Categories
Nepal

14: Stalking Tigers and Rhinos in [Bardia National Park, Nepal]

October 18th, 2019

It turns out that due to lack of sleep the night prior, I slept so hard, I literally missed a WILD ELEPHANT trampling down the road right outside of the tent that night. Welcome to Nepal! In addition to elephants, tigers occasionally come into the village at night, eating livestock and… people. Politically this creates some issues, since Nepal relies heavily on tourism for revenue and is home to so many unique wild areas filled with intriguing endangered species. But since their natural habitat is nowhere near the size it used to be, tigers are literally eating their children.

The solution in the Thakurdwara community was to allot a certain percentage (somewhere around 25-50%) of the revenue from Bardia National Park to go directly back to the communities. Though you can never buy back your loved one, this helps to cover medical expenses and crop damage from a 11,000 lb elephant tromping through.

Despite my disappointment of missing the elephant, I was soon to seek them out in the wild. At 6:30 that morning I was picked up by one of the guides at Bardia NP on a motorbike, and was brought to a guesthouse where they were preparing our lunch of fried-rice, hard-boiled egg, and mango juice. Once ready, I met the two other folks who would be exploring the jungle with us as our guide explained what to do and what not to do. The first thing he did was hand each of us a firm, blunt stick and advised, “this is your weapon. Use it carefully.”

He made tigers seem like big, shy scaredy cats, and made elephants out to be bigger, uninterested forest behemoths. Our greatest danger was actually the one-horned rhino, who is especially defensive when rearing their calf, and can run up to 34 mph.

I didn’t feel a drop of fear, for my guide’s confidence was contagous, and I knew that animals are far less likely to attack a decent group, and we were four-strong. The two other tourists were some friendly Brits who were also teachers. One was at least 6 feet tall, but our guide was closer to 5’ 2”. A tiger would barely even have to chew to gobble him down! Yet He said he’d been guiding groups for some 30 years and never been seriously injured. That just goes to show, your biggest enemy is your own fear when facing deadly animals. For if there were to be a confrontation, his main piece of advice was to stand your ground, make yourself as big and loud as possible, and don’t turn your back to run unless they’re already charging at you. In which case, drop your stick, throw your bag, and book it!

As our guide brought us into the park we lowered our voices and entered stealth mode. There was an eerie silence, interrupted occasionally by a squawking bird or quiet comment on a dead lizard hanging from a blade of grass. The first sizable living creatures we came across that morning were some security guards, each holding large assault rifles. Apparently poaching is a big problem, so for that reason (and safety concerns) nobody is allowed into the park without an official guide.

Within 20 minutes we found a huge hairball and some scratch marks on the ground. It was official – we were tracking tigers. A few hundred steps later we stumbled across the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever seen. Now we were officially tracking elephants, too. The open grasslands were fairly inactive, and as we continued into the jungle I found my favourite plant, Lantana (Lantana camara). It’s an invasive species which I had identified in Dharamshala and Rishikesh as well. My guide also taught me how to identify a curry tree (Murraya koenigii), which is edible raw and tasted exactly like if curry spice had turned into a leaf. Yum! Earthy!

Further down we found some psychedelic mushrooms growing out of a heap of rhino dung, in addition to a very fresh tiger scat. I’d never been so excited by poop in my whole life. To rest and listen for the tiger, we found a spot to sit and silently snack. Our guide heard a deer call meaning, “Beware! Tiger nearby!” and we crept in that direction. After some time, however, we found only monkeys, no tigers. Our hunt continued into the heat of noon… still nothing. I was still excited by animal tracking but I could tell that the British couple were becoming tired and discouraged. All we needed was a big animal to pick our spirits back up…

We started crossing a river, my eyes glued to my feet, making sure I didn’t step on any little critters. When I reached a small sandbar, the group told me, “Hans! Look up!” and lo and behold, off in the distance was the first wild rhino I’d ever seen.

It was gorgeous. Majestic. Gentle. Formidable. We took plenty of pictures as it drank and cooled off in the Girwa river, and with one significant wildlife sighting we were boosted on our way to tracking tigers. A few lookout towers provided some long, beautiful vistas, though still void of big cats. We all wanted to see a tiger jump out of the tall grass and chase after a herd of deer, who we could see off in the distance peacefully grazing beside the river. So we waited, and waited, until the sun was nearing the horizon, which indicated that we must leave in order to avoid issues with the rangers, and to avoid being eaten. Tigers are crepuscular animals, which means they are most active around dusk and dawn, and I wasn’t ready to become a chew toy just yet.

On the trail back, however, I came across the most dangerous creature I had seen the entire day: a scorpion. It was smack-dab in the middle of the trail, its tail and pinchers ready to attack. Though not 100% positive about the exact species, upon research, its appearance most closely resembled that of (no joke) then Deathstalker Scorpion (Leiurus Quinquestriatus). And yes, just one sting from this bad boy can kill you.

We carefully kept our distance as we took pictures while circumnavigating the fearsome arachnid, and returned to our lovely bird-chirping, colour-blooming, sun-setting walk towards the exit. Near the gate there was a dark room where a tiger was recovering in captivity, since it had been hit by a car, causing it to become blind. I glanced at it with sorrow, though thankful that I could finally lay eyes on a tiger.

Our guide walked us out of the park and back to the guesthouse where we had initially convened. I still had to pay, so the other guide who picked me up that morning drove me into town on his bike so I could withdraw some cash. Now, finally, I had an animal chasing after me! For there was a dog who apparently recognizes the sound of his motorbike, and every time he hears it he chases after him (and can keep up with the bike at its typical speed!) until he is fed something. Ah how backwards expectations turn out sometimes.

Money was exchanged and he drove me back to my guesthouse, where they were preparing fried rice. Since I had that for lunch I initially wasn’t thrilled, but this turned out to be some of the best fried rice I’d ever eaten in my whole life. The owner, being as hospitable as he was, saw my excitement about eating curry-leaf and at the last minute added some into the rice. With a side of chapati (or some thin bread akin to it), fresh vegetables, and a Tiger beer, it seemed my satisfaction had reached its pinnacle after such a long day of walking. But then, I took a supremely rejuvenating shower in the owner’s mom’s house. Satisfaction heightened. And to top it off, it was movie night, so they pulled out their projector, aimed it at a pull-down screen affixed outside to a concrete wall, made popcorn, and put on “Seven Years in Tibet.” This was easily one of the best days I’d yet experienced on my 40-day journey.

A tiger track and a hopper track inside an elephant track

Sure, seeing a wild tiger would have made it even better, but I had no disappointment. I knew from studying tracking at Alderleaf Wilderness College that one’s chances of actually spotting such an elusive animal, even if you’ve been tracking it for hours, are very rare. I was so grateful for all my new animal and plant sightings, for having such a kind and experienced guide, for being able to spend an entire day walking around in a jungle, for feeling safe during the whole journey, for being fed delicious food, for the incredible place I had to sleep that night, and for my life as a whole. I am so blessed to have experienced over a month in India, and still just be starting my month in Nepal. After only 2 days in the country, I loved Nepal in a very different way than India, and had an ineffable feeling about the days to come.

Coming up: Sleeping on the concrete at 4 AM in a very foreign place, and my third Workaway volunteer experience teaching english and painting for a super sweet, down-to-earth Nepali family.

Follow, comment, and/or like, if you so choose!

Tootles,

Hopper

Categories
Nepal

13: Arrival in Southwest Nepal: Pristinely Primitive [Mahendranagar; Thakurdwara, Nepal]

October 16th, 2019

Inevitably, after 35 bedazzling days in India it was time to finally say goodbye, and say hello to Nepal. I enjoyed a traditional Indian breakfast of Aloo Paratha (pan fried potato/wheat flour bread with curd and spicy pickled veggies) for the last time in who knows how long. I thanked the amiable folks who hosted me and helped guide me towards some amazing experiences at Rishikesh’s Indian Culture Hostel. Backpack on, sunblock on, keen awareness on, I strutted off towards a towering riverside temple to kill some time before my night bus to Nepal.

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A tuk-tuk brought me from the temple to the Rishikesh bus station, where I took a bus to Dehradun. From Dehradun a night bus would ship me over the border into Mahendranagar, Nepal. Confusedly, Google Maps had labeled the town, “Bhimdatta.” Thus, when asking for directions, nobody had any clue what I was talking about. This was my introduction to Nepal. Even Google is primitive in this country (Unlike India, where it’s relatively accurate and well-developed as far as maps are concerned).

The bus ride was slow, bumpy, and rather uneventful. Oddly, although this was definitely no luxury tourist bus, they had a very large, bright, and painfully loud TV playing Indian music videos almost the entire time. My seat was right underneath a speaker, and I had to keep my earbuds in the whole time for protection from the over-amplified sounds directly above me. It was too loud for me to even be able to hear my own music, so I sat patiently in mild pain for most of the 12 hours required to reach Nepal. At least the music videos were… odd. There was obvious influence from American videos, yet maintained an Indian colourfulness and playfulness. Plus, these were nowhere near as outwardly sexual. It was risque to even show a couple quickly kissing on screen.

Thankfully the person next to me had a child, and around 10 PM they asked for the music to be turned down. It fell silent for 10 minutes, and then music came back on nearly as loud as before. After some time I adjusted, though it still hurt to take my earbuds out. I managed to doze in and out of slumber, until all the sudden I realized…

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It was bright out again and many people were getting off the bus. I tried to follow, but the driver told me to stay on. As the bus was inching forward I looked out the window to find all those passengers walking ahead of the bus. We were about to cross an enormous river (the Sarda), which drew the border between the two countries. I was so curious if all those people chose to walk over the border simply because it was a beautiful morning, or if there was some deeper significance behind entering one’s home country by foot. Unfortunately my curiosity remains unsatiated.

Once off the bus in Nepal, I had to pass through 3 different security checkpoints, none of which even searched my bag. It was all just filling out forms and smiling like a naive American tourist so they know I’m not a terrorist. At first I was rather intimidated by the abundance of heavily armed guards dispersed along the first few kilometers of road. But they smiled back at me and I felt a little more secure. fwd5kbxWQfin1ctlYiOsqA_thumb_ace2Still, I had a strange sense that maybe I was doing something wrong, since I had to walk 15 minutes between checkpoints down an empty, trash-laden road in order to receive my visa. Regardless, 50 US dollars later I got my visa without any issues, plus a wad of some really cool Nepalese Rupees. They had animals like tigers, rhinos, and elephants decorating one side, and Mount Everest on the other.

What I found fascinating is that the largest denomination, the Elephant-backed 1000 Rupees banknote, is only worth 8.3 US Dollars (1 USD = 120.6 Nepalese Rupees). Imagine buying a car with $10 as your biggest bill. This doesn’t even equate to that, which really says something about Nepal’s economy. For even India’s greatest denomination, the 2,000 Indian Rupee, is at least worth about 26.5 US Dollars (1 USD = 76.3 Indian Rupees). That means spending the equivalent of 26 bucks in India is about as big of a deal as spending $100 in the states. But in Nepal, spending roughly 8 dollars is like spending $100. What a completely foreign land I found myself in. And I loved it!

So, with pocket full of animals and a fresh 30-day tourist visa, I was able to continue my journey forth.  A rickshaw brought me to the Mahendranagar bus station, where I hopped on a bus towards my first stop in Nepal. It was a relatively short bus ride compared to what I was used to, taking only 7 hours until I hopped of near Thakurdwara, where I would stay for 2 nights. It was a much needed break from the long bus rides required to reach semi-central Nepal, where I had been planning to volunteer for the third time through Workaway. So I saw a big green space called “Bardia National Park” in between the western border and my destination, and went for it.

The rickshaw on the way to my guesthouse literally had to cross through a river (the bridge was under construction), which concerned me that it might breakdown in the middle of the dried-up riverbanks before it reaches the “road” again. Thankfully we plowed right through and he took me to my humble abode: Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar.

For roughly $3/OntOMmacSAKqA6o+mHKTGQ_thumb_ad5f.jpgnight I had a personal tent to sleep in, which was protected by a natural structure made of dried mud and coconut palms. There was even electricity, a fan, and a lockable chest to store valuables. The guesthouse/cafe had only two other tents, which meant the maximum guest capacity was around 6 people. This wasn’t due to lack of space or resources, rather, the host wanted to give the utmost hospitality to his guests. Two sweet women worked there too, one young woman from France who was his girlfriend, and another young traveler from Romania who was also volunteering through Workaway. The place had a very home-y feel to it, especially since the host still lived with his mother in a building right next to the cafe.

Once settled in, I crawled out of the tent only to notice a large grapefruit-like thing falling from a tree. I picked it up, brought it to the host, and he not only informed me that it was a pomelo (like a sweet grapefruit), he brought out a cutting board and knife so I could eat it right then and there! I talked with him for at least 20 minutes about life in Nepal and how it compares to India. He told me that Nepali people have big hearts. Not that Indians don’t, but unlike India, you’d be hard pressed to find scammers or simply rude people in Nepal.

After he helped me make plans to visit Bardia National Park the next day, I utilized the remaining daylight by going for a leisure bike ride. The bike was free, of course, and offered me a sweet taste of life in the Nepali countryside. Lots of rice farms, cows, chickens, kids playing in the streets, quaint trickling creeks, and burning piles of plant (and plastic?) material. Houses were colourful, some well-maintained and others falling apart, and the streets were less trash-filled than those I was used to in India.

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Since I had lost my travel-essentials bag (hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and band-aids) the day before, I figured I’d bike to the village’s nearby “Tigerchowk Market” to restock. The challenge was that there’s no such thing as a CVS or any sort of recognizable corporation in this village. Most of the vendors didn’t even have signs above their storefront. You just look inside and see if they’re carrying the type of stuff your looking for. This made for a fun and engaging hand-sanitizer hunt.

Here’s basically how it went at every shop I stopped at.

Me: “Namaste :)”

Owner: “Namaste :)”

Me: “Do you have hand sanitizer?”

Owner: “What?”

Me: (gesturing how one applies hand sanitizer) “You know, like soap for hands. But NO Water. Just making hands clean.”

Then either 1 of 2 things: 1. A friendly smile and a “no, sorry,” or 2. A “hmmm…” and they hand me baby oil, or lube, or a bar of soap.

This happened LITERALLY at least 10 times as I would zig-zag across the street following the recommendations of shop-owners looking like a very confused tourist in a very non-touristy place. Yet every time I was redirected, I could only laugh more at the fact that most of Nepal is so undeveloped by western standards that they don’t even have hand sanitizer. Hah! I loved it actually. It was so nice to be in a land that capitalism hasn’t completely taken over (yet).

The sun was starting to set, so I rode back, hands unsanitized and now somewhat gooey thanks to the baby oil I accidentally bought and applied. Upon returning I drank an incredibly satisfying Gorkha beer (named after the Nepali soldiers) and finalized plans for the next day with my host. After 3 tuk-tuk rides and 3 bus rides since my last time sleeping in a real bed, I could feel the need for a long, restful slumber. By 9:00 I was in bed, listening to the chorus of insects with a mild breeze occasionally slipping through the tent, and I slept like an exhausted, oily baby.

Next: A stupendous adventure through the Nepali jungle – tracking tigers, elephants, and rhinos with only a blunt stick for defense. If you’d like, hop on my adventure with the “follow” button to be notified of my next blog post 🙂

Namaskar,

Hopper

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Categories
india

12: Strangers or Dangers? +The Beatles Ashram [Rishikesh, India]

October 14th, 2019

I passed out early the night before so I could hit the Beatles Ashram with some fresh energy the next morning. It was a good thing I did, because there was far more to explore than I had expected. And though I knew it had been closed for some time, I was shocked by how much the jungle had taken it over.

Construction along the banks of the Ganges began in 1963 per Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “founder” of Transcendental Meditation. Intially built were 84 meditation huts and a large concrete visitor center/guesthouse, though several more structures had risen up by the time The Beatles stayed there in early 1968. With other musicians such Donovan and a couple Beach Boys soon following suit, the place gained some short-lived popularity. Maharishi abandoned the site in the 70’s, and it wasn’t until 2015 when it finally reopened to the public. Meanwhile, nature made quite a few renovations, as well as the trespassers who vivified the walls with colourful art and quotes paying homage to the Beatles and other Indian cultural figures. The result today is a glorious concoction of human and non-human activity. 

Right when I entered, a huge monkey came plummeting over the concrete walls aside me as I cringed in defenseless hope. Soon I found a firm defensive walking stick, with which I wandered around the stone huts and Maharishi’s residence, and eventually into the vacation-stay of the Beatles. As my all-time favourite band, it was so awe-inspiring to walk into the rooms where they stayed and composed most of the White Album, among other savvy tunes. I could picture them jamming right where I stood, and was engulfed in a gracious, peaceful feeling. I wandered into every nook and cranny of the structure, fantastically wondering about where Ringo or John would have slept. That pattern continued into basically every other building that was still standing, as I was determined to uncover as many the hidden gems of artistry and exotic plants as I could. 

After 2.5 hours of exploring I covered the entire area, so I walked out to the Ganges for some fresh, cool air. The sun’s reflection was glistening, Babas were bathing, and langur monkeys were swinging from vine to electric line. I splashed my face with some river water and felt refreshed enough to start the hour-long walk back. 10 minutes outside of the Ashram, on the border of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, I re-stumbled across a heap of cow skulls & bones lying at the intersection of two paths, and re-questioned if this was indeed sign of the ominous bengal tiger.

Thanks to my education at Alderleaf Wilderness College, I knew that felines leave signs like this at cross-paths to mark territory. I stopped to look for other tracks and signs, and two passing Indian guys were intrigued as well. A baba (aka guru) then strolls by, and the Indians asked him in Hindi if this was tiger sign. The baba showed no fear, and started down the skinny path into the jungle to investigate. Upon return, he (somehow?) confirmed that it was indeed tiger sign! Whoa.

Soon enough I found my way back to urban development, and felt secure in the crowds of humans and unassuming cows. The sun was close to setting, so I sauntered into Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where I was recommended by some folks at the hostel to attend a Puja ceremony. Like the ceremony I saw the day prior, it started just before sundown, and involved releasing leaf-cups of fire and flowers down the river. Unlike the day prior, here were hundreds of Indians (and some tourists) singing praise and performing rituals around a large central fire. Though I didn’t really know the significance of anything that was happening, I was entranced by the chorus of voices with the sun setting behind a towering Shiva statue on a platform over the Ganges. Both human and non-human aspects of the scene were stunningly gorgeous.

On the way back to my hostel I gobbled down some paneer masala and had another rather uneventful night. I worked on writing a report for Waste Warriors on the interviews that I conducted in Dharamshala a few days prior, and hit the sack before 10 to prepare for yet another long day of walking adventures ahead of me.

October 15th, 2019

For my last full day in Rishikesh (and in India as a whole) I had planned to do a 7-mile hike up the mountains and through the jungle to a renowned temple called Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. It’s a common pilgrimage site for many Hindus, as it was apparently built in the spot where Shiva consumed poison originating from the ocean, turning his throat blue in colour. I was interested to see the temple but more excited about the journey. With a defense stick, a packed bag full of essentials, and a collected mindframe I was prepared to face my biggest fear in the Indian jungles: a troop of angry monkeys. After being chased down by monkeys on only my third day in India, I had a healthy respect for those formidable primates.

In about 30 minutes I had reached the point where the jungle path apparently met the road, but I was skeptical. It was a steep and narrow trail with no signage whatsoever, just a dotted line on my phone’s map indicating a path. Miles of uphill hiking through a hot, humid, foreign jungle full of monkeys, tigers, and poisonous scorpions was certainly intimidating yet intriguing. I’m driven to do that which I’m afraid of, for with a healthy attitude, it is really conducive to growth. However I was completely alone and nobody knew of where I was. There is a point when the virtue of Courage turns into the vice of Recklessness, and this felt on the verge between those two.

To allow myself some time to reflect, I walked over to a lookout point of Rishikesh where I saw a few people taking pictures. I asked them if they knew anything about a hiking path, and they declined. After extensive deliberation, I decided to go for it, knowing I can turn back at any point if it feels too dangerous. Still, sometimes the world has a way of leading you in different directions, and always at the perfect time. For I was only 20 feet away from embarking up the trail when a car pulled up right next to me.

“Hey! Where are you going?” asked an Indian guy in the backseat.

“I’m about to hike to Neelkanth Temple. Do you know the way?”

“No, but we are driving there too! Do you want to join us?”

“Well I was planning on walking,” the determination to at least start down this jungle path after mentally facing my fears was burning, but this opportunity just seemed too perfect to pass up. In the end, my intuition told me to take the safer option – so I hopped in a car with a bunch of strangers.

And just like that, the way my entire day would unfold had completely changed. I was now listening to American pop music with four 30ish-year old Indian dudes, rolling down the rugged road and making conversation. They were from the Delhi area, and had already been road tripping together in northern India for a few days. Ashish explained that they worked in construction and farming, and some of them were brothers. I tried making conversation with the whole group, but it soon became apparent that the others didn’t speak as much english. Nonetheless, they still managed to offer me some whiskey and a hash cigarette, which I found rather ironic. They (excluding the driver) were pre-gaming their visit to a sacred temple! I guess there are several takes on the morality of consuming mind-altering substances in Hinduism, just like any other religion.

You could say the drive was “bumpin” – to music and on the actual road. We made it there in about an hour (that would’ve been a long hike) and they were excited to show me the process of paying one’s respects. We first washed our hands and mouth, took off our shoes, and purchased a dish of offerings such as flowers and a sugary delicacy. We were funneled into a line that wrapped around the heart of the temple, offered flowers at different points, and received a bindi-like marking resembling a trident between the eyebrows where the third-eye is. Naturally many pictures were taken, but only after the rituals were completed. After that there wasn’t much else to do up there, so we meandered back down.

With a limited amount of potential discussion topics due to the language barrier, the drive back was quieter than the drive there, but I think they were still happy to have me around. We stopped to take a few more pictures on the lofty drive back, and they all were very excited to add me on Facebook. Like many other Indians, they seemed delighted to simply be hanging around a blonde-bearded American. We made it back to town and walked onto the Laxman Jhula bridge, which I must’ve crossed at least 10 times already. I finally joined the overwhelming hoard of picture-takers I always had to weave through, and felt no shame in hindering the foot traffic by snapping pics with my new friends.

It is really inspiring to realize how little communication is necessary in order to befriend someone. We reflected each other’s smiles, soaked in the same sights, and now continue to occasionally communicate over Facebook. They call me friend, brother, and so on. One even messaged me, “ok brother ❤ love you.” Always will I be deeply grateful for their friendship, and for the auspicious way they saved me from such a treacherous trek.

We said goodbye after retreating from the bridge, and I returned to my hostel – fulfilled with the day’s journeys yet not entirely exhausted. I made my way to that same beach on the Ganges as a couple days prior, and soaked in the moist mountainous air one last time while taking in the calm activity around me: a cow standing in the sand, a Baba meditating by the river, hippie tourists chatting nonchalantly. It was an exquisite last day & night in India.

Next stop: Nepal! Stay tuned (click “follow”) for a month in Himalayan heaven filled with mountain-trekking for 7 days, tracking tigers & spotting rhinos, volunteering to teach english & paint, and being constantly surrounded by some of the most warm-hearted people I’ve ever met.

Thanks for reading my blog. Please comment and/or like if you feel so inclined.

Namaste,

Hopper

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Rishikesh, India, or in Hindi: नीलकंठ महादेव मंदिर, ऋषिकेश, भारत