A Beautiful Afternoon at Orchid Resort

We woke up to a relatively bright Saturday morning. It had been raining with almost no respite for the past few weeks. Hence, a morning that wasn’t cloudy or rainy was a celebration by itself. This Saturday was special for another reason too – it was J’s birthday. My presence on her special day was a rare occurrence, which surely added a little more to its significance. The plan for the day was simple, we would just spend it together along with A1 and A2. The three of them are my core group of friends at Shillong, the ones who fortunately or unfortunately settled down in Shillong. The rest of us left the city and the state of Meghalaya, mostly forced to do so due to lack of jobs and other opportunities for the non-tribal populace of the state.  

Pic 1: Somewhere at the resort

All four of us are outdoor people and love to go on long drives around the outskirts of the city. Such long drives frequently happen when I’m in town and they constitute some of my most treasured memories of visiting Shillong. The best part is that the three of them would sing all through the drive. Their lovely melodious voices would fill the air creating a dreamlike environment that’s difficult to describe. We hardly had the need to play music from the car’s music system. I haven’t written a single post on those drives yet. The reason being I feel words can do no justice to the feelings and emotions of those drives.

This time we haven’t had the chance to go on a drive yet. Besides, the weather playing spoilsport, A2 has broken her wrist. All our drives usually happen in A2’s car with her being behind the wheels.

Pic 2: From the restaurant when it was pouring outside.

The plan for this Saturday was to visit a place called Mawkasiang, which isn’t very far from the city. I was delighted as this was towards North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRMS) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM-Shillong), an area that I hadn’t been to yet. It’s apparently known as New Shillong. I knew the drive would be good but had little idea about the exact destination my friends had in mind. I didn’t bother to find out and let them take the lead.

Pic 3: Several such gazebos lay scattered across the resort

We met up at a pre-determined location in the city a little before noon, hired a local taxi, and headed out. A few minutes into the drive, we found ourselves passing through a series of uphill and downhill on a road that surprisingly had more greenery than concrete. We passed by NEIGRMS, crossed a signboard indicating that IIM was nearby, and also a dome-shaped construction that reminded me of Capitol Hill. That’s the new Meghalaya Assembly building under construction, said someone.

Soon, after a drive of just 30 mins from the city, we arrived at Mawkasiang. We took a turn beside Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) and in less than 5 minutes arrived at a huge gate, manned by a security guard. As, we entered after completing the formalities, I noticed we were at Orchid Resort.  “Aare, it’s Orchid!”, I exclaimed. Orchid is too familiar a name for me. It’s a chain of restaurants and resorts belonging to Meghalaya Tourism Department. The most popular one being Orchid Lake Resort, located beside Umiam Lake, on way from Guwahati to Shillong. I have frequented that place countless number of times. Haven’t been there for a few years now, but I’m sure it still exists.

Pic 4: The canopy walk through the metallic bridge surrounded by jungles of Pinus khasiana, the indigenous Pines of Khasi Hills.
Pic 5: Another picture of the canopy walk.

About 20 Km. from Shillong city, Orchid Resort at Mawkasiang is easily accessible. Situated on 27 acres of land surrounded by luxuriant Pine Forests, it is relatively new. There is a restaurant and several wooden cottages or log cabins for those who plan to stay. Quad bikes and bicycles were parked outside the restaurant, surely guests can rent them. There’s a long canopy walk through a metallic bridge flanked by lush green jungles of Pines. This, for me, was the highlight of the resort. The young Pine needles almost brushed against us while we walked across. Tiny young green Pine cones peeped through the branches as did the mature large brown ones, each one vying for undivided attention. It was indeed a refreshing feeling.

Pic 6: One of the log cabins at the resort
Pic 7: Some more log cabins where one can plan a stay.

We spent about half a day at the resort, walking around, enjoying the brief spell of heavy showers, having lunch at the restaurant, and of course, chattering endlessly all through. The starters and desert were great, the main course was average. The resort provided the perfect ambience for us to relish every moment of being together, as we celebrated J’s birthday.

Before ending this post, I must mention that this is the first time I am writing about visiting a resort. The nature-lover in me can never align to the idea of having an enjoyable time at an artificial and manicured environment. Yet, that’s just what I did today. While this place did manage to impress me, I also realized that I was perhaps upholding a negative cognitive bias about resort outings. Hopefully that’s broken today.

Pic 8: Cheers to friendships that must have been made in heaven

Long Drive, Vibrant Nature, and Chatty People

This is nature’s special prize of encouragement for waking up this early on a cold foggy morning. That’s what I told my friend who was reluctant to get out of bed and whose eyes now sparkled with amazement observing the activities of our common object of interest – the confident little green spider.

It warmed our hearts to watch the tiny spider busily clean her web with such dedicated patience and loving care. Dew drops scattered all over the silver strands was an immediate threat to her proud artistic home. She walked delicately, strand to strand, through her lacework home, meticulously picking up every single dew drop with her mouth and spiting that out. We had never seen something like this before. It was phenomenal and will certainly count as one of the best things we’ve seen in our lives.

Pic 1: An elegant lacework home designed with artistic precision.
Pic 2: Spider webs were everywhere, some of them right on our path and barely visible in the morning light. We had to be extra cautious so as to not walk through them. These pictures were clicked only after the sun came out.

My friend and I had sneaked out at dawn to take a walk right through the coffee plantation. We were at Sakleshpur and had put up at this coffee estate for the night. My cousin sister and brother-in-law, who were with us too, were still asleep. They were visiting me in Bangalore, and we had set out for an impromptu roadtrip along the countryside. We chose Sakleshpur to halt for the night.

Pic 3: Coffee beans being dried in the sun (L) and fresh on the plant (R).

Tucked away in the Hassan district of Karnataka, Sakleshpur is a small hill station whose slopes remain covered with tea, coffee, and spice plantations. Just 220 Km. from Bangalore Sakleshpur, with its rolling green hills coupled with its peace and quiet, provides the perfect balm to a tired mind. There are several resorts and hiking trails making it quite a sought-after weekend destination from Bangalore. Most resorts are isolated surrounded by sprawling coffee estates. As a result, the place doesn’t feel crowded at all. The best part for us was that we were the only guests at our resort. Among the various hiking trails of Sakleshpur, the Railway Trek is most famous. However, during this trip we hadn’t planned for hikes and treks.

Pic 4: Somewhere in the highway.

It was a bright and sunny December morning as we comfortably drove through the smooth roads of NH 75 highway. We had some amazing Mangalorean breakfast at a roadside pitstop, stopped for clicking pictures wherever we felt like, and just enjoyed the drive. As we left the highway and passed through villages, it was the charming traditional houses with Mangalore tiled roofs that stole our hearts and engaged us all through.

On the way, we spent some time at the ruins of the famous Shettilhali Rosary Church, located in a village by the same name – Shettilhali. The church was built by French missionaries in the 1860s and was abandoned in the 1960s after a dam was built on the Hemavati River. Known as the Floating Church, it is a stunning example of Gothic-style architecture. As the water level rises in the dam, the church gets submerged underwater and once again emerges when the water recedes post monsoon. That’s the speciality of this dilapidated church, one that gives it an eerie charm.

It was winters, a time when the church supposedly stands on land. However, we got lucky. Due to heavy rains this year, the church was partially submerged in water. It was almost noon and the blue waters surrounding the church glittered and sparkled. It looked hauntingly beautiful!

Pic 6: The abandoned Shettilhali Rosary Church on the blue waters of Hemavati River.
Pic 7: The partially submerged Shettilhali Rosary Church up close.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at our resort after having roamed around the quaint little market area of Sakleshpur. Soon it was evening, the sun had started moving towards the horizon. We walked up to a particular spot in the resort, which the resort owner claimed as the best place to watch the setting sun. Once we were up there my friend spotted a sprawling green grassy meadow somewhere in the distant. He insisted that would be a better sunset spot. So off we went! My sister and brother-in-law decided to stay back. We gladly left them behind, hoping that they could enjoy some uninterrupted romantic sunset moments.

The meadow was stunningly beautiful. Tall grasses swayed in the mild wind while the sky got busy unfolding its own drama with all shades of yellows, reds, and oranges. Overlooking the meadow lay a deep valley, beyond which soared a tree covered hill that was as broad as it was tall. It was only shades of green as far as the eyes could see. It was the perfect setting for a quiet peaceful evening.

Sadly, I don't have any pictures of the beautiful meadow. My friend's phone broke down, which had all the pictures.
Pic 8: A not-so-great picture of the beautiful sunset.

Darkness had fallen by the time we left the meadow and walked back to the resort. We spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing, and sharing our life stories around a bonfire that kept us warm with our favourite music playing in the background. Dinner was quite filling with several items laid out on the table. Our conversations continued well beyond dinner and before we realized it was already late. About time we retired for the night. We needed a few hours of rest. An exciting day, packed with other plans awaited us.

Pic 8: One for my precious people – the energetic and fun loving group.

The next day, we visited the ancient exquisitely sculptured temples of Belur and Heleebidu. On the way, we also stopped by the star-shaped Manjarabad Fort that was built by Tipu Sultan, which is also located in Sakleshpur. The fort can be accessed after a climb of 150 steps. As we were pressed for time, my friend and I rushed up and hurriedly checked out the fort. My sister and brother-thought they’d rather skip the fort than rush through it. Moreover, dashing up through the steps wasn’t something they wanted to try.

I sure have to visit Sakleshpur once again with more time in hand with the hikes and the treks waiting to be explored.

An Unexpected Trip to BR Hills

Back in December last year, my cousin came over and stayed with me for little over a month, making the most of the work from home situation. On the very first weekend of her visit, we planned a trip to Mysore. The plan was made such that we would be at Mysore Palace on Sunday evening. The reason being the entire palace is illuminated with about a lakh bulbs and remains that way for 15 min. It’s a spectacular sight and I wanted her to experience the same. (Thanks to the pandemic that didn’t happen, which is another story.)

Our weekend was sorted, we were all geared up to leave Bangalore on Saturday morning, and head straight to Mysore. Late Friday night, a friend called up and his casual recommendation changed our itinerary altogether. We were still going to Mysore but would go to BR Hills as well and spend a night there. Located about 90 Km. from Mysore and 180 Km. from Bangalore, it fitted in quite perfectly.

Pic 1: Stretches of Kans Grass right up to the entry gate of BR Hills made for a blissful experience.

Saturday morning, we left Bangalore at the stipulated time and visited Shivanasamudra. After that we headed for BR Hills or Biligiriranga Hills. Located in the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR Hills bridges the Eastern and Western Ghats. It houses the BRT wildlife sanctuary, which is an official tiger reserve. BRT is just an abbreviation of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. The temple of Biligiri Rangaswamy being the other main attraction of this place. There are hiking and trekking opportunities too, which we didn’t explore this time.

Pic 2: A pond at BRT Wildlife Sanctuary right where the Jeep Safari starts.

The native inhabitants of BR Hills constitute the Soliga tribe. They make a living by selling honey, gooseberry, bamboo and other non-timber forest products. The government has been trying to resettle them with a focus on forest conservation. The Soligas aren’t in agreement and have won a legal battle to continue staying in their homeland. Certainly, they know how to live harmoniously with nature. The battle is far from over though.

Another interesting trivia about BR Hills is that the notorious and dreaded bandit Veerappan, who had terrorized a large part of South India for a very long time, operated out of these jungles till he was killed in October 2004.

Pic 3: The small settlement at BR Hills as seen from the temple.

Driving through a green and soothing stretch of meadows and farmlands, we reached the entry point of BR Hills. The entrance is marked by a forest check post, where we had to provide details of our visit including duration of stay, place of stay, vehicle number, etc. Beyond the gate is a stretch of perfectly tarred narrow winding road with thick forests on either side. Gradually the car climbed up through the road as we remained engrossed in the heavenly marvelous surroundings. A drive of about 30 mins through this paradise, and we arrived at Giridarshini, the homestay we had booked the night before.

It was well past lunch time by the time we had settled down and arrived at the dining hall. Soon after, we proceeded towards Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple.

Pic 4: The home stay was surrounded by coffee estates and various trees of pepper, ginger, etc.

Located on a hilltop, the ancient temple provides a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest down below. The temple was under renovation at that time but that didn’t affect its quaint little charm. The strong wind blowing across threatened to throw us off the edges, and that only added to the temple’s mystical magic.

A huge, handcrafted leather slipper kept reverently just outside the main temple piqued our interest. Asking around yielded no results, thanks to the language barrier. It was only later that we got to know it’s significance. The Soligas believe that the presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ranganatha, wanders through the forest every night wearing that slipper. The slipper apparently wears out every 2 years as a result, and then they present a new pair.

Pic 5: At Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple
Pic 6: The temple presents a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest

We walked down from the hill and spent the rest of the evening exploring the narrow lanes and bylanes, sipping a coffee or a tea from the tiny shops here and there. As darkness fell, we retreated to our homestay. Dinner was over a bonfire that was arranged exclusively for us. The three sisters laughed and giggled talking about the antics and idiosyncrasies of our extended families, making this one of the most memorable times of our being together. “Now, this justifies all the money we’re shelling out!”, quipped my cousin. The homestay charge had seemed a little exorbitant, but the last minute plan had left us with no time to research any further.

Pic 7: Sunset at BR hills on a cold December evening.

Early next morning, we headed towards the sanctuary for a wildlife safari. We jumped onto the Forest Department jeep with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The two hour-long safari was a great disappointment. All we saw was a couple of sambar deer, one or two mongoose, a couple of birds, a wild boar or two, and that was all. We did spot a bison too.

Pic 8: A pond inside the wildlife sanctuary, seen during the safari.

After a while, we just wanted the safari to end. Even though we were driving through the jungle, everything felt dull and monotonous. Our expectation was a little over the top having heard of people spotting elephants and leopards. It certainly wasn’t our day at all.

Pic 9: Very unlike us, but we couldn’t wait for the safari to end.

Back in the homestay, we had a sumptuous breakfast and headed towards Mysore. On the way, we stopped at the magnificent Somnathpur Temple.

Karnataka’s Twin Waterfalls

I stood there staring at the gushing cascading waters, aggressively bouncing off the craggy moss-covered rock cliff. It always feels happy to be near a waterfall and this was no different. The white shafts of water complemented by the surrounding greenery of various shades did their job of lifting my spirits and boosting my energy. But my mind was agitated. It kept slipping into the past as scenes from the last time I was here fleeted before my eyes like a motion picture.

I was at the exact same spot a decade ago when I had just shifted to Bangalore.

The waterfall is just the same, but the surroundings look quite different – the usual story of manipulating the natural surroundings to make it more touristy. Such ugly human interventions always disturb the nature lover in me. Today, however, my mind was consumed with other thoughts – the memories of my last visit here. I was here with my parents (dad). Life’s changes are just too fast. And, the decade ago visit feels like it happened just yesterday.

Pic 1: This was clicked during my previous visit. The serene pool formed at the bottom of a waterfall always seems to me like the water needs a quick rest before carrying on.

We were at Barachukki Falls – one of the two waterfall that are collectively known as Shivanasamudra. The other one is Gaganachukki Falls. Shivanasamudra, literally translating as Shiva’s Sea, is formed by the dropping waters of River Cauvery as it makes its way through the Deccan Plateau. The river splits into two branches resulting into the two perennial waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki. While Barachukki is the eastern branch of the waterfall, Gaganachukki forms the western branch. In between lies the island town of Shivanasamudra that marks the boundary of Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district and Mandya district.

Pic 2: The segmented cluster of Barachukki that spreads broadly across the cliff.

Located 140 kms away from Bangalore, Shivanasamudra has another claim to fame. It boasts of the second hydro-electric power station set up in colonial India in 1902. The power from this station was primarily used to run the Kolar Gold Fields during the gold rush of the early 1900s. [The first hydro-electric power station in India was set up at Darjeeling. These two were among the first ones in Asia.]

The twin waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki are separated by 10 Km. and can be covered just by a drive of 15-20 minutes. The twin waterfalls do not have much resemblance to each other, and they stand out significantly in their look and feel. The only similarity, I thought was the topography of their surroundings.

Pic 3: The horsetail parallel gushing and vivacious streams of Gaganchukki.

Barachukki gushes down fulsome and enthusiastically in all directions. It constitutes a cluster of segmented waterfalls that spreads broadly across the cliff, falling from a height of 69m. The multiple side-by-side waterfall is a consequence of the water dividing into several channels before dropping off the ledge. Gaganachukki is a steep waterfall that thunders down from a height of 98m. with an incredibly fierce velocity. It consists of two large parallel streams, quite aptly referred to as horsetails that cascade down through the rocky bed.

We were there in the month of December, 2020. It being the season of winter, the quantity of water was less in both the falls.

Barachukki Falls also has a flight of about 200 concrete steps, well-guarded with railings, to reach the bottom of the falls. During our visit, this was temporarily closed. It was pandemic times, so not surprising. During my previous visit, I had also seen people taking coracle rides right up to the falls. This time there were none. There is no way to reach the bottom of Gaganachukki and it would be dangerous to do so, given the sheer force of this falls.

Pic 4: L – A decade ago with my parents. R – This time with my sisters.

Nohkalikai Revisited – Pandemic Perks

Shrouded in a mist of white, we stood there staring at nothing. There was nobody other than the five of us. The gushing sound of water, arising out of nowhere, echoed in the background as if trying to hush our overexcited voices.  A row of empty shacks lay behind us. The entire place looked completely different – peaceful and serene. If I minus the shacks and the ugly green building, the place looked exactly like how I had seen it more than 15 years ago. We were at the viewpoint of Nohkalikai waterfall, the tallest plunge waterfall in India at a height of 1115 feet.

“Thanks for nudging me to come here,” quipped BIL, my bother-in-law, as we waited for the clouds to clear. My nephew and sister had taken up their respective vantage points, all set to capture nature’s delightful drama that was expected to unfold soon. BIL and I walked around, making the most of the empty surroundings. Everyone patiently waited for the surroundings to clear. We all knew that having Nohkalikai just to ourselves was once in a lifetime opportunity – perks of the pandemic.

Pic 1: A prominent notice at the entry gate and all shops and shacks remain closed.

Three years back when I happened to pass by Nohkalikai while trekking to Nongriat, I was in for a shock. (Read my trek story here.) The place was teeming with tourists and backpackers. There were vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of shops selling all kinds of local wares were lined up on one side of the viewpoint. A restaurant with a direct view of the waterfall bustled with activities adding to the already cacophonous situation.  All of these completely doused the brilliant gorgeousness of the waterfall. It was a complete contrast to how I had seen the waterfall several years back, when tourism was yet to take off in North East India. Tourism boosts local economy and needs to be encouraged but tourism with no focus on sustainability is sheer foolishness, and that’s just what’s happening in Meghalaya. I do hope the authorities take control of the already deteriorating condition.

Nohkalikai is the pride of Meghalaya tourism and is located in Cherrapunji, about 2 hours away from the capital city, Shillong. Cherrapunji, also known as Sohra, is one of the wettest places on Earth. Its lush green layered hills and low hanging clouds appeals to your senses evoking a frenzied sense of ecstasy. And, I say that with no exaggeration, whatsoever! However, it remains overcrowded with tourists throughout the year. As a result, it’s been over a decade that we stopped visiting Cherrapunji. This year was different. Due to the pandemic, Meghalaya had shut its borders and there were no tourists in the state. Tourist places remained closed for several months and opened up in mid-October, but only for the locals. This was our opportunity and off we went for a drive to Cherrapunji. As expected, it was deserted and we had all the fluffy clouds, the winding roads, the tall pines, the layered hills just to ourselves.

Pic 2: Clouds kiss the ground here.
Pic 3: Layered hillocks in varying shades of green.

Nohkalikai, however, happened only because I insisted. Other family members were not too keen as everyone felt, “How many more times will we see Nohkalikai.” I knew with nobody around, Nohkalikai would look completely different. The glorious waterfall would dazzle like it did several years back. And, right I was! There’s no denying that Nohkalikai is one of the most stunning waterfall in India.

Getting a clear view of Nohkalikai is quite often like the roll of a dice given the fickle nature of Meghalaya’s clouds and rains. This time it was no different. It was 4.00 PM by the time we arrived and the thick clouds didn’t seem to have any intention of clearing at that time of the day. However, knowing the weather like we did, we decided to wait for a while. There wasn’t much hope as it was the fag end of the day.

Pic 4: The clouds recede steadily revealing the waterfall as a thin strip of white.

But it turned out to be a very fruitful wait as nature rewarded us with the most spectacular show. The clouds started moving slowly, the sun popped up once again, the green hills started gently making their appearance. The show was turning out to be way better than we had anticipated. The curtain was raising and it was like a drama unfolding in nature’s amphitheater.

Pic 5: And there it is….

The sparkling white beauty made a glamorous entry cascading on the stage of green forested hills. The reflective white strip singularly stood out plunging amid a dozen shades of green. The clouds moved further and then disappeared altogether while displaying the still pool of turquoise down below. It seemed as though the mighty plunge needed some much deserved rest.

We stood there gorging on every single act, not a word from any of us. Slowly the clouds came back, the curtains were drawn, the show was over, and once again we were staring at nothing. “Let’s get going,” said someone.

Pic 6: The clouds start coming back and eventually covers the waterfall completely once again.

The Much-Needed Nature Therapy

Nature’s such that you can visit the same place a hundred times but each time it looks new and completely different. The best part of being in Shillong has always been the impromptu drives I undertake, either with my cousin or with my brother-in-law. I have written several such posts in the past on the various places we have explored.

My being home this time is, however, not the same as other times. My life has been turned upside down in the last one month and I am not sure if those carefree days of being home will ever be back. My personal circumstances coupled with the pandemic makes for a very tumultuous situation this time.

Pic 1: The characteristic clear blue Shillong sky. Potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower cultivation seen here.

This Sunday we woke up to a gloriously bright and sunny morning. The surprising part was it remained that way for the rest of the day. The light breeze that complimented the bright weather made for a heavenly day. And, if you know Shillong, you can tell that such days aren’t in plenty.

My cousin wouldn’t let such a day go wasted, especially with me being around. Like most people, she loves to drive around the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Getting away isn’t an elaborate affair in a place like Shillong. A 15-20 minutes’ drive is often enough to escape to tranquility, away from city traffic. Shillong has been under very strict pandemic protocols. As a result, cousin wasn’t able to indulge in such drives for quite a while.  

Pic 2: A romantic afternoon of soft Sun, Pine trees, wisps of floating clouds, rolling hills, and green meadows.

My initial reluctance stood no match to her insistence and I just had to give in to her coaxing and cajoling. Glad I relented.

So, late afternoon, well after lunch we drove towards Upper Shillong to one of our favourite spots. We’ve been there multiple times and really enjoy the drive all the way up. Especially that section constituting narrow and winding well tarred roads with forests and meadows on either side. The huge ferns that sporadically hang out right onto the roads is something else that allures us. We are never tired of seeing these ferns, so what if we have seen them hundreds of times.

Pic 3: The fluffy clouds continuously changed shape forming amazing patterns.
Pic 4: The day was so clear that we could see Umiam Lake, which is located in the Guwahati-Shillong National Highway. Do you spot the lake in the picture?

I had been here last year in the month of May and had enjoyed an amazingly resplendent sunset. The sunset this time was good too but not as gorgeous as it was in May. This time, however, there were myraids of flowers in pinks and yellows and whites and purples. These weren’t there last time.

We were quite surprised to find more people than we had expected. Sunday afternoon must be the reason. However, the place didn’t feel crowded and maintaining social distance was easy.

Pic 5: The sky just before sunset.
Pic 6: The sky at sunset.

Basking in Shillong’s unparalleled beauty, we found a place for ourselves in the green meadows where we lay down in solitude watching the bright afternoon slowly and steadily dissolve away.

Curiosity Kills Cats, Not Squirrels

It was morning, not very early though. I was still in bed, neither fully asleep nor fully awake. I could sense my sister was up and was at my bedside jabbering something rather frantically. My half-asleep state didn’t register a word but gathered that something needed my immediate attention. While it appeared urgent, it didn’t seem serious. I turned over and decided to sleep for a little while longer.

A good 30-45 min later as I got out of bed, there were tiny oval grayish pellets strewn all over the floor of the house. It took me no time to recognize these were squirrel droppings. So, this is what my sister was trying to tell me. All the doors and windows remain closed at night. How did they manage to get an entry? And, when did all of this happen? I don’t remember hearing any noise at all. My sister declared that she did hear some mild rattling as dawn was breaking in, but she was too sleepy to bother.

It did not take me long to piece together what could have happened. The chimney in kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I usually call in for a service expert twice a year. At other times, I do the cleaning myself. So, I had removed the flap that absorbs the fumes, scrubbed, washed, and left it outside to dry. The flap also forms a barrier between the exhaust pipe and the hob.

Tuntuni, the garden squirrel who lives in the tree just outside the kitchen would have once again entered the chimney pipe. Over-inquisitive as she always is, she would have accidentally fallen onto the kitchen counter. I am not sure if she was alone or was goofing around with her siblings. The confusedness that would have followed is only left to my imagination! She would have felt trapped having no idea how to get out. She would have agitatedly gone around the house trying to figure a way out. Droppings all over the floor and the dining table are tell-tale signs of all the commotion that would have happened.

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I cleaned the droppings – dry pellets, nothing messy. Heaving a sigh of relief and not realizing that the mess was yet to begin, I opened the kitchen sink tap. Water gushed right into the kitchen floor and there I was suddenly marooned in a sizeable pool of water. While trying to escape and looking for an outlet, Tuntuni had damaged the sink drainage pipe. That was not the end. Bewildered, she had even managed to extract some kitchen waste from the garbage bin, which is usually kept below the sink. All that foul-smelling unwanted waste material was now floating on the pool of water.

Certainly not the best way to start a day for the cleanliness freak that I am! That aside, the plumber had to be called and dealing with plumbers is something I loathe to the core. With zero knowledge on the subject, I always feel cheated and exploited. It has never been a pleasant experience.

All of this just for some unadulterated and pure squirrel happiness. Phew!

I still have no clue how she might have escaped. The same chimney route is all that I can think of, which would have again been an accidental discovery. And what relief that would have been! It’s all the fault of the Myna, who had built a nest in the chimney. The squirrel until then had no clue about this hideout. In all her innocence, Tuntuni is just a hyperactive and playful little curious squirrel.

[Click here for a previous post on the squirrel.]

 

 

 

Some Mornings are Magical

The morning sun mildly breaks through the cracks and lights up the dirt path. Dry Pine needles scattered on the ground crackle under our feet. We don’t feel any wind but the tall Pines swish-swash compelling us to stop intermittently to gaze up and look at their canopies. A distinctive aroma fills in the air – the sweet organic fragrance of Pine forests. Colourful butterflies hang around our way as well-orchestrated bird songs flow in from every direction.

Even today I can clearly feel the unparalleled soul soothing peace of those mornings in the Pine forest.

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Pic 1: As we enter the forest.

Morning walks and Pine trees are things that I associate with my Shillong home. Shillong mornings are synonymous with morning walks. I had written about that before. (here)

Last year, this time I was at my Shillong home. I was there for the whole of May and a part of June. Every day would inadvertently begin with those ritualistic morning walks. Most of the days those walks would happen in the Pine forest, just about 1-2 Km. away from my home. The forest has always been there, and I have passed by its periphery countless times but had never ventured into it. Back in the years Shillong was consumed by ethnic violence and such kind of adventures were unthinkable. My cousin, who introduced me to this enchanting place, had discovered it quite recently.

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Pic 2: Somewhere on the trail, we would cross a fallen tree trunk.

There was a simple routine to our Pine forest ritual – I would walk to a certain point where my cousin would join me. We would then walk into the forest, spend about an hour or so and then go back to our respective homes.

In the forest, we would leisurely walk through the undulating trail for about 3 Km. upto a certain point. Thereafter, we would retrace our path and walk down through a narrow passage to a bowl-shaped glade that was cordoned off in one part of the forest. There the forest floor would be blanketed by a thick carpet of crisp brown Pine needles. Could we resist laying down in a place like that! Time stood still as we would gaze into the deep blue sky that was visible in patches through the oscillating canopies of the lofty Pines. The forest felt mystical and spellbinding as the swishing canopies rustled gently, nudging, and coaxing each other. Breathing in the sweet aromatic fragrance of Pines needles, we often felt a sense of kinship with the elegant Pines. We and the Pines and everything else seemed to be in a perfect harmonious blend.

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Pic 3: As we watched the swishing canopies laying on the forest floor.

Sometimes we would play some light music on our phones while watching the trees rhythmically dance away to our music. My cousin would often come up with her own theories of how the trees might be gossiping about us – humans, maybe they are chit-chatting about their families, or maybe discussing the well-being of their kids – the Pine cones, maybe they’re just chilling with our music. Those were freeze frame moments when life felt flawless, moments where we could remain forever and ever.

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Pic 4: At the bowl-shaped glade with cousin and a friend from Bangalore, who had visited Shillong during that time.

Some days, we would climb up a steep slope in the forest. It wasn’t an easy climb by any means as we would keep slipping through the dry Pine needles strewn all over. However, all the trouble was worth it for our sweet spot on top, which was a huge rock shaped in a way that gave the feel of a couch or a bean bag with the perfect backrest. We would sit there listening to the birds as the trees would dance away in a world of their own. Down below through the thick foliage of greens and browns, we could spot tiny roads and tiny houses. The forest felt like where we belonged, it comforted our hearts, and it would take quite an effort to get up and leave. This we usually did on weekends as it would take up more time.

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Pic 5: Our sweet spot, the huge rock with the perfect backrest.

If things would have been normal and there would be no Covid-19, this is exactly what I would have been doing every morning at this time, this year too.

In the Lap of Mother Divine

Just two more days to go and the discomfort in my body with the fever and its associated symptoms were still going strong. The frantic visits to the doctor, the dengue scare, concerns from friends and family were making me nervous and adding to my stress. On D-day, I just took the leap of faith, trusted the doctor’s words and went ahead with my flight to Nepal. I was still unwell and here I was off to Annapurna Base Camp, on a trek to see the mighty Annapurna massif constituting some of the most dangerous peaks in the world.

I made a deal with myself. I am not going to push myself, if my health doesn’t permit at any point of time, I would just retrace my path. At least I am getting to visit Nepal, a place I hadn’t been to before. And, most importantly I wasn’t alone, my sister was with me. With all that uncertainty, and the Nepal Airlines flight being delayed by 5 hours, we reached Kathmandu at 1.00 AM. And, with a bus to catch at 7 AM there was hardly any time to rest.

However, as my mom had predicted, by the time I boarded the bus for Pokhara I had forgotten that I was ill.

In the following days we walked through scenic villages experiencing the local culture, through deep green valleys, and dense and damp jungles with the various peaks of Annapurna playing hide and seek till we reached our destination – Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).

It was the time of Durga Puja, the most important festival time for Bengalis. Five days of festivities to celebrate the Goddess’ arrival on earth (her paternal home) along with her children. On the 3rd day of Puja – Mahasthami, considered to be the most important of the five days, we arrived at ABC. Ideally, I should have been home with my near and dear ones celebrating the Mother Divine. Yet, I was far away from home, in the lap of the Himalayas. However, I did celebrate Mother Divine in the form of Annapurna – the Goddess of Harvest, who is just another form of Ma Durga.

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Pic 1: Everything was whitewashed when we arrived at ABC.

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Pic 2: At the same place as as the previous pic on the next day

When we reached ABC, late in the afternoon, we could see nothing. Everything was whitewashed by a thick layer of fog that lay between us and the mountains. We knew the mountains were just behind the thick white curtain but we saw nothing at all.

Was there any chance of the cloud clearing later on? “No”, said our guide, “Not until tomorrow morning.” We made peace, had lunch and headed to the viewpoint nevertheless, which was just a 5 min walk from the tea house. It was quite cold and nothing was visible with the clouds still forming a barrier between us and the mountains. We walked around marveling at the various memory stones and plaques commemorating fatalities of the climbers.

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Pic 3: This is what we saw when we went to the viewpoint.

The mighty Annapurna massif has some of the most dangerous peaks in the world. Annapurna – I stands at an elevation of 8,091 m (26,545 ft) and is the 10th highest peak in the world. This unforgiving mountain also carries the legacy of the first eight-thousander peak to have been scaled.

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Pic 4: Our first view of Annapurna-1 around 5 PM when the clouds decided to gave way.

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Pic 5: Machhapuchchhre or Fish Tail mountain in the evening with Gangapurna peeking on the left.

I looked at my watch and it was a little after 4.30 PM. With the cold getting worse, there were only very few people at the viewpoint. My sister and I decided to sit quietly with our eyes closed for a while and then leave.

After 15-20 min., we opened our eyes and were stunned by what we saw. The clouds had moved, the sky was blue, and the 360 degree panoramic view had miraculously opened up. This was unbelievable. We hadn’t expected this at all. Dumbfounded, we found ourselves desperately looking all around – what if the clouds decided to come back!

The peaks around us constituted Annapurna-I, Annapurna South, Annapurna-III, Machhapuchchhre, Hiunchuli, Peak 10, Gangapurna. The view remained for a good 20 mins before the clouds started taking their positions once again. The mountains seemed so close that I felt I could touch them if I extended my arm.

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Pic 6: Annapurna South and a part of Annapurna-I, seen from the Tea House just before dawn.

At night, just after dinner, the sky was clear studded with millions of stars. The moon was bright with full moon just a few days away. The mountains glittered in the soft iridescent rays of the moon. The view was nothing but ethereal. Never had I seen such tall mountains from such close quarters lit up by the moonlight. It was one of those times when I missed having a camera. My mobile phone could not capture a thing.

We didn’t stay out for long though as it was extremely cold and we wanted to get to bed early in order to wake up early for sunrise on the mountain. Assured of having a great view the next morning with the sky being clear, we went off to a blissful sleep for the night.

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Pic 7: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-I at sunrise.

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Pic 8: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-South at sunrise.

Sunrise was just as gorgeous as I had expected. The peaks of Annapurna-I and Annapurna South looked like molten gold. It was magical. The Sun seemed to be waking up with utmost delight, putting up a show of painting the peaks for all the curious onlookers. The peaks seemed to be indulging the Sun like a mother reveling in her child’s playful activities. No words can do justice to the breathtaking view. The moment lasted for 6-7 mins and this was one of the most beautiful sights I have witnessed in my life so far.

All along I found myself profoundly thanking the majestic Annapurna for all the divinity I was experiencing.

Click here for a more detailed post on my experience of the ABC Trek.

Note: Pictures are unedited raw photos, clicked by iPhone 6.

To Nature – My Best Teacher

Today I was scanning my mailbox, looking for a specific email, when I came across an email I had written to a dear friend. It made me nostalgic and took me back to that rainy morning at my home town of Shillong. I remember exactly the reason why I had written all that to him.

A part of that email I thought I would share here as it reminded me of the fact that Nature is our greatest teacher. Nature has hundreds of life lessons for us, only if we choose to be her students. And, this is just one of those.

So, here it goes – an excerpt from the email that I had written to my friend.

This morning it rained, not heavy rains but good enough to drench you. Other days, I would have happily tucked inside the quilt and gone off to another round of blissful sleep. But today being the last day that I would walk these lovely roads, I stepped out with an umbrella. It was wonderful, hardly anybody around - the usual morning walkers I mean. I had the entire road and all the trees, the flowers, the ferns, and the greenery to myself. On the way back, I sat on a roadside culvert for a while just to soak in the surroundings which I will badly miss in Bangalore. After sometime, I closed my eyes for a while and concentrated on the sounds. The small and large raindrops falling on my umbrella, the birds of various kinds calling out, the brook behind me gushing away....every sound was distinctive, yet like a well-coordinated orchestra. It was music and it was beautiful. Nature is God! My mind was blank and I was thinking of nothing. Then something I had read somewhere about learning from nature came flashing by.....The brook behind me was gurgling away and it was the loudest sound at that point of time forcing my attention towards it. I thought to myself, doesn't it gurgle the same way whether it is a bright sunny day or a gloomy rainy day. What if it would say, "I am not upto myself today, I will not gurgle today. It's a gloomy day, let the sun shine and then we'll see." Shouldn't we strive to be like the brook in our daily lives? Good days and bad days will keep coming and the cycle of life will continue. Does that mean we pause in our path and stop doing what we do?

As I read this, I thought to myself if at all I practiced what I had preached. A few moments of deliberations and I think I do, but sometimes not always. The roller-coaster of a ride that life is, I hope I will remind myself to be resilient and patient like Nature is – always and NOT sometimes!