Neyyar Dam Wildlife Sanctuary

My 5th day at the ashram wasn’t spent at the ashram at all.  I opted to take a full day jungle trek into the Neyyar Dam Wildlife Sanctuary and up to a waterfall.  As usual the morning bells rang at 5:20AM.  Actually the first bell rings at 5AM and with it the small temple in the front is opened.  The bell rings again at 5:15AM and then a louder one rings at 5:20AM, which is the official morning wake up bell.  Then at 5:40AM the bell rings again to call everyone to the main hall for our morning satsang.  Since I am a light sleeper, especially when traveling and not at my own home, I wake up with almost every sound whether it’s a bell or a barking dog (or a roaring tiger every now and then here, really).  Needless to say, I haven’t slept through an entire night here; I’m usually awake before the first set of bells goes off at 5AM.  In any case, we got ready as usual for our 6AM satsang but instead we went outside to wait for our buses.  It had been cloudy for a few days but I could tell that it was going to be a sunny day.  Although the sun wasn’t out yet I could see the clear dark blue skies as far as my eyes would take me.  After a few days confined in our spacious yet limited compound, I was very much looking forward to walking for more than a few minutes at a time.

We all piled into three small buses, some riding backwards and half sitting on non existing chairs, and off we went to the Neyyar Dam Wildlife Sanctuary.  This sanctuary (and the ashram, for that matter) is about 32km north of Trivandrum and is home to elephants, deer, monkeys, and some tigers as well.  While the likelihood of seeing an actual tiger was none (as I mentioned above, sometimes we hear them), we were to walk for about an hour to get to a waterfall where we can swim, have a picnic, and hang out, and be back at the ashram by 6PM.  We all wondered what an Indian picnic would entail and we found out soon enough when we saw large jugs and pots being loaded onto the bus with us.  It turns out that on an Indian picnic, you eat exactly the same things as you normally would eat.  Essentially, it was our regular breakfast at the ashram but taken outside.  Since you eat with your hands, you don’t need any utensils and banana leaves serve as plates so things are a lot simpler to pack for a picnic than what I’m used to.  But by the looks of the bags we were also taking with us, there had to be some cooking involved with our lunch…  Not as simple as some sandwiches and a fruit salad, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Picnic lunch for our jungle trek

On the way to Neyyar Dam Wildlife Sanctuary

First we drove for a few miles and arrived at a large lake.  There we took a small boat rowed by a very skinny Indian man.  We really packed this boat up  (to what I would consider dangerous levels, with people literally sitting on the sides of the boat, squatting in the middle and all but totally acceptable and normal in India) but since there was only one boat, we had to wait for it to make two trips for all of us to get to the other side.  From there we walked for about 25 minutes or so through some thick bush and arrived at another lake.  When we reached this area (I can’t call it a dock since there was no structure of any kind, just a small clearing) there wasn’t anyone or a boat waiting for us.  But within a few minutes, out from the foggy lake a row boat appeared and once again we all tried to fit as many people as possible (plus our lunch and whatnot) and the entire scene repeated.  Once we were ashore on the other side, our guide gave us a few instructions.  We were to stay together and walk in silence since this was a wildlife reserve and there are wild elephants roaming around.  In addition, he warned that it had rained the day before so we were likely to encounter some leeches.  Yikes!  Luckily I didn’t have any such encounters but I did see someone from our group taking a leech off of his big toe later, which left his toe a bit bloody.  Yikes again!

With those words we set off into my first Indian jungle.  What makes something a jungle, by the way?  My roommate Jane and I discussed it the night before and thought what makes something a forest versus a jungle?  Does location matter?  Is it the type of plantation and trees?  I’ve been to some thick forests in Costa Rica but no one called it a jungle.  I will have to look that up later.

Anyway.  We found out that we had to walk about 6km to the waterfall.  Some of the trail was relatively flat and easy but there were certainly parts that worried me a bit because of how steep and gravely/ rocky it was.  As I was climbing up I thought that as difficult as it was to ascend, it would make for a much rougher descent.  I tried to keep to the first quarter of the group to see if I could keep up with our guides, but there really was no comparison.  Our guides were 1) wearing flip flops or no shoes at all, 2) carrying all of our lunch on their heads.  Honestly, I was crawling compared to these guys who were practically running up these steep hills like galloping horses.  It was truly a sight to see.  One of them even crossed a small stream by walking on a fallen tree while balancing a large pot on his head.

After about 45 minutes of brisk hiking we stopped for a bit to rest and our guys made us some lemon water.  Freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and water.  It didn’t occur to me at the time but it was lemonade, of course!  What I also didn’t know at the time was the fact that they just put the jugs into a stream of water and used that water for our lemonade.  Had I known it, I may not have had the lemonade made of non-purified Indian water but I can say with absolute certainty that no one got sick from it.  Hopefully I’m slowly building some tolerance…

Soon after that we began to hear the streams of water getting closer and closer to us.  When we finally reached the waterfall, we were happy to see that we were the only people there and the waterfall and the natural pool around it was actually quite large.  It was made up of several waterfalls over some rather large boulders and stretched out wide.  Having reached the waterfall before many others, we took a few quick photos and ran.  Literally ran to take our sticky hiking clothes off and went in to swim.  I originally didn’t have any intention of swimming but the water looked so nice and refreshing I joined in as well.  I haven’t been to any beaches in India yet but I am well aware that the women don’t wear bikinis here and modest clothing is highly recommended even when swimming.  But since there was no one around, we all decided to jump in with our bikinis.  The women who have been traveling in India for a while all commented how nice it was to just wear their bathing suits instead of putting on long t-shirts and sarongs, etc.  I felt a little bad about it since our guides were all Indian men but they seemed to be cool with it.  We were sure they routinely take other tourists there so it wasn’t such a scene for them; later on, they all joined in and swam with us anyway.  On a side note, when a few people tried to climb up the waterfall, our guides discouraged them by saying that there was a group of Indians on the other side and bikini clad ladies going there wasn’t the best idea…

Indian picnic

Anyway.  The water was freezing but it felt great after having walked/hiked most of the morning.  I thought this time of the year it would be 85 degrees and sunny everyday, but it actually hasn’t been that hot.  But in the jungle on a sunny day, it felt hot and humid, and we were all drenched.  It was such a treat to be able to cool down and relax.  And within what seemed like just minutes, we were being waved in because our breakfast was ready.  We each had a big banana leaf and on it, we received some semolina, vegetarian lentil and tomato stew, and chapatis.  Except for the fried chapatis brought from the ashram, everything was cooked on site by wood fire.  The semolina was cooked perfectly and the stew was seasoned well and delicious.  But the real treat for us was a large pot of hot chai.  At the ashram, we only get to drink ayurvedic water (water boiled with numerous herbs), filtered water, or ginger tea.  To have real tea with caffeine and real milk (granted it was powdered), I think it made my British roommate Jane’s heart flutter.  She was beyond happy.

After breakfast, we just lazily hung out reading, napping, and chatting.  Around 2PM, we had our snack that our guides also made on site.  It was cooked tapioca with spiced coconuts, and more tea.  The shaved coconuts were coated with several spices that actually were spicy!  Everyone was all secretly hoping for a sweet snack but I was happy to settle for something spicy.

Our trek back was a lot longer because our guides didn’t want us to take two boat rides again, and wanted us to take a peek into the elephant sanctuary.  This circuitous route had us hiking for close to three hours and by the time we reached the elephant sanctuary most just wanted to get back in time for dinner at 6PM.  So we rushed back to eat and get ready for our evening satsang.  I thought briefly about keeping my blistered feet in for the night but we were expecting a traditional Indian martial arts (kalaripayattu) group to come and perform for us that night so I had to go check it out.

After a quick meditation and chanting session, we welcomed a group of young men (and one woman) wielding various weapons.  We all sat around the perimeter of the hall to give the guys enough room; one of the young Indian volunteers at the ashram came around to my side to push us out farther by saying “danger, danger.”  We thought “how sweet” but his words were true- some of them came dangerously close to us with their knifes, axes, and steel whips!  Most of the demonstrations started with a guy walking and the second guy attacking the first one from behind with a weapon.  There were numerous aerial and gravity defying jumps and flips, and they all ended with one guy being “killed” by the other.  Deadly AND entertaining.

With that my long 5th day in India came to an end.  What will I see and learn tomorrow?

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