Thursday, July 30, 2015

The missing king

On the occasion of Tiger day, I would like to draw the attention of my fellow travellers and environment watchers tot eh plight of Corbett Tiger Reserve.

On my recent visit to the Reserve, I was excited to know that there has been a steady increase in the eco-tourism space around the reserve. More area was being covered under the Buffer zone allowing tourists a grander experience. The Corbett Tiger Reserve is spread across 521 square kilometres and is Asia's first of its kind. If one is to include the neighbouring Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and reserve forest areas, the complete stretch of this tiger reserve stands at 1,288 sq km which is steadily expanding.

I was booked at the Aahana Resort, which lies in the buffer zone of the reserve. The in-house naturalist took us for a guided safari the next day. The driver of the government-approved vehicle was a local named Suresh Kumar. His family had lived in these part for decades. He was the quiet sort, mumbling sullenly only at the sight of noisy travellers in other jeeps. It was when we stopped in the middle of the reserve as the naturalist from the resort had to relieve himself, to my absolute shock as jeeps are not supposed to stop let alone allow visitors to leave the vehicle in the reserve, that I asked him about life in the jungle.

"There's nothing left here. No one follows the rules. People throw money at us and do what they want. No one wants to work with the reserve for long, there is only so much one can tolerate. People come here day after day and yell at drivers because the tiger did not come out. Visitors wear flashy clothes, shout in the jungle and throw plastic everywhere. Will any wild animal come out? Every year the government declares that new space has been included in the jungle. Then, more hotels come up. More people come and make more noise. The animals run away from them. Only a few men in my village had seen a leopard when I was growing up, now the leopards come at night or day. The animals have started moving out of the forest more frequently and into the villages."

The naturalist had returned and our conversation came to an abrupt break. We carried on to a dried up river bed at the heart of the jungle. We stopped here for breakfast and tea. The naturalist was away to take yet another 'natural' break and I took the chance to pick up the conversation from where Suresh had left it. "There's nothing to say madam," he said. "If the bosses find out that I am talking to you then I will lose my job." Disappointed, I headed up the machan by the riverside to look at the forest and wonder why humans had been so unkind to it.

Just before we left the core area, Suresh stopped suddenly and pointed to the track on which we were driving. That is all I saw of the King, the pawprint.

We spotted a jackal on the drive back but nothing apart from a few birds in the forest.

Then by a stream and in the golden evening light, we saw a tree full of honey beehives.

There was much to ponder over as I watched the setting sun. Was the sun also setting on the happines of the residents of the Corbett Tiger Reserve?

Much needs to be done to restore Corbett's former glory. As visitors, it is our responsibility to treat the forest with respect and pay close attention to our behaviour. Should we not be comfortable to align our manner with those required of us in the forest, we must not venture near it. A friend had once correctly mentioned, "you may not live in the forest but wherever you are, the forest lives in you." We should make amends as soon as we can. Educate ourselves, friends and family to be repsonsible, to be human.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The floating islands of Laknavaram

I didn’t really have a clear picture of where I was headed as the car raced along the fields of cotton and roadside villages with daredevil boys, who tried to race every car that slowed down on account of traffic. I was sure though it would be quite the place to be. Anticipation is half the joys of a journey into the unknown. After crossing a few hills and an incredible stretch of road along a lake, I was finally close to my Riviera-like destination. The car rallied along the offtrack path and finally came to an abrupt halt just after a board carrying the name of the resort. Haritha Resort, Laknavaram.
It was a pleasure to be able to stretch my legs outside the confined space of the vehicle. The driver, a quiet man, ferried my luggage to the brink of what seemed like a regular paved bank of the lake. I followed him, intrigued by what I was about to see. A colourful suspension bridge.

Beyond the known
Without stopping for a moment, the driver continued wordlessly along the bridge as I fell behind, soaking the wetness of the gurgle and splash of the waters underneath. The vast expanse of the lake was quite unbelievable, justifying its local nomenclature as samudram, the Sanskrit term for the sea or ocean. I could see several of the tiny islands, finite dots chasing infinity. I took after the driver, walking slightly faster to keep up with him, for I could see the suspension bridge turning at a sharp angle ahead. Although there was just one way to head for, being alone on that bridge made me feel very tiny and the hope of human company, although a quiet one, would surely reassure me. The end of the suspension bridge was hidden by a dense canopy of trees on one of the islands and I was only too eager to find out what I would find hidden behind those dark shades of green. I was in for a surprise.

The main building of the resort is located on the island that I was walking towards. I had been informed of “alternate arrangements” to stay there. At the moment, I took the sharp turn on the suspension bridge and found myself in a semblance of a children’s park. The suspension bridge ended at a brightly coloured paved path leading into a building that I could now see. The cemented enclosures of the trees around the paved roads were also painted in bright shades of yellow and red while a plain peach double-storey building awaited my arrival.

I climbed the wrought iron stairs to the first level, the main entrance of the building. The water level of the lake rises and falls in accordance with the rains and hence, permanent cement pillars hold the building up from sudden surges. The first floor houses a comfortable sitting area and an indoor restaurant with a glass wall facing the lake. I ordered a coffee and accustomed my gaze to the vastness of nature.

Boat to paradise

My reverie finally came to a pause, albeit with a sigh, as the manager of the property took me for a round of the residential complex in the building. The rooms were simple and functional, and each of them had a balcony overlooking the lake. Picture perfect! The manager asked me if I would like to stay in one of those rooms instead of the previous booking. I paused, only for a moment, but the possibility of something even more fantastic urged me to explore further.

The large motor boat chugged to life and I took a place at the head of the boat, watching the stern as it skimmed the waters, taking me towards a green and brown horizon. The many islands, 13 to be precise, on the lake have a dense canopy over them lending an element of mystery to them. Being relatively unknown to the Indian traveller, this virgin slice of paradise along a waterfront is a reminder of what a retreat should be. This throws you into the elements as it were, the bubble-wrap of comfort thinning out to connect you with the greatness of the Creator.

I was still lost in thoughts and hugging myself in glee at having undertaken this journey that brought me here when I spotted my destination. Two standalone cottages standing at the edge of one of the islands, it had been just a speck from the main building but as we neared, they seemed straight out of a picture postcard from Bali. Thatched roofs and dark wooden walls made for a fine example of secluded luxury, standing on a steel framework, jutting into the lake.

As I stepped on to the island, I found the soil much softer given the recent spate of rain. From the inside, the cottages were very functional with all basic facilities. A double bed overlooking the window on the lake, a steel almirah (made perfect sense given the high level of humidity in summers), a mirror, a bathroom with basic amenities and above all, a verandah running on three sides of the cottage where you can sit or stand to take in the view.

Lost in space

Like the driver of the car, the staff member who was manning the boat wordlessly brought in my luggage and placed it at the foot of the bed while I stretched out on one of the folding chairs on the balcony. The sun was setting in the distance and I had two full days to live in complete peace with myself and a polite, quiet staff to provide me with whatever I need. Even as I was thinking the words to myself, a cup of coffee was brought in by a smiling woman.

If there is a personal paradise, well... it will have to wait for two more days.

Copyright: Exotica, the wellness and lifestyle magazine from The Pioneer Group, available in all rooms of select five-star hotel chains

Friday, July 17, 2015

Sound travels!

I have been reading up a bit on how travel preferences speak volumes about the kind of person you are. I thought it would be a good idea to share my staple song list that remains the music to my ears whenever I hit the road. I hope that should I meet any of you around the bend sometime, we can share more music along with a few laughs.

Hotel California, unplugged version - The Eagles
This version of the song is my pick-me-up. I hear it to ease into sleep or to kickstart a long day. It's an any time song to me. On the road, however, this song really helps me think clearer, sing along and generate better ideas. Oh! I am listening to it right now.

Happy - Pharrell Williams
This is my song of choice when I have put off packing for the last moment and need some "love" to get me going for a long trip. The peppy number is best for looking at the bright side of things, specially when it is all my fault!

Elements of life - Tiesto
Although my trance-loving days are far behind me now, I always find myself returning to the magic of this track. Progressive psychedelic is more me but this EDM track makes difficult moments on the trip seem easy.

Wild World - Cat Stevens
Travel, mainly solo travel, makes me quite morose. Contemplation leads to painful memories as travel often acts as a vent to let go of the past in the oncoming wind. This is the perfect song to ease into the present for me.

A Real Hero - College & Electric Youth
Long drives can be painfully slow and sometimes, all I need is some Ryan Gosling on my side. This song was the first time I noticed the gorgeous actor. The retro sound of the track makes me see real life in sepia. I usually follow this track by Under your spell from the same film.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

There's magic at Tathastu

Finally home after a long break at Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. My generous hosts, Tathastu Resort, made every moment of the stay so much more memorable. Spread over 15 acres, Tathastu Resort caters to the whims and fancies of even the most picky traveller. First things first, I had no tiger sihghting. Although I cannot say I had not hoped for one but it had been raining when we went for our only proper safari in the jungle and the cat, true to their nature, stayed as far as they could from exposure to the rain. There was, however, several remarkable sightings. I shall compile all I have learnt in a separate entry over the week. As always, I was smitten by the village and the sheer beauty in which the people reside.

Apart from the jungle safari, my hosts organised a visit to the neighbouring Khoka Dam where the resort's naturalist helped me spot several rare and beautiful birds.

Back at the resort, I made a new friend, Ranger. The golden labrador was a constant, enthusiastic companion whenever I would be around the reception area. My time at the sprawling Tathastu Resort was thus divided between napping in one the splendid rooms in the property and accompanying Ranger on a tour of the property after those specially delectable meals from the resort's kitchen. Here's Ranger with Mr Rajnish at the reception area overlooking the pond used for fishing. I was heading out for one of the safaris and Ranger wasn't very happy to see me go.

On the second night of my stay at Tathastu, I was offered a room in the unique cave rooms in the property. I was given the option to choose from the treehouse, the tastefully done tents, the modern and comfortable villas or the rather different experience of the cave. My choice, thus, was obvious. Here's a look at my bedroom which was the smallest (read coziest for a solo, easily-frightened female i.e. me).

The caves are made of a special cement and is rather painstaking to create. The interiors are decorated with least flourish, in keeping with the sombre, one with nature, attitude of the property. But wood and mud surfaces can be transformed, with the right attention, into a lavish experience. Here's a queen-sized bed in the master bedroom in the lower section of the cave room.

See what I mean? Don't be overawed just yet. The most fascinating section in the cave rooms are the powder rooms. The shower, for instance, is designed as a waterfall! The latest fittings complement the surprise of the raw setting, making it a place worth visiting, with or without nature's call.

The property is all set to expand to accommodate more visitors by the end of the year and a unique arts and craft centre is sure to be a delight for creative minds in the country. I shall keep you posted on their developments while I keep a tab on their upcoming spa centre, designed as an amphitheatre to accommodate all aspect of spiritual and physical well-being along with 15 kinds of mud baths! Glued to news from them till December. Here's an odd-looking piece of wood I found during the walk around Khoka Dam.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Five tastes of paradise

To start with, I do not live to eat. I prefer eating what I like to see or smell. I have sampled everything that has found it sway to my plate and as a rule, I hardly ever waste food. I respect food but I don't live in it. There have been only five occasions when I have not had just enough of a sampling. I don't mind going back, every now and then, for another taste of these.

The full, tall glass of Punjab seems more a threat to the uninitiated. It is actually a great reference for the attitude of the people of Punjab. Large-hearted, loud laughter and a large appetite. I dare you to down a full glass at one go. If you do, the next glass is on me!

This harmless-looking eatery at the heart of old Amritsar was where I sampled, much more than fair share of, the stuffed soya kulchas. Needless to say, I avoided the joint for the rest of my visit but I have found myself itching for a sample every now and then.

Having fasted an entire day during the holy month of Ramzan, during my visit to Hyderabad a few years ago, I was led to this little place next to a Parsi bakery (another mouth-watering memory sans images) and opposite the Hyderabad Biryani House. I found this preparation rather odd and was informed that it was "Haleem". Halal meat is used for this preparation and the meat is cooked overnight on a slow flame and then tempered through the morning hours. It is only by later afternoon, a few hours before the fast is to break that the meal is finally ready. This is not a dish to be taken at face value, loaded with spices and fat, even a small amount is quite filling.

During my visit to the Konaseema in Andhra Pradesh this year, I discovered pure joy for my sweet tooth. Prepared of rice flour roasted as paper thin sheets and stuffed with jaggery and nuts, this unique sweet dish a speciality of the region and is quite the taste for me. A hint of saltiness followed by a burst of sweetness and the crumpling texture of the rice flour sheets. Sigh!

My friendly neighbourhood fix. On the way to the Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindavan, I always stop by this gentleman's shop for amazing pedhas. Prepared from condensed milk and jaggery, this sweet is mainly taken as an offering to the God, who in turn is merciful to me and forgives, unlike my waist, the extra packet I carry just for myself.