Friday, September 22, 2017

Canadian Rockies Day 4

The Waterton Lakes Lodge resort looks like a lodge. Small cottages with a few rooms each and spread over a large acre of land, the rooms give a woody and mountainous feeling rather than the glossy feeling that city hotels give us. The morning was very crisp and light layering was required. The sunrise cast its golden colours on the mountains behind the resort very different from the pinkish hue of sunsets. Stray deers- whole families- can be seen all over Waterton and I saw a whole pack pass through, just outside our cottage corridor. People had got up early either to watch the sunrise or to simply take cup of coffee and go out on a morning leisurely stroll.

Columbian ground squirrel at Logan pass in Glacier National Park

After a decent breakfast, we head off to the Glacier National Park. The Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, where the American and Canadian Rockies meet. In 1932, the U.S. and Canada joined these two national parks as a symbol of their longtime peace and friendship. In recognition of this historic agreement, the parks were officially designated as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

We had to cross over the US border. Here's where Gate1 Travels, my tour group, erred, but luckily it didn't hurt us. Since we cross over to the US territory, we need valid US visas. Fortunately, all us Indians who were on board the bus, had one. But it could have boomeranged us, if we hadst;t had US visas. We would have had to sit in completely wilderness, as the border check-post was right in the middle of a forest area. The immigration told us to get off, took our fingerprints, checked our passports, travel history and issued a temporary entrance. He was intrigued that my friend had visited Iran. When she explained to him about Zoroastrianism, he said he knew Zoroastrians. That intrigued us more than anything. It's always a pleasant and most welcome surprise when the otherwise stiff Visa officials are well-read and aware of the world and understand and appreciate free movement of people for valid reasons. 

The lake on which the Many Glacier Hotel stands

Our first stop was at the majestic, Many Glacier Hotel on crystal-clear Swiftcurrent Lake. It's in the middle of nowhere, so any dreams of coming here sometime in future get dashed unless you are ready to drive in foreign land. After a hurried, but very awesome hot chocolate (it was the right amount of cold here), we watched the solar eclipse. The total solar eclipse was seen in many places in the USA that day; where we saw it was 90%. Not quite the same as 100%, but very exciting nevertheless. Next time, i think i will be better prepared. The two Indian couple from New Jersey, USA had got special Eclipse glasses and we all took full benefit of them.

We then proceeded to a place were we boarded an open-top red bus (bus no. 84) to go to the Logan pass, which is at a height. We passed by yet another lake whose name I don't remember, but since there was some smog due to the forest fires in the region, I wasn't much enchanted. A small island, called the Wild Goose Island, though in the lake looked pretty. We also saw a herd of Big Horn sheep rushing down the hill and then crossing the road. Some confidently crossed, others hesitated. They were the cynosure of everyone's eyes and complete traffic stoppers too. We had a lovely group dinner at the hotel.

Logan Pass

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Canadian Rockies - Day 3

Time to leave Calgary. After a hearty breakfast, we set off in our bus. Our first stop was at Claresholm. It's an old village which has now progressed, but the local authorities have made a museum of the old way of village living. We saw old vehicles like a Ford Model T (a rare green coloured one, as opposed to the black models that Ford eventually had always sold), old sewing machines, a hospital room with all the apparatus just the way it used to be in olden times and so on. The local ladies at the museum were kind enough to make tea and coffee for us and served us cakes. This museum was an old railway station. That rail line is shut now and trains no longer come here.

Then, we proceeded to Watertown, our first overnight stop, where we stayed for two nights. Before we headed to the town, we had a brief stop at the Luxurious Prince of Wales hotel, which is perched atop a mountain and offers panoramic vistas of the town and the Waterton lake. The lake wasn't impressive when we reached there because the sun was right on top of us, but later when the sun goes down or in early mornings, it's a very beautiful sight. The fires in the forests also sent a lot of smog our way that day which sort of hampered the lake's beauty.

Prince of Wales hotel

Waterton is quite secluded and it faces bitter winter every year. The town is open only for around five months a year, during summer / tourist season. For the rest of the year, citizens shut their shops, establishments, homes and hibernate elsewhere. Only about 30-40 residents remains here during winters. But Waterton is so pretty, I fell in love with. It's a small town on the lakeside, there's only one road that runs through it, pretty restaurants with al-fresco outdoor dining, and roadside littered with beautiful and very homely cottages. Just the kind of town I'd like to live in and go to after a hard days work!

We took a boat ride on Waterton lake where we crossed over the US side of the park but after alighting there, didn't much venture beyond as one needs a US visa for trekking there. But we saw a bear; our first wildlife sighting. Yay!

In the night, after dinner, we took a walk up the hills of Waterton, up to Prince of Wales hotel, to enjoy sunset vistas of Lake Waterton.

Canadian Rockies: Day 1 & 2:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Canadian Rockies - Days 1 and 2

The start of a memorable trip can begin with a tiring journey. Often, to reach the most divine places, you have to, as the phrase goes, "climb a mountain". And enduring a 25-hour journey (that includes a halt of five hours, approximately) sure feels like one. 

I flew Lufthansa Mumbai - Frankfurt - Mumbai and Air Canada on Frankfurt - Canada - Frankfurt. Air Canada was decent. I did not like Lufthansa. My ticket was a code share ticket, so Lufthansa appears to treat its code-share flights like second class citizens. It does not allow us to select seats or do a web check-in. I faced the danger of being assigned a middle seat. I threw a fit at the Mumbai airport and then they offered me an upgrade (paid, not free) to premier economy. I took it and the seat was comfortable but I almost froze to death. It was the coldest cabin I have ever travelled in. My first- but very anticipated- experience with Lufthansa was unimpressive. 

Centre Street Bridge, Calgary

Anyways, Calgary was warm and welcoming. The airport is minimalistic, but clean. Immigration queues are short as the airport is small and the staff is friendly. I got into an interesting discussion with my immigration officer about India and Pakistan celebrating 71 years of independence. Calgary, as a town, looks very vast area wise but spread out and sparely populated. 

Buffalo cafe, founded in 1886, at Eau Claire market, Calgary downtown

Buffalo Cafe

My hotel was in downtown, so getting around on my own for the first two days was easy. The riverfront offers nice vistas and an awesome place to walk and bike. After a scrumptious and early morning breakfast at the Buffalo Cafe (this one's got to be one of Calgary's best breakfast places) in the Eau Claire market area , I did biking. It is always a pleasure to cycle in foreign countries, where road manners are there, people have the courtesy to halt at traffic signals and allow others to go first. 

Rented a bike, drove along the riverside up to Bow Valley collage, crossed over to the other side of Bow river, then drove back to the direction of Eau Claire market, on the Memorial Drive, past Prince's Island Park, Peace Bridge, up to 14th Street Bridge, crossed over it and back to Eau Claire Market. A short stroll inside Prince Island's park followed. There was an Italian festival, so part of the park was shut. 

Later in the evening, we had a get-together with our tour group (Gate1 travels) and then went out again with a stroll with my friend, went up to the Calgary tower to enjoy sunset vistas of the town from up above.

That's my bike

Friday, April 14, 2017

Bhuleshwar - a Heritage Walk

"The resonance of tenple bells reverberates through the stillness of dawn. The milk vendor pedals his way through the labyrinth of lanes and by-lanes. The fragrance emanating from the piles of flowers stacked along the Phool-Galli permits the air. The crimson on the eastern horizon heralds the sunrise as Bhuleshwar stirs to life and prepares itself to turn a resigned enclave into a beehive of multifaceted activity as the day wears on" --A Tale of Native Towns of Mumbai (Bhuleshwar-Girgaum-Malabar Hill) by Jagdish Gandhi. 

Indeed Bhuleshwar is a sleepy enclave when we start our heritage walk with Khaki Tours but is completely different as the sun goes up and the day picks up pace. By the time we finish our walk and come back to the starting point, Bhuleshwar is unrecognisable. 

Shri Swaminarayan Temple, built in colonial architecture style. It's facade has similarities to what you can see in a French cathedral. The temple is encased by residential quarters.

Born as Ghanshyam Pandey in Ayodhya, Sahajanand Swami travelled all over before landing in Saurashtra. There, he united a heavily fragmented region and spread his teachings and created a binding force in Saurashtra. He was later given the title of Swaminarayan. This temple is the first Swaminarayan temple in Mumbai, before their fascination for marble took over. This temple was built, around 120 years ago, on a land that was donated by a Kutchi gentleman who demolished his own house and donated his land to build this temple.

A very interesting Hanuman idol inside the Swaminarayan temple, built in Nepali style. Notice the women under his feet. Usually, it's a male (Shani), but here you see a women (Panavti). By the way, there is a Panavti temple in Nepal where people go to remove their own panavti (bad luck)

An interesting Ganesh idol different from the ones we usually see

The tale of Sahajanand Swami who was born in Ayodhya and later travelled to- and lived in- Saurashtra, told in a comic strip as painted on the dome's ceiling of the Swaminarayan Temple.

The idols of Narayan and goddess Laxmi. Look at Laxmi closely; she is holding a diamond studded purse.

A shop with an old-fashioned signage

This is one of the narrowest streets in Mumbai. It goes under a building and resembles a building entrance. But it is officially a street.

The Balaji Ramji temple, built in art deco style, the only Art Deco styled temple in the precinct. It is owned by the GSB temple trust, that also owns the Banganga tank, Walkeshwar temple and the Sitladevi temple at Mahim. The art deco styled Balaji Ramji temple. Such flooring can be seen in other art deco buildings like Eros Cinema

Bhuleshwar flower market

Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple. This temple is famous for the 5-headed Hanuman idol.

A unique Tulsi vrindavan where the lower part is open

Rameshwar Temple (notice the two monkeys at either side)

Bhuleshwar Temple

 A hindu temple in an islamic looking building, which has a star of David on it.

Inside the Krishna Pranani Temple; a lovely silver casket to collect donations

Raja Chhatrasal of Shri Krishn Pranami sect, a 400-year old Gujarati sect of Vaishnavism. He and his master Pran Nath, who headed the sect, took on Aurangzeb for his excesses on Hindus. Chhatrasal was Mastani's (of Bajirao Mastani) father.

A silver sculptor of a lady dressed in traditional Maharashtrian attire of a 9-year saree

The ceiling depicting Lord Krishna's dance inside the Krishna Pranani Temple

A carving- made with Indo-western influence- at one of the temples at Bhuleshwar. She is an apsara (angel) wearing a 9-yrd saree but look at the umbrella at the top which is a wester influence and also the mermaid look. This is a temple that honours artisans.

The Vishwakarma Temple; a unique temple devoted to Vishwakarma, a God of artisans and engineers. The only one of its kind in Mumbai. Above right: The dome's ceiling of the Vishwakarma Temple

The 10 incarnations of Vishnu painted in the dome's ceiling of the Vishwakarma Temple

The Sri Ram Mandir built in Gurjar-Mewada style, Kabutarkhana in Bhuleshwar. The feel is that of a typical Mewad palace.

The two main doors to the sanctum sanatorium depict Ramayana tales

A canon buried ages ago on the road

One of the country's oldest animal shelters. In 1830, there were Parsi dog riots. Back then, the Bombay government decided to kill stray dogs, many of whom happened to be pets of Parsi families. Parsis, who at that time constituted 7% of the city's population and dominate trade with the British, stopped food supplies  to the British as a mark of protest. The government finally gave in and asked Parsis to make an animal shelter. So in 1834, Motichand Amarchand (a Jain) and Sir Jamsetjee Jijibhoy came together and founded the Bombay Panjrapole. Now, it is dominated by Jain who come here to feed the animals as an act of kindness.

 The richly endowed Gir Cow bull. The bulls are really large

The city's only Sun Temple. It sits in the central courtyard surrounded by working . office quarters. The presiding deity, Surya Narayan, sits mounted in a chariot drawn by seven horses (each horse representing a day of the week) and piloted by Arun, the charioteer, is carved out from a single stone. The doors of the Sun Temple must face the east to get the first rays of the sun.

(Text referance: Bharat Gothoskar, A Tale of Native Towns of Mumbai, a book by Jagdish Gandhi and notes taken down by my friend Abhay Kukreti, a fellow Khaki-ite.)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Befriending the King Cobra at Agumbe

I love snakes. They fascinate me. Having watched countless of documentaries on reptiles on National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Discovery channel, I have always wanted to meet Romulus Whitaker; the legendary snake rescuer. That too in Agumbe; India's largest home to the King Cobra. But I couldn't find his base and if I could go and spend some time with him there, possibly chasing the King. But his chase led me to P. Gowri Shankar who runs the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE). Gowri was trained under Whitaker and has featured with him in television documentaries too. And much to my joy, KCRE had planned a King Cobra workshop in March. It all fell in place then and I soon boarded a Jet Airways flight to Mangalore and hopped in the cab that took me 70 kms deep in the western ghats, onto the mountains of Agumbe.

(The western ghats as seen from Agumbe ghats)

Located about five kilometres from a small village called Guddekere, which itself is about 9 kms from Agumbe town, KCRE sits hidden in the lush greens and tall trees and surrounded by all sorts of creatures, beautiful ofcourse. The greenery at Agumbe hits you, much like many other parts of Southern India. It's known as the Cherrapunji of the south. In simple words, it receives amongst the highest rainfall in the country. Some of the spices found here can only be found here in Agumbe.

KCRE must be around 5-8 acre property. It has betelnut plantations and a thick tree cover. Cars can go upto a point, after which you have to hike a bit and then climb down a large flight of stairs. The forest cover is so thick that you cannot see an inch of KCRE till you are right in front of it. There is a main hall where all activities take place; workshops get conducted, it has a well-stocked library filled with all sorts of books on nature, wildlife, flora, fauna, snakes, King Cobras, other snakes, birds, mammals and everything nature for us to read and learn. Here's also where you have your food and- on one side- you put away all your luggage.

Tented accommodation is provided to all us (typically two people per tent); extra tents are set up in minutes if there are more guests. Each tent is provided with a mat, blanket and a pillow. There is a separate block for toilets and bathrooms. Care is taken to maintain it well. Hot water is available for a few hours everyday as there is no electricity. They use wood fire for cooking as well as bath. Food is cooked in a healthy way; everything is organic and grown nearby. It's quite tasty I should tell you. Simple, yet good food.

KCRE can really buzz with enthusiasts and nature aficionados who all want a piece of Agumbe, to suit their palettes. So there was a group of final year students from a Kerala biotech college on the day I landed in KCRE for a nature and wildlife outing trip. After they left, came another corporate group from Bangalore for a team building exercise. Not everyone comes for a King Cobra related workshop; there are other activities too like hiking, trekking, and so on. But everyone learns a little about the King Cobra; Gowri Shankar's speciality and in which he is also pursuing a PHD. Ours was specifically a 3-day King Cobra workshop.

Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology grounds

Malabar Pit Viper

The King Cobra workshop is a mixture of theory classes and practical observation. Every year- and especially during the breeding season of the King Cobra (February to April)- KCRE receives snake rescue calls from Agumbe villages as far as 20-30 kms away. Gowri Shankar and his right hand man Prashanth dash off and rescue the King Cobras (they only rescue King Cobras and not typically other snakes) and release them again in the wild. Note: it's rescue and not catching snakes. We use the term "rescue" because if the King gets very close to human habitat, KCRE's aim to take the King away and release them back in the wild, and preferably as close as possible to their habitat, not just anywhere in the wild. Snakes are not be collected nor should we kill them.

Gowri's PHD is to research- and document the findings of- behaviour Kings in India and particularly of the western ghats, and also those that are found in northeastern forests and the whole world (Gowri also visits Thailand to study the Thailand Kind Cobras, for instance). To support the study, he is gathering evidence on the Kings' defensive nature, breeding, home range pattern, evolution and so on  and more importantly, its genetics. Through his work and studies, he is also trying to get attention and funds to help conservation of snakes. The gene behind his PHD is to also determine if King Cobras behave differently in different parts of the world and whether they actually belong to the same species (at present, all Kings belong to the Tat o.Hannah species) or should they be classified under different species.

Apart from the watching presentations and some very engaging videos and documentaries that teach us various facets about the King, toxicology, etc., we also engage in team exercises. One such exercise is to build a King Cobra nest. The batch was divided in 3-4 groups and we have to go in the forest on the fringes of the KCRE and select a suitable spot and build a nest. It looks like a simple task, but it's not. The King's nest has to have the right temperature for eggs incubation, enough to allow sunlight, careful to not allow the rain to wash it away (nests are built in the monsoon and they need to be protected from the very heavy rainfall that they are not washed away or flooded) and so on.

There are leisurely activities to be had during our stay like hiking to the highest peak in Agumbe (you can also spot deers here), and numerous forest trails. There is also a stream nearby where we can go and bathe or just wet ourselves. It looks like in the middle of nowhere and all you can hear there are chirping of birds and rustling to leaves.

All in all, the workshop was a great success. We learned a lot and had a great time in this paradise called Agumbe. And did we see the King Cobra? Yes, once. On the last day, Gowri and Prashanth rescued a King Cobra that had come too close to a human settlement. He showed us how to gently handle the King, and then sensitised us about the need to release the King back in its own habitat. Care, he said, should be taken to release the snake in its own habitat as it's a territorial snake and will be comfortable only in its own home, and not just anywhere else in the forest.

Gowri Shankar gently handling the King Cobra

 Wine tree snake

 A moth sleeping while we were on a night trail

 The flying lizard (Gecko)

Sunset at Agumbe

Canadian Rockies Day 4

The Waterton Lakes Lodge resort looks like a lodge. Small cottages with a few rooms each and spread over a large acre of land, the rooms gi...