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The Rapti River Valley in the Chitiwan Jungle, Nepal…
James Randall Johnson

Today is unlike almost any other day in my life, filled with incredible experiences. Today I visited one of the seven Maoist camps organized by the United Nations and spread throughout Nepal. This particular camp is deep in the Chitiwan Jungle.

We are on the north bank of the Rapti River… the Maoist camp is on the south bank… unlike in the states, rivers do not have bridges for crossing every block or mile, in fact I have seen but one wire suspension foot bridge over this river all day.

My driver, Proscar, took us as far as possible by car. We then put on our backpacks and set out on foot for the next 3 or 4 miles until the trail leads us to our next form of transportation... elephant!
For Pushcar, my translator and assistant, Procas and myself we would normally only require one elephant. Four can sit in the wooden box on top the animal. I am told however that we need TWO elephants. "Why", I inquire..."Why two elephants for only three passengers?" The elephant driver rides atop the head of the animal with a long branch to whack the beast when he feels it is necessary. I am told that we are entering a dangerous region and for the jungle and instability we also need "security". I am hardly in a position to bargain but I feel the shakedown coming... I hire two elephants and three of the areas finest... they each stand maybe 5'4" and are totally unarmed... yes, the shakedown is now complete! Given the total cost for my "security" and two elephants (about $13.00) I do not complain...

We set off for the Maoist camp at a snails pace. Riding an elephant as a form of rapid transportation is something I recommend to no one. Along the way we enter a fantastic world.
We twice ford the Rapti River on the back of our enormous animals. We see and photograph rhinos, including an adorable baby rhino, jungle deer which more resemble antelope, peacocks, pheasants, spiders and several crocodile. The three-tiered jungle canopy seen from ten feet up on an elephant, confronting rhinos, fording rivers almost make the visit to the Maoist camp seem anti-climatic. We finally arrive...
We meet, we talk ... they do not like Americans very much, but are quick to talk about the future of this region. It is obvious that these people, however we may feel about their political perspective, are passionate and focused. They are working to transform themselves from what we consider a terrorist group into a social service agency (with an emphasis on health care delivery and education) and a political party. I have no idea how informed these lower level members are about the agenda of the national party, but I listen because the Nepalese government now takes them seriously as a political force. The Maoists are being formally welcomed into the interim Parliament and into the new Nepali democracy. They currently are the second largest political party in Parliament holding 83 seats in the 329 member assembly.

As we prepare to leave and walk back to our elephants (how often do you get to say that?), I am chased by one very angry large dog. He follows my every step and does not hesitate to bare his teeth. "Clearly a Maoist dog", I say to my associates.... they laugh until tears run down their face. I did not think it was that funny but for the days which follow they bring it up several times. Humor translates in mysterious ways.
We mount our elephants (not an easy task) and are off on our return trip. The sun is getting lower now and the jungle heat is abating.

We arrive back at what will be our camp for the night. I am given the "honor" of using the solar shower. Water, especially warm water, is so scarce in Nepal that it is heated during the day in black containers and rationed at night. If I do not take a shower immediately the water will be freezing.
After a brief shower, I sit with Pushcar and Procas at a log which will be our dinner table immediately on the bank of the river. we are served Nepali rice with potatoes, spinach and other vegetables. As a sign of respect I eat as my friends, using only my fingers. I dive into the rice with the same intensity I see them exhibit. Rice flies everywhere...Pushcar and Procas drink local water... I cannot. They are immune to local diseases or so they say... I take antibiotics and drink bottled water... very warm bottled water.

An enormous orange sun slips across the horizon racing into India, then Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe and to the states. A woman secures a gill net on the shore of the Rapti and wades towards a sand bar perhaps 20 meters out. There, she sets the net which will be checked at daybreak.

The sounds of the jungle become distinctly different as day passes into night. We drink Nepali wine which is made from rice and as potent as brandy. Not particularly tasteful but I wish not to offend...

The sky turns a black so intense that the constellations scream for attention. Animals I would rather not know about make their presence known. In a few weeks the monsoon season will arrive and the threat of malaria will mandate the use of mosquito nets. Tonight, however, insects are not present.

I lay in my bag... missing my children, but completely content. No cell phones, no faxes... just the sound of the jungle... I am in heaven.

Tomorrow we will rise early and work our way back to the main road and then the long drive north into the Himalayas and the Chinese border. I want to again see first hand the impact on the area which political instability has brought.

As I always do on expeditions like these, I am learning at the speed of heat... and moment by moment I am falling in love with Nepal.

© James Randall Johnson June 2007
Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History
Saginaw Valley State University

RJR is a Michigan college professor, attorney and freelance writer. He specializes in covering conflicts and wars. Last summer he covered the 34 Day War in the Middle East.  Most recently he returned from covering the civil war in Nepal. 
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