Zerky in Kaziranga

Map of Burma

January 30, 1968. We have finally made it all the way to Assam where the countryside is beginning to look more and more like Southeast Asia. Jungle covered hills, thatched roofs, huts made of intricate bamboo, bananas, coconuts, dates, rice paddies, women in sarongs, beautiful trees with red blossoms, wild storks with long yellow bills and black wings, and some small kingfisher like birds, the males red and blue, the females black with white spots. We have also been seeing many eagles.

January 31, 1968. There were riots in Guwahati on January 26. Many buildings burned, martial law was imposed, and there is now a 2:00 PM curfew for Republic Day.

We finally managed to cash some traveler’s checks and took off for Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary. Today there were many monkeys along the road. Had an audience of eight of them when we ate lunch. They all kept their distance but definitely did make answering the call of nature a problem.

Arrived at Kaziranga at 2:00PM and got a room at the lodge. Lots of tame elephants around. Mighty Tarzan, the elephant hunter, started barking at one of them and then piddled in the forest hut drawing room before escaping, whereupon somebody warned us that the tigers outside might get him.

February 2, 1968. Towards the end of the afternoon, all the riding elephants were brought up to the grounds near the bungalows, where they were inspected, painted and fed grain tamales made out of grain packed into shoots of bamboo.

February 3, 1968. Got up early to go wild elephant hunting. Tarzan was bitten by a dog but we couldn’t find any broken skin, so we left him alone in the room. Our mahout and guide were both very surprised when we split our lunches with them; another caste prohibition violated!

February 6, 1968, a day to be forgotten. Zerky got me up too early and Bill came down with a very bad case of diarrhea.

February 8, 1968. Bill has diarrhea again. Thank goodness, we have a john this time. Afterwards, we drove east towards NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) while Bill went to sleep in the back of the bus and missed some bare breasted beauties walking along the road. Finally, we have managed to find a PWD Rest House but with no electricity. Bill is now asleep while I am writing this letter in bed with a flashlight.

February 10, 1968. Tonight we are staying in a small town on the eastern edge of Assam, just a few miles from the beginning of the Burma Road that once connected Burma with China. I am writing this by kerosene lantern, feeling lucky to have one because India is suffering from a kerosene shortage. Mostly we use candles. Although this coal mining town does have electricity for industrial purposes, the electricity has not been hooked up to the houses. Most of Assam has no electricity, just as most of India has no hot running water. These are the two luxuries we miss most.

Earlier today, we stopped to see two Ahom temples. The Ahom were the Burmese rulers of Assam from 1523 to 1786. These temples are still in use but we were not allowed to enter into the sanctum. The temples are very nicely shaped and have a few delicate bas-reliefs that are still in good condition.

One of those Ahom Temples

One of those Ahom Temples

Bill is feeling rotten, so I drove while he, Zerky and Tarzan slept in the back. Drove through many miles of tea estates with coconuts, dates, bananas and orchids growing in the trees. Saw a lovely turquoise-backed bird with a yellow breast and a long beak. Saw many wild waterfowl. Later we looked for a room in Digboi at the Assam Oil Company’s guesthouse but a sporting event had filled it to capacity for the weekend. There is oil production near Digboi. The town’s name is said to have originated back in colonial times when a British commander exhorted his Indian charges to “Dig, Boy, Dig!” But since we could not find a place to stay in Digboi, we decided to drive on to the little town of Margherita, not far from the border with Burma. There, once again we found a lovely PWD Inspection Bungalow without electricity.

On February 10, 1968, besides the previous entry in her diary, JoAnne also wrote the following letter to her long-time Salt Lake City friend, Mims.

Dear Mims, tonight we are staying in Margherita, a small town on the eastern edge of Assam just a few miles from the beginning of the Burma Road, which once connected Burma with China. I am writing this by kerosene lantern and feel lucky to have one because India is suffering from a kerosene shortage. We use candles, mostly. Although this coal-mining town does have electricity for industrial purposes, it has never been hooked up to the houses. Most of Assam has no electricity, just as most of India has no hot running water. These are the two luxuries we miss the most.

Assam is tropical. We sleep under mosquito netting with lianas and orchids often hanging from the trees. At dusk tonight we had a skyline of date palms and coconut trees.

The road we traveled on today is lined with tea plantations. Sometimes we saw women wearing sarongs and saris. They live in mud huts made with woven bamboo and have thatched roofs. Their clothes, both the men’s and the women’s, are as bright as their lives appear to be uncomplicated.

To the north of us now is NEFA, the North-East Frontier Agency [today known as Aurunachal Pradesh] which is not a state but rather an Indian controlled buffer zone between India, Burma and China. In this complicated area live tribal peoples of various customs, some of whom were head hunters during the early part of this century. Eastern Assam is remote and is an anthropologist’s paradise.

We have been following a road just south of the Brahmaputra River, the largest river in India. Every year it floods, keeping the standard of living quite low here. As was the case with the Ganges, there is only a single bridge across the massive Brahmaputra.

Last week we spent five days at Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, probably the best animal sanctuary outside Africa. We stayed at a tourist bungalow just outside of the sanctuary where they told us an irritable old tiger lived “just down the road beyond your bungalow.”

Our two trips into the park have been on elephant back, often with reeds higher than our heads when we are seated atop Raibhadu, our favorite elephant. He just plows through everything as if he were a bulldozer. Our guide told us that going in cars to look for elephants is dangerous, and that not long ago a Russian Trade Commission party had been chased by a rogue elephant and saved only by the timely arrival of an armed patrol.

Indian One-horned Rhinoceros

Indian One-horned Rhinoceros

During our two trips into the sanctuary, we have seen many Indian one-horned rhinos (rhinoceros unicornus), approximately five hundred of which constitute about half the estimated world’s one horned rhino population. One of them kept trying to charge our elephant’s side but each time our mahout would preempt the charge by turning Raibhadu 90 degrees sideways to face the threatening rhino. When the rhino saw Raibhadu’s superior firepower, he reconsidered. We also saw many wild buffalo, reputedly the most dangerous of all animals because they will charge at virtually anything. We also saw some wild boar, various Indian deer, and many birds, including some pelicans.

On our second trip into the sanctuary, we went through many more miles of elephant grass to a group of little lakes. We had lunch in a clearing near one of them. The grass teemed with wildlife that was impossible to see, so our mahout had the elephant graze in between us and the reeds so as to provide us with some protection. After lunch, Raibhadu waded into the lake and the mahout proceeded to give him a bath. First Raibhadu lay down on one side, and then on the other, head submerged, trunk waving in the air like a plume, as the mahout scrubbed his immense body with a very stiff brush. Then he cleaned Raibhadu’s tusks and finally his mouth, which yielded a leech. All the tamed elephants working in the sanctuary are cared for in this way daily. Their grooming includes painting their faces, shoulders and rear ends.

India is full of birds, the most common of which is the raven. Sometimes they nearly darken the sky. Eagles, too, are often found in the big cities, and wherever an animal has died or been run over we see huge vultures gathering in a sickening fashion. Yesterday we saw a bunch of vultures tearing apart a dead cow jerking back and forth as if it were still alive. My favorite common bird, however, even lovelier than the green parrot, is the blue jar, a turquoise and dark blue bird the size of a magpie. There is also a comic stork standing almost four feet tall with a long yellow bill, a rusty head and with ungainly black wings. Beautiful white waterfowl—egrets, herons and cranes—are very common here.

It is raining heavily outside as I write this, which is not surprising even though this is the dry season. At five hundred inches per year, Cherrapunji, Assam is supposed to be the wettest place on earth.

We spent the last three nights at “tea gardens” into which we were invited to spend the night by three separate Indian tea estate managers. These tea gardens are fantastic, their former colonial owners having built huge bungalows with gorgeous tropical gardens for their managers to live in. All of them have electricity, hot water, and—wonder of all wonders—bathtubs, the first we have seen in India. These tea gardens, or tea estates, are relics of Great Britain’s imperial past. At the first one we stopped at we were invited to spend the night. This particular tea estate had nine servants taking care of the single bachelor who lived there. Our second estate had twelve servants to care for one young couple and their two children. Our Indian hosts appear to lead the most luxurious of lives in exotic bungalows with beautiful gardens, verandas, fireplaces, modern bathrooms and lovely furnishings, and, to top it all off, the tea company pays for the education of their children.

To the north of us now is NEFA, the North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh), which is not a state but rather an Indian-controlled buffer zone between India, Burma and China. In this complicated area live tribal peoples of various customs, some of whom were head hunters during the early part of this century.

We have been following a road just south of the Brahmaputra, India’s largest river. Every year it floods, keeping the standard of living here quite low. As is the case with the Ganges, there is only one bridge across the Brahmaputra River.

Lately while traveling through villages we have seen several Pekinese dogs, most of which, to our amazement and to Tarzan’s delight, appear to be purebreds; yapping, pompous little aristocrats whose lineage predates Tarzan’s and mine, and yours, too, Zerky. But Tarzan has a louder bark than either you or those Pekinese dogs. I keep telling Tarzan to shape up and stop acting like the barbarian from the West that he is.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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