With photography, like any hobby or passion, you are naturally drawn towards certain subjects more than others. So when I saw that Ailsa’s theme this week was ‘broken‘ my heart sank. I tend to go for uplifting rather than gritty…why would I take photographs of broken things?! I couldn’t really think of any relevant shots in my archives, so assumed that this week I’d be skipping the challenge.
Then I took a boat ride out on the Belait river, heading into the jungle. Just me, a friend and the boatman. Forty five minutes upstream and then back on a little powerboat. You can cover a big stretch of water and jungle in that amount of time.
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”
(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness).
Although it did indeed feel like a trip back in time, it didn’t take long for a reminder of modern-day river living to hove into view. A wrecked boat. One of many along this stretch of river, dragged over to the banks and tightly secured with ropes to trees and moorings. There is no road access to be able to come and take the wreckage away, but sinking is not a good option either, for fear of the submerged wreck causing yet more collisions.
Once perhaps a beautiful boat, this broken little pleasure craft crested the bank at a jaunty angle, thickly painted with marks of the changing tide. Despite being quite an expensive boat in its recent heyday, in some ways it now looked rather at home next to the dilapidated riverside shacks.
Further down the river, a stark reminder of the realities of living in wooden houses. Local people on the banks of the river still often live in wooden houses over the water, held aloft on stilts. In this case perhaps a house fire got out of hand, leaving nothing but burnt and broken timbers. The charred skeleton of a home where a family once lived.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”.
Despite the signs of river life breaking boats and homes, it felt as though for the people who still live and work there, they at least, are unbroken. There were signs of ongoing building maintenance. Even some new traditional wooden houses being constructed in the clearings amongst the foliage. There was a vibrancy to the floating communities I passed. Old men sat on the gangways, mending fishing nets, women preparing food in the doorways of their homes. Children, out at the waters’ edge, playing and learning to fish. A sense of community strength, faith in the face of adversity.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.
I had gone out on the water hoping for the chance to photograph crocodiles and monkeys. The wildlife was not cooperative on this occasion, but I stepped off the boat feeling ebullient nonetheless. If someone had told me I’d see the wrecked hulls of boats, collapsing jetties and the charred remains of river dwellings I’d have expected to feel disappointed, deflated. Maybe even a little broken for the people who’s lives had been affected. But instead I came away with a surprising sensation of optimism and hope in renewal. So, entirely unexpectedly, it turns out Ailsa’s challenge was uplifting after all!