It wasn't until several hours into the journey that the Nepalese man sitting next to me explained that there was a public transportation strike today. Only the tourist buses and private cars were running.
That explained why so many Nepalese were on today's tourist bus.
We stopped for a rushed breakfast at a casual countryside rest stop an hour in, and I ended up drinking Nescafe across from a solo traveler who casually inquired as to my origin. Turned out she lived around the corner from my old Marvel office and taught at Hunter College.
The bus wobbled alone along the narrow, curvy road through the green foothills of Nepal. When we had a flat tire, no one seemed to mind. The bus staff whipped the old tire off and replaced it in a flurry of efficiency. The passengers loaded back onto the bus and were off again.
The man next to me was a journalist, but that's not all. He took an active social interest in his topics and most of his stories ended with "So I put out a call on Facebook for help for these people, and there was enough response to bring them a doctor/help them with their disease/provide them with family planning/help their children." He was currently working on a story about adoptions—something about orphanages monetizing their charges, earning money on them from foreign sources when perfectly functional Nepalese families could be adopting the orphans. Also, he said some children were taken away from families and put into orphanages to bring in lucrative sponsorships. Ack. I was horrified by his suggestion, but since he was just a random stranger, I had to consider his credibility. What he really a journalist? A good one? Charity is big business, and corruptible as such. But until his story was published, there'd be no way to judge, and I'd be long gone before then.
The manager, Naran, showed me to my room.
Which was gorgeous. Lovely. I wished I were staying longer instead of going on to chaotic Varanasi.
I had lunch—wifi in the open-air restaurant!—quickly scrubbed some laundry in my sink (wringing it out in a towel and hanging it under the ceiling fan, which dries laundry quickly every time), and was then led off out of the lodge grounds, past men riding on elephants, and to the road to the community jetty.
Some of the lodges in the area have their own excursions, their own canoes and guides, and their own elephants. Even Sapana has an elephant. But Sapana, along with some of the other local hotels, is involved in community tourism. They participate in the community canoe, guiding, and elephant safari programs, as well as others that I hadn't looked into.
My guide and I climbed into a dugout canoe for an evening wildlife-spotting expedition on the the Narayani River, which was racing quickly at this time of year. This is rainy season in Nepal, and Sareena had warned me that it would be wet and flooded in Chitwan.
We zipped past crocodiles and birds, but no tigers or rhino. This didn't really surprise me. My guide has seen three tigers in a decade of guiding here. And I had been warned that the number of rhino had decreased. The ride itself was pleasant as we were carried through the national park by the current.
We pulled up next to a field full of grazing water buffalo, then squished over the field (this time I had remembered to wear my Tevas) to the government's elephant breeding center. Elephants are used in security here, to patrol the park to look for poachers, and raising one to work takes huge resources. Each elephant works with a single driver/trainer and assistant throughout its career. If the driver leaves, the assistant takes over and a new assistant is introduced. These two men are responsible for cleaning and feeding the elephant as well as training it.
Wild elephants come to visit the female elephants at night and that is how new baby elephants were introduced. The female elephants are chained, which is unsettling but of course, they're unlikely to hang around all night by themselves. I don't know anything about the ethics of elephant-handling.
I watched the elephants—one frisky baby was too young to eat grass, but that didn't stop him from mimicking his mother, messing up her food in the process. The trainer bellowed a bit and looked pissed, but the baby just ran away from him and found other food to mess up.
My guide led me back to the river, where we jumped in a dugout canoe ferry to cross over. The owner of the water buffalo, a woman from the local village, jumped in with us. Her water buffalo swam, as she yelled at them from the boat, trying to get them to stop playing in the water and go faster. Of course she wanted to get them home for the night, but also, any time spend in the water is risky for the younger water buffalo, as crocodiles would be quite happy to have a snack.
She casually threw a stick at her herd. It hit one of the buffalo squarely on the head, surprising it. The buffalo blinked and hurried through the river.
A truck was waiting for us on the other side to take us back to camp, with its yummy food and atmospheric, cool room.
But I couldn't get used to it. I was heading to India in the morning.