The sign was a list of the group of eleven who had drowned last year. From what I remember of the news stories, they were students from Khulna University and BUET. They had sojourned into the Sunderbans for a holiday and ended up in Kotka beach on that fateful day. Eleven of them became too foolhardy and careless, walked out too far into the water. And before they realized it, they were caught in the tides. They panicked, began to grab each other and dragged themselves further out. The people on shore weren’t prepared; no one knew what to do. It had all happened too fast. The group of eleven suddenly disappeared into the horizon of the water.
Seeing the list of names made me remember the tragedy but then I quickly forgot it. I was too excited about trekking into the jungle to reflect on anything. The desire to disappear into the deep bush was overwhelming; I was flirting with the idea of running across a tiger—though I knew it was very unlikely. The tour had made it clear to us from the very beginning that it was nearly impossible to come across a tiger and that it was a good thing. I agreed with them. Once I got past the romance of seeing one, I don’t know what I would have done if I ever came face to face with the giant cat. I don’t imagine my last moments would be gracious at all.
There were thirteen of us in the tour group, including the guards we had picked up at the forest station. When my friend and I signed up for the tour, we were told that it would be a small group, mostly made up of foreigners because they’re the only ones interested in seeing the jungle. But that was not the case. While there were three foreigners, most of the people were from Dhaka and were Bangladeshi.
The dock where we alighted was a pile of planks tied together with thick ropes. The cement one that had previously stood in its place had collapsed during Sidr. The guide’s name was Shahriar. He had just started with the touring company and didn’t really know much about the jungle aside from what he had experienced through his recent training and the few tours he had conducted. He pointed out the platform to us, which now lay under the water; shattered into so many pieces as if it were made of glass. “See how strong the cyclone was,” he said, “I wasn’t here then, but you can ask some of the guards about what it must have been like.”
“There was a picture that ran in Prothom Alo immediately after Sidr,” said a guard. “They took it right here, along this trail.”
“What was it like then?” I asked.
“It was a horrifying sight,” he replied. “The trees looked like skeletons. The branched were all bare. Now it’s better. The jungle has recovered fast. Nature knows how to take care of itself. It survives. All the leaves of all the trees had been blown away. It looked like a wasteland. But now it’s green again, everything is green.”
“I remember exactly when it hit,” he continued. “I wasn’t here. I was at the forest station where you picked us up. We knew it was coming. We had heard about it for a couple of days before. When it hit—it was fifteen to eight—we were listening to BBC radio. But then the signal went out and the wind just tore through everything. Even there—way upriver—the waves were ten feet high. But the wind! You could not believe the wind. It carried so many houses up and tossed them into the air, complete with people and livestock. We found bodies for weeks afterwards, hanging off trees or stuck to high branches. It all lasted no more than half-an-hour, but it was like nothing on earth.”
The trail we walked through cut through a field, the jungle did not hold sway there. It was the plain of tall grasses and small shrubs; with singular trees the height of a tall man rising up like scrawny watchmen. A small woodpecker skipped over the bare ground about five meters ahead of us, pecking at the earth looking for grubs and maggots. When we got too close it would fly straight down the path, get some breathing room away from us—the pesky intruders into its realm. It kept doing so for a good twenty minutes before it got fed up and flew up irritably to the branches of a tree that overlooked the path, and waited for us to move past.
I suddenly came across some litter in the grass; it was the plastic lozenge wrap. To see something like that in the middle of the Sundarbans made my heart sink, made me mad. I thought it was inexcusable and disgusting. “How can people do that?” I said to Shariar bhai. “This is the Sunderbans. Why would they litter here?”
“You know people in this country. They don’t think. Things like these are the reason why we need to regulate people coming to this place,” he answered. “But that doesn’t happen. There are so many launches that come through this route. And none of them know anything about anything. They don’t even take guards, which is the law. If we don’t take care of these things now, it’ll ruin everything. Those eleven were in a launch. What happened to them would never have happened if they came with a tour like ours.”
It took as half an hour to walk to the beach. I was right at the head of the pack and was one of the first to hear the waves. As we were getting nearer, the sound became more distinct and I could make out the water through the trees. When I looked upon the stretch of the sea, it made me calm. I had never thought I would see anything so clean in Bangladesh.
The sand was not white like in Cox’s bazaar, but the color of dirt. The waves did not foam up as it came ashore but imperceptibly washed onto the ground. It was worlds away from the mess and the crowd of everything else I had ever seen in on any beach.
It was big though. On the right it mixed into the jungle, where an outgrowth of mangroves grew into the water. On the left it ran for what must have been miles, completely unbroken and uninterrupted by either trees or man. It was pristine and calm, clean and untouched.
“This is magnificent,” said my friend. “It looks like something that might have come up in that show on Discovery Channel. The one about deserted beaches, I forget what it was called.”
The guide told us to go into the water. That it would be great, that it is completely safe. In the middle of the day the water looked incredibly inviting, pacific and cool. And so we went in. The ground gently slopped down and we had to walk a good fifteen meters in before we were in water deep enough to float. From the ground, Shariar yelled: “It’s ok. It’s high tide. The water is coming in. You don’t have to be afraid. Go as deep as you want. The waves will bring you back to shore.”
I decided to test out his hypothesis and swam a little further out all by myself—my friend had chickened-out and headed back ashore. As soon as I was in water deep enough to stand fully underwater I let go and let the tide take me in. It was easy and since I didn’t have to do anything at all, I turned around to look into the horizon as the water brought me in. Suddenly it hit me how terrifying it must be for those who find themselves cast adrift at sea. Even with the knowledge of safe ground so close, the immensity of it all fell upon me like a collapsing building. I panicked—only for a moment—and put my feet down to find some ground. I needed to feel the ground beneath my feet. I needed it to tell me that it was there, that the water was not all there was. But I was still too deep and I sank and I swallowed. The water wasn’t salty at all; it was fresh, not at all like the water of the sea, where one could float so easily.
I gathered myself in that moment. I curled up into a ball and stretched myself out as my swimming teacher had taught me. I remembered how he would say that one must never be vertical in the water; he explained to us that if one becomes vertical, they’d sink like an anchor. It was all fine after that. I calmed down and I swam. I swam slowly for a time that must have been less than a minute but still seemed just too long. And then my knees felt the solid ground underneath me; I put my feet down and stood up. Nonchalantly I walked up and sat down on the sand. No one had noticed anything; they had not seen me splashing about.
“You ok bhaiya?” said a guard. “You look a little red.”
“It’s nothing,” I lied, trying to play it down. “The salt water makes me flush.”
This piece was originally published in Star Weekend Magazine in 2010.