Tale of two cities

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Doha airport

Doha airport

CDG Paris

CDG Paris

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Do you believe in ravens, omens & signs?

In transit at Doha on an onward flight to Paris we decide on a quick cuppa before boarding. The coffee spills, oops! over the table, the floor & on Chanson’s clothes. No matter. She has a change. Minor mishap. The first & the last, before journey end, we hope.

All seated & ready for take off, there is an unexpected delay. We are informed about a ‘technical’ snag because of which passengers must disembark, only to board the aircraft four hours later, arriving in Paris past midnight instead of 8 pm.

My friend has traveled ‘Business’; I ‘Economy’ & we have agreed to meet at ‘Immigration’. I see her fetching up accompanied by a policeman. ‘Hey, Chanson”, I wave. She indicates that she is unwell so I leave the queue to join her.

‘Parlez vous Francais?

Parlez vous Anglais?

In the middle of the night! Alas! We have just arrived after a grueling flight. (New Delhi – Doha – Paris)

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Paris:angular streets

Paris:angular streets

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The Seine

The Seine

After a long wait, unending explanations & umpteen glasses of water (my friend is dehydrated) our passports are stamped & baggage collected. This I manage with the help of friendly airport personnel who, manoeuvre me via several shortcuts across, that humongous airport that is ‘CDG Paris’.

We are taken to a paramedic centre where Chanson is made to lie down & get medical parameters checked. Her blood pressure shoots up & down dramatically. This happens over a course of hours. She is anxious & feels dehydrated. Has plenty of water and, wants to use the loo, but no. She is not allowed to move. A bedpan is brought. Fluctuating BP, breathlessness, dehydration, water – bedpan – more water. It goes on into the night. The doctor fears a blood clot from prolonged inactivity on a long distance flight. He cannot take a chance so recommends going to hospital for further tests. We won’t risk the chance either & agree.

Another long wait before an ambulance arrives with assistant & stretcher. It drives us through the dark & empty streets of Paris. An eerie 6 – 10 km ride, on this our first night in the city.

The Robert Ballanger hospital – believe it or not – is blood splattered. Wish I had taken some pictures. And there are patients waiting everywhere. Chanson is moved to a bed & told to wait. It would take time for the doctor to arrive. Those before us would be attended first. A man had been brought in five hours ago & was still waiting. ‘Just relax. Be patient’.

The clock ticks on. Dehydration. Water. Bedpan. More water. Worse, not knowing the blood pressure as there was no one monitoring it.

It is a long night.

Finally. The doctor arrives in the wee hours of the morning. He checks her pulse & voila she is to be discharged.

Just like that?

Yes, just like that. Never mind the BP or the ‘clot’, not to speak of trauma or money down the drain.

Outside, the dawn is slowly breaking & it is another day.

Welcome to Paris.

Old Port, Marseille

Old Port, Marseille

We have six hours before departure. What we must resolve is whether or not Chanson is up for the trip or should it be postponed by a day. She looks & feels better. In any case there are doctors everywhere – if need be, God forbid.

That decides it.

Marseille, the lovely seaside town every travel guide warns you about. Drunken sailors. Muggings. Brawls. Clever sleights of hand. Pick pockets.

Part of the experience.

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‘Hotel La Residence’, overlooks the old port. It is a boutique hotel & we are lucky to have a harbor facing room with the Notre Dame in the distance. Despite a bustling port it is tranquil & quiet in here. We arrive around 4pm & spend the rest of the day loitering around La Panier & Canebiere –  simply getting a feel of the place.

Chateau D'lf, Marseille 'Count of Monte Cristo' Remember?

Chateau D’lf, Marseille a la The Count of Monte Cristo’

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harbour view

harbour view

Calanques,Cassis

The Calanques at Cassis

There are plans for Cassis next day. Cassis, a tiny fishing village 20 kms to the east – along the coast – of which it is said,

“ he who has seen Paris & not seen Cassis, can say ‘I have seen nothing’”

Along the quay fishermen begin to set up stalls early next morning. Displaying every variety of exotic ‘catch’  and – as the song goes, “cockles & muscles alive……. Alive O!” Handsome Catalan faces against an aquamarine waterfront. Weather beaten faces that beckon – come taste the salt of the sea. The Concierge too urges us outdoor on to this, not – to – be – missed scene. I sling a rucksack & go out & mingle with the crowds. Blue skies, bluer seas. It is a beautiful day. Strolling, watching, quizzing, peering, talking, taking pictures, in short enjoying every bit of the action. Fish and Folk.

We would have lingered, but for Cassis.

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What is your worst travel nightmare?

Mine is falling ill and/or losing baggage

In no particular order.

A man at the Metro points to my rucksack warning that it is open. I do remember closing it. However, let me see. Lo & behold, it is wide open, all zips undone. That sets panic bells ringing. I rummage through quickly, turning it inside out, checking each & every pocket, emptying out contents only to find the money belt missing. It had all the cash, credit cards, travel card, medicine and Passport.

I could have kicked myself. As Chanson pointed out, why was I carrying everything in the first place? She advised calm as we walked back to the hotel in the forlorn hope that it had been forgotten there.

Of course it hadn’t. The backpack had not been touched since our arrival. I had picked it up as it lay & walked out into the day.

The tally was euro 1500 cash – lost. Luckily it was too early in the day for merchant transactions. We were able to block all  credit cards & have the balance in the Travel card transferred to a duplicate one. That, fortunately was still in my possession. The next step was to alert the hotel.

Ricardo was speechless with disbelief, as were Eric & Julie. A wonderful lot, they were full of care & concern. Julie, the young manager personally offered help but it being a public holiday there was not much she could do. Worse, it was a Friday, to be followed by Saturday & Sunday. Nobody in the embassy could be contacted until the next working day. We had plans for Portugal (expense paid) but without a passport we were stranded.

Julie thought a meeting with a police ‘higher – up’ was in order & tried to arrange one but, it being a long weekend that too came a cropper.

Police in any case had to be informed just so travel documents were in order.

She accompanied us expressing dismay along the way. No matter what was written & said about Marseille, it was a safe place. She often went home without incident, alone at night. Ours was an unfortunate occurence. She narrated a similar experience in Mexico where she had to borrow $ 2000 to continue with the remainder of her trip. This she stuffed inside a teddy bear, afraid to lose it if she carried it in person. She would stitch/unstitch the bear every night, as & when money was needed. She also told us that every police station in France had a ’lost & found’ cell where stolen goods sometimes showed up.

Julie Pseat

Julie Pseat

Sweet, Julie! her continuous chatter made me forget the problem at hand, to the extent that I actually began to enjoy the walk.

“ Never mind the cash,” I blurted absentmindedly. “If only the passport is returned”

Chanson thought that was a far cry. It never ever worked that way.

“Just a thought”, I murmured, saying a Gayatri mantra to myself.

I am not a religious person yet I said the mantra & I said it without thought of profit or gain. It had been only a few hours since the horrific incident but the mind had reconciled & moved on. Taking stock, the situation did not seem that bad after all. We had scraped through pretty well. The actual loss was euro 1500 only. Perhaps I owed the bloke this money or perhaps his need was more. As for Portugal, that was another 15 days away. I would have a fresh passport by then.

Inside police headquarters Julie immediately got down to the task, explaining everything in detail to the officer on duty. He politely listened, nodding now & then while I stood idly by.

A voice suddenly called out, wanting to know my name.

“Sudha”, I said.

“Voila! Here is your passport”

“What”????

Come again!!!

The passport??

No kidding. No fuss. There it was, in the hands of a lady officer – the black leather belt with everything in it. Everything that is, minus the cash.

Note: Pick pocketing is rampant in France so much so that the Eiffel tower had to shut down one day. Travelers are constantly advised to be careful. We certainly had several near encounters – that we escaped, if only by a whisker.

The French tend to blame immigrants, especially those of Algerian descent but the 20 year old who found & returned the bag was Algerian. He had gone to dispose a cup after having coffee when he spotted it in the bin & brought it to police.

Bless him always!

And

Au revoir Marseille. If I return it will be for the likes of, the boy & Julie.

CurioCity

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On a dull working day I decide to junk the housework in search of art & pleasure. Here I am at Jogeshwari, in the centre of a road, facing row upon row of antique furniture & curio shops. It is a veritable treasure trove. The auto rick brought me spot on. No parking woes either.

Hayat Ali, with long flowing henna dyed beard, mans shop No:???? He refuses to be photographed as his religion forbids it or so he believes. The first buy is a Japanese teapot in a cheery floral design. A wee bit of haggling & the deed is done. It makes me happy & joyful. Beauty invariably does.

An interesting day it turns out, scouring shops selling everything from antique furniture to curios, lamps, books, coins, stamps, miniatures, paintings, film posters & framed photographs. A frame minus the photograph goes for less than one with a period picture. This is Mumbai. Everything has a price & everything sells. Even empty perfume bottles. I bought one in the shape of a dolphin. And don’t ask me why. There are bargains to be had. Of commonplace household items & freebies if one is lucky. Much like the ‘buy one get one’ scheme at Malls.

A role reversal happens at times, when the seller suddenly & surreptitiously becomes the buyer. “ You have Rolex watch? I give good price,” whispers Hayat

“You have Asharfi? You know Asharfi / Guinea/ gold coin?”

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Folding Deck Chair

Folding Deck Chair


Antique Camphor Box

Antique Camphor Box


Silver, embossed Soporo.

Silver, embossed Soporo.


Artefacts include an old time Pressure Cooker

Artifacts. Pressure Cooker (hanging)

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Life size chestnut coloured  wooden horse

Life size chestnut coloured wooden horse

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Objets d’ art evoking refinement & grace occupy every inch of empty space. However mediocre their lives it must be said that these shopkeepers have a keen eye for the beautiful. Amidst porcelain vases, sculptures & Chinese curios picked up from rich Parsi homes ( from the days of the opium trade) lie everyday household items such as a grater from grandma’s kitchen – made of brass & shaped like a tortoise – Also a pressure cooker, perhaps the first of its kind, polished, sparkling and new.

My prized bargain that day was a ‘Soporo’, a cone shaped artifact with a tiny bird at the pinnacle. It is used in Parsi ritual. This one is in silver & has an embossed Persian design. There is an inscription at the base, a date along with the name of the silversmith, the makers Rustomjee Jahangir. It also, has a name – SN Soonawala – Its last owner I presume.

It is a sad feeling

What could have compelled Mr Soonawala to part with precious family silver? It could not have been penury I am sure. Had he fallen on bad days? Was he emigrating to a far away land? Or could he have died childless? The possibilities were immense.

In any case the shops were all chock – a – block, full of artistic souvenirs from stately affluent homes. And each had a story, a tale to tell.

Exhausted from walking & talking, the heat & the dust I looked around for a café in an area where there was none. A shop owner offered to find me a drink. What would I have?

A Coke preferably or Pepsi. Any Cola

That would be difficult

Why?

Unofficial ban. American company. Nobody buys or sells it here.

‘Minute Maid’ pulpy orange then

That too. Same company. Have a Thumbs Up’ instead. Easily available

A ‘Thumbs Up’? Uggh!

Talakaveri Coorg

Nov16-20, 2014

A tiny less explored corner – that is forever – Coorg (64 Sq Miles).

It is, in a nutshell, coffee & spice & all things nice.

Evening mists. Beautiful women. Warriors.

Hanging Lamp - Coorg

Hanging Lamp – Coorg

Otti Roti/Rice Bread

Otti Roti/Rice Bread

Todays Menu

Todays Menu

Nimmi's Open Kitchen

Nimmi’s Open Kitchen

The much touted KSRTC, the State run bus service turns out to be a let down so I go cross country, taking any old bus from Bangalore to Mysore, then onwards by taxi. A blessing in disguise for it offers the opportunity of enjoying the countryside at will.

The ‘Elephant Corridor’ at Badaga is a 20 acre estate & the Chengappas, Nimmi & Viju perfect hosts. You are cautioned against early morning walks as elephants graze & roam the wilds & can often be heard crunching grass. Yes, quite literally for all around us is the sound of silence. Pachyderm encounters are not uncommon & could be counted among the many joys of life in Coorg.

‘Homestay’ is an organized sector here. There are 200 registered owners who act with rare passion often going the extra mile in their eagerness to showcase all things Kodagu. Hence no surprise that Viju offers to organize transport & keep a track as I commute from Mysore to Badaga via (at his suggestion) the Tibetan enclave & Golden temple at Byeluppe.

The couple are college day sweethearts. That their hearts continue to beat in unison after 35 years of marriage & 2 children is there for all to see. Parked next to their car in the porch, is a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ – the one that was used during their courtship & wooing days. Large sums are being proffered for it today but it continues to stand there – mechanical testimony to a Mills & Boon romance.

Nimmi a Srilankan is the epitome of everything Coorg – from language to cuisine to good looking but the banana jam is hers & hers alone. It goes exceedingly well with the local Dosa – Idli. A desi version of pancake with maple sauce if you will, but far more tasty. ‘The Elephant Corridor’, which has been a homestay for over 10 years, looks to becoming a wedding &  pre nuptial destination, as also a location for Bollywood flicks. ‘Coffee Beans’ was filmed here.

Mercara or Madikeri (3500’) as it is now called is the district headquarters. The entire area that was once a rain forest may be termed ‘semi’ rain forest today as large tracts have been cleared for plantations of rubber, coffee, spice & orange. Acre upon acre of cultivated land interspersed with surviving rain forest vegetation – trees so tall that they seem to be reaching for the skies.   Large & small homesteads with red brick tiled sloping roofs dot the countryside at regular if distant intervals. There is hardly a soul around. And silence so deep – except for the occasional bus rumbling by – it is picture perfect

The river Cauvery has long been to the south what the Ganga is to the north. A disputed river perhaps but also the holiest of holies, especially at its source – Talakaveri,

Pilgrims climb the Brahmagiri hill near by for a Coorg view. Also to leave behind make belief houses. Little stone clusters that symbolize their hope of future housing.

After springing forth at Talakaveri, the river vanishes underground. Suddenly & completely before re emerging 8 kms away at Bhagamandala,. Here it meets the waters of the Kanikke & the mythical Sujyoti to become ‘triveni sangam’, a site of pilgrimage.

Breakfast at the gazebo and a Coorg style sit down meal with friends & extended family. Otti Roti, Pandi curry, Kumbala curry – the works

That coupled with the quiet of the countryside is what I shall carry long after.

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Talakaveri

Talakaveri

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Cavery waters at Abbi falls

Cavery waters at Abbi falls

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Tombs - Gaddige

Tombs – Gaddige

The tree of life - Elephant Corridor

The tree of life – Elephant Corridor

Top of the world

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Gangtok is a mere 124 kms from Siliguri, from NJP & from Bagdogra but the trip by road takes roughly 5 – 6 hours. Not only because of difficult hilly terrain but dilapidated road conditions.

The alternative, by chopper covers the distance in less than 25 minutes.

The Bell helicopter operated by Pawan Hans is a 5 seater that takes off from Bagdogra (weather permitting) thrice every day.

(Bagdogra is a military airport. A couple of international flights operate from here.)

For the return flight from Burtuk helipad, the fare is Rs 2700 – on board baggage strictly according to specification, which is a smaller than 22”suitcase weighing less than 10 kg.

Capt. Sardul Singh, our pilot flew us at heights of 5000’ – 6000’ over flat plains, low hills, valleys & lush green countryside interspersed with villages. The meandering Teesta in the valley below us a veritable delight.

From Burtuk the chopper can be further requisitioned for a 15 minute joyride over Gangtok & around. At Rs 9500 this offers breathtaking glimpses of the eastern Himalayan range – especially Kanchenjunga (if one is lucky & the day clear)

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River Teesta. Aerial view

River Teesta. Aerial view

Perched at 5500’ Gangtok has ample charms, its rare & beautiful orchids not the least. Locals however rue the way it is regressing mainly because of a large tourist influx & poor infrastructure.

I liked Gangtok.

Among other things it is plastic free. One can stroll the promenade, eat the best Chinese ever & get a super duper hairstyle all for a throw.

I did not stay here though but at Mile 5 at 8000 ft. where the air was clean & noise pollution zero. There was even an 18 hole golf course & golf hut to boot.

Mile 5 East Sikkim

Mile 5 East Sikkim

MG Road Gangtok

MG Road Gangtok

The trip to Nathu La the Indo Chinese border post got cancelled several times on account of inclement weather. I bide my time, my patience finally rewarded with clear skies when I can make the trip without hazard.

From Mile 5 at 8000’ to Changu lake at 12500’, to Sherrathang, Kupup 13500’ & finally Nathu La 14400’.

5 am June 6, 2013   At first an antacid, then a hot cup of green tea & biscuits & I am ready. The road is torturous, pot holed & slithery with debris strewn all over. And there are umpteen roadblocks caused by landslides but these are quickly cleared. Can this possibly be our border road? Not much change I notice since my previous visit nearly 30 years before. And why allow so many tourists every day?

The Chinese have state of the art infrastructure across.

Now this is harakiri.

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Past Mile 17 & on to Changu with a halt for breakfast that consists of tea, coffee, Alu paratha, pickle & curd. Everything tastes absolutely divine at such heights.

A line of 10 Chinese trucks is seen approaching the recently opened trading post at Sherrathang. All laden with goods I presume.

The drive up is scenic with mountain springs & waterfalls from melting glaciers. Short bridges decorated with prayer flags span fast flowing streams. There are at least 3 big lakes enroute.

Also the wind chill factor, hence despite the sun it is bitterly cold. Thank God for the woolens.

Changu Lake @ 12500'

Changu Lake @ 12500′

Baba Harbhajan temple at Kupup is a big draw. It is thronging with visitors come to pay homage to the soldier saint who guards the frontier – so it is said – even in death. The mandir for me is a disappointment. I would have preferred something military, simple, dignified & proud of bearing

Baba Harbhajan temple Kupup 13500'

Baba Harbhajan temple Kupup 13500′

And so to top of the world, Nathu La where it is 3 degrees F in May. The one big change I notice (besides better buildings / ongoing construction) is the open camaraderie between the Chinese & Indians. Raw recruits laughing & chatting – in what language I’d love to know.

What hasn’t changed however & never will is the warm hospitality of the Indian army. One experiences it at different locations again & again. Cheerful smiles, handshakes, hot tea & roasted nuts. Everyone ready for a photograph. Memories are made of this

Nathu La Post

Nathu La Post

Holla Mohalla

The Midas touch

The Midas touch

Along the Nahan – Dehradun highway, on either side of the road are forests of Sal, Mango & Poplar. Cruising at an easy 80mph, fast approaching & almost upon us, is what can only be described as a forest on wheels. Would this be Birnam Wood marching towards Dunsinane Hill?

It is rural India at its chaotic best. Tractors spilling with sugar cane bear past. Sometimes it is a beast of burden plying this load. There are make shift stalls beneath the shade of trees selling fresh sugarcane juice. At Rs 10 a glass it is a most refreshing drink especially when garnished with lemon & mint.

Villages appear & disappear, hand pumps dot the landscape, vast stretches of pot-holed roads interspersed with amazing state of the art highways. The forests give way to fields of mustard, wheat & corn. Swaying in the breeze, ready to be harvested for Holi has just gone by & Baisakhi is only a few days away.

Past Asan barrage on the Yamuna are field of strawberry. Ripe & red & a plenty the farmers don’t mind you plucking & eating them.

There are tractors brimming with human cargo in their colorful best. Everyone it appears is going to the Holla Mohaala fair at Paonta Sahib, midway between Nahan & Dehradun. The scenic Gurudwara dedicated to guru Gobind Singh is on the banks of the Yamuna. It has a museum that has antiques, weapons & personal belongings of the last Guru.

The mela is on in full swing & will continue up to Baisakhi.

The same at Anandpur Sahib is bigger & better we are told. Here there are turban tying competitions, mock fights & a demonstration of martial arts. Also, simulated battles with war drums & standard bearers, games of tent pegging & bareback horse riding.

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SOAP BUBBLES

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Against All Odds

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Against All Odds

It is said that the Ganga descended from the matted locks of Shiva so that the impact of it hitting ground did not destroy the land. The architect of this damning feat – Kapil Muni, in whose name there is a temple. At the estuary, crisscrossed by several tributaries Shivas’ locks come unbound –  so to speak. The languid river enters the sea, the sweet of its waters mixing with the salt. Marshland & sea, human & wild, 54 islands big & small, inhabited & uninhabited.

The Sundarbans, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.

It is also the place I had set my heart upon. Plans were made & unmade. Plans that came a cropper due to some inexorable wheel of karma.

I had wanted to ‘island hop’ but seeing local conditions the idea was dropped. Everything it seems is loaded against the traveller. You have to be one crazy, intrepid wanderer to come along.

As I must have been, surely.

I arrived at Bakkhali Island at the south western tip of the archipelago sans hotel reservation – only because – everything in this bastion of communism is routed through Calcutta.

The direct bus from Esplanade departed at 8 am & took 5 hours via Diamond Harbor, Kakdwip & Namkhana . The fare, all of Rs 78/- it halted at random for the convenience of locals with no planned halt for toilet, food or water. I semi dozed most of the way the countryside being largely non descript. It being December when the crops were already harvested & fields bare. There were acres upon acres of tawny, seared ground.

Hotel rooms there were aplenty but none, it seemed for the lone & weary traveller. Nobody told me why in so many words but it was the unwritten, unofficial rule that was followed to the tee. The policemen on the island were of no help either. What did they care for a single woman ?  I soon discovered it had something to do with a spate of recent suicides in sundry hotel rooms.  “ Would I come all the way to commit suicide?  Here? I could do it outside the police station. And well I might if I didn’t get that room fast.

The Govt owned Bakkhali Tourist Lodge relented but not before trying to scuttle me off some place else where the tariff was lower ‘For your own good madam….’ But temperatures both outside & inside were soaring & so we clinched a deal without further ado. Room No: 7  it was. Spacious, neat & clean with running hot water, television & room service. A veritable haven. I didn’t fail to praise it to the skies every time I ran into Mr. KK Kanjiwal, the manager.  “ Don’t forget to tell the higher ups in Calcutta “, he’d say. I swore I would. We soon became friends, my stay extending from one night to two, to four. I could have stayed on forever. Two hoots to  ‘No Singles’.

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,Sithala

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,
Sithala

Fish mongering

Fish mongering

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After a terrific fish curry – rice lunch & rest it was time to scour the isle. What better way to get oriented than on Sikantos’ motor van, a contraption that ingeniously aligned the desi thela/ van to a motorbike. Sikanto was to be Man Friday for the duration of my stay here. He is young & well informed, knows the islands like the back of his palm & speaks a smattering of both English & Hindi. Today it will be a trip to Frazerganj  & Henry Island. With the cool evening breeze blowing in the face it is really quite enjoyable.

The 3 kms stretch to Frazergunj goes past the silver sands of Dolphin beach, lines of Casuarina trees, windmills & paved paths leading to hidden tribal villages. It is a harsh existence indeed but the people seem content & happy. Perhaps because they are as yet simple & unspoilt. The islands have electric power but lanterns are lit in most homes, as electricity is unaffordable. Saw lots of kid lamb & goat reared for a living. The people are mostly farmers, fishermen & honey catchers. There is a junior school miles out of town & a clinic almost 22 kms away. The staple diet is rice, dal, veg & fish. There is no crime to speak of, the 2 policemen at the chowki being a mere presence.

Frazerganj has a deer & crocodile park managed by the department of Forests. A quick halt there & off we go to Benfish harbor to catch a ferry to Jambudwip. The charges are Rs 800 for a 2 hour ride on a motorized barge carrying about 15 persons. We are 10 of us so we each pay Rs 75/ – The waters are a light sea green, choppy & turbulent. With blue skies above it is exhilarating especially when the barge nears a mohana, which is, literally  where diverse streams of water & current converge. The barge sails along a coastline of Mangroves. It is forbidden to disembark but one can clearly see what must be at least a zillion red crabs on the silver shore.

The sands at Bakkhali are silver too but its  nice long beach with canopied benches is sadly littered. There are stalls selling fresh fish & tender coconut & there are chairs, if you can believe it at Rs 5/ an hour. Some enterprise this!

I have come in search of a Bon Bibi temple. Following the lampposts along the periphery I walk past the last one then take a left turn into a forest of dense Sundari trees. The temple, also called Bishalaksmi is bang on –  a simple corrugated structure. It opens from 7 to 12 noon for rituals performed by Thakur Maharaj . The temple has images of Durga, Lakshmi, Sithala Devi, Ganga & Bon Bibi who is the patron of forest dwellers. She is perhaps the closest one could ever get to creating an Islamic deity. But the many worshippers are oblivious to the Muslim connection, if any. The writer Amitav Ghosh has given a sample rendering of what he terms a mantra, in ’The Hungry Tide’.

“ In Allah’s name I begin to pronounce the Word

Of the whole universe. He is the Begetter, the Lord To all His disciples. He is full of mercy

Above the created world, who is there but He”

on Henry Island

on Henry Island

Sundari & Bani trees

Sundari & Bani trees

village huts Bakkhali

village huts Bakkhali

A narrow creek leads to Henry Island. Less than 5 kms from Bakkhali it is a magical space with an abundance of deer, wild boar, birds & trees. There are nature walks & the  beach is the best in the area. Limpid pools reflect the green of the leaves. The island has solar power & tiger prawns bred by the department of Fisheries. The watchtower offers a panoramic view of jungle, beach & water. Beherkhedi & Lothian Island  (populated by the royal Bengal tiger)& the ocean in the distance. There are cottages, named after trees of the forest-  Mangrove, Sundari, Bani – at Rs 700 a night, with advance booking – only through Calcutta, of course.

“ Teerth Sthan Baar Baar / Gangasagar Ek Baar” chant the pilgrims waiting to board a ferry to Kachuberia at the northern end of Sagardwip The journey thereafter would continue by road, another 35 Kms to Gangasagar at the southern most tip of the island where the Kapil Muni temple stands, at the confluence of river & sea. Most of the pilgrims have visited the  river along its path from mountain to sea. At Gangotri, its source, at Haridwar where the mountain river splashes into the plains & again at the Sangam in Allahabad where the Ganga & Yamuna meet the mythical Saraswati. A ‘darshan’ of the river meeting the sea is for most the penultimate.I must be the only person who is not a pilgrim  but I also want to see the waters meet & mingle.

It has taken the better part of the day already & here I stand with jostling crowds on a narrow pier at Lot 8 waiting for a  ferry that promises never to come. It is expected to every hour but there is this play of tides – jwar bhata / ebb & flow – because of which 2 earlier ferries were cancelled leading to an unprecedented rush. Why, I wonder, is the man at the ticket counter giving out tickets & swelling the crowd? To think that Gangasagar is a mere 72 kms from Bakkhali but short distances make for long journeys, as connectivity is poor. For the greater part of the day one has been juggling road & river transport, ferry & bus, bus & ferry doling out Rs 13 or Rs 8, at times even 50 paisa to cross a ford or a creek . The time taken enormous.

It is noon almost, the heat over bearing. I make a quick calculation. Would it be worth the gamble were I to manage the river crossing now ? It would take me an hour to the other side of the river & another hour to the southern most tip of the island. I had been on the road for 5 hours already. There is also the matter of return. To journey back before the various river crossings close & before the last bus departs from Namkhana. There is always the option of staying back for the night but what if there is a ‘No Singles’ policy in place here also?

Standing in line I make up my mind. It is impossible to turn around & walk back because the chanting crowd behind me is humongous. So I simply squeeze myself between the barricades & ouch …land safely  on the other side.

Gangasagar, for me was never meant to be.

My free advice to those who may care to listen. Visit the islands if you must. And only if you are already in the general vicinity. No point scampering across  half the globe. My visit was interesting but a tad of a let down. The downside of living by books & dreams I suppose. ‘The Hungry Tide’ being the culprit in this instance.

Dec 2012

a motor van

a motor van

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

jostling for Nirvana

jostling for Nirvana

P1020216

enjoying the chill

enjoying the chill