The next morning, I woke early to a complimentary made-to-order breakfast from the hotel’s restaurant. While I ate dal and roti prata, the lobby filled with policemen carrying large rifles. I wondered how many of them would be joining me that day, prepared to take fire at the Bengali Tiger who was bound to come within an arm’s reach of our tiny tour. I anxiously prepared to walk out of the hotel with Mongla’s armed forces surrounding me, but instead left alone. They paid me no mind. Instead, they were ready to escort several of Bollywood’s directing greats who had arrived overnight.
Walking alone in public for the first time in several days, I took a few deep breaths and did my best to contain the excitement of what lie ahead. Boats, monkeys and crocodiles. For sure I’d see these three. The king of the Mangrove also awaited us : Tigers. I was told not to keep my hopes too high, as we were just entering into the Sundarbans’ beginning quarters. But Miss Maps became Miss Optimistic and I knew, I just knew, it was the perfect day. We were going to see Tony and his gang!
As I wandered to the small ‘ferry’ boat to cross to the main town of Mongla once again, a young gentleman said hello and insisted to pay the way for me, as his guest. It was a minimal fee, but an unnecessarily thoughtful gesture. During our brief encounter, he told me of his wife and son, how happy he was to see a tourist in town, and that if I had time later I should stop by his office. Making note of its location, I thanked him for his generosity too many times to keep track of, and found the tin shack where we’d signed our agreement the previous day.
From there, I was ushered by local after waiting local to the waterside, where my guide was pulling up to shore in our wooden boat. Like a pro so accustomed to routine that his movements had become somewhat careless, he tossed a rope to the nearest bystander. That men grabbed the loose end and tied it quickly to his own boat’s hull. I was then motioned to come aboard. Easier said than done as our capsule was actually several meters from shore, and I was left scrambling from one boat to another in an attempt to safely, dryly, reach the two awaiting men.
Click on an image to view photos from the boat to the Sundarbans up-close:
With a few gentle tips and turns, I landed in the boat and took my place in one of three plastic lawn chairs set up for us. A blood red cloth hung down on our left side, set in place to shield us from the morning’s heat. Other than that, the boat was empty of anything but our mission-focused minds and their attached bodies.
We sputtered and spewed while the smell of diesel was whisked away by steamy winds. Echoes of the motor were met by howling monkeys in the nearby jungle. After crossing past boats weighed heavy by freshly made bricks, we came to a small series of bamboo huts. Young children splashed in the waters outside their homes, and a sign promoting foreign aid campaigns had been dug deep into the clay ground. Women caring neon pink and yellow parasails and dressed in equally as vibrant saris conversed along the wooden walkways. These women are Bangladesh’s jungle flowers looking to attract nearby worker bees.
As we approached, the two men on the boat began to speak in Bengali. They then turned their attention to me. “Would you like to stop for tea?” my guide asked. Our police escort agreed to the idea, and when I suggested we wait until after visiting the jungle so we would feel more at rest, they both laughed. “This is the heart of Mongla. This is what keeps the ship crew happy. These women. Their tea is good. Their bodies are better.”
Little did I know, we’d just happened upon Bangladesh’s riverside brothel, Bani Shanta, and these women were waiting for their next customers .When their boyish laughter subsided they told me their last visitor, a young gentleman from Australia, had agreed to a cup of tea. I wondered if they were speaking figuratively or literally, and quickly declined their invitation to my own cup of tea, no matter how ‘unique’ of an experience it may have been.
Click on an image to view photos from the journey to the Sundarbans up-close:
By the conversation’s end, our boat as floated past the tribe of nearly 200 women and had taken a sharp left turn into a blinding sea of green. We’d entered the Sundarbans!
Now it was time for the moment I’d been waiting for : It was time to really begin our search for TIGERS!
I sat straight in my plastic chair, ignoring it’s unsteady sway as my weight shifted above. My camera was ready and my eyes stared into the thick mangrove, darting from shadow to shadow. One of these moments, I anticipated a pair of glowing marbles would stare back.
The boat slowed, and I expected we’d drift for a bit to allow one of these elegant beasts to come forward from his hiding place. Instead, we stopped and the two men stood up abruptly, fastening the boat to a nearby dock. A boat of locals was tethered to the other side of the dock, and we quickly waved hello as I hesitantly followed my leaders onto shore. It appeared we had arrived at our final destination. Not two minutes had passed since our entrance into the Sundarbans. Our eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the new scenery, and we definitely hadn’t seen a tiger.
Click on an image to view photos from boats of the Sundarbans up-close:
A close up peak over the iron wall showed a massive pond – an empty luxury hotel and spa compared to the hostel the crocodiles were actually staying in. Not a single reptilian head peaked out of the waters, and besides a few cockroaches crawling up the tree trunks, no creature could be seen moving within.
From the empty Crocodile Inn, we left the eery makeshift Sundarban Zoo and entered into the Mangrove. A wooden walkway had been put into place to allow us to walk a bridge for nearly an hour while observing minuscule red crabs crawling in muddy waters below and an assortment of blackbirds flew above. No monkeys swung from trees, but I was told that here it may be possible to see the wildlife catch of the day.
Sundari Trees provided shade, and their aerial roots stood out of flooded lands, while other flora and fauna I’ll never remember undoubtedly kept from view… you know who.
As it turns out, the Mangrove did a fine job protecting its most sacred inhabitant and despite careful steps and a keen eye, we left without spotting a single stripe.
After walking the plank’s curvy path and returned back to the boat. Once again we sputtered and spun until we reached Mongla. There we enjoyed a cup of tea from a stall known to be safe and (happily enough) less female friendly environment than the one my guide had originally proposed.
Click on an image to view photos from the Sundarbans up-close:
Mission Un-accomplished, I returned across the river and intended to relax for a bit before taking a night bus across the country to the trip’s final destination. Instead, as I approached my hotel the gentleman who’d insisted upon paying my fare earlier that day came walking my way. He asked me how the excursion had gone, and asked about plans for the remainder of my Bangladesh holiday. When he learned I was leaving that night, he picked up his cell and spoke in his native tongue to the person on the other line.
A moment later, he handed me the small plastic flip phone.
“Hello,” a timid woman’s voice called.
“Hello,” I responded. “This is Anika. Who are you?”
“Will you come for lunch?” she asked, and without giving a moment to respond followed it with, “do you eat fish?”
“Yes I eat fish, but… yes. I will come. Thank you.”
We boarded the boat once more, I offered to pay our fares, and we went back to Mongla’s main dusty streets. After waving hello to all the locals who’d come to recognize me, a tuk-tuk ride and twenty minute walk took us to the family’s home. There, his wife, the woman I’d spoken to on the phone earlier, gave me a shy hug and his son bounced from wall to wall so quickly I was never able to do so much as wave in his direction, as his direction was constantly changing! A neighbor was called upon to travel to the local store to fetch a bottle of Coca-Cola for the occasion. His wife disappeared to begin cooking and plate by plate served steaming hot dishes of rice, salted snacks, and finely chopped cucumber. The main meal : Bangladesh’s favorite fish, Ilish. Sitting near the family’s pond as to wash it every few moments, the wife prepared this praised meal with a smile on her face, and patiently showed me just how to eat it so as to clear away as many bones as possible. I sat on the couch and the man I’d met (and had yet to learn the name of) sat across the coffee table from me on a bed he shared with at least two others. Next to us, a boxy TV played The Smurfs Cartoon in English, and after apologizing for the tube’s ginormous size, he insisted that their prized flat screen was in the shop for repairs.
Meanwhile, we remained alone. She didn’t eat with us. Nor did any other person in the house. Only a few times, their son joined for less than a bite before hopping to one of two other rooms in the house. A fish that can cost up to $40USD for 1 kilogram, the family insisted we first enjoy it, and they would eat what remained. I did my best to balance appreciating her thoughtfulness and fine cooking and making sure some was saved for the rest of the family and friends.
And there were plenty of family and friends to feed!
Within a few minutes, I was able to meet Grandma, Grandma, Uncle, Cousin, Cousin, Cousin, Cousin’s friend, Cousin’s Other Friend, Grandma’s Friend, Neighbor, Neighbor, Neighbor’s Cousin, Neighbor’s Cousin’s Grandma and a whole slew of others who’d popped in to see the foreigner – the girl who’d somehow made her way to the depths of Mongla to find its true treasures.
Click on an image to view photos from Family Time up-close:
I left Mongla without spotting a single Tiger.
Sometimes, what you’ve set out to find isn’t really what you’re looking for.
Message from Miss Maps:
That night I hopped aboard a bus – and the bus hopped aboard a boat! – and traveled clear across the country to somewhere you’ve most likely, at one time or another, dreamed of going (I know I had – several times!) Stay tuned to find out where, and for tales from the final few stops in Bangladesh (ps, have you subscribed or followed on Facebook? CLICK HERE)
Make sure you’re caught up with Miss Maps’s stories from Bangladesh!
CLICK HERE to read Roaches on a Plane – About my creepy crawly welcome to Bangladesh;
CLICK HERE to read Help Past Help – To find out what happens when a stranger in Dhaka went a little too far out of his way.
CLICK HERE to read about Life Aboard Bangladesh’s Rocket Steamer – The overnight boat journey to the Sundarbans.
Finally, Curious about Mongla’s riverside red light district I spoke about earlier? Be your own boss, but I hope you don’t visit it. Instead, CLICK HERE to read Dhaka Tribune’s recent report.