I can hardly believe the time has come for me to leave Dhaka. I arrived two months ago, green-eyed and busy tailed, not knowing what to expect. Boy was I in for a surprise! Dhaka is a megacity teeming with 15 million inhabitants, a far cry from Bowen Island and from my time in Banepa, Nepal. The smells, the sounds, the traffic … all so new and different, and at times overwhelming. But I survived Dhaka and in fact am only getting the hang of things now. I think there should be a medal given for every month you stay, a badge of honour for sure.
The key to living in Dhaka is surrounding yourself with a support system – kinda hard to do when you know nobody. But one thing that is great about Dhaka, is how generous ex-pats are with welcoming newcomers to their own networks. Jolene Park (who worked on the PHNIC Conversion project in Toronto) gave me a name of a friend of a friend of hers, who would be in Dhaka for 5 weeks working on a project. Teresa was a Godsend! She has a good group of friends, all working on international development projects over the past 20 years, some of whom are currently in Dhaka. That’s when my social life went from Billy No Mates status to being one of the gang – Teresa from Canada, Sarah from US and Sonia from UK, along with Glenn (US), Girish (Canada) and many others.
We met for many dinners, went to concerts and had massages. And I cooked for the gang of women a few times which was a pleasure. We talked about all sorts of topics – life, love, politics, religion and how to solve the problems of the world – you know, the usual when a group of strong independent women get together :-). There might have been a bottle of wine or two consumed during those discussions thanks to Sarah’s access to the US Commissary – a store primarily for US diplomatic officials but also open to any US ex-pats in Dhaka. They stock all sorts of US products not available in Dhaka, and most importantly, sell alcohol. You have no idea how much pleasure a bottle of wine or a beer gives to folks here. Alcohol is one of life’s delicious pleasures here in Dhaka. When you can’t have something, you want it even more – you know the story.
As Teresa’s work is done for the time being in Dhaka and I am about to leave, for one last fling we decided to go out for a karaoke night at Pyongyang Restaurant – a North Korean restaurant run by the North Korean government. Yes, North Korea. Apparently they run these restaurants around the world in an effort to shore up their stashes of hard currency. Unsure how Bangladesh’s taka made the favoured hard currency list. The food was delicious and the karaoke was hilarious and a ton of fun. We were also treated to some traditional songs, dances and music by two entertainers. No photos of the entertainers allowed – they were very specific on that, but we could take photos of one another.
I’ve had a busy two months in Bangladesh. After the initial disappointment of not being able to work with BRAC, I decided to learn as much as I could under my own steam. This was probably better as I ended up with a wider breadth of experiences and got to see the pros and cons of different models, and see the daily operations of many social enterprises – things I would not have seen had I been working for BRAC.
I am now more than convinced this is the area I want to work in going forward – it’s a real good feeling to know this. The impoverished women of Bangladesh were key to inspiring me with their hope and optimism despite their desperate circumstances – a lesson for us all really. I was very fortunate to be so welcomed into their life’s stories and their homes out in the villages – some of my most memorable times in Bangladesh.
Next stop is Northern India, I arrive into Kolkata tomorrow and will take it from there. I fly to Melbourne from Delhi at the end of July so have a full month to make my way from Kolkata to Delhi, hopefully by train (one of my favourite modes of transport) and stopping off in Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur. I’ll figure out what is possible once I arrive in India. Khoda hafez from Bangladesh …. which basically means goodbye according to Rabbani Bhai from BRAC who taught me a few Bangla words. It literally means “God be with you”.
BTW, I am struck how much of the Bangla language is centred around Allah and quite descriptive …. not unlike Gaelige – the indigenous language of us Irish. Goodbye in Gaeilge is “Slan agus Bennachtai” which literally means “health & blessings to you”. many similarities between the Irish and the Bangladeshi. And the Irish and Nepalese!