Cars, refrigerators, computers, houses. Everything has a finite useful life. Some of these terminations we are conscious of, some just don't occur to us very often. I had never considered that cruise ships and oil tankers have a finite useful life. Until a random moment of procrastination at work led me across Edward Burtynsky's photos. Among piles of limestone, used tires, and scrap metal, there were photos of partly disassembled boats. Shipbreaking, the site told me. This photography subject was right up my alley, but surely I would never see such a thing in the United States.
Shipbreaking can only take place in rather specific circumstances: the location must be an easily accessible coastline, in a country with no environmental regulations, cheap labor, and no workplace safety regulations. Sure enough, the photo captions said the photos were captured in Bangladesh.
And by pure coincidence, Bangladesh was on my short list of destinations for my upcoming vacation. Now, I had a destination; Bangladesh was immediately promoted to the must-see list!
In the weeks preceding my departure, I described my newfound tourist attraction to my friends, whose reactions always began with their admittance of ignorance to the phenomenon of shipbreaking, and then followed with a shaking of their heads at my unique choice of goal.
My Lonely Planet had a small blurb on shipbreaking, and said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to witness, due to environmental groups such as Greenpeace making a big stink about the environmental and human impacts of such labor. Legions of men ripping apart ships the size of skyscrapers with their bare hands and feet, aided only by hammers and blowtorches, and protected only by the thin rags they wore to the job? I'd be damned if I wasn't going to see this with my own eyes, and bring back photos too.
A friend in London friend did a Google search and came across shipbreaking.net and sent me the link. By some mysterious coincidence, I recognized the site: the brother of an acquaintance had told me of his websites in the scrap metal trading industry at a party, years ago. And by some strange stretch, I had gone home and perused the sites. I knew someone in the shipbreaking business; perhaps I was close.
A phone call with the man gave me some insight into the shipbreaking business. A ship's life is generally over at 30 years. The margins on ripping apart a boat and selling the scrap are only feasible if the labor is cheap enough and if the boat owner doesn't have to pay to put the boat on a dry dock to rip it apart. A dry dock, of course, would contain the toxic waste that otherwise seeps out of the decomposing ship, but costs a ton of money to use.
"I fucking hate Greenpeace" declared the friend. They are the fucking bane of my existence. They always try to block my work and make it impossible or too expensive to do business."
Such was the tension between those concerned about making a living, versus those concerned about whether the earth can support the living.
The friend gave me an email address of a man in the scrap business in Chittagong, Bangladesh, but I never got a response, so I headed out to Bangladesh with only the goal of seeing this in action.
I stayed at the brand new Asian SR Hotel in Chittagong. It was an incredibly classy place, by third world or even first world standards, especially considering that I was sleeping in an air-conditioned, albeit windowless, room with cable for under $10 per night. At 8:00 AM my first morning, I came down to the kindly front desk attendant.
"Well, I think I need your advice on things to see today."
"What is it you would like to do?"
"I want to go to the shipbreaking yards, on the beach."
"Shipbreaking?" he knew what I was talking about. "I do not understand why you would want to see that."
I did my best to explain, but his bewilderment was as understandable as his countrymen's at my desire to visit their country in the first place. Regardless, he was incredibly helpful and offered a brand-new, air conditioned van with driver for $20 for the day. He gave the driver explicit instructions as to what I wanted to see, and promised me that my driver would speak decent English. This was going to be way easier than I expected.
Heading north along the coast, shops lining the road suddenly began selling somewhat unusual products. Rather than the typical pattern of restaurants, shoes, and house wares, I noticed doors, skinks, toilets, tiles, and giant metal boilers. We were in the right area. The driver hung a left onto a dirt road, and the gleaming white van slowly made its way towards the coast. At the end of the road, a fence with a door was the only object between me and the towering skeleton of a freighter. We'd arrived.
"I'll wait here," the driver told me. I was to get this going on my own.
I moved my camera bag behind me, and stepped through the door in the fence. Before me, a spacious dirt lot stretched to the water, piles of scrap metal here and there. Next to me was a small building, which I assumed was the office.
I simply poked my head in the doorway, and a group of Bangladeshis looked up, expectantly.
"May I look around?" I said, pointing at my eyes, and then the beach. The men nodded, and I stepped out. This was so easy!
At the shore, a giant ship carcass framed a worker who was sitting to take a rest. I couldn't resist, so I subtly slid my camera out, and snapped a shot. Within seconds I was surrounded.
"You're outta here!" was my estimation of what they were saying as they shook their heads and pointed towards the gate. I played dumb, and asked the driver to sort things out as they took me back to him. I played dumb and while they didn't say so, I knew they suspected me of being yet another Greenpeace hippy who was going to out them for their mistreatment of humans and the environment. No matter of assurance to the contrary was convincing them, so I left with my tail between my legs. Who could blame them? They needed to make a living. Maybe this wasn't going to be so easy.
The driver told me that I could go to the site next door, and pointed towards the path. Arriving there, it was clear that this was a former shipbreaking site. I didn't know how long the site had been abandoned, but the vegetation hadn't returned, leaving a nearly barren, filthy swatch of land stretching down to the shore. At the shore, I was amazed to see that the sand had taken on a nearly glowing green sheen, clearly due to the toxins spilled across it in large quantities. What initially appeared to me as very round black stones I realized later were balls of oil, congealed into spheres that collected along the shore. A handful of men trudged barefoot through the toxic landscape, ostensibly foraging for forgotten scraps. In the adjacent site, I saw men work their way around towering chunks of a freight ship that stretched easily 5 or 6 stories above them.
The site was between the one I had been extricated from, and another active site. I cautiously wound my way closer to the second site, and managed to squeeze off a couple photos before another site manager came over to wave me away. Just when I was beginning to feel I'd never get a shot in, another man appeared on the scene, calmed the other man down, and gestured to me to follow him. Having no idea what was in store, I plastered a huge I-come-in-peace grin on my face, and followed.
He led me slowly into the site, pointing at various large metal objects; boilers, blowtorch fuel tanks, and slabs of scrap metal. Having no common words between us, I communicated my interest with big eyes and "oohs" at the things he pointed at. It became clear that he was giving me a tour! I gestured to my camera, said "photo?" and pointed at a puddle of sludge with a lone shoe partially submerged. The man gave me one head tilt to the side, which I thankfully knew by now was an affirmative. Back on track with my photos.
As we walked deeper into the work site, a cacophony slowly grew. An incessant tink-tink-tinking rapid-fire and clearly not from one single source. As we crested a pile of scrap, I could see the origin of the din: numerous men squatting over giant slabs of metal, chipping away at the original paint with tiny hammers.
The men were dusted in a shower of tiny paint chips, and were protected from the noise and the particles only by their thin shirts, lungi, and sandals. One boy of about 15 had eye protection. The noise was fantastic, as was the seemingly glacial progress that anyone could ever make in trying to remove paint from billboard-sized slabs of metal with miniature hammers. This situation wasn't their fault, was it? They just needed a job to keep themselves and their families alive.
My guide walked me though the paint chippers, the paint scrapers, and the giant scrap pile. A few other site managers followed my guide's lead in welcoming me, and seized the opportunity to feel a little famous in letting me photograph them. The group of men then walked me to the site office, which made me a bit nervous, but there we only found the site boss, punching a few numbers into a pocket calculator amidst his grimy office. Behind him I noticed lockers marked "dust masks", "ear muffs", and "rain coat". I saw the boss reach into the ear muffs locker and I observed no such items, and I had already witnessed that none of his workers were wearing any. In fact, it struck me as odd that the lockers would be labeled in English. Perhaps they were there to deter nosy Greenpeace visitors.
After a visit to the office, my guide led me towards the jungle that stretched between the main road and the beach. Certainly there weren't any boats out here… why would he lead me this direction? I suppose that following a stranger into the jungle whose only communication was in nods and gestures would deter some travelers, but for some reason, I felt totally calm, and believed that I could trust my guide.
A trail wound into the jungle and then intersected with a dirt road lined with houses, some made of thatch, and some made of concrete. Laundry lines hung with lungi stretched here and there, and children and women scurried about, taking respectful glances at the stranger in their midst. My guide gestured at some of the people and animals, encouraging me to take photos. This was working out OK after all.
We wound through some gardens and back yards before coming upon a sizable, two story concrete house. We walked right in the front door and my guide gestured for me to sit on a couch in the living room. And who was I to protest? He was welcoming me into his home!
But rather than take a seat with me, the man walked out of the room, without any indication of where he was going. A minute or two passed before a man about my same age strode into the living room with a huge grin.
"Hello! How are you doing?" he asked with a note of excitement in his voice.
"What-well, I am fine! You speak English!"
"Yes, my name is Mizan and I am an English teacher, and the only person in this village who speaks English, so my friend brought you to me!"
Are you kidding me? What more could I ask for? This was working out quite well.
"Let me get you some food, some water!"
"Actually, I am fine, but thank you!" but Mizan insisted. "Actually, I should only drink bottled water here because there may be things in the water that do not work with my body."
"Oh, I know what you mean. However, I assure you that the water in my town is perfectly clean and pure!" Mizan assured me, bursting with pride. Who was I to disagree with him, but he wasn't fooling me for one second. Come on man, I had just seen the shit that is leaking out of those ships into the water and ground a few hundred feet away! It was a miracle Mizan didn't have three eyes!
Mizan hollered something in Bangla, and a moment later his mother came in with some naan for us to snack on. I explained to Mizan that I was here to see the shipbreaking, in the midst of a trip to a handful of countries. Mizan explained to me that he had graduated college a couple years before but was a pretty lazy guy and had not been in any hurry to find a real job. He was working a few days a week teaching English at nearby schools, and considering eventually moving out of his parents' home and taking up some responsibility on his own. His father was a businessman, working in the shipbreaking business, naturally. He didn't have any interaction with the people on-site, however Mizan explained that one of his college friends was a site manager, and that we could go out and see if I wanted. Did I ever.
First, Mizan wanted to change out of his casual lungi into pants, so we headed up to his room. As we ascended the concrete stairway, Mizan explained that his extended family all lived in his father's house, split up among the several bedrooms. Mizan's room had shabby, pinkish painted walls, a bed with a full bug net, a desk with a computer, and an acoustic guitar.
I commented on the guitar, and within minutes we'd established that we had numerous common interests ranging from a taste for music to an interest in tinkering on a computer. Mizan picked up his guitar and demonstrated his ability to play all sorts of important songs, including some choice Bryan Adams hits and The Eagles' Hotel California. Sweet.
So Mizan changed, and allowed me to use the bathroom, the condition of which he apologized as I entered.
"I am sorry my bathroom is dirty; I am very lazy!" he explained. Indeed, the thing was a sty. Not that it was that much worse than the hotels I'd been staying in, replete with scummy toilet and shower, ablution buckets with crusty handles, soap-scum streaked walls, and a healthy dose of little insects circling about.
A bit later, Mizan and I headed out to the sites. We started at the vacant site I had already visited. Mizan explained what I was seeing.
"Shipbreaking is becoming more popular here in Chittagong. Maybe ten years ago, we used to play on these beaches but now they are only for the ships. This site closed about seven years ago, and nothing grows back," he said, gesturing to the barren dirt around us. I asked about the men walking barefoot in the sludge along the shore. "They are looking for extra metal: see, they take the steel bar and push it into the ground. When they hear a noise, they know they find metal!"
Moving on, we approached another site, this one bustling with activity. Men were clustered in dozens of groups, each specializing in different tasks, and working diligently to at some gigantic, mangled hunks of ship which stuck out of the water at odd angles owing to their being off balance as pieces had been removed from them. Smoke curled through the site, as some rubbish was being burned. We approached a group chipping a yellow substance out of a gigantic piece of hull. I had an inkling about what I was seeing, but I wanted to confirm.
"What is, this?" I asked, gesturing at the men in front of me.
"Oooh, insulation. Very toxic." Asbestos. Most of the men working on this had gloves, to protect their hands as the chipped giant chunks of the carcinogenic insulator out of the metal, but there wasn't a respirator in sight. I could feel the cancer beginning to develop in my own lungs, just standing there.
The chunks of asbestos were being thrown right back into the ocean, and in the calm water broken by the stationary ships, the floating debris took on an appearance just like that of the garbage compactor in Star Wars. Whose responsibility was this? Whose fault? All of these people had just as much of a right to earn money for subsistence as the rest of us. What other options were available to them?
Looking around, I could never quite make sense of any organization or coherent strategy to the operation. I watched one man climbing untethered within a former boiler room, now at a 90 degree angle from its natural state. He wedged his way into a corner and went to work with a blowtorch on whatever piece of metal seemed to be in his way. Meanwhile, some men chipped out the tiles of a former array of restrooms, while others hauled giant steel beams from the water to piles on shore. No helmets, no respirators, no ear plugs, no harnesses, no life preservers, no sleeves, no goggles, few gloves, few boots, and a whole lot of brute force.
After visiting Mizan's friend, being treated to a snack of Coca Cola and some cookies, Mizan expressed that he had had enough of the sites. I got the impression that he was enjoying satisfying my interest, but that the sites depressed him. Mizan wanted to show me the park. So we located my driver, rounded up Mizan's cousin, and drove a minute over a hill from the ocean, and found ourselves in a lush park with a winding manmade lake and bushy green grasses everywhere. We drove by a golf course which Mizan explained was incredibly expensive and only top government officials and businessmen could afford memberships. Indeed, the course was empty. Who profited from shipbreaking? Apparently not even Mizan's father, who had a sizeable house but was not a member of the golf course.
After some mutually enlightening conversation about the disparity of the things we had been witness to that afternoon, we headed back to Mizan's house. That evening, we headed into town to meet a few of his friends, and enjoyed a dinner at their regular hangout. Three other young men, all fashionably dressed, took dinner here nightly, ordering the same thing every time. As we walked the city that evening, we saw a few younger women hustling from store to store, which always incited some hubbub among the guys. But being a Muslim country, the boys never engaged the girls, and only commented on which they liked the best.
Parting with the others, Mizan and I chatted as we strolled along the hot city streets.
"You can stay tonight at my home," offered Mizan. I smiled. I believe there to be a system of medals in my travels:
1) Bronze: Meeting and spending time with a local other than a tour guide.
2) Silver: Being invited to visit a local's home.
3) Gold: Being invited to stay at a local's home.
And the sometimes-applicable
4) Platinum: Having intimate relations with a local.
I strive for getting my medals. I feel that if I am interacting properly with the locals, that I will be rewarded with such offers, and get an experience far above and beyond what most tourists experience. As Mizan made his offer, I felt somewhat guilty thinking this, but I somehow knew that his offer was coming. And worse, I felt somewhat entitled to it. I knew this was a huge privilege and yet some sick part of me felt like I knew the travel pattern, and that this was my due. I banished the thought and graciously accepted.
As we walked, Mizan told me of his experiences in college, where he drank and partied with his friends, all guys of course. He even went to his first discos in college.
"Oh it was great fun. I was so overwhelmed!"
"Did you dance?"
"I did, but I had to stop after I went fagging with some of my friends."
Fagging? It took me a moment before I realized he meant smoking. "Oh? You smoked?"
"Yes, hashing," he said with a smile.
"Oh? Marijuana?" I asked, incredulous.
Yes indeed, we had another thing in common. The last thing on earth I ever expected a Jew to have in common with a Muslim aside from beliefs in a single god.
"We can fag when we get to my house tonight!"
I hoped I understood his words correctly.
On the way home, Mizan stopped out rickshaw at a little snack stand, where we purchased some cakes and candies, in preparation for our night time activities.
Back at his place, Mizan pulled out a plastic baggie of somewhat brownish, dry weed and carefully rolled it into a spliff. He explained we would have to smoke on the small patio outside his door, and would need to do it with 'neemah'.
"What is neemah?"
"Silence. Total concentration," he said, in a hushed voice.
Out on the porch, not a word was spoken as we took deep drags off his spliff, holding them as long as possible, and gently exhaling, Mizan with a little bit of a zen expression on his face. Sufficiently buzzed, we went back into his room. Mizan was very excited that I shared an interest in music, so he pulled out his pride and joy: an extensive collection of Bryan Adams concert videos.
Now, we all know that the Canadian government has apologized for Bryan Adams on several occasions. How such a hack can gain such universal third-world exposure and acclaim is beyond me. And while I couldn't genuinely share Mizan's giddiness at the songs, I certainly did share the excitement of the spirit of the thing. That I, an American Jew was sitting in a home with a Bangladeshi Muslim, high from "fagging hash" and watching live Bryan Adams on a computer. God bless this planet earth and the strange situations that befall us walking its surface.
As we watched the videos, my mind wandered a little bit. I thought about how lucky I was to be in this situation, and wondered whether I ever would arrive in a similar one if I was traveling with company. I had definitely had a great time traveling with George in China, and I was feeling somewhat lonesome in these countries, but I had always tempered that feeling with my earnest pursuit of my medals, which are essentially structured around finding company in locals rather than people I already know.
I travel alone for a number of reasons. I believe that when exploring a city, two that know each other are too easily focused on each other, and miss the details of the world around them. I feel that two talking with each other in a foreign language makes them unapproachable by the locals. I feel that two traveling together don't need as much help from locals and are less likely to look to them for assistance. And I know that it is much more difficult to disagree with myself about an issue, be it where to eat or what to do with the day, than if there is another independent mind present.
Back home, I had a dwindling relationship. I missed her. But with her being fashionable, not interested in walking for days on end, loud, insensitive to others' perceptions of her, and meticulously clean, I wondered whether she, or any other woman for that matter, would be able to share these adventures with me. Will I have to sacrifice these experiences in order to settle down with someone? Or am I destined to a life of solitude, either searching endlessly for a fictional woman who can share this with me, or choosing never to get into a permanent relationship because out of fear of losing my ability to have these experiences?
Indeed, I don't think that there is too much coincidence that I hadn't taken one of my trips since I entered the relationship, and took one immediately as we began to separate. It pained me; for all the earnestness she had in being part of my life, I had never heard her outright say "I want to do that." She had suggested Paris, London, shopping destinations and places I love but not as much as the thrill of the third world. But part of the blame must rest upon me too, for I had never truly asked her whether she would be interested in my kind of travel. And I still have yet to overcome my concern that in traveling with another, I would not find myself in the unique situations I was experiencing right at that moment.
It was late. We'd seen Bryan Adams rock a million faces in a million places, and my mind had run me around in some exhausting and sullen territory. Mizan suggested we sleep. He had failed to mention earlier that he didn't have a guest bed, and that we would be sharing his. I had to roll with it; at this point I was in no position to object. How was this going to work? What were his intentions, this man who has yet to be with a woman, and who spends his time with all of his guy friends?
Mizan began preparing the bed, which was hard wood with a blanket on top of it. "I don't like a soft western bed," he explained, though I suspected it probably wasn't even much of an option out there. Mizan began unraveling his bug net and tucking it under the mattress around the perimeter of the bed. This was going to be cozy. Suddenly, paranoia snuck up on me; suddenly all his friendliness seemed a little suspect, Was all of this interaction just a ploy to get me into bed?!
In all of my travels, every trip seems to feature some similar incidents:
1) I get sick in one way or another
2) My life is directly threatened in one way or another
3) I am victim of an overt, uninvited homosexual come-on
Hadn't I already had all three, between the fever in Yangon, the driver in Beijing, and the pervert in Bangalore?
I stripped down to my boxers and left a shirt on; Mizan peeled down to his skivvies as well. Directed to enter the bed first, I obeyed, peeling back an opening in the bug net, and ducking in. Mizan joined me, tucking under the last of the bug net once he was inside. I was up against the wall, no escape route for me.
That night, there were no come-ons from Mizan. I wrapped myself tight in a blanket, and experienced only a few strange moments of a dream where there were hands reaching for me, but when I opened my eyes, Mizan was gently snoring next to me. The rest of the night was peaceful, interrupted only by the occasional distant boom as large pieces of retired tankers were leveled, gently rocking the entire house from hundreds of feet away.