Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Bangladesh
Mail becomes a very important lifeline, especially in the beginning when you are adjusting to a new culture, a new language, and a new work situation. Unfortunately, however, mail service between the United States and Bangladesh can be erratic.
Volunteers report that while most letters and packages eventually arrive, they can take anywhere from a few days to several months to reach you. You can help improve the chances of a speedy arrival by asking family and friends to write “Via Airmail” or “Par Avion” on their letters. You might also want to ask people to number their letters so you can keep track of whether any have been lost.
Packages often take more than a month (and sometimes two or three) to arrive, even when they have been sent by airmail.
In addition, a tax based on the value of the goods contained in the package must be paid to receive it. Services such as DHL, UPS, and FedEx are faster, but considerably more expensive for both the sender and the Volunteer because of higher customs duties on express packages - sometimes up to $50.
Packages are sometimes opened en route, and the contents may not be returned to the box intact. Small, flat manila envelopes seem to make it through without an extra charge. It is advisable to tell people to not send you anything valuable and to list all the items sent somewhere on the inside of the package.
Until you get your permanent address at the end of training, your friends and family can send mail to you at the following Peace Corps office address:
House 10F Road 82
Dhaka 1212, Bangladesh
Telephone communications can be frustrating in
Bangladesh—land lines between towns are not always reliable, and you may have difficulties getting through. However, cellphone service is developing rapidly, even in rural areas.
Because of heightened concern worldwide over the safety and security of Americans abroad, Peace Corps/Bangladesh recently decided to provide all its Volunteers with a cellphone, which can be used to call any other cellphone in the country. Volunteers are expected to use their cellphone for Peace Corps-related purposes only and to maintain it in good condition.
Most cellphones purchased in the United States will not work in Bangladesh because of the differing technology. Although cellphones capable of making and receiving international calls are available for around $600 in Dhaka (along with high monthly fees), the Peace Corps does not provide this type of phone.
Computer, Internet, and E-Mail Access
E-mail access in Bangladesh is growing rapidly, though it is still not available in all towns. More and more cybercafes are springing up in Dhaka and other major metropolitan areas, and there are private e-mail services in some of the larger district cities and towns. Charges asd sdawe rwq for Internet and e-mail access usually run less than $1 an hour, depending on how luxurious the cybercafe is. Some places charge a flat rate for sending a message and another rate for receiving messages. If you do not already have an e-mail account that you can access overseas, you may want to get one before you come to Bangladesh.
An amazing accomplishment of Bangladesh is the widespread degree of electrification in rural areas. When driving in the countryside, you will see simple mud-brick and bamboo-mat houses along the road with an electrical box attached to the outside wall. Because of the ready availability of electricity, most Volunteers in Bangladesh enjoy the convenience of electric lights and fans. If you have a laptop, feel free to bring it with you. Although you will initially live with a host family whose housing may be very basic, it should be possible to set up a laptop computer if you move into your own apartment.
Although the heat, humidity, and dust could damage it, you will probably be very happy to have a laptop with you for typing letters, lesson plans, etc. While you may not have room for a printer, you can buy disks locally and take them somewhere to have your materials printed out for a modest charge. If you choose to bring a laptop, we strongly recommend that you insure it.
Housing and Site Location
During pre-service training and for the first three months at site, Volunteers live with host families to develop Bangla language skills, gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Bangladeshi culture, and facilitate integration in the community. Following this initial three-month period, Volunteers may choose to continue living with their host family or seek other accommodations. Volunteers generally find modest apartments in their communities, which usually have electricity and running water. Host family accommodations are reviewed and approved in advance by Peace Corps staff. All housing selected by Volunteers must also be approved by the Peace Corps/Bangladesh office.
The communities where Volunteers live and work are identified by Peace Corps staff in conjunction with the host institutions. Peace Corps/Bangladesh staff visit and evaluate all sites for safety and suitability. Around the middle of pre-service training, each Volunteer is assigned a site according to the “best fit” between the individual and the site. Volunteers have the option of being posted with another Volunteer—provided the request is mutual—or being posted by themselves. In training, you will develop some idea of where you would like to be posted, and Volunteer preference is taken into account.
Before you are sworn in as a Volunteer, you will spend two to three days at your assigned post, gaining some knowledge of the community in which you will live and of the work that you will do. This is an excellent time for you to reconsider your commitment to two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The experience is like no other, rich and rewarding in ways that cannot be duplicated otherwise, but it does require honest consideration of your ability to cope with the stress and discomforts of living outside your culture and working in an environment that is probably very different from what you are used to.
Living Allowance and Money Management
You will receive a monthly living allowance that permits you to live modestly in Bangladesh. The expectation is that you will live at the same standard as your Bangladeshi counterparts, but without endangering your health or safety. The living allowance is calculated to cover costs for housing, utilities, food, clothing, toiletries, household supplies, transportation to and from work, locally available recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses such as postage, film, and reading materials. In Bangladesh, Volunteers receive a small additional allowance to purchase a couple of outfits made in the local style of dress.
Food and Diet
The food in Bangladesh is similar to that served in Indian restaurants in the United States. The standard diet is rice with spiced lentils (dal) and fish, meat, or vegetable curry. The staple food is rice, and low- to middle-income families eat rice three times a day. Wheat is not part of the traditional diet but is becoming more and more popular. It is used in delicious and satisfying unleavened breads (e.g., chapati, nan, roti, etc.) and snacks. Some Volunteers find it hard to adapt to what they consider excessive oil and fried foods in the Bangladeshi diet.
The availability of fruit and vegetables varies according to the area and the season. The winter provides a good variety of fresh vegetables, whereas the best season for fruit (including mangoes, pineapples, and papayas) is the summer. Bananas are plentiful for most of the year.
Volunteers usually cook for themselves once they are settled into their new home, but there are plenty of ready-made foods available for those who are not kitchen inclined. Tasty, filling prepared foods include samosas (meat or vegetables fried in a triangular pastry), shingaras (potato and vegetables in pastry), and many kinds of mishti (small, cakelike sweets that are sometimes served with a sweet sauce). Some Volunteers are able to eat in a communal setting at their work site.
Cleanliness in food preparation is always an issue. Fresh fruits and vegetables should not be eaten unless peeled first or soaked in a bleach or iodine solution, and cooked food should always be eaten hot. This issue will be addressed more thoroughly in pre-service training.
Vegetarians enjoy plenty of choices if they cook for themselves. Dried beans, canned beans, and tofu are available in
Dhaka, eggs are always available, and various kinds of processed cheese that does not have to be refrigerated can be found. If you are invited to eat at someone’s home, you may face the difficulty of having to decline what is offered to you, as fish and meat are part of most people’s diet. However, if you explain your diet before you arrive, your hosts may be able to cater to your needs. In Bangladesh, being a vegetarian often means that one eats fish or chicken, so it is advisable to be very explicit about your dietary needs. In addition, the concept of veganism is not familiar to the vast majority of
Bangladeshis. Vegan Volunteers should be prepared to educate their host families about their dietary preferences and to make adjustments to their diet if necessary.
Alcohol is illegal in Bangladesh and virtually unavailable. What little alcohol is available is brewed or distilled illegally and sold on the black market. There are regular incidents in Bangladesh of people dying of poisoning from drinking bad alcohol. Do not even think about trying it.
In Bangladesh, as in many cultures, a distinction is made between the use of the left and right hands. The left hand is used for cleaning one’s body after using the toilet and is therefore considered unclean. Writing with the left hand is not a problem, but food must not be touched with the left hand.
Since Bangladeshis generally eat using their fingers, you should always use your right hand to eat even if you are left-handed. There is no need to worry about making a mess, as everybody else does.
It is also considered offensive to offer things or make gestures with your left hand. Similarly, it is important to try to use your right hand to accept letters, pass papers in the workplace, pay for things, etc. The only exception to this is at mealtimes, when food is passed with the left hand as the right hand is normally covered with rice and dal. In pre-service training, we will discuss strategies for left-handed Volunteers to be culturally sensitive in a right-handed culture.
An incidental note about using one’s hands incorrectly: The thumbs-up and A-OK gestures that are common in the United States are considered obscene in Bangladesh. Although they are seen often enough in American films and advertising to have become somewhat less offensive in Dhaka, outside the capital city, and especially in rural settings, these gestures should be avoided.
Bicycle rickshaws are the most common form of transport for small distances. The rickshaws have three wheels, with a sofa-like seat for two behind the driver and a hood that can be put up for rain. A rickshaw ride can be quite rickety, so passengers often have to brace themselves with hands or feet. Riding in a rickshaw on an open road with a cool wind in your face can be very pleasant, but riding in one in Dhaka during rush hour is a completely different experience. Many rickshaws have poor brakes and can be stopped only by running into the back of a rickshaw in front. Auto rickshaws, also called “baby taxis,” are motor-driven three-wheelers whose back seat can hold up to three people. (One or two extra people sometimes sit next to the driver when there are no police around.) These taxis are convenient, but traveling in them can be a nightmare, as the drivers often ignore traffic rules and collisions are frequent. “Tempos” are taxis that hold 10 to 20 people and follow set routes for a low fee. (In rural areas you might find yourself sharing them with chickens,goats, or calves.) Rickshaw safety will be discussed during training.
Local buses can be irritatingly slow. Long-distance buses tend to travel at unsafe speeds, but companies are beginning to impose penalties on drivers who arrive earlier than their scheduled time. Some long-distance buses have modern coaches with air conditioning, offering relatively comfortable travel. Accidents and crime are more frequent during overnight bus travel, however, so Volunteers are prohibited from traveling at night.
Train travel is usually a pleasant experience. Although local trains tend to be overcrowded, long-distance trains are comfortable and reliable. First-class, air-conditioned sleeping compartments are available on some routes, and most trains have fans. Rail service to the west is complicated by numerous river crossings; on these routes, travelers have to get off the train and onto a ferry to rejoin the railway line on the other side.
Travel to the southwest may mean taking a short ferry trip across a small river or up to three hours for a larger river. Waiting time for getting onto a ferry varies enormously, the current record being 15 hours. Because ferries commonly have accidents, they present a real safety risk. You will learn about traveling safely on water during pre-service training. Another means of travel to the southwest is via launches.
These boats vary in quality but can be very relaxing, and it is worth booking your trip in advance to travel on one of the better ones. The Rocket, a favorite, is a modern ship with a television in the main lounge, a dining hall, and other amenities. Launches can be fogbound during the winter.
Airplane travel is relatively cheap. A 20-minute flight from Dhaka to Rajshahi is much more appealing than an eight-hour ordeal by bus and ferry, but flights are often delayed. Walking is by far the safest method of travel in Bangladesh, though the concept of walking for pleasure is not widely understood (probably because it is too hot and muggy most of the year).
When walking, one should never assume that traffic will come from only one direction, even on one side of a divided roadway.
In Bangladesh, most social activities center on the home or cultural events such as theater, music, and dance. Because Bangla became the nation’s official language after independence, English has been de-emphasized in education for the past 30 years and many educated Bangladeshis speak limited English. The number and quality of friendships you develop, therefore, will depend on your own efforts to develop language skills that help you traverse the Bangla-English divide.
However, this does not mean Bangladeshis are not eager to host English-speaking guests, and as you get to know the people in your town, you are likely to be invited to their homes often. If the hospitality becomes a burden, you will have to practice the same sensitivity you would practice in the United States in turning down social invitations. Participating in local cultural activities is a good way to meet people and to learn more about the country. Such events take place mostly in Dhaka, but there are also occasional concerts by touring professionals and amateur musicians and various groups performing traditional drama in some of the district centers.
Social life is relatively quiet in smaller towns and villages, and weddings and religious or national holidays are common occasions for celebration. As a Volunteer, you may be invited to a wedding of people you barely know. Going out to eat is not common, but most midsize towns have at least one Chinese-style restaurant. Many towns also have cinemas that show films in Bangla and Hindi. Larger towns have more variety in cinemas and restaurants, and Dhaka boasts many high-quality restaurants that serve Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Italian food.
Badminton, cricket, soccer, and volleyball are popular sports in Bangladesh, and many Volunteers posted in rural areas participate. There are also tennis and squash courts in Dhaka and a few other places. Note that because Bengali women traditionally do not participate in sports, it is much more difficult for women than for men to engage in sports or other kinds of physical activity outside of the expatriate clubs in Dhaka. This may prove frustrating to some female Volunteers.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
In trying to fit into the local culture, you will inevitably retain your own cultural identity, but there are behaviors you can adopt that will allow you to assimilate more easily and feel more comfortable in social and professional situations. A professional demeanor is very important. Though you will be in Bangladesh as a Volunteer with the Peace Corps, you will be working as a representative of a Bangladeshi agency or organization and will be expected to dress and behave accordingly.
Inappropriate dress may be construed as a sign of disrespect for one’s colleagues and can reflect badly not only on you but on the Peace Corps as an assistance organization. However, we can only provide you with guidelines; when you arrive in Bangladesh, you will make your own observations that will give these guidelines meaning.
Dressing modestly is essential for female Volunteers in Bangladesh. Many Western women who live outside of Dhaka choose to wear local fashions, but if you wear Western clothes, they should be loose fitting, cover your upper arms, and cover your legs down to the ankles. Slips must be worn with see-through fabrics, and tight T-shirts, sleeveless tops, or low-cut garments will attract unwelcome attention. Shorts are inappropriate except when you are alone in your home or at an expatriate facility in Dhaka. Traditional dress for
Bangladeshi women consists of either a shalwar kameez (for younger, unmarried women) or a sari (for married women), but these distinctions do not apply so rigidly to Western women. A shalwar kameez consists of long, baggy pants worn with a loose-fitting tunic and a long scarf (orna) draped around the front to cover one’s chest. A wide variety of shalwar kameez outfits are available for 500 taka (about $10). In
Dhaka, because of the their popularity among Western women, larger sizes are being made for sale off the rack, but you can also have them made to order by local tailors (bring a favorite pair of pants for copying by the tailor to get the right fit). Women assigned to rural areas often wear saris, which require a petticoat and blouse, available locally in all colors and sizes for about 100 taka (about $1.75). A basic sari costs about 300 taka ($5), but one made of hand-painted or embroidered silk could cost several thousand taka.
Male professionals wear either Western-style clothing or, especially for formal occasions (including going to a mosque), a punjabi, which consists of baggy pants (usually white) worn with a tunic. Most male Volunteers wear lightweight cotton pants and shirts, both of which can be tailored locally for less than it would cost to buy the same clothes in the United States. (Tailored pants cost about $8 or $9 and shirts cost about $4 or $5.) Shorts are not appropriate for male Volunteers except when participating in sports. Most Bangladeshi men who do manual labor wear a lungi, a thin, ankle-length skirt that is wrapped around the waist and can be pulled up to resemble shorts. Some male Volunteers wear lungis around the house, but they are not appropriate at work or when out in public. Sandals are the most common footwear for both men and women, and women often wear earrings, nose studs, and bangles.
A Volunteer is often the only American in a Bangladeshi community. Hence, in addition to the responsibility for their conduct as individuals, Volunteers, whom host country citizens
inevitably see as examples of American culture and customs, have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner reflecting credit on the Peace Corps and their country. At the same time, Volunteers are expected to show respect for Bangladesh’s culture and customs.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Most Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Bangladesh Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Bangladesh. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.