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In the Chitwan Jungle guides drop like flies


Chitwan days begin early, with the cock crowing and the thrum of motorbikes in the distance as the lodge staff make their way over for an early start. The Ecolodge is run jointly by a Nepalese company and a Dutch one, investing half of their profits back into the local area to build schools and provide training opportunities for younger people. With gentle people living a life in harmony with the environment, and a peaceful lack of intrusive noise and bars, I soon find myself relaxing, as more layers of the excess of Western life fall off me, and I begin to reconnect even more to what is real.

However, I have a feeling of trepidation today when I think about the night ahead in the jungle tower. Part of our eco package includes a night in the Chitwan jungle, but I don’t really want to go for some reason. The warm hum of the day has catapulted me into rhythms of its own and I just don’t want to go. The resort manager insists that we will be hosted by a local Tharu family who will cook for us in their mud hut, and at night we will be closer than we have ever been to the raw, naked jungle and the animals who make it their home. I just can’t get myself excited about it, and, when we are introduced to our guide, a 21 year old wide eyed local boy, my fears are not allayed. The Jeep thrusts forward spitting dust and gravel aside as we tear through agricultural villages chasing the shadow of the mountains. The foliage thickens and after a 30 minute cellulite jolting drive, villages pop up on either side side, hidden to the world at large yet microcosms of activity and of organisation. Crowds of children of all ages flock out to watch the wandering Westerners and as we look at them with curious eyes, they too stare back and I wonder who really is the foreigner.

Turning down a beaten path the trees close in and we are officially in the jungle territory. Hanging vines and green canopies drape us in this eerie cobweb, and I’m almost relieved to see a break in the foliage as we reach the treehouse overlooking a green copse. “We’ re here”, glints the guide, Sanjay, as he unpacks our sheets onto the sparse beds. Despite the glow of the forest and the undoubtable myriad of animals hidden in such greenery, I cannot muster any excitement at being here. Damp is already falling, when suddenly I spot a surge of grey moving through the leaves about 100 meters away. Wait. It can’t be. Yet it is. A Rhinoceros is tramping thorough the leaves in all her glory, munching away. As she turns I am startled again by another tiny Rhino, hiding in her mothers shadow. These rare creatures have dwindled to a mere 200 in number and Chitwan National Park has a commitment to keeping their numbers alive.

Alone and flourishing in their natural environment, this is such a rare treat to see and it is more than humbling to know these gracious creatures future hangs in such a delicate balance, as a result of mans greed and destruction.

I’m not allowed to dream too long as Sanjay beckons us to the jungle where we collect some bizarre jungle weeds which apparently double up as a tasty vegetable. The local Tharu villages offer a meal in one of their mud huts with fresh local food and their specialty wine. Deprived of wine for two solid nights, Suellen is practically gasping for vino, and we are hurried to the village.

The village Matriarch is crouched over her two pans and oven, and it amazes me that this small hut encompasses all living and cooking space. She is remarkably resourceful with her utensils and one sickle doubles up as a vegetable chopper as well as a corn cutter. With no chairs or tables to speak of, the only way to sit comfortably is to sit in the lotus position on the floor and crouch Yogi style. The village ladies who have shyly slipped into the hut assume this position with ease, and giggle with each other as my unaccustomed limbs keep aching and stiffening up and I wriggle away.

The matriarch pours the wine, which to Suellen is Chitwan’s best kept secret, and she is itching to sample the pungent tones of the wine. I was right to reserve my judgement as it transpires that the wine is in fact a 70% volume drink, apparently made with millet, but what really smells like fuel. Poured into steel metal beakers, I take a sip and nearly choke. Eyes watering, I look to Suellen who takes a proud gulp for the team, but I know there is no way I will manage this.

The starter is a spicy chicken complemented with the stinking jungle grass we tasted earlier, and is surprisingly filling. Managing to finish my plate, I know I’m full and my heart sinks as a ladle makes its way over to me with the intent of a bomiknocker, and fills my plate again to the edges. A spicy stinging bite is starting to make its way across my taste-buds, burning my palate as I realise it’s the jungle fruit exercising it’s might. I can’t even wash it down with wine, as that would surely strip my remaining tastebuds and throat of any skin.

Meanwhile, Sanjay, our guide is displaying the customary low tolerance to alcohol, which seems to be pretty much the norm here in Nepal, as people are more akin to drinking their herbal teas. I find this so refreshing as alcohol in the UK is so clearly abused and used to block out emotions rather than dealing with them. I’m just pondering this, when suddenly, he takes a more sinister turn for the worse. One drink has taken him to saturation point and he is trying to stroke Suellen’s hair off her face and is whispering into her ear, much to our disgust. He is also dropping his food all over, whilst singing awful cheesy love songs. Under the chirruping cicada’s and the hum of nightfall, the evening is polluted by a song wailing out lyrics: “take me to your heart…” Take me to my treehouse more like, I think, and spare me my eardrums.

I’m done with the food and cannot fit anymore in, and we’re growing increasingly uncomfortable with the impending darkness outside. It’s a know fact noone walks in the jungle at night, and we have to leave now for the tree-house.

Sanjay is deaf to our pleas to leave, and we have to physically pull him onto his feet and walk him outside, whereby he nearly keels over and falls again.

Insects chirrup and dogs bark, but the village is spookily empty of the people we saw earlier and now the darkness has really descended and Sanjay laughs as he leads us into the forest. This isn’t the way we came, I’m thinking, especially as we are met head on by a mesh of barbed wire which Sanjay promptly puts his leg over. A gatekeeper appears like an apparition from nowhere to lead us to the correct path, but without a torch and equally as drunk, I feel a shiver of fear resound through my whole body. Suellen holds her mobile into the air with its faint light, we follow the two guides on the path to the lodge, fearful and unaware of what we are stepping into.

“Eh she beautiful eh,” he gestures towards my friend, then promptly stumbles into a drunken mess on the floor. Sue has to

calm the two of us down as my imagination is stealing away with itself as I envision eyes peering out from trees, blinking from every branch with hungry intentions. Only hours before, Sanjay had pointed out tiger poo on the ground complete with the bristles of a wild boar and I cant’ calm down. Suellen is a vision of calm and talks me to my senses, when suddenly, like an oasis in the desert, the tree-house bursts out of the darkness and we have a sanctuary. With three floors, the guides are based on the ground and Sanjay and his friend disappear into the bowels of the tree, leaving us to climb a corroding staircase winding into the canopy.

Three loud Canadian voices drift down and my heart rests for the first time since we arrived. “God are we glad to see you girls. Our guide was going crazy looking for you. He says that no-one can walk through there alone at night”. Suellen and I look at each other with dismay. How is it always us who end up in such scrapes??

The guide of the Canadian girls invites us to share their meal, and although I am stuffed full with strange jungle vegetables I don’t want to appear rude, and layer another meal upon my laden stomach. The Canadian girls and there guide tell us again how concerned they were at our late arrival and the guide reiterates that you should never walk through the forest at night. Perched on this treehouse looking out onto a blanket of darkness, echoing with a cacophony of chirruping insects and stealthy animals, I feel the biggest shiver run down my spine and am glad to be near Suellen ,the girls and the guide. That is, until he too gets drunk on the revolting exhaust pipe-cleansing alcohol and tries to grope the nearest Canadian girl. Exclaiming that he is a male stag, capable of taking on five Does all at once, one of the girls in the background does a quick point-count, 1,2,3,4,5, and we decide to go to bed, pushing as many implements we can against the door.

The girls next door seem to fall into a quick slumber, punctuated by loud grunts and snores as they no doubt attempt to get comfortable on the wicker beds with Oliver Twist style mattresses.

Neither of us can sleep in our room, as it is nearer the rickety stairs, and every noise, grunt and twig creaking jolts me from semi-consciousness to alertness in seconds, sending my heart pounding through the roof every ten minutes or so. I am aware of how far away we are from loved ones, from civilisation at large, and even from any methods of communication. I’m the first to ridicule people holding on to mobile phones like dummies whilst travelling, but now, with no signals, we really are, alone. Sleep is broken, the night is long, until finally, dreams come like some long awaited anaesthetic, numbing me until the fragile light of the morning.

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