Living in a Biodiversity-Hotspot

Living in a Biodiversity-Hotspot

In a What? In an area that is characterized by a significant diversity of species threatened by various influencing negative factors. A Biodiversity-Hotspot. The disturbance of the biological balance are mostly caused by a single species: The Homo Sapiens, as we are commonly called. That there are conflicting interests in a region where on an average thousand people settle per square kilometre is understandable. Some species manage to remain in awareness. Bengal’s pride, the Royal Tiger, frequently makes it into the media. After all it is the heraldic animal of India. And for tourists it even is part of the adventure that during the safari it is prohibited to descend from the jeep due to the danger of an attack. Tiger attacks on tourists are rare, elephants and rhinos are much bigger a threat. But many people live on the fringes of forest areas and the settlement areas are cutting deeper and deeper into the wildlife migration routes. Thus beastly visits are daily routine in many villages. And fights „eye to eye“ are not a rare happening – fear has its own rules.

A moth in the East Himalaya

Close-up of a moth

But biodiversity doesn’t run out on the prominent flagship species. They are counting only for a evanescent part. In our place biodiversity can be experienced regularly in and around the house. The beginning of spring is the time of the dragon flies. Not the nice colourful ones that I remember from my childhood but rather dreary ones. They assemble in the evening around the sources of light – a thousandfold. Since it is advisable to keep shut the mouth during the homeward bicycle ride and the doors and windows of the house. Against the mosquitos besides the nettings on the windows and over the bed chemical appliances are quite striking. Whether electrical evaporators for the power soccet or as a creme for application on the skin, everything is better than being stung. And it helps: The anti-itching ointment tube is still firmly filled. Two colleagues report that in former times it had been much extremer. And not only in terms of midgets, generally less beasts roam around. In that sense we are lucky – somehow.

In Darjeeling I am part of a programme that has committed itself to the protection of the Himalayan Salamander. That creatures environs – small ponts and pools – is also shrinking. Canalisation relocates waterways and in a dried up pont bugs and vermins won’t breed – resulting in less amount of pricks. Thus the cute Salamander is not only losing its environ but its nutrition as well. This fate it shares with several other critters that are feeding on insects. And consequently the birds have to fly few extra rounds before they get something in their beaks. The little predators have to search a little longer before they spot a tasty winged animals. And the Tigers prowl a few extra kilometres to encounter prey. But – at least they have less stings.

Frankly – who hasn’t yet complained when in the room during the night to many and to disgusting visitors have been guests. Ants, cockroaches, centipedes. Especially in remote areas, often destinations of wildlife holidays, such room mates are not a rarety. The customer is king and which hotelier wouldn’t – hurt in his pride – diligently care for a bit more “privacy” inside its premises. And thus the guest will be service mindedly given besides the mosquito net a chemical weapon or the staff is trained in the use of it. How else can a guest well rested after a peaceful night go on a safari. Without prick, like the Tiger. That the latter is spotted ever more rarely increases the exclusivity of the holiday pleasure. And if one day the noble great cat cannot be spotted anymore at all the animal lover can shift to an alternative programme: In Vienna every year the fireflies are counted. Also an endangered species. But how I now can credibly communicate my rapturousness for butterflies, I’m still at loss with.

From Hand to Mouth

From Hand to Mouth

The Euro Championship in football has started and the time shift robs me of my nighttime peace. That’s the peaceful period of the day that I usually like to spend writing. Fantastic, that the Lady of the house shows understanding and offered support with pen and paper.

Smiling insecurely our maid Geeta takes fork and spoon in her hands to eat her Spaghetti – most likely the first ones of her life. Almost admiringly she observes us handling our cutlery well experienced. For her it is not at all routine as she normally eats – like most of the people here in India – with her fingers. That on the other hand we find strange: Putting the meals into the mouth without any auxiliary means.

From Hand to Mouth - Eating with the fingers

A picnic on the riverside: Holding the banana-leaf with the left, grabbing the food with the right hand.

During our first stay in India I sometimes had „re-ordered“ the cuttlery as I felt inept and my eating experiments without cuttlery most likely counted for some exhilaration in my surroundings. Exactly this I now narrate to Geeta who tickles pink and meanwhile has almost finished her plate – with cutlery.

Eating without cutlery, only with the fingers? For you most likely a strange thought, and frankly speaking I can also hardly imagine that when it comes to German food. A sandwich, French fries or roasted chicken, yes, but everything and always? No, our food is definitely not qualifying. On the contrary, here most the dishes are literally made for that. The ingredients are always – regardless if vegetarian or non-vegetarian food – cut in such small pieces that you can comfortably place them in your mouth with your fingers. Rice is obligatory and qualifies like the Dhal – a stew made of pulses that is often used as gravy – perfectly for being eaten with the fingers.

When I was invited to our daughter’s school for Saraswati Puja the teachers had prepared Kijhuree for the guests – a mixture made of rice, dhal and vegetables. As I start eating with the spoon one of them tells me to use my fingers: „You will enjoy it more and it will taste you much better“, she says. I follow her advice and indeed it is really enjoying with all the senses. One can feel the consistency and the temperature of the food and it really tastes differently than when eating with a spoon.

Meanwhile it has become daily routine and a few days ago even our son has started eating independently, of course with his fingers. That after the meal the table, the floor and the little chap look like a mess was to be expected. And this is not at all bad, if you see how proud he is to have fed himself.

The holiday collage

The holiday collage

Ever since I had got the digital camera, I delete more pix than I would keep. But as well I shoot minimum ten fold the amount. I am floating in a sea of images, memories and events, all well stored on the hard drive. It is similar with writing. During train journeys I write with pen and paper. And then I often think how it must have been in former times, when the great brains have compiled their works. Striking through now and then, yes, but erasing entire pages or paragraphs? Working with the computer, a whole sentence is often only the fifth or the sixth try till finally it remains. Moving blocks from here to there, cutting parts and deleting others. Result is a surrogate of multiple trains of thoughts.

Are those the signs of a new time – the trial- and error age? The cutting and arbitrary pasting of the best ideas? And if that is so: Do I apply such methods in other fields as well? For example on holiday? Do I travel sometimes here sometimes there, and replace old memories with new ones, better ones? If ever I find an answer, most likely I will note it down in a train; well thought out.

Entertainment on the tracks

Entertainment on the tracks

Baul singers on the train

Two Baul Singers in the train

Traveling on the train is a fantastic way to let the landscape pass by while relaxedly daydreaming. Nowadays – at least in Germany – one is asked for a hot- or cold drink by a uniformed friendly being every now and then, and in several trains some reading is offered in form of corporate magazines. Integrated retail channels and public relations. But at least this helps avoiding boredom. However, for a real entertainment, it’s a long way to go. India in that respect is several steps ahead. Practically, the trains are open for any kind of traders – free market at its best. And consequently, the entertainment during a rail trip is almost painfully intensive.

During a train journey from Barpeta Road to New Jalpaiguri in April we have tried to compile an unsorted list of all the items offered by petty dealers. What you can read reflects the offer that was available during a 42 minute ride between two stations:

Travel bags, shaving machines, betelnut, cigarettes (despite no smoking in trains), music keyboards, torches, water color sets, scissors, plastic plates, kitchen knives, tooth brushes, Tiger Balm, coffee, tea (packed and fresh in different varieties: lemon tea, milk tea, black tea), omelet on toast, water (1 and 2 liter bottles), bed sheets, cookies, nail cutter, multi plugs, watches, binoculars, miniature bird cages with electronic twitter, bananas, cucumbers, magic cubes, reading specs, chick peas mixture, Barbie dolls, harmonicas, match box cars, CDs, DVDs, video game, puri bhaji, air pumps, anti sliding mats, perfume, cold drinks, sweet joghurt, body shape trainer, samosas, hand sewing machines, newspapers (English and local languages), make up, lipstick, hair brushes, slippers and footwear for women, magic utensils, electric gas lighters, room freshener, deodorant, books, shampoo, popcorn, thermos flasks, gamchas, underwear, air-pillows, towels, pumpkins, papayas, potato chips (local and fresh or branded), dining table covers, bangles, gold necklaces, chains and locks, coconuts, peanuts, music tapes, handicraft (handbags with embroidery), mobile chargers, measuring tape, umbrellas, pencils, calculators, boiled eggs, batteries, mosquito nets for children, walk-mans, STD-phones, T-shirts, rain jackets, potato peelers, muri, plastic dinosaurs, remote controlled plastic elephants, and LED lights.

Additionally, shoe polishers, musicians, magicians and masseurs for head- and body massages offered their services. By include floor sweepers, blind and amputated beggars and hijras (India´s third gender – simplified said) in the group of service providers suspicion could arouse that we ridicule or misconceive their social background. Neutrally stated – they are part of almost every train journey.

It wouldn’t be long till our fellow travelers understood our game and our private entertainment turned into a parlour game. As soon as a salesman entered our compartment, the names of newly available items hit us like an avalanche. Obviously, the landscape had to stand behind during this trip. But a good entertainment with fellow travelers despite language problems is not to be despised.

Yet after closing the notebook – a cup of coffee in hand – several questions about the offered goods arose. Soap and toilet paper – at least either of it is very useful during longer train rides – could not be sighted. A clear failure of the market – demand yes, offer no. In good mood, we took such thoughts ahead: Wouldn’t the long idle time during a train ride through economically uprising India qualify as a fantastic marketing platform for loan agreements, insurances or holiday packages? Perhaps in future times one can hear the travelers tell the marketeers off with a sentence like: “Could you please stop annoying me with your newspapers? Don’t you see, that I am just about to buy a new apartment?”

Questions over questions

Questions over questions

An ox at the railway station - most likely it is a bull (I hope it will excuse that)

A cow takes a stroll at the railway station at night

„Good question“, I think. Again, I am being standing a bit helpless. My local acquaintance wants to know from me – after he has guided me for half an hour through his village and has answered various questions – what our villages look like. I have grown up in one, I should actually know that. But he has – if at all – only a vague idea of Europe. What he perhaps knows through newspaper- and magazine reports, possibly through TV (on the island itself there is none) about Europe, I wouldn’t tag as a reflection of reality. A village is hardly worth a news, and what the media cover about Europe is mostly glossy on soap opera standard. Slightly awkwardly I am trying to provide him with a somehow realistic picture of rural life in Germany’s southwest. Each sentence is prompting a continuative question: “Agriculture has become rare!” – “But what do the people live on then?” After half an hour I pass out. A German village is too abstract as to even roughly put it across without some vivid example. Consequently, I promise to carry some pictures next time.

Travel broadens the mind. But I had never thought that I’d have to spend so many thoughts on my homeland. More than once, “good questions” perplexed me. Simple questions, actually: What is your staple food, how much is charged for a medical treatment, for how many years do people visit school on an average, how much is the governmental minimum salary, in what age do people normally retire, do you have a professional army…Probably, I have a bias to complicate things unnecessarily. On the other hand, I am eager to give answers that would satisfy me as well. After all, it is not less than the image that one provides of himself and his place of origin. And easily this gets too paradise like. Simply “no direct costs for necessary medical treatment” or the elaboration of the social insurance system. The first – paradise like – is not true, the second option is quite tough to explain.

Last week a young chap has ashamedly and hinter vorgehaltener hand addressed me with a question that is for long heavily discussed amongst his friends: “Is it true that in Germany men and women can have free sex, if they like?” Just before he had asked which way to follow best, if wanting to study in Germany. “Good question”, was my answer.

Regaining future – a visit to Bodoland

Regaining future – a visit to Bodoland

River Manas

The river flows through a valley of dense green jungle

When visiting the eastern fringe of Manas Nationalpark the first time in 2005, the first hut of the Jungle Camp was just under construction. In that time we had still slept in the guest house of the local conservation and ecotourism society. Now, the camp consists of five huts and a dining space and one problem that had been reported to us already then still persists. The elephants don’t stick painstakingly enough to the Nationalpark’s borders. In the night before we arrived a gray giant had scrubbed his back on the kitchen wall – slightly affecting the statics. Perhaps it was excited due to the storm that had unrooted some trees and so cut off the camp’s electricity supply. Without electricity there is no water – the pump operates only electrically. And thus the deeply longed for shower after the dusty ride on the bumpy road – that admittedly just is overdone with great effort – has to be postponed for time unknown. The kids bother little about that fact, they are wholeheartedly exploring the environs. And that’s quite a lot to do: That it is one of the most diverse biospheres in the world is of little interest for them, but when do they have the opportunity in Siliguri to roam around in the green so undisturbed.

Not only our children needed some time in Manas to find to themselves. The tribal group of the Bodos – the traditional settlers of this area – as well spent a long time in search of their identity. And while our little ones under guidance pluck of a blade of gras and chase excitedly after the butterflies, the Bodos during the time of their independency movement had felled trees and shot wild animals. This as well often due to external demand. The Nationalpark has been left with deep scars from this time and the wounds heal only slowly. With the recognition of Bodoland as an autonomous region, adulthood came and raised the question: „How can we live of what we possess?” Fortunately, the voices that proclaimed a sustainable use and long-term conservation of the natural paradise on the foothills of the Bhutanese mountains had been louder than those of the promoters of a fast profit selling off of the natural resources. And though nobody really had an idea how to go about that, tourism was opted for as a viable means. Since, visitors are temporary members of the local ecotourism association and help in keeping free the park roads, and in listing and monitoring of species. This all sounds very strict, but it isn’t really. Along the eastern fringe of the Park timber logging and poaching have been reduced to almost zero, so that patrolling hardly is different than visits in other parks. The weapons that have been surrendered to the park rangers by poachers nowadays are displayed in a museum. Today, mostly it is the sheer presence of the nature guards that is important.

As local and external members are visiting the park only in small groups, the visiting pressure is not focussed on few spots, but spread over many more routes. Moreover, you can spend much more time inside the park and you get a very intensive interpretation of the environment. With our guide (fellow associate), we drive through a dried-up river bed to the Bhutanese border. On this route a forest guard is compulsory; after all we are in the immediate border area. At least latently the proximity of wild animals is omnipresent. Two rifles are aboard the car to shy away elephants with shots across the bow in case of a too intimate encounter. A strange thought in a conservation area, if one doesn’t consider that the Ruesseltiere can easily squash the car and its inhabitants.

Loom in a Bodo House

Bodo Women weaving colorful cloths on the hand loom

The park is only one reason to visit the land of the Bodos, as we quickly recognize during a village walk. On the market place’s hustle and bustle we see few traders have come from Bhutan to purchase stocks. On the Bhutanese side the Manas forests are so impenetrable that the residents of the villages have to bypass the way to the capital of their own country via India. The improvement of diplomatic relations is an important growth impulse for our village, Kokilabari. Not many economic options are available to the region. Though silk is produced and in almost every house a hand-loom can be found the colorful customs hardly leave the household. As in agriculture the majority of goods are produced for subsistence only. Also the construction materials are mostly local products. The compounds, comprising of several buildings, are traditionally made of bamboo, wood, mud and paddy straw. That tin sheets are becoming increasingly popular as a roof cover, as they keep out the water more effectively, brings some disadvantages as well. We are told that during the summer it gets very hot under the metal roof. Isolation was by far not as good as with the paddy straw roof. And though we prefer the thatched roofs optically, we understand the opting for dry premises. A suggestion that we have carried from other areas, namely the thatching of the tin roofs with straw, is being discussed with great interest.

Any improvement of infrastructure and innovative ideas are elementary topics. The school system is still deficient, many bridges and streets are overaged and at some places they are completely lacking. The substantial financial support by the Central government eases, but a lot still has to be done. After all it is about not less than the transformation of a somewhat unrecognized area of single settlements into a viable economic network while safeguarding conservation of the entire protected area. In the west of the park carpenters are installing platforms on boats to facilitate transport of the patrolling jeeps across Manas river. On the same way food rations can be provided to the remote villages on the other side of the river, thus verhindern the encroachment of the park for new agricultural space. How high the hopes into tourism are becomes clear, as we observe the workings on the sighting spots and protection camps inside the park. Simple huts made of plastics and tin sheets are replaced by multi-storey constructions of ferroconcrete. A safe shelter for the nature wardens and visitors alike. Wherever old infrastructure exists – often from the times of the British rule – it is made over. As in the case of the forest bungalow in Muthangori, traumhaft located with a view over river Manas to the mountain ranges of Bhutan. Enquiry is already high though the renovation will need some more time. And consequently we spend our last three days on a small farm few kilometers away from the park’s entrance. We pass our time with day excursions to the village and the Nationalpark our time passes well too fast to listen to the stories of the old mahout, the elephant guide who proudly shows us around in the camp with almost 50 grey giants. During the time of the timber cutting the elephants had been an important labour force. Today the mahouts provenient hope for tourism as a meaningful and stable source of income. With the returning of the first rhinos from other reserves an important step into a prosperous future of this nature paradise is done.

Free choice, not obligation – a visit to the car-washing street

Free choice, not obligation – a visit to the car-washing street

Harish-Mukherjee-Road in Calcutta

Taxi on Harish Mukherjee Road Kolkata

Religiously cleaning the car each and every Saturday is both a ritual and a metaphor for Philistinity. What in former times was normally done in front of the private garage – a man, a sponge, a car – nowadays is mostly automated. The cleaning now is done with high pressure cleaners or the car is comfortably put into a car wash plant. In India the tradition of the holy trinity man-car-sponge lives on. Though institutionalised. Calcutta’s Harish-Mukherjee-Road is a street of car washers – an Indian style car wash plant. Early mornings the streets are framed in yellow. The line of taxis stretches to the horizon. On pumping wells men line up to fill their buckets. Others sedulously polish plate bodies and interior of the cars. The goings is best to be observed, before the heat of the day sets in. Before the fractious traffic starts, one can easily stroll on the middle of the road. From there the perspective on the many stately houses that border the street is much better. Unhurriedly, one can observe the city awake. Dogs are walked, and people are doing gymnastics or walk their rounds in the park. In front of the tea stands, men sit together in small groups, reading newspapers or gossiping. The smell of beedies is wafting above their heads. The Indian mini-cigarette – some tobacco rolled into a leaf – is considered an exquisite preparation of the bowels for their day’s first duty. Flower vendors find their customers in pious Hindus who are on their way for worshipping in one of the small shrines. And at the end of the scenic road, next to a Sikh-Temple, one can nicely reflect the impressions of this morning walk with a cup of tea in an earthen pot.