After departing Mandarmoni Beach and driving many hours on the bus, we finally reached the City of Joy – Kolkata! After checking in to our very fancy hotel (a very pleasant surprise after the strangeness in Mandarmoni), we ventured out into the busy streets for lunch. One of the discoveries we made last year were the deliciousness of kati rolls made on the street all over the city. Kati rolls are basically fried dough with an egg on them, filled with potatoes, vegetables, onions, and hot sauce. They are fantastic. We stopped at the first kati roll place we found on the trip and the roll definitely lived up to my expectations. We then had an academic session with a dance session, similar to the musical experience we had had in Mumbai, but with live dancers this time. It was very interesting and we ended with a group dance session where we all attempted to mimic the motions made by the dancers, though we were not quite as good as them just yet.
The next day we had another academic session where we discussed the East Kolkata Wetland (which takes wastewater and garbage and turns it into fish farms and clean water – one of the only natural wetlands to function in this way), the Sundarbans (a natural island chain in the Bay of Bengal full of mangroves and wild Bengal tigers), and sewage treatment plants. After the session, we visited one of the sewage treatment plants in Kolkata and then went to three cultural sites. First we visited the Motherhouse, where Mother Teresa’s tomb is. We then drove to a beautiful Jain temple that we also visited last year. The temple is covered in hundreds, if not thousands, of little mosaics and mirrors creating a beautiful effect when you look at it closely. Jainism is such a fascinating religion and many followers are very careful not to kill any living beings as will sweep as they walk so as not to step on anything, wear a mask so as to not breathe in any microbes, and will not each anything that grows beneath the ground so as to not each any living organisms that might be in the dirt. Jains only account for about 2% of the Indian population, but the temple in Kolkata (and others I have heard about in India) is very well kept up.
We also visited a famous Hindu temple on the banks of the Hoogly River, which is a tributary of the Ganges. Our bus couldn’t make it the entire way so we walked through the very crowded streets outside the temple until we reached the temple compound. The outside of the temple was the only area we could take pictures, but it was all very beautiful, yet simple, architecture. We waited in a very long line to enter and then got to walk around the temples and shrines inside. After leaving the temple and pushing our way through the crowded streets (and with a group of 30 non-Indian students that is very difficult!), we drove across Kolkata to a famous sweet shop (where I ate almost everything in the shop including my favorite sweet that was mostly just fried ghee or butter) and another great Kati roll place.
The next morning we woke up very early as we were off to the Sundarbans! The Sundarbans are a chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal that are home to mangrove forests as well as wild Royal Bengal Tigers. With climate change and rising sea levels, these islands are in danger of becoming submerged and this wild habitat could very soon be gone. Since we knew it would be a long day there, we left around 7 AM for the five hour bus ride through the rural part of Kolkata to reach the coast. About 2-3 hours into the trip we reached a stop and saw an overturned bus on its side. It had been full of sand and many people were working to bail the bus out so it could be flipped right side up again. We had to just sit and wait because the road was not wide enough for us to go around the bus or to even turn around. Our only option was to sit and wait. This day, our professor and graduate TA had both decided to stay back, so it was just Tavish and I (the two undergraduate TAs) and our travel provider in charge of the students who had joined us. Luckily, our bus had a TV and we watched my favorite Indian movie Lagaan while sitting in the air-conditioned bus. It finally became clear that the overturned bus would not be moved anytime soon, so we turned to other measures. We rented a non-air conditioned bus (with open windows though!) on the other side of the obstacle and then transferred to that one where we sped through the rest of the road and finally made it to our boat. We ended up only losing about an hour of time because our new bus was much lighter and able to move much quicker than our big bus, so we were able to make up a lot of time.
The boat ride was hot, but calm. As we floated through the Sundarbans, which is also the mouth of the Ganges River, we ate a great home cooked meal of rice, lentils (dal), chicken, fish, and prawns. We drank coconuts and laughed as we searched for the tigers that we never saw, but who most definitely saw us. We took a brief stop at a watch tower to observe the mangroves and got to see some monkeys and crocodiles that are native to this area. We then got back on the boat, floated along for another hour or so, and then boarded our AC bus (it had finally got through the cleared overturned bus) and drove back to the city, where we all promptly fell asleep after a long day in the sun.