Heading for Bangladesh's Sundarbans

Everybody speaks about the Sunderbans as if they belong in India. In the second episode of her travelogue in Bangladesh, Jennifer Nandi encounters fog delays and endures what seems to be an interminable wait. 

I wake up and draw the curtains. It’s white outside. The dark whiteness stretches all the way down to the road. We breakfast and head for the domestic terminal for a flight to Jessore. And of course there is an ‘uncertain delay’. At the check-in counter we’re told, “Joshshu, is fog too mach!” At noon we hear that the flight has been cancelled. I rush to the check-in desk and ask the GMG airline staff if what we heard was true and she says, “maybe cancelled” which translates as ‘definitely cancelled’! The other domestic airline stops selling tickets ‘because it’s too mach trable’! So I ring the Guide Tours travel agent to ask whether they have a man at the airport who could exercise his influence to get us on another flight and yes, they do. They work quickly. A representative collects our tickets and rushes to re-purchase two seats on the airline that had just closed its sales counter. Then he urges us to stand in a queue to check in and we’re through. We are told the flight is due to depart at any moment. We’re excited. At last we’ll be off. I see a lovely white plane with a gold motif on its tail, land. How beautiful it looks. Our flight is called. One has to keep one’s eyes on the ball at all times. Nothing is transmitted over the PA system. When a flight is ready to leave, a lectern is placed at a suitable position for the airline staff and a voice booms. So we scurry up to the gate and wait. When we haven’t scurried in vain, we board the bus. Then we play the waiting game.

We wait. And wait some more. The engine of the bus is then turned off. Everybody begins to disembark except us. I refuse to follow the crowd. Since no one has told us what to do, we sit and hope that may be for us, the news is different! I want to be told to get up and get out in no uncertain terms. And then of course that’s exactly what I’m told. The flight won’t take off because it’s ‘too dangerous’. The fog now is in Jessore and it hasn’t yet lifted. I explore the option of driving. But everyone advises against the plan. Roads are bad, it’s too dangerous…in fact, no passenger that I spoke to had ever driven to Jessore!. So the only real option was to take the half-hour flight.

Another hour of waiting and then miraculously, we are truly ready to go. The aircraft we board is not the pretty plane I had earlier longingly admired but a tiny Fokker Friendship with props. Anything would do. We’re desperate to get airborne. The stewardess is a pleasant woman, who serves, makes announcements and attends to the cockpit’s needs. She is too tall for her craft and must bend a bit to avoid hitting her head. At Jessore, on the tarmac, I try taking a photograph of the plane and am summarily shooed off. But I don’t give up. Just outside the confines of the airport, I ask our vehicle to stop so I could take my picture!

Lunch is at a local ‘fast food’ restaurant. The fare is rice, fish curry and a serious mutton curry, local vegetables, and dal. It’s ‘fast’ because the waiters are scurrying around busily taking everyone’s orders. We are shown a table and we all sit – the driver, the guide, and us. Lots of food is laid on the table. We can barely hear ourselves think above the din. The food is cold, but tasty. Ken recognises the meat as something he could eat. He is well-travelled and has eaten in some rather suspicious-looking places. After lunch we drive for two hours to Mongla Port. On the way we change guides. This young man speaks better English and is a pleasant chap although his birding knowledge, we discover, is very limited.

The road to Mongla was built five years ago. It’s still in good condition and the traffic is light. So we are in pretty good humour when we board the M.V. Bonbibi, a six-cabined boat. And we have it all to ourselves. We weren’t expecting this. We rush around excitedly. It’s bright and shiny and clean. Our cabins are tiny so we store our luggage in the vacant cabins. It’s just five o’clock and already the tide of darkness has us in its embrace. No more rising at unwelcoming hours to catch elusive flights. We’re at peace, at last. There is only one niggling problem. There is no booze on board. Everyone on the boat is Muslim, yet they call up their smuggler-contacts from a local village, and enroute to the forest checkpost, we collect a very expensive bottle of Beefeater Gin and some six bottles of San Miguel beer made in the Philippines. Having secured the permits to enter the narrow channels of the Sundarbans, and a cargo of two armed guards, we sail in great silence as light withdraws from around us.

Soon dinner is laid – an interesting mix – Spaghetti Bolognaise, deep fried prawns and French Fries! Having sailed from the checkpost down the Selagang channel for an hour or so in the dark, we drop anchor near Tambulbunia. I step outside. There is no ambient light to interfere with the viewing of the inky black sky crowded with brilliant fire. Orion is overhead. I search for the nebula and find it. I spot Cassiopeia, look for Pegasus and the Andromeda constellation. Then I pick out the Andromeda galaxy. It’s one of the easiest to spot. But haze and cloud roll in; clouds shroud the moon; and then everything fades to black. It’s time to go.

Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi.