Nov 8 2010

Sucking Diesel and Swimming With Elephants

Considering the epic post I wrote about our overland journey between Ulan Ude in Siberia and Ulan Bator in Mongolia, I am hesitant to regale/bore the five devoted readers of this blog with a play-by-play of our 8.5 hour journey from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park. But since I’m on the subject of Nepali roads, there are some highlights worth pointing out:

–        The distance between Kathmandu and Chitwan is approximately 150 kilometers. Not miles. Kilometers.

–        The journey took eight and a half hours.

–        It was our 2-year wedding anniversary.

–        Our seats were in the back row of the bus, on the right side. This is significant because the exhaust pipe was also on the right side of the bus, directly in front of our window. The bus ran on diesel, the kind that produces smoke so black and noxious that in the States it’s released out of the top of trucks’ cabs so that no one has to breathe it.

–        We were breathing it.

–        After noticing black grit settling on my Kindle, I put on my industrial-strength face mask, the one I’d bought for eight euros in Helsinki to protect myself from the smoke in Moscow caused by this year’s forest fires. I still ended up with a sore throat. (Also, Moscow’s smoke was much more pleasant – it smelled kind of like the entire city were cozying up next to a wood-burning fireplace, as opposed to sucking on a diesel exhaust pipe.)

–        During the two hours it took to get out of Kathmandu, the bus was moving so slowly that food vendors were actually hopping on the bus, working the aisle, and then hopping off the bus. This sounds treacherous, but given our speed, it was less dangerous than getting on a moving escalator.

–        This turned out to be one of the relatively fast-moving parts of our journey, since as soon as we got out of the Kathmandu Valley, the traffic completely stopped. As in, engines were turned off, people got out of their cars, and we moved forward by 10-foot intervals for about two more hours, staring at a line of parked cars, buses and trucks snaking down the entire valley. I seriously suggested that we should walk back to Kathmandu. We decided not to, only because being back in Kathmandu actually sounded worse than being in a parked bus on the side of a mountain.

Please note the cars snaking down the hill in the background.

It all turned out okay, though, because the next day, we got to go swimming with elephants. You know the quote in Ferris Bueller’s Day off where Ferris says, in reference to Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up”? I could give a shit about cars, but when it comes to elephants, I strongly agree. We were staying at the Island Jungle Resort in Chitwan National Park, and every day, the lodge’s elephants get led down to the river to bathe. Guests are invited to join them. Unable to wait, Peter and I scampered down to the riverbank several minutes before their scheduled bathing time, and soon found ourselves sitting on their backs, legs wrapped around their backs, as a handler stood behind us on their bottom yelling commands – one of which translated to, “Please shoot a trunkful of water into the tourist’s face.” It was like a firehose – and left us both completely giddy.

A different handler invited me onto his elephant, and then things got a little more confusing. This elephant didn’t know the water-spraying trick. Instead, it was kneeling in the river, and its handler kept shouting, “Madam, hold on! Hold on, Madam!”

“To what?” I tried to ask him. This was bareback elephant riding, and there were no obvious handles. So instead I gripped more tightly with my legs and did my best to hold on as the elephant, again listening to some indecipherable cue from its handler, began to roll its head from side to side, nearly tipping me off into the river. (This was not a big deal, since we were already basically in the river, but I was worried the elephant might continue to roll – and no one wants to go swimming under an elephant.)

“Hold on, Madam!” the handler yelled again. I looked at him, confused. “Ears!” he shouted. “The ears!”

As soon as he said it, I realized that there were actually two obvious handles – they were flapping in front of me. The top of each ear was thick and fleshy, with long dark hairs that provided a good grip. No sooner had I grabbed on than the handler shouted a different command and this time, the elephant dunked its entire head under water.

Peter and I have since debated what I should have done in response, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Let go? Go under? Here’s what I did: for the first two or three dunks, I arched back and tried to keep my head above water, which sometimes required letting go of the ears and thus risking tumbling off. Eventually, I figured that the dunking was part of the point, so I kept hold of the ears and let the elephant pull me under, figuring that, as two land-dwelling mammals, we’d both have to come up before too long. But that was before I realized, thanks to Peter, that one of us actually had a built-in snorkle.