Rhinos, and Tigers, and Worms, oh my!

It seems like it really was not a month ago that I posted my videos of my last month in the US and my first month here. And now I have another video of my last days in KTM and my arrival in Chitwan.

So what is life like in Chitwan? My life here is decidedly quiet, I stay at the research center and my days and daily schedule are fairly rote and stay in a close proximity to the research center. If I were to leave, I could walk 1 kilometer to the nearest village center just to check things out, or to buy a recharge card for my cellphone’s data plan. And I do that sometimes, always attracting a lot of attention from locals, especially children. There is a bus to the closest city (Narayangarh) about 5 miles away. 

A week after arriving I did an 8-day homestay in a small village at the edge of the district and quite close to the Indian border. I lived with a wonderful family that ran a small store and, mostly, I just did what they did each day. I think my photos might convey village life better than my words. Twice my Baai (younger brother) took me around to see things on a borrowed motorbike or scooter. We visited the river that borders Chitwan National Park a few times, and twice in the evenings their close family friend, who I called Daai (older brother) and who is a guard at the park, took me to see the endangered one-horned rhino, which pretty much only lives in this area.

(1) making masala, (2) sunset from walk, (3) lunch view from the shop (4) my morning walk partner (5) the before-school-starts tutoring group I visited to help practice English (6) Hard at work in preparation for their exams (age range 4-13) (7) Annapurna II over a house in the village (8) tractor pulling soda to a store in a bigger town nearby

Rhinos! First off, rhino heads are massive and their body armor looks almost cartoonish arranged. They look exactly how you think they will and yet are still amazing. My first sighting was a last minute affair. I was enjoying an evening tea when Daai swung by on his motorbike and said “Rhinos, six. Let’s go” and I just jumped on the bike and went as is. I was lucky to have my phone on me. We went up to the closed hotel’s grounds at the village edge. Children were yelling "American!" but we were on a mission and paid them no mind. We went through a hole in the fence, across the empty grounds, down a steep hill and over a chain link fence with razor wire on it. Then over another concrete and barbed wire fence. Both were about chest height, but the hill grade made it easier to get over. I was a bit unsure of how we were going to get back up as easily. I appreciate that Daai just assumed I could do all this (and climb skinny trees later), which I could. I spent a lot of my youth climbing around trees and large rocks in the woods, but imagine many people without such a well-spent youth might find this difficult.

Over the fences were tall and thick grasses, about 50 yards from us to the river, he took off his bright shirt (rhinos prefer earth tones) and I kept thinking: “Look down for snakes. No, look up for snakes. And to the side for tigers and rhinos. Isn’t this malaria mosquito prime time?” After 100 yards or so walking along the river Daai spotted the rhinos. He climbed a skinny tree with few branches rather handily then instructed me to do the same. This seemed unnecessary given my decent view on the ground. But I like some adventure so up I went. It was amazing! The rhinos made snorting noises and have a very peaceful way about them. We moved to a closer, smaller tree and my main foothold was a tiny broken branch nub that eventually gave way. When it did, I slipped out of the tree (well, I hung by my arms, 10 feet off the ground until I stopped swinging, then used my legs to wrap around the trunk and regained my footing). I scraped and bruised my leg but, more importantly, spooked the Mama rhino with the baby (which I never actually saw). 

Daai said, “Dangerous. Let's go.” And he starts walking pretty fast and keeps looking over his shoulder. They were about 80 feet away, across a pretty swift river. But they can charge at 35 mph, have temperaments when annoyed, and a giant dagger on their noses. So we hustled out of the thick undergrowth, back over the concrete and barbed wired fence, then the razor wire chain link fence then took a breather. These fences are meant to keep rhinos out of the village, which has happened apparently. They do not keep people away from the river area, where people come to see rhinos, to fish, and to gather grasses for animal feed. A few months ago a woman doing just that and was charged and gored to death. I hadn’t quite realized that seeing rhino was a dangerous pursuit, but our hasty escape and the fact that the first question everyone asked me was “Were you scared?” tipped me off. News of the rhino sighting spread across the village and every time I met someone they were happy and impressed that I got to see three rhinos (and wasn’t scared). To maintain my image as fearless, I did not disclose my fear of being eaten by a tiger (which is unlikely, but would be a very awful death).

We saw more rhinos again, two mornings later. We came upon where Daai knew it had been sleeping when he came to get me. You could still smell where the rhino had been (and the giant area of flat grass gave it away). It smelled how you think a rhino bed would smell. It didn’t take long to spot a crocodile in the water and then the same rhino snoozing across the river. I had spotted the contours of its back but didn’t see a head and just thought “that dirt mound is very rhino shaped.” But then it raised its head, looked at us a while, then lumbered away into the high river grasses.

(1) Rhino from first tree (2) this is how I felt to be in a tree looking at a family of rhinos (3) sleeping rhino on second sighting (4) Daai and the sleeping rhino

Life in the village, when not hurrying through grassland to see endangered creatures, is quiet and each day is quite similar to the one before it. My host family doesn’t own much land, but I did participate in some farm labor, mostly to get a sense of what it was like. My host mom was amused when I kept asking to work. People here work really hard. I had noticed teams of women cutting what looked like a tall weed all over the village (pictured below, after harvest). When they neared our property my host mom marched me out and proudly fielded questions about me while I worked (General order of questions: Where is she from? Does she have brothers? Sisters? Are her parents alive? Is she married? Why not? Why is she here?) Meanwhile, I harvested “teel” with a sickle. They said it was for chutney and I could hear some sort of seed making noise in there, but only days later remembered that I knew “teel” were sesame seeds. I never knew what their plant looked like but they are stacked about 10 deep in these little pods (which each hold about 40-50) and they come out in the most orderly little rows. And I already thought I loved everything there was to love about sesame. What a perfect food.

In the village those who farm for a living have much more work to do than those who don’t. Those not working in fields have more free time, a lot of which is spent visiting people around. Much of the village felt like an extended kin network and everyone is introduced as brother or sister or uncle or auntie. Some of this is non-familial and some is familial because some men in the elder generation had multiple wives, so there are a lot of branches of any given family all tracing to the same grandfather or great grandfather. Still, despite these kin ties, the village’s “neighborhoods” (organized in boxes around fields), are very much segregated by caste and economic status.

The homestay was mostly great, but was challenging in two ways. Americans are used to having more privacy and alone time than Nepalis, so I felt pretty tapped out at the end of every day (and still had to write notes!). Also I wasn’t able to control my food safety as well. A lot of things came to me in wet glasses. Or I was given water at people’s homes and told it was boiled, but couldn’t be sure since the word for boiled water and the word for hot water are the same. I was fed a lot of raw, unpeeled or wet veggies, though mostly abstained as best I could. So I wasn’t really surprised when, a few days after my return, I started to feel really fatigued, my joints and muscles ached, and my belly hurt, a lot. I have Leaky Gut syndrome, so abdominal pain is something I’m quite used to. But this was worse, and more persistent. I also felt even hotter than usual, particularly with a heat coming off my upper abdomen. The director at the research center arranged for me to go to the hospital right as I was thinking I would ask him how to see a doctor. I went early in the morning on the morning of my first focus group, which was a tight and difficult turn around to make from patient to researcher.

At the clinic you pay when you arrive ($5) and they write your name on a packet (Hi, I'm Androya, nice to meet you). My name was incorrect, but it didn't much matter since this was the only record and there is no system to be entered into. Whole families seem to go to one person’s appointment together and the research center cook came in with me. The appointment was short and the doc prescribed a bunch of meds and some lab tests, which was fast and easy, if not a bit unhygienic by American standards. I paid for my meds (less than $5) and my visit (less than $10) in cash and we left in a hurry for the focus group. During the focus group I struggled to find a comfortable position on the floor and to be as focused on the interview as I would have hoped. I was totally exhausted afterwards and came back to my bed and immediately collapsed into a two-hour nap followed by lying in bed the rest of the day and doing very little.

Notations on my meds to indicate twice daily (three on left) or once daily (on right). Likely due to low rates of literacy in the population that was in school before about 1983 when educational policy changed

Notations on my meds to indicate twice daily (three on left) or once daily (on right). Likely due to low rates of literacy in the population that was in school before about 1983 when educational policy changed

At dinner I started my meds, which I had Googled and learned are anti-biotics and an anti-spasmodic and I woke up feeling more energetic already the next day. We returned to the clinic for results and the doctor said that I have dysentery and kept assuring me I didn’t have cholera, which wasn’t on my radar and was unclear why it was on his. All I could think was these are two diseases I regularly died from in my hardcore Oregon Trail playing days of 1994-5. If you Google bacterial dysentery, I'm not that sick and have a mild case-- but this does maybe explain why I've been so hot. I feel like I have had this thing for a while, maybe even before my homestay. The antibiotics are doing the trick, wiping out the bad bacteria along with my very carefully cultivated microbiome since my Leaky Gut diagnosis in October 2014. Luckily, I have some very high octane, shelf-stable probiotics with me.

So my dissertation dysentery to marks my second month anniversary in Nepal. My diss dys. Which I am remiss (get it?) to say is not a joke I came up with. 

**Health Update from Sept. 29th** I originally saw the doctor in Bharatpur to see if I had worms, but he diagnosed me with dysentery. Things got worse, not better, and I ended up flying to Kathmandu last minute to go to the British clinic and get more information. I was prescribed meds for worms and, although the mass death of the worms in my body caused me to feel quite ill, I believe I am on the mend. They also found that I was jaundiced and my liver function wasn't good, so I have to come back to see if it has changed after 7-10 days. Both are potential side effects of the worms. It is unclear to me if I really ever had dysentery or not.

(1) Sunrise over the Rapti River (2) Busy hour at the family's store (3) Water buffalo crossing in front of Annapurna Massif (4) Interrupted selfie of my goodbye tikka and the homemade marigold necklace by my host mom as my host grandma looks on