And now for the good part. India and Nepal have a remarkable range of environments and it was fun to sample a good number of them. I mentioned earlier that we landed in over 25 cities; here's just a sampling of our high points:
Close your eyes, and then think of India. What kind of images do you conjure up in your mind? If you're like me, palm trees alongside a beautiful ocean and gorgeous sand beaches were not the first things you thought of.
It was a delightful surprise and a welcomed change of pace to spend a week on the beach in the tiny state of Goa. It was our lucky day when we stumbled upon Francisco's Beach Guest House, a small house located about 100 feet from the Arabian Sea. A short walk down the beach took us to a number of hut-style restaurants serving prawn curry, fresh fruit, and cold lassies (a drink made with yogurt), great places to sit in a beach chair and watch the sun set -- drives me wild.
Anjuna Beach was made famous when the hippies made it their hang-out in the 60's. It is now famous for it's Wednesday Flea Market: loads of vendors selling clothing, wall hangings, jewelry and crafts.
The gold sand and rocky beaches were stunning, and it was fun to come upon an image of Shiva carved out of stone near the water's edge. If you're planning a beach vacation, consider India!
We arrived in Mysore nearly three weeks after we landed on the continent, but the first time I really felt like I was in India was when we visited the Amba Vilas Palace, seat of the Maharajas of Mysore. This place is gorgeous. Unfortunately, you have to check your camera at the door when you go in, so the only pictures I have are from the outside at night, when the palace was illuminated by 97,000 bulbs for a special holiday. Not only do you have to check your camera, but also your shoes, and then show your ticket again (and give it back at the end of the tour) for entry to the palace. On our way up to the palace gates we saw two elephants, and Randy and Candi saw one walking through the halls outside the palace -- very cool. The Indo-Saracenic style (combination of Arabic/Persian and Indian styles) is captivating. The artwork included peacocks, elephants, and ferocious leopard statues gracing the entrance. The guidebook described it as "somewhat gaudy," but I loved the colors and materials -- granite, marble and tiled mosaic floors, carpets, carved wooden doors, stained glass, and on and on. It gave me the shivers!
I'm so glad we went to Kanha. I was skeptical at first, since it is quite a ways out in the sticks, and since the pre-monsoon heat was beginning to bear down on the continent. I'm so glad we went.
Yes, we saw a tiger from atop an elephant, which was a spectacle of unimaginable proportions for me. But it wasn't just the tigers and elephants; it was also the villagers and the birds and the wonderful trees. It was strange and wonderful and new.
As we entered the first gate to the park one morning a villager hitched a ride with us. This new passenger was an older man, very small and slight, wearing a well-worn scarf around his head and carrying a stick with a blade strapped on the end. He placed his stick under the seat and, as we ambled up the road, he pointed at the trees and the monkeys and chattered a bit, though I don't have a clue what he was saying. When we arrived at the second gate, he climbed out of the back of the jeep, I handed him his stick and we exchanged smiles as he scampered off into the jungle.
Our safari driver, Inder, was a real gem. A little on the quiet and shy side, he giggled when we told him that our hotel manager said he was the best driver in the park, and then he nodded his head and agreed that he was! He shared little tidbits with us, like how the villagers gather the flowers from the Ghost Trees and make an alcoholic beverage out of them -- a spirit out of a ghost tree! And one morning, while on our way to a sunrise safari, we passed by villagers in the dark, their fires giving them away. Inder told us they were gathering moonflowers to make a different alcoholic beverage -- "moonshine"?? For me, the most intoxicating thing was the sound of the birds chittering about in the still morning and breathing in the wild, clean air.
To tell you more about our wildlife adventures I'm turning you over to Candi, who wrote all about our safaris:
Kanha National Park
South of Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh, our next hunting ground was the setting for Kipling's "Jungle Book", Kanha National Forest. I was geared for a spectacle. A jeep would become our theatre box: the best seats in the jungle for gazing upon nature's wealth and magnificence.
As the curtained lifts, the domestic elephants and their mahouts, the elephant's trainer/master, set out at sunrise in search of a tiger draped over a warm rock or snuggled in a clump of soft elephant grasses slumbering after the evening kill. (Kanha is one of 9 parks in India that hosts the "Project Tiger" program. To date the Bengal tiger population has increased from 43 to 114 since 1973 when the project was introduced.) We began our days also at sunrise queuing at the gate; each jeep manned with a driver, a guide and up to six unbridled adventures eager for the hunt to begin. Inder, our driver, informed us that we would travel throughout the park then meet at a central location to wait word from the tiger spotters. If a tiger was detected, we would race to the location, climb atop an elephant and hope the tiger was willing, this day, to stay put and tolerate elephants invading his contemplative space. (Elephants are used to view tigers. A tiger, being a cool cat, doesn't react to these large gray beasts even though they are carrying a group of ecstatic spectators ogling at the central character of our drama).
Off we rolled, dust clouds billowing, cameras posed, and our guide pointing out the animals camouflaged in amidst the grasses. It took us some time to acclimate to the surroundings in order to distinguish the furry little creatures. Once we got the hang of it we were well rewarded. Chital (spotted deer), barasinga (swamp deer) and the largest of the deer family, sambar were abundant with an occasional wild dog pack pursuing a herd. Languar monkeys, the sentinel of the jungle, watched us from their lookout posts. Gaur, the Indian Bison, solitarily roamed the hillsides while wild boar would rustle through creating a disturbance wherever they paraded. Out on a grassy plateau, a family of jackals frolicked, entertaining us for quite some time. Butterflies and a host of birds like the green bee-eater, serpent eagles and white belly kingfishers challenged our spotting abilities. Insects and reptiles were not visible from the jeep. However, signs of their existence were discernible such as giant termite mounds. These free-formed red sand sculptures rising from decaying trees reminded me of the engineering marvel of the Great Pyramids of Giza.
As for the vegetation, it was as extraordinary and sometimes as exotic as the wildlife. The Sal tree is the jungle's cooling system. Working much like a swamp cooler, the tree pulls moisture from deep within the ground and releases tiny water droplets from its leaves. At the same time the rest of the forest dries and crackles, the Sal tree's leaves become succulent and a brilliant almost luminous green contrasting against its dark chocolate brown bark. Another unusual tree is referred to as the Ghost tree. The albino-like hardwood has smooth bark and sparse wiry branches with wispy yellow flowers at its tips. Its creamy nude branches against the glassy blue sky were like the calligraphy of Japanese ideograms.
Act two: Without warning, our guide leaning over the side of the jeep pointed to the sandy road. Pugmarks of a mommy tiger and her cubs were indented along side tire tracks. Anticipation built as we pulled into the waiting area -- will a tiger be spotted and more importantly would he/she wait patiently for a camera session? The word was given, "yes, we have a tiger." With the fervor of a get away car leaving the scene of a robbery, the jeeps tore down the dusty road to the identified location about 20 minutes away. A ladder was placed against an elephant and 4 people loaded onto the howdah (rectangular platform) along with the trainer. Then with the mahout tapping foot signals a top of the elephant's head and being acutely aware of the hollow drumming sound of gray flapping ears just below my feet, we swayed into the bush scanning for that elusive tiger. Eureka!!! The elephant moved to within 10 feet of the Bengal tiger who sat tucked in the grasses under a thicket of bamboo grooming and yawning after his feast.
Bravo -- Encore! The entire Creation was exquisite. These kinds of experiences have an unearthly quality and float mystically in my mind.
Our last foray into India was to the hill station of Shimla, reached via a "toy train" ride meandering through the mountainous area 10 hours north of Delhi. Crowded with Indians escaping the heat of the plains, it had the feel of Estes Park at high season. Gorgeous steep mountains filled with British-built houses and stores and restaurants and civic buildings. The mobs of people were a little unnerving, as was the hotel room we stayed at our first night in town. Luckily, a Kashmiri porter started following us around on the second day -- we ended up following him around, and he took us to a wonderful old house with a room upstairs for rent.
"Bally Hack" (the original name of the house) was the first house in Shimla, built by a British man in 1826 (it's now 173 years old). It sits on top of a hill overlooking the central square of Shimla, next to the church (haven't seen one of those in a while!). After the Raja of Siddhowal took over the house, they changed the name -- it's now called Siddhowal Lodge. Our room upstairs was big and beautiful and old and comfortable. Oh, I can't tell you how good it felt to get out of the hotels and into a house. There were cool breezes, pine trees and birds, and a large, sunny bathroom. A big thrill was eating breakfast in the diningroom downstairs. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the monkeys scampering around on the roof, jumping into the trees and sliding down the pipes.
One day we walked to Jakku Temple, a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God. It was a steep hike up a beautiful forested road, with lots of monkeys and their babies romping about. We bought some special pre-packaged monkey food at the bottom of the hill in a friendly attempt to feed the little critters -- what we didn't know was how aggressive they would be. We had to keep the plastic bags of food hidden; once they saw the bags, they would run right up to us and try to snatch them out of our hands. One climbed right up Randy's leg and tore his fanny pack trying to get food.
Most of the time we spent wandering around town, increasing our cardiovascular systems and leg muscles traversing the steep hills. There were several different market areas to cruise, and just down the street were a host of fruit vendors, which we visited each day. Bananas have been readily available in all of the countries we've been to, but it's been a long time since we've had cherries, strawberries, plums, apricots, three kinds of mango, and something new: litchie fruit. Shimla was cool enough to snuggle in and sleep well at night, and the lightning and thunderstorms reminded me of home.
In addition to Shimla, we planned to visit a lovely area up the valley called Manali, and then another place a couple of valleys over called Dharamsala (where the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama lives). Each morning as we read the daily newspaper, though, it became apparent that we were being penned in. Pakistan and India were at it again in Jammu and Kashmir (still a bit north of Shimla, but close enough to pay attention), with insurgents making their way into the areas along the border and apparently enough death and destruction to make world news. While this has been going on for years now, it appeared that the conflict was getting closer and closer. Military installations were mounting in the areas just north of Manali and just outside of Dharamsala. In addition, there was an earthquake along the India/China border, and people were bombing the railroad tracks on the route from Dharamsala to Delhi. Hmmmmmmm. We took the hint and changed our plans, staying in Shimla a few days longer, and then heading back to Delhi to leave India.
When the flight attendants finally gave their okay, another hour or so later, the pilot taxied the plane onto the runway and began its takeoff. Chanting and praying, the Berbers sang out in a pitch and volume that matched the ascent of the plane, stopping only when we were safely flying into the darkness.
Royal Chitwan National Park
What could possibly top seeing a Bengal tiger a top of an elephant, you might ask? Stalking wild rhinos on foot...(I use to stalk the wild asparagus in college but that is another time and story…) Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal had jeep, elephant and walking safaris.
Early one morning we stood intently at the outer edges of the jungle listening to our senior guide explain the method of zig zag running and means of getting up a tree as he tapped his long bamboo stick on the ground a few times. This was safety lecture 101 - Fleeing a Charging Rhino... Although our guide said several of his friends have died from being trampled, we felt secure in the fact he was still alive as we began our decent into the wilds. Yep, there is something a tad exhilarating about being kicked down a few notches on the ol' food chain as I step lightly on the jungle path leaving my prints along side those unfamiliar to me. We would crouch low looking through the under brush in order to catch glimpses of spotted deer, sambar, and wild boar. The rhesus monkeys were at play in the treetops and on the jungle floor.
As we broke through a dense section into a high grassland meadow our guide said he smelled rhino...the hunt was on. Taking a deep breath, realizing the pulse rate had already increased, we glanced wild-eyed at one another reviewing in our mind emergency running procedures. Our guide headed to the river saying the rhino probably was hot and wanted to cool off. We followed the riverbank until we came to a bend and there before us only about 50 yards away a HUGE male rhino tucked in the water up to his impressive horn. There we sat for about 5 minutes watching yet ready at any moment to scatter. (Later, Margie reported she had her tree already picked out.) Then the wind shifted and the last remaining dinosaur-like beast smelled us in the breeze, his head turned towards us with his nostrils flaring and with a sudden burst of energy he moved up the river bank and crashed through the under brush. After we got our hearts back into our chests we moved back down the river path exhilarated at what we were just privy to a rare sight indeed.
From our lodge, which over looked the river, we had a birds eye view of the comings and goings along the riverbanks. We watched water buffalo grazing on the small grassy islands scattered like tittlee-winks in the water. Elephants were brought down to the water's edge at mid-day for their baths. It was like watching a water ballet as the gentle giants swayed, swished, and sprayed. Birds of prey circled and plunged into the shallows, returning skyward with their meal hanging from their beak or talons. We drifted down river in a dug out canoe, one morning, to the protected elephant breeding grounds. We observed, along the way, the Tharu women working the fields and collecting elephant grasses. These indigenous people are agricultural folks and are protectors of the jungle. At the breeding grounds three keepers were assigned each elephant. Their tasks ranged from grooming to preparing food. The elephants were chained to individual poles and each afternoon they were released to roam freely in the forest returning each evening. Elephant bundles, a sweet desert, were the lure to return in the evening. The program is considered successful and plans to expand are in the works.
On our elephant safari we came upon several mother rhinos and their babies. One baby looked like it was still trying to get on this earth -- with wobbly legs and open mouth he kept bumping into his mother. The elephant guide said he was probably a week old. During another safari, we saw a sloth bear mommy and her two cubs and later another sloth bear. These bears are considered the most dangerous animal in Chitwan. As the final curtain dropped, we cheered -- our hunting expeditions victoriously completed. Relishing in the moment I paused, glancing back into the bush with fleeting thoughts of being ready to track a greater game, Nepal's enigma -- the Yeti. Until the next curtain call…
I'll just say it up front: we couldn't see the mountains. The mighty Himalayas were there, we just couldn't see them. This time of year, we learned, the mountains are covered over with the heat and dust particles and pollution from below, and the clouds from above. We caught glimpses of them, usually after it stormed the day before and the rain and wind washed everything away, and we got up really early to see them. Ultimately we decided not to go trekking; it was a hard decision to make, but given the expense and the fact that the mountains were shrouded, we chose to wait until a return trip. Bummer. Despite our disappointments, though, Pokhara and Kathmandu were splendid places to be. The Nepali people are warm and friendly, and it was lovely to hear them humming and singing as they walked down the street, or playing the sarangi (a violin-type instrument) for passersby, or passing flute melodies into the night. And the day hikes and bicycle rides and row boats were more than satisfying.
Pokhara's setting is very relaxing and beautiful; Kathmandu is an exciting place full of all the big-city trappings: international clientele visiting restaurants, government, shops, you name it. We went on a tour of the Kathmandu Valley one day, visiting revered religious sites and royal buildings. Okay, okay, so I was a little tired of visiting Hindu temples; we did a lot of that in India. The places on this tour were different enough, though, to hold my interest. Nepali architecture and the addition of Buddhist temples and monasteries brought striking contrast to the places we saw in India. Kathmandu is full of terra cotta pots, colors like mustard and maroon, lots of dark, carved wood, and prayer flags and fabric-line rooftops waving with the breeze.
By the time we reached Nagarkot I felt like Jack and the Bean Stock -- we climbed up and up and up, into the clouds that changed shape and form every few seconds. While other visitors begrudged the fact that they couldn't see the great Himalayan mountain ranges that surrounded Nagarkot, we reveled in the things that we did see: hawks soared out amongst the misty clouds, song birds sat singing from the trees outside our hotel window, and the steep mountainsides were etched with grey dirt terraces occupied with newly-planted seedlings awaiting the monsoon rains. The scent of pine filled the air, and mica sparkled in the rocks.
There's not much to do in Nagarkot, except enjoy the scenery, hike around, and eat at different restaurants. One was called the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe," which was aptly named since it was perched cliffside and you looked out over the vast valley below. We whiled away the hours by poking around the area on the local villagers' footpaths. Some lead directly to hotels or restaurants; others lead us behind vacant buildings, their carved struts overgrown with vegetation.
Finally, the night before we were to leave, a great rainstorm emerged in torrents. As we had done on many occasions before, we set the alarm for dawn and woke to find the area still socked in with fog. As our last chance was seemingly shattered, we went back to sleep with heavy hearts, tired of the teasing. What happened next was like a scene from The Ten Commandments. An hour or so later we woke to find the clouds parting long enough for us to catch a glimpse of what Nepal is famous for. Even given our high altitude, with clouds having to drift up to get to our window, it wasn't enough to look straight out at the horizon. To see the mighty peaks you had to look at the clouds, and then look up again. Look higher, and there they were, clear as a bell and so, so beautiful -- different peaks from different ranges were uncovered for a minute or two, and then concealed again by the puffy clouds and mist.
It was just as incredible to see the mountain peaks poking up through the clouds from our plane on the return flight to Delhi. The Lost Horizon, Nirvana, whatever name you want to call it, they're not of this world. I can't wait to go back.
It's time to stop now, and I hope you found this an interesting place. We're off to Southeast Asia: Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, through Malaysia and finally to the tropical island of Bali. Please know that you're on my mind and in my heart
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