Pre-arrival, when I first read about ‘induction’ and the ‘induction flat complex’ – which was described as having ‘secure gates and locks’ – I thought it all sounded rather sinister. All newly-arrived volunteers go through a four-week period of orientation known as ‘induction’ at the VSO country office, during which time they stay in the ‘induction flat’. I arrived on the same flight as Tony from the UK and Estelle from South Africa and we were joined later in the week by Ciony, Rosie and Carla from the Philippines.
Local time is 6 hours ahead of GMT. I spent the first few days trying to get used to the heat and the humidity, taking in and assimilating my immediate surroundings in Lalmatia, the district in Dhaka where both the induction flat and the VSO offices are located, and meeting VSO volunteers and staff – all of whom were very welcoming. I felt both overwhelmed and excited. I expected the latter but not the former. After all, I reminded myself, I had travelled extensively – and in Asia too for a lengthy period of time – and always on a shoestring. However, I now realised that it had been a long time ago. Come to think of it, the last time I had been outside the Western world was in 2003 (when I travelled in Central America). Furthermore, understanding and even expecting ‘culture shock’ (if that’s not an oxymoron) does little to alleviate the actual experience itself. (For more on my occasional struggles with ‘culture-shock’ see post 33.)
Dhaka can seem calamitous and formidable on first arrival: the traffic, the poverty, the noise, the crowds, the whirl of activity, the heat, the humidity and the pollution. (The next entry [post 7] will focus on Dhaka.) For now, Lalmatia, the area where I live, is my immediate world. Being off the main drag, it is, consequently, quieter. It is a confusing labyrinth of brown, dusty, rough roads with blocks of concrete, mostly residential, flat complexes. There are no road signs and in any case road names and house numbers don’t follow any discernible logic. There are intermittent coconut palms and ashok trees and other flowering plants – though these are more often than not covered in a film of dust and therefore fade into the background. A lot happens on these roads. Narrow, open channels of raw sewage run through them (between footpath – if present – and road) and public urination/defecation is not uncommon. This, together with intermittent mounds of decaying rubbish, can give rise to the occasional malodourous aroma. On every street there are many places that serve fresh naan bread accompanied by a small plate of yellow lentil dahl. (This makes for a very tasty breakfast.) Honking vehicles and rickshaws ply by, zigzagging to avoid deep potholes and dips in the roads; street vendors hawk their wares; beggars beg; women sweep roads; men sip cha (tea) at tea stalls, eat at roadside restaurants or hurry past towards mosques at prayer times. The five-times daily Muslim call to prayer (azan) rings out distinctly from nearby mosques, punctuating the day. Women wear brightly-coloured and multi-patterned saris, or shalwar-kameezes (loose pyjama-like trousers with long tunic and scarf). Only occasionally do I see women in burkhas. Men wear white punjabi pyjama (long robes over loose trousers) and skull (or prayer) caps. Men can also be seen in lungi (wraparound calf-length loincloth/skirt) with t-shirt/shirt. It is also common to see men in western dress. Men, women and children stare intensely, unabashed and expectantly at every foreigner. While initially disturbing and sometimes frustrating, this is in no way threatening. The traditional greeting Salaam Alaykum (literally, peace be upon you) is enough to break the spell. And once contact is made, friendly relations are easily established and conversation flows amicably – even despite a limited supply of language at times.
Bangladesh has a precarious supply of both electricity and water. The city of Dhaka has grown by accretion, not by planning and in terms of infrastructure, water, services and sanitation, Dhaka is disastrous. Therefore, power cuts and water shortages dictate the pace of life inside the induction flat. When the electricity shuts off and the ceiling fans stop turning the humidity is almost unbearable. This is when I start to sweat profusely (to ‘gently glow’ is not an option here!) and swipe at unseen mosquitoes while fumbling in the dark for my head-torch. (This, and my netbook, are proving to be the most useful ‘gadgets’ that I brought with me.) Many evenings have been spent sitting in torch-light, streaming sweat and waiting for the relief that electricity brings. We have our fair share of wildlife, including the aforementioned ubiquitous mosquito, together with geckos, cockroaches and a resident rat. Thankfully, we have mosquito nets to protect us while we sleep. In the room I share with Estelle our nets are pink and purple 🙂 (Going to bed at night is akin to going on a camping expedition: climbing inside the net, making sure it’s tucked in all round, ensuring you have your torch inside, etc.) Flooring throughout is cold stone. One bathroom has a traditional squat toilet and the other an upright one. Both have sinks and shower heads on the walls and large plastic barrels that can be filled when there is water in the pipes. The kitchen is small and dark and is the most basic room in the flat with two gas rings, a sink, a standing wire rack and a cupboard. The most important thing for us is the water filter tank. We continuously keep this filled with water that has been boiled for at least five minutes in kettles and saucepans heated on the gas rings. We are lucky enough to have a fridge in our dining room – though the power-cuts play havoc with it. This is almost always well-stocked with bottled water from the filter tank.
Every alternate morning a good lady called Perujah comes to do cleaning for us. Having never had household help before, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this at the beginning. Nevertheless, this is the norm in Dhaka and Perujah seems happy to have the job. All work is manual from washing clothes to ‘hoovering’. Laundry is quite a violent chore in Bangladesh. Women squat on the bathroom floor. First they swing the pre-soaked garment over their heads and then repeatedly and forcefully smash it against the floor. No non-bio, delicate cycle here! All floor surfaces are swept with a hard ‘broom’ made from tree twigs tied together. However, an ever-present film of Dhaka’s perpetual dust coats all surfaces – in spite of dedicated, daily dusting.
Outside, on a front balcony, there is a gorgeous splash of bougainvillea and across the street a heavily laden coconut palm. On a flat roof opposite our apartment at the back, there is a stunning collection of shrubs and colourful flowering plants in pots. Plants grow enviably easily here. Every time I see such lush, untended growth I think of my mother – an excellent gardener, but always struggling against wild, Atlantic winds, difficult soils and not enough sun. There would be no limit to her creativity in a climate like this. One of my favourite things about living in the induction flat is being woken each morning by the muezzin’s musical call to prayer from the nearby mosque. I wake up, then remember where I am and feel excited about another day beginning in Bangladesh.
We go daily to the VSO offices to participate in the induction programme. The offices lie behind guarded gates opposite a mosque. The air-conditioned rooms offer a welcome reprieve from the weather outside. A vegetarian lunch is available daily for staff and volunteers, cooked by the lovely Alta. The food varies little from day to day: large platters of plain white rice, a soupy dahl (made from cooked yellow lentils and very different from its thicker, tastier Indian counterpart), a salad of tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers and some vegetable dishes e.g. spinach, bitter gourd, etc. Occasionally there may be curried eggs and there’s always a piece of seasonal fruit for dessert. Food outside the VSO office is similar, though spicier and with the added side dishes of fish, chicken or beef curry. There are also a lot of delicious desserts. More on these later – see post 26.
Eating habits take a bit of getting used to, despite having prior experience of travelling in Asia. As a person strongly conditioned in western table etiquette, I have to disregard everything I have ever learnt. Bangladeshis eat with the right hand (the left hand is considered unclean, because it is used in the bathroom) and squeeze the food into balls on their plates before scooping them into their mouths, slurping and burping and licking their fingers and hands. It might look messy and sound impolite to the outsider, but experiencing the textures of the food in this way is said to add to its enjoyment, while the sounds signify appreciation. Despite finding it easy to adapt in new cultural situations, I have to admit that I have never got to the point of feeling entirely comfortable eating like this. Old habits die hard!
The induction programme itself – run by VSO Bangladesh staff – was disappointing. The ‘participatory approach’ espoused by VSO, and affirmed during training, was almost entirely absent. Half-way through I just wanted to move on to my placement and get stuck into my assignment. Having experienced such excellent pre-departure training (see post 4), perhaps my expectations were too high? Nevertheless, there is a clearly visible need for capacity building within the VSO Bangladesh office. For the benefit of both staff and future volunteers, I have suggested, by way of constructive feedback, that one possible solution may be to appoint a volunteer (or two?) in-house, to strengthen capacity and help build a strong national team adhering to VSO policies and procedures and applying its key principles.
Before I finish today I am including a link to a short video that I discovered before I came to Bangladesh. It was produced by students and teachers at the International School in Dhaka and is called ‘The Day Begins in Dhaka’. It captures the colours of Dhaka very well – but the level of traffic would suggest that it was shot in quiet suburbs. (I know where the International School is, but am not sure yet from where the journey was made.)
I’m including some photos to give you a visual idea of what I am writing about in this post. Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.