Binsar, May 2009

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.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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