When Tim's folks made their plans to visit we were excited to have the opportunity to visit north India. Unfortunately, they were unable to fly out until after Christmas so it meant that most of the boys' winter break occurred before they arrived. We thought about hanging out in Bangalore and flying to Delhi on 28 December, but that many free-days in the city sounded painful so we pulled out a map and a guidebook and decided to travel part-way to Delhi in the week of vacation before they arrived. After looking at lots of options, the boys decided that the coolest thing to do would be to travel to Gujarat and see the wild ass sanctuary (I'm not sure whether to be a proud ecologist-mother whose children chose a wildlife sanctuary over all other forms of entertainment, or to roll my eyes because I know that they really just wanted to get to say "asses" over and over). So, the day after Kalani's train rolled in from the 35 hour trip back from Delhi we hopped on a plane bound for Ahmedabad.
She was going to fill my other arm too, but I was wearing a bracelet that Kekai had bought me from Kerala and explained that I couldn't take it off (she's a mother too and understood). I felt guilty that she would buy me a present but it was very sweet and I was really touched at how hospitable everyone was in Gujarat, despite having so little themselves.
Once Gulam had his stuff we went straight to Dhragendra, a town outside the Little Rann of Kutch Wild Ass Sanctuary where we stayed in the house of Devjibhai -- a naturalist who has worked with ATREE and runs a homestay in Dhragendra and an eco-camp just outside the reserve. Although it was still early in the day, it was too late to head to the reserve when we arrived so we cruised around the town of Dhragendra. It is a pretty cool place. Not too many foreign tourists spend time walking around the streets so a lot of the people we met were very curious about us. We ended up talking with all sorts of kids, teenagers, and old men, having tea in a rice wholesale stall, being brought to a school mosque by a recently returned hajji (then later having cokes with him and an old friend who hadn't seen him since before he left for Mecca), visiting a couple of temples, and also getting a tour of a kite-string factory (small scale production: a single room). It was great.
The next day we got up before dawn for an early breakfast (Devjibhai's wife is an excellent cook!) and a break-of dawn ride to the sanctuary. It was about 2C outside in an open-air jeep traveling at highway speed -- the coldest I'd been in India.
The Little Rann of Kutch was AWESOME. It's an amazing ecosystem. During monsoon rains the area floods: both from freshwater flowing in from northern mountains and from salt water flooding in from the sea. The entire rann is a lowland area that is hardly above sea level though it extends far, far beyond the sea:
It's an amazingly harsh environment. The land is salty so plant diversity (and abundance!) is quite low -- you have to be very specialized to be able to grow there. Plus there's the issue of it being flooded for several months of the year. Then being incredibly hot and dry for the rest of the months of the year. There are little islands of high ground (just a few centimeters above the regular ground level in some cases) where plants are able to grow year round. These islands form the basis of the animal community that makes this their home. Perhaps because the conditions make agriculture nearly impossible, the animal community is surprisingly diverse with a good number of rare or endangered species that occur here and no where else. There are a good number of grazers (ass, blue bull, black buck, deer, etc) and a large diversity of birds. And, like all open areas, you can actually see animals here, unlike rainforests where you're much more likely to hear them than to actually catch a glimpse.
There were also a ton of birds. Couldn't get the camera ready in time for most of them but here are a few:
Human adaptation to this environment is pretty amazing too. The migratory peoples (of Rajasthan and Gujarat) come through here with their sheep (men) and camels while on their migratory paths. It is also a big area for salt production. The salt story is pretty interesting (but sad). When the Brits were in charge, salt was a precious commodity that local people worked but were not allowed to eat. It was heavily guarded and controlled. Now the local people still work the salt flats, creating a large-crystal salt that's sold to a middleman for a pittance. It is then sold again (how many agains, I don't know) for a vastly inflated sum. I guess many of these middlemen are very wealthy. The families that extract the salt live in huts near the salt beds for the entire dry season (they leave when it starts to flood). They use diesel generators to pump (salty) ground water up and into the flats, then stir and channel the water from bed to bed as it evaporates, creating a heavy salt that is brought to distribution points and trucked out. Most of these families are paying almost as much for the diesel as they are making from salt sales. They have almost no belongings, and life is very harsh in the Rann with sub-zero nighttime temperatures and daytime temps often in the 40s (Celsius), there is no drinking water for miles, and all food has to be brought in. The salt extraction areas are inherited but there are issues with families losing their rights to these lands....all very rough to witness. During the flooded months, fishermen move into the Rann, fishing and shrimping in the waters and living on the low islands (same ones the animals are using to graze).
After our day on the Rann we moved to Devjibhai's eco-resort for a splurge night in the desert. It was a gorgeous place with nothing around but open sky and wild animals. We stayed there Christmas eve -- Quite a treat after over 3 months of city life:
There was all sorts of wildlife near the camp and there was still water in the waterhole a few hundred meters behind the camp so we had a great time bird watching and checking out cool insects.
The cattle and water buffalo look different in Gujarat. The buffalo have white hair on their heads!!
Tim found kindred spirits in the Gujarti men -- they liked his beard, he liked their mustaches:
And Kekai found the open spaces he needed to fly his new kite:
Although our next goal had been the ancient city of Dholavira in the Great Rann of Kutch, Devjibhai convinced us that we couldn't come to Gujarat without visiting Bhuj, so we added a couple nights in Bhuj. On Christmas morning we drove off, and had one of the more unique Christmas celebrations I've experienced with the owner of the hotel providing a cake and all the guests singing "Happy Christmas to You!" around the cake.
Bhuj is a pretty cool town. We stayed just outside the wall of the Aina Mahal near the old quarters. Tim, Kekai, and I had fun wandering around the crooked streets our first night (Kalani was exhausted and stayed back in the room with a book) and the Aina Mahal was pretty cool too.
We got talked into driving 90km out into the Great Rann of Kutch to see the "White Desert" I thought it meant sand, but it turned out to be salt. It might have been cooler if hundreds of people hadn't smashed the sand into the think organic mud underlying it. We watched one guy get stuck. It took over 15 minutes and two other men to pull him out. It was a full-moon night tho and and the moonlight on the salt was nice and sparkly. And the drive out was a good chance to see this desert which is very similar to the Little Rann but (as you might expect) bigger.
The next day we got up at dawn and drove out to Dholavira. It's the oldest known metropolis (3000 BC), built around the same time as Stonehenge, but so much more advanced. It's actually pretty close to Kala Dungar but you can't cross the water so we had a long drive before we got to a bridge. The funniest part was that the bridge was over dried up sea and it was just as white as the White Desert but it was fully dry and there was no one else around. Very beautiful in a desolate way. From Dholavira we drove all the way back to Amedabad for one last night in Gujarat before flying to Delhi to meet Immo and Diana.
Our flight out of Ahmedabad wasn't until the afternoon so we had a bit of time for sightseeing in the city. Ahmedabad is huge but the section we were in (near the central market) was manageable in a way that Bangalore isn't really. We had intended to go see a fort as well but had so much fun walking around the market streets that we stayed there all morning.