Monday, July 21, 2014

Aotearoa—the land of long white clouds

Most of us who have gone to school in India (and perhaps elsewhere) will remember those hectic mornings where dirty black shoes had to be polished. If not, we would get a whack for indiscipline in the morning assembly.  When one forgot to use ‘Kiwi’ shoe polish, the quick solution would be to wipe the shoe with socks and save the skin. For many of us, Kiwi polish was (and to a greater part is) the only association to the land of Kiwis.
‘Nova Zeelandia’ as the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (After whom Tasman Sea is named) chanced upon this country which was unknown to the west until 1600’s. Just like Columbus mistook West Indies for India, Tasman apparently mistook New Zealand to the Southern tip of South America. Polynesian settlers know as Māori had however, long settled in this Island nation.  
One set of arrows point from Taiwan to Melanesia to Fiji/Samoa and then to the Marquesas Islands. The population then spread, some going south to New Zealand and others going north to Hawai'i. A second set start in southern Asia and end in Melanesia.
"Polynesian Migration" by David Eccles. Migration arrows Taiwan through Melanesia to Polynesia, and earlier migration to Australia and New Guinea; Colonisation of East Polynesia, and dispersal to more remote islands (including Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

New Zealand as we know today is famous for many things. Kiwi fruits; Kiwi bird; Sir Ed. Hillary; Cheese; Wine; Cricket; Earthquakes and Cattle to name a few. One of the world’s least populated countries is the closest big landmass to Antarctic in the South Pacific Ocean. New Zealand also perhaps the first country to see the sunrise as per the International Date Line in the Southern hemisphere!. The country has a rich biodiversity and a unique biogeography. Much of the uniqueness is not well known to a vast majority of people like myself.

Kiwi Land

Watching a program by the BBC on TV four years ago, I had this deep sense of longing to go visit this beautiful country. Little did I know that my wish would soon come true. At a conference in Canada, it was announced that the next conference of the International Congress for Conservation Biology would be held in New Zealand. The conference in Canada being my first one to which I had got in by sheer luck (and what some may dare call divine intervention), I had very little clue how to go about getting myself to such conferences. The clock had started ticking. In about a year that passed, I had managed to gather data on ecology of frogs using automated sound recorders and put in an abstract to present my work at the 25th International Congress for Conservation Biology. In a few months, I heard that I was selected and was to present a poster. Allwin, my colleague too had also got in! 
Traveling costs money. Especially if one is a student in a third world country like India. I had sought for travel bursaries but had got only half of what was sufficient to go. A round of (what can be called bargaining and) justifying to the grant makers ensued and I finally managed to get the entire airfare and conference fees paid by the generous Conservation Leadership Program!. So plans were made two months before the trip and the deal was to stay back as long as our pockets would run dry and see as much as we could of this country which the Maori used to call as the ‘land of Long White Clouds’.

Land beyond the land down under

New Zealand would perhaps be the farthest I would have gone from home as the crow flies. We flew in Cathay Pacific with a stopover at Hong Kong. I was to fly with Allwin who got his wife along as well. So I packed shop and took a bus to Chennai and we all planned to fly out together. Last minute packing and all kept us busy. My folks were all in the US and I was doing all this alone. Was fun nonetheless. I couldn’t blame anyone for misplacing things!
An uneventful flight dropped us off at Hong Kong where we had to wait for a few hours. The swanky terminal and a small museum of Hong Kong culture kept us busy. 
A wonderful quote and yes, a selfie too!
Allwin was busy listening to the infamous Why this Kolaveri Di? song on the free internet. The entire airport was built on land reclaimed from the South China Sea. It was surely one of the busiest airports I had been to. The landing and taking off was indeed breathtaking. Heading straight down to the deep blue waters and landing on the tarmac among mountains that rise out of the Sea. Our next ride was prepped up to leave and we got on for the second leg of our journey. 
The Boeing that flew us to Kiwi Land

In flight entertainment and unlimited servings of alcohol kept us busy for the long journey. I always enjoyed sitting by the window to take pictures. Being the land closest to the date line, the sun was up quite early. Much to my neighbors’ annoyance, I opened the blinds and clicked away. The colors of the morning sky are always a treat to watch.
The New Zealand trip had opened up a lot of old connections. I had gotten in touch with Sana and Smitha with whom unfortunately, I would hardly talk when we were classmates in Josephs. We spoke over email and had plans to go scuba diving on the day we land in Auckland. The plans were to check into the accommodation given by the grant makers and catch a quick bus to the diving spot. With such zealous plans we woke up as the plane got closer to Kiwiland. 

The sky was a long blanket of white clouds. No wonder the Maori people called it Aotearoa
First landfall of the Auckland Coast.
The flight landed into Auckland. Again, it headed straight to the Sea. Then over a lake. As suddenly as it all began. We were there. We had reached the place. A dream had come true.
The immigration was not too much a big deal but the officers on duty had their eyes popped out with the three of us. NZ is a great country and they are very careful about outside plants and animals becoming invasive. They screen everything. No uncooked food gets across. No honey. No fruits. They saw my field boots and asked if I worked in forests. Yes. I was asked to step out of the line. Was made to walk to a tray with some sort of ‘seedicide’ and made to stomp my feet thoroughly. After sanitizing my boots, I was back on line. Then came the bags. We all were carrying ready to eat food from India. This was to get over homesickness and to cut costs. Being a veggie, I was extra worried of not finding proper food. Each of us had 30 packets of MTR ready to eat food in our bags.  One by one, we opened our bags.
 The gentleman asked is there food in this?.
 All 30 packs?
Are they cooked.
Yes, they are ready to be eaten.
Ok. Next was my turn.
How about you sir, got any food?.
Yes. Food.
All this?.
Wow. You also have a tripod- nature lover eh?.
Yes sir!, going on a hike in your beautiful country.
Alright. Next was Allwin or his wife I don’t remember. The man asked same question.
Food?. Yes of course!.
Oh gosh! All this?. You know guys, we sell food in our country, says the officer tongue in cheek. We have a good laugh and off we go. The immigration line was all people going to the conference. We could see people with rolled posters. All we had to do was to follow the crowd and we got into a public transport bus and reached the hotel we were staying at.
Finding the place was a little difficult and we asked a convenience store chap who said he had no idea. We step out. Look up and the shop is in the basement of the same hotel where we had to stay. Oh those Indian technique of ‘Just ask someone’ does not really work!
The rains had got the Scuba plans to a halt. We called up Sana and made other plans. That I shall talk in the next blog post!
The rains poured away throwing zealous plans out of gear!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

— Part six of a six part series on my recent sojourn into this unique part of India.

Day 6: Mangroves, mosquitoes and madness

The lodge was right next to the bus stand. Every bus that came and went honked. Then there were some weird insects that kept biting. The oven like room only got hotter. Not being able to tolerate the heat, Dr. Ganesh opened the door. We tried sleeping but no luck. By morning, my feet were red by scratching. The beds were wet due to sweat. Somehow, that terrible night had passed.  

A quick tea and by 6 am we were out. We caught an auto and headed to Coringa Wildlife sanctuary. It was a large mangrove forest. Just outside the city of Kakinada. The auto guy was a crook. He tried to palm us off to another auto by saying the place we wanted to go was too far and fleeced money out. All the while, he bugged Vikram insisting he pronounce the name properly. The other auto took us to the place, dropped us off the main road and gave his number so we could call him to be picked up. We began walking. The sun was burning hot. It was highly humid. Sweat broke like rivulets. On top of it, I had forgotten my hat in the room. We heard a tractor approach. Before we could stop and ask for a lift, a group of people walking behind us got on to the tractor. There was no place for the four of us. We walked along. For the first time, we all saw cattle being kept inside mosquito nets. We wondered why.
Coringa was a nice place. It was known to have salt water crocodiles, the endangered fishing cat and all that. Excited we all were. We walked past several fish culture ponds covered with nets to prevent birds. A small wetland adjacent to it had water and there were several birds. We saw a big flock of what looked like Godwits. Prashanth quickly spotted a Brahminy Shelduck. A winter migrant. It was the first time I was seeing the bird. We also saw several golden plovers. A few black winged stilts were nesting on small mud islands in the water. It was the first time we were seeing them nesting out in the open. A few pictures and we finally reached the gates. 
Brahminy Shelducks
As we walked into the interpretation centre, the closed gates came in view. The place was not to open until 10 am. It was just about 7 am and heat was already unbearable. On top of it, we realized we were being hoarded by mosquitoes. Big ones. Their bite was penetrating the shirt and hitting the back. It was damn irritating. Now we realized why the cows needed the nets. We walk up to the estuary and saw a fisherman boat ready to head out to sea. We asked for a ride and they said no. We tried to enjoy the landscape for a short period. We tried hard but could not forget the mosquitoes. Finally, we decided to go. There was no point waiting there till 10. The auto chap was called and he came. Meantime, we went back to the wetland to see the godwits and were in for a treat. Over 1500 individuals were there and they all took to flight at once. It was a visual treat to watch. It was the biggest flock of any bird I had seen. For about 10 minutes, we all watched the natural wonder, oblivious of everything around us. 
Murmurations of Black Tailed Godwits
The auto got us back to the city and we had a quick breakfast. I went to check if there was any bus available to Bangalore. The train berths were still not confirmed. The bus too was full. It looked like we had no choice. We had to sit in the train and travel overnight. Meantime, Prashanth wanted to visit the mouth of River Krishna. It was close to Kakinada in a place called Yanam. A small fragment of Pondicherry that sits in Andhra Pradesh. If Kerala is gods own country, I firmly believe that Pondicherry and its pieces are Yamaraj’s (the god of death) own country. I had taken owe not to set foot into Pondicherry. But I thought the journey was better than being in the oven like room of the lodge. A bus ride under hot sun got us to Yanam. We took an auto and reached the beach. It was desolate. No person in their right minds would come there walking at 12 in the noon we thought. Temperatures had hit over 38 deg cel. A kid selling ice cream harangued us. We thought of humoring his enthusiasm and bought three. It tasted like sand. I wondered what water he used. None the less, we ate it before it melted off. Pondicherry tourism had a boat ride for public. The people there came and asked us if we wanted to go on the ride. We were not keen. They all said the river mouth was the sea. No one really knew where the sea was. Not unusual for Pondy I thought. The beach road was adorned with busts of political leaders, cast and religious pundits and was basically congress party’s propaganda. Statue of two elephants spraying water from their trunks to a Shiva Linga (Phallus) was a big thing on the beach.  Next to it was a Mosque built like a ship, sponsored by Reliance ltd. More propaganda I thought. 

We decided to walk back to the bus stand and not go in search of sea. While walking back, we noticed several bird droppings on the ground. Looking up, we saw night herons on nests! 

Bird Poop

 We were in for a surprise. They were not supposed to be breeding that time of year.  There was an average 4-5 nest on each tree and there were easily over 20 trees. A few cormorants too kept flying about.  We took counts and photos. 
Night Herons
Later, Prashanth got busy wiping off bird dropping from his bag. A crow or something decided to take a dump on his bag! The tissue paper he liberally used was manufactured in Beirut, Lebanon. Wow! Globalization has really happened. We were in godforsaken Yanam and wiping crow poop in paper made half way across the globe.  
Beirut to Pondicherry as crow poop wipe!
 Walking back further, we saw several tree covered with nests. Egrets, Herons and cormorants. If not for anything, the ‘discovery’ of the heronary was pleasing. We reached the bus stand and cooled ourselves down with chilled flavored milk and waited for the bus. It was lunch time and the bus was late. One bus came, we got in. The driver was fiddling around a new DVD player and soon, LOUD blaring music was on. We felt terrible. People did not know what personal space was. Nor did they care. For over half an hour, the bus did not move. The owner of the transport, clad in white dothi and kurta sat in the shelter wearing cooling glass. He was busy counting money. The bus finally left. We asked the conductor to tune down the volume. He partly obliged. Pondy was always like this. Every morning, when I would go to the university, I would be half dead because of the loud music. I think people are deaf there. Anyways, we reached Kakinada and were asked to get down and walk to bus stand. The auto chap who took us for a ride in the morning waylaid us and tried to make us get in so he would drop us at the bus stand. We kept walking and there was no clue of the stand. We were getting late. A bus came and we got in.  
 The last leg of our journey had begun. A hurried lunch and we began to pack up. An auto got us to the railway station. The train was packed. We had a reservation against cancellation ticket. We got in. The train left. No seats were empty. Evening, we saw Bitterns flying across in paddy fields. Several other birds kept us occupied till nightfall. After Rajahmundry, we sat up to look at the bridge along the Godavari River. The bridge was 2 km long. Train ran over it for like 5 minutes. A little over 1/4th the journey, Prashanth got a berth to sleep in. Dr. Ganesh and I decided to sit up and take turns to catch up on sleep. It was 10 in the night and we were hungry. Our co passengers had eaten early dinner and slept off. We too kept dozing off. At Vijaywada, we finally managed to get some food. Tonight too, it was to be continental food with Cheese and Veg Sandwich! We got back on the train and it moved. Middle of the night, the conductor woke me up and asked me to take up an empty berth. I went and slept. Must be 10 minutes when he came and woke me up. It seems the actual traveler was sitting elsewhere and he came back. I was asked to go back. I sat and slept off listening to music. Later, Dr. Ganesh asked me to go crash on the berth. I did. Morning light woke me up. We had covered over half the journey. There was a lot more distance to go. By noon, we reached Bangalore. 
Prashanth, Ganesh and I have had a lot of adventure together over the several years of working with wildlife. Those moments range from absolute hilarity to near death situations. Along the way, we have had the joy of observing wildlife, discussing ideas, talking about way of things and witness to several realization incidents. This time, Vikram, Allwin and Giri was party to the fun as well. The hot weather, sleepless nights, information overload by the amazingly varied experiences is something hard for me to forget. I am sure others think of it that way too. On the return trip, I was having mixed feelings. May be I wished to stay back for a few more days. May be I will go back some day. Till then, sunburns, insect bites and memories are all that is left. 
The team: L to R: Allwin Jesudasan, Vikram Adithya, Dr. Ganesh, Prashanth M B and Giridhar Malla.
Read Part five here

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

Part five of a six part series on my recent sojourn into this unique part of India.
Day 5: Godavari

Morning came early. It was overcast. A few drops of rain fell too only to momentarily cool temperatures. While we got ready, we noticed the half emerged cicada from last night was lying motionless on the ground. I tried moving it and it started wriggling. The wing had twisted up and had not fully opened. It had hardened. There was no way the insect could fly. If we had not disturbed it, it may have emerged completely. I thought we were responsible and put an end to it. The previous night, a Praying Mantis flew in and got its head chopped off by the fan. I had finished it off as well. 

We packed up our stuff and headed down for breakfast and the field visit for that day. Having had some food, we decided to visit the Eastern Godavari dist. Reserved forests which were severely fragmented and earmarked for submergence by an upcoming dam. We took a Tata Ace and rode down to Rampacholavaram. Rampa meant jagged edges, like that of the saw. I wondered if there was a big timber yard down there. All through the way, we saw forests being cleared. No one had a clue. Infact, for the whole period, we never ever encountered a single forest official, except at the guest house. God only has to save this place I thought. At Rampa, we took an auto and asked him to drive slowly to Devipatnam, the last town on the road and the first town to be submerged. All along, the road cut across settlement and forest matrix. A lone red jungle fowl, the mother of all domestic chicken gave a few glimpses. 
We reached Devipatnam. Walked down to the river Godavari. It was wide. As wide as two km as the crow flies. It got wider closer to the coast. A dam, at the mouth of this river was being mooted. Named Indira Sagar, after Indira Gandhi, this politically motivated dam is a disaster in the making. One, building one so close to the mouth of the river would mean that it would silt up in a short time. Two, being at the base of hills, the inundation would be high, especially in the forests. We were told the inundation would go up till Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Polavaram Project, has been mired in controversy since its inception in the early 1940’s. It is poised to relocate over 300-400 families and over 2 lakh people. That’s what the locals said. They were offered a meager amount for resettlement. Apart from the social impacts, the bigger issue was the submergence of the forest. Parts of the NP would also go. Already half of it is gone. It would be foolish to not protect the rest. (Vikram Giri and Ganesh wrote about this Sanctuary Asia, Feb 2014)
The Godavari River at Devipattinam- Boat leaves to a small Island
There is currently a stay order by the court. The future seems bleak. The deal was to harvest water from the Godavari and send it to Krishna Basin, to support industries. People seemed to have enough water for agriculture. Another complex issue was that the submergence would occur in the Telangana region and benefits of the dam were for the coastal Andhra people. This was a major issue. Several studies have been made. The dam is proven to be an ecological disaster. We felt personally violated. All this was happening right under the noses of everyone and none of them had a say. Instead, we all go up in arms against some relatively smaller issue in the relatively well protected Western Ghats. In a few years, Eastern Ghats itself may be eaten up. Yet there is no real good watchdog or a conservation advocacy group fighting for this. We felt belittled. Or at least I did. We all opined that Vikram and Giri should become the savior of the Eastern Ghats. They could start building a base of really keen and enthusiastic naturalist and conservation oriented people. We needed that. Conservation needs people and highly motivated people. Much of damage is stopped by knowing about proposed projects etc. We took some pictures of the landscape, lest it may come handy some day. If not for anything, it may come handy to compare the pre and post project landscape.  
Vikram reading the map
 We chatted with a local shop keeper while having chilled flavored carbonated water. People were unhappy to move out. Like hell they will be jumping up and down to give away their ancestral property for some dam to support industries in some far off place. We got into the vehicle and headed back. It was hard to shake off the grim picture we had seen. Eastern Ghats was going. It will be there not for long. One had to know the issues, understand them in a broader context and work towards preventing new problems and mitigating existing ones. There lies the challenge for any conservationist. 
Large Scale Timber logging is still a persistent issue.
At Rampa, we had lunch, and waited for the bus. That was supposed to be our last day in field. We had booked train to Hyderabad and then planned to reach Bangalore. We had also booked tickets from Rajahmundry to Bangalore on a train and it had not got confirmed. Like ecological dynamics, our plans too were dynamic. We decided to ditch the Hyderabad plan and instead, head to Kakinada. There, we planned to visit the Coringa Mangrove Forest, Second only to Sunderbans of Bengal and Bangladesh. 

Meanwhile, we saw ‘Goli Soda’. It is carbonated water made locally, often mixed with lemonade. It comes in green Glass bottles and a big steel ball bearing acting as the lid. To open, one had to push the ball inside and it would open with a blast. Through my childhood, I was not allowed to drink one of these. They were generally un-hygienic as bottles were not properly washed and all. Now, we were grown up and had all sorts of bacteria in our guts. We were pretty sure nothing would go wrong if we had one of those.
'Goli Soda'
 Seeing our fascination to the bottle, the shopkeeper obliged to show us how he made the carbonated water. The bottle is soaked in a tub of water. Then it is filled with water and placed in a three chamber device with a lid connected to a CO2 tank. The bottle is turned upside down and gas is allowed to flow. Once done, it is turned right side up again and the gas inside pushes the ball up to the narrow neck. It acts like the lid. Nothing escapes.  This form of local drinks is a dying thing. We no longer get them in big cities. Even in the shop, this old contraption was kept next to a cooler with a flashy add from Coke. It may only be a few years before the ‘Goli Soda’ completely dies off. 
Happiness comes in mass manufactured industries these days. The small time and old folk are left with wonder.

The carbonator spinning to make Goli Soda
The bus came and we reached Maredumilli. Packed up our stuff and trekked back to the bus stop. The weekly fair was up. The place was crowded. A few police men were playing football inside their heavily guarded police station. We kept ourselves occupied with tea and snacks.
Those cast iron pots are filled with cinders and keep the tea and milk warm. This was before cooking gas was invented!
 The bus came. It was terribly crowded. We somehow got in. For half the journey we jostled for space and managed to stay away from people as everyone was sweating. The journey seemed hellish. We reached Kakinada on the coast late in the night, checked into a nearby hotel. It was terribly hot and humid even at night. We went in search of a hotel. Everything was closed. We must have walked about a kilometer. We had noticed an ice cream parlor. We walked past. A hotel called Dolphin was open. Went in. The owner was dead drunk. He began debating and arguing on the number of plates of food he had. Looked like he had only chicken. We said hell with him and decided to eat ice cream instead! The non veg eating folk stay back.
‘Temptations’ was a fancy place. Like the ones we seen in Bangalore or Mumbai. They not only had Ice cream but had all sorts of Indian and Continental food. Sitting in the AC, we were both happy and shocked at the pace at which globalization had taken over every little place. In several small towns like Guntur, there were shopping malls and all that. This was too much we thought. We just walk out for forest and could have a continental platter. Instead, ‘Paav bhaji’ and Pizzas followed a Belgian chocolate ice cream.  The food was nice, ambience was nice and the bill was not too fat. At least, about the price one would pay in a city like Bangalore. We headed back to the hotel, having topped off the food with plantains. Prashanth, in an attempt to remove some soggy part of the fruit conveniently dropped it all and a cow cleaned it up. The push cart vendor had pity and gave a free replacement!

The lodge was a lousy place. As we began to settle down, the bed spread looked dirty, torn in several places. The room was like an oven. No ventilation what so ever. I went down to the reception asking for a new sheet. That fellow blatantly refused. He was drunk. I tried telling him that it was torn. Language barrier prevented us from communicating further. I stormed back up, brought down the torn sheet and showed him the gaping hole. He said oh big deal!. I wanted to give him a tight slap and argue that I would pay him with a currency note with a gaping hole as well. But the food at temptations had really calmed me down. I dint do any such thing. He reluctantly gave us not one but three sheets. We slept. Or at least tried.

Click here for part four