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Off the beaten track
December 13, 2012 - Anita Hanaburgh
Today, I am a bit off the beaten track from my food and restaurant topics.
I am walking through elephant grass. It circles my head four, maybe five, feet. Its moist blades brush my tired face. The turned blade reflects its recognizable golden color; the rising sun transforms its left side to a bright green.
The night before, my dinner companions had seen signs of a python in the tawny sand and followed a small viper up a banana tree. Snakes. I hate snakes. But today I have lost my perpetual fear. My thoughts pursue a more imminent danger. We are on the hunt for the elusive Bengal tiger.
My five companions have allowed me the middle spot, a reward for my sex, my size and my age. Safe? Our guide carries a single long bamboo stick — small protection against this king of the jungle. No guns are allowed in the 400 square miles of wilderness of Royal Bardia National Park. We are in Nepal. I am too far removed from my home.
We walk silently. I hear the rustle of the others’ feet. I look down at my modest white and blue Nikes. I chose to leave the hiking boots at home, unwilling to pay for the extra weight. I regret that choice. We walk. My eyes keen, my ears open, my heart is racing. I no longer need the caffeine I lusted for at dawn.
An hour later, we reach our destination: a lookout tower, looming 40 feet above the Karnali Basin. Still silent, we climb. The arched steps barely hold my feet, the steepness is difficult so early in the morning. The top gives spectacular views, perhaps a mile in each direction. We select a post. The tower sways as we each “settle” on a side. The primitive bench feels safe and surprisingly comfortable. I take a deep breath. I rest my chin on my hand and look out. The rocky river is bent, here allowing open views. Its wide, shallow bed tells of monsoon floods, many months off.
Ram Chan, our guide, whispers for me to look around the edges, as the tiger does not like the open but does not like the bush. As my heart calms, I think of my good fortune, mixed with my fear. I am here. The mist is rising over the densely canopied sal trees, revered by Buddha, that line the river. I continue to look out, hoping to see the tangerine and black stripes.
We are all quiet. I look at my friends, intense at their charge. There is a slight smell of DEET — we are all aware that mosquitoes can be as deadly any four-legged animal.
Ram opens his pack and passes out cake and biscuits. The cake is very sweet; sugar cane is plentiful in this jungle region. The cake is made with rice flour.
Now is harvest time. We have seen the villagers busy with this work. My eyes continue to scan the river as I think of the milling of the rice, the oxen stomping the chaff. The villages here are primitive but clean, the people beautiful and friendly. Crops are plentiful. Fields of drying rice crisscross yellow fields of mustard, which is used for the oil, not the paste.
The biscuits are flaky and flavored with cardamom. All foods are flavored with cardamom. When the crumbs fall, the ants immediately race for them. I sip a sweetened lime drink mixed with rose water.
It is not difficult even for me to sit so still and quietly. I long to see this fearless animal. As I search the landscape, I am in another world, but as I wait, I think of my family and my friends. Fear is gone. I feel calm.
My eyes keep vigil. My heart is still, and I am enjoying the hot sun as it melts my layers. Earlier, in the jeep, I shed the blanket I stole from my cot to hold off the morning chill. I now remove my old Eddie Bauer khaki jacket. I am glad to have her with me; she has not seen such wonders before. The sun feels amazing. But this hot sun will keep the tiger away from our view. The sweater goes. I am in a T-shirt. It reads “Soroptimist of Fulton County.” I smile.
This is my last day away from home. I am on a morning safari. I have come far for this experience: intense India, incredible Nepal. We sit for another hour. We do not see a tiger. I am not disappointed, realizing there are very few left. I have had the experience I sought. I know the Bengal tiger was nearby. I sat by the river that feeds his life, a river fed by the glaciers of the Himalayas, a river that flows into the sacred Indian Ganges. This is enough.
And now, we will walk back to the jeep then drive for two hours through the towns of this valley, take a small plane from Nepallung to Kathmandu, fly to Abu Dhabi, then London, then New York City and finally drive the four short hours home. I did not see the Bengal tiger, but I saw wonders, and best of all, I did not see any snakes.
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