"Wives of men who work in the Sunderban live as widows until their husbands return to the village" explained the side-bar in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Perhaps an interesting fact, but to us, it was an ominous warning about the risks of entering a wilderness area notorious for its frequent attacks by man-eating tigers. With this bit of data tucked into the back of our minds, we boarded the bus with thirteen other people and headed out of Kolkata. Our plan was to spend two days and one night on the edge of the vast delta that drains, among others, the Ganges River.
Kolkata's hoards eventually thinned-out and surrendered to flat farmland. Dyked fields - some dry and stubble-filled, others flooded and lush with newly-planted rice - stretched to the horizon on both sides of the narrow, raised road. Small homesteads on flattened mounds perched tenuously above the patchwork plain, like irregular buttons sewn randomly onto a homemade quilt. Occasionally, we passed through a village - filled with the now familiar people, machines, and animals plodding-out the rhythm of life in rural India. When the road ended, we boarded a river boat and headed into tiger country!
The Sunderban is the largest mangrove delta in the world, covering thousands of hectares of gray silt with the saltwater-tolerant trees. Wide serpentine channels wind their way through it on their way to the Andaman Sea, intertwining to create the primary islands. Smaller channels probe their way far into these islands, forming a maze that only the experienced can negotiate. Our captain guided our rusting boat expertly past dyke-protected villages, fishermen, and other river traffic. It was a religious holiday, so people were dressed in their best as they walked along the dykes to places unknown. Children laughed and waved as we passed-by, and women sometimes shielded their faces with their bright and colorful scarves when Dad lifted his camera. After an hour or so, we chugged-up to the Sunderban Tiger Camp pier and hoisted-on our packs.
After settling into our cottage surrounded by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and giant poinsettias, we joined the rest of our group in the open-air restaurant for lunch. The aroma of freshly-made naan, dhal, and curries (fish, vegetable, and chicken) mingled with the sweet fragrance of the flowers blooming next to our table. A cooling breeze from the river kept the temperature pleasant in the otherwise humid and hot conditions.
Later that afternoon, we took a tour of the Sunderban Nature Reserve information center, where we strolled through a museum, learned a bit more about the mighty Bengal tigers, and watched monkeys playing in the growing twilight. Snacks and sweet chai awaited us by a roaring campfire when we returned. A local dance troupe did their best to entertain us, but after the first two numbers, most of our group quietly slipped away for their night's sleep. (Show business is tough no matter where you are!) With brilliant stars twinkling in the ebony sky, we headed to our cottage expecting a sound, peaceful sleep after the constant noise of the cities. Just as we were about to drift off, the night's (and I mean the WHOLE night's) religious celebrations started in the adjacent village. Amplified voices pierced our semi-consciousness repeatedly, alternating between speeches and what I can only guess was singing. Eventually, the alarm clock announced the beginning of another day and the start of our boat journey deeper into the reserve.
One of the things we learned about the Sunderban's Bengal tigers is that they rarely, if ever, attack a human if it is looking at them. Honey hunters entering the forests therefore wear masks on the back of their heads to confuse the tigers and hopefully prevent an attack. We weren't given any masks - I supposed that was because we were on a boat. Then I remembered that these tigers are excellent and powerful swimmers, and that many of the human victims were fishermen on their boats! Perhaps, I hoped, tigers weren't brave enough to attack a CROWED of people!
As it turns out, there really wasn't much to worry about. At last count, there were only an estimated 280 tigers in the whole delta, and our chances of actually seeing one was very slim. It was quite cool as we chugged through the water, scanning the steep banks for at least a glimpse of the famous tigers. Mist shrouded distant views, adding an eeriness to the already surreal environment. Brilliant white cranes and iridescent blue Kingfishers broke the monochrome gray gliding past us. The channels became narrower and narrower as our captain guided the boat through the watery maze.
Suddenly, the engine was cut, and then reversed. Either riverbank was close enough to reach from the boat with a single jump - no obstacle for a powerful tiger! We all frantically searched for the telltale orange and white we assumed was hiding in the shadows. No such luck! We had missed the tiger by a couple of hours, but it had been here - its paw prints remained in the soft mud on both sides of the river where it had crossed. We knew they were fresh because the prints were below the high-tide mark, and high tide had occurred only hours before. I'm not sure which emotion was stronger - disappointment or relief. At least one wild and free tiger was definitely around, and although I would have loved to have seen it, I wasn't anxious to meet a man-eater so close! This time, the paw prints were good enough! After another satisfying lunch, went boarded the boat for the last time and commenced the long journey back to the city.
Although we had never slept in the lowest-grade hotels while in India, most of the ones we did stay in were on the "barely adequate" side and usually located on noisy streets. Not wanting to leave India without experiencing something "new, clean, and shiny", Dad had booked our last night in the Hyatt Regency near the airport. It was fabulous! Spotless floor-to-ceiling windows looked over the fountains, pool, and garden patio. Gleaming marble bathroom with a sculpted glass sink. In-room internet and soft, spacious beds. And silence. For about 12 hours, we actually forgot that we were in India. That changed abruptly the next morning as we stepped past the elegantly-attired hostesses and doormen, loaded our dirt-stained backpacks into the trunk of a rusting and battered Hindustan Motors Ambassador taxi, settled onto the cracked vinyl seats, and were soon engulfed by the honking, smoke-belching traffic flowing past slum-dwellings attached to the hotel's perimeter walls as we made our way to the airport. "Incredible India" - the country's tourism slogan says it all!
Carmen and I had approached India with more than a little trepidation. The Lonely Planet describes India "as the ultimate test of the travelers' mettle". One of the Australian couples we had met on our African overland trip had come here immediately after, and via email, had provided us with both enthusiastic recommendations and strong warnings. In a land where extremes coexist on the same street day after day, and survival is dependent upon one's resourcefulness, the tourist is greeted with everything from apathy or disdain to cunning deceitfulness or desperation. One can travel independently here - you can purchase your own bus, train, or airplane tickets and book your own accommodations. It just takes time, patience, and a willingness to cope with the relentless assault of humanity. You must elbow your way through the crowds. You must constantly say "no" if you don't want something. You must know what you do want. You must always be on guard and alert. It is tiring.
I guess I'm not as dedicated or seasoned a traveler as I would like to think I am. I wimped-out and booked transportation and accommodations either online or in person with local travel agencies. Private car and driver for how-ever many days we wanted him; $20 Cdn per day for local venues, and $30-40 Cdn per day for city-to-city travel (with some limits on daily distance and travel time). Reasonable hotel rooms, including pick-up and delivery from trains and planes, for anywhere between $30 - 50 Cdn per night. (You can find rooms for less than $10 per night, but as I said, I wimped-out!) Tours to all of the busy places with local, somewhat-English-speaking guides, who expertly herd you through the lines with minimal waiting and frustration - worth the $4 or 5 fee for their services. It's not luxury, so you still experience a lot of the real India, but it cuts the hassles and frustrations to a minimum.
If you like Indian food, then this is definitely gastronomic Nirvana! Foods are freshly prepared and delicately seasoned. As indicated in the postings, you can pay as little (less than $1) or as much ($75 and higher) as you want, depending on your personal standard for restaurant cleanliness. The food tastes the same either way, but your appetite might be better in a tourist restaurant which uses clean linen and polished cutlery! Vegetarian dishes are abundant - and recommended if you have suspicions about where the meat may have come from or how long it was exposed to flies in the afternoon sun!
We found the Indian people, for the most part, to be friendly and kind. Much, however, depends on your level of acceptance for their culture and how Indians do things. It's considered essential, not rude, to push your way onto a ferry or train (there's a little more order at airports) - a product of too many people for too few resources. If you can sell an item for more than it's really worth, why not? (Almost always offer 25% of the first asking price, and don't go much higher unless you really, really want that particular item.) There are scams galore (not dangerous, just economical) that one should be aware of. These can be handled by being well-informed, knowing what you want, and being firm. Someone once said that wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from lack of wisdom. You'll gain both here!