From the far northeast part of India.
Kaziranga National Park is famous for Rhinos and Tigers. It is home to a thousand of the former and nearly a hundred of the latter. Everyone said to expect poorly maintained highways and a long trip of at least four to eight hours. One look at the fleet of busses in the government bus terminal lot and I almost changed my mind about a quest for the elusive tiger. With persistence I finally found an ultra-deluxe bus service making a daily four hour run up the highway past the Wildlife Park.
As I snuggled into my comfortable $4 seat (plus $4 for my bag seat) at 07:30 I noticed in the adjacent bus a young woman apparently just learning the fine art of spitting. Her anemic effort produced a slurry that refused to completely leave her mouth and eventually dribbled down the side of the bus not more than a meter from my astonished eyes. I see very few women spitting, though it would appear that every man perfects the ability at birth.
Our bus, still fairly new eventually filled to capacity as our departure time neared. To my disgust, several passengers had brought along numerous items of "cargo" and the isle soon became a mountainous obstacle course. For some reason this luxury bus had most of the overhead baggage compartments blocked off, making them nearly unusable. The highway leaving town featured an endless series of "speed breakers" as speed bumps are called here. When we were finally on the open highway our bus tried to pass everything that got in front of it. It soon became apparent the behemoth did not have enough power to easily overtake other vehicles on even the slightest grade, making passing on mountain roads slow and dangerous.
The bus made two "pee stops" during the four hour trip. Men did as they do all over the world in Third World countries. The women sought out a barrier that completely screened them from the bus and indiscrete prying male eyes. In one case, nothing more than a tall pile of gravel sufficed. In the towns and villages men squat over a crack in the sewer covers to relieve themselves, apparently oblivious to the presence of other people, male or female. In certain places the smell of urine is overpowering.
Along the road I saw many villages where the houses seemed to be without electricity. From all the girls carrying water, I must assume many also lacked piped water delivery. Many of the cows looked to be little more than skin and bones despite their plentiful diet of rice straw, which must not be very nourishing.
Bamboo is a most versatile structural material. I saw bridges, ladders, carts, plows, furniture, and buildings made from it. A form of "plywood" is made from strips flattened out to allow them to be woven into panels using patterns that vary from region to region.
Hotels often carry signs offering Lodging and "Fooding." One sees many
modern buildings seemingly erected without planning among the pervasive
squalor, filth and decaying infrastructure. Unprotected high-voltage
transformers are common, making me wonder what parents tell their
children about the hazard.
Accommodations at the $29 Wild Grass Resort are luxurious by Indian standards, though rustic creature comforts required some compromises. There are no television sets in the rooms; they would be impractical anyway given the unreliable electrical power. Electrically heated hot water is available only when the city power is on. City power fails constantly and the auxiliary generator pauses about twenty seconds before resuming power for essential lights and equipment, which does not include the water heaters. Four inch thick Polyurethane mattresses insure all visitors will have the experience of sleeping in a monk's cell.
The grounds of the resort are tastefully landscaped to blend in with the natural forest environment, even though people long ago cut down most of the forest for firewood. Flocks of birds roost in our little wooded oasis and their songs and calls create a gentle ambience. My room is situated under a pigeon coop and scratching is audible throughout the night. In the morning before daybreak the birds all start their cooing, making for a most unusual alarm clock, certainly better than the amplified 05:15 call to prayer of the Muslims in Guwahati. Military guards armed with automatic weapons discretely patrol the grounds of the resort day and night. Most of the guests are Indian.My first afternoon the hotel took me over to the Elephant Festival which happened to be underway adjacent to the park entrance. Watching the animals eat convinced me they are very intelligent creatures. I watched one pick through a pile of palm leaves selecting one specific piece, then shaking it clean and eating only the unspoiled end, tossing the rotten part aside, In addition to the display of elephant skills the fairgrounds hosted perhaps 70 or 80 exhibits of tribal crafts. Many Indians approached me and the handful of other foreign tourists with requests for photos standing next to us, something I've encountered in China. On our return to the lodge, a BBC crew prepared to leave. Standing at the reception counter I saw Michael Palin, but could not remember his name, try as I might. His Pole-to-Pole series had been the inspiration for part of my African exploration and I wanted to thank him for his work. Hours later his name surfaced, but too late for an encounter.
The first morning in the Lodge I took a driving safari into the eastern area of the park. There we saw every variety of animal except the tiger, though we did see a tree where one had left its claw marks to alert other cats in the area of its presence. My driver told me he had seen only three tigers in the first three months of this season. That afternoon I took a Jeep safari into the western section of the park and missed spotting a tiger seen by another party by five minutes.
The second morning I booked the later 07:30 elephant safari into the tall grass where I learned we would see many rhinos up close. My beast had room for the mahout, a father and his two young, excited daughters and me. The Elephant Grass is aptly named as it grows so tall the largest elephants and their riders quickly disappear in the lush vegetation. As my beast swayed to and fro lumbering through the grass, it followed a tortuous path of its own making. Suddenly we would be upon one or more rhinos grazing in a small clearing. Tigers lurked around every little bend in the jungle trail... in my mind, at least. The last tiger census found somewhat less than a hundred cats in the entire park. My feet straddled our elephant just behind the mahout in such a way its ears occasionally brushed my shoes. That's one way to get a free shoe shine. Another is provided by the tall wet grass constantly scraping elephant and riders.
the accommodations were reasonably comfortable and inexpensive I decided
to stay another day to see if I could find an Internet cafe. During my
search serendipity led me into a meeting with Arfan Ali a 25 year old
student visiting his father, Dr. Ashraf Ali during the Muslim festival
of sacrifice called
Qurbani (an Urdu word meaning sacrifice from the Koran). His entire
family had traveled to be together at his father's sister's house. Arfan
invited me to observe the festivities for a few minutes. Close to my
resort entrance he led me into a compound screened by hanging
"bedspreads." Inside I found the ground covered with giant palm leaves
and six or eight men squatting over two recently killed cow carcasses.
They were in the process of removing the hides from the animals and
eviscerating them. I saw surprisingly little blood.
After we men finished our discussions of cultural differences and religious practices, we adjourned to the slaughter compound where the two cows had by now been reduced to several piles of butchered meat being placed in large containers for distribution according to the Koranic prescriptions: a third to other family members and close neighbors, a third to local poor families, and a third retained by the "wealthy" family head who had made the sacrifice with his own hands.After this most educational interlude Arfan and I set out in his car in search of the cyber cafe some ten minutes away. Before we left he had piled a large pan of meat on the back seat of his car and asked if I'd mind his dropping it off on the way to find my cyber cafe, adding that he would like me to meet his mother and sisters. I found the prospect of seeing how doctors in rural India live titillating and indicated I'd consider it a privilege. His family employs two boys, one as cook and another for outside yard maintenance. The women were giddy with excitement (anxiety?) when their son and brother showed up unexpectedly with a foreign stranger insisting that he join them for more hospitality. I'll bet Arfan got hell later!
The unpretentious house consisted of a spotlessly clean large living room-dining room combination, a simple kitchen with a gas hotplate on a broken concrete counter with running water and a sink, a fully tiled bathroom that made me think of the boys locker room back in high school, and two bedrooms, each containing king-size beds... and not much more. The ladies could not have been more gracious, scraping together tea and cookies for the unexpected guest. As it turned out, the only Internet access available in this area had closed in observance of the Muslim holy day, but the trip had hardly been wasted from my point of view. Mrs. Ali may never speak to her son again, however.
I've long known that shaking hands is a common way colds are transmitted from one person to another. A friend recently sent me a list of statistics regarding the various other pathogens we pass around by the simple social gesture of shaking hands. People in this part of the world have long practiced a non-contact form of social greeting, the Thai wai or the Indian namaste. The gesture looks like a brief prayer accompanied by a slight bow. It conveys the sentiment of respect and holiness at the same time. The Western hand-shake is an anachronism that has outlived its relevance; it is uncivilized and unhygienic! As a kid I remember how everyone accepted the inevitability of smokers doing their unhealthy thing. It had always been that way and no one could imagine smokers giving up their "right" to smoke anywhere they pleased, anytime they pleased, regardless of the adverse health impact on others. My how things have changed! Is it possible the unhealthy practice of social hand shaking could be doomed to a similar fate? Think about it.
Enter almost any store in India for almost any reason and someone is sure to order you to "sit down." I think it is meant to be a gesture of hospitality, but seems a bit much for someone who has just popped in to ask directions to a nearby street.
After three nights of rustic living I headed back to the comfort of the Dynasty Hotel in Guwahati to plan the next leg of my journey into Bangladesh. Over coffee, another traveler informed me he had obtained a visa for the country in Agartala Tripra state. A flight to Agartala costs only $60 and after two final nights in Guwahati I flew south.
That's the story of Kaziranga. Until the next chapter,
PS: For anyone following my wanderings it will become apparent there often is a significant delay in getting out the postcards. At the moment I am in Dhaka Bangladesh.