DHAKA

I was perched on the edge of a ripped leather chair, stacks of fold­ers balanced pre­car­i­ously on wooden shelves, a creaky fan whirring. The day had started out fine, but now here I was, sit­ting in a po­lice sta­tion in South Asia, do­ing my very best not to c

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS AND IMAGES: Tasha Black LO­CA­TION: Bangladesh

Tasha Black

A MEGA-CITY of 15 mil­lion, Dhaka is the cap­i­tal of Bangladesh, a young na­tion lodged be­tween In­dia and Myan­mar, known for cy­clones and the 'Made in Bangladesh' tag on the back of your clothes. Dhaka slaps hu­man­ity in your face. The city spills over with peo­ple, rick­shaws, food stands, malls, mo­tor­ways, beg­gars, and bi­cy­cles.

It has re­peat­edly been la­belled the world's sec­ond least liv­able city – af­ter Da­m­as­cus, Syria.

Creak­ing in­fras­truc­ture means the streets flood fre­quently in the rainy sea­son, rub­bish piles high, and traf­fic draws to a stand­still for hours. And yet there is an elec­tri­cal cur­rent of progress run­ning through the city, con­struc­tion sites pop up overnight and new cafés open ev­ery week. I am based in the cap­i­tal work­ing for an in­ter­na­tional char­ity. What did I think of Dhaka? I looked at the po­lice­man and then at two men who had walked in from the street, shout­ing and ges­tic­u­lat­ing at each other, hy­per­ac­tive and wild-eyed. The first, dressed in blue over­alls, was so thin his bones looked ready to snap. Blood was splat­tered over his wiry body. The sec­ond man, dressed in a ca­nary yel­low jacket, was big­ger and taller. He clasped at his face, his cheek bashed in and his eye gouged and bloody. Noth­ing is easy in Dhaka. I thought back to ear­lier that week when I found my­self bump­ing along the streets in a rick­shaw, pale and weak, trav­el­ling to the doc­tor's clinic. I'd been ill for days, re­duced to a hal­lu­ci­nat­ing bag of bones. I knew I had to get to the doc­tor, but taxis are un­com­mon and un­re­li­able in Dhaka, so I clam­bered onto a rick­shaw and was swirled into a heady mix of traf­fic jams and lengthy ar­gu­ments over the fare. It was 40 °C, I was car­ry­ing a poo sam­ple in a brown pa­per bag, and I was on the edge of faint­ing. I couldn't help but think, 'There must be an eas­ier way'.

But that's Dhaka. It's com­pli­cated and hec­tic, but al­ways in­ter­est­ing. By evening, my flat­mates and I would be ex­hausted and would lie on the sofa, un­der fans, eat­ing chunks of pre­cious, over­priced cheese and start sen­tences with 'So, this weird thing hap­pened to me to­day…' We tried to make sense of our un­fa­mil­iar world.

We spoke of our cul­tural faux-pas. Of rid­ing on a rick­shaw and get­ting stuck be­tween two ele­phants in an ele­phantrick­shaw jam (ele­phant trumps rick­shaw), of get­ting lost in al­ley­ways, catch­ing rides on pre­car­i­ous boats through wa­ter­ways, and of ac­ci­den­tally drop­ping our scarves – which we had to wear across our chest for mod­esty – into the toi­let bowl (which is kind of where you wanted to throw them on a 40 °C day).

We laughed about the time the land­lord (who barely spoke English) turned up at the door with two plucked chick­ens, a bag burst­ing with bloody beef, some grapes and a packet of al­monds. He wan­dered his way into our kitchen, blood drip­ping as he went, and plonked the meat in our freezer without ex­pla­na­tion.

There are mo­ments of un­ex­pected beauty and enchantment within the ur­ban jun­gle; a fiery red sun­set from the rooftop as the call to prayer cho­ruses across the city, the colours of the saris and shal­war kameez cloth­ing, the chil­dren play­ing in old ru­ins on the edge of the city.

I am for­ever mes­merised, cap­ti­vated, and as­ton­ished by the small­est de­tails – the num­ber of chill­ies chopped into one omelette, the amount of su­gar scooped into one cup of tea, pud­dles that turned into rivers, foot­paths that turned into ob­sta­cle cour­ses and young men who nipped be­tween cars at hec­tic in­ter­sec­tions charm­ing cus­tomers into buy­ing bou­quets of white flow­ers and knock-off books.

I was five years old again. And the magic was in the de­tail, ev­ery time. Senses were height­ened, ex­hausted and as­saulted. If Bangladesh did one thing for me, it made me feel alive; wretch­edly, fan­tas­ti­cally, fright­en­ingly alive.

Back at the po­lice sta­tion, the of­fi­cer looked at me, pa­tiently wait­ing for my an­swer about Dhaka. I thought back to ‘Slaugh­ter Day' dur­ing the Is­lamic Fes­ti­val ‘Eid-ul-Adha' when cows and goats were brought into the city in prepa­ra­tion for the sac­ri­fice. Tied to fences and gates, some were adorned with tin­sel and crowns.

On the day of the sac­ri­fice, blood ran through the streets, drib­bling down drains and pool­ing in pot holes. The slaugh­ter took place on foot­paths. In the af­ter­noon I went out on my bike, the stench of bleach – used to help wash the blood away – still strong. Rem­nants from the day's killing re­mained; hooves and tails, tufts of

‘ If Bangladesh did one thing for me, it made me feel alive; wretch­edly, fan­tas­ti­cally, fright­en­ingly alive.’

fur, and the odd ear ly­ing on the dusty foot­path. Dogs waited pa­tiently, growl­ing and lick­ing their lips. I watched as neigh­bours gave away stacks of beef to those less for­tu­nate, with plas­tic bags of blood­ied meat balanced on their heads and gripped in their hands. I had blood on my bi­cy­cle tyres and bleach up my nose.

I thought back to an­other day when on my way home from work I stopped at the lo­cal tea stall run by a hus­band and wife team. Sweet tea (cha) is a Bangladesh sta­ple, sold on nearly ev­ery cor­ner. As they mixed my tea with a spoon­ful of con­densed milk, they en­quired about my per­sonal life. “Hus­band?”

“Umm… oh… well… you know… naaaa.”

“No hus­band?”

“Um, not re­ally? Yeah… nah.”

Their faces dropped. I'd killed the con­ver­sa­tion. The fam­ily is para­mount in Bangladesh, and as an un­mar­ried, child­free wo­man I was fre­quently looked upon with pity. The wo­man stepped out from be­hind the stand and em­braced me in a long, tight hug as if to say every­thing would be okay. She gave me a cup of tea and re­fused my money.

And so be­gan a tra­di­tion when­ever I walked past. The tea stand own­ers would look at me with sad eyes and make my sweet tea, al­ways re­fus­ing my money. It was rude to turn down their of­fer of tea, but I walked past their stand some­times half a dozen times a day, and there's only so much con­densed milk I can stom­ach. Some days I had to walk a dif­fer­ent route home or slink past hop­ing they wouldn't spot me.

Sit­ting in the po­lice sta­tion, with the creaky, whirring fan, I thought about how liv­ing in Dhaka was an ad­ven­ture I never was go­ing to be ready for. I was warned of the heat and the traf­fic, but no one tells you how to re­cover your scarf when it has fallen into the toi­let, or how to shake the sight of an­i­mals be­ing butchered on the foot­path from your mind.

De­spite the mo­ments of frus­tra­tion, con­fu­sion and worry, Bangladesh has a way of charm­ing you right when it counts. The po­lice­man looked at me earnestly – no cor­rup­tion, no bribes, just kind words. I smiled at him.

“I like it here. It's hard, but I like it.”

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