Language of servitude

Trip Start Sep 13, 2010
Trip End Jan 17, 2011

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Where I stayed
Road 13, Mr Hasan's Flat

Flag of Bangladesh  , Dhaka,
Monday, September 20, 2010

I moved into my new apartment a couple days ago. I've moved house by a variety of ways in my life. I've been moved by very fancy means, like United Vanlines moving company with a hired packing company. I've moved via the bed of a Ford F-150. I've moved via minivan (my favourite mode of moving right now). I've moved by chucking as much as I can into a shopping cart and throwing whatever else doesn't fit into the dumpster and rolled the cart to my new apartment three blocks away (aahhh, Banff life. Where moving in a shopping cart does not mean you are a bum but is, rather, the norm) . I've even moved mattresses and other large pieces of furniture down the street by hand. Now I can add that I have moved by being shoved into an autorickshaw and buzzed and beeped and honked through traffic burning up compressed natural gas. Very eco-friendly. You know me. Save the planet.

As an aside, this picture of the wood carving is not to show you the wonderful craftmanship of the armoire in my room, but rather to show you the unidentified little pods or "cocoons" that seem to be inhabiting the curves in the carving. There are many of them. It's pretty gross. Otherwise, the room is clean and I've only had to kill two tiny little spiders so far.

I arrived at my new apartment and immediately met Mr Hasan, my landlord. Mr Hasan is a business man. An entrepeneur of sorts. When I asked him what type of business he works in he gave me a card (as everyone does here) with some company names on it and vaguely replied "I am involved in trading and consulting and I do some real estate work". Right. I know what you're all thinking. You're thinking "I totally know that  guy and I can picture a shmarmy South Aisian who works as a consultant".  Well, okay, sure. But Mr Hasan seems very genuine, friendly. Me and him are "friends". He reminds me constantly.  "You can trust me one hundred percent and you should not have long conversations with any of the young men who stop by the apartment because you are a pretty woman". Oh yes, young hoteliers stop by the apartment on a daily basis for their breaks from work. So far as I can understand, they are all managers in hotels around the neighbourhood and are all friends of Mr Hasan so they come and hang out and drink tea in the afternoons. They all speak decent English and seem alright. But I have already been invited to "come see my place, I live close to here". Mom, of course I will not indulge them. Even if they are Mr Hasan's friends, Mr Hasan still recommends to not engage them in lengthy inane conversations. I should mention here, that the apartment I am renting is very safe. Sohag, my staff person (who just knocked on my door and handed me my freshly pressed laundry, by the way), is always here and I have run of the whole apartment but I am sharing it with two other guests in two other bedrooms with their own private bathrooms whom I have yet to meet or see as they stay cooped up in their rooms. Overall, meeting these young men has proved fruitful in the sense that they know exactly where foreigners can go to buy alcohol. 

Mr Hasan picked me up at ten o clock in the morning to take me to Islamic Development Bank (IDB) building which is literally a concrete skyscraper full to the brim with computer shops and anything digital you can imagine. It all seemed really legit. My dad would love this place! We went there to get my wireless modem working so I can use the internet anywhere in Bangladesh. It will only work where Grameen Phone is wired in. If I could just take a moment here to discuss Grameen. Some of you may not know that Grameen Bank, started in the 1970s by Muhammed Yunnus, was originally mandated to provide microloans to the poor in Bangladesh. Micro loans have since been deemed the silver bullet of poverty alleviation. Yunnus won the Nobel Prize for Economics a while back for this initiative. SInce then, Grameen Bank has become a very large registered bank making billions of dollars a year and now, as I have learnt since being here, has taken over the communications industry in Bangladesh as well. Does anyone else see the paradox here? I wrote a paper on the criticisms surrounding micro lending last year at school so this kind of "development work" with underpinnings of trickle-down economics really rubs me the wrong way.

Moving on. Mr Hasan then took me to the passport office where I queried about extending my length of stay on my visa. Currently, for the next four months, I have to leave the country every 30 days. This could be a real pain in my ass as well as in my American Expr-ass card. As it is though, if I cannot get this extended I will fly to Malaysia for the weekend once per month and stay in a swanky hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The passport office was a scene of huge lineups and madness, for the locals of course. But for the foreigners, there was a back way to enter and to ride the elevator up to some floor where there was a nice waiting area and English speaking, sketchy looking Bangladeshi men working behind incredibly high marble counters with iron bars protecting them from all of us foreign-types.

After the passport office, me and Mr Hasan walked along Agragaon Road to the parliament building. Also, surrounding the parliament building is loads of govenrment staff housing, very discretely separated into low-level employee housing, mid-level employee housing and high up officials employee housing (these guys had like a moat surrounding their housing). The parliament building was designed by some American architect back in the 60s before Bangaldesh became independent from Pakistan. It is ornate and kind of unapproachable. People used to be able to hang out on the grounds but since the bombing at the government building in Mumbai a couple years ago they no longer let the public in to picnic on the grounds. There are currently two major parties in Bangladesh: the Bangladeshi National Party and the Awami League. Mr Hasan tells me that every election the other party wins. Both parties seem to be respected and it sounds as if the public could be neither here nor there about which one gets the majority. Both have monstrous mausoleums built honouring the founding fathers of their respective parties; all paid for with tax dollars of course. Both parties also have women leaders. I don't quite understand this paradox either.

Mr Hasan then took me to one of his favourite Bangladeshi restaurants. Mr Hasan, in dealing with all of his foreign partners, seems to be aware of food and hygeine issues when it comes to our little white delicate gastric systems. So this is good. I ate some chicken curry, some curried vegetables and potatoes and naan bread. We ended the meal with falludah, a custard dessert with weird fruity and nutty things in it. I have learnt here that when you order food, you only either order rice or bread with your meal, not both. This would explain the quizzical response from room service at the hotel when I ordered an entree that came with rice and also flat bread. They then brought me the food and the tray had two sets of cutlery on it, implying that they thought I was having a guest for dinner.

Finally, Mr Hasan sent me home in a CNG. Easy? No, not so easy. On the way home, it seemed that it was rush hour. In the middle of a six lane road, squashed in between a bus and a range rover, the driver of my CNG opened his door and looked back at the back tire. I had noticed that this particular CNG seemd slightly off kilter and was making louder sounds than normal upon acceleration, but it turns out that the tire was going flat. The driver motioned to me with his hands and I thought he was saying "get out". Get out? I thought. In the middle of this ridiculousness? I'm so dying today. And so I went to get out and he was like "no no no". What he meant was for me to move to the other side of the seat so I wasn't increasing the flatness of the tire. We continued on in the little CNG bomb only to find that some bus had stalled in the middle of a big intersection and there was a massive bottleneck. But from what I could see, Bangladeshi drivers seem to be much more solution oriented than Indian drivers. There was a sense of working together to get the bottleneck fixed. Finally we pulled over and the driver changed the CNGs flat tire which apparently had a screw mashed into it. This driver managed to change the tire and drive to a place that fills up tires in under ten minutes. We continued on to my home and I continued to kind of "pray" that this CNG was not the CNG I was going to die in. I arrived home, my lungs burning from the traffic fumes, to my air conditioned room, exhausted from the walking and the heat. But I couldn't drop into a deep heat coma yet. I had to get some groceries. Easy? Yes. Much easier than expected.

I hopped on a rickshaw with my grocery list in hand and went to the swanky foreigner's grocery store, the Agora. I finally bought some fruit and vegetables and rice and lentils, toilet paper, lysol (or lizol+, as it is called here), a broom and dustpan and a SQUEEGEE! I was to the grocery store and back in under an hour! I got this neighbourhood covered! Rickshaws are actually better than Edmonton Transit!

I returned home and attempted my first Bangladeshi Bucket Bath and, now that I had a squeegee, I could live with this. All went well and I felt refreshed and unsticky.

During the day yesterday, Mr Hasan kept saying to me "why are you not eating? Why are you not asking Sohag for anything? You must ask him for anything you need. Gorceries, cooking, tea, laundry, anything!" I explained to Mr Hasan that we do not generally keep staff in Canada and am not sure how to use staff appropriately. We do everything for ourselves. His reply was "well now you are in a different country and you take a break from doing everything yourself." I thought that that was a nice way of putting it. So I got Sohag to cook dinner for me last night. Sohag doesn't speak any English so there is a lot of pantomiming and repitition and me flipping through my phrase book. After all was "pantomimed and done", I ended up with about four cups of cooked rice, raw carrots sliced like dimes, eggplant and potatos (sliced like pringles) fried in and dripping with palm oil, the most evil oil on earth. I at first thought that I would not complain about the oil but I must remember that I will be eating this for four months and I should just go find some olive oil at one of the posh grocery stores and get Sohag to cook with that. I do not know how to tell Sohag that he should just cook like he would cook for himself. I think I may just start giving him money and telling him to plan the meals because obviously I'm not getting the point across. Anyway, at least I'm eating and I don't have to cook or cleanup after myself!

After a long, hot and productive day, I finally stayed awake until ten pm but was soooo ready to fall asleep. After an episode of House MD and with burning lungs, I drifted off to sleep with strange dreams of Colin Firth (not sure why). Maybe I miss him, too. 

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Karmen Neta on

You are an excellent writer! it's very fun to hear about your adventures as they happen. Sorry I missed your last call. I hear we're going to talk again soon, so I will be sure to be there! much love, karmen neta

Emily Bradbury on

Very entertaining post Adrienne! What an adventure you're beginning - and you're great writing style is making it all the more easy to experience it vicariously. I look forward to the next one...

bonnie on

Thanks for forwarding me you blog. It is a great read. I feel like I am talking to my niece who, like you, can make words come to life. I admire your courage and tenacity....which you need a lot of right now.

Happy to report (NOT) that we got snow in Whitehorse today....and it is cold...for the island girl. I am not sure this chechako will make it.

I look forward to reading more of your adventure. Aren't you suppose to be doing some schooling...HMMMMM.


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