At 4 a.m. Calcutta is quiet. There is little activity in the streets: a few rats scurry in the gutter searching for food, clambering over the mounds of sleeping people who crowd the pavement. Calcutta quiet is rare. The congestion here seldom permits the city to relax.
The only sounds now are the creaking of the rickshaw, its beaten wood grating like old bones under my weight, and the patter of the dhoti-clad rickshaw-wallah’s feet echoing off the buildings as he pulls me toward the bus stand. He flicks his head sideways to look at me out of the corner of his eye and mutters something without breaking his rhythm.
“I was taxi driver. Taxi no good. Rickshaw good.” Then something about rupees. I know he will ask for more money than we agreed upon. Baksheesh: as Indian as sacred cows and maharajahs. Then he’s quiet again, and I feel the sky. It’s crowding down, heavy with rain. But today I don’t mind because I’m off to track rhinos.
The rickshaw stops. Without warning the rickshaw-wallah sets down his yoke, almost tossing me headlong into the street. “Wait,” he says, then walks to the gutter to urinate. I’ve clearly put him to work before his morning ablutions. Ahead the ghostly hulks of two Brahma cows lurch across the street, stopping to graze on garbage. The rickshaw-wallah returns and we move on.
As I expected, he asks for double the agreed fare when he lets me off. I give him a few extra rupees for the early start, smile, say “thanks,” and walk away, hearing him grumble only an instant before I hear the creaking of the rickshaw.
The bus to the airport is only half full and goes smoothly, a pleasant surprise. More remarkably, the flight leaves on time and after a short hop over Bangladesh lands safely in Jorhat in the state of Assam. Outside, as I expected, it is raining.
A taxi driver buttonholes me on the tarmac before I even reach the terminal. His English is good.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Ah, you want to see the rhinos.”
I nod, smiling.
Kaziranga National Park is the final stronghold of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. It has been a sanctuary since 1901, and in 1972 it was declared a national park. Now the government of India finances and maintains it. The official count for rhinos in 1993 was over eleven hundred and the park is home to many other animals including some six hundred wild buffalo, several thousand deer and wild boar, sloth bears, and the occasional leopard and tiger. Poaching, however, is a very serious problem.
Jorhat is an agricultural city in a lush setting. Mostly rice and vegetables are grown here, and the jungle seems to encroach on all sides, squeezing onto fields, forming leafy borders for gardens on the outskirts of town.
I take the taxi to the bus station, and after a wait of an hour and a half am in line to buy a ticket, which in India is always a struggle. You must fight to get to the window, then fight again to get your money to the attendant before all of the other insisting hands. I was hoping it would be different in Assam, but it wasn’t.
My seat is on the hump of the rear wheel, by a window that isn’t there. In its place has been jammed a rusted piece of sheet metal. The rain flows in and trickles down to the floor. When we start to move it blows in, splashing indifferently on my leg. I slide closer to the man next to me and prepare myself for the next fifty-six miles, or three and a half hours.
We stop for tea whenever the driver is thirsty. He seems to be unquenchably thirsty today, but I don’t mind because it gives me a chance to get out of the rain, and a cup of tea combats the chill.
A short while later two seats miraculously open up when we stop near a muddy path. The man next to me slides to the seat across the aisle and smiles at me. I slide to the aisle seat and it feels like shelter. Stretching my legs, I thank him, and sit back, able now to enjoy the scenery.
Assam is intensely green. Flat fields thick with rice run casually to the forested hills in the distance, a fresh, vibrant green flowing to meet the older, richer shade on the horizon. Blazing-white egrets stand idly, occasionally taking their graceful flight like a ballet done against an impressionist backdrop. For many miles we pass the rice fields, interrupted only by occasional clumps of forest where the hills send a delinquent finger toward the road. Then abruptly a tea plantation emerges. The flat, orderly spread of shrubs is speckled in light and dark green. Acacias stand among them like angels in a tranquil land. We roll on, through alternating fields of rice and tea.
The rain continues, heavily at times. The bus is now full, an unfortunate man in rags taking my former seat. His dark, haggard face is adorned in white stubble; his mouth is scarlet, his teeth red and rotting from years of chewing betel nut. He chews slowly now, and from time to time spits the flaming red spittle into the rain. He is not alone. On this bus at least half of the passengers are chewing, and not just the old people, but also young men in Western shirts and trousers, young women with beautiful dark faces wearing silver and gold nose jewelry and wild saris. For the first time, in the closeness of the bus, I can smell it, the slightly sweet rancidity of the betel nut. We bounce along, no one in any apparent hurry.
The monsoon is lingering, like an unwelcome guest. This year it has been especially heavy. The river Brahmaputra has flooded much of its valley, and thousands of villagers have been evacuated to relief camps. The rain continues to blow in on the old man and his scarlet spittle, and I begin to wonder if I’ll be able to get into the sanctuary.
A ripple of conversation flows the length of the bus and the man across the aisle tells me with a smile, “Your stop is the next one.”
I thank him and prepare to go out into the rain, suddenly reluctant to give up the security of this rickety bus bouncing through the countryside.
As the bus recedes in the distance I make my way up a narrow road through a tea plantation to a small complex of buildings at the top of a hill. Run by the government of Assam, the tourist lodge is reasonably priced and comfortable. Meals are cheap and adequate, and the friendly Assamese who manages the place assures me I’ll be able to visit the sanctuary, if the rain stops. The sky shows no signs of that, and the rain is steady until darkness comes suddenly at 5 p.m.
I have little hope of going into the park when I am awakened the next morning by a rap on the door at 4:30. I rise sleepily and step outside. It is dark and quiet. Water drips from the trees, but the sky is holding. At 5 o’clock it is light, and the sky, still overcast, shows signs of breaking up, lifting on the horizon like the hem of a long skirt to show pale sky beyond. A short while later, without breakfast, I climb into a jeep with six Assamese and we drive off, three miles to the elephant camp.
A cluster of Indians stands around a raised wooden platform, waiting for howdahs to be mounted on the elephants. The women are wearing their flowing saris, the men are dressed in slacks and sweaters just as colorful. It doesn’t take long to prepare the elephants, and we climb the platform to reach the howdahs, clamber aboard, three or four to an elephant, and slosh off into the swampy grasslands, a band of seven elephants.
Our pace is slow, but without warning and barely two minutes into our journey we spot our first rhino. It stands shoulder deep in grass, munching, stopping to stare at us as we approach. Seven abreast, we must be a formidable sight to its tiny eyes. It watches us until we come within thirty feet, then slowly turns and sloshes off. We follow it, cameras clicking, people chattering with excitement.
The rhino looks like an anachronism with its thick hide divided into sections like plates of armor. Its single stout horn and hooked upper lip give it a fierce appearance, but when it flaps its small ears it suddenly seems amusingly docile. Its eyes become sad rather than mean, and I see that it is a peaceful creature despite its prehistoric appearance.
Not far away another rhino is accompanied by a herd of swamp deer and an egret. The deer watch us curiously, while the rhino grazes and the egret rides on its back. Now and then the egret jumps off to snatch a meal, but each time it returns. As we move in their direction, the deer prance away to join a larger herd on higher ground.
We make our way slowly through the swamp, and rhinos appear everywhere. One is submerged up to its chin in a water hole, another peers at us through tall grass. Gray herons and egrets take flight and move in slow motion away from our path. Starlings chatter in the occasional trees. White-headed fish hawks swoop low over the waters, and a pelican, shining white like the egrets, glides effortlessly toward a landing spot in the distance. We see more deer, which panic and thrash through the tall grass as we surprise them, and more rhinos.
When we return to the lodge, the park official tells me the sanctuary will close tomorrow because the high waters are too hard on the elephants. He amiably suggests that I try to come back later in the season, and I smile, thinking of a place on the other side of the world.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.