Summer in a village in the Marche, that’s a memory that stays with me. Maybe because it was a complete internet detox, since the telephone line to the farmhouse had fallen down in winter. The result was that I walked a lot, across the lovely countryside. The Marche borders the more touristy province of Emilio-Romagna, shares many things with it, but has the advantage of being less fashionable.
Daily walks through the countryside gave me beautiful and unexpected views. It was early in summer, and the wildflowers were still in bloom. But it was late enough that the harvesters had already begun to rove over fields, taking the wheat and leaving a scatter of large bundles of hay to dry in the summer sunlight.
The countryside is dotted with little treasures: small villages, several of them medieval or older. After all, this region was at the center of the Roman empire, and was later fought over by the Byzantines and the various tribes.
Summer in the countryside also brings other treasures in plenty. I found that it was easy to indulge in my taste for photographing millifauna, the little creatures which are attracted to wildflowers. I’m happy I went back to these photos. They bring back great memories.
False news of an impending insect apocalypse has long been debunked. Insects are not declining globally any faster than everything else. On a drive through Manas NP I took a few photos of the colourful insects that I saw in passing. The bee in the featured photo had beautiful wings of a kind I’d never seen before. Most insect colours are not due to pigments, but due to nanostructures on the wings or chitin, but they are equally tuned by evolution. Some time I need to find more about why and how insects use colour.
Exactly this issue has been studied extensively in butterflies. Bright colours in butterflies and caterpillars signal to predators that they are poisonous. This gives rise to a whole evolutionary chain of cheats: mimics which are not poisonous, but evolve colours which advertise, falsely, that they are. This drab looking butterfly, a blue crow (Euploea mulciber) seems to be an exception, because all crows and tigers are poisonous. But when it opens its wings you can see a deep blue colour in the forewing. Still pretty drab, you may think. But that’s because you are not a bird. Birds have colour receptors for ultraviolet in their eyes, and to them this butterfly would be a dazzling blue, advertising how poisonous it really is.
And then there were the flies. An iridescent blue-green blowfly (family Calliphoridae) landed on our jeep and crawled over the guard rails. I’m sure we’d deposited our sweat on it, and this was busily lapping up the salt. You would expect jungles to be full of blowflies. Their maggots feed on carrion and excrement, and there is no dearth of those in a jungle. The striped black and yellow insect which hovered around us gave me a bit of a scare. I thought it was a wasp and tried to bat it away, until I found that it was a hover fly (family Syrphidae). This nectar drinking pollinator mimics a wasp’s colouration for safety from predators. It wouldn’t work unless there were wasps in the jungle. Although I didn’t see one, the hover fly told us that they must be around. Traveling by jeep through a forest you miss most insects. I was fortunate to have at least caught a few of the more colourful ones.
Monsoon in Goa: an advertising catchline from the 80s and 90s, when the hoteliers decided to fill up the empty rooms left after the party crowd disappeared. Winter is a washout with all the music and booze on the beach, so you might as well try to see the other Goa in the magical months of monsoon. This is one time when there is a truth beyond the lies of advertising.
The year I took these photos I realized that Goa is a wonderful place to observe the monsoon as it comes in to the Western Ghats. The wonderful plants and insects, the frogs and the moths, straggle down to Goa, to meet the birds and crabs of the coast. You can go for long walks, or drive to lonely spots, with your camera and catch some of the beauties that you might otherwise see on treks through the Ghats. You can lead a solitary life if you wish, broken by exchanging passing greetings with the fisherfolk who are the original inhabitants of this place, or long conversations with the university types over a strongly Portuguese-influenced lunch.
Or you could just stay at home on rainy days, reading, eating the sausages or dried fish in boiled rice, stepping out into the garden on the beach between spells of rain to capture the play of rain and sun on vegetation. It is a life to dream about in these constrained years.
If I cannot go out into nature, surely I can entice it into visiting me. Leaving balcony lights on at night yields a bonanza. In the morning, visitors still cling to walls. A pepper moth chooses to sit on a part of the wall where it is hard to see.
On first sight this bug (order Coleoptera) looked black. But when I peered at it, I found its colouring more subtle, dark ashy stripes over a dark reddish brown. Beautiful, when you peer down at the millimeter scale.
Right out in the open was a lacewing (order Neuroptera). I guess these feisty creatures are not afraid of anything of their size. Perhaps spiders and birds are different, but my balcony has not attracted a spider yet.
Five years ago we spent a single night in Sohra, and regretted that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. The town was a small and charming place, and the single hotel was a traditional cottage perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a village and a valley below that. A walk to the nearest living bridge would take us through the village.
When engineered structures are living objects, it was appropriate that the place was teeming with life. In one night I probably saw more species of moths, beetles, and other insects than I remembered seeing in the rest of my life. The most interesting was the stick insect, the first I’d ever seen. I had a hard time figuring out where the third pair of legs of this insect was. Note how often a moth has a substantially smaller insect nearby. I wished I had a microscope attachment to look at these millimeter sized living creatures. The insects that I photographed were strange and beautiful. I’m sure that stranger and equally beautiful things would emerge if we could zoom into these smaller beings.
The post has the word “remembered”, because I went back now to a place I was enchanted by. There is construction all across Sohra. I saw no moths this time around. This ties in with a recent report of a worldwide decline in insects. It is shocking because Meghalaya is at the edge of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. A decline in insect population drives a collapse in plants, and animals higher in the food chain.
I love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.
One of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.
The next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and various beans were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.
The impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.
If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write “The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein.” I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.
This lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all. Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.
The last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.
As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.