Waiting at closed doors

If you travel frequently how likely is it that you spend a lot of time in one of the most beautiful airports in the world? I’m lucky enough to live in one of the frequently listed cities. What that means in practice is that I have a good enough feel for the local traffic that I can spend little time in my home airport. The result is that my airport time is mostly spent in other airports, usually in large waiting areas, staring at runways through closed doors, past the corridors that direct travelers from gate to baggage carousel. One may be interesting, but the repetition is deadening.


Rao Jodha Desert Park

We hadn’t heard of the Rao Jodha Desert Park before we looked at a map of the area around Mehrangarh. Nor, it seems, had the auto driver. We had to coax him along the well-marked road to the visitor’s center. An enthusiastic young man called Denzil then marked out a short route for us on a map of the park and explained what was special about the place.

The 700 acres within the old city wall of Jodhpur was painstakingly freed of an invasive species of plant, and local species were planted into the holes left by the deep roots of the invader. Repairs to the city walls were completed in 2005, and the process of recovering the desert ecology was started the very next year. The unlikely banker behind this army of eco-warriors was the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Mehrangarh, the fort which Jodhpur grew around, stands on a hill of volcanic rock made of hard rhyolite, the mineral which also forms the volcanic plugs called the mesas of Arizona. Here, they stand in flat slabs which you see everywhere. Around this is a softer rhyolitic rock called welded tuff, which is made of volcanic ash pressed together while still hot. There is a red coloured welded tuff which is commonly known as Jodhpur sandstone. Our walk took us down an ancient aqueduct quarried out of the crack which formed between a face of the welded tuff and the hard rhyolite, so we got a good look at both (see the two photos above). You can easily see the difference in the photos here. The path led down to Ranisar lake (featured photo). Very logical for an aqueduct to drain into a lake, I thought. The blue city and the fort can share this water. Wonderful planning against sieges which seldom happened.

We passed many different kinds of trees and bushes. Over the next few days I learnt to recognize the cactus-like bush of thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the leafless spurge. This was also my first view of the tangle of leafless stalks called the kheer khimp (Sarcostemma acidum) or rambling milkweed. The kheer is added to the name because of the milky sap it exudes from a broken stalk. There were stands of geedar tambaku (Verbascum chinense) and many other shrubs and herbs which I still cannot recognize. You can see some of them in the photos (do let me know if you can help me identify them). Many of these can also be found deeper in the Thar desert.

The desert park behind Mehrangarh with red welded tuff

Later on our walk we met Denzil again, when he showed us one of a pair of vagrant Eurasian Scops Owl which had nested in a thicket of trees. Walking back with him we learnt a little more about the effort involved in restoring the ecology of the area. That’s a story which newspapers have carried, so I won’t tell it here.

How we got around in Berlin

Germany has wonderful public transport, and Berlin is no exception. The underground (U-bahn, which runs over the ground on some stretches) runs from 4 in the morning till 1 at night. The rest of the time there are night buses which follow the same route. On weekends the U-bahns run for 24 hours. Trams run 24 hours every day of the week.

As tourists we were specially happy with bus numbers 100 and 200 which took us through most of the places we wanted to get to. These double decker buses are a great alternative to hop-on-hop-off tourist buses, at a fraction of the price. The featured photo was taken from a 200 approaching Alexanderplatz late at night.

There weren’t many lime trees left in Unter den Linden.

In Berlin the fare is unified across all modes of public transport. A single ticket fare is Euro 2.80. Unless you are doing a lot of walking, single tickets are expensive. We used the day ticket, which cost Euro 7.00 per person per day. There are ticket vending machines on trams and on U-bahn or S-bahn platforms. Unfortunately they take only coins. We got used to saving up coins for the day’s tickets. The date is printed on these tickets, and are valid only for the day on which it is printed. Post offices also sell tickets, and you can buy several day tickets at one go. If you do this then you have to remember to validate each day’s ticket at the beginning of your first journey.

Anyone caught in public transportion without a valid ticket must pay a higher fare of 60 Euros. Even people who forgot to stamp their ticket must pay the fine.
— Berlin Transport Regulations

In case you forget to validate a ticket, then it is counted as ticketless travel, for which there is a Euro 60 fine if you get caught. Since even a weekly ticket costs only Euro 30, traveling without a ticket is not worth the risk for a tourist. In every city I have been to, including Mumbai, there are stories of “traveller’s insurance” in which habitually ticketless travelers pay an insurance premium to an “agency” which reimburses their fines. I’m not sure that such elaborate schemes exist anywhere, least of all in Berlin. I guess that there must be forgeries, because the fine for forgeries is a really punitive Euro 900.

We heard Germans from other cities grumbling about how their tax money goes to commuters in Berlin. A quick check on the net showed that tickets in Munich and Frankfurt cost less than those in Berlin. It is a German pastime to grumble, and Berlin is always a good target.

One tip: the S-bahn is a fast way to cross the city, and these trains have toilets.

Night flights, night thoughts

We left Mumbai after midnight and landed in Munich just before dawn. At this time of the year the skies were clear all the way. This is a fabulous route to fly. You see towns and cities all along the flight path, glowing like little jewels in the dark side of the planet. We passed Karachi and Isfahan. The Caspian sea is a little north of the flight path, the Adriatic a little to the south. Baghdad is just below the horizon. There were little dots of lights all along the flight path. I glanced out of the port and saw a small city all lit up; the flight path indicator said I was flying over Pan.

As we flew past the Black Sea I fell asleep. Ankara, Istanbul, Sofia, Bucharest, Szeged, Zagreb passed before I woke up for a light breakfast in the dark skies over Graz. The Family woke up to the smell of my coffee. Soon we started on a long descent towards Munich. The maze of lit streets which you see in the featured photo is probably Salzburg. We passed it just a little before we landed.

Many years ago I’d wanted to drive this route. The iron curtain was rusting then, but the Iran-Iraq war intervened, then the invasion of Kuwait, and the invasion of Iraq, and finally the situation in Afghanistan. Now one can only fly over these once-wonderful cities where Asia and Europe merge into each other and wait for the day when again one can travel by land between India and Germany.

13 hours in a aluminum box

My flight left JFK at 3 in the afternoon. Most brunch places in New York seem to open after 11. So this didn’t leave me enough time for a nice Sunday brunch. As a result, my main meal of the day was the dinner on the flight that we had soon after we took off. As always, cabin lights were dimmed after this in order to simulate night. The movies were not very interesting. I slid up the window shutter, turned the glass to transparent and peered out. We were somewhere over the north Atlantic, a little southwest of Reykjavik. There was a sea of clouds below me. The sky had turned a brilliant blue in the approaching dusk. Ten years ago I’d managed to take a photo of calving glaciers from a flght. No such luck this time.

In flight over extreme north Europe

I got myself something to drink, forced myself to watch a movie, and then fell asleep. When I woke we had crossed the Atlantic. I scrolled through the flight data and saw that we were a little south and east of Riga. I’ve never seen Riga, or the Baltic states. I popped the shutter open again. Light poured in. We were well above the sea of clouds which hid the north European plains below me. One of the cabin crew came by to ask me to pull down the shutter. They like people asleep. I complied, but then walked around the cabin for a while, did my stretches, drank some water. It was about 6 hours since we took off. Almost half way.

In flight somewhere near Delhi

The second half of the long flight was excruciating. I watched parts of five movies. I dozed, ate, fell asleep again. I walked around the cabin, through the galley and back. I read all the newspapers that were available. I finished a Simenon and started another. Eventually the flight data told me that we were near Delhi. Now there was no objection to shutters being up. I took a photo of the first clear sky that I’d seen in half a day: the monsoon sky over Delhi. I was a little hop from home.

The biggest mosaic of all

When I decided to walk from the 34th Street Station to the Madison Square Park I had not yet realized how low the charge on my camera was. I hurried down 31st street towards Broadway. This is not a part of New York with a lot of art work on the streets, so I had no intentions of stopping. But I was brought to a halt by a marvellous mosaic on a church. You can see this in the featured photo.

From the brown robes of the saint, I guessed this must be Francis of Assisi, and the church probably belonged to Franciscans. That turned out to be right, this is called the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. I thought that the Gothic Revival style would make this a contemporary of the Fort district of Mumbai, probably the end of the 19th century. It would have been far outside the boundaries of Manhattan when it was built. This guess was correct; Wikipedia tells a story of a religious dispute that preceded it. Should I cross the street and go in? The time and the charge on my camera forced me on.

This was a wrong decision. I missed one of the major pieces of art in New York. Inside this church is one of the largest mosaics in the US, a work by Austrian artist Rudolph Margreiter showing Mary standing on a globe of the earth. It was installed in 1928, two years before the mosaic outside which I’d paused to admire. Cities are large, you can’t hope to see it all in one day’s walk.

The Spanish countryside

Spain is a large country, as countries in Europe go. Several hundred kilometers between cities is not unusual. We decided to take trains during our trip. There are the high-speed trains (AVE) which travel at about 300 Kms/hour and the slower regional trains which do one-third the speed. You need reservations to enter an AVE. Since we took trains, we saw a lot of the Spanish countryside.

Today, as we travelled on a regional train from Seville to Granada, we looked out at the usual flat landscape. In this season the temperature outside at 5 PM was around 44 degrees Celsius. Fields were dry and yellow. In the rest of Europe you see a mild powder blue sky. Here the sky was like India’s, a blinding blue-white. It looks colourful in the featured photo because I took it through a polarized filter. If I hadn’t, then all the colours would have been bleached out.

The Family looked out and said "The countryside is so flat." That it is, as you see in the featured photo. We’d seen this flat countryside between Madrid and Barcelona, and then again on our way to Seville. Now it looked like it was going to be flat all the way.

We had a little surprise about an hour out of Seville. An announcement on the train told us that there was work on the tracks, so our train would stop at the next station. We were to get out and follow railway staff who would take us to a bus. We’d noted earlier that changes are conducted very efficiently by the friendly staff who take special care of foreigners, even though they usually speak very little English. We came to some buses parked near the exit from the station. Someone told us which was the bus to Granada.

On the highway we finally saw some hills. You can see one of them in the photo above. Tomorrow we plan to climb one which stands at the centre of Granada to see the Alhambra.

Between Continents

I spent the Saturday crossing from one continent to another, probably overflying a third. I cannot tell because the flight data display was disconnected. Seldom does the tedium of flying for a day in an aluminium cylinder get broken by something happening outside the window. Break in tedium on a long flight But this time one had good reason to sit up straight in the chair. Another jet went screaming past us. I had just enough time to register the fact that it was trailing black smoke. I have no idea what happened, Whatever it was, it didn’t happen again for the next four hours of my flight from Delhi to Madrid.

Eventually, after a very long time, we passed over a harbour.
Clearly our long journey over the Mediterranean sea was to come to an end. Due to ongoing wars in parts of west Asia, flights from India to Europe now go west for a long time before turning north. So I came to the conclusion that we had seen the other jet somewhere over north Africa. Where was it? Why was it trailing black smoke? Was it a civilian or military aircraft? I think the only answers are guesses based on the fact that no passenger liner was reported to be in trouble during this time.

Spain is a deserted country. There are only 50 million people living in the half a million square kilometers which lie in the country. As a result it is mostly deserted. I saw this as we descended from the coast to the airport in Madrid. The first thing we saw this was in the emptiness of the land over which we had just flown. The photo above shows part of a river valley. In the photo above, you can clearly see a fan of tributaries merging into a single stream. The strange banding of colours you can see in the bottom half of the photo is due to polarizing glasses mounted on each window in a Dreamliner.

After about half an hour of flying over this kind of country, we seemed to pass over a cliff. On the nearer side of this huge cliff were forests and fields, and also an occasional lake. This was in total contrast to the barren land between the coastline and the divide. Now we began to slow and descend, and suddenly we were over summer’s bare fields and landing in Madrid.

New adventures begin now.

In a Jungle

Vegetation makes up a jungle. I’ve written extensively about the animals I saw in Pench National Park. But most of the time I spent in the jungle was spent looking at trees or bushes. Here is a record mainly of the trees I saw in the jungle. This was a mixed jungle: mainly sal (Shorea robusta), followed by the crocodile bark tree (Terminalia crenulata), but also many other species, including the so-called Indian Ghost Tree. I end my stories of this hot season’s trip to Pench with photos of its dried up vegetation.

Jackals and wolves

The IUCN Red List tells us that the golden jackal (Canis aureus) "is fairly common throughout its range with high densities observed in areas with abundant food and cover. They are opportunistic and will venture into human habitation at night to feed on garbage." It is true that in small towns and villages you can still hear the call of jackals, and travelling on a highway at night you can see one lope off into the darkness now and then. However, the few times I’ve had good sightings of these shy creatures have been inside protected forests like Pench National Park.

If you go by the call of the jackal, you may be fooled into thinking that they are nocturnal. However, both the jackal sightings I had in Pench were in the middle of the day. The first time was the fight between a jackal and a gray langur, and the second time I just saw one trotting away next to the track our jeep was following (featured photo). A study which tracked many jackals using radio collars explains how this can happen. A jackal is actually diurnal, but also active at dawn and just after dusk.

The Red List says that the jackal’s habitat includes Africa, the middle east (from where it has moved into Europe in modern times) and India. Usually it is fairly reliable and up-to-date on these questions. However, this seems to be an exception. Startling new DNA data published in 2015 showed that these two populations are different species which diverged about a million years ago. It was suggested that the African species, Canis anthus, be called the African golden wolf, whereas the Eurasian jackal continue to be named Canis aureus.

It was the jackal—Tabaqui, the Dish-licker—and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.
—Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

An older paper gave me some background to understand this. It turns out that among dog-like animals, the jackal is the basic form, which has differentiated into wolves a few times in history. Dogs, of course, are very closely related to wolves. As a result, dogs easily hybridize with wolves, but crosses with jackals are unviable. The group of jackals, wolves and dogs is sometimes called a species complex, because of their close relationship. In any case, the new finding was so startling that National Geographic called it the first discovery of a new canid species in 150 years.

I enjoyed watching these creatures. Although they may not be immediately threatened, their habitat is slowly disappearing. For some time they may adapt to human presence, but as forests are replaced by parking lots, they will inevitably go the way of the dodo,