The Emperor Who Lost His Empire – the Phouska Maker

The tale is one told many times over. Once upon a time, his family owned the whole neighborhood. Then, due to a Shakespearean turn of luck or plain greed, his family lost everything but the tiny phouska business.

The phouska seller in his shop.

The shop is located in a typical Dhaka locale. Off a main road, down another smaller street (alley is how some would describe it), and then left onto yet an even smaller street.

Phouska with sauce.
He tried to refuse our money.

Phouska are the traditional golf ball sized fried shells filled with chick pea (garbanzo) and spices appetizer/snack served at weddings and street corners. The way to eat them is to make an indent into the chick pea filling, pour the tamarind and chili sauce into the hole you’ve made, and use your hand to pop the phouska into your mouth.

The phouska seller was so pleased that my colleague had come back to his shop (he had had him cater to his wedding), that he didn’t want him to pay for our food. But, fortunately, my colleague paid for it (20 Taka/25 cents per plate).

Drinks were bought at another store while we waited. We ate quickly and ate a second round quickly as the mosquitoes were swarming around our ankles making us all do the tappy dance with our feet while we ate.

The phouska kitchen.

We will be back (with bug sprayed feet).

Kerosene Rickshaw

The night in Dhaka arrives around 6 pm. It is pitch dark on some streets (the potholes and dogs are only some of the obstacles). In Baridhara, the rickshaws are required to have a light on their rickshaw at night. Currently, they use open flame kerosene lanterns attached underneath the seat of the rickshaw…

Rickshaw is in the middle.

I wish that they would be retrofitted with pedal power LED lights… maybe there is an organization out there with this plan? Also, since rickshaws are extremely decorated, it would be nice to have reflective material used as part of the decoration. Just a thought.

Outdoor Toilette and Toilet of Televisions

Bangladesh is full of contrasts.

The toilet of music videos.

The “wash rooms” range from a bucket or oil drum of water — to those with plumbing and seated toilets. And then there is more — In one of the fancy new restaurants, there is a fully-mirrored toilet with two flat screen televisions embedded into the walls over the sink…

Typical scene behind the scenes of Dhaka.

Bangladeshi Fashion Designer

Another reason I’m enjoying Dhaka is because I get to see things that make for great stories (and blog postings). Getting a tour of a fashion house was an unexpected surprise!

A tailor at Kahon, Story of Stitch.

I had my Holud saree made by Sharmin, a fashion designer who has her own house of fashion, Kahon, Story of Stitch. I met Sharmin at a bazaar. She made my saree solely based on my verbal instructions. She finished it in time, emailed me that it was ready for pickup… but I could not get to her shop in time… because it was so important that I get my saree on time, she delivered it to my house! She even brought one of her tailors with her in case last minute adjustments needed to be made. What service!

Then she offered that I should come visit her “shop” in Tejgaon, the industrial park. (she has since moved her store upmarket:¬†Dhanmondi-27, House-41, 3rd floor. Opposite the Dhaka bank. Her shop is in a building set back a bit from the main road) My friend offered to take me there. We handed the phone to the driver who listened to the complex directions and then we set off. Tejgaon is an area that can only really be visited on a Friday when the traffic is lighter (think Sunday in the US). We got to the area via a major road and then started down a road only big enough for rickshaws. Then we turned down a warren of streets and stopped at a gate. We had arrived.

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We saw no sign but once we got the guard to open the gate, then we were led past the guards’ room (a flat bed tucked in under the stairs), we entered the fashion house. We were greeted warmly by Sharmin and her family. We were lead into the salesroom past the hallway with four or five rooms filled with the hum of workers. Sewing machines lined the hallway ready for a surge during wedding season. Almost everything is made in Sharmin’s shop. She designs the applique pieces and stamps for block prints before designing the fashions (via computer) which are then cut and sewn by her team of tailors.

We chose many clothes and Sharmin took the time for us (demanding) customers even though she was also in the middle of delivering to the stalls are the International Trade Fair. She sells some clothes under her own brand, Kahon, while much of her clothing is sold (and marked up!) by other shops in Dhaka. We were excited to buy from the source and get some of the fashions even before the style was launched (very exciting for one fashionista moment). Many thanks to Sharmin and her husband for being so friendly.

Once I’ve taken some photos, I’ll post more on clothes and fashion in Dhaka.

To Market; To Market!

Zucchini (courgette) flowers make it all look pretty.

A local market in Gulshan (warning: some of the photos may be “raw” to some people) is hidden down an alley. One of my friends took me there knowing that this place provides blogworthy photo opportunities. Someone told me that if the fish do not have flies on them, then you should be worried because those are the fish that are soaked in formaldehyde to keep them “fresh” looking…

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While the market provided some really glamorous photo-ops, it also was a place where you do not want to wear low-dragging slacks, bellbottoms, or skirt. Also, this is not the place for those sensitive to “market” smells. The prices at the market can be good ($2 for a bunch of lettuce) and the variety is fairly similar to some places in the US, the shopping basket is very different (large and carried on head by your errand boy). Make sure to pay him. This is his workplace too.

Our errand boy carried our groceries around on his head.

The Good Realities of Life in Dhaka

Now that I wrote about the “realities” of life in Dhaka, I’ll tell you some of the “good realities” of life here in Dhaka.

Flower wallah.

Industriousness: Everywhere. Every time the car slows down, three or four hawkers will come tap on the window and try to get you to buy their wares. Some of the most common items for sale are poster-size laminated maps of Dhaka, the counties, and Bangladesh… flowers, and plastic food containers. Everywhere you look, you will see people doing something. Of course, there are beggars lying on the side of the road, but mostly, you’ll feel the hum and buzz of millions of boys, girls, and adults trying to sell you something. When you park your car, there will be someone there “guarding” your car — sometimes a boy trying to earn 20 Taka (25 cents).

Help: Household help is inexpensive. A full-time nanny costs $100-200 (per month). People are eager to work and they specialize in their field so some families employ the following specialized employees: cook, nanny (ayah), cleaner, bearer (someone who bears/carries things like tea), driver, gardener, and an assortment of combinations of these.

Commerce: Tailor-made clothing is easily at hand. $7 for a shirt. There are tailors all over. Some even come to your house. You can get manicures and massages in the convenience of your own home for very little money. Art supplies like oil paint cost about a fifth of the price in the US. Canvasses (which can be made to order) for painting are a tenth of the price ($5 for a large canvas that costs $50 in the US). Local fruits and vegetables are inexpensive if you shop where the locals shop and haggle like a local.

City life: I’m eating my way through the restaurants of Dhaka. There are many. This is a mega-city in a surge of rapid growth. If you like cities, dirty warts and all, then this is for you.

Adrenaline junkies: Driving in Dhaka is like being in a video game.

Bloggers and National Geographic types: At any moment something will happen that your audience might find a photo-worthy moment. I try to sit with my camera in my lap on almost every car ride. There are no dull days here. Today, I saw a small fluffy dog being walked from a rickshaw… if only I’d had my camera out then…

Mirror on Rickshaw.

Smiles: There are 15 million people in Dhaka so you might get 500 smiles a day. Not everyone smiles, but if you smile at them… they might smile at you.

The Realities of Daily Life in Dhaka

***September 2013*** This blog posting continues to get read, so I thought I’d make sure it was still up to date. It is. Still “same, same” as those t-shirts in Cambodia and Thailand keep saying, saying.

I thoroughly enjoy Dhaka, but it occurred to me that some of you might want to know the “realities” of life in Dhaka for an expat like me. So here are some of the “different” things I’ve noticed so far:

Window cleaners… no safety lines…

I already mentioned the ever pervasive groupies called mosquitoes so we’ll skip those this time.

Otherwise, black snot. Terrible pollution (some get a constant cough). Tepid showers. Dirt. Dust. Hawking (phlegm being brought up). Public urination (and more). Mind boggling traffic. Scrapes to your car. Car crashes. Lack of safety rules. Beggars. Constant hassling when you go out. Staring. Wild dogs roving the streets. Feral cats too. Inflated “foreigner” prices. No traffic rules. No right of way (well, yours, or biggest goes first). No speed limit signs. Addresses known by the house’s name and not number. Lots of cussing (from foreigners driving). Funky smells every day. Bugs. Piles of dirt. Constant noise.

Scene from the car.

And more on the “huh, hadn’t thought of that!” sort of category… there are no cookie sheets here (since they use tandoor ovens so the cookies would have to be slapped on the sides like naan). Buttons are expensive (50 cents/button). In terms of imported foods, for example, you can buy tomato paste here… but instead of Costco’s price of $5 for six mini cans, it’ll be $4 for one large can. Celery is imported from Thailand and costs $12! Mushrooms are hard to find. ***much has changed in 18 months and some things are easier to find.***

Also, another thing that is different… although it seems odd to think that you would need lots of laundry detergent or plastic garbage bags etc, the actual reason that you would need so many things is that your household help will go through the stuff EVERY day… like literally a plastic trash bag every single day! You can try to teach them not to do this…

So, many of these “realities” are chandelier problems (as in “which chandelier shall I buy?”) but depending on the person, these can be big issues. Not to me. But, perhaps, I am in still in the honeymoon phase of my Bangladeshi experience… ***no longer in the honeymoon phase but all these truths are true.***

The King’s Bread is Buttered

Flaky, buttery, doughy, stretchy bread makes me happy… and today I found my European-style bread source in Dhaka.

Buttery and flaky pastries aglow in King's Confectionery.

King’s Confectionery is on Road 11 in Banani. Once a day at 7:30 in the morning, the bread truck arrives and delivers freshly baked French bread… and so much more. When you go inside, you take a round teak tray and tongs to choose your baked goods. You can take the croissants, breads, quiches, etc. home or eat it here. There is a seating area inside (spare and sparse) and a pleasant looking garden courtyard. They serve fresh brewed espresso (we’ll try that another time). I was so excited by the smells and array that I started taking photos… until I was told that no photography was allowed… so enjoy the photos (or go to the store yourself)!

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The Land of Pearls

The number one item to buy in Dhaka is fresh water pearls.

Checking to see how the pearl necklace "falls."

I paid 1,800 Taka ($21) for five strands of pearls. Apparently, you can test if they are real by rubbing the pearl against your tooth to feel for sandy texture. Or you can set flame to he pearl. I did neither of these things. I figure that it looked nice, the salesman was good at his job, and he strung those pearls up in a flash. You can ask for a knot to be tied between each pearl if you want them to be more secure (the end of the string is melted into the clasp), but you have to ask.

Why You Should “Dhaka” Your Head

Bangla is still a mystery to me but I’ve learned that “Dhaka” actually means “cover” and I’m beginning to see why I might cover my head when I go out and about in Dhaka.

Open sewer, tree, dirt road, chicken bone...

The other day, I went walking to market. I walked up a busy road so I stuck to the side of the road (most of the residential roads are not that busy so I walk down the middle navigating around the potholes and moist patches). In my neighborhood (which is the wealthy area), the sides of the roads sometimes have a few stretches of sidewalk but mostly, there are piles of dust and dirt where it’s been swept into piles.

This particular day, I was walking along a road with trees on the left side (yes, I should walk on the other side so that I can face oncoming traffic. Sorry, parents!) because I figured that I could scuttle from tree to tree and be slightly protected. It should be said that when I go out, I usually wear some form of shawl or scarf. I recently bought an out-size one and I like that it can cover almost all of me (both from dust and stares). So I set out with my newly washed hair flowing behind me. Suddenly, something dropped on my head! I tentatively tapped my head to feel for viscous guano (wet bird poop) and felt nothing. That was more worrying but I saw that an electrical cable had come loose and hit me on the head on it’s way down a tree. Just one of those things. I don’t know what crud had accumulated on that cable but I wish I’d had my head covered.

Then I continued down the street and… plop! I hear the sound of something hitting the ground. Right next to me, next to the cement foot for a metal pole and a tree… is a chicken bone… imagine if that had hit my head? I look up to see what is causing this commotion above my head. I see a black crow watching me giving me a territorial stare. Or maybe he was telling me to cover my head!

Bangladeshi Wedding Ceremony

After the Holud on another moonlit night, another wedding ceremony takes place.

Closeup of Bride's henna...

This ceremony is much less intimate with 1,000 guests invited. They come by SUV, white car with tinted windows, black car with tinted windows, and rickshaw. The groom and his family haggle to gain entrance and to cut the red ribbon held by the bride’s family. The bargaining and trash talking is done with good cheer. Once the groom enters, the couple sit through many photos up on a decorated stage. The bride wears red. The groom and many of the male guests wear business suits. After many photos, the 1,000 guests find tables to sit at. They are fed pilau (rice), chicken curry, goat, potatoes, and salad. The drink available is “burrhanee” – a spiced yogurt drink made of cumin and other spices plus black salt (which gives the drink its sulfuric aroma).

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After a few hours, the bridal party moves to their table to eat. A cooked and decorated kid is brought to them a a special food. Then, the bridal couple return to the stage to exchange flower garlands and to do the mirror ceremony. During this, they look into a mirror and say what they see. He said, “I see a princess…” and she said, “I see my everything.”