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 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

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