Weather: Squelchy. Natives: Everywhere. Job: Serious.
OK. I might be in Dhaka, but it feels very much like home. I’m sharing a beautiful flat with two other people, Tom and Georgia, and we’ve just cooked a nice dinner of rice and stuff and then sat down in our spacious living room, on wicker furniture, and watched four episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Might listen to a bit of the BBC World Service before I go to bed. Might have a glass of Scotch. Just like home.
On the other hand, it’s about 70% humidity and sweat is trickling down my neck even though it’s midnight. The ceiling fans are on full blast, but it just moves warm air around the room, and occasionally the odd mosquito getting a free rush. The shower is cold, it just sprays all over the floor, and to make a brew involves lighting a gas stove strong enough to be seen from space. Then you have to boil the water at least five minutes to kill all the bacteria, and there’s no milk, because it’s too hot.
Our flat genuinely is really nice, but step outside and you’re welcomed in to a world of prodigious green vegetation, lush palms, long grass, dirt roads, rubbish everywhere, open sewers, incredible smells of spices and sweat and shit and petrol all in one, and this fantastic cacophonic symphony of car horns, people shouting, rickshaw bells, sewing machines, children playing. It’s amazing. And at night it gets pitch black except for small shops and single flames of candles as people gather on the roadside and mend rickshaws, or boil tea or fry food and try and sweat the day out.
The humidity is ridiculous. When we got off the plane, at about 5.30am we walked through the concourse tunnel and it was notably warmer and humid, but I thought to myself ‘not so bad, better than England, don’t know what all the fuss was about’. But then we stepped out actually in to air with our bags, and the second you pass through the doors you just get drenched in hot air, so wet you can almost drink it. Similar to when you take a pizza out of the oven and lean in to close when you open the door, that sort of instant rush of heat, but with an ocean of water thrown in. It’s like suddenly being picked up and instantly enveloped in a warm wet blanket, it’s like being grasped by a big sweaty palm, and so far it hasn’t let go. We all went ‘Jesus!’ and started laughing, but after five minutes of waiting for the car to arrive we were all damp and realising that it was going to take some getting used to.
It was quite a trip. As I predicted in my first blog post, within 20 minutes I realised I’d forgotten something (a tie). By the time I arrived at Heathrow I realised I’d also forgotten my cash-card. For some reason I’ve got with me my membership to Kentish Town Snooker Club, but not HSBC. Then I had to stress all the way queuing up to check-in, because my packing was a mess and I had about 35kg of crap, 12kg over the limit. I was as nonchalant as possible when I lifted, one handed, my 25kg suitcase on to the belt, but I think the attendant heard my shoulder dislocate, and she certainly saw my face go white when she said I’d have to pay a charge. And she might have smelt something when she said it was going to be £340 quid. I expected to shit myself on this trip, but had hoped I could have waited beyond Heathrow Terminal 4.
I explained that that was going to be impossible, as they only took VISA, Maestro or Amex, and I only had Kentish Town Snooker Club. I then protested that I was going for a year, and that was why I had so much stuff, and I thought my office had pre-arranged an excess. Met by poker face. Then I said, believe it or not, £340 was nearly six months wages and I couldn’t pay it. And then, finally, I had to pull the charity card (which I don’t like doing) and said I was going as a development worker, my extra bag was all books and medicines for leprous orphans, they had to have them otherwise they’d never learn to read before their eyes fell out etc etc. So I couldn’t dump the stuff at Heathrow, and I couldn’t pay the excess.
Luckily Georgia had some spare space in her bag, so they said I could transfer my books and drug collection into hers. But moving it all out (carefully hiding my litre of Glenfiddich) made such a mess that after three attendants had laughed enough, without offering to help, they said I could just repack and check-in for free anyway. Honestly. So that was sorted, and then I spent my last proper money on some Cuban cigars, and got in the plane. Flight was fine, mostly empty, but full of screaming babies. I made a great business plan for when I get back which involves setting up an airline which has a special compartment/crèche for young people. Like on the wing. Definitely a money maker, I reckon.
Thankfully Dhaka is quite cheap, but we found some sanctuary in an incredibly posh and brilliantly air-conditioned department store, and I had a iced mocha that cost nearly £1.80. Almost a day’s pay, but so worth it. Conversely, the store also sold DVDs for 85p, including the first four seasons box-set of the Simpsons for a fiver, so I’m going to get DVDed up pretty quickly. We’re constantly getting ripped off though, especially by little baby-taxi drivers, and although the Bangla lessons start next week, the sooner I know the phrase for ‘piss off mate, you’re having a laugh’, the better. And we never get dropped anywhere near where we ask for, I’m sure deliberately. As soon as I get back to London I’m going to dedicate seven years to doing The Knowledge, get a black cab, and wait until I get a Bengali fare, just so I can drive him up to High Barnet and go ‘right gov, Waterloo’. The bastards.
Driving in Dhaka is almost as dangerous as crossing the road. It’s like a computer game with all sorts of things flying towards you, except you’re playing with your life. Drivers never stop for pedestrians, and quite often career towards them only to swerve at the last minute. It seems if you blow the horn long enough before hitting someone you’re not actually legally responsible for their death, and the number of near misses we’ve seen is crazy.
Dhaka’s crazy. It’s ferociously hot and wet, desperately poor, filthy in parts, lush in others, chaotic yet vibrant, full of destitution and disease yet thriving with life and energy. But I love it. Only been here 36hrs so far, but it’s a quality place and the change of scenery I’ve been looking forward to.
Anyway, I hope everyone’s well and doing good and enjoyed watching Spurs beat Slavia Prague the other day. I’ll try and write again soon, but we start the induction course tomorrow and things will get busier. The VSO Bangladesh office is pretty well organised and everything’s all planned and set out for the next month, although luckily this October there’s loads of religious holidays so it’s party time. The office has two general use computers but they’re for 10 people so I can’t always get on, and there’s also power-cuts from time to time which slow things down.
But basically – so far, so wet, so good.