There was only one tree on the sloping meadow in Khandala where I went trigger happy with my camera. The Family sat under it during the shower while I stood in the rain taking photos of raindrops on roses or anything else in sight. When I joined her in the shelter, I noticed a spider web right above us: a perfect spiral dewed with raindrops. Just the kind that my nieces loved during their goth phases.
A spider waited at the center of the web, perfectly still. Its eight legs were paired into feelers touching four quadrants of the web. I wonder why they are paired up. Does it give the legs better distance resolution? Like the way our paired eyes give us a sense of depth?
One of the most common among the wildflowers of the Sahyadris during the monsoon is a staple of many gardens: the common balsam (Impatiens balsamina). This region is one of the five hotspots of the diverse genus Impatiens, and new species are discovered every year. Unfortunately, all I’ve noticed is this common flower. I saw it again a couple of weeks ago in my wanderings in Khandala. This time I paid special attention to the large lower petal which has markings to direct insect pollinators to the nectar. I wonder how it would look in ultraviolet. There is much discussion of the visible colours of these flowers, whether white, pink (as here), red or purple. But these are the colours visible to us. Pollinators see them in UV, and how different do they appear to bees and other insects?
The common balsam plant is hard to misidentify, although there’s probably more than a thousand species in its genus. Growing to waist height, it has long serrated leaves growing on alternate sides of the reddish stem. The leaves are lanceolate-elliptic, base narrowed, margins serrate, apex acute to acuminate, in the highly abbreviated terminology of botanists. As a child I was fascinated by the seeds pods which could burst explosively, releasing seeds. That’s one of the reasons why this is a potential weed wherever it is introduced across the world.
Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.
Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.
After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.
We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear…
I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.
Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.
The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.
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.
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.
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.
My first guess when I see a tortoiseshell butterfly is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). It is the most widespread of all butterflies, and found on all continents except Antractica. But when you are in the middle heights of the Himalayas, between a thousand and three thousand meters above the sea, you could be wrong. Think instead of the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmiriensis, featured photo), and the less common small or mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). I’d learnt this on a walk at a height of 3.1 kilometers, when I realized that I need to look at little details on the hind wings to differentiate between them. Now, on a walk in Binsar at 2.4 kilometers of height, I remembered the lesson again.
When I stopped to carefully photograph every butterfly on the trail, The Family decided to walk on at a steady pace. But I was happy to make a record of the relative numbers of the different tortoiseshells I saw. No painted ladies. Many Indian tortoiseshells. And one solitary sighting of the mountain tortoiseshells (above, resting on a bed of dry oak leaves). I count myself lucky at that. It had been a very warm and dry winter, and these butterflies are very sensitive to warm seasons. I’ll have to learn to tell the difference between these butterflies by looking at their hind wings. If I can do that, then I can identify them as I keep pace with The Family on such walks.
When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.
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.
Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.
The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.
Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.