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23 February 2015 / leggypeggy

Eking out a living one roti at a time

Making roti

Niharika rolls out yet another roti. See the small griddle to her right

It’s sobering to think how hard some people work to make a living.

About four years ago, Niharika and Ramesh moved north from Mumbai to open a small restaurant on the outskirts of Rajkot in Gujarat.

When we stopped for lunch at their place, called Punchnath Chinese and Punjabi Dhaba (dhaba means eatery and is sometimes spelt dhoba), I learned how hard it can be just to pay the rent.

Niharika, who sat cross-legged and serenely on the floor rolling out and cooking rotis in seconds, explained that their monthly rent was 25,000 rupees (or about A$500). Some months they have to dip into their savings to cover the cost.

In an Indian kitchen

Ramesh checks on the curries

While Niharika was making rotis (anywhere from 300 to 400 a day), her husband, Ramesh was whizzing around serving up the main dishes she made earlier in the day.

We were served a thali (mixed plate) of chickpea curry, potato and pea curry, a dal and a fourth dish I can’t remember. Ramesh kept topping up our plates and bringing as many rotis as we could eat. I hadn’t realised that rotis come with a thali, and are an all-you-can-eat item. No wonder she makes so many every day.

Niharika was working off a five-kilo batch of dough, pulling off bits no bigger than a cherry then rolling them out to almost six inches in diameter.

By the way, we stopped at their place by chance. We’d been looking for a place to get the van’s wheels aligned, and their little eatery is almost next door. So if you’re ever on the road out of Rajkot to Porbandar, look out for the big Bridgestone sign on the left. Niharika and Ramesh’s place is just before it.

The all-you-can-eat thali was only 70 rupees per person (or A$1.40). You have to sell a lot of thalis to cover the rent. Luckily two more tables of customers arrived just before we left. And on the way out, we bought nine ice creams at 25 rupees each (50 cents).

Oh, and the wheel alignment was done in less than 30 minutes and cost a mere 250 rupees (or A$5).

P.S. I’ve never made rotis, but I plan to try when I get home. I have reason to be confident because I had great success making Arabic bread.

21 February 2015 / leggypeggy

Gir National Park—lions and much, much more

Ruddy mongoose

A ruddy mongoose scurries into hiding

You’ve already met the Asiatic lions of Gir National Park, but you should know that the park and surrounding sanctuary abound with life beyond lions.

Our four game drives—two in early morning, one in mid-morning and one in mid-afternoon—gave us the chance to enjoy plenty of wildlife, scenery and interesting facts about this semi-arid region.

Gir National Park

Open landscape that was filled with three lions a few minutes later

Let me impress you with some numbers. According to a booklet where we stayed, the park boasts 38 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and an almost unbelievable 2000 species of insects. Even more amazing is that I didn’t get a single bug bite. Yay!

Some of the critters we saw included spotted deer (chital), blue bull antelopes (nilgai), ruddy mongooses, wild boar, crocodiles and a range of birds.

Plants are not quite as prolific, with more than 500 types of trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses. I was stunned to learn that about 5 million kilograms of green grass is harvested there each year (worth about US$10 million). The forest also provides 123 million metric tons of fuel wood. The Maldhari, the semi-nomadic tribe that lives in the park, also collects and dries dung that is on-sold as fuel. Plant-wise, I particularly liked the stone apple and flame of the forest trees.

But the most amazing thing I learned was how the recent lion counts have been carried out.

In 2005, the government banned the use of live bait to attract lions in, and demanded that only lions that were actually seen could be counted. The census that year was completed with the help of about 1000 forest officials, experts and volunteers.

Five years later, the census work was done by about 40 ‘Cat Women of Gir Forest’. These women, mostly from Muslim tribes in neighbouring villages, travelled the park counting only those lions they actually saw. The women, who seek to protect the lions, have worked hard to gain trust and cooperation from local villagers and the Maldhari herdsmen who live in the park. They also seem to have gained the trust and respect of the lions, who leave them unmolested to go about their counting.

The more I learn about Gir, the more I think it is one of my favourite parks in India—except for that damn outrageous camera-use charge.

Asiatic lion, male

A male in profile

20 February 2015 / leggypeggy

Gir National Park—the last refuge for the Asiatic lion

Asiatic lion, female

So close I could have stroked her. Notice the scars on her nose

People often assume that Africa and zoos are the only places to see lions, but they’re wrong. Asiatic lions, which used to roam widely throughout Asia, are still kings of the jungle in a small part of Gujarat in western India.

According to the last census in 2010, Gir National Park has a population 411 of these lions. The park’s 2015 census, scheduled to take place in early May and using GPS technology, will determine whether the numbers are up or down. I’m expecting them to be up. They went from 359 to 411 in the five years prior to 2010.

As of this week, I was lucky enough to see not just one, but nine of these magnificent cats. Over three separate game drives (more about them below), we saw two females with a cub (thought to be female), then a mum with two male cubs, then a lone male and finally a courting/mating couple.

Asiatic lions

Two females and a cub

But we didn’t just see them. The first group—the two females and the cub—walked beside us. I was told to sit up straight and not hang my head out the side the Gypsy (what the vehicles are called). If my arms were a bit longer and I was a bit more daring, I could have stroked them.

The mating pair were lounging around when we were there, but we were told by a guide who went by after us, that they’d become a bit frisky.

Seeing nine was a huge bonus. According to Wikipedia, Iran’s last pride of Asiatic lions (a female and four cubs) were cornered and shot in 1963. The male had been shot earlier. No sightings have been made since then.

Asiatic lion cub

A cub keeps ‘her’ distance from us

Back in the early 1900s and during a severe drought, there were only about a dozen lions left in Gir’s teak forest. The then Nawab (Muslim ruler) of Junagadh provided enough protection for the animals that the numbers recovered a bit between 1904–11.

But the slaughter resumed in 1911 after the Nawab died and, by 1913 the numbers were estimated at 20. The British Administration implemented shooting restrictions and, by 1936, the count was up to 287.

Today most of the lions roam across 545 square miles of Gir sanctuary (that encompass the 100 square miles of actual park). For the most part, they co-exist fairly peacefully with the Maldhari—8400 live in the park. These nomads raise livestock and while their settlements have caused some problems for the lions, they have also provided the beasts with some protection.

Asiatic lion, male, Gir

Licking his chops and remembering lunch

The 2010 census shows that about a quarter of the lions live outside the sanctuary. The state of Madhya Pradesh has made a successful court application to have some animals moved to their Kuno sanctuary, but this has not yet happened.

I can understand Gujarat’s desire to remain the lions’ last host—what a great tourist drawcard—but they are not thinking ahead. What if disease or fire sweeps through the Gir lions? In 1994, an epidemic of canine distemper hit Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and killed about 1000 African lions.

Asiatic lions, mating pair

The mating pair lounging around

Compliments and complaints about the game drives

We had four game drives through the Gir forests. We were only supposed to have two, but the van we are travelling in needed new brake shoes so we stayed in the area for an extra day. Luckily we were able to squeeze in two more drives.

Getting a drive spot is a real production. There are only three drives per day—starting at 6:30am, 9:30am and 3:30pm—and 30 vehicles allowed per drive. Fifteen vehicles are allocated online, several months in advance.

If you want one of the last 15 slots, you have to queue from the middle of the night. Two days in a row, Gary and Shalak took up the challenge, heading to the queue at 4am and then 2am. The third day Gary and Anand went at 4am and we ‘only just’ got a place. Our campsite host had arranged a proxy to stand in the queue for us, or we never would have managed.

It was almost a pity that we did. This third drive was totally crappy because the guide was hopeless AND, even worse, the governor of the state showed up and all the good drive zones were set aside for his use only. But the fact that we were already at the park meant Gary and I hopped in the queue for the last afternoon drive. Our four-hour wait paid off and we got a slot and a great game zone.

Even though you have to wait a long time to get your placement, the system works fairly smoothly. There’s a bit of arguing in the queue, and a bit of attempted queue-jumping. But calm is restored when the guy with the handlebar moustache and spear turns up. Sorry I missed getting a pic of him.

Gir trackers

The trackers with their sticks—some protection

Lion-spotting is improved too by the work of fearless rangers. These fellows travel through the park on motorbikes and then tramp into the bush, carrying only a stick and sometimes a walkie-talkie, to urge lions out of their slumbering hideaways. I give them a lot of credit.

But here’s my big, big gripe about the organisation. Unlike every other park in India, the parks of Gujarat charge 600 rupees per person for a camera on every drive. That’s about US$10 and A$12 per drive. So I paid A$48 for camera usage alone over three days. Ridiculous and thievery in my opinion! Especially because you also pay to enter the park, pay for the use of the vehicle and pay for the guide. Thanks goodness Poor John doesn’t carry a camera.

On reflection, I don’t mind the camera charge for three of the drives, but I never even got my camera out of its bag on that third drive. So whatever you do, avoid zone 1 and try your best to get zone 2 (exiting from zone 6). Brilliant!

Asiatic lion, female

The courted female having a rest

A bit about the Asiatic lions

While these lions are slightly smaller than their African counterparts, they are equally majestic. It terms of size, they can still run to 420 pounds in weight and 3.5 feet in height at the shoulder.

Gestation period is about 100 days, and mothers nurse their young for about two months. The cubs aren’t completely weaned until they are three to four months old. Then the diet is meat only, which keeps the mum busy as a killing machine. Cubs starting hunting for themselves at about the age of one or one and a half. Their first attempts, usually involving small prey such as birds and mice, are quite clumsy.

Male cubs leave the pride at about age two, mostly to prevent in-breeding and establish their own territory (marking, roaring and fighting) at about the age of four. Every adult lion we saw had scars.

Our guide thought the mating male was five or six years old and might maintain his authority for another six or seven years—certainly not for 10.

And a bit of trivia: Asiatic lions were the beasts doing battle in the Coliseum in Rome.

P.S. Lions are carnivores so I wonder if they’d like the beef cheeks recipe on my cooking blog?

Asiatic lions, males

A couple of young boys

13 February 2015 / leggypeggy

Wandering through the desert on a camel makes for slow blog posting

Sunset in the Thar desert, India

Sunset in the Thar desert

Apologies to everyone for posting so little over the last little while. And for visiting your blogs so irregularly.

Poor John and I are in India for two months (and then Bhutan for two weeks) and this trip is proving to be much more remote than our last one in late 2013.

Our days trotting through the Thar desert in Rajasthan were great fun, but not an internet cafe in sight.

Three in desert

Robyn and Gary follow suit with Poor John’s common walking stance

In fact. I felt lucky to survive the trip in one piece. When we stopped at a watering hole so the camels could tank up, my camel tripped backwards over a stray sheep and I, with camera in hand, nearly fell backwards into the trough. Amazingly my left hand took on the properties of a clamp, so even though Baloo (the camel) reared up and stumbled backwards, I managed to hang on and keep my seat.

We rode two days in the desert and camped overnight in the dunes. While it was colder than we expected we all stayed warm enough.

There’s lots more to tell about that expedition and our current foray into the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujurat, but for now a few pics and a promise to be back within a couple of days. We’re off to Gir tomorrow to spend three days in a remote camp searching for leopards and Asiatic lions.

P.S. Of course, my camel was the flashiest, most decorated camel on the desert. Nothing like hanging out with a showpiece.

camel in Thar desert

Baloo looking suitably overdressed. Note my sleepijng bag and backpack hanging off his saddle

7 February 2015 / leggypeggy

India—’giving me curry’ all the way

Rehmatullah Hotel restaurant

A bird’s eye view of the kitchen and serving

We’re already two weeks into our overland jaunt across northern and central India and I’m still not tired of eating curry. In fact, with the exception of a couple of pieces of toast, one bowl of cereal and quite a bit of fruit, I’ve had curry at every meal since 24 January. And all I can say is Bring it on.

I like to think I make good curries—to be honest, I do very good job—but the master curry makers are in India and we keep encountering them every day.

For starters we got street food—skewers of fish and chicken cooked while we waited and served up in a large stainless steel bowl. Delicious and spicy.

Street food Delhi

Skewers of fish and chicken being made in Delhi

The first dinner was in a restaurant in Old Delhi, not far from the Jama Mosque. This narrow eating establishment is part of the Rehmatullah Hotel, with a bit of seating both downstairs and upstairs. From our upstairs perch, we could watch the chefs ladling up bowls of curry, rice and dal, and adding plates of bread.

We could also see several rows of men squatting on their haunches on the footpath out the front of the restaurant. These fellows, who are beggars, take up this position daily outside many restaurants waiting for the day’s leftovers or to have a generous diner pay 40 cents or so for a meal to be served to them before the restaurant is closing up—a sensible option if leftovers look to be running low.

We enjoyed a simple meal of saffron rice, chicken curry and bread. A couple of us added some rupees to the payment so a couple of beggars could get their meals early. I desperately wanted to take a closer-up pic of these fellows, but it just didn’t seem right. Too intrusive.

chicken and rice, Delhi

Saffron rice and chicken curry

We had some truly wonder meals over the last two weeks. One that surprised a couple of fellow travellers was the idli with sauces for breakfast. We’ve had this South Indian breakfast dish before, so I knew exactly what it was—little pancake-y rounds made from de-husked black lentils and ground rice. We had three dishes on the side—coconut, chilli sauce and dal. These were the nicest idli I’ve ever had, so well worth recalling.

idli with sauces

Idli with coconut sauce, chilli paste and dal—and a missing bite

We also had a delicious lunch at a rundown roadside cafe not far over the border into Rajasthan. Two dishes were Rajathani specialities and they were excellent. I was surprised to see that one of them included pasta, but then pasta is widely sold in the markets throughout India. They also served chai (spiced tea) is small pottery cups that are meant to be thrown away after use. Seems such a pity.

And another favourite has been the thalis. A thali is sort of a sampling plate. There are lots of little bowls with a selection of dishes such as curry, rice, vegetables, curd or raita (yogurt), dal, bread, roti and a sweet. We’ve had a couple of sensational thalis, especially one at a restaurant in Jaipur called RasRaj. If you ever get the chance—go there! It was one of the two best meals we’ve had so far and I didn’t get a pic of the best one in Jaisalmer at a small rooftop restaurant called Sunset City Palace. That menu included a speciality dish of desert vegetables which apparently grow only in Rajasthan.

Rasraj thali Jaipur

The sensational thali from RasRaj Restaurant in Jaipur

Oh, and do you know the expression to give someone curry? It’s a slang expression meaning to give someone a hard time either verbally or physically. For the next 10 weeks, it’s going to mean bring me my next meal! :)

2 February 2015 / leggypeggy

We hit the safety jackpot in Papua New Guinea

We’ve always known that Port Moresby is a tough town, but we had no idea how extremely dangerous it is until we got there.

For many ex-patriot employees, a condition of service is that they agree NEVER to take a taxi or other public transport. If they get caught doing so, they will be sent home.

Walking anywhere is also discouraged, and many even have to agree NEVER to drive in certain parts of town. Their cars are fitted with tracking devices that let an employer know if they have violated the agreement.

If people are wary of their surroundings when driving, they can call for an escort vehicle. In fact, they are expected to call for an escort at night, regardless of whether they feel concerned. That happened when we stayed several nights with Tam at the end of our trip.

Rascals (criminals) don’t care if you’re a foreigner or Papau New Guinean. They want your money, your car, your mobile phone, your shoes, even your life if you don’t cooperate. The week before we arrived in PNG, a local teenager was stabbed to death in the market because he refused to give up his mobile phone.

PNG Parliament interior

The guide breaks the rules and takes a picture of us inside Parliament House’s main chmaber

So there we were in Port Moresby and other parts of Papua New Guinea for almost three weeks.

When you have no car and are discouraged from walking or taking any form of public transport, your immediate thought is ‘we’re stranded’, but Poor John is a lateral thinker and tackled the problem with flair.

He asked Jo, with whom we stayed for the first few nights, what was the biggest tourist hotel in town. Surely, he said, they must have a taxi driver they trust and rely on.

So Jo called the Ela Beach Hotel and, without hesitation, the staff recommended Mr Lucas and passed on his phone number. We called and arranged to meet him the next day in the hotel’s carpark.

Jo’s nanny walked us down to the hotel. It was a less than two kilometres away and the walk is considered ‘safe enough’ if done in daytime and with an escort. We made it just fine.

When we arrived, another limo driver tried to pass himself off as Mr Lucas, but I asked a couple of questions that confirmed he was an impostor. Nice try, but fail.

And then came Mr Lucas, who was perfect—big, burly, honest, knowledgeable, calm, cheerful, friendly, a good driver and a victim himself of three car attacks.

Over the next several days, Mr Lucas drove us to all the touristic sights. He came and went as required (keeping in touch by mobile phone), and filled us in about his city and his native highlands.

Totems in the PNG museum

Totems in the PNG museum

Thanks to Mr Lucas we saw Parliament House, the botanic gardens, an orchid garden, a nature park, the war cemetery and the national museum. I’ll write about most of these separately, but here’s an interior shot—taken clandestinely because photos aren’t allowed—from the museum. The displays are old but fascinating.

PNG taxi driver

The amazing Mr Lucas

So here’s our call, for any transport requirements in Port Moresby, we can wholeheartedly recommend Mr Lucas. Once you are there, his direct phone number is 71 468 488. If it’s changed—unlikely unless his phone has been stolen—call the Ela Beach Hotel and ask for his number.

Jo’s nanny and her husband also escorted us through a small market, but they aren’t available for tourism. :)

Port Moresby market

Port Moresby market

Safety beyond Port Moresby

While Port Moresby is probably the roughest town in Papua New Guinea, plenty of other towns are considered unsafe. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, you need to stay aware of your surroundings.

Safety was a prime concern in the highlands where we attended the Goroka Show. I’ve already written lots about the show, but I haven’t yet gone into detail on the safety precautions.

We stayed at the National Institute of Sport and the security was top-notch. The show was on the grounds attached to the institute and the whole compound was fully fenced with guards at the gates.

A large group of us walked into town on the first afternoon, stopping in a local supermarket to buy drinks and snacks on the way. We chatted with some locals and, although we were constantly on alert, we never felt in danger.

Many people walked back and forth to town and many took the free, on-demand van-service offered by the institute. For example, if we wanted to go for dinner at the Chinese restaurant, the van would drop us there and collect us at a time we nominated. On the return trip, the van had to park across the road, and the restaurant’s guard would escort us to it.

I was constantly struck by how hard the locals tried to keep us safe and, indeed, we never had any issues. Once when we planned to walk to an outside destination, the guards said they thought the crowd was too restless outside and recommended we take the van instead.

I read that one of Australia’s media correspondents was pick-pocketed while in Goroka, but none of us—we were a group of around 20—lost a thing. No doubt, other villages with local shows have similar safety systems in place.

Our other stops on the trip were at an Asaro village and three coastal villages near Tufi. I’ve already written several items about the Asaro village, and the wonderful time we had there. The mock wedding was a special event.

Tufi was equally rewarding and totally safe. In fact, there was no hint of safety issues and we walked around Tufi itself and the three villages without concerns. I’ll post more about them soon.

But for now if you are thinking of travelling to PNG, be sure to stay aware of your surroundings and follow safety advice, but don’t spend the whole time terrified and fearing for your life.

5 January 2015 / leggypeggy

Weddings galore in 2014—and one newborn

Memories of last year’s weddings came flooding back when I heard that one of the happy young couples have just had their first child, a daughter Elodie, on New Year’s Eve.

Hannah and Mauro are the new mum and dad. We’ve known Hannah since she was five. She was a neighbour all those years ago, and Hannah and our Libby have been close friends since the 1980s. In fact, Libby was Hannah’s maid of honour.

Their wedding was in Canberra’s Weston Park—a place where our families spent many memorable times.

Over the years, Hannah has spent lots of time at our house. That said, I won’t embarrass her by posting a pic of her with our girls in our pink bathtub so many years ago (maybe another time).

Hannah is a clever girl and a not-too-picky eater.

I remember inviting her to dinner on many occasions. What are you having, she’d ask. Lasagne, I’d say. I’ll just check what mum’s making, she’d say. And within a few minutes she’d be back to say she was eating with us because her mum was serving spinach. Little did Hannah know that my lasagne had more than a half a pound of fresh baby spinach in it. I think that’s how she learned to like spinach.

But I digress. Back to our year of weddings and, no, neither of my kids got married this year.

Last month I was in the USA for a family wedding—my nephew, Charlie, married another Hannah. Charlie and Hannah attend university in Oklahoma, but they got married in St Louis Missouri, which is near Hannah’s hometown.

The wedding night was great. Charlie was so enthusiastic that he said I do about two sentences after the celebrant (his brother-in-law) started to speak. Got a great laugh from the crowd.

I didn’t take as many pictures as I’d have liked but here are a few.

In the middle of the year, we were spectators at a couple of weddings in Central Asia. The ones that stand out were in Khiva and Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Can’t find the pics from the those weddings, so will have to add those someday in future.

But the knockout, mind-boggling  wedding of our year was in September in Papua New Guinea. I’ve already introduced our time in the Asaro village in PNG’s highlands but I haven’t told you about the mock wedding they held on our behalf.

It gave such wonderful insight to the customs and culture of just one of PNG’s many tribes. And it gave us plenty of great photo opportunities and lots of amazing food.

The young couple, both teenagers, were no doubt strong-armed by their families into playing their parts for the nice foreign guests.

Asaro mock wedding

Two young people roped into the mock wedding, with their stand-in ‘parents’

They did a fine job.

We were part of the groom’s entourage. And step one was to go along and offer a bride price. It’s not really so much to ‘purchase’ a bride, but for the bride’s family to recoup some of the money they lay out to prepare her for betrothal.

The village headman told me that when his daughter reaches a marrying age (gets her period, I suppose), he will seclude her for two weeks, and slaughter a pig every day to feed her and others.

Good grief, I love pork but I don’t think I could eat it for 14 days in a row.

Anyway, our mock bride didn’t have to do that, but the bride’s and groom’s families came together in the centre of the village to negotiate the ‘marriage price’. One negotiation was the night before and another followed the next day.

The bride’s family drove a hard bargain and our groom ‘paid’ six pigs and a whack of PNG money. In return, the bride’s family prepared a mumu (a feast of roast pig). The groom’s family prepared chickens (chooks) and veggies.

Cooking veggies

Retrieving the vegetables from the pit

The pig was led up the hill to be slaughtered and the process wasn’t that bad. The pig slayer came along and bonked the pig on the head. Truly knocked it out with one blow. And then slit its throat.

The pig was then cooked in a pit lined with hot stones. It took hours and hours. So did the cooking of the groom’s contributions.

I felt bad that a pig was slaughtered on our behalf, but it really was part of helping us to understand the local culture and customs.

Interestingly, the best bits of the pork (especially the crackling) were given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family.

One of the most interesting aspects was seeing the groom being decorated for the occasion. The bride got the same treatment, but we weren’t party to that. That’s because our group was divided in two and half spent the preparations with the groom and the other half with the bride.

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