"Wild" Life at a Bird Sanctuary

Vacation

1252 words

Title: "Wild" Life at a Bird Sanctuary

by Paul and Lorie Bennett


More than a billion people live in India, and many of them have figured out a way to
separate tourists from their dollars, pounds, francs, lira, yen or even rupees.

This is the story of a young man who appointed himself our 'official' guide at Keoladeo
National Park bird sanctuary in Rajasthan state, a morning's drive east from New Delhi.

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We turn south onto a single-lane country road about 20 km before reaching the Taj mahal
city of Agra. Once off the highway, the real India unfolds - the ubiquitous cows, goats
and dogs, local males calling the shots from their charpoy beds in the sun, young men
washing at the town water pump, children chasing chickens. The mud-hut villages
seemingly have changed little for generations.

As we near Keoladeo, the land turns marshy. In roadside dams and canals, duck-size Pond
Herons tread daintily on clumps of water hyacinth in search of prey.

We are booked to spend two nights at a lodge inside the park. As we haggle with the
gatekeeper over whether our driver should pay an entry fee to merely drop us off, a
local, dressed in camouflage shirt, khaki pants and "official" Bharatpur baseball cap,
appoints himself our saviour.

He convinces the gatekeeper to forgive our driver the 100-rupee fee and, introducing
himself with "I am Hari, your guide," offers to show us day and evening birds after
we've registered and freshened up. He looks the part, so we agree to meet him later.

At the India Tourism Development Corporation's bharatpur Forest Lodge, the frumpy khaki
stucco exterior leads us to expect the mouldy walls and ceilings of an ITDC lodge we've
experienced in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state.

Inside, however, we are delighted to find marble floors, colourful drapes and bedspreads,
fresh paint. Everything is first class, including a comfy swing on our room's balcony.
The rate at the newly renovated 26-year-old lodge is 2,500 rupees a night ($80 Cdn), a
bargain compared to private-enterprise accommodation outside the park.

Around 4:30 Hari shows up, high-powered Russian army binoculars slung around his neck.
He walks us to a swampy lake and points out nearly 40 kinds of birds - jewel-like
kingfishers, purple herons, colourful ducks, parrots and parakeets. Monkeys, jackals and
bush pigs round out our viewing experience.

Beyond the low brick barrier that seaparates the park from a village, we spot women and
girls elegantly clad in saris taking turns drawing water form a well for the evening
meal and ablutions. Balanced on their heads are pots of shiny brass or chrome, striped
plastic, or functional earthenware.

Children shout greetings, and Hari invites us to cross the wall and visit his village.
We are reluctant to intrude, but he assures us that foreigners often come to his village.
We regret we have no camera, tape recorder or gift pens with us for this unexpected
adventure, but decide it's best not to seem too much the pushy tourist.

The way to his house is a three-dimensional maze through walls, barns and actual rooms
of houses. The village sewer system is a network of garbage-choked ditches while cows,
dogs, pigs - along with their excrement - add to the walking hazards.

Inside his mud-brick house, Hari points out his young wife cooking at the fire, a shy
daughter at her skirts, and offers tea. He shows us photographs of previous foreign
visitors and tells us about his experiences with them, but the tea is not forthcoming.

The heat in the tiny living-sleeping room is oppressive, so at Hari's suggestion we
climb stairs to the roof and he brings us stools. The view as the sun sets blood red in
a hazy straw sky is charming, and we can see Hari's late-model white ragtop Jeep parked
in the narrow lane.

He offers us beer. It turns out we are expected to buy it, so we give Hari 150 rupees
for three beers. Since there is no store in the village, a man he calls his brother is
sent off to buy them.

Children surround us and call out their numbers in English to impress us, people wave to
us from the rooftops, charming at first. But, as the sky deepens to mauve and 30 minutes
go by, we are feeling hemmed in and ask to be escorted back to our hotel.

Hari is reluctant. "What about the beer? It will be here soon."

"Forget the beer, keep the money as a tip," we say.

"We were supposed to see night birds," he counters.

"We just want to get back to the hotel," we reply.

Imploring us to stay, Hari produces a flashlight, but we do not want to battle the
warren of houses and drains while running the gauntlet of animals, tame, feral and wild.
In the dark, even with a flashlight, the trip would be a challenge and might be injurious
to our health in more ways than one.

Finally, as darkness grasps the land, Hari agrees to take us back to the lodge. He offers
to come back later to show us the night birds, but we've had enough of the Indian
experience for one day. He says he'll call on us in the morning for more bird watching.

That evening, we get around to reading the official parks information, which warns that
guides must be licensed by the Indian government. Our "guide" Hari is in the park
illegally, so we are prepared for him next morning.

Out of sight of the lodge, Hari is waiting. When we point out the jig is up, he has the
temerity to demand 500 rupees for the activities of the night before. Armed with
information that official guides may charge 30 rupees per hour, we tell him to keep the
beer money as full payment for his services. He's not pleased but we don't waver and
eventually he wanders off.

And so do we, happily spending the morning on embankments among the marshes, discovering
a full palette of the day's birds for ourselves. In the afternoon, we marvel at brilliant
mauve moorhens, sinuous snakebirds and cormorants, ungainly but colourful storks and studious herons, as an official guide languidly poles us through the water.

As we disembark from the guide's dugout, we ask him about Hari. He tells us the Hindu
deity Shiva's incarnation as Hari is notorious for trickery and rascality.

SIDEBAR

Keoladeo National Park is a mecca for bird lovers. In an area of 28.723 square kilometers,
nearly 400 different species may be seen in the course of the seasons, and it is an
important nesting and rest site.

Also known as Ghana Bird Sanctuary, it is especially notable as habitat for several rare
and unusual species of crane. The park is the last nesting site in India of the endangered
Siberian Crane, and a captive breeding program has been established here to ensure their
survival.

Ghana (the word means "dense jungle" in the local dialect) is a natural treed depression
filled during the monsoons by two seasonal rivers, the Gambhir and the Banganga. The
area's water supply was enhanced in the mid-1800s by the local ruler, the Maharajah of
Bharatpur, who built a dam and canal system.

Under British rule, the waterworks were further improved and Ghana park was a legendary
hunting spot for waterfowl from about 1900 until it was reserved as a bird sanctuary in
1956.

It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 because of its importance as a
nesting site for birds.



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