ESSAYS

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Shipwreckers

Since the 1970s, ninety-five percent of the 700 ships being decommissioned each year end their lives in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Most of these ships go to the Indian shipyard in Alang, but the true giants go to the Chittagong shipyard in Bangladesh. There are no docks, no concrete piers, no scaffolding, no cranes. In reality, it hardly qualifies as a shipyard at all. But despite its rough exterior, this beach is a thriving work zone that oversees the dismantling of about 70 ships a year. A worn out ship still in running shape is worth millions, yielding an average value of 110 to 150 dollars per ton. These ships are the sole source of raw materials for the metallurgical industry of Bangladesh, providing steel for construction, a huge benefit for a country devoid of natural resources. The shipyard’s owners are Chittagong businessmen, often linked to the steel industry. They seldom visit the beach in person, entrusting direct management to contracted specialists, who hire and manage swarms of workers to dismantle the ships. There are between 25 to 100 thousand of these workers on any given day. But the job is very dangerous. They use outdated and hazardous technologies to break up the ships and are paid very little to do so. But the Chittagong shipyard workers endure with surprising dignity, calm, and perseverance. They can provide for their entire families through this work. And despite the current world economic crisis, the ship wrecking industry in the Gulf of Bengal is still thriving.

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Synchronized Swimming

Synchronized swimming, once known as water ballet, has grown from its humble origins to become a fully organized, internationally competitive sport, reaching the Olympics in 1984. It’s a female dominated discipline, though men compete internationally. Competitions are organized into four categories: solo, duet, team (four to eight swimmers), and combination (ten swimmers). Although synchronized swimming is a graceful and gentle sport, it requires a stage-like charisma, along with motor precision, strength, flexibility, and above all, aerobic endurance. This is why international-class swimmers train up to 5 hours a day. Synchronized swimming has achieved its highest levels in countries like the United States, Russia, Japan, Spain, China, and France.  The national team of Ukraine, coached by Svetlana Saidova, is considered to be one of the world’s best teams. Performances of the Ukrainian swimmers are as breathtaking for the public above the water as for an observer below the water.

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Chinese Gymnasts

Chinese children who dream of a gymnastic career have a long way to go. There are three stages of training. Third-degree schools (the lowest) are responsible for talent selection. After a short trial period, children with potential continue training for two or three years on their own free time. The most talented children go to second-degree schools for intensive training. Here, they participate in nationwide competitions. Winning a medal is usually a passport to a first-degree school, which paves the way to an international career. A day in the Shanghai second-degree school, led by trainer Chen, begins with one hour of gymnastics. After breakfast, the children attend three hours of classes, followed by a lunch break and short recovery period before beginning another four hours of technical training. After a shower and dinner, the children go to more classes. At 9.15 p.m. everyone goes to bed. After such an exhausting day, sleep overcomes them, bringing dreams that are likely as regimented as their daily training routine.

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Olympians

They were the sporting legends of their time. But their time has past, and their years, advancing. Hidden inside the aging skin and decades-old sporting equipment, there is a deeper, almost imperceptible story of the human experience, in which the struggle against time and the quest against personal limitation lives on.
Jan Szczepanski: Polish Boxer. Represented Poland internationally 15 times. Became European Champion in '71, and Olympic Champion in '72. 251 wins, 24 loses. Remains a legend in Polish boxing.
Mithat Bayrak: Turkish Wrestler. Won Olympic gold in Greco-Roman Wrestling in '56 and '60. Wrestled and worked as a trainer for 20 more years after.
Armin Hary: German Sprinter. First non-American since 1928 to win the Olympic 100 meters. Won European Championships in '58 for the 100m and 4 x 100m. First man in history to run the 100m in 10 seconds.
Jan Kowalczyk: Show Jumping Champion. Won 650 competitions from '55 to '91. Participated in 3 Olympic games. Won gold in Individual Jumping and silver in Team jumping at the '80 Olympics.
Mark Rakita: Soviet Fencer. Won world championship in '65, '67, '69, and '71. Two Olympic Golds and one silver for team competition, one gold for individual competition. Inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in '88.
Irena Szewinska: Polish sprinter. Seven Olympic medals, which include three golds. First woman to hold three sprinting world records at the same time. Won 13 medals in European Championships. Won 26 Polish sprinting championships.
Alexander Medved: Soviet Wrestler. First Soviet to win three gold medals in Freestyle Wrestling. Won seven World championships, three European championships. Recognized by FILA as the Greatest Freestyle Wrestler of the 20th Century.

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Naadam Portraits

Horse racing is a part of Naadam, a Mongolian festival that has been celebrated since the times of Genghis Khan. It is most recently held every July to commemorate the People's Revolution. Traditionally, the jockeys are children in these races. It is said that Mongols learn to ride before they can walk and feel safer on horseback than on the ground. Boys and girls as young as five are used as jockeys because a Naadam race is not a test for riders, but for horses. However, the races can be very dangerous, with hundreds of horses running at great speeds across a steppe of 12 to 28 kilometers. In preparing for Naadam, children take part in repeated practice races and help the trainers take care of the racehorses. According to some estimates, 150 to 180 thousand horses with more than 30 thousand child jockeys compete in over 500 races each year.

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Urban Golf in India

Golf is often considered a game of the wealthy (which it normally is), but its modern, elitist form evolved from a simple farm game. The essential equipment consists of a crooked stick and balls, and virtually any area can be used as a course. In this way, golf can be played by people from all walks of life. A group of boys living in the slums - some of whom worked as caddies at a nearby golf course - started to play golf a few years ago, developing their own variety of the game. Too poor to afford actual golf clubs and balls, they molded iron rods into usable golf clubs, and they use cheap plastic balls available at toy shops. Apart from this, the golf played by the slum youth has the same rules as the regular game. In a modernizing India, the younger generation is increasingly exposed to Western lifestyles, and sometimes their enthusiasm produces an interesting mix of local traditions and realities with new inspirations.

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Freerunning

The urban sport known as Freerunning originated in France in the late 1980s. It is often referred to by its French name, Parkour, although today these terms are not exactly interchangeable. Deeply influenced by different cultural reference points, including stunt depictions in movies such as The Matrix or Jackie Chan's comedies, video games, break dancing, and martial arts choreography, Parkour/Freerunning has become a lifestyle and philosophy among younger generations. In its orthodox form, Parkour is a strictly individualistic, non-competitive and non-commercial activity, with the ultimate aim to cross physical thresholds of urban space. Freerunning is taken more liberally, and it is simply the art of movement, practiced out of love or professionally. It embraces elements of tricking and street stunts, creating an athletic and aesthetically pleasing way of moving.
The UK-based Urban Freeflow, the first ever professional organization set up within the Freerunning and Parkour world, has continually been the driving force behind the movement, and has developed into an international brand. The UF athletes work as stuntmen, choreographers, actors and live performers, and have been involved in several movie productions. In the pictures, Ash, Blue, Cali, Asid, and Chima, together with their soon-to-be colleagues at UF – Brazilian Pedro Thomas and Mexican Eric 'Daer' Sanchez  – show their extraordinary skills in different big cities of the world: New York City, Hong Kong and Mexico City, and on the Maho beach on St. Martin (Netherlands Antilles), a cult destination frequented by airplane watchers.

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Sumo

As the national sport of Japan, the sumo acquired great prestige over centuries, but is constantly struggling in terms of participation. The  life of the sumo adept is hard to survive in. After being accepted to a stable (heya), which is both a training center and a sort of monastic collective, young adepts must adhere to norms of the hierarchy and to the strict rules dictated by Kyokai - the official sumo association. They compete in six two-week tournaments a year, trying to advance in the hierarchy, which is the only chance to live an easier or sometimes (seldom) relatively affluent life, if they become top-ranking wrestlers. Between periods of competing, training and performing menial duties, the moments of relaxation and simple pleasures are rare and precious.

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Mexico's Car Frenzy

The small but lively and growing community of automotive enthusiasts in Mexico City consists of people who mostly have to work hard and full time to support their passion. but they are ready to devote any spare moment to their classic, fancy, custom tuned, muscle or otherwise exceptional cars. And they never miss any opportunity to gather together to appreciate and celebrate their precious vehicles, and to treat themselves to a (sometimes guilty) pleasure of driving. Streets, highways, parking lots, ramps, and even indoor spaces - any place can become a racing ground for a more or less spontaneous event.

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Invading urban space

Skateboarding is more than a sport – it's a unique and dynamic culture which combines demanding physical exertion with fashion, design, graphic art, and even filmmaking. It was probably originated in the late 1940s in California by surfers, and now is one of the most popular recreational activies among kids and youth around the world. Skateboarders use the urban environment as a huge playground, but since the 1970s, skateparks have been constructed specifically for their use in order to bring the activity under more control. Indeed, skaters always had a lot of negative press, being portrayed as dirty, noisy, aggressive, and trouble-making. The darker side of skateboarding is especially evident in countries like Mexico, where violence and organized drug-related crime are ubiquitous, especially in poor and congested urban areas. The images were taken in dangerous neighboorhoods of the Distrito Federal, such as Neza and Tepito. The skaters are of different age and background. They themselves define skateboarding as the rebellious, creative celebration of independence – a realm of unrestricted freedom.

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Nada Kusti

In almost every culture, there have been ritual fights for leadership. One form in India is called Nada Kusti, which in Kannada, the language of the inhabitants of Karnataka, means “local way of wrestling.“ The headquarters of the sport is in the capital city of Mysore, where Maharajas patronize organized matches every year during the religious festival of Dasara. Historically, these matches were merely courtly tournaments where guards would wrestle each other for the entertainment of the royals. But the games grew larger over time, and currently professional Nada Kusti wrestlers fight outside the palace in a red-clay arena. They train in gyms called garadi with only traditional Nada Kusti equipment, such as stone weights, wooden bars, and various-sized clubs. The garadi is seen as both a gym and a community. Participation in special ceremonies unites the authority of a guru and strengthens this community. The fall of feudalism and progressing modernization of India have led to a severe drop of public interest in Nada Kusti, particularly among the younger generation. Today, functioning garadi in Mysore has fallen to less than ten. The rest have been shut down or transformed into gyms and fitness clubs. Without government or private support, this sporting tradition may completely fade away.

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Pole Dancers

Pole dancing is no longer the preserve of gentlemen's clubs, and became - at least in Western countries - just one of many physical activities that everyone can enjoy, but the connections between pole dance and its sensual roots are still obvious and can create tension and negativity.  Especially in families, a person's decision to enter the career of a professional pole dancers is often subject to preconceptions about the nature of this profession. The modern culture of beauty and body, together with the wider spread of liberal views make it easier for professional dancers to receive full acceptance from their families. For amateurs it's a fitness exercise and a fun in the first place, but also a way to please those whom they care about. In Sydney alone, the "pole dancing community" (most of them actually have a sense of allegiance to a community) reaches 3000. The dancers associated with Bobbi's Pole Dance Studio (a Sydney-based chain of schools teaching pole dancing as fitness) are not afraid of sharing their professional experience with relatives who support them throughout their career and are proud of their personal successes.

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Lucha Libre

Lucha libre, the Mexican version of free wrestling, is probably only rivaled by soccer in popularity among Mexican people, and its cultural impact may be even greater. The sport embodies contradictions at the heart of national identity: the interplay between tradition and modernity, ritual and obscene parody, machismo and transgender experiences, as male wrestlers often cross-dress and perform feminine roles. Disguising one's identity is a part of professional culture of luchadores and the use of mask and nicknames is the most characteristic feature of lucha libre. Unlike the free wrestling in the United States, the sport in Mexico is more about aerial moves and high-flying than mere power, even if bouts can be bloody in extreme cases. At least a dozen big arenas exists in  Mexico City, most of them having a show twice a week, the largest of which is the 16,000 seat Arena Mexico, considered the Mecca of lucha libre and attracting also foreign tourist. There is also a number of smaller venues entertaining local communities in poor districts of the city. One of them is La Loba, located in Chimalhuacán - an area seldom visited by outsiders and affected by usual problems of semi-slum neighborhoods of megacities: crime, violence, drugs, and poverty. At La Loba, most of the audience are friends, family, and neighbors, which makes of every show a sort of village fest.

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Garrido's Boxing Gym

Almost three thousand overpasses and viaducts mark the landscape of the twenty-million city of Sao Paulo. One of them, located in a municipal district in the eastern section, Zona Leste, became the site of the Garrido Boxing Academy, founded by a former professional boxer Nelson Garrido with a mission to get young people off drugs and crime through sport and education (a library stocked with books donated from everywhere is a part of each gym). The charismatic "O Louco dos Viadutos", the crazyman of viaducts, gained sympathy and respect from the locals, as well as from the municipal authorities, who support him in his idea of taking sport to the poor and marginalized population by establishing public gyms.
People who frequent the Academy are of very different kind. There are regular workers and jobless guys, schoolboys (and schoolgirls) as well as homeless youngsters for whom this is the only place when they are safe from dangers of street life and can even get the only hot meal during the day, prepared by Mrs. Garrido. At the entrance, there is a kind of triumphal arc (a gift from a group of young designers from Holland who visited the place a few years ago) with a motto which can be translated roughly: "Come as a chap, leave as a proid person".

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Daredevils of Vanuatu

The Naghol festival on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, is a series of events held in April and May, when the local species of liana plant has enough elasticity to be able to support the weight of an adult man. Following an ancient ritual, the islanders built bamboo tower with several platforms on different levels, from where young men dive head-down with the vines attached to their feet. The sport is believed to be the precursor of modern bungee jumping. The diving ceremony may be related to some agricultural rituals, as it coincides with the yam harvest, or to the initiation of male youth into adulthood. The jumpers usually hit the ground with their heads, but the meticulously measured vines wrapped around their ankles make the thump usually harmless. Before the jump, the participants seek reconciliation with family and friends in case they die, but, thankfully, such a misfortune happened only once in modern times. The people in the pictures come from Rangusuksuk village, and the tower is exceptionally high, reaching 35 metres above the ground.

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Living in Deadlands

The public cemetery of Navotas, a municipality located directly north of Manila, serves as a regular burial place, but at the same time is the center of a slum neighborhood extending down to the seashore. The entire area is called Bagong Silang, which means 'newborn” in Tagalog language. Those who live within the walls of the cemetery – about 500 families crammed in an area of 5,600 square meters - sleep, eat, and bathe atop the concrete blocks of tombs, where they built their makeshift dwellings. The slums and the graves form a tightly woven urban tissue where life and death cohabit. The cemetery itself provides jobs to some residents, e.g., grave cleaning. Others make a living as fishermen or divers for pearls and corals, but many are jobless and have to scavenge garbage dumps. The crime rate is very high. The average income for a family is about 100 peso (slightly more than 2 US dollars) per day. There are no toilets or running water, and squalor is everywhere. Due to a lack of space, crypts are reused (usually after five years from the burial), so human bones are scattered throughout the cemetery among other garbage. Despite the subhuman conditions, the cemetery residents prefer to live among the graves than further away from the port where employment is harder to find. Their main concern is the constant threat of being evicted to another part of Manila where a sustainable livelihood is even less possible than here.

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11/8

Despite the preparations taken shortly before Typhoon Haiyan entered the Philippines, the scale of destruction and the death toll were enormous. On November 8, 2013 the city of Tacloban in the Region of Eastern Visayas, 580 km southeast of Manila. was hit by the typhoon with full force. A US Marine air survey made on the next day revealed dead bodies scattered on the streets, and said that virtually no structure had been left undamaged. A state of emergency was declared, but the local government virtually collapsed, and the city found itself in a state of severe humanitarian crisis. A storm surge largely destroyed the local airport, though it kept functioning as an evacuation center. In the region of Visayas 1.9 million were left homeless and more than 6,000,000 displaced.

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Paradise Crossing

The Serengeti is often called God’s private zoo. It is not difficult to see why. During the rain period from December to June, the plateau surrounding the Ngorongoro volcanic crater in the Serengeti is covered with lush vegetation and herds of animals. The most striking of these animals are the gnu antelopes. At over one million strong, they are much more numerous than the other hoofed animals, to the point lions and hyenas find it difficult to limit their number. After the last rainstorm, the plain rapidly changes into a dry and hostile wasteland. The gnus migrate, following the escaping rain. At the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, the herd stops to graze, but must shortly head back to Ngorongoro. This migratory cycle is never the same, changing based on the herd’s size and the direction of rainfall. At a certain point during the migration, the herd must swim across its largest obstacle – the Mara River. Here, hordes of hungry crocodiles wait for their prey. The antelopes seem to know this and are reluctant to enter the water, yet they cannot abandon their march. The species is not only fleeing the drought, but also the predators that are unable to keep pace. There seems to be a deeper motive as well. Perhaps this migration is an attempt to rediscover a long lost garden of paradise. Maybe the gnus never leave paradise, but never stay long. Or perhaps paradise is in the journey, not in the destination.

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Of Eagle and Man

Hunting with eagles is an old tradition of Mongolian Kazaks, and has virtually no equivalent in other cultures. The birds do not come from breeding farms nor conclude their lives in captivity. It 
does happen that Kazaks snatch nestlings, but these birds are not as valued as the wild-captured, mature ones. After five years of service, the eagle is restored to freedom with a guarantee of lib-
erty until the end of its life. In the world of Mongolian steppes loyalty is the supreme virtue – the condition for survival. The eagle and man somehow yield to this rule. The first returns, although 
no one would be able to retain it. The second respects the buyback agreement, although no court sanctions it.

 

©2020 by tomasz gudzowaty.