Friday, February 26, 2010

Walking the Okhla Bird Sanctuary

Lesa let me escape the apartment for a few hours on Sunday morning... Two good friends and I took a short trip over to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary. This under-appreciated public park borders a narrow strip of wetlands between Noida and New Delhi. My friends and I are not serious "birders." We just love the outdoors and are always looking for new places to hike. These hidden gems are often just a few kilometres away from doorstep to discovery!The park really is an interesting place to explore since it is surrounded by a huge urban landscape. It actually reminds me a bit of the John Heinz Wildlife Preserve situated just on the edge of the Philadelphia, PA city-scape - both are oddly peaceful places where wildlife, nature and urban industrialization seemingly coexist...
The Okhla Bird Park was created in 1958 at the same time a large flood control barrage was built to control the water flow of the Yamuna River. It is designed to give both shelter and protection to thousands of migratory birds who pass through New Delhi each winter season.February is a perfect time to explore the park because the weather is still cool here, and the winter morning fog is beginning to improve. There are many hundreds of bird species which can be observed in Okhla between November and March!
The park is filled with wide open marsh land - excellent terrain for quietly approaching wildlife. The walking trails are well maintained despite crossing over large sections of boggy ground.
For local lovers of nature - the Okhla Bird Sanctuary is opened during daylight hours. The fees are Rs50 per vehicle, and Rs30 per Indian Resident, and Rs350 for foreign citizens. Oh, and Oh, and don't forget a water bottle, good camera and your binoculars.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sleeping on Indian Railways

We took a weekend trip down into Rajasthan to visit the "blue city" of Jodhpur and try our hand at riding camels in the desert. We enjoyed Jodhpur - the kids will tell you all about it on their blog. But what made Jodhpur so memorable was the ride on the train. We traveled on a Second Class "Sleeper" (called AC-2) for the first time. Second class costs about half as much as First - you get a curtain instead of a door, but the service is about the same. There are four folding berths so we had the compartment to ourselves (with a few roaches along for the ride as well). This was a night "express" that takes about 10 hours to travel the 600 kilometres to Jodhpur. Lesa was a little unsettled by our roach companions, but otherwise the ride down was uneventful.
These trains depart at night - usually between 10pm and 11pm. So you depart the station in the dark, but get to your destination in the morning.
Sometimes there are long, dot-matrix printouts posted to help travelers find their coach. Sometimes not. If things go as planned, these printouts are also taped to the entrance to your rail car by the conductor as the train pulls up. Of course you first need to know which rail car you're on in order to read the correct list.
On the return trip from Jodhpur there was no space on the "express" so we took the "regular" train. This takes 12 hours instead of ten. We booked Second Class berths again, but when we arrived at the station there seemed to be a lot of confusion.
We were first sent in the wrong direction to find our coach. There were maybe 15 coaches. A friendly rider redirected us back up the long line of rail cars. We had to run with our luggage to the other end of the train worried it might start to leave before we found the right car. Huffing and puffing, and with the help of some other kind passengers we found the right one.
Oddly, the label "A3" on the outside of the rail car had been crossed out with white chalk. Handwritten next to this big "X" in white chalk was the label: "A-2." There was no sheet posted outside, but we jumped on anyway. The car was humid, crowded and confusing inside. There were six berths to each compartment instead of four. There were no privacy curtains and many confused passengers were wandering up and down the aisle. For whatever the reason, Indian Rail had apparently down-graded everyone from Second to Third Class.
Audrey and Evan were worried because I had to get off the coach twice to find a conductor and verify our places. It appeared that the passengers from two Second Class coaches had been jammed into one 3rd class rail car. As in a Bollywood movie, I found the conductor just as the train started to pull out of the station! Despite the confusion, we wound up sharing our compartment with a kind, elderly Indian couple - the Guptas - from Delhi.
The kids were exhausted - by now it was nearly 11pm. We were all hot and sweaty from the commotion and the crowd jammed into the coach. Lesa and I stowed the kids high up by the roof in the top 2 berths. I had to fumble through a stack of obviously used sheets, pillows and wool blankets and then climb up top to make their beds. Mr. & Mrs Gupta helped pull down the 2 middle berths and we finished making the rest of the beds. We agreed on which berths to take after a brief miming/English/Hindi conversation with our older compartment companions.
Lesa was now in a middle berth, and I was settled below her on the bottom. That's when I realized Mrs. Gupta was trying to climb into the middle berth opposite Lesa. The sight of a 60 year old, plump, Indian woman exploding out of her unraveling Saree while trying to climb up and squeeze into that small berth with her husband pushing at her broad behind -- was more than I could take.
"Nay, Nay, Nayhee," I said. I motioned for her to switch berths with me. Mrs Gupta grinned and waggled her head. Mr. Gupta got a big smile on his face and said: "Ha-jee. This is best!"
Although tired and bleary-eyed, we were all happy in the end. The older couple rested on the bottom, and Lesa and I were in the middle with the kids sound asleep above us. It was a relief to finally pull into the Delhi station the next morning. The train was on time and our faithful driver, Chauhan was waiting for us there on the train platform.