A ‘good’ year, so far

I remember last June, how cloudy and rainy it was. Junes in Bangalore are not meant to be like that. You have cooler days after the heat of April and May, but it doesn’t get too cloudy. A spell or two of rain maybe, but the predominant factor is wind – June is meant to be windy in Bangalore. Last year, 2016, it wasn’t. Neither was July. They were cold and wet. We wore sweaters through some of the worst days of our lives, as we all struggled to recuperate from a severe bout of viral infection, not having anyone else to lean on, as everyone in the house was down. The papers recorded record rains – twice the average. KRS got to a 100 ft by the end of July. It was all hunky dory.

And then came August, supposedly one of the wettest months in Bangalore. It barely rained an inch and we looked at dry day after dry day. The monsoons had completely given up. September, the wettest month came and went. And the Kaveri riots came with it. Lack of rains had reduced the Kaveri to a trickle. By the end of the year, after the NE monsoons also failed, we were left counting every drop of the Kaveri, and figured we just had enough to last us till June 2017, only as drinking water. Continue reading “A ‘good’ year, so far”

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Birds of Kenya (Maasai Mara stories – 6)

Am on to the 6th story of this! I guess patience would be wearing thin already. Well, this is going to be the last of the series. Normal programming will soon resume. Which is, hopefully, normal posts from me. I haven’t been doing too much of those, and I am using these stories to buff up some post numbers. Kind of obvious, isn’t it? Anyway here goes.

Ostrich:

The first bird that comes to mind when you think of Africa is probably the Ostrich. These are the largest birds on the planet. And you can’t help noticing that. They are big. And this is from someone who has seen emus and cassowaries. And their legs! They are really stout. You don’t want to be at the receiving end of any kicks from them!
Ostrich
As with birds the males are more colourful, in this case black with white tufts in the back. The females are a duller grey.
Ostrich, female Continue reading “Birds of Kenya (Maasai Mara stories – 6)”

Giraffes, Rhinos and other ungulates (Maasai Mara stories – 5)

One of the things that astounded us in Maasai Mara, East Africa in general, was the sheer number of herbivore species. We are used to seeing spotted deer as the main deer, some Sambar deer, Gaur herds and the odd barking deer. Kaziranga had more – swamp deer, hog deer and buffalo herds, but there were two to three species in total.

Here, we started with Thomson’s Gazelle, Impala, wildebeest, Zebra, Buffalo, Topi, Eland, Giraffe, Hardebeest and Grant’s Gazelle! The sheer number of Zebra and wildebeest we saw in 4 days would be much higher than the total number of spotted deer we’d have seen in 5 years. There were that many! Even as we were making our way back to Nairobi from Nakuru, they were there quietly grazing on the sidelines, next to the highway!

No matter how many of them you see, the ones that really fill you with awe are giraffe. You don’t come across such tall creatures everyday, and they are really tall. Although we say “Giraffe” and think it is one species, there are 4-9 of them. The range is because scientists know that there are 9 types of Giraffes, spread over 4 species for sure. There’s still some dispute over whether some of the other 5 types are subspecies or form their own species.

The two species we knew we could see were the Masai Giraffe and the Rothschild Giraffe. The Masai Giraffe have more star-like blotches instead of regular lines separating the darker patches. They are the largest of the giraffes and the tallest land mammals on the planet.
How tall am I?!

Continue reading “Giraffes, Rhinos and other ungulates (Maasai Mara stories – 5)”

Elephant Stories (Maasai Mara Stories – 4)

We really wanted to see a lot of elephants in Maasai Mara. They were one of my main draws. Bigger, heavier than Asian elephants, Savanna elephants are the largest and heaviest land animals on the planet! We expected to see a fair lot of them grazing, but came across them only thrice! We hoped to see more in Nakuru, but our guide categorically dismissed all such hopes – “No elephants in Nakuru.”

We went through two hours on the first evening without any sign of elephants. The next morning as we were starting on our all-day drive towards the Mara river, we saw a bunch of vehicles stopped on the road and folks in them looking into the distance. Turned out that there was a herd in the bush. It was a largish herd, with a massive matriarch.
Elephant herd
Elephant herd, calf shows up
Continue reading “Elephant Stories (Maasai Mara Stories – 4)”

Wildebeest Crossing (Maasai Mara stories – 3)

The main thing about Maasai Mara in July-August, which also defines its “peak season” is the presence of wildebeest. Given the heavy species count there, I did wonder what the presence of wildebeest adds. Turned out, it makes a lot of difference. They are there everywhere. The large presence of a prey species also brings out a lot more predators, and there are thus a lot more kills.
Wildebeest traffic

Their presence is so heavy, that you actually see a lot of carcasses and skulls strewn all over the landscape. There are wildebeest of all ages visible for you. Right from the newly born to the dead carcasses.
Wildebeest
Wildebeest carcass Continue reading “Wildebeest Crossing (Maasai Mara stories – 3)”

Lions and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 2)

Sighting of predators like tigers and leopards isn’t common in India. You are considered lucky to really spot one, and people like to tell stories of how many years they went before they saw their first Tiger. This was a similar expectation we had with Maasai Mara, but looking at the topography we thought we might be luckier.

Unlike our forests, Maasai Mara is mostly open ground with the odd tree and valleys between the undulating terrain which usually house some water holes and bushes, which is where the predators live, away from plain sight of their prey.
Eland herd
Continue reading “Lions and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 2)”

Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)

The concept of an all day safari was mouth watering. We were supposed to leave at 7:30 AM and return by 4:30 PM. That’s 9 hours of wildlife. Technically, that’s 8 hours of wildlife, as the road from the lodge to the gate is pretty bad and takes a good half hour one way with no sighting except cattle and sheep! The lodge had packed our lunch boxes which were to be eaten in the forest, and we had an early breakfast.

The drive goes on till the Mara river where you can see the famous crossing by Wildebeest. And if you are lucky, you might chance upon a crocodile or two attempting a hunt on crossing herds. The river is so far away that it takes a few hours to drive up there, and then the same amount back. Along the way you take a few digressions to catch more wildlife. It’s a lot of fun.

We started off with an elephant herd, a lot of Wildebeest herds running, or hanging around.
Elephant herd, calf shows up
Wildebeest traffic Continue reading “Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)”

A vacation that actually happened

A vacation happened, to Kenya. And am sitting here writing about it. After a lot of scuppered vacation plans – thrice to the same destination, costing me Rs. 50000, once to a local one costing Rs. 6600, and one halfway aborted trip which didn’t cost anything in money – this came as a major relief.

When it comes to vacations I worry about a lot of things – all that documentation that needs to be carried to either get a visa or arrange a visa (if you’re going to a Schengen country it becomes even worse – you need to submit your documents just a week before the trip and expect the passport to arrive in time!), all the bookings that need to be done before the trip – flights, hotels,  about things being OK at home – no one falling sick at the last minute, about your not falling sick – which was a sore point this trip, international issues – Trump and North Korea threatening each other wasn’t helping.

In this case the visa was easier, we opted to go the eVisa way and save carrying some cash. We had to get Yellow Fever shots and Polio drops, and this was done 3 weeks before the trip. Never mind that absolutely no one was interested in seeing them when getting back to India. The accommodation and vehicle were arranged stress free, but with a lot of emailing. Some money needed to be wired and that took some time and stress, but it was done. More people should use PayPal!

I started the week before the trip with some mild stomach irritation. A visit to a nearby elderly doctor and it was supposedly an infection, and I was on antibiotics for a couple of days. Once I realised that they were not working, I dropped by my Mother’s more expensive doctor. He raised an eyebrow at the antibiotics, said it was a case of dyspepsia, or just bad indigestion, asked me to watch what I eat, and prescribed some meds. This came less than 2 days before I was to be off.

How does one manage indigestion in a foreign country, that too when one is a vegetarian? Surprisingly, things became ok pretty fast. The food turned out to be mild, and well done. The hotel for the night we arrived turned out to be owned by an Indian with an Indian restaurant at the top. Thankfully, no hunting for different food before you crash. In the lodges in the forests,  the African vegetarian versions included some Maize cakes, called Ugali, with some “Kenyan Greens” which turned out to be our own Dantu soppu steamed with some onions and salt. Tasty as hell, and mild on the stomach too. Along with some carrots or “potatoes with herbs”. The main course was usually some Indian curry with some roti/chapathi and rice. Given that the guests were predominantly European/American, the food was done mildly and again, easy on the stomach.

The surprising thing, in fact a logical thing, was how they were getting their vegetables. Being hours away from a major city poses logistical problems. All these camps/lodges got around that by setting out a plot of land to grow their own vegetables. With the Masai nearby, cattle is aplenty and takes care of their dairy and meat needs.

So it was that after 5 days of a lot of fun, and the most amazing wildlife experience ever, we got back, and once back, the placated stomach started acting up all over again. Be thankful for small mercies I guess.

Will post stories and pictures next post.

A road for your thota?

Last Saturday as I returned from my round of tennis, I saw 2 JCBs standing at the end of the road, ominously. Post-lunch (theirs) they started. They began ripping out the road which hadn’t been repaired in 8 years and had gone to a state of no-return. We stood guard to ensure that they never got to our water pipes that were passing 6 inches under the road cutting across it. Thankfully, their work was only at a one-inch level.

They got past the neighbour’s, two houses down, and spared the (illegal) fenced garden outside the house. We were slightly relieved. A few minutes later, the contractor came over and barked orders to pull down everything from storm water drain to storm water drain.

I rushed into our thota (garden), moved all the pots to the top of the covered storm water drain. The bird feeder was brought in. No birds had yet discovered it. The curry leaf tree(Murraya koenigii) was slowly dismembered of its leaves. I started breaking it down, taking more and more branches with their leaves inside. A visitor was given one branch. The workers stopped me as I passed them. “Inga konjam kudein?” (give me some, no?) they asked. I passed along largish twigs, enough to last a week for an average household. Some were distributed to the neighbours. The neighbour’s thota was reached. It was ripped out mercilessly by the JCB.

They came to ours soon and slowly brought it down. The flower bushes were pulled out – the pink hibiscus plant, the kakada bush, some turmeric. And finally the curry leaf tree. The tree was pulled out and flung aside easily, and the workers stopped work for a while. It was brought back, leftover leaves plucked out and distributed amongst themselves before being thrown away. The JCB driver called out for his share to take home.

They got to the red hibiscus bush after clearing the fencing. One worker asked the driver to spare it. “Has grown so well, and is close to the edge, why remove it, let us leave it”. They then got to the two trees standing inside – the Mango tree and the Parijatha tree(Nyctanthes arbor-tristis). “I’ll remove the Parijatha tree, and spare the Mango” the driver offered. The trees were a few inches apart, almost growing attached to each other. They were at least two feet from the drain, so I knew I had some convincing to do. The thing in my favour was that these trees were in the same line as the Sampige tree(Magnolia champaca) in the corner and 2 feet from there too. I told them that since they would be sparing that tree in any case, bringing down these two trees makes no sense. “It’s not like a vehicle can pass here!”

The driver’s argument was that his instructions were to pull down every tree that wasn’t BBMP’s! I pointed out that a tree is a tree, whether it is BBMP’s or not, and now that it was in the road, it hardly belonged to us in any case. Of course, it’s a different matter that the same BBMP doesn’t turn up to fight for its trees when they are pulled down when houses are being constructed!

After much convincing, and coaxing, he agreed to let it be. “If someone asks, don’t put the blame on us!” and he conceded the tree. The thechi(Ixora coccinea) in the corner was also pulled out and that was it. Then they began digging out the soil, to bring it to the same level as the road. “Bag irukuda?” (have a bag?) asked the workers. What for? “Mannu” (soil).

***

The thota itself was a “gift” from our contractor. He brought in 2 truckloads of red soil, created a barbed wire fence and left it to us. The parents planted the trees and the plants that they needed for their daily use. It was predominantly floral because of that. The mango tree came up by accident. After eating a mango, Appa tossed the seed in there, just to see if something comes up. Something did.

For me, more than the loss of the plants itself, it is what those plants meant. The hibiscus bush once hosted a nest of Red-whiskered bulbuls. Spring is heralded by purple-rumped and purple sunbirds chirping all over the garden. Tailorbirds bathed on the leaves in summer in the excess water from the overhead tank after it overflows. Great tits, Warblers tweeted and clicked around. The odd Signature spider turned up in August. Monsoons brought out snails, toads and slugs. Caterpillars spun their cocoons on the bushes and emerged as butterflies.

It wasn’t just a thota, it was an ecosystem in itself. Yes, it was illegal. We had taken over what was earmarked as footpath space. The road had three layers – the storm water drain, space for the footpath, and then the road itself. The current demolition of gardens is scary in a lot of ways. The storm water drain, which lies around 9 inches above ground is expected to serve the purpose of footpath. Never mind that it is barely a foot in width, and is 9 inches above ground. What used to be the footpath is now taken over by the road, so that people can park their cars outside. The glut of cars all over has meant that passing cars barely squeeze through the gap between parked cars. But this was on the perpendicular roads, where there were no gardens in the first place.

Yes, I try to justify the thota. It was illegal, on public property. I wish we had larger space to be able to make a thota inside the property, but that’s not possible. Pots don’t create the same wilderness as a rooted ground. But it was a green space, in a locality where trees are being cut down by almost every other new house, and if not, pruned by BESCOM as they continue to refuse to move electric wires underground. Trees now grow slanted, away from the wires, and in some cases, like a ‘Y’, letting the wires pass in the gap. Who said trees are not intelligent?!

I already miss the toads that used to hop all over the roads when it rained. The day after a rainy night you could see carcasses of toads littering the street, flattened by passing cars. There were also sparrows and babblers that my parents used to leave rice for. You miss a day, and they’d remind you, sitting on the grill, calling out. There were fireflies flitting around, occasional pulses of light in the darkness.

There are no sparrows left near my house. I see them in an older area as I walk to the bus stop. What used to be once a village, with houses that also have cattle sheds, where people sit outside washing vessels or combing each others’ hair. Sparrows chirp around while calves walk the streets.

I had left a bird feeder on the mango tree, it was untouched. The birds that visit come for the flowers and the bugs. I had hung out a bird house behind the hibiscus bush, but none came. At one point a neighbour remarked to my father – “Haven’t seen you in a long time, don’t see your house these days also.” It was covered behind bushes and trees.

***

Moving on, I hope to put up a terrace garden. But that wouldn’t have the kind of wilderness a thota has. The birds that visit won’t be the same. Once the road is done, I need to think up some way to grow some plants again, just for the birds, the bugs, the snails, slugs and the spiders. A place that they can visit. “Laws” be damned.

Zen in the city?

Have you been woken up at 1 AM? By the sound of large 100 Kg stone slabs being dropped? Trust me, it’s not nice. First there is denial – “this can’t be happening”. Then there is annoyance – “WTF?!”. Then there is anger. You walk out, confront them. Turns out it’s BBMP this time delivering slabs to cover the storm water drains. But surely, there’s a better time to do that?

“We’ll be done sir, only 20 stones to go” he promises. You call the police. The police control room forwards the call to the local police station. The local police station calls you. “Should we come over?”. You hand over your phone to one of the workers. The police have a chat, and they talk to me. “He says only 10 minutes, what do you want us to do?” I agree to give them 10 more minutes. They finish in 7 and leave, not before giving me a cheeky “Sorry for the disturbance”, in English.

Fun part is, despite so many houses all around, not one even opened a window to as much as check what’s happening. It could’ve been someone stealing stuff, or dumping stones from other places in your area. Would you care? Would you speak up?

A few weeks back, I opened the window to talk to a neighbour who’s car reverse horn just rendered a full version of Vandemataram at 1:15 AM. “Dude, WTF?” He thinks I am referring to some stray dogs shouting near him. “What can I do?”, I ask him to tone down on the vehicle. “Not my car boss, company’s and they’ve installed it.” Well, at least don’t park on reverse when you’re late! “ok” he agreed grudgingly. He followed it for a week, then doesn’t bother. I know I can’t push it too far, people can be touchy about their cars, and being asked to pipe down. The threatening “Ei!” comes out sooner than later.

The fun part is that reverse horns have been banned since 2014. A lot of cars still get sold, brand new, with these horns installed by the showrooms. A complaint with the traffic police got a “Check with RTO” as response. RTO isn’t easy to communicate with. Means, you just suffer idiots taking their cars out early in the morning, or parking it in late in the night.

What is it about people that makes them lose all sense of civic sense when it comes to cars? The number of times I’ve had to hurriedly shield my mother from being knocked down by a speeding car which refuses to slow down, even though we’ve entered a part of the road which is too narrow and can’t get out before he reaches us! I even signal him to slow down as we can’t move anywhere. He doesn’t care. It’s scary! People die. And someone actually complained on Twitter that pedestrians are at fault for coming in front of vehicles. Yes, get killed in 1000s per year and get blamed for it.

I wonder why am the only person who seems to be bothered by this ridiculous noise pollution at odd hours. Surely others would also wake up because of this noise? The answer seems to be a case of “neevoo maadalva?” (don’t you also do this?) The entire city suffers all things thrown at it, in the hope and need that one day they’ll have to do something similar and don’t want to be disturbed at that time. Better not be the first stone thrower.

As more people buy cars, it is unlikely there’ll be any respite from this nonsense. People seem to leave their brains at home, and drive only on ego. The solution might be to train the brain to ignore noises, especially when sleeping. The direction am taking seems to be the opposite. Reverse horns seem to bring out some stress in me, that my brain is recognising as an alarm call to alert me about. This results in me being woken up in the middle of the night even from deep sleep, and in a sense of agitation that makes it harder to get back to sleep. Normal horns sounded as some vehicles pass by don’t seem to have the same effect.

The entire city runs on saying “don’t care”. Got woken up by some noise? Give it a few minutes and you can sleep again. No noise lasts for ever. Maybe there is some Zen in the way people respond to disturbances. Should everyone be emulating this? But when do you take a stand? How much is too much?