Chandu the Magnificent (Chitwan National Park, Nepal)
THE MORNING OF OUR JUNGLE FORAY I had the privilege of meeting Chandu's grandfather. (At least I think it was his grandfather. Sometimes relational terms are used loosely as with “brother” and “cousin”.) He told me grandpa was one hundred and one years old and, in his heyday, one of the few intrepid souls to ride a wild rhino. (Um, ride a rhino? When I was little, I tried to ride a St. Bernard so I know where he’s coming from.) Apparently, the best time for rhino rodeo is when they’re bathing in a lake or stream. This creates an acceptable level of lethargy and diminished reaction time. Ride a rhino on land? That’d be fucking stupid. You could say this guy’s been around. He was more than happy to pose for a photo.
So, into Chitwan National Park we went led by my seasoned guide (Chandu) and his trusty assistant (Denis). The first leg required a canoe trip down the river that forms the park’s natural boundary. We arrived riverside at 8:00 am and hired a local boatman. I love the mist that blankets that area in the morning. It makes for a mystical scene—as if one is venturing into a primordial forest full of strange and wonderful beasts. What lurks beyond that mist? Danger? Intrigue? A steaming pile of tiger shit?
We boarded our dugout canoe and shoved off. It wasn’t long before we left the patchwork of human activity behind, ensconced inside the jungle biosphere. Birdlife abounded. This included birds I would later identify as ruddy shelducks. Chandu claimed these ducks inhabit the area this time of year to escape the bitter Siberian winter. Allegedly, they mate for life and are often found in pairs. He also said the spouse’s death prompts the widow/widower’s suicide. Romeo and Juliet ain't got shit on these birds. I’m curious about their methods of self-termination. I suppose starvation would be the most expedient, but the romantic in me envisions a more dramatic end. Smashing my body against a rock kamikaze-style would be suitably theatrical. Or maybe I'd wiggle my feathery ass in front a mugger crocodile's face until dispatched. Perhaps histrionic and undignified, but satisfyingly creative none the less. I couldn’t confirm the suicide claim, but I refuse to let facts impede my imagination.
After a short float downstream, we beached on a small sand island for a pee-pee break. We weren’t the first to have that idea as mounds of rhinoceros shit could attest. When inhabiting territory they enjoy returning to the same spot for monument building. The analogy to my itinerant lifestyle wasn’t lost on me. I’m like a rhino who can't find a suitable place to keep shitting…Profound.
I learned rhino piss has medicinal qualities and is collected for several ailments to include asthma and flatulence. (I could have done with a spot of rhino wee per the previous night's meal). I’m a little unclear how it’s gathered, but I inferred from Chandu it’s scooped up immediately after Mr./Mrs. Rhino relives him or herself. This means you have to follow one until mother nature calls? Who gets that job?
The lower Terai, and the Chitwan Valley specifically, were first inhabited by the Tharu people. (Both Chandu and Denis are Tharu.) A curious factoid about these folks is their reputed immunity to malaria. Until the 1950’s, this area was the sole domain of the Tharu due to the threat of the mosquito-borne illness. But then…along came DDT and the World Health Organization's efforts to eradicate the disease. And with it came the migration (or invasion one might say) of other ethnic groups and peoples who started gobbling up fertile soil, essentially making the Tharu second-class citizens in their own backyard, mere farmhands for rich landowners.
By 9:00 am, Chandu was well on his way to being smashed. He was sitting behind me in the canoe, so I didn’t realize he’d been sipping raksi (homemade brew) out of a glass bottle. I became aware when he shared the wealth with a friend we passed downstream. When the Chandster starts glowing, he’s exceedingly garrulous. And although it was rather endearing, and I agree with many of his sentiments, the more shit-faced he gets the more enigmatically philosophical he becomes and, by default, the more incomprehensible. His English is decent but degrades exponentially with each raksi injection.
One of his soliloquies went something like this:
"Riiiiichaaaard. Do you see the nature beauty and quiet jungle river both sides? I enjoy going into jungle to see the nature, listen birds, and get way from people. Birds are freedom. They don't care the problems have to do this or that. They just fly and no care about troubles. You see fisherman there? He come sit in morning eat fish sleep very quiet enjoy like birds his canoe the quiet. I like this. I not just about business. I not like Raju (The “pirate” who bilked me for dinner and a bottle of whiskey the previous evening). I like the nature. I wild by the nature. Many years I come to jungle to fish, watch birds, enjoy the nature, see the fish, drink raksi in canoe with the moonlight, enjoy the nature, I wild by nature. I meet you and I want to come to jungle with you to show the wildlife, the birds, the nature, the quiet, far from the people ruin the nature go to doing this or that…Ahhhhhhhhh…this is the nature, jungle, quiet, I guide twenty-two years…Riiiiichaaaard…do you understanding with me the wild by nature?"
Luckily, I was sitting up front. This allowed me to conceal my perma-grin. Now and then I’d interject with a “Yep” or “Yeaaaaah, it sure is nice” or “Sure I do” or “You’re right, people do suck.”
We arrived at our trekking path and set off into the jungle proper. Unfortunately, the animals decided, as they often do, to play hide and seek. There’s a pattern common to wildlife guides the world over. Always you’re headed to the place to see this or that creature, but upon arrival, are confronted with the unthinkable: no animals doing their animal thing in the place where they’re always supposed to be. The best part is when, as on this occasion, the guide behaves as if this were the case along.
“Rhinos? Oh, no, rhinos wouldn't be here now. Too hot. Hiding in forest. They come to drink and bath in morning and late afternoon.”
Riiiiiight. During a quick side trip into the elephant grass to see if he could smoke out a rhino (good idea?), Chandu sliced his hand on the gargantuan weed, a sharp and unforgiving grass. I’m sure it had nothing to do with his blood alcohol level…nothing at all.
Although we saw little the first day, I wasn’t disappointed. Just being there is worth the effort and, notwithstanding Chandu's diatribes on human folly, the journey was time well spent. Day one? Two thumbs up.
But it wasn’t over. For our first night's lodging, we crossed the river again to a village on the park’s edge, Denis’ village. He built a hut with a few rooms to house tourists who want a taste of life in Chitwan Valley. His family home was a short walk along a meandering path. It was there we’d be eating dinner.
Denis went home to get the key. Chandu disappeared. I took a book break, escaping into Rubicon: The Last Years of The Roman Republic for a spell.
Denis returned and I entered my humble abode. Not long after, Chandu came to fetch me. As the obedient fetchee, I followed him to a small food stall where he’d been quaffing raksi…again. He wanted me to join in. I had little desire to drink, but less desire to be impolite, not just to him, but the owners and locals that sat down to chat and check out the white freak show. As always, I found myself in a situation I was incapable of fully understanding. Chandu was five sheets to the wind, making his English unintelligible. And after gin, red bull, raksi, and who the hell knows what else, I was glowing a bit myself.
One thing I did catch from my intoxicated chaperone was his firm belief in his own popularity. As I watched the faces of those he interacted with, I wasn’t so sure they shared his enthusiasm. Now, I was getting a clearer picture of my fearless leader and probably would’ve been worried about the upcoming days if I wasn’t also drunk.
An hour later, Denis came to get us for a walk along the river bank before heading to his house for supper. Chandu was a puddle, lagging behind and behaving as if collapse were imminent. At one point, he screamed something about getting marijuana from some dude named Baba. We just giggled and let him venture through his own little world. While Denis took me on a pleasant stroll through the village area, Chandu went on ahead, more out of necessity than anything else.
Denis' village, although obviously poor, was well kept and tidy. I might even say quaint. The people were wearing smiles, and the children were playfully curious. I was glad to be there and appreciated sharing a meal with Denis' family. A good day. A very good day.