Hello and welcome to Smiles from India! This blog is about my gap year (between high school and college) as I live in Guwahati, Assam, India. I am working for Operation Smile (www.operationsmile.org), which is a non-profit organization that repairs cleft lips and cleft palates. I am also helping the rest of the community working with the Pratyasha Foundation (http://www.facebook.com/pratyashafoundation). Enjoy and keep smiling!
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Elephants, rhinos, and buffalos, oh my!
The past two days, I have been in Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga is a UNESCO world heritage site located in eastern Assam. It is most famous for having the largest number of one-horned rhinos in the world. In addition to those, there are wild buffalo, deer, elephants, tigers (very few), beautiful birds, and the list goes on.
Guwahati to Kaziranga National Park.
Wildlife population status
Kaziranga in the early morning.
I went there with Susan, an Operation Smile nurse living in Guwahati. We stayed at the Wild Grass resort, which I highly recommend to anyone planning to visit this beautiful park soon. They have the tourist’s visit down to a science.
The cultural program at our hotel: Tea garden dancing.
Nothing much is in the small village of Kaziranga itself. There is a large tea plantation, a few hotels and other places for tourists to stay. There are huts and schools and small markets. You really cannot even put Guwahati and Kaziranga in the same sentence—they are so different. I reached Kaziranga at night after a 4-hour car drive from Guawahati. I could not see much, but I immediately noticed the scent of “fresh” air. The atmosphere did not smell like dust or pollution or trash, but it smelled like trees and plants. There were other differences—I heard crickets and the birds while falling asleep, and not trains or honking cars. The first night I was there, not knowing what Kaziranga looked like, I found myself taking a deep breath. Sometimes getting away from the constant “overload of the senses” can be a relief.
Another difference I noticed between Kaziranga and Guwahati was this—everyone in the village waves. You mostly travel around Kaziranga in an open jeep, and the kids walking to school or the women sitting outside their houses will immediately smile and wave at you. Kaziranga is such a friendly and welcoming place that by the end, I was waving to everyone!
The first morning of my visit, Susan and I took an elephant ride as part of an "elaphant safari." We got up at 5:30 to our hotel wake up, which was a knock on the door and two glasses of delicious tea from the tea plantation down the street. After driving ten minutes in an open jeep with fresh cool air blowing in my face, I saw elephants. For those of you who do not know me, I love elephants. Actually, I am obsessed with elephants. Upon our arrival, there was a 6-month-old elephant “greeting” people. HEAVEN! He just walked around, sticking out his trunk to shake our hand.
Kaziranga in the early morning.
Driving to the elephant safari.
Susan and I got to ride on top of an elephant for an hour. I kept having to tell myself, “Oh my gosh, I am on top of an elephant in India.” I actually thought I was in a dream for the first half of the elephant safari.
The guides were very knowledgeable and sweet. While riding, they would sit on the elephant’s neck, with their bare feet behind the elephant’s ears. The pressure of their feet sends a message to the elephants about when to go, when to stop, when to turn, etc. Each guide spoke English, which is surprising, as the guides come from poor backgrounds. They ride the same elephant every morning, so they become best friends with that elephant. In a sense, they are “in charge” of that elephant and take care of them through out the day. I was worried that going on this elephant ride would support mistreatment of elephants. But from what I saw, the elephants were well treated, and after the ride, they were allowed to roam freely.
Susan and I rode an elephant named Babon. A massive mammal, Babon was so sweet. I spent much of the elephant ride watching Babon and the other elephants eat. With their trunks, they grab clumps of grass, slap it on their legs as if they are cleaning it, and then stick it in their mouths. It is fascinating. After the elephant safari, I got to spend time with Babon, petting him. He was so sweet that I proposed to him and he said yes. We are getting married this week so hurry and book your flight!
Babon the elephant!
Riding the elephant.
Hugging the elephants
While riding the elephants, we got super close to one-horned rhinos, buffalos, and deer. The one-horned rhinos look fake—they look as if they are built out of metal. They do not have good eyesight, so you can tell when they hear or smell you. Usually, when they know you are around, they will look up from their meal and begin to back away. Getting so close to them and seeing the rhinos in their natural habitat was unreal.
Baby rhino and the protective mommy.
That afternoon, we went on a jeep safari. I really enjoyed seeing the animals in their natural habitat, all living together, and eating together. For example, we saw a deer eating three feet away from a buffalo. Each animal minds his or her own business. Most of these animals are very protective of their children and when they sense danger to their children they get angry. Of all the animals in the park, the tiger is the only threat. We saw skeletons of animals that had been killed and eaten by tigers. You have to be a lucky tourist to see a tiger, and we were not. On the jeep safari, a park ranger who came with us was equipped with a massive gun in case a rhino stampeded us. The park guides are trained to know when a rhino looks calm and when it looks threatening.
Protection for the jeep safari.
One threat to Kaziranga are the poachers. A poor poacher who kills a rhino and cuts off his horn can make $400 right away. But ultimately as the horn enters the black market it can sell for as much as $150,000. Wow! The Kaziranga Park has ranger stations all over the place to catch poachers. The poachers usually come in the very early morning or in the evening.
On our second morning there, I went on another elephant ride. I had to see Babon before I left again! The elephant ride was so nice, with the fresh breeze blowing in my face and animals going about their business. When I left, I waved away to Babon. If he comes to Guwahati, I'm sure he'll look me up.