The Green Trail

When I think about the rainforests, tall, lush, green trees flash in my mind. In school, we are taught that rainforests are unique, they sequester carbon and support rich biodiversity. Yes, those primates and flying squirrels. To me personally, rainforests are the artsiest landscapes on this planet. By simply walking down a moist evergreen forest, I get all my inspiration to paint and sketch. Would you agree with me if I said that the unique structure of the trees and the colours make the evergreen forest an artist’s paradise? Let me paint a picture for you – the South Indian Jewel Orchid, Anoechtochilus elatus, is a ground-dwelling orchid that caught my eye on the Green Trail. It bears white flowers in the months of November and December. This orchid is characterized by golden veins on bottle green leaves. I saw three such leaves shooting up from the forest floor. 

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Leaves have fascinated artists for centuries. My eyes chanced upon the colours on the forest floor. There was a carpet of red, yellow and brown leaves on the floor. Some were decaying. I picked up a red leaf and it immediately broke down into smaller pieces. The floor was cushioned with all such leaves and pieces. The thick layer of leaves under my feet felt more like a soft mattress. Ever wondered why there are so many shades of browns (in other words- leaves) on the forest floor? Evergreen trees do not simply shed their leaves. There has to be a reason for all the shedding. As I contemplated these deep mysteries of the forest, I turned around to find a primitive tree. Nageia wallichiana or the naked-seeded tree (gymnosperm) was standing right behind me. It was flanked by a bright orange mushroom that I failed to identify. I have known that leaves in the rainforest have pointed tips – otherwise called the dripping tip. These dripping tipped leaves allow rainwater to drip down to the ground much faster. But there are those trees that break this rule. For example, the Calophyllum austroindicum. This tree is a tall tree like every other tree in the forest and has tiny, sclerophyllous leaves. The leaves are thick, not pointed and instead have an elongated heart-shape. Why it doesn’t follow the dripping tip pattern is something that I have not yet understood. Is there anyone who understands the philosophies of the rule-breakers?

The rainforests may be appealing to the eye but danger lurks behind every tree. When I walked the pristine, evergreen forest at Kakachi of Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), I quickly realized that this forest like any other wild patch is not forgiving. The forest is ruled by vipers, elephants and tigers. Despite the dangers, each tree had something magical going on. The long buttresses for example! They were nothing like I had ever seen before. If they were to suddenly come to life, they’d swallow me whole. In short, they were huge and if I wanted to, I could climb on them. A number of lichens grew on the trees and the buttresses. Palaquim elliptium is a dominant tree in the forest. Its wood is unique and is extensively used to make shingles and other building material. Similarly, Cullenia exarillata is another tall, evergreen tree. This tree has characteristic scaling on its bark. It bears dark-brown, spiky fruits that are food to arboreal mammals like civets and bats. If you look carefully, you’d also see squirrels take a bite. The tree is recognized as a keystone species and is majorly pollinated by macaques and bats. Experts have told me that the occurrence of bats in the forests of Kakachi is rare, therefore this tree is pollinated majorly by macaques. The Lion-tailed Macaques use their sharp canines to break open the fruit. The reward is 8 to 9 delicious seeds. The macaques also feed on the flowers of this tree. I was surprised to know that birds do not feed on these flowers. The reason is that these flowers are not typical flowers with free-flowing nectar – something that birds find interesting. Instead, the flowers have a musty odour and a large basal part. The nectar is contained in small pockets called nectaries. Birds cannot get their way into the nectar but macaques and other mammals can.

Appreciating these subtle nuances of the forest have left a deep impression on me. Before I knew it, I’d spent more than 3 hours inside the jungle looking at it from a wide lens of ecology and art. By now it was noon, time to start walking back on the Green Trail. As I prepared myself to leave the forest, I craned my neck to look above at the canopy one last time. I saw the dense canopy part slightly to give me a glimpse of the clouds – I was standing at the edge of the forest.

I might be leaving, but in the enchanting forest, the magic continues…

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PS: This article was first published in the Agasthya Newsletter by ATREE, Bangalore. Don’t forget to check out other interesting pieces from the Newsletter – A Deluge of a Different Kind and Privilege of Being an Ecologist are my favourites.

The Green Trail is named after noted biologist Stephen Green who studied the critically endangered Lion-tailed Macaques.

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Have you discovered your ‘Rebel Genes’ yet?

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I realised something in the silence of the forest. I cannot change as fast as society wants me to. In this fast-moving world, there is no place for sluggish people like me. Evolution would probably not take my lazy traits forward and a ‘slow life’ like mine would see the same fate as that of a giant ground sloth.

I’m one of the 7 billion homo sapiens living off this planet. I speak a particular language, belong to some caste, some race and that reminds me that I must be married. Else, I will be destroyed by my own creators. When I was growing up in a tiny home surrounded by the forests of central India – spending time with ants, moths and butterflies gave me immense pleasure. Two owlets frequented my backyard. I refused to have dinner without having watched them ‘hoot’. Twenty-four years later, I still absolutely love watching owls and totally love tripping on ants and moths. I have always dreamt of a simple life around animals and trees. I never wanted to attend school but I landed up there every day. Like everyone else I knew, I then proceeded to get my degrees. And now I am doing my PhD; thankfully, after enough battles, I am finally learning and working on something that I love and am passionate about! The wildlife of India, frogs and forests is what keeps me ticking. It’s been a long and a tiring journey and I feel compelled to share some of it with you.

When I went to school, I diligently followed my teachers’ advice. They asked me to sit in a particular way, play certain games and behave in a socially acceptable way. I tried hard to become that ‘good girl’. After school, father said that I must attend college. I put a cover on my camera and kept it away. I picked up books that didn’t interest me. After I finished college, I remember someone telling me – you’re a big girl now – let’s find you a life-partner! A male member of homo sapiens, belonging to the same caste and creed who will work hard and provide bread and shelter to the vulnerable other sex. I didn’t say no to this. Why should I? The only thing I was taught since I was a child was to say ‘yes’ to whatever the elders of my society said. They’re more experienced after all, aren’t they? They began meeting prospective candidates and discussing my future – children, a decent job and family. That’s all there is to life.

That night, I woke up with tears in my eyes. The air-conditioner had frozen my room with artificial, choking cold. I had a lump in my throat and I wanted to shout out loud. I wanted to tell everyone around me that they were wrong and that they were all being foolish. Life is not about children, family and husband. It’s a lot more than that. All this that they were focussing on is just a tiny part of life. But it’s not life in its entirety. No!

I knew what I was longing for. My heart had figured out exactly what was missing. I went up to my terrace and stared at the stars. That night, there was a lunar eclipse. I saw the moon change its colour. In a span of three hours the bright white sphere slowly turned ruby red and then white again. I lay on the cold floor. This cold wasn’t choking me. It was beautiful. Cool, mellow breeze tickled my hair. My tears had now vanished.

Soon, I’d packed my bag and vowed to roam the forests, to find frogs and owls. Mother-nature cradled me. I had decided not to live by the societal standards that had kept me tied up for years. I found myself hitch-hiking across the barren mountains of the Himalayas. I was finally smiling 🙂

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Three years have since passed. I have seen most wild corners of the country. Tried to study frogs, birds and what not. Sometimes I’ve found great company – some people have written me poems and someone once composed a song. Sometimes I’ve felt lonely. But I have always worshipped forests and I continue to do so even today. The people I have met have given me the strength to live the way I like. I have found myself sleeping on clean beaches on the west coast and sometimes running into bushes to hide from elephants in the Anamalai. This uncertainty always sends a shiver down my spine as I contemplate exploring a new forest.

I have found shelter within villages that surround protected forests. I have gossiped with people living in these forests. I have lived and experienced the tales of Kenneth Anderson, something that I had only read about as a child – and am now living them myself! Shouldn’t I be proud to have explored so much and that I decided to go against the tide? I probably should! Well, the reality is something else. Every time I see these false expectations imposed by the society upon each and every one of us – I am unwittingly pushed into a miserable state of existence. I know that I should ignore these societal expectations, ignore the need for external validation and instead live life solely by deriving validation from myself internally (and maybe a few more people I trust deeply). But it is tough to do that every single day, to remind myself that validation stems from within and that society can be wrong!

Fast-forward to today – I have often questioned the path that I’ve chosen. At 28, I don’t plan to have babies. I don’t want to live a successful married (read, patriarchal?) life. I don’t want to be that sweetheart girl who’s loved by everybody. There are over 3 billion women on this planet and each one has a unique story to tell, a different set of emotions and opinions. Just a simple Homo sapiens, an animal living off the woods, wasn’t enough. We called ourselves ‘the wise man’? Rational beings, aren’t we all? 

PS: An edited version of this article appeared in WomenForOne, a global community of women truth tellers. 

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What India’s Natural Heritage Taught Me About Life

 

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As I reached Coorg at the break of day, I was welcomed by a jeep and the smile of the driver who had rushed to pick me up. My lonely soul immediately filled up with happiness on seeing someone so friendly. The previous night, I had started from Bangalore on a bumpy bus. I reached Madikeri at four in the morning and promptly fell asleep at the noisy bus stop. After about fifteen minutes of my intermittent sleep, I got up to notice that I was attracting a lot of unwanted attention, usually the kind that is given to ‘solo’ women travellers in India. And if caught alone at wee hours in unexpected places, like the bus stop in my case, women are singled out even more! My eyes were tired. With enough ‘jugaad’ (a Hindi word for making your way through), just before dawn, I managed to get onto a sleeper bus to reach Kabinakad. And yet again, I found myself standing alone at a request stop in the early morning engulfed by rains, tea gardens and the mountains of the Western Ghats.

The sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds. Chhrrrr-chhrrrr-chhrrrr went a flock of 100 starlings right above my head as I extended my head upwards to count them. I heard a long shrill of a woodpecker who was flying from tree to tree searching for ants and other insects to feed upon. In the middle of a small agricultural field stood a leafless tree. As I gazed upon it, I thought that it looked really lonely without its leaves, just like I was without my favourite group of Homo sapiens. Suddenly a tinge of yellow caught my eye. Like a magic ray of hope, it circled the tree. Much to my surprise, the tree that I felt was lonely, was now with a beautiful companion – the Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. The tree smiled back at me and told me that she wasn’t alone, she is into a different kind of friendship. Her relationship with the canary is stronger than her relationship with her own leaves. She went on to say that she has plenty of companions – some tailed, some winged! She’s happy without her leaves as well. I smiled back at her, amazed as the realisation dawned on me – your choice of companionship can vary – it need not be what society deems it should be! In the background, the clouds rolled over lush green mountains. The grey sky took on a deep blueish hue and suddenly burst into droplets that scattered all over the ground. They spread a wave of happiness on the earth. Half drenched in the rains, I stood there with my pink umbrella against the foreboding backdrop of the grey skies. A tiny frog jumped over my feet from the bushes by the side. It took another quick jump to disappear inside a puddle. One last jump to cross the road and it went back into the bushes where it belonged. I realised I needed no human companion to be at peace – not when I had the rains, trees, birds and frogs to love back!

By now the driver had turned the jeep around and I hopped inside. In no time, we were on a road with dense rainforest on either side. From the valley below, towering trees reached out to touch the distant sky. Although I was used to seeing tall skyscrapers in Bombay, these magnificent trees overpowered even those and looked much taller and stronger. They seemed to belong to another world. In this forest, lichens and moss covered the branches of most of the trees. I could neither see the grey clouds nor the mountains anymore – the dense canopy above my head covered everything, making a dark, green roof above us. As I looked through the window of my jeep my heart filled with joy. All the tensions of my life and my quarter-life crises disappeared within the deep crevices of my brain. I had forgotten that there is a world outside of the forest. I smiled to myself and felt blessed for my new companion.

Turning round another hairpin bend on the road, I saw a silver shimmer. Amidst all the peaceful green, I caught a glimpse of fast-flowing water. The shine was nothing less than that of the solitaires that my friends love to wear on their fingers. These diamonds are their most prized possessions but the one I was watching was a different jewel – one whose importance is lost within our busy lives. Our life today is a competitive journey – a rat race. It starts with smaller material possessions in schools and colleges. With a high paying job, our possessions have progressed to greedy demands of big cars and a luxury house. Throughout the journey, most of us fail to see the natural beauty around us. I am specifically talking about the Western Ghats that we have here in India. The only goal of our life is to snag the biggest possible rhinestone ring that we can! They say that the solitaire is a symbol of love and strong companionship. Deep within my thoughts, I had made the forest my greatest companion. I urge you to go see one of these natural waterfalls within the emerald green forests of the Western Ghats. Feel the diamond-like droplets fall on your head. These natural gems deserve to be seen by one and all. And once you experience it, I guarantee you that the masterpiece decorating your body will lose its charm in no time. Although the bigger question here is whether you can imagine a life without these material possessions and instead get close to the real elements of the environment?

“Ma’am, please come!” said the driver, shaking me out of my deep reverie. I jumped out of the car and was greeted by an old couple. They lived within the mountains, coffee plantations and vineyards and earned their living through the organic home-stay that they had opened for travellers. They named it Honey-Valley. With the growing demand, they built extra rooms for their guests. My sojourn was basic and simple with one bed and no bathroom. The bathrooms were constructed separately outside – two common baths for a row of eight rooms. I just loved my space! My room’s door opened to the east with a view of the mountains of the Western Ghats. I quickly freshened up and walked down to the dining hall to have my simple vegetarian breakfast. The dining hall had a very rustic and tranquil feel to it. I rejoiced within as I sipped my filter coffee. My eyes chanced upon a bookshelf in the hall. I ran towards it and scanned through it. I looked at the spines of books from famous conservationists and wildlife lovers; books with birds, insects and mammals from India and abroad. I spent the next half an hour scanning through the library and made a mental list of all the books that I would love to read during my stay at Honey-Valley. Since the glass doors of the cupboard were locked, I sat down staring at each book from the outside!

Mr Suresh, the owner of the homestay asked me politely if I’d like to read any of them. I looked at him with love and greed, “How I wish I had the time to read all of them”, I answered. He laughed as he handed me the keys of the cupboard. I struggled to settle down with one book. I spent the next three hours reading excerpts from ten different books in a corridor overlooking the Western Ghats. Later in the afternoon, I finally managed to get up and stroll barefoot on the non-cemented, natural yard of the resort. Mr Suresh was sitting with his dogs reading a newspaper. I went up to him to have a small chat. Little did I know that he is an encyclopaedia of enlightened thoughts and knowledge about the two things I love – forests and wine!

With similar interests, we soon became good friends. He told me that the place I am standing on, was once a vineyard and that he used to make honey wine. The earliest description of honey wine can be found in rigvedas. Otherwise called ‘mead’, the wine is an exotic drink made out of fermented honey and water. This is how the homestay got its name! We then spoke a bit about the adventures of Kenneth Anderson ghooming with Byra in the Ghats and the five-game sanctuaries in India. “Hunters have taught us a lot about the forests”, he exclaimed. We smiled at each other, nodding our heads in agreement. When Mr Suresh smiles, his laugh lines become deeper. His forehead wrinkles to form five bumpy lines. These lines on his face are not those of aging but of knowledge that he has gained over the years while exploring India’s natural heritage. He roamed around in the Ghats for years observing the natural beauty and the diversity of fauna. He wanted to escape from the hassles of city life and the demands exercised by his family members. He came to the mountains and built a single room house in 1994. The house served as a base camp for trekkers and backpackers to trek to Karnataka’s third highest peak – Mount Tadiandamol. This mountain is covered with patches of the epic rainforests and shola forests of the Western Ghats. Even today he believes in simple organic living, minimising demands and promoting tourism in a responsible and sustainable way. He tells me with great sadness that he’s not met a lot of people who like the forests or enjoy living a simple life.  

The reason why we are losing our natural heritage and in this case the Western Ghats, is because everyone today is given to luxury. The Western Ghats is one among the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity in the world. The benevolent mountains were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. Although with growing demands, this treasure of India has been facing several threats. Ignoring their importance is a crime. For many of us life has become a fruitless journey. Living within ‘four walls’ will completely destroy us! Home and office, in the modern times, are a set of four walls strategically brought together to provide us with luxury and comfort. We juggle between the two in cars or other closed vehicles. Laptops, mobile phones and televisions make up our world irrespective of where we are – trapping us within them. The day passes by as we live within these gadgets, stuck in four walls – both literally and metaphorically! It is something that keeps the mind shut by implementing boundaries. I stood there and thought about everything that Mr Suresh was saying. Indeed, these four walls have caged most of us! These are the walls that we refuse to get out of. Mr Suresh claims that people have lost interest in outdoor activities and the forests. They come to his homestay for the sake of travelling or for a change from their daily routine. They have no feelings and no respect towards the forest, nor the creatures living within. People never explore or get out of their room because of the bubble of fear that encircles their life. And this is because of the four walls that they have surrounded themselves in.

It is a well-known fact that Indians have been very protective about their forests. We worship animals and trees. We conserve them by calling them ‘sacred groves’. When out in the open, say in a forest, there is no comfort, there are no walls. The forest teaches to live together in harmony with other animals who share the space on our only planet. It teaches us the importance of sharing space without any boundaries. It forces us to take risks every single day and pushes us out of our comfort zones. When staying close to the forest, life isn’t a journey anymore, it is about rejoicing the rising sun, the rain and the rivers. It is about finding peace while looking at the numerous flowering plants, huge trees and lush green mountains that show us our true value in this world. A human being is a tiny speck within this huge ecosystem of the natural world. When living in the forests, demands go down immediately. Life is more than just a journey to get somewhere. Life becomes analogous to art. The art of living with enlightened and happy thoughts. It is just about celebrating the rainbow, the clouds, the birds and the wind. These are all the things that the forest has. If we decide to live with these physical universal elements, they will never change! Because they are no one’s possessions. These are shared equally by every creature on earth. And that’s what makes a healthy ecosystem. The only question that man has to answer is whether he can imagine a life without his possessions!

I urge you to go spend time experiencing the natural heritage of India. Observe these little things and find joy in them. We Indians are still very lucky that we have ‘the big-five’ and two biodiversity hotspots still alive each with its own unique music. When I walked the mountains and sat under a tree, I saw my life differently. Life is never about the journey you take to get there, life is about listening to the music in the forest and rejoicing about the little things. The huge mountains of Western Ghats taught me to see my true self. It taught me to live without luxuries and demand less. Most important of all, it taught me to be less greedy and helped me develop feelings of compassion – compassion towards animals other than human beings. This is the power of the natural heritage of India. Today my life starts and ends within forests, for if there are no forests there would be no life.

PS: This entry was one of the top 12 entries in the Nature Writers Competition 2017 organised by the UNESCO Category 2 Centre for World Natural Heritage Management and Training. Here’s a link to the online souvenir – http://wii.gov.in/images//images/documents/unesco/unesco_nature_writing_competition%20_souvenir_2016-17.pdf

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Wait?

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Will you wait? Asked my heart. Waiting is great indeed
Wait for another dog to walk in your home.
When things fall into place on their own,
Till then, let me wait and moan.

Wait for that perfect opportunity
Wait for that perfect day.
When things fall into place just like you’d expected,
Till then, let me wait and pray!

Wait? What are you doing, said my brain
With the only life, you’ve got to make.
Things will never fall into place on their own,
You gotta get up and start to take that ache.

Life is difficult and unlucky, my girl
Success comes to those who never wait.
I know you will get there, but not just by pray,
Get up and find that opportunity to make your life great!

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Reverse Bob Marley Flower

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Gloriosa superba otherwise called a flame lily or a fire lily is fatal to man and animals if consumed. The incredibly coloured flower reminded me of my favourite singer – Bob Marley when I first saw it in the wild. The whole flower is poisonous but the most poisonous part is the little bud below. If ingested the symptoms start with nausea and vomiting and eventually lead to death. The flower has been used by ancient tribes for suicides or murders. Woah!

It is found throughout the forests of India although the plant is a native of Africa. It is surprising to know that the plant has miraculous medicinal properties. It is used to induce labour, treat acne, kidney stones, STD, cancer, impotency, bruises, snake bites and much more. 

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The plant when in full bloom is indeed a treat to the eyes. I saw it first when I was touring Dharwad and lived on an organic farm on Dharwad outskirts. Mr Sanjeev, the owner of the farm introduced me to this beautiful flower!

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My Heartwarming Experiences Might Completely Change The Way You Travel

I usually travel in ways that help local communities while getting them to develop in a sustainable way (this, by the way, is the very definition of sustainable ecotourism!). The places that I prefer travelling to include- villages, forest reserves, national parks, heritage towns and biodiversity hotspots. Why? Because usually tourists leave these places alone, enabling the locals to offer their own version of ecotourism, without corporate influences getting in the way!

I have tried to embrace all principles of sustainable tourism wherever I have traveled. Here are some of my experiences over the last two years:

Experience 1: Chilling with the Banjaras, otherwise known as the lost tribes of India. 

Spending time with local communities!
Spending time with local communities!

They are locally called “Lambadi” or “Lambani”, counted among the fast disappearing tribes of the world. Karnataka, in India hosts one of the richest and the most vibrant cultures of Lambanis. They now work in farms or any other daily wage jobs possible around their village. All the other time they chill and roam or create intricate art work with mirrors and colored thread. Some have turned their artisan skills into small scale businesses. They aren’t hesitant to tell you that their ancestors are Gypsies/Romans of Europe. When you travel local, you get to learn about and see the heritage of any place that you are travelling to. When you interact with the people, you might get to know how exactly to boost their economy and help them. After this happy meeting, I ended up buying some cheap, local, banjara jewelry for myself! And you know what, it looks awesome on me. 

OMG, I love tribal jewelry ;)
OMG, I love tribal jewelry 😉

Experience 2: Camping to support local communities and demand less while traveling 

Camping within the snow-clad mountains in Chatru!
Camping within the snow-clad mountains in Chatru!

Sleeping under the stars with a local family in Chatru (3100 meters above the sea level) was an experience of a lifetime. The family of four that I stayed with, lived here for six months and spends the rest of the year roaming in the villages at a lower elevation. How difficult their life is, I thought! Although I was equally pleased to see them welcome us with a heartful of smiles!

The hut of my host, who served warm coffee and noodles with much love
The host’s cozy hut, who served warm coffee and noodles with much love

That night when I looked up in the cold breeze at the clear sky, I saw the whole galaxy stretch out over my head. Holy Christ! I could experience nature first hand. I wanted to fly and touch every star to twinkle like it. I just smiled and realized, one twinkling smile can make a whole lot of difference. I was here because I had decided to ditch all the hotels and guesthouses. Had I been in a hotel, I am sure I would have missed out on the starry galaxy and a whole lot of joyous thoughts! 

Experience 3: Living in local homestays thus encouraging local businesses

A forest officers' terrace converted into a basic stay for travelers!
A forest officers’ terrace converted into a basic stay for travelers!

In Hampi, a UNESCO heritage town in India, I lived in this colorful homestay run by Rambo and admired the beauty of this quaint little hamlet. The nearby frogs were my friends during my stay. You might like to read- Frogs of Hampi. Rambo taught me a way of life- he tells me that the biggest happiness for him is when his travelers are happy and smiling in his warm hut! He says, the only wish he makes to God is to keep his travelers happy. What a simple and beautiful way of life, I thought, as I chilled in my hut overlooking the paddy-fields! Seeing happiness in others is something not many people master. But the ones who do, are enlightened in their lives. Most of Rambo’s daily earning depends upon travelers like you and me! The money he makes out of this homestay goes towards his children’s education, maintenance of his farm and his home.

My colorful and peaceful homestay at Hampi
My colorful and peaceful homestay at Hampi

You might also like to know of another wonderful example of me staying local- The Organic Bamboo shacks in India’s best kept secret beaches of Gokarna. Read- Snippets from Gokarna: India’s Best Kept Secret Beach?

Experience 4: Going veg and eating simple local food

Yummy Gujarathi Thali!
Yummy Gujarathi Thali!

Treating myself to a whole fat veggie meal in Gujarat prepared with much love by a local restaurant owner. I turned vegetarian five months ago from being a voracious meat eater and this I think is a big step in contributing towards sustainable living. The global number of people eating veg is about 4-5% in the Canada and US and about 30% in India. Just livestock adds about 15% of all the global greenhouse gases which is far more than the world’s planes, ships and automobiles put together. Jaws dropped- who’s going vegan?

I loved spending time in Honey-Valley Resort in Coorg

Experience 5: Explore a destination on foot

Exploring the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park on foot!
Exploring the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park on foot!

I went trekking through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park in Nepal to spend time with birds and local tribes there. Trekking is a great way to explore the outdoors. It is healthy and reduces your carbon footprint. It is much better than exploring the same area with jeeps/cars. Also, believe it or not, being close to nature has several health benefits. Walking on natural non-cemented paths is great for your joints and muscles. It reduces the ground reaction force exerted on your joints (The physiotherapist in me is talking here!).

Here’s another picture that I clicked while exploring the gorgeous rain forests of India on foot with several leeches, snakes and other little crawlies. 

Bisle Rainforest in Southern India
Bisle Rainforest in Southern India

Experience 6: Volunteer Travel

Working at a forest farm on the outskirts of Dharwad
Working at a forest farm on the outskirts of Dharwad

This is my favorite way of travelling. By volunteering and helping different organisations, I have made my way to the breathtaking countryside of Nepal, lived with the farmers in Karnataka and have taught children an eco-friendly/sustainable way of living almost everywhere I have gone! Even today, at most times I end up volunteering with local NGOs and working for them while I get to explore the town/village locally.

Happy times with kids in a local school!
Happy times with kids in a local school!

When you travel minimizing your demands, encouraging local communities and getting close to nature- you are appreciating the wonders of mother nature and giving back to where it all belongs. This is the need of the hour, to develop a feeling of compassion towards nature and the environment we live in. Climate change is real and doing whatever little that we can do to make our only habitable planet a much more livable place is indeed amazing. Not to mention- the locals will appreciate you much more than they would snobbish high-maintenance luxury travelers!

Recently, I wrote an elaborate article on how to become an eco-tourist and do your bit while you travel. My nine step guide to traveling more responsibly might really help you! I am not a luxury traveler. I love using public transport, exploring the rural India, landing somewhere away from the touristy over-hyped towns and experiencing nature up close! This is my way of travel.

What’s your way of travel- Do you prefer luxury resorts over nature and local culture?  

Tell me in the comments or mail me your views on madhushri06@gmail.com and the best responses shall be published as a follow up to this article! 😉 

PS: This article was featured at www.thestreetedit.com. Read it here. Street Edit is a fashion, travel and lifestyle blog run by my dear friend Monica. Don’t forget to check it out!  🙂
It was also featured on Backpacker Bible- your go to place if you love backpacking the globe while benefiting the community.

Show love in the comments, by sharing this with your friends and by helping me fund my travel.

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Not Just a Tourist, Here’s My 9 Step Guide To Become An Eco-Tourist Today!

Eco tourism is critical. We have far left behind the years when this was simply ‘important’- today it is critical. Today each one of us must contribute towards nature. Nature has all the resources to satisfy man’s need. Although humans have become increasingly greedy (our ‘needs’ remain the same, our ‘wants’ spiral out of control), we need, we want but no one gives back. No one replenishes what they take.
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Let me explain biodiversity in the simplest way- the variety of life on earth that exists where each and every species is given equal importance. Homo Sapiens understand the importance of Gender Equality, they promote equal rights for both sexes and give equal importance to both men and women. We know that genders are interdependent. Men can’t live without women and visa versa. Similarly in an ecosystem, species of plants and animals live with each other. Not to forget man also forms a part of an ecosystem. Why then are different species of plants and animals not afforded the same importance, why is the perception of importance between species so skewed?

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This photo was clicked on the outskirts of Bangalore at Hessarghatta lake bed and grassland. The habitat is rich in biodiversity but has suffered extensive damage due to over-enthusiastic travellers, unethical photographers, overgrazing cattle and off-roading and motor biking activities by locals and tourists.

Various human activities have triggered an increase in the population of invasive species which make the survival of other species difficult. This directly hampers the food chain along with the habitat and leads to vulnerable existences in the ecosystem. Today mother earth is screaming for protection and man is single-handedly responsible for having put her in such a trouble. There is still time to put a full stop to this destruction by those responsible for this vulnerable position we find ourselves in. You might like to question me- why should I conserve. To them I say go- back to school and read your 8th Std science textbooks once more.

Here’s why you must conserve:

–  Rain-forests are responsible for a stable climate; heard of global warming? Destruction of rainforests is a major contributor!

– Most resources and raw materials that we use today for medicinal or industrial purpose come from the forests

– The ozone layer is still intact, thanks to forests, else we’d be dying of skin cancer

– Studies say that pollution and temperature rise shall destroy all the coral reefs in the next 20-40 years

– The earth’s biological treasures are thrashed and scientists are calling it the 6th mass extinction event

– Thanks to birds that today we can fly Mumbai-Delhi and overseas in no time. Nature is highly inspirational

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The Small Pratincole clicked at Malyadi Bird Sanctuary in Karnataka

The reasons for conservation are infinite. If I sit back and start writing it would take me a lifetime- suffices to say, if we don’t conserve mother nature, mother nature will not sustain us. There are many ways by which you can do your bit for nature. I would want you to focus on your roles towards conservation via eco-tourism, one of the fun ways of conserving and helping nature. The tourism that we are exploring today isn’t about living in luxury resorts, throwing waste on streets and in lakes, travelling in AC cars, feeding wild animals, habitat destruction and disturbing the entire balance of the ecosystem. We are talking about responsible tourism where you trek, cycle, live with local tribes, experience the real jungle, learn and conserve. Promising yourself to do all that it takes to protect nature- that’s what makes you a responsible eco-tourist.

So if you are planning on becoming an Eco-Tourist in India here are a few points to remember:

  1. Read and collect Info: Read as much as you can about the place you’re travelling to- before you go there. Read about all the wildlife found in that ecosystem, distance to maintain from these animals and activities to do without causing disturbances to that habitat.

    Preparation is the Key!

     

  2. Don’t encourage ill practices: Clicking pictures with wild animals or throwing stones to see them react, unruly behavior with local communities, feeding animals, off-roading on open spaces and grasslands

    I came across this Rhesus Macaque baby near the Shivapuri National Park in Nepal. I am totally against petting wild animals. Most of these locals end up earning money when people pose with their pets. Encouraging these poor villagers for petting wild animals is a very common mistake done by most travellers who are not yet eco-travellers!

     

  3. Avoid plastic: Avoiding plastic as much as you can is a good practice in day to day life. According to a recent study, 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating on the world’s ocean weighing about 269,000 tonnes. India ranks 12th on the list of twenty worst marine polluter countries. While on your eco-tour try to reuse your plastic bottle or replace them by steel bottles. Plastic is one the biggest pollution problems in natural spaces and cities.
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    Plastic is one of the biggest problem!

     

  4. Follow the “Leave Only Footprints Approach”: While you explore jungles try and bring back the smallest of your waste. Dispose wherever it is possible to reuse/recycle or is the most appropriate place.
    Leave Only Footprints!

     

  5. Stay on the trail when you go on treks within the wild: This is beneficial for both you and the wild animals. You can easily find your way back without disturbing the animals or invading in their personal space.
    Follow the trail- always!

     

  6. Avoid smoking: This is good for your lungs and the earth’s lungs- the forests. Umpteen times cigarettes thrown in dry deciduous forests have triggered uncontrollable forest fires. Forest fires are the single most important cause of destruction of many species at once. It is imperative that we take all necessary precautions to prevent such avoidable disasters. Also cigarette butts take about two to twenty-five years to biodegrade, if ingested by wildlife animals or marine life it’s often fatal for them.
    Pic credits: pixabay.com
    Avoid smoking; if not please dispose your cigarette butts carefully!

     

  7. Learn to be ethical in the forests. Photographs are one of the essentials in a traveler’s diary. Learn photography ethics or simply talk to the experts to get an idea of how to click wildlife without disturbing them. Here are some links to help you:
    http://www.digicamhelp.com/how-to/nature/wildlife-photography-ethics/
    http://focusingonwildlife.com/news/nature-photography-ethics-and-conservation-issues/

    I personally like distant photography. This photograph speaks so much about the animal’s habitat. Isn’t it better to capture and witness a Wild Elephant family enjoying at their home. Clicked at Anamalai Tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu.

     

  8. Get involved with organisations who promote eco-tourism in India: You can choose to work and be an active part of non- govt organisations. I would like to list a few names here- bigger organisations like WWF-India and BNHS run tours and events, but also many other independent naturalist and researchers do occasional tours for limited number of people. You must keep an eye on the blog or my facebook page for more info on this-
    Spending time with local communities!
    Spending time with local communities in Hampi and learning about their culture closely!

     

  9. Make Donations: Everyone must make it a point to donate to conservation efforts! If you do not like ecotourism and wish to travel with all your luxuries and disturb nature- then it’s even more imperative to donate to causes that support conservation. Everyone needs to support the cause 🙂
    Here are a few links to help you: https://www.snowleopard.org/shop/index.php?main_page=donate
    http://support.wwfindia.org/index.php?link=1&source=WWF_WEB Pic credits: Pixabay.com

Also just thought of telling you; I have been working independently to support local communities, our natural habitat and smaller home-stays through my travel and blogging across India, any help to my travel fund will be highly appreciated!

So will you become an ecotourist today and forever? Let me know in the comments below.

PS: This article was first published on Holidify.com

 

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My Favorite #ResponsibleTravel Getaways In India

Any tourist or traveler worth his salt must have come across the terms of Eco-Tourism and Responsible Travel. It has almost become a buzz-word and about time. While most people have a vague idea, it is important to understand what it really means and entails!

Ecotourism-A way for you to have your cake and eat it too

It is important to understand that there is no particular destination for travelling responsibly. Responsible Travel is a  habit and once learnt can never be forgotten. The need of the hour is to educate and be aware of what it takes to minimize our demands in whatever we do to save the only habitable planet from the harmful effects of global warming for a greener future. And travelling responsibly lets you do just that!

Also read- My Heart Warming Travel Experiences That Might Completely Change The Way You Travel

I would love to take you through a number of destinations that you can explore once you have decided to become responsible of our choices. India is a land with huge diversity of dry deserts, snow-clad mountains, rainforests and the grasslands which are prefect to promote ecotourism.

1. Valparai, Tamil Nadu

The endangered Nilgiri Tahr (A large mammal, close relative of sheep, shares common ancestors with cattle, horses etc) protected under section I of the Wildlife Protection Act in India can be witnessed grazing here. Valparai is located at 3,500 feet above the sea level on the Anamalai Hills in Tamil Nadu. While you trek down the Shola forests and the lush green tea gardens you might come across Wild Elephants and Great Hornbills. Homestays for tourists is the best option to live and explore the place.

Nilgiri tahr takes a stroll where no human would dare to walk!

Nilgiri tahr takes a stroll where no human would dare to walk!

2. Chatru and Chandratal lake, Himachal Pradesh

Eco-tourism in India is about visiting the clearest and most pristine lakes in India while at the same time ensuring that it stays like that! You should always reach these spots by foot because that will help keep the water pure. According to locals, this lake situated at a height of 4,300 meters, has immense spiritual significance. The water can be consumed without much purification. The temperature here reaches up to -20 degrees.

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The snow-hooded mountains turned upside down by the beauty of Chandratal Lake

3. The Seven Sister States

The North-East of India (The states of Arunachal-Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland) is a must-visit on every eco-traveller’s bucket list. These rich tropical rainforests harbours rare and unique species like the Clouded Leopard, One-horned Rhino, Gayal- in the most simple words the wild ox and the only ape found in India-the Hoolock Gibbon. The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is a once in a lifetime experience, celebrated every year in the first week of December.

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The seven sister states and their relative positions!

4. Kokrebellur near Mysore

This village is a prime example of a harmonious relationship between humans and threatened birds- the Spot Billed Pelican and the Painted Storks. The villagers let these birds occupy trees and roofs of their houses, they say the bird droppings are an organic manure for their crops. The villagers here welcome the birds like their daughters. When you reach this place as a traveller you would love to hear incredible stories on sustainable living from kids here.

Pelican, eco tourism in India

The Spot-billed pelican takes-off

5. The Crocodile Park, Puducherry

Chennai to Puducherry is a beautiful long drive along the stunning coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Every year Olive-Ridley Turtles come to the shore of Puducherry and lay eggs. A lot of destruction have been caused by tourists visiting these beaches during December to February. Most of these turtles are caught by fishermen and the eggs are consumed by locals. Sometimes mere presence of tourists and touristic activities can unknowingly cause disturbances to this vulnerable species. Ecotourism in India can help in changing the general mindset of the people.

Oliver ridley turtles, eco tourism in India

This is what you wouldn’t do because you are now an eco-tourist. You have promised to take all necessary steps for conservation

6. Spiti-Valley

One of the most magnificent valleys in the Himalayas is a home for the near threatened Griffon Vulture. Vultures have suffered 99.9% population decline- most of it owing to habitat destruction and lack of food. The clear blue water of Spiti river is breathtaking and pollution free although at some places you will find traces of human waste disturbing the fragile ecosystem. At Spiti you may come across the elusive snow leopard- if you’re really lucky! There are only 400 odd left in India. The temperature here might go up to -20 degrees. It is advisable to go well prepared to enjoy this picturesque tranquil valley.

Spiti River, eco tourism in India

On careful observation you might be able to see the river bed through the crystal clear water of Spiti River!

7. Bisle Rainforest, Western Ghats

The Western Ghats in India are a biodiversity hotspot. Bisle rainforest is a home for numerous snakes, frogs, birds and mammals. Although I must warn you before you head out on an exploration here -the forest here is dense vegetation with fog, cold breeze and rains adding to it. Leeches are among the least creepy creatures that you will come across. Be prepared for facing Wild-Elephants, Leopards or a group of Wild Dogs. If this doesn’t excite you enough the most dangerous sloth bear might just be waiting outside your tent. Be careful and recall the first point I had mentioned at the start of this post.

Bisel forest range, eco tourism in India

Clouds took over while I was driving through the Bisle forest range

Although wherever you go, it is important is to realize the need of travelling responsibly and knowing every piece of it. You might like to take my 9 step eco-tour guide before you head off to any of these destinations.

Don’t forget to tell me all about your favorite destination and your responsible travel habits in the comments! Love hearing from your guys.

PS: This article was published in Holidify.com. And I will soon be publishing part-2 of this article.

PPS: Don’t forget to check my work with me page!

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Snippets from Gokarna: India’s Best Kept Secret Beach?

Since I moved to Manipal in 2012, I have explored more beaches than ever before! I have always loved the sea because I believe, it lets you find your soul. For further clarity you might like to take  Travel Lessons- Find your soul, what are you, by my favorite teacher- The Sea!

Ever since I developed a beautiful relationship with the ocean, I have been on a voyage to discover pristine, undisturbed beach destinations from Gujarat in the North-west, to Kerala in the South-west. I have explored Puducherry in 2015, on the East coast and have been to West Bengal in 2008 but never have I come across something as unique as Gokarna. Gokarna is that place where your body and mind get the much deserved break from the daily hustle and bustle of life! So whenever I feel like relaxing in the arms of wavy blue waters- Gokarna it is with no second thought!

I pen this as my flight takes off and flies over the Indian Ocean. So here’s a soulful photo journey of this secret beach in India-

The beaches are clean and gorgeous unlike anywhere else in the country

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The food here drives me crazy. Soulful western food prepared by the locals is a must have on Kudle beach (think scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes!)

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I loved my stay at the organic shacks made up of bamboo and hay. And as I was ready for anything which comes my way thanks to all the products I bought at top10bestpro.com I was simply worry free. If you happen to go to Gokarna, you must stay in these shacks and not the cemented hotels that are now coming up and promote unsustainable tourism!

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Om beach is famous for its spiritual significance and Lord Shiva’s temple. Also it has the famous Namaste Cafe (Although I personally don’t like this place- neither their food nor service is as good as claimed on the internet). I’d rather trek to Kudle and eat the inexpensive, delicious meals made by the locals!

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The best place to visit with your friends, if you already have great buddies who travel, else you could be just lucky enough to find a whole new gang!

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The trek from the Kudle beach to the Om Beach is a must try- because you might lose your way and end up at beautiful locations, like this-

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The whole town can be covered by foot, at least that’s what I did when I was travelling. I bumped into an adorable pair of Tawny-bellied Babblers who were busy setting up their house. 

Unfortunately I couldn’t capture both in one frame 🙂

Unfortunately I couldn't capture both in one frame :)

There are numerous small treks to explore- This trek to the abandoned ruins of the  Kudle Fort is one of my favorites. It gives you a beautiful view of the horizon where the sea kisses the sky and you’d desperately want to fly, if you’re not flying already!

All this with a handful of tourists, no plastic in the sea, no black oily extracts on the beach- just some gorgeous birds and frogs to welcome you. Now this is what I call a “paradise beach destination”. Gokarna’s Kudle beach is by far my favorite beach in India. And I strongly believe that it is probably one of the most well kept secret beaches.

Will you travel eco-friendly in Gokarna? If you’ve already traveled, what are some of your fond memories from this little pristine beach town?

Would love to hear from you! 🙂 

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Ecotourism- A way for you to have your cake and eat it too!

The Ecotourism Society (TES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”  On 17th and 18th of Oct a group of nature enthusiasts from Bangalore, Mysore and Coimbatore flocked together to explore the Annamalai hills in Tamil Nadu. The relationship between human beings and nature is so beautiful that anyone as young as 5 or as old as 50 years can experience and enjoy it. You need not be 21 to fall in love, just set out on an exploration in the forests and feel the magic!

Witness The Biodiversity Of Western Ghats

Human migration began about 2 million years ago when homo erectus moved out of Africa. Finally 75,000 years ago homo sapiens ventured into Asia and other continents. Today human beings have successfully conquered all the continents in the world. Not to forget there is a vast difference between travelling then and travelling now. Then, there were less man-made resources, there was no conveyance, no speed, but today things have changed drastically. We can travel through any medium and have conquered the world. But where does all the raw material come from, our forests and our limited natural reserves! I am sure when the first wheel was invented about 3500 years BC, man certainly didn’t know “the wheel” would grow to such an extend that most human beings today could afford to have a minimum of two to four.

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The point is, there has been a very strong relationship between human beings and travelling. We all love getting out of our concrete jungles to open natural spaces. We love the lush green forests and crystal clear water. I pity those who have not seen or enjoyed the beauty of nature. But for now let us concentrate on the three major concerns of mankind. According to me these are, the ever increasing population, poverty and ignorance. Ignorance towards pollution, demand of energy, supplies, development, construction and much more. We all love to play the blame game, but today let us concentrate on ourselves.
Try finding an answer to this one question-
What can I do to create a positive change and a bright, pollution free, green future?

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Conservation of forests is a global cause of concern- researchers and environmentalists from all over the world have been shouting about the perils of climate change, increasing pollution, depletion of ozone layer, species extinction and destruction of biodiversity hotspots. How much does all this matter to man? The recent Chennai floods are now gaining attention with their root causes being destruction of natural drainage systems and unplanned development. The day when each one of us will be seeing such a day isn’t too far. Protection of natural biodiversity has now become critical. The stage when this was just ‘important’ and not yet critical- has gone down way back in history. It is now that all of us must join hands and think about all the small ways that will make a big difference in the future.

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Here I would like to talk about one of the fun ways of contributing to this global cause. Traveling- not the commercial large scale variety tourism but sustainable eco-tourism instead! Eco-tourism if done appropriately can help save the natural biodiversity hotspots while employing and empowering the otherwise disadvantaged local communities. With many people around India failing to understand the problem of natural diversity, tourism like this can be of great help. Especially in a developing countries, it is a must-adopt model where you can conserve maximum resources while helping the indigenous groups of people sustain their natural livelihoods. Many claim that ecotourism ventures market tourism as environmentally friendly, but in fact destroy the very ecosystems they claim to protect. However, when planned and implemented properly, ecotourism can be both an effective conservation tool and successful community development model.

Take nothing but photographs. Leave nothing but footprints. These are but two of the various approaches to ecotourism. Let me list some more over here:

– Conserving the land and animals through active measures
– Visiting endangered and exotic lands and educating tourist of the dangers the environment faces from human development
– Giving local governments and industry a reason to be ecologically minded
– Putting money into the environment- donate for a cause!
– Raising the value of a live animal in the eyes of an increasingly apathetic world

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Which approach is the best? Well that’s still not crystal clear, probably taking the best out of each or combining two approaches would work wonderfully! Ecotourism is a double edged sword- when used correctly it has amazing results including protection of biodiversity, raising the local livelihood and protecting a species but when misused and abused- it may turn out to be worst possible offender! It is for this exact reason that it must be carried out by trained and aware practitioners who know what works and what hurts.

Around the world when most ecosystems are becoming farmlands or falling victim to urbanization, the effects of depletion of biodiversity have now started showing up. Extinction of species and increasing temperature are just a few that are gaining attention. In a scenario like so it has become critical to work on appropriate models of conservation.

In essence, “Ecotourism” has become the manifestation of an economically driven world by preserving the environment and helping the indigenous communities. That being said- ecotourism as a business model has a vast potential to let you have your cake and eat it too! With the ever increasing awareness among masses, many are choosing eco-traveling while giving up on luxury travel packages. This travel is not only fun but also an experience one can never get out of luxury hotels and resorts, the adrenaline rush with the challenge of trekking through the jungle overrides the extravagance of a car. It is this “Connect with Nature” that really distils and captures the very core essence of not only Ecotourism but in fact travelling in general!

PS: This article was first published in January 2016 in Pollachi Papyrus, a magazine aiming to promote responsible tourism.

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