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A Place Where Ships Go to Die

Two vessels on the beach in a Chittagong ship breaking yard

Remembering Chittagong, Bangladesh

Some ships meet their fate at the bottom of the ocean. Others continue sailing, long exceeding their expiry date, or are docked as museum pieces for the generations to come. But for most ships, their demise is spelled on the beaches of the poorest nations. In particular: the shorelines of Chittagong, the southernmost province of Bangladesh.

I was reminded of this place when seeing the photographic series of ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ by Edward Burtynsky. He has created fascinating photo essays on how mankind’s industrial hunger has radically altered our landscapes into beautifully disturbing places.  (His website unfortunately doesn’t allow direct links to the ship breaking series, so to get there, pick: works > ships > shipbreaking. His other series are also well worth visiting).

But it was thanks to a recent reunion with a classmate from my Bangladeshi days, that brought back many of my memories from that time.

A School Field Trip

It must have been in ’86 when my class traveled from Dhaka to Chittagong by train. Twenty-three years later, many of the details escape me. I can’t quite remember if this particular trip was supposed to have any educational value, nor whether we ended up in a guesthouse near Chittagong city or Cox Bazar, a place situated on the longest natural beach in the world. But what I do remember is this trip was fun. It was one filled with many firsts for me. For it was here were I was introduced to ‘UNO’. Easy to learn, and playable with many, it’s the one card game I almost always take with me when I travel.

More importantly though – and with a class of pre-adolescent teens whose hormones were starting to kick in – we discovered there was more to the opposite sex than we had been led to believe. And so we took our first clumsy steps in flirting with each other through elaborate paper counting games that would help us predict our future partners. The rules of which are now lost on me, but I’m sure it’s still played today by the upcoming youth. And as if that wasn’t enough, we even went to the trouble of organizing an ad-hoc dance party one night. Missing the proper ingredients to successfully pull such a thing off, such us proper mood lighting, we huddled into a small dark room, where we silently danced, so that we could here a puny sound coming off of the speakers of a small walkman someone had brought along. By all objective metrics, it was a disaster. But that wasn’t the point. When The Eye of the Tiger or Tarzan Boy played, all was good. We were having fun and that all that mattered.

It was also here were I learnt to spin the bottle and play truth or dare. It was even thanks to these very likable games that I was first kissed. Looking back, it was all very innocent of course. But at the same time, very new and exciting as well. It was just a matter of time, but by the end of the trip, the first couple of our class had formed.

A Hike to the Beach

It was during this trip – one late afternoon – that our chaperones took us out on a hike. We trekked over rolling hills covered by lush and green grass. Peering over hills and cliffs, the surrounding views were magnificent. Walking between natures untouched vastness, it was hard not to feel incredibly small and meaningless. It was a humbling experience.
If I have a penchant of traveling to weird and strange places, then this is probably where I got my first taste. For it was on these hills that I discovered the romance of travel. I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

A ship slowly dying at a beach in Chittagong, BangladeshAs we walked closer to the coast, the Indian Ocean started to appear along the distant horizon. As we reached a cliff overlooking the shore line, the sun started to set. It was a dreamy and surreal sight to behold. At low tide, we stood before an almost endless and deserted beach. On it laid these two huge and rusty old ships – like fish out of water – and in a stage of decay. They had been brought here to die.

Although the clues were there, it’s not something I could have witnessed during a single sunset. But what happens here is the industrial equivalent of nature at work. The local villagers, using only their bare hands, will – like little creatures – crawl over these gigantic carcasses. As the oil – like blood –spills over and onto the beaches, they are slowly, bit by bit, torn apart, until over a period of weeks and months, nothing of these mighty ships are left.¹

Recycling to Survive

For me, the fact of seeing these ships in a place where they normally wouldn’t belong was amazement enough. If our teachers hadn’t stopped us, we would have probably turned them into a huge playground.

And although I knew they would eventually vanish, little did I realize the scale and endeavor neded to undertake such a job of breaking down a ship. Especially with the little means they had available to them. But then, by then, I had taken for granted that everything in Bangladesh got recycled. This was long before such behavior became fashionable in the west. Of course, this was not done out of any environmental concerns, but pure out of necessity to survive. Like the little children that would daily roam our neighborhood in Dhaka, carrying jute bags and filling them with any litter they could find. What ever they found would then be sold off to be recycled. Despite the lack of proper municipal services, our streets were always clean and for many, this was their way of staying alive. Witnessing this from the other side of the divide, I knew early on that I was in a privileged position.

And so upon our return to the guesthouse and sheltered lives, our only worry was organizing a party that night. The only thing we had to concern ourselves with was being the children we were, trying hard to grow up in a place where ships were sent to die.

¹) In Lord of War – a film about an opportunistic weapons dealer fueling the fires of war– a similar scene is depicted. Only here, we’re in Africa where an airplane is being dismantled overnight by the locals.

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