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.

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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,

Tiger Culture and Biology

Just before dusk the tiger called Collarwali in Pench National Park made a kill. She was walking with her three cubs when she suddenly changed direction. There must have been a signal to the cubs. Instead of following her, as they normally do, they stayed together, milling around for a while before disappearing into bushes. I managed to take a photo (see below) of the three of them together just before they walked into the undergrowth. You can see how the good a camouflage their coat makes. Another two steps into the bushes made them essentially invisible.

Collarwali's litter of 2017 in Pench National Park

A hunting tiger uses this invisibility. Our jeep rolled forward slowly until we were directly behind the tigress. She was positioned in front of a little gap in the bushes. Although we could not see beyond it, she must have seen prey nearby, because she was totally still. I clicked a series of photos, and there is no difference between them at all. Her tail was down, she was perfectly balanced for a quick take off, as you can see in the featured photo.

The tiger is not born knowing how to hunt. Mothers teach their cubs this skill through a series of exercises which begin when they are about a year old. The first exercise is to hold still, as she was doing. Then come lessons in stalking and sprinting. Finally the cubs are taught how to bite through the prey’s neck to kill it. Then, at about age two, when they have learnt all this, they are driven out by the mother to find their own hunting range, and defend it against other tigers.

Later The Family and I argued our way through to some understanding of how such learning could have developed. The tiger is born with the muscles, claws and jaws which enable it to hunt. It is also presumably born with the mental equipment which enables it to stalk prey. What exactly does it have to learn?

Later we came across an article written by Rafael Nunez in which he asks a similar question about the human ability with arithmetic. The number 77 is odd and the product of 7 and 11. Is this knowledge hard-wired genetically into human brains? No, we know that children have to be taught this. Nunez argues that there are biologically evolved preconditions necessary for us to learn such things. He writes "I suggest that numbers and arithmetic are realized through precise combinations of non-mathematical everyday cognitive mechanisms that make human imagination and abstraction possible." There is, possibly, the same kind of mechanism at work behind a tiger cub’s ability to learn hunting. We think of human learning as cultural. In an intensely solitary creature like a tiger, do we see the rudiments of culture and learning? We speculated about all this later.

At that time, as the horizon moved up rapidly to obscure the sun, we were silently focused on the still form of the tigress. Then, in the blink of an eye she was gone, crashing through the bushes, and out of our sight. We learnt later from forest rangers that she had made a kill. The next day there were many jeeps clustered around this area hoping to catch a glimpse of Collarwali and her litter as they came back to feed.

The earliest tiger remains were found in southern China, and are about 2 million years old. However genetic studies of different tiger populations indicate that the Indian and Sumatran tiger diverged from the Chinese stock about 12 million years ago. At this time the collision of the Indian plate with Asia had already raised the Himalayas, and the collision of Africa with Eurasia caused a fall in sea levels around the planet. As a result land bridges opened up between many previously separated geographical areas. At the same time there was a global cooling, causing aridity in formerly wet zones. Northern parts of Asia and Europe began to get their ice cover at this time. Extensive grasslands formed a little before this, leading to an explosion of grazing animals, and the evolution of fast hunters. It is likely that ancestral tigers moved into new ranges during these climate changes and then became isolated into the populations we see today. This era could well be ending today.

When we travel I seldom think of the future beyond our own lives. The one exception is when we watch tigers. These sleek animals are so elegant, such perfect hunters, that I hope that future generations get to enjoy the thrilling sight of a tiger walking past them.

How I learnt to love the roads of Bangkok

We decided to spend a couple of days in Bangkok imagining a relaxed time in a large city on the way back from Myanmar. We did manage to relax, but in taxis stuck on the road. On one memorable occasion, during the evening rush hour, our taxi took more than half an hour between two successive traffic lights. According to a year-old article, during the evening peak hours, Bangkok’s traffic moves at one-tenth the speed it would have on a clear road. On the average the traffic moves at half the speed that it would have on a clear road.

One sure sign of bad traffic is multiple layers of roads and flyovers. In the featured photo of Bangkok (taken near Sukhumvit) you can see the road, then the pedestrian walkway from which I took the photo, a flyover for road traffic, and an elevated corridor for the metro. This photo was taken a little after three on a weekday. Two hours later, the traffic was a standstill.Kitschy hoarding covers a cnstructions site in Bangkok I’ve seen such multiple layers of roads in China before, and they are now coming up in India.

Some claim that Bangkok’s traffic has become worse since the government decided to refund the tax to first-time car buyers. Mumbai had prepared us for Bangkok. When we were stuck in traffic, The Family and I tried to take it as an opportunity to spend some quality time talking to each other. When we couldn’t bear the incredible joy of being thrown into close contact for long, we took the sky trains. The coverage of the city is minimal, but at least it can be used to reduce the distance you have to travel in traffic. Another joy of travelling by metro is that you get a view of really kitschy hoardings meant to cover up construction sites (above).

Where’s the L in Chicago?

I wonder how many movies I’ve seen which show the elevated trains of Chicago. The Blues Brothers, The Fugitive (the one with Harrison Ford on the run), Ocean’s Eleven, While You Were Sleeping, to name just a few. So the bleak look of the parking lot below the century old tracks which you see in the featured photo didn’t come as a surprise. One of the amazing things about the USA is that the transport infrastructure is as old as it looks. The elevated tracks were finished in 1897!

What do you call it? The Chicago Tribune gives you the definitive answer: the L is preferred over El.

An elevated train in Chicago

How often do the trains run? Jake’s (John Belushi’s) question was answered by Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in The Blues Brothers: "So often that you won’t even notice it". That’s right. Before I finished cursing myself for fumbling a shot of a train passing the intersection in the photo above, the next one came along.

The electrical power to the train is, famously, supplied through a third rail. If you are wondering about it, then it is supplied at 600 Volts. Although, as Billy Crystal says in Running Scared, as he chases a bad guy along the rails, "It’s not the volts, it’s the amps".

Fish in a tide pool

On arrival at Neil Island we met a young auto driver called Suman. He turned out to be very articulate, and had a very pleasant way of explaining to us when we disagreed on anything: including fares. There were many pleasant auto drivers on the island, but of those we met he was the most articulate. Once we were at a loose end in Bharatpur beach, when we met him.sitapurrocks He asked where we wanted to go, and we said that we would go to whichever place he wanted to show us. He took us to Sitapur beach.

That was the first time we saw this beach, with its spectacular crescent of yellow sand, and the wonderful submerged layers of rocks. You can see the clarity of the water in the photo above. I think the rocks must have been heaved up in the 2004 earthquake. I loved the very eroded flat slabs of rock, some with holes bored by piddocks.

Rocks around Sitapur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

The tide was out, and we walked out over the bare rocks to peer into little tide pools. Some of them had tiny fish which would dart away as soon as they saw something looming above the water. Eventually I captured the featured photo by crouching low on a rock until the fish came to rest. Until I saw the photo, I hadn’t noticed the bubbles at the tips of the fronds of seaweed.

The beach was empty except for us and a French couple swimming in a deep pool among the rocks. We walked up to a distant rock fall and came back. Suman was waiting expectantly, and his face lit up when we answered his unasked question by saying this was a beautiful spot.