Nepal Diaries : from the heartland Week 1

“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness.”

Week 1

Day 1 – June 2, 2015 Sauraha, Chitwan National Park, Nepal

The room. 

 I reached Sauraha, Chitwan around 4 pm yesterday. It was a long drive from Kathmandu and I was extremely fatigued. My first Nepali meal was in one of the restaurants on the way, Masala Something. I had daal bhaat (rice and lentils) and reached Sauraha in a state of sleep-mindedness.

So here I am. In the middle of a jungle, a forest.
We are all in rooms next to each other. More like wooden cabinets or bunkers like the soldiers have. Well, may be these are a little better than the soldier bunkers. We sleep under beautiful mosquito nets that reminds me of Nani-ghar.
 
 Yesterday afternoon I saw a leopard cub for the first time in my life. He played right outside the lawn in front of my room, with his keeper. There are two such leopards here who will be rehabilitated to the forest. They were rescued from a village near Kathmandu in Nepal and brought here. I got up at 5 am this morning (jet lag) and exercised in the lawn with Tai and Diego, right in front of elephants. There are 6 female elephants where we live and they greet us every morning-evening
I share my room with a lizard which is good because she eats some mosquitoes for me 🙂 The heat is a little too strong and there is no electricity for 4-5 hours every day. The shower in the bathroom is an effort but we plan to rent bikes and go to the town to get buckets. Chiran is the Project Coordinator here, Shashank is a researcher and Ram Kumar is the head of the administration. They have been very kind to us. Everyone is teaching me Nepali, like if the tea is good I will say – Cha Ekdum Metha Ch: . Huzoor is most widely used for saying ‘Acha hai’ (its good) or for answering if someone calls you.
A workshop was being conducted here on human wildlife conflict and there are community members from buffer zones. We had breakfast with them. We are leaving the rest of the afternoon to rest and will meet Chiran this evening and develop a plan of work/action.I am resting now.
Thank you family and friends for making it possible for me to come here. Its a little challenging but nevertheless beautiful.
 PS – Found a machan for meditation 🙂
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Our bunkers
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Day 2 – June 3, 2015 Sauraha

Getting over the jet lag

Mornings have always been the happiest part of my day, but here especially I was extremely happy. The lawn outside is beautiful. I took advantage of the jet-lag and exercised, showered, had breakfast of corn flakes, peanut butter-jam and bananas at 7 am. I was treated with Masala Cha. Yesterday was one of the toughest days I have physically endured in the last two years. The day seemed so long that the morning itself seemed like a distant memory.In the day we tried to walk to the Sauraha town but we gathered a lot of steam and hotness in just 10 mins, the rest of the amble seemed like a ghost walk.I can’t believe that all around the town the two most common plants were: meetha neem and Marijuana!

Back in the room after lunch I tried to sleep. I can’t remember very well what level of my subconscious mind I had reached but sleep was coming in phases. Sometimes D said something to me, and I didn’t even hear, someone walked in and I replied in a state of trans. I don’t remember last time when I had felt so hot. I have re-found my love for Winters.When we were back in the office space we found that our workroom was blessed with two working standee fans. T and I stood in front of them, trying to dry up all our sweat. I was so happy just feeling the air on my skin. At the office I met the receptionist who has a great sense of humor. He brought us my first black coffee of the trip. I can’t really translate his jokes from Nepali but I had a good laugh, may be it was the heat. On our way back to our bunkers T and I, discussed this book I am reading ‘Being Mortal’ and by the time we reached our rooms we were drenched in sweat. The decision was to take the second shower of the day, but going through the broken shower and the bathroom was a big deterrent. I literally cleaned the smudged toilet seat, cleaned the sink and the bath area and thought about how this doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things and took a bath. Showering itself is not the end of things, then there is the need to make sure no crawlers have made their way into your pyjamas or no sneaky insect is sitting in your inner wear. It’s like scan, re scan, jolt and then wear. Finally, I felt clean and cool but only for 15 mins. At the dinner table at 7 pm I still felt hot.We had our first meeting with our project partners at 8 pm which was in Chiran’s Air Conditioned office. I cannot explain how good I felt there, so good that I literally slept while we spoke. He later drove us to town to see the night market, but all stores were shut. We retired for the night at around 11 pm but it took me  long long before I could sleep. There was no electricity and the battery fan was my only respite.

marijuana

Marijuana is freely available

Day 3 – June 4, 2015 Sauraha

At around 4 am I got up with the sound of thunderstorm. It was loud and heavy and it made me feel happy because then there would be no heat to kill me. An hour later, I woke up and embraced the morning.

The Elephants and the head bob

I walked up to the pachyderms, the magnificent creatures; they brought a huge smile on my face. Tamlal Dai, the receptionist was sitting with the mahouts on wooden benches. The benches were centered on a fire where they were cooking grain for the baby elephant and the old elephant. A baby elephant needs around 15 kilograms of grain every day. Tamlal dai offered me Cha and asked to sit with them. I was elated, this is exactly what I wanted: to have tea while the mahout was getting Jun Kali (one of the female elephants) ready. Jun Kali was not in the mood for discipline today. It took the mahout a lot of effort to get her cleaned and ready.

The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) has 6 female elephants and one baby elephant. The elephants have their own station where they house for the night. These stations open to an electric fenced green space where they can move around unchained. If the elephant touches the electric fence, it will get hurt and that prevents them from coming out of their space. NTNC uses them mainly for tracking and census of Rhinos and Tigers. They are also used for tourism but it is increasingly turning out to be a nuisance as they often receive a lot of calls for free rides by influential ‘people’. That means the NTNC officials have to arrange for boarding, food and entertainment for these guests and sometimes pay for it from their own pockets.

Kali was ready and I couldn’t figure out what her schedule was for the day. I tried asking the mahouts but they spoke broken Hindi and I couldn’t understand their fast Nepali. Having finished the Cha (hot, black tea) I washed my cup and walked back to the barrack. T was up and we exercised for a good 40 minutes: skipping ropes, side lunges, burpies, squats.

After breakfast I found myself drawn to the elephants again. The baby elephant walked up to the fence where D and I stood. After looking at us for several minutes he quietly brought out his trunk from beneath the fence and touched D’s feet in a slightly teasing manner. D touched the elephant’s trunk and a game of foot and trunk-touching began! I followed them and I was quite impressed by how rapidly we could play this game. That elephant was smart! I could see his playful eyes and my heart just melted there!

In the elephant stations I found myself standing in front of Prakriti-Kali when she was shaking her head. I tried to copy her and I interpreted it as her way of acknowledging me. We did the head bob for a while and stopped when other people approached. I had no clue that I might just be interpreting Prakriti Kali’s actions incorrectly. Later in the day I read that the elephant’s head bob can also be a stereotypical action that it learns in captivity. In the wild, the elephant has no time as it is busy collecting food for survival.  The elephant’s head bob can be a way of it showing that it wants something and is not getting it. Elephants are incredibly social and they want to reach out to others, so what Kali could be doing by bobbing her head could well just be her need to socialize more. This made me feel bad because I felt that the NTNC treated its animals well, but the thought that these elephants are still in captivity and that they could be better off disturbed me. I am not even sure if they would be better outside, but I wish I could ask them.

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Hemguj (3 years old) with mom Mal-kali

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In the morning, the elephants go into the forest to cut grass. Here a mahout is getting an elephant ready

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The hati-sar (elephant-stable) is packed with action in the morning.

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New Room

I moved to a different room today (group readjustments). Although I wasn’t too happy initially about moving, I remembered what we learnt at home about non-attachment. Why was I not being able to move? Because I felt attached to a room I had stayed in  just for a day! I decided to wholeheartedly accept the change and moved into this new room. I had to work hard to make the room according to what I liked but the people at the mess were kind to help me through it.  I had two big windows : the view now was completely different. From one side I still saw the back lawn and from the other side I could see the Elephant Machan. The elephants and leopard cubs were much closer now. All is well that ends well.

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All’s well that ends well. Elephant Machan View 

We are all withering away

The afternoon was spent in the office trying to read more literature and engage in conversations with NTNC officials. A scheduled meeting was delayed and D,T and I just waited trying to fight off the heat. This is how it happens in the field we thought to over-selves. Patience. Patience. Patience. T and I dozed off on the table itself and found ourselves wake up to laughter. There he was, the Project Director Mr Chiran laughing at us with D. There were 3 cups of coffee for us and I was so glad I got that beverage.

What do we seek to achieve

We had an intensive discussion about our work and we all ended up feeling bad. I walked away to my room quietly because I couldn’t take the pressure. I sat outside my room on the floor thinking about how I could solve the issue. I worked on my readings and research. The only thing that came to my mind was : Mother, I want to talk to you. I called  Ma and just listening to her voice calmed me down. How does that work? I smiled as I talked to her and saw Mal-Kali with her son strolling away. Mother is such a powerful force. Mom’s advice worked and both my teammates returned  and we sorted it out quite well. We had a great discussion and I think we are all on the same page now.

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Dinner and DEET

After my second shower of the day, I decided to work in the mess ( the fan is so fast) In barely 10 mins I was bitten at 10 places by mosquitoes the size of bees. I asked T for some DEET so that I don’t get more bites but it did not help with the itch. Dinner was just plain aloo and parval and I loved it.I loved the mosquito net I was sleeping under. It made me feel like a princess.

Day 4 – June 5, 2015, Sauraha

Night and the wild boars

I got up with a jolt. I saw them walking in a line, it was quite dark and I wasn’t sure if it was just me or they were really there. I searched for the torch and tried to see the time, it was 4 am and I could some ‘creatures’ walking in a line, just outside my window. They were going in the direction of the forest. I was a little unsure of what to think, I had already been dreaming of Rhinos and Tigers and this sudden appearance of creatures did not help. I lay in the bed, looking out of the window for a long time. I saw them pass by and leave. After an hour, I decided to take a nap and fell asleep till 6:30.

PS: Found out from the Shobu Dai (mess in-charge) that the creatures were a herd of wild boar.

Project scoping

Our project seems to have taken a U-turn, for the better. We had a thorough meeting with NTNC yesterday. We learnt that the biggest concern the NTNC is currently facing is the problem of human-wildlife conflict in the entire buffer zone region.

Animals and Man have always been at conflict. We are extending ourselves into homes of other species and I feel that this invasion is the cause of so many issues, not just with animals, but also with water bodies and plants.  Here at Chitwan, the buffer zone forests are managed by communities, who have been banded into Community Forest User Groups  (CFUGs) by the forest department. Under the law, 50% of the park revenues are disbursed to these CFUGs in various communities. Shashank is in-charge of Human Wildlife Conflict, and their pressing research needs are determining how the CFUGs use these allocated funds to alleviate the conflict with animals. For the scope of this research we will be looking at one of the most affected community in the region: Meghauli. People of Meghauli have been facing repeated attacks by tigers, rhinos, leopards and wild elephants (map attached).

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We will also be doing a financial analysis of the feasibility of the homestay program in a community forest called Kumroj, which is 5 miles from here. Yay!

Bishnu, the guide

Later in the day, we walked to town and had cold drinks. Fanta. OMG, I have never felt so good drinking this fizzy drink. I gulped down two in 5 minutes.  I met Bishnu, at the store, who was watching some Tamil translated Hindi movie. They never escape you, do they?

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PS : See the beautiful wall art from Sauraha village! PS 2 : Found ‘rhino apples’ on our way to the Sauraha town.

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Elephant sound

I am learning a lot about elephant sounds and behavior. It seems elephants are drama queens! They react and make a big deal out of everything (no wonder I love them so much!) We saw how elephants greet each other after a whole day of staying apart. This was the most exciting part of the day. One of the elephants was in the jungle and when she returned the others began to rumble and their tails began to sort of wag. It was a beautiful moment. Although at first we thought there was something wrong with them. If you see the video I have attached here (link on Google Drive) this sound is called the ‘greeting-rumble’.  When members of a social group come together after separation, they approach one another face to face while head raising, ear-lifting with a burst of powerful, throaty, highly modulated and overlapping rumbles!

Sweat and toil and exercise

Late evening, I was drenched in sweat and wanted to go for a shower but instead agreed to exercise with T. She is tough task master but I am glad I have a coach here J . This was followed by some dhobi-giri.

Firefly, and a deer

Just a few minutes before falling asleep I saw a jugnoo. For the first time. They are such magnificent creatures. I slept with a huge smile on my face. And in the wee hours of morning, I saw this spotted deer, just where I had found the jugnoo.

Day 5 – June 6, 2015 Sauraha

As I woke up the spotted deer was still there It ran away as soon as I took out the camera to capture it. Anyway so early in the day I can hardly see anything. Once the deer had escaped I realized how much in pain I was. Exercising. Muscle building. Alright, I said to myself, pain is good. 

Suryanamaskar

To alleviate my pain I decided to relax on heavy exercising and go yoga instead. I did 10 rounds of suryanamaskar and felt like all my thigh muscles were getting a good stretch. The normal routine followed: shower, breakfast, blah blah.

Meeting

We had a team meeting to discuss our final scope of work and we came up with a lot of ideas. D and I got into a heated argument but it was solved. We are not ready to present our plan to the project partners. By next week, we will hopefully begin our field trips to Meghauli and Kumroj.

Lunch : Of Ghariyals and Crocodiles 

Chiran was wearing a Save the Crocodile tee shirt, which was from a Croc Conservation seminar in Sri Lanka.  We had a very interesting conversation about that. It seems that Crocodiles are the most endangered species, more than tigers. The biggest threat is from humans who kill them to eat. They also have breeding problems because they always breed upstream but because of so many dams once a croc swims downstream it has difficulty in coming back. Globally the biggest work in croc conservation is the one that is synonymous with conservation of river. This involves constructing embankments, creating awareness among indigenous people and afforestation.

Jungle on the Elephant

The NTNC is extremely kind to us. They got us an elephant ride yesterday (pictures attached) and we went into the main jungle. It was a 2 hour ride. Our mahout was Ranjeet and he was ramro.Our elephant was Kirti Kali.  She is 30 years also and is suffering from Pappiloma and her uterus hangs outside, just suspended. We have been told she is very moody and erratic. She has a mind of her own. Ranjit helped me understand the elephant’s routine. They get ready in the morning and go for research and if no research is scheduled they go with the mahouts to cut grass. They cut grass the whole whole day. An average elephant eats 15 kgs of grain and 10 bundles of grass.  In the jungle Kirti Kali’s ears were flapping against my leg and I felt so good. I think she is lovely. The mahout had a tough time controlling her.

Ranjit has very sharp eyes, eyes of a forester. He showed us some 2 dozen Sambals,Spotted deers, antelopes and four rhinoceros. I saw a rhino closely for the first time in my life. Its body looked like an armor suit, but for a body like that all it eats are rhino apples. The jungle had so many trees  that had rhino apples. I tasted one and it seems like a sour-er version of amla.

We got back feeling happy. I was covered with twigs, cobwebs,dust, leaves and soil, a complete jungle woman. I have been thinking so much about how powerful all these animals are and yet they thrive on just: grass and grain! Hail vegetarianism! 🙂

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Inside the park

Day 6 – June 7, 2015 Sauraha

It’s getting difficult for me to write everyday. I had reserved morning for writing but my day seems to start in a scurry and end in deep exhaustion. Last night I saw around 10-12 wild boars grazing out of my window at 2 in the morning. They are nocturnal creatures and they eat in groups at night. I lay in my bed looking at them, trying not to be seen. I don’t remember when I went to sleep after that.

In the morning, I decided to try my luck at making tea in the mess but I made literally horrible tea. We had a meeting at 11 am with Shashank and he gave us valuable input on our work scoping. We have now presented them with our plan and we will start field examination by tomorrow. In the afternoon T got unwell (repeated loose motions) and we took her to the doctor. Dr Rajendra’s clinic was in the middle of the town (call me Raj, he said). It was a clean place, I was thankful of that. After detailed questioning he prescribed some antibiotics and recommended that we return for another check up the next day.

We got her back and Chiran made sure that she had a cool room to rest in ( our barracks are literally coal bundles).  So after all this, I decided to head back to my room and do some work. On the way I saw the leopard cubs were out with their keepers. This was the first time I saw them so close. I stood there under the Litchi tree, watching them.  I even forgot how hot it was and that I was drenched and wet in sweat.

Ashish and Tikaram are the two leopard keepers. I stood their asking questions to Ashish. He just finished his Masters and his specialization was in Human-Leopard conflict. This is the first time he is taking care of the cubs. The cubs are named Tika and Ram after Tikaram! They are 38 days old and they are developing their teeth now. Both of them still have bright beautiful blue eyes. So the eyes don’t turn yellowish brown till they become young adults. I don’t  know if I wrote about how they got here. These were rescued from the hills and brought here for rehabilitation only a few days ago. It’s a very tricky situation because leopard cubs are born weak, vulnerable and entirely reliant on their mother, only able to fend for themselves after years of practice and protection. Their eyes are a pale blue color at birth and they gradually change to the piercing golden-green color that gives adults their intense stare. Normally a leopard depends on its mother for hunting training for the first two years of its life. In case of Tika and Ram, I am guessing, that they will be each other’s teachers. Asis tells me that the siblings often play and fight with each other to practice their skills.

After enjoying myself thoroughly with the leopards, I decided to shower. I said hello to the little deer that has been recently rescued from Kathmandu. A family was raising it in captivity when a government officer from the Forest Department found about it. The deer was sent to NTNC for rehabilitation. Right now the poor thing is too scared to react. It stands in a corner and only eats its grass when it’s alone.

D and I checked on T a couple of times but she was asleep.The doctor suspects Dysentery, but I hope not. As I waited for dinner, I took out my color pencils and music. It was time for some art therapy!

Leopards

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Day 7 – June 8, 2015 Sauraha

A week, seven days:

I completed a week here yesterday. I remind myself that Ashutosh stayed in Pilani, Rajasthan for four years in similar conditions like I am in. This is just so that I don’t get too bogged down by the heat. I take three showers a day but it is not enough to feel comfortable. The temperature has been soaring and there is no sign of rain anywhere close.

My elephants:

I spent 10 minutes watching Kali eat today and she was very happy! Later, in the day, Kali got excited because of some wild elephant. She began her trumpet and it was amazing to see them communicate (video  couldn’t attach).

 The town Hospital:

T has been diagnosed with Dysentery. D and I spent most of our day at the clinic. We waited outside, while Dr Raj conducted a check-up. Outside, the TV was tuned on ZeeTV. They were showing one of the daily soaps and D began asking me questions related to the story line. How do I explain him how convoluted our TV serials are!

Pierre

We were ushered in Dr Raj’s clinic by Pierre today. He is a French intern at the clinic. At one point of time, there were five individuals in that small room, from 5 nations: India (me), Nepal (Dr Raj), Peru (D), USA (T) and France (Pierre). And we all spoke in our beloved English. Of course, all of us spoke in completely different versions of English. It was quite interesting just standing there in a circle.

It was decided that T needed intravenous fluids and she was admitted immediately. After a few hours of waiting D, Pierre and I, walked to a restaurant nearby. Pierre encouraged me to think about travelling. His story was so motivating. He was studying nursing in Paris and left it after a year. He was not sure of continuing since he felt disillusioned with his choice.  He did not feel the passion. The day the first earthquake stuck Nepal, he saw the devastation on television and took a leap of faith.  He came to Nepal to help. Initially, he worked in a village near Kathmandu doing relief work and then moved to Sauraha a month ago. His journey was completely unplanned. He said he just wanted to be near a forest and help humans who live nearby because he really cared for environmental conservation. He stumbled upon a chance to work with Dr Raj. Now he lives in a cheap place nearby and has come to love dal bhaat. He has a daughter, her name is Swan. He wants her daughter to see how people live here so that she develops some consciousness of life. When I said it was courageous of him to just leave and come, he said he didn’t know he could do this until he left his country. “Courage is often inactive, until you shake it, jolt it,” he said in his thick accent. He thinks people in Nepal are very good and he found help whenever he looked for it.

His time in Nepal has made him sure of his dream. He wants to practice nursing and specialize in tropical diseases.

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Housekeeping

I was smiling on my way back to the barracks. When I entered my room in the afternoon, I felt so bad. My room was dirty and I had loads of clothes to wash. Never mind, the sweat that I was covered in. D and I decided to wash clothes. (I had bought Surf excel from the market and a new menthol cool shampoo) After finishing my clothes when I got out, I saw D struggle. We washed his clothes together. When he joined me to hang the clothes to dry, he had poured water on himself too. It was hilarious to watch him walk in drenched in water with a bucket full of clothes. “ I have to meet my grand ma and learn how to wash clothes,” he said. We then cleaned our respective rooms and I spoke to a local lady who agreed to iron our clothes.

Why are men so blessed in this world? D keeps telling us how awesome the shower in the men’s bathroom is. So I decided to sneak in and give it a try. With D’s help, I managed to take my afternoon shower in the men’s. It was so damn good. Again: why are men so blessed in the world??

Night.

The last few hours of the day we sat in the office trying to catch up with work. After dinner, we were amazed to see that NTNC had a new member: they had just rescued a beautiful peacock! It was late in the night but T, D and I just sat in the verandah looking at the bird, a few fireflies flying above us.

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Tea, the life saver. Being brewed at the hati-sar


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