Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Alone at last

Indian landscapes are typical in some ways of tropical or developing countries around the world.  Poverty, overpopulation, and few economic options mean that humans squeeze as much from the landscape as possible.

Deforestation, uncontrolled farming, and intense overgrazing leave a scarred brown landscape filled by crops and pasture from horizon to horizon.  The ground beneath trees is hard-packed dirt, with no leaf litter or deadwood—all plant material is eaten by goats or harvested for fuel.  I imagine it looks much the way parts of the eastern United States did in the 19th century, before farming eased up and less productive areas grew back into forest.

For these reasons it can be difficult for a biologist to find a place to biologize in.  My rule of thumb in Indonesia, for example, was that every day in the field required two days of travel and planning.  In India I’m discovering that the ratio is even more unfavorable—two days of travel per three hours of field time.

Ranthambhore National Park was our first introduction to a natural Indian landscape.  But it was a brief excursion, in a truck filled with other tourists, with no easy option for hiking or hiring a local guide.  We’ve had similar experiences elsewhere.  Doing anything alone or on foot is not only difficult and out of the ordinary, but downright inconceivable for some people.

In the holy city of Pushkar, Sara and I arranged a three-hour camel tour.  The camel owners assured us that our route would take out us out into the desert away from the city.  In a way, they were right—we went to the outskirts of the city, to where we could see natural vegetation just a few hundred meters away.  But those tantalizing savannas and woodlands stayed beyond our reach.  After much riding along roads and through back alleys just to get a glimpse, it was time to turn back.

 Sara and I got a glimpse of the desert on camelback…

…but most of the ride was through city and along roads

Our luck eventually turned.  A couple days later we drove to Sajjan Garh Wildlife Sanctuary outside the city of Udaipur.  Hundreds of tourists pass through Sajjan Garh each day without stopping, on their way to visit an old mansion at the top of a hill—the Monsoon Palace.  For these visitors, the wildlife sanctuary is no more than a scenic bit of road you have to drive through to get to the real attraction.

The uninhabited Monsoon Palace sits atop a rocky hill overlooking the city of Udaipur.

Little swifts (Apus affinis) nest in the dilapidated eaves of the ruins

The palace was worth the visit—spiraling staircases, ornate carvings, decrepit doorways, and expansive views over the city and the surrounding Aravalli Hills.  But the wildlife sanctuary is also a worthy destination.  All the more so because apparently no one else thinks so.  Though there are well-labeled hiking trails, our driver was skeptical about the idea of walking.

“I don’t know if there’s walking,” he said when we told him our plan.

“Yeah, there’s a hiking trail and a sign.”

“But there are tigers.”  At this last comment our driver curled his fingers like claws, to warn us about the dangers of going outside.

Despite the fact that tigers are much less dangerous than just about anything else we do on a daily basis—like driving—tigers have unfortunately been extirpated from the local area.  Our driver relented and agreed to meet us three hours later at the end of a road.

We finally hiked, alone and unmolested and in silence, for the first time in India.  It was perfect.  We climbed through rocky hills covered in dry forest—with real leaf litter that rustled underfoot and everything!

 At Sajjan Garh Wildlife Sanctuary Sara and I got to hike alone for the first time in India, through dry forests of the Aravalli Hills

Without herds of goats running rampant, there was actual vegetation and leaf litter beneath the trees

We took in long views of the landscape, and explored the ruins of an old stone guard post.  No one tried to sell us anything, or insisted we take photos of yet another palace or temple, or tried to sell us on a destination we weren’t interested in.

We just were.  Finally.

Friday, June 24, 2016

An Indian welcome

The past two months have seen a lot of change.  I defended my dissertation, moved out of my apartment in Oklahoma, and got married to my beautiful new wife, Sara.  Last week we began our first married adventure—a honeymoon in India!

My wife Sara and I are spending a few weeks in India for our honeymoon

Yesterday marked the completion of our first official week of travel.  India has already challenged us and revealed a few discoveries.  During my time in Australia I discovered a travel rule for that country—every adventure exacts a misery tax that must be paid.  I’m still getting a feel for India, so I can’t claim to have discovered any rules here.  But I have learned not to expect anything.  Every assumption I make, from meal times to travel destinations, seems to turn out wrong.  And unfulfilled expectations are a sure ticket to frustration and unhappiness.

So we are learning, slowly and sometimes painfully, not to expect anything.  Each day we give up a little more control, and enjoy ourselves a little better.

We are making our way south through Rajasthan, with the goal of eventually reaching India’s southwest coast.  The state of Rajasthan lies along India’s northwestern border with Pakistan.  It’s a dry region, originally covered in seasonal dry forests, savannas, grasslands, and the sprawling Thar Desert.

Today much of the natural vegetation has been converted to farmland or heavily grazed pasture, and you can drive for hours without traversing a single patch of unused nature.  It’s the end of the dry season and most fields are barren and plowed, waiting for the monsoon rains.  Temperatures run hot and minor dust storms crop up every few days.  And it’s crowded.  Between the mass of humans eking a living out of the soil, and the endless herds of grazing goats and sheep that accompany them, there is often little room left for the rest of the living world.

But there is nature here, maybe even wilderness.  Scattered rocky hills, impossible to plow, are clothed in semi-natural savannas.  And several areas are wisely set aside for conservation.  It was to one of these natural islands that we first made our way.

The natural vegetation in this part of Rajasthan—seasonal dry forest—is just now at the peak of the dry season.  Soon new leaves will open up and flowers will bloom as the monsoon rains set in.

Ranthambhore National Park is famous mostly for its tigers.  Open vegetation, a network of dirt roads, and a high density of tigers makes this one of the most reliable places to spot India’s largest predator without ever leaving the comfort of a vehicle.  Hundreds of other species, however, also benefit from the protection of Ranthambhore’s rocky hills.

Open savanna dominates more exposed sites with thinner, rockier soil

 Cheetal deer (Axis axis) are abundant in Ranthambhore, and roam the forest in small herds

Indian gazelle (Gazella bennettii) also occur here

Asian paradise-flycatchers (Terpsiphone paradisi)…

…and Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus dussumieri) congregate near water holes in the park

We entered the park in an open-topped truck filled with tourists from other parts of India.  While driving through town our truck clipped the blade of a bulldozer.  It was a minor collision, and the bulldozer was, well, a bulldozer, so there was no damage.  We continued on our way without stopping.

Another reminder, as if we needed one, to have no expectations and be open to anything.