EXCERPT FROM THE UPCOMING BOOK, "A WORLD APART"
irst impressions are sometimes so vivid they leave an indelible imprint on the mind. My first day in Calcutta was an unforgettable initiation into chaos. Calcutta is a loud, dirty, congested city — a beautiful, random mess of bodies, cars,
shantytowns and crumbling historic monuments. In all my travels, I have never seen a place so unorganized and backwards, lacking even the most basic public services, yet at the same time so oddly unique and fascinating.
A dizzying barrage of colors, sounds and smells assaults the senses immediately upon arrival. Traffic laws are practically non–existent so cars, trucks and buses come hurtling in from every direction, veering recklessly to avoid cows, goats, funeral processions, rickshaws and each other. Nonetheless, I was bewildered that there weren't accidents at every corner, and how everything just seemed to flow naturally as if these people had all viscerally mastered the art of negotiating with utter chaos. For the uninitiated, disorder of this magnitude can seem extreme or even frightening but after awhile, I got used to it, and surprisingly, I felt an uneasy calmness creeping in, realizing all too well that here, fate is often determined in a split second.
It was fate that brought me to Calcutta. I had landed in Delhi with the intention of traveling to Kashmir and the Himalayan basin but bad weather and political strife altered my course. Fortunately, on my second day in Delhi, the curator of a local museum gave me a tip about several colorful tribes living in the lush mountain jungles of Darjeeling, so on a whim, I packed up and headed there by way of Calcutta.
Darjeeling is a hilly region located on the lower Himalayan range, sandwiched between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, famous for its tea industry. Hundreds of mountains are scattered here with tea plantations dating back to the nineteenth century where local indigenous people pick leaves from dawn till dusk. I spent my first night in a quaint bungalow nestled in a valley near the Tukvar Tea Estate. Early the next morning, my chubby young guide and translator, Laddoo ( aptly named for his fondness for Indian sweets), awoke me from a deep slumber. And thus begun our first expedition into the mountains.
TEA PLANTATION, DARJEELING, INDIA, 2008
village to pick up a young Sherpa who knew the terrain. From here on, we snaked up the mountain, along the beaten path, on dirt bikes, for another hour before the road came to an abrupt end. To reach our destination, we still had to endure a strenuous two hour uphill hike through the deep forest. Considering he was not exactly in the best of shape, Laddoo opted to stay behind to guard the bikes. I continued with the Sherpa, conversing with him in broken Bengali and English (a concoction I termed "Benglish") during our ascent.
When we finally arrived near the peak, through the mist, I glimpsed the first settlements, which looked oddly similar to ones I had previously visited across South America. The architecture and construction of the homes and the materials used were almost identical. Physiologically, the natives (predominantly Nepalese) even bore an uncanny resemblance to the indigenous people on the other side of the world. In fact, if I didn’t know I was in India, I could easily have mistaken this place for anywhere in the Andes. During the course of the day, we visited several Tamang, Lepcha and Bhutia tribal encampments hidden throughout the mountains where, at each stop, the natives graciously shared their stories with us over their famous tea.
We aborted our mission abruptly when a tribal elder warned us of disruptions and potential dangers on the road ahead caused by separatist rebels planning protests against the Indian government. By dusk, I was totally exhausted so we headed back to the bungalow, cleared our belongings, and drove further southeast toward Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, in search of a friendlier vibe. As a footnote, a week after our departure, separatists were blamed for a series of bombings that tore through neighboring Assam, killing and wounding hundreds.
As usual, we rose before the sun, ate some roti and omelet with the locals before making our way further down south to Jaflong, Sylhet in neighboring Bangladesh. Along the way, I had dozed off but as I awoke, in the distance, a new dream sequence began materializing before my eyes, and I immediately ordered our driver to hit the brakes. There, out on a dried up lake, were thirty or forty kids covered from head to toe in mud. They were all huddled together, tugging and heaving on ropes, trying to pull a fishing boat out of the lake bed. I quickly rolled up my pants, grabbed my cameras and jumped ankle deep into sloppy mud, staggering toward them like a drunkard. I captured the most memorable images of this entire trip during these brief, frantic moments. These kids were natural performers and loved being in front of the camera; some were singing, some dancing, some exaggerating their postures, while others just stared at me with bewildered eyes. Caked in mud, I stood there clicking away, hypnotized, awake in my own dream.
Moments later, upon arriving in Jaflong, I was greeted by yet more interesting and improbable scenes. Like ants, hundreds of people were scattered across a huge stone quarry, working in the sand dunes and along the river. Men and women, young and old, entire families, spend their days here baking in the sun, fishing for polished stones that are as precious to them as gold. At the end of the day, they carry pounds of these stones on their heads in hand–woven baskets to sell for pennies at the market. They live in makeshift tents along the dunes and earn just enough money each day to eat and feed their families. To survive, these people resort to extreme physical hardship, pain and suffering, testing the limits of their endurance each and every day in an inhospitable environment. Their weather–beaten faces and frail, scarred bodies are a testament that every penny is earned through blood, sweat and tears. How they maintain this strength to carry out their duties every day is beyond me. Desperation must be a catalyst for physical and spiritual strength.
So many raw, colorful moments sprouted before my eyes like wildflowers that I ended up photographing here for two entire days. I saw a scrawny old man, blacker than coal, pulling a fat lady across the dunes in his rickshaw — one laborious pedal at a time. I saw a young boy, waist deep in water, transporting a baby goat across the river on his neck; a little girl peeking her head out of a hole in the sand — the improvised shelter where she sought refuge from the infernal sun; two young boys engaged in a violent fist fight to lay claim on a single piece of rock they had both dug out of the water at the same time. And so on and so on... There was no way I could have captured it all.
This was a creative burst; I felt like I was just getting into my groove. I started seeing things differently, and the same scenes I would ignore only days earlier, now intrigued me. I had already shot over thirty rolls of film and became acutely aware that only twenty six rolls remained for the second half of the journey. Yet, the next morning, on our way to catch the train back to Calcutta, it wasn’t long before I started asking our driver to pull over to take more photos. Every five minutes from then onwards, I would wish I could stop, not for any distinctive landmark, but more for the quirky and wonderful scenes created by the people and their daily lives, which provided me with a wealth of possibilities.
e started out at the crack of dawn and headed up a smoky mountain in our rattling minibus. After about an hour into the ride, as the jungle became more and more dense and the roads increasingly narrow, we stopped at a dusty
JAFLONG, SYLHET, 2008
that a cyclone was headed for the southern region of Bangladesh where we were headed next. So with one eye on the weather forecast, I spent the next four days anxiously waiting, resting, visiting new friends, eating too much curry at their homes, and playing cricket on a muddy field with some skinny, overly competitive kids. By the end of the fourth day, I was itching to get back out, but not before visiting a shelter for street children at the invitation of one of the cricket players who lived there. He took me in and introduced me to everyone with so much gusto that I couldn't help but smile. He was trying his best to impress his peers with his new American friend. I spent the better part of the day hanging out with the kids, talking to them (however awkwardly), listening to their stories, and sharing a simple meal of rice, fish and lentils. Their stories were heartbreaking and brought tears to my eyes.
One boy's journey of survival touched me in particular. On the outside, Kasim looks like any normal seventeen year old kid, well mannered, curious and somewhat awkward. However, what he has had to endure and overcome in his short lifetime is difficult to fathom. His mom died when he was a toddler so he has no recollection of her. He was raised in the village by his two elder sisters until his father re–married, and a wicked stepmother showed up, turning their lives to Hell. She yanked them out of school and forced them to work in the fields to earn extra income. She abused them physically and mentally, terrorizing them constantly, and forcing them to slave mercilessly day and night. And then, she took their hard earned pay. One night, the three of them decided to run away by sneaking aboard a steamship headed for somewhere — they did not know where, nor did they care. During their escape, Kasim became separated from his sisters and has never seen them since.
Without a dime, Kasim eventually made it to Calcutta using his wits and his eyes and his ears for all they were worth, to sneak onto buses and trains, and to steal food and clothes. By now, he was also an experienced pickpocket. In the mean streets of Calcutta, lost and alone, he was befriended by another kid his age who initiated him into a gang that was running a petty crime racket. Kasim's intelligence and street smarts proved invaluable and he worked his way up the ranks quickly. Soon he was entrusted with the clandestine transport of heroin onto cargo ships. But one day, when a shipment went missing, "some scary men", as he puts it, came looking for him and cut him up, leaving him to bleed to death in the street. Someone found him and brought him to a hospital assuming he would die. Despite having lost so much blood, he somehow held on and survived, and during our conversation, he revealed the stitches on his abdomen where he had been slashed repeatedly. He told me it reminds him each day of his good fortune to be alive. Today, Kasim attends drama school, has appeared in two TV commercials and is working hard to stay off the streets for good. His is a story of sheer willpower and determination, one of the most poignant and inspiring I’ve heard in all my journeys.
ack in Calcutta, in my mind, I replayed the reel of all that I had witnessed during the last few days, and couldn’t wait to head back out to the country side. However, Mother Nature had other plans. It rained nonstop for the next four days with word
PORTRAIT OF KASIM, CALCUTTA, 2008
addoo and I departed for Chittagong on the night train despite vehement protests from the locals. According to the latest weather report, the cyclone had already made landfall, so by our calculations, we were anticipating the weather to improve
RANGAMATI, BANGLADESH, 2008
by the time we arrived. As we headed out, much to our discontent, it was still pouring, but we stuck to our plan, hoping for the best.
Chittagong is located in the southern tip of Bangladesh, bordering Burma. Many of Bangladesh’s natural wonders and national parks are located here, like the Sunderban Jungle (home of the Royal Bengal tiger), the Bandarban Hill Trackts and Rangamati (both home to several remote indigenous tribes). We arrived in Chittagong City early in the morning and took a sleepy two hour long carriage ride to Rangamati, traversing along a dreamy fog laden road shrouded mysteriously on both sides by curved trees. At daybreak, the last remaining clouds from the cyclone dispersed and gave way to the glorious sunshine. Our gamble had paid off.
In Rangamati, we rented a rusty motor boat and headed out to explore some of the remote jungle areas, which were only accessible via the river. As wide as the Amazon, this river was scattered with tiny fishing villages all along its banks, so I forced our boat to stop repeatedly in an attempt to capture some of the idyllic scenes along the way. During the course of the day, I met with members of the Manipuri and Khashia tribes and spoke to them about their precarious existence in this environment. Most are native Burmese who settled in these parts hundreds of years ago and have maintained their own distinct culture. Yet today, their habitat is threatened by a growing number of outsiders migrating to these areas to take advantage of the abundant fishing their river offers. Their plight for survival is similar to those of almost every indigenous community I have visited around the world.
At the end of our second day here, on the way back, I captured the best images of this latter half of the trip. We stumbled upon a small island in the middle of nowhere, and from far, I noticed several children jumping in and out of the water repeatedly. As we moved closer, I noticed they were diving, searching for fish with their bare hands in the shallow depths near the bank. As I stepped off the boat to get a better look, I heard a whistle and was suddenly greeted by at least twenty kids who popped their heads out of the water in unison. Their faces and bodies were covered in thick seaweed and grime, and the scene was as surreal and beautiful as anything I could have imagined.
I began shooting away and surprisingly, the kids were cooperating, posing, making funny facial gestures, wrestling with each other, and basically, just being themselves. In the span of ten minutes, I fired the shutter from my camera like bullets and instantly, I had gone through eight rolls of film! Before I could savor the moment, it hit me that with two days still to go, I was left with only four rolls of film. In hindsight, four rolls would be more than plenty as the last two days proved quite uneventful, at least from a photographic perspective.
That night, Laddoo and I had dinner in town at a "hotspot" frequented by the local fishermen. It was an unruly place, loud and dirty as you would expect, where half of the people were glued to an old TV set left over from the 70s blaring the latest Bollywood extravaganza. You could see it in their eyes, some of these people were lost in their own fantasy world, a place undoubtedly more pleasant than the harsh reality they wake up to each morning. We ordered some rice, vegetables and five different varieties of local fish cooked in traditional spices and washed it all down with some warm tea.
After dinner, during a cigarette break, we met an eccentric fisherman who suggested between lengthy drawn out puffs (doing his best Marlon Brando impersonation) that we check out the ship breaking yards along the southeast coast where massive ocean freighters and tankers are torn apart manually by hundreds of gritty, lean, muscular men. When we arrived there next morning, none of the yard managers allowed us inside. They feared my images would lead to repercussions for their blatant disregard for the health and safety conditions of their workers. However, our driver was as clever as he was bold, and on an impulse, he followed a large dump truck past the gates and managed to glide by the security incognito. Laddoo and I darted out of the car and took cover, setting up the cameras behind a huge scrap of metal, out of view from any curious onlookers.
Nearby, just off the shore, workers were carving out these steel behemoths into pieces using blow torches, sledgehammers and wedges. Huge chunks of metal came crashing down into the water like glaciers calving, and were winced ashore by another group of men using good old fashioned ropes and pulleys. These were then cut up into smaller sized pieces, weighing only hundreds of pounds, so that they could be lifted and hand–loaded onto waiting trucks to be sold (quite profitably by the owners) as scrap metal across the country and across Asia.
What I was witnessing was a giant recycling operation as well as an environmental disaster. Whereas most of a ship's metal parts are recycled as scrap, and individual pieces like kitchen sinks, toilets, windows, life boats, etc. are sold off at the roadside markets, the stuff nobody would buy, including the hazardous waste, asbestos, arsenic and mercury, are left behind to foul the beaches. When I looked closely at the workers' faces though, strangely I did not notice any tension or anxiety as I had expected. These are people who know nothing else and don't particularly want or care for anything else. Theirs is a simple existence. They work a daily shift from 7AM to 11PM with a two hour mid–day break, get paid a low but reliable income so their kids go to school and have food on their plates. Many even had cheerful faces, not necessarily happy, but not miserable either. They work with their friends, sing songs, and all feel equal. They have little, and little to worry about. Yes, the conditions are daunting but not wholly; the pace is calm and there are numerous periods of waiting during the day as the ships are taken apart. Thankfully, it was nothing like the horror show I had expected.
I managed a good fifteen minutes of shooting before we were busted and promptly whisked away. As a precaution, I had a dummy roll of film ready in case they decided to confiscate the pictures, which, of course, they did. I handed it over with fake reluctance and we sped away in a trail of dust like we had just robbed a bank, gloating in our success.
CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH, 2008
on our last day, Laddoo and I headed off to Cox's Bazaar, the world’s longest beach, stretching 75 miles along the Bay of Bengal. We were eagerly looking forward to some well deserved R&R. Along the highway, the multitude of signs
warning of elephants crossing the road momentarily wiped the smile off my face. We arrived without incident just before sunset and spent the evening sitting on the pristine white sand, relaxing, eating barbecued crab and lobster, watching the lazy waves roll in, and recalling all our adventures and mishaps. We spoke of what I call "The Beautiful Mess", a sad paradox prevalent in so many underdeveloped countries where beauty and heartbreak co–exist like uncomfortable strangers.
For four years, since the conclusion of my Spiritus Mundi book, I had been searching for another source of inspiration as a stepping stone to expand upon the lessons of that project. The more I searched, the more elusive and aimless the goal became. I have long believed that we are subconsciously shaped by the world around us, so maybe the time just wasn't right. It's no coincidence then that, after months of procrastination, this trip came to fruition spontaneously and almost effortlessly in mid October while a conscious "transformation" in our society was already underway... just before the historic American election. I believe we have finally entered into the third millennium and hope that a new consciousness based on fairness and equality will prevail. That alone inspires me. I used to think I needed courage to move forward, but this journey taught me that what I really need is courage to stand still. ▪️
COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH, 2008