Photo: Beverly Joubert
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The colors of India
I have just returned from a two week trip to India and Bhutan, a trip that had as its focus the state of Madhya Pradesh, located in the center of the country and known for wonderful cultural sites, pretty countryside, a rich rural life, and tigers. I was there to find tigers and to visit some of the safari camps, most notably those of &Beyond, the preeminent company in India that has wide ranging interests but is specialized in wildlife, conservation and film making.
Because we were moving quite quickly, I travelled, as always, with a carry-on bag and thus had to make a decision: do I pack binoculars or camera? I chose the former so the photos I ended up with are mediocre and blurry. Nevertheless, they give a sense of what we saw.
early morning in lovely Kanha National Park, home to 94 known tigers
we had the unbelievable good fortune of spending 30 minutes, alone, with Awrai, a large male. We encoutered him basking on the track in the morning sun. After some grooming, he came walking towards us and waited, on three separate occasions, for us to back up so he could proceed along the trail
in the dense forest, spotting a pug mark is one of the best ways to track a tiger
the wonderful blue in which local houses are painted is to replicate the sky and to attract mosquitos, so they say
sharing the trough
household well, a real luxury in village India
Roadside breakfast with curious onlookers
arrival in Agra to visit the rescued sloth bears and elephants at Wildlife S.O.S
The Taj Mahal, floating above the chaos of the streets, is a perfect example of the omnipresent contrast found throughout India
thanks to the courage and commitment of Wildlife S.O.S, all sloth bears that were used and abused as dancing bears along the road have been rescued
and now play, relax and enjoy their lives
at their elephant rescue center, there are 9 eles and plans to rescue 61 more. The most famous of these is Raju, whose plight was captured on youtube and has gone viral. These chains, studded with spikes, were used to hold Raju and the other elephants here in painful, miserable captivity
Kartick, the co-founder of Wildlife S.O.S, cut Rajus chains in a night raid on July 4th, 2014. Above is the photo of Raju weeping after his release. He is slowly recovering from the wounds he suffered over the course of his 50-year captivity. His right left leg is vastly swollen still and so painful he walks gingerly on it, but Kartick feels he will recover over the next year and a half
Another rescued elephant that was struck on the highway at night and left for dead
Behind and up the hill from Amankora Paro are the fired remains of Drukgyel Dzong, a 17th century fortress that saw battle between the Bhutanese and the Tibetans on one of their numerous engagements that took place in centuries past. An easy stroll across open fields and past village houses, it is a magical place to be, sitting by the large prayer wheel, watching the sun sink through the pine trees.
I have returned for a brief stay after a decade’s absence and I wonder that I could have lingered so long out of the mystical, magical field that hovers round this Himalayan Kingdom. It is Lost Horizons brought to life.
The journey – and isn’t it always the journey – is an evocative and thrilling one. Sitting at the window on the left of the new airbus that Druk Air flies, I leave the plains of northern India quickly behind and travel north, up to the roof of the world. Circling around Kathmandu, a dry and desertified landscape itself, I glimpse, on the horizon, the grand Himalayan ridge of peaks, white with snow, piercing low hanging cloud. My chest always tightens to be in the presence of one of the earth’s greatest features – massive, implacable, story-filled.
Leaving Kathmandu behind, setting my watch half an hour ahead, the plane bears east to the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. And there, at my fingertips, are the famous ones: Kangchenjunga, Everest, and, as I reach the border of Bhutan, Jomolhari, the second largest peak in the Kingdom.
I feel like crying. I always do as I pass this way.
The storied approach to Paro, Bhutan’s international airport, is always heart stopping. In the passenger coach the thrill of slaloming through the mountain walls is exciting. I have done the same journey in the cockpit where the thrill is magnified by the beeping alerts that warn of scraped wingtips. Bhutanese pilots are some of the best in the world, however, as this approach is one of the toughest, and to master the feat their training elevates them to an unparalleled level. And then we touch down, gentle as a bird, into a world of painted houses, men with bear knees and long socks, children with apple red cheeks, women of glossy hair and long dresses, a Kingdom that sits like a sandwich between the two monsterously hungry mouths of India and China.
From February 1-15 each year, the Surajkund Mela, a splashy, rich cultural fair, celebrates the extraordinarily diverse craft traditions of the Indian subcontinent. With artisans coming from all regions of the country, the fair ground – supposedly just a half hour from New Delhi – also offers music and dance performances as well as regional foods. And in 2015, 20 countries from Europe and Africa will join in, making the Mela a truly international event.
In Delhi, you have to think long and hard about if you truly want to go somewhere, so horrific is the traffic. But the mela was a real draw for me, and so I headed out from the hotel at 11 on a drive to the other side of town that ended up taking 1.5 hours. And what a drive it always is in India! “Driving is a sport here!” I said to Balbir Singh who nimbly squeezed to the left, slid to the right and, like an expert skier, slalomed his way through tuks tuks, motorbikes, lorries, cows and more white cars. “Yes,” he laughed, “It’s like playing a zig zag computer game!”
We arrived at the huge fair ground where a ferris wheel was spinning above a surging crowd of school kids, young, reed thin teenage girls all decked out in saris and kurta pyjamas, jewelry, and full on makeup, bands of young guys enjoying the dances and music and probably the clutches of young ladies, and elderly friends out for a bargain. Each morning the vendors from all over the country set up anew, draping their wares, piling the folded rugs, displaying, copper and ceramic and terracotta crockery. Each stand has a sign indicating its state and city and mentioning any awards won. The wares were variable – some kitschy like the heavily lacquered upholstered furniture – but there were some interesting crafts – decorative iron work reminiscent of pieces I have seen from Haiti, copper vessels that had a lovely feel to them, hand made paper backed with strips of sari, wonderful textiles of all kinds and finely embroidered cloth from Bangalore. But as variable as the wares was the crowd and, taken together, the outing was well worth the slog to get there.
It was a long trip – 26 hours from my frozen door in New York, via Dubai, New Delhi, and Dehradun – that ended with a nighttime arrival at Vana, a year-old wellness retreat secreted on 21 acres of sal forest and planted fruit trees in the Himalayan foothills.
What a remarkable place! Built by the Singh family, it became the private passion of young Veer Singh who heads a team of more than 250 staff and therapy specialists. With its holistic approach to wellness and his sensitivity to the ecological balance of the project, Vana exhibits an extraordinary thoughtfulness in design, detail and finish. No expense has been spared on this 80-room sanctuary, and yet there is nothing superfluous, nothing jarring, nothing that you would wish to do without. From the spare design providing the backdrop and the volumes for a wonderfully eclectic collection of art and craft to the exquisite plating of really delicious food, there is no detail out of place. The staff is just as perfectly turned out in sober, chic uniforms enlivened by smiles and greetings that are always warm and welcoming. And their anticipation of guests’ needs is something remarkable.
Daily included activities are yoga and meditation, but there is also dance, aqua moves in the indoor pool and nutritional cooking. The core of ones stay, however, are the therapies that range from Western massage to Ayurveda, authentic Tibetan treatments and Natural therapies that includes Raag therapy (relaxation in the presence of a wonderful flutist), as well as Acupuncture. There are also full on detox programs. All are scheduled after an initial hour-long meeting with a doctor and are held in large, comfortable treatment rooms. Yoga and Meditation can also be privatized as can off-property excursions into the hills. Finally, there is a salon for hair, manis and pedis to get you ready for reentry into the hustle and bustle of home.
A standout at Vana is the food. Both Western and local menus are available, much of it organic and locally sourced, plated with a fine, creative hand and served on exquisite dishes in the lovely, open Salana dining room. Twice a week an Ayurvedic menu is offered at lunch at Anayu, an indoor/ outdoor restaurant set with gorgeous brass place settings and equally as beautiful. Breakfasts are served a la carte in addition to a small buffet of freshly baked breads, yoghurts, smoothies, fruits and fresh pressed juices of all kinds.
The whole experience is utterly delicious.