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.

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52 Portraits: A cotton-picking minute

Cotton Picker

In the slums of Tongi, deep in the heart of the garment factory zone just north of Dhaka, where tonnes of clothes are pieced together and exported to the western world, I pop my head into a corrugated iron shed. It’s hot in here, but it looks like a cave of melting snow. In the middle of the piles of white cotton, a woman picks through the waste.

A very deshi engagement

Two months ago, Bangladesh experienced something that hadn’t happened here for the better part of a decade: the entire country lost power. Those people lucky enough to usually have access to electricity (about 60% of the country) suddenly wondered how to function. Efficiency plummeted. Generators were powered up and then exhausted. To the dismay of my sweet-toothed driver, ice cream melted.

And quietly, but with much joy, in a small flat in Banani, something else happened.

Ollie and I have been together for about five and a half years now. We’ve talked about getting married, talked about not getting married, talked about waiting for marriage equality, about the sexism of marriage as an institution, about what we’d call our kids, where we’d live and who’d do the tax returns. We’d even been calling each other husband and wife since we arrived in the Desh – it’s just easier that way. But most importantly, we’ve known for a long time that a long time is what we want together – and the rest would sort itself out. As Joni Mitchell would sing, ‘We don’t need no paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true’. (Thanks Joni.)

So after all that talking, and after starting to consider how I might propose to him, I was impressed that Ollie was still able to surprise me.

The country’s power had already been down for a few hours and we were getting ready to go to a friend’s wedding holud. While Ollie got dressed up in his punjabi-pajama outfit, I raced to sort out my sharee and makeup before the sun went down and I lost the light. I didn’t quite make it and we started lighting candles around the house. Just as we were ready to head out the door, we got a call from my friend asking us to come an hour later to give her family time to get the generator up and running. With no electricity and an hour to kill before we left, we put some music on Ollie’s phone and had a dance around the dark house.

I later found out that months before, Ollie had asked my wonderful friend and talented jewellery designer Sarah Mills to create a ring for me, and since it had been hand-delivered by some friends who came to visit us in Bangladesh weeks prior, he had been holding onto it, waiting for the right moment.

Now, Dhaka’s not a very romantic city. Finding the ‘right moment’ was turning out to be more difficult than he’d thought, and he was beginning to wonder if going out for dinner and having average sushi would be the best we could manage. But dancing around in all our finery, surrounded by lit candles surely qualified. He disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a small antique jar. I thought it was just a nice present he had picked up for me at the second-hand markets, but I opened it, realised I was wrong, and burst into happy tears. (After a big hug, he had to remind me that it’s traditional to respond.)

Some amazing friends of ours (who had also got engaged in the Desh – we’re treading a well-worn path here!) threw us a fabulous engagement party in true Deshi wedding style, even carrying us both into the party on a gold throne, to the tune of Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ (Ollie came in first and I got the grand entrance, emerging in my sparkly splendour right on cue for *that* drum solo). A friend from work gave me a beautiful red sari (because no wedding event is right without a red sari) and a metric tonne of bling, while another mate helped me pick up a maharaja hat and curly-toed slippers from New Market to make sure Ollie was up to scratch. Up on our roof in Banani, we danced and drank and sang til late.

Thanks to everyone who helped, came and made it so special – we won’t forget it any time soon (and neither will the neighbours). xxx

A Crime Unpunished: An uncompromising documentary about Bangladeshi gang rape

A week or so ago, VICE News release a short documentary on sexual violence against women in Bangladesh. While it’s powerful and eye-opening reporting, offering a good insight into some of the social problems facing the country, I’ve hesitated over whether to post it here. The comments on the VICE page give you a good idea of why: a lot of racism and islamophobia comes out of the woodwork whenever violence against women in Muslim countries is discussed.

But this is a major problem for much of the subcontinent: Pakistan and (majority-Hindu) India also both have high levels of sexual and physical violence against women. Sexism that is deeply ingrained in traditional practices and a patriarchal culture lead to tacit acceptance of violence, by communities, local leaders and police.

And, of course, while rampant, this South Asian sexism is not qualitatively different to the sexism of the west. A few months ago I read an article on the online magazine Women’s Agenda, describing an Australian CEO who was stunned to discover that she worked with several victims of domestic violence. One in three Australian women over 15 will be victims of violence in their lifetimes. After looking at the evidence – the bruises on her colleague’s torso – the CEO reflected, ‘You think you know these people, but you don’t know who you’re sitting next to.’

And that’s why I decided to share this documentary with you: I’m not in Australia any more – so what is life like for the people I sit next to?

Nobody knows what proportion of women in Bangladesh are the victims of sexual and physical violence, as stigma leads to low levels of reporting. The 5th Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (2007) showed that 53% of women experienced sexual or physical violence from their husbands, but other sources estimate it to be up to 70%.

Majorities of both urban (60%) and rural (62%) males think ‘at times a woman deserves to be beaten.’ Half of urban males (50%) and two-thirds (65%) of rural males believe women should tolerate violence to keep her family together. Nearly one-third of urban men and over one-fifth of rural men witness their mother being beaten by her partner as a child. Unsurprisingly then, over 40% of perpetrators commit their first act of sexual violence before their 19th birthday.

Those statistics reflect something huge. Something deeply disturbing, but also denied and hidden. This report from VICE on gang rape in Bangladesh is important – have a watch.

SKs and mainstays: What to wear in the Desh (for women)

Clothes are a huge part of culture and, somehow, knowing what people put on their bodies and what they wear as they go about their daily lives helps us to understand what that life is like.

Loads of people from home have asked me ‘what do you wear?’ – and I know that was a huge question I had before I left for Bangladesh. Travellers know that women are often expected to change the way they dress when travelling or living in a different culture – often more so than men – in order to be culturally sensitive. So what do you pack? What should you expect? Is it necessary to wear local clothes? How easy is it to make the transition? Does it feel like wearing a costume? Is it comfortable?

So here’s my low-down on threads in the Desh.

SKs

SK three-piece

In a ready-made three-piece – see how my orna and the detailing on the sleeves match the pants? (This SK from Aarong; little person not included)

While the traditional dress for women in Bangladesh is the sharee (sari), the Salwar-Kameez (SK) is now standard everyday wear for most middle-class Bengali women. This outfit is made up of a long top (kameez – it’s distinguishable from a dress because of the slits down the sides from the hips), pants (salwar), and a scarf or shawl (orna).

Matching your outfits is very important here, and most Bangladeshi women buy their SKs as a pre-designed ‘three-piece’, either off the rack (‘ready-made’/’cut’) or as a set of fabric that is then taken to the tailor to be sewn up in your size (‘uncut’). Usually the salwar and kameez will be made with different but matching fabrics, and the orna will tie the outfit together, often by repeating the pattern of the pants.

village

A colleague wears a three-piece SK while we walk through a rural village on a field trip. This is standard office wear for most Bengali women.

If you’re working in an office with mainly local staff (like me), wearing SKs is probably the easiest way to fit in, clothes-wise. It’s easy (buy whole outfits in one go and never worry about making decisions in the morning again!) and comfortable (yes, thank you, I would love to wear pajamas to work every day).

What is a boob curtain and how do I wear one?

As in any country, to avoid scandalising anyone, it’s important to ‘dress modestly’. Putting aside the slut shaming politics of this for a moment, let’s look at what that means in practice.

You might think your boobs are covered, by a shirt and several layers of fabric in your bra, but you were wrong! You also need an orna (sometimes called the ‘boob curtain’ by certain volunteers I know). The function of an orna is to hide your chest modestly. Most women wear their scarves ‘back to front’, with the end hanging down your back and the middle fold sitting over the chest, as this keeps the hot fabric off the back of your neck. It’s also fine to wear a scarf hanging down your front, or looped around, as long as it hides your chest.

Hippy chic

Hippy chic: If I’m wearing a shorter shirt I’ll often wear super-baggy pants to compensate (yes, I actually wear poo-catcher pants to work). Note I’m still wearing a thin black scarf.

My crotch is exposed? What do you even mean?

The length of your shirt/top is also important. Feel free to wear t-shirts, shirts, blouses etc from home (even if they don’t look like a kameez) but ideally whatever you wear will cover your bum and crotch. Wearing anything that doesn’t come down past your hips will leave your crotch ‘exposed’… Yes, even if you’re wearing pants. The idea is to keep that region as baggy and invisible as possible.

Remember to also keep your shoulders covered: short sleeves are fine, but if you have a sleeveless top you can use your orna to wrap your shoulders up with a scarf.

Alternative styles that work well

While buying SKs here and wearing them all the time can seem like the simple and culturally friendly thing to do, chances are there will be days when you just want to wear western clothes and feel like yourself again. You won’t be able to wear anything too revealing in the street (unless you’re happy attracting a lot of attention), so I recommend bringing short shorts and dancing around the house in them, just to get it out of your system.

But there are other things you can wear in public. DIY three-pieces are a way of inserting your normal clothes into a Bangla-friendly outfit. You might wear a baggy, long top with local pants and scarf, or on a cooler day you might wear a kameez with jeans. If your top is loose you might want to ditch the scarf.

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You can also wear short (or calf-length) dresses with leggings – as long as you’re covering your bum, tight pants are A-OK.

maxi dress

The Maxi dress and shawl combo (complete with turtle tank in background)

Maxi dresses are also a great alternative to pants and tops, and provide a bit of variety. Just wrap your shoulders up with a wide shawl!

If you’re heading out on the town and want to wear something more revealing but don’t want to draw stares on your way there, you can even wear a short tight dress and take the leggings and orna off when you arrive. Kimonos are also known for coming in handy if you want a full-body cover-up.

Head coverings

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and many women choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. Some women wear their orna as a ‘veil’, draped loosely; some use the end of their sharee in traditional style; some wear a more Arab-inspired hijab; and some choose to wear a full niqab, covering the lower part of their face, often with long dark-coloured cloak over their normal clothes.

However, head-covering isn’t essential and many local women choose not to cover. In Dhaka, it will generally be assumed that unless you are Muslim you won’t want to cover, and most people are comfortable with that. In more rural villages where expectations can be more traditional and conservative, you might want to cover as a sign of respect, but again, it’s not expected.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Dressing up for a formal dinner: me in a sharee, Ollie in punjabi/kurta.

You’ll see a lot of people wearing sharees around town – poorer and more traditional women often choose to wear them every day, tying them with a simple and comfortable drape.

While most wealthier women don’t wear them every day (although some do – especially older women), they are an essential part of any formal occasion. If you’re invited to a wedding, important party, meeting with dignitaries or even just a conference, sharees are standard formal attire. I wouldn’t want to wear one every day (they’re a bit restrictive), but they’re great fun and incredibly elegant – a room full of sharee-clad women is really quite a sight.

On the whole: Bangladeshi clothing is generally comfortable (I can’t stress this enough, I basically wear pajamas to work every day), easy to organise (three-pieces really take the decision-making out of your morning) and colourful (let loose your inner rainbow unicorn child!)

Packing: If you’re travelling through, bring cool and comfortable long pants, some longer, baggy shirts and a couple of scarves.

If you’re moving here, I recommend planning to buy quite a few three-piece SKs when you get here, as well as some kameezes to go with other pants. But don’t throw away your jeans and minis just yet – there’s a place for them here too. (For more packing advice, see my post on What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh).

What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh

So what do you need to pack when you’re moving to Bangladesh?

Whether you’re moving as part of a program like I did, coming to take up a job or simply trying your luck at making your fortune in the wild west of the development world, you might be wondering. You’ve probably even asked a few people, and had conflicting advice about what you’ll need.

I know that, sitting on my bedroom floor before I came, surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of my normal life and trying to work out what would come with me and what would have to stay behind, I could have done with a culturally-aware packing fairy. Unfortunately I can’t supply you with one of those, but I can give you a handy list. Below is everything I think is an essential, the things that might come in handy and, crucially, what you will just have to live without for a while.

What will I have to learn to live without?

So there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is sure, you’re moving to a developing country, but it’s not an uninhabited wasteland. Don’t get paranoid ideas from people who are moving to pacific island postings or war-torn nations: you’ll be able to get most of what you need. There are 152 million people in Bangladesh and they all need to buy stuff, including a substantial number of people who are wealthy enough to buy luxury items, such as blenders, hairdryers, imported frozen raspberries and now, thanks to a few enterprising businesspeople, decent bread. You can get it all in Dhaka at one of the many supermarkets (try the surprisingly western unimart for all your bideshi needs).

The bad news is that, of course, it’s not home and there will be some things you have to live without, either entirely or for long stretches at a time. Let’s just rip that bandaid off straight away:

  • Alcohol: the big one. The one everyone asks about. Yes, Bangladesh is a dry country (alcohol is illegal for Bangladeshi nationals, you can’t really buy it in shops and it’s illegal to carry or consume it on the street) and no, there are no real pubs or bars. However, thanks to an expat community of thousands, the booze somehow manages to flow. There are expat clubs (which you can access via a membership) that have decent bars, there are a small number of exceedingly sketchy local bars that will let you in if you look or speak like you’re not local (prepare to bring your passport), there are securely-controlled alcohol warehouses – and there are people’s houses. Everyone has a stash under the bed (and in the kitchen and maybe some in the wardrobe) and bringing as much booze into the country as possible becomes like a never-ending challenge (my PB is currently standing at 8 bottles, but I’m sure I can do better). Think of Bangladesh as a BYOB country. Moral to the story: if you like the odd drink, bring as much booze as you can.
  • Specialty health foods: Quinoa, acai berries, cacao, chlorophyll – if you can’t spell it or it could be described as a ‘superfood’, don’t expect to find it here.
  • Cheese: or any kind of perishable nice stuff (including decent chocolate and salty crackers – which for some reason are completely unavailable here). You can get cheese here but it’s only your bog-standard supermarket cheddar and it’s very expensive ($10 for 250g).
ethical bath stuff

I’m running a bit low on this stuff

  • Ethically sourced toiletries: I know this sounds a bit specific, but a lot of people who are interested in working in developing countries are also the kinds of people who refuse to buy anything with palm oil listed on the back, only use cruelty-free shampoo and wouldn’t be seen dead with cage eggs in their fridge. I fit into all those categories (and I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed) and it does upset me a bit that I can’t make the same ethical choices here as I could at home. When you’re packing, just remember that while you can get products made by some really wonderful social enterprises (e.g. soap made by women who have been rescued from sex slavery in the red light district), you really can’t buy vegan hair conditioner. It’s up to you whether that’s a priority.
  • I almost forgot! If you’re even considering riding when you get here (and you really should), bring your bike helmet. Good ones (i.e. meeting western safety standards) do exist here, but there’s a long waiting list to buy them. Don’t buy cheap locally-made ones – the roads are bad and the traffic’s worse, and several people I know have had accidents. Save yourself the hassle and risk – bring one from home.

What else will come in handy?

My trusty croc ballet flats

My trusty croc ballet flats, worn all through the monsoon

  • Crocs. No, hear me out. Ok, they don’t have to be crocs but rubber shoes will become your best friend during monsoon season. In a city where the roads are full of potholes big enough to fall into and the rainy season can see the streets running like rivers, any leather or canvas shoes are going to get wrecked in seconds. Thongs (or flip-flops, if you’re not an antipodean) won’t cut it: they’re considered ‘toilet slippers’ here so wearing Havaianas to work won’t give a great impression. A single piece of comfy rubber, shaped like ballet flats or loafers will save you buying a new pair of shoes every few days.
  • A decent raincoat: because rain. Mine turns inside out into its own pocket (thanks, Kathmandu) and fits into my handbag. I love it.
  • Warm clothes: apparently it gets cold here. For 70% of the year that statement will seem positively laughable (I haven’t been here for a winter yet and I still feel like its very existence is some massive practical joke). Bring at least a pair of jeans, some filled-in shoes, and a decent jumper. You can sort out the rest later (you could always buy some woolies in Nepal).
  • Dry shampoo: You can’t get it here and it’ll save your life in the field.
  • Portable bluetooth speakers: They’re not an obvious choice but they will make a big difference to your happiness.
  • A kindle/ebook reader: Sure, bring a couple of trusty paperbacks (I know they weighed down my suitcase) but downloading ebooks is the easiest connection to English-language books here. You can get printed books (mostly photocopies on the street, but there are a couple of small bookshops) but they’re all new bestsellers and it can be hard to find what you want (although it’s not desperate – there’s always the Nilhket book market).
  • X box/Playstation: I asked Ollie what he wished he’d brought and this is what he told me. We left it behind because we thought the unreliable power situation might fry its brain with the constant cuts, but with generator backups you’d probably be OK bringing one if that’s what you’re into.
  • Swimwear: Diving into the pool at your club on the weekend is truly a blessed relief from the heat.
  • On that note, remember your sports clothes, runners and tennis racquet (the clubs are your best access to exercise, especially if you’re a woman – running around the streets is difficult and would attract a LOT of attention)
  • Bank cards: All the ATMs here charge like wounded bulls. Make sure you’re not being hit with hefty charges from home as well by getting an account with no international fees on withdrawals or eftpos purchases – try Citibank.
  • Mosquito repellant with DEET in it: You can get mozzie spry here, but it’s of varying quality and may or may not have DEET in it. Don’t take chances with your health (dengue’s just not worth it): bring spray from home.
  • Sunscreen – as per DEET: it’s available, but it mostly doesn’t work. If you have sensitive skin, make sure you bring the good SPF 50+ stuff from home.
  • Probiotics: your digestive system will really get a workout here. A healthy gut means you’re less likely to get sick, and when you inevitably do, and have to take antibiotics, these babies will help you get back on track. Bring a couple of bottles to keep you going.
  • Any clothes you really love. That perfect top that’s seen better days? Those super-flattering pants that you wish you could buy 20 pair of and live in forever? Bring them to the desh and get them copied at the tailor.

 Clothes

  • Guys:
    • Bengalis appreciate a collared shirt, even if it’s just a polo.
    • Shorts are also considered children’s clothes, so you may want to bring a few pairs of long pants/chinos. However, in the words of one of my friends, ‘Everyone stares at me anyway – I’m a weird white guy. So why wear long pants? I’m hot.’
  • Girls: bring:
    • Long tops: keep it appropriate by keeping your shoulders covered and your bum out of sight.
    • Short dresses: I left all mine behind because I thought they would be outrageously inappropriate. Turns out a short dress at home is simply the perfect top here: just add leggings.
    • Leggings
    • Cool (e.g. cotton or rayon), baggy long pants
    • At least one maxi dress
    • More ‘inappropriate’ (western) clothes than you’d think. You want to feel at home and comfotable – sometimes being able to wear short shorts, even just at home or in an expat club, will make you feel free and ultimately save your sanity.
    • At least one nice dress/pair of heels for a night out in bideshi land.

And for the girls…

  • A mooncup: Or diva cup, or juju cup, or whatever your local/preferred brand is. Tampons are very hard to get here, so to bring an adequate supply is actually very difficult. Plus this is the environmentally-friendly version, and it’s actually very comfortable and effective. Lots of women I’ve spoken to here have gone mooncup and swear they will never go back to tampons and pads. Give it some thought.

Don’t even bother with…

  • DVDs/movies/TV series: You can really get anything you want here. If it’s not available, someone will even download it for you and burn it to CD. Although if you believe in intellectual property rights you might like to either close your eyes tight or bring your own legitimate copies (please see point above re: ethical choices being limited).

Ok, that just about exhausts my brain for now.

Got more questions? Not sure if you need it? Want to know whether you can get it here or if you should pack 17 of them? Just ask in the comments and I’ll see if I can help.