Sea to Source: Ganges Plastics Expedition

Latest update August 17, 2019 Started on April 8, 2019
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Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of Nat Geo's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys, drones & water-air-sediment sampling.

April 8, 2019
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In The Field

Ethics of Storytelling Guide


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From the beginning, our team shared a mutual understanding:

(1) We were there to learn, not to take.

(2) We were there to listen, not to offer outside immediate solutions.

(3) We were there to collect data with the intention of informing solutions--not just to collect more data.

It was something we, as a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary team, all implicitly understood. But it was also something we lacked a set of clear guidelines for--until our second site in Bangladesh.

We piled into three black vans, each with a green “Foreign Tourist” placard on the dashboard, on a mission to get the lay of the land.

The Land Team wished to view what would be their sampling sites for the next few days: a strip of land next to railroad tracks, a school under construction, a maze of alleyways only accessible on foot.

For the rest of us, it was our only opportunity to get off the boat as a team. So, we had a large group, everyone excited by the new cultural and geographic environment we’d found ourselves in.

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As the sun made its slow descent into the river, we passed a kabadi wala shop. Large sacks of plastic bottles were piled outside the shop’s brick walls. Corrugated metal shaped the roof.

The Land Team immediately wanted to hop out and talk to the shopkeeper. Talking to kabadi walas and understanding the informal recycling sector was a critical part of their research. We pulled the vans over, and almost everyone hopped out and headed to the shopkeeper.

We were an overwhelming sight--a huge group of international women emerging from big, black, A/C powered vehicles to talk to the recycling boss.

A crowd of curious people gathered. Women in colorful head scarves and saris cradled babies on their hips; a group of teenage boys stopped their motorcycles and stared.

And then our cellphone cameras came out, clicking images of the plastic, the shop, the people, the shopkeeper. We entered the shop, determined to ask questions about the amount of plastic collected, the type, the weight, where it came from and where it went.

I stood back and watched the scene unfold, saw the interference, our group descending onto a local neighborhood, becoming the center of commotion, all in the well-intentioned pursuit of curiosity and science.

But it was overwhelming. And upon reflection, many of us felt the same--and we needed to discuss the issue. How does our presence affect the community? Are we being extractionist? How can we make sure our actions match our intent?

The result was the creation of our “Ethics of Storytelling Guide,” a single-page, hand-written set of guidelines intended to get us to reframe our thinking--especially when taking pictures and videos of a new community.

(1) Take photos with intention.

  • How does it portray the community?
  • Is it how they want to be portrayed?
  • Where is it going to go?
  • What purpose does it serve?
  • What is the intention behind this quick take?

(2) Ask.

  • Why you want to take the image?
  • Do you have the person’s consent?

(3) Carry yourself with honor and dignity.

  • Treat others with honor, dignity, and respect.
  • Treat yourself with honor, dignity, and respect.

(4) Be Mindful.

  • Be conscious of your space and surroundings.
  • How do we want to be perceived by the community we’re in?
  • Take note from local colleagues and follow their cues to help navigate cultural environments, interactions, and general safety precautions.

We posted this in the mess hall beside our daily schedule and above the water refill station. This guide came to serve as a constant reminder of what needed to think about while we were in the field, whether we were scientists or storytellers.

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The Marine Debris Tracker


alt Caption: The Marine Debris Tracker App designed by Expedition Co-Lead Jenna Jambeck.

It’s not just tracking litter. That sounds trite. It’s physically and mentally exhausting, a process where your feet are moving slowly, your head is down, your eyes flip between the seemingly uncountable heaps of litter on the ground and the app you’re using to track it.

Then there are people’s eyes—the natural curiosity of a local community spurred by the work of a small group of foreigners meandering on the side of the road looking at trash and absorbed in their cell phone screens. It’s quite a sight.

We wake up at 5am to get out to the sites by 6:30am. The sun is still gentle at this time, but slowly and surely unleashes its power as we walk the 100-meter stretch. Sweat pools on our cheeks and sinks onto our upper lip—the humidity drips from the grooves in our faces.

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Today, in one walk, we logged 1,300 pieces of litter. But this is not a city. It is a very small township, a cluster of twenty or so houses connected in a main corridor with the river to the east and a little downtown of shops to the west.

The places that are more litter-intensive make it all the more overwhelming and exhausting, especially when you’re exposed to the sun. There’s a physical and mental drain from staring at a screen for hours at a time; a crick in your neck from constantly looking down.

It’s not just pushing buttons on an app--using the Marine Debris Tracker is much more than that.

But it has a purpose, and so we endure. We collect this data to understand what type of litter it is, where it came from, how it got there, where it goes. It’s about whether any waste management infrastructure exists, what shopkeepers sell and why, what value recyclables are assigned to in a community, if there’s anyone who is there to collect them.

Collecting litter data in this manner isn’t the be all, end all. It is a significant contributor to the circularity assessment protocol (CAP), a waste management methodology designed by Expedition Team member and University of Georgia Ph.D. student Amy Brooks.

Her goal is create a standardized method of tracking the input, consumers, material and product design, use, collection, end-of-cycle, and leakage in a system that can be used globally.

Citizen Science

alt We use the Marine Debris Tracker as an opportunity for engagement.

Children gather around us. Their curiosity drives them close--but not too close--and their eyes dart between us and the highlighter yellow wheels we push down the well-trodden village paths. Their line of sight follows our fingers as we point at litter on the ground, in gutters, down roads and alleys and at farms.

For us, it is a repetitive process, a grind, a means of collecting data, for science, for citizen engagement. It begins with an ‘alright, let’s do this,’ where we put our heads down and get to work.

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But for the kids, it is a new toy, a new game, one we invite them to play as we make our way down 100-meter tracks. It always begins with what we find--a piece of plastic tarp, an ice cream stick, a plastic chip bag, a single-use plastic tobacco sachet. Then we stop walking, find the category of waste in the app, and insert the quantity of the item we find. And finally to log the litter with a GPS marker, we need to press “ADD.”

At this point, we look up from the cell phone screen and scan the crowd of children that’s inevitably gathered. “Asho, asho,” I’d say with a smile, inviting someone from the group to come close and press the “ADD” button with their little finger.

After a few shy smiles, head shaking no’s, there’s always one kid who, out of courage, curiosity, or both, will walk forward and press the button, the touch releasing a quick but powerful vibration. Everyone cheers and the kid gets a high five. “YEAH!” Suddenly, everyone wants in, and the work becomes a lot more enjoyable.

alt Caption: High Fives for Everyone!

Science Superpowers: Tools of the Land Team


alt I've come to think that scientists are like superheroes--with some small differences.

Superheroes have superpowers. They use their superpowers to save the world.

Scientists are out to save the world too, but instead of x-ray vision or super strength they use awesome science tools.

Here's a look into the equipment and methods used by the super scientists of the Land Team as they collect data to save the planet.

Team Objectives:

(1)To track litter, understand where it comes from, its role/purpose in the community, and why it’s there.

(2) To create “litter personalities” of specific areas with data.

(3) To document formal and informal waste systems (i.e. dump sites, junk shops, recycling centers) in areas randomly selected by population density.

Methodology: In teams of 1-3 people, track litter, waste infrastructure, and stores within predetermined areas of 100 meters.

For greater efficiency and speed, different teams were assigned different roles (i.e. one team focuses on community engagement while another focuses on waste found inside quadrats). Walk the same 100-meter stretch twice, with a different focus each pass:

  • 100 Meters Forward: Marine Debris Tracker & Quadrat Sampling
  • 100 Meters Back: Track Waste Infrastructure and Stores

The Super Tools

Tool #1: The Wheel alt Caption: Hassan, one of the Green Holidays Logistics Staff, demonstrating his superheroness with the Land Team.

  • Purpose: To track distance
  • Superpower: Rolls forward AND backward
  • Nemesis: Mud and Towering Garbage Heaps
  • Ally: Sidekick to Marine Debris Tracker & Quadrat

Tool #2: Marine Debris Tracker (MDT) App alt

  • Purpose: To quantify and categorize litter on 100-meter transect walk
  • Superpower: Citizen science & community engagement
  • Nemesis: Iphones (only works with Android, but mutations are happening to help it adapt)
  • Ally: Works best with High Fives

Tool #3: Quadrat alt

  • Purpose: Samples litter inside a half-meter by half-meter frame
  • Superpower: Thrown every 5-10 meters (for science, not out of frustration) without self-destructing
  • Nemesis: Airport Security
  • Ally: Camera (see tool #4). Post-expedition, images taken of the dropped quadrat will run through an algorithm where an AI sidekick will determine the quantity and categorization of litter.

Tool #4: Olympus Camera alt

  • Purpose: To photograph litter inside quadrat
  • Superpower: Water resistant, shock-proof, and logs GPS of each image taken
  • Nemesis: Dead Zones (with no reliable ports to charge the battery)
  • Ally: The computer (for processing photos)

Tool #5: Drift Card (DC) alt

  • Purpose: (1) To track how litter on land reaches the ocean, and model how trash moves through an ecosystem. (2) Each DC includes a written explanation in both Hindi and Bengali asking people to send an SMS describing where they found it and listing the specific site code (XXXXXX) written on it.
  • Superpower: Capable of blending into trash piles, drifting freely down sewage streams, and floating on top of staid ponds. Big attention-grabber.
  • Nemesis: Human Curiosity and their desire to keep things (someone texted a photo of the drift card displayed on their mantelpiece)
  • Ally: Nature.

Tool #6: Ruler alt

  • Purpose: Measure litter when there is an accumulated chunk bigger than 1 square meter.
  • Superpower: Flexible, Bendable, Scalable
  • Nemesis: Waste Piles taller than you
  • Ally: Camera (to document and ultimately, determine the scale of the waste pile)

While I am not a trained scientist, I was surprised how easy it was to learn the tools and how quickly using these tools in the field helped me feel like a true superhero. It reinforced my belief that every person has the capacity to do good and save the planet--sometimes, all they really need are just the right tools.

The Image Maker


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“We each have a way we move through the world & when we have a tool, it makes it all the more powerful.” - Sara Hylton, Photographer

The day before the start of the expedition, our team received a group WhatsApp message that a “Canadian photographer with National Geographic who is based in Mumbai” was going to join us.

I didn’t know what to expect. But the moment I met Sara on board the M.V. Dinghy, the morning light flooded the mess hall through the metal grating and I felt her presence, I knew she was the right person for our team.

Her aura is strong but calming. Her fingers delicate but well used. Her voice unassuming but assertive. You could tell she was a photographer.

In our first interaction, we learned that she had been in and out of India for over nine years. So naturally, the first question we asked her was, “Have you enjoyed your time here?”

She didn’t skip a beat between our question and her answer. “I wouldn’t say enjoyment, but I’ve grown a lot here.” Her words hung in the air before they slowly settled in the space between us.

The question spilled out of my mouth before I could think about it. “Is that what keeps you here?”

She nodded. “It’s what makes me my best self.”

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The Artist At Work

I was both excited and nervous that Sara was joining us. Here was someone at the top of her craft, a real professional photographer who I could work with in close proximity.

I was an aspiring storyteller, someone with a lot to learn and a hell of a lot of work to do to get to where I wanted to be. Sara was an image maker, not a photo clicker, and I, I wanted to get there too. It was an excellent opportunity to live with and learn from someone really special and to get a taste of the magic that happens in the creation of art.

When I finally mustered the courage to ask her about photography, the first thing she said to me was: “Making a photo is like dancing. You have to move. It’s the emotional connection. Especially with people, you’re just dancing with them.”

alt Caption: Me, captured by Sara Hylton.

Watching Sara work meant staying light on my feet, reading her energy and the energy of the others around her, making sure I was never in the way or changing the dynamics of a scene with my presence.

And in the process of observing the artist at work, I witnessed a strong, bold woman insert herself in and out of people’s day-to-day lives, captivating crowds with her camera, capturing moments on live train tracks, in alleys, along cracked stone ghats, constantly weaving in and out of doors, across metal bridges, chasing the perfect light for the right scene.

I was mesmerized. This was how a photographer worked. Searching for inspiration, following instinct, and creating images by reading the energy of a space, developing relationships in mere moments, and asserting herself at the right place and time.

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The night after she invited me to join her in the field, we sat down in the boat’s mess hall, the artificial light from the bulbs on the wall above us projecting oddly shaped polygons on the uneven table. I wanted to understand her relationship with photography. And so, over a plate of rice and fried okra, Sara shared with me her approach to her life’s work.

“My mom told me I’ve always been intuitive, tuned in, able to read people. It’s what I know.

“I take all of the risk and feel pretty invincible when photographing. I just walk into places--I get into houses so swiftly because I believe I deserve to be there. People open up to you because they feel excited for you to capture them.

“But there’s nothing comfortable about the work. In fact, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. It’s very uncomfortable to choose courage over comfort.

“You have to believe that you deserve to be there. You have to believe that what you’re doing is worthy, even if it does feel weird or invasive to get inside.

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“But to capture a good picture requires dignity, respect, honor for the space, the way we’re entering into it, and the way you’re capturing it.” She paused. “Dignity, respect, honor towards myself and people around me.”

I nodded, grasping the weight of her words, my hand moving furiously to translate her wisdom onto blank pages. I asked her about the equipment she used: water, snacks, one fanny pack with a light reader, rolleiflex camera, extra batteries, film, consent forms.

And if she had a ritual to get in the zone. “Every day I wake up and pray to be of my highest potential,” she said. “I turn the switch on. Prayer and belief.”

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I asked myself if I could be like this--so strong, yet so sensitive, so go-with-the-flow, yet so intentional. Could I believe with such an intensity that I deserved to be in a space to push my way in and create an image? Did I have a switch to turn on the artist in me?

My mind wandered back to that afternoon, to Sara walking towards the riverfront, to her confident stride as she waved to the men and women bathing in the Ganga. As I felt sleep begin to take me, I resolved that tomorrow, I’d wake up and turn on the switch. Prayer and belief.

Strong, Resilient, Present: Women Leaders of Bangladesh


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Pushing through societal challenges to pursue educational and scientific goals--it's a theme I heard in many of my Bangladeshi colleagues' stories.

For Meherun, it is the continual struggle of convincing her brother--her guardian since the passing of her father--that she can and should continue with her studies.

For Gawsia, it is the difficult balance of being a professor and leading the Zoological Department at the University of Dhaka, raising her daughter, and caring for her and her husband’s parents in two separate homes. (She spent the entire expedition, except for a single day, away from her family.)

For Sabrina, it is demonstrating her worth in a male-dominated field.

For Tania, it is leaving for weeks, sometimes months at a time, to conduct wildlife conservation research while balancing the responsibilities and social expectations of a newly wedded wife.

While Bangladeshi culture supports education, once women reach a certain age they are expected to marry and settle into more traditional gender roles. The work of a scientist, however, requires one to be out in the field and away from home, collecting samples, setting camera traps, sometimes traveling deep into mountains, rivers, and mangrove forests to study animals in their natural environment.

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Balancing work obligations, social responsibilities, and pressures of child-rearing, elderly care, and cooking and cleaning makes life for these women all the more challenging and their narratives all the more inspiring to me.

Women Leadership & Education in Bangladesh

But powerful female leadership is not unfamiliar to Bangladesh. The current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman. The Speaker of the Parliamentary Legislature, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, is a woman.

The country has surpassed target 4 of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women by eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary schools.

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A great contributor to this achievement came in the form of the Female Secondary School Stipend Project, a program which provides monthly stipends and pays the tuition-fees for unmarried rural girls up to class 10.

What my Bangladeshi colleagues came to represent for me was not only the rising swell of intellectual curiosity and capacity from Bangladesh, but the power of women to succeed anywhere, in any place.

From their stories, I gained perspective and strength--to do more, be more, and fight more to make a difference for the planet and the people around me.

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Nothing Can Hold You Back: Women in Science


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One of the most magical things about living on a boat with a group of international women scientists was having the time and space to share and exchange stories.

I met women who defied stereotypes, who pushed past social pressures, balanced familial responsibilities, who demonstrated that through sheer willpower, education, and the support of one’s family, women can do and achieve anything.

Sabrina, my Land Team teammate, is one of those inspiring figures. A veterinarian, she redefines what the work her countrywomen can do in the scientific community. A Muslim Bangladeshi, she observed Ramadan, foregoing food and drink during our work days, even in 100 degree heat and crushing humidity. To me, Sabrina represented the academic, economic, and environmental progress of her country in the last two decades.

alt Caption: The land team in Bangladesh, missing Kathyrn. From L to R: Meherun, Amy, Lilly, Tania and Sabrina.

As we walked through villages, tracking litter down 100-meter stretches through neighborhoods and alleyways and past train tracks, she told me her story.

“From childhood, I was surrounded by animals. Our home was in a forest area. Snakes, bats, they always came into our home. It was scary but we were used to that kind of environment.

“We had two T.V. channels at home. One was Discovery and the other was National Geographic. It’s where I got my inspiration from. I love animals. I love to see how they react--in the zoo, while most people come and go, I’d just sit and watch the animals.

“My Mom and Dad, they always wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. In my country, that’s what most parents want you to become. They never thought that I’d become a vet.

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“I had a one-year internship during my five-year course at school, and so I chose the Safari Zoological Garden. I remember the first day at my internship--I was the only girl there. The other interns turned to me and said, ‘You are a girl. Why did you come to such a dangerous place to work?’

“I loved animals. I studied them and wanted to help them. It was really as simple as that. It was really challenging to work there as the only girl among all the boys. But I pushed through, and on the last day, they said to me, ‘When you graduate, you should work here.’

“For me, if I could share anything with anybody, it would be this: If you want something, just go for it. Be determined. Nothing can hold you back.

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Question Everything: Minorities, Stories & Stereotypes


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In the mid-2010s, I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the “danger of a single story.” I listened, mesmerized, as she discussed how stereotypes are born from the retelling of a single narrative.

Before the expedition, the only thing I knew about Bangladesh was that it was a majority Muslim country. To prepare, I read Bengali literature, specifically Rabindranath Tagore's short stories, and purchased long-sleeve kurtas with matching head scarves and pants.

I knew little of the ethnic landscape of Bangladesh other than it was filled with Bengali people who were once part of India, and then East Pakistan, until the Partition in the 1970s.

But then I met my teammate Sufarsha. She is Bangladeshi, not Bengali or Muslim, but Chakma and Buddhist. Her ancestors immigrated from Myanmar three hundred years ago and settled in the eastern hill tracts of Bangladesh.

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“We are considered ethnic people in Bangladesh,” she shared as we sat cross-legged under the makeshift blue canopy on the boat’s deck. “We have a different culture, language, food habits. We live a simple life, no complications.”

At 27 years old, Sufarsha, also known as Mishi, is an anthropologist with her own clothing line. “While doing my [masters] thesis work, I discovered that I love what I do--I love working with people, for people, to better people’s lives. It’s always better to do something for people.”

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What We See Isn’t Always the Full Picture

While sampling the three expedition sites in Bangladesh, our land team’s 100-meter transects took us through villages and urban neighborhoods, past farm fields and apartment complexes.

More often than not, we saw Muslim people living in village and city centers, along major thoroughfares and clear walkways. As we passed side alleys and walked through village outskirts, we saw communities of Hindus.

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This majority-minority dynamic of Muslims and Hindus reinforced our preconceived perspective, but it was not inclusive of all the people and narratives of Bangladesh. Mishi’s story demonstrated this.

Her role on our expedition and in the socioeconomic team was to work with community members--her country people--to collect critical data on the relationship between plastic use and poverty.

Her ability to speak three languages--Chakma, Bengali, and English-- and her culturally sensitive approach was critical in ensuring the accuracy of household survey data pulled from extensive interviews.

alt Caption: The amazing socioeconomic team. From left to right: Mishi, Surshti, Meherun, Gawsia, Ekta, Bushra, Deepika.

But more than this, Mishi helped our whole team recognize the diversity that wasn’t necessarily in our direct line of sight. Her voice, which grew stronger and more confident over the course of the expedition, helped us challenge the perpetual narrative of the religious and ethnic binary of Bangladesh and pushed us to not settle on cultural conclusions based on our (limited) observations.

At the end of our conversation, I asked her what message she’d want to share with the world. This is what she said: “I want to share this message to the nation--let’s be better human beings. We can try to do something better for others.

“There are lots of people who are not privileged; you can do something for them from your place. We can be honest, we can be helpful, we can be kind. So I’m looking forward to this expedition--if we can reduce plastic pollution, it will be better for the local people.”

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In the end, this wasn’t just an expedition about plastic. It was a story about people, about a group of international scientists working across disciplines to inform solutions. And it is also a story about two nations, one river, and the myriad communities who live in them.

It is our job to hear those stories and share them with the world. To push beyond the retelling of a single stereotype and to elevate the diversity. To not jump to conclusions, but to constantly question ourselves: what don’t we see, who haven’t we met, what haven’t we yet learned? Only then can we do the job we set out to do. Thank you, Mishi.

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The First Rain


Luckily—at least for the first few days—the river was good to us. It flowed calmly, gently, as if to welcome and wish us well on our journey. When the season’s first rain fell, I heard loud squeals of delight.

“Come on, come up,” our Bangladeshi and Indian friends cried. They pulled the rest of the international team upstairs to the top deck. It was Bengali tradition to dance in the first rain of the monsoon. (And according to local custom, it was also very good for one’s skin.)

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Determined to join in on the fun, I raced to my room, grabbed my rain jacket, and had it zipped up and ready to go when I emerged on the deck, ready to experience whatever it was I was supposed to experience.

My friends immediately started laughing. “You can’t wear that here,” Deepika said.

“Take off your rain jacket and feel this for what it is!” Gawsia said with an excited smile. They were already soaked through, their bright red and green kurtas turned to cooler hues in the rain’s embrace.

“Alright, I guess we’re doing this,” I said, removing one sleeve and then the other. Suddenly, they drew me into the rain and I passed under a stream falling off the stairwell cover and onto the floor.

“Ahhhhh,” I squealed, laughing as the rain soaked me instantly from head to foot. My glasses were of no use here--I could see better with my near-sighted eyes than with my rain-stained spectacles.

Within seconds, the whole team was jumping, laughing, twisting, smiling, spinning, swirling in and out of the first rain of our expedition, radiating nothing but happiness and pure joy.

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And then Ekta pulled out her Bluetooth speakers. Our impromptu rain celebration became a Bollywood dance party. We stood in a circle shaking our hands to drum beats and swinging our shoulders to the bass.

Slowly, the rain softened, and after the fourth or fifth song, a part of the grey sky cleared. “Look! A rainbow!” Mishi pointed to the blue patch above us, where a beautiful half-moon shape began to take form.

We all looked up and smiled, on a high from the dancing and the energy we gave one another. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I felt connected to the river, to the team. And the boat suddenly felt like home.

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Heat & Swollen Feet


alt The heat was my first big challenge--I just wasn’t used to it. Coming from Southern California, my body had some fast adjusting to do.

On the third day I noticed something odd: My feet were swollen. Big, thick, puffed up like water balloons. But they didn’t hurt, so I couldn’t tell if something was wrong. I decided to wait it out; perhaps my body just needed time to adapt to its new environment.

I went to bed that night and checked them in the morning light. Still big, still puffy, but still no pain. I crammed them into my shoes and went about my routine--5am yoga, 6:30am sampling, work in the afternoon.

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A few days later, the swelling hadn’t gone down. I didn’t know what to do, and I started to wonder if something was happening to my body. This was only the start of the expedition, and I needed my health to be on point for the next two months. I decided to say something.

I walked barefoot into the mess hall, stepping softly on the checkered white tile. Heather, our expedition co-lead, was crouched down, rummaging through the Water Team’s equipment duffels.

“Heather,” I began, “I don’t want to put another thing on your plate, but I thought I should let you know about my swollen feet.” She paused and stood to full height. I quickly went on. “They don’t hurt, but they’ve been like this for a few days and I’m not sure what to do.”

Heather was the type of leader who listened first and then determined step-by-step solutions. She was good at keeping calm, not reacting in ways that might trigger someone or upset the delicate balance of those around her.

alt Caption: The fabulous Water Team modeling all 50lbs of oh-so-fashionable equipment. (From L to R: Emily, Imogen, Heather)

She was unfazed as she looked at my feet. “It’s a reaction to the heat,” she said, “known as edema.” Heather had led numerous expeditions before, so this kind of bodily reaction was familiar. “Just keep your feet elevated and drink lots of water.”

I nodded in response, but didn’t say anything. She saw me pause, and thought that maybe I wasn’t totally convinced. “Are you concerned?” she said. “I’m fine,” I responded. “It’s just good to know what it is and what I need to do.”

With all the inevitable unknowns on this trip, the most difficult thing to deal with was microbiology--things I couldn’t see and didn’t have the tools to understand.

I started drinking more water, and my body slowly adjusted to the heat. Within a week, the swelling went down. But more hydration meant needing to relieve myself more, and doing that in the field… well, that’s a different story.

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For you future explorers, edema is the swelling of tissue due to trapped fluid in your body. In my case, the heat caused my blood vessels to expand, which sent excess fluid to my feet. There are many different causes, and some can be dangerous, so talk to a medical professional if you find this happening to you.

Boat Life


alt I’ve never lived on a boat before. Goodness, I’ve never even been a boat for a full day; the closest experience was a four-hour fishing trip with my dad when I was 12 and a two-hour harbor cruise for my mom’s 50th birthday.

So this was completely different—the M.V. Dinghy changed everything about how we lived, from personal hygiene to sleep.

Naturally, we got sweaty and our clothes needed a good wash. The heat did a good job of drying the sweat stains from my kurtas, but after about three days or so, the smell of body odor was strong enough that it was time to roll out the buckets, shower water, and plastic-free detergent to get the job done.

The first time took me two full hours. I struggled to find the best process--lugging two arms worth of dirty clothing to and from the showerhead to the bucket outside my room in a rinse and repeat method of water-soap-water wasn’t exactly the most efficient method. (See video below)

Tania and Sabrina, my two Bangladeshi teammates, witnessed my struggle and taught me the proper technique. I was amazed at their speed--their hands moved quickly, washing clothes as if they were kneading dough, pretzeling each article to squeeze out the water. They even pinned my clothes together, so that wind wouldn’t take them away as they hang dried outside my room.

alt Caption: The Bangladesh Land Team - Standing in the back on center left is Sabrina. To her right is Tania, then me. Sitting on the bottom left is Amy and then Kathyrn.

In addition to being phenomenal scientists working on PhDs in wildlife conservation and biology, masters of the arts in sketching and traditional Bengali dance, and linguistic gurus with bilingual abilities in Bengali and English, they knew how to wash clothes in the fastest manner with the lowest carbon footprint. I had pretty incredible teammates.

By the end of the whole process, I was both grateful for the invention of the washing machine and slightly embarrassed at losing a pair of green and pink plaid underwear to Mother Ganga.

Beds, Bugs & Bathrooms

alt I slept in a simple room with two bunk beds and three motor-powered fans (if you haven’t already guessed, there was no AC on the boat).

Our quality of sleep depended on how much we could withstand the pre-monsoon summer heat, the incessant mass of nibbling and exploratory insects, and the movement of the boat on the water. This is what exploring is all about!

I set up a mosquito net on the bottom bunk with the idea that I’d wake up every morning to the morning sun and a nice view of the riverbed. I quickly realized, however, that this set-up was not going to work. The heat at night was more intense than I expected.

And of the three fans in my room, one wasn’t working, the other blew air only to the top bunk on the opposite side, and one--the closest to me--made such an intense clicking noise that I was afraid it would break, or at the very least, disturb my poor neighbor on the other side of the wall.

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The bathrooms were the most fun—insects, centipedes, flying and non-flying critters of varying shades of black congregated at the three fluorescent bulbs outside the toilets.

Washing our hands or brushing our teeth meant trying to find the sink with the fewest critters and moving quickly to ensure that none jumped or latched on to you. But this was all part of the adventure.

Moving Pieces: Adventures in Logistics


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Posted above the bulk water refill station next to the food serving table was our daily schedule—a piece of paper taped against the cream-colored wall with the logistics of each team written gloriously in thick black sharpie.

We were a 20 person team with lots of moving pieces. Logistics were just as critical as the research--our work, safety, and success were dependent on them.

Run by Borhan and the Green Holidays team, the logistics staff needed to know everything. When we needed to leave, where we needed to go, what times, what equipment, what we could and couldn’t eat. How many security escorts? Cars? Tuk-tuks, boat engines, coconuts?

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The schedule also helped us keep track of each other. We knew when to expect everyone back on the boat, when it was meal time, and based on the day’s events, we knew to be sensitive to each other’s needs and tiredness levels.

Transparency and communication were critical. As Heather said, “our team isn’t multi-disciplinary-- it’s interdisciplinary.” The goal of our expedition was to produce datasets among the sub-teams (land, water, socioeconomics, drone) that complemented and overlapped.

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The water team needed to coordinate with the drone team; the land sites needed to be upstream from the water sampling areas; the socioeconomic team collected critical data that influenced the land team’s research on litter leakage and input, key indicators of the Circular Assessment Protocol.

Our “comms” on the boat included three internet hotspots with daily data limits shared among the entire group. Solid and stable web access on the Ganges turned out to be a little tough.

Fruit Bags, Tuk-Tuks & Life Jackets

Moreover, each team had vastly different needs.

The Socioeconomic Team often had the longest days. They needed transportation from boat to shore to village communities; they needed 20-50 fruit bags every day to give as thanks to household survey and focus group discussion participants; they needed lunch, snacks, and water to last the day.

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The Water Team needed a working boat, a boatman, lots and lots of water, and life jackets. Their logistics were also time-sensitive; they had to put out 24-hour air samples in communities along the top, middle, and bottom transects of the river at each site.

The Land Team was up, out, and surveying by 6am, so they needed a boat, tuk-tuks, and security escorts at each site.

Sara, the expedition photographer, needed to be out at the “golden hour” to create images. By 5am, she needed to be on the water with a motorboat to catch the morning light; at 4pm, she needed to be on land with a local guide to follow story leads.

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Ellie, our single-person drone team, needed radio tower and international satellite contact, so rock solid comms was a must; some days, she needed her own boat and co-pilot.

Heat also played a big role. It was assumed that we shouldn’t work during the peak heat times--noon to 2pm--for our safety. The Land Team was often on the boat by that time, but for the socioeconomic team, that meant finding shade under a tree or chilling in a vehicle for their lunch break (if they had one). AC was only available on the luckiest of days.

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In the midst of all the craziness, our Logistics Team was there--getting us what we needed (snacks, lime water, transportation) and where we needed to go...which sometimes meant coming to our rescue when the boat engines died. Thanks again for saving us, Borhan. alt

Milk Teas & Mess Hall
alt The first night on the boat was like Christmas morning—Taylor brought Nat Geo gear; Heather, a sediment grabber and funnels; Ellie, plastic-free kits; Jenna, three hotspots and a label maker.

Big cardboard boxes littered the floor, bamboo sports bras with secret passport holders covered the tables. Highlighter yellow and earthy green reusable eco-cups were piled up next to pink and white kurtas (traditional Indian clothing for women)—everything we needed for our fieldwork was right in the mess hall of our little boat.

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From the onset of the expedition, we were intentional about reducing our waste footprint as much as possible—that meant adopting a few new lifestyle habits. To brush my teeth, I crunched little mint-like toothpaste capsules in the side of my mouth before scrubbing with a bamboo toothbrush; to wash my hair, I (lightly) crushed cubes of shampoo onto the top of my head and rinsed with water from a bucket; to protect against sun burns and mosquito bites, I squeezed insect repellent sunscreen out of a sugarcane tube onto my face.

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(I never quite figured out how to rub it all in, so my streaky white complexion became a running joke among my teammates. They all thought it was intentional, and I swore that it wasn’t. As if I didn’t stand out enough already. It’s okay—I pretty much sweated it all off by lunch time anyway.)

Boat-Made Milk Tea Our life on the boat revolved around the mess hall. It was our social space, our disembarking space, our snack space, our meeting space, our breakfast, lunch, and dinner space.

It was here that I learned the art of making British milk tea. After our morning sampling, or between morning and afternoon research excursions, we’d organically gather together in the mess hall to co-exist, play card games, and do work. There was also the occasional dance party. Did I mention that we like dance parties? (See video below)

During the peak heat of the day, in between lunch and afternoon snack, I found myself craving something. I wasn’t really sure what, until I saw Heather, our expedition co-lead from the UK, make a cup of milk tea.

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Now, for those of you who don’t know, I have a strong affinity for milk tea. In fact, the reason I was even on this expedition was because of my love for Taiwanese milk tea. It was this drink and its single-use plastic cups that led me to Taiwan on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Grant, where I documented the plastics supply chain and local waste management systems, which led me to the National Geographic stage alongside Heather, Jenna, and Imogen, which led to this expedition. I was lucky that life took me in this crazy amazing direction.

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So here I was, in Bangladesh, discovering the wonders of a cup of British milk tea. Heather showed me the process, first filling a cup with hot water, then adding the tea bag, dipping it in and out of the water, until the color changed from a murky white to a golden red-brown. She added a spoonful of milk powder and voila! It was perfect for satisfying heat-driven cravings, and it even came with a culture lesson.

Our colleagues from the UK took their tea very seriously and saw it not only as an opportunity to sit down, build with people, and process things, but to work through negative emotions as well. Emily shared the best piece of advice her mother ever gave to her: “Why don’t you sit down, make a cup of tea, and think about what you said.”

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The River is Life


We spent the first two nights on the river in the blur between sleeping and waking, waking and working, working and sleeping. The taste of adventure was fresh, and the river was calm and inviting—a body of coolness in a plateau of humidity and heat. It spread out for miles, stretching to the horizon in all directions, as if we were caught in the middle of the ocean.

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It was marvelous and scary, breath-taking and unnerving. We were at the river’s mercy. It determined our push, pull, sway, smoothness, our ability to sleep (or not sleep), whether we could dance on the top deck or nap on a mattress at the boat’s bow.

I grew up near the ocean in a town with little rain. My entire life was on land with gravity the only certain force. And for most people in my community, the ocean was a beautiful sight, a stage for setting suns.

But here in Bangladesh, it was different. The river was life. It was loved and hated. It gave and it took. It was an economic lifeline for fishermen, a quarry for brick-making and cement, a source of pride and food. It inspired songs and dances, art and poetry, identity and culture.

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But it also flooded homes, swallowed land, stripped away attempts at stability, especially during the monsoon season. It reigned supreme. It dictated life. Food, transportation, bathing, religion, waste disposal, it met all of those needs.

People intimately understood their lives were directly connected, influenced, affected by the river in a way my home community, with our different, almost cosmetic relationship to the ocean, wouldn’t quite understand.

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Our journey was to understand the river and the reasons why and how plastic feeds into it. But more than that, there was an underlying desire to understand its flow, its fisheries, its connection to people--in essence, its spirit.

And so here we were, at the basin of the river delta as it fed into the Bay of Bengal, the final point of congruence where the murky blue-gray water running underneath us came not just from the Ganga, but distributaries of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna and Meghna rivers.

According to Dr. Bushra Nishat, Water Resources Specialist and one of our Bangladeshi team members, the combined force and flow of these rivers into a single channel results in the third largest water discharge and second largest sediment load in the world.

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What that looks like is speed—we could see the current from the surface of the water. What that looks like is power—if one of us fell into the river, we’d be swept away instantly.

The men who operated the boat and the smaller vessels that ferried us to and from the shore were professionals—they understood the river’s flow, how to navigate its high and low tides, when to launch the boats and when to wait. It was an intimate relationship, a constant dance—they were the river’s translators, negotiators, and dependents. We gave them our full trust and they, the river’s.

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The banks were coated in clay, silt, and sand. Blue plastic tarps—remnants of fishing nets, sheets for drying chilies, landing platforms for brick formations—punctuated the earthen gray. The river was known to naturally change its course; like all things, it was constantly changing, constantly in motion. But human activity up the river also cast woes upon the people living along the water in Bhola.

Human engineered water diversions, insertion of dams, and climate change all led to changes that the local people couldn’t predict and were forced to adapt to. Stories of struggle pervaded most of the conversations we had with local people, but even more pronounced was an acceptance that whatever happened, they would continue to provide for their families, love their children, build, make, and live their lives.

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The (Unexpected) Security Force


Emily looked from the mess hall window and saw the swelled riverbed. "We've moved," she noted, acknowledging the new position of our boat from mid-river to shoreside.

"And there are seven guards heading this way to stay on the boat with us," Ellie replied with an amused look.

Emily paused. "I literally went to sleep for an hour. Only an hour." We share a hearty laugh, smiling at the sudden turn of events.

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“They’re supposed to take four-hour shifts on the boat deck for our protection,” I said.

An image flashed through our minds: Policemen sitting on plastic chairs with guns slung over their shoulders above us while we slept. Hmmmmm…

We looked at each other and laughed again.

Within the next hour, we came to learn that they weren’t going to staying on the boat with us—instead, they’d be sitting on a bench, where the ramp meets the entrance to the village, watching the boat in four-hour shifts to protect us on the days (and nights) we anchored at shore.

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Before arriving in Bangladesh, the team developed an extensive Safety Precautions and Protocol document. Security was essential while we were on the boat and working in the field.

What that ended up looking like, at least for the land team, was going into communities, interacting with local people, and conducting our fieldwork, while one, two, sometimes three policemen in button-down uniforms and black mountain boots walked around with us.

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We came to learn that for the policemen, accompanying us had more to do with a collective feeling of responsibility for our group—we had come from far away (and many different countries) to learn from and with their community, so they felt responsible for our well-being and safety.

It took a little getting used to—I probably saw more guns on this trip than I have in my entire life—but it didn’t deter us. We continued with our work and ultimately engaged these young men in our science, where they helped us drop drift cards and learned how to track litter with the Marine Debris Tracker app. (See video below!)

In the end, science is for everyone and curiosity knows no bounds. Together, we worked as a team, with each person playing a critical role as we pursued a joint mission—to protect the planet.

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We're Here


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. alt Imogen, Emily, and Ellie ecstatic at all the water team luggage. Photo Credit: Surshti Patel

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).

alt Our luggage tags. Photo Credit: 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.

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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.

Preparation

It’s 4:38 am. Morning prayers begin at a temple I cannot see and only hear. I’ve woken every hour since my attempt to lay down and sleep at 11:30 pm--jet lag punctuated by sounds of the jungle.


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Perhaps it has more to do with the fear that I’ll miss my alarm and therefore, the bus that’s supposed to take us into Rishikesh to test our research methodologies.

It will be our first time implementing our work in India—three different scientific approaches (from the perspectives of water, land, socioeconomics) designed to cross-examine source to sea plastics. I reach for my phone. Two more hours until go-time.

Little ants move in slow circles across the bright screen, tracing fragments of fingerprints in a hypnotic dance. I thumb through my email and scan various social media pages feeling connected, almost falsely, to the lives of those at home.

The feeling quickly fades. I know I must focus on the present. This is my life now. This is where I am.

Outside, drums are struck in sets of threes. Dom dom dom, dom dom dom, dom dom dom. Then comes the chanting—an orchestra of feverish voices rising from the darkness. At this hour, there is no such thing as light.

I glance up at the ceiling to see if I can find my new friend and roommate. Cody, the gecko, is in his favorite spot—head tucked between an aging ceiling fan and the tenuous wires keeping it from gravity’s calamitous grasp.

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The chants recede, and I transition back into stillness until a bark breaks the silence. Stray dogs. I saw a few on campus today, wandering aimlessly through the tall grasses, jumping to catch moths in the sparkles of the setting sun.

I like to think he’s protecting me from whatever is hidden in the gooey black pressed against the edges of the florescent light shining outside my window.

He calls again. I do not see him—I am too tired to move—but I imagine his senses being awakened by some menacing force, his bark the only call that ripples into the depths of the unknown.

He stops and then cries once more; this time it folds into a whimper. Even he is uncertain of the darkness. I fall back to sleep hoping he is safe.

The Power of Storms

The alarm pulls me out of a flurry of dreams. Sunshine peaks into the room as I open one eye, and then the other. The second day of my Pre-Expedition adventure is upon me.

As I shuffle into the team meeting room, a rectangular space with two televisions screens, a long round table, and a mosaic of forest animals, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I’m in India.

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Perhaps it is because I am not here alone. This is the first international research trip where I don’t have the time or space to intimately experience cultural and geographic isolation or the intensity of a self-reflection spurred only by loneliness.

Inside this room, I am surrounded by peers, a group of extraordinary women from all walks of life who have come together to bridge science with storytelling and make a positive impact on the planet and its people.

Halfway through our morning meeting, a massive sheet of rain splatters against the windows. An unexpected storm has blown in. Pellets of rain come down hard and heavy making it difficult to hear or speak.

Within moments, an unspoken decision is made—to follow nature’s calling outside and witness the magic ourselves.

[video of hail storm]

We stand under the protection of long arches and watch as mother nature unleashes her flow, fury, and blessings onto once dry land. Rain becomes hail, and we watch as its falls, bounces, and scatters—a collage of white melting in a pool of green grass.

I find myself standing next to Ellie, our team’s articulate drone pilot, filmmaker and scientist. She leans against a column, arms loosely crossed against a bright yellow ‘National Geographic’ sailor shirt.

“Sunsets and storms,” she says aloud, to no one in particular, “sunsets and storms are the only things that make humans stop everything and just watch.” I nod, my voice silenced by the scene before me. She continues.

“Storms are the only things that will get humans to just stop."

Gawsia, our team’s zoologist, professor, and local expedition lead for Bangladesh, smiles in return, watching this curious marvel with glee. (Rain and hail are not common in this region.) “In my country, rain is a blessing.” Her eyes sparkle as her face glows in excitement.

“Rain at the start of any journey or expedition is a positive sign—it is the heavens giving us their blessing.”

The color of her dark blue headscarf seems to soften the grays of the sky. The storm is not to be frightened of—it is to be celebrated.

Their perspectives settle the unease in my heart. As someone who grew up in Southern California, rain is uncommon and disarming, something needed but not understood.

I suddenly realize the power of our international, interdisciplinary team, one capable of redefining challenges and finding beauty in a storm. A feeling of deep admiration floods into my chest and sweeps through every fiber in my body.

I knew I could do anything with this team. I knew I could learn from them, grow from their wisdom, gain from their knowledge. I knew we were about to change the world.

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Expedition Background

“You travel from far away with an idea that leads to a place, one person. What are the odds that you two would be brought together?" - Fritz Hoffman, National Geographic Photographer


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It was 10:30am local time, 10:00pm yesterday back home. Fritz’s words rang through my head as I stepped into the conference room smelling strongly of airplane.

Before me, sitting across the wide, wood-lacquered table, was the equivalent of the Environmental Justice League. Distinguished marine and wildlife biologists from India, Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom were sipping chai and chatting quietly with world-renowned environmental engineers and waste experts from the United States.

Add the drone pilot who helped draft India’s national drone safety laws, the doctor leading the Ganga River community conservation program, and the scientist whose work quantifying plastic microbeads in facial scrubs led to their ban worldwide, and you have one impressive group of women.

( Learn more about the team here )

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We were called to the headquarters of the Wildlife Institute of India for three reasons.

First, the data. We knew:

  • 80% of ocean plastic came from land;
  • 90% of the world’s most polluted rivers transmitting plastic into the ocean were in Asia;
  • There was no empirical data of the amount and way in which plastics entered the ocean.

Second, a shared passion. We jointly believe in science-based solutions, storytelling, and community engagement to create actionable solutions in the fight against plastic pollution.

Third, our mission. To understand the flow, leakage, input, and distribution of plastic into the Ganges River from the Bay of Bengal to the summit of the Himalayas.

Beginning May 2019, under the banner of National Geographic Society, our task is to create a comprehensive baseline, action plan, and methodology to determine where trash comes in the Ganges comes from, how it got there, and why it got there.

To do this, we’ve split into three teams to cover land, water, and people:

  • Land team – track land-based litter, waste management infrastructure, and understand the dynamics of the informal recycling sector.

  • Water team – go into the river and collect air, water, and sediment samples to analyze both micro and macroplastics.

  • Socioeconomics team – organize community focus-groups to discuss perceptions of plastic and the relationship between plastics and poverty among villagers and shopkeepers.

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We chose the Ganges River for its cultural, scientific, and political significance. Holy, sacred, and home to 600 million people, the Ganga is more than just a river—it is salvation.

People use it to bathe, cleanse their spirits of impurity, and dump untreated wastewater from sewage and industry, making it an interesting place to explore themes of religious purity alongside environmental pollution.

In 2014, under Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was established with the goal of rejuvenating and revitalizing the Ganga through the abatement of pollution, conserving biodiversity, and educating people on sanitation issues and environmental protection. But more work needs to be done.

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This is why we were here. I looked around the table at what would be my team for the next seven weeks. Our expedition co-lead, Heather Koldewey, stood and opened her arms. "Our North Star," she said, “is to keep asking ourselves:

  • Are we making a difference?
  • Are we helping people?
  • Are we helping the planet?”

We nodded in agreement. I could feel the passion stirring under the surface of the meeting.

My hope is that the stories we share in the coming weeks will give you a window into the challenges, research, and people we come across as we make our way through Bangladesh and India.

But my ultimate aim, through the combination of personal journal entries with informative articles, photography with videography, is for you to travel with us and leave inspired to make a difference in your own community.

Let the journey begin.

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So excited to follow your expedition!
Looking forward to following this!
I stay in West Bengal, if there is any way to join the expedition and work for the team, please let me know... looking forward to this project
So inspiring!! I want to do it here in Mexico. Plastic bottles are a huge problem we are world number one in water bottles and sodas ... lots of things to do to.

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