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

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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.

 

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Your destiny written on your forehead

Yesterday the streets were eerily quiet. In a country where work hours are long and labour is demanding, public holidays are usually a great opportunity to stay home and rest – but this time it was even quieter, like everyone was asleep.

Which, of course, they were.

Tuesday night was Shab e-Barat, the holy night of fortune and forgiveness – and from sunset to sunrise on Wednesday morning, the PA systems on mosques around the city were ringing with prayer. It’s this night that, once a year, Allah judges your virtue, and in the morning writes your destiny across your forehead, marking you with your fortune for the year ahead.

It’s a sombre, spiritual festival. But like any other, it’s done with family. Throughout the day women make ruti (flat bread) and silver-leaf-topped halwa, and then in the evening go into the streets to give these to the poor. The cemeteries slowly fill up with the relatives of the dead, who come to pray for the souls of their parents. Then the men the go together to the mosques, and the women return home, to begin the hours of prayer.

I don’t pretend to know what people pray for in these long hours. People have told me they pray for forgiveness, recite passages from the Quran, perform rituals and ask for blessings. Some observe only a few hours of devotion, while others patiently wait for the sun to rise, seeing in the new year with its new fortunes.

By the time my new year of fortune has started, it’s mid morning and the faithful are all in bed. It seems that for most, their destiny for today is a quiet one.

Kawran Bazar

“So do you take a rickshaw to work?”

“No, I can’t, it’s too far. I work in Kawran Bazar.”

“Kawran Bazar? What are you, a fish seller??”

Often people assume that I work in the posh Gulshan-Banani diplomatic area, because that’s where a lot of the international NGOs are located. Sometimes when I tell them I work in Kawran Bazar, I feel like I may as well have said my office is on the moon.

The biggest wholesale market in Bangladesh, Kawran Bazar is a sprawling network of specialist markets, selling everything from vegetables (under the tarpaulin awnings), to fish (near the lake). Cross the road to the big buckets of ice and you’ll find the chickens and meat; walk around another corner and there’ll be blankets, then lunghis and children’s clothes; explore further and you’ll find the knives and oily rickshaw parts.

Some of the stalls are huge commercial outfits, with truckloads of produce coming in from the rural areas every morning in big jute bags and wicker baskets, while others are tiny, just a small sheet laid out on the ground with a few cucumbers and green chilis for sale, presumably grown on the vendor’s own plot of land. I’m told that almost all the fresh food that comes into Dhaka goes through this bustling hub.

Rising out of this labyrinth of markets is my office. Surrounded by delivery trucks in the morning and gridlocked rickshaws by mid-afternoon, CARE Bangladesh occupies five floors of a tall glass highrise with its head in the smog and its feet covered in slimy cabbage leaves. This is where I work.

Our offices, from the market below.

Our offices, from the market below.

It really is madness – picking your way through baskets of chickens and trying to avoid slipping in the squelching mud and vegetable mulch that covers the roads, on the way up to the front steps. A wonderful kind of madness.

Some of my colleagues do their grocery shopping in the market in the mornings before coming to work, and I guess I could probably take advantage of it more often, but I’ve been warned that it’s hard to tell the quality of the food apart, and it’s common for some farmers and distributors to inject fruit, vegetables and meat with formalin to preserve it during transportation. So I actually haven’t spent a lot of time exploring it all.

Ever since I arrived in March last year I’ve been planning to take some pictures of the place. In December, while showing Ollie’s parents around town, I finally got a chance to do it properly. Here’s a few from that little excursion…

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!

A bideshi’s guide to eating with your hands

It should be easy: after all, we use our hands for everything else – why not as cutlery? But anyone who’s sat down to a meal in India, Nepal or Bangladesh without a fork and promptly slopped rice and curry all over themselves will know that eating with your hands is a skill that needs to be learned. Here are a few tips for how to do it the Bengali way (courtesy of the delicious food at my workplace canteen)!

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Culture swap: Bengalis and dolmades

Food, like the language, is a matter of serious pride in Bangladesh. Other foods are generally tolerated (and burgers celebrated as a worthy import from the west) but Biryani, Ilish, Bhorta and Fuschka stand on a pedestal of their own. I have heard more than one person say that Bengali food is the best food in the world.  In fact, I know a story about some friends of friends who went to Bangkok for a work trip and didn’t eat for 3 days because they couldn’t find a Bengali restaurant. Such is the devotion.

I’ve been enjoying my fair share of delicious cardamom-and-clove-spiced foods, but being in any new part of the world is always about sharing – not just learning more about what your adopted country has to offer, but giving something back.

With this in mind, I’ve been slowly introducing my Benagli colleagues and friends to a few ‘Australian’ foods and habits. Famously, Australia is home to the largest Greek community outside Greece, and one of my favourite foods to cook for friends and family is dolmades – those delicious, vine-wrapped mediterranean morsels of sweet and sour snackishness.

Armed with specialty supplies from my recent trip to Turkey, I spent some time in the kitchen over a weekend making a giant pile of the things. They really are a labour of love, taking the better part of an afternoon. Starting with washed vine leaves, you fry onions and raisins in a ton of olive oil, then add semi-cooked risotto rice and fresh parsley. The time consuming bit is rolling this filling into the vine leaves so you have little individually-wrapped mouthfuls. These parcels all go in a big pot, are covered in lemon juice and boiling water, and boiled for about an hour.

I’m getting hungry thinking about it.

At home, I usually make these babies on holidays – when I have lots of down-time and need to do some productive, meditative work with my hands. As a result they always remind me of summer, and when I’d finished this batch and sunk my teeth into the first roll, I was instantly transported to Christmas. I could practically smell the heady mix of pine needles and sunscreen. Making them is also a bit of a special-occasion present for my family (they take so long that usually no one can be bothered), and they never fail to elicit cries of joy followed by extended periods of silent, happy munching.

So when I took my giant lunchbox full of about 100 dolmades to work the next day, it was kind of a special offering. Here were some of the classic bengali reactions:

(frowning, trying to unwrap leaf) “Do I eat the whole thing? are you sure? but it’s a leaf. Are you sure?”

“Ah, I think there are olives in this. Definitely olives.”

“It is OK. It is very sour.”

“It would be better if it was dipped in something. I would like to eat this with a sweet chilli sauce.”

…And maybe if it was fried in turmeric with some cardamom and cloves? 🙂

Maybe I got it all wrong and I need to stick to bringing the ever-reliable mishti (sweets).

Next week: Bengali reactions to Vegemite.