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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: Sweet Smiles

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

Sunanda didn’t know how to swim. It was a warm day in Bangladesh, and the water looked inviting. The boat staff, secured by life buoys, were floating lazily in the Ganges. 

I determined to get in myself, partially to experience swimming in the Ganges, partially because it was so hot. 

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

When the other girls found out, several rushed up to me and asked if they could join–only they didn’t all know how to swim. 

I promised to protect them, and taught them a few arm strokes. With the boat staff, we made sure they were secure in both a life jacket and buoy, and that the buoy was secured tightly to the boat with a rope.

I saw Sunanda hesitate, her eyes lingering uneasily on the surface of the water. She told me later why she didn’t just dive in.

“I’m not a water person,” she said. “I have a fear of the Ganga.”

I thought of her position on the Water Team, having to go out onto the water everyday to collect samples. 

“But when I joined the Wildlife Institute of India, I started working for the river,” she went on. “We went out for sampling. It was winter time, and the water was high. Every time we got into the boat, we prayed: ‘Everybody be safe.’  

“I remember sitting in the boat, it was so quiet. At that time I could think about my life–what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do. I was able to talk to my conscience because it was so quiet. 

I remember thinking that the sky is so high, it bent so low to touch the river. 

“People have a belief: everything you can put into river and it can take it. A person in life must have the spirit to flow, whatever the situation, you must flow.”

“But, why?” I asked, still searching for a definite answer. “Why do you care so much about the river? Where does this feeling come from?”

She looked me in the eye, an invisible smile on her lips. Why I didn’t get it? Why couldn’t I let it go?

“How can you describe a feeling?” she said. “You feel it. ”

Thus began her journey. The feeling that she needed “to do something real for the river.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

“I grew up in a small town in the high mountains filled with trees. It was in the state of Odisha. Everywhere there was greenery. That’s the reason I was connected to nature, because of the place I was born.

“From childhood, we read stories about Ganga in our books, [saw it] on TV. My parents visited it, but I never got the chance.

“I went to Christian school, with all English classes, and there was very little description of Ganga. But at home, my family was Hindu, so I knew the importance of Ganga from my family. 

“In my home, we store river water, and they used to tell me, this water never stinks or gets bad, but other waters you can never store it for long. That’s why it’s self-purified. If you do anything bad, sprinkle water on the person, and you will be purified. 

“In funeral, they sprinkle Ganga water on the person who is dead, so that they can attain salvation. [For the] people attending funeral, give it to people in the mouth, so they are relieved from all their sins–it is washed out.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

I stood in the frame of the boat door, ready to jump into the river, when I turned back and looked at Sunanda. 

Now she was smiling–a genuine, wide smile–with her life jacket firmly fastened around her waist. 

She looked both nervous and excited, pulled by the water’s call. I met her gaze. And this time, we both smiled.

There was a mutual trust in our exchange–our friendship solidified. 

And we jumped in.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.
Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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