Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011 Travel Calendar

As I write this, it’s time to bid adieu to 2011. I’ve just returned from my last trip for this year & going through photos has already got me reminiscing about how great this year’s been!

I’ve wanted to travel the world ever since I can remember. Sadly, a few things got in the way: school, college, graduation, work & ‘settling down in life’. When I was in school, they’d incite me with stories of how college students could go on trips. I reached college only to be told that I should still focus on studies as I had to decide my career path. Once I decided what I wanted to be, studies obviously took up all my time. Luckily, as part of our architecture curriculum, we had at least one study trip a year. Saving grace! I was told that once I began working, I could travel to my heart’s content. So, I waited five more years. When I began working, I realised that I had even less time for myself! Work, marriage & more work later, I was told that post-retirement is a good time to travel. That’s when I decided that I’d had enough.

At every stage in life, it seemed like ‘later’ was always the best time to travel. I don’t know what’s in store for me later, but I do want to do what I like; now. So, in 2007, I decided that I would consciously take the time out to travel. Since then, I’ve gradually increased my travel each year, much to my boss’s consternation. Luckily for me, he was supportive & understood my need to take off for weeks. In early 2011, I decided that I wanted more. I also wanted to spend a lot more time learning about wildlife. And, it’s been a dream come true! I can only fervently hope that 2012 tops this. Here’s all where I went in 2011:

I began my year with a foggy winter at Agra & Fatehpur Sikri: with the nip in the air, the endless cups of garam chai, the golden glow of the morning trying hard to penetrate the mist & numerous visits to the Taj Mahal.
My very-first blog-post was about my Agra trip:

BR Hills
Deceptively close to Bangalore, yet, a whole world away. As I approached BR Hills, the city sounds gave way to the sounds, sights & smells of the jungle. And I spent a few days just soaking it all in…my quiet time.


I headed here after a few days at BR Hills, driving through forests & small villages. Though packed to the brim with families holidaying in summer, I was here for a reason: to watch herds of elephants congregate by the banks of the river Kabini, feasting on fresh grass. The water-side was teeming with birds as well, vying with the elephants for my attention. Add to this my first ever Leopard sighting & the unmatched bliss of boating down the river on a hot summer afternoon, with the cool breeze for company!

Bombay [Mumbai]
Straight from the cool, breezy river to hot, humid Bombay; I went home for a few weeks. I also re-visited childhood jaunts with my brother, caught up with friends, gorged on bambaiya street food, had a gola & subsequently laryngitis and caught up with Flamingoes shortly before both they & I left the city.

Daroji | Hampi
A wildlife sanctuary & a heritage city; I couldn’t have asked for more. Actually, I could have; I needed more time. I half-heartedly decided to visit Hampi another time & spent all my time at Daroji. I wasn’t disappointed; the rocky & scrubby landscape hid many wonders within them: colourful Agamas, Sloth bears & more birds than I could imagine. I also went to Hampi & climbed Mathanga Hill in search of the rare Yellow-throated Bulbul. My only regret: the Sloth bears were very, very, very far away!

It’s been my dream to visit this rainforest & in the spirit of all my wishes coming true this year, so did this one. I was swept off my feet. And humbled. And also upset that we are incapable of protecting something this important & beautiful. My visit to Borneo was filled with a lot of awe & learning, both of which made me silent & pensive throughout the trip.

I returned, unusually silent, only to pour it all out on paper:
From one rainforest to another; and this one, almost in my backyard. A few days here in the monsoons was all it took for this to become one of my favourite places; leeches notwithstanding. And, the same few days was all it took for some strange, unknown connection to be established between us; the same connection that drew me back, later in the year. 


It had been a fortnight since I’d been anywhere & I had itchy feet; symptoms that demanded an impromptu day trip. A great drive, a good rain-free day, yet, with dramatic clouds for good photo-ops, a beautiful temple & some interesting stories…all resulted in a day well-spent. Also a ‘live’ temple, Lepakshi interests both the religious & the not-so-religious; ideal for a group trip with a bunch of people with dissimilar interests.

More than a month since my last visit to a forest, I went to Bandipur to prevent myself from becoming cranky. Usually abuzz with life, this forest near Bangalore also has a high density of predators. But, that weekend, the cool winter nip seemed to have made the animals reluctant to stir. Nonetheless, I had a happy weekend in an unusually quiet forest with beautiful, golden mornings. And, all the animals who did stir seemed blessed by Midas’s touch.

Thattekad & Munnar
One literally means ‘flat forest’, with extensive rubber plantations & a flourishing rubber industry. The other is a hill-station, a favourite with honeymooners. I went to both places looking for avian life. The Ceylon Frogmouth stole my heart. So did the elegant Vine snake. Another favourite memory from Thattekad is wading into a cool stream on a hot day, looking at dragonflies & damselflies.

Ganeshgudi | Dandeli
I’d been to Dandeli before, on a white-water rafting trip. This time, I stayed at Old Magazine house in nearby Ganeshgudi, a lovely place which we had to ourselves. With birds literally at my doorstep & avid birders with me, time flew (pun intended). We also went to the Timber depot at Dandeli to see Hornbills. Fruiting Ficus trees, the arrival of winter migrants & smaller life-forms made for a fruitful (again, pun intended) morning at the depot. At Ganeshgudi, you can also ride a coracle on the river, to try & spot water birds.

Valparai, re-visited
I went back to Valparai in October, wanting to experience a different facet of the Western ghats, in winter. The leeches were far fewer, the animal & bird-life was different, but, the feeling was the same. This amazing forest is home to numerous endemic plants & animals: the Nilgiri Tahr, the Lion-tailed macaques, the Nilgiri langur & the Impatiens plant, to name a few.

For photos from my winter Valparai trip, scroll to the end of this article:

Formula 1 at Delhi
After debating about whether we should subject ourselves to the receiving end of what we expected to be a ‘poorly organised’, first-ever F1 at Delhi, my husband & I decided to take a chance. The thrill of watching the race was too much to resist. And, for the record, we had to eat our cynical words. Well, all the arrangements weren’t spot-on & there was a lot of teething trouble, but, the circuit rocked!

The highlight of this trip was beautiful winter coats: the animals’ & ours as well. Really; it was about a pretty forest with pretty animals and weather that made you shiver despite your coats & long for the comfort of a roaring bonfire or maybe 3 blankets more. Driving through the beautiful Sal forests interspersed with rolling meadows, pinkish grass, white sheaves, glistening water-bodies and a low-hanging mist, I half expected a hero & heroine to appear through the mist, running around trees. Sightings of the Barasingha, the cutest Spotted Owlets & a Sloth bear made my trip, as did seeing & following fresh pug-marks every day. So what if the Tiger eluded me?
Kutch & Velavadar [Gujarat]
A fitting end to the year, Gujarat surprised me; pleasantly at that! Though I’d heard & read a lot about the bountiful wildlife that Gujarat’s forests have to offer, it was still something else to actually experience it. The Greater & Lesser Rann of Kutch, with their unique geology & vast, barren landscape made for a very different ‘forest’; how do you see an animal or bird without disturbing it if you have neither trees for cover nor rocks to hide behind? From the Rann to the grasslands of Velavadar; this was a trip filled with birds & animals I’d seen little or nothing of, before: Wild Asses, Flamingoes, Wolves, Jackals, Foxes, Blackbucks, Nilgai, Bustards and Cranes. Other than the wildlife, the cold weather & yummy Gujarati food was also a winning combination.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Not Just Another Summer Day

“Are you absolutely sure?” asked the apprehensive voice at the other end of the phone. “There is no fan, air-conditioning, fridge or cold water”. After reassuring the very reluctant Gemar that I did not want any of these, and that I could tolerate the April heat and wouldn’t faint midway, he agreed to let me visit his home. 

I’d been in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, for a few days now and wanted to explore the fringes of the Thar Desert. Gemar Singh lives in the village of Hacra, near Osiyan, and guides visitors around the desert during cooler climes. Much as I wanted to, it was too hot to stay for a couple of days at his home; I settled for a day’s visit instead. Though I had finally convinced him to guide me, I now harboured doubts about whether I would indeed survive the infamous Loo (hot desert wind, said to make you sick, sometimes fatally) without inflicting any embarrassing medical emergencies on Gemar. 

As I worked my way through breakfast the next morning, seated in my palatial hotel, Gemar arrived to pick me up, two bags in tow, bursting to their seams with vegetables and other assorted ingredients. “For your meal” he grinned. We set off without further ado, in a jeep, through dusty hot roads that gave me a taste of what was in store for me. A couple of hours later, we stood at a railway-crossing, waiting for a train to pass. Across the barrier, the road melded into sand. And, beyond the very same barrier, I had a surprise awaiting me - a camel. I was even more surprised when Gemar stopped the jeep and alighted, bag and baggage, motioning for me to do the same.

Did I dare ride a camel? It definitely was more exciting than the jeep; besides, Gemar said that a camel ride would be away from the motorable road and would take me through villages. It was the local means of transport and if I wanted a taste of what it felt like to live here, riding a camel was an inseparable part of it. I clumsily hoisted myself onto the saddle; the only support to prevent me from falling off was a wooden piece jutting out from the saddle in the front. As the camel stood up, I almost slid downwards and held on for dear life. Setting off towards Gemar’s home, it took me a while to accustom myself to the gentle rocking motion of the beast, not unlike a ship. A joke I made up, inspired by the moment, made me chuckle – “this is why camels are called ships of the desert”. Once I overcame the ‘sea-sickness’, I began enjoying the ride, with Gemar walking holding the reins of my camel, narrating stories about the desert.

The largely monotonous landscape was sometimes surprisingly peppered with patches of green, mostly thorny shrubs or solitary, scrawny trees, under which herds of Blackbucks valiantly sought shade and dried grass. A dash of colour would be infused by peacocks running across or a lone maiden in her bright saree, carrying water to her home. As the April sun beat down on me, I held on to my life-saving floppy hat, which was threatening to blow away in the breeze. I now realised that the ghunghat and the turban were not part of the locals’ attire merely due to tradition; they were very much a climatic necessity. 

A Village
Villages with thatch-roofed, circular houses appeared at the horizon; these were devoid of too many signs of life, what with people seeking refuge indoors at this time of the day. A solitary woman in her magenta saree was threshing hay outside her home. The breeze brought with it screams of “goro aayo”, “goro aayo”, and I turned around to see village children running towards us. I smiled at their cry, which in local parlance meant “the white man has come”; in this far-flung region of the desert, I too was alien to them, a foreigner. I smiled and waved back until their cheerful faces and tiny waving hands disappeared into a speck. Not long after, we reached Gemar’s home; time on the hour-long ride had flown!

The Loo begins to blow
Our card buddies
After the camels were given water and had settled under their favourite trees, Gemar busied himself preparing lunch. He lives in a traditional mud and stone home with his wife and child, both of whom had gone to visit her parents for a few days. The house has a series of huts around an open courtyard. Some spaces are walled for privacy, while others, like the ‘living room’, are open on one side. We sat down on the mud floor in the living room. A group of boys, who were herding their families’ cattle nearby, rushed into the home, gaggling. Those herding cattle take shelter at this time, every day, in the nearest hut; such is the welcoming nature of the people here. As soon as they spotted us, they stopped short, unsure of what to do. Gemar suggested a game of cards to break the ice. 

Soon, the boys overcame their shyness, teaching us their favourite card game, guffawing at our mistakes, cheat-peeking at everybody’s cards and playfully fighting each other. Outside, a gentle storm had begun to brew, which soon turned ferocious. The whooshing sounds heralded the arrival of the afternoon Loo. I poked my head out of the window only to be blinded by dust and sand; I hurriedly retracted. 

Gemar's house from the outside

View of the house, inside

Finally milking the goat!
Card game in progress

The fragrance wafting from the kitchen soon had my stomach growling approvingly in response. Between card games, I sneaked peeks into the kitchen and watched bowl after bowl fill up. The simple, hearty and traditional meal was so delicious that not a morsel was spared.  A siesta threatened to tempt me and an inviting khatiya (traditional woven cot) in the room definitely didn’t help my already-drooping eyelids. I snoozed even as the others continued to play. A while later, a goat bleated repeatedly in what I thought was a dream.  I lazily opened an eyelid and scanned around, only to be greeted by an amusing sight - two grown men chasing a goat. They smiled at my nonplussed countenance and declared that it was time for some chai. And, the milk for this tea was to be fresh, straight from the goat; if she was willing to give any, that is! Here, no co-operation from goat meant no tea. Soon enough, tempted by fresh grass, the goat let Gemar milk her. Fortified by the tea and hastened by the dimming light, we bid adieu to the boys and mounted our camels again.

The Loo had disappeared as stealthily as it had arrived. The camels and I cast soft shadows on the sand, which had earlier been hot enough to roast peanuts in, and was now alarmingly cold. The gold-tinged vistas of the morning had been replaced by a uniform blue tinge of the setting sun. Gemar gently guided my camel towards some sand dunes, from atop which I surveyed the rapidly darkening desert. As I ran my fingers through the icy sand, I was overcome by an urge to stay and not head back to ‘civilization’. A day had been too short and I told Gemar as much. He invited me to come back another time, during cooler weather, when I could stay without worrying about my health. I reluctantly plodded my way downhill, the sand making it even slower for me to walk away. A few hours later, I was back at my palace-hotel, eating dinner at a table on a manicured lawn. The day in the desert seemed like a mirage. 

Contact details:
Gemar Singh