Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Money Matters

It has been mentioned that there was something incongruous about my last post between noting the poor conditions of the rickshawalas and haggling for a good price, so I thought a little about money and prides in Bangladesh may be of interest.

The currency in Bangladesh is the Taka, with roughly 125 Taka to a pound. Prices are not as low as one would perhaps expect for such a poor country. To my distress, Cornflakes come in at between 400 and 550 Taka, or somewhere approaching £4! And this is not for a whole kilogram, but the tiny 250 gram box. Yet even if this was affordable on my salary, I would then need to mount a Herculean expedition to find milk. Milk comes in a box, powdered and with helpful instructions for making up liquid. Orange juice also comes in a box, powdered and sweetened beyond recognition. Even cartons of milk and orange juice usually turn out to be powdered forms that have been prepared for the eager Bangladeshi consumers. The question as to the point of turning liquid into powder to turn it back into liquid for sale does not seem to have been raised when this ridiculous line of projects was first conceived.

Onions are cheap, as are okra (called ‘Lady Fingers’ here), and green beans. Tomatoes are about 40 Taka for a kilogram, though cherry tomatoes come in at 480 Taka per kilo. We can get rice easily, but pasta is more. Kidney beans and baked beans are 80p a can; Coke is 50 Taka for 2 litres. Meat is quite expensive, with chicken at 300 Taka a kilo, and beef a little less. The supermarkets also proudly display sheep brains, offal, goat heads and other delicacies. Bread is always sweetened or with added milk (powder).

Yet all this is reasonable if one is on a middle class salary in Dhaka, as it is only the middle class who use the new supermarkets. However, my daily salary is about 300 Taka (or £2 or so). So I live on about $3 a day, which is not much above the official poverty line. Obviously, I have already had rent stopped before I get that salary (£1 a day) and don’t have families to support, but in reality as a VSO volunteer in Dhaka there is not much spare money. Hence it becomes increasingly important to haggle ferociously with CNG drivers and Rickshawalas. A CNG ride and back to most parts of the city can cost 100 Taka, leaving just 200 for the rest of the day. Market traders also hike prices when a gora turns up, our white skin a blank cheque for a good pay day. Getting the Bangla price or the meter on is a constant struggle. If I were a tourist it would not be an issue, but when we earn similar wages to those attempting to make a small killing, it becomes fantastically important. Though it is a very pertinent lesson in the ways of the urban poor in this country, and the daily struggle that their existence has become.

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