12 January 2011…text and pictures
Di and I are back in hectic, honky Kolkata after 2 days of quiet and absolute pampering in the Sunderbans area at the mouth of the Ganges River. Let’s just run through some of the notable events/scenes/people… experience in the last two days.
We departed Kolkata at 08:00 on the 10th and beat most of the Kolkata traffic. We were driven by the same fellow, Bhupinduer, who has been with us the last two days and our new “guide” Abruro. Yes, we struggle with how to say names but they are all very patient with us. We continue to be surprised at how calm we are in the face of traffic death potential at every intersection and on most straight aways. More honking please. Well, once we got out of the city we got on a two lane road and traffic opened up. This may not be a good thing… speed went up to 100 kmh at times and the on coming traffic… cars, trucks, cows, dogs, bikes, wheelbarrows, motorcycles and buses… are all dodging the same potholes and trying to make time when there is no traffic jam. Two lanes is a figurative description since we covered both sides of the road as needed to miss people or obstacles. When the road was open we were frequently in the center of the road and ready to take evasive action at any moment. The driver is a magician and has kept us accident free…well, almost. We were properly on the left side of the road and going past a small building when a guy on a bike came out from behind said building, dodged a pack that fell off another vehicle and tried to turn down the left side of our car. He almost made it. He bounced off the back door and skidded along the car side a bit, fell down, got up and back on the bike. We slowed down at the vehicle that had dropped the pack and there was an “exchange” of words. We’ve learned to appreciate the poetry of the Bengali language. We hear that you can’t chastise someone properly in Bengali so you have to use Hindi or English. They stayed in Bengali so it wasn’t too heated but it was clear that no one was happy about what happened.
We boarded the boat to the Sunderbans Jungle Camp (22 deg. 5’ 25.5”N, 88 deg, 45’ 47.7”E) at a loading area about 40 km from Bangladesh and all the chaos stopped. Calm, almost hypnotic rhythm of the boat and motor took over. We saw our first boat packed with more people than should have been in 2 or 3 boats. Just another commute for these folks. We stopped at a nearby island to register our passports and get our permit to be in the tiger refuge. A park official, Nama, boarded with us and was to accompany us for the next two days. He is a young fellow with a huge, quick smile and binocular eyes. Another of the cast of wonderful, friendly, kind and helping people we’ve encountered. Then, another hour on the boat to the camp. 3 hours of driving, 1.5 hours on the boat. Did I mention that we did not stop for potty breaks along the way?
After meeting the camp manager and being shown to our room we got back on the boat to venture out to see birds and crocodiles and tigers. We got to see the bird part of that mix. We saw 6 species of Kingfisher in the first 2 hours. We were surrounded by guys that do this for a living and, apparently, all have 10×42 binocular vision. They saw things LONG before Dianne and I did. They all fell in love with Dianne and she got into the swing of things by joking and playing along. She’s pretty new to binocular use and they loved it when a lens cap didn’t get removed or something else came up. They taught both of us a lot about how to do this bird watching thing… very different from bird photography I think. Seeing the bird, making the ID and calling it out is a game and the reward is knowing that you saw it. I want images so I was trying to learn to shoot on a moving boat. It reminded me of trying to photograph from the train in Canada. Not easy and we were frequently quite far away from the birds. I persisted and got some frames that look like they can be used for at least small prints of web use.
We saw no crocodiles or tigers and returned to camp for dinner as the sun set over the estuary. Heavy humidity turns things gray quickly and setting sun was a ball of fire. Very fun. When we got to camp we bathed (bucket of hot water and a drain) and talked about the values of this camp. This place employees 32 local people some of whom have been pulled from the role of poacher- or even worse -decoy for tiger poachers, GULP. The camp is plastic free (mostly) and is wonderful to watch work. I tried to record the sounds of camp this morning… muslim prayers over a PA somewhere in the distance, guys hollering each other across fields, hacking and spitting… lots of hacking. We had tea and biscuits brought to us on our porch prior to breakfast…. The British influence is still very dominant.
We were the only guests in camp last night and the full staff was ready to cater to us. The meal was prepared and we dined under the canopy of the dining area with the birds chirping around us. We felt very self-conscious about being the only people there while a group of guys stood ready to serve us and jumped when they thought they saw our need. Not at all what we are used to.
At 06:00 we boarded the boat for a full day on the water. The target was to be out there at low tide when the animals might be on the banks and visible. The temperature was in the high 40’s and the guys were all freezing. We got their attention by sitting at the front of the boat and enjoying the view while they huddled in the cabin or below. Abruro is a wonderfully accomplished Nepali naturalist and world class birder. He showed us photos from some of his trips. Pretty amazing to be sitting on a boat in the Bay of Bengal looking at pictures on a laptop. We lost his internet capability about half way to the camp the day before or we would have been blogging from the Bay. After he was done we showed him photos from the Bosque del Apache and Yellowstone and Oregon and Washington on my iPhone. As expected, he was politely enthusiastic. He did admit that he had a goal to visit Yellowstone and we volunteered to be his guides. we’d love that.
By the time the picture shows were over the weather had warmed (marginally) and we went all hands on deck to begin the day of birding and hoping for tiger or crocodile sightings. I won’t belabor you with the list of birds but suffice it to say that we saw birds that I’ve never heard of. How about Bihiminy kite, Changeable hawk eagle or plain prinia. Big and small birds. And then came the crocs.
After a magnificent lunch we resumed the hunt. Nama called out “crocodile” and we all came alert. The darn animal had to be a quarter mile away and he’s seeing it. And then he starts gaming us… “can’t you see it?”, “got it”? “right over there”. We were thrilled. We got within about 30-40 yards before it slipped off the bank and into the water. Thrilling to see such a critter in the wild.
We went about another half hour and Nama made the same call but this time he was truly exicited. “It’s a huge one” he says. Our estimates were about 25 feet long and laying out there to sun itself until we bumble along. Again, we get to within about 40 yards and the croc hits the water and is gone. I was humming the theme song from “Jaws”.
The rest of the trip was spent with more of the same. 3 more croc sightings, more Kingfishers and no tigers. Abruro showed me a picture he took a year ago of a tiger that gave the boat 80 minutes to watch it and photograph it. He is going to share the photo with me so you all will get to see the beauty of this wild animal that we had hoped to witness in person. The tiger is another whole story that we hope to relate once home.
These people all work hard and find a way to live lives where they seem happy and employed “doing life”. I walked into the village last evening and spent about 30 minutes with a group of kids and an elderly lady. I can’t speak Bengali and they had limited English. The camera became our link after we introduced ourselves and tried to figure out who was who. I have group photos, individual portraits and groups of 2 or three. They laughed a lot as I encouraged them to laugh and keep their eyes open. They loved seeing their photos on the camera and I’ll be sending a set of prints to them through Abruro when we return.
Before dinner last night we got to watch a performance by a local group who acted out a story of the tiger and interactions between Hindi and Muslims. Elaborate costumes, a 5 person orchestra to support the play, singing and dancing. Quite unexpected and totally enjoyable. We asked and were given permission to photograph and audio record the presentation. Those products will be going to Abruro as well. We met another photographer working on a story of the Sunderbans as we left camp this morning. He and I talked at length on the boat and he is interested in my photos of the presentation so he’ll get a copy as well.
I’ll stop this entry by saying that we came away from the 2 days with a lot of respect for the people who work to preserve and enhance the population of animals among 1.2 billion people. This is not easy stuff. It felt unavoidably impossible. But at the same time we saw a group of people with a common mission and high standards. They are growing to capture the tourist interest in “the tiger” to bring resources and capital to the cause. Their spirits and backs are into the work. We are impressed and pleased to have been guided by such professionals to learn our way around this wonderfully wild area.
More to come.