Jan 1, 2016


My first view of Old Dhaka was from a bicycle rickshaw adorned, as most of these vehicles are, with portraits of Dhollywood movie stars.

Earlier when I had asked about taking a bus to Old Dhaka, the most conservative Islamic and historical part of the city, an affluent Bangladeshi asked:

Are you going there?

Yes, that's where my hotel…

Even we're afraid to go there.

An Italian and a Japanese had been murdered in Bangladesh by ISIS supporters and three secularists had been hacked to death by religious fanatics in the months before my arrival. If I hadn't snuck into the first class section of the Rocket Steamer, during my entire time in Bangladesh I wouldn't have seen another foreigner.

The inhabitants of each place a traveler visits have their characteristic way of giving directions. In the major cities of India, no one ever admits to a foreigner that they don't know the directions. Lost travelers had best ask the way of several Indians and then average the results. In Old Dhaka anyone I asked directions of stopped what they were doing and took me where I'd asked to go, turning me over, if necessary, to another Bangladeshi who could complete the journey with me.

It was sometimes difficult, at first, to buy from the street vendors near my hotel in Old Dhaka. Conversations usually went like this:

"How much?"



"America good country. Obama!" [And they'd make a thumbs up gesture and often refuse to accept any money. If I persisted a someone would come out with the word:]


In the "Decent Bakery" the baker flexed his well developed muscles as he said:

"Obama, best man in the world."

Usually their English was pretty much limited to the handful of phrases listed above. From those more skilled I came to understand that they love Obama because they think he is the most powerful man in the world, but he doesn't want war. Also, you hear again and again from Bangladeshis that are proud to have a relative or a friend who is now or who has been to America. Fortunately, the rickshaw wallahs, street vendors and coolies haven't yet heard of Donald Trump.

The trio are standing over one of the Rocket's paddle wheels

Looking out from 2nd class deck

One of 2 beds in 2nd class cabin

In the west you can be pampered on a cruise ship anytime you can afford it, but what for me would be real luxury, an authentic journey on a vintage ship—and that means an overnight passage on a boat still used for transportation—I haven't found. That is why I've come to Bangladesh—to book a passage on the Rocket Steamer.

"You must book two beds to have a private compartment."

"One bed."

I figured it would just be an opportunity to meet another Bangladeshi. What I didn't expect was that a series of men would successively occupy the compartment's other bed—one coming in at the same stop at which another departed.

1st class dining room before table cloths laid down

3rd class unreserved deck space

The second class compartments are towards the stern, the first class rooms are towards the bow and in the center, above the ship's engine and beside it's paddle wheels, for a photographer, that's the heart and soul of the ship—the third class unreserved seating.

Atop the ship, on the catwalk in front of the captain's steering wheel, that's me happy at the thought that I'm surrounded, at a safe distance, by man eating tigers. In this forest laced with a thousand waterways 300 to 400 Royal Bengal tigers eat 30 to 40 men each year (mostly the brave collectors of wild honey and poor fisherman).

After this river boat journey, in the half darkness before dawn, with the required forest ranger armed with a bolt action rifle, I will slip silently through the jungle in search of the deadly beasts.  I will do this sitting down. I'll be in a "row boat" that moves silently because it's propelled by a man swinging the tiller as a shark swings its tail fin.

I know now, as I write this, that I'll hear a tiger's roar shortly before rounding a bend of a twisting stream to see a tiger's paw prints climbing up the muddy stream bed.

Not so hard to see are the tiger's usual prey, the spotted deer.

As the deer have learned to stand on two legs to trim the leaves of the mangrove trees, so the roots of those trees have figured out how to grow deep and then straight up out of the mud and water like breathing tubes. Sometimes it seems that those roots are all that holds this considerably sea level land together.

For the individual plant or animal, the species and the planet, life and death are finely balanced. If this man-made global warming continues much longer enough of the ice caps will melt to raise the ocean level one meter and that will be enough for the sea to swallow the tigers' habitat and 15% of Bangladesh. But to turn your attention back from tomorrow—this morning, on the third class deck below, a blind Bengali man is sharing from the depths of his soul sacred Islamic hymns as he sings for his supper.

From Bangladesh, Happy New Year.

Dec 3, 2015

Return of the Rats

Meals for the rats' are mixed in such big vats that you'd expect to see a swarm of rats crawling all over the temple's marble floor.

Alas, the mass of rats spend their lives scurrying around in dark enclosures at the edges of the temple compound. Only the brave rat chooses to feed in the light and fury of the temple on a night like this....

This is no ordinary temple evening. It's the night before their biggest festival. The temple is lit up as if it were a karmic casino and the pilgrims pour in.

Some pilgrims arrive just before dawn after having walked all night on a 30 kilometer spiritual trek.

For the history and meaning of the Karni Mata temple see my earlier photo blog post on this so-called rat temple at the link below:

Rats! the End

Nov 23, 2015

rats or camels

No matter how hard they try, some animals just aren't photogenic. Some animals are the color of dirt.

I'm hoping I'll be better at  photographing rats than camels, so I'm leaving the Pushkar Camel Fair this morning for the so-called rat temple at Deshnoke. As I photo blogged about that temple on my last trip to India, this might be my last photo blog from this trip to india. After revisiting the rats, I'll be trying to recover my health by reading books on the beach at Gokarna.Fortunately, I can leave you with some pretty pictures. The wonderful guest house I've been staying at, Bharatpur Palace, overlooks sacred Pushkar lake. First there is a morning shot. I stopped writing this last night to photograph the fireworks from the terraces.

Oct 27, 2015

The Great Art Exhibition

Durga Puja, a 5 day annual holiday here in Kolkata, has just concluded. During the Puja the city's subway system doesn't open until 2 p.m. but stays open until 4 a.m. If the question is, "What is the population out doing until the early morning hours?" The answer is at least as much, appreciating art as it is worshipping a goddess—but the two are interconnected here as art and religion once were everywhere. Kolkata's Durga Puja is, among other things, the world's largest open air art exhibition.

I began my coverage of the festival a couple of weeks before it began in Kumortuli, a riverside community of sculptors in north Kolkata.  In Kumortuli they make, much as they have for centuries, sacred idols for traditional Durga pandals (temporary temples) all over the city. The first two images, however, show the portrait sculptures of one of the community's most prominent artists. In the third a sculptor works on a traditional Durga idol in which clay is molded over a form made of straw. In the fourth, you see in the background a formed, but unfinished statue of the 10-armed goddess Durga and in the foreground Mahishasura, the evil demon she slew. In the fifth image a completed Durga idol is hauled by coolies out of the community to a waiting pandal just as it would have been 500 years ago.

The Durga Puja is hundreds of years old, but it grew enormously during the British Raj when Durga came to represent India and the demon, their colonial rulers.  The British got so weary of Calcutta's rebellious creativity that they moved the capital to New Delhi in 1911. In the modern era the puja has transformed itself again to become a showcase for the cities young architects and artists. 

Above, in silhouette, the visitors, and on stage live performers and statues of the goddess and her retinue in an African themed pandal.

The three images above show a portion of the line to get in, the entrance and the inside of a pandal inspired by the art and culture of the people that live along the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. There was a gang armed with sticks here trying to prevent anyone from photographing their goddess idols (which are not the dancers shown in the third image.)

This photo of the goddess idol at a different pandal was taken without incident by a young Mexican volunteer with Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. Thanks, Renata, for allowing me to display it here. Note how the demon holds the goddess up with his elbows and wrists as an acrobatic dancer might support his partner.  This idol appears to be making the kind of subtle commentary on the relationship good and evil that is not shocking in Indian art as it would be in the West.

The puja ends with a ceremonial return of the goddess to the river through which she can return to her home in the Himalayas. One idol has just been sunk in the background as the men in front are preparing to do with their idol.

After years of complaints about the environmental impact of this return the idols are now immediately plucked back out of the river by cranes and work crews that return them to the earth in a proper landfill.

Oct 17, 2015

Calcutta street photography

Rick asked that we take a characteristic picture of each other's photographic style while taking pictures together in the streets of Calcutta last Tuesday. Rick's technique involves convincing perfect strangers to let him frame them in a darkened doorway for a dramatic closeup. I like this first shot of Rick taking a street portrait because here I got the darkened doorway framing his subject. 

In the second photo, I've taken, beneath Howrah Bridge, a head and shoulders portrait in what I think of as Rick's style. Howrah Bridge is like the Eiffel Tower of Calcutta except that you're not allowed to photograph from this city's symbol. However, under Howrah Bridge is it's own world and the topside rules don't apply.

Next is Rick's photo of me searching for spontaneous order in the chaos of the streets.

As you can see in my shot of a woman fanning herself beneath Howrah Bridge, the backgrounds I'm searching for are not often so orderly as a darkened door or the darkness under Howrah Bridge.

Last is a photo I made earlier in the day of a young family camped outside the train station.

Oct 1, 2015

Paris Hilton

Calcutta is as close as anyone today can get to the Paris of the 1930's. I might be the first to notice this.

That Calcutta sidewalk in my first image—if I had bothered to remove the umbrella, do a black and white conversion, and step back a few feet, might it be mistaken for one of Atget's shots of an old Parisian corner?

I don't know what a lost generation writer paid for a room. Nonetheless, the $3.80 a night I pay for a room at The Hotel Modern Lodge (second photo) seems about right.

And the people you meet here at the Hotel Modern Lodge! In the third photo that's Rick, a photojournalist who has a room on the roof.

I won't be posting much this month because I won't be traveling, just living the life of an artist here in this city of light.

I end with three street portraits I took this morning in the produce market.