My courage, I’m sorry to say, deserted me on the elephant-back safari that I took in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. This was way back in 1996 and I’m sure that Chitwan must have changed beyond recognition today. We were searching for the elusive tiger – on elephant-back. It was in those dense jungles of Chitwan that I learnt my first major lesson about elephants. These magnificent animals simply do not let anything stand in their way. Our elephant gleefully trampled through bushes, shrubs and smaller trees – some of which he uprooted with his trunk and then very nonchalantly threw away. Made us realise the tremendous power of the beast whose back we were burdening. It wasn’t only the elephant that I was worried about. Numerous overhanging leafy branches roughly brushed against us as we passed through, conjuring up unwelcome visions of colourful snakes dropping on the top of us. To make matters worse the mahout guided the elephant towards a river, telling us breezily that we would have to cross it in order to get to the other side. Cross a river on elephant-back? This was a new one. Would there be snakes in the river? What if our elephant decided to swim across? What would happen to us then? Would we all float by default? Mercifully we made it across without falling off – all of us still in one piece, our sense of humour intact. Needless to say, that with such a variety of things to worry about, the tiger was the last thing on my mind. When suddenly we heard a roar, all of us visibly stiffened. The mahout however dismissed the sound – it was just another elephant snorting. Whew! Viewing a tiger, face to face, while sitting atop an elephant would be tremendously exciting, I’m sure, but it required me to summon every ounce of courage that I possessed. We saw numerous rhinos, which all of us viewed a little dismissively, I’m sorry to say – rhinos were not tigers after all. Had I known then, how dangerous they could be then perhaps I would not have been so dismissive. Our safari ended without us having viewed the elusive beast. We had surrendered ourselves totally to the jungle and had been completely at the mercy of the elephant. Thankfully the elephant had done a brilliant job of looking after us.
Because we were travelling off-season, we had the full jungle camp to ourselves. In what I still consider the very height of luxury, the chef would ask us what we would like to eat for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner every day. Since we were the only tourists in the camp, his job was not too difficult. I had always thought that the particular trait of urging people to eat more even if they are full, is uniquely Indian but it looked like the Nepalis did it too. He would urge us to eat more and since he was an excellent cook, it wasn’t too difficult to oblige.
Nepal is such a small country but it has something for everyone – the myriad temples of Kathmandu for the cultural aficionado, the mountains and peaks of Pokhra waiting to be conquered and the jungles of Chitwan for the adventurous. Visiting the temples of Kathmandu was interesting not only for their aesthetic appeal but also for the rich stories that had been woven around them. The famed Pashupatinath temple is considered one of the abodes of the Hindu god Shiva and is located on the Bagmati River. It is of special significance to Hindus and I was amused to learn that non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple or view the deities. Religious norms such as these amuse, entertain and irritate in various degrees. The greenish-brown Bagmati River was in full flow with several Hindu funerals taking place on the banks, with the bodies of the dead in full public view. There was a long queue waiting to view the Pashupatinath deity. When it was our turn, we got a brief glimpse for about a second before we were shooed away by the pundit in order to keep the queue moving. One second was probably enough to get religious salvation, had I been seeking it, which just for the record, I wasn’t.
On our last day in Kathmandu there was a curfew enforced due to some reason. Even the taxis were not running that day. We told the hotel reception that we had a plane to catch and had to reach the airport somehow. They just shrugged their shoulders and said that there was nothing that could be done. We told them that they HAD to do something – we did not want to miss our flight to Mumbai. They thought for a second and made a phone call. Within minutes there was an open-air jeep waiting outside. The hotel reception had called the army to escort us to the airport! Since there was not enough place to seat everyone, some of the soldiers stood on the outside edge of the jeep. I could not resist asking them if they did this all the time. Only for you, was their extremely satisfactory answer.
When we were about to land in Mumbai, we were told that our flight was now being diverted to Delhi because of bad weather in Mumbai. We landed in Delhi, very much against our wishes and were put up in a hotel. The next day the weather in Mumbai had still not improved. Everyone had had enough by this point and the airline decided to risk it. The flight was only two hours long but the religious amongst us were already praying for a safe landing. Everyone held their breaths and the flight finally managed to land smoothly. The entire plane broke into simultaneous applause, which I’m sure caught the pilot’s ear in his cockpit. After a very memorable Nepal trip, we were finally in Mumbai.
There are some countries that manage to touch your heart. Nepal is one such country. I met so many different people during my travels in Nepal and for a while they became a part of my life. Whether it was the orphan called Sonu, who was going to travel to India to meet his adopted sister or our brave and selfless mahout called Vishnu-bhai, who brilliantly guided his elephant that day or the jungle camp leaders, who would join us for dinner under the stars every night or even the dashing, young army personnel, who escorted us that day – I remember them all clearly as if it all happened just yesterday.