Guardian of the golden apples

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

Lewis Carroll (Song of the Mad Gardener)

Waiting for tigers can be futile only if you close your eyes to everything else in the jungle. Five jeeps, drawn by alarm calls of chital and monkeys, were spaced out on a track in Tadoba to get a view of a tiger. It was already a little late in the morning. In spite of the repeated calls, I was sure that it would soon find shade and lie down, without putting in an appearance. After all, it was late enough for butterflies to have started sunning themselves. I focused on a rice swift (Borbo cinnara). Five petalled yellow flowers are so common that I have difficulty identifying the man-high plant it was getting its nectar from. But I did know that the caterpillar at the edge of the leaf right at top will not grow into the same butterfly.

What makes better sense? Would butterflies put their larvae on the same plants that they would depend on for nectar later in life? Or would it be common for them to lay their eggs on a plant which they would visit for nectar? So many unknowns! Why worry about inconstant tigers?

The rice swift does have the club at the tip of the antenna which distinguish butterflies from other moths, unlike other members of its family, the Hesperiidae. The family name probably comes from the Hesperides, the women who guarded the golden apples of the tree which Gaea gave to Hera at her marriage to Zeus. Their name reflects one account of their parentage, from Hesperos, the evening star, who was also called Vesper. This one, appropriately, flitted from one golden flower to another, but was ineffective at chasing away the caterpillars which fed on the plant.

A luxury tent!

What is a luxury tent? We’d spent nights in superb tents in Kenya, with good wifi, four poster beds, and enormous bathtubs. That would qualify as luxury. The tent we found in Vaitarna was not quite the same. It was good enough, big room, comfortable bed, but somehow, it didn’t quite have the same decadent air of luxury. The infinity pool was a nice extra though.

The idea is simple. You build a platform in wood and concrete. Raise a wooden wall on two sides, and pitch a tent over it. It’s probably cheaper than building cabins. There was a line of tents near the infinity pool, and a couple at a lower level. The lower group is what you see in the photo above.

We’d not planned to spend long times in the tent. Our intention was to walk most of the day. But the best laid plans of men and mice (one of which scuttled across the floor) when taken at the flood, lead to misfortune. Mangled metaphors aside, there were storms every day. We walked in spite of them, but after changing out of wet clothes for a meal you don’t feel like walking out into the rain again. We ended up spending half of every day in. Monsoon storms are quite pleasant at the blue hour, especially when seen from inside a cosy room.

Fortunately, there was enough wine to make the long rainy evenings quite pleasant. We pulled up two of the garden chairs next to the window in the tent and spent our evenings going through the day’s photos, or planning the next walk. It was a nice break in the middle of restrictions.

Clouds

Nostalgia strikes very hard on some days. There are days when I miss the non-being of transcontinental travel. Waking up too early, grabbing an espresso in semi-dark as you walk into a dark aluminium cylinder, eyes blasted by bright sunlight as you soar above clouds for a day. The tediousness, a foretelling of these past two years, but with the joy of arrival at the end.

It seems like it has been years since I slipped silently over snow dusted mountains at dawn.

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The lake district

The sun had not yet set when we reached Naukuchiatal. The smell of smoke which had hounded us through our journey through the northern part of Kumaon was gone. The lake district of Kumaon is within a day’s drive of Delhi, and normally sees lots of tourists. There is a series of these old glacial lakes in this region, and I prefer the one furthest from Naini Tal, because it has less weekend tourists. In any case, now, with the beginning of a resurgence of the epidemic, crowds had thinned. We had the hotel’s terrace overlooking the lake all to ourselves. A chai in hand, I sat and looked at the sun go down over the hills. A great barbet’s call filled the air. As it got darker, that sound was drowned out by the call of cicadas. Peace at last.

Eating on the road

Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.

In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

Around the world in two hundred days

I woke up dreaming of a trip around the world in container ships. How long would it take? It seems that container ships prefer to travel at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. At this speed they’ll cover about 300 kilometers in a day. If you travel around the equator in such a ship it might take you 110 to 150 days. Add in port calls (the featured photo is of Hamburg port), it might take you about 200 days. I’ve spent half that time sitting at home already. To think that I could easily have gone halfway around the world in this time!

Bush Air

On our way out of the Maasai Mara National Reserve we passed through a little airstrip in the bush. The land here was so flat that the two striped windsocks mounted on poles were visible for half an hour as we looked for secretary birds and lilac breasted rollers. When we pulled up to the airstrip I found that it was a busy place, full of planes landing and taking off every few minutes.

It would be a hard fate to go down in the memory of one’s friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra. “Tried to take off and hit a zebra!” It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill.

Beryl Markham in West with the Night

I was still reading Beryl Markham’s memoirs of flying in the early days of amateur flights in Kenya, when amateurs like her would sometimes be the only means of bringing dying adventurers from the bush to Nairobi. This strip was nothing like her descriptions of airstrips in the bush. No zebra or wildebeest would find anything to nibble on within a kilometer. I looked at the Landrovers lined up, glanced at the Maasai market in one corner, soaked up the chatter in French, Bengali, English, and Swahili, heard the continuous roar of engines, and realized that a hundred years had changed everything. There are several such airstrips in the reserve, and, if you fly in, then you land on the one closest to your hotel. It saves you a five hour trip if you come in from Nairobi, more from Mombasa.

I took a last few shots of the little hut that served as the control tower, and got into Stephen’s Landrover. There was a long trip ahead of us, and I was looking forward to it. I hadn’t had a good look at the trees in this patch of land on our way in. I was also looking forward to passing through the busy town of Narok again; it had looked charmless, but I love roadside towns.

In an aluminum cigar

Flying during the night is tiring, and in the day it is boring. I finished a hefty daytime shot of whisky and depolarized a window to look out of the Dreamliner flying from Delhi to Shanghai. Some time earlier The Family had spotted the unmistakable profile of Everest poking out of the northern horizon. Now I looked down to see a network of rivers. A quick look at the flight map verified that we were flying over the floodplains of Bangladesh, a little north of Dhaka. Somewhere down there, if I knew where to look, would be the village where my grandmother was born.

A Dreamliner’s pace can seem slow, until you try to take a photo. Then you realize how quickly features in the landscape eleven kilometers below you slip away. After putting down my beer chaser, I found our path had curved past the Shan highlands of Myanmar towards Qunming. We were more than halfway to Shanghai, and sitting on top of a sea of white clouds. Time to click through the movie menu again.

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