I am taking you on a jaunt. Come with me…
People travel to discover new civilisations, different cultures, another way of being…The reasons are infinite. Dr Gautam Vohra travel because of the adventure…
The yen for adventure describes my desire to cross frontiers. The first time was at college. Three of us got together at the end of the first year. We simply had to see the Middle East. We had to go to Europe. We found unusual supporters. Biju Patnaik, the former chief minister of Orissa, gave us a Mahindra jeep. Oil companies obliged by donating enough gas to get us to the next capital. And with no more than Rs 45 in our pocket, we sought out the great beyond.
We could not go through Pakistan, for well known reasons. So we went down to Bombay by our jeep and loaded it and ourselves on to a P and O ocean liner and headed for the Gulf. We landed at Khoramshahr. From there we travelled to Baghdad, Damascus, Aman, Beirut, Ankara. There our jeep broke down. The Indian embassy in Turkey told us to stop being a nuisance and go home. Of course we ignored the advice. And hitch hiked it across Europe. That was in the 1960s when we were 17. Now we have entered our seventies and this talk is about the travels during the past four- five years.
THE AMAZON: To get to the Amazon forest, we landed at Sao Paulo the largest city not merely in Brazil but in Latin America. We visited Batman`s Alley or graffiti street, the walls covered in striking drawings, designs, paintings. We had to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Iguassu Falls, bigger than Niagara. We went through a forest region to the site referred to as The Devil’s Throat, and I found myself thinking that in Madagascar and Borneo I had been exposed to more dense vegetation. Of course we visited an Indian village, in the deep heart of the jungle, as Brazil has the largest Native American population in the world with over 200 tribes. A couple of days in Sao Paulo and we were off to the Amazon River. The ship was parked on the river which originates in Columbia, and it was going to be our home for the next few days. At 5.30 each morning there would be a rap on our door and we had to assemble at a point, descend into boats from the Amazon Clipper. About eight in each boat, mainly Europeans, we would venture into the forest on which rains descend throughout the year, a slow steady drizzle. The rain forest was a revelation. We did not walk through dense undergrowth, trampling through thick vegetation, battling with creepers and bushes to make our way. No sir. There was no undergrowth. For the good reason that the towering trees that blocked the sun, were surrounded by water. They grew on water. Why their roots did not wither away in such conditions I have yet to ascertain. The trees were enormous. And they gave shelter to a strange population of insects, monkeys and birds. We learnt to discern between termite and ant nests, and sponges. Termites live in the upper regions of the towering trees; ants live inside the bark while sponges outside it. Its nests; round ones for termites and longish ones for sponges. You had to know how to tap them out of their homes. Sponges are living organisms that grow at the water level, just touching it. When the water recedes, the sponges vanish. We saw the dolphin. We went Piranha fishing. On the trees we came across spider and squirrel monkeys, tiny creatures, easy to miss. We spied a Hoatzin -- variously known as the reptile bird or the stink bird -- whose diet consists entirely of leaves. It is unusual for having two stomachs. Then there is the Screaming Pelican. As soon as he sees an intruder in the forest, it makes a racket informing the animals about the intruder`s presence.
THE ARCTIC: The Arctic can be approached from several vantage points. You can cross the 66 degrees latitude in Russian Siberia. Or do so in Canada. We did so in Europe. We first went to Iceland. Thereafter Greenland where we crossed over to the Arctic. It is indeed a different world. The landscape: Ice floes on the water; Glaciers, huge mountainous glaciers; the thunderous sounds when they break. The retreating glaciers are a constant reminder of global warming. We got off the boat and walked on the Russel glacier. The snow crunched under our feet. There were minor rivulets that we jumped over. The world all around shrouded in white. There was nothing in my life to compare with this experience. No not even my trips to the high Himalayas, where too the world in white dominates. The Arctic region has wildlife peculiar to it: The polar bear, the musk ox, the reindeer.
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: Located off the coast of Ecuador, the islands are in the Pacific. Brazil, the other Latin American country where we had a glimpse into the life in the Amazon forest, adjoins the Atlantic. Galapagos is as you know where Darwin got the inspiration for his Origin of Species. Hence we were keen to discover the animal life that led to his original thesis. And every time we travelled by boat to the next island all the tourists had to shell out 50 dollars, at times 100 dollars, all to preserve the unique biodiversity of the islands, their animal life in particular. While snorkelling I bumped into a giant turtle. He examined me for a while then brushed past me. I felt its velvety skin and I wanted to chat with him, but our guide was beckoning us over to view the sharks- The white-tipped sharks. They were baby sharks which presumably had not tasted human flesh yet. We ventured out to the breeding grounds of the blue-footed boobies. This duck sized bird has large blue webbed feet and lives on the volcanic outcrop. It is not easy to walk on such a sharp edged surface and a fall inevitably leads to cuts and bruises. Animals have a right of way in the Galapagos. Near our hotel, I would, each morning, visit the Iguana Crossing. There they were. All traffic halted. The iguanas were making their way across the road: mother, father, son, daughter; families in their dozen. What a sight. Not one I can forget!
UZBEKISTAN, KYRGYZSTAN: The Soviet Empire released as many as 15 countries under its yoke in the 1990s. We are familiar with the British Empire, the French and latterly the American one. Now I thought it was time to visit those countries that had been controlled by the Russians. What came as a surprise was the popularity of Bollywood in these regions. Tashkent is a modern Russian city. We wanted to follow Babur`s footsteps. So we went to Andijan where he was born. You get a view of the Fergana Valley. It is rich in fruit. When he came to India, he missed the fruit. That was what I had picked up from my father`s letters to me while I was in school in Mussoorie. Babur used to pine for the fruit in his motherland. But he had to leave. He was driven out by the Shibani dynasty. The new rulers wanted to get rid of all Timur the Lame`s ancestors. The king married Babur`s sister; she told him that he would be killed if he did not get out of the country. Babur wanted to stay and fight. He was 16-17 years old but was persuaded to leave. He went first to Afghanistan, later moved to India. Our plan was to visit Kyrgyzstan after Tashkent and then return to discover the fabled Bukhara and Samarkand. But the fates had other plans for us. At the border crossing, it was discovered that my passport was damaged. The cover had come apart. To all intents and purposes I was now persona non grata…Pics by Priya Sen
(‘Seeking New Horizons’- The book on Gautam Vohra’s travels to the Arctic, the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands, the Central Asian republics - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan - and Papua New Guinea among others is available on Amazon)