After briefly back in Calcutta Sam and I set off to the Sunderbons.
We made no planning.
Known in Bangla as Beautiful Jungle (lit: sunder = beautiful and bon = trees/forest/jungle). The sunderbans are a vast expanse of mangrove forests, wide and narrows cross cutting waterways, and are home to a dwindling number of infamous man eating tigers. It’s a vast swamp.
It’s a beautiful swamp, and away from Calcutta, is unpolluted serenity. That’s largely because half of the Indian side of the Sunderbans—Bangladesh owns the other side—are strictly off limits to humans. You can try to glimpse that serenity, as we did, by visiting the other half that people are allowed to visit.
We made it to the Sunderbans from Calcutta by way of the Baghajatin train station outside our apartment to Canning, the end of the line. Canning is clearly a town that’s seen better days. I’ve been told its harbor, which the British once made as a contingency plan should the Calcutta harbor become unusable, has itself largely silted up drying most of the trade with it.
We crammed into Tata Magic carrying 20 people to Godhkhali to catch a boat. Fortunately we were met by a two man crew of Ramzan and Moni who piloted a rather nice houseboat and negotiated what appears was a fair price of Rs. 7000 for a full 1 night 2 day package, but strikes me as exorbitant.
We didn’t do much the first day but traipse around a town at the edge of the Sunderban called Gosaba. It is always interesting to be the foreigner, the bideshi, the outsider in a world that even though I know some conversational Bangla, remains difficult to understand. I’ve come to the realization that no matter what I do, and no matter how much people will excited and willing to invite me into their family, I will always remain an outsider and a curiosity in India. People will form stereotypes about me based on my skin, and second based on the first question I am always asked, “Where am I from?”
Another strange thing I’ve recently become aware of is that I am frequently asked questions or told statements in the negative, accusative or assumptive. Such as, “Why didn’t you take that bus?” “America doesn’t have poverty” “What about your permission to get copies?”
It’s not a bad thing. It just is.
At night we docked next another boat. It’s our mother’s boat Moni and Ramzan said in Bangla. But as I said, we were looking for serenity, not to be anchored next to a rowdy crowd of Bengali men staring at us longer than was comfortable.
I made this clear to Ramzan and Moni, who replied, “But if we dock here, we will not have fear.”
Fear? Why fear? Is it a fear of the tigers, who people in the region might be afraid of swimming up to the boat and nabbing a human? Or is it a fear of pirates? Last week, I had been told, a boat had been hijacked and pirates made away with it.
Either way, there wasn’t much I could do other than to shut up and stop being pissy about it.
We woke early and set out to the Mangrove Interpretation Center, a surprisingly good museum on the ecology of the Sunderbans. We were also given a guide, apparently a necessity for the trip. He mumbled, liked birds and deer—telling us to take copious photos of every one we saw— and said the word “also” at the end of every sentence.
We then ventured further into the Sunderbans. Up until now we had only been on the North Eastern edge. The forest protection agency has a camp set up purely for the delight of tourists to spot wildlife. They’ve carved out a giant square tank (pond) for animals to sip water as well as four or five 50 meter wide half kilometer long swathes through the jungle so tourists can spot tigers or fauna crossing them. I’d call it environmental destruction. But this is India and India doesn’t really do environment, unless it is accompanied by a pile of garbage.
Later we went to another similar location, called “Dobanki” where the forest agency has set up a canopy walk, but is really just an elevated concrete walkway. After Dobanki, our boat slowly chugged its way back to Godhkhali with its 95hp diesel engine.
Highlight of the journey: Riding on the roof rack of a Tata Magic (Minivan like vehicle) with 26 people (Perhaps twice it’s max intended carrying capacity) in and on it between the Godhkhali boat launch and Canning (where we got the train to Calcutta).