Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taj Mahal - Love it or Hate it?

I AM AN INDIAN !!" I said in an impatient tone.

"Do you have any proof" asked the man behind the counter.

I fished out my driver's license and showed it to him. He stared at the license and back at me for a good 30 seconds before conceding that it was indeed me and that I was Indian. To avoid any such confusions, I had worn a salwar that day and spoke in Hindi, but almost everywhere people questioned my nationality. I understand that the ticket collectors are trying to fish out Indian looking foreigners, but there were 5 other instances that week when people asked me where I was from. It is ironic that people always recognized me as an Indian in the US, but I am having to prove it in my own country!

Shaking my head, I paid the Rs.20 fee to enter the Taj Mahal. My American colleague, Ken had to pay Rs 750, almost 40 times more than me!! "Aaah, the advantages of being a citizen" he said to me.

"We will take the eastern entrance which is for foreigners" said our guide. I almost jumped to declare that I was not a foreigner, before he added "It has the least amount of crowd".

The entrance to the Taj Mahal is quite stunning. I love this red sandstone structure with marble decorations.

It is always a little tricky when you go to places that are famous. Expectations are enormous and you feel compelled to like it just because millions of others have liked it before you. I had read conflicting reports on the Taj Mahal. One set extols the beauty while the other laments the poor maintenance and degradation of the monument. I decided to keep expectations very low. In fact, I was quite convinced that I won't be impressed. I almost skipped Agra because of that, but my friend Jayanti said "It is the Taj. You HAVE to see it at least once".

The drive from Delhi to Agra took more than 4 hours with the customary stop at McDonald's for a coffee break where we had an interesting encounter with the waiter.

"Coffee Please"

"You want black coffee?" asked the waiter.

"No, I want coffee with milk " said Ken

"OK, You want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter

"No, I want regular coffee with milk" said Ken

"So, you want a cappuccino?" asked the waiter.

I just love the circular arguments that go nowhere. Ken burst out laughing and took the cappuccino.

After a lunch break at the hotel, we reached the Taj Mahal in the afternoon. Personal vehicles are not allowed within a 2 km radius of the entrance. People are transported in battery operated buses, which I thought was a nice way to get rid of parking and pollution problems. Also, in the last few years, the government had a number of polluting industries move outside a 21 km radius of the monument. These measures seem to have worked. There was no visible pollution in the area.

I walked in and took in the full view of the Taj Mahal. My jaw dropped and I heard myself saying "WOW....Is this for real"? Standing there, in the middle of green gardens and surrounded by red sandstone structures, the pure white structure looked surreal. For somebody who was not expecting to be impressed, I was clearly in awe of this unique structure. It did not feel real! We walked all around the compound looking at side structures, but my eyes kept going back to the Taj to make sure it was still there.

Friends had told me that in spite of the hype, the first time you see the Taj, it takes your breath away. They were not exaggerating!

"That's a LOT of marble", said Ken. Indeed it was. Thousands of tons of marble was brought all the way from Makrana in Rajasthan. In those days, it is said to have cost 5 million.

I walked around, taking the customary pictures with the reflection in the pool. Our guide explained that cypress trees signify immortality according to Persian philosophy. The elaborately laid out tombs and gardens are supposed to be their interpretations of paradise.

There were thousands of visitors, but I never felt crowded. Walking around the gardens, I felt like there was enough space for everybody to enjoy the monument. A security guard walked past me and I said hello.

"You from which country?" he asked. Here we go again!! I spoke to him in Hindi and he was surprised "आप India से हो? वैसे तो लगते नहीं हो!" and then he added "आप बहुत लम्बे हो"!!

I asked him about the bullet proof jacket he was wearing. He said "Mumbai (26/11) के बाद, compulsory बना दिया! 40 kgs है और पुरा दिन पेहेन्ना है " When I joked about his old fashioned gun, he got a little upset " नहीं madam, yeh AK-47 hai. एक दम powerful gun है ". He posed for a photo and went his way. I walked to the mosque on the side of the Taj. Another beautiful structure.

Behind the Taj, the Yamuna river had very little water. India is in the business of building dams all over the place, so dry river beds are a very common sight these days.

The entire time I was in the compound, I was in awe of the monument. Even when we were heading out, I would turn back every other minute to have yet another look at it.

As much as I loved the Taj Mahal, I was shocked at how poor Agra was. The few streets that we drove on were narrow, dirty and crowded. It looked like there was not much to see, other than Agra Fort and Akbar's tomb. Agra fort was nice, but I was more impressed with Akbar's tomb. I will post pictures in upcoming blog posts. Dinner at Peshawari (ITC Hotel) was great. Chicken Kasturi Kabab and Fish Kabab were great, but their slow-cooked, creamy Dal Bukhara was the best I ever had. The Rasmalai was so good that I could have licked off the bowl clean!!

In the last few years of traveling, I have realized that there are no absolutes in traveling. You might find a place stunning, but others might not and vice-versa. Experiences vary depending on the weather, crowd, company, expectations and attitude. What was your impression of the Taj? Leave a comment and let me know.

This post is part of the Show your World meme. For more stories from the rest of the world, click the image.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Valley of Flowers - A Hike in the Himalayas

A song kept playing in my head. I don’t think I heard it on the radio that day. In fact, I don’t remember hearing the song in ages. I recited the lyrics to my friend Gayatri (Gaay) and asked her if she heard it before. Not surprisingly, she did not. I myself heard it only twice or thrice in my life. I didn’t know which movie it was from or who played the lead role. It was one of those songs I remembered watching on Wednesday night Chitrahaar many many years back. The song was very appropriate for my surroundings and I kept humming it as we walked on the trail. A few minutes later, Gaay stopped and screamed “Vam, look at this. Isn’t this the song you were talking about?” What a weird coincidence! The smart people at Garhwal Tourism department made a marketing poster of the national park using that very song! Why write a poem when there is a Bollywood song! There it was, on a nice yellow board (which I neglected to photograph), the lyrics of the song. Here is a video of the song I found on youtube.

Yeh Kaun Chitrakar hai
Yeh Kaun Chitrakar hai

Haree haree Vasundhara pe nila nila yeh gagan
Ke jis pe badalo ke palakee uda raha pawan
Dishaye dekho rangbharee, chamak rahee umang bharee
Yeh kis ne phul phul pe kiya singar hai
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai

Tapaswiyo see hain atal yeh parawato kee chotiya
Yeh sarpa see ghoomeradar, gheradar ghatiya
Dhwaja se yeh khade huye hain wariaksh dewadar ke
Galiche yeh gulab ke, bagiche yeh bahar ke
Yeh kis kavee kee kalpana kaa chamatkar hai
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai

We were in the small picturesque village of Gobindghat, the starting point for the hike to the famous Valley of Flowers National Park. This being the month of August, the entire area was dressed in a layer of green. The valley was surrounded by towering peaks that seemed to be reaching out to the sky. The Alaknanda River was roaring past us drowning all other sounds. It was truly a sight to behold and there is no better way to describe it than the song above.

Valley of Flowers is a very moderate hike. You can do it easily, don’t worry about it”, said Bala of Great Indian Outdoors. Now, moderate hikes in the US are those that can be completed by kids and their grandparents. So, we did not hesitate to bring Gaay’s 60 year old mom. Our justification was “Well…she takes a long walk on the beach every day, so she should be able to do the hike”. In hindsight that was a very foolish argument, but in our eagerness to make our first trip to the Himalayas, we lost objectivity.
One look at the trail and we knew that aunty would not be able to do it. We put her on a mule and within minutes, she disappeared from sight. We hired porters for our luggage and set off on the hike. With our REI hiking poles and backpacks, Gaay and I looked every bit the intrepid trekker that we were not. Actually Gaay had done a few hikes before, but this was my first multi-day hike.
The first two kilometers were almost entirely uphill, but Gaay and I did not flinch. There was a bounce in our steps and a smile on our faces. It was a beautiful morning - partly cloudy with a pleasant breeze. We walked on, ignoring the guys that were trying to convince us to get mules too. There was no tree cover, so it was good that we started hiking before the sun was up. It was not easy, but we were determined to walk. I asked our guide, Bachchan Rana if the entire hike was going to be this hard. He pointed his hand in one direction and said “See the mountain there; See the clouds behind that mountain. Our campsite is beyond those clouds. Yes, the hike is uphill all the way”.
That did not deter us. “He is exaggerating” I told Gaay. We moved on with the kind of foolish optimism that you can only have when you start something new. An hour later, I figured we must have walked 5 kilometers, at least it felt that way. I turned to our guide and asked him the mileage. He raised an eyebrow and in a semi-heckling tone replied “Oh…this was nothing. I don’t think we even walked 2 kilometers”. We had another 12 kilometers to go! It took us ½ hour to walk a kilometer, so another 6 hours to go! Walking 14 km on a flat surface is really not a big deal, but the elevation was what was causing us to slow down. Also, a big part of the hike was boulder hopping. It was a dirt path and the recent rains had dislodged the pebbles and rocks. Our hiking pole was really useful here.

A couple of hours later, we reached the first village on the way.
Hot Chai, Maggie Noodles. Come have some parantha and chole” screamed the vendors. They even had a working phone there, so I quickly called Saru and checked in with him. After sufficiently exaggerating the toughness of my hike , I hung up and moved on. Based on what I read from previous reports, I expected a very dirty trail, but it was clean. Bachchan told us that Garhwal tourism department was taking extra measures to keep places clean. Gaay and I walked on while discussing a variety of topics ranging from US foreign policy to Bollywood gossip and time flew by. It was getting warm and my feet were beginning to hurt. Gaay was my cheerleader and kept my tempo up. She would walk a little ahead of me and make cheerful announcements – Shade ahead….great view…flat patch etc. She was a great hiking partner. We were also cheered on by other hikers on the trail. Some would pass on toffees, some would go around offering a spoon of Glucon-D and some would just say kind words to encourage us “You have come so far, the rest is very easy, It's almost over etc”. We knew that was not true, but were still touched by the kindness of these strangers. Coming from Mumbai where nobody gives a shit about anybody, this was a pleasant surprise. Most of these people were headed towards Hemkund Sahib, a popular pilgrimage site for Sikhs. One such person, Harpal Singh Sidhu became a constant companion on the trail. In his late forties, this was Harpalji's third time on this trek. He was a tall overweight man walking with the help of a sturdy bamboo stick. “See this; it is the best quality stick you can find. I had this specially made for the hike. If you need to find out how good a bamboo is, look at the rings - the farther they are, the stronger it is. You don’t get walking sticks like this outside of Punjab” he said.
When he found out that my hiking pole was from the US, he quipped आपकी America से मजबूत मेरी Amritsar की लकड़ी है”.

The hike became harder as we went up and I was getting tired. I was stopping every few minutes to catch my breath.
"छोटे छोटे कदम, सर नीचे और बस खयालों में डूब जाओं" said Harpalji. That was really good advice and it helped me move along easier.
"वोह Pehelwan ji को देखिये, आप से तीन गुना मोठे है, पर शिकयत किये बिना चलते है। पता है कयू ?
I was hungry, pouring sweat, my heart beat was at a dangerous high and this man wanted to have conversation! Gaay and I were a little embarrassed that he was calling his friend a "pehelwan", but we later found on that he was indeed a pehelwan - a state level weight lifting champion.
Harpalji continued his monologue "वाहे गुरु का नाम लेते है और बस पैर अपने आप चलने लगते है। आप कौन से भगवन को मानते है? This was really not the time or place to tell him that I was an atheist, so I was struggling to answer the question when he carried on
"Andhra Pradesh से हो, तो शायद Tirupathi के Balaji को मानते हो। आप उनका नाम ले लीजिये और काम आसान हो जाएगा".
In this trip, we came across a lot of people, young, old, thin, fat and even a few handicapped people. Most of them were very religious and kept chanting "Wahe Guru" the entire 14 kilometers. Faith is one thing we have in abundance in India. I really wish there was some way to harness that positive energy to change our society. How is it that people are able to stand in queue for hours together in a temple, but cannot stand in line for a second in a super market? How can we manage to keep the temple clean, but trash the road towards it? How can these people respect God, but not nature? 90% of people that go to Hemkund sahib do not bother to visit the Valley of Flowers which is just around the corner.
In fact, some people told me very frankly " वहा कुच भी नहीं है" Sigh! Check out this video I took of a group of pilgrims.

The first few kilometers don’t offer great views, but as we went higher, the trail went adjacent to the beautiful Pushpavati River. White water gushing down the mountain is a sight to behold. When we stopped for lunch after 10 kilometers, we picked a shack right next to the water. Balancing ourselves gingerly on a rock, we lowered our feet into the stream and immediately pulled out. It was ice cold! We sat on the rock, dipping our feet in and out, while the cook prepared our meal. There is nothing that relieves tired feet more than a cold or hot compress and the river was doing its job splendidly.

We still had 3 kilometers to go when we took our 1 hour break for lunch and let me tell you something - Don't EVER take a long break when you are on a hike. Once the legs get used to sitting down, they will not want to go back to the torture of walking. Mine protested heavily, but we moved on. "We are almost there" said Harpalji. Every step felt hard and the damn trail was still going uphill. I was groaning with every step. Gaay was in a much better shape than me, so she was doing fine. Harpalji kept convincing me that the end was just around the corner. At one point I lost it and screamed at him "You are lying to me". He laughed and said "मरनेवाला को थोड़ी केहते है कि तुम मरने वाले हो? The last 3 km took us at least 2 hours with breaks every 5 minutes, but we finally came up to an opening from where we saw our tents. Gaay went ahead of me to order hot chai and pakodas. That is one cool thing about hiking in India - you are never too far from chai or pakodas. Harpalji had another km to walk to the village of Ghangria where he was staying for free at the Gurudwara. He invited us to visit Amristsar "मेरे बीवी के भैया के पतनी के साले Golden Temple मे काम करते हैं. आपका VIP दरशन हो जयेगा" He didn't leave it at that. After I came back home to Mumbai, he called to check and see if I reached home safely. Like I said before, I was touched by this man's kindness.

It was 4 PM by the time we reached our tents. A hot shower later, I settled down on a wicker chair and refused to stand up for the rest of the evening. As the sun was setting down, we had a beautiful view of the mountains ahead.

To be continued - The Truth about Valley of Flowers

Here is a preview of what is to come in the next episode of the travelogue - a little bit of snow peaked mountains, a little bit of flowers and wonderful scenery all around!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Spooky Nightwalk in the Jungle - Dandeli Adventure

We had been out birding all day and were finishing up dinner when Adesh asked "Who wants to go out for a night walk". Within minutes, everybody disappeared into their tents, and came back with their torch lights and binoculars. It was 10:30 PM when 13 crazy birders set out to explore the jungle in hopes of seeing nocturnal beings. Apart from owls and nightjars, the Dandeli forests were reported to have flying squirrels, jungle cats and even the elusive Black Panther which was last sighted in 2005. With the kind of optimism you can only have at the beginning of a trip, we set out into the darkness of the night powered by small pen torches and cigarette torches (I swear I am not kidding, Nikhil had a torch that looked like a cigarette). Adesh and Mandar (A&M) however, had these industry strength torches that could light up all the way to Mars (they are rechargeable).
It was 2 days after Diwali, so it was a dark moonless night. The few stars that were scattered in the night sky did nothing to increase the light. We walked on the tar road away from the camp site. At first, it looked like one enormous black canvas out there, but once our eyes adjusted to the low light, we began to distinguish different features. (A&M) would occasionally flash their powerful torches to scan for owls and nightjars. This continued for the first 15 minutes. Seeing nothing, Adesh asked us to follow him into a jungle trail. "OMG, Is he crazy?" I said to myself, but obediently followed him. It got darker as we went away from the road. About 100 yards later, we stopped near a water tank.
"Switch off your lights and be very silent" ordered Adesh. The jungle comes alive in the night. Countless species of birds, mammals and insects are at work and you slowly begin to be aware of different sounds. The deafening trill of crickets, the croaks of frogs and the monotonous simmer of insects make for a very eerie orchestra. The hallucinatory sounds were all pervasive and with no images to associate with the sounds, it was spooky as hell. Adesh decided to check for frogmouths in the area. He used his cellphone and played the call of a Ceylon Frogmouth.

(from wikipedia)
The frogmouths are a group of tropical nocturnal birds related to the nightjars. This species is found only in the Western Ghats in southwest India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Frogmouth is about 23 cm long. It is large-headed, and has a large flattened hooked bill and huge frog-like gape. It is best located at night by its song, which is a loud descending cackly and frog-like series of Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock calls. This is the call of the male and it is often answered by the female whose call is low long harsh Krrshhhh.
To see some stunning pictures of the frogmouth, check out my friend Thomas's blog here.

The call of the female is very shrill, almost like the cry of some wild animal hunted by a predator. It kind of sends a shiver down your spine when you hear it for the first time. Adesh played the call and we waited hopefully. There was no reply. We waited for a looong minute and then played it again. Seconds ticked by and our ears picked up every little sound. Insects were buzzing incessantly. A couple of frogs surfaced to the top of the water tank to check out the suspense drama. Still nothing! We decided to play the call for one last time. Check out the sounds of the jungle in this video.

Krrshhhh Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock

For the first few seconds we heard nothing and then there it was - a very clear call from a male frogmouth. Thirteen heads instantly turned towards the direction of the call, peering through the darkness, searching for signs of movement among the trees. We saw nothing. A few seconds later, we heard another frogmouth from the opposite direction.
"WOW", said folks said in hushed tones. A&M switched on the torches and started scanning the trees. We all whipped out our binoculars and tried to follow the powerful beam of lights, but saw nothing. Nocturnal birds are masters at camouflage. The frogmouth with its brown plumage can be mistaken for a tree branch! After some time, we gave up and decided to get back to the road. We were hearing more calls, so we walked on, occasionally switching on our torches and scanning the tree canopies. At some point Adesh thought that we heard at least 10 frogmouths. As if to join the musical melange, an Oriental Scops Owl started hooting. We all got excited about the owl. Adesh imitated the owl and it responded back! We started walking towards the direction of the owl-call. When we were close enough, they flashed their powerful torches hoping to see a pair of sparkling eyes. Nothing again! It was almost midnight and we were exhausted when Sharada said "I would love to sleep on the road and gaze at the stars". Can you imagine how it would be to lie down on a road in the forest surrounded by all these hallucinatory sounds? was awesome!
A tree cricket was calling out loudly and Adesh led us towards it. He asked us to cup our ears forward and notice how the sound amplifies. As we reached closer, I thought my ear drums would burst any second when Adesh shone his torch to a little hole. Alarmed at being discovered, the cricket shut up immediately. It was enough excitement for one night, so we went back to the camp. It didn't matter than we didn't see any birds, the journey itself was thrilling!
The following night, we set off again, a little earlier at 9:30 PM. The night was not as dark as the previous one, but still scary. The moment we stepped out, we struck gold! While scanning the trees outside the camp, A&M found a flying squirrel. It was a giant grey squirrel with an enormous bushy tail. These are known to fly/glide from one tree to another in the night foraging for food. We went to the water tank and tried our luck again, but heard nothing, so we went back to the road. There we heard the unmistakable call of the frogmouth. We switched on our torches and scanned every tree in the area, but they were still elusive. At one point, the calls were really close, so we got off the road under a tree canopy. Adesh imitated the call and the bird answered back immediately. Torches and binoculars were out searching for it yet again. Nothing! Sigh!
We were about to give up and lie down on the road again, but Adesh would not give up "Salle ko dhoondh Nikalunga" he said with determination, so we trudged along. A little ahead, calls were coming from the left hand side of the road. We stood there and waited until we heard the call again. The second we heard the call, A & M shone their torches on one tree branch at the exact same time and VOILA! There they were!! One male and one female frogmouth sitting pretty on a tree branch in full view, right on top of our heads. Binoculars went up, cameras started clicking and it was celebration time! The male bird flew off, but the female struck around for at least a minute enthralling us. What a night!! Even if we had not seen the birds, it was still a great adventure, but seeing them was like icing on the cake. Check of this really bad video of the sighting. The quality of the video will make 'The Blair Witch Project' seem like a masterpiece:)

Our 4 day bird watching trip to Dandeli with Nature India Tours was great. We had a combination of slow times where we saw very few birds and fun times where we had non-stop action. The slow times were never long enough to bore us and the fun times were always long enough to keep us excited. The mixed hunting party near the timber depot offered non-stop action while the open pit mine which was truly an amphitheater where birds modeled one by one showing off their beautiful feathers. It was great fun one evening when we saw 2 dozen Malabar pied horn bills dining on berries and shrieking in delight . My favorite sightings were the blue bearded bee eater and white bellied woodpecker. This post is already getting long, so I will just write about one instance that stuck in my mind.
We were near a water body looking at birds through a spotting scope when somebody saw a raptor in the sky. Mandar looked at it through his binoculars and immediately started screaming "Roufous Bellied Eagle.....Roufous Bellied Eagle...come everybody". He ran like mad and started clicking pictures and once done, observed the bird through the binoculars till it disappeared from sight. He came back with a wide-grin and could not stop smiling for the next half hour. That evening, he went to a store, bought sweets and distributed them to everybody.
If you have even half of his enthusiasm for your job, you should consider yourself truly blessed.

Diwali at the camp

Purple Sun Bird, Green Bee Eater


Small Minivet, White Bellied Woodpecker,

Photographing birds was really hard on this trip because they were never at eye level, so I followed Uma and Mohan and took pictures of these dragonflies. Aren't they beautiful?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Carpets of Flowers - Kaas Plateau

Pogostemon decanensis, Thunbergia fragrans, Neanotis lancifolia, Utricularia reticulatum, Senecio bombayensis, Pimpenella tomentosa.

If that sounds like Greek and Latin to you, then you are bang on. When Adesh would scream “Come here, I found a carpet of Pogostemon Decanensis”, we would look at him as if he was speaking gobbledegook. He would then add “Come come, I found a very pretty flower”. That worked much better and we would surround him to see the flowers. The practice of using Latin for scientific names was started in early seventeenth century oddly enough by a Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus. Carl developed a binomial system where two Latin or Latinized words were used to describe a plant or a flower. I guess it was a great idea to use one language to name all living organisms throughout the world…but did it have to be LATIN?

French and Italian might have been OK, but LATIN was just not my cup of tea. I tried hard…I listened carefully, repeated after Adesh multiple times, tried to find out the root of the words…. I even tried mnemonics, but seriously, what kind of mnemonic can you possibly have for Neracanthes spherostachys or Paracaryopsis coelestina. Common sense did not help in any way. Pimpenella Tomemtosa did not have a pimple or look like a tomato, Thunbergia fragrans had no fragrance and Asparagus racemosus looked nothing like the asparagus you put on a grill (with loads of extra virgin olive oil….yum). As if this was not hard enough, they had similar sounding names for completely different looking flowers. Neanotis
is a small pink flower, Leanotis is orange and Cyanotis is this blue color flower below. And to make things worse, wild varieties of impatiens, cosmos and begonias were nothing like what I had in my garden. I actually argued with Adesh that a wild cosmos was a Zinnia only to be proved wrong!

Cyanotis tuberosa

So, any associations you see here to Latin names are thanks to the husband. The husband, who has no aptitude for languages, who is so pathetic that he will say “Bon Giorno” to a French guy and “Bonjour” to an Italian and completely miss their puzzled looks, took up the challenge. He learnt the names by heart, took notes, cross-referenced them with photograph numbers and marked off his checklist. Apparently there is a new word in the dictionary to represent a nerd +geek = neek!
Saru and I went with Adesh & Mandar’s Nature India Tours to Kaas Plateau for a short 3 day trip. After a long 5 hour drive, we arrived into the town of Satara and checked into the hotel. After a quick lunch, we left for the hills. We started looking at wildflowers on the ghats while saving Kaas plateau for the next day. On the tour, we had Dr.Rajendra Shinde, a highly respected Plant Taxonomist from St.Xavier's College as a resource person along with Adesh and Mandar.

The Western Ghats are just beautiful in the monsoons and here in Satara, there was the added attraction of wild flowers. Slopes were full of sonkis and smithias and bunches of balsam flowers. Adesh and Dr.Shinde would comb the place (literally) and tell us the names and characteristics of every flower we saw. In the beginning it was an overload of information. “Do I really need to know the Latin name of EVERY flower”, I thought to myself, but after three days, we were fascinated by some cool things we learnt. Like for example, this flower below, Ceropagia Oculata has tiny hairs that trap flies. When flies are attracted into the flower by the scent, they are trapped and prevented from escaping until the hairs wither by which time; pollen is attached to the fly’s body. Procreation seems to be the goal of every living organism!

Ceropagia Oculata

This insectivorous plant here (somebody identify the name please) secretes a mucous like substance that traps tiny flies.

A flower from the sweet pea family, Vigna Vixilleta, uses a hugging mechanism to leave pollen. When a bee sits on it, its weight causes the stamen to extend out, hug the bee and leave pollen on it for propagation. Watch Adesh demonstrate the process in the video below.

Vigna Vixellata from Vamsee Modugula on Vimeo.

The next morning, we set off at 6:30AM. “We are going straight to the Plateau with no stops” said Adesh, but quickly added “I have to stop for a minute to show some species to the other bus”. A minute can never be a minute with a bus full of photographers. We stepped out to capture the mountain scenery which was nothing short of spectacular. Mist was just lifting off the valley and the soft morning light made the mountain greens even more soothing.

At our first stop, we had a quick breakfast of poha and upma and sheera and checked out the wild flowers in the area. That's when we chanced upon my most favorite Latin name for a flower -Gloriosa Superba! The botanist who discovered this flower was so captivated by its beauty that he said to himself "What a gloriously superb flower" and promptly gave its name. OK, I made up that, but the point of the matter is that the flower is
Gloriosa Superba, not just for its looks, but for its uses as well. Sap from the leaf is used to cure pimples , rootstalks are used for snake and scorpion bites and roots are used to cure baldness (Rakesh Roshan, are you listening?) Dr. Shinde also explained that tribal women use the roots of this plant for abortions or to induce labor pains. Because of the widespread cutting of this plant for medicinal and religious uses, it has now become an endangered species.

As we drove closer to the plateau, we started seeing carpets of flowers. Mickey mouse flowers seem to be an apt nick name for these yellow color Smithias.

Once we reached the main plateau, everybody was floored! And by that I don't just mean that we were impressed with what we saw, we literally took to the floor. You see, the wildflowers here are not like the tall stalks of mustard fields where Bollywood actors run around and sing songs. These plants are maybe half a feet high, so to get good pictures, we had to literally lie down on the floor. At any point of time, there were at least 5-6 of us lying down taking photographs. It was wet, muddy and the rocks were hard, but nothing stopped our photographers. The view from that angle was fantastic. A sea of flowers extended out till the eye could see. Colors faded in and out creating a beautiful collage.
Nature puts on this spectacular show in Kaas Plateau every year after the monsoons. From August to October, this bare plateau transforms itself into a riot of colors. The ground is covered in carpets of yellow, pink, blue, purple, violet and white flowers. What was surprising was that these plants grew on less than an inch of soil. The plateau was full of hard rock with a thin layer of soil. It is unbelievable how these flowers bloomed on this thin soil with no fertilizers, no timed watering and with nobody sowing seeds! It is just not fair that I had to work so hard in my garden to grow a handful of flowers and here were acres and acres of free-for-all flower fields! Nature has a mind of its own!

At the end of the trip, Adesh said "You might wonder, why we need to learn about all these flowers, but appreciating every aspect of Nature including birds, plants and flowers has made my life wonderful".I for one, completely agree with that. A year ago, I knew nothing and here I am rattling off Latin names:)

Leave a comment. It motivates me to keep writing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Paris - How Dan Brown screwed up my trip

It was just a few minutes to midnight and we were walking along La Seine in the historic center of Paris. On the right side was the beautifully lit Louvre. Looming ahead of us was the Cathedral of Notre Dame casting its beautiful reflection in the river. Far away at a distance, the twinkling lights show had started and the iconic Eiffel Tower was sparkling in brilliant light. The restaurants and coffee shops of the left bank were buzzing with activity even at this late hour.
We heard loud noises from Pont des Arts and as we hurried to it, we saw the pedestrian bridge filled with people. They were sitting in groups and drinking wine and beer and dancing and singing. All of a sudden we hear a commotion. A guy starts to take off his clothes and everybody rushes to one side of the bridge. We rush just in time to see the young man jump into the river.

Louvre in the Night

Is that a bare butt? Oh My GOD – Is that guy naked I ask Saru in an incredulous tone.
“Yup…he is! We saw so many naked statues and paintings today – It is only fair that we see one in flesh and blood. We are in Paris baby!
Another guy follows suit and the crowd erupts in cheers and claps. This goes on for a while before the folks walked back to their groups and continued their drunken revelry.
I love the energy of the city. It never stops having fun. NY City is maybe the only other city that has this kind of energy. One of the restaurants we went to, is open from 5:30 AM to 3:30 AM on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends! We had to wait for 15 minutes to get a table at 11:30 PM!

Saru and I went to France in the last week of June for 10 days. This was our second trip to Paris, so you won’t see me gushing about the Louvre or mentioning the tonnage of Eiffel Tower or raving about the stain glass windows of Notre Dame. The bucket list was checked off in 1999, places sufficiently wowed and the awesomeness captured in a camera, so there was no pressure to visit every single attraction. Given that, I did not have a long list of things to do. I did however have a long list of things to eat (how can you not?). Think of the delicious buttery, flaky, crispy croissants and the soft, delicate, decadent, molten chocolate cake floating in a sauce of Crème Anglaise.

Our Paris trip started with a sandwich. YES, a SANDWICH and not just any sandwich, it was a Tomate et Mozzarella sandwich on pain olive (Olive Bread). We were hurrying to the airport train station when I was drawn to a cool looking cafe. “I am not hungry, you go ahead and buy yourself something” said Saru. Walking towards the train terminal, balancing the bag on one hand, my sandwich on the other while lamenting the fact that the tiny bottle of water cost me 3.5E, I took one bite of the sandwich and came to a sudden halt. I screamed - HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, THIS SANDWICH IS FANTASTIC! I ran along to catch up with Saru while yelling “this sandwich is amazing”!!
Saru “Vam….we are in a public place….lower your voice”.

I don’t like cold sandwiches, but this one was so tasty that I stopped talking to Saru and was intently eating my sandwich while making sounds that I would rather not describe on a public forum. Saru waited for a few minutes, lost patience and asked “Are you going to share it with me or not?
Absolutely not! You said you were not hungry
I am not, but I want to taste the sandwich. Eat whatever you want and leave me the rest
I kept eating my sandwich while Saru was watching with a disgusted look. Half over…..three quarters over… eighty percent over and he saw no signs of me stopping. Saru lost it and pulled it from me. “That’s enough!! It is my turn now”. I would have fought for it, but the train came and we boarded it. “Oh Man!! This is awesome!” said Saru turning away as I was trying to grab the last piece.

Pantheon – “To the great men, from the grateful homeland”

For our first morning in Paris, we decided to visit the Pantheon, an understated monument which we missed in our first trip. I had zero expectations, and maybe that is why I liked it so much. Initially built as a place of worship, it was converted into a memorial for illustrious Frenchmen during the French Revolution. Many great men including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Mirabeau were buried in the crypt.

As was the case of most churches built in those times, the interior was shaped in the form of a cross (+). This massive structure was decorated with Greek columns and domes while the walls were adorned with beautiful frescoes and paintings. There were very few people inside, so it was very peaceful. I just sat there gazing at the dome and the frescoes wondering about the numerous times the church was converted to a mausoleum and back. You could see an amalgamation of religious, political and scientific values from different periods in time. On some walls were frescoes depicting the life of St.Genevieve, on some were paintings of allegories of values (justice, glory etc) and then there was the Focault's Pendulum.
While I was listening to the audio guide, Saru-the-geek put all his attention into understanding the inner workings of the Pendulum. The theory is that the pendulum oscillates in the same plane the entire time, while the earth below it is rotating showing the change in times on the clock on the floor, thus proving rotation of earth. Saru was puzzled because the clock on the floor only showed 270 instead of 360 degrees. He searched around until he found an English speaking volunteer who explained that the pendulum only oscillates to the extent of the latitude of the location. At North and South poles, the pendulum would complete a full 360 degree circle in a day. Mystery solved and he was ready to leave.

We then went into the crypt and Saru got crazy-excited looking at the names of scientists . He started reeling off names and scientific theories and formula in spite of my “what the hell are you talking about” look. He kept going “Ohhhh…Paul Langevin of Langevin Dynamics ; Marcelin Berthelot, the inventer of modern chemistry; Pierre Curie's Nuclear Physics....." What a geek!!
My time to show off came a little later when we stopped in front of the tomb of Alexander Dumas. “You never heard of ‘Count of Montecristo’ I asked him in a heckling tone. He threatened to explain the intricate details of
‘stochastic differential equations’ in Langevin Dynamics, so I backed off. I did however manage to tell him the story of Dumas's famous novel.

I loved the Pantheon! It was a beautiful monument. We thought of spending an hour, but ended up spending 3 hours, including 45 minutes climbing to the top of the domes to get a view of Paris.
Saru will not let me put big size images ofwhat he terms as ‘bad pictures’, but here is a snapshot.

Musee Du Louvre – How Dan Brown screwed up my trip

We visited the Louvre for the first time,10 years back and LOVED it. We spent an entire day in the museum and could not get enough of it. Every other museum I saw after that paled in comparison. To me, Louvre was the best museum in the world followed by the Vatican Museum. SO….I went with great expectations. I knew it would be crowded, but the mob I saw there was totally unexpected. Thanks to Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’, it has become fashionable for EVERYBODY to go to the Louvre. I have never seen so many people with translated versions of the same book. Most of the tourists were in line to see same three exhibits – Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. The smart thing to have done was to avoid that wing, but the husband was one among the mob who came with bookmarks in the novel. He said “Nothing doing…I want to see these three exhibits. I want to beat Art Buchwald’s record of 5min 56secs to see the big three” Sigh!

An hour and half later, I was sweating and in line with thousands of other people. You just cannot appreciate art this way. It also didn't help my cause that I forgot to rent an audio guide, so had to climb 3 floors twice to go back and get it. By then, I was tired, hordes of tourists were pushing me around and it was just not a great experience. There were a few good moments like when we saw this “Size matters” statue below. Saru, unlike me, had lots of fun. He would snicker and giggle at the nudity in the paintings and pass silly comments. Once done, we went outside, put our feet in the fountain water and relaxed while pondering over the fact that we loved the Pantheon which most tourists would miss, but hated the more popular Louvre.

Then we went on to Jardin des Tuileries, found a shady tree and took a nap. Taking a nap in the evening became a daily thing for us during this trip. It was unusually hot and the sun would not set until 10:30 PM. A power nap, as Saru calls it is very good to relax and regain it was really cool and pleasant to sit in the shade of trees.

Palais De Tuileries (Home to a zillion kissing couples...wait for the next post)

Rue Cler

For dinner, we went to Rue Cler. It is a typical Parisian street lined with restaurants, cafes, boulangeries, patisseries and creperies. I took one look at the neighborhood and knew why I loved Europe. The streets were full of people walking leisurely and enjoying the evening. Sounds of lively conversation, laughter and clinkling of cutlery filled the air.
Saru declared “I have a bad stomach, so I want to eat something very light….maybe like a sandwich”. I was in PARIS and I wanted to eat a nice meal with wine and dessert and the dude wanted to eat a sandwich! WHO eats a sandwich for dinner?? Apparently nobody because we walked the entire length of the street looking for a restaurant that served a sandwich and a proper meal , but did not find any. We were both getting hungry when I saw a Creperie! Voila! It was light enough to meet his needs and cool enough to meet mine. In my utterly ridiculous French (with an Indian English accent), I ordered:
Un Crepe avec Fromage et Champignons, S’il vous Plait
The guy at the stall smiled and said in perfect English “A Crepe with cheese and mushrooms. Please have a seat”. Saru heaved a sigh of relief and ordered his dish in English. Fresh cheese makes such a huge difference to the taste of the dish. My crepe was smooth and soft and aromatic as hell! The combination of soft crepe, fresh mozzarella (with a hint of sourness ) and rubbery mushrooms created an explosion of tastes in my mouth. It was my BEST crepe to date.

For dessert, I ordered a crepe with strawberry confiture. I sipped the last of my Beaujolais watching the cook pour the batter and deftly spread it around into a perfect circle. Once the crepe was done, he poured a giant spoon of the most aromatic butter I ever smelt. For a few seconds, my crepe was bathing in a pool of butter before it soaked it up like a sponge. He waited until it became brown and crispy, spread a generous amount of strawberry confiture, folded it, sprinkled powdered sugar and served it hot. The aroma of butter made my mouth water to indecent proportions, so I took a quick bite. As the French say - Excellente!! C’est tres bien!

I don’t remember what Saru was having, except that it was not great and he kept reaching into my dish and I kept pulling the plate towards myself (As if It is not enough that I am sharing my life with him…now I have to share my dessert too??)

Our stomachs thoroughly satisfied, we made our way to the hotel just when the clock struck midnight.

P.S In case you are wondering about the butter, Saru and I have a philosophy when we travel - No worries on weight and wallet!

What is your travel philosophy? Leave a comment and let me know.