‘What’s your typical day like?’
This is a frequently asked question and one that hasn’t been answered because of the way I have chosen to structure this blog. Furthermore, it is the atypical days that are generally more interesting. A day-to-day record of minutiae could be very tedious to read. Since most of my days are spent at work, I have chosen a work-day from my diary to represent the shape of this ‘typical day’. So here goes…
07.00 My day begins in Dhaka. I wake up, happy to be here. I am lying in bed in Lalmatia under my mauve mosquito net, listening to the noise from the street below and trying to psyche myself up for the impending cold shower. Drinking fruit juice, I pop a slice of bread in the toaster, trying not to make eye contact with the perpetual line of scurrying ants on the wall behind. I boil some filtered water in a saucepan on the gas ring and make a cup of coffee from Nescafé powder. Midway through breakfast, the electricity cuts out, and without the ceiling fan I soon feel as though I need to repeat my morning ablutions. After packing my bag with bottles of water, a carton of milk, my netbook, my coffee cup and cutlery, insect repellant, toilet roll and bits and pieces of food and fruit I am ready to go. I brace myself: let the battle begin.
08.00 I step into the glare of the day and feel the heat of the sun. Daily encounters with dust eddies are becoming more frequent, compounded by early morning street sweeping. Unpleasant smells reach me from the nearby open sewer. My bag feels heavy on my back. I am on the lookout for a rickshaw to take me to the main thoroughfare and away from the corner where many others are waiting, so that I might have a better chance of hailing a CNG. (I am reminded of hitch-hiking strategies from times past.) As we round the corner onto Mirpur Road the din from honking horns and revving traffic is deafening. It takes me twenty minutes to successfully flag down a CNG, while standing at the side of a dusty, smog-filled, traffic-choked road in intense heat and humidity. After fraught negotiations, I gratefully collapse onto a seat and join the rush-hour traffic. Beggars – many disabled – and street vendors are drawn to my CNG like moths to a naked flame. Again and again I explain that I am resident in Dhaka, that I am a volunteer, etc. etc. (See posts 7, 30 and 47.)
09.00 I arrive at my workplace at Agargaon in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. I walk through the door and up a flight of stairs to the first floor of this five-storey building. There is nobody about. The building is eerily quiet. I reach the short, dark corridor that leads to my room – the only occupied one there. With my key ready I take a deep breath and make a run for my room through the spectacular quantity of mosquitoes that fill the corridor. I burst into the room, slam the door behind me, turn on the ceiling fan and shake mosquitoes from my hair, while simultaneously scanning the room for cockroaches. I rush for my sprays and light mosquito coils and begin exterminating, mosquito spray in one hand, cockroach spray in the other – occasionally, and embarrassingly, screaming involuntarily. Cautiously, I push open the door to the toilet and spray. After applying copious amounts of insect repellant cream on my face and hands and feet, I wait for about 10 minutes to let the room sprays take effect. I put a note in my diary to raise the insect issue with the Director General: I have already requested, via the Director of Administration, that my room and the corridor outside be included in the cleaning/sweeping rota. He, in turn, directed me to the caretaker but despite many reminders, the problem persists. My location – in a deserted part of the building – doesn’t help. Finally, I open my windows and breathe a sigh of relief. The fan over my desk keeps mosquitoes away now. I notice how beautiful the light is at this time of day and see a new flower in the garden below. I hear a bird that I haven’t heard before. I unpack my bag, plug in and turn on my netbook. I empty a bottle of water into my kettle to make a cup of coffee. While I’m rinsing my cup with boiling water in the tight space that is the bathroom, my orna (scarf) falls into the toilet. After rinsing, I dry it under the fan. Sitting sipping coffee I am ready to start work.
10.00 – 17.30 I optimistically open up my work plan for the day. In order to get certain pieces of work moving I need to meet six people today. I have been trying to meet some of these colleagues for quite some time now. I start with the easiest one: I want to get permission to put a poster in the ‘glass case’ on the ground floor: it is the only place where all staff might see it regularly (in the absence of notice boards and e-mail). I go to the relevant director’s office but am told that he is busy and that I should come back later. I then go to meet another director on a different matter and he invites me to have some tea. We make small talk and the black tea arrives in bright yellow china cups with matching saucers. While I try to explain the support I am seeking, we are interrupted four times by people coming and going with various documents and requests. One of these interruptions results in a twenty-minute conversation between the director and the visitor. After over an hour, I leave the office with a promise that my proposal will be ‘considered’. I am invited to call back at a ‘later date’. I know by now that there is no point in trying to pin down an exact date and time. I take the lift to a different floor, and after waiting for quite some time, I am told (by an assistant) that another director I want to meet is praying and that I should call back later. On the corridor, I meet a younger colleague who asks me if I could help him with a scholarship application form, and so I go to his office and work with him on this for an hour or so. By this time there is no point in trying to meet people as it is lunchtime, so I go to my room and eat some crackers and some fruit and make more coffee. The afternoon continues in much the same way: some meetings occur but decisions, opinions or commitments are difficult to elicit. Despite many calls to some doors I fail to get a meeting. Back in my room, I type up notes for a memorandum I want to circulate to my colleagues in relation to one of our agreed initiatives. I spend some time working on a research report that I am editing for one of the directors. I also record the minutes of meetings held that day and revise my plans for tomorrow. I make a list of things I need to print and photocopy, and a list of things I want to look up on the Internet. I begin to pack up then. I ensure that paper weights are in place on any loose sheets on my desk, so that when I turn on the fan tomorrow morning they will be secured. I close my windows, turn off all switches and leave my workplace. (See post 25 and post 48.)
17.30 The evening commute begins. I take a rickshaw to a point on the main road where I think it might be easier to get a CNG. In ten minutes not one CNG passes. It’s hot, hot, hot. The street is full of back-to-back white private mini-buses that bring certain employees to and from work. Eventually, an empty CNG comes along but I have to let it go because the driver wants five times the regular fare. I explain in Bangla that I am living in Dhaka and that I am a volunteer but all he sees is a wealthy bideshi (foreigner). This happens a second time. (See post 47.) Finally, I manage to negotiate a somewhat reasonable fare and am at last homeward bound. I relax and enjoy the journey, revelling in the frenzy of activity of which I am a part, and chatting to the CNG driver and those who approach me from the street.
18.30 This evening I go straight to the VSO office in the hope of doing some printing for tomorrow. While the office is closed, a computer room is open after-hours for volunteers. Both printers are in use by other volunteers so I wait. I take out my netbook and try to access the Internet but it’s ‘down’. Before I get a chance to use the printers, the electricity goes and plunges the room into darkness. I decide to leave and try again tomorrow morning before work.
19.30 I visit the Bengal Gallery on nearby Road 27 to take another look at an exhibition that I have already seen. Inside, it’s cool and quiet and very peaceful.
20.15 It’s a short walk from the gallery to a supermarket and I need to do some shopping. I decide to splash out and buy imported cornflakes for over €5 for a small pack. If I was to live solely on my allowance, I couldn’t afford to do this. Neither could I afford the insect repellant for work which is draining my resources. I make sure that I get lots of small note denominations in my change for commuting the following day.
21.00 Back at my flat in Lalmatia, Kabir, the security guard, rushes to help me carry my bags upstairs. I give him a small denomination note as baksheesh (tip) by way of thanks which he graciously accepts. After unpacking my groceries, I make toast with cheese and an unadventurous salad of cucumber, carrot and tomato.
21.30 After eating, I take some clothes down to the friendly ironing shop near the flat and chat to the man there who is always good-humoured. I decide on a whim to take an unplanned rickshaw ride to Mohammadpur and wander around aimlessly, talking to people and being surprised. Not for the first time today I notice that the beauty of Dhaka is in little things.
22.45 Back in the flat I put some clothes steeping, wash out some others and take a shower. I boil a large saucepan of water for the filter and fill bottles for work for tomorrow. All household chores take longer here without the mechanised conveniences that wealth permits. I drink lots of tea and eat cake and biscuits and chocolate. I send a text or two and make a phone call. I sit down with my netbook to write and reflect. I contemplate contradictory meanings and ideas through the art of narrative.
00.30 I climb under my mosquito net to go to bed and make sure it’s tucked in all round. I read for a while. I turn out the light and listen to some music on my iPod in an attempt to block out the sounds from the construction site across the road. Another day ends in Dhaka.
I have tried to provide a snapshot of a ‘typical day’ in my life here in Dhaka in Bangladesh. However, the very nature of life here means that nothing is certain. Some days are better than others and some are even spectacular. There is one constant: everyday my heart breaks a little and everyday my heart soars a little.