to be a novelty, and that I should try to enjoy the attention while it lasts.  I feel sorry for the likes of Angelina Jolie, cos she’ll never be able to do a low-key cuppa again…

And here’s a few more pictures…

Big catch - New Market, Rajshahi
Big catch - New Market, Rajshahi
Govinda Temple, Puthia
Govinda Temple, Puthia
This little boy patted all the animals that he stopped to show me
This little boy patted all the animals that he stopped to show me
She told me this shrine honoured her father's memory
She told me this shrine honoured her father's memory
A warm reception in Puthia - that palace behind them is their college!
A warm reception in Puthia - that palace behind them is their college!
Hello from the Holy Man – Natore
This guy was cool - he showed me around Natore and posed obligingly for photos
This guy was cool - he showed me around Natore and posed obligingly for photos
There's no escaping the Ani-meister
There's no escaping the Ani-meister...
Rajshahi blog (8 of 12)
Having my feet painted in Puthia