2018 India – Sundarbans

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 more apparent.

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 much different.

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 nature.

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 beaten path.

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 human consumption.

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 often.

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 effort now.

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 slowed down.

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 before.

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 intense.

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 me.

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