Friday 26 February 2016

Hatching of Olive Ridley Turtles at Velas & How to Ensure an Almost Guaranteed Sighting.

A baby Olive Ridley turtle born a few hours ago. 
Yes, as the title suggests, one may visit Velas but may not necessarily sight the turtles hatching. But before I give you a few suggestions on how to ensure that you are present when the turtles hatch, let me take you through the conservation programme at Velas.
For the uninitiated, Velas is a small sleepy village with around 350 houses, in Ratnagiri district, in Maharashtra. It may have passed off as one of the many non-descript villages along the Western coastline, but what has put this small village on the map is the Conservation project started by the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra for the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles apart from other birds and animals in Sahyadri range too.  
The phenomenal two-  Sameer Mahadik (left) and Virendra Patil (right) who have devoted their lives to the conservation of Olive Ridley Turtles in Velas. 
Around 13 years ago, a few villagers realized that baby turtles were being preyed upon by birds and dogs and turtle eggs were being taken by some other villagers and animals and birds too. So a few of them got together to observe mother Olive Ridley turtles laying eggs and studied their patterns and behavior.
The Olive Ridley turtles are an endangered species and it is believed that only 1 in a 1000 survive till adulthood. There are many reasons for this. Some of the reasons being the toxicity in the sea, threat by fishing nests, trawlers, being preyed upon by other sea creatures and birds, and mainly because these turtles have no defence or camouflaging system, since they cannot withdraw their flippers into their shell, like many other turtles.
Tracks left by a mother turtle after nesting. 
The mother turtle returns to her natal beach, however far, at times swimming over 4800 kms to lay eggs. The female attains maturity at the age of 15 and may lay eggs upto thrice a year and some years none. The lifespan of the turtle is upto 150 years. The mother comes to nest on the beach usually after sunset. Once she finds a suitable spot for nesting, she uses her flippers to dig a pit around one and half feet in depth. The number of eggs vary from 100 to 150. They are tennis ball sized and white. The gestation period of the eggs is around 45 to 50 days, but this too depends on the temperature. The warmer it is the earlier the turtles hatch. The temperature of the sand during incubation also determines the sex of the turtles. Once the eggs are laid, the mother covers the pit with the sand that was displaced and smooths the surface without leaving any trace. She then returns to the sea never to return to tend it. This entire process takes around two and half hours.

You may like my post on the Secret Life of Shamans in Dzongu.
A nesting spot of the turtle. Note the stick inserted into the sand. It goes in smoothly because the sand is loose owing to the nest. In other places the stick won't go through, as the sand would be hard. 
As part of the conservation project, a team of volunteers led by Virendra Patil and Sameer Mahadik, scout and patrol the 10 km long beach to check for nests each day throughout the year excepting the Monsoon months, from 3 to 7 am. They carry a long stick and poke the sand checking for nests. In a spot where the turtles have laid eggs, the stick would slide in effortlessly, because the sand would be loose owing to the turtle having dug out the sand and refilled the pit.  Another clue is the tracks left by the turtle’s flippers while crawling into the beach and back into the sea. Even the fishermen alert the volunteers about turtle sightings. Two days before we had arrived, a mother turtle had created a nest and Virendra and Sameer took us to show the nesting spot and the tracks left by the turtle.
The barricaded area where the nests are recreated by volunteers. 
Having found a nest, the volunteers collect the eggs in a basket and recreate the nest in a barricaded area. A pole is left outside the perimeter of the nest for easy identification. When there are many recreated nests, they are numbered too. From the 45th day onwards, the spot is checked everyday. If there is a depression in the spot it indicates that the turtles have hatched underneath the sand. This is because when the eggs crack, that space makes the sand cave in. A larger depression indicates more eggs have hatched. The baby turtles, eat the egg shells and whatever contents remain in the egg soon after hatching. That gives them the energy to crawl up their way through the sand , for one and a half feet to the surface. This takes them 3-4 days. By this time, the volunteers place a basket on the nest, so that when the turtles reach the surface, they are not attacked by birds since the barricade is open to the sky.
Sameer Mahadik checking the nest. Note the depression, which indicates that the turtles have hatched. 
Every morning at 7 and evening at 6, the volunteers open the basket to check if there are any babies under it. Earlier I thought that the timings were to coincide with the tide. But I was told that since Velas is becoming a hotspot for Turtle sightings, the timings are decided to make it easier for the tourists.
Three baby turtles who have succesfully crawled through the sand to the surface. 
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Also the likelihood of the turtle sightings is higher in the morning than in the evening, as the cool sand during the night makes it easier for the babies to crawl up. There is no fixed number of the turtles that will hatch in any batch. It may vary from zero to 100.
The turtles are placed in a basket and then left 50 meters away from the water. 
It’s amazing to know that once on the surface the turtles orient themselves to the brightest horizon, which is the sea and dash off into the waters. It is for this reason that use of flash in photography is strictly prohibited while the turtles crawl into the sea, so as to not confuse them.
Sameer placing the turtles back on the sand, from where they crawl into the water. 
If there are turtles under the basket, the team places them in another basket and leaves them 50 meters away from the waves. The turtles have to learn to use their flippers (and strengthen them) to crawl that distance if they have to survive life in the sea.
Aren't they adorable? 

All focussed...
It was an amazing sight to see the turtles crawl those 50 meters (no big deal for us, but a long way for the cookie sized babies). They seemed to hurry their steps as much as they could when they sensed the wet sand. And it was the cutest sight to see them use their flippers to clear the wet sand from their eyes. With the first wave, the turtles are swept into the sea, and the next wave brings them back, till a bigger wave takes them farther into the sea. We could see the turtles being tossed around with their heads and flippers popping out of the water, on the waves.

I felt a twinge of sadness as I bade farewell to the courageous babies who were off on their voyage into the mighty sea, a few hours after being born.
Notice the tracks...

Approaching the water. 
The conservation efforts started in 2003 and till date the team has released 20,000 babies into sea. After 2 more years, the results of the conservation effort would be known to see how many of the female babies released from Velas return to the natal beach for nesting.
With the first wave, Sameer cups his palms next to the turtle to facilitate it going into the water. 

This nesting season, starting from November 2015 till date, 80 babies have been released into the sea. It was inspiring to see Virendra’s passion in this conservation work and he patiently answered all my queries.
With the next wave, this baby is back to the sand..
Usually a Turtle Festival is declared in Velas on any weekend that falls close to the hatching time. A weekend, because more people would be able to visit and know about the conservation program. Now, the turtles don’t keep track of our weekend, do they? They would be busy, still incubating or crawling up the sand instead of showing up on the days of the festival. Many groups go on weekends and return without seeing the turtles. But here are a few tips that will ensure you have a sighting.
The first step is to call any of the home-stay owners and ask them the approximate time of the hatching.
Finally the waves carry it farther away. 
They will give a probable period. Around that period, call them everyday to check if a depression has formed on the nest. Once the depression is seen, remember that the turtles take 3-4 days to come to the surface. Keep your bags packed and ready to leave any day during the probable period.
 A poster at the nesting site. 
The Turtle festival was declared on the 20th and 21st of February this year, so I started calling my home-stay people from the 18th to check on the status (I first calls were made in the last week of January). Till 21st evening the turtles hadn’t hatched, but I was told the depression was seen since the 19th. So I packed by bags on 22nd morning and landed in Velas in the afternoon. That evening there were no turtles but Virendra said that the depression is big enough to guarantee a sighting the next day. And just as he said, we saw 3 babies on 23rd morning and then another one on 24th morning.
Another poster. 
Another most important tip is that avoid the weekends. From the time I had heard about the Velas festival through Nomadic Thunker’s blog, I was sure I wouldn't go on a weekend. Weekends see as many as 600-700 people thronging and jostling to get a glimpse of the tiny turtles. Jitendra said with dismay, that some visitors are just revellers who come as tourists and do not take an interest in turtles. After the turtles are left into the water, visitors are instructed not to enter the water for upto ten minutes, so as to not crush or stamp on the turtles who wouldn't have gotten very far by then. But people don’t listen, and jump into the water and even hoot and make noise as the turtles crawl towards the sea.
Another poster. 
I was thankful to have avoided the weekends, because the 3 days we were there, we were a total of 6 people with the entire beach to ourselves. So, we could see the babies from up close and also interact with Virendra Patil and Sameer to know more about the conservation efforts.
The next probable period of hatching is in the first week of March. So if you plan to go, you know what to do now..:-)
We had the entire beach to ourselves. 
I stayed at Amol Soman’s home-stay. I would be writing a separate post on that. But here’s his number if anyone is interested in planning soon- 02350-220279. The Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra’s website lists a few more numbers of home-stay owners.
If you visit, do let me know how your experience was :-)

Thursday 18 February 2016

Strawberry Picking at Panchgani

The sight of the red berry peeping out of green leaves is delightful! 
I grew up on a staple diet of Enid Blyton’s books, where the children roam free and play in the countryside, go on picnics and eat crunchy apples (that inspired me to go for apple harvesting), bars of chocolates, and sandwiches and pluck basketfuls of wild berries in the forest. :-)
The flowers of the strawberry. 
Little did I know that that fantasy would become reality many years later. I mean the berry picking part of it. And that too strawberry picking! I have an intense love affair with strawberries. There was a time, not long ago, when everything I used, the lip balm, shampoo, face cream, perfume, body spray, body lotion, body wash, had to smell of strawberries. This obsession with strawberries backfired with my husband putting that fragrance in the black list! So when The Western Routes announced their trip to Panchgani for strawberry picking, that was the culmination of my obsession with strawberries.
Rows of strawberry plants. 
We started from Pune at around 6.30 in the morning and after a brief halt for breakfast enroute, reached Panchgani at around 10.30 am. We arrived at Sunil Bhilare’s strawberry farm which is spread around 3 acres. Sunil had started cultivation of strawberries around 20 years ago. The British had started strawberry cultivation in Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani, due to the climate and soil being very conducive to the crop.  Sunil said that it’s been almost over 80 years since strawberries were introduced in the region and it accounts for almost 85% of the fruit produced in India.
Sunil Bhilare, the owner of the Bhilare strawberry farm in Panchgani. 
He gave us a few instructions on how to pluck strawberries. That we must pluck only ripe fruits and not trample on the saplings. Off we headed for picking, armed with a small cardboard box to collect strawberries in, instead of a basket which would have fit right into my fantasy.

The plants were more like saplings, very short and on the ground and were planted in rows. In another area of the farm, Sunil has tried vertical farming, by placing 3 pots on top of each other with some gap between them. This saves on space and also optimizes the use of water since the water dripping from the top most pot drips on to the ones below, and finally on the ground levels, where he has planted broccoli which get watered on its own. That was a brilliant idea, I thought.
The vertical farm.
We tread carefully between rows of plants, on the lookout for red berries peeping out from behind green leaves. In some cases the ripe berries lay concealed under leaves, so we had to gently move the leaves to check for berries. I plucked some berries, stopped to admire the surroundings, put some freshly plucked fruit into my mouth, contemplating about various things and again resumed plucking till my box was almost full. The flowers of the strawberries are white and doesn’t have the fragrance of strawberries.
My box of strawberries. 
Bhilare has many varieties of strawberries on his farm like the Winter Dawn, which is what we picked and Nabilla and Camarosa and Sweet Charlie, which are sourced from different places like California and Italy.
The farm overlooking the hills. 
I chatted up with Bhilare about strawberries and he said bees are the main pollinators for the fruit and that the season is between October and April. They import the mother sapling from countries like Italy and the US and from the mother plant, they get around 10 rootstocks which is planted in the farms. Each plant yields approximately 700 grams of the berry. It takes around 21 days for the flower to turn into a ripe, red berry. In the peak season, the Bhilare farm sends around 200 kgs of the berry to different places like Bangalore and Hyderabad each day.
Packing strawberries to be dispatched to various places 
Having plucked and gotten to know the fruit better, it was time to indulge in strawberries dipped in chocolate and condensed milk and some strawberry cream. At the farm, the strawberries were priced at Rs 120 a kg, and in Pune it is being sold at Rs 320 a kg. That’s because, it’s a very fragile and perishable product and great care has to be taken while transporting it.
Strawberry dipped in condensed milk. 
After having enjoyed ourselves at the Bhilare farm, we headed out to the Mahabaleshwar market, where I shopped a few things unique to the place and then we had some lip smacking lunch at Bagicha. We also stopped at Menawali at the 16th century Peshwa minister, Nana Phanavis’ home. But the details of that would be in another post. For this is a post dedicated to strawberries and my love for it!
Scrumptious lunch at Bagicha. 
The Western Routes conducts the strawberry picking tours every year during the season and it’s always fun with Jayesh, the founder, whose passion for travel and food is contagious. If this post has got you interested, do go there next year.

And what did I do with the one kg of strawberries I had picked. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to share my culinary experiments on this travel blog! It was two weeks full of strawberries. Strawberry smoothie, strawberry parfaits, two jars of strawberry jam and a baked yogurt tart with some jam topping. I'm having withdrawal symptoms already!!
Baked Yogurt Tart with strawberry jam. 

I made two jars of strawberry jam. and couldn't stop myself from devouring it. 
Strawberry Parfait. 

Sunday 14 February 2016

A Visit to a Jaggery Making Unit.

Fresh jaggery straight from the molds.
I use a lot of jaggery in my cooking. We use it as a sugar substitute wherever possible, use it in sweets in place of sugar and even eat it with jowar bhakri (flat bread made of sorghum flour). But I did not know how the jaggery that I eat every day is made or comes from, until yesterday.

Stacks of sugarcane waiting to be crushed. 
We had been to a village called Phulgaon, near Pune, and as we were exiting the village, we spotted a small jaggery making unit. I had luckily carried my camera and could take pictures and also enquire with the person there about the whole process of making jaggery.

The motorized crusher and the outlet for the juice. 

The juice is filtered through a strainer. 
Jaggery making workshops are usually located next to sugarcane fields. The sugarcane is washed and put into a motorized crusher, and the juice is collected in a cauldron through a strainer to remove floating impurities. 

The juice is pumped through a pipe into a cauldron.
In earlier days, crushers were driven by oxen. The juice is pumped into a giant cauldron with a capacity of 1000 litres. 

The capacity of the cauldron is 1000 litres. 

I asked this man if I could stir the juice for sometime. He refused saying that the ladle would be too heavy for me. He does this for 2.5 hours at a stretch!! 

The juice boiling away and the foam on top. 
A man with a long slotted ladle keeps stirring the juice for about 2 and half hours till the juice evaporates and becomes 1/3 of its original volume. He also keeps removing the scum and other impurities that gathers on top while the liquid is boiling. Some lime is also added to the liquid to separate impurities which gather and float on the top, which is removed.
The scum. 
The fibrous matter that remains after crushing the sugarcane (called bagasse) is used to fuel the furnace used for boiling the juice.
Jaggery being set in molds. 
Once the juice evaporates and has thickened satisfactorily, it is poured into shallow vats where it is allowed to cool and solidify. After it solidifies into a soft substance, it is pressed into desired molds into various shapes and sizes.
Jaggery ready to be sold. 

The bagasse being fed into the furnace. 
I chatted up with the supervisor of this unit for a few minutes. He said they process around 1000 kgs of sugarcane per day and that 1000 kgs of sugarcane yields around 1000 litres of juice. 
Fresh sugarcane juice in a jaggery making unit. 
He generously offered us some fresh sugarcane juice and some fresh jaggery straight from the mould. We thanked him and returned to the city on a sugar high.

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Friday 29 January 2016

10 Things to Buy from Mahabaleshwar.

Luscious strawberries at the Mahabaleshwar market
I had been to Mahabaleshwar for the first time in December 2009 but I had not started travel blogging then. My second trip to the charming hill-station in Maharashtra brought back fond memories and also an opportunity to explore and shoot many pictures keeping in mind my travel blog.

Last Sunday, I had been for a refreshing strawberry picking trip organized by The Western Routes, after which we headed out to the Mahabaleshwar market. While I’ll be writing a post about my strawberry picking experience, here’s a must-buy list in the Mahabaleshwar market.

The market runs for over a kilometer on both sides of a narrow lane and was bursting with colours. While I walked almost the entire stretch of the market, I identified a few things that one should or could pick up which are unique to the region.
Strawberries and black raspberries. 
Strawberries: Well, that’s the obvious 1st on the list. If you are going to the farm to pick strawberries, you could buy some from the market. The strawberry season is from October to April and strawberries were pretty cheap at Rs 120 per kg compared to Pune, where it is sold for Rs 320 a kilo. I also bought some black raspberries, which are not available in Pune.
Crunchy, bright and fresh carrots and red radishes. 
Farm fresh carrots and radish: If you look at the picture of these carrots and radishes, you will know how irresistible they are and how hard it is not to buy them. I used them in cooking and salads, and they were absolutely delicious.
Imtiaz bhai, the wood crafter with his wares. 

Some of his creations. 
Wooden items: I saw an old man carving something on wood, so I walked upto him and had a chat. Imtiaz, the artisan told me that the wood is sourced locally and is called Bhurkhadi and Lokhadi (these are the phonetic spellings of the local names as I couldn’t get the English ones). His entire family is involved in making these wooden items, different members involved in different activities like cutting the wood, polishing it, carving on it, etc. They are also invited to participate in exhibitions and fairs by the government. In the market you will see many such craftsmen selling their wares ranging from trays, toys, combs, ladles, etc.
Leather footwear of Mahabaleshwar.
Leather footwear: There are numerous shops in in the market selling leather footwear. It differs from the Kolhapuri leather chappals, in the way the leather is treated and processed before the final product is made.
Juices and syrups in a hundred varieties. 
Syrups, juice concentrates, fruit crushes: Since the hill station is a berry bowl, many factories such as Mapro, Mala’s and Manama have set shop, producing and selling fruit crushes and concentrates of almost any and all flavours under the sky.
Varieties of homey. Image taken from Madhusagar
Honey: Many agriculturists are into bee keeping in Mahabaleshwar and so there are many outlets selling pure honey in different varieties too, having varying health benefits.
Packets of fresh turmeric powder for sale. 
Turmeric: Bet, you didn’t see this coming! Even on the way to the farm where we picked strawberries, I saw the roads dotted with stalls selling bright yellow packets of something. Only when we stopped later to have some sugarcane juice, I realized that the shop nearby was selling the same; pure unadulterated turmeric powder as well as fresh turmeric root. The aroma was beautiful and so was the colour much brighter than the powder one buys at supermarkets.
Strawberry cream to make your day! 
Strawberry cream: After all this shopping you may refresh with a tall glass of strawberry cream, which is ubiquitous, with almost every second shop in the market selling the same. Another variation is strawberries with ice cream. Both taste equally good.   
Cane items of different shapes and sizes. 
Cane baskets and items: There were quite a few of these shops as well in the market, selling baskets, holders and cases in different shapes and beautiful designs.  
Pappads of different colours and flavours. 
Pappads: There are many shops set up by families who sell home made items like pappads, pickles, noodles, etc. I bought a packet of multi-coloured pappads which colours such as green, orange, white, and brown lent by ingredients such spinach, dal, rice and finger millet, respectively. 

I guess all this shopping will leave your bags stuffed and your wallets empty, but what’s a trip without shopping, isn’t it?

Thursday 28 January 2016

Amantran Agri-tourism and one of the Cleanest Public loos!

The entrance at Amantran. 
After our heads and hearts were appeased by the visit to the 2000 years old cave clusters, Amba-Ambika and Bhutlinga, organized by Heritage Insights, it was now time to refuel with some good food. We headed to Amantran agri-tourism and were truly impressed by the lunch spread and more by the clean toilets, so far the cleanest public loo I've used in India.
The walls are covered with Warli paintings. 

....And plastic bottles recycled as planters....
The d├ęcor of the restaurant which part of this set up is simple yet interesting keeping up with the rural setting with warli motifs. The owner Shashikant Jadhav himself goes around serving and attending to people who come to eat.
The owner Mr. Shashikant Jadhav.

Let me allow you to drool at the picture of the lunch- thaali. 

One of the best meals I've had! 
There was bajri chi bhakri (flat bread made out of pearl millet flour). I was intimidated by the size of the bhakri which was almost 12 inches in diameter. Then there was a chutney made of garlic and chilies, a delectable spicy bhaji or subji made of broad beans and peanut powder, a very special Maharashtrian dish called maasvadi served with peanut gravy. Maasvadi, the name is a misnomer since ‘maas’ usually means meat, but this dish is made from cooked chickpea flour with a stuffing of spices and coconut and then rolled on to a cloth, opened and then sliced. Do eat this dish whenever there is an opportunity. In November last year when I had visited the Bhimthadi Yatra (will post about that soon), I ate it there too. The dessert was some lip smacking, scrumptious sheera, kesari or sooji ka halva with banana in it. There was rice too, but my stomach was full with the 12 inch bhakri, so I did not take that.
The kitchen where the women make bhakris. 

Bhakris are made on the coal stove which enhances its taste manifold. 
We had a peep into the kitchen where Mr Jadhav's wife oversees the cooking and herself cooks for the guests. We were told they women together make around 350 bhakris or flatbreads each day with around 30-40 kgs of pearl millet flour. 
The menu on the board. 
After our plates were served, Mr Jadhav, himself went to each and every person asking them to eat well, in the spirit of true Indian hospitality.
There are nests made for the nice! 
The loos were the cleanest, as I’ve mentioned, so it is highly recommended for people travelling on the Nagar - Kalyan Highway No. 222 (7 Kms from there), Pune - Nashik Highway No. 50 (18 Kms from there), to take a pit stop, and refresh.
Other activities at Amantran. 
They also have rooms where one can stay overnight, although I did not have a chance to check them out. Amantran provides agri-tourism activities like bullock cart ride, farm visits and rural games for weary urban people longing for a getaway close to nature. They also have a counter where there sell fresh farm produce like black raisins, kakvi or liquid jaggery and other things. 

You may check their website:

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