22 January 2020


Bharatpur to Bundi, Friday 13 December 2019

During my last night at Bharatpur a storm had blown through: thunder, lightning, heavy rain, gusts of wind. Perhaps that has something to do with the dense mist that so severely restricts the visibility, the world fading out of existence within a few hundred metres, at times less. But there’s still much to catch attention. A jackal in the dim grey light trots beside a field of yellow-flowering mustard before slipping between the rows as the train roars past. A hoopoe on a fence post, silhouetted against the mist yet easily identified by its crest and long, thin, slightly curved bill. Doves keep pace with the train; a crow caws from a telegraph pole with such intensity it looks as if it must topple off its perch; skinny pigs forage on the sidings just outside Sawai Madhopur, the gateway town for Ranthambhore National Park, where, in 2006 I had my first and so far only sighting of a tiger in the wild.
Around 9.30, not long after leaving Sawai Madhopur, the light begins to brighten and the fog thins, yet, even when enough sunlight breaks through to make a distant building luminous, the sky remains dense grey and hazy. I don’t know how this is possible, how a bright sky strong enough to cast distinct shadows can remain so hazy, so choked with, … with what? Smoke? Mist? A combination of both?
  At Kota, some clues: rubbish fires, stinking and smouldering with at most a few weak flames, throw continuous plumes of smoke into the air of the streets. Kota itself has all the characteristics of a smallish Indian town: the noise, the apparently anarchic bedlam of traffic that somehow works; the mixture of Hindi and English on the shop signs; the smells that range from noxious to highly perfumed; the dirt and filth and litter; the startling, vibrant colours; the bodged constructions; people abjectly destitute and people opulently affluent; and no doubt every kind of personality from irredeemable sinner to saint, with no way to tell the difference until you’re on the receiving end of the scam or the act of astonishing kindness.
  My driver’s in the middle somewhere, possibly closer to the saint end than the other. I really don’t know, but he seems honest, and his fare to the bus station isn’t exorbitant. He thought carefully before quoting me 1200 rupees to take me all the way to Bundi, and while I’m sure he included a tourist tax, I doubt it was outrageous. On the other hand, Deepak drove me all the way from Kathgodam to Naini Tal for just 500.
  He drops me at a bus that right now is leaving for Bundi. He thanks me genuinely, and for just thirty-five rupees I sit in the back of a bus with no functional suspension the whole 30 kilometres or so to Bundi. An 80/- rickshaw ride drops me at the Kasera Paradise, and my time in Bundi has begun.

Bundi, Saturday 14 December 2019

At the rooftop restaurant (Morgan’s Place) yesterday, the only other customer was finishing his lunch. He struck up a conversation. He’d been in Bundi a week already and was planning to go to Sri Lanka, where he’d heard he could find excellent surfing. He told me about the special chai he’d had with some friends at a place down the road.
  ‘At first we didn’t understand,’ he said, ‘and just had normal chai. It was OK. Then we found out we had to ask for “special” chai.’
  He smiled at the memory and said, ’It worked. We got high.’
  I couldn’t understand his accent well enough to know how to find the special chai seller, but I imagined the location would become apparent eventually if I had any interest in getting high, and, if I didn’t find it, I doubted I’d miss out on an important aspect of Bundi’s character. The place had enough charm for me.
  Yuval was from Israel and had no onward ticket so no definite departure date from India. He asked me if I played chess.
  ‘I know how to play it,’ I said, ‘but I’m no good at it.’
  He, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the game and had taught some of his friends how to play.
  ‘Now they’re better than me,’ he said. ‘They studied hard, and most of the time they beat me.’
  We talked about the rise of the artificial intelligences and I asked if he knew how to play Go.
  ‘The Chinese game? No. I know it’s complicated, though.’
  I told him I’d heard that the world champion Go player had recently stopped playing because the machines were now superior — it was impossible to win against the new algorithms. Neither Yuval nor I could understand why someone would give up the game they loved just because they couldn’t beat an AI.
  ‘Playing a computer’s different from playing a person,’ I said.
  Yuval nodded and said, ‘Even when my friends beat me most of the time, sometimes they make a mistake and I win.’ He shrugged and added, ‘But machines, they don’t make mistakes.’
  I suggested playing sophisticated programs could help you learn — you could study what they’d done to beat you and learn from that.
  He agreed, saying, ‘Sometimes I learn things when my friends beat me.’
  He explained how he still played his friends back in Israel even while he was here in India, using an app.
  ‘All we need is an Internet connection.’
  His enthusiasm for chess was endearing, but I still wasn’t about to relent and offer to play him, even though the game would be brief and the outcome inevitable. I hadn’t played a game of chess for decades, was never serious about it, and knew little more than the rules. I could hardly remember the standard opening moves — was it the King’s or the Queen’s pawn I should move? I suppose I could have let Yuval teach me, but I was keen to get out and explore Bundi again, or at least wander aimlessly, and I wondered how well I’d remember my way around.

Quite well, as it turned out. What I didn’t expect was that Bundi would remember me. Khalid, the young shawl-seller just up the road from where I’d stayed last time, recognised me. So too did Jerry from the Tom and Jerry restaurant. I think the knife-sharpener did also, although I didn’t stop to chat — we just exchanged big grins and waves as I walked past.
   Khalid remembered I’d been here at the same time as Rainer. He and Rainer used to talk for hours over chai, he said, and he wondered if I had Rainer’s email address. I asked him how business was.      He wobbled his head.
  ‘The tourists, not many. It’s difficult. Numbers are down.’
  I told him I didn’t understand why tourism in Bundi had decreased.
  ‘I tell people to visit Bundi,’ I said. ‘Bundi’s great. I like it here. It has a good feel, and the people are friendly and welcoming.’
  I was telling the truth; my experience of Bundi has been mostly wonderful. Yesterday evening I’d ended up talking with tailor Faisal Khan. During the conversation he said he was a Mohammedan.
  ‘You’re Muslim?’
  ‘Asalaam alaikum.’
  He broke into a great smile, said ‘Wa alaikum asalaam,’ and held out his hand for me to shake.
  He sympathised over the Christchurch mosque shootings and shook his head sadly.
  ‘It was awful, horrible,’ I said, ‘but one good thing that came out of it was that it drew people together in a good way.’
  ‘Your … president,’ he said, and hesitated, not quite sure what to say.
  ‘Jacinda Ardern. Our Prime Minister?’
  ‘Yes,’ he said, and he sounded enthusiastic again. ‘She is very good …’
  He seemed to be searching for a way to express his approval.
  ‘She set a great example.’
  ‘For the world,’ Faisal said.
  I thought how lucky we’d been to have had the right leader at that awful time, and how her actions had resonated with someone even here in Bundi, in India, where usually the only awareness of New Zealand would be of its cricket team. Every Indian cricket fan — which is to say almost everyone — knew of Kane Williamson and held him in huge regard, and he was a reliable fallback if a conversation ever started to falter.
  I very much enjoyed talking with Faisal, and the feeling was mutual. He asked where I was staying.
  ‘The Kasera Paradise.’
  Next time in Bundi you stay at my house,’ he said. ‘You stay with my family.’
  I photographed him, and as I walked away I thought, Bundi is truly a great place.

This morning as I walked slowly around the lake, a man holding a baby gradually wandered closer. I paused and looked at him and smiled, and he smiled in return. I knew what he wanted.
  ‘Photo?’ I said, raising the camera.
  He nodded and held his baby up in his arms. The little human looked at me, unsure what was going on, or maybe unable to work out what the strange-looking man was, but the father was smiling. I made two photographs and showed them to him on the LCD screen. I wished I could send him the photos, but he appeared to know no English and the chances of finding him again to give him a print were impossibly small. I hoped I’d be able to find somewhere to get prints of Faisal and the other tailor and some of the others I’d photographed, or would photograph, before I left.

Bundi, Sunday 15 December 2019

Babblers arrive at the rooftop restaurant, apparently wanting to share my breakfast. They’re such endearing birds, with their fierce, crazed looks and nervous energy, that I’m almost tempted but I know better. On the other hand, perhaps I’d be safer abandoning it to them — I’ve ordered the fruit salad, muesli, curd, and honey, and it turns out to be mostly chunks of assorted fruit including green grapes and sliced strawberry which appear to have been washed — but in what? I hope the restaurant’s conscious enough of its reputation to have used boiled or filtered water for the washing, but it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll avoid it in future, but for now it’s delicious — a welcome change from a diet of Indian food and occasional pizza.
  I had chai at the dhaba on the second corner on the way to the market. Good chai, much better than the mouth-burning, ginger-heavy chai prepared for me yesterday by the aggressively friendly woman who grossly overcharged me for tea and paratha. I won’t be going back. No doubt she’ll be put out when she sees me at Krishna chai, directly across the road — excellent chai, according to the manager of the Kasera Paradise and the elderly Israeli woman, who arrived together at Jerry’s last night. I learned a lot from the conversation with them.
  This morning, though, I drink chai made by an elderly man at an ancient stall and share the seating with a family of three. The man asks where I’m from, and his wife asks me something in Hindi.
  ‘Hindi tona tona,’ I say, holding my thumb and index finger a millimetre or two apart. Everyone laughs.
  ‘Little, little,’ the woman says, with a lovely smile.
  I’m pleased to know I’ve at least got that right. The teenage daughter offers me the biscuits they’re dunking. I love these small moments.

After buying a ticket for the fort and palace, I’m immediately accosted by a man who dispenses advice at high speed.
  ‘Visit the fort first,’ he says, tugging at his shirt and explaining it will be very hot later.
  He describes his services as a guide, but I neither need nor want a guide and manage to escape easily, although not before he’s given me a stick to scare off monkeys. It proves to be an inconvenience rather than useful, and I wonder later whether he’ll try charging me for it. But, when I eventually return in the early afternoon, he’s gone, and I leave the stick on the bench from where he picked it up.

  The fort’s a labyrinth badly overgrown with thorn. In 2006 I could at least see the approximate layout of the complex, but now it’s difficult to explore in any methodical fashion. I wander not quite randomly, remembering only some step wells and the old abandoned temple at the far end. The rest is just an impression of familiarity, of a place abandoned, turned over to ghosts and goblins and the decay of time. I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and his accounts of unspeakable cruelty, of horrifically imaginative ways to torture and debase one’s enemies, make me wonder what horrors might have been perpetrated here. Maybe the deterioration of this place into ruins and its colonisation by thorn and birds and other animals isn’t such a bad thing. Nature as redeemer, or at least an aid to forgetting.

  The birds won’t cooperate, though. The warblers stay hidden, revealing themselves only in glimpses impossible to photograph; the nervous Indian robins hide in the thickets; a purple sunbird poses beautifully until the instant before I press the shutter button. But my perseverance is finally rewarded when, as I wait quietly on my way down for an Indian robin to reappear, a partridge-like bird, nervous and jumpy, dashes across the path and fossicks warily among the scrub on the edge of the path. I think it’s a Black francolin but later identify it as a Painted spurfowl. I follow it carefully for a few minutes and manage a few acceptable photos.

  Before visiting the palace, I return my monkey-scaring stick to the wall from where the garrulous dispenser of advice had collected it. He’s nowhere to be seen, but at the main gate a man asks for a photo of me with him and his friend. I’m happy to oblige: at least he asked. I’ve often noticed surreptitious videoing and wonder why I’m so fascinating. Surely I’m not that strange and peculiar? Later, in the palace, another, older man asks for a photo. His wife photographs us; he puts his arm around me, so I drape mine over his shoulders. He thanks me and asks me my name and where I’m from. How many Instagram and facebook photos of me have been posted during my last three visits to India? On my first visit, in 2006-7, selfies weren’t even a thing: the first iphone was barely a year old.

I have one more day in India and start the journey back to Aotearoa/NZ the day after. Where has the time gone?

1.  The chai wallah cooking milk to make some kind of sweet.
2.  Dogs adapting to their environment (note the macaque, too).
3.  Faisal.
4.  Father and child.
5.  In the old fort.
6.  Palace guard and guide.
7.  The bigger of these two boys asked for a photo. The smaller, blind in one eye, took his lead from his friend but didn't quite know the pose. I wonder what their lives will bring, and wish them well.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

07 January 2020

The birds of Bharatpur

Bharatpur, Wednesday 11 December 2019

The luck and the kindness continue. After a comfortable two-and-a-half hour train journey in A/C Chair class, I disembarked at Bharatpur and began walking to the exit. The young woman who’d been sitting across the aisle from my seat caught up with me and asked where I was going and where I was from. She lived in Bharatpur and had been attending a wedding in Delhi. Her uncle owned the Sunbird Hotel, close to the entrance to the bird sanctuary.
  ‘You can stay there if your guest house has no rooms,’ she said.
  I thanked her but didn’t say the Sunbird was well beyond my budget. Besides, I was keen to enjoy the atmosphere at the Kiran Guest House — the big, covered patio above street level; the parakeets arrowing across the evening sky; the sound of doves; the wild-looking free-range pigs with their scurrying piglets; palm squirrels chirruping. Maybe not the mosquitoes and macaques, but the former are inevitable and now, here at the Kiran, I’ve seen no sign of the latter so far.
  Her name was Monica and she was preparing to be a teacher.
  ‘What will you teach?’
  ‘Geography,’ she said.
In July she had an exam which would qualify her for government teaching jobs.
  ‘How are you getting to your guest house?’ she said.
  I told her I’d get an auto-rickshaw and asked how much I should pay.
  ‘About fifty rupees,’ she said.
  I guessed I’d be quoted at least twice that.
  ‘The tourist tax,’ I said, and she laughed politely.
  ‘I can drop you at your guest house,’ she said.
  She had a driver waiting, and they took me right to the Kiran. Ashok was outside and recognized me instantly.
  ‘Hello sir!’ he said, with his great smile.
  I shook hands with Monica and her driver and thanked them and wished her good luck for her exam. I’d had some doubts about what I’d find at Bharatpur this time, but what I found was generosity, the comfort of familiarity, and a wonderful welcome.

At the Kiran, Ashok took my dinner order, and I transferred to the table to write, protecting myself from the pestering mosquitoes with picaridin and the hood of my jacket. As the light faded, small bats began to hawk above the courtyard and an orange, gibbous moon hung low in the sky over the rooftops. I heard voices and, soon after, a man in a pale khaki safari shirt and shorts appeared.
  ‘You’re aware of the mosquitoes?’ I said.
  ‘Yeah,’ he said in a strong Scottish accent, ‘but they’re not too bad, actually.’
  They were bad enough for me, though. Recognising that, he turned the fan on, which discouraged the mosquitoes, but I was glad I was wearing my down jacket and hood. I was pleased to know I wasn’t the only guest and that, therefore, the Kiran was probably doing OK.

Andy had been here for a couple of weeks and had another week to go before returning to Scotland.   His partner had been here part of the time; she was a doctor, he worked in nature conservancy. They loved it here, he said, just chilling out, wandering around, eating at the canteen. Suddenly I felt almost embarrassed by the brevity of my visit to Bharatpur. Had I known the situation would be as good as I’d remembered, I’d have allowed at least another night.

Bharatpur, Thursday 12 December 2019

I was the second visitor into the park. The light was still low, and the haze, almost like a fog, made photographing almost impossible. The first few, of jackals on the road not far from the entrance, could best be described as ‘atmospheric’. As the light increased, though, the opportunities for better photographs improved. The ancient monster of a bicycle I’d rented was set up for riders five foot tall or shorter, but they all were; I had no choice. Pedalling was hard, but the seat was well sprung, the brakes worked, and the bike got me where I wanted to go far faster than walking. That being said, I began to wonder just how much more efficient it really was, because I was stopping every few minutes when yet another bird showed up and invited a portrait. I wasn’t keeping a record of what I saw — the photos would record most of the birds, and the few I didn’t photograph I’d probably remember. Even if I forgot, I wouldn’t feel I’d missed something. Collecting lists stopped being a thing for me a great many years ago, and the value of being able to point to a list and say, ‘I saw X number of species that day,’ escapes me. I suppose the twitchers and collectors can rationalise it. I, on the other hand, rationalised not keeping a list by telling myself that anything I forgot can’t have been important enough to remember.
  I entered the park around 6.30, and I returned the bike and walked back to the Kiran shortly after 2 pm. That was as much as I could handle, mostly because I’d been on the go, pedalling that old dunger, for most of those seven-and-a-half hours. I was hungry, too. I’d assumed I’d be able to get decent food at one of the canteens but was dismayed to find they sold only chips (small bags of potato crisps), a handful of types of biscuits and cakes, and small tetrapaks of mango Frooti. Tea was apparently also available, but no proper chai-making equipment was evident, and I suspected ‘tea’ would be a tea bag in hot water. At 11.30, in desperation, I bought a ‘fruit cake’, which was a small, coffin-shaped lozenge of sweet cake with tiny bits of unidentifiable dried fruit mixed throughout, and a mango Frooti. That revived me, but I began to flag a few hours later and knew my time in the park was up. It had lived up to my hopes and therefore exceeded my expectations; I’d seen and photographed many birds and had finally succeeded in making a good photograph of a hoopoe.
I’d wondered whether I might see Andy in the park but the only obvious foreigners were a couple about my age or slightly older. They wore matching clothing: black jackets and off-white trousers. Later in the afternoon they turned up at the Kiran, and I had a short conversation with the man. He sounded French and said they’d visited Keoladeo once before, fifteen years ago, in 2005. He remarked on the cold, which wasn’t surprising because I was sitting at the outside table typing notes, wearing my down jacket and edging mittens, with my hood up. When they were here at roughly the same time of year in 2005, the air was warm, he said. They’d also noticed big changes in the park — far fewer birds this time, and now there were cattle where they’d been seeing much larger numbers of deer.
  The lower numbers of birds might have had something to do with the amount of water, though. On my first two visits, in 2006 and 2014, the monsoon had missed Keoladeo, and although the variety of birds had been good, it wasn’t until I visited in 2017 and found the place well flooded that I understood why the park was world famous. Huge numbers of storks and other waterbirds were nesting on the islands, and although today the main areas seemed to have plenty of water, the vast flocks had reduced to just good numbers.
  I agreed about the deer. On my previous visits, chital had been abundant; this time I saw a few individuals and groups of two or three here and there. I’d seen sambar often, too, but this time saw just one group of three and a lone stag. On the other hand, I saw several groups of wild pigs (whether they’re truly wild or are the spill-over from the semi-feral inhabitants of the surrounding town isn’t clear to me).
  At the park entrance a notice recommends visitors stay on the paths and not venture into the untracked areas. The reason: recent leopard sightings. I can believe leopards would live in the park — they live in Mumbai, after all.
  Five-thirty approaches and the mosquitoes begin to appear. Time for repellent. I sit outside and talk with Andy. He visits the sanctuary each day and loves it, and gradually he’s coming to know some of the individual birds or at least where to look for them.
  ‘I’m not much good at identifying the birds of prey,’ he says (I agree; you need to know the field marks well), ‘but I know to check in that tree over there and I’m sure to see a Marsh harrier perched there.’
  He’s noticing the interactions, too — how one species chases off another — their habits, their patterns of activity. He asks me what’s been my highlight, and I have to think hard.
  ‘The owlet was pretty special,’ I say, and he nods.
  ‘Cute wee birds.’
Back in Scotland, he works to fight wildlife crime, and he enlightens me about some of the practices continuing on grouse moors. I’d thought those days were long gone, but although the trend is in the right direction, it’s painfully slow, and any kind of predator, be it furred or feathered, isn’t likely to survive long on a grouse moor, even if it’s under strict legal protection. Roughly one fifth of the area of Scotland (or is it the Highlands?) is grouse moor, Andy says, managed so the uber-rich can shoot driven birds.
  ‘Why don’t they just farm them and release them?’ I ask, thinking that, despite the questionable ethics, the environmental effects might improve.
  Andy shakes his head. ‘You can’t raise grouse in captivity. Not like pheasants.’
  He tells me how the chicks are often dosed with antibiotics in the field. ‘They freeze, and the keepers can just pick them up and dose them. Sometimes after a shoot they sell some birds as “organic” meat, but it’s ridiculous — they’re full of antibiotics, not to mention lead shot. I wouldn’t eat them.’
  Neither would I.
  Ashok brings Andy’s dinner, which is a kofta of some kind. ‘Meatballs,’ Andy says, and they smell wonderful. I thought I wasn’t missing meat, but I’ve suddenly developed a craving for meatballs. I’ve seen butchering in India, though, and I can wait another six weeks or so until I’m back in New Zealand. My own meal of dal fry, rice, and chapatis turns up later, and although it’s not as delicious as the smell of Andy’s meatballs, it still does the job.

  Tomorrow I go to Bundi.

I'm back in Delhi now, and tomorrow (8 January) I leave for Nepal. My main goal in Nepal is Bardia National Park, after which I'll return to Delhi on the 19th for the last few days of this journey.

1.  Darter
2.  Common babbler
3.  Rose-ringed parakeet
4.  Treepie and friend
5.  Jacana
6.  Yellow-eyed babbler

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor