Awoke before the sun, thanks to creatures of the night and of the imagination. Slept well, though still somewhat anxious and leary of everything….my home a jungle hut with no electricity or running water, my bed a cot draped in mosquito netting with lots of big holes. But a warm welcoming breakfast of milk tea and banana rice pancakes hit the spot and helped to jump start the day.
It began with a walk thru town, a small rural village inhabited by the Tharu people. The children laughed and played marbles on the dirt road while cows meandered everywhere, along with chickens and the occasional sheep. The houses are quite spacious compared to other third world living quarters. They are made of clay – the walls, the floor, the rice containers, all but the roof which is thatched grass. A fire pit in the center of the room is the kitchen. A few blankets in the corner of the room is the sleeping area.(family beds – a concept long lost on western society). Baskets hang everywhere holding things like potatoes, eggs, chicks, even chickens. The only furnishings are large clay pots to store the rice, surrounded by mortar/pestle type clay fixtures to grind it. Basically, these homes are all about the rice. This village is all about the rice. Tharu life is all about the rice.
And my lunch, too, was all about the rice. Accompanied by curried vegetables, potatoes, and kale, it made for a traditional Nepalese meal, complete with milk tea of course. A welcome dining experience for my vegetarian appetite. Yes, I could live a life all about the rice too, and I’d never know hunger.
In the afternoon we set out for our first tiger trek into the park. It was a very odd feeling being on foot, with only a small barefoot Nepalese dude carrying a stick as our guide. We followed him closely through the tall grasses and along the edge of a river to a large tree, where we climbed the branches and watched and waited for a tiger to appear. It didn’t.
But the excitement lingered in the air, as did the scent, the strong fresh unmistakable scent of Tiger. Anyone who has visited a zoo knows what I’m talking about, only there were no cages, no barriers, no signs to read. Just that familiar pungent smell of the big cats.
We crept through the tall grasses and along the river bank following fresh tiger tracks. Fresh, as in today, this morning, just hours, maybe even only minutes ago. Every once in a while our scrawny little guide would crouch down and wave us to do the same. The adrenaline raced through my blood as I held my breath and readied my camera. But the elusive tiger kept her cover, and the guide would slowly stand upright and creep onwards, scanning the surroundings and keeping one eye always on the tall grasses lining the river bank. Our ears were as fine tuned as our eyes, and every rustle in the grasses sent us to our knees. I cannot begin to describe the fight with my instinct this gesture proved to be. My instincts said run….screamed RUN….but again and again the guide would insist on us crouching down motionless. I felt utterly defenseless in this position, just waiting for the tiger to leap out and start swatting me around like a ball of yarn. Apparently though, tigers, being cats, prefer a good chase. So the LAST thing you want to do is run. The little barefoot Nepalese guide assured us again and again it’s safest to crouch down, it’s dangerous to run.
As we continued wandering the river’s edge, suddenly, or perhaps at last, we got a fright when the grasses rustled behind us and something came right out at us, just about 10 feet away. I crouched down, shut my eyes, and prepared to meet my fate. (I’ve always said that when I go, it’s gonna be at the jaws of nature, not man). When seconds passed, which felt like a lifetime, and I noticed I was still alive, I peeked up to see a very startled deer staring at a very startled human (me). I breathed again. I slowly rose and looked around. Much to my surprise, my guide was nowhere to be seen crouching along the river bank. Then I heard him call out – he had legged it to the other side of the river in what must have been one serious leap, cuz I never heard a splash. I still don’t know how he got there. Needless to say, I returned to my jungle hut that evening not disappointed, but rather, much relieved that I didn’t see a tiger today!