Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good Day for Tigers

With sixty-five tigers in a small park like Bandavargh, the guidebooks said that we were almost guaranteed a tiger sighting.  Increasing our chances further, Keir had booked two safaris --one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Although, as he burrowed under the thin blankets on the jeep at 5:30 am, he grumbled, “I’ve never seen a tiger this early. The last time I saw a tiger it was a comfortable ten in the morning.”
            The blankets were a poor defense against the ceaseless cold. We adults kept tucking and retucking them under our asses.  But there was always an unattended gap, poofing gasps of frigid air against a shin or an elbow.  The kids complained far less than the adults.  This was because they were convinced that they would see a tiger. In the wild. Up close.
            “And we have two chances to see one,” Spencer chirped while I slipped both of my hands under my ass like Pat was doing with his.  This unloosed a flap of the blanket, exposing my thinly panted leg to a chilly blast. 
            “Jesus Christ,” I said, grabbing the flap and securing it again.
            Murphy seemed almost Zen about the whole thing, practically snuggled under his brother.  Perhaps his harrowing night of vomiting had given him the quick life experience necessary to put tiger sightings in their proper perspective.  Sitting upright, even in a freezing open-air jeep, was better than hurling into a bathing bucket while your mother murmured useless phrases at you.
            By the time I had lost all feeling in my feet, a guide hopped into our jeep and we were on our way.  This was a good day for tigers he told us.  There had been sightings yesterday.  A mother and her cubs. The children oooohed. 
            “A cub,” Murphy said, eagerly.
My teeth wouldn’t stop chattering so I simply smiled and dipped my chin. Far from feeling miserable about the cold, I felt vaguely heroic. If this was what I would have to endure to see a real live tiger in the wild, with my family, so be it. 
            “When the sun comes out and you start to warm up, it’s the best feeling,” Robyn said. I was beginning to wonder if Robyn’s sunny disposition was a mild form of travel dementia.  It was clear to me that I would never “warm up” as she called it.  I was going to have to amputate below my knees.  But I would have seen a tiger. 
            Ten minutes into our bumpy ride, the guide stopped the driver.
            What?  A tiger so soon?
            He pointed into the forest.  We peered in the designated direction. 
            “Deer,” he said, and sure enough, I could make out a huge stag with majestic antlers bathed in a shaft of misty light. 
            “Let me see,” said Spencer, pulling up his binoculars and training them on the deer.  We all watched in silence.  Then the guide shifted his weight, glanced at us and we nodded – back to the tigers.
            We bounced along a path until the guide heard something and stopped the jeep abruptly.  He motioned to the driver to back up.  This was it – the tiger. It must be.  Jesus.  I wished my hands were working so I could retrieve my camera from my pocket.  The jeep stopped. 
            The guide whispered something into Robyn’s ear.
            “Alarm call,” she whispered to us.  “He heard a monkey warning the other animals that a tiger is coming.”
            The boys’ eyes lit up.  We sat motionless.  Listening. Watching. 
            A twig snapped.  Was that the tiger?  We looked back. 
Bird calls. The birds didn’t sound overly alarmed. 
            The guide stayed still. Listening. Looking.
            Except.  It was beautiful.  Sunlight pouring through patches in the forest ceiling.  The smell of damp leaves.  A specific kind of silence that isn’t silence at all.  Stillness.  Rough blankets.  Still, the cold.  Murphy had moved next to me to make room for the guide in the back.  I felt his warmth on my arm. 
            I could have stayed like that for an hour.  Breathing.
            The guide broke the silence.  He said something to the driver and the jeep started.
            “No tiger?” Robyn asked the guide.
            He shook his head. No tiger.  But it was a good day for tigers. Lots of time.
            I have always clung to a rather childish notion that if a person wants something badly enough--if that person stays focused and works hard – that something will be attained.  In some form.  Although, perhaps not the form initially envisioned.  This, for me, is the cosmic catch.  I will be rewarded with what I want, eventually, but I might not recognize it when it appears. 
            So I believed, bumping along, straining to see deep into the woods, that we would see a tiger. We had come far. We had endured the cold.  We had booked two safaris.  But, I also believed that the tiger might not look like I had imagined. He might be running so fast that I’d only glimpse his tail.  Any variation on a tiger sighting was possible, I reasoned. And I was eager to find out what our story would be.
            The jeep stopped.  The guide pointed.  Tiger?  No. This time, two huge painted storks staring at each other. I had never seen storks so massive.  Pat took a picture with his camera.  I was amazed that he could move his fingers enough to press the shutter.
            The jeep continued, then stopped again.
            The guide pointed to the ground.  Tiger tracks.
            Tiger tracks?!!!!
            They looked fresh.  I don’t know from animal tracks, but the ground was still muddy.  I could buy that these were very new.
            “This morning,” the guide confirmed.
            Wow.  I stared at the paw prints as big as salad plates.  We were so in the tiger zone.  Just think, if we had gotten here BEFORE 5:30, we might have seen this particular tiger simply strolling on the side of the road. 
            The jeep started up again.  We stopped several times to look at more deer, an owl as big as a five-year-old child, various birds and monkeys, and tiger scratchings on the side of a tree.  Scratchings that were so high up, I got a sense of how big these elusive tigers must be.  It occurred to me that if they were that big, it would be very difficult for all of them to remain hidden through BOTH of our safaris. 
            “Midpoint,” the guide announced.  We bumped through the forest until we came to a clearing where other safari jeeps were parked.  The driver and guide conferred with other parties while I stood in a patch of sunlight in the middle of the road.  My hands and feet proved very resistant to the heat of the sun.  The cold was in my bones. 
            Pat lopped over.  “Put your hands in the grate over the jeep’s engine,” he said.  It sounded dangerous but I was game.  I walked over to the jeep to find Robyn and the children sticking their hands into a gap below the hood to the jeep. 
            “The day’s warming up.  It’ll be good now,” Robyn said. 
            “Right,” I said, adopting Robyn’s optimistic, if slightly delusional tone. “Let’s get back in that jeep and look for tigers.”
            Robyn through me an uncharacteristically cautious look that said, “You might want to tone down the tiger talk because…we might not see one.”
            I threw a look back that said, “I never until this moment thought that we wouldn’t see a tiger.  Are you serious? “
            And her responding look said, “It’s always a possibility isn’t it?  That you might not get what you want?”
            At least that was my translation of our maternal non-verbal vernacular.  Even if my interpretation was off, however, this was the first time I considered the possibility that we might not see a tiger.
            And so I faced a choice.  Stay focused on seeing a tiger, clinging to my belief that all good things come to he who obsesses long and hard enough. Or concentrate on aspects of the safari that weren’t tiger centric.
            “Have you ever seen an owl that big?” I asked the boys. 
            “Never,” said Spencer, beaming.
            During the second half of our morning safari, my fingers regained feeling, we saw more birds, deer, and monkeys, and I really saw the forest.  “Isn’t it interesting,” I said to everyone in the jeep, “that the concentration it takes to look for a tiger, makes you see things in greater detail?” No one answered because they were too busy concentrating. Conjuring tigers.

            “We still have a whole ‘nother safari to find a tiger,” Spencer announced as we drove up to Mogli resort for lunch.  This from the boy who told his soccer coach upon losing their first game one-to-twelve, “Just think. If we had made twelve more goals, we would have won.”  As a mother, I have been moved by Spencer’s optimism, but I’ve also worried that it makes him more vulnerable to disappointment.
            “Yeah.  We have another safari,” said Murphy, probably echoing his brother’s sentiment.  Not wanting to shine a light on a possible tiger-free day, I didn’t ask if seeing a tiger was still important to him. 
            Was it still important to me?  I couldn’t say.  I was beginning to feel detached from the outcome of our safaris. This kind of detachment is a state I have come to value -- which in itself, implies attachment.  At this point, in my loop of figuring out whether I was attached or not, my clingy still-attached sub-self worried that any detachment I was experiencing was simple laziness.  Hold fast, it cried.  Don’t lose faith.  For faith will produce a tiger.
            As we were returning to our cabins, another guest appeared. I was slightly thrown. How had she heard about Mogli Resort?  And, more importantly, would she derail the arrangement we had made that morning to have dinner moved to seven?  This radical suggestion might still be sending shock waves through the staff.  One innocent question from the only other guest on the premises could seriously jeopardize our plan.  
            “Dinner’s at seven,” I preemptively said, before she had a moment to properly introduce herself. 
            “I was just about to ask,” she said.  “I’m going on an afternoon safari.  Were you out today?”
            “Yes,” I said.
            “Did you see any tigers?”
            Why was she making it all about the tigers, I thought irritably?
            “Nope,” said Murphy.  “But we’re going back this afternoon.”
            “We’ve got a whole other chance,” Spencer piped up.
            “Right,” the guest said.  “I’m doing a second safari tomorrow.”
            We chatted with her for a few minutes before heading off to our rooms.  When she was out of earshot, Keir whispered, “It’s going to totally suck if she’s sees a tiger and we don’t.  We’ll have to hear all about it at dinner. It’s not like she’s got anyone else to talk to.”
            Considering this, I felt all my detachment detach.  I am not a particularly competitive person, but fair was fair.  I had already spent a freezing night in an abandoned resort, robbed of sleep to care for my very sick child. She couldn’t just waltz in here and see a tiger without doing some serious time. It wasn’t the way the world should work. 

            Our four-hour long afternoon safari was shortened to three hours when our guide determined that it wasn’t such a good day for tigers after all.  We all felt better when we found out that no one else in the park had seen a tiger that day either. Including the other hotel guest. 
            “I knew she hadn’t seen one when she started going on about a big peacock she saw,” said Keir.  “No one talks about a peacock if they’ve seen a tiger.”
            Thus feeling magnanimous, we invited her to join us for pre-dinner drinks around our raging gasoline fueled fire that night.  The children gabbed merrily about all of the animals that we did see on the safari and the boys particularly loved the sign we saw when we left the park.  Nest to a cartoon of a tiger, the words read, “Do not be disappointed if you did not see me today. I definitely saw you.”
            Keir took a swig of beer, “I keep wondering if we should go on safari tomorrow before we leave. It would be another chance.”
            “Get up again at 5:30?” I said.
            “I’ll do it,” said Spencer.
            But by dinnertime, any enthusiasm for that plan faded in favor of sleeping in. 
            As I lay under extra covers that night, fully clothed, I marveled that the children hadn’t been more disappointed. The tiger had been a huge topic of conversation when we talked about the trip back home.  It was two days before Christmas.  We were cold, and some of us had already been sick.  There wouldn’t be any presents until we returned to New Delhi a couple of days after Christmas.  But far from being discouraged, the kids were relaxed and eager for more adventure. 
            When the guide decided to truncate our safari that afternoon, we followed a path to the exit that took us over a large hill. Robyn asked the driver to stop the jeep for a few minutes so that we could be in the forest without moving for awhile.  We all sat there, watching the fading light sparkle on the mist settling on the ravine below us.  We barely moved.  Even the children. I think that we were all simply feeling a part of it all.  We were together.  Suspended.  Breathing with the universe.
            And we were most definitely being watched.
5:30 AM

Afternoon Safari

As far as the eye can see


1 comment:

  1. So moving, so beautiful. And, as always, hilarious. Thank you for keeping me on tenterhooks and carrying me through your release of the tigers...