The pair of young men gunned the throttles of their bright, scarlet motorbikes as they hurtled past me over the damp, beach sand. Cool kids in black and shades. Their girlfriends behind, clinging tightly, their black burqas streaming with a wild flutter in their wake. Back they raced to the throng of well to do families, having found the kind of seclusion at the far end of the beach that young couples seek everywhere, away from protective families.
Just north of Bangladesh’s second largest city’s muddy estuary, where enough of the silt is replaced by sand to earn the name Sea Beach, the wealthier families come to enjoy the kind of seaside afternoon most of us in the West would recognise: picnics, candy floss and boat rides. With one notable difference, the lack of sunbathers is shrouded in robes of all colours for the women: from the black of conservative Muslims to the multi-coloured sparkle of exuberant Hindus, while the men are equally ill inclined to bare the flesh. But, as elsewhere in the country the religious divide is not always drawn by appearances, men dress similarly, Hindu women may cover their hair and Muslim women may wear brightly coloured saris. Even the red, forehead dot of the bindi is not a guarantee of Hindu faith or its absence the opposite.
The intimacy of young couples away from the crowd is not the only taboo on offer here, a discrete word from the comfort of your plastic beach chair at one of the many impromptu beach cafes will get you an illegal beer, disguised in newspaper wrapping or a plastic bag. Though at the kind of prices even an Englishman would wince at, this is a treat strictly for the rich, $5 for a bottle is a good day’s wage for the majority of the population. The only poor you will find here are those serving food or enterprising kids, either collecting recyclables or begging with creative back stories. The rest of the city is too busy just trying to get by to entertain the idea of anything so frivolous as a day at the beach, eating ice cream or buying tasteless souvenirs made of sea shells.
Continue north, past the young couples and eventually the sand again gives way to a grey gloop, not so much mud as years of oil and nameless industrial fluids, for here you will find the world’s second largest marine scrapyard but with no sign of the docks or cranes you would expect. On the highest tides, boats, some as big as oil tankers, surf in at top speed to be beached as close to the shore as possible. From here teams of men with oxy-acetylene blow torches slice them into huge sections, then groups of barefoot labourers trudge through the polluted mud, heaving bulky metal cables, so that these segments can be winched ashore by huge groaning machines. This way even a large ship can be dismantled in around three months if needs be. Once on dry land the metal is cut down into manageable portions so that a fleet of ramshackle trucks can take them away to be reused or melted down, largely to provide steel for the construction industry. In fact half of the country’s demand for steel is satisfied by the operation here.
Criticism of dubious working practices have made firms more security conscious and led them to put up signs professing a commitment to the environment and a rejection of child labour, otherwise endemic in the country. Whether action has kept up with the signs is another matter. A look at a satellite image of the coast shows at least fifty large ships spread over about 18km, each yard occupying a few hundred metres of shoreline and typically has up to three ships being worked on or waiting. Needless to say it is a labour intensive process and there is no shortage of men willing to work here in such a poor country. If hacking up ships for a living sounds like your idea of fun you might like to consider the wages for a labourer are $0.35/hour and cutters $0.60/hour, with a fifteen hour day common practice. One worker dies every week or two, the toxic chemicals have left many with respiratory diseases and nearly 90% get injured at some point but employers know there are plenty more where they came from who are desperate enough for work to take the risk.
You might have more fun poking around the dozens of scrap yards along the adjacent highway, where every conceivable, reuseable part of the boats is on sale, although a diesel engine the size of an elephant might stretch your luggage allowance somewhat. Vast numbers of glaring, orange life boats litter the yards and have no doubt finished off the traditional, small boat manufacturing industry.
The grime and discordant din of the yards, which employ over 20 000 people echo the demented city streets of Chittagong, where its 4.5 million inhabitants fight for space and opportunity. The huge port and marine industry, of which the yards are an important part, are a key source of income for the country but even at the beach, where the privileged few come to escape the pandemonium, it’s hard not to notice the dishevelled edge to all the facilities. If you transposed it to Europe it would have the air of an out of season, once popular resort that the monied crowds had long since deserted, leaving it to the working classes to find a brief solace from the drudgery.