In My Socks: Climbing Seven Hundred 1000 Year Old Stairs

IMG_0522At the top of Vindyhyagiri Hill that I see in the distance is a majestic granite monolithic sculpture of Lord Bahubali, a revered Jain saint. (What I didn’t know at the time is that I would soon be climbing all 700 steps to the top of the hill and to the foot of the statue. In my socks.)

At the gate to this world famous site in Karnataka South India we dodge touts, postcard salesmen, socks salesmen and fake tour guides. Then following a rough homemade sign, we twist our way through the crowds to the shoe check in. Like most religious sites in India shoes must be left outside the entranceeven in this case which, for me, includes a scary long flight of 700 steep stone stairs to climb. I will have to chill out my fear and simply imagine that the new socks I brought with me to India are hiking boots.IMG_0529

Cutting through another welcoming party of hawkers and self-promoters we make our way through a simple gate and start to climb the granite stairs. The noon sun beats down and the sky, blue as though it were painted for a children’s story book, is unbroken by clouds. Colourful crowds of barefoot climbers––families with young children, large groups of school children, and a handful of European tourists––grab the sturdy railing alongside the stairs, and laughing and romping about, make their way up in a long line.

“Take your time,” a French tourist says to me as I stop to rest and chat. “You’ve got 600 more stairs to go.” IMG_0530Far below a checkerboard of green vegetable gardens, vineyards, coconut groves and fields of millet and corn glitters in the sun.IMG_0522

It’s easy to pad up these ancient stone stairs one slow step at a time (we’ve had lot of stair practice this week visiting old forts and the World Heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora even though I could usually wear my hiking shoes there.) Pad, pad, pad. I like the feel of rough-cut granite through my socks. The rhythm of my stepping up the stairs is mesmerizing and I’m brought into an ancient world I did not know about.IMG_0531

Sravanabelagola, the town below, means monk of the white pond. Towering above, serene and simple, the sculpture that represents the deity Bahubali, is a five story high monolith carved out of granite in 981A.D. People of the Jain faith, (which was founded in the 6th century B.C. to deal with the constraints of caste in Hinduism) have been making pilgrimages to this site for over a thousand years. I can only imagine their thoughts as they plodded along up the stairs to work toward their goal of achieving complete purity.

I reach the foot of the giant rock saint in an hour or so. IMG_0538For me it is not the faith that brings me here but the sight. I am living in history, surrounded by the lives those who have come to this place for inspiration.

Slowly I pad back down the 700 granite steps, refreshed and enlightened.IMG_0544

Even with my socks on.

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Gentle India:Yoga

P1050869“This is your wakeup call Ma’am. It is six o’clock. Have a nice day,” the quiet voice on the phone tells me. With a quick hot shower and a cup of tea in the still, dark, morning our day begins. Sunlight is beginning to break its way through the tall trees surrounding our cabin in the woods as we walk a couple hundred feet along a rock path that leads to a large open pavilion. A few yoga mats are laid out. One is for me. A small candle with a ring of marigold and rose petals around it burns in the corner.

I silently sit down on my mat, cross my legs, and breathe in the smell of burning incense. A small thin man wearing a turban strides around the pavilion swinging a vessel of smoking eucalyptus leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. The only sound is the sweet song of birds––singing in dozens of different voices. Am I awake? I feel I as though I’m in a mystical dream world.

“Please sit comfortably. Make sure you are comfortable. Keep your back and neck straight. Close your eyes gently. Be aware of your surroundings,” the slow quiet lilt of Doctor P., the young woman who is the in-house physician of Ayruvedic medicine and our yoga master this morning, intones. How can I not be aware of the beauty of early morning all around me?

“Be aware of your body,” she says next. Aware I am. My thighs are burning and the rest of my body trembles with awareness of muscles I didn’t know I had before I came to this place a few days ago. Now I’ve been here long enough to know that soon I’ll forget my initial discomfort of sitting with my legs crossed in front of me.

My 1½-hour practice, that was long and difficult when we first arrived, comes to a close too soon. “With a little smile on your face, open your eyes with a few blinks,” Doctor P. says.

It’s not hard to smile. I open my eyes and the pavilion is flooded with sunlight, the early morning mist is disappearing into the forest and my day unfolds.

After a breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge and yoghurt Ross and I take a long walk through the farm past the greenhouses and some other sheds where the cows sleep at night.P1050874
Farther on there is a little Hindu shrine to Ganesh, a god of good luck that some of the workers decorate with chrysanthemums and pray in every morning.IMG_0491P1050878

My favourite spot is a small raised pavilion in the middle of the vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by bougainvillea and has a big mat on the floor with colourful handcrafted quilt and pillows to lean back on. Gentle breezes rustle the leaves in exotic trees at the edge of the garden and dozens of colourful birds call out to one another and  perform their little dances near the pavilion. It’s and ideal place for writing and sketching.P1050882

Ayruvedic principles, (arus=life; veda= science) including a vegetarian diet, herbal treatments (for me a message,) yoga and a no-alcohol-on-the-premises policy, in Shreyas retreat, near Bangalore, are a big healthy change, from my usual life style.

“This place is as good as it gets. Anywhere,” whispers Ross.

Gentle India is waiting for me to discover . P1050890

This Is India

IMG_9945How can anyone sleep? Way up over the Bay of Bombay is a thin slice of silver in the black sky, which reminds me I should stop looking out my window and get some rest. The sea glistens like thick molasses. It is 5am, and the in the darkness I can only just make out the gathering place beneath the triumphal arch of the Gateway of India. Under a dim street lamp a couple of dogs are curled up asleep on the seaside promenade.

The emptiness is silent—even the pigeons are asleep.

I’ve been here before. I know that soon India will wake up. I can hardly wait to start another journey. After an 11 ½ hour flight to Frankfurt, and a short change onto another flight 9 ½ hours to Mumbai, I’ve arrived as though by magic into another world.

It’s 5am and I am convincing myself that I should stay awake. There is long orange line stretching to the horizon, hinting of daylight. Slowly the sun breaks through the mist. A few small boats begin to quiver and move out to sea; a vendor or two push their carts into place beside the promenade. The dogs have changed their positions.P1050424

And my stomach is growling in anticipation of a breakfast of the sambar, masala dosa and coriander chutney that I’ve been dreaming of all year.

Now it’s 7am and the harbour and gathering place beneath the arch have come alive. There are a few little boats moving out to sea with fishermen standing in them casting their nets. A small ferry, the first of the day, makes its way across the bay to the 1500 year-old labyrinth of caves and Hindu temples carved into the rock on Elephant Island. In a corner near the arch a monk is emptying a large sack of grain for the pigeons and a large crowd of people gathers around them. A trio of men dressed in shorts and long shirts is facing the sun and beginning a yoga practice. Colourful women with their saris flowing walk along the promenade in small groups. The vendors have come to life.IMG_9974

After breakfast in the garden, I brace myself for the mayhem outside. I know with my sun deprived Canadian skin I’m like a sitting duck on the street and try my best to comport myself as a local. It doesn’t work. I am surrounded by the postcard sellers, giant balloon sellers and touts offering city tours “cheap cheap cheap.” I try hold my eyes straight ahead and (skilfully I think) work my way into group of teenage school children passing by. It’s a triple bonus. I’ve escaped the postcard sellers, am guaranteed safe crossing the busy streets, and I’ve helped the school children practice their English.P1050472

I love wandering up Chhatrapati Shiva Marg, slightly off the usual tourist pathway, past Mumbai’s 19th century colonial buildings ­–– the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon Library. It is a feast of colour. I don’t mind being enticed to step into the tiny women’s cooperative shops along the way that offer a stunning variety of hand-loomed textiles, embroideries and weaving from cottage industries in the surrounding districts.  P1050498

Late in the afternoon we settle into a quiet evening (in our palace hotel) with a yoga practice, especially designed for us by the “palace” yoga master, to help us “detoxify” the effects of jet lag.

Slowwwwly. Breathe in and out. Relaxxxxxx. Strechhhhh your body.

Ommmmm.

Sooooo hummmsa hummmsa sooooo.

This is where I am. India. P1050388

The Dance of the Red Necked Ostriches

P1040520 The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is full of wonder, especially at Christmas time. But some say the dance of the ostrich is the most beautiful dance of all in the animal kingdom.

We are in Kidepo National Park, Uganda,  a small area bordering South Sudan and Kenya. P1040509It is early morning and we have driven a long gravel road around zebras, a few elephants and through grim tsetse-fly-infested country to find the red-necked ostriches.  P1040548

Look. Finally. There they are.P1040520

Sixteen ostriches are behaving as though as though they are sugar plum fairies. Small heads and graceful long necks turn as they sense the danger we bring simply by being here. Soft, generously plumed bodies flutter and whirl. A few ballerina-like pointe steps are taken before their strong two-toed feet propel them into ten-foot strides.

And then they run. P1040514Who knows where we will find them next?

They live in nomadic groups in the Sahel, the area between the desert in northern Africa and the grassland in the south. They are the fastest birds on earth and they do not (as some popular stories suggest) stand and bury their heads in the sand when they are afraid. They run when they are in danger. Because the population of ostriches has been decreasing dramatically for the past two hundred years, we need to be concerned about them and work to protect existing populations.

I’ll think about the beautiful word we live in and the dance of the wild ostrich when we watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy this Christmas.

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hush Now. The Tree Lions Are Waking Up

If these lions could talk would they be able to tell me why they like to climb trees?No one else seems to know why.

This is one of two places on earth where lions climb trees and I’m here to ask questions. We are in the Ishasha Wilderness in the southwest section of the 2000 square kilometre Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, bordering on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hush now.

See that thing with a black tip switching in the tall grasses?  That is a tail. The lions are waking up. It is five o’clock. The sun, a giant red ball in the mist, is sinking into the horizon. There are 20,000 African kob in Queen Elizabeth Park and it looks like they’ve all come to this spot. A few warthog families skitter around, thousands of savannah buffalo are on the perimeter, and the elephants are down by the river with the hippos.

Switch, switch, now two lions tails wave around in the tall grass.

One lion head pops up and looks around. In a few minutes the animal moves into a long slow stretch (you know it – the yoga Marjariasana pose or Cat pose.) Eventually she steels her way through the tall grasses to where another large head appears. This is the male. A beautiful, thick, dark mane outlines his face. He yawns and roars. The lion couple preen and socialize while their cub plays, and eventually they all get up and pad, with a purpose, to a gigantic Ficus tree. They climb it and settle down on its long, strong branches.

If the lions could talk would they tell me that they climb trees because they need to lie in the cool air above the hot grassland? (After all they have been sleeping and resting for twenty hours in the grass as the day gets hotter and hotter.) Or would they say they can no longer stand being bitten by the miserable tsetse flies that live in the grasses?

Maybe they would simply say they need to get a better view of their dinner.

The lion family we see is especially small – a large male, a female and their cub. Life has been difficult for them. Originally there were two cubs. The female lion, like other lionesses, in human terms is known to be a poor, indifferent mother, who leaves her cubs alone and prey to danger for long periods.

The big male, from his branch, scours the grassland to target kills, usually a weakling, in the hundreds of animals below the tree. The female, who is faster and more agile than the male, takes hunting orders from her man and sneaks down into the grassland. The male and his cub watch. When the kill is made, the male will take over and eat first. Then the female and other large animals will move in, and, at last, the young cub will have dinner. If he is lucky.

But it is not easy to take down a kob or buffalo. Yesterday we saw a young lion dragging his hind legs behind him as he crawled through the grass. Would he survive? Was his back broken by a buffalo? Would the park rangers and veterinarian be able to help him?

The lion, the world’s largest cat after the tiger, is in danger. In the past twenty years, hunting wild game and wars have added to precarious nature of life on the savannah and the lion population in Uganda has decreased by thirty to fifty per cent.

Tonight it is peaceful in Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park. The wildlife in is protected; there is no hunting; the wars are finished. I’m thrilled to be here, to let nature be my guide, and to think about how we can live and work sustainably to protect nature.

“Look deep into nature then you will better understand everything.”  Albert Einstein

The Giraffes Are Here. Kidepo Valley National Park. Uganda

Bumping and sloshing over a muddy track, our open-air jeep creeps slowly over the savannah. With the look of a worried parent on his face Patrick says, “Last night there was a fight between three males. Two younger ones and the old leader were battling for power, control of the pride. One lion was badly injured and ran off. We don’t know where he is. We need to find him, make sure he’s okay.”

Snuggled in between South Sudan and Kenya in the far northwestern reaches of Uganda, Kidepo Valley National Park is one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. After a torrential downpour an hour ago, the air is cooler and there is an eerie stillness. Smells of damp earth, elephant dung and wet grass fill the air. A big orange sun is sinking into the horizon behind rugged volcanic mountain peaks, and our excitement grows knowing that surprises lurk in the grasses and the fast approaching night.

“What are those curious buildings in the distance?” Ross asks, pointing to big dark forms in the distance that are beginning to come into focus. “It looks like a village.”

“It’s not a village. They are the elephants,” Patrick, who is an expert wildlife guide, born in the area, replies in a proud voice.

We keep our distance, but the matriarchal herd of forty-two huge elephants is unperturbed as they approach us. They’re feeding on the lush wet grass, stretching their trunks up once in a while to taste the delicious leaves of African Acacia trees that rise majestically out of the savannah. Baby elephants frolic about under the protective eye of their mothers, then bound back to them for vigorous quick feeds. A handful of bull elephants watch on the perimeter of the herd.

I’m mesmerized by the grace and family cohesiveness of the elephants but, although I could watch them forever, we need to move on. We still need to see if we can find out what happened to the lions.

Our guides scan the high rocky outcrops. “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn’s song, rings through my head.

“The lions have moved on.” Patrick says with certainty. “Look. The giraffes are here.”

I strain my eyes, blinded by the low sun, and pick out a strange group of five or six cream and rosy brown, spotted towers in the grass It is a nursery group of fourteen Rothschild giraffes, with mothers suckling their babies and grazing on the leaves and bark of tall trees. Two huge male giraffes are on the side-lines. For now, the giraffes are safe. Their predators, the lions, are nowhere in sight. 

The number of Rothschild giraffes in Kidepo was a sustainable population of 400 in the 1960’s until poaching, hunting, Idi Amin’s reign of terror, and civil war in the 1970’s and 1980’s, disastrously reduced the population to a single female and two males by 1992. In an urgent effort to save them, three females and one male Rothschild giraffes were flown into Kidepo from Kenya, under the stewardship of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Kenyan Wildlife Authority. Some reports estimate that there are now 280 in Uganda but they still remain on the endangered species list.

It’s an awesome sight to see fourteen of these beautiful animals together. The Rothschilds are the tallest giraffes on earth. Their babies are six feet tall at birth and adults weigh up to 2800 pounds. We speak in hushed whispers, careful not to disturb them. They are serene and gangly, but if we disturb them this evening they will run – at 56 kilometres an hour.

Later we learn that “Tim,” Kidepo’s senior lion, survived his fight. It wasn’t his first. We find him the next day majestically perched on a rock outcrop above the savannah. There are no giraffes or elephants nearby but hundreds of kob and buffalo are grazing. I suppose Tim is planning the next dinner for his pride. 

For now, all’s well in the Kidepo Valley.

Being with the Mountain Gorillas . Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

Into magic and down the mountain, I trek. New crops, a checkerboard of sweet potatoes, beans and Irish potatoes, are emerging from the terraced land’s iron-rich, red soil.

Volcanoes tower above through the clouds. Giant Eucalyptus and flowering trees stretch up through the forest.

We are in the southwest corner of Uganda, a few kilometres from the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Arthur, who carries my backpack, was born here. His strength and commitment to conservation is impressive as we track down, down, down, into the impenetrable forest with thick barbed vines grabbing us, and giant anthills to avoid. Listen to the birds, smell the rotting forest.

Impenetrable: solid, thick, and unyielding.

“Stop now.” The head guide whispers after a challenging 2½ hour descent. “Come forward one by one. Be very quiet.”

And there he is. Lying back on a thick hammock on vines about five feet below me is a young male gorilla…young but very large and healthy. He pays no attention to me as he happily grabs delicious leaves and green shoots around him with his large hairy hands and stuffs them into his mouth.

I I have just one hour to be with this family of twenty gorillas. The little ones play, swinging on the branch of a tree until it bends to the ground, disturbing the great silverback below, protector of the family, who growls, telling them to be more careful. The older gorilla children, like human teenagers I’ve known, spend their time relaxing and feeding, pulling giants leaves off giant trees to eat. Two big males follow the silverback, learning their role in the family. Then the big silverback tires, tolls over on his stomach, props his head in his hands and rests.

Mountain gorillas, our human ancestors, were almost extinct a dozen or so years ago. I am in awe of the conservation and education initiative in combination with an effort to improve sustainability of small communities near the National Park that have led to increased populations of mountain gorillas.

Good-bye friends. ‘Till we meet again.