A few weeks back when we went to our friend Santhanam’s house for coffee I brought along my India map, and he offered his advice on the must-see destinations in South India. While we sipped on coffee in his bedroom we worked through the map. He highlighted several places on the map that I had never heard of.
“The Thillai Natarajah temple is there, dedicated to Nataraja, Shiva, the Dancer of the Universe…”
Four of the seven people in our group (myself included) came down with a nighttime bout of stomach related issues, yet Brad’s seemed to be the worst. Finally he’d stop talking about his gut made of steel and unparalleled superhuman powers. “I only eat at dives. The dirtiest dives you could imagine!! And still, I have not once been sick on this trip! Just eat where the locals eat! You don’t see them walking around sick, do you?”
He lay in bed all morning and afternoon and not even the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin could wake him from his trance. I did what any girl would do. I bought him a bag of sticky rice and a wedge of pineapple and told him I was off in search of the Irrawaddy dolphin.
I closed the hotel door, ran down the stairs and hopped into a tuk tuk with a group of friends. I had high hopes of seeing these critically endangered dolphins. Less than 90 remain in the Mekong River, while larger populations still inhabit places like Bangladesh.
For the next hour our tuk tuk driver skirted up the same pot-holed dirt road that we drove down just the prior day. After crossing the border we had entered our fifth and final country in Southeast Asia: Cambodia.
Once again, we passed by the dolphin-themed karaoke bars, women dressed in their flowered pajama sets, and children on their oversized bikes. I can only guess that some NGO in the past distributed a few truckloads of adult sized bikes and that the kids learned to make do. They worked them like elliptical machines and with each revolution of the crank their tiny bodies would rise into the air and fall back down again. These kids were powerhouses, often times carrying a friend or sibling on the back seat.
I was happy. Cambodia seemed to be everything I thought it shouldn’t be, especially given its horrendous history and all around poverty. It was a place with moody skies, green fields, dirt roads, thatched hut homes with red tiled roofs and beautiful people. It was also evident by the first day that we’d be travelling through one of the poorest countries in our travels thus far.
Back on the tuk tuk we continued down the long straight road. As we approached a shoddy looking bridge our driver slowed to stop and motioned for us all to get out. Would he race away as soon as we got out of the carriage? No, the bridge was just in such a state of disrepair that it was safer to walk rather than drive across in a tuk tuk at full capacity.
In order to see the Irrawaddy dolphins it’s a bit of a game. Like all attractions in these parts of the world, you’re not going see anything for free. A boat must be taken, even if it only travels five minutes upstream, and if heaven forbid it is possible to see something for free from the shores, you can rest assured that they will build a wall to hide it from your view. So we followed our designated boat captain down to the water, just a mere boy really, and like all Cambodians (and Asians for that matter) was dressed in long sleeves and pants to protect his skin from the sun.
Sometimes it can take me a while to notice the simplest of cultural differences. And then one day it just stands out like a sore thumb. This is one of those differences: wearing sunscreen is very much a Western concept. Asians do not tan in the sun- they don’t even let their skin see the light of day. Hats, masks, socks, and gloves are big business here.
Braaapppp…Braaappp…Braapp…Brap! Brap! Brap! The engine on Boat 21 was irritatingly loud considering that we were in search of the region’s critically endangered dolphins. I was shocked that this was standard procedure. We motored up the river for just a few minutes and parked next to an outcropping of weeds which our captain used to secure the boat in place.
Now it was time to wait. To see or not to see? Earlier in the hour, two Germans had told us that they had tried to spot the dolphins for two days, but for two days had seen nothing. And so we waited in a motionless state, entirely at the mercy of the dolphins.
After a short time, I could hear a sound nearby. Psshhhh…psshhhhh…psshhhh. It was the sound of a small family of dolphins releasing the water from their lungs and coming up for air. They knew we were there and circled our boat in a clockwise motion for the entire hour; disappearing and rising back up again, quickly revealing their shiny backs and dorsal fins. We constantly shifted in our seats watching their every move. While I never saw a face I knew they had a silly grin that stretched from eye to eye, as their nickname was the “smiling face of the Mekong.”
They were so consistent in their actions that I didn’t even have to watch to know what they were doing. With the sound of each re-surface I knew where they were and in which direction they were moving. The sunset was gorgeous that night. In one direction the sky exploded in vertical bands of blue and in the other direction, fluffy clouds lit up among a motley of yellows, oranges, and reds.
No wonder the Irrawaddy dolphins live here.