The alarm went off at 4:30, far too early for my liking but another adventure was waiting for me.
I was picked up at 5:30,
time for a new experience, almost empty streets in Kolkata… But the
city was in the process of waking up, stalls were prepared for business,
homeless people emerged from their improvised shelters and slowly the
streets started filling up again. Dirt was to be seen everywhere, it
must have been there always but with the quiet streets it was so much
We passed a chicken market
and seeing it I could only conclude the western mass production stalls,
as bad as they are, appear to be more animal friendly than this.
Bike-loads full of chickens, their feet tightly strapped together so
they were easy to handle. They were not dealt with in a friendly way,
merely as just a consumer product. It was a strange thought that most of
these chickens would end up in a curry before the end of the day and
would be replaced by another lot the next day who’s faith would be not
Additional passengers were
picked up and suddenly, without warning the city ended and we were
driving through more rural area. Small villages where people were living
a simple lifestyle but for my feeling much better than in the city
centre. Fields of water surrounded us everywhere, markets and a buzzing
activity were to be experienced in the small villages. This was a big
contrast to the life I saw the last two days, and still we were less
than two hours away from the urban jungle that is called Kolkata.
Three hours after
departure we arrived at Godkhali, were the jetty was located, and we
boarded the Sundarban Chalo. There were about 14 Indian tourists onboard
and I was the only Westerner. We were informed about the park, approx.
9000 square km at the Indian side and an additional 17.000 square km at
the Bangladesh side. It is the biggest mangrove forest in the world.
Part of the park is used for villages, farming, fishing and honey
collecting (an extremely dangerous job, according to official records
40-50 villagers a year become victims of the Bengal tiger but in reality
this number is much higher). However, a large part was uniquely
reserved for the population of 85-87 tigers and the unique flora and
fauna, that was exactly where we were heading.
It would take another hour
and a half to reach the nature reserve during which we passed several
villages on the man inhabited islands. Breakfast was being served,
Indian style and this time there were no spoons or forks available. Time
to go local.
The first stop was at a
watchtower with some artificial ponds around for the breeding of
endangered turtles and crocodiles. We were greeted by monkeys who
definitely were not shy of the human visitors. We climbed to the top of
the tower were not lucky to get any sightings of animals.
The boat ride was a
pleasant change from the urban jungle in Kolkata, for once the leaves
were green and the only thing to be heard was the soft roaring of the
diesel engine slowly pushing us upstream. I thoroughly enjoyed it and
even managed to doze away a couple of times. Lunch was served, a nice
collection of vegetable dishes, rice and papadums. Fortunately this time
spoons were available so I did not have to embarace myself eating with
my right hand.
We now entered some narrow
creeks and even spotted a large crocodile at one point. As high tide
was coming in it was not the best moment for animal spotting but such is
Then we arrived at another
watchtower, this one seemed to be located in a much more natural
environment. A man made sweet water pond was to attract animals and some
stretches of land were freed of the vegetation to make animal sightings
easier. The rest was left for Mother Nature. We were lucky to see two
spotted dears, a lizard, several kingfishers and the ever present
monkeys. No sight of a tiger though, although one of them might as well
have been keeping an eye on us from within the dense mangroves.
It was time to return to
Godkhali and drop the other guests who only came to the Sundarbans for
the day. I remained onboard as the only passenger and then was treated a
another hour and a half boat ride in complete darkness. It was a true
adventure, having no clue where I was going or how long it would take it
was a kind of mystery tour. Indications of the length of the journey
were between an hour and a quarter and two hours. Information received
in India never must be taken too serious (no could be yes and yes might
as well be no). This time the two hour indication was the most accurate.
We were now deep in the Sundarbans and must have been close to the
border with Bangladesh. There was no way I would make it out on my own
but in spite of the confusing and contradictory information I was given
constantly I totally trusted the guys executing the tour, one way or
another things would work out anyway.
Dinner was served at
eight, another new experience with the shipper and another staff member
sitting opposite of me watching how I was eating. After dinner I was
brought to the ‘manager’ who supplied me with even more useless and
confusing information, I decided to sort that out tomorrow (what to you
mean, tomorrow whole day time at leisure…). With absolutely nothing
going on in the Eco park there was only one thing to do… An early
night. So The lights went out before nine and another exciting day had
come to an end….
At eight next morning I
was woken up with a loud bang on the door, ‘good morning sir’. I
refreshed myself as good as possible (the bathroom was modest to remain
politically correct) after which I went to the dining room.
First it took about 15
minutes to sort out how I wanted my tea (which came with sugar anyway
although I ordered black) and then there was along discussion on how I
would like my breakfast. I opted for veg Indian style.
My last couple of lines
might sound as if I am complaining, on the contrary. I still am getting
used to the different pace of life and that everything seems to take
much more time than necessary. Fact is that everybody was working very
hard to make me feel comfortable and I was without doubt given the best
facilities available in the village. Language barriers and a complete
different way of living did not make it an easy thing. I noticed by
simply accepting things as they are I was able to thoroughly enjoy it.
This is rural India and what else could I have expected going off the
Two hours after having
entered the restaurant (a shed with plastic tables and chairs) breakfast
was being served but in the mean time I had the opportunity for a
little walk and was shown the kitchen where my breakfast was prepared,
immediately I understood why it took so long, everything had to be
prepared on one single fire.
I was informed a couple of
days before the cruise that the government decided to close the park
from 5-9 February in order to do an official tiger count, which
coincided with my visit. Fortunately an alternative program was created
for me on the spot and I would be visiting a local village instead. It
meant there would be no more chances to see the majestic Bengal tiger
but once again I wasn’t complaining…
What was a minor
disappointment first turned out to be the best thing that could have
happened. I was given the rare opportunity to get an insight of rural
Bengali village life.
Immediately the serene
atmosphere was noticeable. Birds were singing, I could hear the odd cow,
a goat and chickens. The only mechanical sound was the occasional pump
irrigating the rice fields and the even rarer motorbike passing by with a
driver most privileged to own one.
The houses were a mixture
of modern houses built in brick and cement and the more traditional ones
erected in straw and clay. Most houses had a little courtyard where
rice was dried, cooking was done, but also served as a place to relax. A
small cow house and a chicken run made each home complete.
The paths were not wide
enough for cars, but as there were none to be found on the island they
suited their purpose. There was enough green to be found, trees and
hedges decorated the pathways and everywhere I could see ponds with
fresh water, used to irrigate the rice fields and to breed fish for
Mothers were taking care
of their children, rice planters were working in the paddies and
fishermen were preparing their nets. One could easily be lured into
romanticizing this lifestyle but that would be a rude mistake that would
do injustice to the harsh conditions these people have to live in. Now
in winter things might look perfect but I already witnessed a woman
sitting next to a tap patiently waiting for drinking water to come out.
She gave me a big smile although it was highly uncertain whether she
would collect enough drinking water for her family today.
In summer temperatures
rise quickly and water shortage increase. I had already seen men driving
vehicles loaded with water containers through the villages, question
remained whether most of the locals had enough money to pay for that,
especially during more difficult times.
Monsoon time changes the
area in a damp, muddy and hostile place and this is the hardest time for
the people. Bashing rains pour down for days at an end and it is to wet
and muddy to work on the fields or to transport anything on the paths
which now we’re no more than slippery stretches of mud. Also the delta
of the Ganges, the only way of transporting goods has by then changed in
a violent and aggressively moving body of water, only conquered by
those brave enough to do so. As a result the islands are mainly
isolated. During cyclones some of the villages get washed away by water
from the river that is washed over the protective walls and nothing is
left but to start from scratch once the monsoon is over.
But today everything was
alright, the sun was shining, people were doing their daily thing and
me? I was having a superb time. The closing of the park was perhaps the
best thing that could happened to me. I could have been on the boat
using that minimal chance to see a tiger, instead I found myself
immersed in Bengali village life, a rare chance one does not get very
Lunch was served and this
time I was treated on a giant shrimp next to my usual food. The cook
really enjoyed my appraisals for her work and somehow she made even more
After my short afternoon
nap it was time to return to the boat for a sunset cruise. In spite of
me being the only guest it was not an excuse to cancel the event so I
once again boarded the Sundarban Chalo for a lovely trip on one of the
branches of the majestic Ganges delta. Once in a while a cargo ship from
Bangladesh, on it’s way to Kolkata, slowly sailed upstream but it were
merely locals in small boats crossing the river that were to be seen on
the water. Another day was coming to an end and activities clearly
The sun was setting and at
several points I had some spectacular views. At one point, after we
entered a small creek the sun was reflected in the clouds, shortly
giving the unearthly impressions two suns were coming down.
We returned to the main
river to start our way back to the Eco chalets. I enjoyed the peaceful
atmosphere whilst zipping a cup of tea that was brought to me shortly
Slowly the sun continued
it’s decent but it was absorbed by the clouds before it could touch the
horizon. The only thing still remaining was it’s reflection in the
higher atmosphere but it did not take long before that also faded away
and evening had officially started at the Sundarbans.
The sun was not the only
thing that left for today, also electricity was absent leaving me in
front of my chalet in complete darkness. The locals seemed not impressed
by this event so why should I. In a way it made the sound of the
crickets and the occasional barking and howling of the dogs even more
After an hour or so, like pure magic, the lights went on and things were like normal again. Did anything happen?
I updated my journal and
was brought a lovely black tea by the cook. I do love that sincere smile
on her face every time I see her. The atmosphere was relaxing and
tranquil but at one point I decided to swap the sound of the crickets
with music from my iPhone. At this time I was completely in peace with
the world and myself.
Dinner was served around
seven thirty and after that I took some more time to relax and listen to
some music. The lights went out again before nine, and no, that was not
because of an electricity cut.
Next morning I had an
early rise for breakfast which was supposed to be served at seven
thirty. Once again I had forgotten that time is flexible in India so I
could have slept in a bit longer. Like yesterday the island was covered
in a thick layer of fog but it would not take long until the sun would
burn that away, the start of another beautiful day. After breakfast time
had come to say goodbye to the wonderful staff at the Sundarban Chalo
Eco chalets and boarded the boat for a final time.
The river was still
covered by a thick layer of fog and I could only recognise the
silhouettes of the islands and a single passing boat. Still the sun was
trying to burn through. It created a mythical atmosphere. A new
adventure lay ahead but it seemed the fog hides that what lay ahead for
Sitting on the front deck I
had a good view of where we were going and to kill time I put on my
headset and listened to my playlist of intense tracks. It was a perfect
boat ride and I must have been sitting quite a while with a smile from
ear to ear, enjoying the music and the perfect surroundings.
About two hours after we
left the village we arrived at Godkhali where I transferred in a car for
my final stretch to the urban jungle that is called Kolkata.
After a lot of confusion
by my driver he finally found my hotel and after check-in the first
thing I wanted was a decent hot shower and a relaxing remainder of the
afternoon. I found a nice restaurant for dinner and even a wine shop to
grab a well deserved beer. Once again it did not get late. My Kolkata
and Sundarbans experience had come to an end but new adventures were
waiting for me…
Continue to the Kazaringa Experience