Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sundarbans

4:30 am, my alarm went off. Without even thinking, I turned it off. 15 minutes later my back up alarm woke me, and I remembered that I had a train to catch. And quickly gathered my packed bags. In just a couple hours, I would leave for the Sundarbans, a National Forest and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southwestern corner of Bangladesh. In fact, the Sundarbans straddles the Bangladesh-India border. The Sundarbans houses the largest mangrove forest in the world, fiddler crabs, dolphins, and the man-eating Bengal Tigers.

A picture of our guide taking a picture of us
admiring the view from the longest bridge in
As usual, our train was delayed. It was actually so delayed that our guide for the weekend rode over to our train stop and boarded with us. His enthusiasm, charisma, and humor absolutely charmed me as well as the entire crew. If you could create the perfect tour guide, he was it. When he asked me about my experience in Bangladesh, I immediately spilled my worldly revelations and personal growth from living here for the past 7 weeks. After 10 hours of talking, sleeping, and reading the book Hungry Tide, a novel that takes place in the Indian side of the Sundarbans, we arrived in Khulna, Bangladesh. Naturally, we walked 5 minutes to a waterway and took a boat to our small cruise boat. That night, we moved into our cabins, gazed at stars from the roof of the boat, played cards, and ate a delicious meal cooked on board.  I kid you not, the home-cooked meals on the boat were the best food I have had Bangladesh.

The next morning, a group of five other foreigners joined our tour group: three Americans, one Canadian, and one Korean. Once they settled in, we embarked on our three-day cruise. The first day on the boat was spent traveling down the Pusur River in order to reach the southern tip of Bangladesh. Unable to leave the boat, we spent most of our time reading on the roof of the boat, soaking in some much needed sun and retreating indoors to avoid periodic downpours, typical of monsoon season. We bonded with the other tourists over games of Bananagrams, Hearts, and of course our travel experiences inside and outside of Dhaka.

Our Boat!
Over the past month, I have met the most well traveled people I have ever met in my life. Their passports are packed with visas and stamps, and their stories are filled with wisdom and worldly advice. They all similarly advise me to see the world as much as I can. While I find their hunger for travel inspiring, what I find most impressive is their ability to date people from all over the world. Freshman year of college, I decided that I would never be able to seriously date a non-American. I couldn’t imagine ever finding a cultural medium. Meeting countless multicultural couples (and having a few Bangladeshi crushes myself), I observed that these relationships have a surprising amount of strength. In a way, the partners are forced to learn about one another more deeply than when culture is mutual.  They challenge each other to think in new ways and deepen their understanding of life, which I find both mind-blowing and romantic. 

After a month in Bangladesh, the thought of securing a full-time job in Minneapolis after college seemed quite comfortable. I thought, “I am just not born and bred to be an expatriate, world traveler.” But, meeting numerous expats empowered me to travel non-stop on the weekends and soak up my last weeks in Bangladesh. The more I traveling I did, the more excited I became to see more of the world. Maybe I am more cut out for this lifestyle than I gave myself credit for. After all, Dhaka is one of the hardest cities for foreigners to adjust to, whether from other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas. Having met people from all of these continents, I know that Dhaka is one of the most culturally shocking cities in the world. Interns, expats, and locals joke, “Now that we’ve done Dhaka, we can get by anywhere.”

I enjoyed meeting more expats and taking part in cross-cultural exchanges, but my favorite part of the ride was observing the fishing-town lifestyle here while reading Hungry TideAs I read about Piya and Kunai's adventures, I became more eager to enter this mysterious and poetic place. I actually finished the book on the boat, adding to the intensity of the cruise down south. The strong head wind paired with the last 100 action packed pages of the book made for a dramatic entry into the Sundarbans.
A row of fishing boats traveling together.

Narrow waterways
As we ventured deeper into the south, the rivers became increasingly narrow. Finally our boat began trolling silently through the mangroves. I had expected to see stunning, breathtaking scenery, but instead I found the Sundarbans more eerie than anything. The terrain consists of hundreds of islands that flood from the Bay of Bengal’s daily high tide. In the mornings, trees stand tall on top of muddy islands, but by noon, water covers the snarled networks of mangrove roots and tree trunks.

At 5:30 am, our guide took us on a rowboat through some of the most secluded, narrow waterways in the Sundarbans. We quietly paddled close to the islands, looking desperately for a Bengal Tiger. We sufficed with colorful birds, hundreds of crabs, and 20 different species of mangroves randomly placed throughout the Sundarbans.

After a couple hours, we returned to our cruise boat for breakfast and to prepare for our leisurely hike on one of the islands. When we first stepped foot on the island, we made our way through thick mangroves, but after just a couple meters, grasslands stretched for miles. Spotted deer speckled the fields, nervously fleeing as we approached their territory. Butterflies, only found in the Sundarbans, fluttered in the squat shrubbery. Within 45 minutes, we reached the other side of the island, where the mangroves again resumed. This time, the mangroves were met with the sound of powerful, crashing water. We had just reached the Bay of Bengal.

At low tide, we could see the mangrove roots poking out of the ground.
The roots emerge from the earth since the sand does not provide enough
oxygen for proper growth.
The tall waves would have made the Bay of Bengal a great surfing spot if it wasn’t for the tree stumps lining the coast. Crawling out to the water was a process, as a few of us stumbled into tree wells before reaching a comfortable depth.  Once I reached the hard sand bottom, I felt the freest I have felt in months: kicking my bare legs under smooth water, submerging myself periodically, both feeling and hearing the muffled tide crash above me. The highlight of my swim was on my way back into shore. I stumbled over a tree stump just when a wave crashed behind me. Without many options, I ducked under water. Lucky to not poke an eye out on one of the stumps, I gasped for air and found a root to hang onto just in time for the next wave. When it hit, I was forced underwater. The only thing keeping me from losing control was my strong grip on the tree root. The water tried to pull me into shore, but I didn’t give up on the root. For five seconds, I felt like I was in an action movie.

The (treacherous) Bay of Bengal!
After our swim, we hiked back to the cruise boat for a rest. I proceeded to nap for a couple hours until our next activity: the grueling hike. After high tide, the water leaves the islands extremely muddy. Because most tourists don’t come prepared for this terrain, the boat has a stock of retired Bangladesh army boots to lend to passengers. No matter the footwear, we all struggled hiking through the mud. Our feet frequently stuck to the ground, taking some extra umph to release them. The smooth feeling of mud between my sandal-covered feet, I could hardly resist picking up a pile of mud to run through my fingers. A like-minded travel buddy of mine from BRAC quickly helped me initiate a mud fight among the more adventurous few.
High tide covers the islands almost completely. As you can
see, the stumps are barely emerging from the water.

For minutes, we slid through the mud and covered each other head to toe with the slick mud. Like all such activities, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Having become too friendly with our young guide, he retaliated by rubbing mud on my face which naturally got into my eyes. So that ended the mud fight for everyone, and we proceeded more deeply into the island. We reached the high points of the island which serve as tiger perches during the high tide. We weaved through thick trees that I decided would make ideal sceneries for music videos.  

Toward the end of our mud hike, we reached the Bay of Bengal shoreline. Lines of tree stumps covered the edge of the beach to about one kilometer inland. Under the dark blue, cloud covered sky, the scene had a sort of freaky serenity, almost like the eye of a storm. Having used this analogy, it may not come as a surprise that these stumps remained as damage from a cyclone five years ago. For most of my life, hurricanes have meant displaced people and damaged property, but in this part of the Sundarbans, the trees and animals had experienced this cyclone alone. What made the Sundarbans so remarkable for me was their estrangement from civilization. While the villages further north of the Sundarbans faced extreme hardships from this cyclone, I could not see past the striking damage on the waterfront, completely uninhabited by humankind.
Posing on a tiger's high tide retreat.

Back on the cruise boat, we took the most refreshing showers. Those of us who were covered in mud asked our guide if we could just jump in the river to rinse off, but the possibility to hungry crocodiles prohibited us from taking a river bath. That evening, Ramadan began, a holiday where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The fasting lasts for an entire month. The poor crew, especially the cooks, had to smell our mouth-watering food while they complied with their religious obligations. 

To take full advantage of our last night in the Sundarbans, a couple of us laid on the roof of the boat, staring at the stars in silence. It had been a while since I looked at the sky this way, seeing millions of stars so clearly. I closed my eyes and felt the remoteness of national forest, virtually uninterrupted by civilization. All I could hear was the sound of small waves brushing the boat's hull. I thought back to the song "Somewhere Out There," a song my mom used to sing to me every night when I was 5 or 6 years old. The lyrics resonated with me, as I always found security in them: "And even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star. And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby, it helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky." No matter how far I ever traveled from friends and family, I felt closer thinking my loved ones were under the same sky as me. Instead of yearning for home, I actually grew quite sad that my time in Bangladesh was coming to an end soon. Although my friends here would continue to share the same sky with me, all the things I would miss in Bangladesh rushed into my head. I felt incredibly lucky to have this life-changing adventure.

Over dinner, our guide proposed two activities for the following day; either we could take another 5:30 am boat ride or spend the afternoon swimming. The thought of floating freely in fresh water, feeling the current run against our bare bodies sounded absolutely alluring so we unanimously vetoed the boat ride. After six hours of cruising, we anchored the boat and spent a couple hours diving and flipping off the boat. In my element, I even practiced some of my basic competition dives.

The last supper on board was a sad one, as we parted ways with our newfound friends and a couple BRAC employees who planned more extensive travels. At 7:30 pm, we boarded the midnight train. It looked like a ghost train as it rolled up to the Khulna station, dark and abandoned. After some good laughs and conversation, we drifted into slumber and found ourselves suddenly greeted by the stuffy Dhaka air. Although the Sundarbans trip was totally different than I expected, it provided some of the best memories I have had in Bangladesh. Maybe it was the sheer freedom of bearing my thighs or reuniting with fresh water. Maybe it was the wind blowing through my hair or the sun scorching my cheeks. Our trip to the Sundarbans was an escape from civilization and the social protocols that comes with organized society. 

We all laughed at this image, thinking back
to the sophisticated intercom systems in our
Western countries. Here, this crew member
simply shouted to his colleagues on the
other side of the horn.


  1. You need a bath! Love, Dad

  2. Loved reading about your experiences of Bangladesh.

  3. Looks like you have lot of fun with mud:-) i suggest you to visit hilly areas in Pakistan i m sure you gonna loving it you can also find cheap flights for pakistan specilly from UK and USA economy class traveling can reduce your cost.

  4. Sundarbans biological capital of Bangladesh. Living close to nature and having a look at its invaluable biological capital, the land of greenery, a habitat for flora and fauna species and the endangered tiger,

  5. The pollution that happens as a consequence of contact with the dead typically speaks to the contamination that happens inside an Initiate's Soul in the event that it stays in contact with "dead" parts of oneself. Any remainder of the old method for being must be yielded, and any contact with dead parts of the spirit must be cleansed in the flames of the heart, in the fiery debris of the Mother who has "kicked the bucket" to discharge the spirit from the domain of fantasy, similar to the Celestial Aphrodite who unbinds consummated souls from their bodies and discharges them into ecstasy.DCITAPPS