Dhaka, Bangladesh Report of what it's like to live there - 08/09/13
Personal Experiences from Dhaka, Bangladesh
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
First diplomatic assignment - previous expat experience in Middle East and Europe.
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?
It takes at least 21-22 hours to get to Dhaka from Washington, D.C. with a connection in the Gulf (Dhubai, Kuwait, Qatar). Sometimes Fly America will make you route through Europe first, then the Gulf. Others opt to fly via Bangkok and Tokyo, though I think that's longer. It takes two days to get here (leave evening of day 1, arrive morning of day 3).
3. How long have you lived here?
Since March 2012.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I work at the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Embassy personnel live in one of two neighborhoods (Baridhara is close to the Embassy and the school, Gulshan is close to the American Club, stores, and restaurants). Nothing is more than a couple miles from the Embassy, but traffic can turn a 5 minute commute into a 35 minute one. Walking in professional clothes would be a hassle due to mud, dust, heat, and lack of sidewalks. Biking is dangerous because drivers leave NO space between cars and aren't used to sharing with cyclists.
Housing is good! The Embassy pool has gone through a major upgrade to become seismically compliant, which has resulted in putting people in new apartment buildings. There are very few single family homes left, but the new apartment buildings are spacious and have good amenities (finished rooftops, balconies). I am single and have a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom apartment.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Cheap cheap cheap. Produce on the local market is inexpensive, but there are concerns it contains formalin to extend shelf life. I have my housekeeper buy from an organic grocer. The U.S. Commissary is huge and has a good selection of products at slightly higher prices than in the U.S. Lots of people buy groceries online and ship via DPO.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Equipment for a home gym.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are lots of Indian, Thai, and Korean places to go. For American food, your best bet is the American Club, though there is an A&W and KFC. Fried chicken is very popular here. Meals can run you from US$5 to $50, with an average night out running in the US$15/person range. New restaurants are popping up all the time. We just got a Dunkin Donuts knock-off and have a couple Nando's.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes! No malaria in Dhaka proper, but there is dengue, which affects several embassy staff each year. Nifty electric bug zapper rackets and nets for sleeping keep things under control in the residences.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO or Pouch from the U.S. Embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and very affordable. I pay US$115/month for a housekeeper/cook to come six half-days a week. The Embassy newsletter is teeming with ads for gardeners, nannies, drivers, and cooks. People have no trouble finding and affording domestic help (and all residences have maid's quarters if you want someone to live in).
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The American Club and American School both have gyms. The school (US$200/year for a membership if you don't have a kid there) has a lap pool and a bigger gym with ellipticals, treadmills, rowing machines, spin bikes, and lots of weight machines/free weights. The club (US$25/month membership fee) has a splishy-splashy pool and a smaller gym with weights and treadmills.
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?
Credit cards are not widely accepted, but you can use them (for a fee) at shops and restaurants in the dip zone. It's very much a cash economy. There's a reliable ATM at the American School and in the Embassy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, Protestant and Catholic services available. There are local religious communities of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians in Dhaka.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Lots of English dailies (i get them home delivered for work). A basic cable package includes CNN, BBC, and lots of English language channels from India (HBO, Star Movies). I pay US$5/month for my cable.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is not as well-spoken or widespread as in India. I learned Bangla for my job, so have had no trouble getting around. Lots of people get by with English, but they don't stray to far out of the dip zone that often.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Lots! There are no requirements for buildings to be accessible (with ramps or elevators) to someone with limited mobility. Sidewalks are inconsistent and bumpy and often full of construction materials, beggars, or mud. Curbs are high to prevent people from driving on them, and don't have ramps to get on/off.
That said, the U.S. Embassy and affiliated entities (commissary, club, school, residences) are all accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy personnel are prohibited from taking buses (watch the 2nd Amazing Race episode if you want to know why!), taxis, and tuk-tuks. You can take inter-city trains for trips - they are cheap. You can use cycle rickshaws or the motor pool like a taxi service if you don't have a car.
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?
It's right-hand drive. I bought a car here, but some people import from Japan. The motor pool can service vehicles and are best with Toyotas (the vast majority of the motor pool fleet). Your car will get beat up in traffic here, so I wouldn't bring or invest in something nice.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, and you pay for it! I pay US$80/month for internet (through Link3) that is generally able to stream content through a VPN (Hulu, Netflix). Some people pay much less(through Qubee), but that company restricts bandwidth through a "fair neighbor" policy.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Embassy provides for its staff. You can buy a pre-paid or post-paid plan with Grameenphone. Data plans are inexpensive but slow. There is no 3G yet - we're still on EDGE.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Not that I'm aware. There are some local vets who do home calls (vaccinations) and can board animals, but most Embassy personnel get someone to pet-sit while they're away.
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?
Local economy... not so sure. EFMs generally work for the embassy, an international NGO, or an international school. Those who want to be employed are.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Conservative. Women shouldn't show shoulders, cleavage, or thighs/knees. I wear a suit for work and tunics with jeans on the weekends.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There are frequent strikes/protests (which can turn violent), but diplomats and most expats live in a 2 mile-wide diplomatic zone that is mostly exempt from the political action. On strike days, embassy personnel are confined to the dip zone (which is where we all live anyways and has lots of stores and restaurants).
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
None other than mosquito-borne or respiratory stuff previously mentioned. The Embassy has an RMO who can deal with most things, medicines are available locally, and the Embassy arranges medical evacuations to Bangkok or Singapore for anything major.
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. It's polluted and/or dusty 365 days a year. The monsoon temporarily clears the air. Lots of people have respiratory problems, and it's tough to exercise outside. The embassy provides air filters for residences, and cleaning the A/C filters biweekly/monthly keeps out a lot of gunk.
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. The pre-monsoon season is the hottest (90s-100s Fahrenheit with heat index pushing it up another 10-15 degrees). Monsoon June-August with frequent and violent rainstorms. Winter gets down to the 50s and 60s. Humidity remains high (I mean 85-90% high) throughout the year.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
People come to Dhaka for the schools, especially for the good high school program at the American School (AISD). There are also British and French schools, and a handful of other international schools. People with kids at the U.S. Embassy are very happy with AISD.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
There are a couple pre-K or playgroup programs around the dip zone. Other people hire nannies (ayahs) to stay at home with their kids.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Through the school, yes.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Big! The U.S. Embassy alone has 130 direct hires. In addition to all the other embassies here (there are 40 some-odd missions), there are lots of international organizations and development agencies, and about half a dozen international schools.
2. Morale among expats:
Generally good. People know what they're getting into before they come and can make light of some of the challenges (poverty, congestion, traffic, pollution, lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy). There are lots of silly events throughout the year (goat races, costume balls, parties at the marine house or the nordic club). Some people are defeated by Dhaka, but I just stay away to keep my own spirits high.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of dinners/brunches/movie nights at people's homes. Expat clubs, parties, CLO trips... the usual fare.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
The majority of the embassy personnel are married with kids. Single people are by no means excluded, though. It's definitely not quiet or boring as a single woman, but it's a tough place to date.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Wouldn't be a problem if you came with a partner - As in most Islamic societies, public displays of affection are inappropriate for straight or gay couples, and it's normal for same sex friends to spend time together. There's a gay scene here, but I think it'd be lonely for a single gay person... your limited options for dating would just get smaller.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Anyone who doesn't look south Asian (whether you're White, Black, East Asian) will get stared at, but this is from curiosity rather than hostility.
Women get an extra large dose of staring. Men will take pictures of you with their camera phones. I've only ever gotten heckled once/twice (while jogging, which women don't do here).
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Expat clubs have pools, tennis, spas, restaurants, and bars (an important thing in a dry country). Lots of restaurants available. Active and fun Hash every weekend. Lots of socializing in people's houses. Domestic travel to the Sundarbans (mangrove forest) or Sylhet (the hilly, tea-growing area) and day trips to historic buildings. Cheap flights to Kolkata and Kathmandu (US$200). A trip to Bangkok will run you US$350-$400.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Pearls, textiles, brass sculptures, rickshaw art, handmade furniture/frames.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You can afford to have an awesome lifestyle here since the cost of living is low. Some people hire cooks, housekeepers (bearers), gardeners, drivers, and nannies. You can get things made here out of textiles (clothes, slipcovers, household textiles) and wood (furniture, frames) at a low cost. The weather is always warm. You can save money or you can travel around South and Southeast Asia. Expat clubs are a good social hub, and the Embassy community is supportive and tight-knit.
10. Can you save money?
Absolutely. It's a 30% hardship differential with a 15% SND. Cost of living is low. If you want to travel regionally, you'll not save as much, since cost of tickets out of Dhaka are high.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
This is a fine place to serve. I was directed here and have been making the best of it, but I would not bid again on Dhaka.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Skimpy clothes. Winter clothes. Outdoors equipment.
3. But don't forget your:
Stuff for home entertainment (parties, A/V equipment, home gym, play stuff for kids).
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Matir Moyna (the clay bird) is the most readily available in the U.S. The Amazing Race was here twice.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Tahmina Anam's A Golden Age and The Good Muslim (coming of age trilogy that parallels the birth of Bangladesh). The Bradt Guide is the best for domestic travel. Other books by Bengali Indian authors (Amitav Ghosh) can give you a good idea of what the culture and history is like. BBC, the Economist, and AlJazeera have good coverage of current events.