I once thought of jungle areas as a strictly tropical zone. I guess National Geographic gave me a stilted view of what it really meant. I pictured a tangled muddle of vines, tall exotic trees and thick undergrowth, almost impassable without mechanically clearing a path. Maybe I overlooked the views of the majestic grasslands that surrounded the forests, where elephants and rhinos lived and thought they were just another form of forgotten farmland. In life there are so many things to learn and this phase of the journey was an exciting 2 hours indeed.
I imagined the jungle and the creatures there, as we took the long trip by jeep from Gangtok to Sahtali. Along the way I chatted about the animals that people saw daily, while living in what can be called the grasslands of Northwestern Bengal. The area there is not much above sea level and holds in it some of the beautiful forest or jungle reserves. It is here that you can find the Indian elephant and the famous 1 horned rhino. Of course there are many other varieties of wildlife there, but most people desire especially to see these two majestic creatures. I asked about the jungle tours that the past mission had taken and my friend Shakti said that Uncle Nicholas had not mentioned anything to that point, but that he would ask about it as soon as we arrived at Sahtali. The roads there were, to say the least, less than smooth, but nevertheless got us to our destination. The first 4 ½ hours took us through mountain passes and along river banks, where monsoon rains had done its devastating work on the roads. Washouts make the driving interesting some places and our driver did a wonderful job, even though he was suffering from a local malady himself. We doctored him up and kept him on the road, much to his satisfaction and joy. He really seemed interested in the conversations and funny stories we told and translated, through an interpreter that he had brought along.
The arrival at Uncle Nicholas’s orphanage in Sahtali was late in the evening after a very long and tiring trip. Uncle Nicholas and the staff were eager for our arrival and lots of fanfare met us even at the lateness of the hour. We had a late supper and were shown to our private rooms for our stay, with the promise of some very interesting trips during our stay with him. He is a wonderful man of vision and has spent years looking after the poor and children of the area. His family staff is augmented by locals who come to volunteer their help in exchange for food and some clothing form time to time. The next morning we were up early to meet the children who rise at 6 am and have their breakfast by 6:30 so that chores at the orphanage can be completed before studies begin.
Uncle Nicholas said that he was trying to make arrangements for the elephant safari through the jungle for us the next day. The problem was that the local retreats (hotels of sorts on the reserves) had first bookings and he did not know in time that some of us would like to take the tour this year. He spent a few minutes on the phone and made arrangements for us to get on a jeep tour of the jungle areas, which was not as exciting, but would at least give us an idea what they were like and the prospect of perhaps seeing some wildlife.
We started our tour at around 3 pm the next day and went about 10 miles into the jungle to a few look-out towers where salt licks were put out to toll the animals in. We found out that most of the wildlife did not arrive until the workers had left the area, which was usually around 4:30 pm each day. On our first stop we spotted some water buffalo off in the distance, but left shortly thereafter to head back to the reserve station. Along the way we stopped at one last tower. There we saw some working elephants being taken home and a rhino that did come fairly near the tower, but was scared off before it got very close, by an incoming vehicle that was honking its horn.
I tried to imagine life here. In Canada, not many people are allowed to live in reserve areas. In India it is the practice to allow the tribal people to remain and maintain themselves and their families there, either working the reserve or doing minor farming. Villages stay intact and traditions continue for the most part. As we dove along the narrow roads, I thought about God’s wonderful plans and how we continue to manage them in our own resolve and vision. I wonder if he is truly happy about what we are doing and if, as many of his varieties of animals begin to disappear, we have done our best to be good stewards of what He has given us.
I guess I felt myself tripping on the very excitement of the tour itself. Was this what God meant for us to do with our resources? Yet I know that without both the reserves themselves and the tours like I was taking, many would not even think about what we still have and maintain interest in keeping them alive and supported. Even though I did not see an elephant or Bengal tiger in the wild, I did get a sense of what is still beautiful, as I listened to the stories of the tribal people who see these beautiful creatures on almost a daily basis. I wondered what it must have been like when even greater areas of the country were their homes and they waundered the land freely, without fear or worry. Well, we can’t turn back the pages of time, but we can make sure that something is learned by mistakes made and I celebrate the desire of the tribal people of India to make sure that big business does not crowd out the grasslands with development and more destruction brought on this now fragile balance of nature.
As they begin to organize, I pray for them. I pray that God will strengthen them in their resolve and the strength of their combined voices. I pray that I, along with the many others who have taken the trip and viewed the natural beauty of creation still remaining, will resolve to continue to do what I can to keep our earth beautiful one day at a time, but with a view to the future. I am not sure what this will fully mean and it scares me. But I do want to do my part and if that means being a bit pro-active beyond picking up the garbage that I leave behind, then so be it! Let’s not forget that God created a beautiful earth– we have made it into something far less.