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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How To Avoid Leeches?

In the simplest definition- a Leech is a parasite that sucks blood. If you happen to wander around during the monsoons in the Himalayas or the Western Ghats of India you will encounter them in large numbers. They live off another organism and suck the blood (literally) of their host. Usually it is vertebrates that play hosts to these leeches. During my endeavors in the forests I have seen them attack a slug, a toad, many dogs and most commonly human beings. They usually make their way up from the host’s foot and crawl up till they find an area to suck on. They are capable of attacking any part of the human body including eyes, nose, mouth, vagina, penis, ears and breasts.

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Kodagu District lies in the Western Ghats of southwestern Karnataka. The district’s elevation is roughly 900 meters above the sea level. Most of the land is covered with coffee plantations and the rest is evergreen forest. In my quiet and peaceful hamlet within the coffee plantations, I lied down on a bench in my veranda watching rain and birds. They say an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. The devil had taken over my mind. I impulsively decided to venture out in the forests barefoot. I wanted to feel the clean, moist earth and moss that covered the rocks. I had been warned not to go out without gum-boots for the fear of stepping on snakes, dangerous invertebrates and of course thousands of leeches that would attack me in no time. But often, I do as I like, and went to take a walk barefoot. When I returned I had at least ten leeches clinging on to me in a short span of ten minutes. Most had grown from a mere 2 cms to over 12 cms in length. They had sucked my blood and grown ten times their original circumference. Some had fallen off leaving a profusely bleeding wound while others still hung around my legs, upper arms and neck. 

The point is, leeches are harmless to human beings. But they do send a shiver down the spines of most people who are not accustomed to them. Also, once attacked, each one’s body reacts to it differently causing irritation and inflammation. Most leech wounds would heal in a period of a week. Sometimes the wound leaves a small, itchy scar behind. The tiny dark scars most often go away in the second week. I’d like to say, if you plan to get attacked by leeches like I did or are wandering around in moist forests, you must keep in mind your sugar levels or any other coagulation disorders that you may be suffering from. In no case should a person diagnosed with Diabetes Mellitus (DM) come in contact with leeches. The wounds of people with DM do not heal easily. Having DM may cause unnecessary complications, like infections.

(On a side note- I’d like to point out to those of you who think that DM only hits the elderly, that’s a myth! DM can affect anyone at any age. It is also important that you do not have any suspicions of increased sugar levels. In my case I was sure of not having elevated sugar levels in my blood, thanks to knowledge gained in my 7 years of medical schooling)

For people who are still grossed out by the idea of getting leeches on themselves, and as a general precautionary care- I have got easy ways to stay away from these blood suckers just for you:  

  1. Pluck it out: In an unfortunate incidence of watching a leech crawl up on you or feeling it in an unwanted area on your skin, you could simply pluck it out. That being said, there’s a specific way of doing it. You can’t just flick it off like a mosquito or a fly. With dry hands, tightly grasp the leech in between your fingers and pull it out. Now roll it using the pads of your thumb and index finger and flick it like you would the striker in the famous eastern origin game of Carrom. On most occasions you will have a bleeding wound. Use a bandage or dettol to prevent any infections.
  2. Use Salt: Salt has been popularly used by people who go to leech infested areas. The benefits of common salt against leeches are well known to the indigenous tribes of India. Salt can be sprinkled directly over the leech to kill it almost immediately. I have seen locals carry a special stick. Before getting into the forests they wrap salt in a piece of cloth and tie the ball at the end of a stick, like shown in the picture below. It is super easy to use, carry, store and it lasts long. Just slightly wet the ball at the end of stick and apply to wherever the leech attacks. Interesting isn’t it?

    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
  3. Rub Vinegar: I learnt this technique from an old experienced man who had lived in the forests for more than 30 years. For him getting leeches off himself and fellow travelers was an everyday task. He tells me that rubbing vinegar all over limbs, thighs and soles of the feet can help prevent leech attacks.
  4. Tobacco: Just like common salt, tobacco has been frequently used among ancient Indian tribes. They rub a mixture of crushed tobacco and water over their limbs to protect themselves from leeches before entering the forests. I remember the old man from the forests mentioning that he uses tobacco for his pet dogs. Dogs often sniff around in the forests. As a result, leeches get inside their nose. An easy way to ease out the troubled dog would be to get him to sniff on a mixture of tobacco and water. A modern variation for trekkers and people like you and me would be to carry a cigarette along. Powdered tobacco from the cigarette can be put directly on the leech to kill it immediately. (Please don’t smoke in the forests)
  5. Eucalyptus Oil: If you have eucalyptus oil handy apply it all over your body. This does not let the leech stick to your body. Although the oil has a very peculiar smell and not everyone would like you to smell like that in the forests.
  6. Iron and lighter trick: When I was 16 I learnt about leeches. I found them very interesting and started scanning the internet. Most people were looking for ways to get them out of their body. This method is indeed a very cruel way of getting rid of this tiny animal. Warm up a small iron piece, like a safety pin or a corkscrew using the lighter flame. Now pierce it straight into the leech’s body. This will burst the animal and it will fall off immediately. Take care not to over heat the iron.
  7. Leech proof socks: This is by far the easiest way to prevent leeches from attacking you. You could buy a pair of professionally made leech socks in any of the outdoor apparel stores (I personally love Decathlon). But if you are not going to be using it often this would sound like a dead investment. In that case you could use any of the thick cotton socks/stockings or soccer socks that are long enough to cover your calf up to your thighs. This will keep you free from leeches on your trek. Thank me later 😉
  8. Alcohol: Alcohol has been proven to be very effective against leeches. Drinking alcohol is the best way to get rid of a leech that has inadvertently entered your mouth- although it is best to prevent such a thing from happening; possibly speak less when you are in the forests 🙂 If a leech has bitten you- putting an alcohol based sanitizer or drinkable alcohol on it should also work.

I was once working on a biodiversity survey in the Western Ghats when a leech entered a friend’s eye. We had to do a quick procedure to remove the leech immediately. A friend had to pull his upper lid up and lower lid down to expose the area as much as possible. Another friend pulled the leech off using her fine grip. The aftermath was not so scary, my friend’s eyes were all normal in about eight hours and his vision was also all right. In such circumstances washing the eye might help but a mild betadine solution will get the creature off. Usually it is advisable to carry betadine eye drops as part of first-aid kit. I read about this only later and confirmed with a few of my ophthalmologist friends.

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Picture by Shrikanth Nayak during his daredevil endeavours in the forests!

Leeches in general are not very deadly, they just leave you bleeding profusely (for a little while before the blood coagulates) and with an unnecessary itch. Sometimes an infection in a person with poor immunity can be triggered but most healthy individuals with protective footwear should be all right in the forests. The most natural way to get rid of them is to let them suck on your blood and fall off naturally, unless they have entered one of your body’s openings!

Don’t forget to tell me if you’ve encountered leeches in your life. I’d love to know how you got rid of them 🙂

PS: I hope you enjoyed reading this. Any help with my travel funds will be highly appreciated

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