Rhino poachers at Orang

Several years ago we had a first hand experience of seeing forest guards in action at the Orang Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam when poachers were sighted. Rhinos are often killed for their horns that are said to have medicinal properties. Today’s dailies carry news of forest guards shooting two poachers at Orang. Click here to read the full news.

According to an earlier news that cited a census carried out in March 2009, staff at Orang had successfully increased one-horned rhino population at the Park to 64 (Click here for full news). Orang gets its importance as its the only viable home for rhinos north of the River Brahmaputra but has several issues that hamper local authorities from providing adequate protection to the threatened rhinos. Click here to read more.

Our experience at Orang was unforgettable and had a poacher element thrown in as well. Living in amidst the urban dazzle and rat race, we often discard such news as having nothing to do with us. Yet we need to contribute in any possible way to stop such atrocities. Contributing money to organisations working to this aim is one way. Another more effective one would be not buying artifacts or other products made from endangered species.
Every step counts. Think about it.

Miraculous Rain

The specter of a drought loomed largely over us all through summer of 1999. Southwest monsoon had reached Bombay ahead of time but now seemed hesitant to cross Dahanu. In Bhuj, in the sweltering heat one heard of travails of people who had to wait endlessly for water tankers or ladies who had to trudge miles to fill just a few pots of water. The countryside had become bare. The notorious Keekar of Kutch too was reduced to thorny stems. The ground was parched and cracked. On the highway we frequently encountered herds of restless cattle, all moving towards the towns in search of water and fodder.

The famous Hamirsar Lake in Bhuj had been reduced to a large muddy puddle. In winter Pelicans and many other varieties of large and small birds were a common site there. Now the lakebed was home to hundreds of cattle waiting out the long hot days. There were no signs of birds other than a few crows sitting desultorily on the cows. I had heard of a particularly bad year when the lake had dried out completely and a circus was able to camp there. I prayed fervently for things to be better that year even if it meant not enjoying the circus!

And then suddenly the Heavens opened! Dark heavy clouds poured the nectar of life onto us. Every creature, leaf and twig drunk up the water with glee. Children danced in the rain and no one denied them the pleasure of enjoying those first showers. I am sure some of the adults envied them wishing that they too could join them. I know I did!

Over night the landscape around me changed. The bare brown cracked earth of the day before was now an endless carpet of green. It was almost as if the seeds in the soil were only waiting for the rain to burst to life. We could hear the birds chirping and sparrows were soon busy building nests. The air was filled with the smell of wet earth and was full of Hope and Promise again.

It was only after two days that the weather cleared up enough for us to venture out for our evening walk. The area was suddenly full of different types of birds. Some splashed in the plentiful puddles of water while others were feasting on the large number of insects who too were out to savour the cool rainwater. I watched the antics of the birds in wonder. Each one seemed to have an area marked out for itself, pecking away at every little bug who dared to come out. All of a sudden they would break into a cacophony as if alerting each other of some intruder. One of them stood on the tarred road with wings wide spread, as if, inviting me to come fly with him. My husband said they were Egrets but their name meant little to me, as I watched them enjoying the aftermath of the rain.

Along the road I counted at least six different types of grasses growing. Some of the tiny plants had even flowered in these two days, their little purple blossoms making a flamboyant show on the green carpet. It was almost as if each plant however tiny, was exercising its right to bloom. All the plants, trees and bushes had donned a new wardrobe bearing no resemblance to the thorny stems of yesterday. The desert had become green in an incredibly short time.

The insects continued to amaze and irritate me at the same time! Over the 3 days of rain, we had several varieties of winged invaders in our home, buzzing around the lights. Their life was to last only until the next morning as some strange force of nature drew them to their end towards the lights.

Out on the roads the earthworms, snails and caterpillars were out in full strength. I saw a bewildering variety of 6 and 8-legged creatures all running to hide under a blade of grass as soon as they heard a footfall. The Hamirsar Lake was full again. The water reflected diamonds as it picked up the weak sunlight and its surface rippled in the breeze. The cattle on the lakebed had long gone back to their villages led by the farmers who hastened home to sow their fields.

As I watched the raindrops fall, I was struck by the life giving powers of the rain. The flora and fauna seemed as if infused with a new life and I vowed to recharge my mind with each cloudburst. The sound of the falling raindrops, the birds and crickets singing and the wind whispering in the leaves has the power to instantly bring peace and tranquility.

The monsoon is upon us again and the urban jungle responds differently to the downpour. Yet the first showers bring a welcome respite from the summer fury. I do not fret for the loss of a days work but sit back and let the rain work its magic.

Wine Holidays

First published in ‘The Statesman’ on 22 Dec 2006

The current trend sweeping page 3 news and party crazy crowd seems to be ‘themes’. Everything has a theme- the fall/winter collection of any designer, birthday parties, kitty parties, even call in shows on business channels have joined in! Watching ‘Floyd Uncorked’ on ‘travel and living’ motivated me to explore some vineyards in Maharashtra.

Nasik was close enough from Pune (about 220 kms) to make the trip in one weekend. We decided to hire a vehicle so our family could enjoy the drive. A more important reason was I did not want to expose our car to the possibly bumpy roads we would surely encounter in the countryside. We set off early on Saturday morning and surprisingly did not encounter any traffic out of Pune. Soon we were cruising along the state highway. We met several groups of people walking in the reverse direction- all walking and singing. Closer inspection revealed them to be ‘varkari’s’ who were making the winter pilgrimage on foot. Basically from the farming background the men and women sang bhajans of Tukaram and Dyaneshwar, as they walked in the blazing sun. Some even walked barefoot! Some of the groups surprisingly carried a mike and speaker system for singing. There was usually a truck close by, which carried their belongings.

The countryside was largely bare on this stretch unlike on the Pune – Kolhapur road. Some stray aster and marigold fields lit up the scenery with a burst of colour. Sugar cane was the predominant crop in most parts followed by vegetable (mainly cauliflower) cultivation. The cane-crushing season was beginning so there were many bullock carts, trucks, and tractors transporting the cut sugar cane to the sugar factories. We crossed Rajgurunagar, Narayangaon and Sinnar at top speed.

As we neared Nasik, we could easily identify the grape plantations by the vines growing on trellis. The route had three ‘ghat’ sections or hill roads. The Chandanapuri ghat is said to be tricky and dangerous. Monster sized vehicle-carrying trailer truck drivers seemed to easily navigate the sharp curving roads though we did encounter a couple of overturned trucks. Not being a part of the golden quadrilateral, we paid toll only once. The highway was in a fair condition considering that my spine was used to daily shocks on Pune roads! There were several dhabas enroute to cater to the hungry!

As we entered Nasik, I admired the wide roads and traffic light obeying public. We decided to check in at the hotel and have lunch before actually going to the wine yard. That was a good decision since the place we were going to did not have any provision for food. One thing I must mention though. The wine yard website and staff were very helpful on the phone and the Internet. However when we actually tried to find our way, we got horribly lost. This despite the fact that there were several signposts with arrows marked on them! They definitely pointed to the left when we had to go to the right. Finally we managed to find our way and what a beautiful sight the plantation was. It was ideally situated in the bowl of some hills and the land gently sloped down to the lake.

The parking lot had cherry trees planted with tiny fruits growing on them. The grape vines were planted in rows supported by trellis and had pipes for drip irrigation snaking in between. The vines themselves had luscious bunches of grapes growing on them. They were light green and looked almost like berries. We had a guide to take us around the facility. He said some of these grape varieties were imported from Australia and elsewhere. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Zinfandel were some of the names of varieties that I do recollect. The various notes/ bouquets that one gets on tasting the wine are from the grapes itself. Our tour began at the crushing tanks. Here the grapes are mechanically crushed for their juice. No signs of women and men dancing in large casks of grapes as I had seen in movies! Of course this was much cleaner! The skins are removed for clear wines but left with the juice for red wines for any where from 30-50 days. The liquid is filtered much sooner to get rose wines. This juice is transported in steel pipes, which are cooled to fermentation tanks where yeast is added. It stays in this tank for some time and is then pumped to another tank for further fermentation. The temperature is maintained at about 2 degrees Centigrade. There is an opening at the top so air contact is made. The entire liquid is also churned time and again. The red wine is allowed to mature in oak casks, which are specially imported for this purpose. In about 6 months time the wine is ready to be bottled. CO2 is pumped into the wine and it is then pumped into sterile bottles and sealed either with cork stoppers of screw caps. Crushing season is only in February and March and the rest of the year is devoted to bottling and nurturing the vines. Seems like a simple process is it not, just get the grape juice and let it ferment!

We had a tasting session in the tasting room. Our guide took us through the rules of the game- See, Swirl, Smell and Taste! Just a mouthful and we had to feel all the characteristics mentioned in the pamphlet!! Very difficult I tell you. After three of them frankly I could not tell the difference. I admired the French experts who could tell the exact year and wine yard from where the wine came. Amazing. I obviously had a long way to go. I can safely blame the spicy foods for taking away the power to appreciate such fine nuances.

We sat there on the terrace enjoying the breeze and the view of the plantation. There was no music playing in the background or any blaring ring tones. Just kids playing and sound of a truck being loaded with cartons of wine. They sold wine that was 20% cheaper than outside (no sales tax). Along with this they also sold paraphernalia like corkscrews, wine buckets, T-shirts, and even a barrel of wine! Now whoever bought that certainly had something to celebrate! That point I mentioned about wonky signboards caught up with us again. The plate on the door said ‘push’ and as I did so, managed to uproot the carpet on the floor outside it. It should have been ‘pull’ instead. I think whoever put up those signs must have partaken some from a barrel! That was my only complaint against the establishment.

We returned to the hotel, happy and somewhat tipsy. This was another tactical decision point in hiring the vehicle namely to leave someone else to do the driving as we enjoyed our theme- wine!! After dinner we explored College road in Nasik. I actually got a chance to see westernization there in the form of the huge well lit stores there. The next day we left early to explore yet another old and famous yard on our way back. However we were not permitted inside there but there was a very nice restaurant and wine bar on the highway itself. Very reasonably priced and delicious food. This vineyard had a much wider range of wines. They actually had tables set amidst the grape vines and the staff was very polite and helpful. Another round of wine tasting followed however this time we had to order separate glasses each time unlike before.

There are several such vineyards in the region, which make and bottle wine. Maybe you can visit some more when you plan your trip. Some do contract farming for the big boys in the region. Many more want to join the party. I hope they also consider organizing some living accommodation in the plantation ( in business parlance this is referred to as the hospitality space I am told), which will make the trip even more memorable. We returned home by Sunday afternoon itself, a wonderful thematic weekend getaway with some learning thrown in too. I am actively looking for another theme for my next getaway, any ideas?

The Kamakhya Temple Guwahati

My only regret in our stay in Assam was that we could not visit Arunachal Pradesh. I do hope that I can make it some time soon!

The state has many beautiful spots. They say all visitors must cross the Brahmaputra 7 times or have to visit again!

The seven sisters as the eastern states are often referred to can rival most international tourist spots in terms of beauty and variety. The only draw back is connectivity. Orchids growing in Kalimpong, Shillong or snow in the higher reaches are places which even Indians have not cared to visit. Words cannot do justice to describe the mighty Teesta or the massive Brahmaputra. The handicrafts and music too are worth collecting. No write up about Assam is complete without mentioning the legendary Bhupen Hazarika.

Yet another must see site is the Kamakhya temple. We got a chance to visit the shrine and one that has reinforced my beliefs in folklore’s… Read about it here:

Do visit this beautiful state. Winter is an ideal time. Plan today!


One Horned Rhino

We have had the privilege of spending over 4 years in the beautiful state of Assam. The Kaziranga sanctuary is home to the one-horned rhino. Do not miss a trip to see this place if you do visit the state.

Other smaller sanctuaries also provide a home to this protected species.
The Orang sanctuary near Tezpur is one such. We had visited the place long ago in 1993 and had a hair raising but unforgettable experience.

Read about it here.



Have any of you ever worried how waiters can carry so many dishes effortless around highly polished but slippery hotel floors? Many carry liquids, gravies and bowls all in one tray as they zip around catering to hungry customers. I was once at the receiving end when such an overzealous waiter tipped the contents of 5 finger bowls on to my lovely new dress!

Lets not go into what happened next, but I have come across this piece which will hopefully prevent such instances!

The Outlook Traveller October 2007 issue describes a hotel in Nuremberg that has developed a system of rails that automatically bring the dishes gently down to the table from the kitchen at a higher level. The orders too are to be placed via a touchscreen thus reducing staff to the minimum.
How do they manage liquids I wonder! Check out the magazine for more details but methinks this place must certainly be worth a visit!

If you can’t get hold of a copy click here

That’s double thumbs up for innovation!


Travel rite!

The month of Ashwin (as per our Hindu calender) begins next week and we will soon begin preparations for Divali. Some of us may have holiday plans.

Just a few reminders as you prepare for your journey…

– Take a break every hour in a road journey and make sure to walk around for 10 minutes at that time. Do some side bends, twists and backward bends (provided there is no contraindication)
– Use “U” shaped inflatable devices available at luggage stores serve to protect the neck in road travel. Especially useful when we doze off!
– If the pillow at your hotel is too high (head remains well above level of the body) then you can simply replace with a large bath towel folded into four (it should be about 3” thick)
– If the mattress is too soft (body sinks in) then ask housekeeping for a replacement. Too soft and yielding mattresses do not support the spine and lead to backache.
– Wear your lumbar belt or neck collar if advised especially on bumpy roads.
– Wear comfortable flat shoes on your holiday. Ladies reserve high heels for dinner times.
– Do not over stuff your bags with unnecessary items. Try to carry two lighter bags instead of one heavy one- its easier on the back to carry!
– For those suffering from diabetes or other disorders which have diet restrictions, do call ahead at your hotel and check what is available and give any specific requirements. Holiday does not mean no exercise. Do stick to some basic routine.
– Make sure to carry all required medicines and first aid.

Considering the amount we spend on the holiday, some prior planning is necessary so as to come back refreshed and recharged.
If you have any more queries, do ask. I shall be happy to answer.