“Travel.. It’s the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
I was just looking for quotes related to travel which would come close to the way I feel after the trip to Sunderbans and this is the quote that provides full justice to it. It has been over a week that we started the journey and the taste of it still lingers on, like the taste of a well-baked cake. I have been trying to write a blog post on it since I returned, but I have not been able to till now, partly because I wanted to be perfect and truly reflect the impact it had on me and partly because I have been hard pressed for time. Well, here goes..
The Sunderbans is a vast forest area which is shared by India and Bangladesh. It is the world’s largest delta and it also contains the world’s largest mangrove forest. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. For more general information on Sunderbans, you can refer the Wikipedia page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundarbans. I do not want to go on about the specifications of the place when it is already available in plenty. What I want to touch on is the experience of the journey, for I truly believe that the place that you visit doesn’t matter if you do not have good experience with it. There is no point in just checking off places from your bucket list without enjoying the experience.
It was the day of the trip. We were to start from our house at Kharagpur very, very early in the morning in order to reach Kolkata by 7.30 am, from where a travel agent from “Travel Chhuti Chhuti” would pick us up. We started around 3.50 from our house to catch the train at 4.25 am. We were already in lack of sleep. We met the travel agent in Sealdah station, from where we were to catch the 8.30 am train to Canning. We noticed certain groups of people standing around him and assumed they would be the people we would spend the next three days with. The journey to Canning took around 1 hour and 45 minutes and we spent it by watching half of a Tamil movie in the mobile. Our co-passengers were of all age groups – the young, the aged, everyone all jammed together. There were a group of men who were playing cards on the train. From the looks of it, it seemed to me that they had become friends on the journey, probably because they travel every day on the same train and it was a source of amusement for me.
As we got down at Canning around 10 am, my mind involuntarily thought of the Howrah station and its crowd, for the crowd in this small station was no less, comparatively. We were guided towards a share auto stand from where we would be taken to a place called Basanti, from where we would board the house boat. On the way to the share auto stand, we could suddenly hear someone talk in Malayalam, my mother tongue and my first reaction was, ‘Oh! A Malayalee!’ like it always is whenever or wherever I hear someone talk in Malayalam, outside of Kerala. It is kind of like an instinct. We turned around to see a man carrying a backpack and talking over his phone. A good part of the journey after that, till we spoke with him, was spent trying to coax each other into talking to him.
After travelling on the share auto for more than an hour, with a small fear that I might fall off, we reached the place from where we were to board the boat. It had an upper deck and lower deck. The lower deck contained spacious beds which could be used by us to take some rest if needed. It was here that we were directed to place our luggage for the time being. After placing our luggage there, we moved on to the upper deck where there were plastic chairs and three tables were arranged in an orderly fashion. We took our seats and there began our journey, a journey that I would cherish for my whole life. There were two people sitting near us – Pooja and Ankit, and my husband, the outgoing person that he is, introduced himself and soon we started talking. As soon as the boat started, we were served breakfast which we gobbled down hungrily, for it was almost 11.30 by then. Our stomachs filled with good food, we were finally able to actually drink up the experience. It was the first time for me to travel in a boat like this and the excitement was creeping up to me. There was excitement from everyone in the boat, they couldn’t wait to get into the forest and spot a Royal Bengal Tiger.
We were to stay in a resort near the forest area and on the way there, we stopped at two places, to see bungalows built during the British era. It was during the visit to the second bungalow that we finally spoke to Mr. Varghese, the Malayalee. Our hearts at peace at finally having spoken to him, we set out again on the boat. We were provided with a lip-smacking lunch on the boat which had us all commenting “Boy, they do know how to feed you and make you happy, alright!”. There were no other stops after that and we were left to spend our time the way we wanted. As we neared a forest before reaching the resort, we were eager to spot animals or birds, or if possible, the tiger, but we had no luck. We continued in the same way, talking, making new friends and getting to know each other, and before we knew it, the sun started setting, bestowing us with a breath-taking view. I think I can say without doubt that this was the best sunset I had ever seen.
As the evening turned to night, we reached the resort where we were to stay for the next two nights. We entered into the resort with the sound of folk songs coming from a small stage set up in the lawn for this purpose. We were allotted the rooms and we found it to be comfortable – 2 beds, a side table, a bathroom with toilet. Our attempts at catching up on the much-needed sleep went in vain due to the sound of the folk songs. So we decided to freshen up and go out into the lawn to watch the folk dance that was scheduled next. The folk dance had started when we reached the lawn and there were already groups of people watching and cheering them on and we soon joined them. The folk dance and music were definitely a treat to our eyes and ears and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Soon after the dance, we went for a leisurely stroll to the nearby market place and returned to a delicious dinner. After having our fill, we retired to our room for we were very tired and in dire need of sleep.
The day started early – at 7.30, an hour later than what was planned. It was a foggy morning – a sight to behold. The agenda for the day was to pick up our guide for the next two days from Sajnekhali camp, visit two more watch towers, hoping to spot some animals and return to the resort. We would be provided with tea, breakfast, lunch, and snacks in the boat. Our guide was a very knowledgeable man who had a passion to impart his knowledge to everyone.He explained to us about Sunderbans, its geography, flora, and fauna. He explained about the Gopata trees which are a favourite of the tigers since it provides a natural camouflage to them. He also told how a tiger can swim across the huge river span in about 7 minutes. His speech got us all pumped up and made us all hopeful to spot some fauna in the wild forests of Sunderbans.
As we cruised through the river, with forests on both sides of us, towards a watch tower, trying to spot some bird or deer or maybe a tiger, we got talking more with each other. We started socialising the way it is supposed to be, and not like how it is at this age – through social media. We sat down together, talked face to face and got to know about the lives of people who were complete strangers to us just two days back. At times we would spot some animal or bird and the whole boat would have an air of excitement, filled with sounds of cameras clicking away. And as we passed by again, we would go back to chatting with each other. We spotted few birds and animals on our way – Brahminy Kite, Pelican, Little Egret, Great Egret, Deer, Rhesus Macaque and a Monitor Lizard. For lack of a better thing to do, Pooja and I got hold of the tourist guide’s book containing all the information of the flora and fauna of Sunderbans and it actually helped us in spotting some species later. We reached the watch tower and to our luck, we spotted a White-Breasted Kingfisher – one of the eight varieties of kingfishers present in the Sunderbans. We went back to our boat with a happy frame of mind and had a delicious lunch.
After lunch we were back to observing the forest area with the hopes of spotting a tiger and talking to each other. Suddenly there was a commotion that made us believe that someone had spotted a tiger and everyone gathered around so as not to miss it, but we ended up getting disappointed since it was just a deer. We soon reached the next watch tower – Dobanki camp, had a canopy walk and walked up the watch tower. There we could see the Mud Skipper, Deer and Fiddler crab. We were back into the boat after a long canopy walk. From the watch tower, we started back to our resort to retire for the day. We were back to sitting in groups, chatting away, trying to spot birds – which we did (Adjunct Stork, Sand Piper). We witnessed a beautiful sunset again and did not want to waste it away, so we spent a good deal of time clicking pictures. Only, that time it was just pictures and now they are memories. It was dark and we still had not reached the resort. But no one complained, as watching the stars in the night sky while cruising through a river, laughing at lame jokes with new found friends is not something you get to experience often. And it is moments like this that somehow get etched in our minds under the category – moments to cherish.
We were back to the resort for dinner and sleep. We again went for a walk in the market but this time as a group with our now close friends. Pooja and Ankit were busy looking for souvenirs for their relatives. We looked through many shops, bought pure Sunderban honey at Rs.320 a litre and finally zeroed in on the shop that we went to first to buy the souvenirs, where we ran into Mr. Varghese again. We returned to the resort after the purchase and went straight for dinner, which was again very good. After dinner, we sat around on the lawn, just talking to each other. In some time, we went back to our rooms for a good night’s sleep.
It was the last day there and we were instructed to pack and bring our luggage with us. As we walked out of our rooms and into the boat that day, we were hit with a pang of disappointment that today was to be the last day of the trip. The people who were complaining that we never spotted any tiger and that we are just sitting around doing nothing, were seen lamenting the end of the trip. We were to return back to Canning station from where we would board the train to Kolkata. On the way there, we stopped at the Sajnekali Camp where there is a museum that gives us all the information about Sunderbans. There was also a Sundari tree – which used to be a prominent mangrove tree once, but which is endangered, in the museum. After our visit there, we went back to our boat and were given breakfast, which we enjoyed. The only brief stop that day was to drop off our tour guide. We bid him goodbye and continued on the journey. The final stop would be the place where we would board the share auto which would take us to the Canning Station. We cruised through the river again, this time back to go back to where we came from. This time in the boat was spent assuring each other we would be in touch and obtaining the contacts of the people on the boat.
As we stepped out of the boat that day, for the last time, we were filled with gloom. Even the ones who were complaining about the trip seemed to have got something to cherish. All of us were left longing to go back to the boat at least for an extra day – to bask in the beauty of the sunsets, to cruise along the river beside the jellyfish, to have no network coverage and to just be a part of nature.
Though I have been to a couple of trips, it is this trip that made me realise what travel is truly about. Travel is not just about the place you visit. It is more about the people you meet and the wisdom you gain from them – no matter how small. It is about experiencing something out of your comfort zone and realising that you are in fact, quite comfortable with it. It is about experiencing a whirlwind of flavours from cuisines you would have never tried before.
In short, travel is not just about a place that you visit. It is about experiencing the place, in all its entirety. It is about learning something new from the people around you and also learning something new about yourself. The quote at the start of this post truly sums it up. Don’t you think?