By Mythreyi K
In early December 2018, James and I headed to West Bengal to conduct a birdwatching workshop for budding tourist guides. The workshop took us all the way from Wandoor in the Andamans to the island of Kumirmari in the Sunderbans.
Sunderban, “the only Mangrove-Tiger land of the planet” (Banerjee M, 2012) was definitely not love at first sight for us. After having lived for a while in the bright greens and blues of the Andamans, the Sunderbans seemed wet, brown and bleak. The thick fog that wove its way around and over the isles, the muddy waters that couldn’t make up its mind about being sweet or salty, and the scrawny people enveloped in a fine sheen of dust, peeking over our shoulders to get a glimpse of our Whatsapp chat messages on the dunghi that carried us to Kumirmari did not help in anyway. I suppose our growling stomachs accounted for a small portion of the bias the above statements carry.
In our minds we had been prepared for a flight out of Port Blair, a train journey and then a ferry ride. What really happened? After reaching Kolkata, we ended taking a local train from Sealdah to Canning, a local shared-autorickshaw from Canning to Dhamakhali, and huddling on a crowded dunghi that chugged its way down the river from Dhamakhali before finally arriving at Kumirmari in the evening. That far in the east of India, it is twilight by 3:30 in the afternoon and midnight, for all practical purposes, by 8 pm.
Having begun our journey at around 6 am, the chai and a few of the thorny pani phal (water caltrop or Trapa sp.) we had managed to devour had sublimated into nothingness at some point during the first half of the journey and by the time we reached Kumirmari at 4 pm, even the worms in our stomachs were dying from the lack of sustenance. Planting our dusty, malnourished backsides on plastic chairs at a ‘mishti’ shop in the market at Kumirmari, we gratefully gulped down the local slightly salty but potable water and stuffed ourselves with rasgullas, the shopkeeper warning us that each rasgulla would cost us a hefty sum of Rs.5.
Our journey however had not ended and the brief sweet escapade was followed by an extremely bumpy ride on a “van” which remotely resembled a bullock-cart yoked with a bike built for the differently abled, in lieu of the oxen. It had a 1.6 HP motor fitted to a custom-made chassis which bore 3 wheels, a chain connecting the front wheel to the back wheels, motorcycle-style breaks, a handlebar above the front wheel with a headlight behind which the driver sat, and finally a six by four feet wooden plank that was fitted to the chassis on which passengers could try and make themselves comfortable. I bravely seated myself at the rear end of the vehicle while James played safe and took the VIP spot beside the driver.
We rode across the breadth of the island until Kheya Ghat where we got off and trudged along the river bund for about half a kilometre before finally arriving at our destination for the next five days, the home of a local farmer. Over the following days, we assisted the workshop participants in identifying about 35 resident and migrant birds, and educated them in birdwatching ethics, how to take tourists birding, and how to plan routes.