Monday, October 30, 2006

Panic on the Streets of Dhaka

The last week or so has been a tense one in Bangladesh. Having established a unique constitutional set up in order to protect against threats to their democracy, the country has been plunged into unnecessary violence and disruption. Hasan, the Governance programme manager at VSO told me with no hint of dark humour that this was an historic moment because in the past supporters fought with police who would retreat to barracks after a few shootings, whereas what has occurred this week has been fighting between different factions, with the police blindly shooting into a crowd.

The Bangladeshi constitution states that an interim government is established led by the chief advisor to ensure free and fair elections. They have three months to organise and hold these elections, scheduled for January. The chief advisor proposed by the outgoing BNP government - Judge KM Hasan – was rejected by the opposition Awami League because he is a former BNP member. He refused to accept the position just before the deadline and put a small constitutional crisis in place. There were three other persons that could be called upon but all said no (or were rejected by the parties) and so the President has taken the position, for now.

Whilst this was going on, Dhaka was descending into turmoil. Rival groups of supporters blockades railways and roads leading to the city to stop food and other goods entering. The roads were completely deserted as offices closed, and groups of police were the main pedestrians, hanging about intersections with stacks of riot gear by their sides and substantial sticks in their hands. And of course, semi automatic weapons loaded with rubber – and real – bullets.

In the evenings along Paltan Avenue, around Mirpur Road and Dhanmondi and in other parts of the central city, fires were set, supporters clashed and home-made bombs were lobbed at police. The demonstrators were properly tooled for a fight, and we met many carrying six foot wooden paddles looking like a giant hurling stick, some adorned with the colours of the Awami league. The people carrying them, however, were often diminutive and bespectacled, a strange combination! At least 18 people have died in the city as a result of police firing, and over 500 were injured. At the moment the city is calm and shops have opened for the first time in a week, but the Awami League is only tolerating the current president as chief advisor. If he does not do what they want him to by Thursday, then there will be more violence on Friday and beyond.

The FCO’s warning to British nationals has been to not leave the Gulshan area. Unfortunately, we are the few British nationals that are on the other side of the city from Gulshan, its bright lights and refined police checks, and instead are squashed between the Parliament itself and the areas of violence. On one hand it is very exciting, with flags and announcements and some tension in the air, but it is also so unnecessary given the system in place. As all over the world, the ones that are dying did not start it, and are dying for political parties promoting none of their rights or meeting their needs, but rather ensuring the Begum Zia and Sheik Hasina remain powerful and influential women in Bangladesh, if nowhere else in the world.
Today, however, all is open and it may be possible to get a curry for the first time since I arrived.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Srimangal Tea Estates

Last week was the end of Ramadan Eid festival, and most of the country was in shutdown. For some reason, whilst the rest of the Muslim world celebrated Eid on 23rd October, Bangladesh waited until the 25th, mainly I think to give the Bengalis more holiday. There have been no newspapers in six days!

However, this five-day break did offer the opportunity to get out into the rural areas of Sylhet. We were able to catch a train up to Srimangal, which is the centre of tea growing in Bangladesh. The train itself was eventful, not only when nightfell and the carriage became filled with insects and beetles of innumerable quantity and variation – it was almost biblical and trying to read whilst fending off grasshoppers sucked in at 60 mph was a challenge. However, the highlight of this journey was its very beginning, where having sat down, stood up, knocked over a travel table and generally caused localised havoc with our insensitivity, a man came up to use with a card and introduced himself as an outside broadcaster with ‘FM Today’, Bangladesh’s second radio station. Apparently, our very existence was sufficient to warrant a newsflash for the station, and having asked us a few taxing preparatory questions (‘Why are you here?’, and ‘Where are you going?’), we were put onto the news bulletin. I was asked ‘Was this my first time in Bangladesh’; I was happy to reply, ‘yes, this is my first time’. Investigative journalism at its finest.

Later on, a woman opposite us had an hour-long row with most of the train staff, about her ticket or something else. So we had the unusual experience of being part of the audience for a change, as thirty or more Bengalis pitched in to offer their contribution to what was an inexplicable but probably simple problem.
We stayed at the HEED centre in Srimangal. This is an NGO that runs health care programmes for rural Bangladesh, as well as health governance and other development work. Their main focus is TB and Leprosy. They are a large NGO here and also operated a programme in Afghanistan after the Taliban were removed, though that has since been closed. Anyway, they offered good food, a bed and our money was going towards a better cause that that of other establishments, so winners all round.

The tea plantations are absolutely stunning. The roads are simply made, like those at country parks in England, and with brick paths up to the tea estates. Tea trees squat against the ground interspersed by taller trees and stretch endlessly into the distance. And everywhere is deep green. We borrowed some bikes – a Chinese made one speed monstrosity with a saddle resembling a scaffold pole with a bit of plastic over the top, and very, very heavy – and spent two days cycling around the estates. We visited two estates with their factories, dispensaries, clinics and creches, as well as having a quick look into the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute – sadly the tea tasting was not available. The estates give the impression that workers are well looked after, with some facilities, but housing around the area is so poor that wages cannot be particularly high. Finlay Tea, a British company and the largest producer in Bangladesh were adamant that tourists were not going to see any of their vast plantations, and the guard hastily removed the ‘Eid Mubarak’ sign from the gate to reveal a stern warning to us. We turned back hastily.

Without doubt, however, the highlight was a tea shack on a small road where the owner had invented the five colour tea: this was simply incredible. A glass arrived with five layers of tea floating atop one another – yellow, pink, brown, white, and cream – and drinking it was amazing. The first sip is warm cinnamon, which gives way to a subtle ginger and lemon, with some other fragrant flavour and then sweet honey tea at the bottom of the glass. As we commented many a time, if this was a small tea shop sitting in Angel or Shoreditch or Kensington people would pay four or five pounds for this. The two brothers that invented the method and hold the secret recipe are sitting on a goldmine – even Lonely Planet does not mention this (though the author of the Bangladesh guide is particularly inept!). If only there was a way to find out how to do it…

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Security Warning

This is the text of the latest brief that I have received regarding Dhaka's political life: it certainly makes the anti-capitalists seem rather tame...
Security update

With a view to making you aware of as well as for taking necessary care of your movements, I would like to inform you that the proposed date for handing over of power by the present government to the Caretaker Government is 27th or 28th October for holding the National general election in January 2007. During that period, it is expected that both the government and the opposition alliance will arrange huge showdowns of their popularity and power in Dhaka and the law and order situation may deteriorate across the country. It is also to note that if the present dialogue is not successful and Justice KM Hasan's takeover as the Chief Adviser to the next Caretaker Govt. The opposition alliance is going to hold the 'Dhaka-seize Programme' along with seize programmes in all the Upazillas and district levels. The activists are also instructed to stay in Dhaka with sticks, oars and paddles. They would also declare continuous strikes across the country with an increased level of agitated movements, meetings, emonstrations and public gatherings. On the other hand, BNP is going to arrange programmes in Dhaka from 27th to 31st October to keep their control on streets and in the city. The activists are asked to bring sickles with them. All these give clues that the political situation is going to deteriorate more than expectations at the time of the power handover and later on if the crisis is not resolved through dialogue. Hence, you are strongly suggested to be in a low profile and be vigilant. Please avoid all types of political demonstrations and large gatherings as well. It will be very much appreciated if you discuss this with your employer and if needed, don't go to the office during those days without prior discussion with your employer. Please remain updated about the general security situation with discussion with your friends and colleagues as well and also be in touch with the newspapers and news from radio and television. If you come across any issue to address, please do not hesitate to contact me at any time. The situation is being closely monitored and time-to-time you will be updated of the latest.
The BNP (Bangladesh National Party) is the main party in government, whilst the Alwami League is the main opposition. They have this ludicrous system of government whereby the election is at least 3 months after Parliament is dissolved and power is handed to an appointed caretaker government. The two main party leaders have been arguing over this for the last six months or so. This handover is, by all accounts, the fight that they've been waiting for. We are told to expect a number of reports saying 'killed in the crossfire' given the liberal attitude of the police towards their triggers. It sounds like fun...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Power Cuts

It takes a while to get used to daily life here – from the vacant looks of some of the locals it would seem that they have failed to do so either. But whilst I have managed to find and successfully use the local markets and supermarkets, the power cut issue is a constant irritation.

We get at least three a day; perhaps even more as there is a suspicion that the power is turned off at night. Every evening, around 7 pm, the lights shut off and the fans stop turning, and as the heat from outside rushes in, we begin the daily search for where we left the torches and hurricane lamps. Usually all that can be done is to open up a book and set up a mosquito killing lamp and wait. It is timed quite well, being on or about and hour at a time. The largest problem is that the bright white fluorescent of the hurricane lamp is like Mecca to things that enjoy nothing more than eating people, and so there is a toss up between light to work and closed windows, or an open window and a modicum of a breeze, but one enjoyed in the utter darkness. It is refreshing to see, however, that religious bodies the world all over know how to get what they need whilst their congregations endure the darkness: our local mosque never seems to have too little power for its red neon sign.

The period between about 8 and 9 when the power returns is usually best to cook up some dinner, as this should ensure that there is enough time to eat it in the light before the next power cut kicks in. Typically, this is at about 10 or 10.30, and whilst it can be for a few seconds (when the power board switches off the wrong district), it can be an hour or more, and puts a halt to anything like writing on a computer, watching a film or washing up. Then, during the night the power is off (though none of us has stayed up long enough to find out for how long or often), and there is usually a morning cut at about 10 or 11 am. This nicely coincides with the heating up of the day and the small, ventilation free classroom in which we are still struggling through out Bangla.
Power cuts are the source of riots and fights, and generating some major political interest; political life is very volatile at the moment. Next Friday sees the handover of power from the current government to a caretaker administration that will organise the elections. The government seems reluctant to have its power cut too, and for weeks there have been debates and fights between the two main parties on how to do this. However, it is set to go, and just to be sure that the veneer of order can be kept, 5,000 extra police are being drafted into the city to try to put down the expected unrest, rioting and fighting. It seems the worst timing imaginable: Ramadan will have finished and the Eid holiday to celebrate this will have just ended, and the 5 million people now trying to leave the city to go to their villages to celebrate will be rushing back in, bringing with them a sense of injustice, a post-Eid misery and copious energy ready to be released. There will be fireworks.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Village

We spent the last three days in some of the villages of the Rajshahi Division. This area is in the West of the country, with its western border being made up by the Padma River. This vast water is otherwise known as the Ganges in India, which could be seen as a distant bank, shrouded in dusty mists. The Ganges represents the furthest extent of Alexander the Great’s invasions from Macedonia, the grey-green expanse a fitting boundary to his intentions. At the peak of the dry season, smugglers cross back and forth with contraband – often beer – but during our visit the calm waters were in full spread and Bangladeshi oarsmen drifted slowly through the rushes as the low sun set.

Only two VSO volunteers are based in Rajshahi division, where 25% of Bangladeshis live. We were meeting Samson, a Kenyan who retired last year as that country’s chief economist. A fascinating but quiet guy, he showed us his sparse flat, working offices and some of the villages in which his organisation operates. He works with 5 different community based organisations as a strategic planning advisor, yet seemed deeply dissatisfied with his Bangladeshi life. Luckily, he was accompanied by a side kick – Sylvester – who was seemingly employed to do everything for him: translate, carry bags, organise tours, rickshaws, buses, lawnmowers for rides in the rice fields and anything else. Everyone needs a Sylvester in Bangladesh.

The journey to the main city of the division, also called Rajshahi, was fraught with danger. Local bus drivers showed their characteristic disregard for basic hazard avoidance as we careered along barely made roads at fast speeds, and surfaced roads at ludicrous speeds. Buses or lorries oncoming were not necessary something to avoid, with drivers taking up a position on the wrong side of the road for 20 minutes or more, and then seemingly perturbed to find anything coming towards them. Yet we did arrive in one piece some seven hours later, if not a little blustered.

Rajshahi was a bit of a non-event, with a university and the Padma being its saving graces. Yet the next day we took a local bus (same driving but much thinner roads) out into the countryside and it was beautiful. Rice fields stretched for miles, criss-crossed by small paths occasionally walked by farmers. The roads were tree lined like the best of Provence, and small groups of people walked or cycled along. Every ten minutes or so on our hour and a half journey the bus would stop at the smallest of villages and off load people, ducks, chickens, light bulbs and anything else that could be crammed into its dilapidated interior.

We eventually stopped in a small village occupied by some of the indigenous communities (ICs) in Bangladesh. These are the most marginalised and poorest of Bangladesh’s already poor population. Mostly they are Christian, and there was a small Catholic Church nearby that was sparsely furnished but brightly coloured. In the first village we visited the end of a school class for primary age children. In rural Bangladesh, only 25% of girls go to primary school, and then lessons are in Bangla. The indigenous communities are losing their language, land, culture and other rights, and so the local CBOs are trying to keep this alive. The kids sung us some songs and then we were forced to return the favour – the hokey-cokey is now well established in rural Bangladesh.

The villages are however, incredibly poor. Whilst they do have national grid electricity connections, life is hard for these people, working small rice plots and mango groves by hand, with children charged with sharpening knives and cutting bamboo or looking after animals, and women cutting and building and sowing all day. Houses are made of wattle and daub with straw roofs, with pit stoves formed from wetted mud. It is not actually much different to rural Ireland or England in the 1920s or 1930s, or Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Except this is today and there is no apparent way of changing this. On the other hand they were teeming with life – ducklings and piglets, babies and chicks, kittens and calves running back and forth – and whilst this existence should not be romanticised from what it is, there is a simplicity and connectivity that should be admired and enhanced.

We then took a strange ride back towards the main town on a cross between a lawnmower and a motorbike, with nine of us hanging on to the platform. I was only dragged through one bush, and was able to extract a couple of thorns from my bleeding foot before we squeezed between a pond and bus doing an impression of Colin McRae.

The sun was cool and the wind blowing a little which made the trip back lovely, surrounded by virtually no one but a few farmers and miles and miles of low-lying rice fields. In the hurricane of Dhaka finding silence in this country seemed impossible, but it is and it is beautiful.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ami Beshi Bangla Buli

To the end of attempting to get a bangladeshi price for a bangladeshi wage, we’ve now had 4 of 14 Bangla classes. As the title suggests, this is somewhat limited as yet (phonetically, this is I speak some Bangla). Each morning we trek across the city to the language centre – why VSO chose the opposite side of such a congested city has not been acceptably justified – for the lesson. The first day it took an hour, an hour back. Then it was an hour and a half and more back, and so on. All the roads in the city seem to lead to the Parliament building, next to which there is a tiny stretch of road that we sit on every day for up to half an hour. Lorries and buses belch out black smoke and our legs get singed by exhaust fumes. None of the drivers know anywhere in their city. We constantly end up directing them.

Today, it took at least 80 minutes to do a 5 kilometre journey. Having managed to flag down a yellow taxi (for four) and barter a price (at least VSO pays for this!) our driver immediately hared off in the wrong direction. Serving into the residential districts of Lalmatia, his Schumacher-style path was stopped by the inevitable traffic jam, and the five minute walk we take from the flat to VSO took us 25 minutes. Already ridiculously late, our driver then careered around a corner with a vigorous beep of this horn, and only just managed to stop his battered car from collision with a 4x4, and also to stall the car. He then was unable to restart the thing, causing drivers to get out and run over to us to shout at him for blocking the way. Bouncing along a further fifty yards, he pulled over and lifted the bonnet. By now hopelessly late and only 150 metres from our flat. He was genuinely shocked that he wasn’t to get his 150 Taka for such a miserable performance as a taxi driver.

We dashed onto the main road to catch up with the major traffic jams, and in desperation got a CNG, three of us in the back and Mikey, a Canadian, sitting in the driver’s cage. We jumped the first light, but caught in traffic, our CNG gave out and stalled. Already we were ten minutes late for the nine am start and still had gone less than 300 metres from the flat. But this driver decided to constantly attempt to start the engine, despite its obvious refusal to budge, and resorted to dragging the whole CNG with all four of us in it at least 40 metres down the road as the traffic crawled along. We offered to push, to get out, to leave and all were steadfastly refused. Then, with a look to us of utter contempt, he got the thing going and chugged along to the lesson.

The lessons themselves are in a room with very temperamental power, and massive temperature swings. Our teacher is a little scatty, answering questions by laughing and ignoring them, and also possesses two of the most stupid babies imaginable. They respond to absolutely nothing – paper planes, faces, sweets – all are received with vacant complicity. Their sole talent seems to be the ability to bash on the door to get into the tiny classroom, and demand a pen to write on the board. Whilst this is indulged, we attempt to conjugate some verbs. The baby follows acquisition of the pen with rubbing off useful vocab or staring blankly at the wall. Finally it demands to be let out, only to repeat the cycle every ten minutes for three hours. At least I am learning some bangla, and whilst I cannot yet say ‘I’m working on a local salary with an NGO so put it on the bloody meter’, I can say things like ‘I understand some bangla’, ‘I go now, goodbye’ and ‘I need some rice’. The helpfulness of the classes is an open question as yet. However, I’ll have to speak it when work starts so I hope to pick more up there.

On the way back we were treated to our first accident, with a large Toyota crumpled by a tiny CNG. It is at least reassuring to see that the CNG is a sturdy vehicle. A crowd was a round the cars but the drivers seemed to have escaped the usual mob justice. There are at least 47 reported accidents a day in the city, with at least 4 or 5 deaths. But unreported accidents must be huge, and we regularly bump into other cars or baby taxis as part of the normal state of driving. Some to the taxis are more scratch and bump than car.
Anyway, whilst it may seem that traffic and travelling is an obsession at the moment, that is because it is. I’ll put some more stories on about other things when happen.

Hope you have all read the latest issue of (link to the left).

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.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Traffic Problems

Dhaka City, the central part of this massive sprawl, is not particularly large: the up and coming areas of Mohammudpur, Lalmatia and Dhamondi are in the north east, with the expatriate and embassy areas of Golshan to the north west. Old Dhaka hugs the river to the south, with the university and European town north of that as the link between our busy quarter and the more relaxed and grander Golshan area. So in all, crossing between Lalmatia and Golshan (where the British High Commission, Embassy Clubs and our clinic are) should not be more than five kilometres, fifteen-minute dash in a CNG Baby Taxi, or less in a proper taxi. But of course, this is Dhaka, and every bit of travelling is a chore incomparable to anything else.

A CNG is a small green motorised rickshaw. It has three wheels, a small gas powered engine and usually a driver of dubious ability. Having got lost (again) somewhere in central part of the European city, and made up for it with one of Dhaka’s most expensive but least tasty donuts (from the Pan Pacific Sondoran Hotel), myself and Tim (another VSO YfD volunteer who will be working in Sylhet in the north) felt reinforced enough to take what could be our last journey into the old town. Walking out of the hotel and along a small stretch of undulating pavement, we were greeted with an excited shout from a small CNG whizzing along the outside lane of the three-lane road. With one hand waving at us, and two eyes ensuring our movements were not lost to him, he swerved blindly across the traffic, missing lorries, numerous CNGs and anything else in his ridiculous path. He was clearly convinced that we were the lakhipoti (millionaires) to make his day, but nearly lost his sale by driving straight into the six inch wide and three feet deep gutter than runs next to all Dhaka’s streets. Yet rather than sheepishly attempting to remove his battered CNG from its new home, he instead kept asking us where we wanted to go! Such driving clearly should not be considered as a negative point when selecting a CNG. His eagerness was, however, endearing, and so Tim and I took his hobbling vehicle into the old town. After we had helped him lift it from the gutter, check the engine and clean part of a seat. But we got a discount…

Other drivers are similarly vivacious characters. A one-eyed man with three different impact marks on his windscreen seemed disappointed that we chose to avoid his services, whilst another was busy re-attaching the handle-bars of his crate to the front wheel with a tennis racket handle strap. Another kept turning round to have his photograph taken whilst doing 45 mph on what amounts to a glorified vacuum cleaner.

The other, slower mode of transport is the rickshaw, a large tricycle driven by a rickshawala. There are nearly 700,000 rickshawalas in Dhaka alone, making it a major form of employment in the city. Few walas own their rickshaw; instead, a select number of bosses run massive cartels, carving out areas of the city where they operate. Rickshaws are rented to the drivers for eight hours a day, and once this rent is paid, a wala can expect to take home around 100 Taka (about 70p). They are some of the hardest working, least respected and socially and economically oppressed people in the city. Nothing sums up the relationship between the city’s vast urban poor and the small, wealthy elite than the sight of suited business men being driven to work by walas wearing their only longi and sandals. However, the rickshaws are also a major cultural expression, and they are all covered in bright, colourful paintings of folk stories, film scripts and political figures, with tassels, bells and horns in reds, yellows, greens and purples.

Riding them is precarious, and getting a fair price a challenge. Every pothole sends shudders through the wooden frames, and drivers use their bell rather than their eyes before pulling out of a road. They think nothing of heading down major motorways or competing for road space with buses belching out thick grey smoke.

All other traffic uses horns as a warning of approach, and brake reluctantly. The roads are so clogged that the journeys alluded to earlier take 45, 50 or 100 minutes, with detours being made through parks, along railway lines, through slums – whatever will get the driver to his destination quickest. But because everyone is doing it, the whole city is a constant traffic jam, with idling engines spurting out all sorts of noxious fumes: by the end of the day feet are usually a dull grey such is the filth in the air and on the roads.

But there is a strange sort of culture to the nightmarish traffic situation that surrounds the city: in the chaos there is an enforced hierarchy of which vehicles can push (sometimes literally!) others of the road and who will brake for whom at junctions. And the geometry that the rickshawalas and CNG drivers beats anything Beckham or Zidane manage: they are constantly calculating angles, projectories, speeds and braking distances to allow this jammed city to keep moving. Only sometimes, more romantic qualities override their classical mathematical minds, and when seeing a potentially large, Western fare walking dazed along a road, a miscalculation of the road and the gutter can perhaps be forgiven.

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.