Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sundarbans Trip

All new years are supposed to start with a bang, and with nearly been shot twice in the space of four hours, I almost ensured that 2006 ended in suitably dramatic style. That I can write this now should be reassurance enough that despite the best efforts of myself and the Bangladesh Rifles, I avoided becoming another cross-fire statistic. And the reason for this dancing with death? A trip to the Sundarbans for New Year that tested Bangladesh’s infrastructure to its absolute limits.

The Sundarbans are a huge littoral mangrove forest that run along the south-east coast of the country and then on into India. They are the largest in the world of this type and a World Heritage Site. They serve a vital purpose in dampening some of the storms that ravage Bangladesh, the trees and channels dissipating huge amounts of wave and wind energy that would otherwise wash away the villages further north. The Sundarbans are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger (critically endangered with only 250-350 estimated to still live in Bangladesh), crocodiles, kites, eagles and other raptors, snakes and otters, dolphins and deer and thousands of other species and animals. As the remotest and most untouched part o
f Bangladesh, it offers a refuge not just to animals, but to ex-pats weary of life in Dhaka.

Hence I departed on a 5 day trip to the forest with Tim and Georgia and some older volunteers as well as Kathy, a new arrival from the UK and Monique, Canadian. Given that it was also Eid-ul-Azru (where cows are slaughtered in the streets as sacrifice to Allah), the roads and rail were jampacked with people trying to get back to their village for the festival. All this meant that either I had to leave on boxing day or get a flight, so the latter was risked. Biman and CMG, Bangladesh’s two airlines, are notoriously dangerous carriers, but given the general disregard for life here it seemed little less risk than a trip on the buses.

We waited at the tiny domestic terminal at Zia airport as our flight was continually delayed, finding other things to entertain us. Whilst reading, I suddenly had a genuine shock when a gun barrel fell into sight, hovering between the pages of the book and my chin. More than a little alarmed that a loaded automatic weapon was pointed directly at my chest, I looked up to find a splendidly regaled policeman/paramilitary looking directly at me and asking me ‘which country are you from?’ I of course hastily replied that it was England, wondering what they thought I had done. Then he asked me what my name was, and suddenly it became a little clearer that he was just engaging the continuous, draining small talk that all Bangladeshis seem desperate to thrust upon any bedeshi. A little more relaxed, I still made sure that the barrel (which was not more than 4 inches from my chest) was pushed away. I suggested that when he wishes to talk to people in the future, a gesture other than a suddenly putting his gun close to vital organs would probably engender more fruitful and relaxed conversation.

More waiting eventually provided a plane that was only 5 hours late, and we boarded a tiny twin engine propeller box that struggled to get of the ground and seemed poised on giving up at any moment. The straining of the engine as we made our ascent was awful, the landing violent, and the cockroaches also travelling with us an unnecessary addition to the cabin. On landing in Jessore 40 minutes later I was able to achieve my second ‘near-shot’ experience of the morning, when I decided that this dishevelled plane was worthy of a photograph. But having not seen the ‘no photography’ sign, forgetting that this was an airport, and not hearing (apparently) shouting from the terminal, it was only the interve
ntion of another volunteer to push down a gun a paramilitary guy was raising that may have prevented me not making the trip. So there is a lesson here: don’t EVER take photos at airports…

Another two hours on a bus and transfer to a minibus and we were able to cross the ladder from the quayside to the boat that would take us down and through the Sundarbans. Khulna as a city has little if anything to recommend it, but to get out on the open water was great, and as the night fell we sailed down the river towards the Bay of Bengal. The boat had five small ½ person cabins that we had to share as a two: Tim and I were able to top and tail and somehow squeeze around the curve of the bow to get some sleep. Resplendent in orange, pink and green, our tutti-frutti ship sailed into the sunset, stopping only for us to see a small cultural show by an NGO where a phot song was performed. In essence this is a song with a general theme (this one was something like logging and foreigners are evil) where different scenes are unravelled from a long scroll as people dance about. It is supposed to be educational, but not speaking enough Bangla, the sounds had to suffice as entertainment.

The next day saw us collect two forestry guards to ward of the pirates that ply the small waterways and tributaries of the forests, and then enter the forest. The sky was almost white due the brightness, and the water a muddy brown with the sun sprinkled across th
e ripples. The mangroves were a hundred different greens and yellows, with deep reflections in the water. And the only other people were the few fishermen in their wide, flat bottom boats who would wave from the river banks.

We spent two 6 am trips slipping among the thin channels in the depths of the forest trying to see a tiger (we did see some huge paw prints), but had to settle for a 3 metre crocodile, egrets, eagles, rhesus monkeys and wild boar. The wildlife was falling out of the place, there was so much: otters and mudskippers, kingfishers and woodpeckers and almost anything else one can imagine. In the early mornings thin mist rises up off the water as the sun begins to burn off the overnight cold, and it leaves a mystical air across the water, like the smoke effects on stage. And when the sun hits the fierce yellows and reds spring from the trees and waters to give a cold glow across the forest. The quietness – save for the soft slap-slap of the small boat paddles – is deep and wide.

The food on the boat was constant and brilliant, including Sundarbans honey, a great local delicacy, and had enough wine and whiskey to make a new year on the water. The moon was full and stunningly bright, but with so much water about we could still not see much further than 25 metres, and so do not know how many people were being forced to listen to the bagpipes CD playing at full volume: Auld Lang Ayne and Scotland the Brave blasting across the water and disturbing all else around. The next morning we found that one speaker was directly positioned under a guard’s bed. He did not get much sleep.

Our trip back to Dhaka was almost as eventful, as we took the Rocket. Do
not be deceived by this name: its pace has more in common with Stevenson’s 19th century version than a Saturn V, but in 30 hours we got to Dhaka. The Rocket is an old paddle steamer built in 1928 and with wooden decks and promenades just like the Titanic. Our cabins were musty and varnished, with only slightly stained sheets and completely indifferent waiters to bring bad tea and worse coffee. But it was fantastic. A little jazz from an ipod added to the roaring twenties feel of the boat. Later, with Robert Johnson’s delta blues, only the type of boats rushing out of our way could remind us this was not the Mississippi in the 1890s. Of course, as is Bangladesh’s way, it also had its steerage section, where the poor crammed into wet, noisy spaces between the spinning paddles and the steam engine. A second class area had a small shop selling stale cake and out of date Bombay Mix, where those with a little more money could cram on to the wooden floors with a little more space and a little less noise.

We got to visit the bridge (these so
rts of privileges are afforded just be being a bedeshi) and saw the old wheel and bells, as well as the gigantic foglight. It is about the only colonial relic in Bangladesh (except for some abandoned steam trains in eastern jungles), and worth every penny to travel on.

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