I’m never sure. Are you?


The camel has a single hump;
The dromedary, two;
Or else, the other way around.
I’m never sure. Are you?

I was airlifted to Bhopal for a day. Three minutes out of the airport, on the side of a road, I saw two camels. They were content to sit under a tree as the nomadic shepherds from Rajasthan who had got them there busied themselves setting up a pen for the sheep. Watching the camels (or, possibly, Dromedaries), a poem by Ogden Nash came to mind.


I saw nothing else of much interest. That is a lesson not to go on unplanned trips, even if they are business trips, because I know that Bhopal has many things to see. The lake, Bharat Bhavan, the Museum of Man, the Bhimbetka caves, and Sanchi are just the tip of an iceberg, the parts that every traveller sees.

I had visited Bhopal once before, that time for a holiday. The Family and I stayed in a wonderful hotel called the Jehan Numa Palace, and had dinner in their courtyard restaurant every night. Their Shammi and Galoti kababs remain fresh in our minds. We saw the usual sights with a wonderful driver. One day we asked him what he would like us to see. It was one of the best questions we asked on that trip. He took us into parts of the town where the ghosts of the old Nawabi past linger in locked houses with ornate doors, crowded courtyards surrounded by walls with faded paintings, dazzling glass set in windows looking out of grimy facades. The area surrounds the world’s biggest industrial accident: the Union Carbide plant, which is still slowly releasing its poisons into the groundwater. I have so many photos from that day to remind us that we have only scratched the surface of Bhopal on our one holiday there. We will be back, but don’t hold your breath; the world is large and strange.

Leeches, macaques and mouse-hearts

A long long time ago I was travelling to Delhi by train. In the coupe was a small child and his mother. The grandparents had come to the station to see the their grandson off. Just before the train left the station they gave him a huge slab of chocolate. When the train was on the move, and the boy was about to start on the chocolate, the mother asked him to share it with us. You could see the shock on the kid’s face. The mother was adamant: is your heart so small, like a mouse’s? That’s exactly what I feel like when I hear about leeches: mouse-hearted.

Scouring the web about Valparai I discover good news and bad news. The bad news is that other travel bloggers complain about leeches. My heart shrinks to mouse size. The good news is that you can get quite a lot of birding done just walking around the grounds of your hotel.

There’s nothing I can do about the bad news except hope that in April Valparai is still covered in forgetful snow (metaphorically) and that the land remains dead and lilac-free. Also I can carry leech socks. The Family refuses to do anything until we have to pack, so I am left to confront my base fears alone in the dead of the night.

Birding is another matter. Radha has a long and detailed post from her visit half a decade ago. So does Anushsh Shetty. A look at the photos Anushsh has posted is heartening; it may not be too hard to spot the Malabar squirrel, the tahr and the lion-tailed Macaque. Sankara rates this as the number seven birding spot in India, ahead of Mishmi hills, Pangot, and a lot of other places. You who look to windward, tell me if you agree. [Note added later: it is a great place for birding, read about our experiences here]

This is not going to be the relaxed holiday I was dreaming about. It will be hectic: rising in the morning before the birds, chasing macaques in the afternoons, silent evenings waiting for glimpses of tahrs. No lazing in the sun with a Long Island Iced Tea and a splash in the pool afterwards. Our Grimett and Inskip will be more battered, both my cameras will be image-laden, and, as always, I will need another holiday afterwards to recover from this.

The Family says she knew this. I gnash my teeth silently. Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said “Gnash your teeth and charge your batteries”? I resolve to do that.

Cruel Month

April is what I am talking about, of course. It begins with a long weekend. Which means travel. The Family lays down the law: I have to start looking. Can we go to Corbett? No, that requires a longer vacation. What about Munnar? No, same reason. Badami? Hotels don’t look too inviting. North Bengal? Too short a trip. Assam? No.

I’m lost. The Family says Valparai. Where’s that? I look up Wikipedia. It looks like we should fly to Coimbatore and drive a hundred kms. Valparai seems to be essentially tea and coffee estates on the edge of a forest which you are not allowed to go to. Now this actually begins to look like a dream weekend getaway. Maybe we can spend three days loafing about: eating grass, going for strolls across tea gardens, and sleeping.

Edge of the forest? Bound to be some birds there. Take my camera along. The Family never travels without her binoculars and the battered Grimmett and Inskipp. Battery packs, several skeins of usb connectors, a laptop. I read further: lion-tailed macaques, great hornbill, the Nilgiri Tahr. This will be fascinating. I’m already enchanted.

But there is more on the web. valparai.com tells us “It is a place to be visited at least once in your life span, to bring out the joy and peace within you”. The 40 hairpin bends on the road to Valparai may bring out more from within me.

I keep my misgivings about food to myself. Does man live by grass alone? Could they have interesting mushrooms? Wikitravel is silent on the topic of mushrooms, but promises “lots of good bakeries with fresh eatables, biscuits, breads and other bakery products”. It’s been a long time since I had bakery products like fresh eatables. So I’m definitely looking forward to this.

There’s also a fascinating virtual tour showing what looks like snow. Can’t be, I tell myself. Valparai may be 3500 feet up, but it is in the Annamalai range. No chance of being buried in the ice and being dug up 10000 years later with wild mushrooms in my pockets.

Mundane matters will now follow. Finding a hotel, transferring money, buying tickets. But I am charged up. April is no longer the cruelest month. I will not fear a handful of dust.