844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Abandon Ship - Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards (Bangladesh)

On Feb 1st I made my way to the ship-breaking yards north of Chittagong along with my guide Rahmat, an employee at my hotel. After breakfast I found Rahmat waiting for me in front of the hotel along with a CNG (autorickshaw). We hopped in and were on our way. Although I was skeptical, Rahmat assured me he could gain access to a section of the shipyards lining the shore and, more importantly, provide me with an opportunity to take as many photos as I liked. My original plan was to make my way North of Chittagong solo with only a small compact camera and a shitload of perseverance. But as luck would have it I met Rahmat. 

Not only did my new friend claim to have a pal working there he told me he himself spent three months as an employee. After a half hour drive we took a left down a dirt road that snaked through a village area and eventually ended at some makeshift corrugated tin shops catering to shipyard workers. He told me to wait in the CNG while he surveyed the situation and recommended I hide my camera (larger one) until we were closer. I did as he suggested and wore my camera under my shirt. Bond. James Bond.

A few moments later he ushered me forward and we walked together through a tin barricade towards the shore. Surprisingly, nobody stopped us. At any moment I expected someone to intervene and send my ass packing. It did not happen.

And there I was. All along the shore as far as I could see were gargantuan vessels in varying stages of deconstruction stranded in the mud. Absolutely amazing. I'd entered a new world. We approached a group of gentlemen that appeared to hold some sort of oversight capacity. Again I was expecting at any moment some form of protest by a foreman or supervisor but it did not come. I was under the impression that strangers with cameras were not popular. These operations are magnets for bad press (and for good reason).




Although I was uneasy for the first twenty minutes my concerns were unwarranted as the 'friend' he spoke of was actually his cousin and one of the folks in charge was his uncle (This is how he came to be employed there himself). I was given free rein to have at it. Not only did I snap somewhere in the neighborhood of a bazillion photographs I also shot a little video. Everyone seemed to be at ease with my presence and many of the workers were requesting photographs. I can only assume Rahmat assured them I was not a journalist or activist but I am still shocked they were so nonchalant about the whole affair.

So what did I see? More like what didn't I see. When the cost of refitting an aging vessel becomes cost prohibitive it is sent to places like Chittagong to be dismantled and sold for scrap. Initially, these super tankers and other large ocean going vessels are driven full speed ahead until they are beached as close as possible to the high tide line. This is often still a considerable distance from the shore so workers are required to trod through the mud and begin their efforts where the ships come to rest. As these ships are torn asunder many of the pieces, chunks, and fragments are dragged to the shore via small and large flat sheets of metal entirely by manpower.

There was a small section of a ship being dismantled in the very spot where I stood. Tools of choice? Sledgehammers and blowtorches. Some of the folks working on the second level of what remained of a vessel were so excited to see me there they motioned for me to climb up and join them. I could not resist but I'd be lying if I said it was not apparent, even without the benefit of retrospect, that it was not the safest of undertakings. Still, the temptation was too much for me so I climbed a particularly unstable metal ladder and had a look at the 'operation'. As I stood up there trying to imagine what it would be like doing this day in and day out with little or no safety gear a skittish supervisor thought it a bit much and implored me to descend. No reason to push my luck so I complied.

The shipyards have no shortage of danger. It is everywhere. Rahmat told me that people had died the week before (four if memory serves) and that severe injury and death were an all too common occurrence. Labor is cheap. Regulations are non-existent. It gets worse. Some of the 'men' working there had conspicuously youthful appearances. Appearances were not deceiving. I discovered a 13-year-old boy in the mix but I am certain a few others were no older than 10 or 11.

I asked Rahmat why he worked there and why he'd quit. Family strife (his father had been beating him) forced him to run away. This is where he ran. As you can guess the pay is extremely 'good' for the underprivileged. Rahamt told me he earned 6000 taka ($85) per month. So that's roughly three dollars a day to consistently put one's life on the line. He was fairly lucky as he found himself in the middle of the pay scale. The children I encountered fared much worse. According to Rahmat they were lucky to earn 3500 taka ($50) per month. I am sure the salary 'skyrockets' if you have a skill (welding, metal working, equipment operator, etc.) but for many this is not the case. 

After three months he'd had enough. The danger was too high so he quit and returned home. It was unclear if he ever told his parents where he'd been. Rahmat is hoping to eventually find work in Dubai but the cost of the visa is prohibitive ($200-$300). Will he return to the yards? Hard to say. I certainly hope not.

After taking some shots of the shoreline and vicinity I asked if it would be possible to go further out and tread through the mud. No problem. We simply doffed our footwear and started slithering seaward . Not only was the mud extremely slippery but I also had to be on guard for pieces of protruding metal and other possible hazards hidden just beneath the surface. Prudence dictated I follow close behind Rahmat. Notwithstanding physical dangers I can only imagine what types of toxic chemicals are embedded in that mud and the surrounding area (I hear PCB-laced mud does wonders for skin rejuvenation).

What a scene. On one side was a large ship with its skeleton exposed and on the other the silent leviathans awaiting the execution of their death sentence. Partial corpses were strewn about , each disintegrating day by day as pieces were removed and carried away.

In the distance I witnessed workers going about their duties, appearing like ants juxtaposed along the behemoths of the sea. Hard to believe flesh and blood humans were capable of dismantling such giants. It seems a more appropriate task for titans or futuristic robots, not mere mortals.





























Rahmat and I





So I stood there in the mud trying to digest the reality of what I was witnessing. Any way you slice the scene was a constant human tragedy unfolding. Children without a childhood? Men without a choice? A government without a conscience? No, that's too easy. Nothing is black and white. Nothing is ever that simple. Child labor is a terrible reality but what other options are there? Take away their jobs and where does that leave them? Their families? Is inherently dangerous work better than no work at all? Increase oversight. Increase safety standards. Lower profits. Lower wages. Choices. Terrible, terrible choices. You could blame the government I suppose but before pulling that trigger you might want to delve into the history of this star-crossed nation. You will find uffering and tragedy on an Grecian scale. There is a reason why Henry Kissinger once referred to Bangladesh to the 'basket case of Asia'.

To say I was ambivalent as I left that scene would be an understatement. I thanked all who were present for allowing me to wander around. More smiles. More of those damn smiles that carry with them irony, pathos, longing, hope, and a dozen other emotions and sentiments that tug at those existential heartstrings. 


I am nobody
And nobody is me
Nobody is bound, but
Nobody is free
I've found nobody
And nobody's found me
Nobody is blind, but
Nobody can see...

On the way back we stopped at what can only be described as a lifeboat graveyard. All those lifeboats and no one to save. We also stopped at one of the many shops along the road that sell anything and everything related to life on the sea. 

Barometers, clinometers, clocks, sextants, compasses, nautical telescopes, radios, wooden steering wheels, and maps were all on display. I felt a little like a kid in toy store. Unfortunately, Rahmat had to get back to work so I had no time to unbury the treasures I knew lay within. However, I returned the following day with my friend Andy in tow. On account of his myriad purchases the owner looked favorably upon me and sold me a brass hand held telescope for the bargain price of $14. At least it felt like a bargain but then again it was probably the 'you're too ignorant know the difference' price. Doesn't really matter because I am now the proud owner of a heavy, semi-bulky, and impractical nautical telescope. I might regret it if I did not look so ridiculously majestic and irresistible when wielding it. That's Captain Ploomer to you matey! Just give me an eye patch, a hook, and a peg leg and I'll be ready to start plundering the seven seas. Arrrrrrgh!!! 










02/07/10

18 comments:

  1. Hello Rich,

    Riveting stuff. Mindblowing pictures, video, and tales of your Bangladesh sojourn. Did I say I nearly died laughing too, with your commentaries? I'm a Bangladeshi myself (from Chittagong, actually), and until I got hold of a camera and started travelling myself, I didn't know what the big deal was in my own country.

    I am planning to go to the shipyards myself in a month's time, and as a woman, I imagine my experience will be a little different (in that I may not even get in... ). You wouldn't happen to remember which hotel Rahmat worked at, did you? (ie where you stayed). I figure I need to start somewhere about getting myself a guide.

    Where in the world are you now? I think your current posts of Nepal are archive posts? Since I have already read half of your website, I would love to read more about your experiences and hopefully bump into you someday in my travels... I can dream!

    Would appreciate a response, and all the best in your travels!

    Ruksana

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    1. I appreciate the kind words. The shipyard in Chittagong is one of the most remarkable places I have ever been. Actually, Bangladesh was one of the highlights of my journey for a whole lot of reasons. If I am not mistaken I believe Rahmat worked at the Hotel Golden Inn (or similar). The last I heard he had started charging for excursions to the section of the yards we visited. Can't say I blame him as it beats working there. The Swiss gentleman who visited about a year or so after my arrival did not want to come up with the cash so he found his own way in. Persistence is key.

      I am currently in Florida spending time with my parents. I have been re-reading my posts (i.e. reliving) and decided to edit the content a bit and do some of the things I did not have time for while on the road. As I make a newly edited post I remove it from its earlier position. I am hoping to have fairly polished final product that I can refer to any time I want to take a trip back in time.

      As far as bumping into each other anything is possible. I hope to be able to get back out there some time soon. If you have any questions or general inquiries feel free to e-mail me (it is listed on the sidebar).

      It was great to hear from you,

      Rich

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  3. Great pictures Rich. Could you share how you found Rahmat?

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    1. I met Rahmat at the hotel where I was staying in Chittagong. It is in the Lonely Planet, the Hotel Golden Inn or something along those lines. I am not sure if he still works there but other employees might be able to locate him. If you happen to find him let me know. I am curious to know how he's doing.

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  4. I enjoyed Ship Breaker quite a bit, with all the popcorn munching enthusiasm of watching a really good action flick.

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  5. I've wanted to go here ever since I saw photos of it in Manufactured Landscapes. Hope I have a chance to get in and shoot. Once in a lifetime opportunity!

    ps: cool telescope :)

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  6. awesome pix!!!1

    thanks, for sharing.
    -ray

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  7. Hello Rich,

    Powerfull stuff. But then, you already know that.
    I want to tell you that Rahmat is alive and well, working at an upscale hotel in Chittagong, so he did not go back to that hell on earth. We struck up a conversation about ship breaking yards, and how I would like to go there, so he offered me his help and told about people he helped gain access to the yards.
    However, I ended up going there with some other local conected people, and saw plenty of stuff, but nothing on the scale you did. I guess Rahmat would have been better guide.
    Anyway, thanks again for a excellent reportage.

    Brgds

    Vlad

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    1. Hey Vlad,

      You found Rahmat, huh? Excellent. I am glad to hear he is doing okay. Well, at least you made it in. I've been wondering if it became more or less difficult in the last few years. Maybe business is bad and that's why you didn't see as much? Interesting. Thanks a lot for giving me an update. I really appreciate it.

      -Rich

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    2. Hey Rich,

      It was just a non working day, nothing much was going on, and I was more interested in the ships waiting to be demolished than in the actual working practices. Even though, I have seen the "trademark" barefooted men trodding through the mud carrying steel cables without any gloves or other safety equipment. As far as the business is concerned, it doesn't look to bad, they are still able to have buy/sell ratio of 1 to 2, and even discuss prohibition of child labour and unsafe working practices. Of course, discussing is one thing, and doing it is another. Anyway, for me it was a fascinating experience.

      Brgds

      Vlad

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  8. Everything about that place is fascinating in a morbidly curious kind of way. Business is steady, eh? Makes sense as I suppose as there are not a whole lot of options left. Sounds like you had an interesting experience. i always wondered if they would let anyone board a recent arrival. Spelunking through a ghost ship would be something. I guess even taking about child labor and unsafe work practices is slight progress. What a craze place. Thanks again, man. I love the input.

    Rich

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  9. Hi Rich,
    I got there too: http://www.martinhurley.com/bangladesh-ship-breaking-photos/
    Pretty surreal, that's for sure.
    Martin

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    1. Wow. Good stuff. Thanks for the update. Those pictures are recent right? One of those boats almost looks like one of the ones I saw While I was there, albeit in a later stage of deconstruction. Brings back memories for sure.

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  10. Hi,
    May I know is there ship breaking activities in west indies ?

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  11. Hey Rich,

    I visited the yards as well, back in March 2013. I used your article as some kind of guidance at that time, and I also met Rahmat, who was then working at the Avenue Hotel. As I am a budget traveller, I was not staying there (rather in a rundown place on Station Street for 2 dollars, but that aside) and I also did not choose him as my guide but he told me that these days it is not possible to do those things you did in 2010. I wrote about it all in my own article (in which I refer to you too), that you can see here:

    http://www.offbeattravelling.com/ship-breaking-safe-or-suicide/

    Thanks for inspiring me with your article, I hope you can have a look at mine. And your photos are right on the action, very well done.

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  12. আপনি কি ঘরে বসে আয় করতে চান ? তাহলে সাইন আপ করুন।

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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim