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Himalaya

Day 119: Chittagong

Michael Palin - HimalayaI hardly notice the Bay of Bengal. It's grey and neutral here, like a workshop floor, and it comes as something of a jolt to realize that this is my first sight of the sea in six months
of travelling.

Above the shoreline, slices of ships sit marooned in the sand like giant sculptures. The further they are from the sea, the less recognizable they become, until great leviathans are finally reduced to their component parts, piles of pipes, cylinders, air vents, staircases, propellers, lamps, doors and portholes, stacked neatly next to each other.

The manager, who says it takes six to seven months to break down a big ship, tells me that the money is not made from spare parts but from the bulk steel. There is enough in each supertanker to build two skyscraper blocks.

I walk down onto the beach. The stranded sections, an entire boiler room, a beehive of exposed cabins, pipe systems like prehistoric animals, have a mournful beauty, but otherwise it's like Dante's inferno. The once golden sand is in a chronic state, pock-marked with grease, oil, human and animal excreta, sinister patches of blue asbestos and scarred by trenches gouged by steel cables dragging heavy metal up the shore. The workforce, supplied by private contractors and brought in from other parts of the country, swarm like ants over corpses. Surrounded by jutting, often jagged, edges of solid steel, flying sparks, falling metal and billows of evil-smelling black smoke, they seem desperately short of protective clothing. Headscarves, oil-stained trousers and T-shirts, baseball caps and sandals seem to be the order of the day for labourers, but even skilled men like welders can be seen operating without goggles or workboots. Tools are basic. Apart from the oxy-acetylene torches, most of the demolition work is done with hammer and crowbars. I see a cylinder block being carried away by two boys of school age.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 119: Chittagong
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Chittagong
  • Book page no: 268

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