Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

Broken homes

I love Satyajit Ray’s movie Charulata for its pacing, slow and deliberate, changing with the seasons. It was a translation of a story called Broken Nest by Tagore. I see the hornbill couple in the trees around my apartment now and realize that this metaphor can have a real and devastating meaning. Indian grey hornbills mate for life, and the pair that I see now have been coming back to the same tree after every monsoon to nest and raise two or three chicks. This year, the fierce monsoon storm five weeks ago blew down their nesting tree. They spent days scouting and seem to have found a nesting spot.

Hornbills nest in hollows of trees. The female seals herself into the hollow with pellets of mud and her own droppings, leaving a slit through which the male feeds her. She moults as she incubates her eggs, and the two processes end at around the same time. In the last few years I had a good view of the fledgelings learning to fly. I’ll miss that view in the morning now. I guess I’ll have to spend some time this year figuring out where the nest was, but it doesn’t seem to be someplace which I can see so easily.

Indulgence

I’d tasted mahua (Madhuca longifolia) in two forms: fermented into a mildly alcoholic drink, and made into a dry gurh (molasses). Both have a distinctive flavour, a little floral, but otherwise unique. So, when I saw that a Mumbai restaurant was delivering Mahua toffee cake, I ordered it. The description said that the dish contains a stone fruit compote, brown butter semifreddo, fresh peach slices, a whiskey toffee sauce, and fried mahua flowers. I’d not expected fresh peach slices in the home delivered version, and I was correct about that. Unfortunately, the semifreddo was missing, and the fried mahua flowers were mixed into the compote, changing the texture and feel completely. It tasted fine, but without that crisp mouthful of mahua flavour in the garnish, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking forward to. Pedro, you can do better.

A walk in the rain

I couldn’t let the unending rain dictate my life any longer. On Friday I slipped my phone into my pockets, put on my walking shoes and a poncho, and went out for a walk.

The world was full of life and death, decay and growth. Lush vegetation, scrubbed clean with rain, fallen leaves on green leaves, termites scurrying along walls. In this dreadful light, the camera can’t keep up with the insects.

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, a mouthful for such a lovely flower: the night blooming jasmine. They are flowering already, but the rain washes away their scent. A month from now, the fallen flowers will wilt slowly through the day, releasing their lovely perfume all day.

A strangler fig is slowly killing its host; terrible for the host, but possibly a wonderful sight in future when the fig spreads out its branches and aerial roots. The flooded earth has sent the invading giant African land snails up the wall. Welcome to the club.

Bracket fungi have reappeared predictably on the trunk of a tree where I’ve seen it in the last two years. This tree is sick. The invisible filaments of the fungus have found its bed of secret joy, and its dark secret love is killing the tree. A William Bleak morning indeed!

Jackson Porlock

Coleridge and Porlock collaborated on a wonderful work of a little more than 50 lines, which goes by the name of Kubla Khan. Knowing about the seminal influence that Porlock has had on the arts and letters, I was not surprised to find his signature (featured) on the door of an utility box.

Neither was it surprising to find an unsigned work by him on the walls of an abandoned building. You think Banksy gets around? Look for Porlock. He’s responsible for some of the best work around, and is also known to send some of the worst to their Graves. Both these canvases come from Bielefeld in Germany, a town that is as famous as Porlock.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

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When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

Post-human sunsets

Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.

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Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.

In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.

In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.

Around the world in two hundred days

I woke up dreaming of a trip around the world in container ships. How long would it take? It seems that container ships prefer to travel at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. At this speed they’ll cover about 300 kilometers in a day. If you travel around the equator in such a ship it might take you 110 to 150 days. Add in port calls (the featured photo is of Hamburg port), it might take you about 200 days. I’ve spent half that time sitting at home already. To think that I could easily have gone halfway around the world in this time!

Four days, two friends, two countries

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead, and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

She stoops to conquer

There’s one fabulous upside to traveling in a group of like minded people. I discovered it during our bird watching trip to Jamnagar in Febraury. You get pushed into doing things which you had not tried before. One of my travel companions, let us call him Knowledge, was a fashion photographer who had recently turned to bird photography. He was constantly trying to get birds in flight. Since we had to keep pace, instead of patiently waiting for him, I decided to also shoot in flight. My camera is not perfect for this, since the shutter lag is longer than I would have wished.

While Knowledge panned and took bursts of shots, I decided to concentrate on hovering birds. Beginner’s luck. I had a stroke of that when this black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) chose its restaurant. I was on a small cliff, overlooking a stretch of open land, and this was hovering just slightly above eye level. You can see this kite across India and all the way down to Sundaland and southern China on the east, and everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of the Iberian peninsula to the west. Moments after this, the bird swooped down to pick up something. I lost sight of it, but it must have caught something, otherwise it would have come up again to hover.

I noticed that its head had a bit of colour, its eyes were quite dark, and it had dark patterns on it back. An adult would have had red eyes, a pure white head, and no markings on the back. So this was a juvenile, certainly less than two years old. Thanks, Knowledge, for getting me to try out something different.