HEAVY METAL

From my forthcoming book Before Tourists Come: Travels & Encounters in Bangladesh

It’s funny what scale can do. Wonder. Awe. I’ve felt them standing at the base of Everest, at the edge of the Grand Canyon, in a grove of giant sequoias, under a dome of stars on a dark night. I've felt them in the soaring vaults of a medieval cathedral—as intended—and even now and then in the valleys of Manhattan. But to have them overwhelm me in this smouldering, post-apocalyptic ship graveyard—that I did not expect. 

Mind you, I wasn’t visiting the incongruously named Peace, Happiness and Prosperity Ship Breaking and Recycling Yard with a view towards reporting on the ills of the shipbreaking process. The toxic pollution, the potential for deadly accidents and the violations of workers’ most basic rights are well documented and immediately apparent to anyone who comes here with eyes—or lungs. That’s not to say I don’t care about those things. I do. I care passionately about them. But those are newspaper stories, and they have been told. 

So, as much as I am ashamed to admit it, if there was ever a time when I was an actual tourist in Bangladesh—albeit a tourist with good contacts, because it is all but impossible to get into a shipbreaking yard these days—this was probably it. And though I was on the lookout for an original story to tell, what I was really here for was the spectacle of it all: to spend a few incredulous hours watching as a barefoot army of thousands, with little more than acetylene torches, winches and brute strength worked together to dismantle the giant skeletons of the former queens of the high seas.