Everytime these last few months I’ve returned to Sylhet, I have a sense of foreboding, not just because I’d rather be with friends in Dhaka, but there always seems to be a problem with my house, which I never want to deal with when I’ve just got back from a long journey and it’s dark and hot and I’m hungry. One time there were ants all over my bed, another time the whole house and all my clothes had gone mouldy, the last time everything was six inches under filthy water.
Archive for the 'Pisses me off' Category
I left my damp and mould-ridden bungalow three days ago to go and deliver a workshop in Dhaka, and coming back last night first noticed the river being even higher than before, and over its bank. Then as I was getting closer to my house, I noticed the puddles had turned in to ponds. And as I turned on to my street, I realised that the road had become a river. As they say in Bangla, the situation was bhalo na. Continue reading ‘Waterworld’
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.
I haven’t written very much recently, because it’s just been TOO hot.
I was expecting May to be a roaster, but this is apparently the hottest it’s been for thirty years, and it’s just close to intolerable. Around 40 degrees, blazing sunshine, nearly 100% humidity… which would be horrible anywhere, but in Bangladesh you have the added punishments of the open sewers fermenting away, so the air stinks even more than usual, and the fact that the country can’t power itself.
So even with fans, it just moves hot air around the room. But when the power goes off, all you can do is sit in the dark and feel sweat just pouring – not trickling, not running, but pouring down your body. I’ve had dryer showers.
So not only do you have to change your t-shirt three or four times a day, but my trousers/shorts/lunghi needs a change as well.
Just when I don’t need hot water, I have it from my shower for the first time, because the tank on the roof has got so hot.
It’s rained now once or twice since Monday, which is a brief respite, but it’s still horrible. And not like you can retreat with an ice-cold beer, which I would trade a finger for at the moment.
To top it off, my landlord has decided to take advantage and charge me an extra 2000 taka to use my air-conditioning unit, which I can’t afford because that’s almost a quarter of my salary. So the one thing that might offer some relief, I just have to stare at. That’s when the power’s on, of course. It’s hard work being here!
I’m writing this to the metronomic thud of sledgehammer on concrete, which is coming from directly below my desk, and causing my water to resonate ever so slightly with the vibrations. Our office is being demolished.
Since the military coup on January 11th and the declaration of State of Emergency, the interim military-technocrat administration has implemented many changes to Bangladesh, some of which are very popular, such as going after corrupt politicians and putting them in jail, some of which are concerning, such as suspending some fundamental human rights, and allowing the security agencies to operate with impunity – 60,000 officers have made 95,825 arrests since January 11th, for which they need no warrant, and there have been at least 50 deaths in custody – and others which are disruptive and designed to show who’s boss in the streets, where real life takes place.
Because of the political situation, I’ve been told the last two days to stay at home. This is in some ways the last thing I want to be doing, because if I’m not working I’d rather explore my new town properly. But as I don’t have a bike yet, nor have enough Bangla to talk my way out of trouble if cornered by a mob/security services, instead I’m taking it easy within my immediate area, which has a few little shops and this internet café, after about 20 mins walk from my stable.
The weather is sensational, which helps, big blue sky so I’ve been able to sit out in my yard with the goats and work on a tan, which gives me immense pleasure in November. I’ve made my usual mistake of taking on too many books at once, so am wrestling with a collection of theoretical physics essays by Stephen Hawking, The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot, a guide to Islam, and Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island that the previous VSO volunteer left, and I’ve read about twenty times but I love it so treat myself to a chapter a day.
I’ve also got the Bangla to learn and background reading on indigenous communities to do, and about ten essays from the NY Review of Books which I’ve downloaded. I’ve also got about 80% of my music collection, so about 9000 songs to get through, and quite a few DVDs. Unbelievably, I left the first four series of The Simpsons in
Dhaka, but instead am massively enjoying Shameless by Paul Abbott, which has been on Channel Four recently. It’s a brilliant, very funny drama about working-class family life in
Manchester, and reminds me a bit of the culture in Maryport, this tiny town on the North West where my English family is from. It’s fantastic, makes me homesick but is worth it.
So basically I’ve got enough stuff to keep me distracted for quite a long time, although I have just run out of toilet paper.
But this isn’t really me. I’m a social person. I can’t get any radio here, which I usually have on all the time when I’m at home. My neighbour chats to me from time to time in Bangla, and I nod in English, but I haven’t had a face to face normal conversation in English with anyone since Friday. In the last eighteen months, for various reasons I’ve worked with an assortment of drug-dealers, thieves, muggers, politicians and lawyers, and right now I’d probably welcome any of them to stay.
When the dark comes in about 5.30, the power grid can’t cope with demand so goes off, and then it’s just a question of reading by torchlight and then frantically trying to do stuff in the hour it comes back on. Last night I was having my cold shower, got distracted by a cockroach flying in, and then inexplicably couldn’t remember where I left my glasses. I can barely see without them in the light, but in the dark I was fumbling around like a zombie, and smacked my head on the low metal door frame. I’ve also burnt a nice scar in to my stomach from a dodgy match head that flew off when I struck it, and my thumb has got a good week to go before it heals up properly. What I’m realising is that I’m not good on my own. I’ve even turned on the Microsoft Office Assistant and switched it from the default paper-clip to a little ginger cat, just so I’ve got a pet. Which is pathetic.
With all my thinking time, it’s struck me, and Georgia (who’s in Chittagong Hill Tracts, albeit with other VSO Volunteers) that we are totally unprepared for this. We had about twelve days of training with VSO in
England, and a lot of it was making big pictures of how you feel about going, and a coping strategy and all that.
But they could have just saved the holding hands stuff and given everyone a globe, spun it, pointed your finger on it to a completely random place, and said: “Right, you’re going to go there for a year or two. You’re not going to know anyone, be able to understand or communicate with anyone normally, and it will be very difficult for you to communicate with your world back home. The food is going to poison you, the animals are going to eat you, the water’s going to take six hours to prepare before you can drink it, and you’re going to spend a lot of time sweating profusely in the dark. You’re hardly ever going to have anything but a cold shower, but you’ll hardly ever have a cold beer. You can start smoking, but let’s face it, it will kill you later. For all of this, we’re going to give you so little money you’ll even be poor in your new country, and whilst all this is happening, at some point your football team is going to get humiliated 3-1 by
Reading. Still want to do it?”
They never said any of that though. I would definitely have noticed.
So instead, on Sunday at about 1pm GMT, (7pm Bangladesh time) when I would normally either be a) getting ready to play football with mates, b) getting ready to watch football with mates, c) getting ready to go drinking all afternoon with mates in the pub, or d) doing family stuff, I was in fact locked in to my stable, hoping the power would come back around 8pm, and sitting on my bare concrete floor in the dark rubbing the lump on my head.
There’s no one to blame really. Life is just absurd sometimes.
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.