Monday, January 19, 2015

Alanna and Ellen's Excellent Adventure - Part 1

This is one of those stories that fully demonstrates the need for adaptability while living in Nepal. As I mentioned a few posts ago, Ellen, Emily, and I had a trip planned to visit Chitwan National Park. Things did not go as planned. First, a series of bandhs made us change the dates of our trip, and then prevented me from getting into KTM to stay with friends the night before my bus left. Then, poor Emily got sick and had to bow out.

And so there I was, bus-ticketless, and on the wrong side of KTM valley, when our tale begins…

Day 1 – Best Shown in the Form of a Time Table

4:35First alarm goes off. Decide to curl up in warm bed until the next one.
4:39Host dad knocks on door to rouse me. Sleep is for the weak, anyway.
5:06 – Just before leaving the house, my aamaa insists on tying a scarf around my head, so   that I, dressed only in shades of blue, look like the Virgin Mary wearing a knitted poncho and tie-dyed skirt.
5:20 – Hop onto a microbus headed into Patan.
6:25 – Arrive at Thamel tourist bus park. Ask most buses if they have tickets, but all are supposedly full.
6:30 – Very serious, frowny young man shows me a full bus roster, then tells me to get on his bus (and presumably pray that somebody is too hungover to claim their seat).
6:55 – Rising sun is bright enough to illuminate my breath. Wrap poncho more tightly about my frame.
7:15 – After 45 minutes of a stress headache and stomach cramps, dude asks me to pay for my ticket. More instantaneous relief than extra strength Tylenol.
7:21 – Bus gets on its way. Nepali couple across from me start playing Linkin Park’s “Numb” (coincidentally the only Linkin Park song I know) without headphones.

The timeline goes a little fuzzy here, because my Dramamine knocked me out for the rest of the bus ride. At some point, the Nepali couple switched over to Miley Cyrus. I also recall some American girl complaining about only getting two hot showers a week. Oh, cry me a river.

2:00ish – Arrive in Sauraha bus park, where I am overjoyed to see Ellen’s smiling face. Jeep brings us to the hotel.
2:15 – Hotel manager helps us to plan our itinerary in the lovely sunny garden.
2:30 – Lunch, including pasta and French fries. Would have been perfect, if not for the cat that showed up with a dead mouse. It plopped down next to our table, and proceeded to eat the entire rodent in an excruciating bone-crunching manner. I felt especially bad for Ellen, who’s afraid of mice.
3:00 – Went for a walk with a hotel guide. He wore a sweatshirt bearing the words “Welcome to the Jungle” with a picture of a T-Rex. Did nothing to help my suspicions that we were actually in Jurassic Park. We headed to the government elephant stables, where Ellen got to give an elephant a treat. As gentle as tame elephants are, our guide warned us how wild elephants were easily the most dangerous animals in the park. After that, we headed to the riverbank, where we waited for the sunset. While waiting, we saw several elephants, two rhinos, and one bear.
6:00 – Three interpretations of potato for dinner. Maybe we shouldn't have said we were vegetarians.
7:00 – Dance show at the Tharu Cultural Center. The Tharu are the ethnic group native to this part of the Terai (the southern plains of Nepal). They are remarkable for having a natural immunity to malaria. The dance show included a fire dancer and a man dressed in a peacock costume.

Day 2 - Best Told Straight

We awoke at 6:00, ate a huge breakfast, and were out on the riverbank by seven. Everything was enshrouded in mist. We could not see across the water to the jungle on the other side. Beautiful, but eerie. We got into a long canoe and set off downstream. The other canoes around us kept disappearing and reappearing. Eventually, the rising sun began to burn away the fog, and we were able to see many species of birds, and one sunbathing gharial crocodile.

Eventually, our canoe made landfall, and Ellen and I departed, accompanied by two guides: one close to our age, and the other a giddy older man with a purple scarf wound around his head. Both carried heavy bamboo staves. As we walked, the latter told us how he hoped we wouldn't encounter anything dangerous, because he was unable to climb trees or run fast. Why? Because a mama bear broke his leg a few months ago.

Luckily, we didn't see anything dangerous on our walk. We did see many tracks: rhino, elephant, deer…and tiger. We also found fresh tiger scratches on a tree (for marking territory), but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), that was the closest we got to the king of the Nepali jungle.

Eventually, we came upon the Elephant Breeding Center, home to many pregnant elephants and many elephant babies. Did you know that it takes an elephant 22 months to carry a pregnancy to term? AND their babies weight several hundred pounds at birth. Apparently, full-grown Asian elephants (which are smaller than their African counterparts) can weigh over 5 tons. That’s a whole lot.

Our purple-scarfed guide must have eagle somewhere in his family tree, because he grabbed Ellen and I and gestured excitedly towards the jungle. “See it? The grey, by the tree?” Okay, mister, there’s like fifty trees in that…holy crap! (my inner monologue)

The “grey” was a bull elephant—a wild bull elephant. The most dangerous animal in all of Chitwan. This guy was apparently the father of one of the elephant calves we had seen, and he had quite an attachment to the mother. I can’t even convey to you how quiet and stealthy he was, because I doubt you’d believe a 10-foot tall, 10k pound animal can be stealthy, but he was. He reminded me of my chubby poodle Luna (bear with me) slowly stalking her sister at the food bowl. You’d stop looking for two seconds, and he’d be several meters closer.

Eventually he got too close for comfort, and the elephant keepers started throwing rocks at him. Now, all tame elephants have their tusks trimmed, but this guy had the full lethally sharp pair. If he had gotten mad (you know, at the rocks bouncing from between his eyes), he would have unleashed hell upon the breeding center. Since I’m typing this, you know that didn't happen. He went away.

After lunch (no cats around this time!), we went on a jeep safari that we had decided to add to our package. We crossed the river in a canoe and got into the open back of a jeep with eight other tourists and a guide. Ellen and I quickly won over the guide: Ellen because she speaks Nepali, and me because I kept singing a catchy Hindi song under my breath.

Our guide was great. He a wealth of information, with the eyes of a particularly sharp-sighted raptor, and he shared some harrowing tales of his 11 years on the job, which he started when he was only 19 (my brother’s age). He said he’d had 16 tiger spottings (stripings?) in those years, and only two of those encounters were dangerous! He’d also been chased by rhinos, elephants, and almost fatally mauled by a bear when his group abandoned him.

He helped us spot monkeys, monitor lizards, peacocks and other large colorful birds, deer, boars, and two species of crocodiles. We saw one peacock, tail fully open, dancing the peacock mating dance that we had seen imitated by a human dancer the night before.

We also stopped by the gharial crocodile breeding center. Gharials are a kind of crocodile with a long, thin snout. They’re pescatarians. The park is also home to the much more dangerous marsh mugger crocodiles. It’s hard to be too intimidated in a crocodile center when you’re there with Australians, though. They kept on saying things like: “Ah, these guys got nothing on our crocs back home.”

The jeep safari was just as cool as you could hope. We drove over creaking bridges and through streams. There was a sense of real urgency as we sped to get out of the jungle before sunset. And when we drove past the towering impregnable groves of elephant grass, I couldn't help but actually be afraid of what might be hiding within the shadowy stalks. Remember Jurassic Park: The Lost World? Stay out of the tall grass.

But I've saved the best for last! As we meandered out of the crocodile farm, our guide ran towards us, beckoning for us to hurry into the jeep. “Rhino!” he was saying. Once the jeep was loaded, we were off, tearing down the jungle road. But it was worth our urgency. We pulled up behind another jeep that had stopped right in front of a rhino calmly eating dinner on the side of the road.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Oh, I've seen rhinos at the zoo. They’re not a big deal. Well, you've probably never seen a Rhinoceros unicornis from ten feet away with no fence in between. They are huge, prehistoric-looking creatures, and it’s hard not to be intimidated by their grey, armored bulk, even while peacefully grazing. There’s a big movement to protect Chitwan’s rhino population from poachers, who kill the animals and sell their horns to Chinese apothecaries (who believe it positively affects *ahem* male vitality). The park is filled with army posts to dissuade poachers, and Sauraha, the village at the jungle’s outskirts, has many signs stating that a rhino’s horn is not medicine.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will detail our elephant safari—with pictures!

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