Archive for the 'Sylhet' Category

Jungle 1, Tim 0. Idiots, Doctors and Nurses

In nearly fifty years of work, VSO has sent tens of thousands of volunteers to placements around the world, and inevitably, there have been accidents and some fatalities. Typically these are road – related, although someone did die of Rabies a few years ago. It’s not something we ever really think about; but at the same time you don’t want to add to the statistic. However, I’m not sure how it would look if ‘fell down a waterfall’ got included in the VSO ‘deaths during service’ book. It might be hard to be sympathetic, and an observer might rather just wonder what a total moron that person must have been.

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Floods in Bangladesh

‘The Inheritance of Loss’, which won this year’s Booker prize is set in northern India, and there’s a scene around p.170 where one of the characters, an aging snob is reading a paper during monsoon season, and idly remarks that ‘the Bangladeshis are up their trees again’. I didn’t like the book, but that line of mild racism did stand out amidst the otherwise meandering pomposity. I didn’t think it was serious though.

 

However, the rain really has been coming down across South Asia and especially in Bangladesh this week, causing hundreds of deaths and millions of people to be stranded, and losing everything. Bangladesh in the rainy season has more surface water than the whole of Europe, but now half the country is submerged and it’s apparently going to get worse before it gets better.

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The latest suprise

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.

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Life from the other side of Bangladesh

In the middle of my recent travails in Sylhet, getting frustrated by the flooding and the sweating and generally not being too happy about it, I experienced something totally different. On a bus journey back up to Sylhet from Dhaka I had a phone call, and someone overheard me talking in English so decided to come up and have a chat. This happens quite often, and normally I try and bat the usual questions away as quickly as possible, but this guy not only spoke better English than most, but had lived in London for thirty years and used to go out and get drunk in Camden, my area. He now worked as a senior manager for a very large Asian corporation, but was just returning to his family’s place in Sylhet for a week. He invited me to his house for dinner, which actually does mean a genuine invitation, so I accepted given that I had nothing other to do than sweat.
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What kind of culture embraces wrestling, but rejects toilet paper?

Last weekend I was finally able to get out of my office and go and conduct some field research, a Participatory Rural Appraisal, to use the technical name. My NGO got the funding from VSO, and we’re aiming to go to 15 indigenous community villages all around Sylhet division, which is an area almost the size of South Wales. It’s an essential survey for us, as it will able us to obtain crucial information on the situation of our beneficiries, so as to be able to design our projects better. I just wish it wasn’t during the monsoon.

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Waterworld

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’

VSO – Volunteers Suffering Overseas

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.

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