Saturday, November 21, 2015

Nepal: Chitwan National Park, Sauraha

For a country whose international reputation is dominated by Mount Everest and the Himalayas (right?  or maybe it's just me?), Nepal has surprisingly varied geography -- from the lowlands of the Terai to the hill region to the snowy heights of the mountain region.

A chance to see family drew us down from the mountains to the tropical Terai. This region was formerly a thick, extremely malarial jungle; it was said that "plainsmen and paharis generally die if they sleep in the Terai before November 1 or after June 1." Massive amounts of DDT brought malaria under control in the mid-1950s, allowing large parts of the Terai to be cleared and turned into economically-productive regions, now accounting for over fifty percent of Nepal's GDP.  While economically advantageous, the settling and resculpting of the Terai has had negative environmental effects (deforestation, increased flooding) and has displaced or disenfranchised the indigenous population.  Nepal is aiming for full malaria elimination by 2026, though considerable challenges lie ahead.*

My cousin Jordan spent six months at Sherpa Brewery outside Bharatpur, helping to brew the first craft beer of Nepal.  We met up with him near Chitwan National Park, a 932 square kilometer (360 sq mi) World Heritage-listed reserve known for its sizeable wildlife population -- especially tigers, rhinos, and elephants.  He brought along some home-brewed beer.

Jordan recommended staying at Rhino Lodge in Sauraha, the town just outside the park.  Since we were traveling in the off-season, we rocked up without a reservation.  Within 15 minutes of arrival, we had a room (complete with serious mosquito netting), a guide, and were on our way to a guided jungle walk.

The ease of arranging the jungle experience belies its potential dangers.  Our guide, a Nepali man not much bigger than me, armed only with a bamboo stick, laid down the basic ground rules: in case of bear, stay still and he'd protect us with his stick by making noise to scare the bear.  In case of rhino, run in a zigzag, climb a tree, or hide behind a large tree.  Rhinos are huge, powerful, and liable to charge if they feel threatened, but we're more agile.  We should be safe from tigers, since they don't frequent that section of the jungle.  All of the guides had stories about friends who'd been injured or killed while shepherding tourists through the jungle.  Reassuring, right?  As tourists swooping in, it's easy to forget that a jungle is not a zoo, and that man is not always the dominant predator.  Environments don't necessarily need to be feared, but they should be afforded the proper respect.

Our walk afforded just the right amount of excitement.  The guide punted us down the river in a wooden canoe, pointing out crocodiles sunning themselves on the river banks, and monkeys, and birds.  In the jungle, we quickly encountered a black bear.  "Closer, closer!" the guide motioned, quickly followed by a whispered "Freeze!  Now!" and then "Closer!  Quietly!".  His bamboo stick worked as advertised -- the bear reared up against a tree and stared at us before turning away.

Rhino poaching has historically been a problem in Nepal.  The industry is driven by demand for rhino horn for traditional Chinese medicine and has threatened the local rhino population with extinction.  The government now stations armed rhino reconnaissance patrols throughout the park to discourage poachers.  We used them as rhino locators, asking if they'd had any rhino sightings that day.  They directed us further along, to a point where we found a rhino bathing across the river.  Great to see, but I was glad for the safety buffer!

Crossing the river into a grassy region, we saw birds and deer before circling through the elephant breeding center on our way out.  Some describe jungle outings like fishing: sometimes the fish are biting, and sometimes they're not.  Sometimes the animals are out to be seen, and sometimes they're elsewhere in the jungle.  We were lucky to see so much within a few hours.

* The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah is a fantastic popular science book about the historical effects of malaria and the challenges of eradication.

Friday, November 20, 2015

France: Versailles and Chartes

This has been a travel-filled year and, true to form, I'm way behind on blog posts.  Having just rambled down memory lane to write about Paris, though, I thought I'd post some photos from the rest of that trip to France in August 2010.

From Paris, we took the train to Versailles to see the palace in all of its gilded glory.  Sarah's friend Aureline met us for a picnic in the gardens before exploring inside the palace.  We spent the night at Aureline's parents' beautiful converted farmhouse near Chartes.  Chartes is best known for its Gothic cathedral, which boasts two contrasting spires and stained glass windows dating back to the 13th century.  The cathedral is remarkably well-preserved given that it has stood through the French Revolution and two World Wars!

Monday, November 16, 2015

France: Paris

A tribute post to Paris in the aftermath of this weekend's terrorist attacks

"Peace for Paris" by Jean Jullien

Shanghai lit in solidarity, in the colors of liberté, égalité, and fraternité

When I lived in Cambridge, all of continental Europe lay right across the Channel, ripe for exploring.  At that time, though, my sights were set east, to my boyfriend/fiancé/husband (same guy, different time points) in Asia, and west, to my family in the US.  Only rarely to the beckoning, not-so-distant shores.

Paris was close -- a mere two hours from London St Pancras to Paris Nord on the Eurostar.  In August 2010 (over 5 years ago!), my friend Sarah and I planned a "romantic" weekend getaway for her birthday.  B. swooped in from Hong Kong at the last minute and crashed our trip.  

Notre Dame

A Parisian labmate, Julien, met us at the train station and showed us around his home turf.  While it was my first trip to Paris, the others had already been there and done that.  We compromised with a mixture of tourist attractions (Notre Dame, the Louvre), wanderings through everyday life, and as much delicious food as we could handle.

Inside the Louvre

obligatory, if blurry and poorly composed, Eiffel Tower photo

Some places can be traversed in a few days and "checked off", if you will.  Paris is not one of them.  Paris is an endless experience and an attitude.  We'll be back... someday.