India, it really is a land of extremes and contrasts. Extreme wealth contrasted by extreme poverty, the highs of the Himalayas to the beaches on the Indian ocean, lush rain forests to bone dry deserts, chaotic cities to chilled out towns or villages and the majesty of the Royal Bengal tiger to the common run of the mill street dog. Although there are some constants, great food, great people and you can be shocked, enthralled and entertained in the same moment, it has a way of getting under your skin in ways other countries don’t. The other constant is a gaggle of fellow travellers who dress in a manner that is to say “I’ve found myself, and have found enlightenment you will never know, now if you don’t mind I have to check on Facebook and post this killer selfie on Insta” – India, as the tagline goes, really is incredible.
Touching down in Kolkata after Dhaka was an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with a sense of normalcy, of course that probably says more about the Bangladeshi capital, but Kolkata seems to have an air of calm, with regal old architecture, a manicured park or two and lanes that cars sometimes drive in. Chiefly known to many outsiders as a place where Mother Theresa “saved” those unfortunate enough to end up in her home for the dying, Kolkata has some striking buildings and temples to see that make the trip out west worth it. The Victoria monument was built between 1906 and 1922, is has some beautiful gardens in which to chill, and have your photo taken, not always with your blessing, would be a must do. The botanical gardens however could do with a bit of TLC (care and attention, not a 90s pop group), so while nice enough to take a walk, it wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for, especially when you have to leap off the path to allow a speeding convey of military officials through. The main reason, other than geographical convenience for our visit however, was to get to the Sundarbans, which thankfully after our embarrassing effort in Bangladesh, was far easier.
The day after calling the agency we were headed to the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, at a total area of about 26,000 km2 , 9000 of which are on the Indian side. Other than being the lungs of this part of Bengal, it is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. In total, it is believed there are at most 500 left, 87 of which are on the Indian side, so a bit of simple math means there is roughly one very well disguised needle in the haystack every 100 km2. With this in mind we approached the trip as a way to get away from the cities and into some nature for a few days and kept our expectations suitably low. The first day of arrival we went around the local villages and for a cultural show which was a great way to see the local life. We also took our chances with a walk through the mangroves. This was a particular challenge with the mud at times reaching the knees, all the while dodging tree climbing crabs all over the place.
It was the next day we ventured deeper into the forest with inclement weather at time pelting the boat. There were a few sightings of spotted deer and wild boars, and on our excursions off the boat to a couple of the watch towers a plethora of bird life. At one stage we even saw a Red-tailed pit viper, it looks cute but we weren’t taking our chances after our guide MJ told us “The little ones can’t really control how much venom they pump into you”. As the day went on, the guests’ vigilance started to slide, and with driving rain and wind, we hunkered down, and Martina thought it a good opportunity to catch a few ZZZs.
“TIGER!, TIGER!, TIGER!” In about a split second we sprung up and saw a huge male standing at the edge of the river. Male Bengals can reach a length of over 3m (inc. tail) and weigh up to over 300kg. Until you’ve been to the environment they live in you can be mistaken for thinking “They don’t seem that camouflage”. But the browns of the leaves with the dark shadows make them perfectly adapted to their habitat, although that’s sort of how evolution works. As we pulled up a little closer he shot us a stare as if to say “I’m not scared of you, so you best not come any closer”. As he stood on the shore, we took in the immense beauty and undeniable dominion of the creature that was staring us down. After allowing us a glimpse he slowly turned and entered the forest, which among all, displayed how fortunate we were. Not 3 or 4 steps into the dense vegetation and he had all but vanished, you could be driving past 50 of them, but just 2m meters back from the shore and you would never know it. But, our luck hadn’t deserted us and he popped back out, it was apparent he wanted to swim across the river, so as he stood proudly on the edge again we took our last sight before he thought better of it and retreated, this time for good. Later that night, nature had another incredible display for us. We made our way on a small row-boat and ran our hand through the water and the next moment we were creating little star trails. Bio-luminescent plankton let out a glow when they are startled, it’s like running your hand among the stars! We can highly recommend MJ and Tour De Sundarbans.
Onward from Kolkata, fresh from our successful tiger “hunt” we headed for Varanasi, on one of the more memorable night trains journeys, as an entire family spread between our birth and the next one, nearly came to blows at 3am. The cause remains unknown, but apparently they had forgotten by the time we pulled into the ancient city of Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually lived in cities in the world while being something of a spiritual hub. Hindus flock here during festival times and to make pilgrimage. Tourist also flock here, some out of curiosity about the customs surrounding the burning of the bodies, and to see the famed Ganges river, others to seek some sort of enlightenment. Either way, Varanasi is very India, after the very city vibes in Kolkata, chaos reigns here, with trucks cars and tuk tuks all giving way to cows that happily plonk themselves down to sleep or eat in the middle of the highway.
We took a boat ride along the Ganges at sunset, while being illuminated about the traditions of the cremation ceremony which is entangled with myths around the god Shiva. Basically, in a way of purification, the bodies receive their final bath in the holy river, said to unburden all of their sins, before being burned on the banks of the river. The cremations are carried out by the so-called “untouchable” caste, who, in a rather retrograde traditional fate, by sheer dint of their misfortune of being born, have been doing this for generations. They will continue to do so for the foreseeable future with no escape or chance to chase any dreams they might have had.
It’s fair to say we found Varanasi a interesting enough city, with a rich mix of culture, traditions, chaos and peace to be found. One such place is Sarnath temple, where the current Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama is said to have found enlightenment, and had given his first sermon. It has been a great intro to India so far, which much more great food, culture and chaos to come, we can’t wait.
Next up Agra, home of the Taj and the madness of Delhi! But until then.
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