Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

Midweek Mobile 17

In the last sixteen weeks I’ve said more or less everything that I can say at this time about taking photos with a phone. So I will end this series today with an upbeat message. The featured photo of a Yellow-tailed tussock moth (Somena scintillans). The light was good, and the camera has managed to put together a lovely photo of the moth. This is not very easy, since it sits with its wings folded into a high peak. To get a photo like this with another camera, I would have to do a bit of focus stacking. With its multiple fixed lenses, the phone has done that, and given me an image which is as sharp at the peak of its wings as it is at its hairy legs. The colour is also rendered beautifully.

What the phone did here in good light is possibly the future. I hope that in the next few years large sensors become cheaper. If that happens, then I’m sure in a few years we will get used to taking photos like this under all light conditions with the little multipurpose box and tracking device in our pockets. I would like to end this series of posts with that hope for the future.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Dreams die

[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.

Harold Robbins, in The Betsy

My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.

It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.

Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers

The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.

An aircraft against the IBM building in Chicago

Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.

Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers

Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.

The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands

Harold Robbins, in Stilletto

Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.

Bebelplatz with bicycles

People are not like a business.

Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me

Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.

We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow

Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher

China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?

Favourite things?

Raindrops on roses

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
    To talk of many things:

from The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll

Walks in the Sahyadris during the monsoon count high among my favourite things. This is perhaps the most difficult time of the year for climbers and trekkers, since the rocks are wet and slippery. But I am neither a climber nor a trekker. I walk with my camera and catch the seasonal burgeoning of flowers. Some, like the balsam in the photo (Impatiens balsamina), are common enough across the world, others flower only in special microclimates for a few weeks. It’s a different world, and one I’ve grown fond of visiting every year.

Whiskers on kittens

The jungles of the extreme northeast of India, the region caught between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is not one I’ve really explored. In a two week trip to Tripura many years back, I was lucky to find a clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) in a hidden spot below us in a ravine. It woke from a nap, gave us a glance and went back to sleep.

Bright copper kettles

It took much planning to actually cross the border into Myanmar. Of the many things I enjoyed in that unfortunate country, one was the street food. Here is a photo of a street food stall in Yangon with people at lunch. Everyone has a large kettle full of tea on the table in front of them. I think it is refilled for free if you want. The tea habits are similar to those in China, you pay for the leaves, and get endless servings of hot water

Warm woolen mittens

Spring in Bhutan oscillates between warm and cool. In the courtyard of the storied temple of Kyichu Lhakhang in Bhutan a group of older women had gathered for a social prayer in the late morning. They gave us quizzical glances as we walked in. I was warm from a walk, but the women wore warms, and all of them had rosaries in their hands.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

The sight of luggage being loaded on to aircrafts as I wait for my flight is perhaps my most favourite thing of all. The slight annoyance at the long time I will have to sit still in a chair, and the anticipation of what I might see as I step off the plane at the other end, are what drives this blog. And it all starts with the sight of baggage.

Oxygen

We flew in to Leh. In an hour we’d gone from sea level to an altitude of 3500 meters. As we stepped out of the pressurized cabin, The Family and I scanned ourselves for signs of trouble. None, as we retrieved our baggage and looked for our ride home. None, as we chatted with the driver about local food. None, as we checked into the hotel. None, as we admired the view from the balcony and took the featured photo. The Family was not surprised. She’d recovered from her flu faster than me, and had tested herself by climbing the stairs to our high-floor apartment twice a day. I had barely recovered, and was unable to tackle the stairs in Mumbai before leaving. She’d also started on a prophylactic course of Acetazolamide (Diamox) against mountain sickness, something I was unable to do. So I was a little surprised.

We’d set aside the first couple of days for acclimatization. We were not planning on stepping out of the hotel on the first day. We decided to go down for lunch. The restaurant was empty. It seemed that we were the only silly tourists taking these precautions. We ordered simple food. Eating multiple small meals and taking a lot of fluid is recommended. I was telling The Family that we were probably being over-cautious when a sudden headache hit me.

It became rapidly worse. I took the lift to our room, and by the time I hit the bed my fingers were tingling. The air at this height contain only about 65% of the oxygen you get at sea level. Lowered oxygen in your blood requires your heart to pump harder. If you are careless, this could lead to increased blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack. The tingling in your fingers and toes is a blaring alarm that tells you to lie down immediately. The Family took out our oxymeter, and found that I was in crisis. When you are flat on your back, the heart has a easier time pumping blood to your brain. I concentrated on yoga breathing: 4 counts in, hold for a count of 4, out till a count of 8. My pulse slowed. The tingling disappeared. A load eased off my chest. My oxygen reading crept up and my pulse rate dropped to the active workout level.

This was a wonderful hotel. Room service came in to set up bedside dining. The manager told The Family that he could set up oxygen for me any time we wanted. They contacted doctors, a couple, who were in our hotel. The owner came to talk to The Family; assured her that the hospital in Leh was fully equipped to deal with this problem, and he could get us there whenever needed. All this was in my peripheral consciousness. I kept on the yoga breathing until my oxygen and pulse were back to the extreme side of normal. Then I could sit up and eat.

I did not reach a crisis again; bodies adjust to heights. By late afternoon I could join The Family on the balcony for short periods. We had taken a full cardiac checkup before the trip. She’d been working on her blood iron levels, and it was paying off. Her vitals never went into danger. I had a slower time adjusting. The edema headache and the racing heart never happened again. It took three days before my resting oxygen level and pulse were back to the level I had at home. But once there, my body maintained that balance even at an altitude of 5500 meters. If we’d driven up from Srinagar or Manali, it would have taken as many days as it did, and I would have adjusted equally well. Also, the view would have been better. I did not save any time by flying in. Once it was clear that I was stable, The Family could explore Leh. So there was that.

Later, The Family said we should have come here thirty years ago. Perhaps we should have. Women’s bodies warn of time’s winged chariot drawing near, I don’t have that perspective. But I was immensely pleased a week later, when we crossed Khardung La a second time, and a group of young men watching us from the top of a slope we shuffled up said that we were an inspiration to them. I could have told them that though they cannot make their sun stand still, they can yet make him run. But I was grinning inside at their compliment. And I was out of breath.

Thank you guys, you made my day. I wish I’d had your grace when I was younger.

Talking of which, here is Oxygen The Music whom I found on YouTube

The Doors: One More Time

Your ballroom days are over, baby
Night is drawing near
Shadows of the evening
Crawl across the years

Regensburg, Germany

Yeah, walk across the floor with a
Flower in your hand
Trying to tell me no one understands

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, India

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes
Gonna’ make it, baby, in our prime
Come together one more time
Get together one more time

Jorasanko, Kolkata, India

Hey, come on, honey
You go on along home and wait for me, baby
I’ll be there in just a little while

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

You see, I gotta go out in this car
With these people and
Get together one more time

Amer Fort, India

Love my girl
She lookin’ good, lookin’ real good
Love ya, come on

by The Doors

Featured photo: car doors, vintage Ford at the Mumbai Vintage Car Rally

Flying barefoot past Everest

A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.

The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.

I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Travel is awful

View of Tawang town

There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.

Bird photography in Arunachal with the wrong lens

The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.

Fountain in Hamburg when the temperature was below freezing

I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.

If you focus on details you find that Rome’s most famous fountains require cleaning

Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.

Contrary to what brochures say, Goa is not full of locals busy having a holiday

Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.

Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.

The most interesting thing in a village is always the foreigner

Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.

It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.

Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?