Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sunderban

The Sunderban are the largest continuous mangrove tree forest and Bengali Tiger reserve. They are located in the southern part of the country and spread all the way to the Bay of Bengal. I went to the Sunderban for a two night/three day tour.

The tour started from Khulna. To get to Khulna you can take a plane, a boat, or a bus. Being that it was the cheapest, I opted for the bus option, and so the adventure began…

The Journey

My bus was scheduled to depart Dhaka at 10 PM (call time was 9:45 PM). The bus stop is about 20 minutes from where I’m staying, but given the traffic here we gave ourselves one and a half hours (just in case). We set out from Gulshan II towards Malibagh bus stop at 8:15 PM. The driver warned me that there was traffic, but this was stop-and-go unlike anything I had experienced before. About half an hour before we were supposed to arrive, the driver muttered “we have problem. We have problem.” At first I was unphased by his worry, but as time went by I began to get nervous. I did not ask how much further it was, because I was afraid of what the answer would be. So I sat in the back and tried to stretch time. We got there at 9:46 PM, and in the end it turned out that the bus was stuck in traffic too(go figure) and so we were delayed an hour.

When the bus finally did arrive, we all eagerly got in line to board. The first thing that struck me about the bus when I got on was that the inside looked as though it had just come back from a week at Burning Man. Every surface was covered with a film of dust – the seats, “white” pillows, windows, the crevices along the floorboard, etc. Once I sat down, and moved that dusty pillow so that my head wouldn’t touch it, the second thing I noticed were the mosquitoes. They seemed to be hovering everywhere. Great! I took out my DEET aerosol can and gave myself a good spray down. We left the station and I settled in for what would be, according to the Guide Tours representative, “a minimum seven hour drive.”

After 7 hours, we’d gone a whopping 100 km. We had another 200 km to go. After 10 hours we made our first stop. I was grateful for the chance to get up and stretch my legs. I was less grateful for the gas station bathroom. Without exaggerating it was probably the least fresh bathroom I have ever been in. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was thrilled to get out of there and breathe some clean air. While waiting for the bus to refuel, I met a few of the folks that would be joining me on the Sunderban tour. Making small talk, I commented on the lush, green rice paddies that surrounded us and pointed out what a stark contrast it was to dusty Dhaka. One of the men quickly replied, “oh it’s just like Arkansas!” Now I’ve never been to Arkansas, but palm trees and rice paddies is not how I imagine it.

12 hours after leaving Dhaka we arrived in Khulna and boarded the boat. The rest of the tour participants were thrilled to see us - they’d been awaiting our arrival since 6 AM.


The shores on the outskirts of the Sunderban were dotted with little fishing villages. Nick, a Canadian who is one month into his two year stint in Dhaka, commented on how the small groupings of huts looked just like the ones he’d seen in Newfoundland. (Again, I’ve never been there, but that wasn’t how I imagined it.) Once we entered the Sunderban we were surrounded by green trees and blue skies (to my surprise it turns out that the skies in some parts of Bangladesh are actually blue!).

There was nothing to obstruct the sun when it set several hours later. The golden light spilled over the water and we all watched from the deck and roof in awe as the sound of camera clicks filled the air. Post-sundown, but before dinner, a drum/song circle was organized by some members of the Bengali TV station crew (they were on board to film a story about the Sunderban). We took turns singing. For lack of any better ideas, but to the delight of the German couple on the cruise, I sang a Swiss kids’ song, “Alli mini √§ntli” (All my little duckies). Bengalis, it turns out, all know the same Bangla songs. The same, we learned, cannot be said for a group of Americans (plus one Candian). While they sang beautiful, complete songs, we stuttered through the chorus of a few popular American songs yet were never able to sing anything from start to finish. In fact, the Bangladeshis often new more words than we did. Side note, when it comes to American songs, the national favorite is Country Road. Several times over the next few days someone would start it up.

At 6:30 the next morning we set out on the morning patrol. Leaving the big boat behind we climbed into a 30 person canoe. The sky was streaked with brilliant shades of purple and pink as we navigated our way into a smaller river. As the sun continued to rise, the colors changed to soft orange and yellow. Mist rose softly from the surface of the water and all around us you could hear the birds chirping. Bright orange and cobalt blue kingfishers darted through the air, barely visible bright green snakes hid among the trees, and white, graceful egrets flew through the air. It was all very peaceful.

We had lunch back on board before trekking to a beach on the Bay of Bengal. The walk to the beach was not shaded and the sun beat down on us relentlessly. By the time we made it to the Bay, the water was practically shouting our names. While the local women waded in the water wearing their salwaar kameez, the rebellious foreigners took refuge around the bend and, wearing shirts and/or shorts over their swimsuits, went for a dip.

Back on board I had a Bengali breakthrough – my first authentic head nod. The words “yes” and “OK” here are often accompanied by this quick flick of the head. It’s kind of a like a half nod, but to the side. It can also be used as a greeting. In this instance I was responding with OK to someone’s offer for help and without thinking about it utilized this Bengali motion. Very exciting!

The morning of day three we went out on another patrol. This time the focus seemed to be on the people who live in the Sunderban. Throughout the course of the morning, fisherman were setting up nets in rows towards the center of the river. Children’s voices could be heard as they helped their parents. The people who live here are very poor. Most do not own their own boat or net. Rich people from the fishing industry provide these materials to them, and in return receive most, if not all, of the catch. Because these fisherman do not have access to modern modes of communication, they have no way of checking market prices and are often tricked into selling at very low prices. “These people are born here, they live here, and they will die here,” one of the Bengali passengers told me. Most of them will never see anything else.

Leaving the fisherman behind, we headed back to Khulna. Over the roar of the engine you could see and hear sounds of life from the banks – the thud of clothes hitting the ground as the women washed, voices of children at play, and the rattling of wheels.

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