Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Traveler's Guilt II

A new place is explored; its beauty touched, its charm disturbed and its virginity lost. I belong to the tribe of travelers. Those who wander, explore, discover, admire and unfortunately also disturb.

I had recently been on a trip to Gangtok, Pelling and Darjeeling. I did what a traveler is supposed to do, but my conscious struck me again. This time it was in the city of Gangtok – capital of the state of Sikkim, which is sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan. I was there only for 3 days. People there lead a simple life. Despite problems like poverty, lack of electricity and water – they still manage to send their children to school, eat simple but healthy food and smile a lot. The city’s major source of income is the Tourism industry and I’m glad that it is.

The flower garden, the ropeway ride, the silent monasteries and the beautiful view were some of the main attractions and I visited them on the first day. The next day I was scheduled to visit the Nathula Pass. The Nathula Pass is historically known for being a part of the old silk route. It is situated at a height of 14000 feet above sea level and even now it continues to serve as a trading zone between India and China. To visit this pass, I had to first get a ‘Permit’ from the Indian Army (which cost Rs 1400). 

The next day the sky was clear and I set off early in the morning in a jeep on the long, winding and bumpy road that led to the pass. The journey was perilous. The road had caved in at a lot of places due to the soft soil and frequent landslides. We had to stop now and again and wait till the military trucks literally re-constructed the road by filling it with mud. It would only take another snowstorm or a blizzard (which are quite common in these areas even in the summer) to destroy the whole road again. After about two hours into the journey, I finally glimpsed a snow peak. We stopped there and had a delightful plate of steaming momos and a cup of hot coffee – it was perfect. We just had half an hour more to go till we reached the pass. On the way I saw hundreds of jeeps like mine on the road. And I wondered about the sheer number of people that had been allowed to visit the pass.

We finally reached the top and the first thing I saw was the India Flag flying high near the Indian post at 14000 feet. I felt a warm sense of pride by just looking at it and I couldn’t help but smile at it. But the next thing I saw was the mass of garbage strewn down the beautiful valley and at the sides of the road even when there were dustbins placed in the area. There was a filthy stinking toilet at one corner and a long line of women waited at the door. I felt nauseated. Somehow I managed to climb up the stairs that led to the Indian post. From here I could see the vast Himalayan Ranges and the Chinese territory across the border – it was spotless and there were no tourists on their side. And why should there be? I suddenly thought. Why should the border of our country be a tourist place? Especially if it is located 14000 feet above sea level. The weather here is unpredictable. The clear sky can turn into a snowstorm in a matter of minutes.  “What happens to all the tourists if they get stuck up here in a snowstorm and aren’t able to make it back?” I asked a soldier. “The army takes charge and arranges accommodation and food for them” he replied casually. I was stunned.

The road leading to Nathula Pass built by the Indian Army at a height of 14000 feet was the second highest road in world. The purpose of this road was to transport the Army’s supplies. It was not built for tourist vehicles and nor was it meant to be a makeshift dustbin. And in case of bad weather the Indian Army had to take charge of all those tourists who couldn’t make their way back on time. Is the Indian Army or the Border meant for this purpose? I thought as we made our way down the road.

The Traveler had again become nothing but an annoying intruder.       

The Traveler's Guilt

A new place is explored; its beauty touched, its charm disturbed and its virginity lost. I belong to the tribe of travelers. Those who wander, explore, discover, admire and unfortunately also disturb.

I had recently been to Ranthambhore National Park. I was going to journey by train. For hours on an end I had listened to ‘tiger tales’ from more experienced travelers. I had always been attracted to the ‘King of the Jungle’ since childhood. I had sincerely hoped that I would be able to have at least one glimpse of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

We went on our first Safari – into the forest. The jungles of Ranthambhore are thick and full of forest noises. The trees rustle, the monkeys chatter, birds chirp. I see the treepies and the drongos zooming in and out of the greens. I spot an occasional kingfisher near a pool of water. I get the opportunity of seeing the nest of a White Rumped Vulture. Our gypsy comes to a halt near a water body when our driver suddenly hears the deer’s tiger calls – it is faint but persistent. We wait silently in the hope that the tiger might come for a drink. I see a monkey hiding inside a cool stone enclosure protecting itself from the heat. A pond Heron is nearby. The deer’s calls are now even more faint and soon we can’t hear them anymore. We drive away; perhaps we weren’t so lucky.

The next day we again set off to try our luck. This time we see a group of gypsies crowding around a small water body – a tiger had been sitting there in the cool waters. But we had missed it. It had already gone away. After a little more searching, we finally find a huge star male sitting inside a water body. Its head resting upon its front paws. Excitement sparked in me as I reached for my camera. It was the first time I had seen the mighty beast. Its golden colour reflected off in the sun, thick black stripes on its body with the king’s mark on its forehead. I saw the rippling muscles of its front legs they were bursting with strength. A single blow with its front paws could kill a Sambar I had heard. I clicked a few pictures and my attention turned to the 20 other gypsies and canters that had gathered around the Tiger.

My initial spark of excitement suddenly died. I felt guilty to be there. What was I but an intruder? I had done nothing but disturbed the king himself. I kept watching as more and more gypsies and canters gathered around the beast, vying to get a little closer than before to get better pictures. Competing for more space and time with the king. The tiger is a solitary animal I had heard. I was disgusted at mankind. We had not only pushed the tiger to the brink of extinction but now we had made it a celebrity. The tiger was now probably used to human beings, it had also been named after all. I understand that naming the tiger and wildlife tourism is necessary to protect the beast. But yet even today, I sincerely wish that I hadn’t been there.

Whatever his intentions maybe, a traveler is always after all an intruder.