Arrived in Sylhet on Wednesday. It’s not exactly what I expected. In fact, given my current situation, I think I should change this blog’s name from ‘Deep in the Desh’ to ‘Deep in the Shit, in the Desh.’ It would be more accurate.
Things will get better, I’m sure, once I sort myself out with some proper accommodation. But at the moment, where I am is so bad, if I don’t joke about it I might as well hang myself. The VSO brochure is chock full of people working with smiling African children, but nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, does it have a picture of someone sitting on their own in a steel box lit only by candles, in the middle of nowhere, at 6pm, hoping they can fall asleep. They should come round, I’d strike a winning pose.
When we first left Dhaka myself and one of the VSO office’s drivers ‘escorting’ me nearly got on the bus to Calcutta, which in hindsight I should have recognised as an omen. The journey was cool, I got met by my new colleagues, who are fine, and then we drove all my stuff to my new place.
I was led to believe that, like the previous volunteer who I was replacing, I’d get a little one-bedroom flat in town, a bit dingy and dodgy but with a lick of paint, a few posters and my Tottenham flag it would be fine. Instead we started to drive further and further out of town, right in to the suburbs, past palatial houses owned by all the Sylhettis who make their fortunes in London. I was naively thinking ‘it’s a bit far, but if I get a room in one of these, it will be alright’. So we finally pull through the gates of a whopper of a house, easily 6000 square feet, and I’m all excited, and then we turned in the drive towards the garages and they were like ‘welcome to your new home’. My jaw dropped like the Titanic. What I’ve actually got is a shack next to the garages.
It’s kind of designed like a stable block, with three rooms not connected to each other, but a corridor running outside so you can go in to each one. There’s a squat toilet attached to each room, and a power point, and a lightbulb, and a two-hob gas stove in one room in a little kitcheny alcove. I’ve got a plastic garden table and four plastic chairs. A little wooden desk with a few book-shelves. A bed. A fridge with a door that doesn’t close. One overhead fan in my bedroom and another in the third room that I have absolutely no use for. And that’s it. My bedroom doesn’t have any windows. The living room bit does have two small windows, but only about half a square yard. There’s no glass in any of the windows, just a solid steel sheet, and bars across all the windows and my little outdoors corridor bit. The roof is also steel, and I can reach up and touch it (it’s all bungalow). The walls are good plaster, and the toilets are well tiled, someone’s obviously put a bit of time in to it. The concrete floor is smooth. But it’s not a home.
Apparently (and this explains a lot) the owner of the whole estate is a friend of the Executive Director of my organisation. I can imagine the conversation:
“Cor blimey, we’ve got our new volunteer coming next week and I still can’t find a place for him. It’s giving me the arsehole”
“Tell you what mate, you know that stable block I’ve got out the back for our Trigger? You know the one we gave up on because he didn’t like it, got a bit lonely? I’ve an idea…”
The power cuts here go through the evening, roughly one hour on, one hour off, so when everyone had left, and I realised I couldn’t even unpack because there was no where to put my stuff, and then the lights went, all I could do was close all the steel windows, lock up the bars with a padlock, light a candle and think about how utterly fucked I was. My first night, lying in bed in the dark smoking my ‘celebratory’ first night Cuban Cigar, drinking a large glass of my emergency single malt, in total silence, was the most perversely bleak evening I think I’ve ever had. Especially when I spilt the scotch all over the floor. I would have given my eye teeth to have been back in my London local right then.
David Blaine might have spent a month or something in a box hanging over the Thames, but at least he had something to look at. When I open the windows, I can gaze out at a swamp, which I’ve been told will almost certainly flood once the rains come. Then mosquitoes start to come in, so I close off the daylight again. When I worked in New York, I lived a whole winter in a crumbling industrial warehouse in a decaying area of Newark, with no heating and a few broken windows, right next to the highway and surrounded by drug dealers. But at least you could have a (short) conversation with them, and I lived with really cool people so we could wander around the apartment in our coats and talk about being in Hawaii. It was great. In London, I most recently was living with some mates in an amazing art-deco flat looking over Hampstead Heath. And I’ve given all of that up for this. Bollocks.
In fairness, the landlord, in spite of not speaking any English has shown wonderful traditional muslim hospitality and invited me in for dinner both nights I’ve been here, and to watch tv in Bangla. Last night I cooked something horrible for myself in the dark and badly burnt my thumb, but the first night I ate with him (women wait for us to finish) and it was delicious. He comes over occasionally to tap on the bars of my outer corridor and asks me in Bangla how I’m doing. All I can say is ‘fine’ and then he goes off. It’s kind of him, but I can’t help thinking he should have brought a bucket of carrots.
When the power’s on, all I can do is read and listen to music; currently the 60’s British classic ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ by the Small Faces is rocking my crappy world. But I’ve got no radio reception, no tv/internet, the nearest shops are at least 20 mins walk away, no credit on my phone and still haven’t seen a map so I’ve got no idea where I actually am. Just in a box somewhere in Asia’s armpit.
It’s a very strange sensation to be so totally lost, completely cut off and away from all that I know, and unable to get back to it. Dhaka was hard to adjust to, but is still essentially a big modern-ish metropolis that has plenty of Western pleasures, if you are rich. A piece of cake to live in after you adjust. This is totally different though, and I’m a bit annoyed because I specifically told VSO I didn’t want to be anywhere too rural, and I didn’t want to be on my own. Those were my only two conditions, and yet I’m still here. For a week it would be a bit of a ‘retreat’, but fine with someone else. For two weeks it would be annoying, for a month it would be a real fixed-grin job, but for a year, forget it. I hate being on my own, and get bored after a few days even with a tv and radio. All I wanted was to be somewhere with a bit of life around it, I didn’t care how crap the place was. So this is an unfortunate shock to the system.
I’ll get it sorted out. I was thinking to myself last night, ‘what would Shackleton do?’ Work out the best thing to do, and do it. So I’ve contacted practically the only other British guy in Sylhet, an ex-volunteer called Luke, who deserves the prefix ‘Saint’. We met yesterday, he’s agreed that my gaff is rubbish, and today I’m going to go and look for a flat in town. I also bought a toaster, so at least I can console myself with endless rounds. No bloody marmite though, and I think my teeth are cracking with all the sugar of the jam, coca-cola and Bengali tea we’re drinking – being a marmite, beer and straight black tea man normally, I’m not sure how long this can continue before I come back all gums.
It’s important to try and make things seem as normal as possible though, so now I’ve had this colossal whinge, I’ll boil up some more tea and read the paper (today is Friday, everyone’s day off) and wait for Luke to come so I can find a way out of here. This situation isn’t explicitly anyone’s fault really, except perhaps mine for agreeing to come to Bangladesh in the first place. So I’ve just got to put a British stiff upper lip on, and sort it. But I’ve never felt this bad, due to situational circumstance, ever. So, if anyone from VSO UK is reading this, you’re all rotten bastards and I expect to have free drinks all night at head-office when I get back. And if anyone who knows me is reading this, an email or text (if you’ve got my Bangla mobile number) would be appreciated. No abuse, Boutros. Harewood.