A hard day’s drive

When our flight was canceled we took a taxi as quickly as possible. The day’s drive was through the plains just before the land rises into the Himalayas, the hottest part of the country. The heat was already bad enough that the air conditioning in the car laboured to keep the temperature bearable. From Dehra Dun it is just a short while to Haridwar.

Haridwar was hosting the Kumbh Mela during this time. If I’d passed so close to it in a normal year I would have spent time photographing pilgrims, but this year I thought it prudent to avoid it. As our car sped past Haridwar we saw the tent cities that had been erected on both sides of the Ganga to accommodate pilgrims. It wasn’t a particularly holy day, so they were mostly empty. But there were people coming for a dip in the holy river anyway. Farmers had come here with their tractors, family in open trailers with mattresses and changes of clothes. Other groups had elected to come in minibuses, which normally hold about 15-25 people. Some walked. Others looked for taxis and autos. It was a hot day, notice how that family trying to flag down an auto stands in the shade of an enormous gate which welcomes travelers to the Mela. As our car sped by I had a pang that any photographer will feel at missing a wonderful opportunity for people watching.

Soon after we moved off into narrow country roads. The continuous stream of traffic sped past many little villages, each with its little market square. Now and then we would pass a large walled off property. In these plains fired brick was the building material of choice. The heat hid the fact that it was still just around the middle of astronomical spring, so trees were still flowering and putting out new leaf buds. For a large part of the day we drove through the state of UP, where the local body elections were about to happen: the evidence was posters on walls, and large hoardings lining the roads. But most of the time we just drove past agricultural fields. This is India’s heartland, mostly farming.

Then, in the golden hours of the day, we passed a country market. If we had more time I would certainly have stopped the car and walked along the margins of the market with my camera (the crowd without masks was too daunting to wade into). But I got a few shots with my phone as we speeded past this enormous, but completely unremarkable, market. So many human stories there, I thought, it only I could have stopped. India’s plains are like that: more stories per square kilometer than almost any other rural part of the planet.

Then the landscape began to change. The plain had segued into broken land, the mountains closer. We’d crossed from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand: UP to UK. Before I knew it I realized that we had gained more than half a kilometer in altitude. We began to pass mixed forests of sal and pine, and rivers which originate in the mountains. I was glad to catch the story that you see above: ephemeral, but repeated endlessly across the globe. Even in a non-stop six hour journey in a taxi I was able to take an ambush photo! I call something an ambush photo if it is a photo of someone taking a selfie, or a photo of a photographer taking a portrait. Soon we were in Haldwani and had exchanged our airport-to-airport taxi for the car that we were to take for the next few days.

Our hotel in Almora had agreed to keep a late dinner for us, but we hadn’t eaten since we left the airport munching a couple of wraps. We stopped in Haldwani for a quick snack, and drove on. A climb, a brief stop next to Bhim Tal to take photos of the lights at night. “Crystal clear,” The Family said, a phrase I would remember in the next week of smoky air higher up. I love these night drives in the mountains, and now sitting in the seat next to the driver I could get to take shots which tell you something of the charm of passing through this liminal space: well-lit towns empty of people, streams of trucks beached next to the road for the night, cars parked outside houses blazing with light. I was dog-tired when we reached the hotel after 11 at night. The charming staff brought us hot food in our room, and I must have eaten something before sleeping, because when I woke the next morning there were used plates on the balcony.

Counting the days

Finally, the tickets are booked. I’m looking forward to a trip through the Himalayas again. Wonderful views would be great, but no views, just fog, is also welcome.

There are very few things I want in life (only about a hundred and forty seven), and the pandemic has taught me to seek a balance between them.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

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When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

November next

It seems to me that by November the epidemic would have burnt through most of the population of India. In this newly safe climate, if we survive, we will be aching to go on a holiday. I suppose international travel will still involve quarantines on arrival, or impossible-to-satisfy COVID-safe visa conditions. So our next holiday will have to be in India. My mind turns to the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh: the high border between India and China.

We love that high cold air, the hours on bumpy roads which take us to the middle of nowhere. In that bleakness, to find a warm cabin, and a simple dinner of hot thukpa with a blazing chili sauce. In that emptiness the only sounds that you hear are the cold winds which blow over the roof of the world, and the lonely calls of ravens and choughs. We are waiting for that long drive across the flood plains of Assam and up into Ziro valley. I hope the next five months do not change the world and its borders so badly that this becomes impossible.

Through rural Kenya

I had dreams of a long restful sleep on my first night in Kenya, but the reality was quite different. We got up early to leave for Amboseli National Park. Since we would spend large parts of two days inside the car, I was happy to see that the interior was spacious enough for four. There was considerable traffic in Nairobi, and it was more than half an hour before we hit the Mombasa highway.

Highway travel in Kenya is completely different from that in India, as you can see in the video above. Almost everyone keeps to the speed limit of 80 Kilometers an hour (in fact tourist vehicles have a governor that enforces this limit), so there is almost no overtaking. No one honks. Lane discipline is strict. It is as boring as driving in Switzerland. One other interesting thing that you see in the video above, and in the featured photo, is that even out on the highway you can see people on foot. There are fairly frequent buses to ferry people between towns, and we could see many people walking to these stops.

The most common shops are those which deal in mobile phone services. These green and white shops of Safaricom are everywhere, quite outnumbering the shops for other service providers. Vodafone’s tremendously popular electronic payment portal, called m-Pesa, works over the Safaricom network. Very large numbers of people travel far from their villages to look for work, so the popularity of mobile services is quite understandable. With so many people living away from home, it is no surprise that bars come a close second in popularity.

Electricity clearly reached every village on the highway; not surprising since the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch is the biggest trade corridor inside the country. But the ubiquity of mobile services meant that electricity does indeed reach much further. What didn’t was drinking water. I would notice these yellow plastic jars of water in many places after I saw them being filled at a mobile water tank (photo above).

We sped past many small towns or villages. Along the highway one saw many of the services you might expect: hardware stores, general stores, car repairs. A century ago Winston Churchill had remarked on the enterprise of Indian merchants who had, according to him, “opened up the continent.” They were not in evidence any more. Native Kenyans have taken over this niche. Only the word duka, meaning shop, adapted from Hindi, remains of this vanished history.

Some of the towns along the route clearly housed larger markets. We barreled past a deserted marketplace (photo above). Our guide, Anthony, explained that this was a weekly market. The place must be something to see on a market day. Unfortunately, we never got to see the market.

In spite of the very large number of bars and restaurants on the way, Anthony brought us to a rest stop at a place which advertised itself on its gate as Bethel Global Art Gallery. This was something like the Masai market we had seen the previous evening, but larger. The Family and Mother of Niece Tatu were soon engrossed in looking at the works on display.

Father of Niece Tatu and I were meanwhile eyeing other shopping opportunities. A little stall in the corner of this complex served tea. It was mid-morning and a tea was exactly what was needed. Although the complex was full of tourists, we were the only people who stopped for tea. Most tourists left with little packets of handicrafts, we exited with a cup of Kericho Gold warming us.

The Family went off to take a photo of the duo which guarded the gate. One difference we’d noticed between India and Kenya was that in Kenya you when your tried to talk to a guard or a shopkeeper, they would talk and joke with you. In India most talk of this kind is extremely businesslike. A guard will seldom joke with you. The Family came back beaming; she’d had a nice and funny conversation with the two you see in the photo above.

We’d been driving for a couple of hours already, and I’d spent the time sitting next to Anthony in the front. Now I changed seats and joined the rest of the group at the back. Instantly MONT unpacked some food and began passing it around. I had my share and dozed off. As a result, I never saw the interesting things that The Family clicked, like the little market place that you see in the photo above.

The per capita GDP of Kenya is about three quarters that of India, so Kenya cannot be considered to be a very poor country. It is perhaps the most successful economy of East Africa, in spite of the current slow down. The income distribution is not terribly skewed either (currently, going by the Gini coefficient, Canada, India, and Kenya have roughly similar levels of inequality). So it is common to see a three story bungalow, and ramshackle shops close to each other.

I was completely asleep when we turned away from the Mombasa highway on to the southward road which would take us to Amboseli. The surroundings turned more pastoral. The Family told me of an increasing number of herders. Could this person whom she clicked be a Masai? Perhaps. There are Masai settlements around Amboseli, and the Masai are herders.

The landscape also changed about then. The photos that the family took show that the flat land of the Nairobi plateau had given way to the hills that would lead on to Mount Kilimanjaro. We were near our destination.

Country roads

I’d written earlier about a quick trip to Kerala to see the once-in-a-dozen-years flowering of the Neelakurinji. It was mostly a road trip, but I hadn’t written about the road. Driving from Kochi to Munnar takes you on roads through a continuously built-up area. One village gives way imperceptibly to another, a small town shades into villages. There is no transition, no discontinuity.

Every turn in the road looked vaguely like this: low houses, some palm trees, a church or a temple or mosque, businesses everywhere. It was a holiday so the roads were rather empty for nine in the morning. Businesses were also closed. This part of the country had been hit by a flash flood due to an over-active monsoon less than a month before, so we kept a close watch on the sky as we drove along.

There were some store fronts which seemed peculiarly Malayalee; the photo which you see above was one. We would come across a home depot of this kind every twenty or thirty kilometers. So much kitchenware on display! Was this part of the post-flood recovery, or was it common? I don’t know, and I would have to go back to find out. Or, if you have been there recently or more than a year back, you could let me know whether you noticed these shops too.

We’d driven out without breakfast, with just a coffee at a busy little roadside stall which was doing roaring business. When I drank my coffee I realized why. It was a very good coffee; milky and sweet, like the usual coffee here, but strong and aromatic. Now it was definitely time for breakfast. We stopped at a cluster of shops. The colourful advertisements on this glass box signaled lunch.

Chicken is a big thing here, as you can see from the signage in the photo above. Food and chicken are mentioned separately. Chicken normally sounds good to me but not as the first thing in the morning. We chose a shop which was clearly selling breakfast. Idlis, puttu, sheera and coffee could be seen. While the Family and Other Animals found a table, I walked around to the block. There was a hairdressing saloon with very appropriate photos on the door. If I wasn’t in dire need of breakfast I would have walked in to investigate.

Back at the breakfast table the orders had been placed. I asked for a plate of idlis and another coffee to be added to the order. As I leaned back I saw that this was a rather inclusive place. Kerala used to have a very small but influential population of Jews. They have mostly migrated to Israel about fifty years ago. Now about 55% of the population is Hindu, about 25% are Muslim, and about 18% are Christian. The picture on the wall was politically very mainstream, but was probably not entirely political. It could also signify that the dietary practices of all these groups were understood and followed. Business is business after all.