My first glimpse into what Bangladesh has in store for me comes as I am changing aircraft in Doha; as I enter the gate, it feels like all eyes are on me, the lone white face in the crowd. The staring does not come as a surprise, having experienced similar curiosity in India and SE Asia over the years but it is still hard to get used to, coming from a culture where staring is really rather frowned upon. The crowd is predominantly men, in a mix of western and traditional dress; the few women I spot sit in groups, some in full burkas, the only visible skin is around their eyes, their hands and their toes peeping out from underneath the black cloth, others in brightly coloured salwar kameez and saris. As soon as the gate opens for boarding, the crowd surges forward, surrounding the doors in all directions; a scene repeated as the plane taxis into Dhaka, when everyone is up clamouring for their bags before the aircraft has even stopped.
The aisles are somewhat crowded then when it takes nearly half an hour to open the doors! Stepping out of the plane, I take a long, deep breath in, savouring the new scent of the air – have you noticed the way that the air always smells different overseas? Here, it is cool but thick, somehow fragrant (ignoring the aircraft fumes!) and slightly spicy. I feel like I’ve arrived. The air quickly becomes choked with brick dust, however, as it turns out that the terminal is literally a building site, causing me to cough and splutter whilst waiting to pass through immigration.
I soon experience Bangladeshi hospitality. I had expected to be met by staff from the VSO Bangladesh office at the airport but, as I come through customs and walk through the terminal, scanning the waiting placards for my name, there is no sign of them. After a moment of looking very lost, but not quite on the verge of panic, two members of airport staff approach me and ask whether everything is okay. Once I explain my predicament – of course, my English SIM card isn’t working – one of them calls the number I have for the office and five minutes later I am hurrying to keep up with another member of staff who leads me outside and around the corner to where the VSO staff are waiting.
The most immediately apparent thing about Dhaka is the traffic. It is simply crazy. There are cars (complete with dodgem-esque bumpers) and CNGs (little green tuk-tuks that weave dangerously in and out of the traffic) and rickshaws and bicycles and people everywhere. The people are the worst, just sauntering down or across the street, oblivious to the traffic around them, as if out for a country stroll. Horns honk loudly, creating a cacophony of noise with the ringing of bicycle bells. There are traffic lights which apparently absolutely no-one pays any attention to, nor do the traffic police, with their flashing wands, seem to have much control over the flow of vehicles.
The streets are lined with the usual hodgepodge of buildings you get in cities in any developing country. There are glass-fronted office blocks next to building sites complete with bamboo scaffolding. Thick ropes of electricity cables dangle precariously low above the streets. But I am not prepared for the sight of a tank decorated with fairy lights at one of the city gates, nor for the men attempting to sell brightly coloured helium balloons to passengers in one of the many traffic jams we get stuck in.
So far, I love Dhaka! After a long day travelling, I finally collapse onto my bed in the hostel I will call home for the next couple of weeks – it and the pillow are as hard as rocks – and am lulled to sleep by the muezzins calling the faithful to pray.
Part of my Team Leader training, prior to the arrival of the rest of the volunteers, is a familiarisation visit to the community we will be working in for the next 12 weeks. It’s about a six hour drive from Dhaka – sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong! Welcome to the world of Bangladeshi politics where a nationwide hortal (strike), called by the opposition party, has brought the country’s transportation system to its knees. The roads and railway lines between Dhaka and Rangpur district are all closed, thanks in part to a petrol bomb attack on a bus a couple of weeks ago that left a dozen people badly injured. To make matters worse, every man and his dog has been trying to fly instead so it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket. After much toing and froing, including consultations with the VSO security team and the Country Director, it is decided that we can travel up overnight when the roads will be clear. VSO don’t normally allow foreign volunteers to travel overnight as it is more risky, but the Country Director approves this herself and it is decided that we will travel in an ambulance to camouflage our trip. When I say ‘ambulance’, I don’t mean what you would see on the streets of London. The ambulance that collects us is essentially a minivan with a stretcher in the back and AMBULANCE in big yellow letters across the side. Oh, and the obligatory flashing lights and siren, which have absolutely no effect on the traffic in Dhaka! It’s a long seven hour journey, complete with fog, aggressive braking and some downright dangerous overtaking, but we arrive safely in Pairabond in the middle of the night.
Over the next few days, I discover that life in the village is basic but simple. There are no luxuries or creature comforts; in fact, despite the overnight chill, there is no heating and no hot water in the homes, which are fairly open to the elements. Yet, the generosity and hospitality is overwhelming. In just a few short days, I feel like I am one of the family. My host-father speakers some very basic English and attempts to explain the 9pm news to me, whilst my host-mother insists I eat just a bit more rice – there is absolutely no danger of me losing weight out here! In fact, the most important Bangla phrase I have learnt so far is to say that I am full.
The children all take delight in my fumbling attempts to learn Bangla, patiently repeating words as I struggle with the pronunciation and giggling happily when I ask them, in Bangla, how they are.
I have just about got to grips, so to speak, with eating with only my right hand, although I still haven’t mastered the technique of massaging my rice into a ball. The food is delicious and plentiful, if a little too spicy on occasion! I still find the sensation strange, especially as my fingers start to go wrinkly as if I was in the bath for too long. I’m even managing with the washing ritual – feeling the icy cold fingers of the water over my scalp, pouring frigid water over each limb in turn, shivering as I do so. I’m sure I will be grateful for the cool water once the weather turns warmer in March (when it will apparently rise half a degree every day to a peak of 40oC come April) but, bloody hell, is it cold now!
I am quite the celebrity during our visit. Everywhere I go, people stare and all I can hear are chants of “bidesi, bidesi!” (foreigner) from the children who insist on following me. They are shy at first, the children, but some summon up the courage to speak to me, stumbling over the difficult pronunciation of my name. Their inhibition quickly melts away and they try to teach me Bangla and touch my strange, pale hair. I even found myself the centrepiece of a cricket-match on one afternoon – don’t ask me who won, there seemed to be more shrieking than running!
It hasn’t all been easy though. It’s exasperating not being able to speak the language; everyone quickly lapses into Bangla, leaving me lost in the conversation. I am also completely dependent on my counterpart, S; for someone who is used to travelling independently, it’s very difficult to be reliant on another person for so much but S is unquestioningly patient with me and we are striking up a good partnership, which bodes well for the coming weeks. Despite the frustrations, I don’t think I have ever smiled so much. It’s strange to think that this is now my home for the next three months but I can’t think of a better place to be.