Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chitwan National Park

Introductory paragraphs are for legitimate writers. Seeing as I don't really qualify, let's begin.

I spent 10 days, including both Christmas and New Years 2012, in Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, in the low-elevation (~150 meters) jungles of Nepal.

On Christmas Day, 2011, I got up somewhere around 5 AM, and after doing my last-minute packing, got on a van to Chitwan National Park, maybe a hundred or so kilometers south of Kathmandu. Because I was the last person to make it to the van, per my M.O., I got the worst seat on the van, stuck between two other foreigners (ie larger people than Nepalis) without either an aisle or a window. Yup, the dreaded middle-seat. Fortunately, this bus ride only lasted about 4 hours, and it was, other than the seating arrangement, one of my best bus / van rides in Nepal. I never thought I was moments away from death, which is certainly more than I can normally say about my bus rides.

Around noon, I arrived at “Jungle Wildlife Lodge,” which would provide my food and accommodation until the 28th as part of the $125 package deal I'd bought a few days before. My room was the nicest, perhaps shy of “Hotel Elia” in Pokhara, that I've stayed at in Nepal. It was large, with 2 beds, 3 electrical outlets, 24-hour electricity, a western toilet and hot shower in an attached bathroom. Not bad. The hotel was located on the shore of a major river, the name of which I'll have to look up online at some point, that marks the northern boundary of Chitwan National Park. There were probably 10 or so lodges along the shore of this river, and the atmosphere there was more like a 'resort' than anywhere I've seen yet in Nepal. It reminded me, in a way, of a beachfront resort in Mexico. And for the first time in quite a while, it was actually warm enough for me to wear a t-shirt and shorts.

My first memorable experience in Chitwan came about within an hour or so of my arrival. A couple from the Netherlands who I'd met on the van ride from Kathmandu told me they'd seen a crocodile basking in the sun on the shore of the still-unknown river, a mere 10-minute walk from the lodge. I set out immediately, laden with camera gear and excitement for my first real Nepali wildlife experience … goats, cows, chickens, and other urban-dwelling animals don't count. I walked up the shore and sure enough, there he was, on the other side of the river. I went as close to my side of the shore as I could, got my gear all set up and took a few pictures. After snapping a few shots, I was looking at the display on the back of my camera for a minute, making sure all my settings were working out as I'd intended, and then when I looked back up, the crocodile was missing. He'd only been maybe 30 meters from me when I was taking pictures of him, and the river was murky as can be, so I had no idea where he could possibly be, but the possibility existed that he'd identified me as a tasty treat and was making his way towards me. So I quickly skedaddled.

On my way back to the Jungle Wildlife Lodge, I walked past a riverside bar decorated for Christmas, as much as a riverside bar in Nepal can be, anyway, blasting AC/DC. My earlier Mexico comparison was becoming more accurate by the minute. The only other notable activity from Christmas Day was the Tharu Cultural Dance (the people that live in the lowlands of Nepal are called “Tharu”), which had all the initial appeal of a root canal or a nice dragon-punch to the balls, but it turned out to be totally worthwhile. The “dance” was reminiscent of a choreographed fight scene from a kung-fu movie, or a capouera (I don't know how to spell this … that Brazilian dance / fighting style) dance. Not the most Christmasy Christmas, but a great day nonetheless.

On the 26th, I was up early for a ride down the river, name still-unknown to me, in a dug out canoe with the couple from the Netherlands (Joffery and Anna) and a Chinese couple. There wasn't too much to see because of a dense fog that made it difficult to see more than anywhere from ten to fifty meters from the boat. After half an uneventful hour, we landed downstream, on the opposite shore, thus marking my first time in the actual boundaries of Chitwan National Park. We immediately saw some tiger-tracks leading to the river from which we'd just arrived, and accordingly, went over the safety precautions to take in case of an encounter with any of Chitwan's dangerous animals, which include rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, and tigers. The safety talk went something like this (English cleaned up for understanding): “Every situation is different, so if anything dangerous happens, we'll deal with it as it occurs.” Because we weren't attacked by any animals, this “safety talk,” retrospectively, is kind of funny. I mean, c'mon, at least give me some idea about what to do when faced by an angry rhinoceros. But there were 7 of us, which meant a tiger attack was so unlikely it was basically impossible, and I'm still really not too sure about the other animals. On our walk, we saw peacocks, which I didn't know lived here, spotted deer, more types of birds and ducks than I can count, and not much else. But it was still worthwhile.

In the afternoon, I went on a 4x4 adventure through the Park, and this time, saw a rhino. It walked into the road, maybe fifty meters in front of the 4x4 in which I was riding, and stopped, turned lazily to face us, stood there with a stupid look on it's face, and then continued on into the forest. Perhaps my description of this event doesn't do it the service it deserves, because it was a pretty cool experience. We also stopped at a crocodile breeding center, where there were hundreds of little thin-snouted crocodiles (like the river that defines the Northern boundary of Chitwan, their name is escaping me presently) put in cages according to the year in which they were born. The only other particularly memorable aspect of the 4x4 ride was the pain that it caused. The vehicle itself was an Indian Mahindra (it's a brand, like Ford or Toyota) truck that was actually pretty badass, and I'd love to have one in the States, because it probably only costs a few grand, new. The benches in the bed of the truck weren't so much badass as bad for my ass. The bumpy road and a relatively unpadded seat was a deadly combination that I was still feeling days later each time I sat down for any reason. Still preferable to an ass-ache you'd get from prison...

December 27th was most memorable for the elephant ride I took in the morning. A truck took a group of us from the various riverside lodges to the elephant-ride center, which upon my first inspection thereof left me feeling depressed. It looked more like a factory, designed to get as many people in and out as fast as possible, than anything that could possibly provide a leisurely elephant ride through the jungle. Is “leisurely elephant ride” an oxymoron?

There were probably 6 or more loading docks (I can't think of a better way to describe them; they looked like wooden versions of the mobile staircases that allow you to board or disembark from an airplane at smaller airports) from which, after climbing 10 steps to a height that would allow you to easily get on the back of a certainly-depressed elephant, you'd get into a 4 foot by 4 foot unpadded “seat” with 3 other people. The other passengers on my elephant were a Swiss family that, although they proved to be perfectly competent at speaking English, insisted on speaking German for the duration of the elephant ride. I tried to make conversation, unsuccessfully. I'm certainly not socially awkward, so it must have been there fault that a lifelong friendship didn't develop. Taking pictures from the back of a 4-ton (total guess) beast with no natural predators other than man (another guess) proved impossible, because of the bounce-factor. But we did stop once, thus allowing me to get a few pictures of a rhino from a mere 10 or so meters away. Pretty cool. And it was absolutely shocking how quiet these huge animals can be. I didn't hear a sound from the rhino, and might have missed it entirely, if our 'driver' hadn't pointed it out.

The afternoon consisted of a visit to an elephant breeding center, where I was able to pet a 2-week old baby elephant. Some years ago, a discussion once came up among some friends about what the ideal pet would be. My answer was a pigmy elephant. To my knowledge, such a creature doesn't actually exist, but after seeing and interacting (a bit) with a baby elephant, I stand by my decision. Dealing with the shit would be shitty as shit, but whatever, baby elephants are the shit.

On the 28th, I spent the morning wandering through the same area of the National Park as the Elephant ride from the previous morning, but didn't see anything. Oh well. I guess the “International Elephant Race” is worth mentioning now. Whenever I had some free time at the hotel, I'd take the 15-minute walk to the area in which the Elephant race and Olympics (discussed briefly in my previous post) were taking place. It was a huge open field filled with maybe 3,000 tourists, 95% of whom were either Nepali or Indian. The atmosphere was strange. On each occasion I found myself there, I'd spend a little while taking pictures, and then get confused by the cornucopia of things taking place, and sit down to have a beer and relax, and then find that, miraculously, hours had passed, and beers had been consumed, and I'd go back to the lodge without a real feeling of having accomplished much. But enjoying something can be an accomplishment, too. So maybe I did accomplish something. I never saw a single elephant race, and my only observations of an elephant-soccer game were from a picnic table over a hundred meters from the nearest corner of the soccer field. Bah. I'm sure I can watch it on Youtube.

My bus ride to Bardia National Park took 12 hours. I didn't bother trying to book a place, figuring I'd arrive in a town at a reasonable hour, and be able to do so on foot. Not correct. Anyways, normally, on buses in Nepal, you put your big bag on the roof of, or underneath the bus, in some compartment, keeping your “carry-on” with you, just like when traveling by plane. This time, I didn't have to, which, foolishly, made me think it would be safer. I left my bag in the aisle next to my seat for the duration of the bus ride.

Can I say “bah” again so soon? Screw it. Bah. The bus ride took 12 hours, and was as comfortable as … something uncomfortable. I already used “root canal” and something about a dragon-punch and a nutsack, right? It was an overnight ride which would have been unbearable, but Diazepam (Valium) is over-the-counter legal here, so the ride was bearable. Mom, Dad, don't worry, I'm not turning into some kind of weirdo techno-listening pill head. If you make it to Nepal, which you should (it might be my favorite country I've ever visited as a tourist), you'll want to take some Valium before getting on a 12-hour bus ride, too. It was kind of weird too, in that stops were made at odd hours of the night for dinner, bathroom breaks, and tea-breaks. I had three milk-teas, something one cannot help but become addicted to when visiting Nepal, at 2 in the morning in some town with an approximate population of four … the four people that worked at the roadside tea shop.

At 4:15 in the morning, I arrived in Ambossa. I thought I'd be going to the city right at the entrance to Bardia National Park, but was mistaken. This could have been disastrous, but luck was on my side on this particular night. At 4:15 in the morning, it's still dark, and it's still cold, unless you happen to be, respectively, in Antarctica (where in December / January, if I've got this right, it's light pretty much 24/7), and … I don't know … the Sahara, where I'm assuming it's pretty hot, even in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter. But maybe I'm wrong. Regardless. I got off the bus, alone, and stepped into a darkness so intense that I had to stand still for a couple minutes in order for my eyes to adjust. When they finally did so, I saw what appeared to be a hut a few hundred meters down the road. So off I went. The hut turned out to be an army checkpoint, where three machine-gun armed soldiers sat in a 3 by 3 meter mud hut, lit by a single candle, and bored out of their minds. I tried to make small talk with them for a minute or two, unsuccessfully (their English was on par with my social-skills) when a motorcycle pulled up.

The driver was there, I later found out, to pick up 2 guests who would be staying at “Mr. B's Place,” a nice little lodge just outside of Bardia National Park. Those guests, for whatever reason – maybe their own fault, or maybe the fault of the ever-reliable Nepali bus system – never made it to Ambossa, and the motorcycle driver gave me a ride into town. He dropped me at Mr. B's Place, where upon my 5 AM arrival, I met Mr. B, the friendliest Nepali man (and that's saying something) in the world, or at least Nepal, got a room, and passed the eff out for a couple hours.

When I started writing this post, I wanted to cover my experiences in both Chitwan and Bardia, but I can now see that if I do so, this thing will be unreadably long. And I don't have the patience to write about Bardia right now. But here's a spoiler for my next entry: I saw a tiger.

So there are a few things that will be coming up in the near future:

  1. An entry about Bardia National Park, New Year's 2012, and a tiger sighting.
  2. I've almost got my Nepal pictures narrowed down to 200 that will be posted on Facebook, and here, in higher-resolution. I'm planning on posting them 50 at a time with some hopefully-interesting short stories (or at least captions).
  3. I've got another post planned in which I'm going to break down my time in Nepal with some numbers. Days here and there, money spent on this and / or that, times I did one thing or another, etc. Everyone loves statistics! The Broncos are going to the post season with a 50% win ratio this season! See, statistics are fascinating!
  4. I guess I have to include a before and after shaving picture. I trimmed my beard today, finally. Weird.
  5. I'm going to Thailand in about 12 hours. What am I going to do there? I dunno. I don't even have a hotel booked yet. Guess I should get on that.

And on that note, I hope everyone is having a wonderful 2012. I am, so far. I see no reason that it shouldn't be the best year of my life (again, so far). Same to you. And if that DOESN'T look like a realistic possibility, write me an email and maybe we can meet up somewhere and start working on changing that.

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