Sunday, October 01, 2006

Teething Pains and Monsoon Rains

Dhaka is going through the last thrusts of the monsoon season, bringing small bouts of hard, warm rain twice or three times a day. Lasting no more than twenty minutes, it is still sufficient to turn the unmade – or half made – streets around the temporary flat in Lalmatia to sticky mud. Lalmatia is in the east of the city, slightly above the old town. It is a series of small blocks, housing middle class and lower middle class flats of much varying quality and design. The monsoon climate does not look favourably on the masonry and buildings quickly deteriorate, giving even the newest and smartest flats the appearance of years of weathering. Yet apparently Lalmatia is the up and coming part of Dhaka (a short of subcontinental Shoreditch), and whilst it is now populated by NGOS – VSO, ActionAid and loads of indigenous organisations – incomers are being priced out of the area and forced to go to Golshan in the west of the city where the Embassies and clubs are, and the expats on real salaries live.

Lalmatia is also rapidly acquiring the trappings of globalisation, with a new ‘etc…’ store opening, selling DVDs for 100 Taka (about 88p) and hosting a ‘Coffee World’ coffee shop that claims the largest menu in the world (for a coffee chain). This is certainly true, but does not make it either affordable on the VSO salary, or of good quality: they still use powdered milk! Powered milk is ubiquitous here. Even when buying what seems to be normal milk, it turns out just to be powdered milk that has been made up for you (one teaspoon of powder to three glasses of water). Not that this matters much anyway because Cornflakes cost nearly £5, and I cannot afford to spend a 12th of my salary on cereal!

The other most striking thing about the city is that is seems to exist in a state of permanent chaos. Traffic signals are merely decoration, car horns serve as a battering ram, not an alarm, and rickshaws swerve in and out of the fast moving traffic at ridiculous speeds, flinging passengers back and forth on precarious seats. Then there are the CNGs – autorickshaws – that have three wheels, a gas canister and a cage, but are driven like they are in a rally race. The advice is don’t use any transport after ten at night, as the CNGs, the black taxis and even some rickshaw wallahs are all in on kidnapping and mugging scams, and are not to be too trusted.

The induction flat is quite large, and housing four of us at the moment with two Ugandans to arrive soon. It also has a resident population of two geckos, and nightly visits from cockroaches. The largest so far is about three inches, and is by far sufficiently big for now! Luckily, Gordon and Tony (the geckos) like to eat them, and so are being domesticated as the first line of defence.

Dhaka is a bit of a nightmare at the moment – we’ve had power cuts each day, there are some hartals on (politically motivated strikes), riots at the power stations – and then there are the typical bizarre policies of third world governments. Firstly, why put speed humps on motorways? Cars doing 70 or more keep accelerating until the last minute, where a mass pile up is just avoided before the next round of death defying driving. Although Dhaka has the highest death rate on its roads in the world, so in general death is but a speed bump away. There is no lighting at night, at all, so the city descends into a nerve-wracking darkness. The law is such that beeping your horn or ringing your rickshaw bell counts as sufficient warning to pedestrians, and then if they get run over, it is their fault. Which means that from seven in the evening, an evening stroll is a balancing act between the edge of the road, and the cockroach infested gutter.

Needless to say, this is dystopian Dhaka.

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