An excited conversation ensues between the driver and the guide. There are pug marks in the road up ahead. Fresh ones. And we’re off. As we jolt up and down the dirt paths in the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve – the red rising sun almost blinding us, I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as I anticipate my first tiger sighting in the wild.
I have been dreaming about this for years. The tiger has been showing up in my shamanic circles, often. Sometimes, I have found myself on all fours, loping across the room snarling at the others. I want to see tigers in the wild. I want to see the powerful creatures outside of the zoo before we’ve killed them all. I have even been searching for the right tiger tattoo to mark the importance of this animal spirit energy to me.
“Look,” whispers the guide urgently pointing to the trees to our left. “Female with four cubs. She’s walking to the water hole.”
We’re all standing on our seats. My dad struggles to stand up, his legs no longer able to hold his weight because of diabetes. I put my hand against his back and support him as he uses the side railings to hoist himself up. Oh my god! They’re crossing the road in front of us. I have been so focused on making sure that Dad is OK, that I almost miss the moment.
My heart collapses with disappointment. I just got a glimpse of them and now they’re gone.
But wait! The driver is revving the Jeep back and tearing down a parallel path.
“She’ll bring them to the water hole through the jungle. Because we’re on the direct path, we’ll get there before them.”
The adrenaline rushes through me again.
Still, I am a little concerned about Dad. It’s almost an hour after his regular breakfast time and I know what happens when his blood sugar drops. And yet, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. “Should I give you something to eat now,” I ask. He waves me away. He has to take his insulin shot first and right now I can tell that he’s just as excited about seeing the tigers as I am.
Dad has made all the arrangements for this journey to the tiger reserve. The minutest details from the car to the route, from the hotel to the permissions needed to enter the different reserves. My mother isn’t with us because her sister is visiting from Canada. I’m glad because she would be grumbling about all the discomfort from being bumped around in a Jeep for hours searching for just a glimpse of tigers.
The guide leans over and tells me to help my dad stand up again. We watch mesmerized as two of the cubs emerge from the trees and walk over to the water. Golden with black stripes and enormous paws, they frolic and play with one another. I scan the scene. There’s the third up higher leaping across the rocks.
Then the mother appears, padding slowly. Regal. Formidable. My body is thrumming with the joy of seeing this magnificent beast in person. She glances over at our Jeep for a brief moment and then dismisses us.
Now the fourth cub has emerged. There we are under the blazing sun watching not one but five tigers slake their thirst and play in the azure blue of the watering hole. The pictures I click seem hazy. But the scene is indelibly etched in my mind.
I look over at my dad who appears to be as moved as I am. In that moment, the distance I have maintained between us for the last thirty-five years falls away. The anger and the pain that put me on that plane to Mt. Holyoke, to get as far away as I possibly could from him and my family, starts to melt.
As the tiger gathers her cubs to walk back into the jungle, I give thanks for five tiger sightings in one day.
For this shared moment.
And for the love of the wild that I inherited from my father.
The next day we see a big male tiger, belly distended with a recent meal, saunter past us on his way to the watering hole. The frenzied clicking of cameras sounds like machine gun fire but the tiger pays us no mind. We gaze at him for more than an hour, as he cleans his bloody whiskers and wallows in the cool water.
My cup runs over.