23 January 2008

"Here come the elephants."

Royal Chitwan National Park may no longer be royal, but it's still the number three attraction in Nepal after the Kathmandu Valley and trekking in the Himalayas. And so here I am. On day one, I visited the nearby elephant breeding center, where I got to feed peanuts to some cute but surly babies. Who doesn't want to feed peanuts to elephants? Personally--and I am not being sarcastic--I live to enact stereotypes. The baby elephants haven't learned elephant etiquette yet, however. When I held out some peanuts in my hand, one of them just grabbed the whole bag with his trunk, tore them away from me (that trunk is pretty strong!), and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. A group of Chinese tourists came, too, but the old women of the group were too frightened to feed them directly. They kept shrieking ("Aieee!!") whenever an elephant's wandering trunk thrust toward them in supplication.

On day two, I rose early to board an elephant bound for the park itself. The same group of Chinese tourists--and me--rode a pack of six elephants (we sat on little platforms) into the park to look for even more wildlife. The Chinese were making so much noise yelling, chatting, and constantly taking photos of each other, I felt my choler rising. I was worried we'd scare away the rhinos. I guess we didn't, though, because we eventually did find a mama rhino and her baby. I didn't like that the elephant drivers essentially herded them into a clearing and surrounded them on all sides so the tourists could take photos, though. That must have been traumatic for them. But I also didn't like it that the drivers beat the elephants' heads with sticks and poked them with sharp, iron barbs when they didn't obey. I should have known such mistreatment would occur--I generally avoid such animal rides--so I doubt I will do this again. After it was over, I gave the elephant 100 rupees and a bunch of bananas as a tip. I got dropped off right at my hotel door, after all! The money he passed up to the driver. The bananas--the entire bunch, skins and all--he shoved into his enormous mouth. Then he took an equally enormous crap on the hotel path and left. Scary.

After the elephant ride, I had scheduled a jeep excursion deeper into the park. I was hoping to see tigers, naturally the big ticket item. I saw rhinos, monkeys, deer, and various birds on the elephant walk, but I was promised even better game further in. This did not materialize, however. Perhaps it's because the day was cool and overcast, but the animals were not much in evidence. I did see one beautiful tiger, kept in a pen, and some ghaurials and crocodiles. But other than a bunch of peacocks--one of which opened its tail feathers for us--and a brief sighting of some cute bears, I think the jeep was tearing through the park too fast for us to really have a chance to see anything else. Naturally, the guide said it's better in February and March. It's always better at some other time, in some other place. But why is this offered as consolation? I'm sure it was better 400 years ago in the Turkish seraglio if you were the sultan, too, but counterfactuals have nothing to do with the here and now.

One bookseller refused to sell me Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" for $10 instead of $15. I told him that nobody is ever going to buy it (in Sauraha, Nepal?), but he said lots of people buy philosophy here, pointing out some apparently popular pamphlets written by subcontinental sages I'd never heard of. I assured him he didn't know what he was talking about, but no dice. Another wouldn't trade me Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" for Paul Theroux's "The Old Patagonian Express." He wanted another $3.50 on top. Even though I explained that none of these paperbacks would be worth five cents in my country, he said he just couldn't do it. He must be a fan of Wolfe's cutting satirical style. In resignation, I bought the first book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. I haven't read sci-fi/fantasy in years, or anything remotely light in awhile, and someone recommended it to me back in college (I have a huge backlog, but I remember everything!). So I'll give it a whirl. If I don't like it, I'll trade it in turn for Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" or just go back to torturing myself with "Leviathan", which, to be honest, is quite funny. I did also see a copy of "The Man Without Qualities" floating around, but only the first volume... perhaps I'm not ready for that yet. I haven't even cracked open "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia", which I've long been eager to finish and trade in India for "The Anatomy of Melancholy" by Robert "Democritus Jr." Burton--just like "The Wheel of Time," a number one bestseller in its day (1621).

And now I must go. They'll be washing the elephants down by the river in a few minutes, and I'm certainly not going to miss *that*. Too bad it's too cold for me to throw on a bathing suit and join in. Ah, the regrets of one's life...

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