Rite/right of Passage

Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.

We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.

It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.

On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.

Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

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?

Puffer fish

On a walk in the intertidal region of the Marine National Park at Narara reef in Gujarat, I saw a live puffer fish (family Tetraodontidae) for the first time. I’d only seen it in restaurants in Japan, where it is called fugu. It is famously poisonous. One of these small fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill about 30 adults! But the neurotoxin is not genetically programmed into the fish, apparently the protective poison is accumulated from its diet.

The tiny thing was swimming at a leisurely pace. Our guide picked it up, and it came up almost as big as his hand. I was amazed by its big eyes; apparently puffer fish have very good vision. Inflating rapidly by ingesting water seems to be its main defense mechanism. It deflated to normal size and swam away as soon as it was released. Which of the over hundred species was it? An inventory of this region mistakenly calls it Tetraodon lineatus. It doesn’t look like this purely African species. Distribution maps and pictures eventually led me to the conclusion that this is the Takifugu oblongus.

An interrupted walk

Before the vacation I tried to find out what walks we could take. My lungs are not good for steep climbs, and I didn’t know how well The Young Niece would hold up to climbs. So I looked for flat walks or gentle ups and downs. I found a nice flat walk at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. This was the walk from Jalori pass to Serolsar lake, a distance of six Kilometers each way.

At Jalori pass we took in the sight of the snowy peaks of the distant high Himalayas part of the way to Manali. It was windy and I was happy to be bundled up in several layers. As soon as we walked away from the blacktop road at the pass, the wind dropped. This is typical of a pass. The road passed below a ridge which The Family would climb later to get a better view of the distant mountains. Then the path passed into an oak forest. At this height these were all Himalayan brown oaks (Quercus semiscarpifolia).

An oak forest is alive. There were mosses growing on the bark, and I was sure that there would be insects under that. I wondered whether there are any woodpeckers in this area. I could only hear the deep cry of ravens flying above the canopy. A couple of groups of older people passed us, smiling encouragements at The Young Niece. I was slowing everyone down by trying to take photos of a butterfly which I hadn’t seen before. I was to find later that this was the common satyr. We stopped at a fallen tree trunk which had interesting mushrooms growing on the shady underside of the log.

I was warm, and beginning to shed my layers. Unfortunately, I did not think of asking The Young Niece whether she would like to shed a layer or two. After about three Kilometers of walking she overheated and started feeling giddy. We were bringing up the rear. The Family and The Lotus had walked ahead and were out of sight behind a turn in the road. The Young Niece sat down on the edge of the path, and started taking off her layers. That’s when I found that she’d overdone the warms and had on twice as much as I would have suggested. I called out to our scouts to turn back. As we sat there and waited, a raven came to rest on a branch in front of us and examined us carefully. It croaked a couple of questions which I could not answer. When The Family came back, it decided to fly away.

The family brought news of a copse of rhododendron in flower ahead. By this time The Young Niece was looking almost her normal colour. “Shall we go on?” she asked. The Family and I looked at each other. We didn’t know whether it was the heat or the altitude which had given her trouble. 3 Kilometers is not that high, but the youngster has not been up in the mountains before. We decided to play it safe and go back. I noticed a lot of Himalayan wild strawberries (Fragaria nubicola) flowering here, runners threading through fallen oak leaves. Lower down they were already in fruit. I’d persuaded The Young Niece to eat the small but flavourful berries. The flowers are not too different from those of the Himalyan musk rose; the easiest way to tell the difference is by the size of the plant it grows on.

The Young Niece was probably feeling guilty about cutting the walk short, because she was taking part in the exploration of wildflowers with more enthusiasm than usual. There were some things growing on the oaks (photo above) which completely stumped me. They were thick and fleshy like cacti; nothing that I’ve seen before. We saw a couple of varieties of tortoiseshell butterflies. On a bunch of dry flowers I saw spiderwebs: evidence that there were more insects here than we had notices. Soon we were back out of the forest and near the ridge. We hadn’t walked very long, but we’d seen several different things. As The Lotus and The Family went to look at the peaks in the distance, I walked with The Young Niece past the bunch of shops at Jalori pass into the oak forest below. She would be better lower down and without too many warm clothes.

Memories of Phobjika valley

The six of us struck off eastwards across Bhutan with no particular destination in mind. We had a vague idea that we would stay one night each in a valley. Phobjika valley was the first we came to. We made a turn off the forested east-west road, and drove for a little more than an hour until the forest opened up very suddenly. In front of us was a wide valley carpeted in green (featured photo). We took a second look, because the carpet of greenery was not grass. It was a stiff ankle-high plant, which was very hard to push through. We decided not to climb the first hills we saw, but to go on ahead.

In 2008 Bhutan was still in its last year as an absolute monarchy. You could not book hotels outside the Thimphu-Punakha-Paro triangle on the web. We knew that some tourists came to Phobjika, so we were pretty certain that we would find a few rooms. We drove along the road, and soon came to a little village. We stayed in this village in Phobjika valley, Bhutan There was a family-run hotel, and they had rooms.

People in Bhutan are extremely friendly and informal. We gathered in a little dining room with the family. A baby was handed to us, and as we kept him entertained the table filled up with snacks. There was a mixture of dishes made with local produce, and simple packaged things like biscuits and tea. The long transport lines needed to bring them here made them extremely expensive. Dinner included a wonderful thukpa made with vegetables freshly plucked from the garden.

Layers of blankets and a wood-burning radiator in the middle of the room kept us warm through the night. Phobjika lies between 2900 and 3200 meters in altitude, but in the middle of May temperatures could dip down to 4 Celsius at night. In winter there is enough snow that some villagers move away to more comfortable valleys.

View of Phobjika valley, Bhutan

The next morning after breakfast The Family and the rest went off bird watching. I decided to take a walk down the valley. Bhutan is built from material laid down half a billion years ago near the Tethys Sea, and carried here by the Indian continental plate. The geological events that made Bhutan occurred mainly in the last 20 million years, and have been mapped extensively by the Geological Surveys of Bhutan and India. As the Indian plate pushes up the Tibetan plate, the sheets of ancient rock concertinaed and folded vertically along the east-west axis we were traversing. Wild plant in Phobjika valley, BhutanAs a result the Tethys rocks metamorphosed into the minerals seen here today.

The gently sloping Phobjika valley lies over white granite rocks distinct from the geology of Paro to the west and Bumthang to the east. Glaciation in the last few thousand years may have initially started the valley. However, its present form is due to the action of monsoon, repeated frosts and snowfall, and the wind that constantly blows across the valley, carrying topsoil with it. Interestingly, there is evidence of pre-historic human slash-and-burn agriculture in the last two thousand years in the form of deeply buried charcoal. This ancient abuse is perhaps what cleared the valley of the forest cover which lies around it, and caused the soil to turn unproductive. I wonder whether the two rivers which wind through the valley today, the Nake Chu and the Gay Chu, flowed in those days.

I walked along an unpaved road with the valley sloping away to my left. The weather was mild enough, even with the breeze that brought clouds tumbling over the far hills. Along ridges I could see rows of flags: white for mourning and coloured for prayers. Beetle in Phobjika valley, BhutanThe Buddhist belief here is that the winds blow these prayers and distribute them over the valley.

The poor soil needs prayers. As I walked along, I noticed the rocky ground with a thin covering of red dust. Hardy wild plants straggled across it, and strange insects scuttled between patches of growth. Ferns grew out of the soil, hiding spiders in their spiral folds. In the distance I saw farmers at work. Once I passed a cow which turned to follow me with her eyes without interrupting her mouth.

A truck drove by and the friendly young driver leaned out to smile and wave. A young child scuttled away from me and then gathered enough courage to peer at me from around his door. The mother came out to investigate, and gave me a friendly wave. After a while I saw school children walking back home. This gang of four planted themselves in front of me and told me in their broken English to take a photo. They stood grim-faced for the photo, but immediately after that broke into smiles and started pushing each other. It was time for me to get back for lunch and find out which birds The Family had spotted.