Ti(g)ger and Pooh in India

“Hey, lookover there. It’s Pooh!”

Have you experienced an embarrassing moment? Surely all of us have but many try to forget these moments and successfully hide them in the depths of their psyche. My embarrassing moments tend to re-surface from time to time and appear in my mind’s eye like an electric neon sign at night, flashing the words “Shame, shame”. My memories have a good laugh as they party in my brain and mock me.

One such occasion was when I went to Coimbatore, India for a meeting about bird conservation. I am not a birder. I enjoy occasionally looking at birds through the binoculars but I am a general nature lover. A birder is one who makes it a hobby to watch birds and is equipped with decent binoculars and a field guide. Twitchers are birders with a consuming passion. They are recognizable by the fact they are kit out with powerful binoculars, telescopes, cameras, field guides and a checklist of birds they are hoping to see. Needless to say, at this meeting, I was surrounded by twitchers who have come all prepared and loaded with optical toys.

We were there from all over the world, some 40 of us and we were to participate in about 10 days of working meetings. For many though, the highlight would be the final day when our Indian hosts were going to take us on a bird-watching excursion in an Indian Wildlife Reserve. All were looking forward to that day with anticipation.

I was a little apprehensive about spending so many days in India because of the high likeliness of coming down with diarrhoea or as it is colorfully called there, “the Delhi Belly”. Visitors to Mexico may be familiar with the Mexican counterpart, “Montezuma’s Revenge”. However, when I arrived, my colleagues and I were all surprised by the wonderful Indian vegetarian cuisine that was available at the hotel. I love Indian food and this was some of the best. Some delegates who stayed at other hotels quickly fell ill but all of us at our hotel had no such problems and thoroughly enjoyed the food.

After, the third day, the euphoria began to dissipate when we began to realise that there were only so much variety of dishes and we began to recognise that we were being served the same dishes over and over again for each meal. No matter how good the food was, it wore on us for 9 days. Furthermore, there was no meat. Some of the Asian delegates began to talk incessantly of meat and felt that their jaw muscles were wasting away on vegetarian mush, a,so refered to as baby food.

Invariably, there was a revolt and on the ninth night, we wandered the town and found a Chinese Restaurant ( a Chinese restaurant in the heartland of India seems very surreal). At last, something different, so0mething with meat. We had to have meat. The menu even had seafood! We had to have seafood! The more prudent members of the group interrogated the chef but he reassured us that the seafood was fresh. He just received it that day. So placified, we had a real hearty meal.

The next day was our long anticipated field trip. Everyone was in great spirits and fully armed with bird-watching gear except me. I only had a small amateur’s binoculars but more of a concern, I felt a little quesy.

We travelled for about 2 hours by bus and had to go through a manned checkpoint. Our guide told us that once we crossed the checkpoint we were in a well-known forest reserve and it was tiger country. It was also of course, great bird-watching terrain. Basically we were in a valley with steep hills on either side. Although the base of the valley was flat, you could not see very far because there was a lot of low, dry shrubs. You could see why it was ideal tiger country as there was so much cover for the tigers. The guide told us that tiger attacks do occur every year but we would be okay if we observed several basic rules. Rule One: Stay close to the trail. Rule Two: Always be in groups of at least two. Rule Three: Tigers prefer to attack smaller prey and are actually intimidated by the height of a man but this advantage disappears if we squat or bend down. Do not bend down.

We proceeded down the trail that was to end in a small waterfall. Superb birdwatching was promised all along the 3 hour walk. The twitchers soon had all their optical equipment deployed and sightings came fast and furious. Over there, a rare something or rather and over there a lifer (i.e. first time seen by the individual). There was much activity. Being the non-birder, I tried to enjoy the scenery and learn a thing or two from the twitchers but before too long, I was feeling quite unsettled in my stomach.

About half way down the trail, essentially in the middle of nowhere… no, correction…. in the middle of tiger country I had to go. I could tell there was going to be a lot and it was going to be very fluid. But where? I was surrounded by men and women with binoculars and they had spread themselves over a long stretch of the trail.

I wandered back up the trail where there was a curve. I hoped I was out of sight from the forward group as well as the rear group that was slowly walking towards my position. I then scrambled up the slope for about 100 meters and went behind some low brush and dropped my pants and relieved myself.

Imagine my position. I felt nauseous; I was trying to hide from 40 twitchers armed with high powered optics and cameras and I was constantly looking behind me cause I knew I was voilating all three rules on tiger safety. It was among the most wretched 15 minutes of my life and at one point the rear group did come on to my position and scanned the slope with binoculars. I think they didn’t see me but they may have decided to be polite and move on.

Moral: If you are heading to do birdwatching in tiger country, stay away from the seafood the night before. ( When I later related my agonising tale to our guide, he looked at me with pity and said ” When someone tells you the seafood arrived today, he means it has been travelling 5 days by non-refrigerated transport and arrived today at Coimbatore”.). So ends this sad story of Ti(g)ger and Pooh in India.


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