Monday, September 01, 2014

A torch, a camera and an umbrella

School Thota, Coorg.

Picture this. It's a dark rainy night in the monsoon in Coorg. Outside a 160 year old bungalow in the middle of a huge coffee estate, there's a curious shape on the lawn. It's part umbrella and part drenched human backside, lit by the glow of a torch, and the occasional flash.

Well, that's me... kneeling on the lawn, juggling a torch, a camera and an umbrella, trying to take a photograph of a nocturnal frog in the rain. The frog turned out to be rhacophorus lateralis, an endangered nest building frog, endemic to the Western Ghats.

For the two days I spent at School Thota, I was pampered by Mrs. Saraswathi Aiyappa with the best of Coorgi cuisine. Pandi curry, of course, with kadumbuttu and papputtu. Kai puli (bitter orange) squash, chutney, and the fresh, and extremely sour, fruit. Bamboo shoot curry with akki roti. I explored the estate in the rain, grinned maniacally at the few cars I happened to see, watched sunbirds fight each other for the best hibiscus blooms and vernal hanging parrots messily eat guavas from the tree.

Oh yes, thank you Amara! What wouldn't I give to be seven again!

More photos...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Loose Ends

Time seems to be flashing by at an ever increasing pace. There are so many threads that started along the way, some of them becoming thick ropes, strong bonds that you can count on. And there are others that end as wisps almost as soon as they started, lost forever.

And then there are those that haven't quite disappeared, those that you imagine would be there when you reach for them. Do I dare reach out and test them?

Or do I prefer loose ends?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The N Family

Coorg.

Last year's visit to the Synthesis Homestay made me a new friend, Namratha. Her parents, Naresh and Namita, took such excellent care of us that when she said she was going home for the holidays, I offered to drive her home. And in the process, I invited myself to their estate again.

Since it was the monsoon, I expected it to be raining heavily and constantly for the entire weekend, so I planned to sit in the patio with cups of tea getting my fill of dripping green. As it turned out, the rains stayed away, mostly, and I ended up with a bunch of highlights: Blue bearded bee-eater, what a blue! Pork for every meal. Shield tail snake, Uropeltidae, while walking at night. Crested Serpent Eagle sitting close enough to identify without binoculars. Buff-striped keelback at my feet. Namratha as a guide to the estate.

And then when I got back to town, I learned that Shield-tailed snakes are only found in the Western Ghats! And what I've spent my life calling hammerhead leeches are really terrestrial planaria, or flatworms! There's still so much to learn.

Oh, and the Ns are seriously wonderful hosts!


More photos...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Same, Same, but Different


Vietnam.

Same coffee, but whitened with condensed milk, sometimes iced. Thoroughly enjoyable either way.

Same spring rolls, but wrapped in rice paper.

Same stalactites and stalagmites, but so much bigger than I've ever seen, in caves named 'Amazing' and 'Surprise'. The surprise was the source of humankind.

Same Latin script, but not a single recognizable word. Well, recognizable if pronounced, but what would 'Bich Lap' or 'Phuoc Long' mean?

Same pieces of paper, but spent in millions of dongs. A significant amount of time went into wondering if we were actually paying a reasonable amount of something we were buying - I mean, is it reasonable for dinner to cost millions?

Same sounds of war (probably), but now made by tourists shooting AK-47s and M-16s.

Same tunnels, but no longer used by rebels, just by well-fed visitors.

Same taxis, but some of them have meters that run at five times the speed. I think we were taking for a ride in just one of those.

Same ancient Hindu temples, but pockmarked with bullet holes. The ruins at My Son are relics of a Cham civilization that thrived for many hundreds of years.

Same communism, but you wouldn't know it, apart from the blocking of facebook.

Same international apparel brands, but available at two different prices - the brand price, and the locally made price. The quality is still excellent though.

Same songs, but covered in an undecipherable accent.

Same secret war strategy room, but now a family shrine to the man who ran 'Pho Binh' right under the American noses through the war. The chairs on which the leaders of the Viet Cong planned their attacks on the Americans are still there.

Same En Chiang though. No matter that they thought I was Vietnamee.

Lots of photos...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Root Beer and Bubble Tea

Malaysia.

When Air Asia added Bangalore to its list of destinations early this year and offered cheap introductory fares to Kuala Lumpur, a bunch of us made a spur of the moment decision to visit the country that was 'truly Asia' during the Diwali break. We didn't realize then that early November is the beginning of the monsoon off-season. It turned out to be quite a blessing because the hotels and resorts were all offering low season discounts.

The Paradiso Bed and Breakfast in Bukit Bintang is a clean, comfortable, backpacker's hostel, which is, interestingly, and initially frighteningly, located above an 'unprofessional' foot massage parlour. The narrow staircase is guarded till the wee hours by overly made-up women in short-skirts hawking their wares making every return to the hotel vaguely embarrassing. The proprietor and the employees of Paradiso more than make up for this inconvenience with friendly service, a convenient breakfast, and useful suggestions about how to spend time in Malaysia.

The first suggestion was a walk through the more interesting parts of Kuala Lumpur. The Islamic Art Museum apart from their regular exhibits was hosting a display on Islamic architecture in India. For me, the fascinating part was the discovery of how big an influence Islam has had in China. Actually, I should have known; after all, the Mongols were all Khans!

At the Bird Park we sheltered from the giant raindrops in the Hornbill Restaurant. This restaurant's balcony is within the walk-in aviary of the Bird Park, so we had three species of hornbill, a hill myna and some really greedy, beady-eyed egrets for company over lunch.

Petaling Street, on the way back in China Town, has all the designers that I have heard of and plenty that I haven't, all made locally. Oh, and I love bubble tea - the original milk tea flavour.

Bukit Bintang is a fascinating place. There was something happening every evening on the sidewalk just across the road from our hotel - a BMX biking competition, a Brazilian martial arts demonstration - on Halloween there was a Count Dracula, two vampires, five Stormtroopers and an assortment of night creatures walking about the street. Oh, and I love root beer.

If Bukit Bintang is the place where things happen, then Tioman Island in November is the place where nothing happens. Colourful fish in clear blue water, white sand beaches leading steeply up forested slopes, lonely waterfalls - paradise. We met a man there who's probably living the retired life that most people just dream of. This man of Punjabi and Malay descent retired from KL to be the caretaker of a shack on Juara Beach, spending his days bumming around one of the most beautiful places in the world.

From one of the world's most beautiful islands, we went to one of the world's oldest tropical rainforests in Taman Negara. The journey to Taman Negara was a three hour bus ride through rubber and palm plantations followed by a two hour panoramic boat ride up the Tembeling River. We had a huge dorm room to ourselves. The pair of tapir we saw on the first night were probably the highlight of the trip. The forest floor is alive with scorpions and centipedes and the trees are hung with webs in innumerable patterns. Actually, maybe the highlight was the tarantula we saw. Or maybe the barred kingfisher or maybe swinging from a tree into the river or maybe the walk through the canopy. Or... sigh! Or maybe it was just the company of Sylvie and Jean-Loup and the plans we made of exploring Nice and Cannes with them.

And then there was Melaka. The best part of Melaka was Jonker's Walk and the visit to the Baba Nyonya museum (the guide, Sabrina, was full of loud, innuendo-laden advice about the matters between the sexes). Of course, there was the Hakka artist whose home studio we walked into. One look at me and he says in Hakka, "You have long earlobes, just like the Buddha. You will live long." There's something comforting about finding someone that speaks the same language that you do in an unfamiliar place.

My visa's valid for a year.... Langkawi, Penang, Borneo!

More photos...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Peace be...

There's an eerie stillness in the air. Or is it just the trepidation in my heart? I hope this beautiful day is not the calm before the storm. Just the day that India chose the higher road.

Do I believe that the voices calling for calm will be heeded? I pray they will.

There will be peace, I know.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Strains On The Kapila

Shishila.

The first little rapid on the Kapila, and 'supplies!', my oar snaps in half, I hit a strainer, my ducky flips over and I get a serious arse-whupping from the rocks. Quite an introduction to kayaking, wouldn't you say? As I was tipped into the racing water, I wondered if I should have stuck to my plan of going hiking. But as quick as the thought came, it was gone and I enjoyed a thrilling swim down the rapid.

With my slightly painfully gained respect for the river, I got back in the ducky with a fresh oar, and spent an exhilarating six hours paddling over rapids, wave-trains and pools back to the 'Stream of Joy', the home-stay where we were put up. We practiced tossing the throw-bag at people body-surfing down one of the larger rapids. Sohan, Manik and Vijay practiced their rolls in the pools between rapids with varying degrees of success. It is amazing how quickly breakfast is digested when one is paddling. The packet of dates and chikki didn't last very long at all.

Sohan managed to get everybody out of bed and eating breakfast by seven the next morning. The local food wasn't doing my stomach any favours, and it was only at the last minute that I decided to run the river again. Naren, Jaggi and Chetan decided not to join us so that they could head back to Bangalore early, but they did come along to the put-in. We caught up with them at the temple where they were feeding the Mahseer that live protected in that stretch of the Kapila. The second run down the river was quicker but not without incident. Just as we approached the largest rapid on the stretch, Sid floated into an overhanging branch which tipped him over. Vijay and Kiran had to scramble to retrieve his boat and paddle. Then while surfing one of the holes a little further downriver, Kiran's paddle broke and he ended up sitting on a rock in the middle of the river with his boat beached on the bank. That same rapid saw Sid's paddle break as well.

Back at the home-stay, we loaded the equipment into Naveen's van so that they would be able to get back to Bangalore before it got too late. Sohan, Kiran, Sid and I then hired a jeep to go the the Neriya river to recce a Class IV rapid. One look at the crashing water, and I knew that I would have to spend a whole lot more time studying rivers and rapids before I would be ready to take the rapid on. On the way back, we stopped at a point that is downstream of the 'Stream of Joy' on the Kapila where there is a waterfall and a gorge. It's a beautiful stretch of the river and one that I probably would not take on even if I had a lifetime of studying rivers behind me!

And in the manner of all birders, I must mention that there are a large number of Stork-billed Kingfishers on the river, apart from the White-breasted and Small Blue. Pied and Grey Wagtails and some variety of Sandpiper. One Malabar Pied Hornbill and two different species of large raptor. Rufous Treepies, Racket-tailed Drongos and Coucals. And Cormorants aplenty. Oh, and two Rat Snakes crossing the road for those more reptilian in interest.

Row, row, row your boat, gently..... Oops! Splash!