Author Archives: C.C.
Author Archives: C.C.
Located 335 kilometres from Mumbai, Ratnagiri has hills on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. Close to town, there are undisturbed and underrated beaches such as Velas, Diveagar, and Guhagar that offer an insight into the Konkan lifestyle.
► Home to the famous Alphonso mango, Ratnagiri is the perfect spot if you want to indulge in mango picking, and of course, eat them fresh from the tree.
► Try Konkan-style fish curry and balance its spicy flavours with sol kadi, a pink-coloured drink. Local snacks such as ambapoli and phanaspoli are must-try.
► Blue Ocean Resort & Spa offers a classic beach resort experience with comfortable rooms.
► Set amidst coconut and mango plantations, Atithi Parinay Homestay is an example of Indian hospitality. Stay here for its traditional food and outstanding location.
An erstwhile Portuguese territory, Diu is connected by a lattice of bridges and ferries to Gujarat on the mainland. It has a distinct Mediterranean-meets-Kutch look where houses are painted sunshine yellow, creamy white and powder blue under a scorching sun and clear sky. With a Union Territory status, it is a refuge for travellers to get a real drink as its neighbour is a dry state. Some call it Little Goa, and some call it Gujarat’s Ibiza. But it’s actually a charming and quiet island with clean beaches and delicious food. Wander at the old Portuguese churches and dine on fabulous seafood including rockfish, calamari and prawns.
► Rent a bike and drive to the quiet beaches of Goghla or Ngao and explore the Naida Caves.
► Plan a day trip to the Gir National Park to spot the endangered Asiatic lion from an open-roof jeep.
► Azzaro Resort and Spa offers 40 rooms and suites, a bar, and a spa.
► Close to the Gir National Park, The Fern is an eco-friendly resort with two restaurants, a spa, and simply decorated cottages and villas that bring you closer to nature.
At least 30 per cent of safari-guide training is about learning to evade death and acute suffering, both for I you and your guests. Encounter the Mozambique spitting cobra, for instance, as I did in our camp kitchen one morning, and you risk being hit by a shot of venom that can blind you from eight feet away.
Once you’ve got a grip on how to avoid this and countless other potentially lethal species, the process is exhilarating, and at times extremely challenging— something I discovered during a stint at Eco Training, a professional guide school near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Over four weeks, the school’s instructors taught me and 18 other aspiring guides to identify 90 bird calls, 12 frog calls, and 60 trees. We learned to locate the constellations, dug around in different types of soil, and squished a whole lot of dung between our fingers.
We were taught a trick called ‘kudu ears,’ which involves cupping your ears to mimic the giant-eared antelope. This allowed us to catch the faint rumble of an elephant in a thicket, and save our guests from being trampled. Within days, we were looking in entirely new ways at the bush, the tracks, the scat, scanning the mall with the beady eye of an African fish eagle. Then we came to the important stuff, like how to keep guests entertained when you’ve seen nothing but impalas for the past hour. “Know your arthropods,” advised David Havemann, our stern South African instructor, who could spin the life cycle of a fig wasp into a drama worthy of Game of Thrones.
But for many of us would-be guides, the biggest challenge was graduating from the obsession with the Big Five most people arrive on safari with. Our goal? To have guests feel as inspired by insects, birds, and grass as by a group of playful lion cubs, and leave the bush, as I did, overcome by the profound, symbiotic beauty of it all.
For a long time, going on safari basically meant one thing: observing wildlife from the inside of a jeep. These days, however, discerning travellers want to go deeper. Instead of being told about the animals, and efforts to conserve them, they want to participate—whether spending the day with an anti-poaching unit or taking part in arhino-relocation mission.
According to Michael Lorentz, of safari specialist Passage to Africa, the itinerary of the future is driven by experience, rather than by creature comforts. “It has become about what you did, the people you met who are making a difference,” Lorentz said, noting many guests want privileged access to one-off conservation missions, such as witnessing African Parks’ translocation of elephants in Malawi. Even first- timers booking safaris to iconic parks in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and Zimbabwe are demanding a more meaningful experience, according to Karen Zulauf of safari outfitter Deeper Africa.
A typical Deeper Africa trip to Zimbabwe, for example, would be led by some of the country’s most prominent conservationists, such as Mark Brightman of the Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit, and include an afternoon with the Shangaan people, former hunter-gatherers now at the forefront of community conservation in Gonarezhou National Park. As Zulauf put it, “Connecting our guests with the right people and projects reframes the way they view Africa, and the way they present it to others.”
You won’t know you’re nearing Arijiju until yon have already arrived. The house is built into the Laikipia foothills north of Mount Kenya, its grass-covered roof and rough stone walls making it appear, from afar, like part of the landscape. The effect is one of inevitability—as if the property were always meant to be there.
Most visitors come to Kenya for the wildlife, and the 32,000-acre Borana Conservancy surrounding Arijiju teems with all manner of creatures. But, unlike most safari properties, this lodge feels like a destination in itself. Built as a vacation retreat by a Londoner with African roots, it’s now available for exclusive-use rental. The 14-person staff, which includes butlers, chefs, and a masseuse, is warm and attentive, lighting crackling fires at bedtime and delivering coffee to your room when you wake. That human touch gives the five-bedroom property an intimate, homey feel, like a fabulous friend’s personal retreat.
Beyond the occasional campaign-style piece, Arijiju has none of the typical safari-lodge trappings—no Masai prints or mosquito-netted beds, and the only thatched roofs are those of the outbuildings. Instead, relaxed luxury reigns: rugs are layered on the hardwood floors, and linen sofas are draped with rabbit-fur throws guests can use to ward off the evening chill. The decor takes more inspiration from India and Morocco than from Kenya, yet everything about the house is in keeping with the spirit of Laikipia. That’s in large part because Arijiju puts all eyes on the landscape that surrounds it. Massive glass doors overlook a forest of acacia and African olive trees, and beyond the elevated terrace, the grounds are open to the wilds. Baboons scratch at the earth a few yards from the breakfast table. In dry stretches, giraffes and elephants come to drink from the pool.
There are game drives, of course, and you can see it all—even rarer animals like Grevy’s zebras and both black and white rhinos are flourishing in Borana and neighbouring Lewa. But on the slim chance your favourite animal should elude you, any disappointment will be quelled the moment Arijiju’s flickering lanterns announce your arrival home.
Alvear Art Hotel – At the younger, more casual sister of the famed Alvear Palace—one of Buenos Aires’s most famous hotels—guests can expect a similar level of service in a more relaxed setting. Ask for the sprawling Art Suite on the 15th floor for spectacular views of the Rio de la Plata. If your room doesn’t have river vistas, head to the rooftop swimming pool for some of the best panoramas in town. Artesano, the hotel’s vintage-inspired cocktail bar, has a fantastic drinks list by star mixologist Renato Giovanni.
Faena Hotel – The glamorous Faena hotel set the style benchmark for Buenos Aires when it opened in Puerto Madero in 2004. The Philippe Starck-designed rooms can verge on ostentatious, but guests are guaranteed VIP treatment whether at the hammam or by the pool. Drop by the nearby Faena Art Center to take in impressive rotating exhibits of contemporary art, or book a table for the hotel’s sexy, if pricey, Rojo Tango dinner show. The Library Lounge is a great spot to kick off an evening with cocktails and live music.
Home Hotel – When it opened in 2005, Home Hotel put the Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood on the map, and quickly became the go-to lodging option for cool kids and design aficionados. The carefully curated, Scandinavian-influenced decor includes Florence Knoll furniture and vintage Willi am Morris wallpaper. A small basement spa caters to Long-haul travellers, with jet-lag treatments such as a California massage and hot healing bath. Book the spacious Garden suite for your own splash pool.
Aramburu Restaurant – This bistro, the more relaxed spin-off of chef Gonzalo Aramburu’s celebrated Aram burn restaurant, sits on the cusp of the edgy Constitucion barrio. Starters such as steak tartare with mustard ice-cream are designed for sharing; the succulent lamb chops are a particular highlight. Sommelier Nazareno Gonzalez oversees the wonderful, well-priced wine list. Stick around after dinner for a drink at the new secret basement bar, Under.
Chori – Choripan, the humble sausage sandwich, is an Argentinean staple, but Chori is the first place to come up with a gourmet version. Not only are the chorizos in this Palermo spot made in-house but the soft buns are several notches above the standard baguette, and sauces go well beyond spicy chimichurri. The team also mixes up the protein, experimenting with fish, black sausage, and venison. Try the regional de cordero, a lamb sausage served with yogurt, red onion, cucumber, and mint.
El Baqueano – By sourcing products from small producers around Argentina, Fernando Rivarola, the chef-owner of EL Baqueano (the name translates to “the gatherer”), has created a wholly unique tasting menu. There’s a story behind every ingredient, like the Andean new potatoes grown 9,000 feet above sea level, or the sustainably sourced pacu river fish in the clever dish called “falso bife de chorizo”—or fake steak.
El Preferido – Literary icon Jorge Luis Borges grew up on the same block as this pink-hued bar and store, which was one of his haunts. El Preferido is an old-school neighbourhood bodega, where hanging hams and stacked cans of hearts of palm are integral to the vibe. Come here for a cortado or early-evening tapas such as braised tongue.
BeBop Club – Head to this cool basement club for jazz, blues, funk, soul, and pop. Founded by noted sommelier Aldo Graziani, BeBop is located underneath his restaurant and wine bar, Aldo’s Restoran Vinoteca. Open six days a week, it hosts local and international musicians. Reserve a round table and dance to the rhythms before ordering some tapas or a burger.
Blanca Encalada – Though the original location in Almagro is now closed, the Belgrano outpost upholds its legacy as one of the best spots to hear tango music without the distraction of clicking three-inch heels or flashes of bare skin. The band normally starts around 10:30 p.m., playing to a crowd that can spill onto the sidewalk.
Floreria Atlantico – This storefront is a florist and wine store, but after the sun sets, head into the buzzing speakeasy— the entrance is through a refrigerator door. The cocktails are themed geographically, taking inspiration from Argentina’s European immigrant populations. Try the Principe de los Apostoles, a gin and tonic infused with yerba mate.
La Catedral – This former warehouse in tango barrio Almagro is rough around the edges— mismatched furniture and basic drinks—but the uneven wooden floor is ideal for learning how to dance the tango, because, unlike many other Buenos Aires bars, regulars here often invite visitors and amateurs to dance.
I have barely left the airport and II we’ve already taken the sharp II right turn, down a dusty side II road that we could have nearly II missed seeing. As the wrought II iron gates that lie before me m creak open to reveal a definitively Portuguese edifice, I feel a sense of nostalgia for the future: I’d rather like to own a house like this. Matieu greets me with the effortless charm that only the French can muster. How was my flight? Anything for lunch? How about the Caprese salad? Bon appetite. An air of tranquility sweeps its way through the inner courtyard, welcome as an afternoon zephyr. As I sat out on a breezy terrace, watching the Zuari River ebb and flow away, so too does the babble of modem day life.
This, I realise, is what they mean by susegad. Formerly known as Villa Morgado, Casa da Graca is a passion project between owner and dreamer, Simran Kaur, architectural visionary Alex Von Moltke, and the indispensible contractor Abbas Sheikh. Working tirelessly together, it took almost three years for this inexorable triumvirate to transform the unloved former home of the de Siqueira Nazare family, back to its current splendour. Over a century old, there are hints to the property’s grand past: the family crest greets guests as they enter, traditional blue and white Portuguese murals adorn the walls of the bathroom. An oasis like swimming pool in the courtyard is a welcome modem addition.
Far from the maddening crowds of Goa’s northern beaches, Casa da Graca is located in the fabled ‘real’ Goa. That’s right it’s not lost, it’s just hiding. Just a short drive from colourfully tiled Latin quarter of Fontainhas, with its independent boutiques and local cafes, and the church-lined streets of Old Goa, few travellers bother to visit this comer of India’s smallest state. And that’s exactly why you should go there.
Peace, small but perfectly formed, is the only room with views of the River Zuari, from its own private garden terrace; while Compassion and Devotion overlook the pool. My room, The Creation Suite, was palatial. Not misinformed travel-website ‘palatial.’ No, getting something from the other side is to embark on your very own Camino de Santiago, palatial. While in the bathroom there was a bathtub so enormous it probably warranted an on-duty lifeguard. Goodness, I thought, deciding phone battery was not essential and I’d probably be safer with a shower; they must have had staff for this in those days. And they do. Matieu runs a small team like a family unit.
In fact the property retains the feel of a well-run family home—like you’re staying with that wealthy, eccentric aunt you don’t have. He admits to not being a chef by profession, hut he shouldn’t, because the food is delectable. Kingfish steamed in banana leaf with fragrant jasmine and seafood linguine are their signature dishes. Romancing couples coo across candle-lit tables overlooking the pool while even the most ardent epicure will feast their eyes on the breakfast. Fresh yoghurt set the night before accompanied by homemade granola and crepe Suzettes so delicate they could have been flambeed by Henri Charpentier himself. As much as possible is either made in house or locally sourced, and everything is fresh and of the best possible quality. Mon dieu, I’m glad the French are such snobs about their food.
Casa da Graca’s melange of styles and flavours is an immaculate reflection of the influence of Goa’s colonies over the years; executed with all the attention to detail of a labour of love. Its walls whisper the message susegad where guests are lulled into a sense of blissful indolence, often garnered with proximity to the sea. And is that not, after all, what we are all in search of in the sunshine state?
At daybreak, the sun was already scorching as I coasted into the Tuscan village of Spergolaia on a rusty silver cruiser. I passed cream-coloured stucco buildings, stables, and cattle chutes before arriving at a dirt lot where an athletic-looking Italian man in his 30s, dressed in a pristine tan gilet, a white shirt, and dark riding breeches, was bending over to put on a pair of leather boots. He looked quizzically at me and my bike. “Buongiorno,” he said.
“Buongiomo,” I replied, and asked if a horseback ride with the butteri was scheduled for that morning. He nodded. As this would be my first time, I asked him how difficult it would be. “Impegnativo” he said. Challenging. I’ve been riding since I was a little girl, but I’m no pro. Still, there was no way I would be deterred from riding with Italy’s very own cowboys, which I’d been dying to do since learning about them when I lived in Rome, two decades ago.
The butteri are the cattle breeders and horsemen of the Maremma, a rugged coastal region that stretches across southern Tuscany and northern Lazio from the coast to the plains. Their way of life dates back to the spread of agriculture during Etruscan times. But beyond Italy, few are aware that among the celebrated vineyards, hotels, and restaurants that now dot the countryside between Florence and Rome, a vibrant cowboy culture has existed for thousands of years—and is today struggling to survive.
The man in the lot directed me across the road to the main stable of the Tenutadi Alberese, a state-owned, 10,000-acre ranch six miles from the Maremma coast. There I met Stefano Pavin, a 51-year-old buttero with golden hair and sun-bronzed skin who was placing military-style scafarda saddles on a row of Maremmano horses, a bay-coloured breed indigenous to the region. Pavin wore a stylishly simple outfit—straw hat, olive-green cotton work shirt, khaki pants, dark brown riding boots—typical of the butteri, whose sartorial preferences have inspired fashion designer s like Dolce & Gabbana. A pair of Italian visitors and l would spend the next four hours helping him and two other men check fences and move a herd of is foals from a hilly pasture to the salt flats on the other side of the ranch.
Because of the low wages and physical demands of their work, the butteri have been in steady decline, a trend accelerated by Italy’s economic downturn. Fewer than 50 are thought to remain in the Maremma. Most earn a living raising livestock, making wine, and producing organic grains, olive oil, and meats for Slow Food purveyors. Pavin is one of two full-time cowboys at the Tenutadi Alberese, where he cares for 70 horses and 450 cows. “Being a buttero is away of life, not a fashion style,” he said as he rode beside me. “It’s not easy. There’s the extreme heat and the cold, and getting thrown on the ground and stomped on. The weak go away.”
There are about two dozen associations in Italy dedicated to preserving butteri culture. In spring and summer, several stage spettacoli, in which horsemen demonstrate their gallantry before a paying audience by performing elaborate dressage routines and cattle drives in traditional costume. Working farms have also adapted to modern times by embracing tourism. The Tenutadi Alberese now offers farm stays, some in historic buildings like the Villa Fattoria Granducale, built as a fortress by the Knights of Malta in the 15th century. For US$65, the ranch also invites experienced riders to show up in Spergolaia on any workday at 7 am, as I had done, to accompany the butteri as they go about their morning chores.
We cantered across the fields, making sure the rough-hewn chestnut fences were still intact. We visited a watering hole for the horses, passing a herd of robust gray-and-white Maremmana longhorns, before continuing along rocky switchbacks, through a grove of olive trees and into a meadow where the reddish-brown foals were grazing. This terrain was inhospitable marsh, rife with malaria, until Mussolini drained it in the 1930s. Today, it is still fierce. “I wear a straw hat to protect myself from the sun and a long shirt to protect myself from the horseflies,” Pavin said. He swung his uncino, a hand-carved wooden stick with a hook on one end that he uses to open gates, herd cattle, and train horses.
There was a rumbling of hooves as the foals dashed up the hill. Pavin spun his horse around in pursuit, his uncino resting casually on his shoulder. I followed gleefully at a full gallop, crouched low in the saddle, holding the reins in one hand. After falling behind, I caught up with the group at the gate to Maremma Regional Park, a protected 25,000-acre nature reserve. Inside, we followed a meandering dirt path through Mediterranean pines, grassy meadows, and the occasional cow pasture—a landscape that felt untouched by time.
We posted speedily, passing the Tower of Collelungo, a crumbling 13th-century stone lookout. The path gave way to sand dunes, which we crossed to reach our final destination, the Spiaggiadi Collelungo, a pristine gray-sand beach that was completely deserted. I followed the butteri into the emerald waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. As the horses splashed in the shoals, we gazed at the islands of Giglio and Elba and the Monte Argentario Peninsula on the horizon. Even with all that’s changed for the modern butteri, the view was as breathtaking as it must have been for their ancestors when they roamed the Maremma so many centuries ago.
Driving through the state of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of Indian tiger country, it was difficult to reconcile the tranquil scenes flashing past my window with nonstop reports about the animal’s slide toward extinction. Tigers, it seemed, were the topic of the moment. As I set off from New Delhi on a six-day safari, global specialists were converging to discuss how many of the world’s largest felines are left, and how best to save them. With so many vested interests resting on the creature’s survival (it’s estimated that just six of India’s tiger reserves are worth US$1.2 billion to the Indian economy), it’s hard to know whose version of reality to believe.
On the one hand, the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum claim the worldwide population has risen by 22 per cent since 2010, to 3,890. On the other, in spite of investment of about US$500 million since the start of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger in 1973—when nine tiger reserves were created and dozens of camps built—global tiger populations have plummeted. Since 1993, numbers worldwide have halved, and in the past 80 years, three of the nine subspecies have become extinct from habitats including Indonesia and Central Asia.
In India, where two-thirds—or about 2,200— of the world’s tigers live, in and around 49 reserves, there is grounds for cautious optimism, with one study recording an increase of 30 per cent in numbers between 2010 and 2014. Having been on five tiger safaris in India in the past decade, I wanted to see if there was any perceptible improvement in terms of the numbers that were visible and the protection they were being given. Along the road from Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur Airport to Bandhavgarh National Park, where more than 60 cats roam through 1,11,000 acres of forest, it was clear the species is a big part of local identity. I noticed their image everywhere: on a packet of cookies bought at a stall, sculpted on an arch, painted on a village temple. I was also informed of a discouraging report stating that 19 tiger deaths had been recorded in Madhya Pradesh in the first half of 2016 (almost half of all Indian tiger deaths in that period).
As I’ve learned over the years, there’s nothing straightforward about conservation in India, and with so much conflicting information in my head, I was relieved to arrive at Samode Safari Lodge, on Bandhavgarh National Park’s periphery. Built by descendants of the royal family of Samode, the camp’s colonial-style interiors are reminiscent of an African safari camp, with whirring bamboo fans and elegant tea-planter’s chairs. My room was designed in the style of local farmhouses: roughly rendered in mud and decorated with naive, nature-inspired bas-reliefs and murals. Outside, there was a tub for starlit baths and, on lamplit communal patios, trays laid with spicy fried okra, flame-grilled prawns, and fresh coal-baked roti.
There wasn’t much time to sit around feasting, though. Bandhavgarh park authorities allow visitors to take three- and four-hour safaris twice a day, starting around 5.45 am and 2.30 pm. While that does leave a little time for a midday massage or a swim, I spent most of my days in a safari jeep in the company of my guide, Anshuman Shah. He warned me right at the start of our first drive that not every guest sees a tiger. “Most people staying three nights should see one,” he said as we made our way to the park gates. “A group from Canada recently saw eleven in four days. It’s a question of luck: being in the right place at the right time.”
A decade ago, Bandhavgarh’s roads used to be clogged with cars full of colourfully-clad passengers who would spill out, often yelling into their cell phones. Today, only a limited number of registered 4 x4s are allowed into each zone, radios and phones are banned, and a park guide has to accompany every vehicle. The experience is far more peaceful and organised—not dissimilar to a safari in a popular park in Africa— even if visitors all still want the same thing “Just tiger, tiger, tiger,” as Ramkripal Ram, our park guide, put it. But cat sightings that day weren’t good. After spending four hours in the morning and three that evening listening, watching, and tracking, we returned, slightly dispirited, to camp.
The next day, I was assured, we would have more time, since the hotel had secured one of only five 12-hour, US$750 permits issued every day: a popular move by Bandhavgarh’s authorities. “You will see a tiger before you leave, I am sure,” Shah told me. In fact, I saw not just one magnificent cat on my full-day safari, but two. When, mid-morning, we ascended a hill to find a male cub lying languidly on a shaded sandstone rock, I was so thrilled my eyes welled up. Banbayi, a handsome 18-month-old, is seen regularly in this area, Shah said. From his supine position, the cub occasionally looked up at us as we examined him through binoculars, trying to memorise every detail: the long white whiskers; the striped tail that flicked every now and then to dislodge a fly; the muscles that rippled beneath his taut, light-orange hide as he slowly padded off into the long grass to the accompaniment of hooting langurs.
Our second sighting evoked a different emotion. After lunch, we spotted an eight-year-old tigress, Pattya, slinking into a bamboo thicket to rest. Keen to see her properly, we decided to sit and wait for her to re-emerge. By the time she padded out, two hours later, another 18 safari vehicles had lined up beside us, as well as two open-topped buses of schoolchildren. Thanks to the presence of park officials, the crowd was remarkably quiet. Nonetheless, the scene was more zoo than safari, and the striped star of the show was clearly aware of her audience. After performing a quick turn—drinking delicately from a water hole, rolling like a kitten in the sand— she took a final look at the crowd and vanished. And with the evening performance over, the cat paparazzi dispersed in clouds of dust, leaving us to make our way back to camp, as the red ball of the sun sank below the tree line.
It’s a sad truth that, were the tiger a less beautiful creature, its future might be more secure. But the glorious Shere Khan archetype of The Jungle Book is in the unenviable position of being not only the beast that most tourists want to photograph, but the one poachers most want to capture for use in Chinese medicine. It is wanted both dead and alive. The fact that there are any still in existence is in part thanks to Project Tiger, and in part thanks to a handful of enlightened state leaders, said hotelier Jaisal Singh. Singh, a co-founder of Sujan Luxury, a chain of high-end Indian camps and hotels, spent much of his life studying tigers with his uncle, the well-known conservationist Valmik Thapar.
He told me that in states such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan, chief ministers have diligently implemented conservation policies. These have included programmes to turn poachers into gamekeepers, the launch of responsible-tourism organisations that link public and private companies (a pilot project of privately-run nature reserves is underway in Maharashtra), and schemes to compensate villagers if they or their livestock are harmed by a tiger. What they are up against, though, is an exploding human population that increasingly encroaches on forests, creating man-animal conflicts. “India has one and a quarter billion people, with goodness knows how many cows and goats that need land to feed on,” Singh said. Another problem is that forests are run by individual states—whose local bureaucrats make their own rules.
The central government spent US$57 million on the issue in 2015 but, according to Singh, “no matter how much money is pumped into tiger conservation, it gets sucked up by bureaucracy. Until you have a national strategy, nothing will happen.” Most conservationists agree that, under current prime minister Narendra Modi, there is little sign of positive change at a national level. Last year, Modi’s government not only cut funding for the environment by 25 per cent, and support for tiger protection by 15 per cent, but fast-tracked projects that could have disastrous environmental consequences.
These include a river diversion that will submerge nearly a third of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the expansion of a country road along the Pench Tiger Reserve into a four-lane highway. And despite signing an international agreement promising to protect tigers and their dwindling environment, the country currently loses an average of 333 acres of forest a day, which partially explains why the creatures now occupy just 7 per cent of their original habitat. As Julian Matthews from Travel Operators for Tigers explains: “Now less than two per cent of India is protected, far less than is needed for the tiger’s ecological security. Forests are being decimated for pasture and charcoal. So tigers are increasingly forced to live off cattle, which further worsens man-animal conflict.”
When we set off on our four-day trek in Ladakh, through the Hemis National Park, our itinerary included night stays in homes in different villages. Little did we know that the homes would spring a series of surprises. During our trek in Uttarakhand, we had stayed in rest houses that offered great views and a mountain of warm but itchy quilts. We slept in candlelit rooms. On one unforgettable trek, we had taken shelter in a shepherd’s stone hut through along, rainy deluge, with smoke pouring in from the kitchen and water rushing in rivulets through the walls.
As we made our way we hoped our homestays would be better. A room in a hut, though dimly lit, would still be homely. But would it be cold? Damp? Noisy? Time would tell. Rumbak village—when we first caught sight of it— gleamed white and brown in the distance. Like an oasis in a desert I thought, for we had been walking through mostly treeless, arid landscape that belied the gurgling ribbon of a river that ran some metres below. These must be the houses of the village chiefs; I wondered where the huts could be.
SURPRISE NO 1 – HOUSES, NOT HUTS – At the village, our guide set out to make enquiries. The villagers offered homestays by rotation, and he needed to know which house would host us. Looking at the village before me, I felt a sense of surprise, tinged with frank admiration. All the houses on the sloping terrain were built of sturdy brick that was plastered over. Large windows ensured ample natural light, and I could see terraces and sloping roofs. Wooden fretwork details, typical of the Ladakh region ran along the exteriors. The impression I got was of a clean village with house-proud inhabitants. We climbed a steep run of stone steps that led into the courtyard of the home which would shelter us for the night.
SURPRISE NO 2 – OUR ROOM – Colourful curtains, on a metal curtain rod, hung at the window, and the floor was covered with a dhurrie, on which four thin single mattresses were arranged along the walls. A pile of synthetic blankets and tables made up the rest of the room’s contents. It was warm, welcoming, and offered a wonderful view. Solar panels ensured ample light. In Rumbak village, as we put down our bags, Sonam Palmo, our smiling hostess, came in with a tray of tea. Her smile made me feel genuinely welcome. Allaying my fears about communication, she spoke in faultless Hindi. One thought, however nagged at my mind. The room had no toilet. And I have the city-dweller’s horror of hole-in-the-ground toilets. But when you have to go, you have to go, and finally the vital question was put forward.
SURPRISE NO 3 – THE TOILET – I looked at the steep stairs that had been pointed out, and climbed hesitantly. A tower revealed itself, with a tiny wooden door, held closed by a twist of rope. I confess my heartbeat faster from the fear of what I would find within than from the exertion of the short climb. The Ladakhis have perhaps the cleanest dry toilets I have ever seen in my travels. The height ensures the pit is far below, and generous additions of hay and mud prevent all unpleasantness.
SURPRISE NO 4 – THE FOOD – Sonam served us large chapattis for dinner, for which the wheat, along with other household requirements, came from Leh, laden on the back of ponies. The village fields only yield peas and barley. Hot dal and a lightly spiced vegetable made the meal the ultimate comfort food. Breakfast was a real winner. Chapattis served marvellously, with jam and processed butter, eggs, and a tin of cheese! Our packed lunch boxes contained a boiled egg, boiled potatoes, a chocolate bar and chapattis.
SURPRISE NO 5 – NO YOUNG MEN! – I was intrigued to see very few young men during our stay in the village. Through our trek, all our hostesses were young women. So, where were all the men? Sonam told us her husband was an army man, posted elsewhere, and her sons were studying in Leh. Her parents lived with her, and her father would leave every morning to graze the donkeys (who had woken us with their braying). Similarly, in Shingo village, our slim, young hostess had two children, both under three, and her husband was away with his donkeys as they carried goods to and from Leh. Her grandparents lived with her, helped in looking after the kids, tend the field, and graze the yak that gave milk. I learnt that most young men prefer to live, study, and earn in the city, coming home occasionally, while women managed the homes and homestays.
SURPRISE NO 6 – HOMESTAYS EMPOWER! – In a unique programme, The J&K Wildlife Protection Department supports the homestays, ensuring the extra money helps make up for livestock losses they may suffer if the snow leopard should carry away their animals. Ten per cent of the money earned is given to the department, which also guides the villagers on service standards to maintain. It is a practical plan, and works as much for trekkers as it does for the villagers. I, for one, can happily forget the rest houses in other places that gifted me itchy bug bites. I also get to keep in memory the smiling faces of the Ladakhi hostesses in their humble homes. Self sufficient women, with few wants, these are housewives who have turned into entrepreneurs tending their home and children as they work.