Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Chitwan Experience

Monday afternoon, November 23, I squeezed myself into a Twin Otter, 20-seater, two-propeller airplane along with 19 other tightly-tucked-in passengers and we took off for Bharatpur airport in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Luckily it was only a 30-minute ride, and I slept part of the way, so no big deal. I was met at the airport by reps from the Unique Wild Resort, with which I had arranged a three-night, four-day package. They loaded me into one of the most beat-up old safari jeeps I’ve seen outside of old Tarzan movies, and we were off to the Resort. The jeep had almost no dials and gauges, and the ones that were left clearly didn’t work, but no one seemed to mind. I looked in vain for a seat belt, and then just settled back to content myself with the rolling, bumping, jostling, bouncing ride along a basic asphalt highway and later dirt and rocky roads. All part of the Chitwan experience.
The road wound through native villages and fields, most of which reminded me of Africa – large open dry areas with distant jungle. The other traffic on the roads included trucks, buses, jeeps, ox carts (with real oxen), camels and elephants. Yep, the elephants were everywhere, rolling from side to side and lumbering down the roads. As we approached one giant beast from the rear, I noticed he had the following tattooed on his right and left sides: “Passing Side” and “Suicide.” Nepali humor. (Ed. Note: They drive on the opposite side of the road here, like in the UK).
The ride also included a wide variety of jungle smells: smoke, dust, dirt, exhaust and elephant farts - at least that’s what they smelled like. Could just have been my driver. Anyway, we arrived at the Resort in about 30 minutes, and I was shown to my room, located across the road from the main camp area in the B Compound. Next level up from Ground, it had a couple of double beds and a clean bathroom. What it didn’t have, I found out later, was hot water. Damn. But the staff were extremely welcoming and friendly, and they greeted me with a smiling “Namaste” and fed me lunch right away, which was good, as I was quite hungry. Next (or first) on the program was a Nature Walk through a Tharu village, one of the local ethnic peoples. A nice stroll, as we went through the elephant compound (where the big boys were chained to posts), a couple of local wildlife museums and the village proper – mud huts, grass and hay structures, goats, poverty. Real third world stuff.
We ended up at a riverbank to watch the sunset – not quite as good as watching it from a Greek island, but not bad. At least, after the long sweaty walk, in 80-degree temperature, there were a couple of Everest beers to cool us down. After dinner, we were also treated to a local Tharu Cultural Program in a nearby village. This one was actually pretty good, with young men dancing in a circle and whacking each other’s sticks with their own sticks, and the ravening crowd was mightily impressed. The tall, thin Tharu emcee was obviously fluent in English, but his accent was from somewhere near Liverpool, and the crowd also had a difficult time understanding him. But it was still fun, and a good time was had by all.
The next day I was awakened by someone pounding on my door at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning. And it was cold in that room. And there was still no hot water. I shivered into my clothes, ran over to the dining hall for breakfast (just to get the blood flowing), and we were trucked off for our first day’s excursion – a canoe trip, in native canoes, no less. Ten people to a wooden dugout canoe, one native in the rear poling, and a guide in front to point out interesting sights, like exotic birds, sleeping crocodiles and early-to-rise elephants and their mahouts. It was a short tour, only about 30 minutes, but all my poor buns could take seated on that hard wooden seat in that narrow canoe.
We also did a short walking tour, checked out the elephant breeding ground, where we got to cavort with the elephant babies, and then repaired to another area of the river for the highly-touted elephant bathing. Immediately upon arrival, I stripped down to my swimming trunks, donned a t-shirt and sandals, and headed for the riverbank to find out what was what. I was directed to climb onto the back of one of the elephants – I’ll call him Jumbo – and the mahout headed him out into the river, about five yards from shore, where it was only about five feet deep.
The mahout then started yelling things to the elephant that sounded like, “Chhopp, takart, hardling, fukkin, panch,” or words to that effect. Apparently, these sounds were intelligible to Jumbo, and they obviously had meaning for him. What they apparently meant was, “Fill your trunk with cold river water, bend your trunk back over your head, and spray the old fat guy with as much water as possible.” Which Jumbo did. Oh, yeah, that was fun. The advertisements I had seen for this activity appeared to indicate we would be bathing the elephants; instead, they bathed us.
The mahout then urged Jumbo into deeper water and had him shake himself, which, naturally, resulted in my being thrown off, much as a rodeo rider is thrown off a bucking horse. He was too big to be a bucking elephant, but the result was the same. Into the water I went. I scrambled back onto Jumbo’s back as quickly as possible, as the river was aswarm with elephant turds the size of volleyballs. Atop Jumbo again, I was subjected to several more trunk-filled sprays of water before the mahout let me off. I hope the photos came out.
I dried off and retrieved my sandals, after loaning them to a Canadian who also wanted to try out the elephant bathing, and we all walked back to the Resort for a hot shower, a tetanus shot and lunch. After an hour’s rest, it was off on a jeep safari through thick jungle. It was slow going, as we were watching for any indigenous animals. We did manage to see some deer, a couple of wilds pigs and a few birds. Not a great safari, but the German tourists enlivened it by singing for us. Just what I wanted. After dinner, I walked into the nearby village of Sauraha for some shopping and a beer at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the street. Nice. That picture did come out.
Wednesday was another 6:30 wakeup knock, and I bounded out of bed, ready to start the day, especially since I’d gotten to bed the previous night by 10 PM. First was a bird-watching walk through the early-morning dewy jungle. Those who know me know bird watching is not particularly high on my list of priorities, but it was part of the program and I paid for entire program and I was by God going to watch some friggin’ birds or else! I think I saw maybe two birds, but at least I got my shoes and pants soaking wet, so that was alright.
Back to the resort for breakfast, which I wolfed down, then went back to my room to see if I could take a shower. Nope, still no hot water, so I had the manager put me in a new room, this time in the A Compound, next to the dining hall. I got hot water, which was nice, then later that night found out the beds were actually planks of teak wood with a thin mattress pad on top. My bones still hurt.
Anyway, after lunch was my last activity of the package, the elephant safari. This was also a cool deal, as were all of the activities involving elephants. Each elephant had a wooden boxlike frame on top of some pads on its back. Four people sat in the frames, one at each corner, with their legs dangling over the sides, so the weight was evenly distributed. Our elephant, I’ll call her Dolores, wasn’t the biggest one of the lot, but she was friendly and smart. During the jungle tour, at the commands of her mahout, I saw her search through some ground leaves with her trunk and pick up a dropped lens cap belonging to one of the passengers. Not bad.
Anyway, we rolled and bounced along the jungle paths, and came upon some deer, a couple of large rhinos, a few sleeping crocs and a canoe-full of other tourists. An hour and a half was about all our poor numb butts could take, and we dismounted slowly and painfully. Mr. Mahout gestured if I had enjoyed the tour, and I answered “raamro” (good) in my best Nepali. We each gave Dolores a bunch of bananas, which she accepted gratefully and with a trumpeted thanks. Upon return to camp, I headed to town again for a beer and some spicy meat munchies before dinner. I sat on the rooftop restaurant and watched the elephants and oxen and camels troop through the town, on the way to their own dinners. A good ending to a good day and, in fact, to a good trip.
During my stay in Chitwan, I’d met a young English teacher from Yorkshire, a couple of Canadians and some really nice young people from Beijing. The food was plain but good, with very few meat dishes. Mostly it consisted of fruit, veggies, potatoes, oatmeal, eggs, tea and coffee, and rice. Inquiries by the staff as to the tastiness of my meal brought out more of my fractured Nepali: Dherai mitho chha (What I am eating is good). Everyone was hungry after a day’s activity, and ate quite well.
The weather was also wonderful, sunny and clear and around 75 or so (22 C) during the day, although cold at night, down near freezing. The rooms were clean and neat, and we even had electricity most of the day.
The ride back to the airport on my final day was another adventure, one I hadn’t been expecting. My driver used the same safari jeep I had been picked up in, but the intervening few days had not been kind to my old pal. When the driver got up to speed on the highway, the front end shimmied badly and I thought a wheel was going to fall off, or maybe even the front axle, which made the entire trip much more interesting. Then, about halfway there, the driver suddenly stopped right on the road and hopped out and ran to the side of the road to relieve himself. No pulling onto the shoulder, no hazard lights (Hah!), no warnings, just stopped and peed. Hmmm. Then back into the jeep and off we went, shuddering and shimmering.
We arrived at the airport and I unclenched my hand and pried it off the door. I’d made it again. Checked in at the minuscule airport, no candy stands or newsstands or food or souvenir shops, just a couple of toilets which evidenced their keepers’ cavalier attitude toward cleanliness. It was just a short wait, however, and a half hour later I was back in Kathmandu and being met at the airport by Macha Raja, my driver buddy. He took me back to an empty house, and I settled in for a quiet night updating my journals and watching a movie or two and scrounging for something to eat. It was nice to be home. Only a touch under three more weeks to go. Now – what about that river rafting trip?


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