Rodent Tourism

She had a dainty nose, small and pointed; her eyes were chocolate brown and shaped as watermelon seeds.  Through the brown silk of her hair could be seen the pink flesh of her small, rounded ears.  Her body was a little plump, overweight; but she was loved.  As she flitted about, like a bridal party attending to its bride it followed her: that long earthworm of a tail.

I’ve never had any particular affection for rats, but this one was the pet of some friends of a friend, many years past in that town of islands, Kristiansund in Norway.  She had free run of the house, the rat, and they seemed not to mind as she scurried up their arm or circumnavigated their necks.  Rats only live for a year or two, they said; so a life-long friendship for a rat is but several seasons.

People are never alone in this world: naturally enough there are other rat admirers amongst us, people enamoured of rodents.  This article is for them, for should one find oneself desirous of rodent-company whilst on holiday, there are options.

Entrance gate to the Kani Mata Temple, Deshnoke, Rajasthan

Deshnoke is a small town of around 15,000 people about thirty kilometres from Bikaner in Rajasthan.  It’s not a town that’d attract much attention, being not dissimilar to any of the other small towns in the brush country of the Thar Desert, if were not for the Karni Mata Temple.

Born in 1387, Karni Mata was a mystic believed to be a reincarnation of Durga; it is said she performed many miracles.  When her stepson Laxman drowned while attempting to take a drink from a tank, Karni Mata urged the god of death Yama to bring him back to life. 

Yama initially refused, but later allowed all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.  Alternatively, the 20,000 mostly brown rats that are fed, protected and worshipped at the temple are said to hold the souls of traditional bards called Charans.  Karni Mata is said to have been 151 years old when she died.

Removing one's shoes at the grand silver gates that mark the entrance, it's quite a novel experience to wander a courtyard populated by rats.  At the altar it's possible to seek Karni Mata's blessing, consuming Prasad, the edible offerings shared by the rodents.

The temple is said to reinforce a simple truth: all life is sacred, even rats. 

It is auspicious to see a white rat.  It is auspicious if a rat runs across your foot.  And as I was once told, when bubonic plague caused many human deaths in the towns of Rajasthan, in Deshnoke not a single person died, thanks to the blessings of Karni Mata and her temple of rats.

View from the Rat Garden Hotel, St. Lucia
Across the world in the Caribbean, and it may not be there now for there were plans for it to close, there is or was a budget hotel set amongst a lovely rat garden.  It’s a beautiful establishment in the lush subtropical hills above Castries, the quaint capital of St. Lucia.  The rooms are clean and spacious, food delightful, particularly as the reception area and dining table doubled as the living room of Cherie and her family, the local hoteliers.

A laid back French St. Lucian, there was no question Cherie had a soft spot for animals.  The multiple dogs and cats wandering about were additional family members, so the rats should have come as no surprise.  It was while sitting on the balcony enjoying breakfast, with the paradise of the St. Lucian Caribbean spread out like a blanket beneath, with views all the way to the horizon, Martinique, that they could be seen scurrying about in the garden immediately below: large, well-fed and clean.  ‘People said I should poison them,’ Cherie said, ‘but I didn’t have the heart to.’  If St. Lucia is paradisiacal for human beings, Cherie’s garden is the equivalent for the rats.

And if the St. Lucian pedigree of rat, significantly larger than the Deshnoke and Norwegian varieties, proves insufficient, then far to the south of St. Lucia can be found the capybaras, the world’s largest rodents.

View from the Rat Garden Hotel to Martinique

The Argentine wetland of Estero del Ibera abounds with wildlife, monkeys, deer, caimans, which are an alligator relative; and for me the star attraction: the capybara.  As large as a small goat and tail-less, even for the rat-non-lover this marsh-dwelling rodent is something special.

Capybara wades
As usual I’d imagined hours of weary search and maybe slight danger in the quest to locate the species; in the hope of the sort of fleeting glance that would more than satisfy the visitor to the Sundarbans in search of tigers.  Safaris should be like that, but it wasn’t.

It’s possible to hire a boat from the small town of Colonia Pellegrini to navigate the short distance across the lake to the Ranger Station, headquarters of the National Park.  The boat comes with a guide, who with some luck could be named Gaston, for Gaston makes his living that way.

After not more than several minutes, stepping off at the wharf by the Ranger Station, the expedition was done.  There on the grassy lawn was a capybara.  The creature didn’t bother to look up as we walked close enough to punch its broad flat nose; it was terribly busy doing nothing, what capybaras do best; an almost-statue but for the odd grind of the teeth.  It ruminated on grass as an elderly mother-in-law in a Bangladeshi village might chew paan or betel leaf.

Capybara chews
That capybara was seriously so unfazed by human presence I thought it might be a fraud: that some ranger had tamed one to impress the tourists, that it’s probably called Antonio and sleeps at the end of the ranger’s bed.  I wanted a real, wild, useless capybara.

Soon back on the water, after checking-in at the Ranger Station, with the silence of an oar Gaston sidled the dinghy to within inches of a caiman, the crocodilian as long as the boat.  It floated as though dead: but its eye moved.

‘Australian crocodiles can run as fast as horses on land over short distances,’ I told Gaston.  Actually I’ve no idea if its true but I think I might have heard that on TV once.  He was suitably impressed.

Continuing through the reeds two things became apparent.  At Estero del Ibera there were seemingly-lifeless caimans all over the place, their hardy scaled bodies and jagged long jaws floating about here and there, the reptiles completely fearless of the boat.  And there were genuine wild capybaras, different sizes but inevitably fat, and completely fearless of the boat.  It was incredible.  Giant rat swims, giant rat chews something, giant rat does nothing much in particular: all could be seen at incredibly close range.

Capybara wallows
Completely satisfied with my capybara encounters, I was in a better position to enjoy the overactive river otters and the bird life, the most impressive bird being the ungainly southern screamer, something of a cross between vulture and turkey that nested in reed clumps and though I didn’t hear it, must be in the habit of screaming now and then, presumably in a southerly direction. 

A swamp deer watched with this, ‘yeah, whatever’ look, as we paddled close.  What was it with these Argentine animals?  None had the least fear; had they not met humans before?

Capybara does nothing much at all
The great thing about Gaston was his genuine interest.  He must have done that tour every day and probably still does, but he really seemed to love those wetlands, his backyard.  I imagined his life with slight envy, how tranquil it would be if the most stressful event in your workday was a caiman closing an eyelid, or maybe that gets to you after a while?

For rodent enthusiasts and those who are not, the Estero del Ibera experience can only impress.  There must be few safaris in the world where contact with wild animals is so easy, where you could just about reach out and touch them; and its surprising really, because while it’s illegal to eat capybaras in Argentina, so I was told, they are hunted for their leather: capybaras sometimes become the belts worn by the gauchos, the Argentine cowboys.

Capybara, king of the rodents

Of course there's more to the Caribbean than rats.  And for more adventure, tracking rodents can't compare with tracking fearsome, wild beasts in Eastern Europe or wondering if the wolves will come...

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