the Long's Strange Trip

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~  It's a Jungle Out There! ~
October 24 through October 29, 2000
$1 U.S. = 72 Nepalese Rupees
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Pokara, Nepal
October 24 through October 26, 2000

(ccl) Pokara is the kind of town you can kick back and relax in.  Lonely Planet, for all its usefulness, and despite its reputation as the world's best guidebook, tends to cast disdain upon cities like Pokara.  But don't be fooled - it's a traveler's paradise.  With only 150,000 people, it's a much more manageable size than Kathmandu.  There's very little automobile traffic, making strolling the streets a pleasure instead of an adventure in staying alive.  You can get pretty much anything you need there, from trekking supplies to cool, hip clothes to a fruit smoothie to a cold, competitively-priced happy hour beer.  Hotel rooms are clean and comfortable, people are friendly and restaurants serve great food that homesick travelers crave.  About the only thing you can't get in Pokara is cheap Internet service.  The Pokara Internet Cafe Association proudly announces in each cafe that they have set the minimum charge at 7 rupees per minute.  In a country where the per capita income hovers near $150 per year, this is highway robbery.  I tried to have a discussion with one proprietor about the importance of free markets, but I think the language barrier was too great.  

We got back to Pokara from our trek on Sunday, expecting to stay only a couple of days and then head to Royal Chitwan National Park.  But two things happened that kept us there longer than expected:  Wiley came down with a cold, and the weather turned bad, with rain falling every day for three days straight.  We were lucky that neither thing happened in the mountains while we were trekking, and we were content to hang out in Pokara, relax, eat good food, and catch some of the first-run movies that play every night at local restaurants.

The hotel we stayed at in Pokara was clean and comfortable, and at 500 rupees per night, definitely affordable.  There is so much hotel competition in Pokara and elsewhere in Nepal that the hotel owners must scrap to make a profit, and this place was no exception.  Our first morning there we were obsequiously invited to join the manager for tea.  Hiran had told him that we were going to Chitwan next, and, what an amazing coincidence, the same company had a hotel in Chitwan, too!  We passed on the tea, but Wiley later listened to his sales pitch.  We played hard to get, and the price gradually dropped, until he was offering two nights, three days in the hotel, all meals, transportation from Pokara to Chitwan and from Chitwan to Kathmandu, and every activity from elephant riding to bird watching for $60 per person.  We finally agreed to the deal, figuring we could probably do it for less on our own, but knowing that there is some value in having someone else do the legwork.  

On our last day in Pokara we rented mountain bikes for 50 rupees each, all day, and cruised around town.  We did some shopping, and spent the afternoon on a rowboat we rented on Lake Fewa.  We brought a picnic lunch of red wine, sandwiches, and chocolate cake, and passed the hours laying back on the boat, floating, talking, and looking at the sky.  Actually, I did very little of the rowing


Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal
October 26 through October 29, 2000

Always the skeptic, I was convinced that we had been taken for a ride when we got on the bus to leave for Chitwan and were escorted to our seats in the very back of the bus.  The back of the bus is never the best seat, but on this bus, there was maybe six inches of space between the end of the back seat and the seat in front of it.  I protested, and showed the "bus man" that I couldn't even get my legs in there.  He said too bad, the bus was booked.  This was despite the fact that it was now 30 minutes after the bus was scheduled to leave, and 50% of the seats were unoccupied.  When, finally, the last group of passengers, a Japanese tour group, hurried onto the bus 15 minutes later and were told to sit "in any open seat", I nearly had a coronary, and yelled at the bus man that this was not acceptable, we had been on the bus for more than an hour and had been assigned the back seats.  No luck - I had to go back to my back seat.  The only consolation at this point was that there were actually five seats on the back row, and we had the whole row to ourselves.  We were able to get somewhat comfortable by leaning against the windows and stretching out our legs, since we couldn't be comfortable sitting in the seats as they were designed to be sat in.  But, of course, the bus stopped again, and picked up five or six more passengers, three of which took the remaining seats on our row.  We sat bolt upright with our knees in our mouths for the bone-jarring five-hour ride to Chitwan.

I fully expected by this time, after seeing the type of bus travel this package deal had afforded us, to NOT be met at the bus station by a representative of the hotel, despite the promises of our man in Pokara.  But sure enough, a young guy with a braided pigtail with faucet washers (?) tied onto the end thrust a card with "Skyline Jungle Safari Lodge" through the bus window, and announced that he was there to pick us up.  We rode to the lodge in a Russian jeep from World War II (really!), and checked into a rustic but serviceable mud hut.

Our first activity, after lunch and a nap, was visiting the local village.  The manager at our hotel, Govinda, took us to his home, and we met his family and drank tea in the clean and sunny paved-mud courtyard.  Govinda's two brothers also both work at the hotel, one as a driver and the other as a wildlife guide.  He told us about how his small son, who was 19 months old and full of life, had nearly died of spinal meningitis when he was only three months old.  When he developed a fever of 106, Govinda and his wife rushed the little boy to the children's hospital in Kathmandu, nearly six hours away.  The doctors there told him that surely, the boy would have died if they had not made the trip to the hospital, which was no doubt extremely costly in a country where no one has health insurance.  Father and son

We talked about how people make a living in the village.  Many were employed in the tourist industry as guides or hotel staff, but many were simple farmers, growing rice, millet, and vegetables.  Govinda said that until about ten years ago, when the government brought electricity to the area, it was a very dangerous place to live.  Tigers and wild elephants regularly prowled around the village at night, and people were hurt or killed with relative frequency.  Now the lights tend to keep the animals deep in the park, and the village has mushroomed in size.

Our first night in Chitwan coincided with the beginning of the Festival of Lights, Diwali.  This festival lasts for five days, and on each day someone or something is honored.  On the first day, crows are honored with offerings of rice, as they are the messengers of the death.  Dogs are honored on day two, and we saw more than one confused-looking dog wearing a necklace of marigolds and a red tikka  mark on his forehead.  Hindus believe that in the underworld, dogs guide souls across the river of the dead (Isn't it interesting how this resembles the ancient Egyptians' beliefs?), so on this day, and from what I've seen no other one, it's important to be nice to dogs.  On the third day, cows are honored, and on the fourth day, oxen are in the spotlight.  

Local girls performing old Hindu story-songs  The fifth and final day of the festival is the biggest, and one in which families are brought together for feasting and celebration.  On this day, sisters honor brothers by preparing special sweets for them, and by putting the red tikka  marks on their foreheads.  In return, the brothers give the sisters money.  It's a way for the sisters to show their love, and for the brothers to promise their devotion to the sisters.  Nepalis really love the festival of Diwali, because it's the only time of year the government allows them (legally) to gamble, and we saw groups of men and women squatting over crudely-drawn board games, throwing dice and winning and losing money.  In what seems like an amazing resemblance to that fall holiday we Americans love, Halloween, children visit homes and hotels, singing songs and performing dances, and ask for a little money in exchange.  The children use the money for community projects they are involved in.  One group of incredibly beautiful, costumed little girls visited our lodge one night to dance for us, and of course, I was drug onto the dance floor.  I was blown away when I found out that these "little" girls were 13 years old.  They were minute compared to Western kids, to the point that I had earlier guessed them to be eight years old  - the result, no doubt, of a diet that is drastically low in protein.  I learned this cool lip-biting move from my sister, Nancy  

That night at dinner, the full-court press was on to get us to buy the all-day jungle walk, which was not included in our "all-inclusive" package.  Personally, I don't believe that the words "jungle" and "walk" belong in the same sentence.  It seems to me that you shouldn't even go into the jungle without the protection of a large armored car or, at the very least, an elephant.  But we were told that this is really to only good way to see the jungle, and the best possible hope of seeing some of the more elusive animals, like tigers and sloth bears.  Wiley really wanted to do it - he felt that as long as we were in the jungle, we should try to see as many animals as we could.  I was ambivalent until I heard the safety lecture.  Tejuille, our proposed guide and Govinda's half brother (dear-old Dad had two wives, we found out), told us that he had lost some friends in the jungle.  They had been charged by the magnificent and deadly rhinos that live there, and had been gored or trampled to death.  That was almost enough to convince me that I didn't want to go, and when Tejuille asked for 3000 rupees to buy the park permits that we would need, I applied the brakes fully.  Did we really want to go deep into the savage jungle on a hike sponsored by an organization that doesn't have enough cash-on-hand to run their business?  We had paid for the trip in Pokara, and they told us that they needed the money because the man in Pokara hadn't sent our money yet.  Wiley handed over the cash, and I was sure we'd never see that money again. 

The next morning we were awakened early to the news that the elephant man and the boat man both wanted to take the day off for the festival (probably because they were hung over - from what we saw Diwali also involved excessive consumption of alcohol), were we sure we didn't want to take the all-day jungle walk?  It's funny - we got an email from a friend of ours in California a few weeks ago, wanting to know if we ever disagreed on anything.  Actually, we hardly ever do, but we had a whopper brewing here.  I definitely did NOT want to go, and Wiley definitely DID want to go.  Somebody had to give, so this time, it was me.  I'm not really exactly sure what I was afraid of, I just knew that I didn't want to be walking around in the same jungle as rhinos, tigers, bears, and crocodiles.  But as we headed out, my fears lessened, and I got more comfortable.  Tejuille gave us a detailed safety briefing before we started out that included the following guidelines:

  • If you get charged by an angry rhino, run.  Run in an erratic, zig-zag manner, because they can't see very well and you'll probably confuse them.  Climb the nearest tree, and make sure it's not a small tree because they can knock those right down.  The only place more dangerous to be than between a mother rhino and her baby is between a mother hippo and her baby, so try not to be there.

  • If you get charged by an angry sloth bear (small, but with extremely long claws; several of Tejuille's friends have lost noses and eyes to angry sloth bears), don't run, because they can outrun you.  Don't climb a tree, because they can outclimb you.  If we see a sloth bear, we'll have to stay together and fight it (Keep in mind that the National Park Service allows the guides to bring nothing more than a stick into the jungle for protection.).

  • If you get charged by an angry wild elephant don't climb and don't run.  As they say in the airlines, put your head between your knees and, well you know the rest.  But don't worry, the chances of seeing a wild elephant are small...

Upon hearing this, I began to secretly lament the mimosas and magnolias of my childhood, with their low branches that made for easy climbing but inadequate jungle training.  But it turned out that we never had to climb a tree to avoid a nasty encounter with a rhino.  In fact, we never had any type of encounter with a rhino, and after a few hours of sneaking around the undergrowth like Marlin Perkins, I was actually wanting to see one.  At this point in the year the grasses are over 22 feet high, so it's impossible to see them there.  You have to wait for them to come down to the streams or mud holes to get cool, and although we staked several out, we never saw any rhinos.  We did see several crocodiles, which was cool, because we'd never seen crocs before, but we began to suspect that our guides (every party going into the jungle must have two guides; in case one gets killed, there's one left to get the tourists out) were really playing things up.  One guy spoke almost no English, but he could very clearly say the following two phrases: "Five crocodiles!  It's your lucky day!", and "Today must be crocodile day!", leading us to believe that he had uttered those words much more often than he wanted us to know.  No matter - we really enjoyed ourselves, even going so far as to relax on the jungle floor for a picnic lunch of fried rice, hard boiled eggs, and bananas packed for us by the lodge.  Tejuille told us some funny stories about other clients he had taken into the jungle, including the nine young Israeli tourists who refused to climb a tree when a rhino started running at them, insisting that the nine of them could take on one rhino.  I guess two years of mandatory military service makes for a pretty inflated ego.  Hoping a wayward jungle chicken will wander into his waiting jaws, I suppose

This looks bad, but you should see the leech!  So we survived the jungle experience.  Our only brush with wildlife occurred when Wiley raised his pants leg and discovered that he had been the victim of a rather voracious leech.  Luckily, the slimy sucker had bailed after making lunch of his corpuscles, and was nowhere in sight.  Throughout the day we saw many langur and rhesus monkeys playing in the trees and grasses, huge storks feeding their young high up in their nests, barking deer, and the dreaded and deadly jungle chicken.  We finally emerged from the jungle, hot and tired, at about 5:00, having spotted nothing more dangerous than crocodiles.  A cold beer and a cold shower brought us quickly back into the realm of the civilized world.

We had dinner back at the lodge, and that night in bed we both agreed that we had just experienced some of the most bizarre and unsettling occurrences of the trip.  Freshly showered, we had sat down to dinner prepared by Vishnu, the cousin of Govinda and Tejuille, who told us that he had never cooked before.  The lodge was running with a shoestring staff during the big festival, although we got the distinct impression that things probably were a little dicey on a good day there.  As we began eating, a dog approached the table.  I didn't really notice anything special about the dog, until one of the lodge employees began throwing rocks at him.  When I protested, Tejuille said, "This dog is crazy", and it was then that I noticed that the dog looked very sick.  He was staggering and drooling, and Wiley and I both realized that this dog, no more than five feet from us, was suffering from rabies.  The guys began throwing more rocks at him, and he yelped and ran away.  I became upset and said that we had to find someone to put the dog down, that he was obviously suffering and that he could bite a human and infect them with rabies.  Tejuille said that there was no one to do this, that the vet from the elephant center was incompetent, and most likely wouldn't help because no one would pay him for this work.  I said that someone must have a gun, surely, and could end this dog's pain, and he laughed at this.  "No one has a gun here!  People don't want to kill anything.  They would rather chase this dog and throw rocks at it.  They don't believe in ending the life of anything living.". 

This experience upset me terribly, and I thought about it all night.  What should I have done?  Should I have tried to bash the dog over the head with a chair?  Should I have tried to smother it with a heavy blanket?  What COULD I have done??  I thought about my friend Lisa Grose, who just completed vet school, and wondered what she would have done in the same situation.  I have been thinking in the last couple of months about going back to school to become a vet myself when we get home from this trip, and this experience solidified my plans.  Surely, there is something I can do to help, someway that I can facilitate education and changing of attitudes in areas of the world like Nepal.  The next morning I told Govinda about the dog, and asked him to call the police.  He said that he would, but seemed more interested in soliciting my opinion about what action he should take on the bite he had received from a rat during the night. 

After the dog ran away, Tejuille began to fill us in on his life.  He told he had gotten married five years ago because his wife, then fourteen years old, had been the subject of intense gossip in her village.  She and Tejuille were close friends, and he helped her with her studies on a regular basis, but when boys and girls spend time together in Nepal, people begin to talk, and the pressure mounts on the girl to get married to the boy.  Eventually, the accusations surrounding the girl and Tejuille reached such a fevered pitch that she told him she would have to commit suicide if he didn't marry her, she was so disgraced and shamed.  Tejuille did the only thing he could do in the situation, and now they have two children.  He said that he has grown to love her as a wife, but the whole incident caused him to have to abandon his university studies in economics and train to be a jungle guide, so that he could support his family. 

Tejuille finished off the sad story of his life by telling us that Govinda, his brother and manager, regularly opens his mail, taking whatever he wants, and skims money from the tips left for him by tourists he guides in the jungle.  We couldn't believe this - Govinda seemed like a really nice person - but Tejuille insisted that he had proof.  He said that he couldn't confront his brother about it, that it wasn't his style.  Wiley suggested that perhaps some communication was in order, and the next time we saw Tejuille and Govinda together they had been enjoying many beers and appeared to be the best of friends.

We did finally get to see some rhinos that night.  Vishnu woke us up around 1:00 A.M. because two rhinos had come out of the park and were helping themselves to the neighbor's rice crop.  As we tramped noisily through the shed, a startled water buffalo rose sleepily to her feet, no doubt bewildered by all the people in her barn at that hour.  The rhinos didn't seem to mind that we were shining a spotlight on them, but looked up occasionally to make sure we saw the menacing  horns they sported on their snouts.  The next day we were both slightly unnerved to see, in the daylight, just how close we'd been to those monstrous, prehistoric-looking animals.

As the official mascot of the Republican party, what do YOU think of George W.?  The real rhino-viewing at Chitwan occurs from the back of an elephant.  No visit there is complete without an elephant safari, and every package includes one.  There were three of us sitting in the howdah, the small platform that is positioned like a saddle on the elephant's back.  The driver sits just at the back of the elephant's head, and controls the huge beast by poking him with his bare feet in the backs of his enormous ears.  The driver also has a wooden stick and an extremely menacing-looking iron baton, which he occasionally used for no good reason that I could see.  Our elephant did his job beautifully, moving the heavy undergrowth with his trunk so that we could get a better view of the rhinos.  The highlight of the day was seeing a mother and baby grazing on some tasty vines.  She kept one eye on the baby and one eye on us, but the baby seemed to know better than to get too close to us, and stayed hidden most of the time.  Talk about your buns of steel!

We finished our days at Chitwan without seeing a Bengal tiger, and I was pretty disappointed about this, but I suppose I should have realized that it was pretty unlikely in the first place.  Tigers are nocturnal, solitary animals, and the people who have the best chance of spotting them are the visitors who stay in the lodges inside the park, where a night's stay costs between $200 and $450 per person (all inclusive).  They are taken out at night in jeeps, specifically to spot the tigers during their hunting time.  I would like to go back one day and stay at one of these places so that I, too, can have the amazing experience of seeing a tiger in the wild.  For now, I guess it will have to be enough for me just to know that they are thriving there.

We bid farewell to the employees of Skyline Jungle Lodge and boarded the bus to Kathmandu.  We had an infinitely more pleasant experience than we had on the way there, with big, comfortable seats and plenty of leg room.  We alighted in Kathmandu around 4:00 and headed straight for our favorite restaurant, New Orleans Cafe, for some sangria and red beans and rice.  The city is really just another kind of jungle, but we agreed that a soft bed and good food are necessary after too many days of roughing it.  We planned to give this incredible city its due over the next few days, take in the sights, and spend some time relaxing, before heading on to the next adventure in Thailand.

Click here to continue in Nepal with "I Think I'm Goin' to Kathmandu!"




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