Dhaka; Overcoming Terror and Holey Artisan Bakery as a focus

July 2016 was a period that many in Dhaka would simply like to forget.  The dark events that unfolded at Holey Artisan Bakery at the end of Ramadan genuinely left people heartbroken.  There had been a series of smaller targeted attacks across Bangladesh in the months prior but this signified the largest attack on individuals in Dhaka city.  Prior to July I’d been routinely blogging about my life and experiences in Bangladesh but this event stumped me in my tracks.  Since then there has been much I had wanted to blog but I felt unable to move forward with my postings until I could acknowledge this tragedy in some way.   In this piece I simply wish to reflect very briefly on a few of my thoughts at the time.

I knew the former Holey Artisan Bakery reasonably well.  I remember the buzz many had felt that a new café would be opening in Gulshan (a wealthy area of Dhaka) – complete with bakery and some precious outdoor space. To their credit it was always busy.  Families (mine included!) would often visit for good food and for toddlers to wear themselves out on the generous lawn.  At night the venue took on a fine dining feel popular with business men and women.  On the 1st July the popular Eid celebrations were just around the corner and people were out socializing after sunset – something common in all Dhaka ‘hang-outs’ during Ramadan.  With it being a Friday, a weekend day in Bangladesh, such venues were particularly busy.

On the night of the attack five militants entered Holey Artisan premises at around 9.15pm with crude bombs, machetes and guns. The rebels took hostages (foreigners and locals) and ultimately left 24 innocent people dead.  Some were killed instantly following open fire whilst others are reported to have suffered agonizingly lengthy and brutal attacks.  In this post do not wish to expand on the details of the attack nor the means by which victims, where chosen, were selected – information is ready available covering these aspects on the internet.  Suffice it to say that their actions were condemned by the government and public at large as maligning the name and spirit of Islam.

After the unexpected attack there was a very real sense of concern in the days and weeks that followed.  Foreigners as well as locals were scared of the possibility of a similar attack and many felt vulnerable that the militants were difficult to identify – they were simply young, educated men that were active in the local community. Some expat friends who had the option to move home or to another overseas destination chose to do so.  Some international offices made the temporary decision to shift their Dhaka operations to India or Bangkok with staff only travelling back for short, pre-planned visits.  Others grappled with the decision to go out  – choosing to opt for ‘takeaways’ rather than eating out; ordering on-line for groceries rather than heading to the local supermarkets.  In contrast some friends were adamant that this would not break their normal routine and carried on exactly as before.  As for me?  I hovered somewhere in-between.

There was an underlying sense that the attack had, at least in part, been aimed at the foreign community in Dhaka. At the time I remember feeling more visible and more vulnerable as I traveled around the city.  There seemed to be fewer expats walking or using rickshaws, instead the expectation was to use private vehicles and to keep out of sight where possible.  Restaurants and cafés  were suddenly became empty even during peak times and across the city security was tightened in many popular venues including  hotels – bags and individuals screened at the entrances, a practice that continues to this day.  Many of my local friends and colleagues were visibly disturbed by the incident and kept (unnecessarily!) apologizing for what was happening in their country. The impact was profound.

Holey Artisan Bakery resumed business in other location several months ago – it has the same vision but had an understandably cautious beginning.  Commentators have praised its return – ‘…a victory for Dhaka and for the war against terror!’.  On a broader scale Dhaka has shown immense light in its ability to pick itself up and carry on. Communities have come together to show unabated intolerance of radicalism and its effects on the people of Dhaka.  More than ever there seems to be more understanding of the grooming of these characters and there is a feeling that the government and security forces have been proactive in seeking out and dealing with all proposed acts of terror.

Ultimately, the hospitable people of Dhaka and her visitors illustrate that tolerance and love win out over radical ideological violence.

Here are a few photos of the Holey Artisan Bakery that bring back happy memories;

 

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Sundarbans Trip – Part 2

The following morning (18th March) our guide team took us ashore to explore the area around Katka beach, the site where we had seen so many deer the previous morning.  In this part of the forest we were able to discover animal habitats and footprints deeper inland.  Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur (one of our guides) was able to educate us about the movements of many species of wildlife – scattered white hairs indicating where a deer had slept and a very fine, intricately patterned print where a lizard had waded through a dry creek. We came to know the droppings of various animals and how they revealed their plant or meat based diets; their footprints were also clear to see once our eyes had been guided to the relevant markings.  This is where the experience of our chaperons made the trip more memorable – they helped us to appreciate the life that is abundant in the jungle through the small details that we would have otherwise most definitely have missed.

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Further inland we saw the area where, in the 19th century, the British, under the East India Company, managed the local filtration and extraction of salt from the surrounding seawater. We learned how this was in fact carried out by locals as the British had no expertise or adaptation experience in the mangrove region. Once extracted salt was stored in terracotta pots the remains of which were still visible dotted along the coastline.  As we walked to the beach embankment we were able to learn more about the impact of various cyclones in this area which obliterated coastal woodland. We learned that the Forestry Department’s decision not to let individuals/poachers extract fallen wood led to a recharging of the ecosystem. A rise in available woodland for food and shelter  led to the rise in rodents, birds and other creatures. This later increased the numbers of those further up the food chain such as small cats.  The waterfront itself revealed beautiful tree roots intertwined and overlapping that looked like fingers creeping in circles around the base of each tree.

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The boats of several other tour operators had now reached Katka due to the extended holiday weekend so a decision was taken by the crew to travel up steam.  We enjoyed time relaxing whilst cruising and by sunset we were treated to the most memorable views – every glance a perfect picture. The Captain confidently navigated his way through a maze of canals and tributaries having worked in the Sundarbans for many years.  He explained that despite its remoteness and the indistinguishable terrain he had formed a full map of the area in his head; wow!  At one point the launch sailed from one narrow creek to a large expanse of water which was just breathtaking. The only indication that we were not entering virgin territory was the occasional wooden fishing boat that set about its work. As the sun set the fires lit for simple cooking aboard these small fishing boats were the only distraction from a clear sky that gave a perfect backdrop to many, many stars.  Amazing, amazing, amazing….

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The following morning several members of the group, still enchanted, took the smaller boat for our last chance to explore the narrower waterways.  During this excursion and throughout our tour we saw a wide range of birds – including the Brown-winged Kingfisher, the Black Capped-Kingfisher, Brahminy Kites, Egrets, Doves, Pigeons, Woodpeckers and Tits.

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Our last day was spent travelling towards Mongla passing first through the conservation area of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cetacean Diversity Project, a project whose Education Department was headed by our guide and friend Elisabeth.  We also saw a local tourist hotspot for visitors on day trips who can see local wildlife in restricted areas. Whilst it was enjoyable to see the animals up close it could not compare to the beauty of everything we had seen in the past few days.  I guess the provision of tourist resorts such as these minimizes the impact of high tourism levels deep into the Sundarbans and the threat that this could have to the ecosystem.

As the tour drew to a close and we approached our disembarkation point at Mongla we were able to see many shrimp farmers at work- blue nets caste out into the water. As one of the leading exportable products in Bangladesh the continuous cultivation is having a threat on the biodiversity of the region. As the area gradually became more populated near village locations it was more obvious to see how the local people relied heavily on the resources at the edge of the forest some six hours or so by boat from the Bay of Bengal.

After a sad farewell in which we could not thank our hosts enough we drove by car from Mongla to Jessore for the return flight home.  I have no doubt that we will be visiting again.

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Farewell pose from the happy explorers!

A special thank you goes out to Guide Tours Ltd. and the crew of the M.V.Chhuti whose skill, knowledge and attention to detail was second to none. The food served was of international standard (better than most food we have consumed in Dhaka!) and the service and hospitality was superb despite being three crew members short.  Guide Tours Ltd. provides vessels and services for tourists as well as research teams, journalists and photographers who often travel for extended periods.  For further information about trips to the Sundarbans as well as other tours across Bangladesh you can visit –  http://www.guidetoursbd.com/#

Finally, an additional thank you goes to our friends Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur and Rubaiyat Mansur Mowgli whose expertise and experience of this unique mangrove forest made this trip thoroughly unforgettable.

 

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Sundarbans Trip – Part 1

 

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Our trip to the Sundarbans with Guide Tours Ltd. began with a bus journey to Khulna. Travelling alongside several families with children we had all packed in a ‘minimalist’ fashion though our efforts momentarily lapsed as carrier bags of crisps were purchased for children to nibble on en-route. Our group numbered twenty and we gladly took up root in two-thirds of the private Salsabil bus scheduled to depart from Malibag at 9pm.  The Dhaka traffic was heavy but moving and following further pick-ups in Badda and Uttara the coach pushed North and our batch of voyagers headed to the ferry terminal in Paturia for the Padma River crossing.

We eventually arrived at the port entry in the early hours of the next morning.  Drifting in and out of sleep I saw that our coach was parked in queue waiting for our call to board.  We passed cargo lorries parked, it seemed, ready for a much longer wait.  These drivers either slept or took ‘cha’ ( tea) and snacks at nearby tea stalls.  When our coach was allocated a space the driver slowly rolled the coach aboard the ferry from a muddy bank. Fruit sellers lined the very edges of the boat resting themselves and their wares on low lying surfaces under naked light bulbs.  Vendors were selling similar fruits in a tight space and trade seemed slow.  I guessed that most had been there throughout the night.  Desperation showed on the faces of these men – desperate for money and desperate for sleep, catching a few short minutes rest before the transfer of passengers for the next crossing.

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Fruit seller aboard the Paturia – Daultdia River Ferry

My family took a short flight of stairs away from the fruit sellers up to a seated dining area. My husband and daughter ordered Dhal (Dal), Bhat (Rice) and Hilsha Mach (a favourite fish in Bangladesh) whilst I sipped a sweet tea made with condensed milk and sugar! There was a storm outside blowing fresh air inside but the crossing was smooth.  After 40 minutes or so we were in Daulatdia heading west and then south towards Jessore and Khulna.

South west Bangladesh is comparatively less prosperous due to the lack of large scale industries; the only major source of income being generated is from shrimp collection and export.  The area has been known to house communist insurgencies in response to the inequality felt by the regions poorest and local bandits have been known to forcibly stop buses to extort valuables.  As such, like other bus operators we were supplied with a police guard to ensure a safe passage south.  After some delay due to a suspension fault on the coach we were again on our way – in the end it was a blessing as by now the sun had risen and we could take in the beauty of this rural region of Bangladesh.  After a ‘pee’ stop (complete with resident camel!) we headed on to Khulna passing numerous wood merchants carving charming furniture pieces by hand.  In Khulna we took an electric tom-tom (similar to a tuk–tuk) down to the waterfront and got a flavor of this major town with a real village feel at its heart. At Jail Thana Ghat (Jail Port – known as such as the local jail sits along the port entry) we boarded a small engine vessel which transferred us on to the larger M.V.Chhuti, one of several boats in the Guide Tours Ltd. fleet. The riverbank was a dream – local merchants selling fresh fruit including enormous watermelons and there was a lot of excitement as the port welcomed new arrivals and said farewell to others.  A busy, buzzing river ghat with all manner of vessels providing a feast for the eye.

 

M.V. Chhuti is a ship is specially designed for Sundarban tours, its smaller engine vessel (tide behind the main launch) provided the perfect vehicle to creep silently along the creeks and canals of the Sundarban basin.  Aboard the boat we were warmly welcomed by the staff on board and we made our way to rooms.  Our home was a twin bunk bed cabin with river facing windows.  Complete with fans, mosquito nets and table storage we knew we would enjoy a very comfortable stay.  Little did we know how well we would be looked after over the next few days..

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Image of M.V.Chhuti (photograph taken from guidetoursbd.com)

Bags dropped and lashings of sunscreen applied we relaxed on the sunny upper deck, my daughter enjoying the thrill of running around naked except for a life jacket. At Mongla the accompanying jet boat sped off to collect our group’s forest entry permission (free for Bangladeshi citizens and 4,600 taka/ 58 USD for foreigners) whilst we sat watching dolphins leaping out of the water near the entrance to the ‘official’ Sundarban boundary. The entry point we took began with the splitting of the river into two branches.  The boundary at which it splits trees supporting the famous mangrove roots jotted vertically out of the river bed – almost a warning of what lay ahead.

We spent several hours cruising south beyond sunset and into the night. The embankments were heavily lined with thick silt followed by dense jungle made up of many varieties of tree and vegetation. Different mangrove shrubs, trees and grasses all seemed to fight for attention –  flashing an array of greens and browns.  As the boat sailed into the night I fell asleep early – full of food and fresh air.  I am told that we finally anchored at Katka on the Bay of Bengal around 11pm and that everyone collapsed into their bed soon after me following our long journey.

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The next morning I woke early, not long after sunrise the excitement of glimpsing the view willing me out of bed.  On one side was a full view of the Bay of Bengal, the other a dramatic swathe of river lined with beautiful, unspoilt forest. One side carried on the line of thick jungle whilst the other gave way to several spotted deer grazing on debris left by the tide and leaves of the lush glades.  The trees in this spot were cropped underneath to a particular level.  Our guide Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur filled us in, explaining that this was the level that the deer could reach up on their hind legs to graze. It gave us the perfect view through this bank of the river where rows and rows of trees had been delicately trimmed.

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After a wake-up coffee (and then another which I took with me!), the whole group alighted on to the smaller vessel and we cruised by engine at first and then by single ore along a series of canals.  By cutting off the engine noise animals were more likely to be seen.  The joy of our cruise with Guide Tours Ltd. was the fact that we could just completely relax and be ourselves.  Bed head, coffee in hand and still in the clothes I slept in we could just ‘be’ – the point was to just enjoy the moment and to take in all that the forest had to offer.  As we cruised up the narrow canal we were treated to a glorious display of mangroves – species from the old world and the new. Our guide explained that one of the major differences is the root systems where some grow vertical roots which project out above salt tidal waters whilst others extend their roots down following germination.  Beautiful Golpatas (Nypa Palms) sat proudly – trunks immersed in water and leaves curvaciously framing globular flowers.  All the while the sound of birds hung in the air – the whole area was a literal hub of nature. Our guide periodically informed us of the names of flora and fauna as we passed and spotted animal markings that were otherwise unidentifiable to the untrained eye.  There was so much to take through with all the senses – including a taste of the salty water!

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The first thing that people ask when they hear you have been to the Sundarbans is “Did you see any tigers?” followed shortly after by “what animals DID you see?”.  I learned that animals are actually a bonus to what is an already enchanted place.  Straight from the material of the infamous National Geographic, the atmosphere in these remote jungle areas is unique and somewhat moving on an emotional level – a place of peace, tranquility and of untampered natural beauty.  Drifting along the waterways dazed in amazement at the sheer variety of the foliage anticipating what you will see next is unforgettable for me.  Seeking out the small details – a mud-skipper using suction to move along the river bank, the beautiful reds and blues (yes blues!) of the tiny male fiddler crab whose enlarged claw you can just make out, the fine prints of the otter just visible above the tidal water is what makes this a thoroughly enriching and rewarding experience.  The Sundarbans is not a zoo to see the animals in captive, it is a 6,000 KM₂ forest in Bangladesh alone, covered in dense mangrove which is largely impenetrable by all but the bravest and most experienced of individuals whose lives depend on the bounty the terrain has to offer.  The impermeability means that it is near impossible to look deep into the forest with the naked eye – despite seeing so much on the outlaying frontier it is left to the imagination what treasures lay at the heart of the wilderness.

So, in addition to the beauty and reverberations of the forest we were privileged to glimpse some Sundarbani inhabitants – mudskippers, crabs, monkeys, deer and many species of birds – though, as I will re-emphasise, this was just the tip of the iceberg of a place teaming with life. As we entered further into the forest the creek narrowed, imposing mangrove closing in – I could have cruised these idealic waterways for hours. Late morning we headed to Tiger Point for a 3km walk on land to Kachikhali beach. On the way our guide Rubai Mansur spotted tiger prints which he estimated to be around two days old – half water filled, he said that these prints must have been here before high tide.

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During our excursions we were accompanied by a Forest Department guard.  Whilst we assumed that their presence was for our own protection our guides explained that their role was often to protect animals from humans – poachers and other individuals conducting illegal activity! They escorted us overnight on the main launch as well as on excursions through the waterways and over land.  As we marched through open terrain we were able to appreciate the dramatic rise in saltwater during the rainy season.  A large part of the guided walk in this area would be underwater at the time of monsoon.  Stopping midway for water and shade we reached the beach area a geologically significant site with layers of silt and sand interspersed with large segments of clay.  Our group enjoyed getting messy in the sludgy silt – a mineral rich paste that resembled melted chocolate.  Of the view that this was Mother Nature’s own face mask(!) I applied an impromptu face pack.  My daughter as well as the other children from our team completely covered themselves – walking grey mummies with bright white smiles.  After our fun we enjoyed fresh watermelon and  chilled beer carried all the way the the beachfront by the wonderful staff.

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After recharging our batteries the group were treated to a sunset cruise – the cool weather and beautiful lighting made this another fantastic opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of the jungle.

Please see my post Sundarbans Part-2

 

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There are things to be said about taking things slowly

Many of us struggle to manage our time.  We are busy being busy or thinking about the very fact that we are busy. If we aren’t busy we are worried that we are not busy and so it goes on – a demanding lifestyle which can transform routines into flexible victims of the twenty-four hour clock. Weekends are no exception and these hours too now form part of the working week for many.  But there is a lot to be said about taking time out when the opportunity arises. Slowing down not only gives a chance to recharge but also allows us to appreciate the small things in life, things we miss as we race towards a never ending finishing line.

Last weekend was a long weekend and we tried to book some time away at a resort in Gazipur – about an hour or two from Dhaka.  It was not meant to be as all guest rooms were booked so we made an impromptu visit to Chittagong for a change of scene and some respite.  We always stay with my in-laws and to be honest the timing was good as we had not visited the family for some time and were overdue a visit.  Little did we know it was what we all really needed. A few days enjoying life at a slower pace gave us all a chance to rest and take stock.

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On our way to Chittagong!

Here are a few things we got up to;

Family Time

Nina had a great chance to spend time with her Chittagong family, strengthening kinfolk bonds and improving her Bangla! Our family in Dhaka is very nuclear and we rarely get a chance to spend time with the extended family. We really forgot the importance of Nina enjoying time with her Aunts and cousins – something which is really taken for granted in Bengali culture where the family unit is extremely valued. Slowing down gave us all that time to connect again and for Nina to strengthen those ties to this arm of her family.

Engaging with nature

On this visit my Mother in Law had sourced some baby chicks with a view to starting up a family scale hatchery.  A small cow farm is already in situ in our Chittagong home but with newly erected outhouses there is room to expand to provide for chickens and for basic egg farming.  It was amazing to spend time with Nina seeing and taking interest in these baby animals for the first time – her fascination providing entertainment and reflection for all of us. In our busy lives we repeatedly miss these precious moments and it was a chance to engage in entertainment that did not involve modern technology. It was totally precious.

Needless to say we also enjoyed getting a chance to see some greenery made all the more enjoyable because it rained whilst we were there.

Time for us

We also valued the support of our family in taking care of Nina for a much earned break.  My husband and I had a chance to relax together and also on our own or with friends making us realise that all too often being busy can make us lose touch with ourselves and our own needs.  I was able to get most of the way through a novel and to write some very therapeutic material that had been on my own personal ‘to do’ list.  I was also able to re-engage with my mindfulness practice which in itself is an aid to leading a more fulfilling life.  Finally I had the chance to research some short courses to further my own learning, all in all my ‘time out’ became very productive ‘me’ and ‘us’ time.

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A bite to eat at Barcode on Fire – Japanese food in Chittagong

Investing in sleep

Away from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka, Chittagong provided a silent retreat for rest and sleep.  I can’t sleep anywhere like I can sleep in Chittagong and the corny saying that the ‘silence is deafening’ is certainly true here, tucked away in the hills of Chasma Pahar, East Nasirabad.  Some mornings I did not open my eyes until midday leaving all of us feeling like we were in some strange time warp.  Sometimes there is a lot to be said for taking things slow.

Chittagong is so laid back compared to Dhaka.  This is partly due our own family circumstances where we have the convenience of financial sustainability through rental incomes and business ventures.  In Dhaka my husband has to meet the timing requirements of his clients as a Barrister and businessman. But personal circumstances aside Chittagong sets its own slower pace which, I have heard is common amongst secondary cities and towns in Bangladesh.  The slower pace is easy to adapt into and difficult to shake on return to the bustle of Dhaka.  Once home I always feel like I have come back from a long international trip as if I’ve zoned out of reality – haha!

But there is something to be said about taking things slowly.  Downtime gives us all a chance to rest and re-cooperate, to take stock and to appreciate.  It gives us a chance to rethink, strengthen bonds and to focus in on all that we miss as our life flies by at an ever faster pace. It also gives us a chance to stand still, to reconnect with ourselves and our own needs which can so easily be neglected.  Someone recently said to me ‘make the memories and keep them forever’ – sometimes we need to take time to make such memories and to carefully revisit them in all their glory. After all, for those non believers and agnostics amongst us, what else is life about if not embracing these precious moments, second by second, just as they are?!

There are things to be said about taking things slowly.

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Happiness in Dhaka – The Second Most Unlivable City in the World

Dhaka City

Dhaka has once again topped the polls as one of the worst cities to live worldwide, second only to a war torn Syria (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit report of 2015).  For foreigners living in Bangladesh placements here have earned a number of accolades – many are familiar with the term ‘Dhaka blues’ to describe that temporary rundown feeling that can ensue on arrival back to the capital.  The intense heat, pollution, traffic jams and noise all served up with the slower (not in a good way!) pace of life needs time to adjust to.  Others have joked that a stint in Dhaka is known as the ’10 kg placement’ where foreign workers traditionally put on an average of 10 kg in weight.  Whilst that in itself does not make Dhaka unlivable it does go some way in illustrating the more sedentary lifestyle common Bangladesh where physical activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more difficult – public spaces for exercise are unsuitable, club/gym membership fees are high and poor traffic systems make it unascertainable whether you actually will make it to that aerobics class!

These impracticalities no doubt make Dhaka an intense place to live and foreigners also have to grapple with the perceptions many uneducated Bangladeshis have of us as we go about our lives.  Many perceive westerners to be super rich and blatantly overcharge on negotiable purchases and services – in my experience up to 400% of the original cost price.  In relative terms I guess I might be wealthier, particularly if education and life experience can be quantified, but on a modest salary, even no salary at times, it can be difficult to challenge imbedded perceptions.  As a western woman I also face a lot of unwanted attention and staring mainly from Bangladeshi men.  In this situation, at its highest, there is a discernment that I am interested in a “relationship” and, at its lowest, that I am able to resolve technical visa queries or have a good old chat about Uncle X,Y,Z in the UK.  Sadly there is a rife perception that foreign women are sexually liberal, available and interested, an issue that western men do not seem to experience.  My instinct is that this largely as a result of how western women are sexualised in media sources accessible to the majority of Bangladeshis; especially Bollywood music videos where scantily clad white women gyrate around lead characters.  In my experience foreign men have a much easier time of being left to ‘just be’ though, no matter how covered I am, in conservative western attire or local Salwaar Kameez, I am available for observation, conversation and more.

White Women Sexualised in Bollywood

With a variety of difficulties then foreigners who succeed in Bangladesh, I believe, have to be creative about what it means to be happy and, in turn finding ways to be happy.  It is something of a eureka moment that I have had in recent weeks after three years of struggling in Bangladesh in one of the world’s most unlivable cities.  In the west we rarely think about happiness in terms of internal happiness or the happiness of our existence.  In the UK it is common for us to look outside of ourselves for potential sources of happiness – what we can buy that will make our lives better and make us happier, where we can go to entertain ourselves and keep us happy.  These are messages that we grow up with and share with friends and family all looking for the same pathway to happiness.  Indeed these foundations for happiness are only temporary; as soon as you have that new gadget there is another to buy that is even better.  But with so many new sources, new opportunities for happiness we can continue happily in this state of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.

In a developing country like Bangladesh I have been handed the opportunity to relearn and retrain myself about my own happiness. With few shopping malls, little to buy and with unwanted attention when outside I have needed to find other solutions, other sources of happiness that come from inside me.  A close family friend recently introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, a way of thinking that teaches us to have awareness of the things around us and to live life in the present as if it really mattered.  By tuning into our surroundings and really noticing things, both the beauty and the chaos, I have begun to feel a sense of calm, a sense of gratitude for being alive and sense of genuine happiness.  I don’t think I have ever, ever felt this way before.

So how strange and ironic it is then that in the second most unlivable city I have genuinely discovered a purer, rawer form of happiness. Maybe I should be grateful that it is so unlivable.  Before my move away from the UK in 2012 I was comfortable enough never to really question the true sources of happiness. A mundane life can keep us from really knowing and waking up to ourselves.  For this reason I am truly thankful to Bangladesh for giving me some insight into myself, my capabilities and my happiness despite playing host to one of the most challenging, most unlivable capital cities in the world.

Mindfulness and Meditation

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Friendships

Recently I have been thinking a lot about friends and relationships.  My own ties are now a mish mash of connections with people in Bangladesh, those back home or elsewhere overseas. Managing friendships isn’t always easy here in Dhaka.  For sure I have met a lot of people but finding true connections and opportunities to bond with others whilst living abroad remains work in progress.  I’ve struggled to make deeper connections with Bangladeshis in Bangladesh even though some of my closest friends back in the UK are Bangladeshi.  I think there are several reasons for this including a lack of fluidity when communicating (no shared mother tongue) as well as cultural differences regarding what is/or is not appropriate to say and/or what is regarded as humorous.

Speaking about expats, the population in and around Dhaka is not huge though most people are keen to socialize around work commitments. I have met teachers, buyers for fashion houses, lawyers and volunteers with various projects. I have also been introduced to those dedicated to missionary work in this part of South Asia. Meeting people has not been difficult.  Expat clubs provide opportunities to meet others in an obvious way and foreigners tend to be amiable if paths cross in public as the overseas population really is that small. It is not unusual to approach unknown foreigners randomly just to say ‘hi’ and this level of friendliness is actually really wonderful.  Acquaintances can form this quickly in Dhaka where people can bond over a sense of unfamiliarity.  It is also nice to be able to help others wherever and whenever you can.

Finding those deeper friendships and connections with other expats takes time and can be hard to find but I think that keeping your mind open to all sorts of friendships is helpful. You certainly mix with people you would not necessarily have the opportunity to socialise with in the past and you gradually find yourself opening up to a wider range of potential friendships and experiences.  Some of the friendships that I didn’t seem to value so much early on are now the very relationships that keep me going.  People I thought were not my sort of people are now very much my sort of people! Close friendships become your sole support network in Dhaka and it can be particularly difficult when these friends return home or go onto new placements overseas.  This is an unavoidable reality amongst all expat communities I guess.

Social media and Skype has also enabled me to maintain my relationships back home.  I miss my family a lot and I try to keep in touch everyday through facebook and pre-arranged telephone contracts offering cheap rates.  Similarly I can keep up with long-term friends through Facebook and Viber/Skype offer good quality free calls.  I really do miss my childhood friendships – girly dinners with friends you just don’t have to make any effort with.  I miss those relationships where you don’t see one another for weeks and yet nothing changes when you finally meet.  I can keep up to speed with my friends’ news and daily life through the media sites I have mentioned and it is surprising how you can still feel very connected with on-going status updates and instant messages.  It really is possible to stay continually connected as it is easier and easier to be available via laptop, tab and mobile.  We are in a digital age and I really don’t know how I would have coped being so far away without these means of communication.  Of course nothing can substitute being there in person but at least some sense of normality can be achieved.

More than just maintaining those close relationships I can also keep in the loop with a much broader circle of friends on-line.  Being so far away I can still keep in tune with the daily happenings.  Bizarrely I can also get a sense of the mood of people back home – many of my friends have been complaining about the current job and housing markets at the moment!  I guess it can be a bit of an informal UK newsfeed as well.

Certain sites have also helped me to connect with several other women married to Bangladeshis who live around the world.  Some have lived or visited Bangladesh and it is interesting to exchange experiences.  I hope that one day I will get a chance to meet one or two of them in person.

Living abroad has certainly helped me to be more creative about making and maintaining friendships. It has challenged me to keep up with distant friendships and to meet people I would not have otherwise met had I stayed in the UK.

holly nawra

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The Meaning of Christmas

christmas photo

Christmas is always a funny time of year in Bangladesh.  Come December there are always feelings that come hand in hand with Christmas Day itself and those which relate more to the end of the year and the passing of time.

For me Christmas has always been more of a cultural practice rather than a religious celebration.  Like many people in the UK I have never been to church at Christmas time for carols or festive services and I have rarely drawn my mind to the meaning of Christmas beyond the nativity play taught in schools.

Previous Christmases in Bangladesh were always met with a sense of sadness on my part. There was a strange mix of guilt (being away from ‘home’) and this bizarre feeling of loss that I was not part of the festivities. But this year I feel very different.  A few years away from my traditional Christmas has allowed me to step back from the hype of consumerism this time of year brings.  I can see now that for me a central part of Christmas was just about the need to buy and spend, often to please others. Whilst I am now removed from bustling shopping malls, back at home people are literally consumed with buying all that their heart desires.  Many are not even switched onto this reality or choose to ignore it.

I recently read about the impact of Black Friday in the UK with shoppers fighting over discounted products to the point that some were embroiled in arguments, or worse, injured.  World news has enjoyed covering current spending patterns in the UK and USA hedging their bets on when consumers will part with their money.  Sky news reports that residents in the UK will spend on average £872 on the cost of Christmas whilst just last night the BBC reported that low income earners in England are relying ever more on food banks due to rising food prices and utility bills.  In one of the world’s richest countries people are going hungry.

This year my family will be enjoying an unusually understated Christmas with good friends (a German lady with her Bangladeshi husband) and good food.  This year I won’t be stressing about buying (or the lack of buying) and intend to enjoy some new experiences.  I hope this year heralds a new meaning to Christmas for me and my family here in Bangladesh – one about spending time with loved ones over the temptation for excess.

More generally in Dhaka – this Christmas time there have been some wonderful initiatives for people to give back to those less fortunate in the capital and across Bangladesh.  Many such programs provide warm clothes and blankets for the needy during winter which is surprisingly cold.  With so many people so obviously  in need in Bangladesh and across the world perhaps Christmas time should also be about giving back to the community rather than expensive gifts.  Just a thought…..

Wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year wherever you are in the world.

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