In Khulna I gravitated towards the docks along the Rupsha river. Over-sized motorized row boats ferry passengers across the river in a couple of minutes. For those of you not from Bangladesh that boat hanging in mid air is the symbol for the Awami League, Sheik Hasina’s political party. Their slogan from last December’s election was “Vote for the Boat.”
Near the muddy banks of the river there are many shrimp processing plants and timber mills. At first I assumed the man with his head chopped off in the above photo was the girls father but by the way he held her that apparently was not the case. Although he was playful and laughing the situation was disturbing. I photographed it the way I felt it. Lost childhood…most everyone in this country grows up before their time.
It was a Friday and most of the men were dressed in freshly washed white Punjabis on their way to the Mosque. It struck me that there is a stronger Islamic presence in Khulna- so many of the women who ventured out on the streets were covered from head to toe in black.
On the road in Khulna
Bangladesh must have one of the highest rates of vehicle accidents in the world. I was traveling in Khulna last week and read the article below in the newspaper. It occurred on the same road I was traveling on only one hour later.
Khulna, Bangladesh – Two speeding passenger buses crashed into each other in southern Bangladesh on Thursday, killing at least 11 people and injuring another 50. Rescuers recovered the bodies of nine people from the wreckage after the collision in Bagerhat district, south of the capital, Dhaka, United News of Bangladesh said. About 50 injured people, some in serious condition, have been taken to hospitals, the report said, quoting unnamed police sources. The report provided no further details. Fatal road accidents, blamed on rash driving and faulty vehicles, claim some 12,000 lives each year in Bangladesh, according to government figures.
The bus that I was on was completely chaotic. The teenager who collected the fares was physically abusing some of the passengers. I gave him a piece of my mind after he pushed a woman passenger with her child to the back in order to squeeze more people in. It was good that I did. The next time he passed me he kept saying “sorry.” What was more disconcerting was the driver who intermittently kept turning his head around for a few seconds while driving.
Nodda Bazar, Dhaka
One of the things that awes me every day in Dhaka is how in the midst of what looks like a post apocalyptic scene something of beauty will appear out of nowhere. Only couple of blocks from my guest house lies one of the busiest intersections in the city. Crossing that wide avenue of eight lanes with no traffic signals requires enormous stamina and determination. It’s clogged with trucks, buses, cars, rickshaws animals, etc, etc. The sound of blasting horns rattles your brain. On the corner of that street I looked up a few mornings ago and saw these two girls on their way to school. This is one of the perks of being a photographer in Dhaka. If you go out with an open mind you are bound to be surprised and charmed by the people. Like the old national Geographic photographers used to say : “F8 and be there.”
Waiting to get picked up by this ocean liner
I shot this from a much smaller oversized row boat on the last day of 2008. I was getting a bit antsy hanging around my guesthouse these past few days so decided to take a boat to a town nearby called Munshiganj (pronounced Moon- she -gansh). Sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss. The idea of sitting on the upper deck of a boat with the sun on my back and watching the Buriganga river go by sounded like a relaxing way to spend the day. The trip over was calm enough with only a few people on the upper deck. Most were camping out below- huge families. Packed. It looked like a giant pajama party with Hindu musicals on the television.
The town was pleasant enough with several huge ponds the size of a city block surrounded by houses on four sides. Two young men from the local university got hold of me- this usually takes about 10 seconds to happen in Bangladesh. Their English was very good so at least we could communicate. They took me to their school and I thought this is a Bangladeshi version of Reed College complete with a quad/green area. I got to even meet a very talkative Chemistry major.
Had my usual lunch when I’m away from the guesthouse. A big plate of Indian samosas stuffed with potatoes and peanuts with tea and milk. I discovered a small street with men crouched in open air shops writing documents- some even with computers. They were translating and processing information for people who are illiterate. There must have been a dozen stalls set up for this purpose alone. When one man asked me where I was from and I told him Am-mer-reeka he smiled a called me a terrorist. First time that ever happened. A minute later he insisted on ordering me a cup of tea so I guess he wasn’t too hostile.
Back at the boat terminal over sized row boats ferry passengers out a few hundred feet and these huge steamers carrying what looked like over a thousand people stop in the middle of the river to drop off and pick up new customers. It’s pandemonium as the ship hands are selling and collecting little pieces of paper ticket out in the middle of the river. The return fare for the two hour trip was 40 cents. The ship going back was packed. Nowhere to sit on the upper deck. Only enough room to stand packed with everyone else except for a few people who spread out blankets and camped out on the floor. I tried not to think about those stories buried on the back page of the newspaper reporting several hundred people drowned off the bay of Bengal. We passed ship building docks and brick factories and as we got closer to Dhaka I noticed that they must be pumping an awful lot of raw sewage into the river. More pandemonium as we arrived unloading passengers. Absolutely amazing the way those ships come barreling into the terminal and somehow manage to squeeze into the tiny spaces allotted to them. Very typical of the premium for space in this country and the way people adapt to it.
Beautiful eleven hour train ride up to Dinajpur, close to the India border. It was nice to get “off the road” from the blasting horns and watch the landscape of green and yellow mustard fields go by. At the train station a man waits for me with a flower. It’s Siful, the driver who takes me back to NGO where I’ll be staying for five days. Mesbah is a student at IUB and his mother’s family runs Aloha Social Services of Bangladesh. She has been a woman’s activist for over twenty years. The name of the NGO was inspired by some of the doctors who come over from Hawaii every year to provide medical care. They also partner with a German NGO called Shanti. This region is one of the poorest parts of the country.
‘Local” buses in North Bengal
I wasn’t planning to be in Bangladesh for all of the cow sacrifices but ended up celebrating Eid-Ul-Azha. with Mesbah and family. We took a few side trips to Thakurgaon and Saidpur and there learnt the important meaning of the word “gate lock”. The only problem was that all of the buses in the area were not “gate locked” so they stopped every other mile to pick up and stuff in as many passengers as possible.
Early this morning Salman and I took a ferry boat along the Buriganga river to the town of Narayanganj It was calming to sit on the upper deck and watch the view especially since the skies have cleared the past week and temperatures have slightly dropped. We saw many brick factories along the way looking like phallic totems. Smaller boats transporting sand and bricks plyed the river. I had heard that Narayanganj is known for it’s weavers but all we saw were garment factories- some very modern looking on the outside- lining the road. Upstairs in one of the dark allyways filled with smaller tailor workshops we talked with young boys who were sewing designs and lettering on “designer” tee-shirts. The same story is heard over and over again. People migrating from the villages flocking to urban areas to find work. In this case the boys were given food and lodging and only small monetary compansation a few times a year.
Along the tracks, Moughbazar
Something has happened photographically this past week. Things are beginning to flow again. For days on end the past couple of weeks I would go out but return feeling depleted with little to show for my efforts. Am finding that using my tiny point and shoot camera helps me work faster without having to bring the camera up to my eye. That spilt second can make a huge difference. With such a small camera it also feels as though there is less interference between me and what I’m seeing and photographing.
I’m afraid there is no other side here. Have been photographing along the train tracks that run through Dhaka this past week. Went out with my video camera for the first time two days ago. This is what I saw and heard:
—Old and young men breaking rocks with a hammer by hand- with the sound of the train whistle in the background- the construction industry needs material
—A train passing by just a few feet away from a tea stall- shot from the inside with beautiful light
—A room full of men watching Bangladeshi music videos- a mini cinema
—Men barely protecting their eyes while sparks are flying as the melt steel
—Garment workers crossing the tracks on their way to work, a common site all over town, they walk up to five km to save on bus fare always looking so joyful in their colorful flowing sari’s all laughing and walking together
Yesterday after teaching two classes and holding office hours I wasn’t planning to go out shooting but I had to seize the moment. One of my students in the photo workshop came up after class and asked for some tips on how to operate his new digital camera. It turned out that he lived in the same place I was filming the day before. Since he was heading home I asked if I could accompany him. Out of a city of 12 million we ended up back at the exact spot from where I filmed the same old man breaking the same old rocks the day before. Having my student translate and ask questions in Bangla was a huge help. His house was also along the tracks not more then 30 feet where he lived with his extended family of 30 people including aunts, uncles and cousins. His father owns the local dealership for Yokohama tires but that’s another story I will save for later.