India’s Big Cats

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Beautiful Bhamsa

Wow! There he was, lounging high up on the rocks. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Bhamsa, a 3-year-old male leopard. On a previous safari in Africa, then one in Sri Lanka, I had hopes of a leopard sighting. No luck. These cats are secretive, elusive.

PHOTO-2018-05-08-15-58-37We were in the rugged countryside near Narlai, a rural village in Rajasthan, India. Just us, a guide and the jeep driver. First we bounced around the back country near our hotel, off roads, into fields, through bush, stopping frequently to scour the landscape. A few peacocks. Antelope. Errant cows. Nary a leopard. I was more than disappointed, certain this would be yet another failed mission.

Abruptly the driver turned around, backtracked through the village, on to a major road, racing like police on a chase. Hold on! A sharp turn onto a dirt track through rugged, barren terrain. The chase intensified.

As we approached a range of rocky slopes, the vehicle came to a speedy halt. “There, up there, a leopard.” Leopard? Where? I had a hard time finding him. Those spots and the beige coat blend in with the background. The guide gave me his binoculars. Yes. There he was. Awesome.

fullsizeoutput_9eaWe watched Bhamsa, mesmerized. He stared at us. My Olympus lens was not long enough for photos, but the guide took many with his Canon Power Shot and sent them to me on Whats App.

As we marveled at our leopard, out of nowhere appeared a young man with masala tea (an Indian special with spices), sandwiches and cookies. Also awesome.

We learned that eight leopards make their home in this region which is not on the popular Rajasthan tourist trek. Each leopard has his own territory of about 14 kilometers.

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Life expectancy for leopards is between 15-18 years. They weigh in between 70 -80 kilos, smaller than tigers which can weigh up to 200 kilos.

Bhamsa grew bored watching us, slowly stood up, stretched his long, lean beautiful body and moved on, jumping onto rocks out of our sight.

The excitement, the thrill of viewing wild beasts — be they gorillas, elephants, lions, leopards — in their natural habitat is like no other. I can’t get enough.

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According  to the last census (2014) there are 2,226 tigers in India which has 50 tiger reserves.

India rewarded us – not just with one leopard, but two tigers. We joined a group safari in Ranthambore National Park, a vast wildlife reserve in Rajasthan and home to 68 tigers. This time we were in a jeep with four others, some of whom had been on many tiger safaris and had interesting tales to tell.

On our morning trek we saw the imposing 10th century Ranthambore Fort up on a hillside, as well as the ubiquitous peacocks and antelope. Leopards also make their home in the park, but it is the tigers for which it is known.

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Due to shrinking habitats in India, leopards and tigers sometimes enter villages, killing livestock.  Humans have also been attacked.

After several boring hours, a tiger was spotted. That is, someone spotted a tiger. Again I failed to see it. This feline was sleeping in the brush, well camouflaged. All that was visible was the head. We drove around to another spot for a better view, soon followed by vehicle after vehicle. Word had spread fast.

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We, and at least 12 other vehicles filled with eager eyes, waited and waited. My patience was dwindling. I had seen enough of the tiger’s head. The guide knew best. The tiger would wake up.

It did. He sat up for awhile, taking in the conglomeration of vehicles, perhaps hoping we would disappear. No way. Not concerned, after a bit he headed in our direction, closer and closer. Even my Olympus could handle this. Ranthambore tigers are obviously accustomed to an audience.

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And, not far behind, another stunning tiger. They were brother and sister, 1½ year old cubs, we learned. They paraded by, the female following her brother, remarkably close to the safari jeeps.

Too close for comfort was the tiger which jumped in front of a resident at our lodging, Khem Villas, located in the wilderness on the edge of the park. The gentleman from London decided to take an early morning stroll (5 a.m.) and was standing by the pool when the tiger jumped from a wall. He froze. The tiger went her way. All was well. We later learned that a few days earlier another resident had spotted the tiger drinking at the pond on the property. I was not so lucky, but I was overwhelmed with the footage of the same tiger, a mother with two precious 2-month old cubs dutifully following behind, that had been captured by the hotel motion camera.

According to the staff, the tiger has left the park in search of new territory to protect her babies from a sex-hungry male. The latter are known to kill the cubs of a female if they want to mate. Khem Villas advises residents not to stray from the complex. Barriers are erected at night.

One of our vehicle mates, a young man from Mumbai, knew more about tigers than the guides. He had been all over India on tiger safaris. I was fascinated with the story of Machli,a famous Ranthambore tiger, “the most photographed tiger in the world” who died at the age of 20 in 2016. She had seven liters of cubs and is legendary for killing a huge crocodile. Google her. There are pictures of the crocodile kill, and her funeral.

Our fascinating 11-day tour of Rajasthan was organized by Wild Frontiers. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk

After returning from India about a month ago, we launched into house sale, a big project which has left me no time for blogging.   We must downsize and hope to move close to the Med. I have missed blogging and have much more to tell about India, and Egypt,  and where we may move.  So stay tuned.

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It will be sad to leave, but now is the time.

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Drifting Up – and Down – the Nile: Egypt by Boat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASerene. Soothing. Relaxing.  Our week-long cruise on a Dahabiya was wonderful.  This was not a 100-150 passenger boat for tourists, but a comfortable sail boat with eight cabins, each with its own toilet facilities.

Unfortunately the two sails seemed only for show. We were towed by a tug.  We and 12 other passengers repeatedly asked our jovial crew when we would be under sail. FinallyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

they gave in to pressure. One sail was hoisted (quite a procedure) but stayed up for a very short time.

 

No matter. Now I can relate to a comment by my friend Lynne, who spent much of her youth living on a boat.  “There is no place I’d rather be than on the water.”

The Nile is calm.  The only sounds for us were the purr of  the tugboat motor and the occasional call to prayer from a mosque on shore. Meals, delicious and copious, were on the open upper deck, but under a roof (the Egyptian sun is powerful). Our cabin mates came from six different counties.  The Egyptian staff were friendly and helpful.

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The Nile is the world’s longest river, originating in the highland lakes of Uganda and Ethiopia, and flowing into the Mediterranean. For centuries civilizations have settled along the fertile Nile Valley.  The rest of  Egypt is mainly desert as we saw on our long ( four hours) and boring ride from Hurghada on the Red Sea where our charter flight landed.

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Temple of Edfu was dedicated to Horus (below)
We cruised from Luxor up the Nile to Aswan, then back to Luxor. We disembarked for part of most days to visit Egypt’s wondrous sights, ancient temples and tombs.

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Horus, the falcon god, played a star role with the ancient Egyptians.
The Valley of the Kings just outside  Luxor with its richly decorated royal tombs is astonishing. For a period of some 500 years (16th to 11th century BC)  ancient Egyptians buried the mummies of pharaohs in secret, elaborate tombs here believing they would

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Queen Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahri, site of her temple near Luxor
thus be saved for eternity.  Sixty -three tombs have been discovered; eight are open to tourists, but not all at the same time. The most famous is  that of Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. It was closed during our visit.

Descending shafts into this underworld of murals depicting gods, goddesses, kings, queens, symbols, snakes, beasts and battles is a mesmerizing  adventure. Guides give lessons on Egyptian mythology,  explaining who’s who, but keeping track is a challenge. Hats off to Egyptolgoists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On our return to Luxor, we visited its other treasures: Karnak and Luxor Temples, as well as it bazaar.  In between we made shore visits to the temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo, Esna and its temple of Khnoum, the temple of Horus at Edfu and the temple Philae on the island of Algikia.

From Aswan, an optional tour to Abu Simbel was offered. I remember being blown away by this monumental sight with is gigantic statues on a previous visit to Egypt many years ago.  I wanted Bob to see it.

He could have done without it.  The trip by car from Aswan is four hours through the desert.  To avoid the heat, we had a 4 a.m. wake up call.  And, even though we arrived at 9 .m. the sun was already blistering.  Throngs of Chinese tourists with cell phone cameras clogged the narrow passageways inside the tombs.

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Abu Simbel
What is really remarkable about Abu Simbel, and several other huge temple complexes, is that they were all moved to be saved from drowning under the waters of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest reservoir created when the High Dam (the second dam) was constructed on the Nile.  Between 1964 and 1966 Abu Simbel was hand sawn into 1041 blocks weighing up to 30 tons each.  It was reassembled 210 meters behind its original site.

We visited the dam and the impressive Soviet-Egyptian monument honoring cooperation between the two nations in the dam construction.

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Soviet-Egyptian Memorial
Another optional tour – to a Nubian village — was also disappointing.  Nubians, the earliest settlers on the Nile with their own culture and language,  still live in traditional villages in southern Egypt.  Unfortunately, the one we visited was primarily a collection of shops selling the usual souvenirs. However, it did include an entertaining visit to a school where a “teacher” stood at a blackboard and instructed us in how to pronounce our names in Nubian.  Lots of laughs. This time we were surrounded by Taiwanese.  They loved it.

We had hoped to end our visit to the Nile and its sights with a balloon ride.  British passengers on our boat had been enthralled with views of the river, the Valley of the Kings, the desert and more.

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Not a  ski slope…
Another 4 a.m. wake up call.  We were driven to a field where huge colorful, deflated balloons blanketed the  ground, surrounded by groups of eager passengers.  It was cold at that early hour. No refreshment stands offered coffee. We waited, and waited, and waited, about three hours, for the signal that visibility was OK and we could soar up into the sky.  Sadly, visibility never improved.  No balloon ride.

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Sunset from our boat
But, the boat was bliss.

More on Egypt – the beach and the Red Sea — coming soon.

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Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo
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School group visiting the temple of Philae.
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March for Our Lives

“Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change” — Barack Obama’s tweet to march participants.

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Aix-en-Provence

Around the world they marched, from Washington D.C.to Berlin, from Los Angeles to New York, from Atlanta to Aix-en-Provence, France, where we marched — some 800 marches, including 10 in France.

All spearheaded by those courageous, determined students from Parkland, Fla.,  where the latest of too-many senseless gun massacres claimed 17 lives.  Since 1999, nearly 200 have died from gunfire at U.S. schools. More than 187,000 students in the U.S. have lived through school shootings since the Columbine school tragedy in Colorado in 1999.

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The slaughter is not limited to schools:  Mass shootings in churches, night clubs, concert venues, shopping centers.  Shootings in the streets, in homes.  The US has six times as many firearms homicides as Canada, and 16 times as many as Germany. Shootings are a daily occurrence in the U.S. where 20 children are shot on an average day.  In 2016, there were 38,000 deaths from gunshots.

Yet nothing changes.  Guns are easily obtained, even assault weapons.  Weak, spineless politicians are owned by the National Rifle Association whose coffers are enriched by the sale of guns.  The NRA advocates even more guns as a means of protection – truly insane.

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“Hey.  Hey.  Ho. Ho.  The NRA has got to go,” chanted marchers.

President Trump did not attend any of the rallies, including the one in Florida near his Mar-A-Largo resort where he spent the weekend, no doubt on the golf course.  His $1.3 trillion spending bill just signed took no significant new steps on gun control.

nra.17ENOUGH, say the students.  “Welcome to the Revolution.”  This time will be different.  They will not be silenced.  “Either represent the people or get out.  Stand for us or beware.  The voters are coming,”  Cameron Kasky, a student from Parkland, told the packed crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.nra.12

Those of us who marched in Aix  (some 100 give or take)  were invigorated, inspired and hopeful for change thanks to  teens like Cameron.  We are not young (for the most part), yet we are concerned about this gun insanity that is tearing our country apart, that is killing our children and grandchildren.  We, too, want change.

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A speaker urged us to register to vote, to encourage others to do the same, to write our representatives.  The momentum must not die.

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We were joined by a few French citizens.  Two young people told me that they only see this on television.  “This is real.  This is from the heart.”  They were impressed.nra.15

“This is what democracy is all about,” we chanted as we marched, joining the “millions of voices calling for change.”

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Coming soon, Egypt Part I, Drifting down the Nile.  Don’t miss it.

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Mimosa and Menton

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Mimosa – not a cocktail with champagne and orange juice,  at least  not in southern France.  Here it is  “a tropical shrub or tree of the leguminous genus Mimosa, having ball-like clusters of yellow or pink  flowers and compound leaves that are often sensitive to light or touch.”

High in the hills above the French Riviera, and along the coast,  those blossoms are bright yellow, bursting forth in February, heralding the beginning of spring. The glorious show of nature calls for celebration.menton.5

La Fête de Mimosa in Tanneron, a tiny  town at the pinnacle of the Route d’ Or (golden route),  honors the colorful spectacle every year.  Garlands of yellow decorate buildings, cars, posters.  Stands sell local products.  Bands play.  Shots are fired. Folks come from afar to enjoy – and photograph — the splendor.

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The narrow, twisty road leading to the town, the Route d’Or, offers magnificent photo opps of the blazing trees against a background of gorgeous scenery.  But, to get that perfect shot, you may need to risk your life.  There are no places to pull off, and traffic when the blossoms are at their peak is heavy.

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Sorry about the garbage bin. Need to master photo shop

We joined friends of the American Club of the Riviera at the festival, then continued on to Menton, our favorite coastal city on the border with Italy. We have decided the time has come to downsize, sell our house, and move closer to civilization.  We love the tranquility and beauty of our surroundings in the Luberon countryside, especially the ever-changing view of the hills from our porch/balcony.  But, it is probably not the best place for old folks (us).

I love the Med … and Menton.  It is almost like being in Italy.  Lots of Italian is spoken.  Answering machine messages are in two languages, French and Italian. I have been studying Italian on and off for years and relish  the opportunity to speak.  Italian restaurants abound.  You can walk across the border to Italy.

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Menton’s Old Town

Perfect.  We’ll move to Menton … that is, we’d be happy to move to  Menton.  Our mini trip was a reconnaissance mission, basically to check with real estate agencies on the availability of large, vacant apartments to rent on a long term basis.  We no longer want to be property owners.

We rented an Airbnb studio in the Vieille Village, the city’s ancient town with narrow alleys and steps, lots of steps.  It is pedestrian only, no shops,  no restaurants.  Those are below in the centre ville, town center,  down many more  steps. The old town is not the best place for my decaying knees, nonetheless fascinating, charming, and, had the weather been better, super photo opps.

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Menton’s Old Town

Our  Menton dream came to a depressing crash with reality:  the type of apartment we seek is almost non-existent.

This is the Mediterranean coast, vacation/tourist territory.  Apartments to rent are furnished, rented for the season, and mainly small.   Nonetheless, we left our contact details with numerous agencies just in case something with our criteria becomes available.  We expanded the search to nearby Roquebrune. There a few realtors did offer a glimmer of hope for the future.menton.6

We did visit one apartment, 100 sq meters, considered large.  It seemed small to us:  no storage space, tiny kitchen, just one bathroom, two very small bedrooms. The living room, however, was spacious with large windows and lovely views.

This will not be easy on many fronts.  We  came home and surveyed our big house and all the contents, many treasures collected over the years..  No way will we be able to move all this stuff to an apartment, even a big apartment.

Bob would prefer to rent a house, which may make more sense for us.  That may be even harder to find.  But, we can and must begin the process:  eliminate, sell, trash lots. We will put the house up for sale this summer when roses are in bloom, pool in operation, and it is at its best.

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No Mediterranean sunshine during our Menton visit.

We will bug those real estate agencies.  We are going back to Menton at the end of the month during the town’s renowned lemon festival for a luncheon sponsored by the British Association of Menton.  Maybe some of those folks could be helpful.

We won’t give up:  Menton or bust!

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Spicy Sri Lanka

 

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Banana leaves are used as wraps.

“Add a pinch of chili powder,” Iran instructed, then explained that Sri Lankans would add far more, at least 3 teaspoons. That would definitely pack a punch.  But then, Sri Lankan food is not for sissies. It is HOT.  Well, we thought so.


Happy New Year.  Happy Travels. May 2018 be filled with joy, good health, serenity and discovery. 


Chef Iran prepared seven different dishes for us at his home near Ella in the Sri Lankan hills where he gives cooking lessons.  We helped…and learned.food,21

He adjusts the spices, i.e. the heat factor, to western palates, he explained.  We had a fabulous meal of all his delicacies which we found tasty and just right on the heat scale.

During our two-week tour of the country, we frequently stopped at simple restaurants where buffets of numerous different dishes are the norm. Nimal, our trusty guide and driver, checked with the kitchen staff, then told us which concoctions to avoid — the ones with a fire factor of at least four hot peppers. There were many.  Even some of the supposedly mild ones were too much for us….maybe we are sissies.

Hotel restaurants which cater to international visitors offer both Sri Lankan favorites and western fare.  Sometimes the Sri Lankan specials are toned down, but not always.  I love to try new and different things.  But, after setting my mouth aflame more than once, I learned to start with tiny tastes.

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Fruit salad anyone?

The island nation offers an abundance of fish, exotic fruits, including 20 different kinds of bananas, all manner of vegetables — and spices. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, mace, tamarind and vanilla are among the Spice Island’s noted products. They grow in abundance all over the island in fertile and diverse soil types and varying temperature conditions, and are important export products.

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Chilies — a Sri Lankan staple

Yet it is chilies which are the most consumed spice and a key ingredient in the national dish, rice and curry, which Sri Lankans eat three times per day.  The curry can be made with vegetables, meat or fish, usually coconut milk, plus a blend of spices which enhance the dish with intense and exotic flavors.

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Bob gets slicing  instructions.

We helped Iran dice and chop to prepare three curries: bean, dahl (lentils) and chicken.  He also made aubergine moju, deviled potato and fresh coconut sambol. The latter is a condiment made from ingredients pounded with chili.

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These chilies have plenty of fire power.

His classroom is simple, a table and two gas burners.  He cooks in coconut oil and makes his own curry powder, a blend of coriander, cumin seeds, curry leaves and cinnamon. He roasts both curry powder and chili powder to give a smoky taste to certain dishes.

His mother taught him to cook, he says, and he is delighted to pass on her knowledge, skills and secrets to eager visitors, like us, from around the world.  Not all take cooking lessons.   “Guides bring guests here for a homemade meal, traditional food.  Sometimes there are groups of 15 or 16.”

Sri Lankans eat their main meal at lunch.  While restaurants offer numerous dishes, “at home we only have rice, one vegetable and one meat, not five or six different ones,” Iran said. When eating, Sri Lankans usually mix all the different preparations together on their plate, resulting in a mush which would not qualify for a Facebook food photo.   They drink alcoholic beverages before the meal, not with it.food.20

Sri Lanka is a land of many religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians are even known to visit the same pilgrimage sites. Many are vegetarians, although not necessarily due to religious restrictions.  Nimal said his family does not eat beef.  “Cows are gentle animals and give us milk.  No need to eat them.”  They also reject pork because “pigs are dirty animals.”

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The best places to experience the bounty of Sri Lanka are its markets. During our travels we visited several, all scenes bursting with vibrant color and hectic activity.  At the Pettah markets in Colombo huge trucks overloaded with produce drive through lanes crowded with shoppers.

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The Dambulla Produce market, a vast wholesale market, is the place to see an incredible variety of produce – and to stay out of way of the frantic workers.  A vendor at the market in Kandy gave us samples of fruits we were not familiar with — mangosteen and red bananas. There I purchased spices, for myself and friends.

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Iran gave us several of his recipes.  I tried his chicken curry.  Yummy.  See recipe, top right. food.17

In addition to offering cooking classes and home cooked meals, Iran rents several rooms in his home to guests.  He gets lots of kudos on Trip Advisor.  Contact him at irankarannagoda@gmail.com

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For more on Sri Lanka, see previous posts: Wonders of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife.

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Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@gmail.com and info@dsltours.com) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating.

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Dried fish find their way into many dishes.

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