Viewing the Indian rhinos - elephant safari style

Friday, 25 December 2015

The Great One Horned Rhino (or Indian Rhino) is found in India. One of the best places to view these odd creatures is at the Kaziranga National Park in Eastern India. One morning we went on elephant back to get close to them and take photos. We were up at 4:30 a.m. and at the park by 5:30.

This was the first time I've ever ridden an elephant and we had to straddle their backs. It wasn't that comfortable but the ride is only for an hour and worth it in order to get close to the rhinos. (I do have some ethical concerns about keeping elephants in captivity. In the future, I don't think I'll ride an elephant but I guess you live and learn.)

The rhinos are pretty shy but not afraid of humans on elephant back. The elephants are comfortable around them as well and we were able to sit nearby and take pictures of a female and her baby as well as others. They are interesting to watch because they look so prehistoric! 

Rhinos use "communal toilets" and defecate in the same place often. Out of these piles of poo grow Rhino Dung Flowers or Spider Flowers. The species is invasive in India and the rhinos spread the seeds by eating them and passing them on. (So pretty but strange!)

The early morning elephant safari was peaceful and interesting. I enjoyed the opportunity to get close to the rhinos, water buffalo, and swamp deer. 

I've included a short video of clips I took of the one-horned rhino. They move like tanks! 

Indian food cooking lesson at Bagh Tola Lodge

Monday, 21 December 2015

Part of our tour included a stay at Bagh Tola Lodge near Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve. The lodge is fairly basic but we enjoyed great hospitality and delicious Indian dishes. One of the highlights was an impromptu Indian food cooking class.

The cook has to prepare food on basically a bunsen burner - not easy, right? Check out the heat source (I would surely burn the house down):

We learned how to make the foundation to many Indian dishes: a paste of fresh ginger, red onion, and garlic. This was amazing to watch and I'm going to try it in my own kitchen. I usually start most of my dishes with minced fresh garlic and red onion but throw in a little ginger and you have a healthy kick! I've also read in a couple of Indian recipes that you can do this in a simple way by just throwing the ingredients into a food processor. 

He prepared a carrot and pea dish with minced tomatoes. It began with the mixture of ginger, onion, and garlic, in a little bit of canola oil. Then the spices are added: salt, cumin, turmeric, and a bit of coriander. Once the spices are "alive," add the carrots and peas. Easy! 

What isn't easy is... cooking in the dark! The power goes off frequently in India and the generator at Bagh Tola takes a few minutes to come on. In the photo below, someone is holding their cellphone flashlight up so we could finish our cooking lesson.

I created a simple video to show the cooking in action:

Visiting a tea estate in India

Our tour included a stop at an amazing tea estate on the way to our last camp, Diphlu River Lodge. We took a flight from our camp at Kanha National Park to Kolkata and drove to Haroocharai (an estate where they grow and process tea leaves). The estate boasts 430 acres of beautiful, short, green bushes with large, fat, tea leaves.

The manager and his wife greeted us (their two gorgeous labradors also approached the guests for a sniff and a pat) and they escorted us through the estate home. We then proceeded to the back "garden" where we relaxed on the gorgeous lawn with a glass of wine or beer. While we rested the manager told us about the tea estate and the harvest process. (James got lucky because the female yellow lab laid at his feet during the talk.)

Tea is harvested between March and December in the eastern part of India. The manager said that it is important to make sure the leaves are placed on drying racks within 20 hours of being harvested. I'm interested in the process of drying leaves (my grandmother taught me how to dry the herbs that I grow at home) and we learned that the estate uses oil or coal to fire the ovens that dry the tea leaves. 

We also learned that the harvesting process is similar to how one might harvest herbs. If you've ever grown basil or oregano or whatever - even in a pot - you know to pinch off the top, small leaves before going for the large leaves. This helps with growth and is the basic idea of pruning. This is exactly the harvesting process for tea. The manager explained to us that there are many different plots of tea over their 430 acres and workers will "pluck" (the Indian-English word used for "pick") the same plot once every seven days. That allows for exceeded growth during the other six days. 

Learning about tea and the harvesting and drying process was interesting to me because I enjoy a good cup of tea. What was even better, though, was sitting outside in lovely 74F weather, enjoying delicious, home-cooked Indian food for lunch and chatting with those who run the estate, their son, as well as their friends. They embraced us (symbolically) like family! We also adored the well behaved canine members of the family. The dogs were so sweet and allowed us to fawn over them as we were all missing our own pets. As a generalization, I have experienced that the people of India are very kind and welcoming. 

Wildlife in Bandhavgarh National Park

Saturday, 12 December 2015
We have been visiting the Bandhavgarh National Park for game drives each day. There are three “zones” in the park and each vehicle that enters the gate is assigned to a zone and also to two routes. For instance, this morning we were assigned to Zone 2, driving into the park on Route B and leaving the park on Route C.  The gates open at 6:30 a.m. and you HAVE to be out at 11:00 a.m. for the first drive of the day. If your jeep is even one minute late leaving the park, that car is banned for one month. This can be quite detrimental to the lodge because they have allotted the correct amount of vehicles for the guests that they have. The clearances for each guest and vehicles are planned weeks in advance and no one wants to be late. That’s how it works here – very different from African safaris.

This morning’s game drive was sort of a “bust” but that can certainly happen. It is best to just shake it off and get ready for the afternoon drive. We didn’t have to get up as early today and started out around 5:45 a.m. We were in the park at 6:30 sharp (that’s when they open the gate) but didn’t see any tigers. Another jeep in our group watched a sloth bear come to a water hole and drink. We drove by too late but saw it in the distance. It is much larger than I imagined (about the size of a North American black bear) but it was a bummer that we couldn’t get a photo. Seriously - does the sighting really count if you’re not able to take a picture of it to show to your friends on Facebook?

Some interesting sightings included the kingfisher bird (one of my favorites). In India they have the White-throated Kingfisher (shown above) as well as the Common or Eurasian Kingfisher. If you’ve even seen the label on the Kingfisher beer, it includes a beautiful artistic rendition of the Common Kingfisher.

We were able to watch the Langur Monkey for quite some time with the Spotted Deer nearby. They have an interesting symbiotic relationship of sorts that I enjoyed learning about - so you’re stuck with the information too. :) The Langur Monkey is a messy eater. They chow down on the leaves of the Sal tree. They only manage to get one in about 10 leaves into their mouths so the rest fall to the ground. 

The Spotted Deer are “browsers” and “grazers” so they eat both leaves and grass and since the monkeys make it so easy for them, they are quite happy to stand under the trees and eat the leftovers. The monkeys also watch over the territory from the trees and will sound an alarm call when they see predators. Then the deer know to be on alert. 

So what do the monkeys get out of it? The deer have an excellent sense of hearing as well as smell so they will listen for predators and sound an alarm call. The Spotted Deer sort of “scream” and the Barking Deer – you guessed it – sound like a dog barking when they see a tiger. When the deer are nearby, the monkeys come out of the trees and eat the ripe berries that have fallen because if a predator is around their buddies will let them know.

Kings Lodge, India

Friday, 11 December 2015

(Above is a quick video of clips I shot today while on game drives.)

We were supposed to fly into an airport that is close to Kings Lodge. However the airport was closed because on a flight the day before, the pilot swerved to miss a wild boar that was on the runway. The plane careened off the path and they had to bring in trucks from far away to pull it away from the runway. No one was injured but that meant that our group had to fly into a different airport and then drive five hours to the lodge.

Most of the time we were traveling on dirt roads through little towns where village life was alive. In the “country” there are more cows than anyone could ever count. (Although you will also see them on the roads in the cities.) The cattle stand in the middle of the road sometimes and the drivers have to be so careful or they’ll run right into them (or people walking on the road, or bicyclists, or other cars, motorcycles…). The drivers continue their constant honking and goats and dogs are also road hazards.

Some of the cows have a shepherd that will walk with them holding a large stick to tap on the ground to keep them moving. Closer to tiger territory, the shepherds are extra careful to not let the cattle into certain areas near reserves, etc. If a tiger kills a cow on the inside of a national park or reserve then the farmer is not compensated for the cow. If a tiger kills the cow on the farmer’s land or in a “public” space then the government pays the farmer. Even losing one cow is a huge deal because a farmer may only have 10 or 12. In some areas there is severe poverty and that is why owning even one cow or a couple of goats is important and sometimes essential for survival.

Kings Lodge is very comfortable. The grounds are lovely with a beautiful pool and well-appointed rooms. We have heat and air conditioning, a king size bed, and a full indoor bathroom with a hot water and even a bathtub! Yesterday we had Wifi near the lodge office but this afternoon it doesn’t seem to be working. That’s fine because it give me a moment to sit and write about our experiences. (Below is our "room.")

We had such high hopes of seeing a tiger – that was one of our major motivators to travel to this beautiful country. Therefore, we weren’t too upset when our Natural Habitat guide gave us a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call and told everyone to be in the lobby for tea and coffee at 5:30. One of the ladies in our group noticed a Keel-back snake We were there with bells on and we loaded into three jeeps to travel to the park gate. The parks open at sunrise, and in this season that is at 6:30. India is a highly regulated country so on our way there (a 30 minute drive) we had to stop once to fill out paperwork and once for a passport check. All patrons must ride in the same jeeps the entire stay and the naturalists rotate. Each jeep must also travel with a park guide so we had five people riding in our vehicle including James and I (one driver, one naturalist from Kings Lodge, and one park guide). I was surprised at the amount of red tape but you do what you have to do.

The morning drive started out with seeing an amazingly huge buffalo type creature called a “Gaul.” (I need to check the spelling when I have Internet access.) They can apparently grow to weight up to one ton. We then saw spotted deer. The males have long antlers and they will sound a warning call when leopards or tigers are close by. We also saw peacocks (India’s native bird), a crested hawk eagle, a black-shouldered kite, long-tailed shrike, and a ruby-necked parakeet.

As we continued our drive we drove up on other jeeps stopped with people pointing. We crept up and noticed others pointing at a tiger! It was slowly making its way through the undergrowth and it was hard to see but we could see the vibrant orange fur with black stripes that grew from thin lines to thick bars toward the back of the cat. What a magnificent creature! We watched it for a while and a second tiger came to join it. This one was more difficult to see and we were slightly disappointed that we weren’t able to get any solid photos. Around 8:30 we stopped for a “bush breakfast” with hard-boiled eggs, cheese sandwiches, and crispy potatoes. Our guide also served coffee, tea, and pineapple juice. After about 30 minutes it was time to get back to the game drive. As we were driving along we spotted another tiger – this time it was just strolling down the road in front of us. The driver said, “Tiger! Tiger!” and we looked up to see the Queen of the Jungle (it was female) moving toward us with the most elegant gait. She even laid her head down for just a bit to watch us watching her.


First Day in New Delhi

Wednesday, 9 December 2015
New Delhi - what an interesting place! We arrived last night around 10:30 p.m. and went from the airport through a flurry of heavy traffic to the Taj hotel. Before we were even able to pull into the complex, three guards came out to search the trunk of our car, under the hood, and also used a mirror under the car. I wasn’t too surprised about that but as we pulled up to the front of the hotel we noticed that everyone entering the hotel had to pass through a metal detector and have their bags scanned. That was certainly a new experience for me but apparently the terrorist threats from Pakistan and elsewhere are quite bad and they must take all precautions.

The Taj Hotel is very safe and I felt just fine going down for dinner at the Chinese restaurant without James. He wanted to relax in bed and had already eaten a full meal on the plane before we disembarked (I slept through the last few hours of our 14 hour flight). At House of Ming I enjoyed three lovely courses with impeccable service and did not feel out of place in the least bit. I admired the live flower arrangements in the lobby that included ruby red orchids, and large white mum blooms arranged on little platforms resting on tall sticks. This was all complemented with full limbs of natural red berries. I adore checking out flower arrangements while on travels because talent and creativity is manifested in many ways throughout different cultures.

Our first foray into the outside world came today at 1:30 p.m. when the two of us met with the other members of our Natural Habitat group in the lobby for an afternoon tour. We went to “Old Delhi” or “The Walled City” which was constructed in the 1600s for the elite population in the area. It was built for approximately 2,000 residents but today more than a million people live within the walls. It is expensive real estate and many business people have huge sales on items such as spices, chilies, dates, shoes, saris, etc.

We first went to the largest mosque (Jama Masjid) in Delhi. The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. Women have to don a large cotton robe that is light weight but long-sleeved and flows to the ground. Men and women have to remove their shoes and photography is permitted by paying a fee but you are asked not to take pictures of people praying. After we entered the gates, literally within 5 minutes of our guide starting to discuss elements of the space, a group of two young male locals and five young women locals approached me and wanted to have their picture taken with me. I didn’t even understand the request. They quickly gathered around and took photos standing next to me using their smart phones. My heart started pounding and I didn’t know whether I should smile and go along with it or say “No thank you.” Turns out – it doesn’t matter if you acknowledge people or not. Many came over to take photos of me just walking or taking my own photos. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced. 

One occurrence was especially strange. I was standing with James in the open courtyard of the mosque and three young men approached us. None of them looked at me. One of them introduced himself to James and shook his hand twice. He peered at James with what I interpreted as admiration. (??) I was not acknowledged. Then he asked if he could have his picture taken with us. He stood by me and his buddies took the picture and then they switched to do the same thing. After shaking James’ hand again - they left. I felt like property for sure and James was also left a bit speechless.

After the mosque visit, we took rickshaws (man powered bicycles with a cart for two people) around the shopping area of Old Delhi. It was more chaotic than I could ever imagine. Our “driver” was an older man wearing a tattered sweater with kind eyes and a great sense of humor. He pointed out the messy and archaic electrical wire system over our heads in the streets and would periodically ask, “Madam, sir, good?” I would sometimes answer from behind a bandana held to my mouth and nose because the pollution is very thick. By the end of the tour my throat hurt and both James’ and my eyes were burning.

In this part of Delhi there seems to be dozens of ways to get from one place to another. I witnessed people walking, riding bikes, motorcycles, cars, buses, electric rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, battery operated scooters, men pushing wooden carts, even a horse and cart (!!) People are either transporting goods or people - or just walking to get someplace fast. Here's a quick clip of what it is like to ride on a rickshaw through the crowd:

Walking is likely faster in this part of the city because the traffic is so dense and on the surface there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion to the madness of forward progress. Just observing for a while will teach you otherwise. Everyone relies heavily on a horn or his voice to keep the flow going. (I am using the male pronoun here because there are few to none women drivers in Old Delhi.) The horn is meant to warn others that you’re there and plan to move forward. If you’re on a bicycle rickshaw, the “driver” just shouts his way through the crowd.

The variety of goods for sale was impressive but I only went into one spice shop to pick up the pre-mixed spices for Butter Chicken and Korma Marsala. I was incredibly intimidated by the process because everything moves at a fast pace, you are supposed to haggle, and all of the shop owners and shoppers were male. Never was anyone impolite to me, I just wasn’t quite up to speed on how things work and felt a bit timid. I reminded myself while leaving to stand up straight and feign confidence as necessary. 

While walking in the area with the other group members and two guides, one young, very short man stepped in front of me and said “Hello!” like it was a dare from his friends. I returned the greeting and continued on. Another time as I was walking a young, tall man coming toward me sort of stepped in front of me and waited a beat before moving on, allowing his right elbow to graze the front of my shirt. I’m not certain that it was intentional but my first instinct was to recoil a bit. Also while riding the rickshaw a young girl of about 10 years old was walking along side us and reached up with her right forearm to barely touch my left leg. She never made eye contact and the touch was as light as a butterfly.

While slightly stressful because of the crowded spaces and fast pace, today was a thrilling day! This was certainly an environment that isn't experienced elsewhere. The only thing that U.S. citizens would perhaps have to compare it with is walking in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon in peak tourist season. Tomorrow we leave for the jungles of India. We hope to escape some of the pollution and traffic and begin our search for the Bengal Tiger.

Oyster Roast at BHI Market

Monday, 7 December 2015
We tried something new this year while on Bald Head Island during November. Mom booked four tickets for us to go to the oyster roast put on by the Maritime Market. It was a blast!

Chef Chip steamed oysters and shrimp, and patrons could also order lobster! I've been thinking about trying to do my own oyster roast at home (if we can find semi-fresh oysters in Ohio) and the tips on how to shuck them are plentiful on Pinterest.

Obviously you would have to check with your guests about allergies to seafood and shellfish but the presentation at the oyster roast we went to seemed super simple. Chef just steamed the shrimp and oysters until they were ready then dumped them onto a table covered with cookie sheets. (I'm sure newspaper or butcher paper would work just as well.) We also had little buckets on our tables for the shells and shrimp skins. Those were dumped in a compost pile and the clean up seemed pretty easy. 

The buffet line went quickly and someone came around with hush puppies as a hand-passed appetizer before the main course. A cute idea for a meal - especially if you can host it outside. There was also BBQ chicken and pulled pork for those who do not eat seafood and the sides were of course beans and slaw.

Guests could BYOW and we just grabbed a couple of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blancs from inside the market. They were on sale for just $12.99. Not bad! 

James and I left after eating the main course to try to get in some photos before the sun went down but mom and dad sampled dessert - banana pudding. I need a good recipe to try as I adore banana pudding! 

Have you ever tried an oyster roast? Any tips?

Bald Head Island Birds

James and I were lucky enough to be invited to Bald Head Island with my parents over the Thanksgiving holiday. We enjoyed our time there with them so much. The weather was gorgeous (sunny and upper 60s the entire time).

I have learned that I'm an outdoor creature at heart and we loved talking walks in the mornings together when the light dapples through the branches of the huge, old oaks with moss hanging down.

Mom and I walked on the beach one day and took pictures of shore birds for their beach house. I have a new Nikon D750 (an amazing Christmas gift from my honey) that I have been practicing with. My favorite medium is video and I can use an external microphone with headphones with this beauty!

Here are a few of the shots we were able to capture on the beach: