Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Falling Down in Bangladesh

Many urban cultural geographers have used the Michael Douglas film ‘Falling Down’ as evidence of the cultural products of post-Fordist urban dystopia. Why they have had to use a film and not simply looked at Dhaka I do not know, but I finally think I know how the character Douglas plays feels. For those that have not seen it, a seemingly normal man is one day stuck in traffic, and it becomes the final event that tips him over the edge to pursue a gun toting spree through the streets of L.A. Ultimately, he is driven to despair by grim reality of urban life in L.A. Bare this in mind whilst reading the following tale.

At the end of next week I am going on holiday to Cambodia, via China. This is the cheapest way of getting to the former, using China Eastern Airlines to fly via Kunming where I get a free overnight stay each way. About two weeks ago, I went to get my ticket, and was able to make a reservation. I was told that the office needed my work permit and a copy of my passport when I came to pay. This seemed relatively easy, and so I was able to go to work in the Hill Tracts (see next post) happy in the knowledge that I had my ticket reserved.

Yesterday morning, I arrived at the Chinese Embassy first thing to get a form for my Visa. I went off to get some photos taken (1 hour) and then was able to return, a little hotter and dustier (it was 42 degrees yesterday) only to find that the minion on the front desk had given me the wrong form. I had already read that there were three forms – Bangladeshi, USA and others – and had repeatedly checked with him that I was not getting the USA form, or indeed the Bangladeshi one. Of course, I had the American version and had to fill it all out again and join the queue at the back. All in all, from arriving at 9 am, I was able to submit my visa form at 12.20, ten minutes before it closed.

I then immediately set off on the 2 kilometre walk in the hot midday sun to Banani where I hoped to buy my ticket. Being prepared, I went to the bank and took out 10,000 Taka, only to find that it would not issue more than 5000 and then broke and refused to give money. I crossed the road to more banks, and after standing in queues and trying different machines, on the 8th go I was able to use my card three times in order to withdraw the 37,000 Taka I needed. Resplendent with more taka than most people here will ever see, I was able to trudge back to China Eastern and try to buy my ticket.

Firstly, I waited, and then had to remonstrate with a Bangladeshi attempting to queue jump (seemingly the national hobby when cricket is rained off) before finally being able to sit down and spend ten minutes trying to spell my name because the guy at the counter refused to let me write it down and make the job easier. Then we had the work permit saga.

I explained, as I had before, that as an NGO worker I was registered with the NGO bureau and not the Board of Industry, and therefore my letter was different. This seemed not to wash, because as well as cricket and queue jumping, the other pastime for Bangladeshis is never being wrong and always doing what they think is best for you, regardless of what you want. I got them speaking to Saifullah, VSO’s admin support and general fixer who explained in Bangla the issue. They had a long debate which ended in Saifullah saying to me that ‘probably they did not understand’ and then hanging up.

After about half and hour I was able to convince them that I could not provide the work permit they so desired, and so I then agreed to pay. This is where it got worse.

It emerged that having my 37,000 Taka in hand was not good enough because I needed to bring an encashment certificate with it to show that I had brought it into the country. ‘But I got it out the ATM said I’. ‘Get a certificate’ said they. I went out to the banks to find that they could not do it as for ludicrous reasons, all the banks close at 3 pm (which was by now the time). Resigned to a second day of misery, I set off to return today.

So came this morning, when I arrived at HSBC at 9 am to get an encashment certificate. They could not do it, but suggested that I go to the Standard Chartered ‘up the road’. ‘Up the road’ turned out to be about 3 km in a steady 40 degree, 98% humidity day and so I arrived, not 3 hours from waking, looking like I had crossed the desert to get there. The woman at the counter was immediately rude when I said I needed an encashment certificate, telling me how could she give one if I did not give her cash. Resisting the urge to explain that this was a ridiculous system anyway, I replied that I intended to give her cash, and I had the taka already. It was at this point that I discovered that the China Eastern office had misled me. For an encashment certificate, one must provide dollars in order to get Taka and a special receipt. The fact that I had not dollars (the currency of a foreign country) but did have ample taka (which Bangladesh issues) was immaterial. Dollars I needed.

I began my trapsing once more, heading up Gulshan avenue and along Kemel Attaturk Avenue to where I had seen an American express sign and hoped that this could be of use. Unfortunately, only the travel arm of Amex is in Bangladesh, not the useful travellers cheques side but the guy jumped on the opportunity to take China Eastern’s business from them, saying he could help and match the fare.

The farce then became more farcical. I would have to change my taka into dollars so that I could change them back into taka and get this bloody certificate and so buy my flight. The banks could not change my money so I had to use a money changer who saw a great opportunity to rape a debeshi, but by 11.30 I had $600 in my hand. I crossed the road to the bank to try to get my certificate. The first bank had exceeded its limit of dollars so could not change them. The next required that you have an account. Another would not accept my passport photocopy (because I had put my passport in the Chinese Embassy) and so turned me away. Yet another was an Islamic bank and had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually I was able to go to Standard Chartered and get in a queue (with some fighting for my turn) and change my dollars back into the taka I had had one hour before (minus various deductions) and get the prized certificate to take to the travel agent. This only took about 40 minutes, so was relatively quick by the day’s standards.

Finally, with a second wad of taka I entered the travel agent and after 20 minutes of fumbling about I was able to leave with a ticket in hand, and can, after a day and a half, go on holiday (assuming that the Chinese give me a visa). After this ordeal (for it was that, on my patience, temper and general disposition towards Bangladesh) I celebrated by sitting in a traffic jam for an hour. I no longer had the Douglaseque urge to leap out, grab a rifle and beat up some Koreans, but as Elias, my Ugandan flat make likes to say in a broad East African accent: ‘If I had a mask, I would kick them thoroughly.’ Quite.

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