The daily wonder and the daily horror

Ollie and I like to talk about the daily horror of Bangladesh. It’s a running joke –

‘So what was your horror today?’ 

‘Oh, a bird dropped the rotting skull of another bird onto my head.’

‘Mm, good one. I stepped in what I suspect was a human shit.’

There is a lot wrong here in Dhaka – piles of garbage outside your door, animal carcasses on the street – and it helps to make light of it where you can. But the banter has a therapeutic side to it – offloading all the emotion and distress. Sometimes it’s not funny at all, and you need to talk.

‘I saw that family of people at Gulshan 2 circle who have the disfigured arms and legs today. They had cardboard tied to their hands so they could walk around on all fours. I think they’re a family – one looks like she’s the daughter of the older man. I just can’t imagine what their life is like.’

‘On my way home from the market there was a naked baby girl weeing into a drain on Road 11. I couldn’t see her family anywhere. I didn’t know what to do.’

The extremes hit hard. But there’s a curious balance here, a world full of daily wonders that keep the emotional see-saw swinging back and forth between dark and light. The sunset will glow red against the trees and you’ll see the national flag, hanging in the sky. The streets will roar with victory when the Tigers take a wicket against India. A kind stranger will help you haggle with a CNG driver. A colleague will insist on bringing you home-made sweets. A street kid will hold your hand as you walk to the shops, practicing their English and telling you about what they did at school. Up and down, so often a single day has both a black pit and a shining diamond.

I had one of those days this week, that took both of these extremes and rolled them into a single emotional suckerpunch that only Bangladesh could throw. Leaving Ollie at the American club to play water polo after we grabbed a quick burger, I climbed into a waiting rickshaw and settled into the rocking rhythm of the driver’s pedaling.

It had just got dark and the roads were quiet but not empty; the gently falling rain danced in the light of the occasional street lamp and cooled the air. We passed Gulshan Lake Park – the trees looked lush and green, clearly loving the hot sun and drenching rain of the monsoon – and rounded the corner past a pack of baby goats with amusingly oversized ears. A mango seller was packing up his rickshaw cart and getting ready to head home. I breathed in the contentment and beauty of the night, feeling grateful and lucky.

Approaching the intersection of a major road, the rickshaw driver cruised quietly down the waiting row of cars, using the size and agility of the rickshaw to bypass the traffic jam. A traffic cop, wearing a green uniform, lace-up boots and a reflective red ‘X’, and carrying a baton, walked over to us and began talking to the rickshaw driver.

Within seconds he was yelling, then screaming, then beating my driver over the head. Hard. A lot.

I sat for a moment or two in shock, then started yelling back, forgetting my rudimentary Bengali and swearing at him – in what I can only describe as full Australian. He didn’t seem to care, but eventually got tired, or thought he’d got his point across, and walked away.

I asked my driver if he was OK. He just shrugged, as if to say ‘Yeah, I’m fine – happens all the time.’

That was the bit that shocked me the most. I couldn’t help stifling back a tear or two as that realisation washed over me – the injustice of this violence, by the powerful against the powerless, that was so normal it barely deserved the bat of an eyelid. This small, polite, bearded rickshaw driver was already down, and he was used to being kicked.

I came home feeling dizzy with it all. Up and down, up and down. I tried to think about the goats.

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.

The expat struggle

If you’re an expat working in a developing country, or you’re ‘at home’ and want to know what the daily grind is like, you need to see this:

The Expat Struggle

The woman who curates this tumblr is working in an African country somewhere, but it’s amazing how much of this stuff transcends borders and continents.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but these have got to be up there:

When everyone is laughing so I join to fit in

I don't understand what's happening

How every minibus acts on the roadI'm a bus

How I sometimes feel about my workHow I sometimes feel about my work

Rats and bribes: the postal service

Anyone who’s lived in a country away from their friends and family knows that one of the best surprises you can have is getting a big fat parcel in the post, bulging with love and tied up with string. A care package will warm the cockles of even the stoniest heart of a seasoned traveller, or reduce those who are already teetering on the edge of homesickness to a fit of over-emotional, teary giggles.

Getting post in Bangladesh is, however, a bit of a lottery. It was my birthday a couple of months ago, and the packages that were so thoughtfully sent here from friends and family have been turning up, one by one, since August. It’s now October and I think the last of them have made it. So if you’re getting something sent, I can now advise you that you can expect an arrival time of anywhere between two weeks and three months.

When your package has finally found its way to you, you’ll then be presented with an invoice: the charge for picking up your post. Think of it as a bribe special thankyou for getting your parcel at all.

That’s if it does arrive. After hearing tales of people mysteriously ‘losing’ credit cards, cash and online shopping en route to Bangladesh, I have asked people at home to avoid sending anything valuable. Those three months that packages could potentially be lost in the black hole of the Bangladeshi postal sorting sheds are ample time for people to go through them and pick out what looks worth keeping.

The upshot of that, though, is that people end up sending comfort food as an alternative to valuables: as an Aussie I have been thrilled to receive Vegemite, Nutella, Tea, Milo, Tea, Coffee, Allen’s lollies, jerky, TimTams, Tea and Mint Slices. While this is joyous it’s also worth bearing in mind the non-human forces that will have access to your food in transit – the incredible heat is one thing (although, a packet of TimTams melted into one giant chocolatey, biscuity blob is actually quite wonderful) – another is the rats. I can now tell you that rats will avoid TimTams but LOVE Mint Slice. For some reason.

It’s a minefield, but it’s perfect every time. Thank you to everyone who has sent us a care package since we arrived – every one of them has made me dance with joy!

Get out every 3 months: top tips for escaping Dhaka

It’s pretty crazy here in Dhaka, and after a while it can all start to fray your nerves a bit: the constant beeping, the relentless traffic jams, the daily shock of poverty, haggling for everything, trying not to fall down holes in the street that lead to ominously murky drains, making complicated but daily ethical decisions about whether or not to give money to beggar kids… Ultimately, it amounts to just the stress of constantly being ‘on’ – of having to think differently, adjust yourself, adapt, be flexible. When you’re in a culture that’s so different to your own, your safety net of normal is stripped away.

Culture shock comes in many different forms, and here in Dhaka it’s often not what I’d call ‘shock’, but something quieter and more insidious – maybe erosion, or attrition. You think you’re fine, moving along from one day to the next, taking it in your stride and enjoying the constant stimulation of being somewhere new and different. And then one day, that’s it, you snap, you’re done. You lose your cool and suddenly you’re yelling at a rickshaw driver for trying to overcharge you, or you’re in a puddle of tears because someone at work didn’t say ‘thankyou’. The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is always insignificant and ridiculous – it’s something you deal with every day but suddenly you can’t handle it any more. And that’s when you know you need a break.

It’s a bit of a rule of thumb in the local expat community that to try to avoid these silly and often public meltdowns, you should get out of the city every three months. This doesn’t mean leaving the country (although a getaway to Kathmandu, Kolkata or even Thailand is pretty easy and affordable) – there are a few great places to head to for a couple of days in Bangladesh. Top of the list are:

  • Srimongal, the peaceful, green and hilly tea district in the north-east
  • The Sundarbans, the world heritage-listed wetland forests on the Bay of Bengal that house the famous Bengal tigers as well as the fascinating otter-fisherman
  • The Rocket, a colonial-era paddleboat that offers comfortable overnight trips down through the country’s huge river system
  • Cox’s Bazar, for a bit of beach time and some great seafood
  • Sonargaon (Panam), the medieval capital of Bengal and 19th Century colonial centre, just south of Dhaka

In the lead-up to Eid Ul Adha I had one of the famous Dhaka meltdowns, but luckily Ollie and I had some beautiful people from Australia coming to visit us, so we already had a few getaways planned. We ended up going to Nepal for 5 days and Srimongal for another 3 days, then coming back to Dhaka for Eid – posts to come!