Sunday, August 9, 2009

From the chronicles of my last month in India - June 24th 2009

I had just got back from Chennai yesterday morning. I got the US F1 visa, yes, but what a hassle it was. The interview lasted just a couple of minutes and the whole process took just a little over an hour. That is quite fast considering the number of applicants I saw there that day. But the hassle was not on the interview day. It lasted for almost 2 weeks just before the D-Day. Owing to a paranoia that though I had already been offered a Graduate Assistantship it was better to get as many financial documents as possible (not fake by the way) even those that I had just a minimalistic probability of being asked for by the interviewer, we ran around different banks getting all the necessary statements. As it turned out, during the interview they asked for none of the documents I worked so hard to obtain.

Anyway I now find myself on Dennis's home turf in Kodagu. Just a little over 24 hours back I had only returned to Trichur after the visa interview in Chennai. After getting back home I had quickly repacked, had a bath and within a couple of hours I was all set in a bus to Calicut to join 19 friends from college. We had planned a trip to Dennis's home and we set out in two cars from NIT Calicut, a Santro and a Wagon R. Then later, Kiru's Santro and Shillu's i10 joined us from Wynad. I was in Sajju's Santro along with Frijo, PKV and Roney. I was sitting right behind Sajju who was in the driver's seat. It was a great road trip at night. It wasn't that eventful and all but
for some reason it just felt great. Three of the best moments during the trip were obviously the sighting of a lone elephant on the road through Wynad Wildlife Sanctuary, the sudden transition from a good road to a hopelessly atrocious one across the Kerala-Karnataka border and of course the Pitch Black effect.

It was a cloudy day and we were inside a thick forest. The only lighting in the path was that of the car headlights. You switch that off and you will really learn what it is like to be blind. It was the blackest darkness I had ever seen in my life. And what more! Sajju kept trying it out a few times each black out lasting for a couple of seconds. I must admit, that was fun even if it risked us getting trapped in front a lone elephant which we might suddenly see in our path just as the lights were turned on again.

However, we reached Dennis's home without incident by around 11.30 at night taking the less travelled road via Tholpetti and Kutta. It was a really bad road after the border, but it was fun too except maybe for the owners of each car who would have empathised with the car's suspensions having to deal with such brutality. We had dinner and we were off to bed...

"I am running. I look down at my watch. Great! I am late again. Oh god! More than 30 minutes late. I am now supposed to be sitting in my Economics Class. Fantastic! I already have over 8 bunks. I reach the class and with a long, sad face I try to get in. And of course the Sir shows me the way back out... The scene changes suddenly. I seem to be in an examination room. I look around. I see the Economics Sir coming towards me. He takes my answer sheet back and politely asks me to leave. I am not supposed to be writing the exam owing to attendance shortage, it seems. Attendance shortage! In final year! Excellent! A year lost, my MS-PhD admit gone, my job also thrown away, all because of one subject - Industrial Economics! Great! Distraught, I walk back not even being able to summon the resolve to cry my heart out. I keep walking and walking. I go past F hostel, I go past E Hostel but still I keep walking. Into the bushes I walk and still keep walking until..."

I find myself awake. Maybe it was a bump with the wall beyond E Hostel or maybe something had stirred me in the real world. Anyway I am fully conscious now. I look at my watch. It is 8 in the morning on June 24th 2009. I was up after a long swim in the depths of sub-consciousness. It was a strange dream, yes, but understandable considering that I am after almost a month, again in the company of NITC friends. It is of course possible that some of my worst fears of NITC life had come alive last night. But, now is high time I let it all go, it is time I relinquish my hold on all of those few painful NITC memories of the last semester. It is time that I start waiting in anticipation for my new life in the US.

From the chronicles of my last month in India - June 18th 2009

I suddenly open my eyes. I don't know what woke me up, but now that I am awake i realise that my left cheek is wet. I am lying face down in a pool of drool. What I just had was the craziest dream ever. I can't recollect everything but oh boy was it crazy. It was about to get crazier still, but something woke me up, I have no idea what. Maybe a sudden swerve of the train on the rails, maybe someone brushed past my legs as they walked through the gap between the side berths and the main berths in the 2nd class sleeper, or maybe my sub conscience had already reached the pinnacle of madness.

Anyways, now I am up. Last thing I remember was running into a godown, stacked with cartons all round. It felt like I was in a drug smuggler's den, again I don't know why. I hear sounds coming from further inside the den. I panic. That's the last thing I remember about the dream. I am up now. Maybe it was the sudden shock in the dream that woke me up.

The grills of the train window reveal light outside. I lift my face from the drool and take a look at my watch. It shows 5.30. Too early for it to be bright outside, I thought for a second before I drowned into the drool again and went into my next phase of dreamy siesta. At around 6 I wake up again. I see mom standing near my berth and she remarks that we would be reaching Chennai Station any time soon. So I get off the upper berth and proceed towards the wash basin at the back of the compartment.

As I was brushing, I was still thinking of the dream I had had. I remember it clearly. That is unusual. Normally when I am fully awake, other than maybe patches of the dream I am never able to recall every scene in it's right sequence, but I can now. Moreover, I vividly remember dreaming in colour but I have no proof to argue with experts declaring that dreams are black and white.

"I am walking down a lane. The lane looks vaguely similar to the road that runs beside Westend Supermarket near my grand-mom's house in Trichur. I look back. I can see my Grand-mom and mother walking behind. Suddenly I hear a loud rumble coming from the front of me. Innumerable number of trucks carrying one elephant each were hurtling their way down the road at super fast speed. Fear gripped my mind as the trucks neared closer. The elephants were not securely chained at the back of the truck. A sudden swerve of the truck that was just beside me resulted in the elephant behind being flung over my head somersaulting as it landed a few feet away. My gaze shift to the other trucks in front of me. I could then see more elephants in the air. I turned back. My mom and grandma had already run through the gates of another compound to our left. I noticed a gate right in front of me. I flung the gates open and ran into the compound. I was again in the godown stacked with cartons all around. I hear sounds from inside. This time I didn't panic. I decided to take a look. I take few steps forward when I hear my mother calling me from behind. I quickly turn back and...", there I was lying face down in the pool of drool!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Safari to Selous game Reserve

Part 3: Jungle Safari

Our alarm rang at 5.15 but neither I nor my brother had stirred in our sleep. Dad woke us up at 6.20. We were late. We were supposed to have breakfast at 6.30 and leave for the safari by 7. We quickly had our baths and went for breakfast at 7. We vacated at 7.30 and off we went into the Selous Game Reserve.

The first animal that greeted us into the Game Reserve was the Giraffe, the National Animal of Tanzania. It ran behind the trees as the vehicle approached and thus I could not a get a clear snap of the giraffe. No regrets though, for we would anyway run into more giraffes later. Moreover, I have understood that the best way to go about photography during a safari is to focus on any given animal on each trip into the jungle, for you need plenty of luck and patience to find the right creature at the right spot in the best pose possible. A good guide might be enough for you to spot the animals but a good snap is a different thing all together. If you focus on one animal per trip you get more time with the creature of your choice, which is once you find it, to test your patience to the limit with incessant clicks of your cam waiting for that elusive avant-garde pose.

But again, we can't do it that way. We have just one 5 hour trip into the jungle. So the only compromise is to try to get snaps of whatever creature we see and deem important enough to capture on a frame. Others we just spot and then ignore like we did with the photo calls of many birds and baboons. One thing about the Selous Game Reserve compared to the more famous National Parks in Tanzania like the Ngorongoro, Mikumi, etc. is that owing to a difficult road access, in spite of it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 due to its diversity of its wildlife and undisturbed nature, tourists are fewer and thus the animals are less accustomed to the low rumble of jeeps. Unlike in Ngorongoro where the animals practically pose for photographs, here they at the slightest disturbance run off into the bushes. That makes photography even more challenging.

Anyway, into the trip we ran into crocs, gazelles, more giraffes, zebras, antelopes, wild boars, the golden baboons, wildebeest, hippos and water birds, all of which we tried to get at least one snap of. We were unlucky with the African elephants though. We did spot two of them running into the foliage but could not get any snaps of them.

However, it was almost 10 and we still hadn't got a glimpse of the only animal of importance to anyone embarking on a safari in Africa, the elusive lions. It is easy to say "Follow the vultures, you will find the lions", but what if even vultures are hard to come by? I knew that the Canon in my hand had already made this trip more than worth it, but I still desperately wanted to catch the lions.

If I remember right, this was my sixth safari in Tanzania, though the first to Selous. In spite of five safaris I have been lucky to take back moments of awe only in my 1996 Safari to the Ngorongoro Crater. The other trips just don't easily come into my memory, which clearly depicts why luck is such a major factor in determining the long term nostalgic quotient of a safari. Back in 1996, since I was little and had no cam, I could not capture those precious moments as digitized information or even onto a film. But those moments are vividly etched into my mind. The best ones are undoubtedly a lioness licking the hands of a foreign tourist in a vehicle in front of ours and the sighting of a leopard on a branch right above our open top 4 wheeler. The latter was one spooky moment. The leopard could have jumped onto us if it wanted to. We didn't budge nor did the leopard. After a surreal half a minute of frisson the leopard was scampering away scared by an oncoming tractor.

Now, I wanted this trip to beat that in all respects and so in spite of great moments like witnessing the sublime athleticism and crisp muscle movement of the swift gazelles and even the ugly, yet strangely alluring writhing motion of the giraffes' necks while they scamper for cover, I wanted to spot a majestic lion making short work of its prey. But by 11 I had started accepting that "no lion" was not a loss. I had started resigning to the fact that we had already seen the best on offer.

That didn't bog our guide and driver down, did it? He desperately wanted to show us the lions and it was his undying persistence that finally got us to the elusive lion at 11.30, well technically, not exactly. We rather saw three lionesses still panting after making short work of their prey, a wildebeest. But will do. Something is better than nothing. The sighting of a majestic lion feeding on its prey probably will come true in some future safari of mine.

We were back at the Mtemere gate at 12 where we took a few photos and then once out of the reserve boundary we had lunch, courtesy the Mbega Camp where we stayed last night. They had packed for us lunch boxes. Nice chicken and sandwich. At 1 we started our return journey to Dar, where we were back by around 6.30 slowed slightly by the heavy traffic once in Mbagala.

The total cost of trip came to around 350$ per head. Considering that included the 5 hour ride to Selous and back, complimentary breakfast, great food and accommodation in Mbega Camp, a boat ride that gave me some of my best photos and a memorable 5 hour safari through the Game Reserve, I would say, worth it!!!

Safari to Selous Game Reserve

Part 2: The Boat Trip

We had already paid in advance and thus there was not much delay at the reception. We were shown our way to tents 7 and 8, me and brother in tent 8. I don't know whether you will call it a "tent". It was a cloth covered raised platform with facilities inside resembling any hotel room, definitely not a five star hotel in a city but certainly the best you can get in a jungle.

As we went inside the first thing I checked was the toilet. Toilet paper!!! Nothing even remotely resembling a mug! It felt like the universe was conspiring to toilet train me before my 4 year stint in the US. Anyways, Rufiji River was in my sight from inside the tent. A few hippos were visible too. While we were waiting in the tent for lunch to get ready, dad spotted a baby croc beside the Rufiji River. As I got there with the camera, it had well, vanished back into the river's depths. We had lunch at 1. Fried chicken and French Fries! 4 other foreigners were also there. Not English. In tents 5 and 6! There was no one else in this camp. After lunch, we spent our time in the tent till 4 waiting in anticipation for the boat ride.

In the boat we met the 4 foreigners again. They were Dutch. Couldn't get their names properly though. The young lady in the group has a name Figo or something but isn't that a guy's name? Anyways she's quite good looking and her partner very tall. The other 2 are a relatively elderly couple. The elderly guy seems to be a good photographer. He had a DSLR with zoom lens. Apparently he has also been on safaris in Zimbabwe and all of them have been here at least for 3 days now. Anyways, Kaseem, the boat guy and guide was extremely helpful. Actually if it weren't for him the boat ride wouldn't have been that interesting. He gave us a 2 and half hour ride and gave us details about the water birds and the flora we saw and even narrated interesting anecdotes about life beside the Rufiji River. But the best thing was that he was adept at taking the boat as close to the birds as possible without scaring them which was what created opportunities to get some great snaps. The sunset was beautiful and the only regret I have about the boat ride is that I was not able to capture a heron in flight though I got 2 chances.

Anyway, there are a few villages beside the Rufiji River some distance away from the Game Reserve but still within a forested area. We saw people swimming in the river, though it is highly dangerous with the Great Nile Crocodiles that call this river home being the most ferocious of all the 4 kinds of crocs you find in Africa. Kaseem time and again repeated that though the game reserve had a marked boundary as far as the humans are concerned, free animals don't necessarily have any boundaries.

During the final return, there was a bump below the boat. I thought it was a hippo but couldn't have been. Kaseem explained that the canoe the villagers use was once overturned by a hippo and a guy eaten by a croc. But hippos are scared of the motor boat. So well, a hippo bumping our boat is one of the things that just couldn't be true, irrespective of how much I would like it to be.

It was dark by the time we were back in the tent. The generator in the camp is operated only between 6 in the evening and 10 pm. So that is the only time when there would be electricity supply and only time when we could recharge our cam batteries. So we had to ration the charger for mine and Arun's cam batteries. Fortunately there was no untimely die-off during the entire trip.

Anyways we went for dinner at 8. The process of taking the 1st step out of a small gap in the tent with only torchlight to show the way had a magical feeling to it. Don't know why and also tried it out twice. The dinner was sumptuous. Great soup and beef curry. Ended with fruit salad! Finally as I drifted off to sleep at 9 with the Apple singing in my ears, I felt strangely sanguine that though this day alone had made my trip, the next one was going to better it still.

Safari to Selous Game Reserve

Part 1: The long drive to Selous (pronounced “Seloo”)

Saturday, August the First! The day I had been waiting for ever since I landed in Tanzania, for this would be my best opportunity to really experiment with my new camera, the Canon SX10IS. My watch read 6.20 am when we started off in a Toyota Prado just as the darkness was lifting off. There wasn't much traffic on the road this early in the day and we were moving pretty fast. Within 15 minutes we went past my brother's school. The road turning left to his campus is completely dirt laden. I remember thinking if it had ever been tarred. However we were on a pretty good stretch of a 4 lane road. Though once out of the outskirts of Dar-es-Salaam the road narrowed to 2 lanes, the road was good and we were covering a lot of distance in little time.

En-route to Mbagala, a nice photo opportunity arose - the rising sun, nice bright red in colour, half hidden behind a cloud rendering the sky around in a nice orange-ish shade. We were moving pretty fast and thus we were pretty late to react to it and couldn't ask the driver to stop. That would be pretty much the only regret I have in the first part of the trip, though the view of an even more beautiful sunset later in the day would more than make up for it. There was also plenty of mist around during the first hour of the ride with the visibility being less than 15 metres. Looking out of the left car window we could see a sea of mist thickly covering a low lying area revealing only the top of coconut trees. The temperature had also dropped to 21oC. It was 25oC back in Dar.

Anyway, we were moving at over 100kmph and the vehicle's suspension seemed to be a little soft. There were also some minor tuning problems with the engine. There was an obvious, though minor reluctance on the engine's part to rev up. Otherwise, it was a really smooth journey thus far. We pulled left into a Panpol petrol bunk at Mbagala. The driver Shabana, who has been in this job for over 14 years now remarked that this would be the cheapest bunk on this route.

We filled up full tank and hadn't gone for over a kilometer when there they were, the policemen! One officer was standing right in the middle of the road and waving frantically. There was no option but to stop or else we would have to run him over. This was one thing we were hoping to avoid. Very naive of us considering it was a Saturday morning. They first asked us for our passports in which everything was all hunky-dory. Still, would you believe it that they asked for 300$ and for no reason what-so-ever? We don't pay, we don't move an inch further, simple as that.

Corruption, rather official extortion is one thing any visitor to Tanzania who plans to embark on a drive must be prepared for. One thing to remember is that they are just shooting into the dark. If you keep looking into their eye, know a bit of Swahili and politely question them back, you could if you are lucky see another side of these officers. The officer in question in our case basically started begging, in whispers though. Based on my mother's and brother's translation he was asking for at least 10000tshs since Sunday was coming up and he needed a little loose change for booze. Would be visitors; keep one more thing in mind. Just because you now think you have the upper hand in argument and thus get away without even paying the 10k, then God Bless You. If you value your time and do not have a photo of you standing next to the Tanzanian President in your car, pay the 10k and leave. (Note: Around 1300tshs would correspond to 1$). As we reached Mkuranga, there was another police roadblock. This time it was Traffic. Traffic officers are comparatively less indulgent in official extortion and so they left us after asking a couple of questions.

Now, the foliage in Tanzania would remind anyone from Kerala of his home state. Beyond the road you could see plenty of plantains, coconut and mango trees. We had to reach Faribu, before the first visible signs of Africa in its Savanna like grasses started to appear. We had burgers at 8, complementary from the travel guys. After a while there were remnants of a dead animal on the road. If we were in the jungle, I would have said it was a hyena. It had the same colour, stripes and size.

By 8 in the morning we had already completed almost 150kms of the total 250km stretch to Selous. We had reached Kibiti by then, where we stopped for tea near a Gapco Petrol Bunk. As we restarted the journey at 8.30, I was sitting in the car and wondering why my father had said this would a 5 hour drive. We had already completed more than half the distance! That was when I was in for a big surprise as we veered right onto a dirt road with a signboard showing 94 kms to Selous. Well, great!!! At least we could start the drive-in-the-jungle experience earlier than expected.

We were leaving a heavy dust trail as we were still moving at around 80kmph though after we almost jumped off the road, the driver decelerated to a more decent 50. First signs of the wild were visible on the sides of the road. Though it were just monkeys that made the bumpy 3 hour ride worth it! We reached Mtemere Gate at 11.30 am where we finished the formalities for entering Selous Game Reserve and then signed in at the Mbega Camp where we would be spending our next 18 hours. A decent journey so far but in no way did I anticipate that the next 24 hours of my life would be one of my best.