Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the desert

November 7th, 2008, Thar desert, Rajastan

We spent the day under the relentless scorch of the desert sun, moving across a scrubby landscape only softened by occasional low, undulating dunes. We visited a three-hut village where two men sheared wild-eyed sheep with ancient, rusted scissors that looked better suited for hedgerows. Women in dayglo-colored saris glittered with gold and silver thread against the sandy monochrome backdrop, brass water jugs, a pile of sticks or a sack of grain piled atop their heads. Midday, weathered men draped in white cotton dhotis, topped in brilliant orange or magenta turbans, lounged in the shade away from the grudging sun.

I love a man in a turban.

Here, girls are still sent off to their husband’s home in arranged marriages at 10 years old, maybe as old as 14. Extended families live together in stone or mud homes that remain closed up and tomb-like against the heat. It’s a hard life, with little water, scarce resources, and even now, heading into “winter”, heat waves ripple in 90-something degree heat midday. It hits 120 in the summer.

On the way back to our lodgings I lounged on my back, rocking on a camel cart beneath a canopy of stars. The sand glowed under the hanging sickle moon, bells tinkled on the dromedary's ankles, and a chill breeze brought goosebumps to my sunburned skin. I live for this.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Killing the Endangered Species Act

In his last days as President, George Bush is trying to ram through sweeping changes to the 35 year-old Endangered Species Act that will essentially gut protections for dwindling species. The proposal would hand decisions on potential dangers to wildlife and ecosystems over to the agencies in charge of implementing new development projects, a complete hen-in-the-chicken-coop move. Especially given a recent ethics investigation that discovered Interior Department employees cavorting with the oil company representatives they buy Gulf oil leases from--having sex with them, smoking pot and doing coke with them, accepting thousands of dollars worth of gifts from them.

And these are the people that are supposed to look at a new drilling project, a new dam, new roads, a new mine and decide if it will endanger threatened species--people with a vested interest in getting their project going, people who have traditionally chafed over US Fish and Wildlife reviews, people with no expertise whatever in wildlife or biology.

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has been hammering the Administration on this and a slew of other environmental travesties wreaked over the last years. Let's hope they exert enough pressure on the Interior Department to force them to withdraw this unconscionable proposal.

Read my syndicated editorial for more info.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


I still have more to post from India--but had to jet home, meet up with my son Nick--and fly down here to Costa Rica to help him find housing--and to hang out for 10 days. Nick will be interning as a writer for the Tico Times for the next four months while shooting wildlife video footage on weekends.

We found him a room to rent in a house the day we flew in--so the next day we jumped a bus to the central mountains, two hours south of the capital. Unbroken forest blankets these low, undulating peaks, draped in clouds. This is perfect habitat for the elusive, iridescent quetzal, reputed to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas. Its feathers are metallic blue-green, with a crimson breast and white on its upper tail.

Photo credit: Steve Winter/National Geographic Image Collection

Within a few minutes we discovered a pair in a nearby tree keeping careful watch over their nest, a hollowed-out hole in a dead trunk. We spent the entire rest of the day shooting footage of their comings and goings from the nest. Wow. To even glimpse a quetzal is a spiritual moment. These birds, along with the rattlesnake, were the most revered of all creatures by the ancient Mayans. The two creatures were merged into the Plumed Serpent, Quetzal Coatl, the god of creation. Their magnificent tail feathers, measuring nearly three feet, were used to make royal clothing and ceremonial garb for priests and kings.

Back then, it was a capital offense to kill the bird. But once the conquistadors took power, quetzal feathers were traded from Mexico to the Andes, and were used as a form of currency. More recently, loss of cloud forest habitat felled for agriculture has landed the bird on the endangered species list. Climate change also plays a role: small emerald toucanets that once stuck to lower altitude have moved up the mountains with warming temperatures. They raid quetzal nests, preying on the hatchlings. I hope that forest protections here in Costa Rica can save this mystical creature.

We're headed back for the whole weekend, and hope the pair is still there!

Friday, April 25, 2008


I was in Kaziranga for their annual three-day elephant festival: a celebration of a beast long revered in India. Although Hindus have literally hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses to choose from, many begin their daily puja with prayers to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. There are a couple of different stories about how he ended up with a pachyderm head. One recurrent tale is that Ganesha was born as a normal human boy. His father, Lord Shiva, beheaded him when the lad came between him and his consort, the goddess Parvati—who grew so angry and overwrought that Shiva brought their son back to life by replacing his head with the first creature to wander by: an elephant. Ganesh is revered as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings; he is thought to protect against adversity and bring prosperity and success.

But despite this reverence, elephants are disappearing from Assam. Thousands once moved between the nearby Karbi Anglong hills and the Brahmaputra River valley; perhaps one-tenth remain. They have almost nowhere left to go. From the air it’s easy to see what’s happened: only small patches of “green measles”—scraps of forest land—dot the brown and emerald patchwork below that divides the land into tea plantations, paddies, settlements.

In the 1820s, the British discovered tea growing wild; within 50 years they had imported 85,000 workers from other parts of India, clearing the land and turning this region into the largest tea-producer in the world. Enclaves of tribal people in the hills still practice slash and burn farming, getting two or maybe three years tops from a plot before the soil erodes away. A burgeoning population with its roads, agriculture, crops, villages, cities, factories, and power plants, continues to fell the forests.

The elephants have lost their ancient corridor, their needed passageway between high ground in the rainy season and the valley and national park below in the dry months. Crossing fields and villages puts both humans and elephants at risk. Someone was trampled to death at the end of March near here—and elephants herds continue to dwindle.

About 60 elephants were brought in for the festival. As they gathered at nearby forest guard camps the day before, I had the chance to hang out for some hours with them, touching, feeding watching them get their daily bath in the river—and even got a short bareback ride!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Bihu

It is a month of festivals here in Assam. A few days ago marked Indian New Year, known locally as Bihu. It’s 1930: The country began their calendar some years after the Christians and follows a lunar month.

The Assamese dance to dhols (traditional drums), banhi (bamboo flute), pepa (a curved brass and buffalo horn woodwind), also using bamboo sticks and large cymbals for percussion. Musicians, priests from nearby Hindu temples, and village dance troupes chant and sing day and night in traditional dress. They sometimes appear at the door in the wee hours—and all must rise, come out to watch and listen—and offer a few rupees when they finish. If the donation is deemed too small, the troupe begins again, drumming and singing louder and longer. The money goes to support the temples or for village improvements.

This is by no means some hollow shell of a ritual only performed for tourists. Ninety-five percent of the travelers to Kaziranga are Indians from other parts of the country here to see rhinos and tigers and elephants. There is a strong movement to keep ancient traditions vital. Even young children know these dances and tiny boys bang on drums as big as they are, taught as toddlers.

We ended the day today by visiting a Krishna temple that sits on the main highway. Most passersby stop for a quick prayer or a real puja, and truck drivers either toss coins or jump out, offer a few rupees, grab a handful of incense and roar off. We watch, shoot pictures, pray; make a quick stop in the open-stall market, head back to our lodge for a beer, samosas, dahl soup—and early sleep. Our 5:00 AM rise comes early.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Once a year, most of the forest guard camps have a puja, from the Sanskrit for worship, and we were privileged to attend. I was the only woman there, and quite possible the only female to ever have visited Difalumukh Camp, nestled deep in the park interior in a restricted area.

A priest from the nearest temple officiated, garbed in a flowing white and red cotton wrap wound into a dhoti that also covered one shoulder. His hair curled to the middle of his back, and he was surprisingly lithe and youthful for his 50 years. Many participants also wore a ceremonial white scarf around their necks—trimmed in red, the Assamese colors.

The ceremony was held outdoors, under a tarp strung to shield all from the oppressive sun. The priest and two assistants placed an altar before the camp shrine, a small bamboo and thatch house for the pictures and statues of Ganesh, Krishna, and others. But the puja focused on Kalkoma, an incarnation of the Mother Goddess who is worshipped by guards in every camp throughout Kaziranga as their protector.

Krishna graced the cover of the holy book that they placed on a burlap altar. A burning wick trailed from a small clay pot filled with oil. Incense sweetened the air, with bananas for holders. Clouds of burning sandalwood rose from an ancient, rusty, well-used censer.

The priest led prayers, chanting, clapping, reverent and blissful. An elderly assistant provided clanging percussion with giant cymbals. This was not somber worship. Then they blessed each of the guard’s guns, a small arsenal piled against the walls of the shrine, and tied a red ribbon on each one.

Afterwards, the food that had been cooked in massive cauldrons over open wood fires was brought into the shrine and blessed. The holy men served a delectable feast to the crowd of 60 or so guards and workers, apportioned onto banana leaf plates: a grain salad, a delicious rice pudding-ish thing, mixed spicy vegetables, rice, and the most succulent fish I’ve ever eaten. The priests were the last to eat.

The puja was part festival. Men clustered in the shade beneath the stilted guard house to gamble over card games, chew beetel nut, smoke ganga—and behind closed doors, drink “liquid”, the local rum.

It’s not surprising that the gods are regularly appeased in ceremonies across the park. These men need protection. It’s a dangerous job. There are occasional shootouts with heavily-armed poachers. And the animals these guards are here to protect readily attack people, from rhinos, elephants and wild buffalo to tigers and cobras. It’s a hard life, separated from family for months at a time for just 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per month, about $125 to $175.

I said my own prayers for their safety, directed to any and all gods and goddesses who would listen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In the park

We drive into the western entrance to Kaziranga National Park, stop to pay entrance fees and pick up the armed park guard that will accompany us. He rides shotgun to Konwar, our local Assamese wildlife expert. We stand in the back of a small, open Jeepsi, hanging onto the rollbars as we bounce our way along a rutted dirt track. It’s the end of tourist season, the few months between monsoon downpours and broiling heat. Jeeploads of mostly-Indian tourists pour into the park.

This part of the park is swathed in elephant grass, some low, burned back to keep forestland from overtaking the landscape—and some tall enough to nearly obscure everything but the tallest pachyderms. Within two kilometers, we see maybe 30 rhinos, usually alone, a mother and calf—and in one place, a male pursuing a female.

We finally pass into the restricted area of the park, driving through an area studded with bombex trees, tall, with branches extending out at right angles, geometric and Dr. Suess-like. The forest thickens, woven with groves of shiny, palm-like rattan. We pass within yards of an elephant herd feasting on their favorite delicacy.

We drive down a steep, muddy slope, bear to the right, and we pass a big male rhino, just 10 feet off the road. He lowers his head and tears after us, a careening 6,000-pound tank. It’s been raining and we fishtail in a mire of muck, the rhino gaining until I can almost reach out and touch his huge horn. Hard to believe, but over short distances, these prehistoric-looking behemoths can hit 35 mph. Konwar, our driver and guide, floors it. Then, suddenly, he just stops in his tracks. He watches for a minute, ambles into a wall of grass and disappears. A story on this animal is one of the assignments that has brought me here.

Kaziranga National Park is home to at least 70 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos—perhaps 2,000, according to Pallub Kumar Deka, the park’s western range officer. It’s a 200 square kilometer expanse, bordered on the north by the mighty Brahmaputra River, ringed by a network of paddies, tea plantations, crop fields and villages, with the main east-west highway cutting through a small corner. It’s a tough job to keep both animals and villagers safe.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Kaziranga

Through morning streets of a waking Delhi to the domestic airport. Legions of men and saried women en route to work: walking, riding, driving. Clustered at bus stops. Sardined into buses with limbs poking out doors and windows. Street dwellers emerge, dirty and disheveled, from corrugated lean-to’s, washing and cooking and eating beside the road.

Gut-dropping turbulence and a three-bounce landing and we arrive in Guwahati. Then comes the dangerous part: five hours on the main east-west highway that runs through Assam. A two-lane nightmare of near head-ons cut through red-earth rich land of paddies and palms, a palette of green, small towns built in cement block and bamboo. A flat tire gives us a brief glimpse into a small village.

For the last few miles, the park hugs the northern perimeter of Kaziranga National Park. I glimpse the hulking gray mass of a rhino in the distance. Forty hours door-to-door, and I am in one of Asia’s most amazing wildlands.

Friday, April 4, 2008


Departure: Tuesday, 8:30 PM, Newark
Arrival: Wednesday, 8:15 PM, New Delhi

Awaken from seven hours of dreamless sleep at 35,000 feet, down an Indian breakfast, land and disembark, disoriented, into the raucous clog of Delhi traffic. Spend an hour inching along the perilous, unpredictable main artery connecting the city to the international airport. Our Sikh driver joins the staccato symphony of screeching horns as we barely move through the jerky, clotted flow of cars, lorries and scooters, of tuk-tuks, of dodging pedestrians and stray dogs, the jam breaking only after we pass a holy cow, lazily masticating as she blocks 1½ of the roadway's two lanes.

Spicy, fragrant dinner with nocturnal friends, outsourcers who design for American companies and work until near the close of West Coast business, 5 AM. I try to sleep at 3:00. The night is windwhipped: the local watchman’s police whistle, a chorus of yapping dogs, and sonorous chanting from a nearby temple rise and fall in gusts, and I listen until dawn.

My senses awaken: I’m in India.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nearing blast-off!

Am in that pre-departure flurry as I get ready to leave for India on Tuesday: a 14-hour direct flight to Delhi. An overnight in the capital, a three-hour afternoon flight to Guwahati, a five-hour drive through the Assamese countryside, and I'll be there: Kaziranga National Park, about 38 hours door-to-door. Will be working on a series of stories, some that I pitched to editors nearly two years ago! It will be a wild three weeks in the field, in one of the few places left in Asia--and in India--that is home to the big, dangerous animals that have all but disappeared elsewhere: tigers, Asian elephants, Indian one-horned rhinos, king cobras, and more. Will write from the other side!

Monday, March 17, 2008

An In-there Experience

I just had an adventure, not a globetrotting out-there experience—it was an in-there experience, an institutional experience. One day, eating became a liability. Any old meal left me writhing my way through the night until I ended up in the Emergency Room. Since I wasn’t bleeding profusely or about to “code blue” on them on the spot, the word “shortly” took on a whole new meaning over the nine-plus hours I spent there.

Afternoon bled into evening and into the wee hours of the morning. They imaged the intimacy of my insides in various ways as I gazed with detached fascination at my organs pictured on computer screens. Gall bladder. Liver. Duodenum. Spleen.

They admitted me, forbidding food or liquid from midnight to after surgery—8:00 PM that night. I knew the few sips I snuck wouldn’t kill me, and my voice was cracking on the flurry of phone calls that came in on my cell phone.

In the end, I gave my gall bladder back to the hospital I was born in. They took it and my one huge gall stone out through four small holes. How do they do that? Brings to mind the same kinds of questions I have when I see a ship in a bottle. Laparoscopic surgery is amazing: it’s miraculous how quickly I’ve healed in just two weeks. So different than the same surgery my mother suffered when I was growing up—that left a diagonal eight-inch Frankenstein scar across her belly.

I asked the doc if I could have my stone, but it had to go to the lab. He claims he showed it to me after he’d put me back together, but I have absolutely no memory of our little show ‘n tell.

When I went for my checkup the other day, I asked the doc why I’d formed a gall stone. He thought in my case it was probably a bad roll of the genetic dice. Then he examined my four holes, grinned at me and told me to have a nice life—and goodbye!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Lack of Presidential Debate

I am deeply disturbed by the very limited scope of public debate on crucial issues—and by the questions posed to our roster of presidential candidates in every debate I’ve witnessed. The environment isn’t being addressed at all. Why aren’t they being asked the hard questions, like how to move towards clean renewable energy—and how they plan to quickly, effectively address climate change? What will they do about our astronomical budget deficit? How will they change the trajectory that is dumbing down America—and provide a decent education for our kids? What do they plan to do about controlling pollution, protecting our ever-dwindling forest lands, wetlands, and wildlife? How will they address the health care crisis so that all Americans have health insurance? How will we get out of Iraq?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hoboken winter

Okay, I’m at home in Hoboken, NJ, and we’ve hit the doldrums of winter. Except we really haven’t had much winter here, a couple of stretches of really cold days punctuated by 40, 50, 60 degree days. A couple of bedraggled plants on my deck never died off this year.

Sometimes writing on the environment is really a challenge. I recently published a syndicated editorial on the oceans—titled "Oceans In Trouble." I hadn’t written on ocean issues in a couple of years. There are so many scary and deeply upsetting environmental issues, but the state of the oceans is really bleak. Unless we act quickly to change the massive amount of wildlife we are taking from the sea—and address what we are putting into it, from sewage, plastic and other pollutants to the carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere that is absorbed by the oceans—we could essentially empty the sea of life within my son’s lifetime. I find that really hard to wrap my head around. The ocean is so vast, seemingly so limitless, but its resources are finite and its ability to store carbon and pollution without turning into a toxic soup are limited. But we can change the trajectory with public outcry and political will!