Today didn’t involve quite the same big game thrill as yesterday, but walking through a forest inhabited by such charismatic creatures as elephants, tigers, bison, python, and tropical bears will always provide some degree of excitement to the traveling Canadian. We started the day launching off the north bank of the Rapti River in a dugout canoe just as the sun began burning a hole through the thick layer of fog. Once on the south side we were back in the national park and pretty well picked up where we left off on our walking tour the night before. For an hour or so we followed a road that paralleled a small stream, stopping quite frequently to hear Bishnu’s description of different bird species we came across. The most memorable of which were iridescent blue kingfishers and the rather mundane looking, but interesting whistling duck.
Soon we were passed by the leaders of a large group of locals who were on their way to harvest rice somewhere upstream. As we didn’t feel like falling behind them and having them scare away all the wildlife, we kept pace until a side trail veered off to the north and back to the river where we were able to spot a mugger crocodile and several different bird species. After this we made our way to the gharial crocodile breeding center. The gharial crocodile is a piscivorous (fish eating) species of croc with a very narrow snout. In this region the species is basically on life support, as the wild population would soon go extinct without supplemental stocking by the government funded facility. The main threats to the population relate to pollution and overfishing, which severely depletes their prey base. The short visit to the breeding center was interesting, as it let us get up close to some adult gharials (through a fence), which you would be really lucky to do in the wild.
We walked for a few hours southwestward, past a Hindu temple, and along a long road that tigers frequent before stopping for lunch at one of the many army barracks that house soldiers protecting the wildlife from poachers. The locals eat rice (and everything else) with their bare hands, but Emily was offered a fork after ending up with all sorts of food in her hair and down her shirt. After stuffing our faces we headed back into to the forest along a small track behind the barracks. We managed to see a couple of soft shell tortoises and to hear some unseen beast in the forest behind the pond. Most exciting of all for me was when we came upon a huge downed log lying beside the path. Bishnu started tapping on it with his stick and I thought he was trying to coax a python or something similar out the other side. In an effort to spot the serpent (and confident I could outrun anything without legs) I walked to the opposite end and shone my headlight into the surprisingly large wooden cavern. It was then Bishnu and Krishna both laughed and asked if I saw anything. When I declared the log snake-free Bishnu explained that a rather aggressive sloth bear regularly used the tree as a mid-afternoon napping place and that they were not looking for snakes at all.
As the sun got low on the horizon we headed south along a network of roads and trails until reaching the river that formed the southern border of Chitwan National Park. We waded across the sandy bottom and made our way across the rice paddies on the other side to the village of Madi. The village looked like it belonged in a National Geographic, with yellow mustard fields small enough to be worked by hand interspersed with grass-roofed clay huts. Children were everywhere, some of them running up to greet us with marigolds. Our homestay however was much less rustic than expected and we visited with a couple other tourists while we waited for supper. Dave was a retired, 70-something year old American Emily was particularly disgusted by as he loved to brag about his 23 year old Nepali “girlfriend”. Harry was an outgoing Australian student whose company we enjoyed much more.
After another delicious dinner of daal bhat with all the fixings, the locals invited us to a dance. It started off very awkwardly with the locals sitting across from us against the wall intermittently singing while our friend half-cut Harry did most of the dancing. Fortunately it didn’t take too long to liven up and soon all the locals were up doing their traditional dances along to their drums and folk songs. They started pulling on our arms to get us to join which would have been dreadful if Sean hadn’t had a fair share of rakshi (homemade rice wine) and the ones pulling on my arms hadn’t been a group of sweet little girls. Their names were too complicated to grasp over the loud music, but a group of about four girls between 5 and 14 years old wanted me to accompany them all night as they danced and sang. I held their hands and tried to mimic their traditional dance without feeling too stupid, and they even got Sean to join in! They loved it when he would take their pictures and squealed with laughter every time they looked at themselves on his camera screen. The younger girls would talk my ear off in Nepali when we’d take a break and I wish I could have understood them. Bishnu was also right in on the action and surprised us with his impressive moves. He told us the next morning that he had also been fueled by copious quantities of rakshi.
The girls I was dancing with were fairly well dressed against the chilly night, but there was one girl and a couple of boys with much less clothing and no shoes while their hair was a mess and it was obvious they didn’t get baths very often. They watched from the edges of the gathering and were shy to join in. When I motioned to one of these boys to join our dancing circle he looked like he wanted to but only would if I held his hand. The other girls who were so sweet to me yelled at him and smacked his hands away. It was sad to witness and I danced with him alone for a little and showed him some pictures of himself which made him smile despite his sheepishness. Sean figured this was an illustration of the caste system, which is a dominant social structure in Nepal based on strong divisions between social classes. I was surprised to see it in action in such a small rural village where it seemed especially strange to exclude neighbours so vehemently.