Monday, 29 July 2013

In the Sundarbans, Day Three

This one will be brief.

My second nights sleep in the Sundarbans was less fantastic than the first nights. I had been savaged by the mosquitoes and my bites itched all night long. I woke up at least three times, every couple of hours. Despite this I felt well rested and prepared for the day, if a little scratchy. We woke up about 8 to head down to the Ganges and enjoy a boat journey up the river delta, away from the sea. I had stocked up on fruit the night before, but I forgot to bring it with me so my breakfast consisted of a not so pleasant packet of biscuits that tasted like toast that had been buttered two hours ago and left to harden, yuck! I munched on them all the way to river, through the village and my conversation and China with the Indian student I mentioned in my previous post, across the muddy river ridges, and down the red stone slope leading to the boat dock. Climbing onto the boat, I claimed a seat and finished my last one. I was definitely looking forward to the lunch on the boat we had been told was on the way later.

After everyone climbed on, managing to not slip and fall in, the boat revved up and started to move. Spinning to it tail it looked like we were stuck, at first. The Sundarbans team told us about their last boat trip, the boat had gotten stuck in mud and no amount of shoving managed to release it until time had decided to let go of its hull. Fortunately for us, the boat didn't remain stuck and we cruised out into the middle of the river. Unlike the Sundarbans the team the week before, we wouldn't be on the boat for quite the same trip they had. They had spent the entire day on the river, getting off at intervals to walk amongst the mangroves and into the wildlife reservation. We simply didn't have the time for that trip today, but we would be spending the next couple of hours seeing some beautiful natural scenes on one of the globes most iconic and famous rivers. As the boat drifted upstream and the river grew wider we sat to the front of the boat, facing the oncoming merging of two deltas. Music and easeful conversation fed the peaceful atmosphere. Unlike the other groups trip the week before, the sky was overcast but, thankfully, no more than a drizzle passed our way. A beaming sun could have either been beautiful of horrendous, with us being exposed for a number of consecutive hours so we definitively got the safest of bets in terms of the weather.

Conversation rolled around teaching schools, home, inappropriate jokes and food. I supposed it's extremely unlikely to stick a bunch of Irish lads on a boat and not expect the conversation at some point to turn to food, we just miss our beef too much! A couple of hours upstream we are gifted with lunch on the boat, curry, prawn, mango chutney(jelly), chicken and rice is our fantastic fare for the day, and we are happy out. Munching away, tea follows the food and a rotation of pretentious stances on the fore of the boat adds some fantasticly posey sensations to the afternoon. A couple of hours sees us returning upstream again,but not before jokes of a log, mistaken for a crocodile create roars of laughter on the boat. On returning, we clambered back out and up the red brick dock. Back to the Sundarbans accommodation and to pack for our trip back to Kolkata, some fond farewells left us leaving a fantastic weekend and a fantastic group of people until GP Week.

Delayed Blog post on GP week to come!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Experience in Hinduism

On Saturday the 6th I woke up, aware that I was late waking up. We had a field trip planned for the day, to a temple called Belur Math, a good deal north in the city. I was up and showered immediately and out the door for a taxi. For a few reasons, we decided a taxi all the way there would not be the best mode of transport, so we had opted to get a boat down the Ganges from one dock to another. Our taxi took us as far as a dock at Babu Gath, a route that took us throw a wealthy district of the city. Despite knowing and seeing the type of wealth that exists in Kolkata, it is still bizarre to notice the change in environment from different levels of affluence. While the area we are living in is definitely not lower class, there is still a strong juxtaposition between it and the area we drove through today, which would have only been upper middle class. Even here the contrast between rich and poor is visually present, beside beautifully cared for parks and grand buildings, men sit and scavenge on the streets, cutting trees and chopping wood; a dismal reality of the discriminatory roll of fate for a person born in Kolkata.

When our taxi left us off on the side of the Ganges, between us and the dock lay a small thrown up market, customary of India. Temporary wooden shacks selling hot foot, drinks and cigarettes. The boats on the river are a commonly used, and cheap, mode of transport, so it makes sense that shops would spring up around the docks. Wandering through the stalls, a bigger one stands at the back where we buy our tickets up river for five rupees. We are told there is no boat that will take us all the way to Belur from here, but we can get a train from Haora, and a boat to Haora. We strolled down a wooden gangplank onto a large metal block sitting in the water, which served as a dock. When the boat rolled in, people clambered on and off; in true Indian style there was absolutely no concept of a queue, those who climbed first alighted first.All aboard, we were a smaller crowd than had gotten off, Haora was a central point of transport so I imagine it exports more than it takes in from these smaller stations. Haora bridge loomed out in front of us, a huge white metal structure stretching from bank to bank, and the boat rolled into the station. Getting off the boat was less of a struggle than getting on. We walked back up a very similar gang plank, had our tickets checked, and out an archway to be faced with a impressive red brick structure, dotted with fine arches and white stone columns. Haora train station surpassed Heuston in architecture and size. Between us and the station stormed no less than a hundred yellow taxis. We made the venture across and bought our tickets. With some time to spare, we bought some food and wandered towards our platform. Often when I am here, I am struck by the beauty of the small things in Indian culture. In most train stations I have seen there is an abundance of seats, nearly always entirely occupied. While there were seats available here, whole families sat on the floor together, a blank strewn beneath them. The simplicity of sitting on the ground is a very standard practice in India, and I find it a soothing image, complacency in simplicity, that is lacking in my home life.

Our train journey was about twenty minutes long in a very empty train, I still feel cheated out of of my genuine, manic, Indian train journey, but I'm sure I'll experience one before I leave. Getting off the train, the ground of the station was fine marble, the walls were a clean white paint. A tall archway and porch led us out to a similarly fine courtyard, which led to the street. One thing about India remains consistent 90% of the time, the streets are mayhem. Taxi drivers attempt to reel in your custom by flattering you or starting conversation, fruit stalls try to call you, rickshaw's only kind of try to dodge you. Walking in Kolkata is not meant to be a complacent experience. Down the street and across the road a much grander arch way led us into a wide avenue. Tall walls flanked a cobbled road. Here, at least, road traffic didn't bother you. On the right hand side, trees and stalls stood. A couple hundred meters saw us into the main temple complex. The ground was a smooth paved stone. Small and large gardens stood behind low fences, well kept from care and respect, they were totally untrodden. All the buildings seemed to be made out of the same pale pale yellow, almost white. To our left, its porch canopied by tree branches, stood the museum. To the right stood toilet facilities and a place to leave your shoes. We headed straight for the main temple as, unfortunately, beyond 6pm, visitors were only allowed here. Thankfully, it was the main reason we were here, although it would have been nice to wander down the steps at which the river lapped, or to view some of the other temples.. Looming tall on our left was the main temple. An impressive structure, the roof was arrayed with squared domes and spires. Below them stood decorative balconies in arches. The main door was close to 20 foot high, above which a finely carved circular design, similar to that often seen on the Indian flag, dominated.

Inside we took seats on the black and white marble floor, cross legged. We were in a long hall, revered in atmosphere and grand in design. Silence hung powerfully in the air, condemning inconsiderate noise. Above and around us a stone balcony shaped a rectangular viewing space over the prayer area. To our left and right columns, stretching at intervals the length of the hall, rose to support the ornately carved balcony. Beyond the pillars finely carved double doors, at separated from each other by about 8 foot, stood opened up onto the raised dais surrounding the temple, looking out to the gardens that bordered the area. I took a moment in my seat to breath deeply and appreciate to peace of the place. Soon, a bustling began, and the crowd sitting at the back of the temple began to move up, so we followed. Men in white kurtas and trousers had begun to arrive in the temple space, they were monks we thought, to prepare for the service. They rolled out mats between the rows of pillars; one for men, one for women and, later, a number closer up for the monks. From midway up the hall, on the men's mat, I could see the idol in the box at the centre focal point of the hall. I had, mistakenly, thought the statue for that of a man in remarkable stillness. The statue attracted specific worship over the course of us awaiting the prayers. People lay down in front of him and chanted before returning to their seats. These people were an inconsistent ebb and flow that continued almost until the beginning of the prayers, it included a number of the monks. For a time now, I closed my eyes. Light was beginning to fade and I thought the prayers must begin soon. A good time, I thought, to attempt to meditate.

For close to half an hour I had my eyes closed. It takes about half an hour for my knees to ache from sitting cross legged, a time I have actually been trying to improve on. Anyway, the ache tends to run away with my serenity and I opened my eyes. The sun had set more, but light still clung to the atmosphere. My eyes took time to adjust to the artificial dim from above us. The monks had grown in number, they were now dotted with orange amongst the white kurtas. Still, pilgrims lined up the pray before the idol until the sound of melodic drumming and strumming accompanied total darkness outside and the chanting began. At irregular intervals a ringing punctuated through the chants. The unified voices from around me washed over and, closing my eyes again, briefly, goosebumps rose on my arms. While not everyone in the room was chanting, the hairs on my arms said the sound came from everywhere. Male voices, presumably due to the dominance of the monks, seemed to make up the majority of the sound. The sonorous ascension and decension was repetitive and moving, sufficiently so to ignore the discomfort in my legs, which had spread to my hips. The chant continued for about 20 minutes, at intervals I observed and closed my eyes to let it wash over me. At the far end of the hall, in the idol's chamber, a monk led the procession. He waved a clutch of candles rhythmical and synchronized with the chants bowing before it.

At the end of the first chant I climbed to my feet and left the temple. Despite the peace I had felt during the chants, a semblance of intrusion remained, and our group felt it was time to leave. The peaceful air hung on the darkness outside, and we climbed back down the steps to leave.

On a highly contrasting point with the sentiment of the evening, alighting from the steps, one of our group discovered his shoes had been stolen from outside the temple while we sat in prayers, a real kill to the sanctity we had felt that evening.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

In the Sundarbans, Friday 28th and Saturday 29th

This post is partly sourced from a diary entry I made on Saturday the 29th of June, a day after arriving in the Sundarbans accommodation.I am going to edit and finish it here, hopefully making it a pleasant read from whatever I can salvage from my scribbles and recollections.

The Sundarbans.

After more than a little confusion, regarding transportation, and a squashed car journey, reminiscent of my childhood holiday car trips, we arrived in the Sundarbans yesterday afternoon. It is a stunning landscape. I hardly believe I have ever been anywhere as rural, or as naturally captivating as this region, about 150 km south east of Kolkata. The Sundarbans stretches east into Bangladesh, and covers the same area, roughly as Ireland. It is the natural habitat of the famous, and rare, man-eating Bengali tiger. I'd be lying if the hopes of seeing one, or a crocodile or snake didn't grab my fancy.

Due to it's rurality, we decided the best means of travel to the region was by a hired car. At about 8am I was woken up, we were due to be collected by 9am at Ruby Hospital. I was going to be pushed for time and a shower was out of the question. I was up, dressed and eating pronto. A scurried bit of final packing saw me rushing out the door, rushing back for my glasses whilst colliding with cartons of drinks and, to my later dismay, leaving behind my flip flops. Outside, on the street, we make a few final purchases of water, chocolate and similar long distance travel necessities, then hop into a rickshaw, which takes us as far as Kasba New Market. It is only five minutes away and situated on the main road, but we have to hop out here to get another, horribly expensive 5 rupee rickshaw going the opposite way down the main road. Another quick journey and we are on the other side of the messiest roundabout I have ever seen in my life. Ruby Hospital roundabout makes the Arc de Triomphe look like a baby could navigate it. Out of the rickshaw we see no sign of our hired transport. A phone call tells us we need to get a taxi to Garia junction, and before long we are staring at unknown rural roads. I had incorrectly assumed the direction of where we were going but are reassured by the group in a taxi ahead of us we are headed in the right direction. The taxi leaves us out, under a bridge at a taxi rank. The ground is dry dirt, and the area seems to have spawned a market. We are directed to Gariahad Junction; two minutes and a flight of stairs later we are overlooking the area. It took my until I saw the terminal to realize Gariahad Junction is a big train station, the market being an offspring to the traffic of pedestrians from the station.We can see no sign of anyone and nother phone call sends us back, confused, to where we started, Ruby Hospital. Finally, we have found our car. It was definitely not made to fit the ten of us, but we squeeze in nonetheless and try to deal with it in good humor. We eventually settle on the most comfortable combination we could think of, with the minimal sacrifice to foot blood-flow,  and we are off.

The three and a bit hours definitely weren't as torturous as the cramped conditions would have led you to believe. Almost immediately outside of Kolkata City, the landscape changes to an irregular spacing of villages and towns, and inconsistently developed roads, running through forested and remarkable areas. The staring drastically increases, which drives home the knowledge of the inward nature of these communities. We are an even more bizarre sight, even drawing some verbal exclamations at times. The serenity of the natural regions we passed coupled with a quiet phase in the car, allowed some time for peaceful thought. I had a reflective moment, staring at the inland bodies of water and the vivid green foliage flicking by me, a recognition at the improvement in my mood, and an ability to go with the flow that I have been aspiring towards for the past year. It was an extremely pleasant realization, one I doubt I would have achieved without Dan Millman's writing and this trip. As the beautiful scenery flicked by, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, depending on the state of the roads, an easeful mood settled on me.

It was with this sense of peace that I observed the oddities of the journey as interesting but not bizarre. Entering one of the towns, the traffic slowed to a halt, then advanced to a crawl. Rounding the corner of a street lined with stalls, we came to a similarly lined junction. The combination of the permanent street narrowing stalls and a nonchalant bull was creating a bottle neck. The bull did not receive a second glance, unlike us, and had an uncaring nature that, for some reason stands against my, probably misinformed, impression of bulls as aggressive animals.The next village on was in the midst of a large market. Sacks of fruit and veg filled the stone tiled town square. Further beyond, the towns diminished to villages, which decreased in size rapidly.Huts began to be the, irregular, dominant form of abode. They lined the streets and they hid back in the tress, ranged in size and material, some seemingly made of mud. Hidden away in foliage and mud a path led, around a pond of water, to the door of one brown wooden, single story structure. The roof was brown thatch. It seemed like a relatively large home. A woman stood at the door, staring out to the road as we drove by. The body of water, despite the algae, held an air of peace. Standing, up to his chest, in the water, an elderly man cupped water in his hands, lifted and poured it over his balding head. The grey of his beard stood out, wiry and strong like himself, in the creation of a simple representation of life.

A few turns off main roads took us down smaller and smaller streets. The size of the roads indicated to us we were getting close to our destination. Here too cows lie and stand in the street, and a vehicle has no choice but to go around them. Here, open fields loom to both sides, presumably cultivated for farming. Soon enough the compound looms out in front of us. The iron gates in the 6 foot walls stand open, and we immediately hurry to stretch our legs. The building is much bigger than I had anticipated, white and red stone manor, with gorgeous balconies dotted over the three storey structure. I have a little time to take it in before we are greeted by the Sundarbans team and are brought inside. First on the agenda is lunch, which was delicious. Sundarban prawns, potato curry and mango chutney make for an incredible meal. An after lunch nap is well received, and about 4 o clock we are woken up. As the Sundarbans team live in very close proximity with the children they teach, and have a field in the grounds, they regularly play sports with the kids after school. As the guests, we were invited to play football. A glance off the balcony at the field reveals children and saturated brown statues running after a ball. The field is covered in mud from the recent monsoons. Realizing what I'm in for, I resigned myself to a faceful of mud and headed down to the field. Within ten minutes we are all covered in the foulest smelling mud imaginable. Afterwards, we rinsed off under an outdoor pump, and a hose. Once clean enough to enter the house, I climbed the stairs and had a shower, fully dressed, and then further washed myself and my clothes, to no avail. I still smelt, there was still mud in my ears and my shorts were rank, but I was delighted for the fun of the game. After showering we headed into the local village area, which constituted a few dozen stalls selling the necessities, such as very fine chai, fried foods, groceries, clothes and phone credit. Sitting down to munch on vegetables, deep fat fried in chick pea flour and mustard oil, and a glass of some deliciously spiced and sweetened tea in the simple surroundings was a simple pleasure. That night, back at the house, we had dinner. Afterwards we shared stories and played some games.I was introduced to an interesting young man from Delhi, who was also doing placement in the Sundarbans. Conversation led to travelling and my interest in Tibet came out. He informed me that, were I to travel to Dharamsala I would get direct details from Tibetan exiles about their treatment in China, I am incredibly excited at the prospect of meeting with some of these people and hearing about their experiences. I don't think it's an opportunity I'm going to pass up.

The next morning is slept in until the afternoon, and after lunch we are taken on a easy walk, for a few hours, along the shore of the Ganges delta stream. Here, at points the river must be about half a mile wide, and I guess it must be wider again upstream. Seeing a river this size has never happened before, except in my mind, and I'm brought back to the thoughts of rivers I've been told about in fantasy books.The insurpassability of natures flow of water is often used in fiction to create a barrier, and there I could see why. The river's flow, while apparently slow, was probably far stronger than it seemed. I mused that, if one were to swim it, they would probably have to aim upstream, simply to reach their counterpart across. Walking further upstream the river does indeed seem to get wider. At one point it becomes very manageable to walk down the levee to the river's edge. A small fishing boat sat on the edge, the waters mildly lapping it to a casual rock. Out on the river, a number of such rowboats were in evidence, each bearing no more than two people.

Clambering back up the embankment, we walk away from the river and down an open track lined with tall slim trees. Either side of the walled path the ground dropped away three or four foot to an open, flooded, field, presumably used for growing rice. It's not long before the children, who have been following us since just before we climbed down to the river, are joined by more, and some adults. We are decidedly a bizarre sight and the children are joined by a small number of adults. Unlike the impression I would develop at home, there is no animosity in the staring. The children are friendly and excited, if a little shy. Rarely, in this country, have I encountered open vehemence. We may be an oddity, but we are greeted with warm hospitality in the majority of cases, and the friendliness does not end in the Sundurbans. For another half an hour, we wander back through farmsteads. Bales of hay, semi-clothed children, women in saris, goats and cows regularly permeate the area. This place, though sparsely populated compared to Kolkata, is absolutely alive in a way rural Ireland does not compare. On our way back we returned through the village. At this hour, 4pm, nothing is open. The shops and stalls will not start selling until dark, so we head for the house. On the way there we encountered a snake, so no crocodile or tiger so far, but still pretty cool!

That evening, I took another walk into the village with one of my teammates. The peaceful air led to a lovely relaxed conversation. We had a wander, a chai, bought some fruit and headed back for dinner. That night there was a thunderstorm, and on the way back we were caught in the downpour. After the heat we have experienced so far in this trip, it was utterly refreshing to be caught in it. That evening, after eating I watched the lightning in the distance. There was something comfortingly serene about being there, sitting on the floor watching the light blossom in the sky, through an open window. I was definitely a little disappointed when the rain stopped. We hit the hay relatively early that night; in the morning we would be taking a boat trip on the Ganges. I am aware that the size of this post grew a lot more than I anticipated, so I will leave the boat trip to another post. And so ends my first longer post, hope it was up to scratch!