Polo playing with a BIG difference

Trip Start Jul 21, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Chital Lodge

Flag of Nepal  ,
Saturday, November 25, 2006

After the mania of Kathmandu John and I were craving some peace and countryside, and thought we'd tie in a trip to the jungle with the annual Elephant Polo Championships at Meghauli. Taking a tourist bus headed for Sauraha, the touristy destination of Chitwan National Park (more expensive than a public bus but guaranteed a seat, an important consideration on a 5+ hour journey with standing headroom for Nepali-sized people), we jumped off at Narayanghat and caught a local heap of junk to Meghauli, a journey that was supposed to take 45mins. Plenty of locals to talk to, all wondering why we were heading to their sleepy village instead of the popular Sauraha. Three bumpy hours later, we were wondering the same as we jumped off the bus at what could optimistically be called a rustic collection of mud huts and a couple of concrete shop fronts.

We headed towards the recommended Chital Lodge which in terms of Tiger Tops, the smart jungle resort next door, is "how the other half lives". Very simple but comfortable stilted huts, no hot water or flushing loo - truly back to nature. The owner is strictly intent on Making Sure His Guests Have A Great Time, and force-fed us tour ideas as soon as we'd put our bags down. Clever timing on his part, because we quickly succumbed to an expensive elephant safari the following morning (subject to getting time off polo training) and a traditional "stick dance" in the evening.

As the only guests staying that night, we were completely subject to his tyrannical schedule, suggesting when we went to bed, woke up, had lunch, came back... He is a dictatorial control-freak masquerading as a kind host - nothing was too much trouble, AS LONG AS WE ADHERED TO THE SCHEDULE. Slurping our beers contently after dinner, he would say "drink slowly, slowly - enjoy!" then hint about needing to go to bed soon, "big day tomorrow, early start". Being a guesthouse manager does not sit easily with his temperament.

(My impression dropped a few more degrees upon leaving Meghauli, when we were faced with an expensive and previously unmentioned surcharge for his organising the safari, something that would seriously have made us think twice about spending the money. Mental note to self: always ask if the final price really is the final price.)

Fortunately his nephew Hari is the absolute opposite - a bright, earnest 20 yr old who bombarded us with questions the moment we arrived. Mostly he wants to know how to permanently move to the UK and I made the mistake of joking that the easiest and cheapest option was to marry a nice British girl (sorry Rach, you might be receiving a few emails....) In a deliberate snub to his uncle (who I suspect he thinks is mean with money), Hari took us for a long (and free) rhino-hunting expedition and invited us for breakfast before we left. He is so very friendly but often unintelligible, making for some difficult conversations. Thankfully John has more patience than me - I'm afraid it was so wearisome I had to stop talking, knowing that any comment would only lead to a lengthy idiots' explanation of the original question.
The walk was great fun though - we crept up on 2 rhinos then stopped for buffalo milk at his parents'. Much to my surprise and utter relief, the rhinos were more scared of us than I was of them, though I was desperately trying to remember the safety proceedure should should it decide to charge - run in a zig zag manner and throw off some clothing: if all else fails, hide behind a tree.

The money proved enough to tempt a mahout and his elephant away from polo training the next morning; we clambered up, legs akimbo, and set off for the jungle, the elephant helpfully sweeping long grass out of tourist-swatting range with his trunk. Quickly the sitting position became uncomfortable; despite the fading taekwon do training, my thigh muscles were stretched to breaking point. Trying to recall breathing and relaxation techniques from class I held on for 2 hrs, before John and I found out we could sit "side-saddle". Mental note 2: pride is irrelevant when sitting on an elephant.

We caught sight of deer (one stag with fantastic huge antlers - how do they run through tight spaces?), monkeys, wild boar and a rhino in the grasslands, and even spotted the tracks of a Bengali tiger (though I'm a little relieved we didn't come across one in person). After lunch and a brief walk we met the baby elephant at Tiger Tops - 2 months old, desperately cute and already hard as nails.

That evening it seemed like the whole village turned out to perform our private stick dance - at least everyone who wasn't employed by Tiger Tops. It's the only time I've ever watched a show where the audience was smaller than the number of performers, though Mum might unfortunately be able to claim otherwise, given the disappointing cultural interest of much of Hungerford.
We heard a great deal of noise outside as the village arrived and changed into their traditional white dhotis and saris. At 6.30pm (precisely, the schedule reigns supreme) we were led outside to some chairs overlooking the driveway, now transformed with a bit of imagination into a stage, with a single lightbulb and some torches for spotlights. It was great fun with plenty of embarassing audience participation (ie me, John and a Japanese couple) - shaking tinsel-lined baskets and shimmying hips.
The stick dance "does what it says on the tin" really - the men bang their sticks together whilst the women shimmy, originally intended to scare off wild animals (with the noise that is, not the hip-wiggling).

And so to elephant polo the next day - what we were really here for (video to go online in due course). Once you get over the absurdity of watching posh folk wildly swinging mallets at a golf ball in the name of sport, shouting "To your left Rupert, ya?", the game is really quite exciting. The fact that elephants are lolloping up and down a patch of grass airstrip doesn't seem so out of place here in Nepal: it's the people who do. Even the polo pitch is a sharply divided battleground - white and wealthy players on one side, the scruffy Meghauli kids on the other. As if using elephants wasn't enough of a challenge, the early morning games must also cope with a fog so thick the commentator can't see the opposite end of the pitch ("and Rupert has just passed the ball to...well I can't quite see, the mist is proving difficult and there're a few elephants in the way...")
Watching it from the sidelines, we were treated like superstar curiosities by the truanting schoolkids who had obviously mistaken us for the polo players on the other side of the pitch.

After the day's matches we walked to the community forest watchtower and sat high above the jungle waiting for rhinos as the sun set. I have a suspicion that rhinos are like buses - you wait for hours then 3 come along at once. On this occasion though, we were waiting for a London night bus at midnight - no sign of any. Wildlife spotting is a pretty boring process, and after 1 hour all we saw was a renegade group of guerilla film makers who had commandeered the jungle as a suitable backdrop to their movie. Cue lots of teenagers in headbands running and shouting through the bushes (oh how it took me back to my student days...)

After 3 days of being in the jungle, I realised that I'm not really a wildlife person. I also needed to escape our daily SCHEDULE and dictator of a host, so 2 hellish bus rides and 3 hours later we arrived at Sauraha (you know a Nepalese bus is really crowded when even the driver stops taking on more passengers).
We kept bumping into the 2 guides that we'd met at Meghauli, until it became more than sheer coincidence and we wondered if they were stalking us into taking on their services. Graciously declining their offers we found our own way quite easily to the Elephant Breeding Project, a few miles west of town. Arriving too early for the elephants (the babies go for educational trips to the jungle and river during the day), we walked further into the forest for a few hours and returned in time to see the young ones walking back from their school trip. They are so sweet and would make wonderful pets if only they didn't grow up so damned big. Left the centre just as the tour groups were arriving and took the locals' method of crossing the river - rolling trousers up as high as thunder thighs would allow and wading across, taking care to avoid the floating dung and trying not to think of whatever else might be accompanying it.

After a sweaty walk back, we flopped down by the river to watch the last of the sunset and drink ourselves silly on cheap cocktails such as "Between the Streets" (misprint or a less riske version for demure Hindu society?) - an annoying 20mins after a spontaneous bout of rhino fighting along the opposite bank. Cocktails and rhino fighting - I think that might just change my mind about wildlife watching.

(note to readers: due to lack of patience and too much time already spent goggle-eyed in front of infinitely slow computers, there are more photos and some video still to be added...if still interested, check back in about 10days! We should have gotten round to ordering them by then too)
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