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.
On the road to Manikganj
Anyone with an interest in Bangladesh should check out the book called Freedom Unfinished by Jeremy Seabrook. It focuses on the activities of Proshika, an NGO with field offices throughout the country. Bangladesh has more NGO’s, local and international, then any other place in the world. The book’s format is a road trip through the country where he meets a variety of people and also interviews Proshika members who are working on educational, cultural and social projects. Since the book was written there has been some controversy surrounding the leader of the organization who was sent to prison on corruption charges a few years ago. I’m sure it’s a very complicated issue.
The view from my room at Proshika’s Guest House
Only a couple of hours away from Dhaka, Proshika runs an impressive hotel/guest house and conference center near a town called Manikganj, one of nicest areas I have visited in Bangladesh. After reading Seabrook’s book I was especially interested in seeing the place. On the day I arrived in late January there was a family social gathering for the employees of Grameenphone, one of the largest companies in Bangladesh founded by the Nobel Prize winner Dr. Yunnis. It reminded me of those corporate functions that we have in the States.
The best part of the trip was wondering through the villages in the area and visiting a combination country fair/market. These “mela’s” spring up all over Bangladesh and provide the locals – especially the young people with a chance to socialize and entertain themselves. Inside of a huge circus tent there was quite an “interesting” variety show with young girls mouthing the words of Hindi pop songs and dancing up a storm.
Bangladeshi workers returning home from the Mid East, Dubai
The majority of the passengers flying from Dubai to Dhaka were single men returning home from working in the Mid-East. The ones I spoke with were coming from Kuwait. With the global economic downturn I’m sure the situation isn’t good for them. The author James Novak in his book on Bangladesh “Reflections on Water” got it right 15 years ago and the situation hasn’t changed much since. On the first page he describes the middle aged expat NGO types flying into Dhaka for their meetings and conferences escaping the winter months of the USA and Europe. There were a few of them on my flight too.
The gate from Baridhara to the other Bangladesh
The taxi ride back into town felt strangely familiar. The local tea stall owner and rickshaw drivers in my neighborhood were in the same place as when I last saw them three weeks ago. Things appear chaotic at first glance but there is an hidden order to it. People have schedules and follow them to say nothing of all their hard work. Most of us would go off the deep end if we had to live that way for one hour.
Last weekend I went on a field trip with the art class from IUB led by professor Nazir Ahmed. He took over 70 students to the National Art Museum and a few other galleries. I love the creative projects he has done with students such as painting murals and launching exhibits on campus. Nazir studied in Norway and shares my taste for eclectic music. The permanent collection of paintings at the National Museum was a huge inspiration. World class artists with a variety of styles. Some even looked African influenced. I had never heard of these artists but am sure some of their work is in European museum collections.
Returned to Dhaka two days ago since classes resumed at IUB today. With only four million people Chittagong wasn’t exactly relaxing but definitely easier to navigate compared to Dhaka. I met with Alam Khorshed, a former engineer who studied and worked in the USA and Canada for 17 years. In 2004 he changed careers and established a cultural center called Bishaudbangla for the purpose of exposing Bangladeshi traditions- older and newer ones- to the younger generation. The place is very inviting and has a cafe/book store, gallery, offers Bangla language classes and sells beautiful clothes- a great chance to get some shopping done. One evening Alam and I went to an art exhibit by a local painter at the Alliance Francaise which was a lot of fun.
One of the things that struck me were the amount of hospitals in this city. There seemed to be at least one on every street- modern but shabby looking building that resembled a Motel Six. Alam remarked how private industry has caused this situation to explode. In the past, the government played a larger role in providing health care.
While photographing a marching band preparing for a gig in the old Portuguese district Shubasish Barua (his last name is very common among Buddhists in Bangladesh) appeared out of nowhere. He informed me that he was also a documentary photographer working for Drik Agency and in less then five minutes I was sitting in the living room of his families beautiful old home drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake. He excused himself as he was rushing off to a family function but I had a chance to have a good parent to parent talk with his 76 year old father that was very interesting! Never pass up an opportunity to talk with wise old men.
Ten minutes later my mobile phone rang and Shubasish arranged for a photographer friend of his to accompany me to Bandaban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I had already gone through the formalities of securing my travel permit from the district commissioner for the region since it is considered a sensitive area by the Bangladeshi Army. The next morning Tanvir and I were on our way.
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.
Rangpur, North Bengal
I got an early start from Sikkim and reached the Bangladesh border by early afternoon. Interesting to travel through three distinct countries cultures by land in half a day. First impression back in Bangladesh is the amount of people everywhere- even compared to India. Every few miles is another bustling village along the road. The entire country is the same size as Wisconsin with over 150 million people.
Yet another coincidence. Less then two hours into Bangladesh on a local bus, my mobile phone rang and it was Stijn Pieters, a Belgium photographer I had spent some time with a couple of months back in Dhaka. He called from Rangpur, the place I was heading to. We ended up traveling together in the region for the next four days. Some of the university and apartment building in Rangpur reminded me of Eastern bloc architecture. Just a few kilometers outside of town by richshaw we visited a village and were immediately welcomed by the local steering commitee of over 50 people.
I decided to visit Sikkim last minute without a travel permit but the customs officer at the border fortunately issued me one on the spot. Try doing that anywhere else! Getting to Sikkim was half the fun. I went by shared jeep from Kalimpong through gorgeous countryside. The passenger next to me who helped with the border crossing had a sister who was a brain surgeon in California. The scenery reminded me of the cascade mountains in Oregon. Clear blue rivers and dramtic mountain peaks. The only difference were the hundreds of monkeys that lined the road. Two Tibetan passengers told me they can be very aggressive and grab food right out of your hands if you leave the car window open.