Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ending my Time on the Subcontinent with Rhinos and Colonialism

Time has gotten away from me a bit, and though I actually returned from Asia last Thursday, I haven't had a chance to recap the end of my trip. Actually there's not all that much to tell, because we were so exhausted from the trek that we decided to take it easy and not try to pack too much in. We headed to the south of Nepal to Royal Chitwan National Park, where we spent a day on a jeep safari, during which we saw rhinos and I learned that they look an awful lot like hippos - most of them were almost fully immersed in water and just sitting there to avoid the heat! We also saw monkeys and various birds, wild boars, and even a bison! I didn't think those existed in Asia... The next day we did another safari, this time on the back of an elephant. We had mixed feelings about this, but the elephants seemed to be well cared for and happy, and we figured that having four people sitting on top of them is roughly the equivalent of my carrying a small backpack, so it's probably not too terrible. Well, our elephant driver did a good job and got us in front of the pack, so we got to see rhinos from a few meters away (they aren't scared away if you are on an elephant, as opposed to a jeep, which makes them run away), but the elephant was not well trained to carry people, so we spent most of the time being hit in the face with branches, which were all covered in some kind of white fungus, such that by the end, we were also covered head to toe in junk. And since it was first thing in the morning, we also got the privilege of knocking down all the spider webs that had been formed overnight... with our faces. At some point, as I was trying to remove a big spider from D.'s back and realized that we were stuck together by the spider's web, there was just nothing to do but laugh, which D. didn't appreciate much, since it delayed my removal of the spider. Nonetheless, it's the closest I've ever been to a wild rhino (or to an elephant, for that matter), so it was still kind of a good experience.

We also visited the elephant breeding center, where we saw adorable twin baby elephants and one very sociable young elephant who was coming up to all the visitors and asking for food. And of course you can't miss the elephant baths: every day they bring the elephants down to the river to wash them, and people can pay to sit on their backs and get sprayed with water, while the elephants' owners give them instructions essentially to dive into the water until the people get knocked off into the river screaming. We didn't participate, but it was definitely funny to watch!

Anyway, this was followed by some well-deserved R&R in Kathmandu for a few days, and then I headed off to Calcutta, where I was connecting to go home. Calcutta was having a heatwave unprecedented since the 1950s, and so it was almost impossible to do anything except stand under a cold shower. Nonetheless, I managed to wander around and was struck by how visible the British presence was compared to everywhere else I'd visited in India. Calcutta was the capital of the British territory in India for most of the time the British were there, so they built huge monuments and British-looking buildings all over the place. This also led to some of the most visible, abject poverty in India, as people left their farms to move to the city and work for the British and then were left jobless and eventually homeless when the British reign came to an end. I don't think I was expecting Calcutta to be so different from all the other places I had visited in India, but it was. It was at once more western, with American fast food chains and fancy restaurants, and more poor, with people living on the streets (and worse, burrowing homes into garbage heaps) everywhere you look. There is a huge volunteer presence there, but the work to be done seems almost never-ending. It was definitely food for thought.

And then next thing I knew, my two months were up and I was back in Belgium, happy for a little cool weather and a washing machine and a clean "sitting" toilet. It's the little things, sometimes. And then that was gone in a flash, too, when I boarded a plane for eastern Europe this morning to begin the next leg of my trip, which promises to be VERY different from my time on the subcontinent. Till next time...

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Adventure map for 2009...