Thursday, December 3, 2009

Into tribal settlements

So last week I had a chance to go to Mysore for a night. In love with that city, I jumped at the opportunity. I was even MORE enthralled to hear from my hosts in Mysore that I wouldn't be staying in a hotel or even with a host-family. No, even better. Last time I went I suppose they caught on to my deep interest in the forest and "forest-dwellers" in the Nagarhole National Park (also called Rajivgandhi National Park). So they talked with some families, and that night I slept in a tribal settlement in the forest.

After arriving to Mysore in the late morning, we spent some time drinking tea, eating, and just chit-chatting. Then, around 3 or 4 as the sun was beginning to get low in the sky, we got in a car, bags packed, and headed towards the forest.

The drive - even before entering the main gate to the forest - took a good hour, if not more. Over bumpy roads, up hill sides, we got further and further away from civilization. Understandably, I can imagine everyone picturing open fields, open lands with no people. Eh, not quite the case in India. Instead, there are still tiny villages all over the land. Even as we entered the forest there were still small villages on the roads. As we all know - there are a lot of people in this country.

As we rose up one hillside, a man in the vehicle with my tapped my elbow and pointed out the window opposite from where I was sitting. And what a sight. Next to the car the hill rolled down towards small farms, some cows grazing. Raise your eyes a little further and a lake took over the horizon. Probably one or two miles from our view point a huge lake (although I believe it's a reservoir due to the dam that was built there... HUGE problem around Mysore) took over our view. Palm trees hanging over the sides of the lake, leaves reflecting in the water. Hills and small mountains cover the back of the lake, adding some depth to the already stunning view. You can see cows drinking from the lake, some swimming and cleaning themselves - you know, just cows being cows. With wispy clouds that seem to hover above the lake, and a bright sun shining on the water - it was a sight worth gardening at for an extended period of time.

And once again, India throws this in my face. A beautiful site - even Indian's agree that it's a beautiful site. But technically it's not supposed to be a beautiful site if that makes sense. If the dam wasn't there (which everyone hates, but I do not know the details), then the view might not be as pretty.... Again, some beauty, with ugliness underlying it. What a world.

Finally, we arrived in the forest. They wanted to procure some delicacies for the evening in the tribal settlement. Mainly fish and whiskey. The whiskey I didn't care for so much, but the fish... mm - that turned out to be a delicious dinner. But let's get back to chronological order. Driving into the forest, we arrived at a small settlement with the car. After some talking in Kannada, shaking hands and saying "Namaste", talking to leader's of some women's groups in the area, I realized we weren't staying in this settlement. Even better, where we WERE staying could not be reached by a car. This is what I live for, not only forest, but being somewhere that isn't readily accessible.

By now, the light was changing. Colors were quickly disappearing and as we walked off into the bush, everything was turning a light grey. Flashlight still in my back, I reveled in following the trail only using starlight and a quarter of the moon. "Becareful Norm sir" "Norm take torch" "Are you okay Norm?". The questions from my hosts - kind, but annoying and overbearing. Again, I LOVE this stuff, so its time like these that I wasn't as little help as possible. I was also carrying all the blankets - out of choice. They were feeling uncomfortable with this, and on multiple occasions tried carrying the blankets for me. Call me a stubborn American - but I continually refused to give them the blankets. The harder they tried, the harder I clutched onto them. My reasoning? "I'm the youngest guy here, I should be carrying more."

They were just trying to be good hosts - but Indian hospitality can be overbearing. Which leads me another interesting point about hospitality. For the most part, the definition of hospitality is being a good host to your guests. However, I have been more and more finding out that the satisfaction that comes from hospitality is two-fold. One part helping your guest and the other part is your guest accepting your form of hospitality. And if I (for instance) were not to accept their form of hospitality, well then I'm sure they would be less inclined to be so hospitable. Part of the relationship is being a good guest too. Hey, it's a two way street.

So we walked for about ten minutes on small trails in single file lines. It was dark, so it was difficult to see the landscape. We arrived at a small house with some women standing on the porch. Two daughters. A wife. And a mother. Typical India. They took some straw and hay and laid it down on the ground outside of the porch and placed a mat on top. It was on that comfortable (i'm not being sarcastic) floor that we sat, chatted, and ate dinner by a combination of moonlight, starlight and a single candle. Sounds romantic I know, but, well being in the forest in general is a romantic feeling.

A single clay house is what I leaned up against. Around the outside edge was a 3 feet wide length where we placed our bags. Up two or three uneven stairs there was the main porch. No more than 7 feet long and 4 feet deep, I had to be careful not to hit my head on the cieling. To the left a small room where everyone would sleep at night. To the right, another tiny room where they kept dishes, cooking supplies etc. Behind that room was the back of the house where there was a fire pit to cook etc. All in all, the house could not have been more than a 12'x12' square. Quite small if you think about it. I would even push that 12 to 14 or 15, but then I might be overestimating.

So what did we eat for dinner? For starters they brought us out Ragi Balls and a Sambar with vegetables.

Ragi: (scroll down to the food section and you'll see a Ragi Ball on the right hand side)

They say Ragi balls upset tourists stomachs - however for the most part I have been fine, it's one of my favorite meals. And apparently it's way way more nutritious than regular flour. It is a delicious meal. I'm on my way to learning how to prepare them, but it's slow progress.

From there we sat for hours. Talking about the tribals, the Jenu Kurba tribe (Honey-gatherers) and Betta Kurba (basket-makers). We talked about their situation, how the government is trying to kick them OUT of the forest, yet the forest department is fighting to keep them in. Right now they are at a comfortable stand-still (so I was told) as many organizations support them and they are not about to get kicked out. Government agencies are constantly coming into the forest to asses the situation. Let's keep our fingers crossed that they get to keep their land, rights, and way of life.

From there we moved to another house with a larger "porch". Basically an open air room with a roof. We laid out mats, pillows and blankets. It was getting chilly and there were almost no mosquitoes which was a beautiful thing. I sat out on the ledge of the house in the dark for some time alone. The forest, away from people, sounds of cars, electricity, refineries, dams and all that - it's those beautiful moments in life you gotta strive for. And it's those times that we're alone that are usually the most enthralling. And hell, you might even learn something about yourself.

I woke up early in the morning (6-7am) chilly and wrapped in my blanket. Surprisingly, the clay floor beneath me (there was no cushioning, just a straw mat) didn't get cold, it kept it's warmth in the night. And if that was done on purpose - it's a stroke of genius. Well done.

We woke up, brushed our teeth, and the sounds of the forest came alive. Cows mooing, birds chirping, dogs barking. After a small breakfast, we headed out and thus ended my short time in the forest.

But oh how I want to go back. I am going to try and speak with a family and see if I can organize staying there for a week - now that would be an experience. Get a real experience of how tribal settlements work on a day to day basis. Keep your fingers crossed for that as well.

For now though, in about a week I leave again. There's this rule with Indian visa's that everyone 180 days you have to leave the country and re-enter. Well my 180 days is up on Jan 11th, so this month, for a week I'm going to Sri Lanka. I leave on the night of the 10th, so I'll try and get another blog post up before that, but no promises. More soon!

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