Tuesday 11th May 2010
Ok, prepare for part two. Have you all got cups of tea and biscuits at the ready? No? How about a glass of wine? Comfy chairs are a must.
Despite the many ups and downs of my job (see my previous post), I am extremely lucky to have a fantastic groups of friends to hang out with on weekends. These friends are not only kind and sympathetic to my stressful work-related drama, but more importantly, DO NOT WORK WITH ME! While I like my colleagues (most of them), there’s nothing worse than only socialising with work friends – cos you never end up talking about anything except work. However my friends in Delhi know nothing except that which I tell them about work (which, lets face it, is everything, cos I’m a talker!), but so it’s utterly refreshing to be able to get away from it all and spend my weekends talking about fun and different things that are in no way related to my personal vortex of drama! (I seem to attract it like a black hole….)
One of my friends, P, runs a company over here called Knowledge Must that organises proper off-the-beaten track trips and excursions, extremely cheap deals, and fantastic experiences. He and his colleague D both speak fluent Hindi, and so can find out the best places to go from the locals. So, that is how I found myself last Friday night sitting on a train with 7 friends heading down to Madhya Pradesh, the state below ours (we are in Uttar Pradesh). MP is known as the ‘heart of India’, as it is almost exactly in the centre, and is known for it’s beautiful national parks, forests, jungles, and wildlife. We took the overnight sleeper train on Friday night, spent two extremely full days at Gandhi Sagar National Park, and then took another night train back on Sunday night, getting back on Monday morning, in plenty of time for work.
The park itself is mostly sub-tropical forest, and very popular with tourists hoping to spot a tiger or leopard, as well as gharials (a special type of crocodile), monkeys and all sorts of other creatures. However, as it is currently the dry season, it’s very dry, dusty and brown, and doesn’t look remotely jungle-y. Furthermore it’s far too hot for tourists, and the tiny town where we stayed was so far off the beaten track you’d need a telescope to see it! There were no guesthouses or anything there, so P had arranged for us to stay at a Government Guest-House reserved for visiting officials etc. The last foreigners to visit came 10 years ago, when the German engineers who built the dam had stayed there. The river that runs through the state, and on into several other states has been dammed twice in the park, to create a big lake and then a smaller lake.
We arrived at about 6am on Saturday morning, in a small town called Bhawani Mandi, and piled into a big landcruiser with our driver for the weekend. We stopped in another town (I don’t know any of their names) for some breakfast and walked around, looking at the temples and watching the town waking up around us. We arrived at our guesthouse, and after filling in the paperwork for the local officials, we had a tasty lunch and then headed to the lake to swim.
The boys had been teasing me, as I was a bit concerned about crocodiles in the lake, but they assured me there weren’t really any in the lake where we were going to swim (we ended up in the smaller lake, right next to the dam). It was here that I came up against my first obstacle: Seaweed.
The first 10 metres or so of water next to the shore was completely clogged with thick nasty, slimy seaweed (or lake-weed, or pondweed?). For those of you who are not aware of this, I happen to have a fairly extreme aversion to seaweed, a total and utter fear of it in fact, a phobia, if you will. Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, practically any body of water that isn’t a nice clean confined swimming pool is jam-packed with nasty, evil and potentially deadly things. And there is nothing worse than floating alone in a giant, deep body of water and feeling something suddenly brush against your leg. Your thought processes and all of your senses go crazy. “Shark?! Crocodile?! Flesh-eating deranged fish? Instantly lethal jellyfish?!” The possibilities are practically endless, and as you attempt to drift casually away from the cloud of urine that has inexplicably appeared around you, you realise it’s….seaweed. Relieved? No! Because it’s everywhere, twining it’s nasty slimy weedy bits around your arms, legs and neck, and forcing you to re-live the horror and panic over and over and over again.
I realise that I am one of the very few people who take the threat of seaweed seriously, which is why most of you will not fully appreciate how INCREDIBLY BRAVE I was to go swimming in the lake, undaunted by the very real threat of seaweed all around the shore.
Three of the others swam all the way across the lake, but I was far too much of a fraidy-cat. Negotiating my way through 10 metres of weeds had already used up most of my heroic courage and valiant derring-do, and I was still basically convinced that there were crocodiles hovering somewhere in the murk below me, just waiting for me to strike out into open water. So I hovered treading water about 20 metres off the shore, torn between my desire to swim in the gorgeous cool water on such a hot day, and my mutual fear of seaweed, sharks, crocodiles and other water-borne menaces.
After a while the others swam back over, and we all went and sat in the shade of a nice big rock overhang up the shore. We were sitting quietly, relaxing, chatting, taking in the calm of it all (we were the only people at the lake). Well, the others were doing that. I was busy scanning the rocks behind me over and over again, convinced that the spot we had picked was the perfect place for poisonous snakes to hang out. Anyhoo, there we were, relaxing and shooting the breeze, when suddenly one of the girls spotted a crocodile.
In the lake.
Floating right across the spot where we had been swimming.
I think my heart actually stopped for a couple of beats. Then all of a sudden, the boys leapt up and went bounding off down the rocks trying to get a closer look and take pictures, (have they forgotten crocodiles can walk on land too???). I was meanwhile calculating whether a crocodile would bother to climb all the way up to where we were just for a tasty meal, and was torn between beating a hasty retreat further up the rocks, and the sudden awareness that if my fear of crocodiles had come true, then there were DEFINITELY going to be snakes in all the rocks further up, so I was screwed either way.
The crocodile went underwater again, so we all sat back down again and started to scan the water. We saw it come back up again two or three more times, sometimes just it’s head would pop up, sometimes it’s whole body would drift along for a bit. At one point we saw two – a big one and a little one (we think the big one was about 3 or 4 metres, and the smaller one about 2 metres). The boys continued to reassure me that these were definitely fish-eating crocodiles, and they wouldn’t eat humans, although I felt forced to counter with the fact that eating isn’t the same as biting. Take hippos; they don’t eat people, but will attack and bite people in half – it happens all the time. Vicious bastards.
As we were leaving the lake, we drove over the bridge and saw two more crocs basking on a rock – and they were big fuckers! Definitely not just fish-eating gharials!
After all that excitement, we got some snacks and then headed to another bathing spot, over on the other side of the dam, in the big lake. This time we found a much better swimming spot with no seaweed at all, and the locals had assured us the crocodiles never came over to this bit of the lake. It was so unbearably hot, I had to get in the water with the others, but this time the lack of seaweed allowed me to put all of my valiant and heroic efforts into Not Thinking About Crocodiles. I also stayed near the shore where I could stand up, although that didn’t help much, as unlike sharks, crocodiles often attack in shallow water. In fact, I think they always do, so maybe in retrospect I was in more peril by staying near land…
Either way, I survived, so we watched a beautiful sunset over the lake, and then headed back to the guesthouse for a big dinner and fell exhausted into bed.
On Sunday morning we headed out first to see a collection of cave paintings in the park. There was a dried up riverbed (clearly a seasonal river, as you could see evidence it had been full of water recently – dried mud and dead crabs etc), and these amazing rocky overhangs, with the cave paintings along the undersides of the rocks. Some of the paintings date back to 10,000 years ago, althoguh many were more recent, up to about 300 years ago. There were hundreds of paintings, many of them incredibly well preserved, and you could trace history by the content of the paintings – from hunting scenes, bows and arrows, spears, to men domesticating and riding cattle and horses, people carrying water in buckets, and using axes etc. They were incredible.
Then we went to see a huge old crumbling fort, built up over the edge of a valley – the valley was full of brown trees, but you could tell that in the wet season it becomes a bit of a jungle, and you could see a line of green trees running down the centre of the valley, where the water obviously still flows underground.
And lastly, after a lot of walking around in the sun, we went to another swimming hole. This one was a holy place, with a temple nearby, so the women had to swim fully clothed, but it was so perfect and beautiful it wasn’t hard to see why they had made it holy. It was a perfectly round… pond? lake? watering hole?. I’m not sure what you call it, but it was about 100m in diameter, with a waterfall at the back and high rock walls on three sides. The waterfall was only a trickle at this time of year, but you could see that in the wet season it becomes a big proper waterfall down the rocks. We don’t know how deep it was, but I’m guessing very, as waterfalls tends to make deep holes in the ground!
The water was the perfect temperature, and clean, and refreshing. There were LOADS of monkeys nearby, fairly big ones too, and amazing colourful lizards and a tree full of ENORMOUS bats! There were rock ledges perfect for jumping and diving off, and it was totally idyllic. Then, as we sat in the sun drying off, something bobbed up to the surface of the water. My first thought was “Oh my god! Not more crocodiles!”, although at least at this place the locals were swimming, so it seemed unlikely. Then we saw another one, and realised it was too short and round to be a croc, but it was actually a big turtle! There were loads of them (or else the same one kept popping up over and over), and they were pretty big – about a foot and a half across I think.
It was amazing – I’ve never seen that much wildlife actually in the actual wild before – it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a crocodile or turtle outside of a zoo, and the lizards and bats and monkeys were amazing too.
Then, as if we hadn’t had enough excitement for one day, we were just packing up our stuff to leave when some men came over to us. We had stayed until dusk to make the most of the day, and all the locals had already left. These men told us to hurry up and leave, because dusk is the time when the ‘lions’ come down to drink! I’m not sure there are any lions here, but there are definitely leopards, so he may have meant them. As we walked back up to the car I noticed that not only had the people all gone, but the monkeys had all disappeared too, so clearly something was keeping everyone away once the sun goes down…. (or maybe the bats just turn into evil bloodsucking vampires? Who can say?).
After that, we drove back to the train station, and flopped down exhausted onto our bunks for the night, and arrived back into the hustle and bustle of Delhi by 6am Monday morning. It was an INCREDIBLE weekend, and it was lovely to get out into the country and away from all the pollution for a bit, even if it was unbelivably hot! So, here I am, back at work, feeling refreshed and ready to face the new onslaught of drama and problems that are bound to find their way to my office door!
Hoping you are all well, and planning to take the proper safety precautions against seaweed in future,
lots of love
– Card carrying member of the Fraidy-Cats United Front, The “People Who Are Scared of Crocodiles Live Longer” Organisation, and SOSSA – “Stamp Out the Scourge of Seaweed (and all other types of water weeds) Association”