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!


No comments:

Post a Comment