Our train arrived on time at the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Howrah station. Let me tell you, this train station is HUGE! By far the most well run and cleanest train station we went to. Just the night before at Varanasi’s train station, there was a train delay on platform 1 due to an obstruction on the track. We found the obstruction. Here it is for your viewing. 🙂
From Howrah Station, we quickly made our way towards the prepaid taxi booth and hopped a cab to Calcutta’s “Traveler Ghetto” on and around Sudder St. A couple days earlier we had met other backpackers that had done a package tour through another one of India’s Tiger Reserves. Their tour guide had sold them on the tour promising to see “Many Many Tigers”. The truth, unfortunately, is that very few tigers exist in the wild anymore. Fewer than 300 (roughly 274) are thought to live in Bengal’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. At one time, over 40,000 tigers roamed Bengal and its mangrove forests. Over the last century through hunting, poaching and habitat destruction, the numbers have dwindled down to just a few hundred. Very sad. 😦 Coming back to our backpacker friends, of course they did not see any tigers. Tiger sightings are extremely rare and take persistence, timing and a lot of luck.
We arrived at Sudder St. and made our way to Tour De Sundarbans to meet up with Rajesh Shaw, the proprietor of Tour De Sundarbans. I had spoken to Rajesh over the phone a couple days earlier to confirm our reservation. Though there are many tours to Sundarbans, Rajesh and Tour De Sundarbans provides a unique experience that incorporates the Sundarban experience with a two night stay in their eco-village on a small island near the reserve. With basic accommodations, nightly live Bengal folk music performances, home cooked meals and no electricity, the eco-village experience allows you take a peek in to the lives of the village folk on these rich, beautiful and well-preserved islands.
After we found a place to crash for the night, Anjli and I walked over to Calcutta’s most famous monument, the Victoria Memorial, (Wikipedia) a large marble building that was built between 1906 and 1921 to honor and commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria in January, 1901. The building is now a museum and houses artifacts, paintings and other items from British India. We saw collections of vintage weapons (400 year old swords, bayonets and shields) and amazing paintings. Anjli and I roamed the beautiful gardens and made our way back to our hotel while enjoying some of Calcutta’s famous street food on the way back.
The next morning we made our way to the Tour De Sundarbans office to kick off our Sundarbans tour. We met up with the other folks that were to join us on the tour. Two Germans (Markus and Andrea), and a French woman (Marianne). On the way to the eco-village, we picked up two Indian couples (one newlywed and one of retired age). After a 3 hour bus ride, a 20 minute ferry, a 30 minute rikshaw ride another 15 minute ferry, we finally arrived. We chanted our mantra for the trip: Many Many Tigers!
The eco village for tourists was set up right on the outskirts of the main village. The mud huts looked exactly like the village huts on the outside because Rajesh didn’t want the villagers to feel like their houses weren’t good enough for their guests. But I bet our accommodations were a lot more comfortable on the inside with bamboo beds and private showers with western style toilets. However, there was no hot water or electricity!
After a nice Bengali lunch, we headed out for a walk through the village. It was really neat to experience rural life in India. Anjli grew up in Bombay and the time I spent in India was mostly in Delhi. We thought we knew what India was all about. We were so wrong. Only 27% of Indians live in urban areas, the other 73% live in rural areas like the island we were on. While walking through the village, we saw mud huts, house cows, house goats, women and men working the fields growing their own crops, carrying rice, seeding rice fields, harvesting rice fields, stray dogs, house dogs and much much more. The villagers were extremely friendly – smiling, waving, saying ‘namaste’, especially the kids. The kids spoke just a couple of words of English like Hello and Bye. The little kid on the right said ‘I love you’ to Anjli and gave her a big flying kiss. 🙂
We came across a two day old baby goat that smelt like goat cheese! The villagers encouraged us to pick up the goat and were so amused that we were squealing with excitement. Anjli says that this is her favorite picture from the trip so far:
We walked back to our hut and took a short break before setting out for a boat ride through the mangroves over sunset. We navigated through backwaters, spotting birds and other wildlife. We saw villagers fishing and going about their evenings on their way home aboard small kayak like boats. As the mangroves got denser and denser, we were surrounded by trees and had to push our way through the last stretch of trees. We finally cleared and watched the sun go down from the boat. A vast silence had taken over the water. No traffic, no television, no pedestrians, nothing, absolutely nothing to make a sound. The water as still as a frozen lake in the twilight of the late evening with orange, yellow, purple skies. This is called the magic hour. We reveled in it for a while before slowly making our way back to the eco-village.
We enjoyed dinner over an hour long Bengali folk music performance just for us. Afterwards, Marianne, Andrea, Marcus, Anjli and I stayed for a bit longer enjoying beers, discussing travel, family and of course tigers! We finished our beers and chanted our mantra one more time for good measure. Many Many Tigers! We went off to our huts, carrying our oil lit lanterns. Anjli and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of tigers.
At the butt crack of dawn (5:30 am) as light was just creeping over the horizon, Ajay, our tour guide woke us with a loud bang on our door. Anjli and I took a quick shower with a bucket of hot water from the tube well heated on a wood fire stove, before heading on over to the boat that would take us in to Sundarbans where we hoped to see many many tigers. J Our eyes still filled with sleep, the weather still cold, and morning dew stuck to everything. We pushed off the dock and floated towards the reserve. After a quick stop to pick up the cook, we headed over to the Tiger Reserve office to get our permits and to pick up our guide. An hour and a half later, we were on our way in to the jungle. Our guide was a skinny Bengali fellow, he wore a moustache and a smile. He explained to us the lay of the land and the various wildlife we could expect to see; crocodiles, ten species of kingfishers, wild boars, falcons, spotted deer, jungle cats and of course many many tigers.
About an hour in, we’d seen many kingfishers, some egrets and other birds when we saw our first croc. This motherfucker was HUGE! Roughly five to six meters. Markus with his long range camera took many amazing photographs. Anjli and I with our point and shoot cybershot actually managed to get quite a few good shots. We were actually surprised at how beautiful the photographs from our tiny point and shoot came out.
Throughout the first half of the day, we saw many other birds and animals including spotted deer, wild boars, monkeys and other birds. Finally, around noon while we were looking at some deer, someone yelled “TIGER!” and pointed to the other end of the shore. All of us standing turned in unison and instantly became silent. Andrea saw something move and the rest of us carefully, slowly and quietly scanned the shoreline and the mangrove trees. We sat there for nearly five minutes in silence, scanning until someone finally made a sound. We moved up and down the shore line for another ten minutes before conceding that there was nothing to be seen and moved on down the river. The rest of the day was spent looking at other wildlife, including many crocodiles. But alas the many many tigers we had hoped to see eluded us. The afternoon turned to late afternoon which turned in to the early evening. We started for the eco-village, dropped off the guide and the cook an made our way back where a new batch of people had just arrived. Marianne, Markus, Andrea, Anjli and I took our dinner near the water reservoir under the stars as the music performance from the night before replayed for the new group of people. We listened to music, drank beer, ate dinner and just generally had a good time. All of these people were genuinely nice people. After being away from Seattle for so long and it having been just Anjli and I, it was nice to meet these wonderful people. It really made us miss our friends in Seattle. We walked to the boat as our second night was a stay on the boat. We stood on the deck and looked out over the calm and silent water. We all felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the privilege of having this experience. The darkness, the stars, the waters, the boat, the silence, the company, the twilight all made this night ever so beautiful. Anjli and I slept that night feeling like we had made the right decision to travel for six months. Any doubts, concerns we had were wiped away.
Anjli and I walked away that evening feeling that everyone, absolutely everyone should have the opportunity to travel and experience the world this way. There is so much beauty in this world, all we had to do is step outside and see it.