Checklists

One part of going to the Andamans is to spend time in the water and beaches. Another part is to walk through forests and swamplands looking for birds and local animals. Meaning to look for checklists of birds, I searched for checklists instead. The results surprised me.

There are more than ten kinds of birds which are endemic to this island group, and are found no where else. This includes four kinds of owls! The one species that I’ve had my metaphorical sights on is the Narcondam Hornbill. But I think this is also the one I won’t get to see, given than a trip to Narcondam Island, 262 Kms from Port Blair cannot be accomplished between sunrise and sunset. Since we have already ruled out the long side trip to the Nicobar archipelago, we will also miss seeing the Nicobar Megapode, and the endemic Nicobar species. Still, that leaves us with many hours tramping around the wilds.

Where there are birds there must be snakes. There is a list of more than twenty, including some venomous sea snakes and even a Krait and Cobra endemic to the islands. These are creatures I would not like to run into.

A great checklist was of marine molluscs. Unknown to the public at large, the Zoological Survey of India continues to do its slow job of collecting and documenting life in and around India. The booklet by Ramakrishna and Sen says that " they are more diverse and abundant in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast and in the inter-tidal area of … the Andaman and Nicobar Islands" So I think walks along the beach will show us shells we have never seen before.

Nudibranch, opisthobranch (look at the wonderful description of the pink sea slug in the featured image!) and polychaetes are two groups of marine molluscs which I might get to see on a dive, provided I’m not too busy staying oriented. The paper I’ve linked above shows animals with wonderful colouring. I wonder how much of the colour is visible underwater through goggles. Since I’ve never dived before, I think I’ll probably spend a lot of time thrashing around. I’ll be lucky to see any of these.

There is even a checklist of the mosquitos of the Andamans. Of the 3541 species of mosquitos recorded from around the world, in 112 genera, these islands contain 109 species in 25 genera. More than a fourth of all mosquito species in India can be found in these islands. That’s something to remember when I forget my anti-mosquito gel.

Spring cleaning

Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.

The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.

It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.

Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.

Monsoon flowers

The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.

The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).

A patch of Murdannia pauciflorum
A patch of Murdannia pauciflora in an open field

The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.

Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)
Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.

Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree
Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree

An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.

As far away as possible without a passport

Map of the Andaman IslandsIt turns out that I can travel 2644 Kms on a great circle without having to use my passport: from Mumbai to Indira Point, at the tip of the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman Sea. This is more than 6.5% of the earth’s circum-ference. Another 200 Kms, and I would enter Indonesia through Banda Aceh. Why wouldn’t we make a quick dash to this place in the last week of the year? The only possible reason, it turns out, is the practical one of fixing an itinerary.

The Nicobar archipelago is largely out of bounds to tourists. We could go to Car Nicobar, the northernmost of these islands, or Great Nicobar, the southernmost. Only Great Nicobar sounds sufficiently interesting; it is home to the Shompen tribe, and is a biosphere reserve with interesting birds. But it turns out that ferries are irregular, and perhaps go only a couple of times a week. There are helicopter flights which cost Rs. 13,000 each way, which is somewhat outside our budget. So perhaps we will skip Nicobar.

The Andamans are a more compact group of islands, so hopping from one to another should not be too hard. Flights from the main land arrive in Port Blair. The easternmost island in the map above is Narcondam. This is 262 Km from Port Blair. The westernmost island shown in the map is the North Sentinel, which is 54 Kms from Port Blair. Strange to realize that the Sentinelese reject contact with outsiders, so this island is an exclusion zone. Barren island, 144 Kms northeast of Port Blair has an active volcano. These distances can be covered by ferry. Baratang with its mud volcanoes is also close. Visiting Ross Island with its ruins of colonial era structures, now taken over by banyan trees, is probably a nice way to spend half a day. I’m also looking forward to the beaches of Havelock island, and taking my first lessons in scuba diving and looking at coral reefs. Nice way to spend the last week of the year, isn’t it?

Here are some links which I found useful:
Andaman and Nicobar Tourism
Explore Andaman
Barren Island ferries and flights
Getting to Baratang
Island tribes
Holiday ideas

The one who removes obstacles

The end of the monsoon brings the season of festivals across India. Everything always begins with the god who removes obstacles: Ganesha or Ganapati. This is probably Mumbai’s biggest festival. Many homes have their little idol, and then there are the huge idols which bring together whole neighbourhoods. Hindu rituals involve an invocation which imbues an idol with the spirit of a god. After the spirit departs, the idol is immersed in water. For the Ganapati, this may happen after a day, three days, five days, or ten days, according to the ritual used. If you stand by the designated spots where idol immersion is allowed, you get a sense of how many Mumbai holds.

A large idol of Ganapati waiting to be immersed

I walked up to the immersion point in Colaba on Saturday. Colaba is a small place, with a population roughly the same as of Paris, and the number of idols brought for immersion on an odd day is not large. Even so, these used to cause traffic jams in the neighbourhood a decade back. Over the last few years police arrangements have become much better. Traffic flows smoothly, if a little slowly, and the crowd which gather to watch the immersion is kept under control (see the featured photo). I slipped past a waiting ambulance, and walked through an outer cordon of police. With my camera in hand, I was inspected, and found to be harmless. I could walk past the police and take up position just inside the police cordon, before the line of lifeguards. I was told not to obstruct anyone.

A family's ganapati idol is taken for immersion

This was a good point to watch the proceedings from. On a day like this no one spares attention to the fact that this is the ramp where terrorists came ashore eight years ago and launched a concerted series of attacks across the city. Now the area is full of Ganapati idols, big (photo on top) and small. The big idols take up much space in the public imagination. Even here they are surrounded by crowds. Children especially, seem to be mesmerized by these large idols. I prefer the small ones, the ones which belong to a single family.

A family returns after immersing their idol in the sea

The police let in two or three men from the family with each idol. The women, children, and other men, if there are any, stay at the police cordon. Often the men forget some ritual item or the other, and the group left behind pleads with the police to hand it to them. The idol is not thrown into the sea. People walk with it into the water and, when it is deep enough, just let it go. The idol sinks into the sea. I took a few shots of people coming back from the sea after the immersion (see photo above). There is a little emptiness about them. The excitement of the previous few days has been washed away.

Later there will be a muted attempt to clean up the sea. The baked mud of the idols will sink into the bottom of the waters and eventually be pulverized. Some of the plastic and wood used in the frame and decoration will be thrown back by the waves. This will be collected into huge heaps which will be removed to landfills. Next year the idols will come again, but hopefully with less plastic around it.

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Whip in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a side trip to Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin and more like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades. There is a little more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".

Wind inside a letter box

I think of myself as rooted in one place: but with tap-roots, like a banyan tree’s, spreading out in different continents. When I came back to India, a late spring and early summer in Europe was for a long time an annual affair. Lately, it has been less frequent, as another root samples eastern Asia.

It was still dark as I checked in for my flight to Munich in the chaotic airport in Rome. After passing through the usual barriers to travel that you meet inside an airport, I found a last cup of espresso. This helped to shut out the commotion of early departures, and reach a quietness inside. I find it useful to reach a balance before very long flights. Once you are cocooned inside the zones which envelope a traveller, all you have is yourself. Restlessness will magnify as you cross continents; just as quietness can deepen.

Midsummer snow, alpine meadows and clouds from the air

Leaving Europe, I recall conversations with a grand-aunt in the last years of her life, as her world became smaller and smaller: from continents to a widely spread out family, eventually to a single town, and then just a house with a garden, before shrinking to a hospital bed. The first time The Family met her, she’d laid out a silver tea service for us. Eventually our talk veered to a trip from Oxford up to Sweden where she found the tea service and her life in design. As she spoke of ferries and the cold air of the Baltic on the deck, I was reminded of my own trips across the Baltic: the first view of Helsinki, as I sailed past Suomenlinna on a summer morning, and, another time, pulling slowly out of Stockholm’s harbour and its islands in the long sunset of another summer. When I showed my mother the photos from that voyage, she talked about a Swedish movie made before I was born. Now, as the sun rose over the Tyrolean Alps (featured photo, and the one just above), I remembered the joy in my grand-aunt’s voice.

Sunlight and clouds over a river in the Tyrolean Alps

This spring was wet, and early summer had been less than warm around the Alps. The news had been full of the danger of the Seine flooding the Louvre. The aerial view of the Alps was not as crisp as it can be. The snow had retreated to the highest peaks, leaving meadows green, as always. But a haze hung over everything. A bank of clouds flowed down a river valley at one place. Elsewhere the sun glinted on the braided channels of water. Could it be the river Inn? My mind was like a paper cup; memories tumbled blindly from me. Tiramisu in Pizzeria Due Furiosi in FrascatiThis year while travelling, I decided to be in constant contact with all my nieces. The youngest responded to my postings of odd locations around Portugal and Italy with complaints. Why no photos of the Coliseum? Not graffiti again! Is that collection of cubes really art? The only thing I ate that met with her approval was Tiramisu. I remembered this as I had my bland airlines breakfast.

In two hours I was in Munich. There was enough time to linger over a hefeweizen and a plate of weisswurst, before the long flight home, where the monsoon had set in.

MACRO: art in a brewery

In 1901 the Birra Peroni company started building an enormous brewery in a part of Rome just outside the Aurelian walls. Gustavo Giovannoni was the architect who designed the first part of what would eventually become a two-hectare complex of buildings making up the Peroni Brewery. In 1922 Peroni hired Alfredo Palopoli to design the stores and stables which would become the contemporary art museum called MACRO which I walked into in June this year. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but kept putting it off. Partly because I did not know how to talk about the experience.

I found the gallery exactly where it was supposed to be, but had a little problem figuring out where to enter. I came down Via Cagliari and turned into Via Nizza. There was a space at the corner where some people were hanging around before eleven in the morning of a Saturday. There was no entrance visible. I walked around to Via Reggio Emilia and saw a large gate which was closed. I walked back to the corner of Via Cagliari and Via Nizza, and asked the people who I saw there about the entrance. It is at the corner, but not visible from the road. You have to take a path through a little garden to enter the huge vestibule of what turns out to be the new block of the museum. It is very nice, once you find it.

The toilet at the MACRO in Nomentano, Rome

The price of entry is the same as for most museums in Rome, but it seems a little steep once you find that the amount of art on display is not very large. I took it as a visit to an interesting house of mystery. The first part of the puzzle was to find out how to enter the galleries from the central atrium. I found the most exciting toilet in Rome (photo above) quite easily, between the cloak room and the museum shop. The constantly changing colour of lights in the toilet makes it a little hard to register the layout.

Odile Decq designed this, the new part of the museum. The entrance area is dominated by a red polyhedron, which was not in use. A ramp leads into it from near the ticket counter, and seems to be an obvious place to enter. It is not, and entry was forbidden. Eventually I took the lift from near the museum shop. This leads to three floors of interesting, but severely limited selection of, contemporary art. The one exhibit that remains in my mind after a few months was a series of photographs of an artist (whose name I did not note) of himself over the years. Viewed together, it is a stunning work which documents aging: the essence of the human condition. In my mind I put it next to a mental collection of Rembrandt’s self portraits over his own lifetime. The effect is similar.

I found that I’d walked through this space too soon, and entered the old part of the museum. This contains two wings around a courtyard.Zaha Hadid's Bvlgari pavilion in MACRO Nomentano, Rome The courtyard holds Zaha Hadid’s design for Bvlgari’s stall at a trade exhibition. The courtyard connects through a ramp back to the new section. This segment is devoted to the Museum’s collection of Italian modern art. This is again a very small exhibition space, with well-chosen pieces. There was a small special exhibition on, and I sat through a couple of videos. In spite of this I found myself walking back through the contemporary art exhibits soon. I dawdled at the coffee shop, but was back on the street less than two hours from when I’d entered.

In the months between visiting MACRO and getting to write about it, I found an interesting master’s thesis by an architect. Interestingly, it articulated some of the concerns I had, but could not quite put my finger on. The architect has created beautiful spaces which could be used in innovative ways, but the lack of signage and communication makes it hard to use. As a result, you walk through the space without completely experiencing it, and come out feeling unsatisfied.

Earthquakes and travel

It turns out that we often travel in one of the most earthquake prone parts of the world: the plate boundary between India and Asia. This includes the Himalayas, much of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and large parts of western and southern China. Large earthquakes are infrequent enough that travelling is fairly safe. However, we have often been saddened by news of the destruction of places we loved. A year ago it was Kathmandu. This year, just as we begin preparations for a trip to Myanmar, there is news of a second serious earthquake in that country.

Learning about Myanmar is hard. It has cut itself off for so long that the world’s media pretty much ignores it. On the day of the quake there were reports across the world, but there has been no news later. When I set about investigating this, it took a while to get to Myanmar Times, which confirmed that the official count of deaths and injuries remains small: "Three people were killed and five injured, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said." All is not well, however. Mizzima, another newspaper from Myanmar, reports: "The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has expressed her profound sympathy to the government and people of Myanmar after the devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central Myanmar, including the ancient city of Bagan, causing loss of life and extensive damage to nearly 200 historic monuments and iconic pagodas." That means about 10% of the temples have been badly damaged.

I discovered that this is not the first time this has happened. The Myanmar times had an article which said "State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructed the Culture and Religious Affairs Ministry yesterday to refrain from conducting urgent renovations on the 187 ancient Bagan pagodas and temples that were damaged by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on August 24. She asked the ministry to discuss renovations with specialists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and to make their plans with technical support from the organisation". The article led on to another which reported on the fallout of an earthquake in 1975: "More than 600 ancient pagodas in Bagan have been ruined by botched renovation work, an architect has claimed. U Sun Oo, a member of the Bagan Management Plan Organising Committee, laid blame for the destruction on the practice of putting out complex and sensitive repair work to tender."

An older news report talked about some other problems in maintainance: "The long-running “limbo hotels” problem arose when the 42 hoteliers were cleared to build in Bagan by the Archaeology Department in 2013, but subsequently ordered to stop work and not to take in guests. The guesthouses, mostly modest establishments run by local residents, are deemed to be too close to Bagan’s famed temples, a factor that could put at risk the city’s bid to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. As a result, the Ministry of Culture reinstated a zoning ban put in place in 1998 but rarely enforced since then. Earlier this year, 129 properties deemed to be operating too close to the ancient site, including the 42 guesthouses, were given a 10-year deadline to move to a special hotel zone."

The most disturbing report for would-be travellers comes from Bangkok Post, which reports "Another Myanmar earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude is possible and it may affect Bangkok and northern Thailand in the absence of an aftershock in the neighbouring country after Wednesday’s 6.8-magnitude". I tried to confirm the basic facts, and found a site called Earthquake Track which indeed confirms that there are no aftershocks.

Bagan is one of the high point of a Myanmar itinerary, so this leaves us somewhat undecided.

A little Roman market

Market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via AlessandriaA market inside a nice Art Deco brick building in the Piazza Alessandria in the Nomentano district of Rome was an unexpected find. I’d wanted to write about it from the time I stumbled on it in June, but with one thing or another, never got round to it. The Nomentano district is just outside the touristy centre of the city. As a result you hear only Italian in its cafes and restaurants, and see families with children comfortably ambling along the streets next to you, very pointedly ignoring your camera.

Walking through a small road, busy at 10 in the morning on a Saturday, I came across a brick building with iron gates sporting the wolf symbol of the city.The market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via Ancona I’d not researched this walk at all. But an open gate topped with a frieze of a wolf suckling Romus and Romulus is an invitation to enter. I looked at the building behind it, possibly a renaissance structure, and decided that the invitation in front of me was stronger.

Inside was a busy municipal market. I love markets. Walking through one in Italy is a special treat because the freshness of the produce is a constant reminder of how flavourful the local cuisine is. The Family and I have often joked that we would like to bring back two kilos of tomatoes instead of a bottle of wine from our travels in Italy. I loved the vegetable stalls with their golden pumpkins, the bright leafy greens, cucumbers and carrots (see the featured photo for all of this and more). The sight of Zucchini flowers in a market always remind me of boyhood lunches at my grandmother’s place where an occasional treat was batter-fried pumpkin flowers. This is probably unknown in many parts of India; certainly The Family has never eaten pumpkin flowers.

Many of the aisles were empty. I did not see any stall selling meats or fishes. Was I too early or too late? I looked longingly at the mushrooms: the yellow trumpets which the French call the Chanterelle stood next to dark brown mushrooms which could have been procini, and a heap of the common white funghi. Mushrooms and cheese are always special treats for us when we visit Europe because these are two things which India does not have.

Fruits in the market at Piazza Alessandria

The next aisle had a stall which had huge cauliflowers and broccoli. I don’t think I’ve seen broccoli which is so large and bright green. I was tempted to buy some. Unfortunately my time in Italy was almost done, and, as a result, I had plans to eat out with friends on every remaining evening. I could still support farmers by buying fresh fruits. Spring had not yet yielded to summer in this market. I could pick up strawberries and cherries, so I did. The apricots smelt wonderful, so I picked up some. European spring and summer fruits are also special treats for me. Although they are available in India, they play second fiddle to local fruits. As a result, the variety and quality is much superior throughout Europe.

I walked out towards Via Alessandria, where some vendors had set up little kiosks selling clothes and bags. I passed by them and went on to look for some coffee.