Let me describe a typical day in my life.
I tumble out of the bed as various folks ring the door bell. Then I sit in my car in a daze as we inch forward through the potholes of Bombay, navigating bumper to bumper traffic, dodging jaywalkers, with only slums and construction sites to look at. Then at work one goes from one meeting to another and one deadline to another with every minute carefully planned in the Outlook calender. The end of the day sees the the same ride back ... potholes, traffic, jaywalkers, slums, smog...then home, a quick walk by the sea, dinner, TV, bed.
My wife, Kainaz ,and I had often thought of going there in the past but steered clear as we were not sure about the accommodation. Then our friend Abhik, from Wanderers, told us about the Sunderban Tiger Camp. We booked ourselves there under his assurance. It turned out to be a really nice place. The room we stayed in was functional and yet pleasing with aircon and a fairly neat and clean attached bathroom. It was one of the most expensive rooms there and didn't disappoint us.
I went there to get away from the grime of the city. And I got what I wanted. The place was tranquil, quiet and peaceful. The day would consist of us going down the river in a steam boat. There were just the two of us and one more family so we had the boat pretty much to ourselves. I lost myself in another world as we trailed down the lazy river with the green woods on both sides of us. The air was as pure as it gets. Time stood still.
A friend of ours recommended that we read Amitav Gosh's The Hungry Tide when she heard that we were going to the Sunderbans. I am really thankful to her. This book, which is set in the Sunderbans, really brought the place alive to me. Reading the book while I was there was a magical experience. I would read about the jungle lore, about the tiger and about tribal tales of magic and then would see the places described over there. Awesome! And this was especially helpful because our guide was not very informative and could not bring the place alive. His commentary was pedantic and drab. We have seen much better.
After our cruise we would come back to the Tiger Camp, have a nice Bengali meal, sleep, wake up, stroll down to a nearby village, watch a tribal performance in the camp, eat, sleep. The picture below is from a tribal or Santhal dance.
Peace, quiet, still waters, balmy breeze, ample greenery, a great book, good food, deep sleep...my recipe for a perfect holiday. And there was nothing to beat the expereience of going to the mohona or the place where the river went into the Bay of Bengal and to see the change in the colour of water where the river met the sea. It was a humbling experience as we were alone in the tiny trawler on the vast stretch of water.
Though I must admit that there were quite a few disgruntled humans there. To start with Kainaz was one. As were the members of the other family who were in the camp. (btw before you think Jim Corbett, the 'camp' was a set of concrete houses with most modern comforts except a television).
Apparently the main attraction to come to the Sunderbans is to see a tiger! Hence 'Tiger Camp'. I was blissfully unaware of this and was in seventh heaven as I soaked in nature's bounty. The others though were gnashing their teeth though and were not mincing their words with the travel guide. We did saw the odd croc and many water lizards, even a few cranes, but no tiger or baagh mama as he is called in Bengal.
Frankly the chances of seeing good old tiggy is quite remote if you think about it. The tigers dwell in the forest though they are known to swim through the river. But they wouldn't really come to a steam boat making a racket would they? And tourists can't get into the forest as it is unsafe (some tigers are man eaters, crocodiles, snakes etc etc). Plus the shore is under water during high tide. Now what are the chances of spotting a tiger from a moving boat? Its not really a cat walk down there. A tiger is unlikely to come to the shore and wave at you. The photo below gives the view from the boat. This is where you are supposed to spot tigers.
Still hoards of people from all over the world come to Sunderbans in hope of seeing this rare and vast vanishing beast. A few are lucky. A very few.
The closest we came to see a tiger was in the form of this sprightly man who did shock us a bit during a tribal dance at the camp in the evening.
Most have to come back content with a break from the 'Madding Crowd' and from seeing a few monkeys or cranes.
If you were to ask me then I would say that Sunderban is an experience which is really worth it and which helps detoxify one. And I must admit that I was in a minority in October 2007 in the Sunderban Tiger Camp.
Traveller's tip: You can maximise your chance of seeing a tiger if you go in December as the fat cats come out to take in the sun then. And, don't forget to take a copy of the Hungry Tide with you.
The Tiger Camp was a nice place to stay in. A 2 night stay in a good room costs about Rs 8000 or USD 200. This includes the travel to and from Calcutta in a, sadly, rickety, non air conditioned bus, all meals (tasty Bengali food with the odd Chinese misadventures, continental picnic breakfasts on the boat), the trips in the boat (with a clean, functional toilet) down the river and a not too articulate guide. The service was very friendly and accomodative. They also have a shop where you can buy honey from the forest and some tribal handicrafts.
Couple of sore points were the guide who could not bring alive the magic of the place and wasn't comfortable in English and the bus ride from hell back to Calcutta (3 hrs) which kills the experience.
And, of course, a very remote chance of seeing a tiger.