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)

 

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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.

ucurve

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.

 

 

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

It’s beginning to feel a … bit … kinda … like Christmas?

I don’t know how I failed to see it coming, but in case you didn’t know, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. There’s something about being in Dhaka that has deprived me any of the normal cues that would remind me to buy presents, put up a tree, cover my desk in tinsel, stockpile obscene amounts of food or otherwise empty my bank account. The supermarkets aren’t piping out cheesy Bing Crosby carols, the streets full of fairy lights are completely standard Bangladeshi decorations (so nothing out of the ordinary), and I have so far seen only two plastic deer in restaurant foyers. Christmas has come out of nowhere and it’s weird.

Like many people from the southern hemipshere, my idea of Christmas is a bit all over the shop. In theory, Christmas is about sleigh bells, mittens, and other things Julie Andrews likes to sing about, and while the festive seasons of my childhood were filled with the nostalgia of fake snow and pine trees, they were also defined by long days, endless swims at the beach, sunburn and paddlepops, and perfumed by a heady mix of sunscreen, mangos, frangipanis and pine needles.

In Dhaka, without the glaring sunshine and water-based fun of home, or the wintery wonderlandy cliche of Europe, I’m feeling a bit bewildered. What do you mean, it’s Christmas? I’m in a thin cardigan. I’m not remotely prepared to eat my weight in Terry’s chocolate oranges! I don’t even know where to source one!

At least people know that it’s a special time of year for us bideshis. We get a public holiday for “The Merry Christmas” as it’s commonly and adorably called, and my very sweet colleague Marium even gave me a Christmas present of some red and green earrings. A small minority of local people are Christian and celebrate themselves – Johnny, a friendly guy who serves at the counter of our work canteen, invited me to visit his family to celebrate – Bengali hospitality at its finest.

We do already have plans for Christmas day though – in a time-honoured expat tradition, we’re gathering together as each other’s substitute family to eat and drink and make merry. This year, that merriment will take place on a boat, floating about on the Buriganga River, just outside Dhaka. It seems fitting – we might not have all the traditions and trappings of home, but out on the water, sharing a homemade and crowd-sourced picnic, drinking the last of our duty free and wearing the hilariously ugly jumpers we found at the market, it’ll be a perfectly Bangladeshi Christmas.

Later…: Merry Christmas, everyone!

On a boat!

The glittery glittery Glitter Ball

glitter ballIt’s a thing of legend. Once a year, the Australian expat community bands together to host a party that will obliterate memories, fuel the ‘specialty tailoring’ industry in Dhaka for months, and remind everyone acutely of RSL clubs in regional towns: the Glitter Ball.

Held in October, the Glitter Ball likes to call itself ‘the most highly anticipated event in the Dhaka expat calendar’. People queue for tickets when they go on sale in August and spend the interim months plotting with the other 9 people on their table (or more, if your group has multiple tables) to stockpile booze and create a group costume theme that will be remembered for all time.

Dining and disco

Dining and disco

hassle the hoff

Last year’s Aussie volunteers and a few friends pulled off this genius

A huge venue is booked out at one of Dhaka’s fancier hotels (this year it was the Radisson) and everyone gets to work with their tailors. The more outrageous the outfit the better: plastic jumpsuits, ruffles, corsets, hats – you name it, someone in Dhaka will be happy to make it for you at a reasonable price.

Previous Glitter Ball costumes have included six-packs of Fosters, the cast of Baywatch, the crew from Star Trek and actual giant balls of glitter.

Elvises

Uh-huh.

This year, we saw the cast of the Hunger Games, a band of pirates, the kinky, whip-wielding ’50 Shades of Dhaka’, barbies still in their boxes, doctors and their ebola patients, Moulin Rouge dancers, Miss Universe contestants complete with pun-tastic sashes (including Miss Demeanor and Miss Appropriation), a band of mer-people and their jellyfish friends, and 20 identical Elvises.

Team Globetrotters, before hitting the Glitter Ball

In order to make the most of the cheesy music and disco lighting, we opted for dance-friendly comfort and went as the Harlem Globetrotters. A few drinks down, this happened:

IMG_1828Sadly I don’t have any pictures of the rest of the night because I spent the whole time dancing. I’m not really sorry. Maybe next time 🙂

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.

Our home in Gulshan

From my narrow balcony I can see a flash of shining blue, then the kingfisher settles. Sitting a rope that spans a narrower part of Banani lake, he has a perfect view of any small fish swimming between Karail slum and our apartment building. He’s often there, and for me he’s not only a symbol of a wild and beautiful Bangladesh that’s hard to find or even remember in this crazy, dusty city – he’s also a comforting echo of home: although he’s a different species, he looks a lot like Elvis, the tiny azure kingfisher that supervises the river outside my parents’ house in coastal New South Wales (my childhood home).
kingfisher

I like to spend time here, idly looking at the view of the lake and slum, which is ever-changing. It’s permanently criss-crossed with the wooden boats that ferry slum-dwellers across the water to the wealthy suburbs of Gulshan, Banani and Niketan. Many of them work here, often as domestic help or rickshaw-pullers. At rush hour, the edges of the colourfully overloaded ferries dip dangerously close to the water on their way to work in the morning and home again in the afternoon, while empty boats are paddled back for more customers. Apparently a one-way ferry ticket is 2 Taka (about 3 cents).

slum ferry

IMG_2996Most of my balcony’s real estate is taken up by a large, grunting air conditioning unit. I’m trying to grow chillis out here and have been failing since my first successful crop, but the lime tree seems to be doing ok. I suspect the chilli gets too much sun out here – especially in the afternoon.

We’re moving out of this house soon, and inevitably I’m suddenly appreciating all this place has to offer more than I have for a while. This end of Gulshan is a bit further away from the centre of the ‘tri-state’ of diplomatic suburbs – the group of suburbs in the north of the city that house most of Dhaka’s expats and some of its wealthier local citizens. Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara are full of embassies, expat clubs, spacious apartment blocks, relatively glitzy, modern shopping malls and ‘fancy’ western burger joints. You can even get a ‘real’ coffee in this part of town.

panorama

Banani lake and Karail slum from our apartment in Gulshan-1

Effectively bordered by two lakes (remnants of the once flourishing Ganges delta waterway that ran through the city, now filled in and built on), it’s the area that bideshis call ‘the bubble’ because it’s so different to the rest of Dhaka, where millions of people crowd into ancient, narrow streets and build tiny shop on top of tiny shop, selling sweet tea in stalls and scraping out a living. It’s the fancy end of town, but it’s an illusory Dhaka. The slums are a reminder of how the other 99% live.

We’re moving to Banani, more in the middle of the bubble and closer to other friends, restaurants and clubs. As a Sydneysider, I think of it as moving to the inner west – further away from the beauty of Gulshan-1’s views but closer to the beating heart of the area. It will be even further away from ‘real’ Dhaka and the life that most people lead here, and it’s hard to admit that that’s appealing. Banani is a bideshi ghetto, a place of western comforts and English being spoken in the streets. But in many ways it’s only a small change, a small concession to being less adventurous and more needy of home comforts – after all, in this apartment, we have only ever been on the easy side of the lake, looking down.