Sun, Sea and Surf in India

Sun, Sea and Surf in India

Pondicherry had a lot to make up for before I even got there. I was angry with the weather for cancelling my trip to Kerala – which was the part of the trip I’d been excited about for the longest – and we’d subsequently booked Pondicherry very last minute. We were hoping to beat the monsoon by racing to the opposite coast to the one it was currently ravaging; I must say it worked.

It’s getting a little less sharp in my brain so I thought I’d wrap up my India posts here. The highlight of the largely hilarious trip was the Night Bus there – the 8 and a bit hour journey from hell, where we realised the utterly wrong thing to have done was to have booked seats right above the wheels at the back of the bus. I attempted to lie horizontal but not a single bit of sleep occurred as my whole body flew up and down off the mattress with alarming violence, we found ourselves looping our arms around the rickety bars on the side of the bed to ensure we didn’t fly right out and as soon as it got dark I frequently panicked, due to the dramatic squealing of breaks and tipping of the coach, that we’d gone off road and been hijacked. Out of the window once I looked and just saw a dense black expanse of trees and potholed mud stretching as far as the bus lights carried my vision – I definitely thought we were going to die. And as for the creepy bus staff…

Tourist 'information'

Tourist ‘information’

Pondicherry

Pondicherry

Pondi Beach

We made it, were yelled at to hurry up getting off the bus and then were dumped in a deserted street, a little delirious, at 6.30am. The hotel wasn’t open and we got shouted out of a cafe, which had had its door open, so we headed for the seafront. That was glorious. The road there is closed to traffic from 8pm till 8am so it is just full of joggers and walkers and families with push chairs. The beach isn’t one for swimming off – just a pile of sharp-ish black rocks tumbling straight into the grey sea – but it looked very atmospheric, the sea reflecting the bright morning rays of sun back to us as we sat at Le Cafe, the only cafe on the sea-side, which is handily open 24hours, and munched our cheese on toast and masala omelettes. To the left of the cafe the promenade stretches a long way, past a large metal statue of Ghandi, surrounded by white pillars, and ghostly stalls, empty now, which fill at night with vendors selling brightly coloured sweets and children’s toys. At night the beach is a lovely place to sit and people watch. The dogs roam the streets and beaches in packs, but are mostly unthreatening, children plod past you trying to sell you anything for money, people have skype conversations while watching the sea; they sit together and share headphones, or let their children play on the now-cool rocks. It’s very serene. Pondicherry is mostly that, serene and harmless. One the last night in Pondicherry us and the rest of the town, it seemed, gathered on the rocks as though to watch a firework display, to gaze in awe (in my case fear) at three storms converging on each other in the sea, all heading our way, sending lightning strikes to the floor in broad white forks. Then when the rain started we sheltered again in Le Cafe and watched as umbrella sellers began to emerge from the streets and hassle passers-by.

Le Cafe Pondicherry Mornings

Pondicherry itself isn’t over burdened with ‘stuff to do’ but there are a lot of places to eat and a lot of luxury hotels with pools (we were so jealous). I probably had more food than is actually legal during the three days we spent there – including my first time trying Barracuda – and I had a lot of Iced Tea there, which is exceptionally good by the way. It was also an exercise in finding air-conditioned venues for much of the time; we certainly beat the monsoon. We popped into churches and museums as we stumbled across them but after a long walk on the seafront, during which we were asked to star in a Tamil Movie, which we did, we made a beeline for the House Boats. It was a little disappointing that so late in the day your options for what boat you can take seem to be pretty limited (our language barrier was also a massive problem). We hopped on the only boat that seemed to be available and headed out onto the water, weaving in and out of fishermen in their coracles and making for an island on the horizon. We hit up paradise beach totally unprepared with no swimming costumes (everyone was ignoring the No Swimming sign) and collected shells and walked instead. It had a tropical vibe, water sports galore, plenty of palm trees, white-ish sand and washed out beach huts with straw roofs. As with all Indian beaches, dodge the rubbish, but it was pretty clean and the water was warm. I put my toes into the Bay of Bengal for the first time ever!

Paradise Beach

Paradise Beach

Paradise Beach

On the Friday I dragged everybody on a short Auto ride to the other side of town to Serenity Beach, a beautiful mess of fishing nets and boats, in a rainbow of colours, with a small concrete path leading past the quaint beach houses, looking a little windswept, at the back of the beach. I came there to surf with Kalialay Surf School and I had one of the best mornings of my life, repeatedly plummeting from my board into the warm salty water while my friends watched be, in a bemused kind of way, from the stone groin. I harbour a lot of love for serenity beach, which has its own breed of serenity, the contentment (so it seemed) of fishermen and avid surfers, living a relatively simple life on the front line of nature. To some people it might have looked unreasonably messy or just plain shabby but I loved the how effortlessly the beach seemed to exude all its colours and how intensely I could smell the salt water.

Serenity Beach

Serenity Beach

Serenity Beach

Serenity Beach

Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Meditation dome at Auroville challenged my typical travel incentives a little. I’m not the world’s greatest meditate-er and though I admire the ethos of a lot of communities, like those in Auroville, I can’t quite see myself identifying enough to ever become a part of them. Although, I would love to see inside the dome at Auroville. The Ashram is a small, lush space just behind the temple in Pondicherry that is made for meditation and personal thought. Nothing fancy but very serene and with beautiful flowers and a little history about the founder of this community, known as The Mother. Inside what I noticed most (not getting too far with inner thought) was the most graceful seeming woman I had ever seen; she was very old, bent right over the centre of the ashram and lost in her own world, wearing a beautiful dress, with quite an open back displaying her perfect posture and smooth shoulders. I was quite shocked by how beautiful she was and it wasn’t until she stood up, and began to move very slowly, I realised that she could barely walk, due to something wrong with her feet and legs; and yet I’d never seen anyone radiating so much peace and grace. We went on to Auroville which was colourful and tourist friendly, still peaceful and very secluded in a forest with beautiful gardens all around but at the same time very open and warm. And quite commercial, although the food is delicious and the shops are wonderful to look around, certainly worth spending a little time and money there.

 

 

The dome itself seems to have been deposited by an alien. Unlike almost any architectural structure I’ve ever seen these strange, dimpled golden orb shimmers oddly in the natural surroundings, fitting in and yet not quite fitting in, surreal and otherworldly; it’s like you can’t quite look at it straight, or can’t quite see it. How it seems to glow is quite magical and the surrealism is only heightened by the buzzards circling above it searching for prey in the clearing below; it looks like their being drawn to it to guard it. I would love to see the inside but it’s reserved for serious meditation and is by invitation only.

Auroville

Auroville

Auroville

The thing that rounded the trip off incredibly – before we piled back onto the hideous night bus in the pouring rain – was getting to see, and touch, a real elephant at the Ganesha temple in the centre of Pondi. I was so excited to see the temple elephant but hadn’t anticipated to be so scared of him when I came close to him the twilight. When there is no fence or large pit between you the elephant suddenly seems a lot bigger, even the Indian Elephant is majestically large, and obviously extremely docile with it, as it collected coins in the crook of its trunk and handed out blessings in return. I can see why people want to spend their lives working with elephants – there is a magical sensation that tingles all through your body when one touches you, you start to think there’s a reason these creatures are sacred, like they really are delivering you something godly in the gentle tickle of their long trunk. The thing that made me think was looking at his eyes though; they weren’t beautiful per say, they were scary. When you look at an elephants eyes you see that this is a wild creature, they look inherently wild, and there seems a shame in keeping them tame. I know he’s not treated badly, as a temple elephant, but he did look bored – maybe, if that’s possible – and it seemed just unfair to me, that he shouldn’t be stomping through the forest and foraging with a herd. Perhaps that’s a very naive view but I was pleased to get so close to such an awe-striking beast anyway.

Ganesha Temple

Ganesha Temple

 

Street Art & Paragliding – My Trip To Turkey

Street Art & Paragliding – My Trip To Turkey

I seem to be having one of the best summers ever and having a lot of firsts too; like paragliding! This happened when I was whisked off to Turkey by my wonderful mum and dad, where we did something else I never thought I’d partake in – All Inclusive. Now usually I’m pretty dismissive, since I know that I like to explore, I like to holiday/travel on a budget and I don’t like being limited in what I can eat or drink etc. Basically I do like hotels for weekends, but I still like to chose what I eat, and I will always really love hostelling so it never occurs to me to do an all inclusive package tour. But actually in Ölüdeniz you can’t do anything else because nobody lives here, there are all grades of hotels, plenty of tourist shops and more bars and restaurants than you can shake your beach towel at but there are no ‘locals’; without tourism this would never exist. Bizarre eh?

 

Hotel at dusk

Hotel at dusk

Oludeniz Beach

Oludeniz Beach

Gravity paragliding

But this was my parents’ holiday and paid for by them, so I decided to ditch all prejudice and roll with it. I had an ACE time!

Turkey was having freakishly hot weather, according to the locals, for the time that we went; in late August it ought to be waning slightly but we sky-rocketed over the temperature in Baghdad and hit 46 degrees Celsius on an alarmingly regular basis. I don’t know about you but that is hot for me! The holiday became an exercise in keeping cool and finding shade so it’s just as well I love sea swimming. Sea swimming was high on my list of things to do while there, the beach at Ölüdeniz is so beautiful. Paragliding was also right up there; it’s a strange main street, littered with more people trying to sell you boat trips and paragliding experiences than food and drink, but it’s definitely worth grabbing one. I’m so glad I did it, scared as I was on the way up.

Me paragliding

Paragliding

Everyone here is paragliding

Sunset in Oludeniz

Sunset in Oeluedeniz

As you walk round the corner from the main beach – it’s no more than 2km, so even in that heat I found it walkable, but some people may prefer the bus – you find The Blue Lagoon. It’s incredibly famous and in my opinion a tad over rated. It is beautiful, and very blue, but then so is the beach right next door and you don’t have to pay to use that. I also found it quite crowded, literally rammed with people, but it was clean and looked more cosy than stressful so I’m sure that’s not an issue either. I think it’s the perfect beach for children since the water is still as a pool, and delightfully warm, whereas the main beach catches a few waves but is all the more fun for it. There were also some intriguing half-islands that looked within swimming distance, although I didn’t test. It is beautiful it’s just too full for my taste.

Paddling in the Blue Lagoon

Paddling in the Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

From Ölüdeniz you can catch a bus to Fetihye – Do it! I fell in love with the bustling, hot pavements, the glorious white square with its quaint benches overlooking a piercingly blue harbour. The old market was also completely adorable. There are two, apparently, one new and one old; the old one is a little nicer and quainter, although not cheap, and the newer one is cheaper and sells more… tat. Nice, fun, touristy tat though. The old market, however, is packed with colours and glitter.  Rugs spilling onto tiny cobbled streets, restaurants monopolizing the square, spices lining whole buildings, tiny lights glowing in every direction. It’s definitely worth a look in the day and at night, or in the evening. It has a grotto vibe and there are plenty of cute trendy-seeming places to grab a drink and/or a kebab. I also stumbled across the most beautiful art project (I assume) I have seen in a while.

 

Fethiye Market

Fethiye Market

Fethiye Market

Cloth shop

Fethiye Market

Fethiye Market

Beautiful Bowls for sale

Fethiye Market

Umbrella skies formed over streets in and around the market – I also found something similar outside a coffee shop in Dalaman airport. Beautiful canopies of colour, un-miss-able due to their size, spanning the street-top and casting colourful sprinkles of light over the street below; I can’t seem to find anywhere what they are for or who they were installed by but they are beautiful enough to leave you smiling all day, definitely go looking for them.

Umbrellas for street art

Umbrellas for street art

colourful canopy

Umbrellas for street art

Umbrellas for street art

I can recommend:

Harry’s Bar (on the beach front) for cocktails and views

Sultan Ahmet for very chilled beer (I mean literally, in the best pre-frozen glasses) and great freshly squeezed juice

Kumsal Pide for the best Pide you will ever eat!

Gravity for paragliding (although they are all great companies charging the exact same price)

Want to see more photos? I’m on Flickr as jessiebenson93

Cutest Cafe on the Seafront

Cutest Cafe on the Seafront

Fethiye Harbour

Fethiye Harbour

Fethiye Harbour

Fethiye Harbour

Fethiye

Hyderabad – The Mental Must-See

Hyderabad – The Mental Must-See

Hyderabad was a must-see, a mental must-see. It’s a busy, built-up, jumble of people, lives and buildings, crammed in around artefacts and relics of the past. It contains all the technology of the future and none of the green to soften its edges like Bangalore. Here I felt more foreign, got more stares, found men more aggressive, as they moved in packs through the streets and on the corners. Here I noticed more poverty, slums and I saw more people sleeping rough than I ever thought I’d see in one place; piled in colourful, pitiful heaps, lined up on the roadside. I found Hyderabad hot, noisy and crowded, and also slightly mosquito-full but I also found it buzzing with culture – cultures, even – and history. It possesses a certain grittiness that Bangalore didn’t always give. I felt that with so many people piled atop one another here, there are certain things that are unavoidable and you can see many more levels of life much more clearly from this close up. It’s an enchanting city but I don’t think I’d ever live there.

 

 

 

 

Street stalls by the Charminar

 

This was also my first ever Indian Train Trip – and I really liked it. I’ve never even been on a sleeper train in England so I had no idea what I should be expecting but we were travelling first class, as we were travelling with Amma so it was certainly the nicest train experience I could have asked for. It was an almost 12 hour journey from Bangalore to Hyderabad and as we set off, very slowly, people were still hopping on and off the train in a leisurely fashion. There were four beds and sterilised packaged sheets with which to make them. I ended up on the top bunk, where I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep but that was mostly because of the swaying. Nothing I can do about it, I do feel travel sick fairly often, so I braced for the swaying like I would for a boat journey and it wasn’t so bad. Although sometimes we were catapulting between stations so fast I thought I was going to be swung right out of the little bed. The toilets were no horror story either, much to my surprise I’d say they were cleaner than most English trains I’ve sat on recently.

Train at the station

The roads for one are insane. In Bangalore Amma had said there was a method to their madness but here there did not seem to be; nor did there seem to be a pause from breath in the never ending, slow moving traffic jam that plagued the city morning till night. That didn’t stop the magic of the street vendors enchanting me; the colours of the people weaving in and out of the cars in the pouring rain, or stubbornly shopping while the traffic moved around them, still fascinated me and the autos still made me smile with their erratic horn use and crazy messages scrawled on back windows. The roads were a law unto themselves, or no law unto themselves as the case may be.

We had to traffic and rain dodge when we went to see Charminar (only one of those efforts succeeded but I am still alive). Charminar, or Four Towers, is a monument from 1591 and I heard two stories about its building: firstly, that it was built as a monument from one lover to another as a symbol of their affair, and secondly that it marked several thousand people who had died here of the plague at that time. I believe the second is true but I really like the first. We paid to enter the relative shelter between the four towers, currently housing more people than it should – tourists, locals and even some foreigners like me. It’s impressive to stand under but much more impressive to climb up; the claustrophobic, hot and almost-airless stairway was a squeeze, and there is nowhere to pause from climbing. You definitely get a twinge of fear that everyone might fall, and certainly die, while you’re on the way up because it is steep and dizzying too. We hit the top with relief and I was greeted with what will probably remain one of my favourite views forever more – the beautiful, rain quenched streets of Hyderabad stretching out in four majestic directions around me. All are packed with colour, newly-brightened by the downpour, and with the noise barely penetrating so high up, simply tinkling to my ears, I found myself extremely fond of the mosaic that was writhing and dancing below my feet. I could see some government buildings, maybe an ex-palace, crouching on the banks of the river in pre-colonial splendour (although Hyderabad was never a British colony). You can see people scuttling from stall to stall, autos weaving their way through tiny gaps, dogs rushing about their business, cars waiting impatiently and it all seems to make such intricate sense from this height that you’re excited to go back and join it. I start to think India should always be viewed from a height to gain any kind of understanding or perspective. I think this later again too when we’re stood on the roof of her cousin’s start-up business office, that is two floors in size, and admiring through the heat haze, the vastness of the never ending city stretching out around us.

Inside the Charminar

A view from the Charminar

Streets in the rain

From our office-vantage-point I see the first historical sight I visit, the Qutb Shahi tombs, odd round protrusions from a rare green space. These are the eerie burial grounds of the founding kings. I love the attitude to ruins in India, where you can go right up to, into and climb on the ruins. You can touch history – and no one has graffiti-ed it – I think it breeds more respect for history if you can walk closer to it and talk to it. The tombs resemble other tombs I’ve seen, mostly in Cyprus, in layout; the husband and wife’s tombs are often built next to each other, there seems to be a system where the size of tomb relates to the importance and the proximity from one tomb to another denotes the closeness of relatives. On some tombs the colouring and tiles are still intact and radiant, intricate in detail, surrounding the doors and lining some of the inside, which is otherwise bare apart from the grey, stone casket. On other tombs almost all remnants of splendour is gone apart from the vast, almost spherical domes that rise into the skyline, their weathered stone mottled and interesting against their plain blue background. There are lots of families picnicking here, in the shade, on the tombs, under nearby trees. There’s respect and irreverence at the same time, children playing and mums pushing prams, some people reading and others sitting and reflecting. It’s that attitude again, it’s so different from how a ruin like this would be treated in Britain, fenced off and viewable only from a distance.

Qutb Shahi Tombs

Qutb Shahi Tombs

Qutb Shahi Tombs

Gol Konda Fort, visible from the tombs, was the highlight of my trip to Hyderabad and the guide we hired there was certainly worth every rupee for riveting stories. I remember so many arbitrary chunks of information from that day; that it is supposed to be the most impenetrable fort of its time, and you can see the two walls, several kilometres apart, and the defence systems in them, although now the space in between is merely crammed with the most dense greenery to be found in Hyderabad. I remember also that it was from here that the Koh-i-Noor, currently nestling in the crown jewels, was mined. The structure, although completely in ruins now, still climbs impressively above and overlooks almost the whole kingdom, red and regal. The acoustics of the fort are the incredible part, just barely imaginable now stood in the vacuums that once formed palace buildings, a court, prisons, a harem… In the bottom entrance court yard if you clap your hands the echo can be heard directly in the topmost tower, a good 3km walk away in an uphill direction, and it was this way that messages were passed between guards. It was said the king could recognise, from the top of the hill, the sound of hooves and whether they were his horses or invading troops. This way he could slip out and escape via the 7-10 miles of hidden tunnel that once traversed the city at a subterranean level; they were closed years ago because of collapses, snakes and people dying trying to live in them and running out of oxygen (I love grim history). There were also various set-ups so that a whisper from a prisoner in the court could be heard by the king above, although his head was shielded by the low ceiling to protect him from knives being thrown. The king could also hear from his chambers every whisper in the guest chambers below despite them being separated by solid stone floor – that must have been fun some nights – in case the guests were whispering about him. Two giant stages can be seen from the very top, along with a panorama of breathtaking proportions, where the king apparently used to watch two sisters sing and dance – and he could hear them from here, over 5 km away because their voices carried so perfectly through the air. These facts all blew my mind. So did attempting to imagine people inhabiting this, imagine the water being transported mechanically from a hill in the distance and brought, with technology ahead of its time, all the way to the top of this poised, delicate peak, which has no water source of its own. It was crowded at the fort, full of rushing, loud people, but you still have a real sense of heritage, the vague notion that its roots are almost incomprehensibly old. I also managed to get a quick look at my first mongoose here.

Gol Konda Walls

Gol Konda Fort

Panorama

We headed to the Salar Jung Museum while in town too, which was very interesting, in the way most big museums are, but there were also far too many things to see. You’d definitely need a full day there. Here I became a minor celebrity due to my skin colour, which was hilarious and a little weird – I had people taking photos of me while I looked at exhibits. Then we headed off to visit an Auntie and that was the real shocker of the day; I had no idea they made houses this big. There are a lot of contrasting lives rubbing along next to each other here and this house, this family, was one of the big contrasts. There are several chandeliers, a beautifully stocked larder, a swimming pool on the ground floor and a balcony overlooking it on the upper floor; I ran round like a child, completely overwhelmed and finding it hilarious that a house like this existed, it was so cool and quiet compared to the street outside when we ventured out for Biryani. Biryani is apparently a Hyderbadi specialty and it was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever eaten; we had mutton, egg and some arbitrary spicy chicken in our rice. I could have eaten it forever.

Shopping at Shilparamam

Shilparamam Night Bazar

I had also been really hyped to see Shilparamam, an outdoor night market, and so we eventually persuaded a cousin to drive us, albeit reluctantly, out there to shop. It was a bit of a disappointment honestly, although corners of it were packed with colour and rather beautiful, especially as the light dropped, it was very empty and without so much of a vibe as I had expected. The stalls too were mostly selling the same things – after you’d seen one row you’d seen them all – so it lessened the feeling of shopping for something individual or handmade. I think most of the items at least were handmade, but on a larger scale, and the intimacy was somewhat ruined by the stalls not being so individual. When the sun goes down the lighting gets prettier and more colourful, people come here just to chill and a black and white Bollywood film was projected onto a wall in the entrance to the market. It was pretty though and worth perusal, although quite why you have to pay entry I do not know.

Shilparamam

Shilparamam Night Bazar

Hyderabad was certainly a lively, bright, carnival of a city which stands out in my mind as clearly as if I’d gone there yesterday but it really doesn’t give off a vibe of wanting to live there. Given the choice I’d pick Bangalore any day.

 

Loved and Lost While Travelling

Have you ever lost something while travelling? The answer is almost certainly yes. On the way back from Turkey yesterday I managed to lose something that I actually cared about – you will laugh when you hear what – and now I feel a little bereft.

I lost my flip flops.

I was changing from flip flops to trainers on the coach to the airport and I just forgot them, I left them there. All alone. On my seat. I know, I know they’re just flip flops but they aren’t just any old flip flops. These are my beautiful Fat Face flip flops, a Christmas present about five years ago, that I’ve been wearing devotedly ever since. I’ve had them so long they are moulded to my feet better than my new specially fitted insoles. They were faded and a little beaten up, had a slight chunk missing where a friend accidentally put her chair leg down on my foot in the library in sixth form, but these flip flops had been places. And were still going strong. They’ve been to Sicily twice, Cyprus, they’ve walked me for five days around Berlin, they’ve been to Poland, they’ve been to Germany for a whole year, they came out to India and they finally met their untimely demise in Turkey.

Not only were they the best, most hard-wearing, comfiest flip flops I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing but they really felt like a part of me too; we were friends, life-partners even. Have you ever felt loss like this?

But I have a theory, stolen slightly from Never Let Me Go, that all lost things will wash up somewhere, together. Perhaps everything lost while travelling is carried to a beach somewhere and sits baking in the sun forever more, only to be retrieved by us heartbroken wanderers when we one day wash up on the same shore, bemused but pleased to be reunited again in this strange land. That is what I believe in my heart. Farewell Fat Face Flip Flops; know that you take a piece of me with you.

Note: If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, please do not hesitate to call our free hotline 0800-Perhaps-I-Need-Some-Life-Perspective 

 

Beach Reads – Turkey

Beach Reads – Turkey

Here are my two main books that I’m taking to Turkey, another may be purchased since I’m planning a lot of down time! I have my eye on a book called The Alchemist at the moment. I’m already about a third of the way through A Thousand Splendid Suns and I adore it, although I haven’t read anything not set in the Middle East or a War Zone in over six months. Which brings me to my second choice, the two by Fitzgerald. He’s one of my favourite authors and I’ve read Tender Is The Night before, I would read it again too, but am excited to try The Last Tycoon. Let me know your summer reads or if you liked any of these when you read them? Sadly, my German Grammar book is coming too!

Beach Reads

A Village on the Backwaters

A Village on the Backwaters

Bison Lodge is snuggled on the shore on the Kabini backwaters in a slight depression between two rolling hills. Across the great, grey lake, made larger by the influx of monsoon rains, lie two neighbouring nature reserves, one of them a tiger reserve. Behind the camp is a small village, home to many of the workers at the lodge and their families and to the left, around a little cove, is a small village surrounded by rich green farmland. Part of the deal with these nature reserves and the fierce attempts to stop poaching in the forest is to offer people another livelihood in return; the carrot. A lot of former poachers and forest criminals are now employed by the lodge as maintenance staff and cooks (and they are amazing at their jobs). The small village is home to the tribe that used to occupy the forest and they’re the only people who are still allowed in to the reserve on foot, as and when they please, although now mostly they farm crops on the land around their new village. A short boat trip and a walk into this village come as part of your stay at Bison Lodge.

 

Setting out

Setting out

White cow/bullock

We walk up the hill towards the village and begin counting the crops: coffee, cotton, okra, peanuts, carob, papaya, Jack Fruit, ginger, tender coconuts. The track is of the rich red earth that is making a living for these people as an alternative to the, now heavily regulated, honey industry that used to sustain them. We’d been told that people here were happy to see us and have us there, in fact the group before said they were very smiley and pleased to have their photos taken – I’m not sure what village they were in. People there weren’t angry but I wouldn’t call them pleased to see us, incredulous perhaps, slightly peeved at us traipsing through their village, maybe just completely uncaring whether we were there or not. It got me thinking whether anyone had actually asked these people if they minded, if they wanted tourists ogling their houses and cows and children. I like to think they’ve been asked but if so, then who was asked? Women too? I got shy with my camera and tried to not to wave it in people’s faces, suddenly unsure of where I could point it while being respectful.

women washing

Cute toddler

Child playing

There was a mixed school, one small unlit classroom with adults sitting on the floor, vocabulary cards pinned around the top of the walls and a lesson in Kannada, the local language, being taught while children played with baby goats outside. Outside nearly every house bright seeds are drying on white cloths; chilli, pepper, rogi, turmeric and washing drying in the UK could never look this beautiful or rainbow-like, stretched out on the terracotta roof tiles.

Seeds drying

Seeds drying

The next village down, on a route the guide extended for us because we were more than capable of walking, had a boys school where the children saw us from the playground and started jumping up and down for a photo and asking us for chocolate. A little boy from called me from the doorway of his canary-yellow house, calling us ‘photo-didi’, Photo Sister because we had cameras hanging from our necks. A girl, maybe a little younger than us it was hard to tell, closer to the camp also saw us taking photos and marched down the path to see us. She said ‘Hey, how are you?’ which was impressive, and also the only English she knew, her friend, more shy, with a baby on her hip absolutely covered in gold bangles and earrings, came down just behind her. She looked fierce but we traded names and then quickly ran out of ability to hold a conversation.

Our new friend

‘Hey how are you?’

Children at school

A primary school I think

Calf

It was a really short walk but it is an hour or so of my life that will definitely stay with me.

rainbow houses

Enchanted By A Tiger

Enchanted By A Tiger

It’s always been a dream for me to go on Safari and see The Big Five in Africa. The word safari just has such an inescapable buzz to it, I’d never really considered that there are various types of safari. My few days staying at Bison Lodge in Kabini, Karnataka, and safari-ing with them, was one of the best experiences of my life hands down.

Tiger Reserve Sign

Selfie

I was enchanted in the forest; completely captured, hooked on, taken over by the idea of seeing a Tiger, one of nature’s most beautiful inventions. When you first enter the beautiful wooden buildings making up the reception, living area and dining area of the lodge, they are all lined with breathtaking photos by the Lodge’s manager and resident photographer. Gazing at these photos and knowing that most were taken less than half a kilometre away is certainly motivation to hand over money and take safari after safari until you get lucky. Getting lucky, of course, happens much more readily in the summer and not so much in the monsoon, but I took what I could get and went on everything I could afford. I was very tempted to ask for someone to bring the rest of my stuff to the lodge and for me to stay there for at least the next three weeks, perched on the cusp of the gorgeous backwaters nestled in the beautiful, cosy camp – three weeks could well have extended to forever.

Getting to the lodge was a pretty hairy 5 hour drive; it was like GTA only without the guns. While we were still in the outskirts of Bangalore it was very colourful and crowded, the streets were lined with purple especially, radiating from the plants and the women, and there were hundreds of dogs weaving in and out of cars, piles of rubbish with cows grazing their way over them nonchalantly. We pushed on, past Mysore, and soon hit the countryside; rafts and rafts of green in a never ending spread before us. The saris here are still brightly coloured, they’re still gold edged and vibrant but there are a lot more bare feet traipsing the side of the road, a lot heavier loads being carried and children and goats running together. The families and lone figures that graze cows and goats are sometimes carrying the rainbow-coloured, jumbo umbrellas, looking bizarrely out of place in the rustic setting. We pass temples; they always pop out of nowhere, pops of colour like candy stores or Disney Land wedged into the rolling hills. They are painted chalky, pastel colours, almost childlike; houses out here are more brightly coloured, often painted blue and yellow, but with large chunks missing or falling off, even the clothes hanging somewhat hopelessly from the roofs in the humid, heavy air are optimistically bright too. It feels like India, the colourful nation, has colours running through its veins. My favourite image of the journey is the graffiti on the side of the bus stop in a small village; Wishing Happy New Year 2014. It makes me really hope they all had a happy new year too, while simultaneously wondering who would graffiti that in England.

The track down to the camp is basically only Jeep-Appropriate, rutted, narrow and made narrowed by the flat faced white cows, staring like faces in the moon and not caring to move for a vehicle, and steeped in the red clay-y soil. I can’t decide when I get there if I’m living in the colonial past or I’ve stepped onto the Tarzan set but it feels so glamorous. The big octagonal rooms are canvas tents over a wooden decking floor, with tarpaulin and straw over a wooden structure so the roof is completely waterproof. There is a dresser with a mirror and a writing desk, in the centre two beds pushed together to form a double, looking incredibly romantic with the mosquito net acting as hangings around the four posts. There is a second room for the bathroom – using the shower feels like being Aphrodite, you step down into the sunken ‘bath’ made of stone, and you can wash your feet using a metal bucket and lusciously warm water or you can fully shower under the head poised above. The toilet is flushing and there is a proper sink and fluffy white towels. This is serious luxury, it’s nicer than a bunch of UK hotels I’ve stayed in and I feel like I’m flying because it’s exactly like something I could have dreamt. It’s peaceful here too, so quiet and such a small venue. Although as soon as the sun goes down there’s no quiet. You can just see the lake in the darkness through the mosquito net if you let your eyes adjust, always slightly lighter than its surroundings, and the bugs come out and have a party after dusk. I never thought there would be the sheer volume of insects to make that noise, plus birds, dogs and the occasional unidentifiable rumble in the jungle, the noise is constant. We also discover how loud one little cricket (about the length of my hand span) can be if he’s sharing your room – the answer is, very loud.

Our one is the left hut

Our one is the left hut

Beds

Beautiful Room

The amount of birds there is phenomenal. From the kites casually grazing their way over the water’s edge by the huts to the jewel-like kingfishers we see on our boat tour. Graceful herons and egrets are perched in flocks from submerged tree tops jutting through the waters, whistling ducks sit beside large black faced monkeys with grey fur coats. We also see a few eagles, one a fish eagle perched on top of a tall tree and others flying overhead; the guide picks up on a racket tailed drongo, an amazing sight, just timidly resting at the edge of the forest; he’s long gone before the camera is out, let alone focused. It’s grey and rainy and I can spot nothing but the guide on the boat, older, weathered looking and with a permanent friendly half-smile, is incredible; he spots us a crocodile that I had barely seen as a log that was easily 300 or 400 metres away. We crawl the boat slowly level with the beast and he’s a lot bigger than I thought, long, armoured, his creepy eyes only opening a slit. He knows we’re there and after a while he slips, completely silently, incredible for such a large muscular creature, into the water and disappears in an instant. It’s pretty eerie as he vanishes from view instantly into the murk, I wonder if he’s under the boat or far away already. We end up seeing three crocodiles in total, and a wild board, who seem incredibly camera shy. They are surprised to see you there and then gone in an instant.

Birds

Birds

Birds

The first Jeep Safari is the evening we arrive and we are assigned a good route, right through the heart of the forest, past a few abandoned buildings and the anti-poaching camp that has been set up since it became a reserve. The sheer scale and vibrancy of green is amazing, it’s dense too, although not dense like a tropical rainforest. We see lots of deer as we head in, and they are pretty used to the odd vehicle, there are several different types, some spotted like Fallow Deer, others much darker in coat colour. We also saw eagles again, pretty close to the ground, and peacocks too. Hearing a peacock in the wild is oddly familiar, since the owners of stately homes in Britain decided they’d go well with the decor and they’ve been here ever since, but it’s a lot more intriguing to see such bright colours waddling their merry way through their natural habitat. There are more kites and plenty of monkeys and macaques, some having a howling fight over territories on either side of the track. We don’t even get a hint of tiger this time, save for the smell of a fresh kill, somewhere in the vicinity, according to the naturalists – to me it smells like damp forest but to them it’s distinct and they know the tigers are on the move. We also see some Guar – which are incredibly exciting when we first spot them and then suddenly there are more than we know what to do with – they are basically a giant cow, bison-like really. Solid 6-7ft dark brown lumps of muscle, with a pair of horns on the front too and fierce looking eyes, except the babies which are just downright cute, but they are just chewing through their food benignly and are neither shy nor interested.  My favourite spot is the pair of wild dogs, male and female, sitting very close to the vehicle and eyeing us lazily. We watched the rusty-red, fox-like animals in complete silence and, apart from the constant low level hum of insects, the peace was denser than the trees themselves. On the way out of the forest I see the most beautiful little girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, carrying her books back from school. She’s barefoot, wearing a red and gold parkini, with gold in her hair and bangles and anklets so she chimes softly as she walks. She turns and smiles shyly and I get the feeling she heard me say she looked beautiful.

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So the last safari was technically over budget for me (yep, foreign nationals pay more, but I understand why) but I was obsessed with the idea of seeing a tiger and desperate to keep trying. The guide on the boat had talked about man-eating tigers and why they don’t (usually) eat anybody here. He said there had been a few close calls but they aren’t familiar with the taste of human so they aren’t as dangerous as tigers on the Ganges, for example, where there are plenty of dead bodies and human remains washed through on a regular basis. The tigers at the mouth are drinking and using the water and they develop, slowly, a taste for the human flesh that way; it’s then that they go hunting for one. There was a really good feeling on this safari too, only really keen people were in the Jeep and we were all feeling a real buzz, something in the air saying we would get lucky. We stopped briefly to watch another territorial display from the monkeys but none were giving out the tiger warning calls that the naturalists are used to listening for. We saw my first wild elephant too, a lovely quiet she-elephant, smaller than I had imagined, shyly munching through a large bush in front of her. Then we focused on the aim as we cruised quietly through the burnt out area, about 2 miles wide, damaged by a forest fire a year previously and occupied by an active female tiger. There were a frustrating amount of fresh paw prints as we patrolled, some appearing where we had just been in the time while we were checking the bottom of the reserve. We waited for a while and then I heard a noise I hadn’t ever contemplated would be so moving. The roar. It was a weird, vibrating, creaking noise that carried right through the forest and through your bones, and she was very, very close. We listened to the roaring, some quiet patches, and then a little more growling and we focused intently on the birds to see where they were circling. She seemed to have made a kill and was lying eating it, taking her time, in a clump of undergrowth we identified about 200-300 metres away; tantalizingly close. But not close enough, we didn’t see her, but it didn’t really matter in the end.

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Lodge Evening

After Dark

Morning over the Lake

Morning over the Lake

The greatest view

The greatest view

Camp grounds Boat safari

Beautiful light over the territory

Beautiful light on the tiger territory

Tiger tracks

Tantalizingly close

Elephant