Look. There’s a Bengal Tiger in My Cappuccino.

P1060058We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard.   It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun.P1050950 P1050998               But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. P1050991 - Version 2Then her eyes meet ours.P1050989 - Version 3 And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space.   We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. P1060060The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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The Return of Travel Musings

Where have you been Nancy?

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Well now, I’ve been weaving between promoting “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” and travelling along other roads.

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This time we drove back roads in a little black sports car, with the top down most of the way. IMG_1456It was an 8,500km loop west from Calgary to Sechelt B.C. (where we went to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts) before heading south toward San Francisco, and then west to Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon before going home, north to Alberta.

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IMG_1557IMG_1741IMG_1937image1.jpgIt was an awesome six weeks and I have filled stacks of Moleskine journals with fuel for short stories and maybe even another book.

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When I was writing “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” I could refer to dozens of letters I had written our family. It was fun to read the old letters but there was also a lot I didn’t tell my parents. And my paltry beaten up journal was very boring. I wished I had been more thoughtful about what I wanted to record. It is hard to remember what it was like fifty years later and I’m learning from my “journaling” mistakes. I vowed to record my thoughts differently.

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My journal is my heart these days. I don’t repeat my itinerary and I have thousands of photos for back up descriptions. I use Moleskine notebooks (with the fine top quality paper) that easily fit into a small handbag I carry. I have a good pen (that doesn’t leak) and, for emergency, a supply of freshly sharpened pencils. The pencils are important especially when my paper gets wet in the rain or gets soup spilled on it. I also carry a headlamp with me, to use when it’s dark.

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You see I write (if you can call it that, I make notes) on the spot – in taxis (oh those stories the drivers tell,) in parks (ideal activity for initiating conversation,) in restaurants (to copy out menus and future to do’s in the kitchen.) I ask other people to write in my notebook–directions, names, and addresses, more maps. In other words I store fuel for stories–what I hear, what it tastes like, what’s that smell, what did she say–in my notebooks.

My journals aren’t pretty but I like the mess. They give me a comfy cosy feeling that inspire my travel musings and brings me back to the places we’ve been weaving around.

I’d love to read your thoughts on travel journaling. Please click on leave A Reply to comment and post.

P1010357Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday season.

Northern Kerala. Shifting Sands

I’m in “no time.” What I mean is that time doesn’t matter much here  for me by the beach in Northern Kerela –– today, soon, later, its ready, or tomorrow –– it’s all the same.  I like it that way. It gives me time to think and write a little. My time will change and Neeleshwar is a good place to stay before our long flights back to Canada.

IMG_0867I’m sitting on the veranda of our cottage, “Sama.” Like the meaning of its name, equanimity, mental calmness, is all around. In front of me are three bands. The blue Arabian Sea, the golden beach, and the rich green coast. They all depend on each other.

I listen to the quiet crackle of coconut palms swaying. Beyond a small lagoon, waves whoosh and slap up on the beach. A man in a pale orange lungi walks the line between the beach and the sea, dragging a fishing net. A couple of crows come out of their roost in the coconut trees to caw at him and perhaps wait for a treat.IMG_0852

A young white-bellied sea eagle that nests with its family in some large trees a few hundred metres down the coast, soars high, directly into the sun, catching the thermals. The magnificent raptor is careful not to cast its shadow on its prey, the fish below. Earlier this morning a family of dolphins played and feasted on a school of fish while we walked the beach after our morning yoga session.IMG_0857

This is the Malabar Coast, a 845 km strip between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats in South India. From 3000 BC  in between long stretches of beach are trading centres for fish and spices. Major cities like Kannur, Calicut and Cochin with a few exceptional villages like Tellicherry, delight both visitors and locals.IMG_0799

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I’m in awe of the timelessness of nature and history. We’ll need to work hard to keep it. For our children.IMG_0817

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

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.