Thousands of people move to Dhaka every day to find work, further their education or to turn over a new leaf. On one particular day I was one of those people, though I was undoubtedly more clueless than the rest as I had arrived from London and had never before set foot in Bangladesh. Transforming myself from hotel guest to Dhaka resident was no easy feat -- but this is how I did it.
I started off in a cheapish hotel in Motijheel. At the time I wasn't aware that being based in the commercial district was a tough introduction to the city. Its enormous roundabouts, six lane roads and footpaths full of busy businessmen make it one of the nation's least relaxing places. I watched the regular street demonstrations with fascination from my ninth floor window. Less fascinating was the continual thump of construction work.
The hotel room itself was a bit of a rat hole, but after spending two weeks in the beautiful north, I returned to Hotel Pacific because the men on reception were unfailingly kind and I felt safe. And it's not that I had a huge range of options -- often the cheaper-end hotels won't accept solo women unless they are sure they can handle the special cargo…
I chick-bombed the room with my scarves and cranked the clunking fan to cancel out the heat . . . Then I cranked the TV volume to cancel out the fan. Usual routine. And then I stared at the ceiling and stopped denying the truth: I had absolutely no idea how I would ever find my own place. Until very recently, whenever someone asked about my long-term living arrangements, the only answer I could muster was that I hoped to live in a building. But with characteristic naivete I had cheerfully assured friends and family that the situation would somehow work itself out.
Privately, I was so clueless that I didn't even know which mode of communication to use to get the ball rolling. Presuming, of course, that I could communicate in English rather than Bangla. Who exactly did I want to contact anyway? I wondered whether there was anything culturally specific about doing business in Bangladesh -- was it necessary to bargain over rent? I considered walking the streets until I found a shop called “Real Estate 4 U” or something similar.
I wanted to kick myself when I noticed the Yellow Pages on the table -- I had completely forgotten about those. I found a huge ad for Century 21 Real Estate and was sipping tea opposite a property representative within an hour.
But although he tried his best, in the end he couldn't help me. After an afternoon of being chauffeured around in the AC company car, I was told that my needs were too unusual.
Firstly, I didn't want an unfurnished four-bedroom apartment, even if it was lemon yellow and beautiful.
Secondly, I didn't want to live in Gulshan or its sidekick Banani.
Initially this latter requirement was just a hunch I developed after reading a book written by a snobby British expat. He seemed to think it would be impossible for a foreigner to survive anywhere else in Dhaka.
But when lots of people started telling me I should live there (my Bangla teacher went so far as to say that I needed to), I knew I had to find a really good reason not to do so. I'm stubborn like that.
Fortunately (for my reasoning), Gulshan is expensive, a long way north of the newspaper office in Karwan Bazaar, and prone to muggings (mostly of foreigners) at night. And the streets themselves look like “Bangladesh Lite” and thus are a big turn-off. You can buy Volkswagons, treadmills and Hush Puppy shoes, but it's hard to find a quick and tasty hot meal -- let alone a decent market.
My colleague at The Daily Star dislikes the area even more than I do. He said: “I feel like I've left my own country when I go to Gulshan.” Funnily enough, if my colleague actually did want to leave Bangladesh, he would first have to pay a visit to one of Gulshan's 2 embassies . . .
Day by day I discovered the prevalence of the foreigner-in-Gulshan assumption. Strangers at the tea stall would say to me, “You live in Gulshan?” and CNG drivers would be so baffled when I asked for Karwan Bazaar that they would find an English-speaking person on the street to double-check my instructions.
Time was running out. My bill at the hotel was racking up, I'd started working full-time and my sister and her partner were due to arrive in a fortnight. I had promised them a pad. Mr Century 21 was sending me text messages saying, "Ma'am, I have an apartment in Gulshan that will meet your needs if you will pay a little more..." In other words, it didn't meet my needs . . .
Until now I haven't acknowledged the help from my colleagues at The Daily Star. I had been shown several hotel suites in elegant Dhanmondi (all of which were too glamourous for my plastic wallet) and I had been offered lodgings in family homes. I declined this second offer because I am alternately obsessed with Al Jazeera News and silence, so I knew I would be a bad guest.
One nail-biting week later, a colleague told me he knew of a two-bedroom apartment in Ramna that was available to sublease.
I moved in.
This red brick apartment is completely fantastic and the whole complex, complete with swing-sets, bougainvillea trees and cats, is very peaceful. In the morning I wake to the sounds of birds crowing and women sweeping the path with long wispy brushes.
Based on my non-specialist assessment, it's also ultra-secure. Apparently a government minister lives here, so it must be. There are always a handful of security men with well-worn rifles at the gate and I have to poke my head out of the CNG before the vehicle is allowed to pass through.
When I walk past the five-odd security men in the morning they each nod, half-salute and say “Salam alaykum.” I'm never sure whether to nod back at one or all or none of them and the effort mysteriously causes me to trip over my feet. I can't seem to stop it and have decided that I would be a rubbish soldier.
I also can't stop checking whether there is a freshly chopped-off goat's head at the open-air butchers on the corner. I have to find it amongst the hanging meat slabs and entrails to know whether it has been sold that day . . . Mostly it's gone by the afternoon.
As I walk to the main road to find a CNG, I always hope to see the men who carry 15 chickens on their heads in large wicker baskets. I think the chickens must be sedated or something because they don't flap their wings even though they're in a weird situation. Three men carry the chickens as they walk about 10 metres apart, and at intervals they call out something long and low -- to me it sounds like the rumblings of a tenor. I presume they must be saying “Chiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiicken” but I like to imagine what else they might be saying, like, “Huuuuuuuugggg meeeeeee.” Once a chicken seller offered me one of his sedated chickens and then laughed really hard at his own joke.
I'm not sure what the neighbourhood thinks of this vastly inferior version of Nicole Kidman moving in. Most people probably couldn't care less, but when I see some of them pointing and nudging, I do wonder a little bit. They might have their own theories, just as I have my chicken-calling theories…