Fighting Fire

Fires due to short-circuits, substandard wiring and electrical faults are common in Bangladesh, where building regulations are rarely enforced. Every urban apartment has bars fitted, both on balcony and windows to protect against burglary, which also effectively trap the residents inside. Rural homes are not much safer: constructed from wood and woven palm, the occupants cook on wood burning stoves. Many fires blazed in Bandarban town during the six months I lived there. One fire alone burnt fifteen homes to the ground with frightening speed, due to their close proximity.

Here in Dhaka city the deadliest fire for 40 years killed one hundred and eighteen people in the cramped area known as ‘Old Dhaka’ just last month. Seven buildings were engulfed by fire, fueled by the large explosion of nearby gas burners. The lethal practice of locking workers into factories, in particular those from the garment trade, is fairly common practice across Bangladesh. Faced with such enormous challenges, I was most impressed by the quality of personnel and their equipment when visiting the Lalmatia Fire Station this afternoon. With over fourteen years experience, some gleaned from visits to countries as far afield as the United States of America and Saudi Arabia, this leading Fire Fighter closely mentors his team of thirty two colleagues to ensure his valuable knowledge is passed on.

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Hartal (Strike)

Nationwide dawn-to-dusk strike action has been called today. This mass protest translates into a total shutdown of offices, shops, schools and law courts, all as a form of civil disobedience. Here in Bangladesh a hartal is a constitutionally recognised political method for articulating demands. This one was enforced by the opposition BNP, highlighting what they consider to be the failure of the government to resolve the utilities crisis caused by acute gas, electricity and water shortages, but not surprisingly accusations of extortion and political manipulation are also high on their list.

10,000 additional ‘law enforcers’ have been deployed in the capital Dhaka, clusters of them could be seen waiting at every street corner when I went out briefly to take a look around. Bangladesh has a history of ugly violent clashes between political demonstrators and government forces. I’ve never seen the city this way. With motorised vehicles banned from the streets it took my rickshaw no time at all to move around, and the silence was golden. All that will change once the demonstrators arrive however.

Night Sky over Dhaka City

Darkness falls fast in this part of the world, from one moment to the next it feels as though some enormous light switch has just been thrown, but not tonight.

Gradually a wonderful, spectacular display unfolded and we all gathered out on the balcony of our flat to admire it. Need I say more?

A beautiful Bangladesh night sky

Slow Monsoon

Bangladesh, straddling the Tropic of Cancer, has one of the wettest climates in the world, and about 80% of it’s rain falls during the monsoon season, characterized by high temperatures, high humidity, and of course…heavy rainfall. But this year the monsoon failed to arrive on time, typically expected in early June, delaying its initial downpour until the final few days of the month. 

The monsoon continues in Bangladesh until the end of September, but it is in the month of June, with an average rainfall of  nearly 460 millimeters that it normally delivers its heaviest showers. This year the Meteorological Society have recorded less than half of that average, and this will directly impact the rice yield, Bangladesh’s staple crop.    

There are typically two main varieties of rice planted here, Aman and Boro.  Aman accounts for nearly a third of Bangladesh’s annual output, and needs to be planted in mid-July. It is the Boro which relies so heavily on irrigation to bring the crop through, and has this year frequently required the diversion of electricity away from the power-hungry cities, contributing to their frequent blackouts.

During the annual monsoon period, the rivers of Bangladesh flow at around 140,000 cubic meters per second, as compared to a diminished 7,000 cubic meters per second during the dry season, and with agriculture depending so heavily on natural irrigation due to the fierce competition for electrical power, more than 60 % of the net arable land, some 91,000 km², is cultivated during the rainy season despite the possibility of severe flooding. 

The monsoon is created from the contrast between low and high air pressure areas, resulting from the differential heating of land and water. During the high temperate months of April and May hot air rises over the Indian subcontinent, creating low-pressure areas into which cooler, moisture-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean then rush, called the southwest monsoon. 

Dividing against the Indian landmass, the monsoon flows in two branches, one of which strikes western India. The other travels up the Bay of Bengal and over eastern India and Bangladesh, crossing the plain to the north and northeast before being turned to the west and northwest by the foothills of the Himalayas.

But as relieved as everyone appears to welcome the final arrival of this slow monsoon, there is a potential darker side. Annual flooding can result in the loss of human life, damage to property and communication systems, and a shortage of drinking water, which in turn can lead to the spread of disease. So, as I have often found here in Bangladesh, things can turn on a bitter sweet balance. Finally we have our vital rainfall, but what course this complex weather system will take over the coming months remains to be seen.

Paying the price for a smooth ride home

A road-repair crew appeared outside our flat today.  I caught my first sight of them as I stepped out onto our balcony to hang some washing on the clothes line we have strung across.  Although I have seen these gangs in operation before, this time it really shocked me.  Perhaps it was the sudden exposure.  Laid out before me in full operation, I had an unprepared birds eye view from our fourth floor flat. But what bothered me most was the weather conditions. With searing mid-day heat and the oppressive claustrophobic weight of such high humidity, particular to the Bay of Bengal, manual work of any kind becomes even more grueling than usual.  This hardly seems possible when you observe how much effort is demanded by so many on a daily basis,  just to keep the wheels of Bangladesh turning. I had broken out into a sweat simply rinsing out my washing in the relative cool produced by the ceiling fan in the flat.  Outside in the street, even shade was non-existent.

The crew comprised of a mixture of men of varying ages, from young boys to grandfathers, and women, appearing to be between twenty and forty year olds.  They worked strung out, along almost the entire length of the road, which in itself is fairly impressive considering how long it is.  I looked on as a man and a young boy of around fourteen, working together, swung primitive wooden handled hoes above their heads and down, hard into the ground, breaking up the densely packed earth road surface. The women, barefoot mostly, heads covered with their colourful cotton sari had organised into two groups, those with tools used to scrape together the loose earth for loading into large round wicker head-baskets, and those carrying it away to a designated dump someway off from the main work site.  

Our road has been in a right old state for some time now, but the deterioration has speeded up considerably over the past couple of weeks due to rain damage.  Brown, sludgy, stagnant puddles have established even further ruts in an already seemingly battle scared street, and traveling back down the ‘home straight’ from work by rickshaw had become almost fascicle.  I repeatedly bang my head against the rickshaw hood, crick my neck and jar my back as we lumber ludicrously along. So for us residents this repair-work had come not a moment too soon…but what a high price they were paying for our smooth ride home. 

The stinking acrid smoke drifted up to burn my eyes and the back of my throat, so with nothing to lose I decided to take the opportunity to venture downstairs, and get in amongst the thick of activity.  Street level offered a new perspective.  I could see some of the more mature men and women working with small hand brushes, meticulously and carefully sweeping dust from an area in preparation for boiling tar to be poured, forming the new road surface.  This was being ‘cooked’ up in the centre of the road on long metal plates, suspended over naked flames, surrounded by empty oil drums.  The additional heat thrown out added considerably to the already near impossible conditions. 

It struck me how efficiently and productively this team operated.  I suppose it must have been in all their interests to get the job done, but it was impressive never-the-less.  Nobody seemed in-charge, yet everyone worked hard, fast and with purpose, at least until I was spotted squatting next to one of the women workers who had stopped for a well earned rest by the side of the road.

Rest for a moment

Rest for a moment

I was alarmed at how quickly I’d caused such disruption.  Workers laid down their tools and came over, all smiles to ask ‘kaemon achen?’, how are you?  I looked around anxiously, expecting the wheel to drop of this efficient production line, but luckily, enough stayed at their posts to keep the operation in full swing. I realised I was concerned on their behalf also, scanning around for some stern foreman to appear as if by magic, with heavy penalties to be extracted from these ‘malingerers’.  Not only did he not manifest, but nobody else seemed the slightest bit twitchy, and I realised, with real pleasure and growing awe that they actually were a self-managed and hugely tolerant team.     

A professional and efficient team

A professional and efficient team

Gitanjali – Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941

Born in 1861 to an influential Bengali family, Rabindranath Tagore achieved fame as a novelist, playwright, poet, painter, lecturer, politician, and composer. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the first non-European to achieve such an honor. 

The Gitanjali, or song offering, is his collection of prose poems which have been translated from Bengali and when Bishwajit introduced me to this enormous body of work I stayed up into the early hours of the morning reading it, transfixed, verse after marvelous verse.  Tagore is held in very high regard by the people of Bangladesh.  Quite rightly so in my view. 

Lotus
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying,
 and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.
Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my
dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange fragrance in the south wind. 
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to me
 that it was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion. 
I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that this
perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.

 http://www.schoolofwisdom.com/gitanjali.html

Pavement games . com

In our western world of high demand for popular electronic games it was a joy to happen across the exact opposite, when I ran into an intense and absorbing battle taking place on the pavement, with not a single piece of technology anywhere in sight. 

A street game

An intense pavement battle

I have yet to identify the game itself, but it was played without dice, and closely resembled draughts.  People were passing by and nobody seemed particularly interested in any way until I stopped to watch.  Within moments the poor unfortunate opponents had a vast audience, all thrusting dubious advice on them, trying to prove their superior strategic ability to one another, but also I stongly suspect to me!

Low tech but high entertainment

Low tech but high entertainment

Oh, and for all you competitive people out there…the man on the left was the eventual winner, but only by a whisker.

Getting around Dhaka city

There are various and diverse transport options on offer when negotiating your way around Dhaka city.  They do have some common elements however, you can be sure your journey will be noisy, dusty, and erratic, with any number of near impacts before you eventually reach your destination.

For shorter journeys you always travel by rickshaw, which mainly operate in side streets and are prohibited from main roads before 8am.  This is actually a blessing in disguise, as at this time of day the roads are choked with traffic, and being fairly lowdown in the value chain, rickshaws are bullied and robbed of road space by almost every other vehicle on the road.  But Dhaka plays host to over 400,000 of them, the highest number in ANY city, and they do in fact make up the bulk of Dhaka’s traffic.

In the main rickshaws are rented, with only 20% being owned by the pullers, who consist mostly of landless agricultural day laborers.  It costs between 8o to 100 taka to rent a rickshaw for the day, which on average earns them around the 200 taka mark, and they rely on this seasonal employment, cycling a minimum 8 hour shift in the sweltering conditions of Dhaka’s streets.  Many times I’ve hired a rickshaw only to find I know the way better than the puller, who’s clearly new in town and squeezing an income this way.

If you plan to travel any distance across the city you can either opt for hiring a CNG or hop on one of the local buses. CNG stands for Compressed Natural Gas, the fuel that powers these tiny three seat taxis, which look more like fairground bumper cars than the viable form of transport they clearly are. Although the combustion of this fuel does produce greenhouse gasses, it offers a more environmentally clean alternative. 

CNG taxi

CNG taxi

Open sided, you take your chances exposed to the elements: dust, noise, street hawkers and beggars when caught up in the many traffic jams you’ll surely encounter en route.  You’ll also have to haggle and negotiate your fare, as more often than not drivers plead a broken meter as this method would almost certainly prove cheaper.

Traveling by bus is a whole new experience, and to call it confusing is an understatement to say the least. Rows of wooden tables with several young men seated at each greet you at bus stations, but not until the bus actually pulls up do you rush to buy your ticket, engulfed in an excited frenzy as everyone leaps up shouting out the price they’re offering, emulating stock exchange trading. Then clutching your ticket you’re hustled onto the bus with barley moments to spare before it lurches back out onto the choked street.

The condition of city busses also amazes me.  So bashed about, their paint work in some cases is non existent and they look as if they’ve been constructed from papier mashe. Frequently they’re so full, passengers hang from the doorway often with a tentative foot hold. Appreciating what goes where and when to disembark leaves me dazed and confused and I only travel by bus with Bishwajit, who gets us across the city efficiently for 10 taka, but when in his company I simply follow and have none of the confusion to grapple with.  Solo would be a nightmare for me personally and I’m yet to attempt it. 

A typical Dhaka city bus

A typical Dhaka city bus

Parcels from Home aka Mohammadpur Post Office

There are some things I knew I could live without and others I couldn’t.  The latter were added to a list for circulation around family and close friends pre-departure, those that had very kindly offered to ‘supply’ me while overseas.  On arrival I provided them with two addresses, the VSOB compound in Lalmatia and my NGO’s Head Office in Mohammadpur, and settled back to wait.

Knowing my first parcel was underway, destined for Dhaka city stirred me up.  At such an early stage in-country I hadn’t worked out where to source what, and was particularly anxious to restock a couple of hard to come-by but essential items that clamed a mild allergy I have carried all my life.  Dispite bringing out a modest supply of these products I knew they would span only the next couple of months.  Unable to calculate the duration before delivery I had requested my re-supply upfront.  Options for despatch included shipping, air or courier and transportation prices varied accordingly. This parcel was big,  laiden with an additional assortment of items from ‘the list’, and so was traveling out by sea.

Experienced volunteers counselled patience, it appeared some take months for delivery, but no-one told stories of parcels failing to arrive, which I took as a good omen. When the first couple trickled through unexpectedly I was euphoric.  Moderate jiffy bags stuffed with my favourite brand of Earl Grey tea and coffee beans.  Nothing to get unduly excited about you would think, but I practically danced around, parcel held high…a triumph!

These had been delivered to the VSO compound, and both surprisingly arrived while I was there.  Having started work with my NGO I now only occasionally visit this office. My flat however is very close, so it remains a convenient place from which to collect my bounty. The postman produced a receipt written in Bengali to confirm I had paid duty on their contents. I scribbled my signature in the various boxes indicated by him. Both were charged at around the 200 taka mark (approximately two pounds), only the most modest parcels, usually containing documents are delivered free of charge.

The next  arrival was addressed to my NGO in Mohammadpur and this time only the receipt was delivered to Bishwajit, our Admin Officer.  This we would need to take to the Post Office where my goods awaited collection.  We arranged the trip later that same afternoon.

I was surprised it was so close, and that I had passed by on a rickshaw twice daily for several weeks unnoticed, going to and coming from work.  On the edges of Mohammadpur Town Hall Bazaar, a regualar shopping destination, this was one of the first places we new volunteers wandered across by accident days after arrival. In my defence it was set back from the main road itself and with all signs written in Bengali wasn’t easily identifiable.

It was dark and cool inside and I was greeted by an enormous counter spanning the entire width of the building.  A relatively orderly queue of customers waited at each of the various service points, manned by both male and female Post Office officials.  A decrepit uniformed security guard sat in one corner surveying the scene, complete with ancient rifle, ensuring order was upheld.

On producing my receipt we were waved passed, behind the counter itself and through a series of rooms, eventually reaching a small office at the very back of this cavernous building.  Three men sat on an assortment of rickety chairs at an old wooden table, transfeering the addresses by hand from a pile of letters heaped in the centre into long slim white ledgers.  Here the stuffy atmosphere closed in around me almost immediately.  The ceiling fan barely moved, revolving in slow-motion overhead. A plastic stool was produced, and grateful, I sat myself down while Bishwajit introduced us and explained why we were here.

Sweat broke out on my forehead and I could feel further beads trickle down my spine.  I marveled at how anyone could work in such heat, and noticed the white vests worn by all beneath their cotton shirts.  One of the men, with tiny glasses perched on the end of his nose, produced the paperwork required on this occasion enabling the release of the correct parcel to the correct recipient.  Clearly an impressive amount was required for such an event.

The corresponding entry, hand written in a large official looking ledger was located and carefully matched with our receipt.  Then, the form filling began. I was almost swooning by this time and simply scratched out whatever was required using a frustratingly unreliable ballpoint.

By this stage all I wanted was my parcel and to get myself out of this airless room, but nobody else seemed to be in a rush, they were all busy chatting with Bishwajit about me: where was she from? what was she doing here? etc.  Time seemed to stand still, and then one of them reached into a drawer, took out a key fob and opened the padlock on the lid of a huge wooden crate taking up more than half the room.  Somewhere inside was my parcel.  Retreived, it was placed on the table for all to see, inspecting it’s stamps, post marks and returnable address in case of non-delivery.  Somehow I managed to wait, silent and patient, resisting the urge to snatch it up and flee.

I could see immediately it had been opened and inspected.  Several shiny black round globules of dried wax, each with official stamp indentation lined the entire rim of one edge.  This is how duty is calculated, painstakingly checking every parcel arriving in-country and creating a hand written list of duty payable by the recipient.   On this occasion I handed over four hundred taka and scuttled back outside, into the soaring afternoon heat.  Traveling back by rickshaw I arrived at my office hot and sweaty, but opened my parcel in the blissful air-conditioned room in which I work.  A vast contrast when compared with where I’d been seated only minutes before. How typical of Dhaka city.

Looking for MY parcel

Looking for my parcel

 

Birthday Girl

Personally I’ve found life overseas stimulating, exciting and challenging but there are occasions when you’re bound to miss home more than usual and as my birthday approached I found myself thinking about family and friends, birthdays past and our typical plans to get together and celebrate.

Having only been in-country for three months I didn’t want to tell anyone that my birthday was looming as I wasn’t sure how I’d feel on the actual day itself, perhaps more emotional than usual. It all seemed to be working wonderfully well too, until late in the afternoon I received an email from my colleague Bishwajit saying he knew I had a secret AND he know what it was.  But he’s discrete, so I had no worries that the rest of the office would find out. Then Ely, one of my flat mates sent me a text message. ‘Happy Birthday! I’ll bake you a cake’! 

Now Ely has a ledgendary reputation for baking amungst the VSO community, so this was very welcome news.  Bishwajit and I work in the same building, our NGO’s Head Office on Aurangajeb Road, so I invited him back to the flat after work to share some birthday cake.  Babo, my other flat mate greeted us when we arrived. He also knew it was my birthday and had bought me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, with dusky red roses and orange gerbra.  The scent was heavenly.  It was so nice to receive such a fabulous gift. Bishwajit then produced cake candles, a large tub of chocolate ice-cream and a wicker bowl of absolutely gorgeous flowers, a stunning assortment and wonderful arrangement.

Bishwajit carefully arranged the candles on the cake, turning off the ceiling fan before slowly lighting them one at a time. For once the power remained on, so the light was switched off, and, in the dark, they sung ‘ Happy Birthday’ while I attempted to blow all the candles out with one breath. I must have been about seven years old the last time I did this…and it felt wonderful!  Everything was so unexpected and it really made me appreciate that even in such a short space of time these people around me, out here in Dhaka city, wern’t only colleagues, but my friends, and very dear ones too. 

Birthday cake and flowers

Birthday cake and flowers

Dairy Farming…in Dhaka City?

Why we came up with the idea of making our own yogurt escapes me.  Perhaps the subject arose as I’ve been buying sour curd as a substitute for the natural variety I used to eat every day back home in England.  Either way Bishwajit said he knew how to make yogurt and the project was born. 

He started the very next day, showing me a neat little set of six bone china cups, still in their cardboard box, that he had acquired from somewhere ages ago. These, he said, were perfect. I still couldn’t see it myself. Then, after work he produced a two liter plastic water bottle that he had washed thoroughly.  It was when he explained that this was what we were going to use to carry the fresh cows milk from the dairy that I sat up, started to take notice and really listen to what he was saying.

I suppose I should have known better.  Bishwajit always does what he says.  He’s supported me in every way I’ve asked for help since I started work and we became colleagues at the same NGO. So now, here we were walking down Aurangajeb Road keeping a lookout for a rickshaw to take us to a Dairy Farm…in Dhaka city?  Many stopped, but all declined.  Most didn’t know where exactly we wanted to go and those that did weren’t prepared to take us. Eventually someone agreed and very soon I found myself traveling through a part of the city that was new to me. 

Late afternoon and early evening is always manic, as rush hour creates even more congestion than usual. It didn’t take long however for us to leave the busier roads and bump our way through some of the quieter back streets, eventually joining one of the main routes leading out of the city. This was both busy and dusty, its traffic consisting mostly of buses and lorries heading in and out of Dhaka city. 

Buildings thinned out and through the gaps I could see the smoking chimneys of the brick works up ahead. Low squat slums lined the sides of the road with goats and cattle wandering freely.  I was hit by the stink of pungent rubbish as we cycled past workers emptying the small metal containers they pull through the city streets collecting waste from flats and shops.  An occasional vehicle speeding by created a dust cloud that we collided with.  Choking and stinging when it hit our faces we held our breath, closed our eyes and bowed our heads for the few moments until it passed.  Dust here is like grit elsewhere.

We continued through the city slum.  People were shocked to see me here, and I was shocked to see their circumstance. Both parties dumbly stared back at one another. I had forgotten I was in a rickshaw until Bishwajit instructed the driver to pull over at the side of the road. His relief was evident, the sweat running from his face, his clothes sticking to his body.  He was told to wait until we returned and seemed more than happy to do so. He clearly needed a rest and it was unlikely he would pick up another fare easily this far outside the city. 

I recognised the familiar smell of fresh milk before I’d taken more than a handful of steps down the short dusty path leading to the dairy. My mother grew up on a farm and as a child myself, from a young age, I had watched many times, fascinated, as cows were milked by hand. 

We found several men sitting together in what constituted a mixture of living quarters and farm shop. They immediately poured us a small glass of hot, sweet black tea, and made us welcome.  As is usual in Bangladesh, I was almost instantly offered a stool to sit on, and made myself comfortable within moments of arriving. We were here to buy fresh cow’s milk to make yogurt, so Bishwajit got straight down to the business of fixing us a really good price.

Bishwajit haggling at the Dairy Farm

bishwajit-at-the-dairy-farm

I sipped my tea and waited a while, these things take time. The process of agreeing a price between the local population is far more in-depth than we visitors could possible hope to sustain. 

I left the haggling to Bishwajits expert hands, and drifted outside. Peering through a mosquito net strung up across a small doorway I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Inches away several enormous black cows quietly sat, chewing gently.  I slipped behind the net to stand inside a vast cowshed.  Cattle were in the process of being milked, the white frothy liquid collected in shiny metal pales before being pooled together in a larger bucket standing next to my feet. Several tiny calves looked over curiously from where they stood, tethered close beside their mothers.

Inside was surprisingly cool, especially considering the soaring temperatures outside. I stood entranced for minutes: that I was here in the middle of all this I found amazing. Bishwajit joined me. Having finaly agreed a price we waited for our container to be filled, the water replaced by fresh milk, produced only moments before.

Armed with 2 litres of cows milk and a small terracotta bowl of their home made yogurt which we needed to culture the production of our own, we returned to our waiting chariot, the rickshaw driver now fully rested and ready for the homeward journey.

Dhanmondi Lake

These days, when the electricity goes down I’ve taken to fleeing the flat. With our ceiling fans out of action temperatures soar, often above 36 degrees. The heat and humidity become unbearable, boredom sets in and bad tempers are never far behind. It’s often cooler outside where you can catch the occasional breeze, so, within reason (women aren’t advised to wander alone at night) and depending on company I’ve tramped the streets for miles, but my friend Bishwajit has just changed all that by taking me to sit next to Dhanmondi Lake.

I knew there was a lake, I’ve been over its bridge on a rickshaw traveling to New Market a couple of times, but I didn’t realise it was as close, and I didn’t know how to get to there. It’s so well hidden behind buildings I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I followed Bishwajit across the busy road minutes away from my flat, turned down a dusty little pathway…and there it was.  

The surrounding trees absorbed most of the noise of the incessant horns coming from the nearby road, a direct consequence of having such heavy traffic and no highway code. There were only a few people around and those that were strolled, not bustling as they do on the packed Dhaka pavements and topping it off the walkway was in really good condition, unlike the mess of rubble and potholes along the side of every other Dhaka street. The trees offered shade from the sun, still strong at five thirty, their leaves accentuating any slight breeze, giving the illusion it was cooler than it actually was. Heaven, and so accessible!

The lake itself is a fair size and as we walked it opened up further, reaching around a corner and out of sight up ahead.  The opposite bank was a fair distance away, where I could see more people enjoying the environment.  Young couples clearly came here to meet and sit side by side on the bank. With an eighty percent Muslim population Bangladeshi courting couples do have restrictions but it’s fairly common to see young people walking together or sharing a rickshaw.

The water was clear and still and I became aware of a beautiful smell wafting around, reminding me of Jasmin.  Bishwajit pointed out the water lilly.  Only growing around the edges at first, it had, within a short distance completely covered the surface of the lake.  Not yet fully in flower it promises a glorious sight when the hundreds of heads open up and the scent should then be much more powerful. 

Further along we came across a peanut seller.  A fairly common sight, they carry shallow disc like wicker baskets which hang around the neck holding neatly piled peanuts and a red looking salt, along with tiny metal hand scales and small paper cones. At ten taka for a fair sized serving they make a tasty and cost effective snack which I had no intention of resisting.  

Walking on we looked for a suitable spot to sit and shell the nuts, and settled for a small wall on the bank overlooking two fishermen and a sleepy dog, their old Honda motorbike parked nearby. We watched as they fished, using a rod and line they sat patiently, the dog snoozing in the grass.  Their skill was evident as they had already caught a fairly large fish which they kept inside a small cage positioned just below the surface of the water.  From time to time he splashed about in his confinement.   

We shared the peanuts, Bishwajit rolling them in the red salt, a mixture of sea salt, papaya and chilli,  but I ate mine without, finding the taste too strong.  Darkness falls suddenly in Bangladesh and within minutes daytime had given way to evening and the stars came out.  We walked back the way we had come, simply because it was quieter and sat again for a little while underneath a mango tree where the breeze was glorious. Nobody is in a hurry to rush back to a hot dark flat. 

While the  tree bore fruit mango aren’t  currently in season and it will be a further month before the local produce is for sale.  Imported Indian mango is available but everyone here believes that too many chemicals are used and they avoid buying them.  Bishwajit also holds the view that the local mango are far superior, both in size and taste, so I’m keen to try them.

On the way home we stopped off to do a little shopping in Nandons supermarket.  Spotting mango in the fruit and vegetable section I persuaded him to teach me how to select the best ones.  As he doesn’t rate either imported fruit or eating out of season his advice was to wait, but I won the argument and so he helped me select four. Bishwajut used smell, colour and feel to dig out the tastiest, and we ate two each on arriving back at the flat.  They were absolutely gorgeous, so if the local mango taste better than these I can harldy wait!      

Bishwajit shelling peanuts by Dahnmondi Lake

bishwajit

Erratic Electricity

I knew  there would be electricity cuts, but I didn’t expect as many so often.  Around the clock, neumerous times a day power goes down, usually for an hour a time but occasionally for longer periods. Known as ‘load-shedding’, it’s purely due to excessive demand and not the result of poor infrastructure. Either way Bangladesh just can’t cope and it makes living here even harder than usual.   

It was bound to happen.  Huge numbers of people pour into Dhaka every day and buildings are going up everywhere you turn. But this is more than simply the cities demand for power, it’s also due to the impact of environmental change.  Almost on a weekly basis the Power Ministry make decisions about who gets what, sending their instructions to the DPDC (Dhaka Power Distribution Company) who are responsible for service delivery. It’s then down to them to manage the shortfall in demand and divide the available supply between both the urban and rural population as instructed.  A big factor for consideration at the moment is boro farming (a type of rice) which is in season as the success of this crop now depends heavily on an electricity supply to support it’s irrigation system as envirnmental change has increased temperatures and the effects of the burning sun takes it’s tole, thanks to the hole in the Ozone.  

Typical daily demand in Dhaka city is 2000MW, one day this week our allocation was 1200MW.  As load-shedding manages the shortfall, electricity supply moves around the city, being switched off in one area and at the same time restored in another.  This picture is repeated country wide.  The Power Division, who recently opened a control room to monitor the situation reported a total generation of 3377MW over a peak period against a demand of 4200MW.  However as with most things in Bangladesh there are many differing opinons with experts believing the typical realistic shortfall is more likely to be much higher. Meanwhile Bhutan has offered its surplus supply to Bangladesh to help ease the situation, but so far they have declined and a deal has not yet been done. 

According to the locals there’s worse on the way as typically summer season weather conditions creates further interruptions in supply.  We can expect massive thunder storms, strong winds and the heaviest monsoon rain anywhere in the world.  The reality of living under these conditions is obvious and the result of the impact exhausting. It isn’t only your physical discomfort but the pattern of life which changes, forcing you to adapt your activity, dictated by supply.  The enormous reduction in what you can achieve is crippling.  I’ve found myself washing clothes at one in the morning and even then had to finished off by candle light.

Staying awake at work has become a real challenge.  Early afternoon I struggle to keep my eyes open despite working in an air conditioned office.  These cool conditions are ideal to stretch out and drift off, and being deprived of sleep the night before due to the stifling humidity can’t be ignored.  As my concentration starts to wander and my eyes refuse to stay open the wicker sofa in the corner poses a huge temptation. I’ve tried walking around to wake myself up but open the office door and the huge leap in temperature and crippling humidity causes me to wilt and I sweat immediately. In-spite of this I usually make my way to Bishwajit’s office as he works alone.  It might however be the hottest place in the building due to the huge photocopier in the corner.  Either way he has a comfortable chair positioned under a fan in which I snooze for ten minutes or so while he continues to work quietly away. I had tried tucking myself away in reception but this proved too public as passing colleagues mistook my exhaustion for illness resulting in a lengthy explanation and reassurance that I was only tired.

Dhaka residents have two options to combat the electricity shortfall if they have the taka to pay for it.  Firstly hooking up to a generator managed by their building.  Although they aren’t available in every block of flats it seems most do now have them installed.  The first thing you hear all around when the power goes down is their motors kicking into action. They supply enough power to run a couple of fans and strip lights and cost around three hundred taka a month (three pounds) but in reality the heat, pollution and noise they pump out only adds to the general discomfort of living in the city. The second choice is IPS: Independent Power Supply.  The range of choice is dependant on strength of power and units are costed accordingly, starting at around the 10,000 taka mark (hundred pounds).  Fitted professionally they charge themselves automatically and also power a couple of fans and strip lights for up to two hours, but they offer a more environmentally friendly option being cleaner and quieter to operate.

Most office workers in Bangladesh work a six day week, but some NGO’s follow the five day model set by Government ofices, with Friday and Saturday constituting the weekend.  The remainder of the population work every hour they can, from one end of the week to the other.  We’ve noticed a pattern has emerged, with Friday, the holy day, typically having markedly less interruption.  We look forward to the weekend, and Friday in particular even more so than usual as we typically experience only a couple of cuts throught the day.

About to lose my skyline

Looking out from my fourth floor bedroom window I can see baskets balanced on the heads of many men and young boys. They queue in the heat of the midday sun, waiting their turn to tip bricks and cement they’ve slowly hauled up the bamboo ladders of a building site that suddenly sprung up a couple of doors away from my Dhaka flat.  Then, bare footed they carefully make their way back down again for more. Having only lived here for a couple of months I was taken by surprise.  It appeared as if from nowhere and grew rapidly to this current hive of activity.  I do occasionally catch a glimps of a bright yellow hard hat, but mostly this consists of low tech hard labour…and lots of it. 

It’s strange looking out over a building site so high up and I mourn mildly for the view about to be snatched away, but in this city nothing is static, you must take life as it comes.  Within Lalmatia where I live regeneration is exclusively residential.  You don’t have to venture far however to find huge commercial complexes and foreign banks being built, cheek to jowl with the typical jumble of tiny run-down retail cubicles that offer a vast array of goods and services, ranging from street food to tailor shops.

We have been warned to cross the road before passing large building sites as bricks and debris are regularly and casually thrown down, and I have read about several pedestrian deaths reported in The Daily Star, a Bangladesh English language newspaper (www.thedailystar.net).  I’ve yet to work out which poses most risk however, masonary falling on my head or being mown down by crazy traffic while crossing the road!

Every night, as I sit out on the balcony trying to keep cool during yet another electricity black-out, I spot a battered old yellow lorry trundling slowly down our road.  It parks up in the street outside the entrance to the building site, the driver immediately throwing the bonnet open to cool off the overheating engine.  It’s packed full of loose bricks and half a dozen labourers, who leap out to start the  unloading immediatly by hand.  Stacking the bricks expertly in a huge neat pile, the re-supply is made ready for the day shift, who start work the next day at seven am. Then, the following morning I watch as those same bricks appear, transported up the ladders in many head baskets, ready to raise the building even higher.

A brick chipping machine, women normally do this by hand  012-copy-3

Community Justice?

It was a bad night last night.  Things kicked off around 1.30am when we were woken by a real commotion taking place in the street outside our flat.  With noise was so loud and persistent we got out of our beds and went onto the balcony see what was happening.  The street was well lit, and the scene that met us was horrifying.  It took a few moments to fully comprehend the enormity of what was going on.  An organised mob, roughly ten individuals, were systematically beating a man with a large, heavy wooden club.  Onlookers stood around the fringes watching the violence. Their victim wore lungi and was bound at both wrist and ankle.  He lay helpless on the street as the club was raised, ready for yet another blow. Instinct suddelnly kicked in and we started shouting for them to stop, to leave him alone. 

They paused for a moment to look up and see who had interrupted them, then resumed as before.  I’m not sure exactly what kind of reaction we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.  As heavy blows rained down we heard additional shouting coming from the balcony of the flat above where some of our volunteer colleagues live, but this also fell on deaf ears. We realised we were helpless to stop the attack, but if it continued the likely outcome was murder, literally taking place on our doorstep.  Panic set in, while all around our neighbours sood silently at their windows watching the horror taking place below.

By now things were looking pretty grim for the victim.  As persistently as we tried the brutal beating continued.  One neighbour standing only feet away in the darkness of his forth floor balcony quietly told me to stop shouting as I would anger the mob.  I asked him why nobody was calling the police to stop this. There was no reply.

We decided to take action. Not having either the telephone number of the local police station or the language skills if we had, we called the VSO 24 hour emergency helpline to ask them to call the police on our behalf.  One of VSOB’s main responsibilities is volunteer safety while in-country, so with hindsight I suppose their response was pretty predictable, but it infuriated us the time. We were instructed to get off the balcony and stop shouting immediately, to go back to bed, VSOB would discuss it in the morning.  That wasn’t going to cut it for the victim of a prolonged and brutal assault so we escalated our appeal to the VSO Country Director only to recieve an identical response. 

Below us things had reached a critical point and we feared the worse was about to happen.  The club was raised high, and with no other options available I shouted again, this time trying to contain my panic and fear and using as much authority as possible. They paused, I continued.  There was a little confusion this time around.  A brief discussion ended with a clear decision to move the victim, who was roughly pulled up onto his feet and shoved towards the entrance of the nearest building, a garage directly opposite our flat. With his restraint only allowing a pathetic shuffle he made his way slowly through the door.   

Although out of sight we could hear the beating began again with the awful sound of the club repeatedly making contact. We fell silent, wincing and cursing occasionally, but mostly standing in silence, all eyes fixed on the garage, alone in our shock and helplessness.  In the background we could hear the long whistle blasts let out by local security guards protecting the resident flats where we live – the Lalmatia district of Dhaka city.  Using this method they alert each other when unidentified individuals are spotted in the area late at night. Working together they can track the progress of anyone drifting around the streets that they don’t like the look of .   

Eventually, one by one the onlookers left the scene but with the garage lit up we could still clearly see the silhouetts of two remaining men visible through a small window.  Their activity continued for several hours. At five the Imam approached, stopping in front of the garage.  Holding a conversation for several minutes with those inside he pointed up to our balcony a number of times before making his way on to the Mosque to call the morning prayer. It was impossible for us to know what to make of this.

The remainder of the early morning passed, all activity died away and there was no sight of the beaten man.  We couldn’t help but linger on the balcony, still waiting for him to emerge I suppose.  At 7.30 I telephoned my friend and colleague Bishwajit to let him know I’d be late as I would come to the office after the VSOB meeting.  On hearing what had happened he came over immediately by rickshaw seeking out the local security guards and our neighbours to find out exactly what had taken place. He then sat us all down and started to explain.

The man we had seen being beaten was a suspected thief who had been apprehended by the security guards in the surrounding buildings.  There had been a spate of thefts over the past couple of weeks and this equates to tough consequences for them.  Initially they are forced to pay for the cost of any stolen items, often continuing to work without pay until this is done, and then they lose their job. Believing they had caught the culpret their anger and bitterness was evident.  The beating was partly venting this frustration and partly a warning to any other prospective thieves that they would be dealt with harshly if they stole from their buildings.

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