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Monthly Archives: March 2012
Ok, I finally succumbed, stopping at the two hundred kms marker to take a photo, three tiny children sidled up and began cooing, rupees, chocolate. There we were, absolutely in the middle of nowhere, crazy Westerner is taking photos of a mile marker, I just had to, yes, I gave them money. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere you are told not to, it’s bad for them, it’s not PC, they will not go to school and instead end up hustling for chocolate and rupees at the mile marker. Well, I haven’t seen a building for an hour, well not one that you could call a house, so the chances of those little ones ever going to school is remote. Do I feel bad ? Yes of course I feel bad, for them, and a system that lets me ride around in a car, with a driver, and gives them nothing whatsoever. Oh the life of a bleeding heart, tree hugging, pinko liberal. Desperately searching for a reason to go on living I will say I raised big smiles on the faces of three children who live close to the two hundred km marker from Jaisalmer and maybe tonight they will be able to tell funny stories about the Westerner who took photos of mile marker.
Last night’s hotel was a great success, I had a quick walk around the closed fort, looked in some shops, failed to find the craft market, had dinner and went to bed. At about four thirty I discovered the disadvantage of staying in a room on the top floor, it was just about adjacent to the towers of the Buddhist Temples of the city, consequently, when the amplified prayers began I almost fell out of bed. I don’t wish to sound disrespectful, it was very melodic, it’s just there were three temples in my immediate vicinity and others in the distance and they were not, shall we say, in sync. The prayers went on for about an hour and then the calls to prayer from the towers of the Mosques started. It was not exactly a restful night.
Undeterred, I was up early, grabbed a handful of breakfast and off on the high road through the desert to Jaisalmer. It is not quite like the archetypal desert, yet, it is sandy, yes, but trees manage to grow, goat herds survive, there are buffalo, cows and bullocks of course, camels and donkeys, and the occasional village. Desert colored, a bit drab to my eyes, dusty and isolated there is something remarkable to see in each and every one. The women ! Well their clothes anyway, you cannot see any part of them, they are so heavily covered and veiled, it’s the colors, the colours. Every color of the rainbow, and a few more besides, no two can possibly be alike, or even similar. Bright blues, yellows, pinks, turquoise, purples, orange, they stand out like beacons of light against the harshness.
It’s odd you know, every time I see Rajasthan written on the side of a truck I say to myself, oh yes, right, Rajasthan, but even now I still half expect to see an Attenborough pop out from behind a tree, microphone in hand, proving that this is in fact a movie. There is another thing, Pakistan is just a few miles away. I received some concerned comments about the proximity of the border but I have to say we are in good hands. We have just passed through a tank convoy, seen the Border Guard HQ and a massive camouflaged encampment. Santosh also just commented that we are passing through an old nuclear testing ground. I am sure everything will be alright even if India did beat Pakistan in the cricket last night. We just passed a large number of anti aircraft guns lined up alongside the road, seemingly ready for action.
One more thing, there was a sign inside the gate at the Bikaner hotel that read “Please do not ask for a commission”,puzzled I asked Santosh what it meant. He shrugged and feigned ignorance or lack of understanding. We stopped for lunch at a nasty place aimed solely at Western tourists,mine was so revolting I refused to eat it, how can a vegi samosa be disgusting! The daal and rice was ok, but to serve samosas with ketchup, in India, really people. The point of the story: I remarked to Santosh that my lunch was inedible, and he said, I know, then looked very sheepish and started talking very fast about something else, incomprehensibly. The penny dropped, he rakes in a percentage of everything I spend, hence my lunch at the most expensive caff in the whole Thar Desert. What a hick I am, I won’t even start on the story about his friend who wanted us to come for tea, who just happened to own a silversmith shop. I just maintained my happy smiley face, but how many no thank yous do I need to say before I make my point.
On to Jaisalmer, what a treat for the senses, the fort, containing the old town completely, dominates the surrounding plain, it burst into view ten kms out and is everything I could have imagined, maybe more so, it dwarfs last night’s fort in Bikaner. Fabulous sandstone walls, some crenellations, turrets, Havelis, little decks, verandas and terraces, some falling down bits and of course the occasional a/c unit and satellite dish. My hotel, for two nights, is ok thanks, my room faces the fort, it has a rooftop bar, restaurant, hangout space gaily done out in multi colored covered lounging big benches, more like beds in fact. It has the wifi. It has the chill techno music. It doesn’t appear to have any people. The walls of the fort soar up in front and the desert stretches out infinitely behind.
I am here, I made it, my ultimate Rajasthan fantasy come true and it’s better than I ever could have envisioned.
Last time I shall do this I suppose, how vexing. Bag packed, check, camera, phone and tablet charged and in clothing, check, passport and green card, check, zippers done up, check. So many things on the check list as I get ready, it’s second nature now. Am wearing gifts from family, Seb’s good luck Eagle charm, Nat’s restaurant t shirt, J’s bug bracelet, I am good to go, good to go. Mount up and away we go in in our Ambasador, an Indian classic car, with new pal, Santosh Mina. Uh oh, he is already talking about his caste, this might prove interesting. Good roads out of city, there is even a bus lane, big direction signs, like on the freeway, mostly squiggly Hindi, but some in English. A big overpass, not exactly Dallas style, but worthy of a photo. Two road blocks as we pass out of the city, waved thro both, and to first gas station. Alright, I don’t have to pay like I did in Kerala, also I did check on Santosh’s sleeping arrangements, it’s sorted, he won’t have to ask to sleep with me !
Villages again, enlivened by the colorful clothing, just passed a dirty dun colored bus that positively exploded with the lady’s clothing, like a bright light had been turned on inside. There are camels on the road side and huge bullocks on the central divide making eye contact as we pass. An hour out of Jaipur and the roads are still good, two lanes in each direction with a central divide, tho for some reason we keep meeting autos coming the wrong way on our side. We are thundering along at 90 kph, for three minutes, then more construction and our speed halves. The wheat is being harvested on either side, acres and acres of it, destined for chapatis I guess, I wonder how many are consumed each day.
Stopped three hours into the drive for food and water at Sikar, a busy looking town. Looked it up in book and it seems there are over two million people here, it has gaily painted tuk tuks too. Had a half of a very good samosa, pastries and a bottle of water in the Madras Sweet Shop. After Sikar the landscape has changed, no more wheat fields, it’s a kind of scrub, stark looking trees, the goat herds are larger and there are more of them, it’s beginning to get sandy. The road is good, I think we are making good time, one seventy five kms to Bikaner.
Another stop at Fatehpur, which looked like the proverbial one horse town, and I was reluctantly sent off with a boy. Come come he cried, oh no, not more shopping. A few steps away I stepped back five centuries, the palaces of the nawabs , rich traders from the Fifteenth Century, are still there, all four hundred of them. Fantastic painted scenes, of gods, of legends, of the nawabs, Mr and Mrs Nawab and their little nawab children. There were so many of them, we walked round what one could describe as a block, and saw ten or twelve in various states of repair.It was a bit like how one images Merry Auld England back in the Middle Ages, perhaps being on the set of Shakespeare in Love, do i have my era correct? Fortunately some of the Havelis have been restored and are occupied, by rich people, others, not restored and falling down, are also occupied, by families. I loved it, I smiled, I gaped, I gave the boy two dollars. I asked some small children how they were, I’m fine they replied. Back into the car and on into the desert, we are not really there yet, I have seen dunes, there is a minimum of vegetation, trucks lumber past the restaurant where we have stopped for lunch. I am the only one here and got the perfect curry, another one, conveying the level of spiciness with, yes spicy please and putting my figures in my ears saying, no steam! It raises a laugh and seems to work. On to Bikaner.
We arrived, at about five in the afternoon, was shown to room, up and up, then further up, until, what a view. The bannister is too hot to hold on to, and the stairs are very steep. I chose the hotel quite randomly, Bikanar (rhymes with beak) was not on my original schedule, it’s called the Bhairon Villas, and sounded quite inauspicious, but it looks just fine. Everyone is watching the cricket, India vs Pakistan, so big rivalry, I can’t get a cup of tea ! There seems to be a restaurant and a bar, so far so good. Oh, and there is a ’34 Chevy in the garage, keen car collectors the Indian hoteliers.
Will post this, go explore, then see how the photos are looking. Will add them later after a quick wander.
Well the best laid plans of mice and men…..trouble is that after Goa I hadn’t really made a plan, I thought I would just wing it, and that is what is happening. Although, I did book a train from Jaipur to Mumbai on the 26th in order to catch the Heathrow flight on the 28th while I was at home in Ca. I had this vague notion that I would just spend a couple of weeks nomading around Rajasthan, visiting the famous Cities of legend, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer by whatever means presented themselves, train, bus or whatever.Things went a bit awry with the camera saga, I really miss it and am perpetually frustrated with the inexpensive replacement, dreadful shutter lag. I keep missing shots and the features are just inadequate. Stop whining Tim. Ok. Anyhoo, I really had not planned a stay in New Delhi at all, everywhere I read I was advised to give it a miss, I thought I might just go from Goa straight up to Jaipur, this would have been better, but fate intervened and to Delhi I went. I can’t say I enjoyed it, I found it exhausting, everything was such an effort, nothing was easy, it was horribly polluted, the poverty was appalling, the juxtaposed display of wealth and decadence dire, the hustlers overbearing, wandering the streets and alleys I was constantly overwhelmed with offers of which I know not what, I assumed an unatractive aloofness, it was the only way to survive, horrid and cold tho it sounds. Not me at all. Sorry, just telling it like it is. I’m sure you know there is a temptation to compare, I can’t, I simply can’t think of anywhere that compares, even closely. New York in the 70s before the cleanup when it was so filthy and everyone was so rude, maybe. No, not really. Sorry Delhi. Let’s move on.
The nomading plan came to a crashing, ignoble end when I enquired at the hotel’s travel desk for a train ticket to Jaisalmer, calls where made, no dice buddy. All Jaisalmer trains sold out for ten days, Udaipur and Jodhpur too. Well that certainly changes things. Hmm. I thought I would be smart and double check, tuk tuk trip to train station, where, through the hurly burly I did manage to determine that this was fact, though I could add myself to the wait list. Somewhat disconsolate I sat on a wall at the station reviewing the options, and watched the pretty ladies pass by! I can’t stay here for ten days, I could fly somewhere, though my destinations don’t have airports, so it would have to be somewhere different, Goa again ? Somewhere totally different, like a another country ? No, wait, I have a plan, let’s stick to it, A ROAD TRIP.
Inspired, I tuk tuk’d back to the Haveli, bounded into the travel office, well more shack really, and enquired about the possibility. Oh yes, they beamed, where do you want to go, where do you want to stay ? Fortunately I had done some homework and gave them the list of places I had highlighted in my book during a dull phase somewhere. While I was giving the guy the list there was another behind me, on the Internet, opening browser windows for each hotel and checking availability, smart operators these guys. Finished my list, much debating in Hindi, scribbled notes, a couple of phone calls, another gentleman was summoned, a car drew up outside. Finally head honcho says, write down how much you are willing to pay, I already knew so wrote it down, then he wrote a figure down and we compared. Ha, it was one hundred dollars different, in his favor.ok, I can live with that. Here is your driver, here is your car, when do you want to leave ? ! Whoa people, I only arrived a couple of hours ago from the horrible Best Western, today is Friday, how about Sunday. Sure, fine, no problem. So Sunday it is. To the Great Thar Desert I go. Time to get the Atlases out.
Amusing scenes in the old Haveli last night, I was quietly reading my book when a large bus pulled into the driveway and a motley crew of young persons fell out clutching shopping bags speaking with many tongues. They rapidly disappeared, re appearing minutes later dressed in their newly purchased finery. Wow, said I to one of them, glam night or what. Oh no she replied brightly, we are a group and this is our last night together. Turned out they were a G Group (Go India) with members from all over, Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, Australia etc. Go India seems to be quite a progressive tour group and interestingly offer LBGT friendly tours. Off they went in a multitude of tuk tuks and peace descended. Dinner was fairly decent and I got to chatting with a couple of Dutch ladies on the next table, they found my new pink scarf worthy of discussion, so it was that and this and eating and a beer. I left before them and took to a chair in the wifi lobby. They joined me and they turned out to be a Mom and daughter, the Mom a goldsmith from Utrecht and she and her two sisters each have Ataliers, how exciting, always wanted to meet someone with an Atalier. I saw her jewelry, on her phone naturally, she saw wedding photos and the daughter went to bed. Turned out that they had been out bar hopping the previous night and had got so paralytic they had to sleep in the bar. Admirable. Then the G Group came back from their dinner and chose to sit with us, nice bunch of kids, about ten of them, but easy to talk to and no one tried to dominate, it was all very, um, harmonious. Everybody left for home this morning at five am. Loudly.
Can you see those tiny dots in the sky? No, not splodges on your screen, they are kites. I had read about the Rajasthani affection for kites and tonight at sunset there were lots of them. It’s real, I am here.
On Tuesday I flew from Goa to New Delhi and the difference in pace was like a catapult launch from an air craft carrier. Goa was just perfect, I cherished every moment. Goan food is exceptional, curry and spicy of course but not harshly so, fish abounds, lobster is almost a staple. No hang ups about beef either, there are burgers on the kids menus. The Delhi dwellers were taking a few kilos home, frozen and packed in ice, they seemed delighted and so did the kids. Not sure about that, but hey, it wasn’t me beef smuggling, I was just the one who smuggled beer into the Tiger Reserve. The B and B ended up being a lot of fun, Simon, the owner, is a great guy tho, um, there might be some problems on the domestic harmony front I gather, plus he announced he was “going on the wagon” so I ended up hosting a dinner or two, lots of laughs with Brits from all over. At the communal breakfast one morning we were joined by a rogue ish looking type from Glasgow who had just got out of jail and had his passport confiscated by the Government so is Stateless. Happens a lot it seems, the passport confiscating, and the random twenty four hours to leave the country. The beaches of South Goa are worth the trip alone, very quiet, warm Arabian Sea, sand, beach shacks serving food and booze incredibly cheaply compared with other parts I have visited. But guess what, the Russians are taking over. In North Goa they have completely taken over two beaches and exclude any other Nationalities, they are setting up protection rackets with beach vendors and bars, even market stalls. This is having some affect on the flow of tourists, especially from the UK, who now steer clear of North Goa, preferring the South.
I had planned to leave on Monday, but alas no Internet all day so stayed an extra night in another tent, got up early Tuesday, booked everything and caught a noon flight to New Delhi. The aforementioned catapult. Even at the airport it was a maelstrom, I prepaid for a taxi but no one knew where my hotel was, least of all me. I lined up at taxi rank number five and showed my piece of paper to endless taxi drivers who just shrugged and rode off with the people behind me in the line. Oh this is great I thought the hick from the sticks, can’t even get out of the ……… airport. Eventually someone behind me in the queue took pity and told a driver what district to go to, off we went. Hair raising wasn’t in it. The Government has built a vast Metro complex throughout the city so negotiating the support pillars was a challenge, roundabouts, traffic signals, traffic cops,, all tried to cope with the vast surge of vehicles, mostly to no avail. Grid lock broke out constantly. Squeezing through the alleys, constantly asking directions we eventually found it. Oh dear. My hotel, the Magnificent Palms, was a dump. Another dump. However I was on a mission, to get my camera fixed so off to the Canon Repair shop bright and early. They said they would see what they could do, in twenty four hours. Hmm. What to do, what to do. I took a train ride. I enjoyed it. Returned to Canon shop the next day and they wanted to charge me the price of the camera to fix it and it would take forty eight hours and, they pointed out, it is still under warranty in the US. Well, no brainer, took camera and left. Now what? A six hour train to Jaipur, an eight hour bus ride? It was two o’clock and i was exhausted. Nope, I will splurge and fly. Spotted a travel agency across the street, took life in hands and crossed eight lanes of traffic, shades of HCMC, survived, and booked flight and hotel in Jaipur. I took the new Metro out of the City, oh gosh, oh wow. Absolutely state of the art, security fell about laughing at my gadget jacket, took everything out and stared incredulously at all the contents. It reminded me of a cross between San Fran’s BART and that new London underground line. Ultra swish, chrome and flashing lights, it even had a progress bar (vital to computer nerds) showing our position. The announcements included “mind the gap”, a direct crib from London’s tube, if you are not familiar with that you may have seen it on a t shirt.
Terminal three at Delhi Airport is a real treat, voted second best in the World it it is a wonder of modern architecture. I was in awe. (as an aside, I just received a comment that I take too many photos of buildings!). I think I gaped, stood still, talked to myself, took pictures, enjoyed it. Off to gate seventy two, that is 72, and still it went on after that. The announcement at the end of the moving sidewalk said “feed the hungry and watch your step” which I think is noteworthy. Off in a little plane for the forty five minute flight, time for the first few sentences above and then we were down again. A first for everything and on disembarking the plane we had to show our boarding passes. Here I are in Rajasthan, it’s a bit like what I expected, history at every turn, fantastically dressed people, bright clothing, sandy crags in the background, hill forts on the crests, dust, food smells, camels, elephants (poor things), begging children, Holy men, oh, and for the first time more people on the roofs of buses than within. Turbaned, bearded tribesmen from the distant mountains, looking fierce, and , well, a bit romantic. Oh no, my hotel is another dump, dammit. It’s a Best Western, really it is, with a revolving restaurant on top, it’s hell. Hailed a tuk tuk to dinner in a Haveli, a spruced up old Palace, terribly tasteful, lawns, trees, peace and tranquility, good food, pleasant people. I vowed to move hotels, and I did. Woke up at dawn and took a tuk tuk (!) up a hillside to the Amber Fort. If one could ignore the crowds, the affluent ones in an elephant procession up the mountain, the hustlers, the noise and dirt it was absolutely marvelous. It is huge and dominates the skyline with fantastic walls, think China, minor forts along the way, landscaped lush gardens, fountains, the harem area with it’s latticed windows, it was worth the early start. An Ali Baba type experience. Back to the horrible Best Western, checked out and am now on the Terrace of another Haveli, writing this, tea brought round, there is a pool, it adjoins the walls of the old city and is half the price of the horrible Best Western, go figure.
I am off to explore, will add photos later so check back.
I woke up on the train after sleeping and dozing for six hours and looking out of the window what did I see, yep a warm dusty plain and village after village after village, again. With Internet access on my phone I did about a minute’s research and placing palm on forehead realized, of course, there are one point two two billion people in this country, that apparently works out at three hundred and ninety three point eight three persons per square kilometer. No wonder they have all these villages, all those people got to live somewhere. Not exactly rocket science but it did help explain a lot.
The train. Well it was a train really, not the crazy mob scene I had been expecting. The station at ten o’clock at night was very calm and organized, in fact the announcements were easier to understand than British Rail. There were plenty of seats for the waiting crowds, food booths galore, loos, baby changing rooms, all the usual train station trappings. The Rajdhani Express pulled into the station as advertised at ten twenty five and departed on time at ten thirty. My eleven dollar seat was adequate, room to lie down after it was made up by the steward, sheets, blankets, pillows, a reading light, it was just fine and the night zipped by. There was a full moon but I really couldn’t see much, dawn came early and there they were, as mentioned above, the villages. Tea came round, then breakfast, and suddenly it was all over, we arrived at Madgaon. A three dollar ride to the B and B, the Vivenda dos Palhacos, lunch and a long nap.
That got writ on Friday afternoon and here it is, Sunday evening already. I read on a wall, in graffiti, Goa is like a fridge, it’s so chill, and oh yes, at least down here in South Goa it is, any calmer the whole place would fall into a pleasurable coma. Of course there is the beeping, but not nearly so frequent, there are tuk tuks, but I have not once been asked if I want one while out walking. There are vendors and begging children on the beach, but one, no thank you, and word seems to spread, don’t bother with the ancient British guy, so be it. The beach is about two kilometers away, not exactly walkable but a staff member is always available for a quick ride in the hotel jeep, for free. Huge sandy beach, some Euros who seem to start drinking before I arrive at ten am, lots of locals, it’s the weekend, there are life guards, tho how efficient I can’t tell, there are beach shack restaurants and I am pleased to announce I have found my curry ! At the Zeebop, I had chicken Xacuti with Jeera rice and naan bread, the search is over, now I can relax, it was superb, though perhaps the environment helped . Just spicy enough, I could identify the various ingredients, spices, vegetables etc, one of those meals you just don’t want to end. The roads are good, very few potholes, palm tree lined, no traffic jams, lively looking bars, colorful shops, locals walking and Westerners looking dangerous on scooters. Train horns sounding mournful in the distance, birds singing, quietly, children playing, quietly, oh yes, Goa lives up to its reputation.
The hotel too is pretty great too. More a B and B kind of place really, it only has half a dozen rooms. The guests are one hundred percent British, how about that, lots of tea, lots of gin. Let’s see, we have the food correspondent from the Evening Standard (London’s evening newspaper) and her sister who owns a restaurant in Hampstead (a tony part of North London) and her daughter who runs a school in Tamal Nadu, and her daughter aged eight. We have the South Asia correspondent from the Guardian, his wife and a two year old and nanny. There are two gap year kids, girls, from very proper English schools who are actually quite pleasant and very resourceful. I took them to a market last night about an hour away and we got back too late for dinner, they persuaded the night watchman, no English whatsoever, to let them use the kitchen and whisked up a three course dinner in no time, pretty damn good effort ladies. Lastly an English couple from Delhi who used to live in Chicago, Ed does something with Bloomberg, his wife is from Edinburgh and two sons eight and six. I had one of those surreal conversations, discussing the World Series (baseball), the Chicago White Sox, the San Francisco Giants with a very well informed English boy here in India. Strange. The rooms are good, beds comfortable, there is hot water, books to read, out of date newspapers and magazines, a huge communal dining table, a bar, a small pool, croquet, ha, obliging staff, good food, enormous wine glasses that hold half a bottle per pour and no bugs. This is no tent in the wilderness ! I think it’s ok for three or four nights after a week in the back of beyond, hope you agree.
As I said to someone today, there is not a lot to blog about lying on the beach for two days, but don’t worry fearless readers, one more night and I am off again, Delhi, to see if I can get my camera fixed and then a two week ramble through Rajasthan.
Let’s see how that pans out.
Thanks for all the comments, keep em coming, they really help this solo trip, and as best I can I will try and reply, now I have figured out how to do it.
Nat, when are you home from Mexico ?
Can I précis the last few days into one post? Not sure but will give it a try. The last post update was, I think, on Thursday evening and it is now Thursday again, a lot has been packed into a week.. Tiruneli Village turned out to be within the boundaries of the Tiruneli Elephant Reserve so later on Thursday evening a night time safari was organized, leaving at about ten pm. Briefly, it turned into a scene from Jurassic Park. We got stuck in the mud, along with a couple of other search lit jeeps, within a few feet of a most enormous elephant, three foot tusks and everything. After much panicking and gear crashing the jeeps were extricated. We saw an attack elephant, monstrous and grey, who with a disdainful look at us humans gave a massive trumpet and crashed off into the undergrowth. We returned to the Home Stay to discover the car driver (Ravesh, pronounced Rhajeesh) had lost his keys ! Brilliant. They were later found at the first loo stop, forty five minutes back along the trail. That could have been awkward.
On the road early next morning after renegotiating the dried up river bed and the terrible road, heading for Masinagudi Wild Life Reserve. Another dull drive through endless villages until we started to climb out of the Plain and into Tamil Nadu. Immediately we were in the tea plantations, miles and miles of tea growing. Very green, very scenic, very different from anything in my experience, absolutely lived up to expectations. We climbed up and over low tea clad hills and stopped at Gulalur for lunch at Walter’s Curry House. Good curry and for the first time I didn’t let the side down, ate the whole thing with my right hand, no spoon or fork, and to tell the truth I did rather well. On into Masinagudi Park, dodging elephants and monkeys along the the road until we arrived at the main town where we were met by a Kumar who had lots of brilliant ideas. Another night time safari, a dawn trek, tribal dancing. Oh no, please, let’s find the hotel first and review the plan. We pulled off the road onto a track signposted Wild Breeze, Paradise Regained. Ground to a halt in the dusty courtyard, befriended by dogs and sat in the open air dining area to wait for somebody, anybody. We sat and sat until a someone came along on a motor cycle and checked me into a two roomed block, me on the left and no one on the right. It looked ok, checked the usual things, is there any hot water, yes, ok, great, not seen that for a couple of days, does the lock work, yep, ok great. Checked with the all knowing Kumar if there was the wifi in the town, oh yes, so we all piled into the car, back to town. Alas no wifi. This whole two day stay over plan was beginning to look bleak so I changed the plan. No, we would only stay one night, no safari, no trekking, let’s leave at seven thirty tomorrow and head for Ooty. Unusually firm for me, but really, the place wasn’t at all great, on the plain, hot, dusty, crowded, noisy and a dramatic change of pace after two days in Tiruneli. Returning to the Wild Breeze I discovered I had neighbors, three twenty somethings, from India, with two bottles of vodka placed emphatically on the patio table. Uh oh. Sure enough, one thirty in the morning I woke to a Bollywood movie playing loudly on the laptop, much screeching and violent puking. How I bless my noise canceling headphones.
Seven thirty we were back on the road heading for (Snooty) Ooty. Across the plain we drove until we met this wall, a scarp slope no less, rising to 2,286 meters, the summit reached by a series of thirty six hairpin bends. Up and up to Ooty. The book descriptions of the town were discouraging, and the reality bore it out. No problem, I will get the nine fifteen toy train down the mountain, not the early afternoon run. We made our way to the Station of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, bought ticket, had breakfast in the Waiting Room, tried to persuade Ravesh to meet me down the mountain in ninety minutes at Coonoor train station, climbed aboard and off we went. Built in Eighteen something by the British to transport themselves up to Ooty in the summer months where it was cooler it still runs today, attracting enthusiasts, tourists and British history buffs alike. It’s really fun. Perched precipitously on the edge of steep mountain sides, passing through deep gorges, over high high bridges and to the delight of all aboard, tunnels. As we pass through each one everybody cheers, hoots and claps, it’s very entertaining. My travel companions were a prosperous businessman from Bangalore and his wife who seemed absolutely thrilled with the whole thing, smiling and beaming non stop, from top to bottom. After the short run down the mountain we arrived at Coonoor, looked around for Ravesh, no Ravesh. I had done everything I could think of, showed him my ticket, pointed to schedule, yes arrives Coonoor at ten forty five, made driving gesticulations at car, you drive to Coonoor train station, see you there, to no avail, alas. After hanging about and declining offers from every taxi driver in town to see the sights I was forced to call The Fixer, Romey, back in Fort Kochi. No problem, he will call you soon. Hmm. Eventually my phone rang, garbled exclamations of car breaking, big traffic, etc etc, and Ravesh drove down the mountain to Coonoor.
Down and down we went, I have no idea how high 2,286 meters is but I tell you what, with the ninety minute descent in the train and then another two hours descent in the car it had better be quite high. We were back on the plain, the Coimbatore Plain to be exact. More dust and heat, more village after village. Oh, and then we had an accident, a bus rammed the driver’s side rear passenger door, not a really big deal, but all hell broke loose. Shouting, waving, pointing, crowds gathered, people came running from every direction, Rangers vs Celtic, the SF Giants vs the LA Dodgers weren’t in the same league, it was quite exciting. I sat firmly in my seat eating banana chips hoping this wouldn’t turn into a Tamal Nadu vs Kerala riot. The police came, the Army came, the situation was stabilized, I ran out of chips. A call back to The Fixer in Kochi confirmed that the insurance was up to date and any damage would be covered, that was that. Interestingly Ravesh did not seem in the least fazed by this incident, we were straight away back into the four wide overtaking, brows of hills, blind corners, more laughs.
So we came to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve or it’s approaches. The first road block, you will pay three hundred Rupees and one hundred for each camera and why are you late? Pardon. You are late. Really, why, when. You must be here by three o’clock, really, don’t see that written anywhere, I think he was going to screw me for another few hundred, nope, nothing here about three o’clock. Now we must search the car. Really? Search away, please. We passed and were waved through the barrier. It was up and up, not sure how but we were climbing the Western Ghats once again, more switchbacks, more views of the dusty Plain, poor Ravesh, poor car, the road surface was dreadful. Then another checkpoint, I will see your passport, please fill in this form with your name and address, ok, fine. Filling in a form with San Anselmo Ca 94960 on a track, at a checkpoint, in the Indian jungle seemed, well, just a bit odd, frankly. Maybe its a next of kin thing in case i am devoured by a Tiger. Then another car search, hey, Ravesh and I had got it down! The mileposts said thirty five, gloom, but then we arrived at Mission Control Parambikulam, Army, Police, Forestry people everywhere but we were greeted amiably enough and I was shown to my tent, large enough for a bed and a bathroom, deck outside, beaming neighbors and long tailed monkeys, big ones, with very long tails, swooping about in the trees twenty feet away. Did anyone see the movie Greystoke ? Those hoo hoo hoo s had accompanied me these last few days, at a distance, on mountainsides far away, but here the hoo hoo hoo s were close, real close, in fact on my roof. Peacocks too, strutting about displaying their feathers outside my door. Birds sang in the trees, hogs snuffled about, it was truly Wildlife, at last.
Dinner was a group affair in a communal dining hut, circular, thatched with open sides where I met my beaming neighbors, Chris and Princela with their two children, holidaying from the far South. Chris is a Second Officer on a cargo ship and recently returned from Oakland where his boat had been delayed because of the Occupy Movement (Sebastian !), small World. With dinner complete there was little or nothing to do but go to bed. Up early for the Bird Watching Hike, can’t say we saw much, a Spotted Owl and a few others named in the local Tamil dialect so I have no idea what they were. Bringing up the rear I couldn’t help but glance back occasionally to check we were not being stalked by Shere Khan. Of the eighteen hundred or so Bengal Tigers left in India this Reserve boasts fourteen, alas of course we never did see one. There are also Spotted Deer and a type of Indian Bison, Leopards, Flying Squirrels amongst other beasts within the Reserve. Breakfast was served and I got to chatting with the neighbors, the lack of Internet access came up, naturally, Chris burst into action, producing gadgets by the pocket full. Within minutes we were f/b friends, they were reading my blog, exchanging emails and of all blessings allowed me to call home for ten minutes (two dollars), my first unstilted conversation in a week ! We all loaded up for a trip to a nearby village for the elephant riding, alas, the elephants were absent, not a big deal as the outing was really for the children and they didn’t seem too upset.
Later in the day I was ushered into quite a large van/truck type vehicle, with great suspension, and we made our way into the jungle on very narrow tracks. We saw the Indian Bison, I was shown the last Teak tree left in the forest, more Spotted Deer, huge squirrels, etc etc. I went for a paddle on a bamboo raft on a lake, saw a crocodile, and ended up at Parambikulum Village for tea at a tea stall. Inhabited by four different tribes the village prided itself on it’s literacy rate, a good thing. Another good thing is the Government owned cell service which covers the whole of India and provides Internet access also. I was told that any village can call the Government to have a tower built providing the inhabitants with web access on their very inexpensive phones. The guy next to me had three handheld devices which pinged and chirped constantly. They left me in the dust with my glitzy iPhone, another good lesson.
Ok, gotta wind this up, thanks for getting this far. So much for my précis. Am now back in Fort Kochi getting ready for the Rajdhani Express tonight to Goa.
More from there tomorrow.