Bangladesh – the silent, silvery world of the Sundarbans

It was the shit in the shower that was the proverbial barnacle that sunk the whale. Until that point I had been content with loathing my fellow passenger from afar; his mouth breathing, occasional loud belching, spurious snorting, spreading and general oozing about the desk of the too-small boat that was home for four days.

Laziness? Caught exceptionally short? Revenge? We shall never know but from that moment I fantastised about tripping him up and watching him topple overboard, his flatulence-bloated body exploding like sherbet with the first puncture of the croc’s tooth.

And so, you see, even though one travels too fast really (have a nine to five job and so my time budget is exceptionally poor), sometimes fast really isn’t speedy enough when stuck with such exasperating company.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We were sailing through the Sundarbans National Park, winding our way through thickly forested channels, lit briefly by the wings of tiny kingfishers coloured as though a child had been handed three crayons and asked to fill in the lines; red beak, orange chest and blue back.

When we were still moving down the wider stretches of the river, the aforementioned saltwater crocodiles would bask on the wheat-coloured banks watching us with half-closed lids.

In fact, the feeling of being watched was a theme of the trip.

You see the Sundarban mangrove forest is the home of the largest population of the Royal Bengal Tiger. You hardly ever have the privilege of seeing them but, our guide told us, they most certainly see you. When we headed for shore on a short walk, one armed ranger at the front and another covering our flank, we were told that any stragglers would be picked off.

A few weeks earlier, one man had taken a photograph of his group in front of some foliage. When reviewing his photos on the boat that evening, pinpricks of eye shine glittered from the trees just behind the men with their smiling mouths and upturned eyes. A stalker was watching.

It is well documented that one of the most dangerous jobs on earth is to be a honey collector in this shifting kaleidoscope of a landscape; people are snatched by the jaws of tigers all too frequently. Many individuals wear bells and masks on the back of their heads to avoid being pounced on from behind. Again, the illusion of being observed is all important as it may deter an attack.

I bought some of this honey, delicately scented with notes of fear, which had been poured into an old plastic bottle. It was incredibly viscous, contained floating black detritus resembling insects trapped in amber, and tasted like the contents of my grandmother’s drinks cabinet. I didn’t catch a single cold the winter I had it with my daily breakfast.

But it isn’t the tigers, the honey, the reptiles or even the odious shitter that I remember most about that trip. It was the light.

Bangladesh’s flag has a solid dark green background and a red circle in the centre. It’s one of the only flags I can recall with any clarify because it so clearly reflects the country’s landscape it represents. The green is the mangrove forests whilst the red is the sun. And the sun was always this dark, burning red. There was no morning white, dimming to afternoon gold softening to a dusky sunset pink.

Just dark red like the bloodshot eye of a wounded animal or lifelong drunk. This, in turn, impacted all the other natural colours once expects from the wild. In fact the dangling clot in the sky drained everything of colour and just left a shimmering mercurial hue in its wake. The river banks were silver, the water was silver and the sky was silver, dispensing the need for something so parochial as a horizon.

The result was most unnerving and left you with a unsettled feeling, of things that cannot be explained. I was glad to leave, to rid myself of that feeling that one doesn’t understand or belong at all. And, of course to escape the ghastly traveller. And yet…and yet. The Sundarbans haunted my sleeping hours for far longer than I was actually there. I will be back.

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