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Rubbish disposal in Bangladesh, like other countries on the sub continent, generally consists of someone picking up the household rubbish, this then is sifted through by rag pickers, people whose job it is to separate rubbish from anything of any value, this then is dumped and set upon by more rag pickers. Plastics, metal, cloth and paper are removed. The rubbish is then consumed by dogs, cows, goats, crows and in India, pigs. Added to the fact that there is little packaging in the East means that there is little left for landfill, apart from plastic bags and the gunk that rubbish forms and its reciprocal stench.


One can consider this method of disposal in two ways. Firstly, when compared to our society’s wastefulness and disposable culture it almost seems Utopian, nothing of any value is wasted and put into the ground. Secondly, how disgusting is the thought of people sifting through our waste. And it is disgusting. Young children eat what they can find, dysentery and disease runs high. From a Western point of view, you don’t get much lower than this.


But it is to Bangladesh’s resourcefulness within recycling that I turn to the subject of of ship breaking. Chittagong is one of the few places in the world where you can see this controversial practice taking place. I had to see it, simply because the inner child within me loves to see big things broken up into small things, their gestalt as it were, the whole being the sum of its parts; I love scrap yards  of any sorts; I love ships and the bigger the better; I like a bit of controversy.


You know when you are getting close to the breakers’ yards because there is row upon row of shops selling second hand ship paraphernalia. This is the place to come if you want plates purporting various ship names, anchors, port holes, technical ship thingies, compasses, fog horns, ships’ bells and life boats. I was in my element sifting through the biggest nautical jumble sale in the world.


Buy ome lifeboat get one free

Buy one lifeboat get one free





Then there are the plants processing fiberglass, oil and most likely that most evil of substances, asbestos. Nothing it would seem goes to waste, everything has a value on it and there will always be somebody with the know how as to how to process it into something more useful and make some cash.


Finally you get to the breaking sites and what a vision of the apocalypse it is. As far as the eye can see container ships, oil tankers and other huge hulks have been beached like a pod of whales on a bad navigation day. An army of workers swarm over the ships slowly picking them to pieces. It can take 6 months to strip an oil tanker down to its salable bits and then cut up the steel into manageable chunks.


These yards are difficult to access and they certainly don’t want nosey tourists taking photos to put up on their blogs. Lots of smiling, talking about David Beckham, cups of tea, passing around cigarettes and backsheesh was required and then photos had to be taken while hiding behind huge chunks of ship.




Safety standards would make even the most lapse safety officer cringe. Bare footed men carry huge sheets of steel across a tangle of oxy acetylene hoses as cutters burn through the hull, reducing it to its primal beginnings. Safety helmets and goggles, warning signs and fenced off areas, the essential requirements in a Western world amiss. This is probably one of the most dangerous places in the world, rivaled only by a Taliban arms dump with a big arrow pointing at it and a message stating “Taliban arms dump, American fighter pilots wear ladies’ panties.”


But the workforce do seem aware of safety issues, one man pointed at some asbestos lying on the ground and said “dangerous”, and then made a coughing sound. Another told us to stay away from the cable that drags tons of ship up the beach. If it brakes the whiplash will cut a man in half, and I am sure this is spoken from experience. Back in Chittagon I observed a higher than average rate of beggars with limbs missing. Compensation from their employers, insurance cover, no win no fee, I don’t think so.






Like the rag pickers, it is dirty and dangerous work. But one thing you can be sure off is that there will be very little of the ship that enters landfill. It is in the psyche of Bangladeshis to extract as much value as possible from its waste. If this was done in the West safety standards, high wages and policies of disposal would make it an impossible task, so much would simply be buried in the ground and forgotten about.


Next time you marvel at a huge tanker or container ship at sea spare a thought to where it will eventually end up. The ship graveyard in a remote part of the world, and the men that live to clear up our mess. 



For more info. about this controversial practice see the Greenpeace point of view: 



Click on photos to see the full collection.


Saint Martin’s Coral Island


Saint Martin‘s Island is a quaint island off the southern most tip of Bangladesh. A coral island with diving to rival the Great Barrier reef or so the guidebook will have you believe. Again lies (Please see previous entry). The waters are a silty quagmire, and there is more coral in a 3 foot fish tank and fish to that matter. Because of its topography St Martins has shallow waters and most of the coral has been destroyed by the sedimentation that lies at the bottom, suffocating anything that would even consider trying to grow, like a pillow over the face of a wealthy, elderly relative that is just about to cut you out of their will and leave their money to Battersea Dogs’ Home. Combine this with the huge array of plastic rubbish and over fishing it leaves the diving to nothing but disappointing. Don’t come here for this, the Island attributes lie elsewhere.


Election fever is hitting Bangladesh and I am told that all mobile phones will be switched off for 72 hours, most  Bangladeshis will leave the Island to get back to their districts, and to coincide with this there is to be a general strike across the country bringing everything to a halt. This will leave myself with the fishermen and the few westerners that venture this far. To note: last time there was an election here it lead to an army occupation for 2 years, so it is probably best that I am tucked away in this enclave for its duration.



St Martin‘s greatest asset is its beach which runs completely around its perimeter. a 3 to 4 hour stroll. It was on one of these walks I came across a huge mass of people chanting for their favourite politician. That is one of the 3 corrupt personalities that have spent time in jail for just that, what a choice and what an inspiration for Bangladesh. Its probably just then that the mass of people consisted mainly of children shouting out the name of their favorite corrupt person for something to do. It seems the system here, get as many people as possible together, it does not matter if they have an opinion or not, just as long as they can shout loudly, who needs policies and forums for discussion and accountability.


Another favourite pastime on St. Martin’s is trying to score illegal, smuggled alcohol. Being a strong Muslim island in a strong Muslim country, booze is not readily available. But with a few discreet questions there is always someone in the wings that is in the know. They are the fixer, the middleman between the smugglers and your hangover. Expect to pay 4 – 5 times the going rate for a ropey bottle of gin that has made it across the border, and through a minefield apparently, from Myanmar up some fisherman’s backside. Well worth the effort.


And then there are the children. Hundreds of them whom generally don’t go to school but work, selling stinky dried fish or cigarettes or hang around the beach. Who needs an education when commerce is the way forwards and the sea is the only university you will need. Hence their English usage is minimal, but they love to practice “Hello thank you goodbye where are you from”  is a common question or is that a greeting or reciprocation. They run around, completely starkers, oblivious to the world away from their coral island, or caral fsland as badly spelt on a tourist t shirt.



A new government is now in power and with it the locals talk optimistically about big plans for the Island – 5 star hotels, an air strip, restaurants, music and lights. I am sure it will happen, this is the gentrification process that happens to all places that can purport beach, sea and sun. It will be a shame in ways as the island will loose its honest charm, and the reef,  who knows the government might decide to protect it.


“Come to St Martin’s a caral fsland like no other”

Cox’s Bazar

I arrive in Cox’s Bazar and figure that I will check into Sea view hotel. “It really does have sea views” states the Lonely Planet. Oh the lies, the sea is no where in sight, military compound views more like. The sea was over a Kilometre away behind a forest. So I thought I would check into  Hotel Silver Shine, the guide book purported a swimming pool on the rooftop. This would be nice over Christmas I thought. Yes there was a swimming pool, but it was constantly locked and what is more they wanted me to pay to get it unlocked.


Now with guidebooks I can understand when something changes, a hotel closes or a road is built or a freak forest fire burns down half the village, these things can’t be helped and will lead to inaccuracy. But when the authors tell such blatant lies as “It really does have sea views”, when the sea is nowhere in sight. I am sorry it generally takes thousands of years for the sea to recess over a kilometre, less a large tsunami is expected. There is nothing that infuriates me more and makes me want to burn my guide book.


I now know what Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany burning books. They were the Lonely Planet guide to Nazi Germany. Aushwitz “Quiet, hot showers, simple food, come here and you will never want to leave, frequented by the Israeli crowd and people with the disposition to sell lucky heather, sea view” .


“What” cries Adolf, “They didn’t mention it was right next to a busy railway line”.



So here is my guide to some adjectives and adverbs used in guide books:


Tranquil sea – The sewage outfall comes out at the other end of the beach, so you best swim between 6 and 11 when the current is running in the opposite direction.


Beautiful location – Yeah, if you are a plane spotter.


Clean rooms – I wouldn’t touch it with yours.


Quiet location – The sound of the neighbor’s television will drown out the sound of the busy road.


Hot water – Cold water.


Friendly staff – Please see the Lonely Planet guide to Nazi Germany.



Guide book manufacturers please stop with the lies less you want me to start a website called the Polonely Planet list of guidebook lies pointing out your fabrications of the truth, lets leave that to the holiday companies, please.


Rant over. 


Boat from  Dhaka to Barisal


“A fine foreign gentleman like yourself should be traveling first class” the man at the ticket office said to me. Or maybe I made that up for dramatic effect, but I took one look at the paddle boat that was to carry me down the river to Barisal and I figured – isn’t it women and children then first class gentlemen allowed into the lifeboats first. The bathtub, the P.S Tern built in 1935, that was to be my home for the night looked in a worse state than the buses of Dhaka. I boarded under the guise of a 12 year old girl just to cover all bases.



Now when I think of ships and first class I think of Titanic, pre iceberg. Sparkling chandeliers, suitably bigoted conversations about the plight of the common man, dinner at the captain’s table, posh birds by the name of Rose wanting a piece of the said common man, with or without plight (I believe you can get cream for this).


My reality though seemed more post Iceberg. The captain’s table was held together by various bits of flotsam, the chandelier a flickering neon strip light and Rose a pan chewing, toothless businessman with the liking for 12 year old English girls with beards.

To save the time on bigoted conversations I strolled around the decks where hundreds of punters were crammed together tighter than a buy 5 get 1 free can of sardines. They had paid 100 TK as opposed to my wapping 500 TK (That’s 1 pound as opposed to 5 quid to you and me). I hummed Jarvis Cocker’s “I want to live like common people, I want to do want common people do”, I fired of some photos and reveled in my position to be able to flirt with the masses as well as those of the finer class and concluded that Jarvis was completely wrong and probably a liar.


Now I have met different types of travelers –  there are those that say you have to travel lowest class on everything, stay in the worst places possible, and if you can’t get food poisoning from it, it just isn’t worth eating. And then there are those that do not even meet an Indian person, god forbid, “why go to India to meet the people when you can do that at home.” Well I am in the middle, I like a certain level of comfort, I will go to pizza hut and hang out with middle class India when the needs must and I will eat in the worst, but best cafe, when the needs must, but I am not going to great lengths to ensure I suffer, just so I know that I am alive, so that i know I have traveled. Do this when needs must.


I was asked if I wanted an English meal or Bengali. Since I was at this level of hoityness I chose the English. I marveled at how the Christmas jumper wearing head steward, hit the waiter when he did not lay the cutlery out correctly. He obviously had received proper silver service training at some point in his life and by god they were going to get it right for this fine English gentleman. As I sat trying to remember which spoon I should use first or should I use the white or pink napkins I watched as my well to do Bangladeshi fellow passengers ate with their hands.


I then went to the toilet, but was rapidly steered into one with the direction “Use the English one sir”. A proper toilet with English toilet paper, I was impressed, no Royal Doulton or Armitage Shanks, but a fine pristine bowl. As I sat there I admired the rusting, gaping, hole and the water rush past, I also inspected the welding and noted that none of it would meet any ISO or Health and Safety standard.


Bus from Barisal to Kuakata


After applying helmet and bubble wrap (see previous blog entry) I clambered on board the bus for Kuakata. This was to entail possible death, 6 hours of bumpy roads and 5 ferry crossings. This meant lots of tea stops. Everywhere I went a crowd would gather around me, watching my every movement. I found myself standing or sitting in various poses that you find male models doing in Kayes catalogues or similar. If I were to be raised to such celebrity status, then I sure was going to look the part. Then somebody would pipe up  “where are you from”, “England” I would respond, “England” the crowd would murmur the message around. This would then generally be followed by  – what was my name, what did I work as, was I married, how many in my family, why was I here…. A standard set of questions, a standard set of answers, a standard murmur and nodding with acknowledgment, but they didn’t want more info…. No questions on politics, or religion, time and space ……. As the tea stops went on I found my job status changed, I realised I could be anything I wanted. At one stop I was a lecturer in astro physics…..”Lecturer in astro physics” murmured the crowd. 





I intended my time here to be quiet, sit by the sea, peace and do yoga. I found a room right on the beach perfect, view of sunrise and sunset, brilliant. Perfect and brilliant except for one thing, the landlord. This was a man that didn’t speak a word of English and had an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Now when you rent a room, it tends to be your private space for the period of rental. Well my room was the only room with a TV, so Abraham would sit there watching it, volume on full, I told him to move it into the other room, so he obliged and sat there watching it, volume on full. He would follow me around and insist I ate at only one cafe, I had to decline. He offered me home made alcohol, I had to decline. Then one evening he asked if i wanted Maya, he made a boobs gesture and banged his fists together, I rapidly figured out that he was pimping out one of the local girls to me. I could not believe it, in such a small village, by the sea, this was so un British, a knocking shop here. I had to decline.


Now I can’t blame Abraham for his annoying persistence to satisfy my every need, actually I am quite flattered. He probably thought I was a lonely pisshead in need of a good shag. But it is something that I have noted about the sub continent, it is almost impossible to find peace and quiet. I am sure that most sub continentians have to have some noise or they just die. Go to the most tranquil beauty spot and a bus load of Indian’s will pull up, the first thing they will do is put a ghetto blaster on at full blast so that it distorts the speakers, be up a mountain taking in the view and the Nepali guide will just have to play the latest Bollywood song through his phone, be in the most tranquil village by an ancient bridge across a babbling brook and it will be destroyed by the constant car horns of the cars warning people that they are on the bridge crossing the babbling brook.


How on earth the sub continent invented the disciplines of yoga and meditation I do not know. The Buddha must have had great insight to the future or been deaf. Lets invent yoga so that people can sit on a bus for 12 hours and lets invent meditation, because at least it will shut one person up for 36 hours or so. I find myself longing for the peace of a London rush hour.


So anyway if you ever go to Kuakata, avoid the only hotel right on the beach with only two rooms, unless you want some local grog or wish to help support the local women’s contribution to the family income.



When I think of Bangladesh I generally think of some natural or human disaster. Because of its geography it is prone to cyclones, widespread flooding and political turmoil. So I guess it is apt. that I arrived in dense fog – this combined with a puncture, the bus getting lost in the fog and the carnage that was out on the roads meant that the journey from Calcutta to Dhaka took a laborious 20 hours of no sleep, no food and not a thing to be seen. Furthermore I arrived on Victory day, so everything was shut. Exhausted I decided to check into a posh hotel, well posh by my standards, at 9 quid a night it was not my usual flea pit.


Dhakahas an official figure of 88,700 rickshaws, well that is the number that government says. Another figure estimates it closer at 600,000. From the 8thfloor of the Manhattan hotel, my toilet has a great view of an intersection and the chaos that it embraces. I would also like to note that the cistern of the toilet was connected to the hot water supply, so every time I flushed it emptied several gallons of boiling water down the drain – is this something posh hotels do or is it another example of the insane plumbing that you find on the sub continent. I also noted that the shower ran out of hot water quite quickly…..I pondered if there was a way to get the toilet connected to the shower. Anyway, so back to the rickshaws, however many there may be, they make a lovely tinkling noise, this combined with the constant use of horn and the call to prayer gives Dhaka wonderful, chaotic, sound. If I were to get a stomach bug, this would be the place I would wish it to be, a toilet with a view and the harmonious symphony of a working city.



And then there are the buses. If you have ever been banger racing and seen the aftermath of the twisted and torn, once family, motors. Then this will give you an indication of what the buses look like, this then too will give you an idea of how they drive. If you are going to die on a bus, then this is the place it will likely be. I started planning routes to the many places I wanted to visit….unfortunately there is no way of avoiding buses…….I started planning the newspaper article “Bus crash carnage in Bangladesh, 40 dead only 1 survivor, a westerner” there is then a photo of me in full crash helmet and encased in 30 layers of bubble wrap, with the quote “I thought I had had it when the local kids started popping my bubbles.”



More to follow in Bangladesh – power to the people (Part 2)

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