Camera or phone camera?

I made the trip to Shillong by an airline which charges high and behaves like a cheap airline. The baggage rules were so awful that if it hadn’t given the fastest routing to my destination I wouldn’t have taken it. How could I cut down my baggage? I cut down much, and, after much thought I decided to sacrifice my camera. I’d used both my camera and phone extensively during my trip to China and realized that a smartphone camera is pretty good.

On my phone the sensor which captures the image is about the same size as that in my camera. Phone cameras use CMOS chips, which are more noisy and somewhat less sensitive than the CCD sensors common in cameras. My phone has a fixed wide angle f2.0 lens. The relatively wide aperture means that it focuses a large fraction of the light that it receives on to the sensor. However the lens is tiny, so the amount of light it captures is very much smaller than what the camera gets. The combination of small lens and CMOS sensor means that low-light or strong contrasts should come out badly, if everything else were the same.

But other things are not equal. Phone manufacturers have paid more attention to modern computational imaging than almost every camera manufacturer. As a result, I often find that the out-of-box image from my phone is better than that from my camera. Even image stabilization on my phone seems to be better than in my camera. For those who care, I could pull RAW image out of my phone if I wanted. (Why would I, when phones have more versatile software than commercial image processors?) In defense of cameras, I must say that my camera was launched almost three years before my phone. Phones and cameras launched in the same year may compare differently. Of course, my images are only shared with friends or posted on blogs. If you are a professional photographer your standards will be very different.

So, with much second thoughts, I decided that on a trip with the clan I would probably not do the extreme photography that I might otherwise. So maybe I could leave my camera behind. Here are two photos that I took with my phone camera on this trip. The panorama in the featured photo is no better or worse than what I’d expected to get. It has no details in the shadows, and the telephone tower in the distance is definitely blurred. On the other hand, the butterfly has come out significantly better than I’d expected. Although the contrast is high, but the phone has captured texture both on the lit and dark sides of the stone. The image is sharp, and there is no difficulty in recognizing the Large Yeoman.

If only my phone camera had not been broken by the latest software update from the vendor, I would have ditched my camera for it more often, at least when I travel on work.

Gobsmacked by extreme weather

As I read the news about the weak polar vortex which is responsible for the abnormal, and abnormally long, cold weather as far south as Mumbai, I was reminded of the time when the tail end of the world’s most extreme weather hit me in the face, and I didn’t recognize it till later. A few years ago we visited Meghalaya at the end of the monsoon and decided to drive down from Shillong to Mawsynram. The village of Mawsynram is known to every Indian from their school days, since it is supposed to be the rainiest place on earth. It usually receives between 11 and 12 meters (yes, that’s meters; 430 to 470 inches if you prefer) of rain a year In 1985 it received 26 meters of rain (over 1000 inches) of rain.

The monsoon was just over in the rest of the country, but we’d seen storms and heavy rain while flying in to Shillong. I asked The Family, “What’s there to see apart from the village?” We consulted Raju, who was driving us, the web, and the hotel, and found a couple of cave systems and waterfalls. Meghalaya is famous for caves and waterfalls; although they are everywhere, the more famous ones are worth seeing. The recommendations were enough to tip me over into going along with The Family’s plan.

A heavy mist descended as we drove along the Shillong-Mawsynram road. The surface was pretty bad too (at least then) so between the mist and the road, Raju had to slow down quite a bit. We stopped a bit at a Khasi sacred grove to look at monoliths raised to the memories of ancestors, but after that the mist began to get heavier. Usually we could see a little way beyond the edge of the road (that’s how we spotted the group of cows having their mid-morning snack). Now and then we would hit a pocket which was fairly clear, like the stream in the photo above.

By the time we got to the Mawjymbuin caves it was well past the normal time for lunch and we were enveloped in very thick mist. The caves are meant to be open all day, but the person who mans the gate and collects tickets was not at his place. We walked in hoping to see him on the way out and realized that the mist had cut off all light inside the cave. We could vaguely see exotic shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, but there definitely wasn’t enough light to negotiate the slippery rocks. We walked around the caves outside, looking at the pools of water large enough to serve as swimming pools. A light drizzle had begun, and we came out. There was only one restaurant nearby, and it could serve jadoh, Khasi for rice and meat, or ja with eggs.

I looked out of a window at the back of the hut, and saw that we were at the side of a small stream. The fog was too dense to make out clearly what was on the other side. It looked like a wooded slope. As I took the photo, The Family discovered a wonderful sight out of another window: a spider’s web on which the mist was condensing. We had our meal, and a good strong chai. The lady who served us food suggested another cave system which wasn’t too far. Raju knew of it, but said he preferred not to drive in this light. We paid up, thanked the lady, and left. It was a wasted day as far as tourism went, we thought as we left. Over the years The Family and I came to realize that it was not. In the rainiest place on earth getting heavy cloud cover and a drizzle when the rest of the country was bone dry was exactly what we should have recognized as a great experience. Fortunately, we had photos which could jog our memories.

I hadn’t worried about the rains in Megahalaya for years, but recently, while I tried to read some papers on the geology of the Himalayas, I came across an image which explains this well. You see that Meghalaya lies on the so-called Shillong plateau, a 1-2 kilometers high plateau that juts out of the surrounding lowlands. When moisture-bearing winds come off the Bay of Bengal and sweep up north, this is the first rise that they hit. The Bay of Bengal is a warm sea, so the air over it moist even outside the monsoon. Only during cold winters does the moisture content of the air over the bay drop to a point where the southern parts of Meghalaya (land of the clouds in Sanskrit) is not full of megh. Several places on this plateau are among the rainiest parts of the world for this simple reason.

Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

No maga dog

While wandering around the Mawlai Phudmuri area of Shillong, I was complaining bitterly about our inability to find local music venues in town. The winding road was bounded by high walls. There was a gate in one wall and a sign on it said “Three Little Birds Bistro”. I’m always ready for a coffee, so I stepped through the gate and saw a long low building with a large portrait of Bob Marley painted on it. Could this be what I was looking for?

A young girl behind the counter said that I couldn’t get a coffee since lunch service had already started. The bistro part of the shed was quite empty, but through an open window behind the girl I could see another half of the establishment which was indeed full of diners. There was clearly no more conversation to be had. I stepped back out and found that The Family and the nieces had found props for instagram photos of themselves. I was briefly roped into helping them out, but soon I left to walk around the property.

There was another door to the bistro and this proclaimed reggae even more forcefully. Just as we were about to leave I decided to go in again and ask about music. There was an older lady at the counter now, and she said “Yes, we play music in the evening.” That was promising. I asked “Live?” She said “No, from the computer.” I smiled a goodbye. This was disappointing again. As I was leaving I saw a shed off to one side. I haven’t seen hay drying inside a town in a long time, so I moved that way to take a photo.

There was movement in the hay. As I approached I found a litter of really young pups. They were still unsteady on their legs. The mother looked at me and moved a bit to be able to defend her litter. I didn’t touch the pups, although they were adorable and just the age when you want to pick them up. These were no maga dogs. Nor was there any reggae. I left.

Love me two times, baby

Coming in to Shillong from Guwahati the road passed over the dam on the Umiam river. We had a quick glimpse of the enormous lake before the Clan Bus turned on to the bridge. On one side of the dam I could see large pipes threaded through the channel of the old river. They lead to a power generating station (approximately) 150 meters lower down. I was reminded of the time, five years ago, when we’d stood on the far side of the lake and watched the sun go down over a lonely fisherman in his boat (featured photo). The sun was going down again (photo below), although the day was not as spectacular as the previous time I’d come here. This second time round I found the place quite as charming as I remembered.

This 220 square kilometer lake was created by damming the gorge of the Umiam river in the early 1960s. That was a more idealistic, more naive, time. Little was known about the smaller questions of geology: how much silt is carried by rivers, how future deforestation would affect waters, how often small earthquakes occur. The inauguration of the project, eventually costing USD 15 million, on January 9, 1960 by Nehru signalled the opening of the flood gates of US aid to India, in the form of PL-480 funds. Across the world new dams were being erected. The previous day Gamal Abdel Nasser had inaugurated the Aswan high dam. In those days engineers and planners didn’t think of the rapid silting of these dams, or the incredible amounts of bio-waste which would be discharged, untreated, into the rivers of the plateau. The north-east of India is also geologically unstable, being caught between the Himalyan arc in the north and the Indo-Burmese arc in the west. In 1897 there was an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale; the Shillong plateau rose up by about 11 meters (yes, meters!) as a result. A dam would not survive an earthquake of this kind. Smaller quakes, of the kind which happen a couple of times a decade also call for regular maintenance of the dam.

The Clan Bus stopped at a spot designated as a viewpoint. This meant, of course, that most of the view was obscured by shacks and temporary structures built by people who are eager to sell you tea and snacks. We walked down the bank until we could get an unobstructed view of the lake. The calm surface was broken by the wakes of speedboats; apparently the lake has become popular as a sports destination. What a strange thing to do to the water supply, I thought. That was before I discovered that the lake’s water is so polluted that it would require heavy cleaning to be potable. I took this last photo, like the first one, five years ago. I found that I love to stand here and stare at the calm waters of the lake, watching the sun go down. But this calmness is deceptive.

A curiosity shop

Four of us climbed off the Clan Bus and meandered into an incredible shop in Shillong. From outside it was not clear what the shop contained. The Family peered at the window, which was full of blankets and little figurines. The clay figures piqued her interest, so we walked into the shop. Very little light filtered into the place, but the little that came in lit up a trove of marvels: tribal clothes, metal and glass chains, arrows!

There are three major tribes in Megahalaya: the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo. The tribes had maintained independence from the Ahom kingdom, and lay on the periphery of the sultanate of Sylhet. With the fall of Bengal in 1757 CE, the Jaintia and Khasi tribes expanded into parts of the plains of Assam and Bengal. By the end of the 18th century CE, British interest in the limestone quarries of modern-day Meghalaya drew them into this region. Following the discovery of wild tea in Assam in 1821, and the British-Burma war of 1824, the British East India Company entered in force into this region. The city of Shillong, in the middle of a plateau raised over the north-eastern shield of India, was a creation of the British administration. It needed an administrative capital for the north-eastern frontier, which it then called Assam, and created this town in 1829, making it a municipality in 1878. In 1972, when Assam and Meghalaya were separated, it became the capital of Meghalaya.

A young man came out of the house behind the shop and sat down at a counter full of feathers and began chatting with us as he worked on a head-dress of feathers. I asked him which tribe would use the things he had. This was the best question I asked, because he gave me a complete run down on the differences between the headgear, clothes, and arrows of the three tribes of Megahalaya. A quick and limited reply is that the headgear is nearly the same; the length of the feathers is the main difference between the usage of the different tribes. We pottered around the enchanting shop. Christian symbols have been incorporated into tribal life today, since the proselytising British rule. However, more ancient tribal customs, like matrilineal inheritance, remain intact. The man was working in his mother’s shop, and would eventually leave when he got married.

All was calm, but not quiet

To say that we arrived in Shillong on Christmas Day would be to stretch definitions a little. We left Guwahati airport on Christmas morning, but the Clan Bus made very slow progress. It was after five in the evening when we rolled up to Laitumkhrah. Not only had the sun set, it was pitch dark on the road. The Family was not going to let the family loll back on their cushions. We had tea and broke open the Christmas hamper we had bought from Bandra. Then, suitably ballasted by the wonderful plum-cake, we set out to the well-lit cathedral on Laitumkhrah main road.

The grounds were bustling. A good fraction of the population of Meghalaya is Christian, and the area we were living in not only had this cathedral but also a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church, and a Mizo church. We passed bunches of impeccably dressed young people hanging out in the church grounds. I spotted tea being served and made a beeline for it. I can’t overdose on caffeine. A long queue shuffled forward quickly, and I soon had a steaming cup in my hand. What was that flavour? Niece Tatu identified it, “Bacon, isn’t it?” Everyone clutched their cups and set out to explore the place. I stuck to the little chapel on the lowest level (featured photo). A large statue of St. Mary dominated one wall; this must be St. Mary’s Chapel, I brilliantly deduced. A priest stood near the entrance smiling at people and shaking hands with parishioners. Niece Moja plonked down on a pew and started catching up on her messages.

I planted myself outside the chapel. While The Family and a few others went to explore the cathedral on the upper level, the rest of us took photos of each other in different combinations. It turned out that the cathedral was closed, but there was enough of interest to see. I looked for a refill of the bacon tea. Niece Mbili was game. We found some biscuits to go with it. The place looked cheerful with the lights and people, but there wasn’t much happening. It seemed to me that families were coming by to greet the priest, chatting briefly with acquaintances, and leaving. Younger people hung out a little longer before leaving in groups. Soon we had our fill of the lights, gathered stragglers, and left. We were faintly disappointed. We’d expected buskers and music groups, but maybe we were a day late for that. Luckily we had walked, because the traffic was a nightmare. The next day was going to be long.

(All photos by The Family; it seems that while taking photos of people I forgot to take photos of the place we were in.)

Ward’s lake

On my family trip to Shillong I was apprehensive about two things. First, I’d made a conscious decision not to carry my camera, but take photos only with my phone. This was going to be quite acceptable for photos of people, but I didn’t know how it would work out for everything else. Secondly, with almost twenty people in the group, with a spread of seventy years between the youngest and the oldest, I was not sure how slow each stop would be. Both questions were put to test in our first outing in Shillong. We started from the center: Ward’s lake.

It takes time to buy tickets to anything when you have to make sure that everyone who has a camera is paid for, only once, and that the gatekeeper is convinced that the number of tickets equals the number of heads. While this was going on I stood with the Youngest Niece and examined the forbidding set of rules. Would we be able to maintain decency while not fishing? The Youngest Niece went around calling her older cousins, and they all had a good time inventing possible new rules as they walked in.

I was happy with the depth of field of my phone. It allowed me to have foreground details in good focus while having a deep field for landscape photos, as in the featured photo, or the one with ducks, above. This was perfect for Ward’s Lake. The center of Shillong is a well planned area, with the vaguely bean shaped lake at the lowest point. It was named after Sir William Erskine Ward, who, during his second stint as the Chief Commissioner of the erstwhile Assam state, initiated plans for this lake. It was constructed in 1894. The confusing proliferation of alternative names is explained well by a review on Tripadvisor, “The preparatory work was initiated by Colonel Henry Hopkinson, the Commissioner of Assam in 1872 (1861–1874). In the early years it was known as Hopkinson’s Tank. Local people also refer to the lake as Nan Palok, after the Executive Engineer, Mr. Fitzwilliam Thomas Pollock. The story goes that the lake was initially dug up by a bored prisoner, by the name of Jismot Chyne who wanted to kill time and who observed water while digging.”

I couldn’t find anything about the history of the sturdy little wooden bridge which crosses the lake across its middle. On one side of the bridge I could see a whole mass of pedal boats lined up. At this time of the morning one couldn’t take the boats; we would have to come back in the afternoon if we wanted to pedal ourselves around the lake. It took time for everyone in the group to finish taking photos from the bridge and gather on the other side. Another twenty minutes then went in taking photos of each other, and of the group. I was beginning to get an answer to my second question. As the photography tapered off, people started disappearing on walks around the lake.

I had a couple of things to try out. The photo above was taken to convince myself that bird photography was not possible with the phone. If you are really interested, you could search in the patch of darkness below the red plants to see the bird I was trying to take a photo of. Or you could take my word for the fact that I saw an Eurasian tree sparrow here. The long depth of field keeps the leaf litter in the foreground as sharp as the restaurant at the back.

On the other hand, with a little experimenting I could establish that the phone also allows me to take photos with an incredibly small depth of focus. If my nearest camera were not a couple of thousand kilometers away, I wouldn’t have tried this experiment. Satisfied with the result, I followed others in a walk around the lake. On our visit to Shillong six years ago, The Family and I had spent about fifteen minutes walking around the lake, enjoying the sun. This time around it took about thrice as long. The morning was fruitful, I’d answered both the questions I started with.

Social games

A game of carrom in progress near the Resh hot springs in Sikkim

When you travel across the eastern Himalayas you cannot help but notice the popularity of carrom. In Thimphu we found a street lined with carrom boards after dark, each board had a game going on. It’s hard to be excited by a game of carrom unless you have been exposed to it since your childhood. In the streets of Thimphu no game was without a little band of appreciative spectators. The photo above was taken at mid-day near the Reshi hot springs in Sikkim. We saw similar scenes in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Assam, and even as far away as Tripura.

Football is tremendously popular as a sport in the hills. One can understand that in the narrow ledges on hills it might be difficult to kick a ball around in an impromptu game of football. Cricket is not very popular; presumably a boundary would not be hard to score. Archery is a widely practised competitive sport in the hills. But these are not games you sit down to with a bunch of friends.

Chinese pavements are full of games which often attract large audiences. Sometimes they seem to be strategic board games of various kinds, but often they are games of luck: cards, for example. The Chinese way of life involves accepting luck as a cosmological principle. Perhaps the Himalayan cultures, with their guardian deities, are different?

Rock concert in Meghalaya

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On a really wet day we drove out from Shillong to Mawsynram, a village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The village is known as the rainiest place in the world. We couldn’t see a thing because of the rain.

On the drive back The Family remembered a rock concert which was supposed to be held in a large ground on the way. There was no way we could miss it: the highway was jammed with cars going to the concert. Eventually we made our way there. The music was pretty much what local rock bands produce: okay most of the time, dipping below now and then, and soaring sometimes. The rock concert attracts a lot of young locals, and the major politicians. Between songs there were occasional speeches in Khasi.

Since we didn’t know the language, we felt free to walk over to the food and drinks stalls. It was late and they had run out of dohneiiong: pork cooked with sesame seeds. We got some jadoh: the basic rice and meat, with some wonderful soya chutney. Raju, our driver, told us that the rock concert was held every year, and was started not too long back by the local member of the Parliament. That explained the speeches.

We walked back to listen to the music again. We’d spent a long time on the road, and the traffic had not improved. Listening to the music was a better option than spending time in the traffic, we thought. Raju was sure that staying longer would not help. He was right. We spent a long time stuck in traffic on the highway afterwards. But we had all eaten and enjoyed the vigourous music.