52 Portraits: The chai wallah

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Down by the river in Mymensingh, the sun has just set and the ferries are coming in. In the dark street next to the jetty, families and tradesmen gather alongside the goats and fig trees to enjoy a cup of malai cha – a super sweet, creamy tea made by over-boiling milk and mixing tea and ‘chini’ (sugar) with the thick cream that forms on the top.
Before I can stop him, Sainuddin drops three heaped teaspoons of chini into my tiny cup, before pouring a few drops of strong black tea and whisking in a scoop of cream. I might wind up with diabetes but I won’t lie, it’s delicious.

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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!

The Best Bits #2 (Or, things that make me happy in Dhaka)

 

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Amazing rooftop sunsets

Ispahani: the best generic tea band anywhere in the world (it's over, Dilmah, go home).

Ispahani: the best generic tea brand anywhere in the world (it’s over, Dilmah, go home).

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A truly world-class bakery, complete with sourdough and puppy called Alex

Dry country = no ridiculous pre-conceived ideas about not filling the wine glass *all the way to the top*

Dry country = no ridiculous pre-conceived ideas about not filling the wine glass *all the way to the top* (with great thanks to the American Recreation Association)

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Getting a full bike service from rickshaw repair men for less than $2 each, and riding away, flying like the wind…