I look forward to journeys more than the destinations. Having said that, I am not much of a traveller. I dislike getting up early in the morning to get to some place, unless there is some compelling reason. A trip to Sundarbans was compelling enough for me to lose sleep.
During our India trip this December, The Husband and I had booked ourselves into a 24-hour Sundarban river cruise organized by the West Bengal tourism department. The motivation was not the chance to spot a Royal Bengal, but just the idea of being in the middle of nowhere.
On a cold morning (yes, Kolkata was brutally cold this winter), we reported to the tourism office (I think it was near Priya Cinema, Deshapriya park). In fact, the cold surprised me – the howling wind was the culprit. Inside the office, it was warm and cozy. Seating arrangements had been made to accommodate all the tourists. Steaming chai was being served while we waited for our buses. LCD TVs were playing WB tourism DVDs. All of us with red-rimmed, puffy eyes and scowls stared at the TV as tigers splashed in backwaters and pythons slithered around. There was one thought all around – will we be lucky to spot a tiger? We were shaken out of our stupor as a voice boomed. The officer in charge was making an announcement in English with a heavy Bangla accent. He was urging all of us to use the rest room before the start of the journey, since we won’t have access for the next two/three hours. Some of the elderly tourists who had downed too much of chai made a beeline to the restroom. The rest of us headed towards the bus.
Outside, the wind had dropped, yet the chill was biting. The bus was an A/C coach. Breakfast was served before we started. I was possibly the only vegetarian on the bus. The breakfast packaging was a surprise to me. I had expected airline-type tinfoil packaging with clingfilms. This was a big, generous airtight plastic container with the goodies inside. Cheese sandwich, apple, cake and a mishti (sweet) for the vegetarians. All the above with a boiled egg for the non-vegetarians.
Finally we were off. A five minute boat ride brought us to MV Chitrarekha – our cruise launch. ‘Cruise’ probably conjures up images of a Bacardi party type luxury yatch. This was a richer version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on Mississippi. We had booked a ‘coupe’ the only private ‘room’ on the boat. The rest were all berths, like the ones you would find in an A/C train coach. Yeah...the towels could have been fluffier and whiter, sheets could have been crisper – but everything was neat and clean, including the attached toilet; which was a big relief. Almost immediately we started off. Our guide, a lanky young man, requested all of us to head to the upper deck for lunch.
The wind on the river was simply bone-chilling, despite the sun. It brought with it the smell of the water and whiffs of masala – food was being prepared in the lower deck. My throat shut shop and I was sounding like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. Even swallowing water became painful and I had to skip lunch. The wind made me feverish yet I did not want to miss out on any of the scenery.
An announcement by the guide startled me awake. He was requesting all of us to go to the upper deck. Dinner would be served at 9:00pm, and since it was only 6:30pm, we could spend the time with some ‘joyous games’. Anthakshari. I slept fitfully in the knowledge that any lurking maneaters would have bolted away with twenty odd off-tune adults playing anthakshari.
Our cruise itinerary had come to an end, and we headed back to Shonakhali without spotting the king. We just sat out on the deck as the sun finally melted the fog away, and the breeze no longer had the bite. At regular intervals the guide would announce the name of the river – to me it just looked like one large water body. As one tributary merged with another, it was fascinating to see the subtle change of colour on the water – from a blue to a dirty green, and then all grey and silver in the shimmering sunlight. Waterways branched and snaked away to oblivion amidst the brooding forests.