The GPS was being a cock again. During the past 2 and a half months, our ‘Map my India’ navigational system had displayed some fairly prize moments of creative route creation (attempting to convince us a railroad was a highway and leading us through twisting alleys to the dead-end of someone’s cow-and-trash-inhabited backyard spring to mind) but we had by then caught on to its wily tricks. This particular day it was trying to convince us that Betla National Park was 450 km away. . .when it should have been 21.
It was for some reason suggesting that, as opposed to making a perfectly legal U-turn, we should instead go 300 km out of our way to change direction, drive PAST the place to which we were trying to get, then enter from the opposite side. When Pete and I defiantly ignored the route and made the turn off through a set of arches towards Betla, the GPS begrudgingly changed its ‘distance to destination’ reading from 441 km to 12, as though muttering, “. . .oh, yeah, OR you could go that way. You know, whatever. My way was real scenic and stuff is all. . . “
The terrain quickly began to shift. Small towns fell away to wide open fields and bursts of shadowed forest, littered with erratic shrubbery and bent, gnarled trees. I was so taken by the surrounding wilderness that I didn’t notice the uniforms of the men on the bikes approaching us. All I was aware of was their enthusiastic pointing at something to my left. Images from the TIGER ATTACK video flashed through my mind; I was equal parts excited I might actually spot one of the majestic big cats and terrified I was about to be mauled by one.
But as I mentioned, what I failed to note about the riders was their uniforms – what the military men were actually pointing to was the highway shoulder. As in, “Military procession coming through, get the fuck off the goddamn road”. We picked up on the message just as the first armoured jeep was rolling into view.
More forces dotted the topography of the remaining drive. One sitting atop a humvee waved amiably as we drove past. I was loving the ride. It was another beautiful, sunny day and the absence of people and abundance of nature was something I had been longing for the last several weeks. A couple kilometres from our destination it began to rain – the first droplets I had seen since Delhi. They were scattered but sizeable, and cool where they hit my dust-coated skin. Our bags were fine; still weeks away from monsoon season, this was no downpour – just a refreshing reminder of the day’s quiet perfection.
We arrived to find the military we’d seen on our way in were fully occupying most residency in the area. After a bit of questioning around, we were able to find a cheap and simple room near the park. After we’d unloaded the bikes I hopped back on to head into the nearest town – Pete wasn’t feeling well and I was off to hunt for juice, fruit and other snacks.
I was, as always, very popular in town. Allow me to take a moment here to really stress how much of a spectacle I seem to be in small, Indian towns: I cannot stop. Which is to say, if I stop somewhere, I get fully surrounded, 3 rows deep. If I take too long picking up snacks, I will need to shyly push my way back through the miniature Indian mosh pit that has formed behind me. If I struggle to get my bike started, it means I will need to patiently wait for the older Indian men to push the kids back from my bike so I can actually pull out from my parking space. People are typically polite and I’m not usually getting grabbed. . . just observed. And photographed.
I try to imagine what it must be like to grow up in a town like this and fail miserably. Corner Brook, where I spent my childhood, was a ‘city’ of about 20,000. Hardly a bustling metropolis, but I still can’t imagine growing up in an area so small and disconnected that the simple arrival of a fair-skinned foreigner creates a village-wide spectacle.
The following day safaris were on the agenda – my first. We were to meet at 6:30am for an hour-long elephant safari, then return later in the day to move deeper into the park by jeep. Despite Palamau being a ‘Tiger Reserve’, there was actually very little chance of seeing one here. Only one of the tigers was actually known to venture into the area that was open to tourists, and this wasn’t the ideal time of year for spotting him. I did, however, have my fingers crossed that we’d see a ratel – being a bit of an internet dweeb, the idea of glimpsing a honey badger in real life tickled me pink.
Alas, no such luck. One elephant ride later we had managed to spot a herd of chital, loads of langurs and rhesus macaques, a number of birds I didn’t know the name of and a couple frogs. We had also managed to seize up our leg muscles quite badly. The elephant’s ‘saddle’ was clearly not tailored with our long, western legs in mind.
Meal times were proving a challenge in Betla. With the army occupying the main lodge, there remained only one location at which to find a meal – the rather uninspired Van Vihar hotel. Despite a lengthy menu, there had been only 5 dishes on offer when we were there the day prior, only 1 of which I could actually eat (I was still off meat and fried foods from my last attack of illness). This was a frequent occurrence across India – it was fairly common for restaurants to have menus that were stupidly long, listing multiple variations on servings of paneer, dahl, chicken. . .only to be informed upon an attempt at ordering that the kitchen was lacking the necessary ingredients for 60% of the listed dishes. This day the options had been reduced further still – the chow mein I had eaten the previous meal was no longer available.
Which was how I came to eat the plate of french fries that spurred the next violent bout of sickness.
I’ll skip past the hospital bit as there’s no need to reiterate what’s already been said here, but two stories worth noting occurred in the timeline between first getting ill on the jeep safari and attempting to regain my strength in Bodhgaya. I’ll leave the second occurrence for my next post but, in the meantime, evidence that no matter how down you are, it can always get worse. Or, at the very least, more surreal:
I was sitting on a toilet praying for if not death, then at least the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness. I had been alternating between retching and shitting liquid for several hours already and hadn’t been able to keep even a mouthful of water down for more than 10 minutes during that entire time. I was dehydrated, over-heated and in pain. Because of this, I was wearing nothing but my skivvies.
I finished with the toilet and straightened. After giving my hands a good wash I moved to the bucket below the tap in the wall, and began to lift the smaller bucket that was inside it to pour cool-ish water down over the clammy, feverish skin of my half-naked body.
Which was about the point I heard the ‘click’. I paused in the middle of my movement. I was so out of it that it took a moment to figure out what I’d even heard that had pulled my awareness back from where it had been hiding, deep down below several levels of feverish delirium and aching fatigue.
. . .it had sounded like someone taking a photo.
I turned to face the slit of a small window behind me and, through the dark, creeping shadows of the night, I managed to make out the white of an eye staring in at me.
As I mentioned earlier this post, I was quite the spectacle in small, Indian towns.
*This post is about travels that took place in Jharkhand, India between April 04 and 06 of 2012.
*The full photo set from Jharkhand can be viewed over Flickr here, or on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.