Two weeks in and here is what I have learned

I have been in Dhaka over two weeks now and have noticed a few things which I will share with you:

Hard-working People The Bangladeshi are an industrious lot, they work so damn hard, it’s evident everywhere.  Even in this semi heatwave we are experiencing right now (Lord knows what they call a full-on heatwave if a semi is 40 degrees with up to 70% humidity, and not much of a let up at nighttime!)

  • Across the street a new 12-story apartment building is going up and there are oodles of manual laborers toiling in the hot hot sun, day in day out, moving bricks from A to B, one brick at a time.
  • The team of men dressed in lungis who are digging a mysterious hole in the middle of the street in the midday sun while I pass by, sweltering in a CNG where I am at least protected from the searing sun.
  • The entrepreneurial pavement hawkers selling anything from freshly squeezed cane and fruit juices, to chapati with channa masala for breakfast, to a myriad of tea shops selling all sorts of street foods, to the lady selling what seems to be her excess produce of onions.  And this week, for some reason there seems to be an influx of young men selling sports socks.  Fell off the back of a truck or something?
  • I see Parvin, the housekeeper who, anytime I am there when she comes, gets stuck into scrubbing an already clean apartment with great gusto.  There is not much for her to do (how messy can one get?!) but I am afraid to suggest she only come once every two weeks.  The first week she came five times, I have reduced her down to three times a week and could sense her disappointment.  I can’t bring myself to reduce it any further.  She is abhorred that I shop and cook for myself, I am not giving that up very easily! I still pay her the full whack (a pittance really) and my sense is she feels she is not earning it.  If she only knew how happy I am not to have to clean the bathroom!

Safer than I was lead to believe As you know, I had such dire warnings of how unsafe Dhaka was that I was a bit paranoid.  I have ceased to be paranoid (by day anyway).  I’ve trailed off on rickshaws in the locality and CNGs further afield on up to 1.5 hour journeys, on my own, not speaking the language and never once feeling threatened.  The usual haggling before getting in so that the price is not outrageous, but that is par for the course.  There was one CNG that I backed out of, my gut just told me it was the right thing to do.  So that is the good thing – my gut is back and working well.  I feel I can trust it now.

Dinner Parties I was invited to Manzoor & Shireen’s apartment for a dinner party.  Come at 8pm they said.  I live two floors above them so did not have long to walk.  Earlier I had picked up a lovely flower arrangement with beautiful local flowers so I was at least not going empty handed.  I arrived at 8pm, one of the first to arrive.  Slowly all the others started to arrive and by 9.30pm, there were 20+ people at the party.  Dinner was served at about 10pm, a feast of rice, chapatis, assorted veggies, deepfried eggplant, beef curry and hilsa in a tamarind curry (hilsa is a favourite fish here in Bangladesh).  For dessert we had payesh which is a dessert rice with condensed milk, molasses and grated coconut served with fresh fruit – really delicious. As soon as the food was eaten, people left to my mind rather abruptly, but this is the norm apparently.  In Bangladesh, the chatting is done before the eating, and once you are finished eating, you can leave, even if others are still eating.  The format is a little different to what I am used to, we usually don’t eat so late and the meal is enjoyed and languished on, rather than an eat & run approach.    And there is chatting throughout!  When in Rome ….. BTW, there was very interesting bunch of people at the dinner party.

  • Shireen herself had just arrived back from Chittagong after delivering Train the Trainer education for teachers, to teach English in a more interactive way – it made me think of Bowen’s very own Matt Maxwell and his methodology of teaching a second language through drama, I shared AIM‘s website with Shireen.
  • Many from the NGO world (mostly western) including researchers, program managers, policy makers etc, including a few from microfinance – it was interesting to hear their take on the impact microfinance has and whether it has met it’s goals 40 odd years after the concept was born.
  • A renowned Bangladeshi artist Jamal Ahmed who works in acrylics and does some lovely Dhaka scenes.  He and his wife are off to the US but on their return, they promised to have me over to see his studio – look forward to that.
  • A clothes designer and a farmer – two Bangladeshi ladies breaking the mold by leading the way in their progressive approaches to what they do.

And many more that I just could not spend the time to chat to.  Everyone left so fast after dinner!

Grocery shopping Now that I live in Gulshan (the ex-pat ghetto), grocery shopping is like going grocery shopping back in Canada.  The stores are air-conditioned, have every conceivable treat an ex-pat would hanker for and are set out with aisles etc, like as if I was back in Canada.  The prices are Canadian equivalent too!  And to be honest the fruit & veggie selection is not great.  So I was delighted to find a market relatively closeby (a rickshaw ride away in this heat) with stalls and stalls of fresh fruit and veg, as well as barrels of rice, chickpeas, lentils etc etc as well as spices galore – brilliant!  And the prices are much cheaper too 🙂

Child Beggars These kids are everywhere, it breaks my heart.  They plague anyonefor a few taka who remotely looks monied.  They are good-natured enough given their circumstances, many are dressed in rags, are injured in some way and definitely look malnourished.  Two days ago, I bought a bunch of chapatis and channa masala at a roadside food stall and set it out on a nearby table.  I motioned to the stall owner it was food for the kids.  He let out a holler and within seconds, there were at least 10 kids inhaling the food.  I slipped away quietly, careful not to attract attention as I do not want to be mobbed by these kids every time I walk by.  I find myself casing out other stalls in different locations where I could do the same.  I really need to check to see if this is the right thing to do.  I read these kids are usually recruited by gangs, disfigured in some way to tug at the emotional heart strings (it works) and have targets per day on how much to ‘earn’ and give up to the leaders.  If any of you readers have some insights, let me know.  I want to do the right thing.

Spectacular Storms are a godsend This semi-heat-wave has made things hot and sticky, but boy do I love love love when a massive storm hits!  The sky turns a yellowy-green, the colours are just stunning.  The cracks of thunder are nothing like I have heard before and the lightening is literally striking.  Then it deluges … really really deluges.  And West Coasters (of Canada) think it rains there, it’s a drizzle in comparison.  It goes on for about 30 mins, suddenly stops and all is clear and bright.  And for a brief period there is a reprieve from the humidity … until all is back to normal and we are at our usual 60-70%.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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10 Responses to Two weeks in and here is what I have learned

  1. Katherine says:

    How can feeding hungry children not be right? It won’t solve the huge issues of poverty, exploitation, abuse etc but it’s definitely right, IMHO!

  2. Ann Coughlan says:

    Dear Kate, At last I’ve got round to catching up on your experiences in Dhaka to date. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts: they bring back such good memories. I’m glad that you are now feeling comfortable and ‘safe’: I did too – and I didn’t live in Gulshan! So far, it sounds as though quite a bit of planning has gone into your work, though, as you say, your role may be more observational to begin with. Embrace it Kate! You could be floundering aimlessly in an organisation wondering why you are there!

    I’m looking forward to your future installments! Every best wish for the remainder of your stay. Ann

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Thanks for your encouragement Ann, and very nice to e-meet you. I visited Kilpara today to visit Parvin and her family – I was delighted to experience a piece of the real Dhaka at last!

      • Ann Coughlan says:

        Lovely to e-meet you too Kate! I see that you’re Irish (as am I)! I hadn’t realised that when you left a message on my blog! You’d never know – our paths might cross one-day. Glad you got out of Dhaka today. Wish I was there!

  3. Renu says:

    The world is an interesting place… Children/vulnerable people being mistreated is the norm which seems so illogical especially in countries where hinduism is practiced, temples everywhere, they don’t eat beef or any meat… And Say namaste (the God in me recognizes the God in you) at every opportunity.. Truly baffles me..

  4. Heather says:

    Hi Katie, glad to hear you are having such an interesting time. Your blogs are so full of detail I can picture you in my mind! Mel and Joce are over tonight for dinner and a visit. Wish u were too! Thinking of you – Heather Brian Erin and Jack

  5. Tandi says:

    So what’s the word on the success of micro finance, 40 years on?

    Great post. I can just imagine the feel of the streets and the storms. Thanks Kate!

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