Sunday, February 28, 2010

# 16 Sloth Bear Rescue

During a recent trip to Soor Sarvora bird sanctuary in Agra I came upon the Sloth Bear Rescue, a program supported by the non-profit Wildlife S.O.S of India. The preserve was closed to visitors without a reservation, but a guard kindly summoned one of the resident biologists who gave me a tour of the facility.

Just inside the park, a furry sloth bear lumbered up to the chain-link fence of the enclosure and sniffed. "They're each given new names when they arrive at the sanctuary," the biologist said. All of the bears in the park have been rescued from miserable lives as dancing bears.

For generations, Kalandar gypsy tribes have captured young bears soon after birth, often killing the mother in the process. The bears are then trained to "dance" for entertainment, tourists, and photo opportunities. The process to convert them to lives in captivity is brutal. Their teeth are pulled, claws chopped off and sensitive muzzles pierced for ropes just 4 feet in length. It was two years ago I saw a billboard admonishing, "Just Say No to Dancing Bears" with a picture of a sloth bear performing. This public education is essential.

The good news is the efforts of this organization have resulted in more that 480 rescued and rehabilitated bears since 2002. Through the program, "owners" are paid $1,000 to peacefully surrender the bear and are also given $1,000 worth of training and educational opportunities for themselves and their families.

Individuals are trained in areas such as driving, welding, tailoring, embroidery, and helping to set up shops and small businesses. The group also provides accessible education for children and health care clinics.

Sloth Bear Rescue has opened several sanctuaries in India and continues to conserve and protect the species by acquiring land, protecting habitat and curtailing poaching. For $45 a month, you can sponsor a bear where they are free to roam, play, interact with other bears and live life in a safe environment.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The View from Marine Palace Restaurant

The view from the Marine Palace Restaurant in Varkala, Kerala is ever-changing. During my recent visit I spent hours drinking tea and fresh juices while watching the beach scene just steps below the cafe. On the shores of the Arabian Sea, fishermen empty their nets of shiny-skinned fish, westerners tan their browning hides, and locals worship ancestors on the holy beach before at sacred ocean waters. Wildlife lovers can spot white-bellied sea eagles and other birds of prey swooping down toward the fishermen's catch and schools of dolphin arcing from the sea.

Its such a comfy spot—a breeze blows through the outdoor restaurant, the palm thatched roof shades patrons from the strong Keralan sun and the sandy floor is cool on the feet. At night festive colored lights wind up teakwood columns and dangle from cashew nut tree branches.

And the food? It's tasty, inexpensive, copious and very fresh. One late afternoon I sipped a tall glass of watermelon juice and watched as two men rushed through the cafe struggling with a 90 pound marlin. They carried it down the steps and hoisted it onto the beachfront grill. Then they piled on tuna, butter fish, snapper, barracuda, giant prawns, and other fresh-caught fruits de mer for the evening dinner.

The restaurant is located on the grounds of the intimate Marine Palace Hotel that offers 14 rooms. Stay at one of the newly built Keralan style cottages featuring front and back verandas . The staff is sweet and owner Sudharji Bhasker is charming and accommodating.

Monday, August 10, 2009

# 14 Rambagh Palace

I was sad to read in the newspaper that the legendary Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, passed away on July 29 at the age of 90. She was an icon of India's former princely states, renowned for her beauty, charm, and eventually her devotion to education for women and a successful political career. With her death came the end of a reign rich in history, romance, and the allure of an early life of royal privilege.

The Maharani's former residence in Jaipur was Rambagh Palace, where she lived with Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. In 1957 it was converted to a hotel. It remains a stunningly gorgeous heritage hotel to this day.

During my first trip to India I visited the palace, sat on the veranda sipping a kir royale and watched green parakeets fly overhead above the vast manicured lawns. It was magical. And very palatial. With a grand entrance, polished marble floors and corridors, fountains filled with rose petals, and portraits of royalty, it conjured up bygone days of royal activities and immense wealth.

At Rambagh Palace the service is stellar, and the amenities ample including spa, swimming pools, jewelry boutiques, and astrologer. If you truly want the royal treatment, opt to stay in the Maharani's suite. The Maharaja had it redecorated especially for her (she was, in fact, his third wife).

For more on the Maharani's fascinating life including her days at Rambagh Palace, read her autobiography, "A Princess Remembers." It will make your stay or visit to the Palace all the more memorable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

# 13 Tigers at Kanha

India is one of the few places left in the world where wild tigers still prowl, and Kanha National Park is renowned for the majestic cat. Approximately 130 wild tigers roam the preserve in the state of Madhya Pradesh an area that inspired Rudyard Kipling's classic, the "Jungle Book." At Kanha you'll most likely sight some of the other wild characters of Kipling's classic, from pythons to leopards.

During my visit last year I received a big thrill when a tigress emerged from the jungle and nonchalantly walked head-on toward our jeep. The whiskers on her nose were clearly visible. Her giant paws padded silently on the dusty road as her massive shoulders swayed gracefully. She was no more than 30 feet away. Our driver backed up. For 35 minutes we watched the tigress amble toward us. The driver continued driving in reverse. Eventually, the big cat veered off the road, walked up a hill and positioned herself behind a rock. Only her striped tail and the white back of one ear was visible. It had been an excellent sighting.

The legendary cats have had a tough go of it. Excessive hunting in the early 20th century was devastating to the tiger population and it wasn't until the 1970s that serious conservation programs were enforced. Though India has stepped up its efforts to protect tigers, numbers continue to dwindle. Tiger counts are alarmingly low, numbering around 1,400 according to a February 2008 census.

Modern-day challenges to tiger populations include loss of habitat, encroachment of buffer zones, increased human population and poaching. Public awareness among residents and visitors aids in supporting the government's efforts. Today, Kanha is one of 28 tiger reserves in India dedicated to preserving natural resources, wildlife, and the tiger. In my opinion, there's no time like the present to see these amazing beasts in the wild.

Though tigers may be the star attraction at the 750-square mile park, the jungle itself is indeed beautiful. It has an earthy scent that's deep, fruity, and fermented. Towering sal trees with mottled trunks provide cover to tigers, leopards, jackal, wild boar, and monkeys. Termite "castles" made of reddish brown earth stand three and four feet high. Shaggy Indian bison graze near ponds, and steel-hued blue bulls graze in forested areas. Hundreds of bird species live or migrate through the park. Visitors can rent gypsies (jeeps) with drivers and a naturalist guide for morning and afternoon drives.

Tiger image by Santanu Banik, Frozen for Eternity

Copyright image used by permission.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

# 12 Henna

During one trip to India I took a group of women travelers for henna at a small market in New Delhi. The henna artists, armed with portfolios of their handiwork, descended on their eager clients flipping through pages filled with designs for hands, feet, forearms, ankles, calves. Once a design was selected, the artists worked quickly with deft hands, creating flowers, paisleys, and swirly decorations on various body parts.

Henna (also known as Mehndi) has been used for thousands of years. Leaves from the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) are ground into a paste which dyes the skin. Henna artists squeeze the greenish-black paste through a cone onto the skin creating elaborate patterns. The dark paste dries, cracks and crumbles off leaving a reddish-brown design which can last up to a couple of weeks. Women in India wear henna for special occasions and celebrations. Brides are decorated with special designs on their hands and feet.

The women travelers were happy and impressed with their new body art—but no less so than the artists were impressed with Autumn's tattoos, one of the women in our group. Autumn's elaborate tattoos covered much of her neck, chest, and arms. Fortunately, the henna artists found a blank canvass on her feet.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

# 11 Men Who Wear Color

People often ask me what it is I like about India. Among many things, it's the color that stands out—literally. Eye-popping pinks, lime green, rich reds, glowing oranges. Bright hues are everywhere from the neon orange of Lord Ganesha to women in fuchsia saris.

But it's not just women who wear gaily colored clothing. You'll see men stepping outside the color box into lavender long sleeve button downs, kelly green golf shirts and turquoise kurtas. It's refreshing coming from Seattle, land of neutral toned chino trousers and sedate shirts. My favorite color combo to date was a young man wearing orange pants and a purple shirt. It was a surefire attention-getter.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

# 10 Tuk Tuks

Motoring through crowded streets in auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks), is my favorite mode of transportation in India. They are loud. They are subject to the wind and rain. They miraculously come within millimeters of pedestrians, cows, scooters, bikes, and other auto rickshaws. And they are fun as hell.

The three-wheeled vehicles are covered but door-less. With a two-stroke engine and handlebar controls, it's similar to a ride at Disneyland, albeit without the circular track to nowhere. Unlike a sanitized, elevated ride in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive tourist vehicle, tuk tuks are the best mode of transport for a close-up look at daily life. You'll whiz past vegetable markets and get a whiff of ripe bananas, hear locals haggle over goods, and get a birds eye view of monkey shenanigans on the roadside.

Tuk tuks are inexpensive rides compared to taxis or hired cars and quite comfortable forms of transportation for two or three people. However, it's not uncommon to see riders crammed within the small confines of the cab, limbs akimbo and protruding from the vehicle.

Some tuk tuk drivers show pride of ownership. They cover the seats with fancy fabrics or colored Naugahyde, embellish them with stitched-in heart shapes, trim them in fringe and tassels, and decorate them with deities.

Auto rickshaws are used throughout India but rules vary regarding fares. In some areas the meters are working, running and required. In others, meters are often "broken", so you must use your bargaining skills.

If you're on an organized tour, don't deprive yourself of this experience. If you're on business consider hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day. Just negotiate in advance.

Tuk Tuk Tips
  • Ask the hotel where you're staying what a ride should cost from point A to B. If you're already out flagging down a tuk tuk,, think half of the quoted price and go from there. Always establish a price in advance.
  • Don't assume a driver knows where your destination is. The driver may be from a different state or village and driving his auto rickshaw in an adopted city. I once tried going to an early morning yoga class with map and address in hand only to be dropped off in the middle of, well, I don't know where it was. It took two more tuk tuk rides before I found the yoga class.
  • Bring a map and point out your destination if the driver is unfamiliar with its location.
  • Use common sense. A fellow traveler was adamant about paying a fair, non-tourist price. The driver asked for 80 rupees. She insisted the quoted fare (approximately $1.75) was too much. Perhaps. Well, probably. But there were no other tuk tuks in sight on this long stretch of road. The driver spoke good English and clearly knew the location of our chosen destination. That, in my book, was worth the extra 50 cents he was charging.
  • I sometimes walk to where the tuk tuk drivers congregate. I look for drivers whose vehicles are neat and clean and speak English since my Hindi is limited. It's more efficient for both of us.
  • If a driver insists on taking you to a friend's, uncle or cousin's shop, insist on getting to your desired destination. Chances are, they are taking you to a shop where prices will be high due to their commission.
  • Drivers work hard and work long hours. Tips are appreciated.

    For the Adventurous
    You don't have to take a back seat in these crazy little motorized contraptions. Consider driving your own tuk tuk for the Rickshaw Challenge. This "amazing race for the clinically insane" has an outlined route that traverses across several microclimates, and through suburban, country, and city roads. July 31 through August 13, 2009.