Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cloud's End - Gopalswamy Betta

A sharp musky smell assailed our nostrils. There was no doubt what it was: elephants. They were out of sight in the thick forested slopes.

It was a steep climb up the motorable road to the peak of Gopalswamy Betta. At 1,450 metres, goose bumps erupted as a cool breeze blew. The temple was reportedly built in 1315 by a Hoysala king Ballala, just before the ancestors of the current Wadiyar dynasty established their rule over the area. The hero stones collected from the forest and installed at the Bandipur reception centre certainly make one wonder if Bandipur was once settled by humans and has since become rewilded.

Clouds hung low, mist blew in waves, and softly rounded, grass-covered hills undulated westwards. A couple of sambhar grazed on a distant hillside, no larger than specks in the landscape.  

Arati was in photographer’s heaven, delighted with every slight change in light. Had we been granted more time, she would have happily shot a million pictures more. When our 30 minutes were up, I had to drag a reluctant Arati back to the car.

Gopalswamy Betta is about 25 km from the Bandipur main entrance, off the Mysore-Gudalur Highway. It takes half an hour from the park to the hill’s check post. You are granted 90 minutes, but the drive up is half an hour each way, leaving only 30 minutes at the temple. Taking photographs along the way is prohibited unless permitted by the Field Director. They can confiscate your camera if you do. Also prohibited are plastic bags and picnics. The reason for these strictures: Gopalswamy Betta is in the core area of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Entry is between 9 am and 3:30 pm. Entry fee: Rs. 50 a car.

Paddling around in Phuket

Published in Outlook Traveller LUXE January2014

Sonny guided the inflatable kayak across the expansive Phang Nga Bay, Phuket, towards an immense rock. At the waterline, I could see skylight on the other side of a small tunnel, and we sped straight for it. Sonny commanded, “Lie back,” and I obeyed his order, holding my hands against my body. Had my arm snagged, the sharp-edged, rough wall would have skinned it. The tunnel, just wider than the kayak, was a portal to another dimension.

We emerged from the dark cave into an open-air pond, with cycads, bamboo, grasses, and fig trees growing on the enormous wall encircling us. Unseen birds occasionally chirped high up on the rocky cliff, breaking the eerie silence. Sonny explained how these open-to-the-sky tidal pools were created.

Over millennia, rainwater collected in puddles on top of these limestone rocks and ate away the cores, hollowing out the islets. Sea water eroded the rocks from outside at the waterline. Where the walls were especially thin, caves formed allowing the sea to enter the hollow islets. Many of these sea caves called ‘hongs,’ meaning rooms, were open at low tide, and we couldn’t get too carried away by the beauty. We had to scoot out before the tide came in or be trapped for six hours until the next low tide.

“Has that ever happened?” I asked Sonny.

“No. But we’ve been in some tight situations.”

A troop of well-camouflaged crab-eating macaques or swamp monkeys sat patiently on rocks, waiting for hand-outs. Our group of kayakers was the last of the day’s visitors.

When John Gray, the man who put these sea caves on the tourist map, paddled by, I asked him, “How many people visit these caves?”

“About 4,000 to 5,000 a day.”

That’s not surprising, since these hongs in Phang Nga Bay were only an hour’s boat ride from bustling Phuket. More and more kayaks entered the hong and noise levels rose; I was happy to go back to the bay.

The tide was rising and the tunnel seemed narrower on the way out. “How do you get rotund guests through that?” I asked Sonny.

“We let some air out of the kayak so we ride lower and the belly gets through.” He cackled with laughter, obviously remembering a particularly round beer gut’s close shave.

Dramatic limestone rocks with green vegetation cascading from the top rose out of the blue bay. Each had eroded in interesting and unique ways; some had arches, while others looked like they had been nibbled by giant rats. We entered another hong with a huge portal, a bat roost, and we comfortably paddled without risking skinned elbows.

The flotilla of lemon-coloured kayaks headed back to the mother boat. While waiting for nightfall, Sonny and the other guides taught us tourists to make orchid-decorated, banana pith floats called krathongs. Thais celebrate Loi Krathong, when we observe Karthikai Deepam in south India and Kartik Purnima in the north, once a year on a full moon night in mid-November. They set adrift their past sins and bad luck in the krathongs and as an offering to the river. But every tourist on the ‘Hong by Starlight’ tour celebrated it, no matter the time of year or moon phase. Shorn of its cultural context, it was a corny exercise I thought.

A chorus of loud shrieks rent the air. Brahminy kites swooped down in the boat’s wake, snatching up chicken necks the cook chucked into the water. John said, “I don’t condone feeding wildlife; I don’t feed monkeys. But visiting ornithologists told me feeding raptors is okay.” By the time the last morsel was picked out of the waters and the kites went back to riding the thermals high in the sky, all the krathongs were made.

At sunset, we anchored near a tall rocky islet where we’d float the krathongs after nightfall. Black clouds spluttering lightning bolts, like colossal live fire opals, sped our way, and within minutes, a demonic rain god embraced us. Lightning crashed around the boat, thunder reverberated, and the rain drummed loudly on the boat’s roof. John commanded the craft move closer to the rock, explaining, “If we stick close to it, the lightning is likely to spare the boat.”

The weather forecast indicated thunderstorms for the week, but the cloudless, sunny days had fooled everybody. With nothing to do, I helped myself to more stir-fried tofu. I resolved yet again to run the next morning, weather willing. I overate at every meal, and the blame lay squarely with the scrumptious Thai cuisine.

I had all the encouragement to run. Westin Siray Bay Resort and Spa’s ‘running concierge’ would run with me and point out any scenic or cultural sites along a pre-charted route. I can’t say how this unique concept works; not even the incentive of complimentary New Balance footwear could stir me out of my Heavenly Bed®, the hotel chain’s hallmark of customized comfort.

The 250-plus-room resort was arrayed along a hillslope above the lobby, and a cool sea breeze blew from Siray Bay. Every room had an unhindered view of the sea. Locally-crafted, long-tail wooden boats, ferries, and speedboats plied the waters. On a distant hill, the 45-metre-tall marble statue called the Big Buddha glowed white in the morning sun.

The beach below the resort was just a fringe of sand, disappointing for sun-worshippers. The bay was so sheltered, there was no breeze to get the windsurfers moving. But what Westin lacked in beaches, it made up in views and location. Although the resort was on the far and quieter side of the island from touristy Patong, I had to travel a mere eight kilometres to reach Phuket town.

I walked into a splendidly restored colonial building that housed the Blue Elephant restaurant on Krabi Road. Tony Bish, the Texan-Phuketian chef, led a group of us, novices at Thai cooking, to the kitchen garden to pick fresh betel leaves to make crab curry. We sampled basil and lemongrass, examined the round, white Thai eggplant, and regarded the many kinds of chillies with respect.

At the culinary school, in the rear of the restaurant, every student had a stove, implements, and an array of ingredients. Following Tony’s example, we each made our own crab curry. While he liberally threw five blood red bird’s eye chillies into the mortar, I conservatively used only one. Proud of making my first Thai dish, I tasted a large spoonful of it, and recoiled from the lone chilli’s heat.

Over a sumptuous lunch fit for royalty, Kim SteppĂ©, the affable Belgian-Phuketian general manager of the restaurant, quipped, “Phuket town is the soul of the island and Patong is its heartbeat.”

“What’s Siray?” I asked.

“It’s the site of the first human settlement on the island. The sea gypsies were the first to settle here.”

The Moken sea gypsy settlement was visible from the resort’s lobby. In times past, the community was nomadic, living at sea for months. Even though the gypsies were the original settlers, they weren’t accepted as Thai nationals.

I wandered through the hamlet. Women, some with babies cradled on their laps, sat cross-legged in groups on low bamboo platforms, chatting and preparing food. The older ladies wore traditional sarongs and blouses, while the younger ones wore capris and t-shirts. The elderly slept in the shade, oblivious of noisy kids racing down the street. The Moken looked more Polynesian than Thai, and they rarely looked up at me. If our eyes met, they shyly looked away.

Under a large tree by the waters’ edge, three men were making what looked like cages. Between the rattan and thin hardwood mangrove struts, the men’s hands blurred as they wove bobbins of wire back and forth, twist, back and forth, twist in a chain link pattern. I walked around a cage examining its construction. The wall of one side caved into a funnel, the jagged wires sticking out like teeth. It was a fish trap. Although it seemed light in construction, I wondered how the fishermen hoisted a full trap out of the water. I knew no Thai and they knew no English, so I only had recourse to my imagination.

After lunch, I met tour guide Nantawan Kosai, who preferred to be called Jennifer Lopez. A group of us set off from Blue Elephant, following and hanging on her every word as she led us down Thalang Road. Although Phuket seemed to have sprung to life in recent years as a tourist spot, it had a flourishing tin mining industry for more than a century.

Many Chinese barons built ornate mansions like the Blue Elephant, but most preferred to live in shop-houses. Business was conducted downstairs, and living quarters upstairs. Porches of these row houses connected to form an arcaded walkway called five-foot-way. Built in the Sino-Portuguese style adapted from Penang, the buildings had spacious rooms, ceramic floor tiles, European-style stucco ornamentation, central courtyards called chimcha, and front doors adorned with Chinese motifs.

Jennifer said the narrow boutique shop-lined alley Soi Romanee used to house the ladies of the night. But with this curious twist in custom: Every evening, the women gathered in the balconies and picked their choice from the parade of men walking below. One rich businessman, who made his lonely way home unconsummated for four consecutive evenings, apparently committed suicide.

There was much to see and savour of Phuket’s history, but we were rushed for time. We hurried through an amulet market where I found a shivaling carved in graphic detail, a colourful Chinese Taoist temple, and Phuket Thai Hua Museum (formerly a school for Chinese children). Jennifer shepherded us into a blue mini bus locally called po-tong.

We arrived at the top of Khao Rang hill just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. At the popular Tung-ka Cafe, Jennifer ordered a round of Kopichamp, Phuket’s unique blended beverage of coffee and tea. It sounded vile, but if Jennifer was so proud of it, it was worth a try. It was cold coffee with an aftertaste of tea, and surprisingly good and refreshing at the end of a long walk.

I manoeuvred my way along the crowded wooden viewing deck to see the city lights spread out below. No matter how unplanned and messy a city looks by day, it is always pretty by night, and Phuket was no exception.


Fed up of waiting for the rain to ease, Sonny distributed disposable plastic ponchos. Many guests said they didn’t want to risk their lives going out among striking lightning bolts. With the krathongs tucked underneath the ponchos to keep the candles dry, some of us kayaked away from the boat.

Lightning lit up the landscape for an instant, and the monochromatic bluish image registered in my mind like a photograph. With head lamps aglow, the kayak guides navigated into a large cave. Every paddle swish made the water sparkle with emerald-green stars: self-illuminating plankton.

The cave was still and quiet as we solemnly lit the candles on the krathongs. Sonny’s voice echoed, “Make a wish when you let them go.” I was too dumbstruck by the beauty and drama of the scene to think of a wish. It felt good to just be. The walls of the cave flickered in candlelight, and our shadows swirled around as the jewel-like krathongs drifted away gently into the hong.

Despite my earlier misgivings about celebrating Loi Krathong out of season, it was truly a magical experience. The spectacular storm gave the faux light festival a new context, one I could make my own.

Of Men and Mountains

Published in Outlook Traveller Dec 2013

Everyone I encounter is a mountaineer, outdoorsman, or an adventurer. I look around the dinner gathering at Steve and Ameeta Alters’ heritage home and wonder how I fit in this ensemble. Butterfly specialist Peter Smetacek, ecologist Theophilus, poetess Mamang Dai, and writers I. Allan Sealy and Bill Aitken live in the mountains. I meet two ladies who write about mountaineers.

Is this a writers’ festival in the mountains, a festival of writers of mountain stories, or a festival of writers and mountains?

William Dalrymple strides into the room, flinging one loose end of a heavy grey shawl over his shoulder. His new book ‘Return of a King’ looks at the disastrous British meddling in Afghanistan. After installing Shah Shuja as the ruler, the British army tries to retreat to India but is annihilated in the Hindu Kush Mountains. More appropriately, the deposed Afghan emir Dost Mohammed Khan is then held captive in Mussoorie, the festival’s hometown.

Even spouse Rom fits into the milieu. He’s showing his latest documentary ‘Leopards: 21st Century Cats,’ and a major chunk of it was shot in Uttarakhand. I tell myself I ought to have paid closer attention to the list of participants. I might have been able to make some ephemeral connection to the mountains. Would the 700-foot scrub-covered hillock that overlooks our home count? Why on earth did Steve invite me?

My breath is fast and laboured from climbing the steep stairway from the Woodstock School gate to the auditorium, where the festival is held. I stand outside the door, waiting for my lungs and heart to catch up with my feet. An icy breeze blowing off the Himalaya penetrates my thick pullover and two layers of tees. The sky is cloudy and a veil of mist hides the view. I hurry inside before my thin tropical blood turns blue with cold.

The more I listen to the talks, the more I question my place in the world. Freddie Wilkinson from New Hampshire was inspired by the stark photography of Bradford Washburn to climb the icy peaks of Alaska. Where he sees beauty, I see a punishing landscape. Worse, he climbs alpine style, a term that has me scrambling for Google.

Traditional mountaineering lays siege to mountain with a huge expedition of porters, guides, and cooks. Alpine style mountaineers carry all their supplies and climb without oxygen cylinders. The lightness of their campaign allows them to move swiftly but they also have little time, sometimes climbing 16 hours a day for days without food or water.

Freddie takes the words out of my mouth, “Why do we punish ourselves so much?” His answer, “It’s hard to explain. So let’s change the conversation from the danger of mountaineering to its beauty.” The landscape dwarfs people; they look like ants scrambling up the edifice of frozen rock as if to get to an imaginary pot of nectar on the summit.

Krzysztof Wielicki from Poland shows pictures of more frigid glaciers and talks of unknowingly coming within touching distance of the summit before giving up. As he says it with a shrug and a laugh, I shiver with cold, real and reflected.

What drives these men to clamber up these inhospitable summits? Steve says mountaineering is the only sport with no spectators. If a stadium full of people can energize a sportsman to achieve greatness, from where do mountaineers get their energy? Krzysztof says the mountains provide the platform to push oneself beyond known limits, but my mind is a fog of incomprehension. Would I write if I had no readers?

Jerzy Porebski’s film ‘Kukuczka’ adds to my confusion. Not only was the eponymous subject the second man to climb all 14 of the 8000-metre-mountains, he took less than eight years to achieve what took Reinhold Messner 16 years. As if climbing these teat-like giants in summer wasn’t challenging enough, Kukuczka scaled many of them in winter. Why this self-flagellation? Krzysztof offers with an impish smile, “You don’t have to wash when it’s that cold.”

Maria Coffey from Canada talks of the pain of her boyfriend’s death on a mountain. His universe revolves around mountains, not her. Being fully aware of the risks, he refuses to commit to the relationship. And then he dies on Everest, leaving Maria grieving not only for the man but the relationship that never was. Maria visits the mountain with the widow of another mountaineer to bring closure, and writes about it in her first book, ‘Fragile Edge.’ Then she expands on the theme in another book ‘Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow,’ by detailing the sorrow of families of mountaineers who died or went missing on snow-capped mountains. The intensity of her talk only made the question ‘Why’ grow louder.

Why do these men jeopardize their lives and their families’ mental health by throwing themselves at treacherous mountains? I’m convinced I’m in the presence of divine lunacy. Even my spouse’s obsession with snakes seems normal in comparison.

As I struggle to write this, when the right words elude me and I come up against the wall of my own limitations, I can only offer this meagre explanation. I write and re-write, erase and edit, and voicelessly scream with frustration when words don’t obey the music I hear in my mind. I ask just as futilely, why do I do this. When the cadence of sentences lifts the story, there’s joy and magic. I can only imagine the euphoria experienced by food-deprived, oxygen-starved, altitude-addled mountaineers once they crest a summit.

High on the Mountain

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine Dec 8, 2013

In the darkness, someone whispers, “Here, here. Come here, there’s space.” My spouse Rom and I settle into the hard wooden chairs, in time to hear the musicians break into The Ventures’ ‘Walk Don’t Run.’ Under the blazing stage lights, young men with distinct northeastern features strum guitars casually. Rock gods normally strut the stage, fling their guitars and arms triumphantly, and dance with the tireless energy that only the chemically-high possess. But these youngsters from Shillong, led by Felix Langstieh, are keener to mimic the musical prowess of the rockers than their flamboyant stage presence. Rock songs roll after country – Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Pat Boone, Chuck Berry – and the audience squeals, sings, and claps along. The energy in the auditorium is electric. Age is no bar – everyone from the elderly to teenagers sway and snap fingers. And thus the 6th Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival warms the hearts of all seated in the Woodstock School auditorium.

For two days we sit indoors, swaddled in pullovers, jackets, and scarfs, cocooned from the cold Himalayan wind, celebrating the outdoors and icy peaks. Stories of mountaineers, who defy all earthly odds to drag their bodies across slippery ice to the pinnacle of the world, make me giddy. Freddie Wilkinson goes on a holiday to Alaska, decides to climb the 3000-metre Moose’s Tooth on a lark, and succeeds. Daniele Nardi scrambles up the glacial walls of K2 with the agility of a monitor lizard, while Krzysztof Wielicki specializes in climbing mountains at their most inhospitable, in the dead of winter. I’m enthralled by the quixotic folly of these men pitting their grit against the mighty mountains.

The exploits of these unique specimens of the human race extract a terrible toll from their families says Maria Coffey, bringing me tumbling down the slopes to the ground. While her boyfriend tries to summit Everest, she tries to live life as normally as a young woman could under the circumstances. But he and his climbing partner perish on the mountain, their corpses untraceable. Maria’s descriptions of her anguish constrict my throat.

Despite the price mountains extract, Dawa Steven Sherpa offers his energy to them. Along with other sherpas, he systematically cleans the slopes of garbage. From being one of the filthiest mountains, the Everest looks whiter now. Building on the success of this enterprise, Dawa works to reverse climate change and promote better water use.

Every evening, our taxi hurtles down or spews exhaust as it struggles up the narrow concrete hill roads. On one such trip, Daniele, who sits quietly next to the driver, comments, “I should take a video of this and show my Italian friends. It’ll show them you can drive without cursing and fighting.” That’s true; no Mussoorie driver even silently gestures his disdain for another’s driving skills. They manoeuvre around inconsiderately parked cars and edge perilously off the road to allow a mini bus through. At the end of these crazy road trips, wine, dinner, and conviviality awaits.

For most of one evening, veterinarian-photographer Dag Goering and I stand beside a warm fireplace at the Alters’ discussing how to solve conflicts between elephants and humans. His real concern is captive elephants, but he’s also keen to do something for wild elephants. For part of the year, he and Maria live on a hippie island in Canada that grows a lot of weed and shuns electricity from the grid. The rest of the time, they run adventure tours in exotic remote locations.

It’s cloudy and colder than I expected. I’m twice my girth with warm padding and still I shiver. Steve reminds, “The mountaineers were a lot colder than you are now.” A sobering thought and my muscles momentarily stop jerking. I feel like a tropical plant displaced from the greenhouse among the other guests, who seem well-acclimatized, until Maria rubs her fingers exclaiming, “It’s cold.” Steve had said this was the best time of year to be at Mussoorie and I wonder if I’d survive the winter here. The mere thought makes my teeth chatter. Steve clarifies, “Usually, we have warm, sunny days in November. This is unusual.” Poetry, scheduled to be read under the iconic lyre tree that’s also the school’s emblem, moves indoors.

Under a clear starry sky, I try to thaw my hands at a blazing brazier at Rokeby Manor’s rooftop. I can’t find the right distance – too close and the fire roasts my fingers; too far and digits turn to icicles. Ecologist Theophilus lives in a remote village near Munsyari, eastern Uttarakhand, where he bakes his own bread in a clay oven. Rom had one built at home recently, and I wonder if I can bake with my silicone bakeware. Theo says, “Use tin pans, no? You just have to butter and flour them.”

“But I don’t want to buy a whole range of bakeware for the clay oven.”

“In Delhi, you can buy aluminium pans lined with silicone. Maybe you can use those.”

Conversation turns to bread recipes, solar-powered refrigerators, and other homely subjects that bond two people who share a similar lifestyle in the boondocks.

With 20 participants, Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is small enough to get to know everyone, and when we take leave, it’s bitter sweet: I look forward to returning to the warmth of the plains but the time spent with new friends is much too brief.