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I am travelling these days. I just got back from one and am getting ready to go on another. From now on, I’ll be on holiday for two weeks every month. I’ll be going to Delhi, Himachal, Europe and Uttarakhand between now and September. And maybe, just maybe, I might manage to sneak in a weekend visit to Goa.

As you can see, my calendar is pretty packed. So I’ll be blogging infrequently. The thing is, when I’m on holiday, I don’t read newspapers. And the last thing on my mind is waxing on the golden rules of writing. Therefore, the only thing I can write is travelogues. And no one reads them. And why should they? They are booorrrrinnngggg.

Pico Iyer, I’m not. Not only do I not have his facility and versatility with words, I’m not even as adventurous.

One, I’m vegetarian, so most local cuisine is out of my palate purview. And who wants to read about how much more succulent cauliflower is in Himachal vis-à-vis in Bombay?

Two, I’ve reached that age when I’m not inclined to slum it out anymore. I fly to a place and check into a decent hotel. So I can’t write about the visual delights along the scenic route to a particular place. I will be driving in Europe, though. And I’m not sure there will be that much to write about that. Driving in Europe is hardly as eventful, or as death-defying, as it is in India. I mean what am I going to write? How novel and exciting filling one’s gas tank oneself is? It is exciting, though. Almost like learning how to tie one’s shoelaces.

Three, people are generally courteous, so there’s no drama there.

And then everything is orderly. Trains come and go when they’re supposed to, and from where they are supposed to. Taxis are generally clean and reliable. They’ll go where you want to go and their meters are accurate. Pavements are actually available to walk on.

As I said, booorrriiinnngggg!

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We have just dumped our stuff and are having a cup of tea when our attention is arrested by a high voltage screeching. Arif freezes up and listens intently. “Shhh, can you hear it? Sambhar deer.”

“Really?” I ask askance. “It sounded more like an upset bird.”

Simultaneously langurs whip up energetic activity on treetops and a flock of birds dash past with an audible whoosh. Arif drops his cup in his haste and running towards the Gypsy cries, “It’s definitely a call…a tiger has been spotted. Come on!”

We jump into the Gypsy, Arif throws it into gear and takes off at the bone rattling speed of 40 kmph (if you think I’m being hyperbolic, try doing that on kuchcha roads). We arrive at the designated spot, helped of course by pug marks along the trail, which Arif points out almost defensively. He turns off the ignition and gestures for silence. Then he only says, “A call is the only way to find out where the tiger is. Because much like dogs, tigers have designated territories which stretch to 10 sq kms each. Plus they are notoriously lazy and usually just lie down in wait in the tall elephant grass. You’ll never spot it if not for the Sambhar deer call which indicates that it is on the move.”

And we don’t. What we do see is evidence of unforgivable behaviour by Indian tourists. That is, several places, mainly spots around watch towers (picnic spots for day trippers) littered with disposable plates, empty plastic water bottles and wrappers. We spend the rest of the safari cleaning up other people’s mess.

We come back at five minutes to six, although Arif has heard another ‘call’ and wants to push his luck. But, as we drive past the FRH, he spots a top ranking forest official’s car parked outside. He swerves back towards the FRH at the last minute. He does not want to lose his license for time violation, no matter how compelling the call.

So we come back discouraged, having eaten copious amounts of dust, with only one thought in mind. A hot bath. But that proves to be a challenge. There is no electricity and no hot water. Sure, the inverter is on but that is only enough to weakly power a couple of light bulbs. Our requests to the staff to heat up some in the kitchen is met with uncertain looks. The reason – they’ve run out of cooking gas and the replacement cylinder will only arrive tomorrow. Since our food is itself being cooked on choolah, unless we want to trade our food for a bath, and unless we want to risk freezing our butts off using cold water, no bath it is.

Okay, what next? There is only one thing one can do – enjoy the great outdoors with IMFL. That’s the great part about going on these holidays. You can hit the bottle at six (p.m., not a.m., although, even a.m. won’t be sooo outrageous as it isn’t in Goa) without feeling guilty.

Glass in hand (rum with water at room temp) I step outside and breathe in the cool jungle air mixed with an appealing smell of wood smoke. All is calm save the chirping of crickets and an occasional animal howl. I look up and my word, the sky is a veritable sieve held up against light. I haven’t seen so many stars since my last mountaineering trip!

Out of respect for the jungle we make conversation amongst ourselves in soothing low-pitched voices. The conversation is pleasant, although it sounds vaguely conspiratorial because of our hushed tones.

Soon dinner is served. It is a simple meal of dal, sabzi, rice and roti but we are so hungry that it tastes like Turkish delights.

Afterwards, I try to keep my eyes open but it is a losing battle. Suddenly a panicked screech, incessant deep growling and loud crashing sounds, all in the vicinity of the FRH. I am shocked into wakefulness. Rampal, the caretaker comes running. “Do you hear that? It’s a tiger and an elephant.” I peer around in the inky blackness, thankful for the electric fence (one that vies with the inverter for precious solar power) that runs around the perimeter of the FRH.

The sounds continue for a while but we get used to them after the initial panic. I resume my tussle with sleep but it is a losing battle. So I turn in for the night. It is as late as 9.30. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow is going to be an awesome day.

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We are about to be on our way when Arif casually tells that in 2200 we get one three hour safari. “Wait a minute,” I tell him, “when we signed you one you promised us three safaris.” “And three you’ll get. Two one hour safaris while we drive to and from the Jhirna Forest Rest House (that is also counted as  a safari because It is way inside) and one three hour safari whenever you want.”

 “Or you can pay me 2500 and get three three hour safaris.” Clever, very clever. He cuts his price to get noticed amidst the clamour and still gets his way. “Yet another option is to pay me 2200 as agreed and then fill up the tank to replace whatever fuel is consumed and you can use the jeep as you wish.” Arif outlines so many scenarios that my head reels doing complex mathematics. Not how I want to begin my holiday. I finally tell him we’ll decide later. I have a niggling suspicion that that is exactly what he wants if his broad smile is any indicator.

We drive through Ramnagar and, after about half an hour, enter the forest buffer zone. Electric fencing demarcates forest territory from non-forest territory. I notice there are a few huts inside the forest and ask Arif about it. He tells me that the forest is trying to relocate these people but they refuse to move out as they’ve been living there for ages. I can’t figure out why, considering it can’t be much fun living in proximity with tigers but I figure if I bring it up, I’d only be stoking then whole man versus animal debate which has no solution.

There is beautiful tube well created waterfall which looks deliciously cool. We want to stop there awhile. Actually it’s my niece who wants to frolic in the cool water but Arif looks quite worried. He looks at his watch and announces that we’d better hurry as it is a weekend and safari time is about to commence. They only allow thirty jeeps to go in at a time and if we are not one of them, then it’s bye bye jungle, till the next morning. So we shoot envious looks at the gambolling children and resume our journey.

We enter the forest gate, complete our due diligence with the authorities and are once more on the way to the Jhirna FRH. “It will take about an hour to reach,” Arif cheerfully announces. And it is soon evident why. Since it is a jungle, there are no roads, only bumpy trails. Also a reason why only four wheel drives are allowed inside.

The last thing the forest officials want is a car stuck for lack of traction power. Make no mistake, it isn’t for your safety, it is for the safety of the big cats. If you get stuck, a hungry tiger may attack you as a soft target, which will make him/her a man-eater and it will have to be put down. See? Also, a reason why at any time during the safari, getting off from the jeep is prohibited.

Arif suddenly stops in the middle of the trail and, in hushed tones, points directly ahead. Tiger, I think and excitedly jump up and see. I crane my neck and strain my eyes but nope, I don’t see it. “Where is it?” I ask. “Where is the tiger?” “Tiger?” he says, “Who said anything about a tiger? It’s a monitor lizard.” And sure enough there is a huge, and I mean gigantic, monitor lizard lying horizontally across the trail. Sure, it’s an exciting sight but I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I’m here to see a tiger, remember? Then Arif tells us, “It is very lucky for me. Every time I see one, a tiger sighting is assured.”

My sister and I exchange amused, incredulous looks. It is the same look we exchange when a guide tells us erotic stories about a temple’s sculpture. My sister is convinced that the stories are made up and what’s more, embellished even more for honeymooning couples. Someday I’ll write a post about all tall tales I’ve heard at various monuments.

Anyway, we don’t see anything worthwhile – just a few spotted deer – and arrive at the FRH. It is 3.30 p.m. and we have just enough time to dump our stuff, have a cup of tea and leave for the evening safari.

Some Corbett Facts:

Corbett is at a distance of 240 kms from Delhi and it takes seven hours to reach.

The Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is spread out over an area of 1284 sq. kms.

It is home to about 165 tigers (official count). Unofficially there are about 200-250. At least that’s what the guides tell me.

It is divided into three zones – buffer zone, tourist zone and core zone (no one but forest officials are allowed into the core zone)

The tourist zone is further divided into four – Jhirna, Dhikala, Bijrani and Kaladhungi. Of these Dhikala is the most well established and popular. It is situated on the banks of the river Ramganga and you can see animals from your room when they come to drink water at the river. Dhikala is open from Nov. 15 to June 15.

When visiting Corbett, it is best to stay at one of the FRHs as they are inside the jungle. The private resorts are all outside and it takes close to an hour to enter sighting areas. Vehicles are allowed inside only from 6.00 am in the morning which means they arrive at sighting areas only by 7.00 a.m. and have to be out by 9 – 9.30. They are once again allowed inside from 3 pm. onwards and have out start back by 5.00 p.m. in order to meet the 6.00 p.m. deadline at the gate. Which pretty much means you miss the best tiger sighting times which are dawn and dusk.

No meat is allowed inside the forest.

 

 

 

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I’m back after a fantastic holiday at Corbett and Ramgarh in Uttarakhand. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and leaving comments. I promise I’ll get back as ASAP. For now, here’s a little bit about my holiday.

It is the 19th and our bookings at the Corbett Tiger Reserve are for two nights starting today.  We are staying at the Forest Rest House (or is it KMVN?) in the Jhirna zone. We dare not be late for they will give our bookings away to someone else. Which by the way suits my sister perfectly well because the Jhirna Forest Rest House (FRH) is supposed to be pretty basic. No electricity save for three hours every evening, no hot water, no fancy food. In fact, whatever you need besides what they provide at the FRH you have to carry with you. Once you are inside you are pretty much stuck for the duration of your stay.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve is divided into four tourist zones – Dhikala, Jhirna, Bijrani and I forget the name of the fourth. Of these Jhirna is the most recent and therefore most rudimentary. Of course there are other private (and luxury resorts) around Corbett but they are all outside the forest and kinda defeat the purpose of being in Corbett.

Coming back to our trip, we all get up at 4.30 in the morning. Our plan is to leave by 5.30. It is a 7 hour journey from Delhi in spite of being just around 240 kms away.

We have a small child with us, my niece, but still we manage to leave kinda on time. No thanks to my sister who wants to pack important stuff like shampoo and conditioner at the last minute. I see through her plan and whisk everybody out by 5.35 a.m.

So far so good.  And then we realize that we forgot to tank up last night and no fuel pump on the way is open. So we take a long detour just to save the odd rupee per litre (fuel is more expensive in UP than in Delhi) and end up running behind schedule.

Still we manage to beat the traffic and stop just short of Moradabad for breakfast. We spot a lovely roadside dhaba and order aloo paranthas with butter for breakfast. Hardly do the paranthas arrive when one trucker, having juts partaken of breakfast pulls out his truck from dhaba onto the main road. For some reason he takes a wider turn than necessary and another truck coming along the road bangs into him. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps the driver of the speeding truck thought there was enough space for him to squeeze past the turning truck and the divider.

It is a loud bang and my heart stops. The cab of the speeding truck is completely smashed in and all I can hear is piteous hoarse howling. When the scene clears somewhat I see that the trucker’s handyman, a mere boy of about fifteen, is wedged inside the squashed cab. I wonder what to do. For a moment I don’t react. I’m paralysed.

A tractor passing by stops and quickly attaches a tug rope onto the smashes cab and pulls out the shattered metal sheet. The boy is pulled out. He has deep gashes on his legs and his bones can be seen but nothing seems broken.

A hefty man scoops up the slight boy in his arms and sets him by the roadside. The boy is more frightened than hurt and I can see his eyes are welling out but he is trying to be brave.

By now my muscles start responding to my reflexes and I jump up and run towards the small crowd. I have to help the boy. It is one of those moments in life when you know you just have to. Not because I’m noble or anything. I just hope that if something like that should ever happen to me, someone would help me too.

Except my arrival creates quite a stir and everyone abandons the poor boy and focuses on me instead. They stare and snigger at my suggestions of taking the boy to the nearest hospital. To add to my discomfort the injured boy is also shooting me black looks. I consider lighting up and making their day. Perhaps once the novelty of the jean clad, cigarette smoking city girl has worn off they’ll concentrate on the boy.

He needs to be taken to the hospital which is about four kilometers away. Somebody from the nearby hamlet comes on his motorbike and boy is whisked away to a hospital in Joya. While the two drivers try and sort out stuff. Soon policemen arrive on the scene like vultures. They figure there are pickings to be had. People say that Indians are resourceful and enterprising. I guess we’ve got to be in the face of official apathy.

Presently we arrive at a fork just outside Moradabad and stop to ask two young men by the roadside which road leads to Kashipur. They obligingly point to one road but they don’t look too sure. So I ask them where the other road leads. They don’t respond. So I ask again. In response they look at us in exasperation and one of them says, “Ye jaanke kya karoge? Aapko toh Kashipur jaana hai.” Why do you want to know? You want to go to Kashipur.

After some persuasion the boys relent and inform us that the road leads into a colony. “Oh, we don’t want to go onto that one,” I blurt before I can stop myself. And hurriedly put the car into gear before they can respond with a suitably cutting retort.

We continue the journey along bumpy UP roads and Mayawati’s face beaming down at us from large hoardings keeps us company throughout. Which makes me think Behenji hasn’t had much occasion to travel on these roads.

Anyway, the rest of our journey goes by without incident and we arrive at Ramnagar at the Forest Director’s office at 12.30.

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