It was our last night in India and we were ready for a change of pace.
The border town was quite unbelievable; Indian immigration was nestled subtly between shops. I'd never have noticed it. [...] we walked the dusty dreary road across the border to Nepal. An equally humble border town greeted us with an equally unassuming immigration process.
I was very happy to see our final mode of transportation for the day - our G Adventures periwinkle bus! A friendly pilot and co-pilot drove us a few hours to Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha.
The whole place was extremely peaceful. We explored the site, barefoot, at sunset. Hundreds of prayer flags looped gracefully from tree to tree, rising and falling together in the breeze.
The story goes that Buddha's mother was pregnant and travelling to her mother's to give birth. While on the road she went into labour in basically the middle of the jungle. Her maids gave her a dip in the nearby pond and then she gave birth to Buddha under a tree.
Writing From Pokhara, Nepal 03.24.16
The [Tharu community] was nearly too quaint to be true. Stretching plains of low-profile rice patties, along with corn and lentils. People, goats and cows dotted the fields with fowl lining the streets. It seemed every hen in the village must have hatched chicks at the same time.
Children waved at us incessantly and the adults gave us mostly indifferent stares. Houses were small, square and mud-packed, as well as boisterously painted and modern.
Our little guest houses [were] mud-plastered huts with corrugated metal roofs, old wooden doors and simple beds. A mint green mosquito net hung over each bed, and a large mostly dead cockroach greeted us in the bathroom. It was all together extremely clean, charming, and comfortable.*
(*Let's just take a moment for "mostly dead cockroach" and "extremely clean", written in the same breath. The cockroach didn't bother us at all, truly. It really was clean!)
Most of the group went on an optional evening bike ride around the village. It was fun and easy with the breeze on our faces and the dirt road beneath our wheels. We ended up by the river, very low and calm as it was the end of the dry season. We hung out for a while, drinking chai and eating cookies.
We had a Nepali thali dinner in the dining room. Rice, papadum, pickles, fish curry, chicken curry, veg curry and spinach. The food was delicious. It was a great day, but long, and we'd had a few beers and some homemade rice whiskey (this is when I wrote the rambling, philosophical entry about Manikarnika).
The next morning we went on a community walk. Walking gave me a better sense than cycling; I could see into people's yards and homes. People live a combination of newer practices and ancient. Some grind rice flour with a see-saw pounding-device, others use mechanical mills. Most have smartphones and motorcycles, yet their homes are plastered with cow dung and mud.
I decided to have no expectation about the safari since I'd never been on one. (And didn't that just work out...)
The safari vehicles were large forest-green jeeps with open air seats raised in the back.
We set off rather slowly through the forest, Chitwan National Park. The jeep bobbed and creaked and leaned on the narrow road. The forest was fairly dry, with tall skinny trees forming a loose canopy and many medium bushes and undergrowth. The air teemed with butterflies, moths and bugs.
We got into the rhythm and the lull of the jeep, scanning the trees for anything that moved. A few birds, mynas and a bright blue one. A couple of monkeys scattered away through the canopy. About an hour passed, maybe more, and I settled into what I thought would be a gentle and boring safari.
Then, about an hour and a half in, we rounded a bend out of the jungle to see a massive clay-coloured boulder on the horizon. I was not at all prepared for just how huge a rhino would be. She was off the the left side of the truck, behind the tree line. with her calf at her side! (This is about the time I should mention that I was sitting at the very front of the jeep, int the left outer corner). We turned off the truck and in awe, whispered and pointed our cameras.
The rhino, keeping herself between her calf and us, slowly trudged away, her large plates of armour making her look all together dinosaur.
There was excitement and smiled as the group chatted. Wow, we are so lucky, not only one rhino but two! etc. We drove on [...] then as we pulled into another clearing the jeep in front of us pointed (or rather, the people did), as we saw another rhino - then two! - to the left.
One stood in the grasses, tall and white, staring at the other rhino: big, dark and brutish.
This was the Jurassic Park moment, the theme song playing, the cameras shooting.
Then, alarmingly quickly, the beasts snorted loudly, and the grey one took off after the white.
They almost clashed, then turned around a galloped furiously through the grasses. We were stunned to see the two huge males going after each other! They ran through the brush, parallel to us, and we could hear their thundering feet pounding the earth and their guttural, prehistoric sounds. Suddenly, before we could register what was happening, the white rhino shot out of the bushes running head first, straight towards us. [He] was running away from the other rhino, whose nostrils flared and mouth gaped somewhat horribly.
The jeep in front of ours sped away, leaving our jeep exposed. The white rhino careened off behind us into the woods and the pursuer slowed to a trot. I thought for sure our jeep would take off as well. Run away.
But the rhino set his gaze and came straight for us.
Our jeep driver, to my absolute terror, jerked the car around to face the animal rather than run away. I quite literally said out loud "no no no, OK, let's get out of here. Go go go". But the driver (and our jeep) and rhino were in a face off. The rhino came towards us, the jeep growled and revved, we came to a terrifying stand still, and then, our jeep lunged forward and the rhino turned his great head and trotted the opposite way.
Um, had we just faced off with a f*cking rhino?!
We had a collective moment of disbelief, terror, laughter and shock. We had just stumbled into a rhino turf-war and actually been confronted by one of the bulls. Truth be told I really did think he would charge us. I felt very exposed on the back of that jeep, with nothing between me and the rhino. My heart pounded wildly in my chest for a long time.
The jeeps sat there for a few minutes, the guides talked, and we set off again. Surely this must be it.
We drove in and out of highly treed areas and saw another (male) rhino in a grove. We were on high alert wondering if he would be aggressive or not. He just ended up turning around and peeing everywhere, marking his territory.
We drove through another grove of tress and some hog deer jumped in front of our path. A few adults and a fawn. So cute. Hah, this is more like it. Then, only 30 seconds down the way, another rhino sighting, the closest one yet.
He was lumbering through the trees to our left walking parallel to us. I felt extremely exposed again and wondered why the rhinos kept appearing on my side of the jeep... He was walking along happily and I thought "oh, that's nice. We'll just drive along side". We neared the end of the grove towards a small hill and a thought entered my mind: "I wonder if that rhino will take the higher ground and charge at us..."
Above: the rhino running up the hill to get the higher ground, my husband's blurry finger left in for the authenticity of the frantic moment.
No sooner had I thought it than it happened. Our guide moved quickly to the front of the vehicle with a large bamboo pole. He meant business! The rhino cantered up the hill, spun around, peed, put his ears back, and grunted.
Here we go again.
Him having the higher ground was a challenge, we had to speed up the hill quickly, turned sharply to the right (making me exactly perpendicular to the bull), and then reversed sharply and swung around the "growl" at him. He grunted back, re revved forward again, and he finally turned away.
I couldn't even fathom that it had happened again!
All in all we had seven rhino sightings of five different animals. (The same male rhino charged us twice). We were beyond lucky to see that many, I'm sure. It would have been lucky just to see one!*
*There are only 645 rhinos in the entire country (source), about 500 of whom live in Chitwan National Park.
I've never encountered a wild animal quite so foreign and unknown. The one horned rhino looked more like a stegosaurus than a modern mammal. Their plates of skin armour fit together like an armadillo's. They have great trunks for legs, like elephants, and their grunts sound something like a bear and a large pig and some imaginary monster. They are not at all beautiful or friendly or even intelligent-looking. They look solid; strangely out of place among the softness of the grass and butterflies and feathers. They're not noble, but I looked at them with respect. Powerful, lumbering, massive, impulsive, mentally slow but deceptively agile. Like a giant walking boulder, or a cloud of thunder rolling through a valley.
Soon after we did get down form the jeeps to see a vulture's buffet - skeletons of cows all piled together. The "elephant grave yard" from lion king.
Villagers took their dead or dying cows to be eaten by the Egyptian vultures. They lurked high in an old dead tree, looking appropriately sinister and wicked.
Back int the Tharu community
Kids mewed pitifully as the leapt, jumped and frolicked between our legs.
Preparations for Holi - the festival of colours. Local kids - children, not goats - joined in gleefully at the opportunity to throw coloured powder at tourists. Don't worry, I got them back. After being covered form head to toe (and down my shirt, and in my mouth), the powder fight turned into a water fight. Control of the hose was paramount.
Pokhara, Nepal: As a Canadian I drew the simile of Banff and Lake Louise is to Alberta as Pokhara is to Nepal - beautiful lake with a stunning mountain backdrop, hippie shops and a backpacker's paradise, a destination for extreme sports and tourism all around.
However we were greeted by hazy views in Pokhara...one of the joys of adventure travel is the complete lack of control and luck. The same Fortune that brought us face to face with wild rhinos brought us heavy smog in Pokhara and Kathmandu. The end of the dry season meant forest fires, and a lack of wind and rain coupled with pollution completely blanketed the Himalayas.
But we didn't come to Nepal for a perfect view or a postcard holiday. We couldn't see the mountains, but we could see and experience a wealth of things. Maybe Fortune that week was showing us that there's more to Nepal than the Himalayas; that there's more to a place than it's stereotype.
While in Pokhara we visited a trio of sights: the underground Hundu temple, Gupteswar Gupha, the Tibetan Refugee Camp and the World Peace Pagoda.
The stairs down to Gupteswar Gupha
The caves and waterfall
World Peace Pagoda
Tibetan sand mandala - before seeing this with my own eyes I didn't even know such things existed. Tibetan monks create the mandala out of sand, often taking weeks, before dismantling it (ie, destroying it).