Lagga Bagga

Posted on 08 August 2007

We crossed the river to a 13 square kilometres Indian enclave that is inhabited by tiger, elephant, rhino and many different species of deer (including swamp deer, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, and hog deer). The enclave is uninhabited by humans, has a single service track, no vehicles except two motorcycles provided by WWF and no electricity, just wilderness. It is situated right on the Nepal border and is adjacent to the Royal Sukhla Phanta Wildlife Reserve of Nepal.
Day 1 – 14th November 2005

At 10 am I went down to the WWF office in Pilibhit. At 12 noon we drove to meet Neeraj Kumar, the Divisional Forest Officer, Pilibhit Forest Division, to check if it would be ok for me to work within his area of responsibility for the next week. We then drove through villages, heading toward the Nepal border, until we reached the Sarda River. Harish and I, along with Prem (Harish’s driver), and Naresh (the WWF project officer for Philibhit), then met up with three members of the forest staff and a rickety looking old wooden boat. It was in this boat that we crossed the river to a 13 square kilometres Indian enclave that is inhabited by tiger, elephant, rhino and many different species of deer including swamp deer, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, and hog deer. The enclave is uninhabited by humans, has a single service track, no vehicles except two motorcycles provided by WWF and no electricity, just wilderness. It is situated right on the Nepal border and is adjacent to the Royal Sukhla Phanta Wildlife Reserve of Nepal.

After crossing to the other side of the river we walked the 3 kms through the grasslands and forest to the building where we were going to stay for the next four nights. It was a building that had recently been built by WWF funding and was on two floors. The ground floor did not seem to be used for much except storing the 2 motorbikes when they were on the island. The first floor had three bedrooms, a communications room where the wireless radio transmitter was, and a bathroom. There was a large raised stone balcony outside the rooms where we could cook and relax without fear of being attacked by wild animals. 50 yards in front of the building was a water pump that everyone used to wash at. There were three members of the forest staff that lived here in Lagga Bagga.

The evening we arrived there were little green, bioluminescent fireflies flying around everywhere, giving off an incredibly bright glow that gave the place a very magical feeling. The full moon was shining so bright that it could have been just an overcast day. It was also the rutting season for the deer, and in the distance you could hear the rutting calls of the swamp deer that sounded almost like dogs barking. I knew as soon as I arrived that I was going to love this place.

Once we had dumped all our stuff in our rooms we went out onto the balcony where the guys had started the two wood fires and we all huddled round (because it was very cold at night), while they made our dinner of freshly made chapattis, soup and potato curry, all of which was really good.

Day 2 – 15th November 2005

I woke up early and had a nice hot cup of chai and walked out onto the balcony. In the night a thick fog had developed and it surrounded the entire building so that all you could see were the peaks of the closest trees. This seemed to add to the magic and the mystery of the place. Once we were all ready, Harish, Naresh, Prem and I, plus two other guys, went for a walk through the 13 square kilometers of uninhabited wilderness. The fog had cleared above the trees, but there was still a lot of dew on the ground. As a result of this wet ground, there were leeches everywhere and every 10 metres or so we would have to stop and pick off the five or six leeches that were attached to our trouser legs and ankles. After a while you got used to them, and it soon became second nature to pull of all your leeches and flick them away. The walk was excellent and in the end we covered about 10 kms of long grasslands and forests. On the walk we had seen the hoof marks of Cheetal (spotted deer), hog deer, footprints of rhino and elephant, pugmarks of tiger, fishing cat, leopard and lots of wild boar scrapings. It was quite exciting to see the huge abundance of animal life.

This day was a Hindu festival where everyone had to bathe in the river, so we went back via the river at a point where two rivers met and where everyone stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the river. It was quite funny to watch as the river was flowing quite fast. Everyone was fine until they tried to lay down in the water, at which point they were washed down the river at a rate of knots, but everyone looked as if they were loving it and very soon they were all out and drying on the sandy beach.

From there we made the 3 kms walk back to the guest house and spent a few hours relaxing and sleeping until 1 pm when Harish left to go back to Philibhit to do some work. In the afternoon Naresh and I were left on our own so we chatted away as best we could with his limited English and my non-existent Hindi and I showed him maps and books and showed him where I was from and where I had been and he taught me a few Hindi words using his Hindi-English dictionary that he was using to try to speak English.

In the evening we, again, sat around the fire and I watched as they rolled the dough out on a wooden board and put in a frying pan with a little vegetable oil and then they put it into the fire itself to make the chapatti.

Day 3 – 16th November 2005

In the morning, Naresh and I, plus another guy, squeezed onto a motorbike and sped off to the river. Once at the river we waited for water to be bailed out of the boat, which at this point was half full. Once the boat was emptied we proceeded to lift the Rajdoot motorbike into the small rickety old wooden boat and we ferried it across the river.

Once across the river we hopped back on the bike and sped off into the villages of the surrounding area. While driving through the villages we met and spoke to many more beneficiaries of the WWF schemes who greeted us and followed us around the villages. One of the beneficiaries that we visited was a local school that was in the village of Ramnagara that had all its chalk boards, among other things, paid for by WWF. By the time we reached the school we had managed to pick up a crowd of about twenty people, some of who were beneficiaries and the rest, I think, were people following out of pure curiosity.

At the school we met with the Principal who invited all of us (about 25 people altogether) into his very small office. We all squashed in and the Principle got the English teacher to come in and act as a translator between the Principal and I. The English teacher was a very nice man, but I do not think he had ever met an English person before, as he spoke English like all the other people spoke Hindi, very, very fast, and half of what he was saying I really could not understand and I had to keep on asking him to repeat everything (which I think did not help his standing as an English teacher much). Also, instead of translating conversations, he spent most of the time asking me how he would be able to get a job with the WWF. But in the end I was able to ask and answer lots of questions.

After the questions, the Principal showed us around the school. We went to all the classrooms and met the pupils who were really polite and stood up as soon as we came into their rooms and put their hands together and bowed, so I did the same back to them.

From the school we went back into town and Naresh decided that he was going to have a shave, so we went to a barber in the village, who also happened to be a WWF beneficiary and had applied to WWF for Rs3000 to pay for half his barber shop. The barber in this barber shop was the most barberish barber that I have ever seen. He was a short, fat, round man with a bald head and big whisps of hair coming out of the sides of his head. He had a huge, big bushy colonial mustache and he had a very serious look about him and he didn’t look you straight in the eye, but leant his head back slightly and looked down his nose at you. He used one of those old school razor blades that looked like a flick knife. I decided that I would get a shave as well so I paid this man Rs15, not realizing that I had actually signed up for a full facial. He went about lathering my face and he did such a thorough job of it that just the lathering alone lasted 10 minutes. He then went about shaving me while I was making sure I did not move my head one bit for the fear of my throat getting cut. Once shaved, he re-lathered my face again (with just as much enthusiasm as the first) and then shaved me again. He then put a wide range of different lotions on my face, some of which stung like hell, and began to give me a facial massage. After this very violent massage, he then put another range of different lotions on my face. After this, he sprayed my hair with something and put some other lotion in it and combed my hair for me. Finally, after half an hour, the ordeal was over, and strangely enough I felt fantastic and whatever he did really worked. What’s more, I was very clean shaven.

After this we went back into town and one of the forestry men asked me if I would like chicken for dinner, so I said yes, and he ran of into the market. Meanwhile Naresh and I went to a sweet shop for a cup of chai and some sweets (made from milk and sugarcane). Soon the forest guy was back and he handed me a live, breathing chicken, which was not exactly what I was expecting, but I was happy to carry it around the markets with me.

We soon left the village and Naresh, me, my chicken and a man we met in the village got on the motorbike and, under an amazing sunset, drove back to the bank of the river, where we met up with another motorbike that had been given to the forest division for the local village by WWF. We managed to fit both motorbikes in the rickety old wooden boat and somehow made it across the river, but by this time the boat was half full of water.

We drove back to the building where the forestry guy took the chicken from me, that by this time I had grown quite fond of and really did not want to eat anymore, and began to cook dinner. Thankfully I didn’t see it being killed, but seeing it in its last moments rather put me off eating it. But everyone else seemed to enjoy it.

Day 4 – 17th November 2005

In the morning we went for another very nice walk into the depths of Lagga Bagga and saw some very beautiful and very varied scenery. We started the walk by heading through thick and very long grassland that was interspersed with areas of wetland. We walked through the forest to the Nepalese border, which consisted of a large stone that was placed in the middle of some thick undergrowth. We continued to walk through the 60 metres of no-mans land and about 2 metres into Nepal before veering back into the Indian jungle. All the scenery was very striking and the morning sun was coming up and a lot of mist and fog still lingered in the tree tops, producing beams of light shining through the canopy layer that were so solid that they looked like huge leaning bars of gold. We walked for four hours and covered about 16 kms.

In the afternoon, Naresh and I decided to visit a wedding that was going on in the local village. We crossed the river with the motorbike and headed into the village at about 6 pm and easily found the house. It is wedding season this time of year and they are very impressive indeed. They had decorated the entire front of their house by putting up two very brightly coloured marquees. In one was the area where the visitors dined and the other was the main chapel that contained the wedding altar, which was a raised platform with four thick bamboo shoots in each corner joining at the top to form four archways around the altar. At the top of these archways were palm leaves and it was all very intricately decorated with different patterns and designs made out of brightly coloured paper and tinsel and outside were large walkways, to invite the guests in, that were decorated out of silver tinsel.

The man whose daughter was a beneficiary of WWF who had invited Naresh and I along. This was just another example of the closeness of WWF field officers and other staff to the people they are helping. We were invited in and lead to a table in the bright orangey-red dining marquee where we sat down and were treated to the most amazing feast of rice and all different kinds of dhal and curries and chapattis and lots of things for the main course and then sweets like Gulab jamun, barfi, halwa, jalebis and Kheer (a rice pudding) for desert. After that we chatted for a while with different guests and the father of the bride.

We left when it was getting dark and walked around the village, talking to locals and drinking chai, before returning to spend the night in the house of a very friendly family, of which, all the men work for the forestry division.

In the morning I returned to the building in Lagga Bagga to collect our things, while Naresh re-organized a WWF health camp that was going to take place in a few hours, but unfortunately this was cancelled at the last minute.

I later went back (on 28th Nov 2005) to Ramnagara, where the WWF health camp was held. This is another scheme by WWF to improve the living conditions of the village people. These Health Camps are organized on a regular basis to provide medical treatment for the villagers free of charge. There were three doctors who volunteered for the health camp at their own expense of time and money. The health camp was held in the sports hall opposite the local school and a sign was put up outside. The WWF Mahindra jeep/ambulance drove around the villages with a loudspeaker making an announcement that the health camp was taking place. It ran from 10 until 4 and during that time over 380 people showed up to receive medical treatment and drugs that were donated by WWF as well as local health shops and from the doctors themselves. It is very easy to see how these health camps have become very important to the local people who cannot afford to go to doctors where it can cost Rs 50 just to have a consultation.

After the Health Camp, we packed up the bike with all our stuff and said good bye to the very kind family and to Lagga Bagga, both of which had been so hospitable to us and drove off on our way back to Philibhit.
Riding an Elephant