The Day A Leopard Ate The Boss For Breakfast – Almost!

Leopard

The time came for us to leave Kaziranga in Assam and take the 6-7 hour drive into the hills of Nagaland for our next stop in Kohima.

However our dashing and fearless tour leader, Rohan (rumored to be the inspiration behind the Jason Statham – Transporter films), had a little detour planned for us. While out “networking” the night before, he had bumped into some staff from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and using his considerable silver tongued charms had managed to wrangle an invite for all of us to visit.

Kaziranga Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation

The Centre does a lot of great work, rescuing, sick, injured and orphaned animals, nursing them back to health, before releasing them back into the wild.

A young volunteer gave us a tour explaining what they were doing and the processes involved, before finally leading us to the leopard enclosure where 3 leopards were being cared for, one baby and two adults.

The Boss, unable to contain her excitement upon spying the ‘big fluffy pussycat’ had to be restrained from putting her hands inside the enclosure to pat the animal. After all what use would The Boss without hands be to me? Who would massage the knots out of my tired shoulders after a day spent thumbing through the books on my Kindle?

One of the adult leopards was quite docile, but the other was angry and distinctly annoyed at our presence, constantly pacing back and forth in it’s enclosure, snarling away.

After a few minutes spent taking photos and marveling at the majesty of these big cats, we prepared to leave and it is then that I witnessed a sight, the memory of which has woken me on many a night, bathed in sweat and shaking with fear.

The Boss strayed a couple of feet too close to the angry leopard and in a split second the cat had covered the 10 meters from the other side of the enclosure in a single silent bound. Thankfully the first the Boss knew of it was not a pair of sharp incisors sinking into her neck but the sound of a huge adult leopard bouncing off the wire link fence that made up the leopard’s enclosure.

The speed and sheer power of the cat’s movement was an incredible sight to behold as I stood frozen in awe, The Boss making her exit as fast as her gazelle like legs would allow.

I will never forget that sight (the leopard, not the Boss’s legs) and it has given me new-found respect for this majestic animal.

A change of underwear all around, we thanked the staff and headed off on our journey to Kohima.

5 Star service in the Lodge from Hell!

Luxury AccomodationI lift up the pillow and a nest of beetles scurry away from the light.

I do the same with the next pillow, sending more beetles scuttling away in to the darkness.

I quickly brush them away before The Boss spots them and throw my own clean bed sheet over the whole bed, pillows and all.

The pillow is the same shape and consistency as a bag of cement and within 10 minutes I have a throbbing headache.

The bed too short for my height so I am forced to lie at an angle with my feet hanging over the side. The room bathed in a dim glow from the fluorescent yellow street light outside the window as I listen to late night wedding revelers returning noisily to the rooms next door, shouting at each other in Tamil despite their proximity and the late hour. I wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night.

Earlier that evening after a fruitless search for some quality accommodation in this small rural town we finally settled for the best of the rest and took a tiny room in a lodge down a noisy side street. It’s wedding season and everywhere is booked solid in a town that is not big enough to warrant a hotel of any kind.

The room qualifies as luxury accomodation as it has AC and a TV. One thing it lacks though is hot water. With hand signals and a few words in English and Tamil we explained to the owner that we wanted hot water to bathe in and he explained that he would supply us with an immersion rod, an electric element which you suspend in a bucket to heat the water. It needs to be suspended using a wooden stick so that you don’t get an electric shock but it is surprisingly effective.

Immersion heater

By 8pm it hadn’t arrived so I climbed down the narrow stairway to what functions as the reception. The lodge owner was still there juggling calls on his two cell phones.

“Hot water, hot water” I asked him.

“9 o’clock coming” came the answer. “Fresh piece.”

As good as his word, at 9 o’clock there was a loud banging on the door.

The elderly watchman, barefoot and clad in a white vest and dhoti, handed me a plastic bucket, a wooden stick and a brand new immersion rod still in it’s box.

Closing the door, I looked at the price stickers still on the bucket and the immersion rod box. The total cost was Rs650.

The rent for the room was only Rs600!

The Toilet Angel – Part two

Read Part 1 first

The next day having reached Pondicherry we were sitting in one of our favorite restaurants waiting to place our order.

We spotted our regular waiter crossing the restaurant on crutches.

“What happened to you?” we asked.

“On the way home from Pondicherry on my motorbike one evening I was hit by a drunk driver.

I spent 2 months in hospital but the doctors couldn’t save my foot”

The Toilet Angel

 

Toilet Just Do It

I pull off the highway into a large motorway services complex similar to what you would see alongside motorways in the west and now increasingly common in India.

This one has a large petrol station, coffee shop, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant and quite probably the worst McDonalds in the world.

It’s 8 am and we are heading from Bangalore to Pondicherry for a few days break.

The South Indian restaurant serves lovely Masala Dosas for breakfast but one of the main reasons we stop here is because it has possibly the cleanest public toilets in the country, a rarity in a nation where entering a public toilet usually requires the wearing of a hazmat suit and gas mask.

Having broken our journey here many times over the years we have always been impressed at how well the toilets are maintained by a young Tamilian lady. Meticulously scrubbing and mopping both the men’s and ladies toilets she ensures that whatever time of day you visit they are always clean and smelling fresh. She lights up our day with a beautiful smile and over time we have become nodding and greeting acquaintances despite not sharing a common language.

It’s been 9 months since we last came through this way and we were shocked to see her limping as she worked. A piece of leather encasing the stump where her foot should be.

With hand signals and the few English words that creep into every language she explained that she had been heading home from work one night and while crossing the highway to reach her village was hit by a speeding lorry. Badly injured she spent 2 months in hospital but in the end the doctors were unable to save her foot.

Life in India for the working masses is tough, seldom affording the luxury of a long convalescence.
She is back at work, scrubbing, mopping, ensuring the toilets continue to be spotless.

And despite the missing foot…………….. still smiling like an angel.

 

Read Part two here

The Toddy Shop

The Toddy Shop

We are in Sri Lanka traveling from Colombo, north, to the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. We had hired a car with a driver, an affable young Muslim man who entertained us with stories of some of his less than agreeable clients.

Being well versed with the route he detoured off the main road and took a shortcut through beautiful lush green landscapes, mile after mile of jungle interspersed with emerald green rice paddies.

Spying a hand painted sign beside a track leading into the jungle he pulled over and asked us if we would like to try Toddy. Toddy is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the Coconut palm. I have seen many of these local Toddy “Bars” in India but never tried it and leaning more towards the adventurous side when on holiday I said, sure why not.

We set off on foot up the dirt track, into the jungle, the driver leading the way. After a few minutes we spotted a local man on the track ahead, walking in our direction.

In fact, walking would be an exaggeration. A more accurate description would be some form of tribal dance as he bobbed and stumbled from side to side. One step forward, two steps sideways, one step back, pause, wave arms in the air, shout into the undergrowth, two steps forward, one step to the other side, one step back. It took him almost 5 minutes to cover the short distance between us.

Our driver, Rahim, approached him and asked him if he knew where the Toddy Shop was. The local stopped his dance and stood swaying like a tree in the wind, considering the questions, spittle forming bubbles on his lower lip.

Rattling off a long explanation in Sinhalese, he gesticulated with both hands while, peculiarly, each eye rotated independently of each other.

Translating for us, Rahim explained that the toddy shop was a long way off and it had taken the local man most of the day to reach us from the shop. He was in fact exhausted by the long walk.

The local started babbling again, the spittle on his lips now morphing into long strings of drool, one eye looking left while the other looked up. The only word I could catch was “dhura, dhura” which I assumed meant the same as “dur” in Hindi, far. We thanked him and he continued haltingly on his way, one step forward, two steps back, 3 steps sideways, two long strings of saliva now reaching the ground.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” Rahim asked, “It sounds like it is quite far away. He did say it has taken him a few hours to reach us”

To the right of us another local was standing by the side of the track leaning against a coconut palm, watching the proceedings, a big grin on his face.

Wondering whether to continue further into the jungle I thought it wise to get a second opinion.

“Excuse me, How far is the Toddy Shop’ I asked him.

“It’s just around the corner about 50 meters away”

Footnote:

In the end we didn’t partake of any Toddy. The kindly local warned us that it wasn’t pure and in fact had all sorts of nefarious items mixed in with it such as formaldehyde and battery acid, which goes a long way towards explaining the independently rotating eyeballs of the “tribal dancer”

Road Rage

Indian Traffic

Driving in India can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience at the best of times. The complete disregard for road rules and personal safety never ceases to amaze me.

Over the years I have had a number of “near-death” experiences and although over time, I have become immune to all but the most idiotic maneuvers there are still times when I need to go home for a change of underpants.

Most people, and in particular ex-pats, in an effort to keep blood pressure at manageable levels, will have a driver. They then cower in the back seat, praying fervently or texting their last will and testament to loved ones, anything to take their mind off what is happening outside the vehicle. I have toyed with the idea myself on a few occasions but each time the driver has scared me witless as they sought to prove their driving skills are worthy of a seat on a Formula 1 Team while simultaneously demonstrating that rear-view mirrors and indicators are superfluous items on an Indian motor vehicle. After all, mirrors are only for checking one’s hair- style or for picking at ones teeth while talking on the phone. I can’t read or look at my phone in the back seat without being overcome by nausea while the driver insists on testing the body’s capacity to withstand lateral g forces in excess of those experienced by fighter pilots.

In the end I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to adapt to the conditions, drive myself, and lower my expectations for sane behavior in a motor vehicle. I must confess I have become quite good and suspend judgment on most things that I see or experience. It has been helped also by the fact that I now drive an SUV and in India “might is right” on the roads so most other road-users afford my vehicle a little respect. The exceptions of course are the Government buses, which despite being the largest vehicles on the road have mirrors the same size as the one the dentist sticks in your mouth while he asks you what you did for your holidays. Motorcyclists also drive me to distraction as they seem to live in some other dimension when it comes to road behavior (see another one of my rants on motorcyclists here).

Occasionally though, I must confess that my saintliness does wear off and years of suppressed road rage comes boiling to the surface like lava during the eruption of Vesuvius.

Recently I was waiting for traffic to clear at a junction so I could turn right. Finally spotting a gap I started to turn, when my 6th sense for self-preservation, honed over years of flirting with death while commuting across Indian cities, made me glance in my right-hand mirror. The driver behind me, deciding that 20 seconds was too long to wait at a junction, pulled out to pass me. Slamming on the brakes to avoid being speared in the side by the errant Toyota, I snapped.

Drawing on my extensive knowledge of contemporary rap lyrics, I spewed forth a virulent torrent of abuse. I summoned up every curse, defamatory phrase, and vituperative epithet I could think of. Every sentence I screamed at him contained new and innovative uses of a word that rhymed with “trucker” and “trucking”. I used it as an adjective, a noun, a verb, an adverb, and often in inventive ways not normally found in classical sentence structure. My college English teacher would have been proud of my eloquence.

Finally pausing for breath I noticed The Boss in the passenger seat beside me, mouth agape, staring at me in shock, having never imagined that the calm, beautifully mannered and well-spoken husband of hers could articulate himself in such a vernacular fashion.

Sensing his chance, the deviant driver pounced on the opportunity to respond to my tirade.

“Get lost you bloody rascal!”

The Hubli Hustle – in which the long arm of the Law reaches out and picks my pocket again!

Visiting the small rural town of Hubli in Northern Karnataka is proving expensive for me.

The last time I came through here 3 months ago I was fined Rs300 by an over-zealous cop for driving my vehicle without a document I had no idea I needed (see here)
Hubli despite it’s comparatively diminutive size, seems to have more traffic cops than the whole of Bangalore. They are on every corner and seem to have a vendetta for anyone driving in from other areas. Meanwhile the locals blatantly flout every traffic law and regulation with impunity.
So 3 months later I have returned, stopping for lunch on my way up to Mumbai. I pulled off the highway and spent the next 5 minutes crawling along behind a tractor in 1st gear as it swerved from side to side trying to avoid potholes and doing its best to dislodge the population of a small village perched all over it.
Frustration at this extremely slow progress getting the better of me I spotted a gap in traffic, pulled out and accelerated at warp speed finally getting out of 1st gear and changing up into 2nd.
Suddenly a traffic cop ran out from behind a tree and stood in the middle of the road pointing at me. Bearing in mind the last time the cops shook me down in this town, I contemplated ignoring him and continuing on my journey. But not wishing to sully the glistening paintwork of my beautiful car with the blood and bodily fluids of a policeman I decided it might be better for all concerned if I stopped.
“Why have you stopped me” I asked
“Overspeeding” he replied using a term peculiar to India.
To me one is either speeding or not speeding, so I am not sure where overspeeding fits in.
“What is the speed limit?” I asked
“40”
“Where is the sign?”
“No sign”
What speed was I doing? I asked
“Over 40” came the reply. “Come with me”
Reluctantly I got out and followed the cop to where 3 of his colleagues had set up camp in the shade of a tree with a radar gun on a tripod.
The senior-most police officer announced in a haughty manner befitting of a Maharajah of old, “You were driving very fast”
“Really? How fast?” I asked
“74” he replied
In second gear! On a severely potholed road! Wow. I was amazed for a second or two but suspecting that my diesel SUV had not miraculously transformed into a Ferrari overnight, I questioned his findings.
Telling me to look at the radar gun to see my speed, I wandered over and read the display.
“It says 30” I told him.
“That’s someone else’s speed.”
“Where is mine”
“It’s deleted. But you were driving so far above the limit we are booking you for reckless and dangerous driving” he told me, thereby increasing the fine amount by 30% in one fell swoop.
Well I had a good run, I thought to myself. Seven years of being the only safe and sensible driver left in India was a pretty good effort, but I have finally succumbed. I think it’s called assimilation by osmosis.
I argued a bit more trying in vain to retain my unblemished status but when you argue with a donkey it is never likely to see your point of view.
I paid up, retrieved my license and returned to my “Ferrari”, head hanging in shame and with a noticeably lighter wallet.
An hour later lunch completed I headed out of town. Rounding a corner another policeman sprang out in front of me. A barrage of expletives echoed around inside the car, not just from me but also from the usually dulcet toned Boss sitting beside me. Barely restraining myself from running him down I pulled over and dispensing with all niceties demanded an explanation as to why he had the temerity to pull me over.
“Do you have a license?” he asked, with one eye on the traffic.
“Yes”
“Insurance”
“Yes”
He jumped out in front of another car with outstation number plates and waved it over in front of me, ignoring all the local vehicles driving past.
Returning to my window he asked:
“Emissions Certificate?”
“I have everything! A marriage certificate also! Do you want to see that? Why the hell do you keep stopping me? I was stopped an hour ago!”
“Where?” he asked
“On the Bangalore Rd” I told him
“Where are you going now?”
“Bombay”
“OK, happy journey” he wished me, shaking my hand and waving me on, anxious to attend to his next, hopefully less argumentative victim.

Welcome back, Your Highness!

I am planning a drive up to Mumbai at the end of the month. It is over a 1000 kms so I plan to break journey half way. My regular readers will remember that the last time I did the trip I had a less than pleasant experience with the Hotel in which I stayed (posted here). Not wishing to repeat the experience I have decided to loosen the purse strings and go a bit more upmarket.
Discovering that the Taj Hotels Group have opened a new hotel in Belgaum, I have decided that this will be a good place to lay my weary head after 500 kms of dodging slow moving goods vehicles, wandering livestock, and the inevitable motorcyclists heading the wrong way down the highway.
Taj are renowned for their excellent hotels so I decided to join their loyalty program as I am always keen to pick up some loyalty points for later use. While filling in the online application form I was delighted to learn that there were a few more interesting options under Salutation other than the usual Mr., Mrs. or Miss. I scrolled through the options which included such titles as Wing Commander, Admiral, and Professor
I couldn’t help myself and within 10 minutes I received a welcome email from the Taj Inner Circle Loyalty program addressed to “Your Royal Highness Prince_____”
(I had thought about Maharaja, but as I am not Indian I didn’t think I would be able to carry it off)
The Boss was hugely unimpressed and urged me to change it as she said she will be so embarrassed when I check in.
I should think that would be the least of her worries. I am sure she will be much more embarrassed when she checks in and they greet her with “Welcome to our Hotel, Your Holiness!”

 

The Great Decline of The Travel Inn!

Pic Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomhilton/

Pic Credit Tom Hilton

While travelling in India it is often difficult to find a good standard of accommodation away from the big cities. Although things have changed tremendously since I first visited in the mid 90’s, with many decent hotels coming up in the cities, in the rural areas, clean comfortable accommodation is often scarce. When you do find somewhere you tend to hang on to it as your favored place to stay.

The Boss and I travel quite frequently by road between Mumbai and Bangalore, a distance of about 1000kms, and after the first couple of times doing it non-stop, a 16-18 hour drive, and being physically wiped out for a couple of days afterwards, realized that it was probably a good idea to break journey half way.

Fortunately a couple of years ago we discovered, in Dharwad, approximately the mid-point of our journey, a Hotel called The Travel Inn. Functioning a little like the highway motels we are used to in the west, The Travel Inn was a clean comfortable pit stop, which provided good food and even charged for only half a day if you left within 12 hours of checking in. A perfect respite on our long drive and one we used every time we passed through.

On our recent drive back from Mumbai (posted here) we again decided to break journey at The Travel Inn. Arriving early evening we checked in, while simultaneously reading the various framed certificates on the reception wall. Certificates announcing compliance with ISO: 9001, water quality, and low carbon footprint. Suitably impressed we took our keys and waited while a small army of boys ferried our bags from the car to the rooms. After surveying the twin bedded rooms, confirming that there was hot water, “yes sir, 24 hours hot water”, and asking for a couple of pillow cases to be replaced as they were, let’s just say, not as white as they should be, we decided to freshen up before dinner.

The first order of business was to give my niece her bath as when leaving Mumbai we had just plucked her out of her bed in the early morning and put her in the car still fast asleep.
Turned on the hot water tap … no water. I don’t mean no hot water, but no water at all! Quick call to reception. “Sir, after 15 mins it will come, then please waste 5-6 buckets of water”
15 minutes later, sure enough water started to flow from the hot water tap, at first luke warm and clear, then as it got hotter it changed colour at first orange then darker and darker until a reddish brown liquid poured out into the bucket. Another call to reception. “Don’t worry Sir. Just waste 5-6 buckets of water”.
I emptied the first bucket together with the 5 cm layer of brown sediment now coating the bottom and proceeded to fill another, repeating the process 5-6 times, before sure enough the water flowed hot and clear from the tap. My 6 year old niece, who had before been watching the process in horror and with understandably some fear of the bath to come, finally relaxed and summoned up enough courage to have her bath.

We had a reasonably pleasant dinner in the cool open air dining area ( Dharwad, being slightly elevated, has a very agreeable climate year round), the highlight of which was overhearing the staff briefing in which the manager, demonstrating his ISO: 9001 compliant management style, said he would slap the staff in the face if he caught them carrying out some (unknown to us) misdemeanor again.

Back to the room. Time for the Boss and I to partake of the 24 hours hot water and have a shower. Turned on the hot tap…again no water. Quick call to reception. “Sir, after 15 mins it will come, then please waste 5-6 buckets of water” Familiar now with the procedure, I waited as bucket after bucket of brown liquid flowed out.
Glancing across to the sink I read a helpful sign stuck to the wall “Save the planet. Save water”
60- 70 litres later, the water finally clean enough (but sadly only luke warm) we showered, changed and decided to watch a bit of TV.

Following an exhaustive 10 minute search for the remote, another quick call to reception. 2 minutes later, a knock on the door, and a boy stood there with a handful of TV remotes. By now doubtful, I asked him to wait while I tested the remote. The remote seemed to be working, a light flashed at the end of it, but no response from the TV. 5 minutes of fiddling with the cables and plugging it into different power sockets ensued, and then the boy admitted defeat and walked out with the TV under his arm, replacing it a short while later with a functional one.

By this time dissatisfied, disillusioned and disappointed, the Boss and I decided to sleep so we could leave as early as possible and spend the minimum amount of time in what once was a pleasant overnight stop. Hearing a shriek from the Boss I turned around to see that she had folded back her bedcovers to get into bed and discovered a set of muddy footprints between the sheets.
I turned to my bed and wondering what I would find, folded back my covers to discover a profuse scattering of hairs, some of them suspiciously short and curly!