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Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Sunderban Saga

December 2012 – Two hours through the villages, dodging ducklings following their moms on the roads, breathing in the pleasantly chilly morning air and eying giant guavas being packed for transport in banana leaves, I was in Kolkata , on my way to the banks of the Ganges to board a steamer to Sunderban.   
With the poem ‘Tiger Tiger burning bright ….’ resounding in my mind as I walked the plank (literally) to board the steamer that would take us to the Sunderban Forest Reserve, I knew I was in for 2 days of complete unadulterated, rustic ,pure discovery. Having booked a backpack tour to the acclaimed mangrove forest famous for housing the biggest and more ferocious species of the royal cat-the Royal Bengal Tiger, we had set sail with a call to my mom saying that I will not be accessible on the phone for the next 2 days and her still absorbing the fact that I wanted to spend my 1st anniversary in a jungle.

For those who do not know, the Sunderbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering part of Bangladesh and Indian state of West Bengal. The 3 hour boat ride through the Ganges delta would land us at our camp – a village called Dayapur, which I shall talk more about in a bit. Our guide, Mowgli (who refused to feel cold, clad in a sleeveless green jacked secured with a casual knot and funky cargos) talked us through the history of the swamps as I enthusiastically fixed up my camera lens, ready for some shooting action. The varieties of the forests that exist in Sunderbans include mangrove scrublittoral forestsaltwater mixed forestbrackish water mixed forest and swamp forest. Just as he was about to tell us some more, he spotted a blue feathered creature with a determined, long beak and a black crown for a head – our first spotting – the Black Capped Kingfisher!! 

The Sunderban mangroves are known for the abundant species of kingfisher, including some species which migrate here during winter months. As we moved along the waters, we managed to get a few good shots of the varieties of kingfisher perched on the half submerged tree branches mysteriously emerging from the waters, herons and pure white specs of egrets darting off the surface, fishing.

As we reached our ecovillage – Dayapur – a candidly delicious traditional Bengali treat of dal, rice, fish and veges awaited our hungry bellies. The speed with which the foreigners in our group of about 15 seated themselves on ‘chattais’ laid out for the meal made me hungrier and the food smelt simply welcoming. The ecovillage was well – an ecovillage – no electricity, hurricane lamps for light at night and beautifully comfortable mud huts with mosquito nets, with the option to sleep on the boat if we wanted to.  Bag and baggage settled into our hut named ‘Elvis Presley’ (gawk!) with our 2 American roommates (community quarters) Mowgli called out for a walk through the village. 

Village kids and a dog in tow, our group walked around the island village and boarded small boats which would take us for a short trip through the mangroves till sundown. Negotiating the river to enter the mangroves, our 3 boats stopped in the middle of all the serenity and eeriness as our guide narrated a true story of how 20 fishermen were killed somewhere in the middle of this mystifying forest when they ignored the tide timings. It’s simply a lost situation if one lands on the sand, since it just sucks in your body, just like quicksand. A few minutes of silence and not a word said, we were all in a world with our minds running reels on the beauty, bustle and unknowns of the mangroves of Sunderban. Suddenly…. We wear a shriek from the last boat, in the midst of the silence-Its one of the guide’s voiced dilemma on whether to buy beer bottles or cans for the night’s bonfire! After quite a few giggles and stares at the man, our boats moved on to head back to camp. What awaited us was Mowgli sitting in the dark in the middle of our camp, with a bonfire and a kettle – tea time! Stories and cups of tea later, the folk dance group’s instrument tunings made us turn towards them. The Bengali folk program in the form of a storytelling play left us enthralled and entertained and hungry for dinner. Hurricane lamps lit and mosquito nets pulled down , it was the end of day 1!

Our 2nd day at Sunderbans started off at 5.30 am with both breakfast and lunch cooked on the boat itself. This day, it was more than just feathers that we spotted. We came within a few feet of the great Indian crocodile (4 of them at different spots), beautiful spotted deer, the monitor lizard and a few more birds. Perched at the nose of our boat, camera zoom lense in place, we traversed the waters of the Sunderbans, keeping an eye out for streaks of yellow and black. Alas, after about 5 hours on the boat, the trip was coming to an end with no tiger spotted, but definitely an experience worth remembering and writing about.     

Friday, 7 December 2012

A ‘Fort’y Affair @ Alwar

Yes, me and my hubby do try and make every weekend and holiday opportunity an exploration trip somewhere or the other as much as we can afford. The great long Diwali break this October turned out to be yet another budget trip with both our families in tow (Mom & Ma and Dad & Baba… that’s how we avoid confusion between the two families’ parents). The destination was a short drive of about 4 hrs from Gurgaon with the ‘I need to stretch my legs’ breaks included to the city of Alwar in Rajasthan.

Considering the fact me and hubby thought that both families together would make the house no less entertaining than a jungle, we decided to make a trip to the actual jungle-the Sariska Tiger Reserve, and set up tent in one of the Alwar villages. Only, where we stayed in the village were once the walls of royalty- no kidding, literally! After much online deliberation over options available to stay in Alwar, we booked rooms at the Dadhikar Fort (http://dadhikar.com/). About 5 kms from Alwar City, this fort situated on the top of small mount of more than 100 feet from ground level and 342 meters from the sea level and was the perfect choice for a serene, rustic and yet royal stay with family. Resting in the lap of Aravali Hills amidst the dense forest, GPSs’ turned on, we reached the Fort to be welcomed to the premises which had Rajasthan writ all over- from the ethnic and simple d├ęcor of the rooms, the furnishings, the attendants with turbans on, to the cool drink we were offered on arrival.

The Fort, with a part of it still  in the restoration process, is over 1000 years old and amazingly has rooms in surprising nooks and corners. Perched high up on a mount, the terrace and rooms offered a breathtaking view of the green fields spread below and peacocks sounding off their calls. The number of peacocks that we encountered had us constantly reaching for the camera!

Having settled down and washed up, we then headed to one of the rivers a few kms away for a boat ride with mountains on all four sides and their reflection giving the water a dual color. From there we zeroed in on going to the Alwar museum, nestled in a palace that had been converted into a court with the synonymous row of desks of attorneys outside. Thankfully, since it was a Saturday the crowd was missing. The museum turned out to be an ogle ground for knife, swords, gun enthusiasts like me with a collection that left me stuck to the showcases. The condition of the museum was not however something to be proud of, and I felt the blades and triggers were a little shabbily maintained, and yet maintained their mystique and glory. Other items at display included some ancient scripts, beautiful paintings, a few stuffed animals including a Bengal tiger and various artifacts and royal as well as war attires.

The day was coming to an end, with the inviting Fort calling us back to it, and so that’s where we headed- back to base camp. The evening was not over yet though. The cultural programme with traditional dancers who even made us shake a leg, the fire eaters and thali dancers carrying a heap of pots on their heads and dancing on steel plates got the camera into memory full mode and us in full fun swing.         

The next day plan was to visit Sariska Sanctuary & tiger reserve. Even though I have visited Corbett twice and have always just seen the paw prints of a tiger who according to the guide ‘must have just crossed the path a minute before we did’ and expected the same here, the thought of being in the wild gave me goosebumps of excitement. After collecting 9 more people who could fit into our mini safari truck as they trickled in  (yes, I’m always the salesman variety of the family in such situations) and having had a laugh at my brother’s sudden trust in my bodyguard skills with mischievous monkeys jumping all over the place, it was time to enter the dragon.. I mean the jungle.

My Corbett trip as a kid I remember had left me with such fondness for Deer than I even referred to everyone as Deer blah blah blah in my school letter writing assignments and I hoped I would now not see more wildlife in Sariska (read tiger). As we progressed through the jungle, fingers on camera buttons, we saw the wild boar, spotted deer, neelgai, hedgehog, baboons, macaques and even a crawly green earthwormy insect miraculously stuck to the pant buttocks of a fellow travelling with us. Just as the 3 hour long safari was coming to an end, our truck stopped in its tracks and the guide gave us a look  of ‘ don’t make a move – the dinosaurs are coming’. A tiger roar had been picked up. The wait was on! With everyone looking in one direction, all concentration and hearing ability at attention, a thought struck me- what if the tiger came from behind where no one was looking. And so Sam of the jungle kept her eyes on the opposite path…… had there actually been a tiger somewhere close, I’m sure he must have had a smirk at the funny sight! We waited and strained our ears and waited a little more… but all we got to see where some more ‘mores’! (I cannot really help being myself you know!).

Back to the Fort after getting dinner packed from the dhaba (the Fort only offered expensive VEG buffets), a restful evening at the terrace and lawns of the premises made the day with family just perfect… and so we lived in a fort for 2 days!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Rafting Rush

It was my first experience with white water rafting and definitely one that has left me wanting more of the sport and weekend adrenalin rush. With my adventure spirit winning over my ‘forgotton when needed’ swimming skills and a fear of encountering swimming earthworms, I along with the jing bang of hubby and friends drove down to Kolad.

A convenient max 3.5 hrs drive from Mumbai, Kolad boasts of the river Kundalika on which you can experience the rush of white water rafting with rapids which will give you a taste of the hydro fuel of mother nature. Rafting in River Kundalika is “dam controlled” and done in the rapids which are generated by the water released from the dam in the morning. A pleasant drive from the city of Mumbai and you can go straight to the riverfront and join the rafting groups which should be pre booked for an approximate river stretch of 12kms.

The 2.5 hrs of adventure start with the instructors giving basic rafting training and practicing the rythmn of paddling to be followed at his command, with ideally 8 people – 4 on each side and the instructor at the helm on each air filled boat, the raft. The basic instructions for paddle alignment include “All Back”, “All Forward”, Right/ Left Back”, “Left/ Right Forward” and much to our raft instructor’s chagrin,  all 8 adults over 20 years of age forgot their lefts, rights and direction senses! After a quick 10 mins schooling on direction and teamwork sense, it was time to get our feet wet, pick up the raft and push off into the river. Now the first feeling that hits you the moment the raft is in the water is one of tranquility with the beauty of the river and the foliage around it combined with the thrill of having your feet tucked under the bloated floor of the raft, ready to take on the approaching rapids. 
Nothing shall compare to the experience of handling the first rapid…. With everyone’s hands tight on the paddle, swaying away to the instructor’s command, mouths shamelessly open in awe of the power of the water pulling the raft into mini tornado like formations from which you emerge with a lot of muscle power involved in paddling and the look of complete amazement at the adrenaline rush on everyone’s faces- a whole new journey begins.

The next few rapids were even stronger, with our raft running into the shrubs once and on the verge of pushing us into the water (life jackets and helmets are compulsory to wear and provided by the rafting club you go with). As the River Kundalika settled down to a calmer verve after the rapids, we were even given the opportunity to jump off the rafts and swim in the River for almost half an hour- a calming experience with the skies above and slight drizzle since our trip was during the  monsoons (the best time for rafting). 

When it was finally time to lightly paddle towards the end of the river and conclude the adventure, we had a pleasant surprise. The river towards the end was banked by sprawling green stretches which shone with the green brilliance of reflecting dew drops and simple beauty. With tired muscles and pumped hearts, we carried our rafts up the edge of the river onto higher ground, with the group shorties conveniently walking in the shade of the raft held high above like a trophy by the rest.

The trip would have been incomplete without the night trek back at our camp, the campfire with comforting old monk for some and the jing bang for company. The camp at the edge of the river with 5 of us packed into one room, uncomplaining, happy to be together and fighting for the sheets gave us an experience that is worth the weekend!    

The view from the top

Travelling by trains in India is an experience that will leave you either in complete awe of the fervor with which the railways are changing or in complete angst of having to deal with situations on the tracks. First things first – if you haven’t had the foresight to well , plan your travel way in advance (read at least a month in advance) you do deserve to go through the torture of running from CPU to CPU trying  to book tickets through the tatkal online system. It is the age of the internet no doubt, but  the IRCTC online tatkal booking system has interpreted technological edge in a different way altogether-just so that you may reach the next century trying to use the online portal (you might not end up with a confirmed ticket even then) voila - that’s IRCTC technology for you. The other way out would be to invariably pay your office travel agent almost one forth cost of the ticket and get him to book it for you – turning out to be the most lucrative business around I say !

Ok then, now that you have the ticket , by trick or trial and the day of the journey arrives- you are faced with the most daunting question of all. Do you offer your lower berth to the elderly lady who has been given the upper berth at age 60 and see the world from the top or do you just settle on the lower berth you have been allotted, just so convenient for the station hops. 

Well, as lady luck would have it, I have always ended up on the top berth- by right of booking or by request of a fellow passenger. The view from the top gave me a whole new dislike for kids, peaceful sleep, taught me to sleep like a baby on a bull and well much more. Lets start with the catering on the Indian railways – standardization has been taken way too seriously by our railway caterers. Whether you ask for matter paneer or aloo paneer or mixed veg meals – they all taste the same! Absolutely no discrimination of taste among vegetables. And then there is the very tempting sweet which might as well be actual rock (candy). Though no denying the fact that the non – veg meal fares better on the taste scale.

Perched on the topmost berth, you might as well train being an assassin who can swiftly jump on the lesser mortals below. The dexterity with which I have learnt to get off the berth, navigate the stream of incoming/ toilet going passengers to quickly hop on platforms at stations to grab a packet of Lays has left even me zapped to the core! The challenge proves even more interesting when the ‘chai –chai’ ‘kaapi-kaapi’ guy walks past at thunderbolt speed and needs to be caught. Like a trained ninja, your ears automatically send a signal to your sleeping brain as soon as these magical words are heard! 

The topmost berth is the best sanctuary one can have from screaming children, vying for attention by constantly staring at you with pseudo puppy eyes or trying to gorge their parents’ eyes out, just because the mom brought along a mega sized bag full of home-made meals which would suffice for an African country, but forgot to put in a packet of the favorite biscuits.

Inquisitive aunties who want to know where you stay, why you are going to a different place, where would you stay, etc are a part and parcel of the times when you would emerge from your shaking, narrow hammock to sit on the lower berth. Shoes going missing and found in the next section because your fellow passengers wanted to push their luggage at the farthest corner so that they become invisible to the stupid untrained burgler will leave you steaming, but then most engines now run on electrical lines – so might as well save the sweat!

All said and done, I do love travelling by train-standing at the door and getting my hair tangled, watching towns, villages and umpteen stations pass by, carrying with them their own small worlds and ….  it’s time for me to plan my next business train travel and give my hubby yet another opportunity to feel like the weekend drop the missus to the station man!