Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017 Travel Calendar


2017 brought me my leanest travel year since I began active travelling ten years ago! Work and family commitments took centre-stage, leaving me rooted to home. I did miss the sense of excitement and discovery that travel brings, and I often found myself browsing through old trips’ photos for some armchair travel and nostalgia.

The road-trip to northern Karnataka in Jan 2017 was special, because I have finally seen all the distinct regions of Karnataka, where I have been living for almost 14 years now. Karnataka’s diversity in landscapes, wildlife, culture, art, architecture, and food have given me many fond memories and enriching experiences over the years.

Though I have no travel planned for 2018, I am optimistically looking forward to the year!
                                                                                                           
North Karnataka road-trip
This region had been on my wish-list for a long time, as it promised to be different from Karnataka’s other zones. North Karnataka’s close proximity to Maharashtra and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh has led to its unique culture, food, language and clothing. The region is also filled to the brim with a rich architectural heritage of diverse styles. The 10 days we spent in Bidar-Bijapur-Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole left me craving for more; so did the mouthwatering local food at khanavalis, traditional eateries in the region.

An artist paints the Bhuthanatha Temple at Badami


Hyderabad
A serendipitous addition to our itinerary, Hyderabad fell into place because we decided to access Bidar - the starting point of our North Karnataka road trip - via Hyderabad, as that seemed to be the best route. Although a short break, we were able to enjoy a fair slice of the city’s culinary treasures. I have visited Hyderabad before, and am vaguely familiar with its tourist attractions, which we decided to skip this time. With my cousin (who lives in the city) in tow, we spent a couple of days feasting on Hyderabad’s well-known as well as little-known culinary delights ranging from the very fiery to extremely sweet. And of course, copious cups of Suleimani chai and an assortment of breads and biscuits.

Irani chai & an assortment of biscuits at Nimrah Cafe, by the Charminar.


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Nature’s Classroom


An unedited version of my story published in the Nov-Dec 2017 edition of asiaSpa India.

I should have been distressed, but I wasn’t. I should have moped, but I didn’t. I continued sipping my hot chocolate as though nothing had happened, staring expectantly through the foggy window for signs of that magical swoosh of green, the Aurora Borealis. Worried about my lack of reaction to the news, my husband proceeded to console me by saying that he was hopeful about the storm not setting in the next day. I cheerfully told him that we should turn back as advised, halfway into our road-trip around Iceland - the trip I had meticulously planned, the trip that was all I could talk and dream about since six months, the trip that was so expensive that I felt pangs of guilt in spite of having painstakingly saved up for it.

That night, we were the only guests at a cosy wooden inn at Breiddalsvik, a small fishing town in Iceland’s craggy East Fjords. For that matter, in the week we had spent driving from Reykjavik - Iceland’s capital - to Breiddalsvik, we had been the only guests everywhere. I am not exaggerating for effect – we were literally the only two people on the road at most times, barring at Reykjavik, home to almost half of Iceland’s minuscule population. In October, at the onset of winter, the weather in Iceland is at its most tempestuous. So when the locals at Breiddalsvik told us that a ‘don’t travel for a few days’ warning had just been issued because of a storm brewing all along our route, we knew it was prudent to turn back. That was a huge blow, but why wasn’t I upset? The answer surprised me.

Stormy weather in October

Shorn of creature comforts like luxury accommodation, local cuisine (being a vegetarian limited me) and ‘branded’ shopping, which sometimes tend to define a travel experience, Iceland had helped me discover what was important to me. I learnt to live in the moment, without a plan - quite a challenge for someone who likes to be on top of things. My definition of well-being changed; I realised that feeling alive and happy could result from just a consciousness of the world, my surroundings, and its wonders, including undesirable ones like the impending storm.

A week ago, a day after I arrived in Iceland, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula welcomed me with howling wind that rattled our parked SUV like a cradle. Overcome by fear, I sat clutching the car door until my knuckles hurt. Our guide had already descended to the bottom of the hillock, and gesticulated wildly, beckoning me to join him. Mustering up all my courage, I stepped out into the 25 mps (90 kmph) wind, the warning for which blinked on the digital display by the roadside, and had prompted us to stop driving until it subsided. I quickly wobbled down the slope. There, sheltered from the wind by the rocky drop, I gaped at the deceptively tranquil sight before me: Kirkjufell, with its small cascading waterfalls. 

The hill Kirkjufell, with the waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss in the foreground.  

As the adrenaline coursing through me slowly mellowed, and my heart ceased to thump wildly, I wondered whether the threat of danger made one feel alive. The epiphany came yet another day, when I walked the slippery slopes of a glacier, with crampons strapped on, every step calculated and purposeful, avoiding crevasses and thin ice. In spite of the intense concentration, my mind registered both the sheer expanse of the glacier as well as the delicacy of the lace-like patterns on patches of frozen ice. Yes, the threat of danger had indeed made me pay closer attention to my every movement, and details of the landscape, which may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The summit of the glacier Svinafellsjokull.

Iceland took me out of my comfort zone, challenged me to rely on cues given by nature, and reinforced my belief in goodness. A fairly egalitarian society; the refusal to have an army; the rental company asking me to leave my car with its doors unlocked and the keys inside so that they could pick it up; museums refusing to charge us for our second visit because they said they noticed how much time we spent appreciating each exhibit - through large doses of pragmatism and visual poetry, Iceland reassured me that a lot is well with the world.

Bobbing in the hypnotic blue water of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, images from the road-trip flashed before my eyes. Geysers, bubbling soil, volcanoes, lava fields, craters, glaciers, icebergs, auroras, and fjords - phenomena which had merely been words, were now memories. To be in the lagoon’s warm water while the land around was in winter’s grip was a surreal experience. Slathering some mineral-rich mud on my face, I floated to the bar for a drink, happy that driving back had given us more time to spend at the same places, as well as a chance to meet those who had waved us goodbye days earlier. Our promise of returning another day had come true, albeit sooner than expected.

A day before I left Iceland, I stood on the viewing deck of Perlan, an erstwhile water tank in Reykjavik converted into a public building. The blue ray of light from the Imagine Peace Tower - John Lennon’s memorial – shot up into the night sky, with a full moon for a neighbour. Below twinkled Reykjavik’s lights, as though all the stars had fallen down from the sky. And then, unexpectedly, two green beams emerged from the moon and snaked across the inky canvas. The Aurora Borealis is rarely seen unless the sky is clear and dark, yet here it was, defying convention. The unbridled joy in that moment was a fitting culmination to what had been constantly reinforced throughout my trip to Iceland: “Allow yourself to be surprised.”

The Aurora Borealis (northern lights) over Reykjavik. The blue 'Imagine Peace' light, conceptualised by John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, is lit every night from his birthday in October until the day he was shot in December.



Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Sakrebyle Elephant Camp


Published in the 15 March 2017 edition of www.jlrexplore.com, a nature and wildlife-specific website

We were hunched over next to the kitchen building, unmindful of the water dripping over our heads from a water tank which had just overflown, peering in amazement at the gigantic reddish growth in the ground. Was it a flower? A fruit? A vegetable, perhaps? It looked not unlike a cabbage. We had no immediate answers, and the staff said that nothing like this had ever sprouted before. Lying prostrate before the wondrous object, I could see beetles and ants move along the sinuous folds of the reddish bulb, and between the cabbage-like leaves at its base, emerging coated with fine, yellow pollen. I soon discovered that I had seen the flower of an Amorphophallus sp. for the first time.

The Amorphophallus sp. with its pollinators

When I decided to visit Sakrebyle, I had no expectations other than that I wanted to get away from the city for some quiet time. There isn’t much to ‘see’ or ‘do’ in Sakrebyle, and that suited me just fine. A modestly sized campus, this Jungle Lodges’ property is a relative newbie, offering cosy log cabins across the road from Sakrebyle’s famous Elephant Camp. The smallness of the campus ensures that a holiday here is peaceful, barring the bird-calls that resound from bamboo groves at the edge of the property.

Log cabins at the JLR property

Allowing for backyard birding (literally), the property’s bird-bath offers birds some much-sought-after respite from the afternoon sun, while you sit behind a screen and enjoy their antics and birdsong. Even the shy Indian Pitta is said to be a visitor to this bird-bath, as is the Yellow-browed Bulbul, a Western Ghats endemic.

The hide near the bird-bath
Dark-fronted Babblers, which are endemic to the Western Ghats.
The on-campus flora is home to various butterflies, bees, beetles and other insects, and the resident naturalists are only too happy to take you on a nature walk. Some of these nature trails are longer hikes through the surrounding Shettihalli Wildlife Sanctuary, weaving though a mix of dense canopies, shrub-land and grasslands. Along one of these trails, I spotted a lifer, a Drongo-cuckoo, and was engrossed in observing it. The sudden trumpet of an elephant from behind us had me scramble away, briskly walking all the way back to the property. While having breakfast soon after, we saw the elephant emerge from the trail, a mahout astride it, and realised that it was a camp elephant.

A Scimitar Babbler
The trekking trail

The aforementioned ‘Sakrebyle Elephant Camp’ is located across the road from the Jungle Lodges’ property, on the banks of the Tunga River. Housing elephants which have been captured or born in captivity, some of them undergoing treatments for injuries, the elephant camp is fairly popular with visitors to the Shimoga region, especially with children. Watching the pachyderms being scrubbed clean in the river, sometimes playfully squirting their mahouts, I was left to deal with mixed emotions. However, understanding that matters cannot be looked at as starkly black or white, I ambled around the small camp, watching visitors interact with the elephants, sometimes apprehensive, but then, reassured by the mahouts, always enjoying the experience.

Elephants being bathed by their mahouts



Having emerged from the river, the elephants were now being oiled to keep them cool, even as their food was being prepared. They are fed in an interesting way – chunks of coconut flesh and jaggery are wrapped into a bundle using hay, which the giants gleefully devour. A few of the youngest elephants were play-fighting and chasing each other, only to be firmly nudged by an adult if they got too boisterous.



With this playful sight as my parting memory, as I turned to leave, a loud trumpet from one of the young elephants made me jump a little. Just as an elephant’s trumpet had marked the beginning of my trip to Sakrebyle, this trumpet signalled the end of my short but memorable time in the land of elephants.