The first thing we saw in Seville

We arrived at night in Seville and thought it looked charming. It still looked wonderful in the morning when we walked through the centre and joined a long queue of people waiting to buy tickets for a visit to the Alcazar. This is an old palace which was built about eleven centuries ago, and remodelled many times later.

I will write about it in more detail later. The part which you see above was built by the Moors, and remodelled later by Moorish craftsmen who had not converted to Christianity. These craftsmen remodelled the palace, and gave their name, Mujedar, to the style of architecture which you see here.

Such an ornate palace has to be a location where movies or serials are shot. Sure enough, the room you see in the photo above is supposed to have featured in The Game of Thrones. I don’t follow the serial, but if you do, then maybe you can recognize it.

What we learnt about Spain from a taxi driver

You may know this feeling: that our deepest insights into the world come from talking to a taxi driver. A colleague uses this method to predict election results, and is not wrong more often than right. I use this method to find out a little about any new country I visit.

This is hard in Spain, because most Spaniards do not speak English. In Madrid we had the luck to get into a taxi driven by a Nigerian emigre. He said he loved Spain because of the weather and the attitude of people even though it was not a rich country. The Family raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shrugged a silent "No idea" in reply.

Later I looked at the web. Spain, like most of the rest of the world has been in financial shock in the last few years. It is certainly not in the world’s top ten economies. But is it rich or poor? I guess one way to judge is by the purchasing power of people. The taxi driver we talked to visited Nigeria every year, and had taken a vacation in Japan and India. So he was better off than any taxi driver we had met in China or India.

I decided to look at another measure: the per capita gross domestic product. This is the average economic output of each person in the country. Of course this is a very indirect way to measure the wealth of people, but it is indicative in some ways. By this count the USA tops the world with about 55,120 USD per head in 2017. The triad of UK, Canada and Germany follow closely, with 43815, 41098 and 40133 USD per head. France, Japan and Italy are also rich by this measure with 35,566, 34,715 and 29,605 USD per head. Of the world’s top ten economies, Brazil and China are distinctly middle-income, with per capita GDP of 8,508 and 7,944 USD respectively. India, with 1,490 USD per head is the poorest of the top ten economies of the world.

I could not find this year’s data for Spain. I had to go back to data from two years ago. Then Spain had a per capita GDP of 25,752 USD. This could make it poor by European standards, but definitely one of the richest in the world. Score one more insight due to chatting with a taxi driver.

A Tapas Experience

Our first evening in Barcelona was spent in a lovely bar in the Eixample district. I understand that the notion of tapas started with bars serving little eats to customers so that they would stay on for a second drink. Unfortunately, these little eats are no longer free, or even cheap.

We sat outside the friendly neighbourhood bar. After the heat of the day, The Family wanted a Sangria. I decided to have a glass of Rioja. The little dishes kept coming: anchovies, local ham, a couple of tostadas, grilled chilis, a wonderful blue cheese. We stayed on for another glass of wine. People from the neighbourhood dropped into the bar in ones and twos. A small birthday party was in progress in a neighbouring table.

As we munched a fresh and light tostada, The Family said "It’s all so fresh and light." The toast, for example, had tomatoes, greens and smoked salmon with olive oil. Later the waiter got us a simple thing he wanted us to taste. "Totally local", he said. It was bit of toast soaked in fragrant olive oil and some grated tomato on top. Light and simple.

It was a lovely relaxed evening, exactly what tapas is designed to create.

Siesta in Madrid

I am told that life is now too hectic in Spain for an old-fashioned siesta. Schools let youngsters have a nap after lunch, shops shut for a few hours in the afternoon, and, as likely as not, keep open till midnight. Still, a real siesta? Unlikely.

Not always, I found while walking around in Madrid.

A wonderfully weird railway station

About the strangest thing that we have come to expect from a railway station is that it has a hidden platform which is not a whole number. That could be weird, but a railway station can be even more strange. You might not expect this of Madrid’s Atocha station. From the outside it looks like a simple building, not even a gargoyle in sight.

A garden inside Madrid's Atocha station

We entered through a side door, and exclaimed in surprise. We had expected the usual bustle and crowd. But in front of us was greenery. There were people with baggage waiting on benches. There was some walking about, but overall, there was a sense of peaceful waiting. "Where are the ticket counters?" The Family asked. "Where are the trains?" I tried to question in reply.

Turtles inside Madrid's Atocha station

As we walked around to look for such essentials, we came across something even more wonderful: a pond full of turtles. Who cares for trains when a station has such lovely flora and fauna! This has to be the best railway station I have ever seen,

Between Continents

I spent the Saturday crossing from one continent to another, probably overflying a third. I cannot tell because the flight data display was disconnected. Seldom does the tedium of flying for a day in an aluminium cylinder get broken by something happening outside the window. Break in tedium on a long flight But this time one had good reason to sit up straight in the chair. Another jet went screaming past us. I had just enough time to register the fact that it was trailing black smoke. I have no idea what happened, Whatever it was, it didn’t happen again for the next four hours of my flight from Delhi to Madrid.

Eventually, after a very long time, we passed over a harbour.
Clearly our long journey over the Mediterranean sea was to come to an end. Due to ongoing wars in parts of west Asia, flights from India to Europe now go west for a long time before turning north. So I came to the conclusion that we had seen the other jet somewhere over north Africa. Where was it? Why was it trailing black smoke? Was it a civilian or military aircraft? I think the only answers are guesses based on the fact that no passenger liner was reported to be in trouble during this time.

Spain is a deserted country. There are only 50 million people living in the half a million square kilometers which lie in the country. As a result it is mostly deserted. I saw this as we descended from the coast to the airport in Madrid. The first thing we saw this was in the emptiness of the land over which we had just flown. The photo above shows part of a river valley. In the photo above, you can clearly see a fan of tributaries merging into a single stream. The strange banding of colours you can see in the bottom half of the photo is due to polarizing glasses mounted on each window in a Dreamliner.

After about half an hour of flying over this kind of country, we seemed to pass over a cliff. On the nearer side of this huge cliff were forests and fields, and also an occasional lake. This was in total contrast to the barren land between the coastline and the divide. Now we began to slow and descend, and suddenly we were over summer’s bare fields and landing in Madrid.

New adventures begin now.

In a Jungle

Vegetation makes up a jungle. I’ve written extensively about the animals I saw in Pench National Park. But most of the time I spent in the jungle was spent looking at trees or bushes. Here is a record mainly of the trees I saw in the jungle. This was a mixed jungle: mainly sal (Shorea robusta), followed by the crocodile bark tree (Terminalia crenulata), but also many other species, including the so-called Indian Ghost Tree. I end my stories of this hot season’s trip to Pench with photos of its dried up vegetation.

Two Singular Sights

In my penultimate post on Pench National Park, I thought I should show you the first interesting sighting in the park. This is the beautiful heron which used to be called the green-backed earlier, and now is called striated. I saw it at the first waterhole we came to. In the deadly heat this bird sat in the shade of a big log which had fallen across the water. It was not feeding. In fact, on reading about its behaviour, it seems to me that it could be responding to a threat: the outstretched neck and the upward pointing beak are gestures which it has been recorded making when threatened. However, I did not see any threat nearby (unless it was our jeep).

Nilgai in Pench National Park

The other photo I wanted to put here was of this lovely antelope: one of the few found in India. The male Nilgai in the photo has a characteristic blue pelt. The white patch on its nack with a tuft of hair below it, and the colour of its muzzle, look extremely elegant. Interestingly, this species exists only in South Asia, although a related fossil species has been found in Africa. DNA studies indicate that it could be one of the primitive ancestors of cattle. The name nilgai (Hindi for blue bull) then may be pretty accurate.

Finally, yes I know what the title of this post is. I’m not going to back down and say a plural sight. No. You can tell that I really meant two singular sights.

The big misses

After all that driving around inside Pench National Park, there were still some major species of mammals that we missed seeing. One of the closest calls was a leopard. We heard a cheetal’s alarm call and then saw the deer. We heard a langur’s alarm call very soon after. Then nothing.

The cheetal was still alert, looking in the direction where it had just sensed the predator. You can see its tail mid-quiver in the featured photo. One movement from the hidden beast and it would go up, sending out a white flash of an alarm signal as it made an alarm call again. But nothing happened. We waited for more than half an hour, and then lost our patience. We weaved our way past the other waiting jeeps. Later, in the hotel, we heard that a minute after we left, the leopard had been sighted. That’s luck for you.

Dusk had fallen. We drove to a nearby water body, and saw nothing there. Later we heard that we had missed a shy two-year old tiger cub which was lying in the water where we went, and moved off as soon as a jeep came by. This happened as we waited for the leopard!

Wild boar spooked while crossing a road in Pench National Park

We did not exactly miss seeing wild boars. I managed to take the blurred photo which you can see above. These were part of a sounder which were crossing the road. They got spooked while crossing, and the rest of the group scuttled back into the undergrowth. In Pench wild board come out in such bad light.

We never saw a sloth bear, although there are many in Pench. The only reasonable view I’ve had of these bad tempered creatures was a few years back in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. One of them was demolishing a termite mound behind a copse of trees. I could see it between the trees. The one time I took photos of a sloth bear and its two cubs, they were running away across a meadow well after sunset. A lot of fiddling with the image could give me a recognizable picture.

Another wide miss was the Indian wolf, which apparently had made a minor comeback in this area. We never heard reports of anyone seeing them in the time that we were in Pench. The deer called the Barasingha is in the official checklist, but none of the guides said they had seen one. One of them was quite categorical that there were none here, "Go to Kanha," he said.

A close miss was a sighting of wild dogs. We kept running into jeeps whose passengers would say, "We saw a pack just minutes back. I’m sure they’ll be back if you wait here.". They never came back. The jungle is a chancy thing. You can be sure of seeing trees. Everything else is an extra.

Jackals and wolves

The IUCN Red List tells us that the golden jackal (Canis aureus) "is fairly common throughout its range with high densities observed in areas with abundant food and cover. They are opportunistic and will venture into human habitation at night to feed on garbage." It is true that in small towns and villages you can still hear the call of jackals, and travelling on a highway at night you can see one lope off into the darkness now and then. However, the few times I’ve had good sightings of these shy creatures have been inside protected forests like Pench National Park.

If you go by the call of the jackal, you may be fooled into thinking that they are nocturnal. However, both the jackal sightings I had in Pench were in the middle of the day. The first time was the fight between a jackal and a gray langur, and the second time I just saw one trotting away next to the track our jeep was following (featured photo). A study which tracked many jackals using radio collars explains how this can happen. A jackal is actually diurnal, but also active at dawn and just after dusk.

The Red List says that the jackal’s habitat includes Africa, the middle east (from where it has moved into Europe in modern times) and India. Usually it is fairly reliable and up-to-date on these questions. However, this seems to be an exception. Startling new DNA data published in 2015 showed that these two populations are different species which diverged about a million years ago. It was suggested that the African species, Canis anthus, be called the African golden wolf, whereas the Eurasian jackal continue to be named Canis aureus.

It was the jackal—Tabaqui, the Dish-licker—and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.
—Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

An older paper gave me some background to understand this. It turns out that among dog-like animals, the jackal is the basic form, which has differentiated into wolves a few times in history. Dogs, of course, are very closely related to wolves. As a result, dogs easily hybridize with wolves, but crosses with jackals are unviable. The group of jackals, wolves and dogs is sometimes called a species complex, because of their close relationship. In any case, the new finding was so startling that National Geographic called it the first discovery of a new canid species in 150 years.

I enjoyed watching these creatures. Although they may not be immediately threatened, their habitat is slowly disappearing. For some time they may adapt to human presence, but as forests are replaced by parking lots, they will inevitably go the way of the dodo,