Festival season. We’ve all been there. From the music circuit to festivals of light. From art to food to international cultures. 2015 was a year filled with all the above. My travels took me from the "Lights Festival" in Berlin to and the "Signal Festival" in Prague and ended in Kolkata for the "Durga Puja". The year left me with endless memories, a whole phone full of new contacts, and a new perspective on life and what it has to offer.

A good friend invited me to spend some time in Kolkata with him and his mother. My extensive travels had not yet taken me to that city so I was more than excited to accept the offer. I love visiting places when there is some sort of cultural event happening. To me it is a beautiful and authentic insight into what the city really stands for. There is no better way to experience a new place than being in amongst the locals, celebrating life, religion, food, art, whatever it is that defines that place. Durga Puja is considered to be India’s biggest holiday. During the celebrations, millions of people flood into Kolkata to see the spectacular floats of religious deities travelling throughout the city. This Hindu festival is also celebrated in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I happened to be close to the area and decided to check the festival out there prior to heading to Kolkata as I had heard that their celebrations were quite distinct despite sharing the same purpose.

I hopped a short one hour flight to Dhaka, quickly realising that out of 80 or so passengers, I was one of two westerners. I saddled up next to the American and asked him why he was going to Dhaka. It turned out he worked for the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh and was making his way back from a short trip he’d taken. We spent the whole flight in conversation about recent events in the area. He told me about the bombing of a mosque the day before, two tourists that were murdered recently, and new warnings of U.S. citizens traveling to Dhaka. I had heard of the turmoil that Dhaka was facing but was unaware of the new warnings. It’s a different sort of awareness when you are about to travel to a place you hear about on the news. I’ve travelled to 78 countries and have never really been afraid of where I am; but now heading into Bangladesh, I was extremely nervous and ready to leave even before I got to my hotel.

My fears were soon overrun by excitement and awe. On the drive to my hotel I was fascinated by the colors of this busy, bustling city. As a photographer I appreciate the energy and movement of crowded cities and was instantly filled anticipation to get amongst it. When I got to my hotel room I booked a tour with a private guide that I found before arriving in Dhaka. I had decided to take my time in Dhaka day by day. I only booked a 1 day tour and would feel out the other 2 days to see how comfortable I felt touring the city.

My guide was a young guy in his early 20’s and our driver was an older gentleman. I hopped in the front seat as I always try to do when I take a tour by car. Dhaka is famous for its unbearable traffic, ranked amongst the world’s worst, it didn’t disappoint. For me the traffic gave me more opportunities to see how the city runs in the course of a day. There are literally thousands of rickshaw riders, 3-wheeled bike riders, on every street. It provided the perfect pace for me to capture the essence of the city. I spent nearly the whole day focussing my efforts on photographing the chaos that was all around me. It was incredible.

If you have ever been to Asia you know that modes of transportation are infinitely unique. You will see bikes, cars, trucks, horses, elephants, donkeys, 3 wheels, 8 wheels, handtrucks…anything you could think of to move goods around. Many are confronted by the lack of order, speed, and danger of it all. But I love it. There is so much beauty and life in the chaos of the roads. Seeing  bike riders hustling on some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen in a major city was the highlight of my trip. Half a day touring the city was enough for me to decide to carry on. For the 3 days that I was in Dhaka I hired the same private guide. We spent all of our time in Old Dhaka at my request because New Dhaka was too cosmopolitan for what I wanted to experience.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has been ranked as the second least liveable city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Liveability Index

On our third and last day we were approached by the local Police and questioned as to what we were doing traveling around without a tourist police escort. So for the rest of that day we had a motorcycle with two armed officers in front of us and a van with four machine gun toting policemen behind us. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I had ever had. Imagine being a tourist in any other country and having that level of protection to simply drive the streets. I was both amused and confronted by it. We blew through all traffic instantly and were handed off a number of times to new officers who were waiting for us as we kept passing from one Thana (district) to another. Each of the officers we travelled alongside were so incredibly nice and excited to work for us. I felt like a VIP. It was crazy.

As scared and nervous as I was the whole time in Dhaka, looking back it was one of, if not the most photogenic cities I have ever traveled to. I took thousands of photos in my 3 days there and most were of the people just going about their business. To me their typical day is a colorful, fascinating and exciting experience to photograph and show the world. Although beautiful, chaotic and exciting all at once, I was reminded that the world is changing. I am now more cautious as I travel in a more dangerous world than we used to live in only a few short years ago.


Richard Silver