Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sailing through the Sunderbans 12/21 to 12/23/07

We were supposed to be up early for our ride to the boat launch for the Sunderbans, which is the largest mangrove forest in the world and the home of the legendary Bengal Tigers. Let’s just say that we woke up when the car arrived after our late night.

After cramming us and all of our stuff in the minivan, we set off through the streets of Calcutta! We were first told the trip would take 3 hours, then 2 1/2 ….it ended up taking about 2 hours. We had yet another “ambitious” driver who took bumps fast enough to launch us airborne. We were so fast…that when we got to the boat launch, there was no boat and we ended up waiting about an hour for the boat to show up. The good news was that it was yet another beautiful day and I enjoyed sitting in the sun, working on my vitamin D intake. Something you can’t do in December in Chicago!:)

Our boat finally came and we were relieved to see that we had our own private boat with a staff of 8 to take care of us (4 adults and a baby). Xochi had a staff of 3 to herself and was immediately plucked from Aileen’s arms. It is wonderful to see how much the men in India seem to LOVE babies. At one point on the boat, Xochi’s main fan was holding her while no less than 6 other men jumped around dancing, making faces, and sang to entertain her. Let’s just say she was the hit of the boat.

We set off and immediately asked for breakfast, which we were supposed to have already had, but seemed to have been forgotten. They served us breakfast and then lunch about 30 minutes later. You have never seen so much food. We were the first “westerners” they had worked with and were on their best behavior for us. We were handed a napkin before AND after meals and ceremoniously presented with two forks for each meal. There was one man in charge of serving and we were not allowed to touch any of the plates of food, he needed to put on his plastic gloves before serving us each individually. We later found out that “all westerns ate with two forks at every meal”….some of the information was CLEARLY not quite correct!:) The food ranged from eggplant, to cauliflower, to crab, fish, roti (pita), veggies, salad, and LOTS and LOTS of water. Every time someone came to see us, or give us food, they gave us at least another 2 bottles of water, which then ended up needing to be corralled as they bounced around on the boat and tried to roll off into the river.

We chugged down stream and first stopped at the Sunderbans Tiger center where we saw animals in pens while our guides got our “passes”. Crocodiles, water monitors, and “wild beer” (deer) as one of our guides called them. I responded with “TACKLE IT…QUICK!” and put them all in hysterics once they figured out what was going on. The quote of the entire weekend went to Amy when she saw a “six pack of beer” at one of our stops.

For the rest of the day, along with boatloads of other tourists, we chugged around islands, stopped at “tiger observation points” (HA!) and did our best to spot crocodiles and cranes along the water. It was very relaxing and we all enjoyed the clean air and quiet time. The “tiger observation points” appeared to be giant concrete platforms on the edge of the water, surrounded by fences and staffed by Indian officials wearing wife beaters and khaki pants. There was clearly no hope of seeing a tiger as one would have to be stupid enough to wander up to a concrete platform full of loud and obnoxious tourists during daylight.

Aileen had told us that we were being “totally overcharged” and should “expect the worst” after our bookings had been made. We were super excited to see that our “lodge”, the Mangrove Re-Treat (treat yourself again and again?) was very nice, with indoor plumbing (this had been questionable). We were also happy to see that although, there was not running hot water, they brought us huge buckets of boiling water every morning, that you mixed with cold water and them dumped over yourself to take a “bucket shower”. They were also extremely happy to do ANYTHING we asked including bring Rahul “bed tea” every night and morning. Unfortunately, I was still sick for most of the trip and did not eat much, which was greatly upsetting to them. At one point I asked for a banana, and the gut took off at what could only be described as a dead sprint with a smile on his face, he was so happy I had asked for something.

Poor Rahul, as the only Bengali speaker, he was relegated to asking question, after question, after question that the three of us women came up with. “Are you married?”, “Where do you live?”, “What do you study?”, “How long have you been doing this?”, “Have you ever seen a tiger?”. He was terribly embarrassed most of the time by our nosiness but it ended up getting us a tour of the village on Sunday morning which was a highlight.

We set off with our “handlers” and had a lovely morning walking through the village where we met people threshing, hulling and storing rice, children who loved seeing themselves on my digital camera, and an old man with a fist full of beautiful flowers. He was planning to eat them but was happy to pose for a picture and then grabbed my butt (I honestly think by mistake) while looking at the picture and laughing happily. The children were thrilled to show us their beehive, honey is an export, and accompany us around our tour. We, Xochi, and even the stroller were fascinating. You could hear them thinking, “Are westerners to lazy to carry their own children?”.
We arrived back from the Sunderbans in time to attend a party across the hall. They had key lime pie, fish sticks, samosas, cookies, and EGG NOG! (Boiled of course). I think the egg nog finally put me in the mood for Christmas. Amy and I talked to a hysterical woman named Debbie who regaled us with stories about haggling over a Christmas tree in a market with an Indian dwarf dressed in a Santa hat. See? These are the things you miss when you buy your tree from a church bazaar or Home Depot.

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