It used to be an adventure too close to home. A 2-hour drive (roughly 90km away) from Nagaon, Assam, where I spent the first 15 years of my life. The school picnics took us to the Kaziranga National Park (KNP), but not into its heart. I’d had close encounters with Miami’s beach bums before I went close to one of Kaziranga’s one-horned rhinos.
Kaziranga: Home to 1,700 rhinos
Kaziranga was in our textbooks; it was in tourism hoardings dotting the state’s dusty highways; in our collective awareness as Assamese people. But, in school or at home, we weren’t taught to be proud of the one-horned rhino or the wildlife that this 860 sq. km of forest nurtured. The stray newspaper headline never gave us the full story of Kaziranga’s beauty, and its survival. We longed to see the Taj Mahal and the beaches of Goa.
That’s a fundamental impulse that drives the act of travelling, isn’t it? You want to get away.
This year, I decided to travel within home — inside Kaziranga. And the trip reinforced what I’ve always believed is the most gratifying part of travel: Beyond the purely sensory pleasure of leaving our wired, routine life behind, it can turn our presumptions and beliefs upside down, shake us out of complacency, make us take stock of the provincial in the universal. Most great travel writers give in to that challenge and allow themselves to be touched by it. It’s not a bad way to travel even for us, backpackers and tourists. If you’re travelling to offbeat destinations in India, and you have the curiosity, you’ll encounter such challenges in the most unexpected of ways.
But for most Indians, the preferred destinations are away from home. According to the 2008 Kuoni Travel Report, the Top 20 aspirational destinations for Indians are still the US, Singapore, Europe, Dubai and Thailand, among other foreign countries. Within India, most travellers are averse to visiting wildlife reserves. (The report poses the question: “Could it be because of poor infrastructure?” There’s no answer; much of it is focused on outbound and inbound travel.) Every person’s reasons for travelling are different, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that most Indian travellers are not big fans of surprises and challenges .
On our first safari, we spotted six rhinoceroses. Cloaked in muddy silt, the hefty, thick-skinned animals stared indifferently at us through lush, tall lokasa grasses. Even in January, the forest seemed to thrive on fertile land; forest posts were located in strategic, but unintrusive spots; the animals roamed proud in their natural habitat.
That was, of course, half the story.
Later on, Dharani Dhar Bodo, joint director of KNP, told me why it’s so difficult to manage this mammoth forest. “Most range officers are about to retire and young people are unwilling to join because they are not well paid, their lives are not insured.” Bodo joined KNP as range officer in 1987. Since then, he said, around 40 poachers have been killed and more than 100 arrested. Even in his 50s, Bodo’s love for the forest and his passion to protect its habitat seem unadulterated. He is happy to offer his guards perks himself, which includes vegetables from his own garden.
The locals I interacted with had their own stories. They are coping with devastating floods every year; and with the influx of new neighbours, mostly Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled in the periphery of the designated forest lands. They are also slowly making their own shaky transition to urbanization, driven by better roads and tourism. On our way back to the Guwahati airport, I read a report in one of the local English dailies about a slain rhino found around 10km from where we stayed. It was killed for its horn — basically, compressed hair — believed (but not scientifically proven) to be an aphrodisiac. According to the latest figures of the directorate, KNP, the horn is sold in India and abroad for up to Rs15 lakh per kg.
I’ll save the full story for later.
Meanwhile, enjoy our travel issue. Incidentally, we began working on it around the time Lonely Planet, bible for the world traveller, suffered a big blow to its credibility. One of its writers, Thomas Kohnstamm, admitted to making up chunks of his book on Colombia sitting in his San Francisco home because Lonely Planet does not “pay enough for what they expect the authors to do”.
One more reason to ignore your Lonely Planet guide and go looking for the hidden places, the untold stories.
Priya Ramani is away until August. Catch up on her travels at Blogs.livemint.com.
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