Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Isles of Scilly: Where the Attitude is Determined by the Latitude


The Isles of Scilly is a vacation destination renowned in the UK for its beauty and wildlife, but I had never heard of it until I met my husband. He, along with other biologists at the University of Exeter, takes undergraduate biology students there each spring so they can learn about ecosystems and diversity and just generally experience wildlife in their natural habitats. For the past two years I have been lucky enough to tag along and I am finally beginning to learn how to identify enough animals and plants that I feel somewhat useful as an instructor. Last year I either failed to take my camera or just never used it; luckily I had it on hand this year, when the expedition was even more photogenic thanks to five solid days of perfect weather.

The trip started in Penzance, from which we took a ferry, the Scillonian III, to the main island, St. Mary's. The trip is only 45 km (28 miles), but it takes about 2.5 hours. If you have more than just a carry-on, which all of us did, you put your luggage in a cargo container that is loaded onto the ship by a crane on the front deck. Pets are welcome, and usually abound; I am always impressed by the calmness with which the dogs survey their noisy, vibrating, diesel-smelling surroundings. No matter how warm the air and how sunny the sky, the trip is inevitably chilly. This year it was much more pleasant than last year, when it was very overcast and even a bit drizzly. Still, I was shivering despite wearing a t-shirt, a thermal long-sleeve shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a thick windbreaker. One day I will find the right combination of clothing to make the trip more bearable. Luckily there is a cafeteria on board, so you can frequently stock up on hot cups of tea.

You can sit inside if you wish, but then you will miss the wildlife sightings that inevitably occur during the journey. Although it is possible to see porpoises, dolphins, whales, and sunfish, I have only ever had any luck with finding birds--storm-petrels, shearwaters, gannets, cormorants, shags, kittiwakes, gulls, and even a few of the auks that the Isles of Scilly are famous for. These are much more common in the Isles than elsewhere in Cornwall, but can be seen along some of the crags near Land's End at the beginning of the journey. Though the puffin is the most common symbol found on Scilly tourist merchandise, the real source of avian excitement is all the migratory birds that land on the islands during the spring, but particularly the autumn, migration. These include birds that have overshot their destinations in the spring and need to rest up before heading back down to France and Spain, those that are on their way south to Africa after breeding during in the Arctic during its short summer, and even North American individuals that have been blown seriously off-course by heavy winds. Among "twitchers," list-crazy birders who traipse all over the country in order to see as many species as possible each year, the Scillies are an essential destination in order to view the real rarities. Last year, we stumbled upon a (relatively uncommon) short-toed lark wandering around the island of Gugh; this year, in the same location, we tried but failed to find a tawny pipit. Both birds were "overshoots," who would eventually turn around and go back south to their appropriate breeding grounds (at least, we hope).

The decks of the Scillonian are also a good place to just generally enjoy the dramatic Cornish scenery:


Like the rest of Britain, the various islands and islets of Scilly (5 main islands, but several hundred land masses overall, depending on your counting criteria) are composed of granite produced by serious volcanic activity several hundred million years ago. The Scillies are considered by many to be the most dangerous maritime habitat in Britain thanks to its jagged rocks and ledges that sit just under the waves; there are anywhere from 800-2000+ wrecks sunk around the islands. The rocks are particularly dangerous because they are not only unseen, but unexpected--the Scillies rest on a plateau that drops off quite suddenly into deep ocean, so unwary sailors may not realize until too late that they have crossed the divide between safe open water and dangerous continental shelf. The harsh winds near the Scillies add another element of danger; many claim that this is also the most exposed location in Britain.

The Isles of Scilly have not always been as isolated as they are now; many thousands of years ago--and as recently as 4,000 years ago--sea level was low enough that Scilly could be reached by foot from the mainland. In fact, it is still possible to walk between some of the islands at low tide--particularly during the spring. Some of the Isles were even covered by glaciation during the last ice age; one Scilly guidebook (The Secret Nature of the Isles of Scilly, by Andrew Cooper) urges visitors to stand on one of the lookout points on St. Mary's and imagine the massive cliff of ice that would have been visible approximately 20,000 years ago. Since the ice melted, all of Britain has been sinking steadily in a process known as "post-glacial rebound." In the Scillies, this loss of height has been compounded by the wearing action of the wind and waves. All told, however, the islands are shrinking at a negligible rate--it is nothing for the next couple of generations to worry about quite yet, barring any additional, unexpected, geological activity.

Our field course set up camp at The Garrison, site of a castle and fortification originally built in the 16th century following the Spanish Armada of 1558. Unfortunately, we were not staying in the castle, which is now home to a hotel called The Star, but in the campsite above the Garrison walls.

The nice thing about the campsite is that many of the animals there are quite tame, so we could get great views of the song thrushes and blackbirds, in particular; this year I even got a female blackbird to eat right out of my hand. Last year I saw my first-ever hedgehog in the campsite, and we got another good look at one this year. Unfortunately, because they are nocturnal, I was not able to get any good photos.

(Male blackbird with the characteristic bright orange Scilly bill; mainland blackbirds have more golden bills. Scientists still haven't figured out what causes this difference.)

According to the last census, approximately 2,200 people live in the Isles of Scilly; most of these inhabit St. Mary's, which is the biggest island. Our field course takes place at the very beginning of the tourist season. The weekend after we depart, the Isles host the World Pilot Gig Championships, which (I am told, but have not personally seen) brings in a massive crowd of participants and observers alike. I cannot imagine how the town copes with all these additional people, because just our group of 30-odd individuals depleted stocks in the grocery store (particularly on the evening that we treated the students to a barbecue) and made all the delis, pubs, and other eating facilities quite cramped at mealtime. This year we happened to be on the islands during Easter weekend, as well as during the weekday when cruises stop by to let travelers spend an afternoon on the islands. I am not entirely sure what all these people usually do when they visit Scilly, but shopping appears to be high on the priority list. Insanely, there are also a good number of people who sit on the beach and try to get tan; some even wander into the water. Given how uncomfortably cool it is even at the height of summer on the relatively less exposed mainland Cornish beaches, I cannot imagine how unpleasant these activities must be.

In my humble opinion, the only way to fully enjoy the Isles of Scilly is to explore them, a process that requires both good walking shoes and a boat. During our stay, we hiked around the circumference of St. Mary's (approximately 5 miles), which only takes a couple of hours but gives you plenty of opportunities to catch amazing views of the water, the geology, the flora, the fauna, and some of the lovely local cafes selling fresh-baked goodies and Cornish ice cream.

You will also pass several places of cultural interest, such as studios selling local art and historic buildings and cemeteries.

(The cemetery at Old Town.)

The islands have been inhabited since the Neolithic (4500-2200 BC), evidence of which is provided by many megaliths, menhirs, and stone circles that can be found dotting various islands. Our hike around Gugh took us near both a standing stone and an old, excavated, burial chamber called Obadiah's Barrow. Interestingly, though this one dates to the Neolithic, it was reused during the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the mixture of standing-stone and horizontal top-stone architecture. Sadly, none of its standing stones are still actually standing, the last having been intentionally knocked over during the Victorian times in order to prevent its accidentally falling on top of a passer-by (the British obsession with health and safety obviously has a long and illustrious history). There would be many more such similar sites if the stones didn't make such attractive building materials; modern inhabitants have relocated many of them for use in walls and foundations.

(Obadiah's Burrow on Gugh Island.)

As I hinted at earlier, Scilly has a wide variety of wildlife that is special in one way or another. This includes not only the migrants that pass through at various times of the year--not just birds, but also moths and butterflies on land, and whales and turtles in the water--but also full-time residents. Scilly is a strange mixture of "native" and "introduced" species, though how exactly you draw the line between them at this point is anybody's guess, given how many things have naturalized over the years. Over the years, a variety of plants and animals have found their way to the islands through intentional introduction (particularly to the gardens on Tresco) and also by some mixture of accident and luck (for instance, stick bugs established a population after hitching a ride on some of the introduced plants). For a while, the main source of income in the Isles was flower farming, since the (relatively) extreme southern latitude meant that Scillonian farmers could beat their mainland competitors to the punch each season. Daffodils were a particularly big crop, though several other species were also popular. Several varieties of each species are Scillonian specialties, found nowhere else. However, though you still run across many of these flowers growing in farm fields and wherever else they manage to put down roots, this livelihood is no longer as important to the local economy as it used to be.

Other than the "true-" and "now-native" plants, there are many escapee "invasives" growing rampant across the island--in particular, the South African hottentot fig (the quotation marks indicate how difficult it is to distinguish between these three categories, given that all three were, at some point or another, an "invasive"). The fig may not be ideal for the local ecosystem, but at least it is attractive.

(The bright green plant with the yellow flower is the hottentot fig; the more spindly, silvery-green plant growing amongst it is rock samphire, an edible plant that must be used sparingly in dishes because it is so salty.)

One of the big questions is why some of the intentional introductions were made at all. For instance, Spanish bluebells can now be found growing all over those islands with enough soil to make it possible, but it is a mystery why the inhabitants felt this was a necessary addition to the ecosystem, given that there was already a perfectly lovely native bluebell growing in all the same places.

(Native bluebells growing on Scilly. They are smaller, have a deeper purple color, have a more closed and rounded bell shape, and the flowers all tend to hang to the same side of the stem.)

(Another local specialty is the sea holly, which we routinely find on Gugh and St. Agnes, but which does not thrive as much elsewhere. This particular bit of growth managed to survive a hurricane, popping back up out of the sand several weeks after the storm.)

Although many people travel to the Isles of Scilly specifically to enjoy the botany, it is much more common for tourists to seek out the avifauna. One particularly beloved destination is the Western Rocks, which provide breeding habitat for gulls and--more excitingly--auks. The Isles are home to three species of auks: the guillemot, the puffin, and the razorbill. People really seem to focus on the puffin, probably because of its characteristic orange and yellow facial coloration, but its close relatives are also quite sleek and attractive. Both years we have gone looking, we have seen all three species, but this year was definitely a bonanza.

(A lone puffin, the only one brave enough to sit near our boat after the rest of its flock took off.)

(Mostly guillemots, but also a razorbill or two. The Guillemots are the ones that are browner and have more delicate bills; the razorbills are blacker and have a thicker bill with a white stripe.)

One of the reasons that so many species can do fairly well on Scilly is a lack of predators. The islands have no foxes, few rats (some islands with none at all), no resident buzzards or hawks, no snakes, and no serious problems with feral cats or dogs. Perhaps the most threatening predator is the hedgehog, which is known to eat the eggs of nesting birds. Despite this, there are still some mysterious declines in breeding success, including that of the lesser black-backed gull, the kittiwake, and the storm-petrel. Various bird surveys are conducted at regular intervals to collect as much data as possible on Scilly species, in the hopes of protecting those colonies that are doing well, and re-establishing those that have begun to fail.

Although it is easy to get distracted by the plants and animals, which are in such obvious and colorful abundance, it is important to note that Scilly also offers ample opportunities to enjoy special insects, such as the oil beetle, the indigenous Scilly bee, and some very rare species of Scillonian ant, as well as a prodigious amount of sea life. Fossicking (or rock-pooling), that beloved British pastime, can be conducted at numerous locations around the island, yielding a variety of crabs, fish, mollusks, invertebrates, and algae. Unfortunately, none of these species is very easy to photograph once you've stuck it in a bucket of seawater to keep it happy while you examine it up close, so all I've got is a photograph of a very promising-looking pool waiting to be investigated.



(There are also some interesting bits of flotsam and jetsam. A few years ago a container ship wrecked in Scilly and for the next few weeks, islanders were able to pick up free samples of tobacco and superhero costumes, among other things, after they'd washed up on shore.)

The Isles were stunning during our overwhelmingly sunny visit this year, and still quite attractive during our previous trip when it was cloudy most of the time. There is actually little variation in air temperature throughout the year--less so even than in mainland Cornwall, which is milder than the rest of the UK--but the unpredictable sea breezes make a huge difference. Depending on their strength and the direction from which they are blowing, they can either be pleasant or really, really painful. The key to enjoying your stay on the Scillies is to pack for every contingency--thermals, sweaters, and waterproofs are essential even when you go in the middle of summer. A hat and sunglasses are also necessary, since you'll get glare from above when on land, and below when on water. Because the paths can be quite rocky and very steep, it is important to have good, sturdy shoes; my well-worn hiking boots are, shall we say, on their last legs, and walking became a bit painful both for my feet and my knees. The most important pieces of equipment are binoculars and a camera, because this is a place where you will want to see far and wide, then document it so you can enjoy it again later.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

India 2011: Back to Bangalore...and Beyond


It had taken us about 2 hours to get from Bangalore to Mysore by train, then another couple from Mysore to Bandipur by taxi, so we knew that our taxi ride back to Bangalore would last at least 4 hours. It's strange for Westerners to imagine that it's both possible and affordable to hire a taxi for such a long trip, but it really is the best option--buses would be cramped, hot, and slow, and there is no way that you'd want to rent a car and do the driving yourself. A trip of that length would easily cost several hundred dollars in the US, and the equivalent amount of pounds in the UK, but we only paid about $50. This is an especially good deal when you consider that our driver had to start the day by driving 2 hours from Mysore to Bandipur to pick us up, then end the day with another 2-hour drive back there from Bangalore.

I had to request a toilet stop as we were nearing Mysore, and I did so just in time for us to pull over to what I fondly refer to as a "pay-and-pee." Whatever niceties India may be lacking--reliably clean water, air conditioning, consistent electricity--at least they have public toilets; why is the US the only country I've been in where it's a miracle to find a restroom that doesn't involve a gas station or a McDonald's? Of course, the cleanliness of the facility was a bit lacking, and there was no toilet paper, but that wasn't worse than anything I encountered in Kenya, and, in any case, it only cost 2 rupees, so I got pretty much what I paid for.

Shortly after we left Mysore, our taxi driver pulled down a TV screen and put on a DVD of Bollywood hits for us to watch. Even my husband had to admit that the music was catchy, but it was hard to imagine how anyone could find the goofy Bollywood dancing very cool. We noticed that there were 2 consistent features of nearly all the videos: 1) frequent changes of scenery, often involving unusual locations such as the middle of a 2-lane road through a desert, and 2) frequent changes of clothing, often involving surprisingly revealing clothes for the ladies and surprisingly effeminate (to Western sensibilities) outfits for the men. Once the DVD was over, our driver put in a CD, but when this started skipping we were plunged back into quiet.

This didn't last too long, though, since by that time we were nearing Bangalore. Frustratingly, it took about an hour for us to finally reach the IISC after first entering Bangalore; the city really is huge, plus the roads were packed with traffic. I think our driver was receiving directions on his phone, because he kept pausing, reading text messages, and then making a sudden change in our route. I was pretty impressed that he was able to navigate, without any discernible wrong turns, both Mysore and Bangalore, not to mention all the remote roads between Mysore and Bandipur; I would have been overwhelmed by tackling any one of those locations, let alone all three of them.

Pretty soon we were reinstated in our quarters at the IISC guest house--good old room 37. Luckily, the electricity was back on, but the wi-fi still hadn't been fixed, which was a bummer because we'd been planning to use that in order to coordinate with our hosts. We tried to find an internet cafe when we went into town for lunch, but failed on that account, as well. To add insult to injury, the restaurant we'd chosen was having some technical glitches with their computerized ordering system, so our food took forever to arrive and then it took even longer for them to produce a bill. While my husband returned to our room to coordinate our schedule for the evening,I stopped by Fabindia one last time in order to stock up on a few more gifts.

Later that evening we returned to our hosts' house for a farewell dinner. We met the cousin of the family we'd taken the walk with in Bandipur, and were surprised to discover that he had no idea who we were talking about. However, he told us that his family was quite large; plus, "cousin" might have been used to indicate "second cousin," or even "third cousin" or beyond (many of my husbands' African "cousins" are actually just close friends of the family, so this didn't surprise me too much). Still, for someone who has a family as small as mine, it's amazing to think of having so many relatives that you could actually lose track of them.

We had an early night because our trip the next day started quite early--we had to be at the airport by 7:30, so we needed to leave by 6:30. It was sad to depart the IISC for the last time, even though we were looking forward to swapping out those hard, single beds for our soft, king-sized bed at home. I often find that I'm ready to go home after a week or two of vacation, but even with my sickness I had been happy enough in India that I could easily have stayed longer. However, both my husband and I had to get back to the grindstone at work, so an extended stay was not an option.

It turned out that we'd been overly-cautious in timing our taxi ride, since the roads weren't too busy that early in the morning. We got to the airport with plenty of time to sit and have breakfast; I even had the opportunity to shop around and purchase some snacks--and, more importantly, a new book--for the flight home. Unfortunately, the leisure of the first leg of our journey was pretty much the polar opposite of the frenzy we experienced during the second leg.

Our first flight had been from Bangalore to Mumbai, and our second flight would go from Mumbai to London. Alas, Mumbai's domestic and international airports are not in the same place, so we had a little over an hour to travel between the two airports, check in again, go through immigration, go through security, find our gate, and board the plane. The airline provided a free shuttle service between the two terminals, but the airline staff advised us that the next available shuttle would not get us there in time; instead, we were advised to get our own transportation--very helpful. We dashed outside to find a taxi, but while there appeared to be many dropping travelers off, there appeared to be none taking travelers away. We then ran over to the auto stand, where we were told that an auto could get us to the terminal in 15 minutes. Less than 10 minutes later, we arrived at the destination, only to discover it was the wrong one; the driver thought we wanted the second terminal at the domestic airport, when in fact we wanted the second terminal at the international airport. He then told us he could still get us there, but actually what he had in mind was driving us to a taxi company and switching us over to the form of transportation that was more likely to make our deadline.

(A view of the crowded airport roads, as seen from the back of our auto.)

My husband was feeling extremely tense, because by this time we were looking at 30-45 minutes to accomplish a trip across one of the crowdest cities on the planet, followed by the intricacies of the flight check-in process. However, I have to say that I was feeling pretty "Zen" about the whole situation. We'd either make the flight or we wouldn't, and at that point there wasn't much we could do to affect the situation. I only point out this difference in my husband's and my attitudes because it is pretty much the opposite of our normal states of mind--usually I fret, while he calmly floats along. I was so relaxed that, while we sat at a red light, I even did some nature-watching from the back seat of our auto, from which I saw a mouse hop out of our vehicle, dash under the car next to us, then run back again. It was very peculiar.

At the taxi stand, we were quoted an exorbitant price for our trip to the airport. It was not only more than we'd normally willingly pay, but it was also way more money than we had--we'd used up all our cash because we didn't think we'd need it. To make matters worse, they were demanding that we pay up front. Because we didn't really have the time to argue, we agreed to a ridiculous sum of money (in India, anyway--it was still cheaper than getting a taxi to the airport in the US or the UK), and had the driver take us to the nearest ATM. After waiting in line behind seemingly the slowest customer ever, I arrived at the machine only to find that it was broken. I dashed out to the car and asked the driver to take us to another one, but my husband had the wherewithal to ask if he would accept British pounds instead. After a little convincing, the driver agreed to accept a 10-pound note and our 200 remaining rupees, which not only added up to the asking price but actually exceeded it.

During one of our previous trips through an Indian airport, I'd noticed that they only shut the gates to a flight 20 minutes before its scheduled departure, which is about twice as late as when they shut the gates at Western airports. I remember thinking to myself that that was a pretty generous rule. I never imagined that I would personally benefit from it. At the international airport, we ran over to the Kingfisher Airlines desk, where the customer service person calmly and casually looked over our paperwork, then gave us immigration forms to fill out and directed us to the immigration room. He seemed very unconcerned by the fact that our flight was supposed to leave in the very near future, which was encouraging.

We stopped briefly to fill out the paperwork, then entered the immigration area, where we were waved through even more quickly than we had been on our way into the country. It's amazing that developing countries have such a reputation for tying you up in red tape at the worst possible moments (which they do--we've heard plenty of horror stories from colleagues who work in those places), because it's also true that they can occasionally be way more accommodating and speedy than their colleagues in the West. We next entered the security room, where we had to take the stamped airline security tags off all our carry-ons and replace them with blank tags that could be stamped during the new round of security processing. This is the kind of pointless stuff that is required when passengers have to move between multiple different airports in order to complete a single trip. Of course, just when I least needed it, someone forgot to stamp one of my bags, so I had to go back through the line again before the security woman would let me exit the area and rush to my gate. By that point even I had begun to feel agitated, because we were so close to making it and yet still so close to disaster.

Luckily, after all the rushing and sweating and swearing, we got there. We weren't even the last ones on the plane; about 5 or 10 minutes after we sat down, a half dozen other people (some of whom I recognized from our previous flight) straggled on, and I suspect that they had opted to take the shuttle from the domestic airport. All in all, even though I was channeling Buddha half the time, it was one of the more stressful travel experiences I've had; however, since it turned out well in the end, I can't complain too much. Still, if/when we go back to India, we will definitely avoid the Mumbai airport, unless it is actually our destination--or a new combo airport is developed so that we don't have to drive across the city in between flights. [Oddly enough, just the night before my husband and I were having our travel nightmare in India, my parents had experienced one of their own in Florida.]

During all of our rushing around in Mumbai, I had worked up quite an appetite, so I was happy to be served lunch shortly after our flight took off. Though my husband chose the "continental" meal, I indulged in the Indian option--just for old times' sake. Unfortunately, the flight wasn't even nearly the last leg of our trip. After we arrived at Heathrow (at about 6 PM), we had to take a 30-minute train ride to Paddington Station, followed by a 2-hour train trip to Exeter. At that point my husband had to walk, in the dark, to find where he'd left the car, then navigate around a bunch of closed streets (due to overnight road construction), and finally return to the train station to pick me up. From there, we still had another 2-hour trip back to Falmouth, in the middle of which we encountered yet more late-night road construction, and were routed through a 10-mile stretch of windy Cornish roads.

Living in Cornwall is pleasant most of the time, but fairly annoying when traveling anywhere else. It is such a pain to have to begin and end every trip with a 5-hour journey from lands' end (almost literally) back into "civilization." By the time we got home, it was well past 1 AM, and by the time we got into bed, it was well past 2; we'd been awake for over 24 hours straight. As fun and exciting as it is to travel somewhere as exotic and stimulating as India, there is nothing like a long and inconvenient journey to renew your fondness for the comforts of home.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

India 2011: Bandipur National Park


By an odd coincidence, the same company that owned and ran our hotel in Mysore had recently acquired the hotel that we booked in Bandipur National Park, so on Day 10 we left one Windflower Resort, drove 2 hours, then checked into another. Because it was located in the middle of a national park, Windflower 2 was not quite as "resort-y" as Windflower 1--sadly, there were no Ayurvedic massages on offer, or any wi-fi or television--but the facilities were just as nice. In fact, our cabin had been refitted so recently that you could still faintly smell the paint and wood glue, and it was just as beautiful--in a more rustic, "comfortable" way--than our lodgings at Windflower 1:


Also, though photographs do not do it justice (and, hence, are not shown here), the bathroom was lovely, with skylights and neat little Chinese rock garden-like areas on either side of the shower. The only thing that was subpar was the view off our back porch; the property was obviously still a work in progress, and our "back yard" was rather denuded and a bit rough. Even so, it was a cool, quiet place to sit in the shade, and of course birds don't judge aesthetics the same way that we do, so it was also a good place to watch the feathered wildlife.

Within a few minutes of our arrival, we had managed to make friends with one of the dogs that lived on the hotel property; they weren't quite strays, since they lived there permanently and were tolerated by the hotel staff (likely because they would offer a timely warning of the presence of any tigers), but they were also not domestic in the Western sense of the word. Most especially, they were not animals that ever got much from people--most of all love or attention. All my husband had to do was say "Hello there!" in a friendly sort of way after being surprised by one young dog who had been hiding under a chair by the pool, and he earned a friend for life. She was young enough that she hadn't yet grown in to her oversized paws, but old enough that she knew she wasn't allowed to follow us into our cabin or the outdoor eating area. But she was content to sit on our porch and wait for us to come back out and give her some love; in fact, she curled up and slept in one of our porch chairs all night.

The pool, in addition to serving as a nice spot to make canine friends, was also a good place to spend an afternoon soaking up rays, which we did pretty much every day during our stay in Bandipur. It was the first time either of us had ever gone swimming in an "infinity pool." I didn't really feel as though I could keep on swimming to the horizon, but it still was kind of neat to have a more unobstructed view of the woods around our park.


Another interesting feature of our hotel was that it was in the path of at least one herd of cattle, who walked through the property on their way to the feeding ground every morning, and then back again late in the afternoon. It was weird to be sitting on the porch of our luxury hotel room, and then suddenly see a cow meander past, occasionally stopping to grab a mouthful of greenery.


Of course, when your hotel is situated in the middle of a national park, there is bound to be some interesting wildlife in addition to all the domestic animals. Every night after the porch light came on, geckos came out to perch on our walls and hunt. They also bark, which I didn't know until my husband pointed out that the noises I'd interpreted as some sort of frog or nocturnal bird were actually male geckos having vocal duels. Who knew? There were other reptiles running around near our cabin, including some brightly-colored agamids that I tried, but failed, to photograph one morning. To my surprise, when we went to lunch a couple hours later, we ran into a very large male of the same species I'd seen earlier, lounging photogenically outside the restaurant:


The restaurant was also a favorite spot for the local house crows, who obviously knew that many tasty snacks were to be had at the end of the meals (or even sometimes in the middle of them, if the diners turned their heads for a moment). My husband and I had a good time watching the crows coordinate with each other--often one pioneering individual would show up and deliver a bizarre and highly variable vocal performance; this attracted friends, who would perch in various spots around (and sometimes inside) the restaurant, eagerly watching for an opportunity to sneak off with leftovers. More often than not, all they got was a half-full package of butter, which they seemed to like better than nothing at all.


While we were in Bandipur, we saw rain for the first time since our arrival in India. Rather than being a disappointment or an inconvenience, this was actually kind of nice; the dramatic downpours--sometimes with rumbles of thunder--were a refreshing alternative to the annoying misty rain that we always get in the UK. The days could also get quite hot in Bandipur, and the cool breezes that accompanied the precipitation felt very pleasant.

Over the course of two days, we took 3 driving safaris and 1 hike, yielding a total of 2 dhole (wild dogs), 3 elephants, a half dozen mongooses, a couple gaur (bison), a few hundred chital (spotted deer), a barking deer, a dozen wild boar, several sambars, and lots of birds. We didn't encounter any leopards or tigers, but even though that was a possibility, it wasn't really something that we expected. Our evening safaris were quite pleasant because all the vegetation in the park took on a lovely golden hue in the setting sun. This was also the only time that we saw elephants. The morning safaris were more exciting because that was when the animals were most active--we could both see and hear them much more easily. Unfortunately, morning is also when my bladder is most active, and during our first AM safari I finally had to hop out of our jeep to find a place to pee. As was the case with my experience in the Masai Marai in Kenya, peeing in the bush was a rather daunting task given the very real possibility that a large, hungry, predatorial cat might be lurking in the shadows. Luckily, the park was full of deep holes that had evidently been installed to catch rainwater during the monsoon season. I was able to jump down into one of these and relieve myself out in the open, yet still out of sight of my safari-mates. It was a lot better than crouching behind the bumper of the vehicle, I can tell you that. I'm just glad I could continue my trend of urinating in the field on every continent I've visited; I'd hate to have a trip where I couldn't indulge in that little pleasure.

During our first two safaris, we shared a jeep with other tourists; on the first night it was two American engineers who were staying at our hotel after attending a conference in Bangalore, and on the second night it was a family that had traveled to Bandipur from elsewhere in India. Everybody was quite pleasant and we shared stories about our travels and passed on whatever wildlife ID information we could offer. All the same, it was a pleasant surprise to get a jeep all to ourselves during our final safari. This offered me the opportunity to ask the driver to stop so I could do some birdwatching--something I feel too guilty to ask for when there are other people around who are likely to be much less interested in avian wildlife than I am. As was the case with the safari drivers in Kenya, our Indian guides were very focused on the macro wildlife (elephants and tigers, in particular), but were quite happy to linger for birds after we made it clear that those were just as interesting to us. Unfortunately, one side effect of this was that the drivers then paused in front of nearly every peacock we passed, and there was a seemingly infinite supply of those in the park:


As had been the case in Kenya, I developed an affection for the porcine wildlife, which are so ugly you can't help but love them:


Lest anyone think I am single-minded, I had better state that I was looking out for interesting plants, as well. Unfortunately, Bandipur is so dominated by invasive lantana (a plant that is causing habitat problems throughout much of India, in fact) that it was often the only species I could see. However, one notable species was the aptly-named "flame of the forest":

(If you look closely, you might just be able to spot a bonnet macaque sitting amidst the flowers.)

Our walking safari was something that we stumbled into, so to speak, after the American engineers told us that one had been arranged for their group. Evidently this was not something that was routinely done, but the hotel staff were nothing if not accommodating, and they volunteered to throw something together for us, as well. We wound up going with another family who were staying at the Windflower just a couple cabins away from us. After a few minutes of chatting while we walked, we discovered that we had an unanticipated social connection: The cousin of the wife/mother was someone who worked at the IISC and was scheduled to meet with my husband after our return to Bangalore. What were the chances? One of the two children in the family was a budding biologist, so my husband took special care to point out all the wildlife he knew and tell her about the more interesting aspects of their life histories.

It was, yet again, a lovely evening to be out and about. With the exception of a couple waterbirds, we didn't see too many new species, but it was pleasant to enjoy the countryside on foot rather than in a vehicle. We also had some illuminating cultural experiences. Our destination was a local watering hole, and on our way there we walked through a small village. The people were in the midst of tending their lifestock and cooking dinner, so we got a small taste of what "real" life is like for a vast portion of the Indian population.

(A shepherdess pumping water for her goats and cow. One of the female goats--possibly the one on the far left--had a couple of kids that kept jostling into position for a suckle. They were ridiculously cute, prompting us to stop for the photo op. I would love to know what was going through the villagers' minds as they watched us photograph livestock. A rough equivalent would be if Indian tourists to the UK took pictures of the deli or dairy section at the grocery store. After all, what we might think of as a "pet" is what they use to get milk and meat.)

Between the village and the watering hole was a small ranger station, where we were told that we couldn't go any further. Our local guide informed us that the ranger was worried that we might be in danger of experiencing wildfires. However, he also indicated (although everyone but me seemed to know already) that this was just an excuse to put us in the position to offer a bribe. Sure enough, after a few bills had exchanged hands, the ranger reconsidered and waved us onwards. I can't imagine living in a country where bribery is routine (though it is much less routine in India now than it was in the past); think of the things you'd never be able to do if you didn't have enough money, and all the things that would suddenly become possible if you did.

On the way home from the walk, I found myself walking with our guide, who spoke very little English. However, he painstakingly managed to put together enough words to ask me about what it was like to travel to India from the UK. He also inquired whether "the Sir" and I ("the Madam") had any children. When I told him "no," he asked if it was because I "had the job." At first, I thought he said I had "done a good job" (which I interpreted as an odd joke), but then I realized that he was asking whether I had no children because I had chosen to work instead. I found that question to be very revealing of life in modern India, where women are increasingly foregoing families (or, at least, starting them much later) in order to establish a career. In other words, it's becoming very Western in that respect.

During this conversation, our party picked up an additional member--another young, friendly, and ridiculously needy dog. Although she started out tagging along with the kids in our group, she must have used her canine canniness to discern which among us was weakest; she soon was cuddling up to my husband and I. She was in for a rude awakening once we reached Windflower, where the resident dogs quickly established their dominance. Rather than see her come to any harm, my husband and I escorted her safely to the edge of the premises so she could escape without any damage.

However, when I ventured out early the next morning in order to do some birding, who should I spy running towards me but that very same dog, who'd obviously passed whatever test was necessary to earn her place at Windflower. Like her predecessor (whom I'd dubbed "Friend #1"), Friend #2 was eager to sit with us on the porch and receive some attention and affection:


If you love animals, which I do, it is very difficult to go to developing countries and see so many feral cats and dogs. It is especially painful when you observe how desperate they are to bond with someone and loyally follow at his/her feet, without asking any questions. More than once, I fantasized about arranging veterinary care and relocation to the UK.

After a while, Friend #2 reattached herself to our walking companions from the previous night, which was convenient because my husband and I needed to go to breakfast and were worried that she would try to follow us in. After breakfast, we walked down to the pool to have a peek at a strange toad I had seen there earlier in the morning; there, we stumbled across Friend #1. Unfortunately, we could only spare a few minutes of attention, because we were due to start the long taxi ride back to Bangalore.

On the way out of the park, we stopped near the ranger station so I could photograph one of the huge abandoned termite mounds out front. I hopped out of the car in order to get a closer shot, then received a surprise when I turned to go back:

(Bonnet macaque lounging in the luggage rack of our taxi.)

At first she was sitting on the hood of the car, but after "decorating" it, she relocated to the roof, from which she could bend over and stick her face through the open window. She seemed very unperturbed by my presence, and didn't even look at me as I cautiously edged closer. Because she was perched over the back seat door, I had to stand right next to her, and then bend underneath her, in order to get into the car. I was a little worried that eventually she would get alarmed by my proximity and then become violent, but these worries were unfounded. In fact, she didn't even seem to care when the driver started the engine and began pulling back onto the road; only at the last minute did she lazily hop off the car and wander over to the side of the road. This encounter capped a very animal-filled morning, which provided a fitting finale to our equally animal-filled stay in Bandipur.

---
Coming up: long journeys by taxi, on foot, and by air


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

India 2011: Bangalore to Mysore


The dearth of electricity and Internet was not miraculously fixed overnight prior to our departure for Mysore, which was one reason that we were excited about leaving town--we knew that free wi-fi awaited us at our destination. More importantly, we were also looking forward to upgrading our lodgings from "dorm room" to "deluxe," the only class of accommodation that the hotel could book us into when we called for reservations. But first, we needed to hop our train out of town.

If you are like me, then your first reaction to reading "train in India" will be to picture this:

I'm sure this kind of situation must happen fairly often, otherwise I wouldn't have found so many pictures like this on Google. However, this was not at all the experience that we had during our two-hour ride south to Mysore. In fact, our journey was similar in many ways to ones that I have taken in the UK; in fact, in many ways it was better. First of all, when we arrived at the train station we were able to hire porters who, for a ridiculously cheap price (less than $5), carried our huge duffel bags through the crowded station, located our train, and got us installed in our seats. I was glad to have the help because a) my bag was really heavy and b) if we'd had to find the train ourselves it might have left without us, since although we were assigned a platform letter and car number, nothing actually seemed to be organized in a logical alphabetical or numerical order.

Another upgrade from the UK train experience was the amount of leg room we had. Not only were our knees not touching the seats in front of us, but we also had foot rests and cup holders that could be used even when our tray tables weren't folded down. Our car was much more full than British trains usually are (with the exception of maybe one or two rides that I've taken near London during peak travel), and it did look a bit more worn. However, we soon discovered that we were to be given a complimentary bottle of water and two-course meal; had we desired, we also could have taken advantage of the complimentary newspapers. All of this for tickets that cost approximately $6 apiece.

Train tracks inevitably run through the poorer parts of a city, since nobody would choose to live near all that dust and noise unless they had to. Thus, we got a better look at the "real" Bangalore, including a few slums. However, one thing I noticed was that even the most run-down neighborhoods contained buildings with bright, cheerful paint and ornate facades; the inhabitants might not always have enough money or food, but at least they don't have to look at soulless gray concrete walls the way they would have to if they lived in similar neighborhoods in the West. These areas also contained shrines, which sat rather pristinely amidst the everyday squalor around them; the locals clearly placed religious obligations high on their list of priorities despite the fact that it must have required real financial sacrifice to keep those places in such good shape all the time.

Outside the city, we encountered some fairly dramatic habitat--giant rocky hills and cliffs, some of which I would have been tempted to call "buttes" had I been in the Western US. We passed a magnificent building under construction--something that looked like a modern palace or perhaps some sort of important government building. It caused me to remark to my husband that Indians really do know how to do impressive architecture, a statement that would receive further support once we arrived in Mysore and got a look at the palace there.

For a while we passed through countryside that looked fairly similar to what we had seen between Bangalore and the Rishi Valley, but soon enough it started to become greener and wetter. I am not sure what crops were being grown close to the city, but they were all things that could go for a while without water. Further south, however, we encountered rice paddies for the first time, full of egrets and ibises that waded through the several-inches-deep water in search of tasty arthropods. There were many farmers in the midst of plowing their fields the with a cow or two hooked up to a harness. It was extremely muddy work and it didn't look too fun for either the farmers or their livestock. Nor did the farmers' wives appear to be having a good time as they scrubbed laundry by the creek- and riverbanks. However, I would have loved to have been able to stop and take a picture of the clothing they had spread out to dry--no two pieces were the same color, and they formed a dramatic and vibrant patchwork against the bright green background of the grass. We even passed a few people in the midst of bathing, though luckily we didn't catch anyone in the buff.

We arrived in Mysore earlier than we anticipated, which was a nice surprise. We were met by a taxi driver that our hostess had arranged for us, so all we had to do was stand back and let the driver and his assistant pack our bags and usher us into the back seat. In this car, the standard Ganesha decoration had been placed in a surprising way:

(That's Buddha on the left and Jesus in the center, under the rosary. We also eventually encountered a car that featured Ganesha, Jesus, and Buddha; the driver was obviously wanted to cover all the bases. There was also a reference to Jesus on the taxi company's business cards.)


As we drove through town, the driver and his aide--well, mostly his aide, who I assume was there to act as translator--pointed out the sights. The most important two were the palace:

(Photo courtesy of http://www.bloggersbase.com/travel/amba-vilasa-palace-mysore-palace/)

...and Chamundi Temple:

(Photo courtesy of http://www.southdreamz.com/2010/03/some-magnificient-temples-of-india.html)

...with its accompanying statue of Nandi, Shiva's bull:

(Photo courtesy of http://travel.sulekha.com/chamundi-hills-pictures.htm)

It's a good thing we saw these from the car on the way into town, because despite all our plans to see them up close and in person, we didn't. To some extent, I regret this, because my mental image of a trip to India always included a visit to a palace and/or temple. However, that was a mental image I made before I got sick from the most lingering cold ever, and also one that didn't factor in my husband's need to take a "reverse day off" (when you take a break from vacation in order to work, as opposed to taking a break from work in order to vacation). Perhaps most importantly, I didn't envision that these cultural sites would be competing for my attention with the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in:


The truth is, once you check in to a room like this, you just never want to leave it...except maybe to experiment with artsy photography:

(Impatiens at night; I was experimenting with exposure times and aperture settings, can you tell?)

...lounge on your porch:

...have a shower in your private outdoor garden:


...or enjoy some Ayurvedic spa treatments:

(The statue of Buddha that welcomed guests to the spa. Can you guess what type of flower was floating in the pool at his feet?)

When I say "some" spa treatments, what I really mean is "three." I originally only scheduled two, but then they were so nice I had to indulge in a third. All three began with the singing of a prayer/chant and involved the most wonderful-smelling massage oil, which had been prepared right there at the hotel. The first treatment was supposed to lessen lower back pain; it began with a massage, after which a (wet) clay ring was fixed to my back so that hot oil could be pooled inside it. The second treatment was a head/shoulder massage, which I left looking like someone who'd been electrocuted, since my hair was sticking out at all angles thanks to the massage oil that had been liberally rubbed into my scalp. The final treatment was a foot massage, which, to my surprise, also involved my legs. During all of the treatments I was dressed only in my undies and an oversized bath towel; on the whole, it was not the sort of experience that would be good for people who have much modesty, because the masseuses (all female) end up seeing pretty much every inch of you in the course of flipping you over and bending you into various positions. Being a prudish American, I was, at first, a bit shocked and uncomfortable, but after breathing the relaxing scent of the oil for a while I decided I just didn't care.

The restaurant at the hotel could only have been named by someone who had been to the US, or had at least done research on American establishments. Not only was it named "La Olive Garden," but it used pretty much exactly the same logo as "The Olive Garden." The food was excellent, but the portions were huge and the waiters insisted on dishing out your meal for you, so I ended up feeling rather stuffed pretty much the entire time we were there. During breakfasts, we encountered some of the local wildlife:

(If you look closely, you can see a bonnet macaque sitting on the corner of the roof, letting its tail dangle down into the dining area below).

The menu had some interesting things on offer, including "tit bits," "ice cream with leeches," and this:

("Tit" bits and "leeches" were obviously typos; but this...?)

I have no idea what that means, but I do know that the waitstaff were anything but "idle," both in the restaurant and when delivering room service, which they did quite frequently to our room. Usually when I order room service, it is in the context of some sort of horrific disaster and results in my paying an exorbitant amount of money for a tiny amount of food--for instance, when I went to New Orleans during the middle of a hurricane and had to order room service after all the restaurants in town closed because the streets flooded, or when I was at the Balmoral in Edinburgh and had to order room service because I was so sick I could barely get out of bed. It was nice to finally have it the way it's supposed to be done--in a spirit of fun and frivolity and in a context that actually allowed me to enjoy it (time after time).

When I wasn't eating or receiving a massage, which admittedly wasn't often, I spent quite a lot of time lounging in our massive bed, reading and doing research for a freelance writing project. We also watched some of the World Cup cricket matches, and even got to view quality English films like "National Treasure."

All in all, our experience in Mysore sounds like the kind of thing that obnoxious and culturally-insensitive Westerners (let's face it--mainly Americans) do when they go somewhere interesting in another country--hole up in a nice hotel, ignore the local culture, and indulge. I do hate that we appear to fall into that stereotype. But sometimes you're sick and/or you're tired and/or you have to take some time off vacation in order to get something done from work, and when that's the case you might as well find a beautiful and comfortable place in which to do it. When we stepped into the taxi to leave the Windflower Spa & Resort after 2 days, I finally felt rested, and relaxed, and semi-weaned off the tissues, and that was way better than touring a palace would have been.

---
Coming up: encounters with Indian wildlife


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

India 2011: Bangalore


You know how sometimes, when you're feeling dreadful at the end of a long day, all you need is a good night's rest in order to wake up feeling refreshed and positive? I was hoping that would happen to me in Bangalore, but it didn't. Unlike my husband, whose cold only lasted 3 days, I was still wallowing in misery on Day 4, the one full day that we had to explore the city. This caused me to be a bit, shall we say, grumpy--precisely the wrong mood in which to set off, on foot, across an unfamiliar campus and into an unfamiliar city.

When we'd been driven to campus the previous night by our hostess, we'd seen a bunch of shops and restaurants on the nearby main street, and had noticed how close it was to our hotel. Although we hadn't taken note of the exact route between the guest house and the main street, we figured we could wing it, especially if we asked one of the gate guards which way we should start walking. He quickly and emphatically pointed us right, so we set off in that direction thinking it would only be a brief walk before we could sit down for lunch. Boy were we wrong.

Before long, we came upon a construction site that closed off the sidewalk on our side of the road, so we had to dash across 2 busy lanes of developing-country traffic (read: "chaos") in order to use the sidewalk on the other side. As we walked, autorickshaw after autorickshaw slowed down and pulled up next to us to ask if we wanted a ride, but we kept waving them off because we thought we didn't have far to go.

(View of an autorickshaw from inside another autorickshaw. These are more commonly known as "autos." They give you the feeling of being in a very breezy car, but in fact they are not very sturdy and, safety-wise, are more like sitting on a motorcycle that happens to have a roof. Because they are much cheaper than taxis, people ride these all over the city, over fairly long distances and even in incredibly dense traffic. They're extremely handy, but if you are at all safety-conscious, you will feel quite exposed.)

After a while, I began to have some second thoughts about this "adventure." Even though I could barely breathe, I could tell that the thick air around us was really unpleasant--it was filled with the fumes of environmentally unfriendly automobiles running on unregulated fuel sources. It was also getting increasingly hot and, although I'd put sun cream on my arms before leaving the hotel room, I could feel my scalp turning pink. Also, the dust was outrageous--my feet were filthy, my legs were filthy, and I could feel the grit settling on every square inch of my sweaty skin. I was also incredibly irritated to reach a stoplight and discover that we would need to cross back over to our original side of the road, again dodging two busy lanes of traffic. All in all, I was beginning to think that walking hadn't been such a good idea.

To cut a long story short, we ended up trotting around Bangalore for somewhere between 1 and 2 hours before we finally made it to the main street that I recognized from the previous night. We walked down small alleyways, back over to semi-main roads, past homes (and even a few slummy areas) and shops, through a college campus, and even across the grounds of a very large hospital complex before we finally got there. Along the way, we passed feral dogs, cows grazing on small plots of grass in the middle of the city, and a whole lot of people who seemed very surprised to see us there. Throughout this journey, I was getting increasingly irritated at my husband, who I really felt was to be blamed for all of the unpleasantness. After all, he was the one who gave me the cold. He was also the one who thought we should walk to lunch and take the auto back (I thought we should take the auto to lunch, see the path it took, and then walk that back home). More importantly, he seemed to be quite chipper about the whole situation, whereas I was just getting more and more frustrated--and you know there is absolutely nothing worse than someone who is feeling upbeat at a time when you are most definitely not. Of course I know that none of these things was a deliberate assault on my happiness, but I needed a target for my frustration anyway, and if you don't have a fight at least once while traveling with your spouse, it's just not a real family vacation.

I thought that my mood would improve once we reached the main street, but in fact we just realized how out of our depth we were. All we wanted to a nice safe place to eat a meal--somewhere that would have clean facilities, use clean preparation methods, cook everything thoroughly, and not give us food poisoning. But it's not easy to judge that from the sidewalk; some places that look clean might not be, and others that look like dives might actually be your best option. In the end, we used the same rule of thumb that we'd employed in the airport--go American. Thus it was that we ate lunch at Pizza Hut. My husband decided to Indianize his pizza a bit by ordering a local flavor (chicken masala, I think), and although I went with a plain cheese pizza, I at least ordered a local fruity beverage.

After the meal, at which point I was feeling considerably friendlier thanks to no longer having a pizza-shaped hole in my stomach, we caught an auto back home. Imagine our surprise when the ride took less than 5 minutes, and we approached the main gate from the left--the opposite side from which we'd departed. I could have throttled the guard who gave us the faulty directions. (I've since pondered whether he misinterpreted our question, deliberately pointed us in the opposite direction just for a laugh, or directed us that way for some other unknown reason.)

Back in the hotel room, we turned on the TV so we could see what was happening with the World Cup of Cricket--as we'd already seen, it was a good idea to stay abreast of the cricket, since that gave us a nice point of conversation with the locals (for anyone that doesn't know, India went on to win the championship, so the Indians were quite justified in being almost obsessive in their pride and support). Along with the sports, we also got a healthy dose of Indian commercials, which are absolutely ridiculous. If you've seen a Bollywood film or video, then you might be able to picture the level of campiness achieved in television ads, though they manage to be even more over-the-top than regular Bollywood fare. The other interesting thing about Indian commercials is the products they are designed to sell. You wouldn't believe the number of ads for cars, car parts, motor oil, and cement--cement, for Heaven's sake. If you didn't already know that the Indian economy is booming right now, you could figure it by watching a few minutes of television.

Later in the afternoon, our hostess arrived to escort us on a little shopping trip. We were surprised (the emotion of the day) to find ourselves, after a brief drive through campus, at a side gate almost directly across from the Pizza Hut where we'd eaten lunch. *sigh* From there, we went to Fabindia, a popular Indian chain featuring handcrafted items from workers all over the country; it is kind of like a co-op version of Pier 1, but it also sells clothes. My primary concern was stocking up on good gifts to give everyone when I got back home, but of course I also wanted to buy a few items for myself. For once, I turned out not to be the only one shopping--even my husband picked out a few shirts to add to his wardrobe. We'd hoped to also go to a local outdoor flower/food market, which I thought would be a particularly good place to get some colorful photos full of local flavor (sorry for the bad pun). However, rather than keep our hostess away from her dinner-making duties any longer, we decided to go the next day, instead.

My husband and I headed back to the hotel for dinner, some more cricket, and--of all things--the Johnny Depp version of Alice in Wonderland (I was amazed at how many of the movies on TV were Western, rather than Indian). Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a less entertaining performance--one or more feral cats howling in the dark. Like the nightjar calls, that was another sound I hadn't heard for over a decade, but it was not one that I had missed much.

----

The next day, my husband was scheduled to take care of his academic obligations. Unfortunately, we woke up to a power outage that lasted, intermittently, most of the day. This also meant that we had no access to the Internet, which was a shame because I'd hoped to spend at least part of the day getting some work done. With little to do indoors, I decided to go outside, instead, and explore the campus. As I mentioned earlier, it was a fairly natural area, with big patches of field and trees that were perfect for birding. I found several new species--including a wagtail that, inexplicably, bobs its tail back and forth instead of up and down, as all other wagtails do. I also observed some humans...

(Women sweeping outside our hotel.)

...and studied the architectural features that are used to make the Indian heat more bearable in places where there is no electric air conditioning...

(In addition to letting in more air, all these windows and grilles make attractive patterns of light and dark.)

At midday it was getting a bit too hot to be out wandering around outdoors, so after lunch I rested in my room for a while before resuming my exploration of the campus. This time, I headed in a direction opposite to the one I'd walked in the morning, mostly because when I was leaving I heard a bunch of kites clamoring up in the trees. I just really couldn't get over how many kites were hanging around, and how they could be found pretty much everywhere you could imagine. I also got lucky and ran into this little guy:

(A blue-capped rock thrush. I briefly saw him do a bit of fly-catching amongst the trees, before he vanished into the shadows. I wasn't 100% sure on my ID because the shade can play tricks on your eyes, but luckily I saw him again the following week on our last evening in town. Thanks to http://www.team-bhp.com for the photograph.)

I also started playing around with all the fancy settings on my new camera, in order to take shots like this:

(Enterprising ants.)

Not all of my photographs were up to my standards, so after a while I went back to my room in order to re-read the instruction manual. I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but one of the reasons I bought the new camera prior to going to India was that I wanted to re-learn photographic techniques that I had not used since I was in photography class in high school. India is a pretty inspiring place to take photographs, given how exotic things look to my eye, and the colorful nature of even the most everyday things and places. It was actually quite fun to adjust to the new camera and produce noticeably better-quality images than those I had generated during my other recent travels.

Late in the afternoon, our hostess met me in the hotel lobby in order to escort me to my husband, who was still busy chatting about science with students and faculty. As evening fell, we enjoyed drinks on the patio at the campus cafe and were told about some of the local fauna we might encounter during our upcoming trip to Bandipur National Park; one of the professors at the IISC studies a population of bonnet macaques in the park and told us some interesting facts about their life history. By the time we all finally dispersed, it was too late for us to go to the flower market, as planned, so instead we just headed back to the guest house. As a consolation prize, while we were walking we enjoyed the sight of fruit bats passing overhead through the darkening sky. When I first saw them, I thought they were some kind of oddly-shaped duck that I wasn't familiar with, but it was up to my tropically-raised husband to make the correct identification. You know you are looking at a big bat when it is comparable in size to a duck. The amazing thing was how many of them we saw--they just kept coming throughout our entire 15-minute walk; we must have seen hundreds, or even thousands. Where they all go to eat, I have no idea, but it must be a place with a lot of fruit.

When we returned to our hotel room, the power was back on, but within a few minutes it had gone out again. We sat in the dark for a couple hours before finally making our way down to the dining room to see if they were serving dinner. The server who met us at the dining room door informed us that "It is dark," which struck me funny because he seemed to be surprised that we hadn't noticed that on our own. We eventually worked out that, although at least some food was ready (tantalizingly, we could smell it just through the doorway!), they didn't want us to eat in the dark, and so they weren't yet serving. We went back up to our room to wait a bit longer, and just when we were ready to give up and go to bed early, the lights struggled to life one more time. Thus it was that we found ourselves eating dinner at 10:30 PM. Shortly after we returned to our room, the lights went out yet again (what timing!), so we decided to follow our very late meal with a very early bedtime--after all, we'd need our energy the next day for our big railway adventure and relocation to Mysore.

----
Coming up: Our first luxury resort, Ayurvedic treatments, nighttime photography, and amusing menu typos.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

India 2011: The Rishi Valley


On our first evening in India, we consulted with our hosts and decided upon the following travel itinerary: Drive to the Rishi Valley on Wednesday, 16 March. Explore the field site and get acquainted with the facilities on Thursday and Friday, then head back to Bangalore on Saturday. From our new base at the Indian Institute of Science, explore Bangalore on Sunday and Monday; during this time, my husband would go do additional academic duties at the Indian Institute of Science. Leave Bangalore on Tuesday, 22 March, and take a train down to Mysore. Visit the local temple and palace, swim in the hotel pool, and receive spa treatments on Wednesday and Thursday morning. Hire a taxi on Thursday, 24 March, and drive to Bandipur National Forest. Go on safari on Friday and Saturday. Hire another taxi on Sunday, 27 March, for the long return drive to (and through) Bangalore. Have dinner at our hosts' house and say farewell. Fly home on the morning of Monday, 28 March.

If that all sounds a bit complicated, perhaps a map will be useful:

(A visualization of our trip, thanks to Google Maps. Bangalore--originally named Bengaluru--is point A. From there we drove northeast for about 3 hours in order to reach the Rishi Valley, point B. Then it was back to Bangalore (point C, which you can't see here). From there we headed southwest for about 2 hours until we reached Mysore, at point D. Another 1.5 hours' driving southward got us to Bandipur at point E.)

A journey that long and complex requires a bit of energy, which was exactly the thing we were most lacking when we woke up on our first full day in town. At the time of our arrival, India was 5.5 hours ahead of the UK; by the time we left, the UK had shifted into daylight savings time, and that difference had increased to 6.5 hours. Our bodies were very perplexed by all this time travel. I originally found myself wide awake at 6:30 AM local time, but forced myself to go back to sleep; the next thing I knew, it was 10:30 AM and our hostess was knocking on our door in order to politely inquire just when, exactly, we planned on getting out of bed.

She provided us a delicious homecooked breakfast/lunch to give us some fuel to withstand the long journey to the Rishi Valley. This was to be undertaken in her biology department's brand new field vehicle:


This looks rather spacious until you factor in the passenger list (5 adults and 1 child) and the cargo (luggage and field equipment for all of the above). We were all packed in quite cozily, but because the vehicle was so new, it had A/C, so at least we were not both squished and sweaty. On the dashboard, I noticed a little statue that, I was to discover, was a pretty constant presence in all Indian vehicles. It was an image of Ganesha:

(Ganesha is the elephant-headed Hindu lord of obstacles, who can help ensure that you have a clear path while you are traveling. I chose this particular image because, of course, I had to buy my husband and I a Ganesha for our new car, and it was this leafy style that I chose. Thanks to www.indiaflowerplaza.com for the image.)

The drive to the Rishi Valley, while somewhat long, was also fairly pretty and definitely very interesting. As we drove, our hosts told us about life in India, covering the topics of politics, standard of living, religion, language, food, transportation, clothing, and pretty much about everything else you can imagine. We also got to take in the scenery, including the aforementioned hordes of black kites, local grape crops for the up-and-coming Indian wine market, fields of bright golden marigolds in bloom, and the activity of life on the all small farms, and in all the small towns, that we passed. The many shrines and temples that we saw--some that were set off the highway but advertised with large, colorful, ornate arches placed next to the road; others that were small buildings right next to the highway and clearly designed explicitly with the traveler in mind--made it clear that we were not, so to speak, in Kansas anymore. For me, the most memorable sighting was of a farmer riding in a cart pulled by a cow whose horns had been painted bright blue and topped with golden tassels; we saw these and many other ornate cow accessories throughout our trip, during which we also ate not a single bite of beef. It is good to be a cow in India.

Our destination in the Rishi Valley was the Rishi Valley School, a facility that we Westerners would call a boarding school. It had students ranging in age from approximately 10-17 years old. The school was founded by a philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was relatively well known during the middle portion of the 20th century. Our room contained quite a collection of Krishnamurti teachings in book form (as far as I know, he was predominantly known as an orator), as well as a pamphlet outlining the philosopher's beliefs.

(Some of the many teachings of Krishnamurti available in our room for use as light bedtime reading.)

Basically, Krishnamurti believed that there is no god (or gods) and that it is up to every man or woman, individually, to find his or her "truth." Furthermore, this "truth" cannot be obtained by following the instructions or directions of any organized institution, including not only churches but also groups such as his own philosophical society. Thus, he disbanded his organization and told people to stop following him, yet also continued delivering speeches and giving advice. Unless I am mistaken, this is a bit contradictory.

In any case, the current headmistress (if that is the correct title) of the school was a very friendly and gracious woman who thoughtfully had our dinners delivered to us so that we could relax and eat on our porch after the long drive, rather than having to deal with throngs of students in the mess hall. After the meal, we headed over to her house for some homemade ice cream and freshly-baked waffles, which was quite a nice way to end the day--which would, in fact, turn out to be my last fully healthy day for the remainder of the trip.

----

After a very long and sleepless night, during which I was tormented by jet lag, hot temperatures, a hard bed, and a power outage that cut off electricity to our much-needed fan, I was awakened from a brief dawn "nap" by quite an intense dawn chorus of birds. I was further shoved into consciousness by the sound of the concierge (this is the closest term I can think of, given the role this man played during our stay), banging on our door at 6:15 AM and shouting "Tea, please, sir!" At first we thought he was asking us for tea, but in fact this was his way of letting us know that he had brought us a thermos of tea with which to start the day. It was, in fact, very good tea--what we in the US would call "chai," with spices and milk already mixed in.

It is worth briefly mentioning breakfast in the mess hall, since it is an experience so different to what we are used to in the West. By and large, Indians do not eat sweet things for breakfast. They do sometimes have toast, which can be accompanied by jam and/or peanut butter, and fruit also sometimes makes an appearance. But for the most part, the components of breakfast are also those that are used for lunch and dinner; like those other meals, it is predominantly savory and often spicy. My favorite breakfast food was something our hostess called "chow-chow" (that is my phonetic interpretation of the phrase), but which was given other names at our various breakfast locations. "Chow-chow" is a two-part concoction; one bowl is savory (with, generally, a couscous-like texture) and the other bowl is sweet (with a more polenta-like texture). In fact, both are made with semolina. The savory one contains spices, chopped nuts, and bits of vegetable; I have no idea what makes the other one sweet, though I'm sure it involves sugarcane and, in the case of the bright orange variety, some sort of fruit such as pumpkin or apricot. It was all delicious, though if you are used to a Western breakfast, it can be a bit intense.

The rest of the morning was spent tagging along as my husband, our hostess, and our hostess' doctoral student traipsed up into the rocky hills and examined the student's field site. His project focused on a species of agamid lizard that dwells on and around sheet rock. While everyone else hunted for reptiles, I was busy searching for birds. Unfortunately, it was a bit hot and bird activity was pretty low. However, we went out again at dusk with a local guide and easily saw a couple dozen species.

For someone who prefers lush deciduous forests, and has recently come from the verdant Cornish countryside, India during the dry season can seem a bit...lacking. My husband and I would definitely like to re-visit in the midst of the wet season, when all the flowers are in bloom and the animals are in the midst of their breeding efforts. Still, even when hot, dusty, and parched, the countryside has moments of extreme beauty. Particularly at dawn and dusk, you can easily see how someone could happily make his or her home there:


Towards the end of our evening bird walk, we dropped by the house of the local doctors (a husband-and-wife team). Their circular home, fairly recently built and surrounded by the most magnificent garden, was amazing. They had a little rock/sand/bamboo garden in the very center of the house, which was topped by an open-air skylight to facilitate breezes in the house. Next to this, they had installed a wooden swing--inside the house--as part of the sitting room/visiting area. The garden outside contained a colorful mixture of flowers and vegetables and fruits (including a mango tree whose fruits were just a week or so away from being ripe).

A feral cat had recently discovered that the roof of the house (accessible via an outdoor staircase) was the perfect place to hide her very young kittens, so we went up and had a peek. Just to drive home the fact that they were feral, and not friendly domestics, even the puniest of the kittens hissed, spat, and swatted at us--behaviors that looked very comical when performed by such tiny and unthreatening little animals. We also took a walk down to the cow shed, where I was given quite an intense tongue-bath by one of the cows. I can only assume it was enjoying the salt from the sweat on my skin. All I know is, cats' tongues feel like silk in comparison to cows' tongues, and I don't recommend taking a bovine spit bath any time soon. To complete the animal extravaganza, we also discovered a sunbird nest hanging on the front porch and, in the falling dark, could see the female tucked safely inside, keeping her eggs warm for the night.

Throughout the evening, my throat had become increasingly more sore and raw, and I could tell that I was coming down with the same cold that my husband had suffered from on the plane ride over. In high school, I became legendary for creating little piles of used tissue on my desk during class, and for going through multiple whole boxes of Kleenex in a day. Thus, I was feeling a bit worried about this developing sickness, because I had almost no tissues; I was also completely without pharmaceutical assistance. My only consolation was the knowledge that my husband's cold had only lasted a couple days, so I was likely to suffer greatly but improve rapidly. Or so I thought.

----

The developing cold kept me awake for pretty much the entire night; never in my life--and I mean this literally--have I ever had such a sore throat. Swallowing brought tears to my eyes. As bleary-eyed as I was the next morning, at least I didn't yet have a stuffy nose. With nothing better to do, I got up before sunrise and went out birding. As much pain as I was in, it was still a great morning out--I saw tons of species without wandering very far from my door. One of the fun things about birding in India is that there is a surprising number of fairly large birds, which makes it quite easy to spot individuals up in the branches. There are also many brightly-colored species, so I was seeing flashes of blue and yellow and red everywhere I looked.

My husband went up into the hills for another day of lizard-catching, but I decided to stay closer to home so that I could retreat and wallow in misery when the cold finally hit in full force. I did a bit more wandering around the school grounds, checking out their mango grove and the many interesting bird species it contained. By mid-morning I had to go back to the room to lie down, and by lunch I was absolutely miserable. I couldn't breathe, I was blowing my nose incessantly, and for some reason I had lost my voice. Never in my life have I weathered a cold without drugs, and this didn't seem like a good time to start, so I decided to visit the school's doctor.

The doctor turned out to be a tiny, round, middle-aged Indian woman who had the voice of a 7-year-old. When she spoke, it was simultaneously high-pitched and husky (as though she, also, had a bit of a throat problem), and she had an incredibly strong accent. Needless to say, we were able to communicate only with great difficulty and quite a lot of repetition and hand gestures. In the West--and in the US in particular--we are used to more or less going to the doctor, telling him/her what we want, and getting it. Elsewhere, doctors still perform examinations and make their own decisions; India is one of these places. I was asked a series of questions, poked, prodded, and informed that I had a slight deviation of my septum, before finally being given a 6-part prescription: 1) Rest. 2) Eat bland foods. 3) Perform a warm saltwater gargle multiple times a day. 4) Take some herbal supplements to help prevent a sinus infection. 5) Periodically inhale a Vicks Vaporub-like oil to clean out my sinuses. 6) Use Strepsils (throat lozenges) when necessary. In other words, after all that trouble, I didn't even get any drugs, but instead received a treatment that could practically have come out of a 19th-century medical manual.

Before I continue, let me just say that the doctor herself was extremely nice, especially given that I essentially marched in and told her that I expected medication, now. Also, I would like to acknowledge that medical treatment in India is of a very high caliber--so much so that many Westerners fly there specifically to undergo procedures that they either can't get, or can't afford, back home. I am in no way disparaging either the tiny Rishi Valley doctor or the state of Indian medical care when I flippantly describe my own experiences. People in different places do things differently. In general, a cold is not going to kill someone, and drugs aren't actually necessary for survival, so the doctor was as worried as she needed to be--which is to say, not very. All the same, it's moments like that when I most miss the pharmaceutical heaven that is America.

For the rest of the afternoon I moped about our guest quarters, alternating trying but failing to sleep with sitting on the porch watching birds fly past. In no mood to drag myself to the dining hall, I skipped dinner, but was soon surprised by a knock on my door from our concierge, who brought me some food so I wouldn't go hungry:

(The traditional food-porting setup in India. Each layer can contain a different type of food--rice, gravy, chapatis, buttermilk, etc.--and then all are hooked together and held in place by the handle. You'll notice that, like the food container, the dishes and cutlery are made of stainless steel. I suspect this is a popular material because it is so long-lasting.)

That night, I was again unable to sleep. As I lay in the dark, I periodically heard a strange "snip snip" sound outside, followed by a quiet, leathery thunk. I eventually realized that large insect-eating bats were snatching up bugs that had been attracted to our porch light (the "snip snip" was their jaws banging shut around their prey; the thunk was their wings as they abruptly changed direction in order to avoid crashing into the light and the wall behind it). Given the intensity of the sound, I guessed that these were the larger of the two sizes of insect-eating bats that we saw in the Rishi Valley, though these were still quite a bit smaller than the fruit bats we saw there hanging out (literally) in the tree canopy:


----

The following day brought our return to Bangalore. I was very much looking forward to reaching the city, where I could visit a pharmacy and buy myself some over-the-counter medication. (You may be wondering why I didn't do this before, while I was at the Rishi Valley School. The answer is that the school is in the middle of nowhere; there were no pharmacies to visit.) The ride in this direction was slightly more comfortable, as we were leaving the doctoral student behind. The extra space meant that I had a nice spot in which to pile up my used tissues (or, rather, toilet paper, since this was all I had available to me at the school once my pocket packs of tissues ran out).

During the ride, we had a very exciting bird sighting: an Egyptian vulture circling overhead. Vultures are quite rare in India these days; over the last several decades, their populations have been severely impacted by nasty agricultural chemicals that accumulated up the food chain. This problem has made headlines around the world, particularly in the context of having altered traditional Parsi "sky burial" practices in northern India; because there are so few vultures left, the dead bodies become a hazard to human health because they are not "removed" quickly enough.

Another thing I noticed during the drive was the presence of gargoyle-like faces or heads atop many buildings, houses and businesses alike. Our hosts informed me that these are "friendly" demons who scare away more malicious demons. I was really hoping to get a picture of these later on, but I saw them much less in the city than in the countryside; the only place I saw them in Bangalore was along the street, where they were being marketed by local sellers. Our hosts also described another country-city dichotomy. In urban India, house sparrow populations are reportedly declining. In the country, however, their numbers are stable (if not increasing) because the locals provide them with nest boxes attached to their homes and businesses. This practice stems from the Hindu belief that one needs to accrue "credit" for doing good deeds in this lifetime in order to be reborn in a better station in the next lifetime. Hinduism isn't any less common in the cities than it is in the country, but it seems that urban Hindus simply have found another way to practice kindness and earn their merit points.

After a couple hours of driving, we stopped at a small roadside shop to buy some cold drinks. I hadn't realized that we'd be going out in public, so I had worn one of my more "risque" outfits--a knee-length skirt. Even in a relatively westernized city like Bangalore, few women show much, if any, leg, so I probably seemed a bit slutty to the locals who passed us as we sat and drank our bottles of Thums Up (the local Coke-like drink that is, in fact, owned and distributed by the Coke company). Indeed, when one local family came and bought drinks at the same shop, I caught the woman not-so-discreetly looking me up and down. For my part, I was thinking how lovely she looked--despite the fact that it was just the middle of the afternoon on a regular work day, she was decked out in a gold-trimmed sari, toe rings, ankle bracelets, wrist bangles, necklaces, earrings, and a nose piercing that was linked to her ear by a gold chain. Nobody actually made any rude faces or gestures towards me, so perhaps they were more interested in the fact that I was "different," rather than "whorish." I certainly hope so. In any case, the woman's husband asked where we were from. When my husband answered "the UK," the conversation immediately (and affectionately, for both parties) turned to cricket, since the World Cup of Cricket was then underway in India. It was, as my husband pointed out, a prime example of how sports can unite people of all cultures and creeds.

To my very great disappointment, once we returned to Bangalore, we did not immediately go home. I was feeling incredibly exhausted and just didn't have the energy to concentrate on anything, but I had to gather myself together and make it through lunch at a local restaurant. Outside there was a fruit stand, and when our hosts stopped by to pick up some produce to take home, the proprietor handed them a free sample to give to my husband and I, saying that it was good to "honor" foreigners. Further down the street, we spotted a man whose shirt had been splashed with something bright purple; this reminded our hosts that the celebration of "Holi" had just begun--the festival of colors. Originally a harvest festival, Holi in urban areas has simply turned into an excuse to take some time off from work and get crazy. People buy bricks of color that can be crumbled into pebbles or a dry powder for throwing, or can be mixed in with water for splashing. They then take to the streets and turn each other into rainbows. For the sake of all the laundresses in town, I hope the dyes are easy to wash out of fabrics.

After we finally reached home, I was able to take a much-needed nap, which gave me the strength to wait until our hostess was free and could take me to a pharmacy. When we did eventually go out, it was already dark, but the city was just as lively--if not even more so--than it had been when we'd been out earlier in the afternoon. On the single street where we ran our errands, there were dozens of vendors sitting on the ground in front of blankets spread with flowers, and dozens more standing at carts full of produce. We stopped by one of the carts to get veggies for dinner, and I noted that the salesman was using an old-school set of scales--complete with little metal weights--to weigh our purchases.

Like a good portion of the other shops in the area, the pharmacy was not actually a walk-in store; the doorway had a counter across it and we just stood on the sidewalk while the vendor inside went around grabbing whatever products we needed. As we stood waiting to be served, I was treated to another common feature of Indian streets: the sound of "Fur Elise" being played by a car horn. Do you know how big industrial vehicles in the US go "beep, beep, beep" when they back up? Well, a lot of drivers in India install a similar feature in their cars--presumably because the streets are so crammed with vehicles that it helps to advertise your driving activity in every way possible. Rather than simply going "beep," though, these alarms play "Fur Elise"; as a result, our hostess remarked, this is the only example of classical Western music that many Indians are familiar with.

At the end of the evening, once I was finally drugged up and stuffed with another tasty home-cooked meal (the Indians really do delicious things with cauliflower--I have never experienced another cuisine that is so kind to this vegetable), we made our way to our new quarters--the guest house of the Indian Institute of Science:


Staying in the guest house brought back memories of living in a dorm during my college days, but the conditions could have been much worse. We had a TV and free wireless, and who can complain about that? The beds were a bit hard, but by this point I was so tired that I could practically have fallen asleep standing up, so I didn't much care. The biggest problem--which I only discovered once I achieved a bit of clearance in my nasal passages--was that the housekeeping people had put tiny moth balls in both our sink and shower drains. I have no idea why, but every potential explanation I can come up with makes me wish I hadn't considered it, so I won't do so here. There are few smells I dislike as much that of moth balls, and these were particularly strong. Even when I was sitting as far from the bathroom as possible, I was still periodically subjected to a whiff that hit me like a punch in the face. When I felt inclined to complain, though, I just reminded myself that I was lucky to be able to smell at all.

But smelling was still a couple days in the future. On the night of our check-in, we were happy to revel in the relative peace and quiet of the guest house setting--although the IISC is located in the middle of Bangalore's hustle and bustle, its walled grounds are remarkably forested and garden-like. The guest house was positioned somewhere in the center of this little sanctuary, so we could hear the gentle night sounds of crickets and tree frogs. We found a TV station that was playing British football and settled in to watch a bit of the game. However, I found myself falling asleep within about 10 minutes, so I rolled over and prepared myself to receive my first full night of rest in India. At last.

---

Coming up: Out and about in Bangalore