A Friend in Far Places

May 23, 2006
My backpack of eight years has been a most loyal companion on many, many, many travels. It has been with me to places Amit hasn’t; and with Amit to places I haven’t. It has, in fact, seen as much of the world as we both have – and we have seen a fair bit of it, altogether.

Many memories are associated with that pack. Leaning against it and falling asleep in a deserted railway station in Pisa because we couldn’t be bothered to pay 80,000 lire for a bed for three hours… sitting with it in my lap for hours on end as we jolted along in a bus over the worst roads in Kerala. Feeling its comforting bulk and weight on my shoulders as I walked up hillsides in Karnataka, Kerala, Uttaranchal, Himachal… seeing it bobbing along ahead of me when a total rogue of a “porter” carried it for me in Ladakh… trussing it up in a thoroughly disreputable blue plastic sack to keep it clean and dry in the dusty, wet and dirty bus ride down from the hills last year… we’ve had a long, exciting time together, that trusty pack and I. And even now, every time I wear it I feel the warmth of a long, comfortable friendship and the promise of exciting new adventures together.

No, I’m not writing its obituary – at least, not yet. Its water-proofing came off some time ago, but it still has some life left in it… and it’s such a comfortable pack to carry that I won’t let go of it a day before it’s absolutely necessary.

And yet… it’s developing a few of those cracks and tears that indicate that the end is not far away.

Another of my worldly possessions that I love beyond reason is my camera. It has not been with me for anything like as long as my faithful backpack has, but it has been my means of recording visually all that was wonderful in my travels. My camera is to me an instrument the way my violin is… valuable for what it makes possible, and as such of a value far, far exceeding its monetary worth.

These few possessions are my friends – friends of the sort that you can be away from for months at a stretch and then, when you meet them again, find that nothing has changed. That, to me, is the hallmark of the very best of friends.

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Nike – But Please Don’t Just Do It

May 22, 2006
I was standing quietly at a traffic light – a red light, mind you – on Ring Road, minding my own business, waiting for the light to change, when a Maruti 800 drove over my foot!

Now, to be absolutely honest, it didn’t feel like a Maruti 800; it felt like someone had stepped on my foot. So I wasn’t in any great pain. But I was hopping mad.

For one thing, it was my left foot, which means that it was on the right side of the car – i.e., the driver’s side. So it wasn’t as if he couldn’t have seen it if he wanted to.

For another thing, how can you just go and drive over some poor, hapless two-wheeler-rider’s foot without the slightest provocation? I mean, it just isn’t on.

Well, as I say, I wasn’t really hurt and anyway the light had changed and the car had gone ahead. Being on my rattletrap Scooty, it looked unlikely that I could catch up with him, so there wasn’t anything I could do, so I just continued on my way.

Strangely enough, the Maruti 800 went a good bit down the ring road and then pulled over to the left. Whether the fellow had to take a leak, or whether he was waiting for me to catch up so he could make amends, I don’t know, and I didn’t bother to find out. I pulled up next to him and let him have it the best I could. To his credit, he didn’t try to turn the blame on me, or even to defend himself. He made guttural, placatory noises while chewing gum at me like a cow chewing the cud. So, having let off a bit of steam (but nowhere near enough) and having refused to let him get a word in edgeways, I drove off.

(The whole effect was somewhat diluted by the fact that my stupid Scooty stalled on me and I had to use my left foot to kick-start it, thus wonderfully demonstrating that there was, in fact, nothing in the least bit wrong with my foot.)

I had already noticed that his car had a Delhi license number. Is it just my prejudice or is it true that Delhi drivers are much more ruthless, callous and utterly lacking in the least bit of courtesy than the rest of the modern world?

Anyway, my foot is fine – thank goodness for my Nike sneakers!


Ranthambhore – The Second, Third, and Fourth Safaris

May 11, 2006
In the afternoon, we were lucky enough to venture on the same route again, albeit in the opposite direction. Routing in Ranthambhore is a complicated business. Each vehicle is assigned a specific route – one of seven – and is expected to adhere to this route without deviation. The vehicles are then distributed among the tourist parties without fear or favor – and without repetition as well. So we got four different vehicles for our four safaris. But, after the first safari, we found we had the same guide for all the safaris. Presumably he had found the tip quite generous enough. He was not, in fact, a very good guide, I thought. He was a local man, who had been guide for a mere two years, and his lack of experience showed in several instances when he was corrected or contradicted in his statements by the drivers, who seemed to be better informed.

The route we had followed in the morning was 7F (forward) and now as we set off on 7R (reverse) our hopes and spirits were soaring almost as high as the mercury (which, in fact, touched 42 C).

At first, though, we didn’t see anything to get excited about: only some spotted deer and lots of sambar deer, neither of which (happily) are on the list of endangered species. Then we found ourselves back in leopard territory, close too where we had encountered the leopard that morning. And, to my unceasing amazement, just as we rounded a curve, a leopard obligingly leapt off a low branch to the right of the track and disappeared in a flash into the dense undergrowth. I and the driver were the only ones lucky enough to see this amazing act: if you happened to be looking away or if you blinked, you would have missed it.

Frantic warning calls erupted all around us. Langurs and deer were calling repeatedly and loudly and even the birds were all a-twitter. The air of excitement was unmistakable: the langurs were leaping wildly from tree to tree, causing a virtual shower of dried leaves to descend upon us.

Hearts pounding, we inched forward, peering in the direction of the leopard’s flight. I noticed the monkeys on the highest branches were concentrating in the same direction. In a moment we caught another glimpse of him, streaking through the greenery. Then he was at the foot of the cliff on our right, leaping effortlessly up the craggy face. In seconds  he was silhouetted at the top, well over a hundred feet high. From this safe perch, he descended via a series of narrow ledges and surely and swiftly cut his way across the face of the cliff till he found a pleasant vantage point. Here he sat himself down, still high on the cliff, half-hidden behind a thorny cactus, and we could just see his spotted face contentedly surveying us in pauses between licking his paws.

There he stayed, for as long as we waited. Leopards are unpredictable creatures and our driver and guide had initially been wary lest he should circle around and suddenly descend upon us from an overhanging tree branch. They were happier now that he was at an observable and safe distance and proceeded to entertain us with stories of legendary (or mythical) leopard antics.

Our cameras were considerably less pleased with the distance and could only capture a tiny, tawny speck on which the characteristic spots were just visible.

At length, we left him to himself and proceeded in search of the Lady of the Lake and her family. Our driver cheerfully assured us that we had a “90%” chance of finding them where we had left them in the morning – and he was right! Approaching the area, we could see from afar a collection of jeeps gathered around a shallow stream of water. One of the tigers was at the edge of the water, its rump in the mud and its upper body on dry ground. He (or, perhaps, she – it was impossible to tell) was posing beautifully, as though well aware of the attention being lavished on him, turning his head regally first this way then that.

A few minutes later, he was joined by his sibling who had strolled out of the bushes on the far side of the narrow stream. She (assuming her to be ‘she’ for convenience’s sake) wandered over to the bath tub and lowered herself into the water backward, using her right hind leg to test the water before sinking in gracefully. For one brief moment they sat back to back; then the first cub, apparently unwilling to share his bathtub pulled himself out of the water and lay down on the grass to dry off. For a few minutes, the only action was the whirring and clicking of cameras. Then the tigress still in the bathtub arose suddenly from the water and silently padded out on to the grass on the far side, moving purposefully with an intent expression on her face. It is amazing how silently these animals move – no leaf whispers, nor does any twig snap when a tiger is on the move.

The cub reached a flat rock and half crouched on it, staring intently through the bushes. Just then, a small spotted deer, of whose existence we had so far been entirely unaware, started in the distance and took off like a shot. Young though the cub was – and our driver maintained that these two had not yet learned how to hunt – that deer had undoubtedly had a providential escape.

The tigress slunk off into the bushes, doubtless disappointed not to have garnered a trophy to show off to mama when she returned.

Her sibling continued sunning himself, unperturbed by this sequence of events.

In addition to myriad other rules and regulations, the forest authorities at Ranthambhore have strict entry and exit times for safari vehicles. Exiting late would incur a fine of Rs 500 – and exiting late began to look like a distinct possibility as time crept on and we lingered by the stream waiting to see what would happen next. Several other jeeps started up and left and finally we had to as well, bidding a fond farewell to the one cub who was still visible.

Excitement doubtless enhances exhaustion and we all crashed disgracefully early that night. So we were considerably refreshed when we were woken at 5.30 a.m. the next morning. After two wonderful safaris, was it greedy to hope for more tigers and leopards? Probably, but I felt no qualms about being greedy.

This time, though, we were not on our lucky Route 7. We were on route 2, which was reputed also to house a tigress and two cubs, but all we saw was some entrails and vague dragging marks in the sand. Apparently, the tigress had made a kill in the wee hours of the morning and dragged it right across the path and into the bushes to enjoy at leisure. We duly lined up behind some other jeeps and joined others peering intently into the scrub hoping to spot the family at breakfast.

Some people claimed they could see at least one tiger, and they pointed out confusing and sometimes contradictory landmarks to everyone else in a medley of languages. Directions typically went as follows:

See that dead tree over there? Not that one on the right, the one on the left behind the third rock from the jeep. Got it? See that fork in its branches, about two-thirds of the way up the trunk? Right. Now follow the direction of the upper branch till you see a rock. Got it? Ok, now just to the right of the rock, do you see a patch of green? Great. Ok, now look at about 21 degree to the north-east of that and eighteen feet along is a speck of gold which might be a tiger (or might be a dried leaf).

I scanned all the separate landmarks through my telephoto lens and found nothing that could (even with a healthy dose of imagination) be construed as a tiger.

At last, we gave up the quest for the imaginary tiger and resumed our track through the forest. Though our meanderings brought us no more big cats, we did see lots of other wildlife. The only predator we saw was jackal. They looked quite like domestic dogs, with characteristics of an Alsatian or German Shepherd, but smaller and less hairy.

Sambar deer and spotted deer we saw times without number. Sambar deer, said our guide, have poor vision and don’t run too fast, which makes them the tiger’s favourite meal. They were quite shy of our jeep, but if we crept up on them silently and slowly I fancied I could see them “peering” at us in a short-sighted and somewhat wary fashion, wondering what fashion of animal we were.

We also saw several nilgai, literally blue bull (gender in-specific, though the cows are not blue in color), which are a kind of very large antelope. The males were a dull blue-roan color (not a bright blue like a kingfisher) and large enough to look like small horses (see photo). They were not a very graceful sort of creature, but what can you expect of an animal whose scientific name in Latin and Greek means Ox, he-goat, camel and deer (Boselaphus Tragocamelus)?

A couple of times, we had a fleeting glimpse of a chinkara, which quickly vanished with a sort of jerky-graceful bounding gait. These are at the opposite end of the antelope spectrum, being small and light and fawn-colored. Of the deer and antelope species we saw, the chinkara are seriously endangered and the nilgai are threatened, but have been “exported” to Texas, where they are reported to be flourishing.

On both days, we saw a lone Indian hare – presumably two different ones, as they were in quite different areas. These are really quintessential bunny rabbits. Unfortunately they move too quickly to be photographable.

Other enthralling animals were of the rodent and reptilian variety. Mongooses (or mongeese?) could be spotted scurrying round in the dry leaves and towards the end of our safari Amit spotted a monitor lizard rushing across our path. This was a good catch, because these animals look so much like a leaf or a bark of a tree that they are virtually impossible for the untrained eye to spot (and perhaps for the trained eye as well, considering neither the driver nor the guide spotted it first). It is far from being a pretty creature, though one must admit that its particular brand of ugliness is quite compelling. After it had crossed the ground it rushed up a tree trunk and entertained us by pretending to be an inanimate object.

Not all the action was on the ground. A variety of birds took wing and startled us with colors and shapes that seemed almost out of place in the forest. The golden oriole was as startlingly yellow as the bluejay was blue. The paradise flycatcher added not just a dash of color but also the excitement of a forked tail. A few honey buzzards swooped through the woods, and one perched on a branch posing for a portrait photograph. Kingfishers were not so common here, but we were lucky enough to see one.

Peacocks were plentiful. Being large, heavy birds, they were most startling when they took to the air. Most often they gathered in small groups under shady trees and sometimes even sat in the dark, cool, hollow boles of trees. One peacock obligingly spread his wings and did a short dance for us (well, for his mate, actually).

These apart, we saw lapwing, magpie robins, treepies, partridge (no pear tree though), vulture, and a painted stork. Since we hadn’t specifically gone looking for birds, these were really quite a bonus.

Our drive and guide were on the lookout for an owl that had recently made its home in a large, leafy tree close to the track; but we never saw him.

Though we set out that afternoon with un-dampened spirits, and were lucky enough to be assigned to Route 7 yet again, we saw nothing sensational. We went to our tigers’ lair, but they weren’t at home. Neither was the leopard, or if he was, he wasn’t being social. We did catch a chinkara standing still long enough for one shot at it, albeit rather a long shot; and, at a watering hole we had some fun watching the langurs and a peacock. The peacock bent its long neck gracefully to the water and looked just as though it was admiring itself in the natural mirror, before sipping daintily and raising its head between sips to survey its surroundings. The langurs were much more wary as they approached the water one-by-one. They would consider the matter carefully, sitting on their haunches and wondering whether it were worth the risk, before stooping to drink, tails curled up in the air or spread flat on the ground behind them.

At another watering hole we watched a crocodile sunning himself, mouth wide open. In the distance, a chinkara and a painted stork kept some female sambar company. It was interesting to see the animals go about their daily business, various vegetarian species comfortably mixing with each other, and keeping a healthy distance from the non-vegetarians. Langurs seemed to be everybody’s best friends, probably because from their vantage points they could give reliable information about predator movements.

Of our favourite tiger family, we got word (other than from the monkeys) from various jeeps on the route. She had taken her cubs and herself and gone away up the hill, they said. One jeep had caught a fleeting glimpse of her on her way up. We diligently searched for her in the area she was last seen, and we did find pug marks, but of the lady herself we saw neither hair nor hide.

So, at last, we made our way out. The high fort wall running along the top of the hill on our right looked down on us with infinite patience. How many people and animals had it seen come and go in its thousand years of existence? We hadn’t found a chance to explore its ramparts and the temple at the top. Perhaps we would meet again, that fort wall, those craggy cliffs, this dusty, dry landscape with all its magnificent and fascinating animals. I would like to think so – but only time will tell.


Ranthambhore – The First Safari

May 9, 2006
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Everything around us is brown, and dry, and dusty. The heat is still subdued – it’s only a few minutes past 6 a.m. – but holds promise of blistering fury later in the day. The landscape is awe-inspiring. Jagged, rocky outcrops rise several hundred feet from the valley floor, with steep, impossibly high steps of stone carved into their faces. The rock edges look razor sharp, indicating a bloody end for anyone unfortunate enough to fall on them.

This is where the Aravallis meet the Vindhyas, slopes meet cliffs, bare rocks meet lush greenery, and – hopefully – where I meet tigers.

Four of us passengers were bouncing along in an open-top Gypsy along an untarred road: my parents, husband Amit, and I. In the front sat the guide and – behind the wheel of the ten-day-old jeep – the driver.

It had been a taxing journey getting this far. Amit and I started by air from Bangalore at 4 p.m. on Friday and since then we had mixed at random highly unequal proportions of sleep, food and travel. In Delhi Amit’s father met us at the airport, with a car and driver. We went straight to the railway station and met my parents. We bought ourselves a rather expensive combination of paratha and sandwich for dinner at the spanking new food plaza and then headed for the train, bidding farewell to Amit’s father along the way.

We settled ourselves down as comfortably as possible in two upper and two lower side berths – not a very practical proposition for Amit and my father, who are not of a size and build conducive to being folded into a 5’x1’ space.

At any rate, it was only a matter of a few hours. It was past 11 p.m. when we retired, and at 3 a.m. we were duly awoken by the train attendant, who warned us that our station was nigh. It was 3.30 when we stumbled off the train on to a comfortingly familiar-looking noisy, crowded (well, considering the hour), brightly-lit platform. A car was waiting for us and a scant half hour after alighting from the train I was stretched out on the hotel bed, trying to catch up on my precious nightly complement of sleep.

A futile exercise, as I well knew: At 5.30 a.m. when I was still deep in my dreams, we were woken by a firm knock on the door and an unwelcome voice announcing morning tea/coffee.

An hour had passed, and by now we were all wide awake, riveted by the landscape and shaken by the incessant jolting of the jeep on the rough track.

Though we were on the lookout for any interesting animals that wandered our way, I, for one, was just dying to meet some tigers. Spotted deer were the first to cross our path, but these were less than exciting; I had seen so many of them in earlier safaris in another national park. A tiger, now, I had glimpsed only once before, and that all too briefly: I had not even a single photograph by way of documentary evidence of that encounter.

Excitement mounted palpably in the jeep when we saw from afar a bevy of safari vehicles gathered round in a broad and unruly semi-circle. Surely they were watching a tiger?

They were. We joined the group and they pointed her out to us. Though she was not too far away, she was not very easy to spot, having effectively camouflaged herself in the grass. We immediately took a few photographs “for the record” – but we were all a little disappointed. Wouldn’t she come any nearer and pose for us?

She was a young tigress, our guide informed us, not bothering to lower his voice greatly. She was about 18 months old, still a cub. Her mother, named the Lady of the Lake, was one of the oldest tigresses in the reserve. She had a brother, who had been spotted a short way ahead, on the other side of the path, also well hidden in the bushes. And where was Mama? She must be away, patrolling her territory and scouting for dinner, said the guide. Breakfast, he pointed out, was probably close at hand, as evidenced by the crows circling above, doubtless hoping for a free lunch.

We waited. Time passed. People spoke in muted voices. In every vehicle people stood on the seats or perched on rooftops. There was no breeze and it was getting hot. A mongoose appeared and scuttled around, seeming to be perilously close to and entirely unaware of the tigress.

Suddenly, to everyone’s tremendous excitement, she got up. She was moving! Alas – away. She disappeared deeper into the grass and we could not see her at all.

Some vehicles left. Others moved around, hoping to get a glimpse. We moved forward, to where her sibling had been spotted deep in the undergrowth. We could just make him out, lying on his side and twitching his ears, swishing his tail, stretching lazily and sometimes brushing his face with his paw. In the dark, cool greenery, we could tantalizingly make out his movements, but could not really feast our eyes on him and photographing him was out of the question.

Then, out of nowhere – the mother! My first thought was: she’s huge. Where she came from we never knew, but suddenly she was there, lurking in the grass just off the track, clearly visible. Our driver had confidently asserted that the tigress cub would eventually cross the track to join her brother on our left. Now, just as we were all busy shooting her mama, she appeared out of the grasses on our right and strolled on to a bare rock a mere 20 ft from us. Here, she settled herself comfortably and surveyed her kingdom with supreme indifference to the vehicle-loads of tourists gaping at her. Cameras whirred and clicked as she lazily swung her head this way and that.

Without warning, she rose all at once and came trotting purposefully straight towards our jeep. In that moment, my fingers froze – not out of fear (she didn’t seem aggressive) but out of sheer stupefaction. The photographer in me was completely overwhelmed as I watched that big, beautiful golden cat padding straight at me as though she wanted to jump right in and share the leather seats of the brand new Gypsy with us.

Then she veered to her right and went around the front of our jeep, just 5 ft from the bonnet! In an instant she was amongst the greenery on our left, under the watchful and disapproving eye of mama, who still lurked in the bushes close to the jeep.

Both of them turned and disappeared into the bushes; the cub was lost to sight, the mother only just visible by the movements of her ears and tail.

But the excitement, the tension, the unmistakable thrill of that all-too-brief moment when she crossed our path – that was as unbelievable as it was unforgettable.

A few minutes later, we moved on. We had a prescribed route to cover and reaching the exit gate late would incur the wrath of the forest wardens and a Rs 500 fine. Besides, who knows what other treasures awaited us in the forest?

For a long while, we found no other treasures – or at least, no other carnivores. The landscape unfolded magnificently, moving away from the towering cliffs to rolling, open land with dry, rocky stream beds. Then we entered a transient green belt and again the rocky cliff appeared, parallel to the track on our right and almost perpendicular to the track on our left. A small pond of water ran along the foot of the cliff on our right. Here, the vegetation grew thick and lush.

The driver and guide were on high alert. Monkeys issued a warning call – a short, high-pitched yip, quite different from their normal low, pleased-sounding hooting. We were in the territory of another tigress, said the guide. Perhaps the monkeys had spotted her on the move?

The driver and guide were scanning the undergrowth carefully when the driver suddenly stiffened and brought the vehicle to a complete halt. Then, he reversed slowly and carefully. What had he seen?

“Be ready,” he breathed in an uncharacteristically low tone. “Leopard. There!”

And there it was indeed. Leopards are much, much more difficult to spot than tigers because they are very shy and elusive creatures. They are also, supposedly, more sly. Quite apart from that, they are highly effective at climbing trees, where their coloring provides them perfect camouflage.

This leopard lay right next to a fallen log of wood, just off the track. With the dim lighting and the log, twigs and leaves around it, he would have been entirely indistinguishable from its surroundings, had not someone pointed him out. Then I had time for one hasty click of the button, before he was off slinking into the gloom without a sound.

We waited and backed and forwarded a bit, but to no avail. The driver could discern the spotted fellow stopping for a drink, but to the rest of us, he was invisible.

Nevertheless, we were elated. A leopard and three tigers on our first trip out! We had another three safaris to go – could it get any better than this?

Little did we know then, that even greater excitement was in store in the afternoon safari.


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