03 April 2008

Week 30: I still believe that tigers live in the Sundarbans

30th-1st in the Sundarbans 3/26

Our first day in the Sundarbans was spent mostly on the river. The boat left from the north side and spent most of the day going through the rivers which are over 30% of the land area in the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world, stretching for around 4000 square miles in southwestern Bangladesh and India. They are a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are home to lots of wildlife including the Royal Bengal tiger as well as deer, monkeys, crocodiles, and boars. From the boat, all we could see was dense forest on both sides of the river, and wide rivers behind and in front of us. (pics: our boat at the end of a small river in the Sundarbans, sunrise from our boat over the Sundarbans, Sundarbans riverside, our boat flying the Bangladeshi flag as we pass through a narrow river)

Before we set out, we took a quick morning river tour on the little wooden boat through one of the small creeks. It was our first time close to the forest. We were asked to be quiet, but I think many of the younger guys were pretty excited and were chatty the whole time. That upset some of the older foreigners on the trip. Saw some fishermen though, they weren't scared by any noise. (pics: Dad/Mom and other travelers on the small boat, fishermen pulling in a catch)

The day was spent mostly reading, card playing with some of the guys on the trip, eating our meals at the prescribed times, and watching the riverside through binoculars.
One of the highlights included watching eagles flying behind our boat and catching fish in our boat’s wake. Also seeing a river dolphin following us for a few minutes. (pics: everyone has their own eagle to take pictures of, eagles flying behind our boat)

Lastly, the biggest event was when the small wooden boat sunk. It gets trailed behind our big ship as we move, and at one point, something caused it to fill with water. All the floorboards scattered, oil and gas spilled, and then the whole thing was under water. Took about an hour for the crew to bring the big boat near shore, untie the small boat and get it to shallow water, bail it out, and bring it back to the big boat. From there, as we were moving through the river, the small boat’s caretaker spent a few hours repairing the flooded engine and piecing back together the floor boards the best he could from what remained and scrap wood on our boat. (pics: our small boat sunk with floor boards floating way, boat staff pulling boat to shore, bailing the boat, boat caretaker fixing the flooded engine as we sail)

People were impressed at his recovery job and the boat worked the rest of the trip, although he was continually bailing water as it was leaking heavily from then on.

In the afternoon we reached our destination at the southern end of the Sundarbans. We took the little (fixed) boat to land in two groups, as it could no longer hold all of us. We took a forest walk where we saw deer, wild boar, monkeys, and tiger paw prints! Incredible to be in the same habitat as a tiger. I’ll admit I was a bit wary. The jungle had a wet floor, really muddy, and little crabs were running about in every which way. (pics: Dad/Mom/myself posing in the Sundarbans forest, tiger paw print!, wild boar, all the golden outlines on the fallen trees are monkeys, deer amongst the trees, forest floor crab near its home, sunset on the Sundarbans sea coast)

Also here there were many structures in which you could tell Cyclone Sidr had damaged them, making them unlivable. Many trees were knocked down and uprooted.
In fact, Dad kept pointing out to me how you can tell where the eye of the cyclone went, as trees were bent in a certain direction depending on which side of the cyclone hit the area. (pic: building at forest station destroyed by Cyclone Sidr)

This evening on the boat we played a Bangladeshi version of Bingo. Fairly simple. I won one round. When you win, you don’t say “bingo!” you say “yes!”

We were all exhausted form the heat and hiking. The boat was very nice. Plenty of bathrooms and the beds were comfortable. Food was delicious, and the staff couldn’t be better. All amazed still by the guy who repaired an engine while still being towed behind the bigger boat.

30th-2nd in the Sundarbans 3/27

We started the next morning with another short river exploration trip. They split us up into two groups, a quiet one and a noisy one based on yesterday morning’s events. Saw a snake hanging in the trees. (pic: snake hanging in the branches of a tree)

The highlight of the morning was our hike to the beach. It was about 45 minutes of hiking, and it was very hot. Thus when we reached the beach, we all rejoiced by jumping in the ocean. Played some soccer on the beach, and then hiked back. Found another tiger paw print. There was an observation tower to look out over the landscape. Saw brilliantly colored birds which nested in the ground. Dad got great pictures of them.
The dock where we had started our hike was completely destroyed and knocked down from the cyclone. We had to navigate it carefully. (pics: hiking through the Sundarbans grassland, where the Sundarbans meet the sea, homes of colorful birds, Sundarbans grassland as seen from observation tower)

The boat, after lunch, set out to our next destination, a bit east. We had to go back inland through the rivers as we were already very close to the Bay of Bengal, and we couldn’t take the boat there.

At the next stop we took the small boat to land again. Had to cross a rickety dock that was obviously destroyed during the cyclone. Wooden planks were placed sparingly to allow people to still cross. Was difficult for some people. In this area we docked, saw lots of deer, and lots of sunk boats too…or remnants of them. I’m quite certain the guy who was still repairing our small boat took some planks to make his boat more complete. (pics: deer on the riverside, sunken boat and broken floorboards from Cyclone Sidr)

We hiked through really dense jungle, which was on the verge of frustrating as you couldn’t move very fast. Would never want to hike miles like that. Saw a wild boar which had been turned into the forest ranger’s pet. The owner was hand-feeding it potatoes. Sun was setting as we left, and it really made the colors of the Sundarbans come out nicely. Saw tied up pieces of some fibers. Wasn’t sure what they were. They were scattered all over the forest floor. Then later we came upon piles of clothes and what seemed to be old walls of people’s homes. I realized then that the tied up fibers used to be people’s roofs before Sidr hit. Nothing was left. (pics: hiking slowly through the dense trees, armed guard and a Sundarbans sunset, Maruf feeding the wild pet boar, Maruf's mother walking the broken floorboards to the boat, pieces of roofing that were scattered all over the forest floor, remnants of homes and belongings from Cyclone Sidr)

This night on the boat they showed us a TV segment which talked about the tigers of the Sundarbans. At least now we can say we “saw” tigers while in the Sundarbans.

30th-3rd in the Sundarbans 3/28

Today started with a trip to a nearby island. We were told the island is quite young, being recently formed in the last decade. So far there are only small grasses on it, but it was told to us that in the next two decades larger grasses will come, followed by small bushes, trees, then lastly mangrove trees. Would be really neat to come see it year after year.
Plenty of wildlife though. Saw turtle, deer, and boar foot prints. Also saw tons of crabs. We were there for a long while, meandering along the ocean, and enjoying our last time on land in the Sundarbans. (pics: exploring the new island, Mom/Dad posing next to our last name which I wrote in Bengali in the sand)

The boat ride back to Khulna took all day. In the meantime I read more about Nepal and played cards with guys on the boat. The Nepal guide book has so much more information than the one I have for Bangladesh. Not sure what I like better. I still think the Bangladesh guide book is awesome and perfect for what I use it for. And even though it is only updated every few years, it still is doing a great job, and I have no complaints.

After dinner, we finally arrived in Khulna. This was after passing through the north part of the Sundarbans where we saw tons of fishermen in the river, and Mongla, where we could see the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard docked in the river. After passing under Khan Jahan Ali Bridge in Khulna, we docked. The small boat took us one more time, this time to shore, where people staying in Khulna went their own ways. My parents and I took rickshaws through the dark city to the Royal International Hotel, where we would spend the next two nights. A bit of drama over the room, at first seemed they wouldn’t have space despite making the reservation a month ago, but all turned out okay. (pic: fishermen lined up with their nets outside of Mongla)

People definitely couldn’t help kidding that there really aren’t tigers in the Sundarbans. That it’s all a HOAX. Its fun to imagine the guides walking ahead of us in the morning and making little paw prints in the sand to show us later in the day, scratching trees up to say its claw marks. I’ve heard stories now that the guard’s guns aren’t even loaded, and that their guides just seemed fake excited when seeing the tiger prints. The armed guards who were with us said they’d only seen two tigers in seven years! That’s a perfect figure to quote because it makes the listener think, oh they’re here, but no one sees them unless you’re really really lucky. And no one is that lucky.
But don’t worry tigers. If you’re reading this, I still have faith in your existence!

30th-4th in Bagerhat and Khulna 3/29

After breakfast at the hotel, complimentary but slightly cold and with papaya juice (which I don’t like), we headed out to Bagerhat. We rented a car and driver for the day like we did in Dhaka. I didn’t like this driver as much. He was a bit colder than the one we had in Dhaka, and didn’t trust him as much.

Bagerhat was a lot of fun. I’d been looking forward to it for awhile. It was one of the things I heavily highlighted when first browsing my Bangladesh guide book. It has the most ancient mosques than any city apart from Dhaka. And they’re all really close and each in an interesting locale. The most famous of them is the Shait Gumbad Mosque, meaning 60 domed mosque…however it has 77 domes. I guess the other name (Shatottor Gumbad Mosque) just didn’t sound as good…

Anyway, the mosque, which had a museum worth about two minutes of one’s time, was incredible. Islamic architecture was always my favorite in my architecture classes, and it was great to see a mosque of this style, colonnaded, which I’d never seen before. Only in pictures had I marveled at such mosques such as the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.
Mom wasn’t able to roam around the mosque, but Dad and I were. We took turns, one of us staying with her. She was lucky to enter though, women rarely get to. I loved how the mosque’s columns look like a forest of scattered trees in one direction and line up perfectly in another. Took lots of photos, and of course of the exterior too, to see the 77 domes. The mosque still functions too, so great that old structures aren’t there to be marveled at but are still working pieces of the community. (pics: Shait Gumbad Mosque in Bagerhat, interior's columns not in line, interior's columns in line, Dad/Mom next to Shait Gumbad Mosque)

The next two mosques were back amongst a village. Getting there we were shouted to by many children, some coming back from school. They all had something to say. These two mosques were single domed. The last of them was in the middle of a field, and had cows and goats and ducks sitting in front. Had to go deep through a village to get to it.

At each mosque today, we were given a tour by a different person. From men who obviously work at the mosque and are there to give tours (and pray) at Shait Gumbad, to a crowd of little kids parading us around, to an old man who blessed us, to people who specialize (for a cost) in bringing pilgrims around. Each “tour” was unique, each guide special, and it definitely made each mosque more memorable. The day would not have been as fun if we didn’t have people at each mosque.

Got real sweaty. It was really hot all day. The mosques were cooler inside though. Many were refurbished a bit. This is good since their expansive domes could tragically fall at any moment I felt. One was the largest dome in Bangladesh at 11 meters. We saw eight mosques in all.

At the Mazhar Shah Jahan Ali, we had to wait until prayer time was over. Meanwhile we were surrounded by about 20 people, some who asked us questions. I was even quizzed on my Bengali knowledge by an old woman. (pics: the village we had to walk through to get to Chunakhola Mosque, our guides at Chunakhola Mosque with the mosque behind, cows and ducks in front of the mosque, Dad/eager guide who blessed us/Mom inside Noy Gumbad Mosque, Mazhar Shah Jahan Ali, the largest dome in Bangladesh at Ronvijoypur Mosque)

In the evening we went to Nafisa’s family’s home in the suburbs of Khulna. This is who I stayed with for a few days during Eid-ul-Adha. It was nice to see them again, even though Nafisa couldn’t make it. Dinner was served by Nafisa’s aunt, while her uncle and cousins watched. Her one cousin Didi was busy studying for exams, but her sister Tisha came out and talked with us. I was busy translating for my parents and Nafisa’s aunt and cousins because before her uncle came home it was only family members who speak limited English.
It was near storming by the time we left. (pics: Dad/Tisha/Mom/Tisha's dad, myself/Tisha laughing)

30th-5th in Dhaka 3/30

Took the bus back to Dhaka today. It was an hour and a half late. Luckily they called me in the morning, so we knew to show up late, but it still was only time for us to sit around the hotel. I tried going to the bus stand to see what was up. It’s the ferry crossing again.
The bus was comfortable, which is good because we were on it for nine hours. The ferry crossing wasn’t too bad, only about an hour and a half wait. But getting into Dhaka was a long process. The bus couldn’t go to Gabtoli station, but had to come through Ashulia, which adds a lot of time.

We were supposed to meet Megan, Farhan, and Ayon for dinner tonight. It was getting really late now. Luckily the three of them were still willing to come out. I had been making phone calls to them all afternoon trying to arrange the times. Keep them updated at our location. We were supposed to be in to Dhaka about 2 hours earlier, so it was a bit of a pain.
We ended up meeting at the Mohakhali Dominou’s. Pizza is tasty and easy. All could enjoy. It was late, and everyone was definitely exhausted. The large amount of traffic didn’t help either. We didn’t have time to go to the hotel and check in either, the roads were just bad. I was glad my parents got to meet more of my friends. We only met for an hour at most, but we talked as much as we could. At least my parents and friends got to share a story or two.

30th-6th in Dhaka 3/31

Today is my parents’ last day in Bangladesh. In the morning when I went to the hotel they were doing some gift shopping at some of the shops in the hotel. After that, we headed to Baridhara so they could meet my former teachers and classmates, and tour my small classroom.

We were supposed to be back by noon for the boua to come and cook lunch for us. We were late. Traffic was horrendous. They really got a good dose of it today. Also got a good dose of Bangladeshi heat, as it topped out over 100 degrees today. And our car’s A/C wasn’t working very well, so it wasn’t pleasant driving either.
We were clearly too late for the boua, so we conceded just to leave, and then eat some lunch later at the hotel.

In the street in front of my house though we paused to ask a rickshaw wallah if my dad could try pedaling his rickshaw. The driver obliged and Dad took it on a quick spin back and forth on my street. I then took up the opportunity as well and did the same. Dad and I agreed that it wasn’t too hard pedaling, but the steering was tougher than we thought. Of course both of us pedaled it empty, I’m sure three full grown adults in it makes it much tougher. (pics: Dad pedalling a rickshaw, myself getting up on the rickshaw (it's as awkward as it looks) as the rickshaw wallah watches, myself pedalling the rickshaw, Dad/rickshaw wallah posing)

We picked up Dad’s tailored shirts from the tailor. Luckily his were done, because mine wasn’t. Dad tried them on later at the hotel and they looked real good.
Had to note one thing I saw in both the Khulna and Dhaka hotels that my parents stayed at which I had not noticed in other hotels before here. Up on the ceiling was a little arrow pointing west to Mecca for prayer. Perhaps because these were nicer hotels they had neat add-ons like this, because the other hotels I’ve stayed at weren’t as nice. (pic: that way is west to Mecca)

After getting a small lunch at the hotel, and checking out we headed to Naira’ house. She had invited us over to have tea with her parents.
A good afternoon there, conversation was flowing very easily. Good to introduce them to Naira’s parents, especially since I had performed at their other daughter’s wedding. We were there for about three hours. Had snacks and tea.

Took them to the airport. I was going to really miss having them here in Bangladesh. It was a bit surreal the whole time. Being so far from home, having them here was incredible. I was sad to see them go. We hugged and said good-bye at the airport curb, non-passengers can’t enter the airport. Watched them get into the line for security checks and then took the rental car home.

At around 10:15PM (note the time) my landlord's daughter and her two kids knocked on my door. First I had to put some clothes on, then I opened the door, and she walked on in. Her goal tonight was to assess my furniture situation, and get "dibs" on anything she desired for when I move out SIX months from now. She seemed a bit upset that she couldn't take my TV, bed, or dresser as those already have plans.
Her son meanwhile, about age three, played with everything in my room. This included my reading light (snapped it in half), my Pringles container (ate about ten chips), and my alarm clock (it beeps if you touch it the right way, he found the way and made it beep to his enjoyment.) She made half-effort attempts to tell him to stop which he ignored. He's lucky he's cute and talks to me everyday as I leave the house (and by talk, he mumbles some Bengali, and I try to predict what he'd be asking, then mumble an answer back until he smiles.)
Anyway, she stayed for about five minutes. It seems like I am complaining but I was really happy to have them stop in. She's real nice and her kids are always friendly. Lastly, I’ll take any chance to make them happy with their “second floor foreign bachelor" a little more.

30th-7th in Dhaka 4/1

My first day without my parents here wasn’t too great.

Tried to manage getting the Nepal tickets cleared away today. No success. The bank wouldn’t give me an encashment certificate, even though I’m a member. They said they can’t do it from my debit card. The whole situation is annoying since I know plenty of people who have bought tickets without using an encashment. First I was told by the travel agent that since I can’t get an encashment, I can just submit my withdrawal slips. So after going across town with all that cash and the withdrawal slips, I get there and he has changed his mind. There’s no way I can get this encashment slip, he heard form the bank himself. But nothing’s changing.
At the same time I had a sudden realization that Travis might be coming to the subcontinent while I’m in Nepal, and I may have to change the tickets anyway. So now my head was spinning every which way. Wasn’t sure what to do. Didn’t want to screw anything up. Good thing it was impossible for me to buy the ticket. I might’ve made a mistake.

Didn’t make it better that at lunch they brought me the wrong food.


Greg said...

At first, I thought this post was called: "I still believe tigers live in Suburbans". I was wondering why Chevy would do that. Security? Once you got on the boat, I sorta figured it out.

Wow dude, sounds like you are having a great time. I'm glad your parents had a chance to come. I bet Bangladesh was quite an adventure, and I bet it was amazing to show up and have their son speaking another language in a VERY different country.

What is an encashment slip? Do you speak Bengali well enough to really speak or is it slow going usually? I gather that people don't really speak English?

Donny said...

An encashment certificate is required by the government for purchasing plane tickets by foreigners to prove that the money being paid in Taka is not acquired through some illegal means. The bank can provide it when you convert foreign liquid currency into Taka. I was told my bank, HSBC, should be able to do it since I have an account with them, without having to convert my precious few US dollars. They, however, can't.

I speak Bengali well enough to really speak. I have conversations with people on buses, in the market, etc. Even with some friends we exclusively speak Bengali. Some friends its about half and half. And some its all English with periodic Bengali.
People here speak English quite well. Being an English colony for so long, the language is well known to many people. Many schools are now taught in English. And English is part of every child's education throughout their schooling. Most people start speaking English to me at first, and once they find out I can speak Bengali, they switch. It is a luxury I feel that people speak English so well. It allows me to ask people what words mean, or how to say things in Bengali. When I was in Thailand, my experience was that English is less widely spoken, and it definitely made the country much harder to travel in.

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