Wednesday, 14 August 2019

An Ecomuseum in Folegandros -- a remote beautiful Greek island.

 Fole ....where? The usual question thrown at me when I said the name Folegandros. I was going to meet my Cambridge University college friend after 50 years.. We had lost touch till 2016 when I did a Facetime chat at a College Reunion and then continued on Facebook. Never having touched base for 50 years, there was always the question... on both sides... “Will we get on together”! I can happily say that it was as if we had just met yesterday at The Anchor pub on Silver Street, Cambridge. But that’s another story as to how Ross and his charming wife Jacqui landed up in this godforsaken beautiful island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. 
Folegandros is an island with wild natural beauty, located between Paros and Santorini, in Cyclades group. Luckily, Folegandros remains isolated away from mass tourism and keeps an authentic character. It has traditional Cycladic architecture, breathtaking views and secluded beaches. A lot of hilly walking if you don’t have a car. Local buses are few and far between. The island is small, boasting a population of just 600 people, but distances appear considerable due to the hilly terrain. Ross’ house is just 6 kms from main centre but it takes 30+ minutes due to the hills and narrow roads. 
The history of Folegandros starts in Prehistoric times. The name Folegandros is derived from the son of Minos, the former king of Crete. There are ancient coins issued by the local municipality revealing the image of Folegandros stamped on them. The name is derived from a Phoenician word meaning a rock-strewn land – a very accurate description. The Cares from Asia Minor were the first inhabitants of the island. Then came the Cretans who ruled the island with emperor Folegandros at the helm. In the 1800 - 1900’s Folegandros served as an asylum for those who were banished from the island of Crete. 
Ross and Jacqui suggested that we go and meet a family friend who lived in the same village. Basically there is one main tarred road; to get to various houses, it depends upon the number of houses in that stretch.... you may get a tarred lane but generally a well tamped dirt track. We entered this rough stretch and saw a beautiful bush of red flowers. Nearby was Katerina Papadopoulos who gave a very warm greeting to us. She ushered us in and then disappeared, coming out with small plates, a jar and spoons. We were then treated to spoonfuls of this delicious homemade marmalade from fresh rose leaves. Divine. Then followed coffee and Ross’ explanation why I was there. Katerina is a delightful lady chattering away at speed in Greek with Ross who, as he told me later, got the gist of each sentence as his Greek is rather rudimentary. Then her husband Giannis arrived from the fields. He had been working away with couple of helpers. Ross revealed that two of the Papadopoulos children were born in Ross’ house in Ano Meria. After a while, Katerina decided to show us her Ecomuseum and off we went on a rougher dirt track up the hill to this unique museum in the middle of nowhere. 

Even the residence of the family house is full of memories of days gone by. 

The article on the Museum consists of selected text from the Museum catalogue and some of their photos to complete the items which I had not photographed . Most photos and rest of the text are mine. I decided to use the catalogue text as its well written and so no reason to copy it and re-write it again. However, as the catalogue pages have been cropped, the pages appear uneven, which may be excused. What’s important is the relevance and readability of the history and contents of this unique museum.

The Folegandros Folklore Museum is in Ano Meria, close to Ross’ place. It’s a “themonia” that reconstructs life in a traditional rural house. “Themonies” are self-contained farmhouses, typical of the agricultural economy that prevailed then... many small buildings in an enclosed area -- the main residence, the cellar, the stone-built oven, the stable and the barn. In the open there are the threshing-floor, cistern, grape press and olive press. The museum opened in 1988 and later on a stone building was added housing its library.

    The Museum is in a remote area, a place which is barely marked on the roads and definitely not easy to access. Yes, its in the description of the island on WikiTravel etc but it requires grit and determination to get to it.  The family’s decision to create it and continue to maintain / build upon it is very creditable and they have the support of the local authorities who perhaps need to do a bit more to promote it amongst the travel agencies locally who seem to concentrate only on boat tours. There are no local bus tours which surprised me. 

The themonia is well organised with kitchen, bedroom and parlour in one building – that’s what you see first. Then across comes the large threshing floor. Close to that are the stables as the donkeys would have been used for various purposes in the themonia. The oven, cellar and oil press are in a separate section.    

Katerina began with opening out all the windows and doors to let out the stale air. The store room / cellar had a whole collection of interesting items which I recognised as we used many of them in India too until quite recently, and in the villages, some are used even today.  I saw that all the rooms were clean, mostly totally dust free and obviously lovingly kept. When Katerina handled an item to show me what its use was, she replaced it gently, not chucking it back.
We went through the weaving room where fabric was made, then the kitchen. Everything was in its place. There were so many sieves I wondered what their use could be. The stack of dinner plates hung neatly on the wall. It was as if Katerina had just come in and was going start cooking a meal !  All the items were within easy reach. I forgot to ask her as to how they stored perishable items as I did not see a cold box. 

In the drawing room, Katerina demonstrated how the goat skin was filled. It reminded me of my visit to Spain in late 60’s when I had bought a small goat skin which I used to fill with wine for my travel by train across the country.(I still have it).

The parlour was a delight to see as it contained a myriad of fascinating items not seen these days. Old photographs, small bottles, a well preserved gramophone on a 

nice carved vertical chest of drawers. I just loved the old sewing machine standing in solitary splendour. 
Taking pride of place was this large Venetian wooden chest in which they had kept a stack of baby clothes on one side and adult stuff on the other. These were embroidered and carefully kept. Don’t forget embroidery was a common practice in those days as such beautiful pieces were an essential part of the wedding trousseau. A large glass sheet was kept over these clothes so that they did not have to lift the heavy wooden lid of the chest each time. That stayed open. A cloth just covered the glass. 

Just off the parlour at the back was the bedroom. With a baby cot. For whatever reason, I forgot to take a photograph of this room hence have used the catalogue visual which is very clear. 

After seeing the whole house, we walked around the outside seeing the garden etc. There are a lot of flowers growing there which made it quite colourful – narcissus, oregano, iris, rosemary, aloe etc all grow there. My tour ended with the library which is a new building.

it’s really heart warming to see that this family has preserved all these old family items which we in our haste to get “modern” in our way of life and home decor have destroyed or thrown away to replace with glass, plastic and steel items, often without any aesthetic value. Even their own private home is a really homely lived in place worshipping traditional values and artefacts. Thank you, Katerina for a lovely time. 

This is the address of the Ecomuseum 
This article is dedicated to my old College friend Dr Ross Ellice and his wife Jacqui who welcomed me to their home in Folegandros... those 50 years just passed by in a blink. I had a wonderful time including a two hour really scary ride in Ross’ HRIB (hard ribbed inflatable boat - as used by Commandos) where we wildly dipped up and down in rough seas sightseeing the whole island, and I hung on for dear life. To quote Ross’ recent Whatsapp message to me: “It seems so long since you were here. ...your visit was the highlight of our year here...I’m just a little sad that we let 50 years go by with no contact”. I hope to see him and his wife next year but definitely without any HRIB excursions !  
I would also like to sincerely thank Katerina and her family for the wonderful welcome and for showing me around the Museum. It is a wonderful concept and my sincere wish is that the Museum flourishes and the local Municipality will actively promote it and similar projects to keep alive their own rich culture heritage. 

Text and photographs copyright of the author. Photos from the Museum Catalogue have been acknowledged with thanks. No part of this article or photographs maybe transmitted or reproduced by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without written permission. Do contact the author on email --

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Nameri and Kaziranga - Birding, seeing Rhinos, Wild buffalo and other animals with the BNHS - 13-18 March 2018.

I was always keen on visiting Kaziranga to see the rhinos. Here was an opportunity with the Bombay Natural History Society. I have been twice with them – Tadoba and Ranthambore / Chambal / Bharatpur. Their tours are well arranged, decent food and good accommodation. Not 5 star but that’s understood. It’s a jungle holiday, not a fancy walk amongst the trees. It’s a strenuous trip with walks of up to 5 – 6 kms daily especially if you are a birder as every day it means 5 am wake ups for early departures, but if you are like me, then you skip the early visits as I am not a birder and enjoy the trip with the other safaris / walks and enjoy your surroundings and relax. This trip was led by Vandan Jhaveri of BNHS.
First experience of mine with him. He plays the programme close to his chest in that, and I agree, he briefs the group together and not one by one. However, certain elements of the trip should be advised right up front at time of the initial announcement so one knows the totality of the experience. Still it was a great trip and exceeded my expectations in seeing the animals up close. So if you like nature, go with the BNHS. Removes all the hassle and tension of planning.  

  13 March 2018 - Met the group outside Mayur hotel at 7.00 am. My friend Commodore A B L Gupta was coming - we had travelled earlier together in the Amazon and Florida. Ismail Vahed, a South African birder, was coming too – we had met at Ranthambore. Here, one day earlier, whilst I am outside Sualkachi the weaving town, I get a call from him that he is joining the group. Incredible as it seems, we are literally half a kilometre from each other whilst we talk! We meet up and agree to meet the next day. Ismail and I rag each other a lot which I think some of the group may not understand but we have great fun. Ismail is a committed birder – carries the usual paraphernalia with him including his birding volumes. I learnt a lot by seeing his books.
We took the coach to Nameri but did a detour first to a place - Paschim Boragaon, outside Guwahati city limits where Vandan gave a surprise -  a visit to a massive garbage dump the size of the whole area of Oval Maidan in Mumbai. Here sitting majestically on the garbage we saw the Famous Greater Adjutant Storks - there are a total of 1,000 of which 50% are in Guwahati. During the day, they soar in thermals along with vultures with whom they share the habit of scavenging. They feed mainly on carrion and offal but will sometimes prey on vertebrates. The English name is derived from their stiff "military" gait when walking on the ground. The bird is often found in the company of kites and vultures and will sometimes sit hunched still for long durations. They may also hold their wings outstretched, presumably to control their temperature. Valued as scavengers, they were once used in the logo of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.  
At Nameri, we stayed at this eco-lodge – run by a local association whose aim is to create employment and training for local youth and to replenish the mahseer stocks from their hatchery. All the rooms are in fact tents with bathrooms at the rear. The kids running it are many and enthusiastic. 

As we were leaving for the river, up in the tree, the group saw two great hornbills. One of the them, the male, had a baby spotted owlet in its beak. It was shaking it vigorously to get rid of the feathers. It then passed the owlet to the female who tried the same trick but dropped the bird instead. Initially I did not see them but slowly my eye got trained to the spot and I aimed my camera. That did the trick! We went and saw the dead owlet which had dropped by the entrance on the far side. Vandan then showed us the various items like the signature spider, some butterflies etc. The area is a flood plain eco system and we went to see it after lunch at around 4.30 to the river by coach and saw the birdlife. 
Here you see the boats being packed up to take back to the camp as we sit and watch the birds on the river 14 March - The group had a 6 am start for birding. I stayed behind and after breakfast, went and saw the hatchery for Mahseer. Rather dirty. Group back at noon. Left for the river 2.00 pm as we had to be back by sunset which is early – say 5.30 pm. We had two forest guards with us. Mina Ram 12 years in service but not confirmed in job hence lower salary of around 8,000 and Naseeruddin who had five years service but getting around 20,000 pm as confirmed employee. They both had loaded Lee Enfield rifles. Dated 1942. 

They were there as this forest had tigers too. There are more than 30 mammalian species here- Asian elephant, sambhar, barking deer, leopard, clouded leopard, gaur and wild dog. Amongst birds, you can see a whole range from large to small varieties. After crossing by boat the small Jia Bhoreli River, we walked about half km over sand (that’s really a long hard trudge) to the park office. Paid the fee and then did the circuit of around 6.5 kms. The entry permit is 1,000 which incl the fee for the boat, the guards, the guide and general charges. We saw a female elephant and a mischievous baby elephant with the guards at the forest office.

Lots of birds which the birders just loved. Saw Omadi fruit - like round red apples. At the half way point, we came across three French birders with some fancy equipment. Their monocular binos was fantastic. We saw some beautiful birds but I forgot to note the names in my diary.   
Walking in a forest is always interesting. One sees all sorts of animals and birds as well as natural aspects. The paths can be rough through brush or sandy as we were near the riverbed at Nameri. One crosses log bridges as well as muddy paths. It’s all part of the fun. Here as we were in jeeps, there was no fear of leeches clinging to one but I did get tick bites on my ankles. Don’t know where they came from!  

It had been a rather tiring walk as it was the first of the trip. The well earned rest stop was where we had a rendezvous with the French birders. There were two of our team who took every opportunity to sketch which made me ask myself why did I leave my sketch book behind!! 
At the group meeting, we had an incident. A huge caterpillar fell on Rishi and he sort of swiped it off but he got its spines into his fingers and palm. Very painful and difficult to remove. He spent a long time picking out each hairy feather / spine and then applied ointments to ease the burn / pain. 

15 March 2018 - Group went rafting early morning but I stayed behind as again it was an early birding trip. We left early. We had to reach Kaziranga so as to catch the afternoon safari at 2.30 pm. We checked into Jupuri Ghar for one night. This property is located inside the Kohora Tourist Complex and used to be run by Assam Tourism. Recently, the property was leased by Network Travels. Rather a mediocre place. Had a quick lunch and left for the safari.

During our stay, we went through all three zones of the Kaziranga National Park – central, west and eastern zones. We saw swamp deer, hog deer, barasingha, fish eagle, malkova, stonechats, yellow footed green pigeons, various hawks, hornbills and eagles.

Saw many rhinos. Saw elephants and baby rhinos.. they were cute. I felt that the crowd here in the various jeeps was far more educated than at Ranthambhore where they were raucous and loud. The area here is quite vast hence the need for us to take separate safaris trips into each zone. 

17 March - We had seen central zone and the early morning safari was in the eastern zone which was 30 kms away. The group went and saw two tuskers fighting and the usual other animals. We left at 1.50 pm for the third safari which was 13 kms away in the western zone. There were 15 jeeps in line waiting for the gate to open. 3 pm the safari began. There are well delineated paths. So first we went on the straight path right up to the viewing platform at Donga Scenic Viewpoint. It had an interesting sentence on the loo- ladies side. On the way, we saw lots of birds and few rhinos and buffaloes. 

On way back, we took a turn and branched off another direction. Saw a rhino nearby but he did not oblige in coming near or giving a clear view. Further down, on the right side, we saw a jeep stationary and they signalled rhino! So we waited. It was in the bush lower to the road. Gradually, he began climbing and after minutes, he emerged onto the main road!! He was a magnificent adult. We could clearly see his body armour plates. He stood. Looked towards the far side and then turned his head leftwards, to us. Sniffed. Decided that we were just not worth bothering about and gradually he walked downwards into the bush. At the road, he was a max 20 ft from our jeep. Nothing between us ! 

We carried on, went to a forest hut for a pit stop. Climbed right up to top and learnt they had heard tigers were around. We waited 10 mins and then moved on. A distance down, saw a single large male buffalo chewing the cud. I was sure he would raise his head for me to get a great shot. The others in the jeep wanted to move on but i persisted that we wait. My friends obliged. We waited another few minutes and then the Wild buffalo looking up at us just a few metres away on other side of the bush. He had really mean eyes and razor sharp pointed horns.
We saw a Great Malayan squirrel, really bushy tailed up in the tree. He looked very strange with that bushy tail. By now, sun had set and it was beginning to get dark though only 5.00 pm or so. Suddenly, the four jeeps ahead rushed off to the right in a swirl of dust. We followed. They pointed to the area where tigers were seen. Everyone could see them except me. With the binos, I just managed to see them. I pointed the camera in that direction and aimed without seeing what was in the frame! Sure enough, the two tigers are there but the distance was over a km! One tiger was in the water! The other sitting nearby. Considerable excitement as this was a rare sighting. We had seen the four main species of the park in one day.

At 5.50 pm, we were already beyond schedule and the safari had to finish. All the jeeps watching the tigers rushed out else the drivers would be penalised by the forest dept. It really had been an exciting day and it culminated with a cultural performance which we went to see later that evening.

Text and photographs copyright of the author. No part of this article or photographs maybe transmitted or reproduced by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without written permission. Do contact the author on email --