Slow ride in fast city (in the dirt and grime of Dhaka)

 

Wifey has gone off to teach in Jessore for the week leaving me in my jadu ghor, my little museum apartment, to entertain myself for a few days.

I’m well prepared. I still have the books I’d hoped to read in the airport before the invasion of the blood suckers. Furthermore I have already arranged to meet friends – former students from my days teaching at LAMB – and catch up on two years of gossip.

Bangladesh continues to be a strange mixture of old and modern, of changed and unchanged. The first thing I notice is that I’m talking to all these young people exclusively using the Internet. I haven’t sent or received a single text nor phone call, yet I’m chatting and making arrangements every hour of the day. Of course, when I step outside I will be alone. I have no Bangla SIM card and have been using the wireless modem here in the apartment. But that’s ok – I know what I am doing out there.

Hands are tied a little though with the recent attacks on foreigners. We are ‘under orders’ to only take CNG baby taxis. No walking. No rickshaws. This seems ok for the journeys I’ll be taking are longer ones and need the motorised vehicles anyway.

I’ve been told that the CNGs are now obliged by the government to use the meters. I don’t believe it until I try to barter a price with one driver to get me to Dhanmondi. “We’ll use the meter,” he offers without my first insisting and I’m blown away. Never in ten years have I known a CNG driver willingly offer to go by meter. Good reason too. The money I give him turns out to be just two taka (1-2 pence) more than my original stupidly low price I gave in response to his ridiculous high “he’s a bideshi” price. It’s a miracle these drivers aren’t starving to death.

The view from inside the 'cage'

The view from inside the ‘cage’

Dhaka continues to be a city permanently under construction. Every single block has at least one Tower of Babel stretching up into the sky and held together, it seems, by the flimsiest of bamboo poles. Construction doesn’t stop, day or night, as my sleep patterns attest. There’s no peaceful night’s rest in Dhaka.

As towering monstrosities vie with one another for supremacy of the sky, so the battle for the underworld seems to also be underway. It feels like every road is being dug up. Not just small contained holes, but whole valleys which stretch across roads blocking access except for the small wooden boards precariously balanced, offered to pedestrians at their peril and looking as well as feeling like a cross between a castle’s drawbridge over a moat and a pirate’s plank.

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What’s left of the streets continues to overflow with sewage and mud. I have to remind myself that I’m in the ‘posh’ part of Dhaka as I hold my breath from the reek of piss and shit and tiptoe through the least muddy parts I can find.

I go see a dear friend and her sister. I have forgotten just how much I love ‘my people’ here and she is definitely one of mine. She cooks my first Bangla meal of the visit (the chef where I’m staying is brilliant but trained for western tastes so I’m eating bideshi all the time there) and her sister makes the best Bangla cha. When it comes to time to leave I find it hard to tear myself away. Somehow, for all the nightmare which is Dhaka, it is still home; still the place my heart feels at rest and comfortable. It can’t just be my friends here – I have people I love in the UK too – it’s the whole package. If you took away everyone I know in this land I’d still come back and make new friends. Yet I stand at the doorway of these two young angels and know I don’t want to be anywhere else – not even in Dhaka. So it’s not just the country either. Bangladesh and its people continue to defy comprehension and explanation.

It’s dark when I leave after the guards for the apartment block have failed to locate a CNG for me. I go searching for myself and after a few minutes I find one. Is he going? I ask. He is. I want Banani masjid, I tell him. He tells me his meter is broken. It’s fairly obvious it isn’t but the price he asks is ok so I let it ride. It isn’t taking long for the drivers to find ways around the rules.

The journey back is uneventful until, in true Bangladesh style, the last moment where he takes a slightly different route back and gets stuck in traffic.

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“Go round the corner,” he says, “and the masjid is just a few minutes away. But if I try to take you in this jam it will be another hour.”

I’m wary because I don’t really recognise where I am which is odd as I know most of Banani. But I pay him and get out and follow the directions he gave. Soon I realise I’m now on Airport Road – the major road which feeds into Banani – but no idea at which part. I head into the area and soon realise I recognise nothing. I later figure out he’s dropped me right at the south end which just happens to be the part I know least of all.

I wander street after street desperately trying to find somewhere I recognise or at least a main road. I find neither. Now I’m in the dark streets at night with my white skin shining like a Belisha beacon. Under normal circumstances I would have hopped on a rickshaw long ago and had the wallah take me to the masjid. But I’m not allowed, for my own personal safety, so I don’t. I have no way of knowing I will actually wander these streets for nearly an hour.

Finally, I recognise a road and something on it. Not the shop, but the shop front. All the shops have changed here in two years but I recognise the shop design. We used to bring our children here for ice creams long ago back when they were little, what now feels to my tired legs and frayed nerves like a lifetime ago. I finally have my bearings.

The road I take is a back road. It is dark, unlit and muddy. At one point, unable to see properly, I wade through what I hope is just muddy water. I hope, but also doubt. My shoes are ruined. No matter, I intended to buy sandals while here anyway. I find my apartment block and go in, tired, a little pissed but mostly just grateful to be back.

That night, after a great meal from the chef, I lie in bed and muse over the day. I was nervous in the dark, there’s no denying, but I was also excited. That’s the power this country has over me. I’ve known bideshis go through less and say “never again” leaving to never return. But my overwhelming feeling is “this is home” and I wonder just what would have to happen to me, how bad it would have to be, to change my mind. In a country where that question could so easily be answered I hope I never find out.

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Return to Bangladesh

We leave the house at 9:20 am with some trepidation it must be said.  The two Things cope with the goodbyes stoically. No tears. No tantrums. This is a done deal that their parents are going back to the heartland, back to the country which belongs to all of us, without them.

We drive through the winding roads of Cumbria and, ironically, see the first real flurries of snow fall as we head to Manchester. It always seems to happen this way, when we leave for Bangladesh. It snows as we leave.

The journey goes well until we hit the outskirts of Manchester. I’ve not made allowances for the traffic moving at the speed of drying paint and I realise that we’re going to be an hour late for our lunch date with friends. But it’s ok. They are bangadeshis – they will be laid back and not be worrying.

I’m wrong.  My phone rings.

“Ken Bhai are you coming?”

“Yes Apa, I’m so sorry. We got stuck in traffic. We are just a few miles away.”

“No problem Ken Bhai,” she tells me.  And I know it’s true.

We arrive and it is good to see our friends. It has been too long since last we saw them. The irony being that last time was in a favourite cafe in Dhaka – where we’re headed to. And now here we are in their home in Manchester – where we’re leaving from.

The lunch is Bangla and delicious. So good I forget to take a picture. We eat with our right hand too – good preparation for the days ahead. My stomach is full and our minds are calming. That is until we realise through our friends that Wifey and I  are flying from different terminals at the airport. What to do? We have separate flights and separate arrival times, even separate change-over airports. We’d hoped at least to spend the three hours before flying together.

Our friends drop us at terminal two -my terminal – because I’m taking the luggage for both of us. We’re travelling light because shalwa kameezes are awaiting Wifey in Dhaka so she has brought little in the way of clothes. We check me in and the luggage is packed off to the plane. Then we walk to terminal one to check her in too. Once that is done we spend some time together before saying our goodbyes and I head back to my terminal. It’s not much but it has at least given us a little more time together.

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The next two hours go past slowly but without incident. Then, I’m on the plane and bound for Doha. Qatar flights, I will discover, are variable. This first plane has little choice in films to watch and even less room to stretch. The food is…palatable. It’s night time now and maybe I’m grumpy after twelve hours of travel but I’m not impressed.

Three hours waiting for my connecting flight in Doha does little to improve my mood though I’m impressed that there are no security checks. I just walk from my plane to the departure gate and wait to board. Once checked in and sitting in the holding room waiting to be allowed entrance to the plane, I realise I am the only white person there. The room is full of bangladeshis and, with a smirk, I know what’s coming next and sit back to watch the comedy.

Despite four clearly designated ‘zones’, when zone one is called for, the entire room stands up as one and rushes at the doors. The Qatar staff are clearly inexperienced and overwhelmed in an instant. Not one of them speaks Bangla and obviously have no idea that this is a country of people that don’t know how to queue. There is no logic to rushing to get on board – no one flies until the last person is on board! – yet still they swamp the staff and attempt to push past.

“Please!” one beleaguered young woman begs in a voice barely audible in the noise. “Just zone one. If you’re not zone one please sit down.”

Many minutes later and some have returned to the seats. Then the staff call for zone one again and, sure enough, everyone stands and rushes at the staff again. This is going to take a long time, I think to myself. I’m right.

When the plane finally takes off I’m aware of a fear within me. What if I don’t get in? What if my wife doesn’t get in? What if Bangladesh is different? What if it no longer feels like home? Where do I live then? Where is my heart?

I am distracted by the meal being served. This flight is better. More films, better food too. But it is the Bangladeshi sat behind me who is the entertainment. The cabin crew speak no Bangla either and the meals have not accounted for another Bangla cultural truth.

“Sir, would you like the chicken or fish option?”

“Oh! Yes. Pleeze. Chicken. Wid rice.”

“I’m afraid these meals don’t come with rice today. It is salad and potatoes.”

“Oh sorry, sorry. I have fish then, thank you. Wid rice.”

The air hostess does her best to keep her cool.

“I’m sorry sir but our options today are not served with rice. Would you like the chicken or the fish?”

This continues a little longer until eventually it seems to get through. Chicken is chosen. As the lady walks away to the next person I hear the man mumble “wid rice” one more time quietly to himself.

It doesn’t matter how much you eat, or how delicious the meal might be. If you’ve not had rice, you haven’t eaten.

Four hours later and we begin the descent into Dhaka. My heart is pounding and I feel sick. Then we break through the clouds and I see my first foggy glimpses of my Bangladesh. My heart breaks and I feel tears welling in my eyes. There is no doubt now. I still feel the same way even after two years apart.

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We land and I walk into the airport. The smell hasn’t changed either. What has changed, and has been the source of our worry, is the option to have visa on arrival rather than apply to the Bangladesh High Commission as we have always done in the past. It’s much cheaper this way but none of our friends have ever dared to try it.

Apart from the usual farce of not knowing where to queue to get the form and pay for the application (I discover there that it isn’t $50 as all the websites say but $50 plus tax – but he lets me off the one dollar extra I don’t have), I simply go to the immigration desk to have the visa granted. That’s it. I walk out to the baggage area in half the time it would usually and at a fraction of the visa cost.

I pick up the bags and sit opposite the immigration desks ready for my four hour wait for my other half to arrive. I’ve brought plenty of books to read so I’m all prepared. Alas, I haven’t allowed for company.

Within ten minutes I have shut my book and look up to see myself in a swarm of mosquitos. They seem equally interested in my luggage as me and so I abandon my bags where I can keep them in sight and begin walking around the walkway next to the immigration desk. Four hours later I’m still doing it, trying to out walk the mozzies and mostly succeeding but still needing to lash out and crush the odd persistent one. The floor is littered with their bodies but they are too small to notice.

I discover that airport life is deadly dull when planes haven’t landed and people aren’t rushing en masse to immigration. So about a dozen staff watch a mad foreigner go round and round in circles for four hours for no apparently good reason. They have nothing better to do I guess. I’ve done nothing to improve perceptions of the British however.

Eventually Wifey appears and she too has her visa accepted on arrival (though she is made to pay the extra tax amount). We find our driver outside and begin the slow journey to the flat in Banani which will be home for this week.

Nothing has changed. The traffic is still chaotic. The people are still too much. And even though we’re barely out of winter it is already hot. The traffic lurches from dangerously fast and out of control to total standstill often within seconds of each other, but eventually we come to our building, grab our bags from the car and we’re taken to our flat.

It is a beautiful place, full of ornate furniture and ornaments. I feel like I am to sleep in a museum. But right now that’s fine by me. I’m ready to drop. The last surprise is to see our bed which I later discover belonged to a Vietnamese princess. We feel majestic. We feel like death.

It has been almost exactly 36 hours since we left Cumbria and we quickly fall asleep, knowing little until the call to prayer from the local mosque at 5 am the next morning. It doesn’t matter. We’re home.

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Going Home

Over Christmas I finished a big project for a client which saw quite a lot of money come in from my writing. Normally I would have banked this and added to the pot from which I draw a monthly wages for myself. But this time I decided this large sum needed to be at least partly used on something special.

And so I bought a ticket for Bangladesh.

Yes, after just over two years of being exiled from my heartland, I’m going back. I’m heading home.

Home.

It’s interesting that despite all the predictions otherwise (that I’d adjust to being back in the UK, re-find my place, my role here and adapt), I still think of Bangladesh as home. I’ve always maintained that when I left the country I left my heart there and I still feel that today. I haven’t found ‘my place’ here. Far from it. Instead I continue to despair at how British people treat each other. This is transient. I am a foreigner here, trespassing on a culture I can’t agree with.

It doesn’t mean that I’ve not known happiness in the UK – of course not. I have my family, my friends and perks like finally owning a house big enough to have all my books, CDs and musical instruments housed in one room. my study is my haven and I never tire of working here all day. Facebook too has made sure that almost all those who matter to me who are not physically by my side are still with me every day. And we have a cute dog who is our life and joy here and makes every day special. I am content – truly.

But it’s not Bangladesh.

So, this Saturday Wifey and I will be flying from Manchester airport and spending two weeks in the heartland. This assumes that we have no problems getting a tourist visa on arrival or that something else doesn’t go stupidly wrong! Otherwise, the next you hear from me, I will either be in Asia or, if the internet fails to materialise, back from the country. Either way, you’ll be sure to get a report from me on my experiences. Get ready! There will undoubtedly be turbulence.

My Bangladesh

My Bangladesh

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Catch-up before the year ends

Weeeelllll it has been far, far too long since last I wrote but that, dear readers, you can put down to me being way too busy rather than no longer caring about this place of mine. It’s been, on the whole, a good kind of busy. But first a recap of the year.

Dr Seuss quote2015 has, in so many ways, been the worst and best of years. It started appallingly with the leftovers of a trauma which began in 2014 and got worse when our children were told in February that the school we’d travelled 5,000 miles from Bangladesh to join was going to close this July.

Somehow, I went from being upset parent to being on the campaign team trying to keep the school open. I knew from the beginning that it would be hopeless. The governors represented in small what I see from the Tory government here in the UK – inbred, self-congratulatory privileged set who have set themselves above others and made sure regulations can’t touch them – but still I enjoyed the ride of trying to move the beast and do what was right. There’s no doubt in my mind that the school was a Titanic which could have been steered away from the iceberg had the crew not been on the deck drinking champagne and telling themselves it had all been a jolly good show. There’s a new team being assembled now to try to resurrect the school in the future. I wish them well – but it’s too late for my children.

9373b-black_dog_4Things got better in March as our trauma came to an end but then the Black Dog hit me hard and I struggled immensely with depression. It took me until August to decide enough was enough and go cold turkey with the medication (which I haven’t touched since) and get myself back to who I really am. The Dog still appears from time to time but the worst it gets is to make me a little moody for a few days or get a bit stressed out when deadlines are looming. But then, as a deep thinker and big feeler, I’m not sure that’s any different to how I’ve always been – only I’m a little older, a little more weary of people and a little more susceptible to pain, perhaps.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m still a glass -half-full kind of guy however and August saw me take a lot of proactive steps to get on my feet. My kids started homeschooling (more on this in a moment) and I spent quite a bit of time getting rid of relationships I’d made online over the years which were no longer healthy. Occasionally, those relationships came back renewed and back to health again but most were just trash which needed to be shunted out. At the same time, during the year, I’ve been blessed with the renewal of friendships which go way back (in one case, way, waaaay back) and which are truly very wonderful to have. It is good to know that, beyond my family who are always my constants, there’s two or three others I know have always got my back.

Hemingway quote trust1

Once. Only once.

Which is just as well, because in the last few months I’ve seen several times how people you think you can rely on, you think respect you and hold you in the same regard you have for them, turn out to be…disappointing. In some cases it has meant either removing them from my life or waving them a happy goodbye as they walked away by themselves. I won’t chase such people, that’s for sure. In other cases, it’s a case of reassessing their worth. When you think you can trust someone and you then find you can’t, you don’t trust them again. I am ever the optimist and ever ready to make a new friend and trust them. But with few exceptions, I don’t make the mistake twice with the same person.

Perhaps one of the highlights of the latter part of the year has been joining a private group on Facebook mainly made up of British Asian Muslims. Having come in as a token white guy (my assumption, not theirs), I’ve quickly come to love hanging out these people and rather bizarrely got made an admin for the group. It’s no biggie in some ways but for me, living in a county where there are very few Asians and still mourning the loss of Bangladesh in my life, this has been a lifeline to me and I was stunned by the trust I was given. So if any of the ‘Creatures’ are reading this – thanks guys for the fun, for the friendship and for allowing me to be a part of your continuous virtual party!

Beer and book with daughter

Reading time down the pub – the perks of self-employment and homeschooling :)

The great joy has been homeschooling Thing I and Thing II – something I never expected to be possible. The experiment may only last a year for Thing II as he’s a social creature like me and misses having friends around him all the time (I only survive self-employed working from home because of my online friendships and getting out to do the odd bit of teaching during the day – plus I’m older and more calm about such things), but he’s enjoying this kind of learning and doesn’t miss school one bit! We’ll see if he wants to carry on in September 2016.

For Thing I it was always going to be her kind of thing and she’s just about to take her first GCSE exam in January followed by half a dozen more next June. We’re even talking about starting her A levels early so can go to Sixth Form college in 2017 with one or even two already under her belt. Like me, my daughter has her eyes on too many qualifications all the time and I can’t help but encourage her in pursuing anything and everything which takes her fancy.

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Me and the daughter having a boogie.

And finally…the writing. Boy, what a whirlwind that has been. I will do another post later this week on that but let’s just say that over the last six months business has taken off (so much so that I doubt I will be pitching to editors for the whole of next year at least) and it’s why posts on this blog have been few and far between. But be warned – there’s several to come over the next two weeks. I’m officially giving myself time off to enjoy a ‘school’ holiday with the kids, catch up on hundreds of blog posts I haven’t read, play on Facebook and write a few posts on here to make up for my absence.

Oh! and yeah…get ready for Christmas Day too I suppose… :D

 

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Guest Post: 4 things I underestimated about china – Justin Light (Inky n the Brain)

A month ago I had the pleasure of guest-posting on Inky n the Brain run by a very nice chap called Justin. Today it’s Justin’s time to return the favour.

Justin’s site is about practical positivity and motivation which is why I posted about ADHD but Justin is also a travelling kind of a guy and travel, with respect to new cultural experiences, is just what kenthinksaloud is about (well, one of the things anyway!).

So sit back and learn about a country I’ve always wanted to visit (I’ve been learning the language, on and off, for several years): CHINA!

Over to Justin…

If you have ever considered living in China, here are some things I underestimated while teaching English abroad. Prepare to be tantalised.


When people think of China initially people visualise:

  • Traffic congestions that make you wonder if anyone ever gets to work
  • Pollution that blankets an afternoon sky, resembling that of an oncoming apocalypse.

For me, I visualise hundreds of KTV (Karaoke) bars that line the streets stuffed with expats and diehard Chinese locals. From the raging street culture, street food and fashion to the ancient monolithic landscapes of Xingping, Dragonback Rice Terraces and mountain top religious Buddhist temples.

After teaching English for 3 months here are my top four things  I underestimated while living in China.

1. Diversity and Cost of Food

Planning a trip to China? If you are you might ask, “does that mean I get to eat lemon chicken and honey chicken like all the time?! OOO! And Springrolls?” No you won’t. That’s Hong Kong, don’t go there, it’s boring.

In China you experience a whole range of cuisine! From, cat to dog, bird and rats! Well the thing is, you simply DON’T KNOW what you’re eating because it’s all in Chinese but if it’s not one of three symbols 鸡肉,牛肉 or 猪肉,  its safe to say you should be spending your yuan elsewhere.

2. Public Transport is so reliable

This is definitely true! Hooray, clap clap… The problem is, china’s public transport is that reliable that EVERYONE USES IT!!!!!

I don’t know about you but I live in a place called Australia where the population density is 3 people per square kilometer. Add this to our population of pet kangaroos and there’s still plenty of room to play with.

Now, imagine squeezing 30 million people into ONE city and then encouraging them to use the one singularly effective method of commuting, the underground train network. 30 MILLION!? We have less people than that in my whole country..Crowded Guangzhou Metro

So prepare yourself for moshpit mondays, pushing through gigantic crowds (or being pushed in directions you don’t want to be going) to get to where you need to go. ‘Peak hour’ is definitely not ‘happy hour’.

Despite the overcrowded rails, I was never late to work because trains ran every 5-10 mins (2 in every direction, and at every stop). That’s a lot of trains…

3. Cost of Living is incredibly low

Well, I knew it was gonna be cheap but discovering 50c full-plated breakfast noodles made me tear up with joy. I honestly don’t know how their food economy can thrive but my word it does and it never seemed to disappoint.

Other than food, the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen are famous in China for their thriving commercial centres, markets and plazas filled with name brand copies and local threads. I could pick up a pair of jeans and a shirt of reasonable quality for about 15-20 $AUD. Anything lower and the quality was starting to suffer, mind you anything that you are buying is a quality risk especially in the street markets. Nevertheless, picking up a pair of $5 converse high-tops is pretty good no matter the quality!

Check out these guys and how they travelled China comfortably on $32.50 a day per person!

Link-to-Goats-on-the-road

4. China’s nightlife

My home town, the city of Sydney has a light show every year but for Guangzhou, it’s every night! Thanks to the photography skills of Vincent Loy, you can see the skyline on the pearl river, which I use to cross every night on my way home. You can also expect top notch expat bars from all cultures across the globe. In Guangzhou particularly, Liede and Taojin feature some of the most interesting and exciting bars i’ve ever seen. 04bd0f98 (1)

Inky Wrap Up

There are many misconstrued ideas about how the western world perceives China. My challenge is for you to go and experience China for yourself. Sure, you have to live amongst the huge crowds, the spitting, the smells and the pollution but when the smog fades around your preconditioned eyes you’ll begin to find this crazy nation-wide dichotomy a country of fascination, history and a very rapidly developing future.

Ken says…

Thanks Justin for this quirky tour through your experiences of China!

Don’t forget to pay Inky n the Brain a visit and do press those ‘like’ buttons and maybe leave a comment or two – his posts are very readable. In particular try out his recommended posts on being an ambivert or even take the test!

Finally, if you didn’t look at my post on ADHD do go take a look. Then have a read of my friend Doug’s rebuffal of the post on his site – ADDadultstrategies. I shall be giving my own reply to that post here on kenthinksaloud soon (possibly the next post I do if other things don’t get in the way) and I promise you it’s going to be gritty!

Ken

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