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