Photo Cred: Nick McNamara
Traveling in Nepal has been a pleasant experience thus far, a quiet inverse to India's crowded, chaotic disposition.
Upon crossing Nepal's far western border near Mahendranagar, I was shocked to find a lack of hustle and bustle. Insanely crowded roads and aggressive rickshaw touts were nowhere to be seen. It took me less than 24 hours to realize I was in a very different place, culturally. The geography, religions, and foods were similar to those in India, but the society was different. Things moved at a slower pace. Buses and shops closed and stopped running earlier. People were still curious about the white man from America traipsing about their town, but there was far less leering than in neighboring India. I must say, the lack of overt scams made me slightly suspicious.
These differences might have something to do with the smaller (and less overcrowded) population of Nepal. I'm no sociologist, so I can only speculate. However, I have yet to visit the capital city, Kathmandu, where I have no doubt the pace and sense of claustrophobia will pick up.
In the first week of staying at Nepali hotels, I learned an interesting tidbit about budget accommodation. Many of the cheaper hotels were run by liquor wholesalers, who seemingly rented the rooms as side hustles to their lucrative businesses. I say "lucrative" because alcohol seemed to be available everywhere. This once again stood in contrast to India, where alcohol is banned in a few states, and consumption is not super common. Sadly, one hotel owner informed me that alcoholism is rampant in his region of Nepal.
I had made arrangements to meet up with a friend for a few days, to visit Bardiya National Park. It's the largest national park in Nepal's Terai region and is home to over 600 species of animal, including rhinoceros, tiger, elephant, crocodile, and dolphin.
At 6 P.M. on a Wednesday, I picked my friend up from the Nepalgunj airport. We were on our way. Two and a half bumpy rickshaw hours later, we arrived at our lodge. It was located right outside the park, a mere ten-minute walk from the entrance. Our tour guide, Baba, greeted us with excitement.
"Tomorrow we will see a tiger!"
I knew that tiger sightings were quite rare, and had doubts that our one day in the park would yield exciting results. However, we responded enthusiastically, hyping ourselves up for the following day.
We awoke at 6 in the morning, changed into hiking clothes, and ate a quick breakfast. Baba was full of the same eagerness he had greeted us with the night before. He had spent 17 years tracking tigers in the park and was trying to break a personal streak of successive sightings.
We were handed packed lunches and wooden walking sticks, then were led to the entrance of the park. Some monkeys lazed about outside the forest. A quick sign in with the park security was in order, and we were off. Into the woods.
Almost immediately, we had to take our boots off to cross a river. The other side was dense forest and grassland, mostly removed from civilization. It felt a bit dangerous being on our own out there. Hopefully, the guide wouldn't allow us to be eaten by some savage jungle beasts. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing at the ground. My friend and I stared down. "Tiger tracks!" Mere minutes into the hike, and it was on.
What happened in the several hours following, I can only describe as a tedious game of "hide and seek." Only we were the ones hiding, in order to seek a tiger. Baba would often bring us to a river bank, and instruct us to wait silently for a couple of hours. Whenever we spotted some deer (a common animal in Bardiya), the hope was that a tiger would come to attack, showing its feline mug. When nothing happened, he would lead us to our next destination, through trees, fields, and tall grass. Every once in a while, we would stop to pull leeches off ourselves. The whole ordeal was tiring.
Halfway through the day, we finally spotted some wildlife. Baba handed us a pair of binoculars, and sure enough, there it was! A rhinoceros was bathing in a distant river, ostensibly keeping cool from the 90-degree weather. We stayed and watched the rhino for an hour or so. I wish I could say the experience was more exciting, but the animal had no interest in coming any closer.
We knew time was running out, and so did our guide. In a last minute stroke of adventurous bravura, Baba led us far off the trail, into some rugged grasslands. The tall stalks whipped against our faces as we went deeper and deeper into the wildlife terrain. "Stop!" commanded Baba. He instructed us to hide behind some grass, and wait.
Ten minutes later, a deer came trotting out into the open. This time, however, there was something off about the way it was walking. The deer would take a few steps at a time, look around nervously, and trot some more. My heart was pounding fast. Something was up, and this deer knew it!
Baba walked slowly out of the grass and whistled for us to join him. "Yes! He exclaimed. "There is a tiger, there is the king!" He handed us the binoculars, and sure enough, walking out of the grass was a Bengal tiger. Our mission was accomplished! Now, all we had to do was avoid being eaten.
The tiger stuck around for no more than 30 seconds. Our guide tried getting closer, and the creature noticed him and ran away. No photos of the orange cat would be taken that day, but it didn't matter. We had come to the park to see a tiger, and indeed, we did. We later found out, that out of a dozen or so groups that trekked in the park that day, we were the only ones who saw a tiger. Baba had done his job admirably, and we were pleased.
That's the end of the story.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.