On a Tuesday morning Mr. Das called me into his office to tell me he’d been up all night thinking about an area south of Kolkata called the Sunderbans. He wanted to check it out to see if it was fit for microfinance. I’ve only known Mr. Das for a short time, but I’ve learned that when he gets an idea in his head, he’s full force. He asked if I wanted to go, but I wondered WHEN? I was leaving for Delhi on Saturday, which he knew. “Tomorrow,” he said, “if I can arrange it. We will stay one night and come back Thursday.” Wow, way to pack it in. “Uh, sure!” I said, always up for some time in the field, especially since the last few weeks had been spent in the office. He then asked who should join us, and of course I suggested Ritu: my co-worker, friend and traveling partner in crime. Next thing I knew, the three of us were on a train… and then a boat… and then a car… followed by another boat… and finally an auto rickshaw. Five hours later we reached the Sunderbans.
The Sunderbans is a UNESCO World Heritage site covering a large area of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is home to one of the largest mangrove forests and Bengal tiger reserves in the world. The site lies on the delta of three major rivers at the Bay of Bengal, and is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forest. Due to the location and topography, the surrounding villages are extremely vulnerable to flooding during the monsoon season… not to mention the occasional tiger attack.
We first stopped at a local NGO so Mr. Das could talk to them about the challenges in the area, of which there are many. The organization provides health and welfare services through private funding, but there is also a lot of government aid.
After lunch at the office we toured the area via auto rickshaw. I tell you, those vehicles are not made for Western-sized people. I had to bend over to see out the side while my knees were crammed against the front seat. As if I needed another reminder that I was a stranger in a strange land. The road we drove on was actually a raised path barely large enough for our three-wheeled vehicle. It felt like the Pinocchio ride at Disneyland; when we made sharp turns, the front of the auto responded quicker than the back, producing a slight whipping around sensation. I was waiting for Geppetto to jump out. Most homes are made of mud, but are perfectly constructed. They have straight edges and beautiful craftsmanship. The mud used is a very light grey or off-white, so at first glance you could easily mistake them for concrete.
We stopped at a community water pump where women were gathering for a fill-up. I totally get a charge seeing rural village life, and I hope that never goes away. There’s something very grounding about their connection to the land. Mr. Das talked to the locals about the area while I whipped out my camera. As usual I was surrounded by willing subjects. Two young sisters in particular started hamming it up after they saw the results on my playback screen. Digital cameras are the quickest way to break down barriers. I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t enjoy seeing their image reflected back at them- and maybe checking to be sure they didn’t have spinach in their teeth. It really is magical.
We started the next morning at 6am. Auto, boat, car, boat, car. Before we headed to the train station, however, Mr. Das took us to a school BJS runs. It’s a non-formal school in a brick kiln for the children of migrant workers. They call it non-formal because it doesn’t necessarily follow government school standards, but it provides schooling to children who would otherwise receive none. Since the children live with their family at the kiln for half the year, they can’t enroll in their home school. Students attend class for two to three hours a day and learn Bengali, Hindi, English, math, art, music and sports.
When we visited there were about 12 kids aged 5-11. BJS pays for the teacher’s salary, school supplies and uniforms while the brick kiln owners provide the space. As we walked in, the kids were on the floor scribbling on their personal chalkboards. It was only the second day of the session, so uniforms had not yet arrived. Mr. Das encouraged student participation by handing out chocolate bars. One student stood up and counted to 10 in English while another said his ABCs. Eventually they all got chocolate which they clung to with great care. I asked the teacher if the kids could sing, and before I could finish my question, she started arranging them in four single-file lines. Little arms were stretched out, touching the shoulders of the person in front to keep an equal distance. Then they put their hands in prayer position and started singing. It was beyond precious.
We made one final stop at the future site of another BJS school in a Muslim village that is home to many BJS borrowers. A few women came out, and then more until I was surrounded again by curious individuals. I still haven’t gotten used to attracting a crowd. It’s both flattering and uncomfortable. Maybe it’s how a baby feels when people gather around and make googly eyes, wondering why these people are so fascinated.
I was delivered back to my guesthouse that evening to conclude another exhausting yet exhilarating trip. After returning from Delhi on 12/17, I’ll only have three days left at BJS. It feels like yesterday that I was rescued from the airport in the middle of the night. But… there is time for reflection later. Next stop: Delhi for a microfinance conference, and a long-awaited trip to the Taj Mahal.