The Circle of Life

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Picture by Alicia Levine

It was 2:30 am in the morning and I had just woken up to a rather alarming sound. A deep mournful growl. Once. And then again. Having once heard this noise before in a city zoo – I knew what that growl meant.

Lions.

Through the netted walls of my tent – I could see that the full moon night had bathed the jungle in a milky white hue. I knew that there was a fence around our camp – three lines of thin wiring. One wondered if it would stand against the lazy swipe of a lion’s front paw. I shrugged, pulled my blankets further up and slept on.

Welcome to the Jungle.

If you have an aversion to suspense, cannot watch scenes of extreme pain and suffering or lack an essential skill called patience – Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park is at best avoidable. Because life in the jungle does not come with a parental advisory. In here it is the drama of the real kind. Gladiators have tried to fashion similar scenes in Rome, Shakespeare has tried to emboss it on pages – but nothing. Nothing comes close.

My day in the Mara started at the crack of dawn as we clambered into our truck “the-warthog” and rode in through the Sekenani gate. In an instant – the wild had engulfed us. Impalas, Zebras, wild buffaloes and warthogs peacefully grazed all around us, dotting the Savannah as far as the eye could see. The surest sign of being far away from human habitation, was reflected in the calm brought by the quiet breeze rustling through scores of dry acacias.

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Picture by Alicia Levine

But the calm was short-lived. The bonhomie of the Impalas and the others had stopped. The very air seemed to have come to a stand-still. Jackson – the Maasai warrior, our guide and the one with the keenest set of eyes, had sighted two bulky shapes slowly making their way towards us. Royalty had arrived.

I watched with muted awe as two lionesses made their way towards us from the distance. Their walk was slow and deliberate – for they feared nothing and no-one. The other animals ran, jumped, galloped and did whatever they could do to be as far away from the two as they could. The cats however, strolled nonchalantly past them, passed right by our vehicle and then came to a pause. On the other side of the road, out of the bush emerged another full grown lioness. At her sight, the two bounced joyfully towards her and we realized that this was the occasion of a happy family reunion.

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Our day long drive under the vast blue sky and through the dry yellow Savannah saw numerous interesting moments. Encounters with baby elephants happily playing around, a cheetah family resting under a bush and scores of seemingly innocent hippos lazing in the Mara River. But perhaps the most thrilling moment of all – came around mid-afternoon when we came across a trio of lions stalking a giraffe. The suspense was palpable and eerie. The lions moved closer one inch at a time – at an infinitely slow pace. The giraffe stood absolutely frozen to the ground, staring unmistakably back at the trio. A run into any random direction could be fatal for there could be more lions hidden in the bush. The giraffe could not, and would not move. A strategy was being carefully unfolded, lives were at stake – the hunt was on.

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Minutes went by with seemingly no end to the drama unfolding in front of us and ultimately time – the ultimate bane among-st human inventions, forced us to move on.  As we drove back towards “civilization”, I found myself staring at the quintessential portrait of a lone acacia silhouette in front of fiery red African sun set. I wondered if that giraffe would ever see the sun again.

I wondered what it meant to be alive to our fellow inhabitants. There is so much we can learn from the wild – the elegance and grace of elephants, the unconditional love of a mother for its cubs, the fierce territorial nature of hippos, the gay abandon with which lions walk in their kingdom. And of-course the “Hakuna matata” way of life of the wart-hogs. The poetic beauty of the simplicity of life in the wild was a reminder to me, of the one common thread linking all of us together. Our blue planet. And it struck me how our fellow-beings must think of us humans as tyrannical rulers,  who have been depleting and leaving our planet far less resourceful and far less beautiful than it once was.

As we were about to drive out of the park, I sighted a just-born zebra foal. Its mother was nuzzling it lovingly as it staggered to its feet. As we passed by, her eyes seem to whisper a last, most desperate plea to us. A plea to stop destroying their home. Our home. Our only home.

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Best Time to Visit – The Mara is beautiful year-round. July-November is however the considered high tourist season due to the great migration.
Getting There / Safari –
If Sara Reeves is planning an expedition – there can be no one better to take you there. She can be reached at warthogexpeditions@gmail.com
Stay – The Mara Explorers Camp and BackpackersA backpacker-friendly and extremely well maintained accommodation. Wonderful hosts and great vibe.

HIKING IN TUSCANY

Tuscany – Oh Tuscany. Architecture, art, wine, food – it is perhaps God’s very own verse on elegance. Postcards sent in yester years lay fading in drawers long forgotten, but many still carry portraits capturing its magnificent beauty. Portraits of gently unfolding rolling hills dotted with cypress trees under a brilliant blue sky.

To walk a white road within such a portrait with the wind softly whispering sweet nothings is perhaps not a very unworthy goal. And so I set forth on the white road off the SS146 from the hill town of Montepulciano, towards Pienza. The hike is about 15 km long passing through the breathtakingly beautiful Val d’Orcia valley and the tiny medieval village – Monticchiello. But time and distance are of little consequence when one is walking on a winding road gently leading towards unexplored vistas found in ancient fables. You marvel at the eerie quiet you experience broken only by birds and the whisper of the wind. A bench appears on the side of the road and you sit down in solitude, gazing astonished at the miles upon miles of green all around with no other human in sight.

Monticchiello is the village I arrived around the half-way mark but it definitely didn’t feel so. I was convinced that somewhere along the way I must have inadvertently stepped into a time capsule and travelled across space and time to an era centuries old. Monticchiello – is one of those tiny hidden Italian villages you are forever in search of to flee far far away from the outside world. In the village of just about two hundred inhabitants, you walk alongside achingly beautiful stone cottages blushing furiously with blooming flowers lined outside. You stumble upon innocent bicycles complete with a basket full of hand-picked wild flowers and smile in delight at the cheerfully decorated hand-made gift shops.

Bella ! Bella ! Bella ! I gushed out as I sat content with the world enjoying the beautiful vistas of the Val d’Orcia, while subtle notes of Mozart added a touch of enchantment.  Perched right on the ledge of the hill, La Guardiola – the terrace restaurant provided a perfect stop in Monticchiello for a relaxed caffé. Onwards from Monticchiello, the white road winds on merrily towards Pienza. Clouds pass over revealing beautiful shades of blue, Cypress trees align perfectly along the road giving the hiker a guard of honor as you breathe in every moment – scarcely believing in the sheer beauty that surrounds you. The road led on to the last leg of the journey up towards the hill top.

As I walked under the grand arch into the medieval town of Pienza, I paused to gaze back at the valley I had just crossed. There are some journeys which remain forever embedded in the heart. In a world of grey emotions and un-kept promises, there are perhaps only a few which can provide uninhibited pure blissful joy. This was indeed one of them.

STUMBLING ALONG IN SIENA

A beauty in Siena

Imagine walking up a steep cobblestone pathway, surrounded by crumbling ancient brick walls. The walls, the arches and the houses are exactly how you have imagined them to be – centuries ago. It’s a sunny day and the sky is powder blue. A whiff of something enchanting rolls your way as you slowly make the climb up. ‘Pici Aglione’ you are informed with a cheerful grin as you ask out loud what is the source of such warm, wonderful deliciousness.

This is the heart of Tuscany and you are indeed in one of the finest places on earth. Siena, once a bitter rival of its foster cousin Florence, is renowned the world over for its annual Palio festival. But come forth a bit closer and walk its ancient alleys and you will find your heart slipping away.

Time is not of essence whilst you are in this city. Spend hours at the Piazza del Campo, sitting in one of the fresco’s surrounding the historic square, perhaps sipping on a Brunello di Montalcino or a Chianti. Walk along the ancient walls and discover a hidden archway or a muse peering out at you from a time-less frame.

Window shopping in Siena is a pleasure to the senses as you discover wares ranging from exquisite cheese and wine to chic clothing and accessories.  Walk past di miccoli and find a stuffed boar glaring over you as sacks of mushrooms, sausages and cured meat lie in careful disarray behind the glass. Gilaterias lie in abundance and sunny afternoons are well spent with a nocciola filled cone in hand.

Make way to the Palazzo Chigi Saracini and marvel at the medieval architecture. It houses the prestigious Accademia Musicale Chigiana and is perhaps best visited during one of the musical concerts held here. It’s small gift shop, serenades with an instant calm as you let magical musical notes of Mozart and Chopin hover around you.

Dinners at the Dolceforte, over some wonderful Italian hospitality, delicious food and house wine provide elegant closures to the days spent here. A city surrounded by the lush Tuscan countryside of rolling hills and cypress trees, housing one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe and the most extraordinary horse race in the world.

But Siena is more – oh so much more.

WHY YOU MUST TRAVEL SOLO ONCE IN YOUR LIFE

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DISCOVERY

When you travel alone, you are under no obligation to anyone. You can do whatever you like whenever you like. Bereft of societal pressure or any friends to influence your interest you find yourself gravitate to things you truly enjoy experiencing. I found within myself a Mozart loving hiker who loves a deep conversation over quality wine. Go discover your hidden quirks.

HOSTELS

If you have never stayed in a backpacker style hostel before, you must experience this. You will have made friends from Brazil, Ireland, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, Ukraine and so forth before you even set your backpack down. You will share banter, food and friendship over the few days you occupy the top bunk of the 8-bed-dormitory. You will find a small family away from home.

PEOPLE

The best part of travelling alone – the people you meet. You will find other solo travelers to explore the place together and share amazing experiences and memories. You will learn from them, understand new perspectives and be astonished to find how similar we all are in spite of living so far apart. The relationships wrought here would be pure, bereft of any motive other than companionship. They would unfortunately also be short-lived as inevitably you must part ways, more often than not to never see each other again.

LONELINESS

There will be some days when there is no one to give you company as you wander about in a new city. You will end up spending the entire day without saying a word, parched for the company of someone – anyone. You will look at the crowd, hoping to catch a friendly eye, to start a conversation. But when the day ends, you will remember with a smile on your face – all the people who are in your life and will sleep with a warm grateful glow within your heart for them.

LIFE

For a certain period of time you live in a place, get attached to its streets, forge relationships with people you meet. But before long you have to move on. While you say goodbye with a heavy heart you must not lose hope but look forward. You lose touch with the old but a few special relationships continue on along with your journey even as you arrive in another new place ready to do it all over again. And you realize finally that travelling alone is perhaps a very condensed form … of life itself.

Florence: Of culture and more

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Florence is one of those cities where you simply cannot escape the crowd. Tourists throng this birthplace of renaissance through the day, clicking photos, holding gelato cones and you will have trouble navigating your way through its vast throbbing mass of revelers.

But come night, after the sun has bathed the magnificent duomo in a last flush of orange and the streets become nimbler to manage, the renaissance era city gently wakes up to its beautiful , artistically succulent self.

The sidewalks are lit up from the many apertivo’s on offer. Wine flows as cultures come together over delicious Italian fare, its taste sweetened by the delightful hospitality of the Italians. Cries of ‘Salute!’ followed by snippets of conversation generously sprinkled with elaborate hand gestures and expressions greet the traveler as he roams, grinning from ear to ear at the merry bonhomie all around.

Street music is popular in Europe, but nowhere else does the form take such a turn as in Florence. Art is esteemed in its highest form in this city, as artists carrying cellos and violins brew magic into thin air with orchestral renditions of classics.

It is when the day comes to a close and when finally the cameras have been stocked for a night’s worth of refreshment, the architecture hidden under nature’s imposing darkness and the lone traveler just about to finish the last line of the travelogue … that the city finally bursts in its full glory.

Sitting in the centre of Loggia dei Lanzi , eyes widen as the arch slowly comes to life with centuries old statues blinking back seemingly awoken from their sleep by the soft glow of lamps caressing them in the darkness. The street artists’s last rendition of soul-stirring opera adds a magical dimension to the night as it hauntingly ruffles up the heart.

In that last closing minute when the senses are overwhelmed by the beauty and spirit of human culture, inspiration reveals itself reminding us gently …. of what we are truly capable of.

HIKING THE CINQUE TERRE

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Sometimes in life , we are blessed with moments of pure bliss. Moments where we take a deep breath, smile goofily and exclaim

” Ah! This is the life ! ”

As the Trent Italia sleepily rolled into the village of Manarola, I couldn’t help but gush the same.  Perched right atop a steep cliff overlooking the sea, this charming village had chosen to stick to the old times, when the pace was slow and people stopped to sniff at blooming flowers.

The church tower outside rang six chimes announcing the arrival of a gorgeous brilliantly clear morning. The five towns of Cinque Terre – Monterosso , Vernazza , Corniglia , Manarola and Riomaggiore are connected through centuries old pathways hewn deftly through the rugged cliffs.

A hike on one of these paths from Manarola to Monterosso is nature’s balm to the troubled soul. It takes one right through vineyards, olive plantations and offers panoramic views of a pristine blue sky kissing azure waters, so clear that the rocks beneath casually peer back at the awestruck hiker.

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Cheerfully shouting out ‘Bonjourno’ to my fellow hikers, refreshing whiffs of humongous lemons urging me on, I moved from one colorful village to another. As in the old tales and lore of kingdoms and princesses, the Cinque Terre too are not unlike five princesses, each unique in her own ways.

The red and blue hiking trails start from the southernmost village, Riomaggiore.  Vivacious and feisty at the first glance, with tourists thronging its colorful streets, Riomaggiore also holds a soft side. Descending down the path dotted with fresh jasmine towards the coast, I was greeted with a superbly tranquil site. An old man smiled contentedly, as he sat fishing on his favorite rock right above the crashing waves.

Like the youngest princess, Manarola is the quietest and also the prettiest. Not many tourists descend here and it preserves the old charm perfectly.

Corneglia, sitting atop the high cliff is a place one would love to be lost in. Offering beautiful panoramic views of the coast, it is perhaps an ideal spot for a quiet café whilst one reflects over the deeper aspects of life.

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Vernazza took my breath away with its beautifully preserved cove. A fork down the main road led me to this hidden gem, tucked away from prying eyes.  A good hour can easily be spent here, watching the clear water cuddling the shore.

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A rather steep burst of climbing later, the last of the lot – Monterosso appeared. The hip one, it has its own promenade, an accessible beach and tourists thronging its streets.

As the hour grew late, I took the train back to Manarola just in time to catch the sunset. The rocks jutting out, made a perfect vantage point and as the sky turned orange and the fishermen came home to their beloved, there was that rare innocent smile on the face. Good food and wine awaited.

Ah , this was life !

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