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.

Chasing away the clouds

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In Nepal in early October, the streets and squares are full of children and the excitement is palpable. The monsoon is finally over – which means it’s kite flying season.

The kites are believed to chase away the clouds and stop the rain, so it’s only after the country has had a good drenching and the crops are watered that children are allowed to fly their kites. As the skies turn from grey to blue, the air fills with fluttering, home-made diamonds.

Land of six seasons: let’s talk about the weather

I just ran in from the pouring rain, soaked to the skin, and realised it was cool enough for something truly wonderful: my first hot shower of the year. We left Australia at the tail end of a blazing hot (40 degree) summer, and segued smoothly into the start of Bangladesh’s already sweltering spring, so it’s been quick, cold showers for the last 10 months or more. I stood under that hot water for at least 15 minutes, revelling in wanting to be warm, and singing a crappy, made-up, Bangladesh-inspired version of Crowded House’s ‘Four Seasons In One Day’. There’s a change in the air. It’s finally getting cooler.

While most countries find four seasons adequate for their purposes, Bangladesh proudly has six:

  • Spring (March-April)
  • Summer (May-June)
  • Monsoon (July-August)
  • Autumn (September-October)
  • Cool (November-December)
  • Winter (January-February)
big, hot sun

Big, hot sun

… Famously, all but two are unbearably hot. Spring and Summer are varying degrees of boiling, with June temperatures sitting happily around the 40 degree mark, dropping to 30 over night if you’re lucky. It’s kind of a constant sweat bath, and you’ll go through a couple of outfits a day just trying to stay comfortable. Catching CNGs (tuk-tuks) in this weather is like stepping into a small metal oven and being slowly marinated in sweat and car exhaust.

Once the powerful rains come, the temperature drops closer to 30 but the humidity feels so thick and heavy that it’s wet to the touch, even when it’s not raining: you start to wonder if you need to invest in a snorkel and fins. Crossing the river-like streets, you might wish you did. The inconvenience of the rain is compensated for by the crashing, theatrical thunderstorms – watching the black clouds roll in over Dhaka is truly a sight to behold.

Then, slowly but surely, the rains stop – but the humidity stays. With the sun shining, Autumn creates ample warm puddles and the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, making it synonymous with ‘dengue season’. Obsessively reapplying 40% DEET bugspray and tucking in our mozzie nets at night, we all cross our fingers and hope for the best. This year three of my friends have gone down with the dreaded ‘dengoo’ – and we’re not out of the woods yet.

Eventually, the cooler weather comes around: now in October, we’ve finally made it through an uncharacteristically rainy autumn (mutter mutter, climate change mutter) and the temperatures are dropping. The four months from now until February will see temperatures drop – so I’ve been told, although I won’t believe it until I’m shivering in my specially-purchased Nepalese woolies – to 5 degrees overnight. With months of tropical acclimatisation behind us, a Winter high in the mid-twenties will feel positively arctic. But with clear skies and cool nights, it’s undoubtedly the best time to be visiting Bangladesh. Anyone fancy dropping by?

Travelling for Eid

I’ve been doing a terrible job lately of keeping bideshi up to date, apart from posting a few pictures – sorry about that! Work has been busy, Ramadan has started and, joy of joys, I have been planning my Eid holidays.

For someone used to living at the ass-end of the globe, where every international flight takes an minimum of 8 hours and costs over $1000, one of the amazing things about being in Bangladesh is that it feels like the middle of the world. With East Asia on one side, Central Asia on the other and (thanks to a constant stream of labourers looking for new lives, new money and opportunity) cheap flights to anywhere in the Middle East, there’s a smorgasbord of culture within easy reach. So planning for the upcoming break has seen me bouncing up and down like a kid in a sweets shop. Hand me that paper bag, I’m heading to the pick ‘n’ mix.

Nepal? Myanmar? India? Thailand? China? Bhutan? Cambodia? Pakistan?

It turns out travelling at this time of year has its limitations. It’s monsoon season, so not the ideal time to travel to SE Asia, or anywhere in Bangladesh, for that matter. The mountains are cloaked in clouds, meaning there’s little point in going to Nepal or Bhutan because you can’t see the spectacular views. India is, somewhat surprisingly, impossible to get to at short notice, thanks to its highly bureaucratic visa system and a determination to stop people from Bangladesh trickling over the border.

So what does that leave? Well, how about TURKEY. THAT LEAVES TURKEY.

Ee! Excited!

Ollie doesn’t get to come, but that’s OK, he’s been twice without me anyway (he will never live this down). Because he’s working as a contractor at the moment he’s locked into a 3-month stint at UNDP, so one of the other Aussie vols and I are buddying up to head over.

The flights we got were $1100 return, which is apparently not as low as they go (if you are happy to do 31-hour layovers)  but pretty damn reasonable. We’ll have 2 weeks and do the tourist trail Cappadoccia-Pamukkale-Ephesus-South coast-Istanbul. I’ll try to write at least one interesting thing about the trip when I’m home … See you back in Dhaka!