Paola, who lives in Bangladesh, shares her strategies for surviving in Dhaka, one of the most complex cities in the world. Thanks a lot, Paola!
Dhaka, where I live, is the world’s least liveable city of one hundred and forty included in a recent survey. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Summary of Liveability ranking, we dropped one position in 2012. Or rather, our score remained unchanged, but Port Moresby in New Guinea improved, bringing it up a notch to second worst and leaving us behind.
The study assesses cities around the world to determine which provide the best or worst living conditions. Thirty factors are measured, within five broad categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.
For example, the world’s top city, Melbourne, scores 100 for healthcare (where 100 is ‘ideal’); Dhaka scores 29.2. Whereas Melbourne rates ‘acceptable’ for most of the thirty factors and ‘tolerable’ for a few, Dhaka’s ratings fall mostly into the ‘undesirable’, ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘intolerable’ categories.
And right now, as I write in March 2013, we are experiencing the worst political unrest and violence since the 1971 Liberation War.
We moved here just over two years ago, for a three to four year posting. Of course we knew before we came that it would not be easy. Two months before we were due to leave Brussels, I came to Dhaka for a week to have a look: I was on a high, excited by all the new colours, tastes and smells, fascinated by the beautiful saris, bright rickshaws, and friendly people. Expats looked at me sceptically, with that ‘You’ll soon learn’ look in their eyes. But this decision to reconnoitre was an excellent one, which I would recommend to anyone embarking on a big move: go and get a feel for the place first. During that week, I got to know some of the spouses of my husband’s future colleagues, and they showed my round shops, expat clubs, and restaurants. They warned me of all the problems and discomfort I would have to face. And most importantly, they were there to support me when we arrived two months later.
Initially, when we arrived, I was filled with enthusiasm and a desire for new adventures. But of course, I’m only human. And I find that culture shock does not decrease with each move: in fact, the opposite seems to be true. I went through all the classic stages of culture shock, exacerbated by the fact that we had to move house after six months (when I was in the deepest depths of despair already), into a place that was unfinished (the whole house had to be rewired and the kitchen and bathrooms gutted and redone after we moved in, just to mention a couple of the problems…).
What have been the greatest challenges?
The traffic, the noise, the traffic, the traffic, the pollution, the traffic, the traffic, the crowds, the beggars, the traffic, the chaos, the traffic…but most of all, the lack of freedom. The lack of freedom to drive myself, to walk, to do what I want when I want, to wear what I want, to be anonymous.
What has helped me cope?
I firmly believe that the toughest postings are the most rewarding. All the expats are in the same boat, and they pull together. Dhaka is filled with wonderfully adventurous and friendly people. And there are great opportunities to keep busy.
How am I surviving in Dhaka?
My Personal Strategies
I think that wherever you are, life is a juggling act, and you have to work hard to keep your juggling balls going round smoothly and in sync. I often think of my life as consisting of eight juggling balls: family, friends, fitness, adventure, writing, professional work, social work, and duty. It is important for me to keep all of these in balance.
How does this relate to my life in Dhaka?
Let me go through my juggling balls one by one.
This is a tough one: I have three children (two in Scotland and one in South Africa), two grandchildren and another on the way, and elderly parents (in Rome). We keep in touch via Skype, and phone regularly. (By the way, my monthly mobile bills in Bangladesh amount to about ten Euros a month, with dozens of international calls and text messages.)
Unfortunately none of our children has chosen to visit us here (I wonder why?), but I travel to see them at least twice a year, and there have been some wonderful family gatherings over the last two years. There have been some extended periods away from Bangladesh, such as when my mother broke her hip, and when my daughter had a baby. Time spent with family is intense and wonderful when you live far away.
I am lucky enough to be an extreme extrovert. I don’t wait for friends to come to me: I go out and find them. When I had been in Dhaka for only a few days, I woke one morning with the muezzin call, before five a.m., and posted an entry in my blog, one paragraph of which reads as follows:
This morning I was projecting myself into the future: two months, six months, a year from now… somewhere out there, probably in my cosy corner of Gulshan II – the main ‘expat neighbourhood’ of the city – there are people still sleeping who will soon become my friends. Maybe I have passed them in the street, or seen them in a shop. There are people who in a few weeks will become important in my new life, who have so much to teach me, to share with me, as did so many of you over the years and in different places.
And of course, I did make friends. In huge numbers. Friends in social groups, in sports groups, friends that overlap in several groups… and as always, when you are an expat, friends come and go. My policy is to try not to get too attached to people in overseas postings; otherwise it becomes too heartbreaking to say goodbye.
I have also kept in touch with my friends from Brussels, which is my home base, and a few special friends from all over the world and we e-mail and Skype regularly. Holidays in Europe are a great time to catch up with them.
Additionally, there are my virtual friends, whom I have met via websites such as Expatclic and writers Abroad (see below).
Keeping fit keeps me sane. Here in Dhaka it is too chaotic to walk or ride a bike (for me, anyway). But there are several expat clubs which offer sporting activities. I attend a yoga class, and swim two or three times a week. At home we have a treadmill and an exercise bike, and use them regularly. I eat healthy food and avoid drinking too much alcohol. I work hard at keeping my weight under control.
Adventure to me means venturing out: experiencing life ‘beyond the bubble’. I have chatted to people in slums, visited places where rickshaws are kept overnight, gone to bazaars, visited working children and sari factories…
My favourite adventures are those which take me to visit projects outside Dhaka with my husband: unfortunately those trips have been stopped due to the current political situation.
Writing became a serious hobby for me a few years ago. I did a couple of online courses, and now I get articles published regularly. Mostly these are travel and lifestyle articles.
I am active in an online expat writers group, Writers Abroad, and we all regularly submit our writing to the site for peer critique, and enter competitions. We produce an anthology every year: last years was entitled Foreign Encounters. The production of the anthology involves a huge amount of work but offers immense satisfaction.
In addition, I write a blog. It’s an account of my life here, a sort of a diary, filled with snippets about my adventures and travels, the political situation, my day-to-day life, and anything at all that I feel should be recorded. Perhaps one day parts of it will become a book…
It is easy, when you are abroad, to lose your identity. Suddenly you are branded as your husband’s wife (even more so in Bangladesh – here ‘Name of Husband’ appears on every form you have to fill in). For me it is crucial to try to keep my identity, and to have a reason beyond ‘being a wife’ for my life here.
And I do this through my work. I have no work permit, but I continue my professional activity on a voluntary basis: I run training courses in Presentation Skills and English, for expats. I am also an examiner with the British Council. Apart from giving me an identity separate from my husband’s, this keeps in me in touch with what I have been trained to do. It makes me feel like a professional, and I believe it will help me reinsert myself into a ‘normal’ working life when I am back in Europe. Claudia from Expatclic has been a great help in getting me on my feet again. I hope my new online courses via Expatclic may take off soon too!
When you are stuck in traffic jams for hours, with beggars constantly hammering at your car windows, it is easy to get disheartened. My policy is never to give anything to a beggar (most of them work for beggar-masters and I refuse to be a part of this type of extortion). But to ease my conscience in this country where there is extreme poverty, I do some social work. Actually, more than easing my conscience, this gives me immense satisfaction – and experience in areas I previously knew nothing about. Apart from doing some voluntary teaching, teacher training, course organization, and editing documents, I visit projects and slums, host craft fairs, and take on whatever people ask me to do if I have time. I realize that anything I do is a tiny drop in the ocean, but if we didn’t have drops, we wouldn’t have oceans.
As a diplomatic spouse, I have several official duties, such as organizing dinners and events at home, attending events outside, and managing my home and staff. I found this all rather overwhelming at first, but I have excellent house staff, and receive help from my husband’s office. It’s all been a huge learning experience, and will stand me in good stead for the future. And I have discovered that most of it can be fun (especially wearing saris!).
Advice to People Moving to Dhaka
- Read Claudia’s excellent article on culture shock. Awareness, in my opinion, is half the battle
- Identify your personal ‘juggling balls’ and work towards maintaining a balance between them
- Make sure you are on your embassy’s text messaging list for warnings of political unrest
- Join the Facebook page Deshperate in Dhaka, and don’t be afraid to post whatever questions you may have. Usually you will get an answer within minutes. From where to find a maid, car or apartment to where to get singing or tango lessons, or find a tailor or contact lens solutions, Deshperate in Dhaka has the answers.
- Join an expat club as soon as you can
- At the time of writing, a new International Women’s Club is being created. This promises to be inclusive, friendly and dynamic. Deshperate in Dhaka would be the place to find out about it when you arrive.
- And most importantly, get busy and keep smiling! 🙂