Through clouds

The monsoon set in as a yearly phenomenon when the Tibetan plateau was lifted up by India crashing into the Asian continental plate. This was about 50 million years ago, when the earth was a hothouse, and the first ice sheets of the Antarctic were still 15 million years in the future. So, when it comes to descriptions of the monsoon, almost anything that can be said about it has been said already. Every so often I’m surprised by the aptness with which a millennium old Sanskrit poem describes the monsoon. The one experience that is new, that perhaps the generations living now are seeing for the first time, is of flying through the weather.

Coming back from work recently, I spent an hour in the middle of rainclouds driven by monsoon winds. There is a constant turbulence, little sinking feelings in your stomach that you learn to ignore. Outside the window is a wonderful show of clouds and light. The poets of these sights are probably beginning their careers now.

Advertisements

The Romance of Travel

Is there a romance of travel? I’m old enough to have spent my youth traveling in trains and buses across the country when it could take a full day to get from Bengaluru to Mumbai, or two from Mumbai to Kolkata. Was that romantic? In hindsight, maybe. Most of the actual travel time was bothersome or boring. Bothersome when you ran out of water, or were trying to find a reasonable lunch; boring when you would stare out of the window at the passing countryside for two hours, framed by power cables in catenary motion.

Later, The Family and I took our backpacks on to state transport buses across the country, getting from one remote temple to another far-away ruin. This was also romantic only in memory. At that time we would cover our faces against the dust, and attempt to make desultory conversation with the couple sitting across us with a basket of squawking chicken on their lap.

On the other hand, when I look out of the window after boarding a flight and see other aircrafts lined up at the gates next to us, my heart still lurches. I forget my papers and meetings for a moment. The possibilities of travel seem limitless. Where are those others going? Indore, Imphal, Incheon? Jodhpur, Jakarta? Khartoum?

Indore plans

Some years ago, The Family and I went for a very short holiday to Mandu. The way lies through Indore. We spent only a couple of hours in the town on the way back. I remember seeing some cenotaphs (chhatris) of the 19th century Holkar rulers (photo below). We walked through a place called the Sarafa Bazar and found it interesting but less than spotlessly clean. Today Indore is ranked the cleanest city in India. There’s an interesting story behind this transformation. It is also something that made us think of going back to see the city.

Perhaps as a result of this clean up, the street food scene in Indore is something that gets lots of attention on blogs. I saw blogs by Selcouth Explorer, the former Dilliwali Taste Memory, the local expert Megha and the wonderfully named Follow the Eaten Path rave about street food, but naming very different things to eat. There is clearly a lot of variety when it comes to street food of Indore. Two places which crop up over and over again in stories about food in Indore are Sarafa bazar, which is apparently open till two in the morning, and Chhappan dukan in New Palasia, which has 56 different food stalls. I guess the question of where to eat will become an issue in Indore.

Historically, Indore rose with the Maratha empire. In the first third of the 18th century the Nizam granted rights to the Malwa kindom over to the Peshwa, who then handed the town of Indore and the district of Malwa to the Holkar chieftains. Indore remained the main garrison town although Ahilyabai moved the capital to nearby Maheshwar thirty years later. The palace complex of Rajwada was built in 1866, after this move. I discovered some photos from our visit (the door above, and the featured photo) which turn out to be of Rajwada. The Family and I have no independent memory of having been here: so I guess we will go back to see it. The Lalbagh Palace, which also seems to be one of the major sights, was built by a Holkar well after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. We have certainly not seen this. Nor have we seen the Jain temple made of glass, the nearby Jama Masjid, the three century old Khajrana temple, or the less well-known British era red and white churches.

Indore is the gateway to several interesting places nearby. The Family and I have already been to Mandu and Maheshwar. I visited Omkareshwar a while back. So there are few other places to see nearby. Is Dhar interesting enough to make a one and a half hour drive? If we have to take one trip out of Indore, would we rather go to Ujjain, which has been continuously inhabited since 700 BCE? This means that I have to read a lot more.

A monsoon drive: Dharwad to Goa

I had to decide how to travel from Dharwad to Mumbai. My meeting ended about noon. Then there are three choices: wait the night and take a morning’s flight from Dharwad to Mumbai, fly to Mumbai with a change in Bengaluru, drive to Goa and fly to Mumbai. In this season, right at the beginning of the monsoon, I decided that the third choice would be the most scenic; the route passes close to a very large tract of protected forest as it descends from the Deccan plateau to the Konkan coast by way of the Western Ghats. It also turned out to be the fastest.

We started an hour after noon, and I was told that the drive would be four hours long. I was not inclined to believe that. The map showed the distance to be 163 Kilometers. “Three hours,” I thought to myself, feeling a little annoyed with the driver when he hit a speed of 100 Kilometers and hour right outside Dharwad. I realized that I had no chance of photographing the very interesting road signs that began to appear right after we got on to the highway. The few roadside businesses petered out very soon. The last one that I saw had these impressively large tires. The highway was full of trucks which could have stopped for one of them.

In less than half an hour we had left these establishments behind. In India you are never too far from people. We passed smaller villages every few kilometers. Houses were generally of brick, with roofs of fired clay tiles. They seemed to use hardly any mortar, but often a few walls would be plastered and painted with bright chemical paint. The photo above shows a typical hut. I noticed that huts are generally built in the shade of a large tree. Summers must be killing up in these highlands.

I’d left without having anything to eat. The driver also wanted lunch, but he had a destination in mind. I kept looking out for roadside establishments, but couldn’t spot much. We’d left the farmlands behind, and were in forest now. The abandoned shack that you see in the photo above was typical of business premises in this area. Only a smatter of plastic garbage testified to the fact that it does serve food sometimes.

The beautiful forest took my mind off my fast depleting levels of energy. I like taking stop-motion videos in rides like these. The video above is speeded up ten times. We covered a little more than ten kilometers through the jungle in the part of the video which you see above. The rain was a little intermittent drizzle, and the sun broke through every now and then. The nearly empty road, the watery light, and the green rain forest around us created a magic ambience. I was happy to have made this choice.

Around the midway point we pulled into a larger village called Ramnagar. A small eatery here was the place that the driver was aiming for. He’d told me earlier that the vada pav here was good. I ordered one and found it delicious. Crisp vada covering wonderfully spiced potato served in the usual sourdough pav, with some chopped onions and a garlic chutney. I’m too wimpish to bite into the optional fried green chili. I washed it down with a chai. A family on the road sat at the next table and had a lunch plate; the children asked why there were no noodles in this place. I was still a little peckish. I ordered a second. The driver was still on his chai. I stood outside the shop, taking in the sight of this roadside village as I finished my second vada pav.

We were a little more than halfway, and it had taken us two hours. The road would now rise into the ghats before descending quickly into the Konkan coastland. We started on the rise soon after the break. This was forest land. I saw a Hornbill fly above us, a little ahead. When I messaged this, the instant question that came back was “Which Hornbill?” What a horrible bunch of expert birders I talk to! I didn’t get that good a sighting, but I thought it was a Malabar pied Hornbill. The sighting had come and gone too fast to record. Soon we began to descend. Our snaking path took us repeatedly across a channel of water which grew as we descended. We stopped finally at a point where the road became wider with a culvert and a shoulder. Several cars were parked there, and groups of people were peering at the stream which flowed below the big culvert. Lower down this would apparently turn into the Dudhsagar waterfall. So we were at the beginning of the Mandovi river. The featured photo was taken here: the wooded lowlands are Goa.

The last bit of the drive took us through the charming villages of south Goa. I love this part of the country, but I always wonder about living next to a highway. I see beautifully painted houses, clean, with a little garden in front of it. The village store, the post office, a place of worship, and people striding about on work, stopping for a spot of gossip. We sped through it all. The video above shows part of this drive; if you look at it, watch the villages on the sides of the road. The large bridge that we cross is over the Zuari river. In one drive we crossed both of the main rivers of Goa!

Wild Iris

At altitudes above 1.5 Kilometers, we kept seeing Iris growing wild on the slopes. Dilsher had used these local flowers as borders in his hotel. I sat down with my camera and took several shots of these elegant flowers. It is interesting to see the buds open up. The petals are rolled and twisted inside the buds, as you can see.

When I read up about this, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is called the Graceful Himalayan Iris. A lovely name for a lovely flower. The entry in Flowers of India says that it can be found at altitudes of between 1.8 and 4 kilometers. I’m sure these borders are a little elastic, because I definitely saw some at 1.6 Kilometers. In its wild state it grows in the open, so gardeners will probably have to make sure that it is not planted in shade.

Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.

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.