I’ve now been in my box for just over two weeks, and whilst I’m able to feel relaxed in it, I still refuse to refer to it as my ‘home’. I told my organisation – who are responsible for my accommodation – that I would like to move somewhere in town, with windows, and they accepted this and said they would look for somewhere suitable straightaway. However, two weeks later I’m no closer to moving, and in general I’m fast concluding that in terms of sorting out anything practical my organisation are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
The maxim ‘if you want something done, do it yourself’ very much applies to me in Bangladesh at the moment, so I had set aside Friday, my one day off, to go and look for places. First I had to buy a bike, and bought a real Indian beast of a machine, that weighs as much as a small car and handles like an oil tanker. It’s called a ‘Trishan Max’, but the only thing I think that can refer to is discomfort. However, it was the cheapest thing I could find, and I was also charmed by the fact that the guy, Suhali, who sold it to me spoke good English, was polite and interested in why I was in Sylhet. So I shook hands on it, and agreed to come in on Thursday and take it.
On Thursday I went in and we had another chat, and I mentioned I was annoyed because I didn’t have any access to a tv so I couldn’t watch the Ashes. This progressed in to Suhali asking me why I couldn’t get cable tv, and when I explained where I was living and that I was looking for a new place, he immediately offered to help me out. The fact that he also supplies cable tv connections to a third of Sylhet might have had something to do with it – but I wasn’t complaining.
So on Friday morning I lumbered over on my bike and found his place, and he was all ready to go – it was incredible. So we took his motorbike and started cruising round the residential areas of Sylhet. Just like that.
Sylhet is quite a wealthy city, because so many people have family in England or other countries sending money back, and it largely seems to be invested in having the biggest house on the block. I assume that you just buy your land and then you can do what you want with it, because there’s no real architectural style or theme to the environment, other than perhaps ‘hideous’. Some houses are quite modest, and remind me a little of 70s USA, where you might find places with a little front area with a tree and driveway, leading up to a house with a big porch, big front rooms and two or three stories, all in brown brickwork with wooden facades. But others are huge, cavernous affairs, usually white, with massive three or four storey columns at the front and plenty of balconies scattered around the outside, and with blue tints on all the windows. And occasionally we passed blocks of flats that looked like the kind of thing Gaudi would have designed if he he’d been a drug addict rather than a genius; just random splodges of colourful shutters, brick work, bay windows, and even turrets, all at a haphazard angle. It would be a bit like living inside a Hawaiian shirt.
We drove down broad tree lined avenues, and also open-sewer sided dirt tracks. We passed everything from posh electronics shops to shack selling mouldy feather dusters; Sylhet really is a city of extremes, worse than Dhaka. There were some super-modern apartment blocks that were all glass and steel, with porter service, underground parking, the lot. Very European, but the thing about all the areas we went to, is no matter what style or age or size of the building, it was still unmistakenly Bangladeshi, because either it won’t be finished; as in it will be completely habitable for the first two or three floors, but then the top floor will just be raw foundations with wiring flowing out and steel cabling jutting out from the top. Or it will be a really nice new house, finished, but next to a swamp, or rubbish tip, or open sewer or tiny shack selling live chickens or something.
We didn’t have much luck though, and eventually we pulled up to Suhali’s cable TV office. I was introduced to his brother, and then his staff who go round installing the cable, and within five minutes I was explaining the situation again, and being met by solemn and determined faces. Although I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t really that big a deal, a frantic conversation in Bangla ensued, and I was told that all of them would be going out and trying to find me somewhere to live.
It was a bit ridiculous, because the atmosphere in the office was as if we were all facing some imminent disaster, and we had to think of a way out of it. People would suggest areas, and then someone would speak out and state a reason why there was a problem. And so everyone would look glum again until someone else would think of something. I sat there staring at the floor, feeling embarrassed, as my protestations that it wasn’t really that important were met by deaf ears.
A further complication is that people don’t really live on their own in Bangladesh. If you’re middle-class, at least, you basically live with your family until you marry and then start a new one. So there aren’t many one-bedroom flats or such-like around, and if there are, they’re in dodgy bits of town. Landlords tend to want to rent to families rather than single men, and being Western doesn’t necessarily help, because thanks to Western TV they all seem to assume that I’d instantly convert their humble home in to a den of debauchery. So all in all, finding somewhere to live isn’t that easy.
But Suhali has effectively assured me that he has his best men on the case, and in a few days I should expect a call. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed. One universal truth to this world of ours is that wherever you are, whatever you’re looking for, all Estate Agents are bastards, so the fact that I’ve got some local knowledge helping me out is invaluable. And they really are kindness personified; for no real reason several people are going out of their way to help me. I suppose I better get Cable though.