Chitwan, Nepal 4:39 am
I’m listening to the drops of water hitting the roof again. This morning I have a candle that I grabbed from the dining room, so that’s adding a warm glow to things. Perhaps the only warmth on what’s turned out to be a damp, chilly trip.
We’ve finally gotten some good stuff here. It’s been frustrating for all of us, I think. There have been hassles with the officials here at the park. It seems they’re all freaked out because we’re taking video with our “big cameras.” The main problem is that, even though we have permission to be here and take video, the people on site are unsure of it. They keep asking for something more official than the official letter we have or for someone higher up the ladder to tell them it’s okay.
The other morning I headed out with Neil Carter, who’s conducting the tiger research here, and Anthony and Sue Nichols who’s here from MSU with Neil. We went to some sort of park administration headquarters to talk with the man who’s supposed to be able to further approve our taking video and all of that. It was a cold, wet ride in an open-topped Land Rover to the place. Neil and I went in to have our talk. We were lead to a crackling fire and handed cups of warm, sweet tea. The guy we were supposed to talk with greeted us and introduced us to a bunch of other people…I’m not sure exactly who they were. So we all sat there. And sat there. And sat there.
The officials seemed to be telling stories. They laughed and talked as the fire burned. I kept looking at Neil, he’d look back at me, shrug. We kept staring into the fire.
I have to say it was nice. I was finally getting warm after a string of days in my room with no heat and no hot water.
The lodge where we are staying is called Tiger Tops. It’s nice, if rustic. Apparently it’s a favorite of celebs as there are pictures of Mick Jagger and Cameron Diaz and others on the walls. We are staying in staff quarters where I can only assume things are a lot more basic than they are in the main lodge and rooms. It’s cool, but not a lot of amenities. No hot water and no heat. And I could use a few more blankets. I see my breath as I go to bed each night, and I see it now as I type this. It’s a little like camping under a roof. I should have packed warmer stuff. One of the jokes has become Neil’s Forecast. See, he told us it would be chilly in the mornings and evenings, in the 80’s during the day. So far…well…he’s been about 40-50 degrees low. It’s not really his fault, everyone here is talking about how cold it is, even the locals. We are getting one nice thing. Every night, we’re not sure quite when, a person Sue has dubbed “The Hot Water Bottle Fairy” places hot water bottles under our covers. I’ve never slept with or used a hot water bottle in my life. But I’m becoming a fan. What I do is put a pillow on the edge of my bed, then the hot water bottle next to me and then curl around it. I laugh at myself and the others laughed at me when I was explaining this over coffee. And then they tried it and are now converts.
The people at the lodge are very nice and are taking good care of us. We’ve been eating with the staff and eating what they eat, which is pretty much the same thing each time. It’s some sort of meat cooked in sauce with vegetables, which is quite tasty. Then there’s dal baht (sorry for spelling in advance), a wonderfully warm, soupy bowl of lentils in light brown, saucy liquid. We pour that over white rice and mix it all together. Now, the locals do all of this with their right hand, as is traditional. I’ve read about this and tried it a few times. Neil is all in with it. He shows us newcomers how to use our fingers as a sort of scoop and our thumb to push the food into our mouths. We all do pretty well, I think. But it’s just messy. And I’m so hungry I feel like I can’t get the food in fast enough. So by the second day I wuss out and go to my old friend the spoon.
See? This is the sort of stuff I write about and think about when I’m not out gathering lots of video.
We’ve gone on a couple of excursions into the jungle, but since we’ve been forbidden from shooting any video…it’s been trips more of frustration than exhilaration and good TV. We did take the smaller of our cameras on an elephant safari. That was very cool. I think Anthony was going a little crazy trying to get a stable shot from our perch on top of the pachyderm, but I got some really good stills. The whole area is shrouded in fog every morning, and often into the day.
Travelling by elephant is often the best way to see the area and see tigers. You’re high up and quiet. It stuns me how quiet an animal as large as an elephant can be. Neil tells me he saw his first tiger on an elephant. That is, he was on the elephant, not the tiger.
This is an interesting project. We’ve been talking a lot about how the tigers interact with people and the environment. That’s at the heart of what Neil’s doing here. People and tigers have been living in this part of Nepal as long as there have been people and tigers. The tigers, and all the animals, in this big park are protected. The thick forests set aside from logging and hunting. But then there’s a large area of forest called the “buffer zone” where people and tigers and other animals cross paths. Neil has cameras that are triggered by movement all through the park and the buffer zone. He’s gotten some amazing pictures of tigers and lots of other critters. He plots them using GPS and is building his research using those locations, the times of the movements and the proximity to people. All of which we want to get video of, if we can get permission!
So we’re staring at the fire. Another group of people come in and are seated around the fire. There’s more talking, none in English. And more staring into the fire. More tea.
Finally the guy we’re here to see says, “Neil. Now we should talk.”
We leave the warmth of the fire and head into an office with florescent lights.
After a lot of chatting and smiling and reassuring, the official agrees to allow us to shoot video within the park, as long as we stay close to the lodge. I’m not sure why that matters, but it’ll get us what we need. The main thing seems to be how we are going to use the video and how we’ll tell this story. I almost feel like they think it’s either for some sort of commercial venture or political propaganda. Neil does a terrific job of explaining what we’re doing. I talk about how we want to show the good work happening in Nepal, stories people in the States will never hear otherwise. I’m not sure he’s really won over, but he reluctantly agrees.
And so we’re off, flying into the jungle, over bumpy roads, across rivers…feeling happy because we can finally start the real work of why we’re here.
We start right away and spend the next days following Neil as he sets up cameras and works with his local field technicians. He’s got some new cameras which are higher resolution and in color.
We also head out to the buffer zone and see the villages where people are living right up against tiger habitat. Occasionally the big cats pick off a couple of villagers. That’s relatively rare and has been happening, again, as long as there have been people and tigers here.
The people are very accommodating as we take video of them and the area. They smile and surround Anthony as he rolls away. He shows them some of what he’s shooting on the little screen on the side of the camera. They laugh and talk and point. I’m taking pictures and showing them the images on the back. It’s one of the nice things about working in digital.
It feels really good to have really gotten to work. These sorts of hang ups and hassles happen a lot. I’ve gone through this in every place from Australia to Cuba. It usually works out. People are usually happy to work with us once they understand that we’re just trying to tell their story.
This candle was really a good idea. My little cabin has flickering fluorescents, so I’ve turned them off in favor of my headlamp and the candlelight. A much better choice.
We’re wrapping this trip up. We’ll get a few more shots today and then start heading back to Kathmandu. Already Anthony and I are dreading the crazy ride back, but we’re looking forward to the promise of hot water and heat.
The water drips and I need to get up. I can still see my breath and my hot water bottle has spent all it’s heat through the night.
Here we go.