Dhaka, Bangladesh Report of what it's like to live there - 10/25/10

Personal Experiences from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh 10/25/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From the US, over 24 hours. One can go via Bangkok or Singapore, or the other way, via Dubai, Qatar, or Abu Dhabi.

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3. How long have you lived here?

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Worked at the US Embassy for two years, my sixth expat experience.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most US Embassy expat staff live in Gulshan and Baridhara. In Baridhara, you might be close enough to walk to the embassy. Gulshan is a little farther away, but unless there is heavy traffic (a high likelihood in the mornings and in the late afternoon/early evening), it's only 10-15 minutes one way. Even with traffic, driving from the embassy to Gulshan was not majorly time consuming- no more than 30 minutes even in the worst traffic. As for housing quality, the embassy housing pool has some very nice apartments and homes, but they also have many that are old, outdated, and have chronic problems. Many of these homes are also very dark, and if you are unlucky enough to be put in a first-floor apartment, you might feel like you are living in a cave! Aside from the crushing workload and long working hours, the poor quality of my housing was one of the worst aspects of my tour. I also had more than one key household appliance burn out -- the load shedding is bad, and it is easy to fry appliances in Dhaka. I advise anyone going to Dhaka (particularly with the US Embassy) to investigate your housing very carefully before coming. There are some very bad houses and apartments in the housing pool, and it may be hard for you to move once you arrive at post and are unhappy with your house or apartment.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

I was disappointed with the grocery stores in Dhaka and did most of my shopping at the US Commissary. While not particularly cheap by US domestic standards, they had a fairly good selection of a variety of products.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Nando's, Pizza Hut, and KFC are all here. I'd say they were all relatively inexpensive. There's also a deli at the Westin Hotel that is pretty decent, offering good coffees and sandwiches to go. The clubs all serve food. The American Club recently redid its menu and has improved its selections. The Nordic Club is also a good place to go for food. Other notable restaurants include Khazan (Indian) and Spaghetti Jazz (Italian).The sit-down restaurants at the Westin are good (but expensive) and brunch is available both there and at the Radisson. Outside of the International Clubs and the Westin, alcohol can be hard to come by, but many places do allow you to bring your own.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

All of this is very limited. You might be able to order or obtain some items through the US commissary.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Lots of mosquitoes -- and increasing problems with Dengue Fever in Dhaka. And threat of Malaria and Japanese Encephalitis in some parts of the country outside of Dhaka.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Via the US Embassy pouch and DPO, both of which were very slow and problematic during the course of my tour.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and readily available, although quality varies and trust issues abound. Be very careful and selective about the help you hire.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, at the various clubs mentioned above. Tennis is very popular.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

This is generally not a problem. I used my ATM card at HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank with no issues, and I received all funds in Taka at the prevailing exchange rate with the US dollar.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I think so, but I don't have details to share.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There's the Star, the leading English-language newspaper in Dhaka. And on cable there is Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, and some local English-language news. The usual options. And they are all cheap.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

At the U.S. Embassy, none, but those who choose to study the language will find it helpful, in all aspects of life.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Lots of difficulties.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Embassy staff are not allowed to take this type of transport, although the use of Rickshaws is presently allowed.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

A small SUV is nice to have, and I highly recommend purchasing one, particularly a Toyota that's used. Dhaka traffic can be intense, so you should assume that your car will get some dents in it during your tour. Spare parts for Japanese cars are readily available.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

I had a so-called "dedicated line" going into my house, but it wasn't consistently fast enough to reliably use Skype, Vonage, etc. It was cheap (I paid 2,500 Taka per month) but not impressive in its speed.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Grameen Phone offers great service throughout the country and is quite inexpensive, even for international calls and texting.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are opportunities, but people I knew who had good jobs had special skill sets (e.g., public health or IT) and had to do much of the legwork themselves.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Conservative, particularly outside of the embassy. Normal business attire is fine at the embassy, but those working out on the local economy (particularly women) will want to dress more conservatively.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

There were rickshaw robberies and reports of occasional shootings and bombings, mostly related to internal political struggles between the two rival political parties.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I rarely used the embassy medical unit, and aside from various stomach ailments, I had few problems during my tour. As stated earlier, the quality of the air and water is very poor. I had various skin blemishes throughout my tour that took two weeks to disappear after I left the country.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Very unhealthy. The air often smelled of feces and other foul things. The water supply is also very unsafe. As a result, I had skin and eye difficulties while living in Dhaka.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot and humid with a seasonal monsoon, typically in June, July, August, and into September.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

American International School/Dhaka (AISD), has an excellent reputation, and most people seemed happy with it, although I had no children attending the school myself. The extracurricular facilities are nice, with a pool, gym, and a tennis court coming soon. US Embassy staff, including those without kids, can gain access to these facilities for a nominal annual fee.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

AISD has a preschool, and I have heard good things about it. I think there are other preschool options available for expats as well.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There are programs available at AISD and other international schools.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Thousands.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

I never felt comfortable having anyone over to my cave of an apartment, but some people consistently entertained throughout their tours. Entertaining can be a great way to make friends and yet another good reason to have a house or apartment suitable for that. There are the clubs, where people go for happy hour and similar merrymaking, but that scene gets old fast.

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3. Morale among expats:

All over the map. Some families were very happy. Many across all spectrums found a nice niche for themselves in the expat community and formed nice groups of friends. For some, job stress and excessively long working hours overshadowed and diminished the ability to get out and enjoy the local culture. Others simply longed to be somewhere with more luxuries and options that are typically offered in the bigger cities in the region, such as movie theaters, shopping malls, good restaurants, more local travel options, etc.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The school is quite good, so many families with school-aged children seem to like it. For couples, and particularly singles, there are limited social options available, but some singles felt the lifestyle was too restrictive and social options lacking.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

On the surface of Bangladeshi society, no, but there have been gay couples at the embassy who enjoyed their tours, as well as gay staff who have managed to make social connections in Dhaka's gay scene.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

This is a society with major class issues. This is most apparent amongst local staff working in the embassy and some elite Bangladeshis, who in many cases, go out of their way to distinguish themselves and show superiority towards those who are servants, rickshaw drivers, and others from lower social classes. This is an unfortunate generalization that obviously does not apply to all, but the attitude is pervasive, and I'd be amiss if I did not mention this issue.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting the Sundarbans and Srimongol. Taking boat trips and getting out to the countryside.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Shopping at Aarong, Kumudini, Sally Ann, and other stores. Hanging out at one of the clubs- American Club, Canadian Club, Australian Club, Nordic Club, etc.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Textiles, freshwater pearls, china, getting clothes made, custom-made furniture, picture framing, and tons of local handicrafts.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

This is a good travel hub (albeit expensive) with direct flights to Bangkok, Dubai, Dehli, Kolkata, Kathmandu, Bhutan, Malaysia, and Singapore, amongst other places. There are lots of interesting things to buy, including pearls, china, and textiles. If you don't travel or buy too much, it is possible to save money. Finally, the culture and history of the country are very interesting.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, I would have been able to save substantially more if I had not traveled so much. Living in Dhaka is quite inexpensive.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but I would do what I could to make sure I didn't have a job that required frequent 14+ hour days and substantial weekend work in an understaffed office with staff that required a significant level of oversight. These issues impinged greatly upon my ability to get to know and enjoy the culture -- and even the ability to get out and enjoy a game of tennis. So yes, I would go back if my job fit into a more reasonable work week: 50 hours or less. If I had fully understood the workload and the capacity issues in the office I worked in before I arrived, I might have sought to go elsewhere.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Skis, nice shoes, china, nice car, and pearls.

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3. But don't forget your:

bathing suit, sunscreen, used SUV, patience, love of travel, and interest in South Asian culture.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Brick Lane

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Brick Lane

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This was a tour where my work at the embassy overwhelmed every aspect of my life. The office I worked in had a number of capacity issues, severe understaffing, and a crushing workload. All of these things overshadowed what might have been an interesting cultural journey. While I learned a lot and it has helped my career to have worked in such an exceptionally challenging environment, I wish I had more time to smell the flowers, so to speak. To simply walk the streets with the families all decked out in red during the Bengali New Year, etc. instead of being cooped up in the office, exhausted and stressed out on an almost continuous basis. Do some legwork to find out what kind of team you will work with. I knew many people who had jobs in the embassy that allowed them to work a lot less than I did, so this scenario will not apply to everyone, but it may apply to some, so do your homework if at all possible.

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