I’ve never gone swimming with dolphins. But bathing with elephants has got to be at least as amazing.
We are in Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal for two days – a little side trip before working with Autism Care Nepal – as a way to become familiar with the people and culture. Chitwan means “heart of the jungle,” and with the humidity at 87%, temps in the 90s, that’s just what this is.
terraced rice farming south of Kathmandu
We arrived yesterday after a five-hour drive from Kathmandu down, down, down through winding mountain passes to this sub-tropical zone. I saw buses with passengers crouching on top and hanging off the sides. I saw roadside homes with corrugated metal roofs weighted down with stones. I saw poverty, but I did not see starvation. I saw terraced rice farming, cows, goats, and water buffalo, from which families obtain milk. I saw chickens and ducks, even a few pigs. Most of the Nepalese people get their needs met, just in a simpler way.
Our hotel in Chitwan is lushly landscaped with jungly trees, flowers, and plants, including cannabis. Apparently, smoking pot is only legal one day a year in Nepal, like a holiday or something. The rest of the year it’s illegal with harsh penalties, but that doesn’t seem to deter them from using it as a landscaping element.
the cannabis plant on our balcony
My room is magical. The floor has one-foot square tiles with brown and tan mandalas printed on them. The walls are brick painted a light salmon color. There are yellow-gold curtains, a ceiling fan, and even a mosquito-net canopy over the bed. I have my own white-tiled bathroom and a shared balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens. All that plus three meals a day, guided tours, and an elephant safari for $91 US dollars total. If it weren’t for the sweltering humidity, I’d swear this was paradise.
We wake with the sun and have breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice, then we ride in a Jeep to the nearby river where we will embark on our morning canoe trip. There are five of us, plus our guide in front and the navigator in the rear, all in the same dugout canoe (pictured above). With all of us inside, the sides of the canoe rise merely five inches above the water, and it bobs in a way that makes a couple of us uncomfortable, fearing our cameras getting submerged. And then concern for the cameras moves to the backs of our minds as the guide points out a crocodile. Yes, a full-grown crocodile, a mere fifteen feet away. We snap photos and continue on. We see many exotic birds, including kingfishers and peacocks. We see two more crocodiles, including one with just its eyes poking out of the water. Jungle, indeed.
the first croc – this close without zooming in!
Finally the navigator expertly steers us to shore and we shakily climb out and begin our walk through the jungle to the elephant breeding station. On the way we see foot-long orange millipedes, a six-foot high termite hill, and more birds. We hear their calls and the insects’ buzzing and all the other jungle sounds. It’s like Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride, except real. We get to interact with baby elephants – two eight-month-old twins, the only Indian elephant twins born in captivity, and a boisterous yearling. Their trunks are soft and inquisitive, and their eyes are soulful yet playful.
We go to the interpretive center at Chitwan National Park, where wild geckos skitter across the walls. Our guide points out one display in particular which describes the symbiosis between the monkeys and deer of the park. They have an interdependent relationship in which the monkeys, who sit high in the jungle treetops, toss down nuts and fruit for the deer to eat and warn them of approaching predators. The deer, in turn, carry the monkeys on their backs when they want to cross the river. In a similar light, elephants and people share a level of symbiosis. In southern Nepal, people train elephants as beasts of burden, and in turn, the people care for the elephants and bathe them in a way that the elephants cannot do for themselves. And so, my fellow travelers and I had the powerful emotional experience of bathing an elephant. Not by standing and using buckets and scrub brushes on poles as in the old circus cartoons, but by going into the river and bathing the elephants by hand. It was nothing short of amazing.
First, the elephants douse themselves using their trunk. The person(s) bathing them climb onto the elephants’ bare backs, and then the elephants fill their trunks with water and spray themselves and their bathers (I’m the one in front, pictured above). This goes on for a full five minutes. Then the bathers dismount the elephant and she (ours is female) lies down on the river banks so that one side of her body is exposed while still in the water. The human bathers then pick up a palm-sized stone and scrub the elephant’s thick skin, all the while rinsing her with handfuls of water. Then, the elephant slowly and carefully turns over to have her other side scrubbed and rinsed.
I will always remember what it is like to look deep into the eye of an elephant looking at me appreciatively as I gently wash her face. I am fully clothed, in river water up to my thighs, my bare feet are sunk in silty mud, and all I can think about is her gorgeous hazel eye looking up at me from beneath inch-long eyelashes. Four other people are bathing this beautiful creature, rinsing and scrubbing as a team. Tomorrow, she will give some of us a ride through the jungle.
wild rhino viewed during our elephant safari
In many ways I see this trip to Nepal as a symbiotic journey. We from the US are going to impart autism awareness and strategies for the Nepalese parents to help their children with autism through the use of PECS, ABA basics, and sensory integration. But we are not the only ones with knowledge. The Nepalese people have much to teach us about the importance of caring for others – including elephants – and the value of living simply. Our guide at Chitwan National Park told us that Nepal as an acronym means “never-ending peace and love.” We could stand to learn about that, too.
sunset along the river in Chitwan
*For more photos and Nikki’s description of our time in Chitwan, click here.