Tiger Tracks

Posted on December 29, 2009

Sunil and Babalu are determined to find me a tiger. There are 87 of them in Kaziranga, though remember this is 4 times the area of San Francisco, tigers are secretive and mostly nocturnal, and there's lots of forest in which they can hide. "I'll be fine without a tiger guys", I say. "No no, the tiger needs to see you, John", replies Babalu. Well, OK, if he insists.

The various drivers communicate via cell phone, and on 2 days the word goes out a tiger was sighted. Of course this leads to a convoy of jeeps all day driving in the direction of said sighted tiger, but no others catch a view. Does not matter, the ride is great, scattered along the way are elephant, rhino, the various deer, buffalo, the usual Kaziranga buffet of wildlife. So what if there's no tiger. I really don't mind. Not so the many others who seem to think it's a checklist, and the missing tiger is cause for disappointment. The other tourists are Indian families, women in saris and high heels (inappropriate, though colorful), obese American tourists in drip dry practical yet frumpy camping clothes (dorky fashion victims) and svelte Europeans, with great clothes and movie star hair, (fashion statements). If one were having a photo shoot, you'd include the Indians and Europeans, exclude the Americans. Of course I am more fashionably dressed than the rest of my people, wearing jeans I purchased in Spain a few months back.

Sunil and Babalu are determined to find me a tiger.

Each meal here is an education for my palate. Assamese cuisine is a revelation. Nothing at all like Indian food (and I love Indian food). It's pH balanced with the use of extracts derived from bananas. (yes I know, how weird is that?) And aside from the chapati (flat bread) and dal (lentil stew) I'd not know I was eating an Indian meal. Plenty of meat, lots of vegetables cooked with spices I never know existed, let alone tasted, so it activates dormant taste buds. Slightly hot yet various dishes will have overtones of sweet, salty, sour, savory. The vegetables either lightly cooked, and identifiable, or chopped and cooked and pureed beyond recognition, then infused with flavors I experience for the first time. Don't know how they do it, but every meal worthy of its own Food Channel show. The amount of food is also vast, as they place plate after plate in front of me, and I feel compelled to taste all, (the sacrifices I make for a story). In an effort to limit calories, I eat only cornflakes for breakfast, after the first day when I have a 5 course breakfast. My morning ration of cereal has caused some consternation, and the cook himself had to be satisfied that I was not displeased with his food. But now by day 4, they are satisfied that I am satisfied. If you ever see an Assamese restaurant, one word of advice: GO.

The 2 mile stretch between the park and my hotel is given over to what the Indians term tea gardens. We'd say tea plantations, where 3 foot tall tea bushes carpet the ground, though tall trees have been left to provide shade for the tea plants. Tea is a member of the camellia family, Camellia sinensis, easy to grow wherever camellias can grow. It takes bushel after bushel of the tiny new leaves to produce enough tea for consumption, and the labor is tedious, so tea can only be grown where labor costs a dollar a day. The tea gardens do have an appealing and manicured look, and during the day become even more photogenic, as colorful sari clad women swarm the bushes to harvest the leaves. I feel it's one of those picturesque shots that really showcase the grim lives of others, so take no pictures. One morning we see a rhino in the tea gardens, means he walked through the village 1.5 miles from the park, and is just a few hundred feet from my hotel. Five domestic elephants and their mahouts are fanned out behind the rhino to drive him back into the park. A regular occurrence they tell me. The domestic elephants share the road with all the vehicular and pedestrian traffic. At one time domestic elephants were used here for logging, with logging now banned, all 150 local elephants work for the national park service. Their owners are called mahouts, and as both man and elephant live about the same number of years, this human animal relationship is a lifelong one. Indians show no physical affection between men and women in public, but the affection visible between mahout and elephant in on display for all to witness.

In lieu of a tiger, a king cobra, 12 feet long has been sighted, and the cell phones spread this bit of news. It's coiled about 10 feet from the side of the track, on some grass. An argument erupts amongst 2 naturalists, as to whether it is indeed a king cobra. Everyone wants it to be a king cobra, the cachet of king cobra is far greater than that of any other snake... The snake eventually moves enough to reveal markings confirming it's the king. Making everyone happy and causing camera shutters to go on a rampage.. While this mass of coils is hardly photogenic, it is obligingly still.

Still no tiger. Knowing they are here is really good enough.