I stayed five days and six nights at Bardia Jungle Cottage, and for the first two days struggled with a bad headache that took a little of the edge off the full-day jungle walks. But, on the first day, walking with Shiva the guide, Subash, Jorn from Holland, and Flo, from France, we heard a male tiger calling in the jungle a little further upriver. The evening I’d arrived, Jorn and Shiva had returned at dusk having just seen a tiger at close quarters: just fifty metres away. Jorn’s camera had seized up, but he showed me the photograph he’d made with his phone. It was excellent.
Shiva and I spent the second day in the jungle and neither saw nor heard tigers. We saw rhinos, though: close – almost too close. We could hear the giant animals feeding, and I saw the horn and muzzle of one as it browsed in the metres-high grass, then the sudden snort as one winded us and they crashed away – fortunately, not in our direction. For a while I forgot the headache.
Perhaps I’d been affected by the events of the last two days. Even in that moment of wildness when I’d heard the tiger calling, the background was suffused not with the roaring of the void, but by the faint, far-off roaring of traffic and towns. I’d grown up with tales of Jim Corbett’s time in the jungles of India, and some of my nostalgia must have been for those tales and the imaginings they conjured. As I’d stood in the dust of the river bed and studied the pug marks of a male tiger, I’d thought of Corbett. But even when I’d first read his stories as a child, those times had all but gone, just as Corbett even then had long gone from India to spend the rest of his life in Kenya. The past had gone; the past is irretrievable except through memory and imagination, and both are hopeless guides to what actually happened. Maybe this, then, is one of the reasons I keep these journals: as a safeguard against the short-comings of memory and a reign on misleading imagination.
By the third day I needed a rest. The headache had almost gone but that and two long days of heat and dust had left me worn down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I took a rest day, that would be the day I’d have seen the tiger, but I also knew that if I didn’t skip a third consecutive jungle walk I wouldn’t see one. Convinced by this irrefutable logic, I told myself I’d come to Bardia to see lots of animals and birds and a tiger would be a bonus, and I took a rest day.
Taking it easy, I walked slowly down the dusty road towards the Wild Trak lodge where Joe was staying, passing most of the other lodges on the way. I asked after him but he was in a jeep in the jungle. The place seemed well maintained, but the room I was shown stank of mould. The double duvet in my room had needed a good airing too, but the room itself was OK, and the single duvet I’d used instead didn’t suffer from the mouldy smell.
Hans and Mirian, the Dutch couple who’d arrived the previous day had rented bicycles and had met a young German couple who, coincidentally, I’d spoken with at Wild Trak. Back at Bardia Jungle Cottage, we sat at one of the outside tables and talked about travelling. Hans ordered a beer, a Tuborg. I felt comfortable with my new friends, so I thought ‘Why not?’ and ordered one too.
I explained my predicament. I could carry on to Mahendranagar in the far west of Nepal and cross the border to Banbasa, but that would return me to India sooner than I intended. Alternatively, I could return to Kathmandu, but that also had problems. I’d scored a cheap flight from Delhi to India, but all the return flights were expensive, and I’d already spent a substantial sum on the flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj. I could cross the land border, but that would put me well out of my way and I’d waste days getting back to Delhi, then have to head up to Uttarakhand – a roundabout way to get where I wanted to go.
Then there was the problem of getting from Bardia back to Kathmandu. The thought of a thirteen-hour bus trip to Pokhara was more than I could bear – I’d done that trip in the other direction in 2014 and had sworn never again – but flying back from Nepalgunj was out of the question. Then the German woman suggested breaking up that trip with a stop at Tansen. Hans and Mirian agreed immediately; they’d stayed at Tansen and liked it. The Germans jad liked it too. However, that still left the problem of how to get from Kathmandu, which I’d have liked to return to for a few more days, back to Delhi – flying to Kathmandu had been cheap, but the flights back to Delhi were proving to be exorbitant.
But I had food for thought and a few more days to think about it, so I didn’t need to make a decision right then.
I walked the other way along the road in the evening but didn’t feel like going far. On the way back, a family called out to me. I replied and walked over to see them and ask if they’d like a photograph. The young man straddling his motorbike nodded and gave instructions to what I assume were his younger siblings. The toddler burst out crying, and a woman came out of the house, laughing, to pick the child up. The younger of the two girls, though, followed instructions and posed for me, and after a couple of attempts and a little teasing, I managed to get her to smile. I showed them the result and they seemed pleased.
I introduced myself.
‘I’m Pete,’ I said.
The young guy’s name was Ahmeed. I thanked him for letting me photograph his sister.
‘Danyabad,’ I said.
‘You speak Nepali?’
‘No. Only danyabad. Namaste.’ I paused. ‘Aloo ghobi.’
We laughed. I’d used the joke before, but it always worked. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head then held his finger and thumb fractionally apart.
We’d managed some communication, though.
On the way back, I came across a tall Dutch man, with short grey hair, crouching at the side of the road photographing a couple of tethered buffalo. He, too, had seen a tiger in the park, albeit briefly because everyone had got excited and started making a lot of noise. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone who visited Bardia saw a tiger except me. I could only dream of a sighting as good as Jorn’s, and the young German couple had seen one across the river; the photographers with big lenses got excellent pictures, they said.
The account was good to hear. I’d expected Ronald to say the manager had offered to drive him to Nepalgunj to get cash from an ATM, but I suppose the economics of that would have been marginal, and the advantages in terms of goodwill and reputation were more important.
My last day in the jungle failed again to deliver a tiger sighting. I’d said I was philosophical about it, but after hearing about some excellent sightings during my stay, I had to admit some disappointment. Even the rhino encounters had been either more distant or less visible than at Chitwan ten years ago. That was no reflection on Bardia; I’d just dipped out this time. I did see giant hornbills, though, and sightings of those were reputedly rarer than tiger sightings. Somehow this didn’t entirely compensate, though, because if tiger sightings were as common as reputed, I’d been unlucky not to have seen one.
Breakfast was banana pancakes with honey and no banana. This was usual. The menu listed green tea, so I ordered some, but there was no green tea. I asked for a small pot of black tea without sugar; the tea was indeed black – almost lethally so – and it came with a bowl of sugar. I liked the initiative: to have asked for no sugar and received some, fortunately not already added to the tea, was better than asking for sugar and not getting it. The previous day I’d said to Hans and Mirian that when ordering food here you expected what you got. They hadn’t understood at first but soon learned, and any inconvenience was more than compensated for by the good humour of the staff.
Hugely experienced travellers everywhere except South America, Hans and Mirian had decided to take the bus all the way from Bardia to Kathmandu. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be – I didn’t want to imagine it – but Mirian insisted she’d sleep most of the way. She could sleep anywhere, she said, and being a couple, they’d have seats together so they wouldn’t have a greasy-haired stranger using them as a pillow the way I’d had in 2014 on my 13-hour bus journey from Pokhara to Ambassa.
‘Come and stay with us in Holland,’ Hans said, and although I knew he meant it, I knew I never would – not, at least, unless my life changed radically. I walked back to Bardia Jungle Cottage, stopping to talk briefly to some local people and sometimes photographing them, and slowly getting used to yet another change.
My turn came, and I was pleased to be moving on and sad to be leaving. After five days and six nights, I’d become used to the routine and had even begun to think of my room with its minor shortcomings, including the only mosquito in Thakurdwara (it constantly woke me on my last night until I finally and deliberately extirpated the species from the region), as a kind of home. I’d liked the helpful, welcoming staff, even though my attempts to photograph them mostly failed to reflect their character. The jeep driver in particular had an excellent sense of humour and was clearly knowledgeable about the animals; when he and Subash had collected Joe and me from Ambassa, he’d heard me say to Subash that I’d like to see a Bengal florican, and although he had almost no English he recognised the species name and immediately explained to Subash that now was the wrong season – no Bengal florican. He laughed a lot, but in the only photograph he looked as grim as if I’d told him he’d just lost his entire family.
Premi accompanied me in the jeep and saw I got on the right bus. He wanted to know when I’d come back, and I felt touched by his appreciation of my stay, but I couldn’t say when I’d be back. Still, the time at Bardia had turned out to be more enjoyable than I’d expected and the thought of returning appealed. I hadn’t seen a tiger. But I had heard one calling, and on my last night at a quarter past eleven a chital had begun an alarm call, and soon after that another joined in. Perhaps a tiger had been prowling not far from where I lay, half awake, thinking of Jim Corbett and my family. We all grew up on Corbett’s tales; they’re part of the family folklore, and I hoped that in a few days’ time I’d be able to add to that folklore by visiting Champawat, where Corbett finally killed the most notorious man-eating tiger in history.
But, in just the two years since I’d first visited Bardia, Premi seemed to have grown noticeably older. It was the kind of aging that made me wonder whether I’d ever see him again, and I wasn’t sure I could visit Bardia knowing he was no longer there.
Already I missed Thakurdwara, too. I’d had just one reason for visiting Bardia: the wildlife. Yet, in the short time I’d stayed, I’d realised one of its main attractions was the way the local people so warmly and genuinely welcomed visitors. I hadn’t counted the number of smiles and waves and namastes, but if I had, I’d have lost count. Several times I was invited to come and photograph, or just come and talk, and never once did it feel as if anyone had an ulterior motive.
A few hours squeezed into a minibus and another hour on a slow but more comfortable local bus got me to Mahendranagar, the small border town for crossing into India, where I checked into the Hotel Opera. The room would have been comfortable if my back hadn’t been causing problems. The minibus ride, squashed in with too many people in a position that meant I was sitting twisted for much of the time, had affected me more than I’d thought, and this confirmed my intention to stay another day and hope my back came right.
I was aware of the temptation, though, and avoided it. I did spend some time in my room finishing the first blog post, but I thought of how Hans and Mirian would have spent time exploring Mahendranagar and not sitting around. I’d thought of the young German couple too: they were travelling around India on a rented Royal Enfield and were exploring central Asia in a van they’d outfitted themselves. Both couples made the most of wherever they were, and my own travelling seemed low-key and unadventurous in comparison.
I did wonder, though, how much their friends got to share of their experiences. By the time they got home, they’d have a huge store of stories, but how much would they remember, and how much would they remember accurately? Most importantly, would they remember accurately what they felt? Most travellers know the effect someone so aptly called ‘rosy retrospection’: the tendency to remember the good times and subconsciously downplay or forget completely the times of despondency and loneliness. Even difficult but eventful times can be easier to remember than those times when, alone, out of contact with friends and family, and in unfamiliar and uninspiring surroundings it’s easy to look forward to the end of the trip.
As experience accumulates, a traveller learns to recognise this and can therefore deal with it better, understanding its causes and realising it’s usually fleeting. None other than one of the greatest travellers, Colin Thubron, admitted feeling worn out and dejected at one stage of his journeying through China, and when I’d read that I’d felt the twin pangs of empathy and relief. Empathy because I’d felt like that often on my early travels and sometimes on my later ones. Relief because suddenly it had seemed OK to admit those feelings. So many people apparently need to project the persona of the vastly experienced traveller who does ‘authentic’ things and never feels worn down or in need of the company of friends, but if this persona represents them honestly, they’re either rarer than snow leopard sightings or utterly absorbed with their own significance.
I couldn’t imagine any traveller deserving more respect than Colin Thubron, and if it was OK for him to have down periods on his travels, it was OK for me too. I wondered, too, how much time he spent writing when he was travelling. Travelling is always a matter of drawing a line between living a life and recording it, and each of us draws that line differently, and for different reasons. I had decided long ago that travelling mainly to experience the travelling for myself was unjustifiable – for me, at least – and I wanted to share a life that – again, to me – seemed worth documenting.
But this ignored the fact that the major benefit of travelling is not what you do, but who you become. I hoped I was becoming a better person, but that wasn’t going to happen if I spent most of my time sitting in hotel rooms. The irony was that I was thinking about these things when I wasn’t experiencing them. I wasn’t feeling down and dejected, and although plunging into the madhouse of Mahendranagar felt a little daunting, I knew I’d end up glad I’d done it.
And that’s exactly what happened. Mahendranagar was resolutely non-western except for the ubiquitous advertising in English for Samsung and mobile network companies – a decade ago, Coca-Cola had been the inescapable presence in English but that had faded like the signs themselves – but 95% of everything written was in Hindi, which made even less sense to me than Chinese, in which the characters are at least separated.
But most of the people were friendly and welcoming, with an abundance of smiles and namastes. A great many wanted to practise their limited English, too, and I lost count of the number of times I heard the three-phrase greeting, ‘Hello. How are you? Where are you going?’
‘How are you?’ always had the stress on the last word: ‘How are YOU?’
I stopped for chai and became the centre of attention for a group of young guys who looked as if they’d enjoy being photographed. They looked pleased with the result, and I thought about trying to find somewhere to get the photographs printed. I already had some photographs of a couple of men sewing mattresses outside their shop and no doubt would have others before I left Mahendranagar.
Photographing wasn’t the only form of interaction, though – far from it. I had a great many brief conversations and some longer ones, including one with an off-duty policeman.
‘On duty at two o’clock,’ he said.
He wanted to know whether I liked Nepal.
‘I love Nepal,’ I said, truthfully.
He beamed, and later he asked me the same question, presumably for the enjoyment of hearing me say I loved his country.
‘Any problem, you go to police station,’ he said, and pointed down the road.
I assured him I’d go to the police station if I had any problem, and I thanked him, genuinely. I couldn’t envisage any problems, but I felt looked after, as if I had a friend who would make things happen if I asked for help. It was a good feeling.
I returned to the town in the afternoon, looking for a photo lab, but the man at reception had pointed out they’d be closed because it was a holiday: Saturday. Tomorrow morning they’d be open, he said.
Another reason to stay another day.
Mahendranagar almost trapped me. I’d grown to like it; my few days there quickly became comfortable. The hotel staff knew me, and one of the waiters in the restaurant got to know my breakfast order.
‘Banana pancake,’ I said, and he repeated it.
‘With COLD milk,’ he said: for some reason, hot milk was standard on cornflakes.
‘Cup of black tea,’ he said, and I laughed and congratulated him. He grinned and disappeared to the kitchen.
Further on, a man waved all of India’s flies from a row of plucked and gutted chicken carcases. With each pass of his whisk, the flies roared into the air then settled again. Another man brought a cleaver down accurately onto the joint of a chicken leg that was either smoked or old enough to look like it. The chopping block was well stained with countless dismemberments. The place looked mediaeval and horrific.
Late in the afternoon, I walked down City Hall Road past the small slum to the highway. As I passed the slum, four men held down a screaming pig. I walked on, and the screaming suddenly stopped. I looked across and the men still held down the pig as another pig stood close by, watching. A tiny, scrawny puppy trotted along the middle of the road, and no one paid it any mind other than to avoid hitting it with their scooters and motorbikes. The puppy stopped by a large, well-fed dog that clearly wasn’t one of its parents and looked hopeful, but the big dog didn’t acknowledge its existence. I had a bad feeling about the puppy’s future but could do nothing, so again I walked on.
Ahead, a man limped along the road, his right leg loose and his foot turned outward. On the side of the road, black, foetid water oozed towards who knows where. It stank in the late afternoon. The heat had gone out of the sun, although it still hung high in the sky; now it had to struggle through the grey-brown haze, so it looked like an orange disc. Two sacred cows fought, clashing heads on the side of the highway, but no one paid them any mind, either.
In the smoggy dusk, a small, quiet man tried to interest me in a room in his guest house. It was the most polite, gentle, timid attempt I’d ever encountered, and I was almost tempted to stay another day just to bring him some happiness. But his guest house was near the bus station, the main highway, and the busy Campus Road, and the night would have been sleepless.
I didn’t know why I was beginning to develop a real affection for Mahendranagar.
I’d photographed the chai wallah, who I now knew better than anyone in Mahendranagar outside the hotel, and I couldn’t leave without giving him a print. He had a calm, gentle manner that extended to the thin little kitten living under his counter and occasionally venturing out into the sun during quiet periods. It resisted the urge to investigate my wiggling fingers, but the chai wallah saw my attempts and smiled.
I’d had some prints done at a small hole-in-the-wall shop in the main bazaar and had given them to one of the mattress-makers. The prints were muddy and awful but I had no choice, and the man’s expression when I handed him the prints was priceless. He didn’t know what to say and had no English to say it anyway, but he kept looking at the prints then looking at me and smiling as if he’d won the lottery. He held out his hand, and I shook it and said ‘Danyabad’ – I wanted to thank him for letting me photograph him – and he looked again at the prints and made the ‘OK’ gesture, still smiling madly.
I had to leave before I choked up.
I wanted the chai wallah to have a print, and I’d found a Fuji lab, but this was apparently where the first set of prints had been done: the second set was identically muddy and just as awful. The chai wallah didn’t mind, though. I gave him the print; he took and looked at it, then recognised himself and looked up in sheer amazement and delight. A bystander took it from him and handed it around, and I began to wonder what state it would be in by the time he got it back, if he ever did. Eventually it returned, safely but no doubt covered in fingerprints. He wouldn’t let me pay for my chai, and he shook my hand. I’d grown fond of his gentle, efficient, unhurried manner, and I liked him even more for his appreciation of the little kitten.
While I’d waited for the prints, I’d had a professional shave. A young barber had called out to me from his doorway. He wanted a hundred rupees for the shave, but that sounded like a lot, and I started to turn him down.
‘OK, fifty rupees,’ he said.
It was the easiest haggling I'd ever done.
One of the other men in his shop sat me down and began the prep. He shaved me carefully and precisely, then trimmed my beard, just as precisely. He even used long, muderously sharp scissors to trim my nose hairs. To flinch was unthinkable. I admired his professionalism, the way he appeared to take pride in his skill at snipping the nose hairs of his clients. In New Zealand, the idea of a job like that would have been either hilarious or depressing, but, having experienced it here, I felt humbled.
He was desperate to barber my hair, too, but having seen the trend, which was even at that moment being executed in the chair next to mine, I had no intention of letting him near my hair with any sharp instrument. It was too much for him, though, so he wet my hair, applied some styling cream, and massaged my head so hard it felt like being beaten up. When I walked out of the shop, I felt a little unsteady on my feet. I think I was mildly concussed.
The style was dreadful, as I’d known it would be. He’d swept it back then added an extreme part on the right-hand side. This, I knew, was one of the trends, but he had no idea about fitting a style to a client. He only charged me 50 rupees, though, and thanked me for my custom. I made a beeline to my room and restyled my hair to its usual unkempt state. The beard trim was excellent, but I could detect no difference in breathing through my nostrils.
I’d spent four nights in Mahendranagar and had grown to like it, but three days was enough. I was restless. I wanted to be moving again. I’d be sad to leave my friends – the hotel staff, the chai wallah in particular, others I’d spoken to and who now at least recognised me – but I wanted to travel through Kumaon and Garwhal again, then rejoin my friends in Delhi and Chandigarh; I wanted to visit Bharatpur for the third time; and I wanted eventually to get to Jamnagar in the hope I could meet once more with Jam Sahib. After that, who knew, but those people and places were calling me, and I needed to answer.
1. The photographs have mostly been prepared in haste so I could get this post published before the end of the year. Some have appeared already on my Instagram account, along with many others.
1. Premi was one of the original guides at Bardia and is something of an institution there.
2. Not sure precisely what this is, but Shiva called it a flycatcher.
3. Common kingfisher.
4. Some of Bardia's smaller inhabitants were impressive, too. The webs of these big spiders were everywhere.
5. Hans and Mirian wait for the bus at Thajurdwara.
6. Subash at Bardia Jungle Cottage on the morning I left.
7. Scaly-breasted munia at Bardia
8. The chai wallah at Mahendranagar.
Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor