Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I was torn over the idea of an elephant safari through the jungle— on one hand, it was a childhood fantasy within reach— on the other, the fantasy seemed tainted with an edge of cruelty. I have read that the mahouts, or elephant handlers, raise an elephant from calf, and are responsible for the creature's health and well-being. The elephant is the mahout's main source of income, and tourists like myself, pay to ride their beast of several tonnes through the steamy jungle, cameras in hand and wide grins plastered on their faces. Training such a large wild animal to carry five people at a time on its neck and back (the mahout perches on the neck, while tourists cram into a little platform like sardines in a tin on the elephant's back) cannot be an easy nor an elegant task— and I suspect there aren't any Elephant Whisperers in Chitwan.

Nevertheless, I gave in to the little Mowgli inside me, and we found ourselves contorting our larger foreign bodies into a little wet platform with two happy Germans already squished inside, legs over the beast's ribcage. It was not comfortable by any means— my own ribs were smashed against a railing of sorts, and there was a piece of wood in my armpit— but there were my feet, dangling high above the ground, fanned by a spotted pink, papery ear. I fell in love with the domed skull and its sparse reddish hairs, the rumble of breath underneath me, the curious serpentine trunk. When we set off into the trees, I was on a cloud, I was a little girl. The monsoon made mud of our path, and dripped down my braids, making a foggy wreck of my camera— still, the sucking sound of the earth and the snapping of branches was a delight.

"What is the elephant's name?" I asked the mahout.
"Champakali." He smiled.

Suddenly, I heard a terrible, dull thump.

Next to his umbrella, in the right hand of the mahout was a long, iron hook. He cracked it once more upon Champakali's skull, and my spine went rigid.

We saw two kinds of deer, several peafowl, a mugger crocodile and some boar. The landscape was stunning. All I could think about was that iron hook.

It was not surprising, but I had naïvely hoped that I could hang onto the silly fantasy a little longer. The experience brought to mind the dancing bears I used to watch along the Bosphorus as a little girl— which have long since been banned. I know an elephant's skin and skull are much thicker than ours, and that perhaps it felt like a tap to Champakali— the hook did not break the skin, nor was it used very often or with a heavy hand— but the sound...

Regardless of the hook, the experience was a disappointment. I had imagined that we would rarely see another touring elephant, but we were behind at least eight other elephants of tourists. The whole 'safari' felt more like a conveyor belt carnival ride— we even had a traffic jam at a river crossing. I suspect many of the animals were scared away by the shouts and screams of the tourists— one woman kept shrieking every time her elephant took a step.

"No rhinos today?" I asked the mahout.
"Afternoon no good."
"Is morning good?"
"Morning no good."
"When is a good time for rhinos?" I pestered.

Monday, September 24, 2012

sketching in sauraha

In between exploring grasslands and jungle, dining on dal bhat, and scratching the constellation of insect bites on my limbs, I found a little time to draw.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

endless horizon

The sound of the wind through the grass, which was high and dense enough to swallow a person whole, reminded me of how far I was from the ocean. I had not visited the ocean since a dark February night in Portugal, where, like a ghost, a thin line of white changed shape and disappeared into the black with a mighty roar. The smell and taste of damp salt, the electric air— sand nesting my feet. Here, the grass moved in waves, not with a roar, but a long sigh. The salt came from my own sweat, and the mud threatened to suck me in. I found peace in the flatness, in the green, but I missed the open water and its endless horizon.

Monday, September 17, 2012

down by the water

My childhood fantasies of wandering through seas of tall green grass in search of rhinos and elephants were coming true. I could feel the panting of the monsoon on my neck, like some wild animal, threatening— but then the sky would smooth over, and the only wetness came dripping down my forehead and neck. A happy mess of sweat, sunscreen, and failing insect repellant, my eyes were wide for anything with a heartbeat. The air was full of every delightful cheep, tweet and hoot I could imagine— but what I found more interest and joy in listening to were the cheerful identifications of the calls, shared between Pedro and Tikka, the ornithologist.

"Zitting Cisticola. On the right. In the grass." Tikka calmly lead our eager eyes over to a clump of green, where I could see some movement and a flash of brown. How on earth he managed to find it still mystifies me. My heart pounded when I located the Cisticola through my binoculars, thrilled to be able to watch it fluff, twitch, and breathe. I later learned that this was not an especially exotic or rare bird. Nevertheless, I had never knowingly seen a Zitting Cisticola before, and silently celebrated. 

Zitting Cisticola! Zitting Cisticola! I chanted in my head with each step further into the grass. Taking pleasure in the sound of the vowels and consonants in the little bird's name, this would be my mantra.

 Down by the water, I saw my first rhino. At first we thought it was a cluster of tree branches, until it moved— he was a massive, intimidating male, with gleaming black skin and sharp, curved horn. For some reason I imagined the rhinos would be smaller— the word that still comes to mind is mighty. I climbed a small tree for a better look, where I was stung by an unseen and unhappy insect.

At some point in our wanderings, I noticed the faint outline of a paw print in a puddle at my feet.
"Tiger." Our guide declared with a grin. "Looks fairly fresh." 
A tiger?

Zitting Cisticola! Zitting Cisticola! I continued to chant.

south to sauraha

Our trip to Chitwan National Park was as planned as a short discussion about how we should go there, followed by a packing of bags and a taxi to Kantipath the next morning at 6:30 am, hoping to catch any bus that would take us there. Every bus in the long line of tourist buses turned us down, with the exception of one dodgy-looking one named Sai Baba. The last two seats in the back of the dilapidated bus were available for about 500 rupees each, which we gladly took.

The ride was perhaps the most hair-raising I have had in Nepal, with the driver speeding down the Prithvi Highway in the fog, slamming on breaks at nearly every bend, which took a good 10 minutes to screech to a crawl. We grinned optimistically at each other with clenched teeth, silently and desperately hoping to avoid taking to the sky— deeply aware that the Trisuli river was rushing somewhere frighteningly far below us in the white mist. Rather than study how the side of the road plummeted into nothingness, I kept staring at the small photo at the front of the bus of a smiling man with an afro. The faded photo seemed important to the driver, by its prominent placement. The fog eventually lifted as the hours passed, as the mountains and hills were ironed into flat green paddies.

We wobbled off the bus with jelly legs, surprised that we arrived in one piece— vowing never, ever to take a Sai Baba bus again. The moment our boots hit the dirt, we were approached from all sides by people offering us rides to their guesthouses. Though we had not planned out the trip, we did know where we wanted to stay: Gaida Lodge, which is run by one of Nepal's most renowned ornithologists. There are over 500 species of birds in Chitwan National Park, and with our hearts set on seeing anything feathered, we decided there wasn't a better place to stay than at a lodge run by an ornithologist. I offered Pedro one of the two boiled eggs I had been saving in my pocket since the rest stop in somewhere before Dumre, and with a vague notion of the direction of Gaida, we set off.

"Crumble the shells up small so the little birds can use them."

I ground the shells in my hand, delighting in the sensation. It tickled me, the thought of some colourful bird carrying off the little pieces to his nest, in hopes of impressing a lady bird. The air was thick, and smelled of animal.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

atop swayambhunath

We sketched for an hour at the foot of the hill which holds Swayambhunath at its peak, competing for space with camera-happy, pushy tourists, mischievous macaques, murderous mosquitoes, and curious Nepalis. Children all but climbing on us, sweat beading down our faces, we reached a point of physical and mental exhaustion, and decided to shut our books to pull our bodies up the 365 steps toward the stupa. Buddha's wide eyes of compassion, watching our rib cages expand and squeeze heavily, watching little brown hands reach out toward the foreign, watching tika-marked brows and fingers clicking buttons on cameras and phones— watching over us all.

On our breathless 366th step, we moved clockwise past the enormous dorje, trying to make sense of the colour, the noise and movement, the scent of people and incense. It was all familiar to me, yet still like some overwhelming wave. I searched Pedro's face in an attempt to understand what he felt as he stood there. We leaned against a wall together, not saying much, watching the monsoon blanket the valley.