A different Dhaka

‘There are no terrorists in Bangladesh.’

This was the line spun by Bangladeshi PM Shaikh Hasina until last night, when finally we saw the planned, heavily armed assault that we’d all feared was on the horizon. At 10pm, during the late dinner as people broke their Ramadan fast with iftar, several men claiming allegiance to IS opened fire on Holey Bakery, beginning a siege that lasted for 12 hours.

Holey is a place close to the hearts of many of the privileged Gulshan set – where foreigners and locals alike go for the peace and quiet, and delicious food. In the midst of Dhaka’s often overwhelming jungle of concrete and humanity, it’s a quiet refuge – an open space with shady grass and cool patios overlooking the lake. Over the last two years since it opened, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve gratefully flopped onto the grass with friends and consumed huge piles of sausage rolls, baguettes and key lime tarts, drinking in the smell of baking sourdough. Whenever we had international visitors we would take them there, as proud of Dhaka’s ever-growing cosmopolitanism and entrepreneurship as we were of the beautiful green space. Birthday parties, work dinners: if it was special, it happened here. Holey was a sanctuary.

The people eating dinner last night were all enjoying the same Holey that we did for the two years that we lived in Dhaka, participating in this lovely little pocket of green and comfort at the end of Ramadan. But the attackers cut those people open, shot them down, demanded that they recite the Quran, held them captive over night, refused to give the foreigners food or water. They tore through them and tore through the image of Dhaka’s peace.

It’s hard to know what the goal was – what icon they were attacking and why; what statement they wanted to make. It’s hard to know what to feel in the wake of this news. For those who don’t know the country well, you need to know that it’s a huge shock. This kind of organised, mass violence is not a feature of the landscape: it’s not a world of fanatics, bombings and constant fear. The Bangladesh I know is a mostly peaceful place where millions of people live crammed shoulder to shoulder, many in terrible poverty, but nevertheless manage to coexist with good humour, generosity, tolerance and unfailing optimism. This terror is new, it is horrifying; it is a seismic change in Dhaka’s world.

The number of people – young, disaffected, angry men – who are trying to prove themselves part of the global Islamic fundamentalist movement has been growing. Friends and colleagues have been worriedly speaking of the creeping fear that their secular, literary, scholarly culture is being infiltrated by hate and fanaticism, imported from the middle east. The government must bear some of the blame, for refusing to acknowledge the threat that has reared its head since the first shootings in August last year, for using the deaths of journalists, bloggers, aid workers, atheists, editors, hindus and christians over the last bloody 12 months to score political points against their opponents.

I don’t know the names of all the nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian that died at Holey last night. We do know that two of them were young students. Another was Ishrat Akhond, an artist who was known and celebrated for her contribution to Dhaka’s cultural life. They all thought they were somewhere safe, in a city that valued and welcomed them. That safety has been shattered, and with it the world those who live in Dhaka thought they knew.

From so far away, all I can offer is my love to those who have been affected, my love for the country, and my hope that Bangladesh can find resilience and strength of community in the face of this horror. I’ll leave you all with the words of a wise friend of mine, a publisher who has spoken out bravely against this religious violence and attempts to control the voices of Bangladeshis everywhere:

‘During these paralysing moments, all we can do is hold hands and draw strength from one another. Otherwise the next blows that are soon to follow will blow us away in all different directions. We have lost a lot, but cannot afford to lose hope. Regardless.’

desh flower flag

(Beautiful photo thanks to Jess Staskiewicz)


The magic of northern spring

It’s 10:30 at night and the last of the golden sunshine is pouring through my window, finally stuttering and dimming to a soft glow as it dips below the slate roofs of the houses across the street: solstice, the last of the spring. Next to my laptop is an old glass bottle, its neck exploding with a floral spray of purple, pink and fuchsia, the spoils of my scissor-wielding wanderings around Rathgar. Alleys, gardens, cracks in walls and pavements are bursting with an irrepressible  rainbow of art supplies – nursing an outbreak of ivy, daffodils, weeds, roses, native orchids, all rejoicing in the long days of sunshine and heavy rains.

Skipping, dancing, birdsong, blossoming, youth: for those who have always lived in Europe, the tropes of spring have been overused, exhausted to the point of meaninglessness. They have certainly been meaningless to me, until now – growing up amongst evergreens and browns, glossy palm leaves and dry, open paddocks; screeching cockatoos, thunderstorms. Australian seasons are tempestuous changelings, shifting like greek gods, dumping the heavens on you or punishing you, for some unknown transgression, with searing drought. They come and go in waves of years or weeks, but never months, never reliable. Most of all, the winter does not give way to particularly new life: at home, Easter never made sense to me, with its bunnies and eggs; the resurrection metaphor fails. The sun doesn’t peel back snow to reveal green buds – it waits and then switches, suddenly scorching you with summer. The end of winter is just the smell of sunscreen. There is no spring – it’s just a thought, a shorthand used in Shakespeare and forever imitated in bad movies.

Ah, but here. Here in Ireland. I have seen it happen. The spring is real.

Strawberries are real. We all know what strawberries are meant to be. The strawberries-and-cream little girl, the cheeks or lips like strawberries – all those painful metaphors of sweetness and chocolate-dipped, romantic picnics. It turns out they aren’t talking about the sour, furry cardboard that’s familiar to me. In Australia you put sliced strawberries in a fruit salad to give it a bit of a kick, mixing it with the mango and kiwifruit like a squeeze of lemon, or just to make it look like ‘a real one’, like in the movies. We persist in eating them mainly because we’ve been told we should, and because we want to play the part, just as we fill our frying-pan-hot streets with fake snow and reindeer at Christmastime – but no one really likes strawberries. Whereas here they fill the city in sumptuous piles, bright red and bursting with plump little ridges full of sweet juice. They drip onto your hands when you eat them, these unlikely, fantastical strawberries.

Roses: apparently, also real. I’ve never seen the point of roses, much less the love affair, but now I know – wandering through the residential streets of Dublin in June is like falling into a soft bowl of pot-pourri. I hadn’t even thought about pot-pourri since its renaissance circa 1996, but suddenly everything is roses and they aren’t just a story but an actually beautiful thing, in my life, making the air honey-thick and rich and heady. Sometimes you can’t even see the blooms, hidden by hedges or the high garden walls, but you know they are there.

Migrating birds: flying Vs of geese in the sky, amongst the soft clouds. Lambs. Comically spherical bumble bees, like pom-poms with wings. These little joys are so foreign it’s like they’re from a children’s picture book; the whole city performing a play and reading their lines about what spring should be.

Despite this bewildering and wonderful springiness, it’s true, the last few months haven’t been easy. As the days have lengthened, I’ve tried to find my place in Dublin, settle into its rhythms and sing its song. But as I’ve looked for jobs, hunted for friends, played my fiddle, tried to find bookshops and plant nurseries and dance classes and hardware stores, I’ve more than once felt that while I have quite taken to Dublin, I’m not sure it likes me. Like so many immigrants before me, I sometimes feel at the margins, like I have quietly fallen through the city’s fingers. But today, as I drink in the scent of my vase full of stolen flowers, I think that maybe I have been expecting too much, too soon. I need to wait patiently, for the rain and sun to do its magic: if these beautiful spring flowers can emerge from the concrete, blossoming in the cracks – then perhaps so can I.

When repatriation … isn’t

Foreigners love to talk about their cultural adjustment. If you’re lucky enough to have your international move supported by an organisation – a global business, NGO or embassy, perhaps – you will be bombarded with material, both before and after deployment, designed to help you ride the emotional waves of change. There’s a whole professional world of expertise devoted to making us pampered ‘expats’ feel more comfortable in a new place – understanding culture shock and emotional adjustment, learning how to enjoy the thrill of a sensory and intellectual overload while not letting it crush you with its phenomenal weight.

A favourite tool is the old U-shaped graph of cultural adjustment: the upturn of the honeymoon, followed by a sharp dip into frustration and crisis, resolved with recovery and finally evening out into a contented adjustment. Almost all the other foreigners you meet will be struggling with the same rollercoaster – rising, falling and repeating – and it’s easy to find a friendly local pseudo-therapist, or a sympathetic shoulder, attached to an arm carrying a beer.


But hidden at the other end of that graph, just off the page, is another U shape: it’s often just as hard to go home. ‘Nobody tells you about this part’, opines the Wall Street Journal, but they do. Reverse culture shock, the W-shaped curve, or the repatriation blues – whatever you call it, the internet is full of articles by bewildered, heart-achey expats writing about the joy, pain and isolation of returning home to a world that is familiar and loved, but somehow changed, alien.

Often, it’s the people who are still abroad that these repatriates turn to. As our friends in Dhaka disappeared back to Australia, Canada or the UK, the good-to-be-back radio silence and welcome-home facebook party pics slowly gave way to confused emails and skype chats, about how it’s suddenly impossible to buy clothes, because all you can think about is the people who made them. About how you can’t eat properly at expensive dinners, and how the nightly news about aid cuts and refugee boats leaves you reeling. About how your job feels trivial. About how you miss your friends, and the guy who sold you cauliflowers. About how you can’t sleep properly without the background beeping of traffic. About how you want to keep the connection alive, to the mad place that you had come to love. And in the midst of all this, how none of your friends and family have any idea of what you’re talking about, and how they wish you would just go back to normal, and stop eating with your hands.

I’m always surprised by how strongly supermarkets feature in these conversations. I would never have thought they are so defining an aspect of our comfort, or sense of belonging. But just as learning to shop is a major adjustment when you arrive in a new country, being confronted with the shops of your home country on your return is strangely shocking. The sheer abundance of food, imported from all over the world and available at any time of year, regardless of seasonality, is, weirdly, a stressor. When I heard friends talk about this I knew exactly what they meant – when I was home for a brief visit in January last year, I dropped into a Woolies with Mum and Dad on the way home from the airport. It was the really big kind – in a large regional shopping centre, where the floor space is cheap and the shopping trips equip a family for two weeks to avoid another drive into town. I was overwhelmed with the aeroplane hangar-sized space, packed with sumptuous, beautiful produce – cheese, avocados, juice, herbs – and the sheer number of breakfast cereals. As I wandered up and down the endless aisles with my empty trolley, hands hovering over the colourful boxes and fat loaves of bread, I felt anxiety creep up my spine. It was hard to know what to do: ignore the towering inequality that it all represented, shoving it deep down in my gut; lose my mind and buy everything in sight, hoping to guzzle and hoard it; or turn slowly around, walk back through the automatic metal gate, sit quietly on a bench next to the Donut King and try to hold back the tears.

Magazines and websites predict this pain and confusion, and publish helpful how-tos and tips on this process. They explain the initial shock that mutates into mourning and nostalgia; prepare you for the inevitable blandness of the everyday, the apathy of friends and family, the pangs of grief, the withdrawal into yourself; and offer hope that you will be fine, you will readjust to the place you call home.

But I’m discovering there is a gap in the conversation about culture shock and repatriation: just as often as not, you aren’t going home. We prepare ourselves for this upending and reestablishment, carefully reading about reverse-culture shock, only to find that we’re not moving back, but on. As international creatures, many of us find ourselves bouncing across the globe in search of a new job, taking on yet another new life. If you’re moving from a very different to a very similar culture, this might look like repatriation, fooling you into thinking you’re on home ground – like a chameleon wearing the skin of your family dog. But it’s not – the challenges of loss and leaving, and readjustment and recognition, are bound up in the unexpected whirlwind of a new layer of novelty. It’s a different world, one where the confusion of leaving a stressful, wild and mad place is replaced by arriving, not at home – where the volume of cheese is confronting but your parents are there to greet you – but in an entirely new, stressful, wild and mad place. It’s when leaving Oz in the Wizard’s hot air balloon lands you not in Kansas, but right back at the start of a completely new yellow brick road.

And it’s this that I’m facing now: the bewildering reappearance of dancing munchkins. In planning to be in the English-speaking world, I was preparing for the pain of coming ‘home’. What I hadn’t bargained on was the pain of not coming home.

With all the glamour of this globetrotting comes the weight of constantly being in flux – the cycle of alienation that comes with having an international career, or a partner with one. No matter what disguise it might be wearing, moving to a new place means we need to become part of it, contribute to it, show that we can adapt to it, and integrate into its ways and its rhythms. And every time we do this, we adapt a little differently than we did before. I might be better at making friends quickly, or be more prepared to make food from vegetables I’ve never seen before, but I’ve also toughened my skin, and set my jaw, ready for the rollercoaster to peak, and the drop to begin. Four months after our arrival in Dublin, I stare at the rollercoaster of the U-shaped curve and search for where I could be. I suspect I may have wandered off into a different part of the funfair entirely, and am spinning, my feet not touching the floor.

And while I spin, the home that we left behind two years ago recedes further into the distance. The friendships wear thinner, undernourished on a diet of skype and starved of daily silliness and normalcy; the places change, as old trees are bulldozed and new highways built. But I realise that the life I am memorialising no longer exists for anyone – friends and family have changed jobs, moved house, changed city, travelled, had kids. We are all travelling, all adjusting, all leaving something profound and precious and fragile behind. With every day, the wind shifts and blows us all onto a different course, and the people, the places that we long for and remember cease to exist. Every one of us is leaving something behind, and we can’t go back: I might not feel like this is repatriation, but really, there is no such thing.



County Kerry

We’ve been here three months now, and people have been asking what Ireland’s about. Do you like it? Is it what you expected? Do you like the people? Somehow it’s hard to reply. I’m not really sure exactly what the place is yet – I feel like I can’t properly answer.

The beating heart of Ireland is not in Dublin. I’m inclined to think it’s in the grass, or the wind – or maybe the sheep. Countries often seem to have this problem: the city, where everyone lives, doesn’t represent the world they identify with, the way that they picture home. Just like in Dhaka, that huge city of rural immigrants, the people here seem to often have a second identity: ‘I’m from Cork’, ‘I’m from Galway’, or ‘I’m from Port Laoise’. Born-and-bred Dubliners are common as well, of course, but there’s a pervading feeling that much of the city has been imported form somewhere – that real Ireland is outside the ring-road freeway that circles the city, that it only starts once you reach the hills.

It’s possible I’m bringing my own touristy romanticism to this first impression, and that none of this represents how the Irish feel at all. But I can’t help it: like people everywhere, when I play image association with ‘Ireland’, I don’t see the harp-like Samuel Beckett bridge over the Liffey, or the neatly Georgian streets of Dublin, but hills so green, round and rolling that they seem to come from a child’s drawing of what hills should look like, dotted with shaggy, damp sheep. I picture brooks and glades where dark pools of clear water collect and old patron saints and even older celtic spirits live side by side. I picture rugged coasts, specked with lonely whitewashed cottages, huddling against the hills with their hats pulled firmly down over their brows. Winding roads, squeezed on each side by dry stone walls. Slate grey Atlantic water under a slate grey sky. This is the Ireland I hadn’t found yet, and it was the Ireland we went in search of over the Easter weekend.

Armed with the keys to a rental car, two Aussie friends visiting from the Netherlands, and an AirBnB booking without a street address (only GPS coordinates which seemed to indicate that we would be staying in a field), we set off down to the famous Ring of Kerry. We’d planned to stay in Dingle but somehow, when browsing all the historic cottages available for rent, I got distracted and ended up with one in Cahersiveen – a place that I’d never even heard of, 1 1/2 hours’ drive away and on entirely the wrong peninsula.cahersiveen mapDespite initial dismay, my increasingly  Irish-accented interior monologue reminded me that getting upset just wouldn’t be in the spirit of things, now would it, while passing me a metaphorical cup of tea. I put the mistake down to serendipity and the others cheerfully forgave me. To be honest you really can’t go wrong in this part of the world.

(It’s worth mentioning at this point that in the 5th Century a man later dubbed St Brendan ‘The Navigator’ sailed all the way from Dingle to Valentia island, just off the coast of Cahersiveen, where legend has it that he scaled the cliffs, met two dying pagans and converted them. It truly was a miracle. Buoyed by his early seafaring success, he decided to sail to America, and was never heard from again. He was assumed to have made it.)

Our cottage was a thick-walled stone farmhouse across the water from the town, with a view right into the crumbling kitchen hall of Ballycarbery castle, a 16th century tower on  a small hill overlooking an inlet. Bombed and ruined centuries ago, it’s since grown furry with photogenic ivy. Some of the stairs are still intact, meaning you can scramble up on it and play the world’s best game of Attack the Fort.

It must have been a good place to spot raiders coming, because right behind the castle there are two even older stone forts – Cahergall and it’s more ruined twin, Leacanabuile – built roughly 1000 years ago. With two concentric circles of beautifully constructed dry stone walls, they would have provided a safe haven to a central homestead and animals. The two forts are so close you could practically lean over the wall and throw clods at the other. Which I suppose they did. It would be Pythonesque if it wasn’t so bleak.

The weather changed while we were out, and decided to try to kill us. After being almost blown off the top parapets of the castle, pelted with hail and soaked to the skin, we retreated to the farmhouse to throw ourselves into the peat fire.

Deciding that it might be better to drive (‘wear the car as a coat’) than explore on foot, we headed out to do what we came for. The Skellig ring is a short, windy and stunning coastal section of the Ring of Kerry circular drive. Taking the ferry over to Valentia Island, we walked around the lighthouse headland and then drove up over the spine of the island to explore the flat, boggy fields facing the open Atlantic.

O’Shea’s pub warned ‘Next pint, New York’ – sadly, it looked like it had been a while since they were able to pour one.

The hills from Valentia give you a good view of the tiny, craggy Skellig islands. Little Skellig is apparently home to a large population of gannets, while Skellig Michael was once populated by monks and now appears to mostly attract dragons.

Always finding time to nerd out, before we left the island we took a few minutes to walk down a steep path to find the Valentia Tetrapod tracks – the world’s oldest and largest in-situ evidence of an animal that walked on land.


Across the rock in the foreground, you can just about see the footprints…

Yeah science!

Back in Cahersiveen, we made the most of the incredible local seafood at QC’s, and chose a place for a cosy pint or two. Because everyone knows everyone in this country (it seems to be an Irish trait to remember names and faces), we go to Keating’s Corner House, where we meet Ollie’s colleague’s aunt, who owns the pub. Josephine inherited the pub from her grandfather, and it has been in the family for nearly 100 years. She sits with us for a good long chat. Josephine knows everyone who comes and goes while we are there, greeting them by name, asking about mutual acquaintances and advising them to stay for another pint. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph, ye can’t take the child out in weather like this. Stay for a little while longer, near the fire.’ Eammon, a retired history teacher, sits with us and wants to talk about Mussolini, and the quality of the Thai restaurant down the road. This isn’t really a pub – it’s a communal living room. Cahersiveen is a quiet place, Josephine tells us. She’s not a city person – she likes ‘the slow life, the good life’. She nods once, gravely, certainly.

The town itself is small, and when we leave the pub to head back to the farmhouse it’s only a few moments before we’re driving through total darkness again, the shine of the headlights bouncing off the rain and the hedges that line the narrow road. Maybe it’s not the foreigner looking for the ‘real Ireland’, after all, but the country girl in me: there’s something about it that feels familiar and comforting – a world where there is real darkness, no street lights, and we are buffeted by the wind, not protected by tall buildings. It’s nice to feel Ireland breathing. Out here, where the humans are quieter, you can hear the place speak.

Small discoveries in Dublin

I can fit a book in my coat pocket. And a bottle of wine in the other.

There are a lot of bookshops. And bottle shops.

Asking for ‘a pint of your finest’ yields Guinness. All other drinks require specificity.

Most conversations involve at least one phrase that I simply do not understand.

‘Your man’ reliably turns up in conversation, and roughly translates as ‘Old Mate’. The quirks of the language are adorably possessive.

Music is lifeblood. Violins, guitars and drums are standard accessories, slung over backs across the city. People hum and sing to themselves – in queues, while selecting detergent from supermarket shelves, on bikes.

Warmth takes priority over style.

Hipster style features – peaked caps and elbow-patched tweed jackets – are not nostalgic affectations. Nobody ever stopped wearing them here.

Whimsy wins the battle with order.

Like the English, the Irish have yet to discover the joys of single-faucet hot/cold taps.

Pub toilet doors are places for lines of memorised, scribbled, sublime poetry, just as much as phone numbers and dick cartoons.

Don’t expect cafes to open in the mornings or on Sundays. Don’t expect people in service positions to be nice to you.

Do expect surprising warmth and hearty chats from strangers. People always seem to have the time.

‘One swift pint’ does not mean one pint, nor will it be swift.

Bideshi is shesh: Time to leave

Development workers, foreigners, expats, immigrants – whatever you want to call us. One of the things were are really good at is leaving, and starting all over again.

I’ve just left Dhaka after my last stint for work, and it’s official: we now no longer live in Bangladesh. Ollie has a new job in Dublin, and we’re headed back to the western world, to start a new life – an old life. Flying out of this crazy city, I’ve been pressing my face to the window and, pen in hand, scribbling my farewells. It feels like I’m lifting off from the moon, and my shuttle is taking me back down to Earth. I’m relieved, yearning to be back where I belong, but heartbroken that it’s over. Most people don’t get to go to the moon more than once.

After two years, it was time to go. We’ve learned to deal with the inconveniences and frustrations, and got to the heart of what there is to love here – the vibrancy, the energy, the optimism. We’d seen it through all its blistering seasons and witnessed the floods and harvests. We’d let ourselves be launched into work in that way that only Bangladesh can, sending you hurtling – unexpectedly high, and with no safety features or parachutes. We had made our connections, found a group of people that we could call real friends, knew our way around the streets, knew where to get parsley, had accumulated things in our home that were colourful and beautiful, had acquired pet terrapins – we’d built a little world around us that felt right, felt like home.

But over the months since last July, our roaming has been frozen by the political situation, and normal life, which was never easy, became stale and difficult. We’d stopped taking pictures, stopped searching for new places to explore. Bideshi life shifted – our bikes rusted in garages and too many weekends were spent in our flats, ordering expensive delivered food and looking longingly out the windows.

And with that change, came an even bigger one, a social cost. Our fragile little world has been slowly dismantled by friends’ exits, a brick taken from its foundations with every facebook check-in at Shahjalal airport, every posted photo of the departures hall accompanied by the single word ‘Shesh’. Finished.

Everybody has been feeling it, and not just the bideshis ourselves – my local friends and colleagues have been remarking on the fact that there have been disappearances, less of us on the streets. A particular graph (from The Culture Blend) has taken hold of the imaginations of those left behind by this miniature diaspora – a spiky, chaotic timeline marking the emotions of everyone who lives in an expat bubble and feels these social fluctuations like an earthquake. People mourning the loss of friends have been trying to better understand it – the unpredictable ups and downs that alternately elevate and savage your social life month in and month out.

Expat timeline

Like having your heart put through a blender.

The truth is, with all those departures, and so few people arriving to replace them, something had cracked. No matter what your country of origin is, local or expat, Dhaka life is all about friendships. In a city of wall-to-wall humanity, where there is so little that’s not concrete, cars, or people – millions and millions of people, it’s relationships that are the centre of all our worlds. It’s your source of joy and your source of entertainment. Gossip reigns, everyone knows everything about each other. Far from becoming lost in the crowd, your privacy dissolves into the heat and sweat of all the bodies, and you live your life in a fishbowl. So without friendships, the city is nothing but dust. As we began to see more deshi friends tagged on facebook in snowy European chalets than dodging potholes on the streets of Dhaka, it felt like everything had changed.

So we put out the feelers, found a good opportunity, and we’re out. Quick as that. Down below me, past the wing of the plane, I can see the blazing sun setting over the dusty trees and honking cars.  I feel like I am going ‘home’, to the developed world, but Home has too many meanings now, and I’m not sure which one matters. There is the physical, dirt-and-trees home in Australia, the home where we can speak our language freely and understand the culture, the home where our friends are, the home where our families are, the home where my suitcase is at this very moment… As we leave Bangladesh, we leave behind yet another home and become, once again, the nervous and confused arrivals who need to begin building a new one.

Being bideshi has been exhausting, glorious, frustrating, fascinating, oppressive, colourful, depressing, optimistic, chaotic, enlightening – a thousand adjectives, but all of them hyperbolic. As I descend back to earth, I am forever grateful for having been, briefly, in Bangladesh’s orbit.

I still have so many notes and photos that haven’t made it onto this blog yet. I suspect I could – and will – keep talking about Bangladesh forever. But from now on I will be a bideshi in a different land – still a foreigner, still trying to understand where I have landed and what is going on around me.

The Irish word for foreigner is ‘eachtrannach‘. Said out loud, it sounds curiously like ‘astronaut’. Maybe we do get more than one chance to go to the moon.



Sugar and Facebook: the national drugs

Every town or country has its drug of choice. In Canada, Colorado, and my small Australian hometown, it’s weed. In Greece, it’s tobacco. In Russia, it’s paint stripper. In the 1950s, it was valium. And in the UK you’re hard pressed to find a toilet seat that doesn’t bear traces of cocaine.

But in Bangladesh, where alcohol is illegal and cigarettes are so frowned upon that they are often smoked furtively on tiny balconies, behind dusty air conditioning units, it’s sugar.

Mishti conjures a sparkle in the eye, and the kind of passionate opinions that recall Melbourne hipsters talking about coffee. If you want to make friends, apologise in style or get ahead at work, buy a box of assorted, milky, syrupy balls, squares and swirls


At Mahan Chan Grandsons, one of Old Dhaka’s most famous mishti shops

At work meetings and afternoon teas alike, every tiny cup of cha will come lovingly saturated in three heaped teaspoons of chini. If you need to hang out with friends, grab some ice cream – Movenpick, Gelato, Cream and Fudge, take your pick: I’ve seen more New Zealand Natural ice creameries in Dhaka than in Sydney.

This ability to live on sugar and disdain alcohol has made me look more closely at my own dependencies. A glass of riesling after a hard day at work, a pint at the pub with colleagues on a Friday, a round of tequila shots to kick a night up a notch or two: as a white westerner, booze is my chemical relaxant and my social crutch – the fermented foundation on which my leisure time and friendships are built.

Likewise, sugar, for Bengalis, seems to be much more than an addiction: it’s a foundation for social interaction. Where alcohol is the necessary social lubricant of the perpetually awkward West, sugar is Bangladesh’s social glue, drawing people together with its sticky allure.

Before I came to Bangladesh and lived without pubs and bars, I never really thought about the social value of booze being a function of the social spaces that we distribute it in – places where it is ok to just be, because drinking is considered some kind of magical activity that allows you to exist and interact, under the influence, without other reasons or excuses. Bangladeshis need no such excuses – dining rooms and bedrooms are social spaces and people are invited to just hang out, usually with the offer of food and mishti, but often just to spend time together. Have a conversation. Face to face. With no props. The British in me crawls with discomfort: how do you do it, fully conscious, and with nothing in your hand?

The alternative is, of course, public cafes and restaurants. Ice creameries are your best bet, and they’re often not relaxing spaces – brightly lit with neon strip lights, and full of uncomfortable metal chairs and plastic tables. It seems that a cultural enthusiasm for alcohol can make pleasant, dark, squashy, public social spaces economically viable in a way that food, including sugar, just doesn’t. So at home they proliferate – whereas here, those kinds of open, mingling spaces are much harder to come by. It was one of the hardest culture shocks when we moved: I wasn’t expecting to miss pubs almost more than I miss what they sell.

Seeing alcohol as a space, and not just something we consume, also starts to make more sense of Bangladesh’s other preferred addiction: Facebook. The national passion for Facebook has become far more apparent in the last week or so, since the Government blocked it on all local ISPs.

It’s a calamity – people honestly don’t know what to do with themselves. A friend of mine translated some talkback radio he’d been listening to. The distraught public called in, saying ‘It is not possible to do business without it’ and ‘The Government does not understand the people. This shows how disconnected they are from our needs’ – and even, ‘If the Government does not reconnect Facebook, I will kill myself.’

As hyperbolic as this sounds (and as many questions as it might raise about the mental health priorities of talkback radio), they reflect something honest about how Facebook functions in daily life here. Without it, people are disconnected: it really does form the backbone of everyone’s social life.

Including mine – since the ban, I’ve realised I don’t keep anyone’s phone number any more, just I just use Facebook messenger. When a friend decided to leave, she did the usual and advertised on Facebook to sell her furniture – when it was shut down, no one knew how to contact her to collect their purchases. I’ve never been somewhere where Facebook is so important to daily life. We are all dependent.

And I think this is, in some ways, connected to the lack of other spaces to congregate. Facebook, like a pub, gives people a place to sit and chat, a space to meet new people. That means much more here than it does in much of the world, where we are spoiled for alcohol-soaked options.  It also gives people a chance to interact in a way that bypasses strict tradition around what’s ‘acceptable’: it’s a space for the genders to interact more freely. It’s OK to chat on Facebook with someone of the opposite sex, but it may be difficult to find time alone with them in person without raising eyebrows, suspicions, and even (for many girls), fists.

So, in the absence of bars, we download VPNs and desperately try to circumvent the block on our shared addiction. I’ve just got mine up and running again and I’ve spent a good hour desperately scrolling, stalking, and getting my hit. It’s been so successful that I might even give myself a break from this screen and go and find something else to do. Maybe I’ll go get an ice cream.