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4-06-11 - Sunderbans

Early December 2003

Calcutta was my last stop for the 2003 India trip. I arrived there with my two English benefactors and our Hindustan Ambassador and Muslim driver intact after a - most fortunate for me - breathtaking tour across the eastern half of northern India. The Brits' had a date for their documentary film at the Tagore Museum. I enjoyed learning about Rabindranath Tagore, walking around this Indian mansion, seeing the chairs he used, and reading excerpts and quotes from the great writer's works.

We went there with a young Americanized woman from Guyana who lived in Washington DC because her father was a diplomat. My main memory of the tour is looking at walls of photos with her and trying to hear the comments of our genial docent while being bombarded by angry screaming and echoes of screams coming from the Brit's and museum staff which had reversed itself and denied them permission to film. 

Later she and I went to the famous Rat Park which did have a bunch of rats running around trees and bushes and in and out of holes behind a fence next to a busy intersection.

At one point the traffic cop, who just looked like a soldier, stopped all the cars. Since there was no traffic we walked out into the middle of the intersection and chatted with him. He told us some now forgotten history about the Rat Park and what some nearby buildings were for. All the while traffic was backing up in more than four directions. Imagine trying to do that in the States. The cop would coldly bark at us to get back. And he'd have a gun.

I remember Niels talking about how America had the meanest cops in his extensive experience as a world traveling sailor and merchant marine. He  told me once about coming up to the Goa border back in 1961 and a policeman telling him he couldn't go in because there was a war going on there. India had decided to liberate Goa from Portugal which they did in about thirty-six hours. Niels said he told the policeman that he didn't care, that he was going in there anyway. The policeman, who he said wore no gun, insisted he not go in and Niels insisted otherwise. Niels could be quite stubborn. He said that finally the cop got frustrated and started crying and said he was afraid that Niels would be hurt and he ended up taking him home where Niels ate with the man's family and spent the night and agreed not to go into Goa. The tear was mightier than the fist.

Finally two Jeeps came sailing through the intersection unobstructed. "Government officials," the policeman explained and waved the first couple of lanes of waiting cars to get back going.

I had met the woman from Guyana in the guest house where I had a little room and no plumbing. There were communal facilities, kitchen, reading and Internet rooms. There were foot driven rickshaws outside I really didn't want to use but got to know one driver, correct that, barefoot runner, who told me of his goal to make over 100 rupees a day so I made him my driver and paid him 10 rupees a day to be on call and never called on him.

There was a laundry across the street and I made an exception and gave the man there all the clothes I wasn't wearing which wasn't much. The next day when I went to pick them up, two out of three pair of underwear were missing. When I pointed that out, he just jiggled his head. I walked past him into the back room and there was a mountain of clothes all together and I found both pair in there, walked out with them, and wondered what the heck system he was using.

Met a Tagore translator at a restaurant and beer parlor decorated with big green tropical leaves, bamboo, expats, and Indian intellectuals. Asked him what Tagore book he recommended and when I went to the store to buy it the next day, he was there browsing and autographed it.

Over dinner and beer with about ten of that crowd, I was told that, having been in India for three months I could drink the water. I said, yeah, I haven't gotten sick once, and they wide eyed and hands up responded instantly in unison, "Don't say that!"

A middle-aged thin Vietnamese woman joined the group and we were introduced. She'd just become an American citizen and was saying things like, "David and I are Americans and we blah blah blah," to which I said nothing till she said "My fellow American, David, and I are loyal to our country and support President George Bush."

I made it clear I did not agree.

She jerked toward me and sharply barked, "Do not criticize our president! We Americans have to stick together!"

I said something else negative and can remember getting so angry that my bottom lip trembled. Then someone from England said something negative about Bush and someone from France said something in the same vain, and she started screaming at us that we were vile enemies of America and she went to the manager and demanded that he kick us all out and he just absorbed her venom. On her way out she turned at the exit and shook her fist at us and vowed revenge. The next day I came in and she was there sitting with approximately the same group and they were laughing and having fun. I sat down and said to her that I was sorry for any unpleasantness I'd caused the night before. She said, "I accept your apology. Just do not ever criticize our president."

I heard about a three day boat ride through the Sunderbans at the mouth of the Ganges which everyone calls Ganga. The Sunderbans is a complex maze of waterways through the largest mangrove forest in the world. One had to get a ticket in advance from a government office.

The building looked 150 years old and like no piece of paper or ledger had ever been retired or dusted, and were stacked in shelves from floor to ceiling behind desks and counters that lined the walls of that cavernous room. I was sent from one line to another, each time with a newly stamped piece of paper, and finally to the second floor where another arrangement of people, antique desks, ceiling fans and lines awaited me. After about two hours I sat in front of a smiling man, his desk between us. I handed him the by now worn form with a note stapled on it.

He was in no hurry, nor I, and we made small talk while he smiled in a way that was refreshing and made him appear to have more and larger teeth than the average person. I told him I had less than a week before my flight back to Bangkok, and wished to spend a few of those days peacefully floating down the apron of Mother Ganga. He offered me a cigarette which I accepted. I filled out some other form and answered some seemingly irrelevant questions. He sent me to another counter where I read Tagore poems in English translation until they approved of my application and returned with a stamped, official, ticket.

Back at the guest house a young Swede offered me a thick joint of grass he had to get rid of as he was on the way to the airport. I hid it in my pack. I never was sure how, where, when, and what cannabis was legal or illegal. I never bought any but I'd talk to people who'd show me hash they'd bought in a government store in a little box that said so. Then I'd hear about people being on trains when soldiers would come in and go through young foreigners' back packs looking for it. I gathered that it was the army you had to watch out for.

That reminds me of a story told to me by a Dane who had lived in the Dharamsala area for twenty-five years. He'd been a disciple of a hashish baba, a sadhu who smoked hash as part of his spiritual practice. He also said that the average person looked down on cannabis smoking but not in the case of this type of guru.

Once he was on a train with his teacher who told him to prepare his chillum which he did and his teacher then started puffing away producing billows of smoke which immediately concerned the other passengers in that car who were saying things like, "What's this? Who's smoking bhang?! This is an outrage!" until they saw who was doing it and then they immediately went, "Oh excuse me baba! Bless me baba!" and they bowed to his teacher and ignored the smoke. Later, at a stop, soldiers entered the car exclaiming loudly, "Who's smoking bhang?!" and stopping cold when they saw his teacher who paid them no mind and kept puffing away as they exclaimed, "Oh, sorry baba!" and bowed to him and went on.

I'd smoked other people's cannabis but now for the first time I had some on me. I wasn't going to take any chances but I didn't want to refuse the offering.

A young French woman came up to me and said she'd heard I was going on the boat trip through the Sunderbans and that she wanted to go but not alone. I was used to that and had spent a pleasant portion of my Indian journey in the company of younger women who knew better than to be alone - and they picked up right away upon meeting me that I wouldn't hit on them.

Gee, I told her what I'd just gone through and that I didn't know if we had time to get her ticket - but come with me. The office wasn't far. Twenty minutes before closing we walked in the entry to the tomb of the unknown paper, past the desks of bureaucrats and lines I'd stood in, up the stairs and straight to the desk of the toothy smiling man who was reading a newspaper. He looked up and was pleased to see us. We sat down and I quickly explained the situation. I pointed out that it would be best for her security to go with me and that I was to meet a van at five the following morning. I then pulled from my pocket a half-pack of cigarettes, the brand he smoked which I'd noted, "And I bring a gift. It's only a small gift, but it's what I could afford."

He smiled wider and said, "Indeed sir, even a small gift is appreciated," and received it gratefully. We were out of there in five minutes.

Floating through the Sunderbans, what a wonderful way to cap a trip to chaotic India. The boat wasn't large and maybe only a third full. There were a Canadian couple the French woman hung out with, a few Israelis, and a dozen Indians. I soon was spending my time with six men from Calcutta's Anglo-Indian community. They're Indians from mixed marriages who identify with being English and speak good though somewhat idiosyncratic English. Calcutta, now officially called Kolkata, is a city that was built by the British one of them told me, and he explained how their English heritage went back in their families for a couple of hundred years. I told them about a taxi ride I'd had in the city with a turbaned Sikh driver who went on and on about how everything had gone downhill since the British left. They enjoyed hearing that.

The Sunderbans has some dangers in it I learned as we sipped an excellent single malt Scotch. It contains a tiger refuge. That's why many people take this trip. Indeed we stopped several times at fenced-in areas with elevated walkways that lead to observation decks to peer out for tigers. And, they said, there were pirates in these waters and that was the real danger.

We'd sit and sip and talk and smoke cigarettes and would be looking at the banks with occasional crocodiles and deer, and then someone would go, "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" and we'd all run to where they were and it would be a false alarm. One man with a gray mustache said that you rarely see tigers on the Sunderbans trips, but that he'd been to a tiger refuge in the middle of India where park rangers communicated with each other via walkie-talkies and what they'd look for was a tiger who'd just eaten a deer. The tiger-seeking tourists rode elephants. He was led right up to a sprawled out tiger lying on its back engorged and sleeping. He said he actually stroked the tiger's head.

On the second day after dinner they asked me what I did and I asked them what they did. The two men to my right were in the insurance business together. Another man was in advertising, another two in computers. We made small talk about all that and then I, somewhat relaxed from the small amounts of Scotch we were imbibing, pulled out the joint I had and explained how I'd received it and did anyone object to me smoking it? No no no, feel free, go ahead, they all insisted. I lit it and took a few puffs and offered it but there were no takers. We talked some more. The sixth man in their party, the one with the gray mustache, arrived back at the table. I held up the joint and repeated what I'd said before and he graciously waved away any objection so I lit it again and when it had gone out I told him what I did and how everyone had told me what they did except for him and so, sir, may I ask what is your profession.

"I'm a colonel in the army," he said.

I gulped.

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