Monday, July 27, 2009

Bangladesh on Five Dollars a Day

As part of its annual check of the monthly living allowances paid to volunteers, the VSO office in Dhaka asked us to go shopping. Or more properly, to go snooping. Armed with a checklist of items that are supposed to sustain a volunteer for a month, Kristel and I visited our local supermarket to confirm whether the allowance would cover the cost of the goods. Reading through the list of groceries allowed, I was dismayed to find none of my favoured staples. Where were the Pringles? Where were the Mars bars? Madly searching through the inventory for any sign of processed sugar, I could find only a listing for 500 grams of dried beans, which thankfully left itself open to creative interpretation, since the jelly beans I’ve eaten have always been dry. Other items seemed to promote some kind of insidious California-hippie-granola-cult agenda, the most striking of which was the extravagant allotment of ninety pieces of fruit for the month. Ninety pieces! The last people to eat ninety pieces of fruit in a month were Robinson Crusoe and Gilligan. If I ate that much fruit, I might as well move my desk into the washroom, since I’d be spending most of the day in there anyway. Pointing out the amount to Kristel, I laughed and shook my head in disbelief. “Well, that sounds about right,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. Apple eaters. They all stick together.

Walking around the Wellmart, we carefully checked each item on the list and scribbled the price down, trying to avoid attracting too much attention to ourselves. This is not as easy as it may sound, since the supermarkets employ small armies of employees to watch the customers as they shop. We established ourselves as legitimate shoppers by putting a few items in our basket and feigned indecision over the other eighty that we checked and ultimately returned to the shelves. I was convinced that we would soon be discovered and accused of being spies from the Meena Bazaar around the corner, so I distracted the Wellmarters from Kristel’s list by transferring the goods from our basket to a shopping cart nearby. The shopping carts themselves are a bit of a distraction. For some unknown reason, the carts seem to have been designed for toddlers – not to carry them, but to get them to push. Most that I’ve seen are barely three feet high and hold a maximum of six items or one jumbo box of Corn Flakes. Pushing such a cart either requires walking on one’s knees or moving it with one’s groin, neither of which is that comfortable. Personal pride kept me from resorting to them in the past, even though the store employees helpfully pushed empty ones at me like they were laying down some kind of shopping gauntlet. I would cheerfully brush them aside while secretly straining under the collection of baskets attached to my arms. On this day, however, I embraced the cart for the sake of a diversion, even jockeying for control of the aisle against some punk five-year-old pushing a rival cart. With our snooping list complete, we purchased the six items in our cart and waved goodbye to the Wellmart brigade.

The completion of the price list for the goods did underscore the cost of living issues faced by volunteers in Bangladesh. Volunteers currently earn a monthly allowance of 10,400 taka per month, which translates to a little over $160 Canadian ($150 US or slightly more than 100 Euros). Breaking that number down further, our daily take is about five dollars per day, or about what I used to spend on a Venti Hazelnut Latte at Starbucks. No complaints about the amount – after all, we all understood before we came to Bangladesh that we were coming here to volunteer, not to save for our retirement. But Kristel and I have found that surviving on the monthly allowance does require an adjustment to one’s buying patterns.

As it was in Nigeria, the mantra for the volunteer is “Buy Local”. Whether it’s buying fruit and vegetables from the street vendors or frequenting the neighbourhood barber shop, the goods and services produced here are very affordable. An armful of cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and eggplant will rarely set one back more than two hundred taka, and this is enough food to feed two people for a couple of days. The wise person chooses to do his or her shopping this way, buying for only the immediate future, as the heat and humidity are not kind to perishables. So, if one chose to stick entirely to the VSO list of recommended purchases, living within the allowance provided would be a fairly easy task. But when it comes to buying imported goods, I’m with Oscar Wilde: I can resist everything but temptation. And the temptation in Bangladesh is much greater than it was in Nigeria. There, it was quite easy to avoid the imports, because in my village, they simply didn’t exist. Buying a jar of Nutella meant a two-hour drive to the nearest city, and my hankering for chocolate often lost out to my laziness. But living in Chittagong is a different story. Though we still rely on the local vendors for our supply of fresh goods, Kristel and I have now found ourselves getting regular fixes of foreign goods from the Wellmart, and this is hell on the food budget. Though some items are so ridiculously overpriced as to inspire a kind of awe ($11 for a box of Rice Krispies comes to mind), others exist in that grey zone between luxury and affordability, resulting in a rather tormented trip through the cookie aisle. In the end, we’ve reached comfortable compromises in most cases, or maybe I should call them comfort food compromises. Wherever possible, we continue to buy locally produced treats, balancing them with a Toblerone or Twix on a regular basis. The Price Krispies? They can stay on the shelf.

Of course, some perspective is called for in all of this – the kind that comes from living in a country like Bangladesh. Though the living allowance we’re earning is a paltry amount by Western standards, it represents an absolute fortune to most Bangladeshis. A recent account of wages in Bangladesh estimates that 40 per cent of the 150 million people who live here get by on less than $1 per day. When that number is increased to $2 per day, the percentage jumps to an astonishing 84 per cent of the population – that’s close to 130 million people. Numbers like that boggle the mind. In real terms, this means that many of the local goods that we depend on to save money are out of reach for many Bangladeshis; these are the luxury items to them. So, while we volunteers may lament the items that we have to forego while we’re here, any sacrifices we may congratulate ourselves for pale in comparison to what the vast majority of Bangladeshis never get to enjoy in the first place. As for me, I likely won’t stop missing my Cheerios, but I hope I’ll continue to appreciate that my standard of living here is really nothing to bemoan.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dirty Old Bideshi

The pirated movie industry is alive and well in Bangladesh. Though the country boasts a respectable number of legitimate theatres, the features shown are quite outdated, though the lure of the big screen does pull in its share of faithful cineastes. After our experience in Nigeria, where the capital city could claim only one multiplex (and that closed down within months of our arrival), Kristel and I were eager to check out the new theatre complex in Dhaka that some of our fellow volunteers had raved about. Located at the top of the swanky Bashundhara City shopping centre, the theatres were said to be state of the art when it came to their seating, sound and screen. Somewhat desperate for a cinema fix, we made our way to the top floor of the mall, thankfully untouched by a recent disastrous fire that destroyed a number of other shops and offices in one of the nearby towers. We found the theatre in the corner, and I eagerly grabbed one of the playbills to see what was being shown. And the feature attraction for the week was……Rambo IV. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said, my hopes for a decent movie dashed by Sylvester Stallone’s last gasp at cinematic glory. Sensing my disappointment, Kristel looked at the playbill and said, “Well, it might be OK”. Given her abhorrence of mindless movie mayhem, this likely ranks as the most unlikely endorsement in the history of film. Looking at the posters for the Coming Attractions, our gloom deepened, as the parade of films on the way included such masterpieces as “Rush Hour III” and “Dragon Wars”. With my lip in full pout mode, we left the theatre behind, slowly descending by escalator to find solace in the pirated movie shops three floors below.

As in Nigeria, these shops offer discs with multiple movies on a single DVD. Though I’ve yet to see the extravagant claims of “80 in 1” that were common in Nigeria, the discs on display usually average six movies linked by a common theme, though this design is sometimes sacrificed in favour of filling up the DVD. Since there have only been five of the blood-soaked “Saw” horror films, for example, the remaining spot was reserved for the Charlize Theron flick “Monster”, presumably because the title promised something equally gruesome. The DVD pirates will go to any length to promote their disc, resulting in some slight exaggerations. The Cate Blanchett film “Elizabeth” was touted as having won 71 Oscars and 56 Golden Globe Awards, a rather remarkable tally that would have meant it had swept every award for the past three years. The pirates also seem to assume that no one really bothers to read the copy used to describe the movies, as they are willing to put anything on the reverse of the package. The best descriptions have been those taken directly from the internet, sometimes from ordinary filmgoers who were disgusted with the movie. It’s not often that a film gets promoted as “the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever seen”. The text can also sometimes prove to be educational as well. I learned quite a bit from reading the plot of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, though it had nothing to do with the movie it accompanied, except maybe that both were produced in Britain.

The emphasis in the pirated movie industry is on speed; a film in theatres today should mean that the DVD is available next week. And for the more popular titles, this is exactly what happens. The summer blockbusters currently raking in the dollars at the box office in North America are already on sale in Chittagong. In some cases, the pirates are the equal of the Hollywood distributors. On one occasion, I saw a film being offered in my local version of Blockbuster that I had never heard of before. Later on, I clicked on the Globe and Mail’s website and found the same movie being released in Toronto theatres on that same day. Of course, a few things end up getting surrendered in this race to the market, like quality and functionality. It’s not unusual to have a film interrupted by someone standing up in front of the video camera that has been smuggled into the theatre. And subtitles are often equally suspicious, as when one character shoots another and exclaims, “I got you, you son who has intimacy with his mother!!!”

The sheer volume of DVDs available in these stores can lead to some interesting misunderstandings. On a recent trip to my Blockbuster, I asked the clerk if he could show me their collection of discs with six movies on them. Expecting him to produce the usual box with hundreds of the most popular titles, he instead gave me a nod and reached behind him for a plain paper bag with a few dozen discs in it. Somewhat confused, I looked inside the bag and found a fine assortment of pornographic DVDs. Eager to make the sale, the clerk spread the discs all over the counter and pointed out the most popular ones. Quickly looking around to see if anyone else was watching us, I waved him off and said, “No! No! I don’t want these. I want regular movies.” Since his command of English was a little shaky, he interpreted this to mean that I found these movies too tame, so he grabbed another basket with even raunchier discs to show me. Soon, there was a collect of porn on display that would rival the back pages of Hustler. Other customers had drifted into the shop by now, so I protested even more loudly and gestured somewhat frantically in the direction of the latest Star Trek film. I was sure at this point that the Bangladeshi vice squad had already been called, so I quickly helped the clerk pack up the pornos and put them back behind the counter. “Six movies, not sex movies!” I exclaimed, but the bewildered clerk had already given up on me and gone to find someone else to help this picky pervert. Quickly doing a mental check on my Bangla vocabulary, I greeted the next clerk by counting on my fingers until I reached six, and he nodded his head and reached for the correct box of mainstream movies. The first clerk appeared soon after and I repeated the counting exercise in an effort to prove that I wasn’t a dirty old bideshi. He acknowledged the miscommunication with a laugh and a repeated “Sorry”, though I could see in his eyes that he still harboured some suspicions about my particular peccadilloes.

Though these discs suffer from dubious technical quality that often render them unwatchable, their unbeatable prices and speed to market ensure that the Bangladeshi public will continue to make the pirated movie industry a booming one here. And I look forward to continuing to see the inventive packages offered by the local video shops. Providing I dare to show my face in there again, that is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

In the News

In an effort to gain some publicity regarding the rapid deforestation in the Sitakunda area outside of Chittagong, YPSA and other concerned groups staged a human chain in Chittagong yesterday. Some estimates place the number of trees cut down at 20,000 in just one week. The picture above appeared today in The Independent newspaper, one of the national papers for Bangladesh.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Lost Weekend

The concept of the weekend is ingrained in us from the time we set foot in our first kindergarten class. Five days a week, you might be working for The Man (or Woman), but come closing time on Friday, yabba-dabba-doo. It’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows. No one owns a piece of my time. Everybody’s workin' for the weekend. Everybody wants a new romance. Saturday mornings with Scooby Doo and a full bowl of Cap’n Crunch give way to Saturday mornings erased by Friday nights at the pub turning into Saturday mornings ruled by soccer hockey ballet practice for the kids. Golf games and barbeques. Brunch dates and the Sunday Star Sun Times Herald. The Wonderful World of Disney with an encore by the Beachcombers. And then it’s Monday again.

For many people, this kind of ideal weekend went out with bowler hats and being able to smoke at your desk. Computer connectivity means user reachability. Proposal deadlines don’t have children and emails never sleep. Switch off that cellphone at your peril. Weekends or weekthatneverends – take your pick, but get that report to me by Monday morning.

But still…….

There’s something sacrosanct about the idea of the weekend. Even if it gets sacrificed on a regular basis to appease the God of Industry, the weekend usually represents a break from the norm. Office work without the office. A commuted commute. We continue to value the notion of the weekend even while reducing it to tatters in practice. If anyone were to tell us that our weekends were due to be cancelled, we’d protest their elimination – a Day of Unrest for the Day of Rest! – and when they were finally ended, we’d mourn our loss.

But maybe I’m just grumpy about being in the office on a Saturday. In Bangladesh, the workweek is quite different from the norm in the West. In observance of the Muslim holy day, Friday is the only day that all offices in the country close. For the most part, stores and other businesses follow suit, although it seems that most of the larger supermarkets buck the trend and remain open, looking to capitalize on the narrow shopping window of those who must buy their groceries on their one free day.

If the nation stands united in choosing Friday as the one day of rest, it becomes a bit more fractured when the discussion turns to Saturday. For some organizations, particularly those with a connection to international parents, Saturday is also an observed day off, but many others refuse to recognize a second day of rest. For many people, then, the weekend begins and ends on Friday and a six-day workweek is the norm. This demanding schedule produces a considerable amount of strain, especially on women who work outside the home. More than one colleague has complained that the single day off amounts to another day of work, albeit of a different kind. When one is faced with doing the household chores and shopping for the week in addition to entertaining visitors who only have the one day to pay a call, there really isn’t much rest to be had. The alternative is to spread the chores throughout the week and preserve some time off on the Friday, but after a demanding day at the office, this is also an unattractive option.

The schedule can also be somewhat disorienting, especially for an organization with a donor in the West whose weekend remains defined as Saturday and Sunday. The effect is to cause the two to be out of synch for three days out of each week due to their respective office closures, resulting in delays and inefficiency in getting the work done. Unfortunately, as is often the case, if there is a sacrifice to be made, it’s the recipient organization that is called upon to make it, so it’s not unusual to see my colleagues working on their only day off in order to meet a deadline set by their donors.

For a Westerner working in Bangladesh, the effect is also somewhat confusing. Almost six months into our stay here, our minds have yet to adjust to the notion that Saturday and Sunday are regular days at the office, so we tend to lose track of where we are in the week. And just as the office is out of touch with its donors for three days, we also lose contact with friends and family back home for those days. The result is what I call the dreaded “Dead Zone” for emails from people in Canada and elsewhere outside of Bangladesh. With the time difference of ten to fourteen hours between here and Canada, there is little news to be had for three solid days, from Saturday morning through to Monday night. The reason is that just as we “borrow” from company time for personal emails here, so too do most people back home, so out of office means out of touch. This wasn’t as much of an issue for Kristel and me when we lived in Nigeria, because that country kept the same weekend as the West and we were also away from our offices for the same period of time, but here, an empty inbox for three days in the office can be rather dispiriting, especially when one needs a friendly message to lighten an uninspired day.

How things have changed for the overseas worker! Fifteen years ago, email was in its infancy and most countries in the developing world would have been unable to offer any connection at all. Letters and packages would have been the only means of communication, aside from outrageously expensive (and unreliable) telephone calls. I can’t imagine how VSO volunteers coped back then, but I guess it’s difficult to miss instant communication when it doesn’t exist yet. And that’s the interesting thing. Just as deadlines for proposals and reports have shrunk with the availability of technology, so too has the tolerance for being out of touch with people far away. Where once it may have been acceptable in an overseas posting to receive word from someone once every few months, it now has become the norm to expect a response as quickly as if the person is living in the same city. Those in charge of organizations such as VSO must worry about this retreat into technology for its workers and the impact it has on their level of immersion in the cultures they’re visiting. Given the choice between spending one’s time on Skype with friends and family and visiting one’s colleagues in a new country, most people would likely choose the familiar over the unknown. That’s human nature. So, technology has provided a new level of comfort at the expense of integration, with the result that volunteers are likely less lonely and more lonely at the same time.

Whoops! Nice digression there. Getting back to my rant about the six-day workweek, we’ve also found that the longer week has put a serious crimp in our exploration of the country. In Nigeria, it was relatively easy to travel to most parts of the country over the course of a weekend (providing “the weekend” included a generous portion of Friday afternoon as well). Volunteers regularly visited each other in their placements to celebrate birthdays, farewells and other significant events. The same can’t be said for Bangladesh, partly because of the limited time available for travel and partly because half of the volunteers in the country are located in one place, Dhaka. Though Chittagong offers a respectable amount of diversions, the need to escape the city is still felt on a regular basis. Our recent trip to Malumghat for Kristel’s birthday was a welcome break, but it necessitated a dip into our vacation days to make it a “true” weekend.

Bah, humbug. I guess I am grumpy. Compared to the strains felt by our colleagues in trying to balance family and work over the course of a six-day workweek, the complaints that we have are minor at best and are manageable for the limited time that we have here. But it has underlined for us the importance of the weekend, and I expect we won’t soon take it for granted when we finally return (or move on) to a country with a two-day break.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

We've Got the Power

If I could pass along only one piece of advice to new VSO volunteers, it would be this: never walk into a dark room in your bare feet. Darkness acts as an invitation for all of the critters previously in hiding to come out and play, so the potential for stepping on one of them tends to increase exponentially when night falls. I haven’t actually felt the sensation of a cockroach between my toes yet, but I’ve come close enough on a few occasions that my flip-flops are now mandatory footwear whenever I’m in our flat.

But this isn’t meant to be a continuation of the previous blog entry’s lament about the various pests that share our flat. Rather, it’s meant to highlight the importance of having a reliable power supply to shine a light in the darkness to thwart the invasion, if only momentarily. In Nigeria, the supply of electricity was notoriously bad, and I essentially lived a year under lantern light. Power in my village would be available so infrequently that days would pass without any sign of its sustained viability, so its sudden appearance was a cause for celebration, like the greeting of a visitor too long absent from the home. In Bangladesh, the situation is an improvement over those days, but it’s still far from perfect.

The demand for electricity here regularly outstrips supply, with the result being the practice of load-shedding at various points during the day. Load-shedding is the euphemism given to planned blackouts, and it is a necessary evil to level demand and supply. Depending on where one is in the country, the number and length of these blackouts vary. Certain neighbourhoods in Dhaka may lose power three or four times per day for an hour or two. Once one is outside of the capital city, the situation generally gets worse. In Chittagong, electricity tends to be cut at least four or five times per day and the outages usually last two hours or more. Compared to Nigeria, this is a somewhat more tolerable position to be in, if only because the power makes a welcome appearance during the course of each day. But this glass-half-full view of the crisis is not surprisingly uncommon among our colleagues.

In an effort to combat the problem, the newly elected government has recently taken the rather drastic step of changing the clocks for the first time in Bangladesh’s history. The use of Daylight Saving Time is such a common practice in most parts of Canada that it’s taken for granted that the clocks will be moved forward at some point in the Spring. For most people, the extra hour of daylight makes for a pleasant addition to a summer’s evening. In Bangladesh, the hope was that the added hour would encourage people to delay flipping the switch to turn on their lights, thereby saving some strain on the system. Asking people to change their clocks for the first time in their lives is no small matter, and the discussions with the public leading up to the planned event on June 20th were fascinating. People were understandably confused about the idea that one hour could simply vanish from their day, only to reappear months later. The pessimist in me was anticipating a disaster on June 20th, but to the credit of the government, the changeover happened without major incident. Unfortunately, early reports indicate that it also has had little impact on power consumption, and the rolling blackouts continue as before.

The reason for this seems to be that the demand for power is driven not so much by the need for light as for other things, such as air conditioners and fans, and these are not as dependent on the light of day. Kristel and I can testify to this fact. The disappearance of light is troublesome, but it can be replaced with lanterns or flashlights as needed. It’s the absence of fans that makes life miserable. The heat wave of the past two months has been unlike anything that we’ve experienced before, so a power cut was always met with a groan, especially in the middle of the night, because we knew the temperature would soon skyrocket in the flat. As a result, we began to address the problem in the best way we could – by wearing as few clothes as possible. Stripping down to our underwear before sitting down to dinner became so routine that one would think we were living at the Playboy Mansion. We took care to draw the curtains to avoid scandalizing our neighbours, but any glimpses they may have been able to take before the drapes were drawn likely confirmed in their minds that all Westerners are shameless Dionysians.

Sadly, our life in the flat was nowhere near as decadent as our neighbours might have imagined. In fact, the combination of sleepless nights and constant sweating had reduced us to a pair of smelly zombies (as opposed to the fragrant ones, I suppose) by the end of April. With the prospect of another two months of heat before the start of the monsoon season in June, we knew the chances of one or both of us snapping were quite high. Since a straitjacket would likely be frowned upon as inappropriate office attire, we decided to take action. We pooled our first quarterly payments from VSO and invested in an Independent Power Supply or IPS. And the impact it has had on our lives has been nothing short of transformational.

The IPS is a backup power supply that is the size of a car battery. It’s designed to turn on as soon as the main power switches off, so it becomes the primary power source in the event of a blackout. When the main power is on, it uses the existing electricity to charge itself. Though it’s not large enough to supply electricity to the entire flat, it does have enough juice to keep the fans and lights on in three rooms until the main power returns. To put it simply, it’s the most brilliant investment I’ve ever made, which perhaps isn’t saying much, since my retirement portfolio is largely dependent on my anticipated earnings from the Lotto 6/49. But nevertheless, it has made a huge difference for us. When the power fails now, the changeover is almost instantaneous and we barely notice the switch. We do tend to shut off more lights and hunker down in one room to conserve the power in the IPS, but that’s a very small inconvenience. And we can now sleep through the night, thus preserving our relationship and sanity.

If there’s any kind of a drawback to this newfound power independence, it’s that we’ve become addicted to our IPS. We’re heat weaklings now. An upcoming trip to Dhaka for VSO training presented us with a level of anxiety we hadn’t known before, as the possibility of staying in the VSO visitor flat where (Gasp!) the fans sometimes stop running, made us reconsider whether we really needed to learn anything new ever again. We eventually relented and made the journey, but the possibility of buying a seat on the bus for our IPS briefly crossed my mind. In the end, we were saved by a friend who offered us a room in his beautiful flat with backup power and air conditioning. Meeting up with the VSO volunteers based in Dhaka, we knew we had made the right choice. The temperatures in the city over the past month had been even warmer than in Chittagong, and many looked haggard from too many sleepless nights. When the power clicks off in the night, most give up hope of sleeping and try to use their time for reading or working until the fans start moving again. When we revealed that we had added an IPS to our household, people responded so enthusiastically that one would have thought we just had a baby. I almost regretted not having some pictures of it in my wallet to share with them.

So, the IPS has vastly improved our quality of life in Chittagong. Unfortunately, the cost of the IPS, though an affordable three hundred dollars for us, puts it out of reach for the majority of Bangladeshis, who must continue to rely on the regular power grid for their supply. And the lack of power is not just an inconvenience for the local people; it can have a much more devastating impact. Closely tied to the power supply is the availability of water, as many pumps for the neighbourhoods run on electricity. When the power stops, so does the water for many areas. Combined with the escalating temperatures, this can result in dire consequences, and stories abound of protests by concerned people frustrated with their inability to access water when they need it the most. The government has responded with promises of projects to tap energy from new initiatives, but as can be seen from the limited benefits enjoyed from their embrace of Daylight Saving Time, a quick-fix solution is unlikely to provide the panacea for the current crisis. It seems that Bangladeshis will continue to wait for some time to get much-needed relief from the heat and darkness.