Being a Bideshi in Dhaka

Posted on July 21, 2011

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It’s almost two weeks since my plane touched down in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I already feel like I’ve spent about a month here.

Dhaka is a crazy and exciting city, and finding a house, doing intensive Bangla langauge lessons and embracing the Deshi way of life have all made for an even more exciting start!

I’ve arrived at the end of monsoon season, and while I haven’t yet experienced any heavy flooding (or cyclones!), there is water and greenery and mud everywhere, making me decide that the most apt description I can give to Dhaka is that it’s a great big puddle of chaos and colour.

Here are some of the things that have made me fall in love with Bangladesh since I’ve arrived (I’m sure this is the beginning of a very long list…)

Cha

Most roadside food stalls sell cha, the Bangladeshi equivalent of chai. It’s made with condensed milk instead of the usual milk and sugar, and the result is a sugar high almost as good as caffeine!

Cha always comes in adorable little glass cups that contain about five small sips, so drinking it is a very dainty process given the surrounds of dirty Dhaka! There’s usually a pipe or bench or table nearby to sit on, and it’s an endlessly fascinating way to spend an afternoon – sipping cha, reading the newspaper, and watching the CNG and rickshaw-wallahs chat loudly while they take a cha break. I hope that soon my Bangla gets good enough to understand what they’re saying!

Salwar Kameez and Sarees

The Salwar Kameez (here they pronounce the S sound as SH) is the traditional dress for Bangladeshi women, and they take it as an opportunity to represent every colour of the rainbow! There are three pieces: loose pants tied with a drawstring, a loose-fitting long shirt, and an orna, or scarf. It’s a surprisingly comfortable and cool way to dress in Dhaka’s hot and humid climate. It’s like spending the day in your favourite pair of pyjamas!

I also bought a beautiful green saree for special occasions, although wearing it is another matter altogether – I had to visit a special shop just to help me tie it!

The girl in this salwar kameez would probably get a lot of sideways glances if she wore that on a street in Dhaka. The SKs most women wear are much less fitted and have sleeves. The orna usually covers a bit more too!

Bangla time

Time moves at a different pace here – it’s like entering a dream land where an afternoon could take six years or six minutes to pass by. The local way to measure time reflects this and there are two main phrases that people use when they need to talk about it: everything takes either ten minutes or seven days.

So..

While househunting: How long until the apartment will be ready to move into?

Only seven days! (The real answer should be minimum seven days)

While stuck in traffic: How long until we reach our destination?

Just ten minutes! (More likely two hours – it takes about an hour to travel a couple of kilometres here)

While waiting for a saree blouse to be made at the tailor’s: How long will it take to finish the blouse?

Ten minutes. (Probably seven more days)

I’ve found that the only response is to embrace the dream-like approach to time and let things happen in their own time. Perhaps when I return to Australia I’ll be a more patient person!!

Deshis

The local people, Deshis, are extremely open and generous. Within five minutes, they’ve told you about their children, their hometown, their political views and they’ve invited you to dinner next week!

For all the cliches about Bangladesh being an unlucky and down-trodden nation, the people are incredibly resilient and highly intellectual. They are what make this such an incredible place to be.

And while it’s no oasis, there are a few things I’ve noticed that point to Bangladesh being quite a forward-thinking country.

Did you know, for example, that it was Bengali man Rabindranath Tagore who penned India’s national anthem? Or that the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are both women? Or that plastic bags are almost completely banned here, and petrol and diesel vehicles are banned in Dhaka?

I won’t start my work at Hunger Free World until Sunday (Friday and Saturday are the weekend days here) but I am excited to see what more I will learn about this amazing country and its people over the coming months.

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Posted in: Travel, Writing