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Around the world in a daze

Dhaka Daze

BANGLADESH | Monday, 16 August 2010 | Views [421]

We arrived at Zia International Airport, Dhaka, in the middle of the night. We didn't need to stand in the foreign passport aisle for everyone to realise we weren't from around here. 17 young Aussies clutching bags of duty free alcohol from Singapore and wearing vague attempts at modest clothing stand out in Bangladesh.

After collecting our bags and walking through the world's most pathetic customs check, we were piled into cars and driven to our hotel in Gulshan. This was our first exposure to the Bangladesh roads and as I'd been up for 24 hours it was a pretty surreal experience.

Buses, private cars, rickshaws, CNGs (similar to tuk-tuks) and trucks compete for space on the road, narrowly avoiding collisions. Although given the scratches and the dents on the buses, it is not always avoided.

Trucks drove by piled high with live chickens, while children jumped on and in front of moving cars trying to steal the semi-comatose chooks. Eventually we arrived at the hotel and climbed into bed exhausted.

The next two weeks were intense sessions of language classes, shopping, setting up house and food poisoning.

The first step was to completely restock our wardrobes with appropriate clothing. For girls this means salwar kameezes. A dress-like top over extremely baggy, unflattering trousers and an orna. The orna is a scarf worn across your chest to act as a modesty shield. At first it was a pain dealing with it slipping down and constantly having to rearrange it. But now I've grown to love it. It has so many uses - sweat wipe, handkerchief, bag cover, sunshield, or just about anything. Boys can and do wear just about anything.

During this shopping trip, I had my first encounter with my new celebrity status. Another girl and I sat down to take a break during shopping and soon attracted a crowd. Boys dared their friends to come and talk to us while women in burkhas stared openly at us. There would have been about 15 people stood around staring at us by the time we managed to get away.

This shopping day was fairly enjoyable, despite the heat, which made us all really tired. We soon found out not all shopping in Dhaka is fun. Much of the two week introduction period was spent setting up our new homes. Three people are living rurally and everyone else in Gulshan, the part of Dhaka where the foreign embassies are, except for myself two Annas and James. Our house is in Dhanmondi - only 10 kms away. But it takes about an hour, sometimes two, to get there. We spent most of our time sitting in traffic while beggars with awful deformities and small children came banging on the windows trying to get money and almost getting hit by cars, when they finally started moving again.

Our house was completely unfurnished - no oven, fridge or air con. So what time we didn't spend in the car was standing around hot sweaty markets, trying to barter in broken Bengali/English, with people who thought they could over charge us just because we are white. I have never been so conscious of my race or gender before. We now have some basic furniture but it was such an ordeal we kept ending up at the cool air conditioned sanctuary of Nandos for some peace and quiet.

We moved into our apartment and started work about a week ago. Work is good, the apartment not so much. It resembles a construction site as the carpenters finish cupboards and light fittings, it should already be finished and yet the piles of wood everywhere suggest it should be a while longer - Bangladeshi time is different to Australian time. There is dust everywhere and we cannot use the kitchen. We were too stingy to buy air conditioning so sleep in pool of sweat. The builders are foul and keep staring at us and making lewd gestures, smoking in the house, stealing things and eating our food.

Anna and I were lucky enough to escape this for four days when we went on a field trip with work to one of our sites in the west. It was amazing - total opposite to Dhaka. The first night we sat by the river watching the fireflies and in the morning we were woken by the sound of birds not the call to prayer, car horns or rickshaw bells.

We watched the school classes, had snacks at local's houses who proudly watched us as we ate, refusing to eat with us, sampled local food and took part in iftar celebrations on the first day of Ramadan.

The trip was fantastic and left me inspired about the work I'm going to be doing, it seems like a great organisation.  Coming back to Dhaka was hard but at least we had the sanctuary of the Aussie expat club on the weekend, where we could lie by the pool and drink beer, pretending we were back home in summer where starving children don't walk the streets, bags don't get snatched, men don't interpret eye contact as a come-on and girls don't get married and pregnant at 12 years of age.

But what do you expect living in the third most unlivable city?


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