Anyone who’s been to a National Park in India would know that they tend to be somewhat pricey, especially when you’re traveling like I was, on a budget that’s unlikely to buy you even a shoestring. So I teamed up with A, the fellow solo vagabonder I met on the trek to Pindari, to journey into some of Kumaon’s famed wildernesses.
Binsar National Park, helpfully situated on a hill on the outskirts of Almora, would be our first escapade. As far as we knew, there was only one place to stay within the park, the Tourist Rest House run by KMVN. There were two ways to get there. First, take a bus, get off on the highway and walk 10 miles uphill. Two, hire a cab, go all the way up without putting a foot in the forest. Having walked for a week in the wilderness to Pindari, neither of us were in any mood for option one. So option two it was.
The rates for the rooms at the Binsar TRH were as high as its altitude. For a couple of dirt-baggers like A and I, it was way out of our league. Nevertheless, since we had ventured so far and the way back was both a bit long and depressing, we made an exception, even if just for a night. We got a taste of what people who spent all that money were getting in return, which was, to be perfectly honest, not very much. The room was somewhat spacious and reasonably clean but essentially it served the same purpose as our 300 Rs. rooms in various towns did, put a roof over our heads and give us a place to pee and shit in.
Anyway, A made the best of an expensive situation. He got his laptop out, put on some jazz and blues, ordered some beer and food. He wondered if I liked this sort of music. I didn’t but the pathological liar that I was, I tried to fake my way out of the situation by namedropping some artists I claimed I liked, B B King, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Miles Davis etc. (I knew the names but had heard very little of the music). But when he asked if I knew which songs were playing, I got caught out because I couldn’t identify even the most popular jazz/blues classics.
It would have been a bit of a waste to come all the way up here and not explore the ornithological treasures that lay hidden in the jungles around because it was, after all, first and foremost, a bird sanctuary. So we hired a guide through the reception who woke us up at the unearthly hour of 5.30 am for a stroll up the steep slopes of the oak and pine forests.
To A’s delight and my profound displeasure, S was an extremely enthusiastic guide who knew his birds. Whenever he heard a bird call, he rushed up the hill and urged us to run up with him. A, being fit and healthy, had no trouble doing this. But I, being borderline obese, huffed and puffed up and by the time I got up, the bird would have flown.
A was also way more efficient with organizing information. While I depended solely on my memory to remember all the birds I saw (the reason why I couldn’t remember half of them when I sat down to write a list later that night in my notebook), A had brought a pen along and had scribbled their names on his entire arm.
We saw a lot of birds. We saw birds I never knew existed in colours I had never seen before. The Eurasian Jay, the Blue Whistling Thrush, the Green Backed Tit, the Grey Canary-headed Flycatcher, the Oriental Turtledove among a couple of dozen others. But of them all, S’s favorite bird would become my favorite too, a tiny creature with a red belly that loved to perch high up on a tree and you had to squint very hard to see, the Scarlet Minivet.
On our way back to the TRH, we felt a bit unhappy about having to check out after breakfast. The adrenaline rush after seeing so many birds scrambling up and down the hills was so high that we (and especially A) wanted more of it. Hearing us whine so much, S had enough of it and invited us to stay with him in his house for a few days.
So we packed our backs and scrambled down to his rustic wood and stone house built in traditional Kumaoni architecture in a village on a hillside populated with steep terraced rice fields. It was a lovely setting redolent with birdsong and barking dogs. Chilling on the wooden verandahs, we could glimpse distant birds on treetops with S’s binoculars. This also gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with the man.
A girl from Brazil had spent 25 days at his guest house, he said. She knew more about birds than he did. He felt envious because she truly loved the forest and the birds while he learnt about them only because it was his profession. Given a choice, he would have done something else. But there was nothing else to do. The school in his village barely gave him any education to compete for good jobs with people in big cities. Many of his childhood friends were in cities like Delhi and Mumbai looking for work but some came back failing to make money and wasted away their lives in the village. He was lucky enough to know someone who taught him to identify birds and make a bit of money doing it. If he wasn’t doing this, he would be in one of the labour markets in the towns and cities putting his body on the line.
There was nothing in the forest, he said. It might be romantic for people like us but for him, it was a means to an end. He would rather someone cut some of it down and build a resort or something so people like his friends who had failed to find work in urban India could find some sustenance.
So why didn’t he teach his friends how to identify birds and help them make a living out of this?
It wasn’t easy to learn how to do this, he said. He was taught from a very young age and it was a lot of hard work. And there were already many guides doing this work, more guides than there were tourists. Work was available only for 4 months a year. So there was no point in teaching hundreds of others. It would be easier for them to find a job as a driver or a woodcutter or pick kidajadi (magic herbs) for the Chinese.
Then something caught his eye and he galloped down the stairs in excitement. Perched on a dead trunk of a tree miles away was a Verditer Flycatcher. It was barely a dot in the distance but S could spot and identify it with his naked eye. This sighting spurred us on another venture up the forest in search of more avian life. We saw the Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush, more Eurasian Jays, a Long Tail Broadbill and more flycatchers.
On the way back, we had to clamber up the steep terraced rice fields until we came to a spot where local village boys were playing cricket. A and I did not join because the games looked fairly serious and every time the ball went any distance, someone had to gallop down the rice terraces to fetch it. S looked quite the batsman and had no mercy for the fielders as he clobbered the bowling with flashy slogs to all parts of the mountains.
All that exertion made us terribly hungry. We waited patiently for S’s mother and sister to finish cooking meals for the family. It was simple fare, dal, roti, rice, a vegetable garnished with local herbs, but it was more wholesome and delectable than the expensive food we had at the tourist resort the night before.
There was nothing to do after dinner. A didn’t feel like taking out his laptop. I didn’t feel like going to sleep. So we sat quietly in the dark of the night outside, trembling in the chilly air and staring at a million stars above. The best things in life did come cheap, we thought.