Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I saw at the Keoladeo National Bird Park

          If Fhatapur Sikri made me feel like the mistress of a Mugul King, The Birder’s Inn (outside the Keoladeo National Bird Park in Bharatapur, Rajastan) made me feel like a pale-faced British widower from the turn of the last century who had been traveling for over a year throughout Asia in search of a rare warbler.  The flagstones in the lobby bespoke another era as did the gift shop full of drawings of birds stacked in piles, edges curling, dust thick, with no shopkeeper in sight.  After the usual hour-long check in for four families including passports and various papers being stamped and handed back to us, we were led to our rooms. During our trip, I often wanted to ask why such extensive documentation was required upon check in, but I was afraid the explanation would add an hour onto the process.
            Each family retired to their rooms chirping delight when their doors were opened, revealing charming, bird-themed rooms.  The boys immediately set up camp while Pat and I unpacked and quickly headed for the campfire in the courtyard with our bottle of red wine.  I come from a family of storytellers and gathering with my parents, brothers, in-laws, and children around a paraffin-fueled fire each night, was as much a highlight of the trip as India itself.
            The next morning we diligently woke early for our bird safari.  I managed to buy two bird books for the children from a waiter who seemed happy to take money intended for the gift shop. The boys flipped through the pages eagerly, folding down corners and circling birds they hoped to see.  We stepped outside the Inn, flagged down rickshaws, settled on a price, and took our chances on how knowledgeable our various drivers would be since they would also be our guides.
            Pat and I loaded the boys onto one rickshaw and grabbed our own to ride behind them. I snuggled up to Pat partly out of affection, but mostly for warmth, and watched our sons ahead of us, peering through their binoculars and flipping through their books.  I made no attempt to look for birds myself because I knew I wouldn’t see any. 
            I have unusually poor eyesight, so poor that I don’t have a driver’s license and even when wearing glasses over a pair of contacts, I have managed to mistake a burly construction worker for my eighty-year-old mother at twenty paces. My eyesight has been substantially impaired since birth, consigning me to life in a foggy otherworld, shadowy at the edges, peopled by dark shapes that can only be identified by their gait or voice.  And, although my family and friends have ample evidence that I can barely see (three car accidents with standing objects the only time I tried to learn to drive, my eyes being the subject of an article for a medical journal, and a lifetime of mistaking strangers for friends, friends for strangers, and sticking my hand out to introduce myself to mailboxes), they refuse to believe that I cannot see what they see. 
            At the bird park, our rickshaw driver and guide would pull up next to a group of other rickshaws that had stopped so their passengers could view a bird. Our guide would point toward a tree and say, “See? The Large Cormorant ?”  This one is male.”
            Pat would put his hands on the side of my head, as if to steer my gaze in the direction of the bird, “See, Brett, it’s right there.”
            I would strain to see it just to be agreeable and then give up, “No. No. I don’t see it. It’s OK.”
            “No, Brett.  It’s right there,” Pat would say insistently. He would stretch his arm out along the side of my head and point.  “Follow my arm.  Now see that lowest branch?”
            “It’s right there.  The bottom branch that looks like a V.”
            “Are you sure we’re looking at the same tree?”
“Of course. You’re just not trying hard enough,” Pat would exhale in frustration. “OK.  Try this.”  He would angle my head toward the ground, his palms flat against both sides of my head like blinkers on a horse. “Now slowly lift your head from here, straight up and stop at the base of the tree.” He would guide my head up slowly with his palms.
            I would peer into the distance, “Where’s the tree? Is that a man?”
            “No. It’s the tree. You’ve got it. Now don’t move yet.”  Pat would stretch his arm alongside my head again, “Now follow where I’m pointing.  There’s the V and if you follow the top of the V it points straight toward the Cormorant?  He’s right there, right there at the end of the top branch. You can’t miss him.”
            But of course I could, and always did, miss the Cormorant and the White-Breasted Kingfisher and the Collared Scops Owl with her adorable babies. And no amount of my protesting that I was having a marvelous time anyway, would dampen Pat’s and my family’s insistence that I simply try harder to see what they could see.  Even binoculars couldn’t help. I’d find myself zooming in on a stalk of grass only to lift them and see only white sky or the dark trunk of something. It was hopeless and I was absolutely fine with that.  But no one else was. It was as if my inability to see was really willful resistance. All my life I had been ruining everyone’s good time by stubbornly refusing to appreciate what was right in front of me for Christ sake. “All you have to do is see where that domelike knob is on the left side of the tree? OK, about halfway up from there switch to the other side of the tree and there’s an owl in the crook of that branch. No?  OK, how about this?  On the other side of the tree there’s a small bush. If you follow the line of the bush about half way up, then at a 90-degree angle there’s a vine hanging down. Follow the vine up and there’s a Finch right there. He’s right there, Brett.  See?  He moved his head. Oh look, he just hopped. He hopped! Why are you looking over there? Not there.  There. Right there.”
            After an hour of this, all of the rickshaws pulled up to a marsh. Adults and children stood along the path gazing out in awe. I dismounted, prepared for the usual drill.  This time, however, the view was so clear it was as if my nose was pressed up against the glass of a private universe. I could even see the birds because they were huge -- Painted Storks alight on the bare branches of a giant old tree.  I couldn’t imagine how these large, elegant birds could fly, let alone perch on such skeletal branches. The aerodynamic impossibility of the scene gave it a gothic beauty that slowed my breath. I stood there with the rest, for once seeing what they saw. And I was grateful.
Straining to see what the others see

The Marsh

Painted Storks

Closer. Picture:  Erik Paesel

Another great view

1 comment:

  1. I love how this trip (and your writing) combines the exoticism of enormous painted storks with the domesticity of family habits and rituals (fireside stories – about Brett’s eyesight). That contrast is SO entertaining. And there can never, ever be enough photos of those boys...