Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Sundarbans 2009 - Part 4: The Prolonged Ending

The last day on our trip to The Sundarbans started on an island called Dublar Char. This is a place famed for its shutki, a kind of dried fish preparation popular in Bangladesh. Right after daybreak we got out on the land to check out the place. This area is occupied for a certain period of the year by fishermen who catch fish and dry them up to produce the shutki. So almost all the people who live here are seasonal fishermen. Now in our family, we never were fans of shutki, mostly because of its awful stench. I remember back when we were in Elephant Road, our next door neighbors used to cook shutki every now and then, and we all started running this way and that, hurrying to close all the windows. So for a guy like me, this shutki island is not the place to be. If you don’t like the smell as well, you should be glad that you can’t smell them through the photos, cuz otherwise you would have to run away from the monitor. Rows upon rows of bizarre looking dried fish are hung upon strings throughout the place, and they smell much worse than they look. Many of the guys in our group are fans of shutki, so for them this place is the ultimate wholesale market. So when we got back on the launch, our rooms started to stink as well. Only if I could switch off my olfactory nerves.
The last spot that we visited on our trip was Karamjal. There's a farm here particularly for breeding deers and crocodiles. We got a chance to check out these amazing creatures up close. But what I liked most about the place is the Mangrove Arboretum. Through a practical mangrove forest, over its muddy land, they've built an elevated wooden walkway for tourists. Over here we also caught glimpse of some Macaque monkeys out in the open. Time was short so we couldn't spend much time there. And with that, our ‘Places to visit’ list ran out, and so did our time.
There have been moments in my life that made me feel puny and mighty at the same time. I had the feeling back on our Sylhet tour, when we were heading for Jaflong. I was amazed to see the vastness of the mountains on the other side, over in India, and the dense forest covering them. And here again at The Sundarbans, beholding the wide rivers, the endless sea, the narrow canals that spread out like tentacles through the forest, and the mesmerizing and mystifying jungles that even block out the sunlight, I had that feeling all over again. It made me feel small and utterly insignificant as a creation with respect to the seemingly infinite vastness of all the other creations that surround us. And yet again, it made me feel greater than them all, because despite however we may feel, The Almighty Creator has proclaimed us, the humankind, as the greatest of all creations. This is only because He has given a purpose to our lives that none of the others share. It’s important that we find out that purpose before our short trip to Earth runs out, just like our short trip to The Sundarbans.
We were back in Khulna by evening. We left our launch M.V.Kheyapar which has been our home for the last 3 days. A bus was hired to get us back to Dhaka. Before that, the group had dinner at a restaurant in Khulna. Going for a long bus ride with a stuffed stomach didn’t seem like a good idea to me, so I skipped dinner.
The going was smooth until we got to Dauladdia, where we stood in cue to get onto a ferry to cross the river Padma, and get to the Dhaka district. It took us more than an hour and a half to get on the ferry. The ride was supposed to be just for 25 minutes or so. Well, that’s what we humans expected.
The ferry stopped its engines after just 10 minutes, due to fog, and we stood anchored halfway across the river. In this kind of a situation, no one can say how long it would take for the fog to lift. So we had nothing to do but wait. Most of the guys took a nap at their cramped seats, throwing their hands and feet this way and that, making all sorts of awkward positions. Organizers Pulak and Imtiaz got themselves some well deserved sleep. Tanim and I got some time to ourselves to have a good long chat, for which we didn’t find time in the last four years of university, ha ha.
When it was time for the Fajr prayer, I got out of the bus and headed straight for the top floor of the ferry to perform the salaat. After finishing the prayer, I walked over to the railings of the top floor and looked out. It was only then I understood the adversity of the weather around was. Looking down, I couldn’t even see the water below, let alone distant objects. It seemed as if our ship was shrouded in a gloomy and mysterious veil. The visibility was an absolute zero. From then on, I spent most of the time on the top floor. I was expecting the fog would lift once the sun was up with its heat. One hour passed, and another. The sun had risen quite a distance up in the sky. But I was amazed to see that the sun had no effect on the fog whatsoever. In fact, through the dense fog, the sun looked more like the moon in the day sky.
The crew didn’t dare move the ferry an inch, fearing it could get stuck on one of the numerous sandy planes that have risen out of the river bed randomly. The general sense of feeling among the people in the ship was that we had nothing to do now unless Allah helps us out. It’s funny to see how in good times we claim everything is in our hands, while in bad times it doesn’t take much time to admit the truth.
It was almost eleven in the clock when the fog lifted only enough for the crew to move the ship safely to the other side. Ten minutes later, we were finally off the ship. From standing in queue for the ferry to getting out of it, it took was about eight hours! We got off the bus at noon, with the familiar sights and sounds of the jam-packed Dhaka city greeting us. Unfortunately Pulak’s luggage got missing after getting out of the bus, which is like the final signature of the whole tour. From there me, Kanto and Rokon grabbed a taxi and headed home.
Even after more than a week since I came back from the trip, I still dream of adventurous tours to unknown places, with all my friends. The events in the trip are still the hot topics of discussion whenever we get together in the campus. I know soon I’ll stop seeing these dreams, and the chatters about the tour will soon fade away. But the memories will always remain bright, as long as we live (unless we get amnesia of course, Allah save us from that). The nerdy self inside me is urging my hands to type in a huge philosophical ending to this post, so I better finish it up. Thanks to The Almighty Allah for giving us such a great experience, thanks to Pulak, Imtiaz, Tanim and everyone else involved in organizing the tour for working hard and making this possible, thanks to all of my friends who were on the trip, and also thanks to our parents for their kind permission. As long as we live, we can all look back at our days in The Sundarbans and say, “we had an AWESOME time”!

Check out some photos from the tour on my Picasa Album.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Sundarbans 2009 - Part 3: The Very Peaks of Joy and Thrill

The sun was shining bright in the winter morning when we reached Katka. This place offers a whole set of varying experiences. We had to get into our boat again at first and head into a canal for a short distance before we came to a landing spot from where the walk towards the sea beach started. This walk of about 45 minutes is a fun ride by itself. At the beginning the forests were at a pretty fair distance on either side of our path, as our caravan of 63 with the two armed gunmen at the front and back walked deeper into the region. Soon the tree-lines started to close in on us. And then came the spot called Jamtoli, were the path only allowed a single file, and the tree branches and bushes brushed us from the sides. Now, these parts of Katka are famous for spotting tigers and a considerable number of tigers are believed to be living in and around this region. This is the area where the famed tigress ‘Jamtolir Raani’ (The Queen of Jamtoli) was spotted. So passing through this narrow jungle path was a thrilling ordeal. Some of our folks even claimed to have heard the roar of a tiger, which most others refuse to believe due to our reputation for ‘honesty’.

The last time I was at a sea beach was back when I was six, so it’s almost beyond my memory. Walking for several more minutes, I couldn’t yet see the beach but I heard the sound of waves hitting the shores. Few more steps and I saw it. Running into the sand with my shoes off, I looked around in utter amazement. I never expected to find such a beautiful sea beach after a walk through dense forests. The change of view was striking, and yet it blended perfectly into the backdrop of the jungle. No artist but The Almighty Creator could paint such a beautiful picture. I knew I had to throw myself into the waves, so I quickly took some snaps, put away the camera, and ran straight for the sea.
Maybe ‘ecstasy’ is the right word to describe the feeling I had when the waves engulfed me from all around, and I felt the sand quickly shifting away from beneath my feet. I’ve always had a fear of open water. Despite learning to swim about 6 years ago, I could never get comfortable at the sight of deep water bodies. But strangely I found myself giving up my body into the waves. Almost everyone was having a dip in the sea. And those who were trying to avoid getting soaked found no shortage of helping hands. Even the over-cautious Kanto was ambushed, picked up, and dumped into the water. I was almost ready to get out of the water when Aninda called me. He told me it was great fun to dive head on under the water just as the waves hit, face first. So I gave it a try. I was facing the wave, put my head down, the water embraced my head from all sides, and I got up. Yeah, it did really feel good, but I noticed something strange, I wasn’t seeing things right anymore. It took me an instant to figure out I was missing my glasses. I groped uselessly under the water for some time, but to no avail. Dear Bay of Bengal, consider it as a parting gift (it was a little forceful though).

I don’t know how much time we actually spent there on the beach. It made me lose track of time. Before we left Katka, as a bonus we were lucky to see a trail of fresh footsteps of a tiger on the sands, near the line of trees. The walk back towards the boat was a bit of a hurdle for me as I was missing my high powered glasses, without them I’m kinda quarter-blind. But still on my way back I climbed up the 4 storey watch tower to get a view of the area from up above. By noon we were back at the launch.
Probably the most thrilling episode of our entire tour began at the evening. It was the time of low tide in the rivers. It is a common occurrence in the rivers for a boat to get stuck on the uplifted sandy plane on the river bed during these times when the water level gets really low. That’s exactly what happened to us. As our ship’s crew found out that there wasn’t enough water under the hull for the ship to run, they tried to turn the boat around to avoid getting stuck. That made matters much much worse. A portion of the front part of the ship went over the muddy river bank on one side, and our launch was stuck like hell. The position of the launch was so unbelievably weird that anyone (or anything) could just walk into the launch from the river bank. We had nothing to do, no way to move until the high tide comes and the water rises again. At first we all got a bit tensed from the thought of a tiger walking right into the ship. When we asked our guide Tapash bhai about our fears, he said we shouldn’t worry about tigers, but he was afraid of something much worse. Pirates!
The forest is home to about a dozen separate pirate groups. These are not your movie-type pirates with eye-patches who says ‘Arrrr…’ and stuff like that. These pirates are more heavily armed then you would expect, and lives in boats in the numerous canals. We got to know from Tapash bhai that we were stuck in the region of one of these pirate gangs. The forest officials know these pirates by names and know their whereabouts very well, so Tapash bhai himself was acquainted with many of these pirate chiefs. Moreover he told us that the pirates haven’t attacked any tourist group for more than two decades and mostly rob local fishermen. But still he was extremely anxious about our safety, because the pirates, he said, in his own words, “have no religion”.
Probably a writer like my favorite Henry Rider Haggard would find the perfect words to describe the intensity of the next couple of hours. But unfortunately my writing skill is no match for such a situation. Gone was the hum of the engine, the moon was still not up, the darkness around us seemed more black than we had ever seen. Our launch with our group of 63 plus the crew, was stuck on a land with dense jungle at a remote location of The Sundarbans, in the pitch black night with dark water all around us. There was an eerie sense of tension among the people, trying to keep the mood light, yet in tensed anticipation of the unknown. Chatting to ourselves, we had our eyes fixed on the water. Despite simple logic and Tapash Bhai’s word that the pirates would never try to approach by boat, the faint glows of distant lights on the water made us skip a heartbeat.
After a couple of ours, our launch started to move again. It sent a hushed relief through the whole crowd. But it wasn’t over yet. After a few minutes we found ourselves drifting towards the bank on one side, and the launch got stuck, yet again. This time, we got even more confused. We knew our ship was moving down the middle of the river branch, and yet for some reason it got pretty close to one side again. All sorts of conspiracy theories started brewing up in the minds of the guys, fearing if the ship’s crew had something to do with this. But thanks to Allah it was nothing of that sort, and soon afterwards our launch started to move again. Once we got out into the larger river, the suspense of the night was finally over, and we all could breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

Check out some photos from the tour on my Picasa Album.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Sundarbans 2009 - Part 2: First Night & First Light

When we reached the region of Kochikhali, it was already getting dark. So for the rest of the night we had nothing to do but to spend the time by ourselves as our ship lay anchored at some river-branch. From the evening, me, Kanto, our beloved teacher Ferdous sir, Monzur sir, Nobin and several others sat at the very roof of the launch. From before the journey I was very eager to witness the quiet of the night and the sky once we’re inside the forest region. Here in Dhaka, we’re always deprived of the beauty of night sky thanks to the air and light pollution. So there beneath the sky I sat, looking up frequently. At first there was no moon, and the sky was filled with a dazzling collection of distant stars. It was amazing to note that despite the utter randomness of the stars up above, there was a strange sense of order in them that knew no algorithm or pattern. It was a pattern with no patterns that screamed out the Majesty of Allah’s creativity that made a man with the slightest of sight think about the heavens and the Hand that created it.
I’ve witnessed sunrises before, but this was probably the first time I’ve witnessed the moon rise with all its splendor. It took more than an hour into the night for the first glimpse of the orange moon to show in the horizon. As the full moon crept slowly higher in the sky, the stars started to fade away, as if to leave the place to their king.
An incident took place deep in the night that I cannot describe in full, cuz I was in deep sleep then. I don’t know the details, but in short very late at night the ship’s anchor lost its hold and started to move backwards with the flow. And it almost collided with another smaller launch of some sort. For those who were awake at that time it was a pretty thrilling period. With the crew of the ship along with some of our boys putting their hands together to pull up the anchor and place it again, things were back in order after some time.

Our first real introduction to the sights and sounds of The Sundarbans started the next day, right after dawn. We set out in our smaller boat (which is a simple medium sized boat with an engine) and headed into the canals. The greenish water, the dense forests in the muddy banks close at either side seemed almost straight out of the Discovery Channel. We got off on a sandy plane and walked the along the banks of the river, keeping the water at one side and the forest on the other. We were lucky to have Taposh bhai as our guide, who’s the son of a local forest officer, and have spent more than a decade in the area. He has an invaluable experience about Sundarban and also tigers, as he has worked with foreign projects in this region as well. Walking behind him, he showed us dense bushes of a particular kind which he said were the ideal resting places of tigers. And when I looked at those bushes, I couldn’t disagree. It’s over here that he also showed us a tiger’s……well….stool! Doesn’t sound majestic though, but the fact that a tiger has been on this very spot recently to answer nature’s call is pretty significant.
Back to the ship we walked again and had our breakfast, we were starving. Moreover, we needed all the energy we could get for the day that was ahead of us. I knew it was going to be a great day. But little did I know that it was going to be a day of all sorts of different experiences, experiences that I never expected to gain in this trip.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Sundarbans 2009 - Part 1: The Unforgettable Tour

I’ve been in trips before, and Inshallah I’ll be in a lot more in the future, but last week’s trip to The Sundarbans was one that I’ll remember most when I look back at my life. This trip was a lot of things together. Other than being a tour of absolute visual pleasure at the sight of the rivers, the sea and the forest, this trip will probably be more remembered as the trip that brought every one of us together, the students of EEE, AUST, final semester. Our caravan consisted of 61 students from all four seasons…… I mean sections, hehe, and also two of our respected teachers. Doesn’t sound like a big crowd, but I am still amazed that our group has gone through the tour with such a degree of order and unity. There’s a reason why I typed in ‘four seasons’ a little earlier. Every section of our semester and every student in each is so strikingly different and have such diverse ideas that I can’t help thanking The Almighty Allah that our tour was such a pleasant one. I don’t know how the others feel, but I feel like I’ve rediscovered my classmates in the four days of the trip. Sounds nerdy right? Guilty as charged.

Enough of serious talk, let’s look back at the trip. May be we all had a course-ending tour brewing in our minds for a long time, but this tour was the brainchild of Pulak, Imtiaz and Tanim. I can’t give you the details on how everything was planned cuz I wasn’t involved with the planning part. All I can say is, they left no stones unturned. From our transport to food and beverage, every tiny detail was taken care of. These three along with Nobin went to Khulna a day ahead of the rest of the gang, to do all the shopping and other arrangements. Nobin’s the kinda guy who’s more useful for keeping you in a joyous mood than for doing any actual physical work. He sometimes throws gags so irritating that you really wanna hit him hard, but you can’t, cuz you’re already LMAOed. Anyways, The rest of the group got into the train from Dhaka on the night of the 2nd December. Almost one whole car of the train was occupied by us rodents. A ten hour long journey on a train may sound boring at first, but most of the guys were awake for most of the time with the typical gossiping and ‘pochani’ sessions. I enjoyed the train racing through the night, with the full moon shining through the windows. We crossed the famous Hardinge Bridge over the river Padma and the Jamuna Bridge as well.

Our train reached the Khulna station on time. The BIWTA Launch Station was just a 3 minute walk from there, and that’s where our launch was waiting. The whole boat was rented for us only and we got into it at the time of Fajr, on the 3rd of December.
Our journey towards Sundarban started at 9:30 in the morning. Soon after we started, the scene around us started to change. The banks were getting further as we traveled south over the river. We passed the range of the Mongla sea port a couple of hours later. Very soon after that, all we could see ahead was the line between the sky and the water, and the deep green of the forests started to dominate our line of sight on either side. We were heading into The Sundarbans.
Click here to check out some photos from the tour.