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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: The Bearded Ladies

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.

To say that this was an all-women expedition wouldn’t be 100% accurate--we can’t forget the contribution of the Bearded Ladies.

Once we crossed into India, the team was joined by two male colleagues--Sumit and Navin. Both were young officers from the Wildlife Institute of India selected for the expedition because of their specific expertise.

Sumit was a self-described “Doctor of Fishes” (he received his PhD in Fish Biology) who was also a self-taught pro at Bhangra (a Punjabi dance style).

His father was a military man who insisted that his son pursue his studies. Sumit initially wanted to study Literature, but fell into the fisheries field because of his village’s limited education opportunities. He joined the Fish Team.

Navin was a six-foot tall conservation biologist with a knack for telling puns and dropping unexpected lines of philosophy.

He was quick to snap photographs of people, cows, and trash, and enjoyed modeling (he had all the facial expressions of an angsty model down). He joined the Land Team.

Both had thick black beards, and endearingly became known as the “Bearded Ladies.”

Sumit of the Fish Team

The transition from an all-female team to an all-female-team-plus-two-men was challenging--but not for the reasons you might think.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Sumit initially struggled with English--his ability seemed impaired by the nervousness of being put on the spot, and the realization that whatever he translated would inform the team’s datasets.

But English was his third language after his Dogri and Hindi, so the Fish Team immediately threw him into the translator position, where he asked fishers at markets and net shops about their fish type, quantity, net mesh size, and if plastic in the river affected their catch.

Asking such sensitive questions required a delicacy, an art of communication to ensure that the answers he received were accurate and truthful, and that the fisher didn’t feel as though his or her livelihood was under scrutiny or attack. This was made a little more challenging in an environment where women--let alone three foreign, note-taking, fish-observing women--were rarely seen.

But he became more and more comfortable with the team, their research routine, and the way to ask the fishers questions. He came to know when their answers weren’t completely truthful, and found ways to rephrase questions for clarification.

Over the course of the five weeks of our India expedition his quiet state of uncertainty morphed into a radiant confidence.

“I’m happy from the core of my heart,” he told me one afternoon, as we stood under the shade of the willow trees waiting to enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal.

“[It’s been] a very great experience. I learned a lot through this expedition from you peoples, [to] always remain positive,” he said smiling warmly. “You are all my sisters.”

Navin of the Land Team

Navin was the expedition’s philosopher, jokester, and environmental spokesperson.

“I want to be heard by the masses,” Navin told me one day, as we were walking along the ghats. “If I know something that can help the world grow and modify their lives to a better one than I should transcend my words.”

In the field, he was a crucial part of translating our work, explaining the Marine Debris Tracker to the Ganga Prahari volunteers, calling tuk-tuks at the end of a long litter walk, talking to shopkeepers and waste collectors about their plastic use. We couldn’t function without him.

Navin joined the expedition because of his passion for the environment and his love of the Ganga.

“I was born and brought up in a small and clean town: Jamshedpur. A town well known for its steel manufacturing in India and it also stands by its attitude of serving Society as the prime value.”

Navin explained to me that his mother used Ganga water to cleanse idols and for rituals. When his Uncle died and the family attended a cremation ceremony, his mother sprinkled Navin and his family with Ganga water as a form of purification.

“[T]hat day I started noticing why Ganga is a synonym of purity. This event triggered my craving to understand my own religion and beliefs.”

But it was his passion to make a difference that made the strongest impact on the team.

“I have a lot of ideas,” he said to me, “but few people listen. I once had the chance to talk to a government official about the state of the river. I asked him, ‘why is the river polluted when we can stop the pollution?’ He said there wasn’t anything he could do.” Navin closed his eyes and shook his head. “Because of the river, the city is here. Because of the city, the river is degraded.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

“As India is sound for her beliefs and traditional practices...if a region is surviving for thousands of years with natural calamities and rulership of many and still flourishing, then we need to see what our roots says.”

In many ways, the diversity of our team was reflective of the diversity of people along the Ganga: Men and women, scientists and storytellers, Hindus and Muslims.

Our work and love for the Ganga brought us together, and verified the belief that we are all connected, we are made stronger together.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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