“You know they burn people alive there, right?”
“They are desperately poor and would do ANYTHING to get your money.”
“They’ll lock you into their tuk-tuk, splash gasoline on you and if you don’t pay them, they will set you alight!”
My friend’s terrifying warnings echoed in my head as my airplane descended in the darkness. I had the excited yet nervous feeling of someone about to go under the knife for plastic surgery. Destination: Dhaka, Bangladesh.
I met Etienne in Hoi An, on a photography tour he had hosted, eight months earlier. Four days of travel through beautiful Vietnamese landscapes, meeting and interacting with the locals and taking pictures from dusk to dawn was right up my alley.
I had an amazing time and Etienne and I became instant buddies. “Aron, with your style of shooting, you HAVE to come with me on my tour to Bangladesh. It’s the Mecca for street photographers. You will LOVE it!”
My interests was piqued. Just prior to Hoi An, I had spent a week in Delhi (see pictures here) and fell in love with the Indian sub-continent and all its diverse cultures. I was anxious to shoot that area again. I had some vacation days I needed to burn anyway so I booked and I waited.
News of my upcoming trip had made the rounds and I was suddenly bombarded by horrific stories of robberies, kidnappings and anecdotes of tourists waking up in ice baths without their vital organs. I was honestly nervous, but alas, my deposit was paid, new camera gear had been purchased, and the taste of adventure on my lips…
I landed in the middle of a cool November night, grateful that the thick darkness hid me from the murderers and thieves that were out to lie, cheat and steal my expensive camera gear and get my slightly used kidneys. I quickly jumped into a taxi and briefly felt safer but soon found myself leaving finger imprints on the patched upholstery as my driver attempted to beat some land speed record in heavy traffic. Relieved to arrive alive and eager to wash out my soiled underwear, I checked in at the clean but rundown hotel, made sure that the room door was locked…. twice, and succumbed to a restless, nervous sleep.
I was jolted awake. A haunting, ancient, eerie sound drifted in on the humid air; echoing on the tail end of my restless sleep. It was pitch black. It took me a full second to get my bearings- an eternity when you are terrified.
As I adjusted to the darkness, the low, guttural chanting continued- prehistoric, mesmerizing, and powerful, even at a whisper. The Muezzin’s call to prayer… we weren’t in Kansas anymore Toto…
Three other photographers, Etienne and I gathered for our pre-dawn breakfast. I was exhausted, and not really in the mood for small talk. “Where are you from?” “Are you shooting with Nikon or Canon?” “What lenses did you bring?” The usual photography banter ensued. I stared at my overcooked scrambled eggs, too nervous really to eat. “Should I bring all of my gear with me? Will it make me a bigger target?” “Bring my passport just in case? Leave it at the hotel?” These questions danced silently in my head.
An emailed itinerary had been provided to us days before, but being one for surprises I decided to not look at it, and what did it matter anyway? I’d probably be dead before lunch.
Having decided to take everything, 2 camera bodies (an Olympus and a Sony for you camera nerds) and 4 lenses, I looked like I was about to stage a coup. We walked outside and, there, idling at the side of the road, was a fully caged tuk-tuk, a rolling chariot of death. Our fixer, sensing my fear, mentioned, “It’s fully enclosed, as a deterrent for thieves.” But, he didn’t fool me. Being of amazing imagination and now an expert in “One-Million-Ways-to-Die-in-Bangladesh”, I knew it was actually to trap you in and turn you into human BBQ.
The tuk-tuk ride seemed much longer than it actually was. I was sweating despite the cool morning air. My head was on a swivel, scanning for shifty eyed, tattooed laden thugs. Gratefully, we finally arrived, alive, on the banks of the Buriganga River in old-town Sadarghat. I happily jumped out of the prison trike, neck muscles still taught. We were lead to the water front as the sky turned from pitch black to a beautiful rose color. Street vendors began to unpack their wares as the ferries and canoes started their slow choreographed dance from bank to bank. We sprang into action. The scenery was so foreign to me yet I knew exactly how to move around it to capture its essence. Like headless chickens we ran around, jumping from pier, to shore, to docked boat, trying to find the best angles of the amazing scenes that unfolded before us. All the while, Etienne shouted instructions and reminders at us in his non-condescending French accent. “Zon’t fourget to layeerrr zor shotz!” “Separrette zor subjects!” “Fucus on ze light!”
My adrenaline was pumping. It’s only in moments like this that I truly feel happy and alive.
I accepted the street vendor’s chai (HYPER- sweet black tea leaves with milk and spices) not because I was thirsty or needed the jolt of caffeine, but because I wanted to complete the five of the human senses and physically absorb the “taste” of this exotic culture into my body.
The bony ferryman slowly rowed us to the south-side of the river bank towards the now busy shipyard.
Dozens of workers hung from precariously placed ropes and scaffolding, assembling and dismantling massive ships, using all type of primitive tools. Children in soot covered workshops, melted molten metal to make ship propellers using ancient smelting techniques.
The rhythmic clanging of stubborn metal, the rage of sparks from buzz saws and the toxic smell of welding, like metallic sour apples, bombarded our senses.
The work conditions where harsh- men lifted 3 ton slabs of steel on their heads wearing nothing but their traditional lungi skirts and flip flops- not a hard hat in sight.
We continued to explore, walking the long maze-like, narrow alleyways and the congested dusty streets of Dhaka.
Instead of threats and the insistent ask of money, I was hit by a repetitive friendly barrage of “Whasss yur name?” “Werree you fromm?” from every person that walked by. I was met with smiles, not frowns. And, to my delight, every jerry can of petrol was being used to fill a tank and not to pour on unwilling tourists. My breath deepened, my jaw relaxed, and my shoulders softened. I was now in my element, I was now in Mecca. That night I did not struggle for sleep.