Intriguing India

 

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In April I joined my friend Wilma and 11 other German tourists for a 15-day tour of northern India and Kashmir. The advertising campaign touts the country as “Incredible India.” It is – as well as intriguing. Following are some aspects I found incredibly intriguing during my travels.cow.2

PEOPLE: My favorite part of India. They are the friendliest, kindest, gentlest, most open and talkative folk. Indians often approach and start a conversation. Where are you from? Do you like India? They ask to have their photo taken with you, and they eagerly pose for photos.   On a train, they share their food. In Kashmir, I was invited to join a picnic. When I had a nasty crash during one of my solitary escapades in the boondocks of Kashmir (details in future post) two young men came to my aid, offered comfort and a ride.

My seat mates on our train ride to Agra were delightful: A retired gentleman and a recently-married young woman, Shruti. We chatted non-stop.   I learned a lot about India.

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Train companions

Poverty in the country is overwhelming. There are beggars. At the tourist sites, the souvenir sales crew do pester. But, if you reply with a firm NO, they usually back off. Many have mastered salesmanship. “You look like a movie star,” a crafty fellow at the

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Khajuraho temple known for its erotic sculptures told me. My hair was a disaster. I was hot, sweaty, tired and felt like an ancient hag. He won. I bought the bronze bowl with the sexy etchings which I really did not want, but now I am glad I have this bizarre treasure which brings back fun memories.

Despite the body-to-body throngs in many places, I felt safe in India. I was careful and cautious with my purse and camera, but never felt that someone would accost me and grab my valuables.

Many of my German travel companions were on their fourth or fifth trip to India. “People” is one of the major reasons they keep returning to India, they said. “The people are so friendly. They have so little but they seem satisfied. They have lebensfreude (joie de vivre, zest for life). It fascinates me,” observed Sepp.

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Celebrants at a country wedding.

MARRIAGE: Some seventy percent of marriages in India are arranged. Shruti, 27, showed me pictures on her phone of her December wedding with 1,000 guests in attendance. She had spent a mere 10-minutes with her husband-to-be before the wedding. They asked each other questions about what kind of life they wanted, what they wanted in a mate. His answers matched her desires. She is obviously happy with her new life and man, and glowed when talking about him.   She said some of her friends had married for “love,” but she preferred to honor her parents’ wishes and let them find her a husband. For India, she married late, but “I told my father not to find me a husband until I finished school,” she explained.

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The bridal couple

As is the custom in India, she now lives with her husband and his mother. Once married, daughters live with their husband and in-laws. This is old age insurance for the parents, assuring that they will always be taken care of. However, problems between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legendary and the brunt of numerous jokes.

Shruti has no problems with her mother-in-law, but, unlike most married women in India, she is not in the kitchen cooking with her mother-in-law all day. She has a career and works in a bank. According to guide Rajesh, 70 percent of Indian women are housewives who spend six hours per day in food preparation. Indian cuisine is labor intensive.

My other train companion has two daughters, both married. He had a hard time finding a husband for one of the two as she is overweight, he said. She found a husband on her own.

COWS: Yes, they are sacred. They are everywhere — and perhaps not too bright. Now I understand the German expression: blöde Kuh (stupid cow). Hindus, 80 percent of the Indian population, are vegetarians. Cows are never slaughtered. Thanks to their milk, they are viewed as maternal figures, and are raised for dairy products, as well as plowing the fields. Cow manure is used as fertilizer and fuel.cow.1

So, what happens when a cow is too old to give milk or work the fields? The beasts are turned loose and wander freely everywhere, often in the thick of roads clogged with cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks . Horns blast. Drivers shout. The gentle beasts are oblivious to all. Traffic comes to a standstill. No one wants to hit a cow. There are other places to roam, but India’s cows seem to prefer to be in the midst of the melee.

They thrive on garbage, and there is plenty in India. In Varanasi where we witnessed numerous cremations on the banks of the Ganges, cows – and dogs — munched on the debris around the places where bodies had been burned.

Some lucky cows end up in cow retirement centers, Gaushalas.   India has 3,000 of these, but, according to animal husbandry statistics: 45,150,000 cows. Most meander ubiquitously throughout the cities and countryside.cows.4

Being an animal lover, I wanted to pet the poor fellows. The guide warned: Don’t touch. If hungry, they might be mean, buck with their horns, he said. I doubt the ones I saw would have had the energy. I obeyed nonetheless. I think these crazy cows add a puzzling, calming charm to India’s  chaotic ambience.

TRAFFIC: Cows do complicate the snarling masses of all sorts of vehicles as named above, plus pedestrians often in the midst. How could anyone even think of driving in this madness? The noise is more than incredible. Every driver seems to have his hand plastered on his horn. Who is honking at whom?   No way to know. Who has the right of way, other than the bovines? Survival of the fittest. Just plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Hats off to the drivers. We each had a rickshaw for our ride from the hotel to the riverbank in Varanasi. The traffic was abominable, but my skillful rickshaw driver kept his cool, pedaled his vehicle with aplomb, weaving around cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc. There were many close calls, making the ride more thrilling than the wildest of roller coasters.cows.5

We had frequent long journeys on a comfortable, roomy bus. In India, the bus driver is in a separate glassed in compartment with his assistant sitting next to him. The assistant is de rigueur. Four eyes are needed to watch ahead and to the sides for all-too-frequent obstacles. Our bus assistant also served bottled water, and, in our case, often stopped to purchase bananas for his passengers.

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Bus driver assistant purchases bananas for passengers.

We rode on rutted roads through the countryside and small villages, and on super highways as good as any in the developed world.

Alok told us there are 2,000 traffic deaths per day in India. Many drive without a driver’s license, but a license can be purchased – no test required.dogs.2

DOGS: There may be as many homeless dogs as there are cows. These canines are not pets, never were. They all are similar in appearance: medium size, short, beige/ tan fur. They wander freely everywhere, but most seem to have enough sense to stay away from auto traffic. They, too, thrive on garbage. None I saw looked malnourished, and they were not vicious. Yet I resisted the urge to pet. Unlike the docile cows, I feared one could bite. After experiencing India’s stray dogs, I came across this article, “The World is Full of Dogs without Collars”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/science/the-world-is-full-of-dogswithout-collars.html?_r=0   It’s an interesting read for animal people.

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I wanted to rescue this poor baby.

What about cats? I only saw two during the entire trip. No wonder. With all those hungry dogs, they would end up as dog food.

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Alok enjoying dinner in Kashmir.

CONTRASTS: The poverty, filth, garbage, noise and pollution are all mind-boggling. On our last day, Alok wanted us to see the new state-of-the art metro in Delhi. It, too, was mind-boggling: futuristic, spotless, sleek, quiet, fast.

Intriguing. Incredible. That’s India. More to come in future posts: Amritsar and the Sikhs, Dharamshala and Tibetan refugees, Kashmir.

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Weddings merit big celebrations. We came upon one in a small town during our travels. The groom was in costume  on horseback.

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No Indian recipe this time, but how about tasty Thai – sort of in the same neighborhood? See recipe column at right for Thai-Style Asparagus Beef Curry. Add some spice to spring asparagus. Click on above photo for recipe.people.4Holy Man.  Religion is another most intriguing aspect in India.  These “holy men” often pose near tourist sites, hoping for a donation.

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Adventure Africa: The Animals

animal.1The Big Five – almost. The leopard, the most secretive and elusive of cats, escaped us, however we were hot on a leopard trail more than once. Sightings of lions, elephants and Cape buffalo were plentiful. We even saw one rhino. Impala, giraffes, zebra, various antelopes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and lots of birds were also captured on our cameras.

Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.
Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.

(A previous post was devoted to gorillas in Rwanda, “Gorillas in our Midst,” truly the most outstanding animal experience during our African adventures.) Subsequent visits to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe were nonetheless rich, rewarding, often exciting, and always educational. Following are highlights of our animal encounters.

For more, see previous post, "Gorillas in our Midst."
For more, see previous post, “Gorillas in our Midst.”

ELEPHANTS: These massive creatures are a source of wonder. We spotted them in all three countries, and learned much about them. Botswana, specifically Chobe National Park, is home to 65,000 elephants. They eat 18 hours per day, as much as 150 kilos of food per day. In Chobe, most all the trees are bare, stripped clean by hungry elephants. During a Learning and Discovery session, we were told that one elephant requires about one square kilometer of space.

Elephants strip the trees bare.
Elephants strip the trees bare.

Chobe encompasses 11,000 square kilometers – clearly not enough for such a large elephant population. It is a dilemma. Sterilization or translocation is too expensive for the country. Furthermore, translocation does not usually work as elephants, no matter how far from their original home, will head back. Culling has been considered but would generate negative publicity that would surely cut down on tourism. “What can we do?” our lecturer asked. Anyone have any ideas?

Super large elephants with gigantic tusks are rare. Most have been taken out by poachers and/or hunters. In Botswana, guards “shoot to kill” poachers. The country has fewer poaching problems than many other countries, and has banned safari hunting.animal.17We marveled at solitary elephants munching on trees, large groups marching to rivers and mothers with babies in tow. Elephants can communicate for great distances with a rumbling sound, and other sounds not audible to humans. They can run at speeds up to 25 mph. If you happen to be charged by an elephant, do not run. “Stop and clap and shout.”

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The lion is not the King of Beasts as he is easily killed by elephants, Cape Buffalo, even Honey Badgers.

LIONS: None of our safari group was charged by an elephant , but one angry lion did charge an open safari vehicle. The driver saved the day and raced away at great speed. We had numerous lion sightings – magnificent, astonishing, brutal, gruesome. More than once we witnessed lion sex . No wonder. They are champion copulators, we learned, — up to 100 times in 24 hours. A male and female can be at it more or less nonstop for three to five days – without Viagra.

Lions have no need of Viagra.
Lions have no need of Viagra.

“This is National Geographic stuff,” our guide Abiot commented after we had watched a mating couple. Later that day, more National Geographic – too much for some. The Kill. Along the side of a road, a group of eight female lions was in the process of attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo. It was bloody. It was fascinating. It was agonizing.

The poor beast struggled to stand up, only to fall down and groan in pain. The killer team took turns. A few would lunge and bite, while others rested and observed. We watched and photographed for at least 20 minutes, but had to move on to our next camp. We later learned from the bus driver who passed the scene many times that the buffalo’s suffering went on for three hours before he succumbed.animal.7“This is a training session,” Abiot said. “These lionesses are young. They are not skilled at killing.”

I had naively assumed that when killing lions went for the jugular to put the prey out of its misery. That is far too dangerous with Cape Buffalo due to the horns. For this reason, Cape Buffalo, considered the most dangerous of African animals, are rarely attacked by lions.

He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.
He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.

Elephants are also not normally targets for lions. “Most lions are afraid of elephants,” a guide said. Even lions have enemies. Honey badgers – small but fierce – can kill a mighty lion. “They are very clever. They go for the private parts. If you ever encounter one, back off,” we were warned. We did see one along a safari track. The driver floored for a close-up view. The petite creature stopped and bared his teeth at us, as if daring us to get any closer.animal.18A group of baboons can also kill a lion. They have very sharp teeth. They are also mischievous. Several broke into the tent of a couple in our group. No real damage was done, but all their belongings were helter skelter.

Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.
Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.

HIPPOS: It is rare to see more than the heads of these giants which spend most of their days submerged. They do emerge from the water at night in search of food, eating up to 45 kilos per night. During the day they must stay under water because the sun cracks their skin, and they have no sweat glands. They are fast and can run at speeds up to 34 mph.   Because of the weight of the male, hippos mate under water. Babies are born in shallow water and stay with their mother for up to eight years.   A canoe guide in Zambia where we spotted hippos on a game viewing boat excursion complained that business was down due to an erroneous report on Facebook that hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa. Not true — the Cape Buffalo as mentioned above.

RHINOS: It was at a private game reserve in Zimbabwe where we saw one rhino. Three rhinos were introduced to the reserve in 2000 and six more animal.11have been born since. The reserve has an anti-poaching team who live on the grounds.   Rhinos are dehorned every two to three years to discourage poachers, but they are often killed nonetheless. Poachers don’t want to waste time tracking a rhino only to learn it has no horns, so they eliminate all. Horns do grow back.animal.5

Horns are sold to powerful criminal syndicates who ship them to Asian countries, including Vietnam and China where their weight is valued at more than gold due to the erroneous belief that Rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to hangovers.

It’s a thrill viewing these creatures up close and leaning so much about them. As fascinating and wonderful as the animals are the people. Coming soon:  Adventure Africa: The People.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

Our 16-day safari was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel, www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for the all-inclusive package (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa).animal.25Like my blog? Tell your friends.  Please leave a comment – if you can’t see the Recent Comments list below, use the link on the right-hand menu (below “Recipes”). Feedback is welcome. I love to know what my readers think about my posts.

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Gorillas in our midst

In my next life, I want to be Dian Fossey. Well, not quite. I’d rather not be mysteriously murdered as she was in the jungles of Rwanda where she studied and lived with mountain gorillas.gorilla.2b

After observing, photographing and admiring these magnificent beasts in the dense bamboo forests high in the mountains of Rwanda, I was smitten. It is easy to understand Fossey’s fascination with the human-like gorillas which share 98 percent of our DNA.

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Children romp and play, chasing one another through the thick brush. Toddlers cling to mothers, often piggy-back. Mothers nurse babies. And Big Daddy, the awesome silverback, keeps a vigilant eye over all.

“Watch out! One coming on your left….Look up, one in the tree… Be careful. The silverback is just ahead.”

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They were in our midst, the 22 member Kwitonaa gorilla family. One youngster raced by and grabbed the hand of a member of our trekking group. Another trekker was punched – lightly — by a teenager whose path he accidentally blocked. I was captivated by a nursing mother, no more than a foot in front of me. I could have easily touched her, but I dare not. We had been warned not to get closer than 10 feet to the beasts. Impossible. They were all around us, up close, and obviously accustomed to this parade of curious creatures who snapped away with all manner of cameras.

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Mountain gorillas are “about as dangerous as pet lambs,” Fossey once told Alfred Hitchcock, apparently to his disappointment.

Mama occasionally cast me a stern glance as if to say, “Oh no, you guys again.” Not far behind her, higher up on an incline, sat the silverback, a picture of majestic power, like a king with his subjects at his feet. He seemed disinterested, but weighing in at close to 400 pounds; I did not want to upset him.

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The Virunga Massif, volcanic peaks usually shrouded in mist along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are home to 10 gorilla families visited regularly by tourists.gorilla.23b

Treks to observe the gorillas are strictly controlled and organized by officials in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Eager tourists arrive at park headquarters at 7 a.m. where they are divided into groups of eight, supposedly according to the difficulty of the hike ahead. Each group (a maximum of 10 groups or 80 tourists gorilla.27bgorilla.20bper day) is accompanied by a guide, trackers carrying machetes to blaze a trail, a gun-toting guard (in case of attack by Cape buffalo) and porters. Guides are in radio contact with other trackers stationed in the mountains who monitor the gorillas and advise them of the various gorilla family locations.

No longer young and fit, we asked to be in an “easy” trekking group since we had heard the hikes to locate the gorillas can take up to four hours, one way, over difficult terrain. I had been very nervous, not certain we were up to the challenge. My fears were assuaged when I met the others in our party: Fran (66) and John (76), seasoned hikers from Scotland; Selma (72) and Barry (a bit older) from D.C., and a mother- son couple from Germany. Annette, who appeared to be in her 70s, was on her fifth gorilla trek. “I’m addicted,” she said.

Selma announced to the guide that she had had two knee replacements and could only hike if the terrain was flat. She explained that a woman in her hotel had seen the gorillas the previous day after an easy, 37-minute hike. She expected the same.gorilla.25b

Poor Selma…close to three hours later, soaked to the bone, we finally found our gorillas. The hike started out as a pleasant walk in sunshine through farm fields. The sun soon disappeared and we started to climb, over rugged, rocky, slippery terrain. Up and up. Steeper and steeper. We were at an elevation of 8,500 feet. I was frequently out of breath, but there were rest stops.

Porters help with the ascent.
Porters help with the ascent.

Fortunately I had hired a porter, Peragie, a tiny woman half my size but my savior. I had little to carry, just a small backpack with a water bottle and my gorilla.17bcamera. But, for only $10 (the standard charge for a porter), I figured it might be useful. She could hold my camera if I wanted to take photos with the phone and vice versa.

This mini power house did far more. On the steep sections, she took my hand and literally pulled me up. When the rains came, soon into the trek, she wiped my face and glasses. She tucked my pants into my boots – to keep the red ants away. She spoke no English, but I learned that she was 30 years old, a widow and mother of two young children. Her calm, gentle, caring demeanor was an inspiration and kept me going.

“My knees are wobbly. I can’ go any farther. I won’t make it,”   announced Selma, not far into the hike. Our guide assured her she could – would – make it. When we came to a high rock wall separating the fields from the forest, several porters lifted her over the obstacle.gorilla.29.bjpg We charged on, but the going in the tangle of jungle vines, roots and branches was a challenge. Rain did not help. “How much farther?” Selma asked time and time again.   However, we all were beginning to wonder if we would ever find the gorillas.

Over and over, guide Ignacie assured us they were not far ahead. “They’ve been here,” he explained as he surveyed the terrain. Of course, they were not waiting for us, but continually on the move, higher and higher, searching for more tasty bamboo.

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Playful baby

At last – a big patch of black lumbering through the jungle green ahead. We stopped. We could hear bamboo branches breaking. Suddenly more masses of matted black fur, on the right, left, ahead –all in motion. We were awestruck. After the grueling trek, it seemed miraculous.

Ignacie told us the youngest member of the family was a seven-day old baby. We came up behind the mother, cradling the infant in her arms. Unfortunately the 22-year-old silverback was ahead and she moved on to dutifully follow him before I could get a photo. The kids – all ages – were frolicking all around. Two teenagers got into a spat. “They are drunk,” Ignacie said. Apparently overdosing on bamboo has the same effect as too much booze.

The rain stopped. We moved about, each of us zeroing in on different family members for close up photos. It was thrilling, amazing, and beyond our expectations to be so close to these intriguing creatures.

Trekkers are supposed to spend no more than one hour observing the gorillas. Perhaps because our journey had been so long and arduous, Ignacie was generous. We were with them a bit longer, but not long enough. You cannot get bored watching gorillas.

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The trek down was worse than the ascent. It started to pour. This was the rainy season, and these rains were like no others I have known. The trackers decided to find a shorter route back through even denser jungle growth. The lead man thrashed a path with his machete. If it hadn’t been for my guardian angel, I surely would have slipped or tripped.

Selma survived. “I am glad it’s over,” she said as we reached the end. Had Ignacie not insisted, she obviously would have quit. We later learned that rather than sending a participant back, the guides call for a stretcher.   Trekkers are carried to the gorillas at an extra cost of $200. And, it is not uncommon for handicapped tourists to hire porters with a stretcher to take them to marvel at this wonder of nature.

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Group photo while we waited for Selma and Barry who were far behind.

The gorilla experience is costly, $750 per person for the required permit. This includes the guide, trackers, guard, but not the porters. There is no shortage of visitors, however. Since 2004, the number of gorilla customers has almost tripled: 20,000 in 2014. Much of the revenue helps fight poachers, as well as contributes to the country’s efforts to develop a high end tourist industry and continue its recovery from the horrific genocide of 1994.

Back in the early ‘80s when Fossey came to Rwanda, there were only about 240 mountain gorillas in the wild. They cannot survive in captivity. Today the number is estimated at about 900, with some 300 in the Volcanoes National Park.

Annette, our intrepid trekker from Germany, was planning to set off again the next day for another gorilla trek – her 6th.   She said she had never been so close to the gorillas as she had on our trek, nor had she ever been on such a difficult trek.gorilla.30b

Finding the Kwitonaa family did take far longer than anticipated, but only Selma complained. It is very rare that guides do not find the gorillas. If that happens, trekkers are offered the chance to try again the next day. Prosper Uwengeli, the park’s chief warden, told a New York Times reporter that in more than 30 years, guides have never had to shoot a gorilla and no visitor has ever been harmed by one.

In a research report, Fossey wrote that mountain gorillas are “dignified, highly social, gentle giants with individual personalities and strong family relationships.” Like Fossey and countless others who have watched them in the wild, I am enamored of these gentle giants and, if it weren’t so costly, would gladly endure another trek for another visit.gorilla.b1

Gorilla visitors can show up at the park at 7 a.m. with hopes of buying a permit for a trek that day, but that is risky as permits may be sold out. Most tourists book a package tour which includes the gorilla trek. We booked a 3-day package with Africa Adventure Safaris, an African company which also organizes tours in Uganda. Total for both of us was $3,250 which included a full-time driver/guide, three nights lodging and most meals, the gorilla permits, a permit and trek to visit endangered golden monkeys the day after the gorillas, city tour of Kigali and airport transfers. We were more than satisfied. www.rwandagorillassafari.comgorilla.10b

Bad - very bad -- hair day
Bad – very bad — hair day

From Rwanda, BB and I traveled south for more Adventure Africa: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Future posts will highlight our amazing experiences. But first, a bit more on Rwanda. Coming soon, “Rwanda — More than Gorillas.”

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It’s time for a hearty soup. East German Soljanka, a recipe from my friend and food writer Sharon Hudgins, is perfect to warm both body and soul. See Today’s Taste, column at right.

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