**I apologise for the awful lack of photos – they should be up in the next week or so. Maybe. xx**
[UPDATE] here is a fantastic video of the week made by one of my co-years on the trip, Jithesh. It’s a lot more engaging than my post! www.youtube.com/watch?v=65sOMGUPfRk
We left Pune Station at 12:05 am. The station floors were covered with people sleeping, eating and waiting. Rats ran right over the rails and the platforms reeked of urine. For the first time men stared me up and down – not just in the “oh look, a foreigner” way. I was about to spend seven days in one of the largest herpetology centres in the world, famous for its 2000+ crocodiles. Did I mention how much I hate crocodiles??
It could be said I didn’t have high hopes for the coming week.
My first train journey in India was certainly an experience – and I loved it. While the corners were cramped and the privacy totally non-existent, the buzz and motion from every direction was so much fun; there were constant cups of chai and sweetened coffee being passed through; I learnt to play poker from a Mauritian; I was mercilessly teased about Vegemite by a Jamaican; I spilt samba all over my skirt and ate “magic masala” chips. With kulfi and Uno the 27 hours just flew by.
We entered Chennai (formally Madras) around 8pm and found a place to have masala dosa and lime juice. We were picked up by beautified butterfly bus and were taken to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT). Set up in 1976, it is India’s leading institution for herpeto-faunal conservation, research and education. It was established with the aim of saving three Indian endangered species of crocodile—the mugger crocodile, the saltwater crocodile, and the gharial, all of which were nearing extinction at the time of founding. We viewed all of them that night, viewed their glowing red devil eyes. It was terrifying. The largest of the crocodiles, a salty called “Jaws III”, was housed no more than 25m from my bed.
The next day we cleaned a croc pit. A croc pit full of 400 mugger crocodiles. 400 CROCODILES!!!!!!! Who thought that was a good idea? Not me. However, we climbed over the edge of a high protective wall guarded by only a man in a very short lungi and a big wooden stick and picked up croc dung. Somehow we escaped unharmed – the crocodiles seemed fairly disinterested.
The beach was beautiful. We stayed there as the sun set and the sky streaked pink. I brought my ukulele (it is travelling everywhere with me) and taught Simran (Mauritius) to play some chords. A few of us swam (despite the girls having to be fully clothed) and we stayed there until dark. It was so quiet and, being the first time I’ve seen the ocean since leaving home, listening to the waves crash so close was perfect. Despite the weird experience of not finding the Southern Cross, I saw my first Indian shooting star.
After a breakfast of idli and samba we began building and vegetable patch for the tortoises. The Bank collects hundreds of plastic bottles everyday due to visitors so we decided to put some of them to use. Me, Anisha (India) and Thale (Norway) created an über hight tech drip-irrigation system by stabbing the bottles with darts. We planted them into the earth, sowed spinach seeds and fertilised them with croc manure.
After a talk about specially venomous snakes (which generally followed the pattern of “you don’t need to worry about this one UNLESS YOU LIVE IN AUSTRALIA hahahaha”) some of the group along with the zoologists played cricket and I was able to astound the others with my wealth of cricket knowledge (all osmosis from the countless summers – thanks Dad!).
There were a few culture things that shocked me – the dress code (solely for women of course) was particularly strict. While by this time we are generally used to it, scooping mud and croc poo for 5 hours in 36°C, 100% humidity while wearing an ankle length skirt and a long sleeved shirt can really make you question the hypocrisy of the situation, especially while the male staff sported lungis so short they really left nothing to the imagination. Another eye-opening event was my discovery of the Matrimonial page in the classifieds section of The Hindu. Some of them were hilarious like “31y tall handsome boy MS Engr USA seeks alliance with beautiful woman below 29y” or “only son of affluent well-connected family innocent divorcee clean habits seeks goodlooking wheatish homely girl” “understanding groom wanted for god-fearing pentecostal girl. Green card required” . According to Harendra (my Hindi teacher) this is super common yet for me, while I know the are similar in Australia, it was such a novelty.
On the Tuesday we visited the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society (ITWWS). Established in 1986, it empowers Irula women by promoting their medicinal products. The Irulas’ are specialists in traditional herbal medicine and healing practices. Irula vaidyars, mostly women, practice traditional healing systems, which use over 320 medicinal herbs. This revival of traditional healing systems addresses public health needs as well as conserves Irula culture and expertise.
We were shown around the extensive herb gardens and were giving a lowdown on the basic properties of each plant, everything from regulating diabetes to treating snake bites. We then helped packaging seedling and extracting nuts and I entertained the group by telling some of my fabulous jokes – they must’ve been super satisfied for they never asked me again.
We visited a 7th Century temple complex called Pancha Rathas (five chariots) in Mahabalipuram. Each temple is a monolith, carved whole from an outcropping of rock during the reign of King Mamalla. It was incredibly beautiful with the sides of the shines accentuated with carvings of the gods Harihara, Brahma, Skanda, Ardhanarishvara, and King Narasimhavarman I. There was also a carving of Indra (a demi-god of rain and thunderstorms), seated on his mount Airavata (White Elephant). The reason for these temples are unknown, they are of no religious significance for they are incomplete – their construction was stopped following the death of Narasimha Varman in 668 AD.
We also traveled heritage listed Shore Temple, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The Temple comprises three shrines, where the prominent ones are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. There is a Hindu legend that speaks of the Gods being jealous of the architectural elegance of the monuments of Mahablipuram, and as a result they caused floods to occur, flooding the city, save for the few structures that we can see.
Back at the Croc Bank we designed and painted signs and built scarecrows. We cleaned more pens and fed more crocodiles. I am now an expert on the Green Iguana (scientific name: iguana iguana) so if anyone feels compelled to message me for more info – I am a bank of abreal-herpo-specific knowledge. We had a group of 50+ school children from Pondicherry visiting so we toured them around, imparting our crocodilian wisdom, informing the youth that “no, they are not statues” and “yes, that crocodile could probably eat you and five friends quite comfortably”. I saw a young girl walking apart from her peers; I asked her how she was and if she was enjoying the crocodiles. She replied “No, they scare me ‘coz they’re dangerous”. I replied letting her know I wasn’t their #1 fan either and asked her what her favourite animal was. Instantly she replied “King Cobra”.
It was sad saying goodbye to the beautiful beach and the extremely passionate people who worked at MCBT. It was obvious how deeply they cared for the safety and wellbeing of their animals and how willing they were to incite this passion in others. So while I may not be running away to live in the The Great Sundarbans swamps any time soon I have definitely noticed a change within myself.
The train back was excellent. Jithesh (Mauritius), a drummer, swore he could feel musical energy from the two bunks, unoccupied by us, on the other side of our cabin. After gingerly approaching the inhabitants it turned out they were indeed part of a band! After finishing their gig in Chennai, “White Mug” were off to Pune as part of their first album tour, an album that they kindly gave and signed for us. I absolutely love their music – they sound like a cross between Pink Floyd and the Doors but with a smattering of harmonica solos – so cool! They were pretty puzzled as to why we, a group of students from Poland, Sudan, Norway, Australia, Mauritius, India and Austria, were studying in Pune. They were fascinated by the school and expressed interest in playing here sometime. I also taught them ukulele and have totally converted the lead guitarist. The bassist was not too sure.
We got into Pune Station an 2am, however the jeeps had not fully arrived. It was welcome to finally arrive back to my MUWCI bed after a warm hug from my roommate at 4:45am.
Despite my reservations and my almost constant “panic zone” position, I really loved Project Week.
4 thoughts on “Crocodile Rock”
Wow Anna, that was an amazing place to visit. Loved your story, you are much braver than I. Can’t wait for the photos. Louise and I have just returned from a couple of weeks in the South Island of NZ. A beautiful country and no crocs! We are loving your stories of India, keep them coming.
Laurie and Louise. xxxxx
What a joy its been to read all your posts. I really am so inspired by what you are doing and think you are truly amazing. Cant wait to read your next post and follow you on this incredible adventure. Enjoy. Tracey
Hey Anna-banana … finally I have sat down to read your blog. FABULOUS!! You sound stimulated and super happy. So pleased for you! Will you be back home for Christmas? It would be lovely to catch up although I imagine your dance card is pretty full. I had to laugh at the fam turning up one month in – very cute. Big kisses to you from all of us in France (but only for another 6 weeks) xxxxx Charlotte
I will be back! Only three weeks but would love to see you – I’ll check dates with my P.A! xxx