I arrived back in Sylhet on Saturday night after three weeks of working in Dhaka and Dinajpur, and was immediately hit again by the contrasting worlds that exist in one small country. I had spent most of Saturday nursing a mild but unwelcome hangover, after a big leaving party on Friday for another volunteer. It was all provided by an extremely generous British expat, who actually earns a Western salary and so could afford western treats. We ate huge amounts of delicious Chinese food in a private room, amply washed down with a free and well-stocked bar, and even the inevitable kareoke wasn’t too dire, once you substitute in enough obscenities. So all in all, it was a fun night, which could have been enjoyed anywhere in the world.
And then last night it was back to the reality of being a volunteer in Bangladesh. I’ve written before how this country never seems to break things to you gently, or give you a bit of contemplation or a warm-up for what’s in store. Everything here is immediate, in your face and requires instant action. I got my front door open and it smelt as if I’d walked in to a pond. Sylhet is the wettest place in Bangladesh, with around five metres of annual rain, the majority in June and July. Although that makes it mercifully cooler than Dhaka or Dinajpur, where the temperature was hitting 40, the humidity is around the 95% mark, and the inside of my house, not being lived in for three weeks, was as if it had been wiped down with a sponge.
My posters and pictures had curled up and fallen off the walls. My wicker furniture had a layer of mould over it. My mattress and linen also had a layer of mould, four cockroaches nesting in it, and will have to be replaced as soon as possible. My best jeans were mouldy. My sacred lucky Spurs jumper was mouldy. My trainers were half rotten. Termites have half way eaten through my book shelf now. I went in to the kitchen and my wooden cupboard is almost off the wall, also due to being eaten away. Two spiders, the size of my hand in the bathroom. I tried to light my stove to get a bit of dry air in, but went through a whole box of matches before I could get a flame, because they were all so damp. My ceiling fan is knackered, spitting sparks out of its fuse due to the moisture. Essentially, the scene I came home to was not what I wanted at eight in the evening. My hangover suddenly returned. And I wanted to return to Dhaka. And then the power cut off.
Now I’m in my office and everything is equally damp and musty, especially as we have paper everywhere, and one of our two computers is playing up because the fan broke and condensation got in. Another volunteer, based in a different part of Bangladesh has already re-christened VSO ‘Volunteers Suffering Overseas’. And at times, perhaps more often in Bangladesh than other countries VSO works in, that’s a very apt description.
This is the pitfall of doing VSO. Bangladesh is in many ways a fantastic country. It’s also possible to have great times here. It’s just that most of the fun things you can do are vastly beyond our salary. Bangladesh is so unequal that most ‘leisure’ activities are unaffordable for the majority of the people, who when they’re not working long hours for meagre pay, tend to relax in the company of their families or friends, for free. I don’t have a family or many friends here who I can socialise with, especially given that I’m not in the capital (where more than half the 40-odd VSO volunteers work).
And so doing VSO, you get caught in a situation where you can’t afford to socialise with other expats (even Japanese and Australian development ‘volunteers’ here earn five times what we do), and it’s difficult socially and culturally to integrate with the local people. Or at least it is in Bangladesh. I am extremely glad that I’m not here as a diplomat (and so is Her Majesty, I should imagine), or in any other position where you live around the world in a completely separate world, independent of the country you reside in, working and socialising in gated communities, protected by guards, interacting almost exclusively with other expats and only not being able to experience the life and culture of the people hosting you.
But at the same time, I’m pretty pissed off about having a damp mattress, half my clothes being ruined, and the monsoon proper hasn’t even begun yet. Doing VSO you seem to get to experience some of the hardships of the ‘local people’ without getting to experience their pleasures. So at the moment, a life of private rooms and imported vodka doesn’t seem so bad at all. Even the kareoke.