Tired of Re-Arranging Deck Chairs

One of my colleagues once mentioned that she was tired of attending government meetings: it seems that they were simply rearranging chairs on a not yet sinking, but could sink soon, ship. I feel that too. About our planet. Apart from a some work, many of the discourses, policies and projects around environment and sustainability seem like mere tinkering in a system that is seriously amok. 

Work that I then also seems unsatisfactory at some level: how to green infrastructure, but not really addressing the question why we need all that infrastructure in the first place; understanding why cities are sprawling, but not really anything about it. But then how does one make all this drastic changes? Can I?

So, I turn to my own life and lifestyle. And surprise, surprise. I can change some things, but some not at all. I can take public transport, but I can not change the extent of my travel. I can use less water, but really I can change the source of my water, I can not ensure that it is from the most sustainable source, and can not see that it is recycled. I can banish some plastics from my home, but not all. And most frustrating of all is food. I just do not what goes into my food. I can buy some organic food, but what do I do about milk? About fish and the occasional chicken?

We have happily created systems where we have little awareness of our world: we know little about millions of things we interact with everyday. But why do we need to know? Milk comes in bottles, water from taps or plastic bottles, clothes in a mall, cosmetics in pretty bottles. It is is all there for us, so no questions are asked. But we do, we realise that it is bewildering network of dependencies, cross-connections. It resembles a cow-web, which only a spider can navigate. Except, I am not sure whether there are any spiders around.

So, unable to tangle, unable to find that strand, we go back to re-arranging deck chairs! 

I almost died of shame!

I got really early in the morning to go to Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary, which is one part of the Wayanad Sanctuary. When I got there, I found three foreigners, hanging around the ticket counter, looking lost. The man inside the counter too looked a bit lost, and he asked me to wait a bit. Okay. One of the foreigners, a Dutch, recognised me from dinner as someone from the same hotel, and striked up a conversation. Till then, the ticket counter woke up; I was told that trekking was not possible at all, jeep safari was what was available. Their attitude was like take it or leave it.  So, we decided to share a safari. We were assigned a guide.

The guide did not understand a word of English, which was frustrating in the first place. But more than that, he was least interested in the wildlife, looked around with vacant eyes. The driver initially spotted a barking deer for us, but later drove with one hand on the mobile. Most of the sitings were done by us. The jeep driver also had to be periodically slowed down. Oh, it was horrible. I felt ashamed of the fact of what we had to our parks and santuries. It was silly to feel personally embarrassed, but I was the only Indian in the group! My chagrin was heightened by the fact that apart from the Dutch man, there was a couple from South Africa. South Africa: the country with fantastic parks!!

I did go and complained at the ticket counter, but the men there, just laughed at me, looked amusedly at each other, and got on with their work. What did one disgruntled woman matter?

Paradise, Anybody?

If there is indeed a paradise on this earth, I think I visited it today. I was so overwhelmed with it that I had to wait till evening to write some kind of coherent post about it. The name of my paradise was Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, situated in heart of Wayanad. I took a bus of Manathvady, which itself is not on the tourist map, to a small village called Periya.  I was the one of the three persons who got off here. Then, I had to take a jeep taxi to GBS, along winding r\oads, rather mud tracks. For the first time, I sensed that I was deep in the interiors; if the driver had decided to take me somewhere else, really I could do nothing about it. But, he safely deposited me in front of small board that simply said Gurukula. I could see no one, hear no one, till I had walked up some distance. Couple of women, stood there; we looked at one another uncertainly. Finally, they called Suprabha, my hostess for the visit. By the time, Suprabha reached, I was already turning my head up and down, left and right, trying to take in the richness of flora around me. Then Suprabha took me for a walk around the ‘land’.

So essentially, GBS is around 60 acres of land, spread over some three hills. There is a small nursery, and greenhouse, mostly for endangered species, some part given over to cultivation of paddy, vegetables and fruits to cater to people working there, but mostly, as Suphrabha says, the land has been left on its own. Why is that so wonderful? When GBS was started, and as they brought more land under conservation, the land was in various stages of degradation: tea, coffee, paddy or just plain deforestation. Gradually, over the years, after weeding out the exotics, and some degree of intervention, the initial diversity of trees was back. Taking advantage of the fact that the sanctuary is located at middling elevation, not too low, not too high, they have collected vegetation, especially ferns, and mosses from all over Western Ghats, and introduced them into the landscape.

Afterwards, I went for a walk all by myself, and realised that city dweller that I was, I did not have the vocabulary, grammar or the syntax to describe what I was seeing. There were stories to be hold in this precious piece of land, but maybe, it needed another story teller.  Each tree was a story into itself:  the barks of brown-black, leaves, mostly green, sometimes read, hanging in clumps, or singly, or in pairs, the many creepers wrapped around them, some mosses, some ferns, and of course the wonderful gnarled roots, sometimes forming natural steps to climb up. There were stories in the way trees intersected with each other in different dance postures, there were others in the dance of the dappled sunlight, as it slowly moved across the sky, still others of groups of twigs, leaves, berries lying on the forest floor, food for worms, and moving back into the earth.

Forests, are my paradise on earth, and I was glad I had a chance to walk in one.

When I finally found IT….

I  have travelled a lot, to remote places, alone, taken rooms without TV, all that I could do: in search of silence. But so, when I finally found it yesterday, I was surprised, that I was slightly unnerved.

Kotagiri is a small town in itself, and I am putting up in Union Church Guest House, some 200 m away from one edge of the market. The church is located an incline up from the road, and the guest house is located further up. So, it is away from the road too, and in any case there is not much traffic on the road. There are just two rooms in the guesthouse, and one was empty. The pastor’s house is attached to the guesthouse, but there is a separate entry, and the walls are thick enough to shield any sounds. So, yesterday evening, I found myself with literally no sound: there was no fan, the birds had stopped chirping, there was no winds, and so the leaves were still. There was only the sound of my footsteps, creaking on the old wooden boards, and amplified a high ceiling room. If it sounds eerie, let me tell you, it was. It was not at all romantic, and I sincerely wished someone else was there with me. So, what did I do when found the perfect silence, that had proved so elusive till now. I drowned it out, in sound. I saw a movie. By then, the occupant in the next room had come, and his footsteps reassured me that someone was around, and I dozed off to sleep.

Of Biodiversity and Tea Plantations

Another longish journey. From Thrissur to Coimbatore by train, and from to Kotagiri by bus.

The bus journey from Coimbatore to Kotagiri was refreshing. It was a journey through the higher reaches of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. One has read that that the Western Ghats is a biodiversity hotspot, many species are endemic to it. But it is only when  you the sheer variety of trees, in all shades of green, and also of yellow, white and red, that one probably understands biodiversity!

Oh yes, there were lots of tea plantations along the way. Now, I have heard people rave about the beauty of tea plantations; there looked picturesque to me  too as a kid. But now, when I see them, it seems that men have destroyed the verdant forests on these hills, and then covered them with tea plants, in an attempt to cover the nakedness of these majestic mountains. Tea plantations might be lovely compared to our concrete jungles, but when you look at rainforests, and their beauty, I am sorry, tea plantations just don’t stand a chance.

Peace with Thekkady

Today, I made my peace with Thekkady. The forest department person actually managed to talk to one group to include me, and made arrangements so that I could pay them directly. So today morning, I found myself with one tribal guide, and a Canadian couple in midst of the evergreen forest. The next two hours were stupendous. We walked in middle of dense vegetation, watched lots of birds, langurs, and also sambhar. It was my first serious trekking experience (I can not believe that I have waited so long for this), and it was great fun. Clomping on leaves, then tiptoeing through the trail once game was been spotted, it was all very great.  I came back completely inviogated.

I went back to the resort for couple of hours before lunch, and found that the resort had also grown on me. For one, they had arranged the towels on my bed as dainty fishes, instead of ungainly ducks. Jokes apart, I  saw that while I find it a bit artificial and tacky, it was really nice for families. I saw lots of fathers lying on hammocks with their kids, or teaching their kids football. There were some newly married couples, who were lounging near the pool, saw another one playing carom. They were families, taking a break from their work life.

For lunch, I went to Ambavadi restaurant. Yesterday, I had had my first Kerala meal: vegetarian. Today I had the non veg Kerala meal. Yummy.

In the evening, I went to a spice garden. A young girl from the family was showing me around the plantation. They were pepper, cardamom, coffee, cocoa, all spice, and plus tons of coconut, banana and jackfruit trees. They had also built a room atop a tower, which was connected by a long long hanging bridge. I am not easily scared, but I was scared on that bridge!! Obviously, this did not compare to the forest, but it was an enriching experience.

So it happens that just as I am about to leave Thekkady in the morning, I have grown to like it, and I do not feel like leaving it.

Tourist Heaven, My Hell?

Thekkady seems like a disaster after Kochi. Kochi was touristy too, but it seems completely different. First, the hotel was charging an exorbitant rate to arrange for an auto to drop and pick me up from the sanctuary. Then, so many autowallas kept on hassling me on the way there where I wanted to go for a safari and spice plantation or something else. I brought the tickets at the gate, and someone informed me that there were two boating tickets offered inside the sanctuary: one by Forest Department, and other by Tourism. One was less expensive than other by hundred bucks. Inside, the Forest Department, which offers cheaper tickets, said that there is no difference, Tourism one said that they have better boats. They did seem to have better ones, with open deck. After buying the expensive ticket, I was left wondering whether I was fleeced. I consoled myself with the thought that the difference was price of one cappuccino.

I went to wait in the landing area. There were tourists of all varieties: lots of couples, couples in groups, families with young kids, extended families, old couples mostly in groups with friends. All in a complete vacation mode. I guess they have a right to enjoy, but all of this seemed completely out of place inside a wildlife sanctuary. Once aboard the boat, hardly any one looked around, no one wanted to examine the plants and birds. No, it was just the big game that they wanted. Well, we did manage to see a sambhar, and couple of elephants.

I wanted to go for a guided trek, but you pay the same price whether it is one person or four. The forest department said that I could find three people on my own, otherwise shell out 1000 bucks, he could not help me.

I came back to the resort, to listen to some more chattering, especially that of a group of old Maharashtrian ladies, whose cottage was next to mine. I would not have minded them if I did not understand what they were talking, but I did and it was mostly petty gossip.

I know I am ranting, but I am also PMSing. J

Update and General Rantings

Today was a tiring journey. A six hour long bus journey from Ernakulam to Thekkady. Woke up at the insane hour of 4:30, got ready, took a taxi to Ernakulam, and then the bus.

The journey was beautiful though: through twists and turns of mountainous roads, and through small town Kerala. I tried taking some pictures, without much success.

Then landed up in Sterling Resorts. My uncle is a member, and he very kindly agreed to let me utilise his days, which meant I made little to stay there. Everywhere, I was staying in budget hotels, so, I decided to take up his offer. But when as soon as I entered the resort, I questioned my decision. First, they had not sorted out my reservation. Then, I felt completely out of place. It was a middle class haven: I am not going to be mean on the post, but my thoughts were not kind ones when I saw all the families there. But my heart sank when I saw my room. They had given me their accommodation due to the mess they created: essentially a cottage. But it was wood, wood, wood all the way from ceiling to floor, and there was no tubelight. Dark, dinghy, I hated it. They even had towels folded into duck shape, and lying on the corner of the bed. I missed my Kochi Homestay.

I thought back about it. It had been simple, there had been no room service, they even did not clean room everyday, but every third day. Yet, I had been so comfortable there. First, it was brightly lit, no fancy lamps all over the place, just a tubelight, and two side lamps by the bed. A huge cupboard, a shelf to keep cosmetics, books etc., a sofa, and a study table. Apart from cupboards, there were hooks to hang your clothes. They never made the bed everday, but because the mattress and pillows were not the fluffy varieties, it was easy to make your own bed. Plus, shoes had to left at the building entrance, which meant that floor was clean. Very Sensible, Very Homelike.

Right now, with duck shaped towels.

Musings about Kochi

Went to the Jewish Town today. Was somewhat disappointed, maybe because  I had so much about it. Then went for an ayurvedic massage. Spent the evening in Fort Kochi again, lazing around in cafes, and doing some photography.

All this while, I was trying to make sense of why I am liking Fort Kochi so much. The most important reason is definitely the water.  Kochi and Ernakulam are twin cities, separated by the Vemaboonad lake. ( I am going to try and upload a map sometime soon). Though Kochi is part of the mainland, and connected to Ernakulam and other places by land, it almost seems like an island as there is water on three sides: sea on one side, and lake on the other two. In fact, the city owes its existence to the water: it grew into the city, when River Periyar flooded, destroyed the then important fort of Kodungallur, while at the time, creating a harbour at Kochi.

It is of course not just the water, but what the water does to the climate too. Afternoons tend to get very hot and sticky, but the evenings in Kochi are to die for. There is cool breeze flowing, reminding one of the water, even when one can not see it.

I am not sure how, but someone, or maybe all locals at Kochi, understood that “tourists” would like to relax, lie back, and just simply savour the atmosphere. They would like to forget that they are tourists, but feel at home. The Princess Street, which is the main street of Kochi, is lined with endearing home-stays, cafes and very sensibly with couple of grocery stores, tailors and bookstores.

The service at cafes are slow, but no one is a hurry.  The coffee or meal arrives at its own pace, and you are allowed to partake of it at your own pace. People read books, write journals or postcards, or simply chat. Two of my favourites (and also the Lonely Planet’s) are Kashi’s Cafe, and T Pot. Kashi’s Cafe is an art gallery cum cafe, it is a series of interconnected spaces, most of them semi open, and draped around a tiny garden. There is sunlight streaming in shafts, and wonderful play of shadows. There is usually some classical or instrumental music playing. The walls are white, and furniture made of simple wood. Their menu is simple: selections of breads, salads, soups, juices and some Indian dishes. Both times, I went I ordered French Toast with Fruits: 2 slices of water melon, 2 of papaya, one small banana, 5-6 slices of pineapple, one ring of orange. Two slices of French toast, made of freshly baked wheat bread, topped with honey The first time I ordered it, I gulped it down, but I do have photos of this lovely breakfast from second time around.

TPot: You guessed it, it is designed around the what the menu calls “A Ceremony Called Tea”. It has Teapots everywhere: hanging from the ceiling on long wires, rusted metal ones on a shelf, quaint China clay ones in the glass cupboard, small pots used in China tea ceremony encased in a kind of shrine. In addition to actual teapots, there are sketches, and photos of tea gardens, tea glasses (ones used in Indian all over), and of course teapots: some of these have been contributed by previous visitors. They have a huge collection of teas, flavours I did think were possible.

It is not just the cafes that are well designed. There is the Idiom Bookshop just off Princess Street: it has a lovely collection of new and used books. But, there also have a delivery service for books: they will courier excess books you are carrying for a charge. How thoughtful!!

And of course, the homestay where I was putting up. Sonetta Residency. But that perhaps deserves a post in itself!