Bangladesh. I’m quite sure there’s no other place like it in the world. It’s one of those love or hate situations; either you are intoxicated by the frenzy of life, of colour, of the sounds of yelling and bargaining, or you hate it. I love it.
(Above) People refer to Dhaka as a concrete jungle – is it? It is the world’s newest megacity and the most inconveniently placed urban area in the world, sitting on the world’s largest river delta. Half the population lives below the international poverty line and live in informal establishments called shantytowns, slums or favelas. These settlements are situated throughout the urban area, such as the one above – a photo taken from an office block. People living in these settlements have no alternative but to try and live the same way that they would back in the villages they came from and particularly in monsoon season, the lack of space for hygienic sanitation facilities means hospital beds are constantly overloaded. Slums line the streams, railroads, lakes, ponds, exist inside the drainage canals, and the urban migration rate is only rising.
One of the most amazing experiences here has been the holy month of Ramadan, so interesting – and the whole landscape of the country changed so much. Because so many of the shops and stalls here are on the street, the look of the whole city changes. The idea of fasting for a month and therefore drastically reducing the productivity level of your staff body for half of each day is so different to a typical western view of workplace productivity. People constantly leave meetings and project discussions to pray five times a day, if they’re not praying they are almost falling asleep at their desks, the working hours in most workplaces are reduced from 9-4pm and even if you’re not fasting it almost feels like it because there is no food or water on display anywhere. Given the average temperature during the day in Dhaka is around 30 degrees, everyone is basically dehydrated for a month, and particularly if you’re working outside, that alone significantly reduces your physical capability.
I noticed that people were spitting on the street even more than normal (still haven’t got used to the fact that people are so open with their bodily functions here – people will literally bust out a full-blown bush hanky – just cover one nostril and blow their noses in the middle of a traffic jam, too bad if you’re standing next to them) and then I found out that the fasting month is so strict that you are traditionally forbidden to even swallow your spit. The only restaurants that are open strictly serve food indoors but all the normal street stalls and cha (tea) stands are still present; they just operate under plastic tarps. We stopped for a cha in one and while it tasted amazing, I couldn’t help but feel like a naughty kid in a dark corner the whole time.
At about 6:30 every night, depending on ‘maghrib’ (the time when the sun sets, which is published in the newspaper every day), everyone in every shop, every street corner and every house just stops because it is Iftar – the breaking of the fast. The whole city becomes silent, the buses stop, the CNGs stop, the honking horns and bells and yelling stops and the streets empty. The few ricksha wallahs that are operating drive down huge empty roads while everyone is totally consumed in sharing firstly dates, and then an interesting array of mostly deep fried treats, from chola (spiced chickpeas), beguni (fried eggplant) and dal puri (lentil-filled pastry) to an assortment of fresh fruit and of course, the delicious Bengali sweets.
It is intriguing that this month, designated for giving to others, practicing humility, self-control, sacrifice and empathy, is the month that my Bangladeshi girlfriends complain most about putting on weight. The month where every girl who can afford it shines in new jewellery, all the men who can afford it have new dress shirts, every group of friends who can afford it swaps lavish gifts and every parent complains about how much extra food they have to buy for the celebratory feasting. Similar to Christmas in Australia, it demonstrates the intersection between religion and culture.
The generosity is heartening though, in the festive seasons of both countries – from the sharing of Iftar meals and baksheesh (charitable tipping) in Bangladesh to the sharing of presents and the giving of charitable items in Australia. There are many more beggars on the streets, and my Bangladeshi friends tell me that the beggars who come in from the villages make enough in baksheesh during the Ramadan period to sustain them for the whole year.
They’re my thoughts for now, thank you for reading this, for inspiring me to see the world and allowing me to meet all the amazing characters it contains,