"If rhino charges, you must run zig zag pattern," Bishnu whispered, making short choppy motions with his hands, "not like the snake, not smooth. And remember, rhino always attacks down like this then up." He put his hand on his forehead, made a horn of his finger and mimicked the rhino's viscous goring movement to demonstrate. "Run zig zag. Not straight and not like snake."
"Right," I whispered back, "zig za... Wait, what?" But Bishnu, my trusty Nepali guide, was nowhere to be seen. He'd disappeared into the tall grass to find the Bengal Tiger we'd heard roar a few minutes earlier.
I bent down and retied my soggy sneaker, wet from the river we'd waded across, dirty from the sand bar we'd scrambled up and now filled with mulch from the high grass of this Nepali jungle in which I now crouched.
I pulled my water bottle out of my pack and took a long swig. The water was tepid; the temperature of old tea and while it slacked my thirst a bit, it did little to refresh. It was late afternoon and we'd been in the Baria National Park since 6 that morning. The sun beat down mercilessly. I took off my hat and wiped my brow with the back of my hand.
It seemed that Bishnu had been gone a long time. I checked my watch. Had it been 10 minutes or 20? In this jungle it was hard to gauge the passage of time; it seemed as if the sun was always directly overhead.
I was tempted to sit down but Bishnu had been pretty serious about the rhino thing and I decided to stay in my semi-sprinters stance instead. I kept my head on a swivel, on guard for the slightest untoward sounds, but there was only stillness. Stillness and heat. Sweat ran down my forehead and stung my eyes. My lips were dry and parched and I was starting to feel dizzy. "Jesus," I thought, "how did I wind up in this god-awful place?"
It had just been one of those happenstance occurrences. I hadn't really cared about seeing the tiger. I'd been stopped at one of the many military checkpoints along the Nepal East-West highway when I was approached by Bishnu, a small, young, Nepali man. "Good afternoon, sir," he said, "may I ask if you have booked a hotel room for this evening."
"No, I'm just going up the road a couple of kilometers to the next village."
He smiled. "I have a very fine place of lodging not far from here where you may see elephants, rhinos, crocodiles and, perhaps if you are very lucky, a Bengal Tiger."
"Uh-huh," I said, "how much and how far?"
"Only 400 Rupees and only 13 kilometers."
I did the math. 400 Rupees figured out to about 4 dollars, and 13 klicks wasn't much farther than the next village, plus, there was the wildlife. I'm a sucker for wildlife. "Ok," I said, "let's go see the tiger."
It turned out that a walking safari in the park with Bishnu as my guide cost more like 40$, but I was there, and how often do you get to see a man-eating beast in the wild? I signed up and at 5:30 the next morning, we started out from the Jungle Basecamp safari resort.
It took about an hour to reach the Baria River. We found a shady overlook on the bank and took up our positions. Me, propped up against a tree trunk, Bishnu, 15 feet up another tree, perched on a branch and scanning the countryside with his binoculars. I dozed most of the morning and early afternoon, and by 2:30, I was figuring the whole thing was a bust and was about to say so. That's when we heard the roar. Bishnu had known exactly where to look and when he had the big cat spotted, he scrambled down the tree and grabbed me by the arm, hustling me along down the river bank and through the water. And now I stood alone on the savannah, waiting for Bishnu to return with news of the tiger... Or to be gored to death by a crazed rhino.
I heard the grass rustle off to my right and I spun in that direction. Bishnu appeared, a wide, excited grin on his face. He bared his teeth and made his hands claw-like, the sign, I supposed for "tiger". He wheeled back around and signaled for me to follow. We hurried through the grass in a low crouch, finally coming to a high point. Bishnu pointed toward the far bank, a pool had formed about 200 meters from where we stood, and standing in the chest-deep water was a full grown, 660 pound Bengal Tiger.