My Indian Wildlife Adventure

You’ve had a taste of my long-gone-month-long stay in India. From here to here. But I’ve not been entirely honest with you. I told you it was a holiday I took alone. That’s largely true. But for just over a week, right at the beginning, I was part of a small experimental tour put together by my ex-brother-in-law Simon.  An Organic Adventure. About eight of us travelled through rural Karnataka and Kerala, looking at local ventures into organic and sustainable agriculture. If that sounds dull … well, you can’t have been there.

I have stories to tell. But it was the wildlife that always remains in my mind … even urban wildlife is so very different from good old English pigeons and magpies. In Bangalore it was wheeling and circling eagles. In Mysore it was enormous fruit bats coming out at nightfall, to find food; and by day there were the gossiping bovva- boy hornbills.

And in rural Karnataka it was frogs. We could see them constantly in the ponds near our lodgings, burping away by day and by night . The only thing that shifted them one morning was a rat snake, slithering around and looking for breakfast .

I used to go outside as darkness fell at 6 o’clock and listen. A complex symphony played out. First, a group of frogs would start their chorus, the noise intensifying until gradually becoming quieter again: then others would take over with their own ever-swelling sound.  Crescendo … diminuendo.  All through the night. Quite wonderful.

One day at a tea plantation at the edge of the woods (another story for another day) we suddenly – and I do mean quite suddenly – heard cicadas in the trees. From low beginnings the sound grew and grew, peaking at a crescendo so loud we had to raise our voices to make ourselves heard.. Then, just as suddenly , it died smoothly away to nothing. 

My favourite sound?  This. Every morning.  Just as dawn broke, a whistling thrush – just the one – broke into song.  It sounded just like some contented man, hands in pockets, ambling slowly down the street, whistling happily and aimlessly.  And it made me happy too,  every time.

And on our very first night in the rainforest, as I was unpacking, a whirring, clattering clockwork toy appeared from behind my rucksack.  Only it wasn’t a clockwork toy. It was a very cross hawkmoth, complaining vociferously about being disturbed.

The cross and out-of-focus hawkmoth who chattered and clattered round our room.

Then there was our stop off in Nagarhole National Park with its snowy-headed Brahminy kites, its kingfishers and eagles: its bison, its warthogs, its spotted deer, its mongooses and – of course – its elephants.

But more than these I remember the simpler pleasures: watching cattle egrets on the backs of cattle, benefitting from the insect life that definitely did not benefit the cattle.  Glimpsing a water snake surging across a placid pond. Going on a trek across the empty paths of the Western Ghats, spotting vine snakes, parakeets, macaques, rufous-bellied eagles…. and for some of our unfortunate team – not me for some reason – leeches, which left angry red welts behind when they’d loosened their grip.

No hornbill was going to wait around for me to take a snapshot.  I saw no cicadas. I wasn’t clever enough to snap a Brahminy kite or an eagle.  So my pictures don’t match the text. It’s just too bad. I can enjoy both and I hope you can too: souvenirs of memorable rural India.  Tales of what we actually did there are for another day.

Indian Journeys: A Local Train Journey with a Dramatic Ending

It was my last day in India.  I woke up to driving rain – the first I’d seen – a raging temperature and a sore throat.  But there was shopping to be done, packing to be done, general busyness.  I forced myself through the day, feeling worse all the time.

Chennai Station (Wikimedia Commons: PlaneMad)

I eventually made it to the station where I planned to catch a train to the airport: a local service with a quick journey time.  How was I to know that the train would fill and fill and fill until people were hanging from the doorways in true Indian Travel Documentary style?  With me crushed in the very middle of it all, feeling iller by the second.  Actually, ‘crushed’ doesn’t even begin to cover it: the only reason I didn’t fall to the floor was that it was physically impossible.

An image from Wikimedia Commons (archer10) gives the general idea…

At a certain point, I couldn’t stand it any more, and somehow forced myself and my luggage off the train, with everyone shouting behind me ‘No!  No!  Airport is two more stations!’  By then though, I was sprawled across the platform, vomiting and vomiting as the train departed without me.  A lovely man tried to help.  He brought me water which he poured over me, washing my face and making me drink.  A concerned crowd gathered, but by then I had lost all pride as I lay there, being repeatedly sick.

Two policewomen turned up, at as much at a loss as anyone else.  Finally, they made a decision.  They hauled me quite roughly, as if I were a dangerous demonstrator rather than a rather sick and weak woman onto a train – a fairly empty train, now the rush period was over – and chucked me on the floor.

At the airport station, we were joined by a rather handsome male officer who carried me, ‘Gone with the Wind’ style up the airport steps (a shame I was way too ill to appreciate it), and heaved me into a rickshaw, together with my luggage.  Our destination was the airport medical centre.  I was examined and at last a decision was made.  Hospital.  An ambulance appeared and I was dumped on a stretcher.  Bang!  The ambulance driver revelled in using his siren – who wouldn’t if it meant actually moving in the streets of Chennai?  I was at the Sri Balaji Hospital .

I remember little of the rest of the day. But the British Consulate must have been told, and someone there must have dealt with the fact that I was no longer travelling back to the UK that night.

This is the last of my ‘Indian Journey’ posts.  I’ll write more about my trip later though.  You haven’t heard about the Rainforest Retreat, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, French Colonial India, Couchsurfing in Thanjavur, Mamallapuram … or life in an Indian hospital….

Today’s entry for the Ragtag prompt: Sick

Indian Journeys: The Bus to Chennai…..

This was not my bus. It’s a school bus, and a smarter version. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the one I travelled in.

…. was the sort you see in all the pictures. Unglazed windows with bars across, and an engine that had probably been put together c.1953.  If this coach had been a human body, you’d probably have called it ‘lived in’.  As it was in fact a bus, I’d say it had had a long history of ‘near misses’.  Oh, and it may not have been cleaned since 1953 either.

But the big excitement was a motorway.  Well, perhaps not a motorway, but a toll road anyway, with dual carriageway, a hard shoulder and a central reservation.  The road surface was indifferent, but so superior to anything I had met previously  that I could understand why everyone described it as ‘the fast road to Chennai’.  Here’s what I found out:

Goats eat breakfast in Thanjavur. They’d have done better on the fast lane of the motorway.
  • 2 lanes doesn’t mean slow and fast. Everyone uses both lanes indiscriminately and over or undertakes at will.
  • Goats use the ‘fast’ lane.
  • Cows use the central reservation.
  • Bicycles going the opposite way to the prevailing traffic use the hard shoulder. As do pedestrians.
  • Men pushing handcarts use the main highway.
  • The hard shoulder is also for bus stops.
  • There are zebra crossings. God knows why, nobody ever uses them.
  • Pedestrians cross whenever they want to. Not at the zebra crossings, obviously.

Click on any image to view full size.

The Great Indian Train Journey: Mysore to Thanjavur.

Mysore to Thanjavur: 415 km by road, more than 600 km. by rail, and a 12 hour overnight journey: £6.00.

Bike park outside Mysore Station.

I’d booked my ticket the day before, and arrived at the station as directed, about an hour ahead of its scheduled departure.  It was just as well.  A station official took pity (for a small fee…) on the clueless European , who had no idea that she had to check in, in the manner of an airline passenger, or that she would find her seat by looking for her name on the passenger lists posted at each carriage door.

On the station platform, everyone was getting on with life.  A large family spread themselves on the ground, got out metal plates and canisters of food and got stuck in.  Rather than sit in a hot train, I headed for the calm of the Ladies’ Waiting Room until it was nearly time to go.

The train itself, once it got started got into the habit of making long stops nowhere in particular.  Chai and coffee boys went up and down the train.

As darkness fell, I was struck by the low level of lighting in the towns we passed through, and more particularly the stations.  Even at Bangalore, where we stopped for ages.  More chai, coffee and water sellers got on, then  vendors selling hot meals: I chose a vegetarian meal with rice and several different vegetable dishes – hot and very good value.  A young woman got on, having had her hands and wrists recently henna-ed on both sides.  Managing her life, which seemed to consist of calling people on her mobile, without using her not-yet-dry hands was quite a challenge. One family produced a three course supper with several dishes, on metal plates, then mum disappeared to wash up at the sink in the corridor.  I had different conversations with various passengers, limited by our inabilities in each other’s languages.

At about 9.00, we all got ready for bed. Our compartment got separated out into two sets of beds at three levels and smartly uniformed staff handed out crisply laundered sheets, pillows and a double blanket each for us to make up our beds in our own way.  For once, I slept … until 4.00, when so many passengers got out at Trichy.  I had only an hour to go before arriving at Thanjavur.

I was dreading having to wait on a dark deserted station for two hours (Waiting for whom? Another tale for another time). But it wasn’t deserted.  Not at all.  The booking hall was thronged with men – young men, old men, all sitting in convivial groups on the ground sorting and collating that day’s newspapers.  It took them almost the whole two hours that I had to wait until the next chapter of my story began….

Click on any image to view full size and to read the captions.

This was part of my Indian Adventure, November 2007.  I have used the place names that were then widely used, rather than the official names, which now seem more widely adopted.

Indian Journeys: The Auto-rickshaw

I arrived at Bangalore airport at about 6.00 in the morning. There were several hours of baggage handling, airport confusion and a taxi-ride through town, with auto-rickshaw drivers weaving and buzzing round us like angry wasps, before I reached my small family run hotel in a quiet residential quarter of town.

The garden at Terrace Gardens Guest House, Bangalore.

I stepped out of the car to the calls of loud birds yelling and whooping, and shortly after, found myself escorted to a roof terrace, where I gazed at distant huge birds with enormous wingspans (eagles?  vultures?) coasting lazily on the thermals. Attentive staff served me with unending supplies of small soft spongy pancakes – idli – with thin aromatic and spicy dipping sauces and much-needed coffee.  It was 9.00, but my body knew that back in England it was 3.30 a.m.

Unable to rest, I set off to explore the quiet back streets near the hotel.  Dozens of women were out in the back streets, crouching over their handle-less brooms, sweeping and re-sweeping the pavements.  Stallholders on street corners sold bananas, brown and well past their sell-by dates, or coconut juice straight from the shell.  A few bored monkeys sat about on air-conditioning extractor pipes.  At a building site, a bullock stood patiently while two men shovelled rubble into the cart it drew.

Delivery from the Builder’s Yard. This picture was actually taken in Pondicherry a couple of weeks later. But it’s a scene I often saw.

Then I reached the main hub of Bangalore, MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road) with the pavements, such as there were, thronged with pedestrians.   In the road itself, cars, vans, trucks, auto-rickshaws, all constantly blaring their horns raced along, over-taking, under-taking.  However would I find the courage to cross? Answer.  By finding a group of others also wanting to get to the other side and introducing myself into their midst.  There’s safety in numbers.

I hadn’t wandered too far when I was picked up by an auto-rickshaw driver.  He could probably see ‘Arrived from Europe this morning’ tattooed across my forehead.  He offered to show me round for 10 rupees.  I wasn’t green enough to believe that, but I was exhausted, and it wasn’t an unattractive proposition.  It was memorable – and fun.

My first friend in Bangalore: the rickshaw driver who took me on a tour of the city.

He proved an amiable guide whose English, while obviously hugely better than my Kannada, often led to mutual incomprehension.  Still, he hared round a variety of sites introducing me to the city he loved. ‘This is my Parliament building.  This is my national bird.  This is my Rajah’s Palace.’  And he waited while I ‘did’ Bengalaru Palace, one of the homes of the Raja Wodeyar.  As the Lonely Planet says, you are personally shown round by an aged retainer, who is rather keener to show you fly-blown pictures of the Royal Family than the quirky furniture and fittings.  Seedy but fun.  It’s not often you see cattle grazing in royal gardens.

In front of Bangalore’s Parlaiament building. My friendly driver took this shot.

He was in the pay of various shops.  Of course he was.  And he took me to some.  I was quite clear that I was not going to buy anything.  Not on my first day.  This proved to be an effective bargaining tool to bring prices tumbling to the level the shopkeeper planned to sell at in the first place.  Reader, I bought a couple of things, and nor did I regret it.

My new friend urged me to ring him whenever I needed transport in his fifteen year old rickshaw.  I didn’t.  But later that day I wished I had.  A different driver saw me puzzling over my map, and offered to help.  But his help turned out to mean trying to persuade me into shop after shop to buy. When he realised I really wasn’t going to buy anything, he dumped me.

I was in a poor part of town (where? where?) and with a 500 rupee note as my lowest form of currency.  When the average meal costs seven, I knew that offering this note in shops simply wasn’t an option.  I trailed round back streets busy with rickshaw drivers repairing their trucks, vendors splicing huge melons and squash to sell, garland makers fashioning powerfully scented jasmine garlands for Diwali, sheep drinking at doorways, solitary cows chewing at a pile of rubbish, tent villages…. until I finally found a travel agent, where they changed down my note.

And then I took a third rickshaw, asking for an address near ‘home’.  He took me directly there.  Food, an internet cafe, and home to bed, long after dark.  Night falls in a matter of minutes, at 6 o’clock.  My exhausted body knew quite well that the day was over.

 

This is my contribution to today’s Ragtag Challenge: Taxi

Indian Journeys

I began this blog almost ten years ago (What?  Really?).  But it wasn’t my first.  I’d started blogging two years before that, on a different platform, to record my memories of a very special holiday in India. It wasn’t the best of platforms and in fact it no longer exists.  Eventually I took a deep breath and moved to WordPress, so you can’t flick back and read about my Indian adventures here.

These days, I’m in a writing group.  Last week, we fell to talking about travelling, and about how we often overlook the pleasure of the journey in favour of impatiently anticipating our arrival at our destination.  It sent my memory scurrying back to India, and I can feel a series of posts coming on about Journeys in India.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.  Now that dates me……

I’d wanted to go to India for more years than I could remember.  As a London child and then as a student in Manchester, Indian culture had always been at the periphery of my life:  its foods, its smells, its clothing.

When we lived in Sheffield during my thirties there had been ‘The Arts of India’ at the Mappin Art Gallery, when craftsman from all over India came, and every day for about three weeks, made pots, wove, carved, and worked with inks and cloth in the art gallery. By night, since my then husband was the gallery curator, we’d eat together, joined by Indian heritage Sheffield residents who became our friends too. They would cook for us and we for them, and we’d talk into the night.

Some years later my son, by then eighteen and just finished with school, worked as a teacher in a village school in Uttar Pradesh, then travelled for some months following his nose all round India.  His letters – no emails then – tantalised me.

Family and work all pushed the dream of distant travel away. Until my 60th birthday and my retirement,  when my daughter and her husband gave me a very special gift to be spent on travel. India. That was it. I’d go there –  with no Malcolm, no friend, no companion found on Thelma and Louise – though I considered all of these options. This trip was for me.

And I went, choosing south India instead of the more visited north.  I have memories of markets, of quiet temples, in one of which I was blessed by an elephant, of cows and goats in busy city streets, of eagles soaring over rooftops, of eating at workmen’s cafes from banana leaf ‘plates’, of the Imam’s call to prayer every morning at 5.30 and every evening at 5.30.  I had a week in a small group too, in rural locations, discovering the parts of India that work the land.

A temple elephant raises her trunk before lowering it to bless me.

Above all though I remember journeys. It was on these journeys that I often felt closest to being an ordinary citizen doing ordinary things in an extraordinary  country.

  • My first rickshaw ride, on my very first day in India,  which turned into an extempore, personal tour of Bangalore from my driver, who loved his city.
  • The overnight train ride, travelling across India in the company of tea boys, soldier-smart railway officials, giggling girls, serious lecturers, a family groups sharing their carefully prepared three course meal before washing up, then arriving very early in the morning to a busy station community.
  • Or the intercity bus journey along a motorway, where goats carelessly wandered onto the carriageway from the central reservation where they grazed..
  • Or my final journey on a local train which I truly didn’t expect to survive so tightly were we all packed. But that, like all the others, is a story in itself.

Click on any image to see it full size.