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.