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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: We’re Here

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.

Imogen looked at me and smiled. “So this is a thing,” she laughed. “Like, right now, this is a thing.” We hugged, blinked, and laughed again.

I had just completed a 30-something hour journey across three continents and multiple time zones. She had just taken two trains, two flights, and five pieces of luggage with heavy boat equipment to get to the lobby of a little airport in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

We are here. We’re doing this. We’re about to begin the Sea to Source Ganges Plastics Expedition with National Geographic Society. Holy guacamole.

But first, luggage.

Among our twenty-person team, we had a lot of luggage. It wasn’t because we were women— let’s nip that stereotype right in the bud. It’s because we have equipment--boat equipment, drone equipment, surveying equipment--lots and lots of equipment for science.

Getting through airport security was the first test. Imogen was escorted to a room to discuss her boat equipment; Ellie was interviewed by several security guards about the lithium batteries in her drone kit; and the airport staff was insistent that Sara put her undeveloped Kodak film through the X-Ray machine, even though x-raying them causes severe damage to the film itself (those little yellow index finger-sized rolls are not cheap).

Our luggage tags. Photo by Lillygol Sedaghat.

Security took some time to say in the least. When we finally pulled all our equipment through (Sara couldn’t persuade them and grimaced as the rolls went down the dark conveyor belt), hopped on the plane, and pulled them out on the other side, the stack of bags covered a quarter of the arrivals hall.

Ellie looked down and said, “This is going to be really fun lugging these through transport every three days, and up and down stairs into hostels. We’re going to be so buff by the end of this.”

We’re Here For Sure

After collecting all of our luggage and singing “Happy Birthday” to our teammate Sunanda in English, Hindi, and Bengali in the airport rest room (yes, a room literally designed for people to take a rest. We spilled onto the long brown couches and our singing could clearly be heard beyond the clear glass walls), it was onwards to the boat!

We had heard rumors that we’d be living on a boat for the duration of the Bangladesh trip, but we all really didn’t really know what to expect.

Every moment of the expedition felt unreal—first, we all couldn’t believe we were on expedition with National Geographic, and second, we came to realize that there were no such things as surprises, only graceful acceptances of whatever came our way.

Amy put it in the best way possible: “It’s like I blacked out and woke up in Bangladesh.”

Half an hour later, we stepped out of our entourage of packed vehicles and walked onto a dock filled with moving people—sellers, buyers, mothers, bathers, children, a cacophony of life spilling out from the metal grates of the platform and continuing onto the bustling street.

And then suddenly it was there. The M.V. Dinghy. Our home for the next two and half weeks.

At three stories tall, the little blue and white boat had personality. It was well used but clearly loved—an open deck on the top level created a communal space for impromptu dance parties, workout classes, and reflection spaces to enjoy the river’s sunrises and sunsets.

On the second floor, a line of open-aired sinks was neatly positioned in front of four closed door toilets creating another communal space for teeth-brushing and hand washing.

And through the white grated windows, I could see a kitchen area and communal eating space on the ground level. This was going to be awesome.

The next thing you know, we heard the heavy click-click-click of the anchor being raised, and we were setting off into the Ganga, a group of 20 international scientists, 15 boat crew members, and single mission calling us all.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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