A long long long long drive through Kumaon

Another long drive after breakfast, another day of watching Kumaon pass by without being in the place. If we go to Munsiyari again, we will plan a longer stop there to balance out the travel time. But for now I had to work at connecting to Kumaon as it sped past me. The camera is a traveller’s best friend. After lunch I began to photograph everything, milestones, trees, trucks, people.

All across Kumaon schools were open. Such a big difference between that and most states. It is good to go to school; most youngsters like it, and it serves a purpose. As long as COVID case counts are very low, I think this should continue. But it is hard to enforce masking discipline on teenagers, as you see in this photo. I don’t know whether it is possible to keep schools open once case counts rise.

With the pandemic job losses, it is common to see scenes like this. Young men who would otherwise been at work sit idle. The old lady in the featured photo is perhaps lucky in her own way. She carries a bagful of vegetables, meaning she has money but no help at home. I guess her sons are away in a city, still earning money and sending some home for her.

I can try to read small towns, but I have a harder time reading villages. All I could notice here was a public tap where people gather to fill water. Doesn’t the local administration run water pipes to individual houses? How could you then have individual toilets, as the government has been trying to encourage for a few years? The guy across the road from the trio looks uncomfortable. Why? I can’t answer these questions.

I can read even less into work places like this. Terracing for agriculture, is that cooperative work or individual? Do landowners convert their own sloping pieces of land to terraces, or do villages do the terracing together, and different people have different sections of them? is the stone wall a property boundary or something a terrace in the making? Why is hay not always stacked near the house? After all you are hardly likely to let your cattle loose around your wheat fields.

Houses raise other questions. In this cold place why would you want an exposed verandah on an upper storey? The wind must be strong because the main door is sheltered behind a jutting wall. There is a garden to sit in during these months. The part that you can see from the road seems to continue past the corner of the pink building which you see behind.

The road opens up now and then, and from the speeding car I can get a glimpse of larger vistas. You can see briefly the topography of the region, how villages and fields cling to the sides of small hills protected by higher cliffs. No one want to live next to a river. They can flood unexpectedly, and then the surging waters and the huge boulders they bring down from mountains can be dangerous. I find it easier to read terrain than the organization of villages.

We passed through a land which was quite literally burning. There was smoke in the air, which made it difficult to take sharp photos. I took this frame anyway; it is hard to compose from a moving car, and the light was low. But I liked the low buildings. They seem to burrow into the earth for warmth.

In Bageshwar we stopped to fill the tank. I welcomed this opportunity to stretch my legs. I wandered a few steps forward to photograph this large gate. It must lead to a temple. The jugadi mix of styles that you see here would not be visible in Tamil Nadu. Religious art in southern India has a very refined aesthetic, constantly evolving, but it would not do this. I don’t know which will remain vital three hundred years from today.

Food by Naini’s Tal

The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).

Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Our daily mask

While putting away the washing a new world order came into focus. I suddenly realized that masks have now become just another thing to wear before you leave the house. Most of my masks are two layers of cotton; in the heat and humidity of Mumbai anything heavier is unbearable when I’m out. I wear better masks only when I’m forced to be in an enclosed space with many people for a long time, like a doctor’s clinic. But what is surprising is how quickly they have become interesting.

I started to wear masks three years ago, when construction in the neighbourhood threw up so much dust that outdoor exercise became a minor health hazard. Then they had to be ordered online, and were uniformly black, grey, or dark blue. As a result, I had a packet of masks with me in the fearful days when everyone was looking at instructions for DIY masks.

And now? You have to have several masks in your drawer because each can be used only once before you wash it, and you have to discard ones which have gone through twenty five washings or so. Every clothes shop has a rackful of them, in a choice of colours, in cotton or silk, in two or three layers. You can get them block printed, or hand painted, in handloom, or raw silk. The Family is hoping to find some with Madhubani or Warli paintings. They are well on their way to becoming fashion accessories.

I’ll know that the new normal has arrived when I see the first jeweled masks on film stars or in a society wedding. I would like that: the final stage, acceptance.

An evening drive in COVID times

Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.

At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.

I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.

Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.

A walk in the rain

I woke up once very early in the morning, listened to the sound of a hard rain and fell back into sleep. When I woke up finally, the rain had stopped, and it was bright outside, but without a break in the clouds. The Family had finished her morning chai and gone out for a walk. When my last meeting got over in the evening I changed quickly, put on my mask and raincoat, and went out for a walk. I’ve not had a long walk for several weeks, and I found I was itching to go although it was raining.

Problems arose immediately. My glasses began to fog up because of the mask. That usually signals a bad mask, because where your breath can get out, contaminated air can come in. I made a mental note to try a different mask the next time. But it was raining, so there was really no one on the streets. For now the mask would suffice. A wet mask is no good at filtering, but my raincoat has a long hood and protects the mask quite well. Unfortunately the hood falls over my face, so I can only see the ground in front of me. With fogged glasses and an overhanging hood, I was really glad that there was no traffic and no walkers either.

It was a difficult walk, but I enjoyed this season’s first long walk in the rain. Unfortunately, in this COVID-19 year I can’t do the usual thing of getting wet in the rain on a long walk, but at least I can go on a walk. What good is a monsoon if you don’t go out in it?

Dhammayangyi temple

Entrance to the Dhammayangyi temple in BaganI really liked the temples of Bagan, so I’ll keep coming back to them. The temple which charmed me most was the Dhammayangyi temple. You see a photo of it from the entrance archway here. It has been damaged in the recent earthquake, but not too badly. One can still explore this temple. The layout of the temple is like a cross, with the main Buddha images facing the cardinal direction, just as the older Ananda temple.Detail on an entryway arch to the Dhammayangyi temple However, the effect is completely different, it feels lighter and more airy. The plaster work over arches is lovely, although not in good repair any more (see the photo here). Most of all, the Buddha images have changed from the distinctly Indian looks in the Ananda temple to the more Burmese faces and bodies shown in the featured image.

Paintings on the walls of the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

There are paintings on all the walls. They are faded and details are hard to see, as you can tell from the photo above. But when I could make out details and colours, they looked wonderful. I hope there is an effort to restore them.A Buddha statue in the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan We noticed paintings on the wall behind several of the statues in the main alcoves, and more around those in niches inside the corridor. The first Buddhas we saw (featured image) are partially gilded. However, I liked the one shown here. The white face and the red robe look more serene. However, gilding statues of the Buddha is so ingrained in the local culture that I’m sure when the temple is restored, these statues will also be gilded. Today, with the temple in its somewhat neglected state, the number of tourists is not large. There is a sense of quiet and peace in the temple. We sat in an airy window looking at the greenery outside for a while before moving on.

Puppets for sale outside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

The lack of tourists translates into a smaller number of shops outside the temple. Although the numbers are small, the handicrafts I saw on display were lovely. I liked some of the wooden masks on display, and even enquired about the price, but forgot to buy any.Zaw Zaw the painter inside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan Inside the outer wall of the temple there were spreading banyan trees. A large number of puppets hung from the lower branches of the tree. It was interesting to walk among these puppets and try to figure out the differences between these traditional characters. Inside the temple there were people who had paintings on display. The first person we came across spoke just enough English to negotiate a price. He could not tell us too much about the paintings. The next person (photo alongside) was called Zaw Zaw, and he could communicate better. He explained that the paintings are made with sand stuck on cloth and then coloured. The paintings were traditional designs, although he would vary the colours.