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Trekking the Annapurna Himalayas … With Toddlers in Tow

I really ought to have written this post when the feelings were still fresh and my muscles were still feeling the near-agonizing burn left after our grueling trek.  I’ll start off by saying that 2 of those 5 days were quite possibly the most physically challenging of my life (documented below – my crouched body position is out of sheer necessity).  But would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.

As with most Annapurnian trekkers, we began our journey in the city of Pohkara.  The third largest city in Nepal, Pohkara ranks just behind Kathmandu in annual visitors.  Three of the ten tallest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri,  Annapurna I, and Manaslu (locally known as Fish Tail) – are within 30 miles of the city, so you can imagine the lure of this lakeside enclave.  Most hotels and hostels boast at least partial views of the mountains.  This was the view from ours.

After our 8+ hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park, we decided to take the more efficient route and book a private coach to transit from Chitwan up to Pohkara.  In the end, we paid only dollars more for a far more enjoyable ride.  After our experience arriving into Sauraha (just outside of Chitwan) having not booked a hotel, I decided that again, I’d make our travels a tad bit more efficient and pre-book rooms through Agoda.  How grown up of me, huh?  The issue with this organized, adult-like method is that you don’t know what a place is going to look like or how it’s going to feel until you’re there – which is the precise reason we often choose to fly by the seats our pants.  Based on good reviews and limited time, I chose Hotel Trekkers Inn.  It was fine, I have no real complaints, but I wouldn’t recommend it over the dozens of other good-looking hotels in the area.

The day before our trek was the big Little Explorers 5th birthday.  And it was a big day indeed.  She started her day with an Elephant Safari in Chitwan National Park and ended it being serenaded by a traditional Nepali band, shown above.

Because we had chosen a trek that was VERY much on-the-beaten-path, we decided (after dozens of hours of research and contemplation) to not go with a larger trekking agency and to do-it-ourselves (a decision that I would later regret, if even for just a moment).  Lucky for us, we befriended a guide prior to arriving to Pohkara who we decided to take a chance on.  Having read stories about tourists being scammed and about the fact that it was illegal to take a non-government registered guide into the Annapurna’s, we were just a tad apprehensive even though he assured us all would be fine.

I’ll get the negatives of our DIY trekking experience out of the way because honestly, those are not the memories I’m left with (but may be useful to someone reading this someday.  Hopefully.  Just maybe.)

1) It didn’t end up being any more cost effective, in fact, I think we paid a premium for food and lodging.

2) We didn’t end up doing the trek we thought we were going to do because of miscommunication – we intended to do the VERY commonly done Poon Hill loop trek but ended up retracing our ascent because our guide didn’t realize that I meant the loop when I said “Poon Hill trek”.  Once he filled out our paperwork for our permits, we weren’t able to alter our course and the miscommunication wasn’t realized until the deal had been sealed.

3) We BARELY were even let into the conservation area (for the exact reason stated above).  They made an exception for us and didn’t even make us pay fines.  Our guide hadn’t trekked in the area for a number of years, as it turned out, so he wasn’t familiar with new laws.  Had we fully understood this (we did, our guide did not – we went with his apparent expertise), we would have just sent our porters ahead and said that we were doing a self-guided trek, which would have been perfectly legit.

4) We were slower than we could have been had we had professional porters.  Ours were all from Kathmandu and for most, it was their first trek ever.  Despite the fact that they weren’t in-shape, trained porters, they did do a great job.  They were all buddies and seemed almost as happy as we were to be out in the mountains.

Okay, enough of the glass half full stuff.  In the end, it worked out perfectly and we had a magical experience.

Now, I’ll paint a glorious picture full of terraced hillsides, remote villages, waterfalls, masala tea, rhodendendron forests, and mountains – lots and lots of mountains.  In total, we trekked for 5 glorious days.

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedunga

We began our trek walking through the village of Nayapul.  Nayapul is the commercial hub of the area and lacked the charm of most the other villages that we visited.  Just past Nayapul is Birethani.  Birethani is set upon the Modi River and is a delightful surprise after walking through Nayapul.  Full of charm, I could have easily stayed for a couple of nights.  But alas, we had at least 1500 meters to climb that day, and it was already 2pm.

And so began our ascent.  We climbed up what turned out to be a dirt road that we could have just as easily hired a jeep to drive up in about 1/10 of the time.  The first stretch of the hike runs parallel to the beautiful Bhurungdi River, passing cascading waterfalls and pristine swimming holes around every corner.  About halfway through our hike, a local school had just recessed for the day, so we were able to walk through the villages with local children.  The littlest Little Explorer had fallen asleep in front position in the Ergo, so I had the pleasure of trekking up the steepest part of our hike with dead weight on my torso (something I vowed to not allow happen again during our trek).  When he awoke, a little girl I had been walking with greeted him with a piece of chocolate and went on her way.  I was told that some of the children hike for over an hour to get to school every day.  We hiked for a bit over four hours the first day, making it to our goal destination, Tikhedunga.

Though we do have photo proof that our porters did help cart the littles, they were much more willing than our children were.  They were each carried by someone other than family for about .00002% of the trek.  Looking at this photo, with Ras carrying both a bag AND a child makes me feel like the world’s biggest whiner for bitching about having to carry *just* a child.  Our porters each had one bag and most porters we saw on the trek had two – which seems insane – but at least made us feel less guilty for having them shlep our shit up a mountain.  Though the smallest Little Explorer dozed a few hours of the initial ascent away in the ergo, the bigger Explorer walked 90% of it with her own two legs.  This was no small feat; her aunt, with whom we were traveling, told her no less than 50 mystery stories to coax her little legs into walking just a little bit further.

Our guide’s first mate, who turned out to be the greatest asset, scouted the tea houses in the area before settling upon Green View Guest House.  We dropped our bags in our basic but totally acceptable rooms and headed to the dining area for a round of masala tea and beer.  As it turned out, all of the beds on our trek were more comfortable than any bed I’ve slept in throughout  Asia – they were all super basic thick foam mattresses that were soft enough for me and firm enough for the Mister.  Blankets were minimal to non-existent and pillows were lacking, but we didn’t trek four down sleeping bags across a continent for nothing and were more than happy to test out our new gear.

What we probably didn’t realize at the time, was that the meal we were about to partake in – namely, Dal Bhat, Vegetable Momos, Masala Tea, and Everest Beer – would pretty much be the extent of our sustenance for the next five days (aside from breakfast which consisted of an omelette, tibetan bread (which is basically fried bread) with honey, masala tea, and coffee).  If I had to choose four things to survive on for a month, these four might honestly make the cut.  Simple, vegetarian, and delicious.

Dal bhat is a lentil based soup that is served with a heaping mound of rice, a side of greens, some sort of pickled veggie, and often times another vegetable side dish.  It was always slightly different based on the ingredients on hand and is offered as a bottomless dish: for literally $2-5, it was ALL YOU COULD EAT dal bhat.  If we weren’t the gluttonous Americans we are, we could have easily eaten for less than $10/day each, but alas, after a long ass hike, it was hard not to treat ourselves to veggie dumplings (momos) and cold beer as well.

Day 2:  Tikhedunga to Ghorepani

The next morning we set off through Tikhedunga on what would be the most strenuous hike of my life.  In total, we hiked for almost 10 hours, gained over 5000 feet in elevation, and climbed up what felt like 2 billion stairs.  CARRYING CHILDREN nearly the entire way (save the glorious periods where my brother or sister-in-law took a beating – thanks guys!).  It was the day of the never-ending-stair-climb.  Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of stairs.  Just about when you were ready to start whining though, you’d see a woman carrying a load on her back or a procession of donkeys carrying everything from cement to Snickers candybars, and realize that while you were doing this for FUN, this was their daily life.  Getting anything and everything to where they need it, required walking up and down these stairs – hundreds and hundreds of stairs.

We stopped for lunch in Ulleri, where we caught our second glimpse of the mountains we were trekking towards and powered up on, yup, you guessed it!  dhal bhat and veggie momos.  With some masala tea to put some oomph in our step, we were on our way onward and ever upward.  After a few more hours of stair climbing, FINALLY!, we entered a forested dirt trail.  Though we were about a month shy of their blooming, the rhodedendron forest between Banthanti and Nanggethanti was magical.  Who knew that rhodedendron trees could get so gigantic?!  Our intended destination on Day 2 was Nanggethanti, which would have meant we’d be done trekking by about 6pm that evening but when we arrived, the only tea house with vacancy left much to be desired and we were just crazy enough to make the push to the closer side of Ghorepani, not quite realizing what this entailed.

With a 38 pound fawn on my back (the largest of the two Little Explorers), I cluelessly set off into the forest.  What I failed to take into account was the fact that I had given away my daypack to lighten my load and had just broken off on my own, just as the sun was setting.  My niece and two of our porters were somewhere in the distance, that much I knew.  As daylight faded, I somewhat frantically trekked up that mountain hoping to find someone who wasn’t as ill-prepared as I.   As I trekked up the hill with my kid on my back, no source of light, no source of defense, it occurred to me that I was trekking through the Himalayas in the dark – a sure-fire prey.  My niece saved my arse on more than one occasion on the trek – when I found myself alone, without my daypack – which meant without food or water – she always seemed to be at the right place at the right time.  On this particular eve, I couldn’t have been happier to find her, with her food, water, and headlamp.  What we thought would take little over an hour ended up taking at least two and after 10 hours of arduous hiking, you can only imagine the pure elation we felt when we entered into the Poon Hill area – and that much closer to warm food and a bed.

Again, our assistant guide scouted out the local spots and decided on a little tea house chalet with a crackling fire and plenty of dal bhat to go around. Shikhar Guest House turned out to be a great little tea house with the best shower we came across on our trek.  We were all so spent by the time we ate dinner (which wasn’t until at least 8pm), I think we may have even left the Everest Beer off our nightly fare.  We had gained nearly 5000 feet in 12 hours and were now at about 9500, so the altitude surely wasn’t helping any.  This and we knew that we’d be waking up in less than 8 hours, around 4am, to do a sunrise summit of Poon Hill.

Day 3: Ghorepani – Poon Hill – Banthanti

A brutal 4am wakeup found us slipping out of our cozy sleeping bags and into the freezing darkness to make our final 1500 foot ascent to the peak of Poon Hill.  I put on my power suit and carried the smallest explorer the entire way, somehow battling through the altitude and exhaustion.  It’s amazing what you’re able to accomplish when you don’t have any other choice.  It wasn’t until we reached the top of Poon Hill, with two entirely miserable children, at 5am, that we realized how ridiculous of a push doing the sunrise summit was for us.  Here we are having hiked for two days – two incredibly physically challenging, exhausting days – to get to the top of Poon Hill and our kids, who have been such troopers the entire way, are really and truly falling apart at their seams just as we reach our gold.  Lesson learned: don’t do a sunrise summit with two travel weary children.  Wait until the sun is up, it’s no longer in the teens, and your children are rested and fed.

The views of the Annapurna Himalayas from Poon Hill are absolutely magestic, but I have to say that the climax of our trek was most definitely tempered while I did all I could to calm down/warm up the smallest Little Explorer.  I could have stared at those mountains for hours but all I got were minutesjjj

With the Little Explorers lured by the promise of hot cocoa and a movie, we made it back down to our tea house just before physically collapsing.  I hurt but it felt good.  I had pushed my body farther than I can ever remember doing, testing my mental and physical barriers – but my heart was still ticking and I was in the Himalayas for the love – how incredibly rewarding.  By this time, we knew that our descent would be at a leisurely pace, which surely helped get the legs moving again after a lingering breakfast that morning.  We’d have three days to do what we just did in two and we’d be going down! and not up.

We got back on the trail with the lofty goal of trekking 3 hours back to Banthanti.  After our last encounter with the magical rhodendron forest (and being saved for the second time by my snack and water carrying niece), we reached our tea house, Fish Tail Guest House, where we leisured the afternoon and evening away with our last views of Fish Tail, sipping on mass amounts of masala tea.

Day 4: Banthanti – Tikhedunga

A mellow hiking day, we spent no more than 4 hours on the trail, trekking from Ulleri back to Tikhedunga.  After our 10 hour push on day 2, combined with our steep morning ascent up to Poon Hill (and back), each stair was stepped with utter calculation, as my legs were nearly useless.  Slowly but surely we made the descent to Tikhedunga.  Our assistant guide once again found us the best tea house to hang for the night, Tikhedunga Guest House, and we all hiked down to the creek below for a refreshing dip (boys dipped their bodies, gals dipped their toes – I’m usually one to take the plunge but this water was FRIGID, flowing straight down from the glaciated peaks).  It’s well worth mentioning that at this point, you should envision me wincing with every step I took – every muscle in my calves felt as though they were about to dissolve.  For real.  I’ve never felt so sore in my life.

We shared stories with our porters and guide around a campfire that evening, until we once again remembered that despite putting in your dinner order at 6, don’t expect it to be ready until 8:30 or 9, especially if you’re outside sipping beers by the campfire – DO NOT expect them to come get you when the food is ready.  It’s a Nepali minute – we came to joke that they had to cultivate the produce for our meals after we put in our order.  There were times when you realized it just takes a bit longer when a restaurant is working to feed a crowd with a single burner stove, but there were others where there really was no explanation at all for the delay.  Most of our food was fresh and tasty – we just learned to order much earlier than usual.

Day 5: Tikhedunga – Nayapul

The final descent!  We were all well rested, well fed, and still in mass amounts of pain when we set off for our final 6 hours.  As much as I relished the idea of not having to trek up a mountain carrying the dead weight of a child, I think we were all mostly sad to be leaving the mountains.  Under different circumstances (read: without young kids and with more time), we would love to do the entire 21 day Annapurna Circuit – it’s definitely on our bucket list.

This was our first big trek through villages only accessible by days on foot and most certainly laid the groundwork for many more to come.  Generally speaking, this is the perspective I’m most interested in capturing through travel – that of authentic culture, isolated (at least to a certain extent) from globalization, in unspoiled (at least to a certain extent) countryside.  But I’m just a small town girl at heart, so I’m almost always more interested in getting away from people and things and into natural environments where my spirit is free to wander.

 

 

 

 

That Time When My Kid Nearly Pee’d on a Wild Rhino – Chitwan National Park

You see, we had arrived at the restaurant to watch the sunset over the river and eat a *quick* bite before going to the Tharu Cultural Program, around 5:00.  By the time we had to leave for the show at 6:45, we were still waiting for our food (something we would affectionately start referring to as a Nepali Minute).  So we had no choice but to leave and come back to eat after the show.  Irritated when we returned an hour later only to find out that our food STILL was not ready, we just about threw in the towel and went to bed with rumbling tummies.  Fortunate for us, we had already ordered a round of beer and had to wait it out.  Our food finally came and was a disappointment at that – almost every meal in Nepal took over an hour to arrive and almost every time was justified by its deliciousness, with the exception of this one.  Little did we know, the universe had planned it all out for us.  After dinner, the little guy announced that he had to go pee, so the Mister nonchalantly took him down to the sandy beach to take care of business.  As he lowered the pee’ers knickers, he sensed movement at close range.  As he looked beyond the tower in front of him and focused his eyes in the dark, he realized that the movement belonged to a wild rhino, not 10 feet away from them.  Carefully, he pulled the Little Explorers pants over his booty, made sure that no sudden movements or loud shrieks gave them away, and backed away slowly.

And so began the Great Rhino Hunt.  The beast grazed for a few more minutes before making his way next door (to where we were staying) and meandering DIRECTLY in front of our door to his second supper pasture.  And so we followed him.  Well, not quite followed – we went around the lodge to where we thought he’d be found.  Sure enough, there he was being watched by a handful of onlookers, grazing away.  Before long he was done with his second supper and headed back in the direction of the restaurant.  And this time, we really followed him.  As he walked back, he mistepped his way up a pathway that was blocked by a bamboo fence and we watched as he ploughed his way through it like it was made of foam.  So naturally, we too embarked up the newly bulldozed path and through the bamboo fence to see where he’d be headed next.  As we passed the restaurant, both holding a child, a man remarked, “are you really following the rhino… with kids?”.  To our defense, we were a healthy distance behind him at this point.  So far in fact that we ended up losing his path and heading back home, through the new pathway he made for us.  At which time, the biggest Little Explorer ripped her brand new down Patagonia jacket (bought with a Friends and Family discount) on the rhino-broken-fence.  And it’s at least two sizes too big for her, so now she has a wound by which to remember the death-defying adventure.

The Nepalese Jungle – Chitwan National Park

I had been warned by many-a-travel-writer about the precarious road conditions in Nepal.  Lonely Planet had me questioning taking to the roads at all (though, come to find out, Nepal’s airlines don’t exactly have glowing records either) because of the incidence of fatal bus crashes. Nonetheless, we chose to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pohkara, so that we could detour to Chitwan National Park for a few days of jungle exploration.  What should have been a 4-5 hour bus ride turned into an 8 hour adventure down half-finished throughways riddled with holes, lined by cliffs, or blocked by piles of rubble.   The IMPORTANT part: we made it safely.

We arrived in Sauraha (just outside the park) with no reservations (just a long list of possibilities) and figured there would be others who flew by the seat of their pants as we did and thus, would be infrastructure built up around vagrants like ourselves.  But, to our surprise, if you didn’t have a lodge vehicle waiting for you at the bus stop, you’d be walking your own booty into town.  So, we walked our booties into town, plopped down at a local restaurant, and ordered a round of Everest Beer as the Matriarchs (myself and my sister-in-law – who was traveling with us, along with her husband and 14 year old daughter) scouted out a base for exploring Chitwan National Park.  Second on my list was Rhino Lodge and had I known that it held true to its name, it would have most definitely been number one.  Set right on the banks of the Rapti River, Rhino Lodge is visited every evening by a wild rhinoceros that comes across the river out of the national park.

After strolling back to the lodge after dinner on our first evening, the manager ran up to us and asked if we wanted to see a rhino… uh, hell yea!  So we quietly walked out to the edge of the grounds, while the manager whipped out his flashlight and cautiously lite up the wild beast, grazing on the grass meadow adjacent to the hotel.  As awesome as it was, it was quite dark so the view of the rhino wasn’t the clearest and as such, wasn’t quite as exciting for the kids as one would have hoped.  Nonetheless, Safari (who would turn five in two days) played off of our excitement and went to sleep with visions of gigantic wild rhinos grazing outside her window.  We assumed that this sighting was a fluke and were perfectly content with it being an isolated incident.  SO, we were in for a real surprise the following evening when we would follow the freshly bulldozed path of a majestic giant.  The death-defying details can be found here.

This is what the main road in Sauraha looks like at dusk.  A steady stream of working elephants galavanting through town after a long day of work carting tourists through the forest – I won’t get into the particulars yet, you’ll have to keep reading to get to the juicy details.

We contemplated our many options of how to best see Chitwan National Park and settled with the DIY version.  If you care to know the gritty details of what went into that decision, they can be found here.

For better or for worse, our DIY Chitwan tour was fabulous.  Our first evening, we found ourselves at K.C.’s Restaurant and elbow deep in DELICIOUS Nepali and Indian fare – a meal that may go down as our single best dining experience in Nepal.  The kids played in the beautiful garden and the adults relaxed, eating and drinking the evening away (which can easily turn gluttonous in Nepal because of the low cost of living – for $50, 5 adults and 2 children could wine and dine until their heart’s content).  As a side note, we quickly learned to order half what we thought we needed because for 200 rupees ($2), we would get a heaping portion of food – but it took us time to adjust – in the US (and China for that matter), a $2 plate would mean a few bites – in Nepal, it almost always meant an entire meal.  Except for the times that it didn’t.  And you waited for an hour and a half to get your food only to find out that this was the ONE place that served up the portions we kept expecting for the price.  Which only happened once, maybe twice.  Overall, we ate VERY well in Nepal.  Did I mention that it was a vegetarian’s dream of a country to backpack through?  Well, it was.

Chitwan was the first Nepali national park, established in 1973 and was given the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.  In 1950, the area that now makes up the national park was home to roughly 800 rhinos, but by the late 60’s, their numbers had decreased to under 100 due to large scale human settlement, widespread use of DDT, and hunting.  Understanding the imminent need to protect these rhino’s, the Nepalese government set 210 square acres to be protected, which was later increased to 360 square acres that now makes up the northern part of the Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki Tiger Conservation Unit that extends into India.

Chitwan has the reputation for being the best in Asian wildlife viewing.  Its rivers and lakes boast 113 different fish and crocodile species and its forests are home to at least 43 species of mammals.  Bengal tigers, leopards, sloth bears, striped hyenas, wild elephants, and rhinos are a few of the mammals that beckon tourists from far and wide.  We had the pleasure of learning all about the fauna of Chitwan at the Wildlife Viewing Center (though I can’t for the life of me remember the ACTUAL name of this place), where there were dozens of small and newborn animals (whom died naturally) floating in formaldehyde baths.  I thought it was going to be either an icky exhibit of taxidermied dead animals or a useless tourist trap, but I was wrong.  Creepy coolness it was, if the “newborn animals floating in formaldehyde baths” didn’t already give the super creepy part away.  I mean, who doesn’t want to see what the reproductive organs of a sloth bear look like?  The littlest explorer kept pointing at different vessels and asking me what they were, to which I had to repetitively respond, “hunny, that’s the penis of a [insert name of animal here]”.  Heartbreaking to see such little creatures dead, yes, but incredibly interesting nonetheless.  In exhibits like this, I rarely get the sense that conservation and education are at its core – but strangely and surprisingly, this exhibit did.

The Terai of the subtropical Himalayan foothills is home to the Tharu people.  Pushed out of the area that would become Chitwan National Park and one of Nepal’s largest indigenous groups, the Tharu people were resettled in and around Sauraha,just outside of the park, in the early 70’s.  Naturally resistant to Malaria, they settled in the area LONG before outsiders even knew it existed.  When, in the 1960’s, the government (with the help of the WHO) took on an anti-malaria campaign and eradicated malaria through devastating use of DDT, the area became inhabitable by all and further pushed the Tharu people away from their home.  Fortunately, through a strong cultural identity, the Tharu are still thriving and have permeated Chitwan tourism through an extremely well-done (yet simple) Tharu Cultural Museum and a nightly Tharu Culture Program.  Both of which we squeezed into our short time there and well worth the visit.

Another highlight of our time in Chitwan was a Canoe Trip down the Rapti River.  Though you definitely feel a bit like a sheep being cycled through a well-greased tourist machine, once we were on the water, the peace of the setting enveloped us and had us all captivated, including the Little Explorers.  As our guide pointed out the variety of bird life found in the surrounding Sal Trees, we kept our eyes scouting out the banks of the river, scanning it for crocodiles.  We had opted for an afternoon canoe trip, with the hope that the sun would be out and so too would the crocodiles.  As time would have it, the sun had just emerged from the morning fog and had over a dozen crocodiles soaking in its rays on the shore.  Behind me on the boat sat a 4-5 year old boy who would squeal every time we saw any type of wildlife and scream in between, most certainly disrupting the tranquility of the experience and making me ever so grateful for my Little Explorers, who sat calm and captivated (and most importantly, not affecting anyone else’s experience).  Children are nearly always an amazing addition to any travel experience, but I’m a firm believer that their presence shouldn’t negatively affect the experience of others who did NOT come to listen to squealing children.  Whether it’s a result of our insistence on this (though they are by no means angelic like this all of the time) or just a result of biology, they are pretty incredible little people to travel with.  End brag.

On our second and last evening, after a full day of Chitwan adventuring, we were searching out a spot to watch the sunset in Sauraha.  We decided on an outdoor bar/restaurant next door to our lodge and as we strolled up, one of the workers was encouraging passer-byers to take a seat and share the view.  I assumed that this was a ploy to get people to sit down to spend money on food and drinks.  But when nearly everyone got up and left just after the sun had set, I realized that he literally had simply wanted to share his space.  We of course stayed and were gifted the worst meal experience of our trip, but that’s neither here or there, though the story that accompanies it is actually worth knowing and was referenced above.  This was just another of the countless examples of the magnanimous nature of Nepali people.  Naturally, I’m impressed, coming from a culture where personal space is a prized (and coveted) possession, not to be shared by just anyone.

This restaurant also happened to be adjacent to an area that mahouts bring their elephants to drink and bath after a hard days work, which was fun for the whole family to watch, if you can turn off the process by which those elephants got to be the current version of themselves.

Nepal has a long history of using elephants for work.  So much, in fact, that there is now a need to captively breed elephants and one of these breeding centers is found in Sauraha, on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park.  Captive breeding is actually much more ethical than elephants being poached from the wild to be used in the trade, requiring much more rigorous, and albeit cruel, training methods.   I’m not sure what I was thinking when going there sounded like a good way to spend the afternoon.  Coincidentally, we had to walk right past it on our way back into town from our canoe trip.  I’m all too familiar with how elephants are “trained” or rather, tortured, in becoming domestic workers or performers.  It’s something that we’ve had many conversations with Safari about, who has wanted to ride an elephant for as long as I can remember.  She now calls these types of elephants, the “sad elephants”.

In terms of elephant training, the Elephant Breeding Center is not among the worst offenders.  Training often includes beating the young elephants with nails or sticks, to make them submissive to their trainers, which is not part of the training program here.  Despite this, the program still involves the necessary cruelty required to break a young elephant into domestication.  The process begins when an elephant is 2 years old and begins with chaining the elephant to a pole and depriving it of food and water for a period of time.  At the center, you literally see elephants in all points of this process.  The most heartbreaking was watching elephants chained up, doing this back and forth stomping dance, desperately wanting to move.  If you’ve ever been face to face with an elephant or just know of their intellect and sensitivity, you know that they show their emotions vividly and candidly.  At the breeding center, you could so deeply feel the sadness and pain from these young elephants who had been recently ripped apart from their mothers and were being forced to stand still, deprived of food and water.

There were a few grown elephants who still had their babies with them and one in particular that for some reason, was allowed to roam around.  The Little Explorers, of course, thought that this was the COOLEST. THING. EVER.  Speaking of which.  As a parent, you both want to inform and protect your children.  My natural inclination is to inform them about ethical and moral dilemmas.  But I often have to remind myself of how young they are and question whether things of this nature are too complicated and confusing to them.  Just let them enjoy the elephants, I told myself, fighting back tears.  They live in a magical world where elephants aren’t broken and they won’t be able to live there for that much longer – let them hold onto the magic for as long as they can.  Don’t trouble them with information.  I struggle.  I digress.  I say things.

So you can imagine that when it came time to DIRECTLY support this industry the following morning, riding into the jungle on the back of an elephant, I was feeling guilt-ridden.  You tell them that training elephants is sad and unethical, but then you let them ride on one.  Ugh.  Talk about confusing mixed messages.  In the end, it was Safari’s 5th birthday and riding on an elephant was most definitely on her 5 year old bucket list, so I swallowed my sadness and rode through the damn jungle on the back of a majestic beauty.  Now I feel like she’s checked it off of her bucket list, we will never again pay into the breaking of elephants.

In the end, the Elephant Safari was cool in that it got us into the jungle and 10 feet away from a sleeping rhino and her baby.  It was cool to wade through the river and walk up its steep banks riding on a beast.  Would I do it again, no way.  If I were to do Chitwan ever again, I’d hire a jeep for a full day and venture deep into the park, where the chances of seeing more wildlife, even the elusive Bengal tiger or a wild elephant, were better.

However, our biggest Little Explorer trotted into her 5th year on the high of riding on an elephant and crossing something off of her bucket list.  I have NO regrets about how we experienced Chitwan.  It was an incredible experience and most definitely has me wanting to plan more wildlife based trips (sans riding on elephants).