Off the grid in Gopnath

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

DSC_9408Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

There was no one else about. He opened the door to room #3. Monastic, and not in a good way, came to mind. Thin mattresses were set on marble platforms attached to the wall. No rugs covered the cold tile floor. A peek into the bathroom confirmed my next suspicion: the 12-inch tall geyser would mean a cold shower or no shower at all.

Ramesh came by to say that lunch would be ready shortly so we waited outside, sitting on the porch steps, lazing like cats in the sun, and lowering our expectations regarding the meal. But we were jolted. Our food was delicious. The Katiawad menu set up on the plastic table was bountiful, hot and perfectly spiced. Through a doorway off in the corner, I spotted a small kitchen where two older ladies were making fresh rotlo on a cast iron griddle.

IMG_2411We returned to the courtyard after lunch, this time taking our plastic chairs with us. There is a playground in the middle and on the far left, cliffside, is a large wooden bungalow, faded and paint-cracked from seasons of salt air and monsoon. Built in the 1940s, it served as the beach house for Krishna Kumarasingh Bhavasingh, the then ruler of Bhavnagar. I got up and urged Dad to come with me and poke around. The house itself is locked but we walked through the yard and upstairs to the roof terrace. I stood near the balustrade – careful not to lean against it as it didn’t seem very stable – overlooking the sea and imagined royal parties here. Like many of India’s heritage sites, it’s in desperate need of upkeep. It looks far older than its 70-plus years.

We returned to our chairs and sat and talked, our voices the only noise to disturb the sound of breeze, waves and birds. After about an hour, the driver motioned us to the car. We were going into “town” to visit the local temple. Built around 700 years ago, it is one of the few, if not the only, temple to host two flags: a white flag signifies a temple devoted to Vishnu. The saffron flag denotes a shrine to Shiva.

DSC_9396Gopnath is also the place where it’s believed that Narsinh Mehta, a 15th-century Gujarati poet-saint, attained enlightenment. His poem, “Vaishava Janatho,” was Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite.

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je [One who is a vaishnav]

PeeD paraayi jaaNe re [Knows the pain of others]

Par-dukhkhe upkaar kare toye [Does good to others, especially to those ones who are in misery]

Man abhimaan na aaNe re [Does not let pride enter his mind]

Vaishnav…SakaL lok maan sahune vande [A Vaishnav, Tolerates and praises the the entire world]

Nindaa na kare keni re [Does not say bad things about anyone]

Vaach kaachh man nishchaL raakhe [Keeps his/her words, actions and thoughts pure]

Dhan-dhan janani teni re

We returned to the “hotel” at sunset. The weather had changed; the wind had turned cold and it was getting brisk. Dad and I intended to read and get to bed early – not much else to do in a place without even phone service – but we ended up talking until midnight, bathed in Dreamsicle-colored light, until the howl of high tide reminded us it was time we got some rest.

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Wild Gujarat

The only wildlife I had experienced on previous trips to Gujarat were the ones meandering around Ahmedabad’s crowded streets: bulls and cows, goats, packs of stray dogs. But our Saurashtra itinerary included visits to two national wildlife parks, Velavadar National Park, outside of Bhavnagar, and Gir National Park in the southern part of the state. We’re not talking the abundance of the Serengeti here. But each park is home to a number of mammal and bird species native to India. I’m glad that Gujarat has designated land for national parks and ostensibly funding preservation.

The star of Sasan Gir is the endangered Asiatic lion. Unlike its African cousin, the Asian lion does help the lioness and hunts for food. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any on our official safari. The next day we went to the Sasan Gir Interpretation Zone, which is sort of a mini-safari park, where the lions, along with other species, are kept in a combination of large fenced-in and open-space areas. That’s where we caught our glimpse of the big cats.

Both parks need some improvement on the customer-facing aspects of their experience. At Velavadar, a guide couldn’t be bothered to take us around, so we drove ourself through the park. This worked out fine for us, setting aside that this approach means no informed commentary on the wildlife. But what about if some less scrupulous visitors decided to drive off-road and into the animals’ habitat? Sasan Gir was more organized in that at least guides and drivers were made available. Their process is a little cumbersome. For some reason, the park eliminated reservations for the limited number of Jeep places available for each day. So, we had to get in line three hours in advance. Dad and I were the last two to get a place and many of our fellow line-waiters ended up waiting for nothing. I have to think some enterprising Indian software programmer could do a public service and design reservation software for Sasan Gir.

It’s interesting to read on the Gujarat Tourism’s website on Sasan Gir the candid comments by the Forestry Department on what it feels are its challenges to maintaining the preserve. Farmers from the 97 villages that surround the park often graze their livestock within the protected forest while tourists who visit the park as an “afterthought” exert pressure on the infrastructure and do little of benefit to the park or the lions. That’s an interesting assertion. I’d love to know what sort of support park officials would like from visitors.

The website also brings up a very Indian challenge. “The presence of several temples inside the park also puts strain on the ecosystem, as visitors to them also demand accommodation and infrastructure that often conflicts with the park’s conservation goals, leading to great controversy and political tension between park management and temple management.” Unfortunately, given the mounds of trash so carelessly thrown out onto the streets every day, I sadly see how difficult it must be to have these temple-goers in the park. I’m not saying that all devotees are leaving a trail of trash behind them, but I think it’s true that Indians generally have yet to behave responsibly when it comes to the environment.