Friday, June 26, 2009

Lovelove :)

Normal head to San Francisco day. Sunny summer bliss. I get onto the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at Fremont station. Watch the shadows and the people who get on and off. Normal head to San Francisco day. At Embarcadero station, the first in San Fran city, a couple of guys in women's lingerie (luckily the more modest kind) get on. Wait. This isn't normal, even for this flamboyant city. Then some women in lingerie (now you're talkin' ;) ) and finally a flood of colour and costumes and lace, all sexes, all orientations, all beliefs, all kinds of kinky squeezed into the train and pouring out onto the Civic Centre Station and finally out on Market Street.

There has to be something brewing. Overheard mentions of the phrase, 'love festival'. This sounds interesting. I follow the crowd. They're heading towards the San Francisco Civic Centre Park that lawns the City Hall and Supreme Court buildings. The flood becomes a tsunami that merges into an ocean of people at the square. Booming bass is reverberating beneath my feet. Like a homing pulse leading me down in the river to pray.

All along the streets circumventing the path, over two dozen huge party vehicles had been set up, DJs spinning, themes ranging from Military to psychedelic Hippie bus. All kinds of electronic music vibrate in a Monet-painting-like blur making sense to those who can step back. Way back. Jump from sound bubble to sound bubble, beat to beat, dancing girls to draw the crowds to..well you get the picture. The only thing that's common in every little party bubble? The dancing off course. Thousands and thousands of capering and flouncing, bounding and gyrating people in various stages and eras of dress and undress. Dirty old men in proverbial trench coats leering, nay drooling at lesbian lovers. Drag queens draped in colours aplently waltzing down the alley way. Pills a-popping, blots a-dropping, doobies a-blazing. While policemen stand with bemused expressions on the sidelines. One shrugs at the other, "hey, they're just having a good time."

It wasn't just a good time. There was a vibe that encompassed the whole shebang. It was love. Genuine expressive universal love. There were no frowns or exclusions. This wasn't just one big party. It was one big shout. Of "I love you" to the world. And it felt pretty damn great.

And rest in peace, Michael.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sandstone Swirls

We were somewhere around Page (Arizona), on the edge of the desert, in search for the elusive Antelope Canyon, when the radiating heat began to take hold (thank you Hunter). A quick pit stop at a petrol pump revealed that it was around the corner. Raaightt. This close to civilisation. Damn brouchures. U-turn, on the road, 4 miles to go. A little sign, dusty from its residence shows the way, to the parking lot. We pay $20. Squint and walk to the shack. More money. $25 each this time. And then wait. A dust storm is swirling towards us. No, two. A glint in the searing sun lets us know that they're jeeps. Smiling people get off. Smiling people get on. The Navajo Native American folks running the establishment had things planned pretty close. One hour per group. Includes the 10 mins taken off road, to go to and from the caves/canyons.

Antelope Canyon is a result of Navajo Sandstone getting sculpted by ravaging floods. The result is some of the most surrealistic caves I've ever seen. Everything is motion here. Even the tourist groups that are hurried along by expert guides. Expert at shepherding and pointing out which formation looks like a bear. I lagged behind, far more interested in the abstract forms that were dancing in my subconscious, screaming to be let out in pictures. No tripod or flash of course. As always.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"Katmandu, I’ll soon be seeing you"

There were two Katmandus.

The first was a dusty, dirty, smog-ridden city with erratic vehicular traffic. The roads made a Peenya or a Pahar Ganj or a Lower Parel seem like a walk by the riverside. The milling haphazard crowds gave the ones in India a run for their congestion. The high rises didn't really kiss the sky and all in all it was a dreary sight. There were some residential localities on the outskirts and palace areas that embraced some amount of green with the hills and mountains in the distance mocking the city dwellers.

The airport was another comedy of errors. In this day and age of extreme paranoia, there were no x-ray machines and bags were scarcely checked, if ever. Security check guards made friendly demands for chai paani tokens. Hell, you could've smuggled in a ton of contraband and only spent 10 Nepali rupees to appease the guards enough not to want to check you. There weren't any conveyor belts either, luggage being handed out individually to passengers. Merry times, merry times. Then on to a cabbie who will con you. It doesn't matter what you know or what research you've done. Somehow you will end up paying enough to elicit sniggers from your local friends. Luckily its one of the only places in the world where the Indian rupee is worth more than the local currency. I was so happy I ended up spending way too much.

On to Thamel, that den of vice, that cradle of firangi backpackers, that shoppers bliss, that hotbed of dance bars. A casual walk down from my hotel (thankfully on a quiet street away from the madness) to grab a quick bite meant turning down at least 20 propositions from various seedy looking men and garishly made-up women to join the festivities. Laser lights spill out onto the streets, along with loud tasteless pumping music and any attempt to photograph is met with a stern gaze from a nearby bouncer. But hey, its all part of the deal. Even the Nepal Tourism Board offers this advice, "Don't forget to have a drink at one of the local dance bars, where beautiful Nepali belles will dance circles around your pals."

The other Katmandu is a 20 minute walk away from this, quite incredibly. The sardined neon shops, night clubs, hotels and cafes in the narrow streets of Thamel relent to older building complexes and rabbit warrens, with wooden shops that have been around for centuries. The true face of Katmandu emerges as you near Basantapur Durbar. Once there, you're transported to another time. The huge pagoda styled buildings and temples line up around neat paved streets. I would ignore the cars and bikes, the coochi cooing couples and roadside romeos and gently blur my vision till it felt like I was walking through a Katmandu of the 18th century. I like that feeling of phasing out the modern fracas. A simpler life indeed. I wandered through Basantapur and Patan, the other big Durbar for hours on many occasions and not always to take pictures. Sometimes it just felt like I was in a different place far away from the city in a mystical Katmandu only I could see. Talk about delusions of grandeur. :)

The only commonality between the two Katmandus were the beautiful Nepali girls. Even New York in the summer can't hold a candle to the sheer numbers. You don't even feel lecherous or at least I didn't. I was in awe mostly. Made a young man want to brave the city and settle down here. The laws of probability would take care of the rest. I left like a good tourist but in the words of Cat Stevens (when he was indeed Cat Stevens), Katmandu, I'll soon be seeing you.

Wild Blue Yonder

You make the most of summer in Chicago. Even our most extreme climates here in India don't compare to the winter minimums of -20°C and the wind chill factor of -50°C with the blizzards of course. So Lake Michigan and the parks take on a festive air as the citizens of the windy city and surrounding 'burbs get out to have a good time.

An ideal time for an air show. I land up, camera and aunt ( Rangamani Periamma, mum's oldest sister) in tow and am gobsmacked by the 10s of thousands of people who've gotten there before us. Parents, couples, kids, picnic baskets, tents, fold-able chairs, barbecues, umbrellas, cameras, corporate promotions, protesters, army recruiters, teens, toys, world war vets - they're all there in complete sun worshipping attire.

Planes from four generations roar around, do formation runs, tricks defying the laws of physics. The Blue Angels, USA's premier air force formation squad flies inches away from each other earning collective gasps for fearless feats of daredevilry.

In the midst of all this recruiters from all wings of the armed forces rally around and rabble rouse the already impressed crowds, urging them to sign up for Uncle Sam. One even walks towards me with purpose and thinks the better of it when he sees my long hair and camera. Not ideal army material apparently.

Freedom of speech is alive and kicking here and a group of hippy protesters get the placards out to protest the war in Iraq and the air force's show boating , braving taunts of 'traitors' and even the occasional spitting on from irate republican patriots.

What a blast. Apologies to my aunt for keeping her out in the sun for long. :)

Monday, June 01, 2009

O Kabir

काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो उब
पल में प्रलय होएगी, बहुरि करोगे कुब

Kaal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ub

Pal Mein Pralaya Hoyegi, Bahuri Karoge Kub

(Tomorrows work do today, today's work now
if the moment is lost, the work be done how)

जब में था तब हरी नहींजब हरी है में नहीं नहीं
सब अँधियारा मिट गया जब दीपक देख्या महीन

Jab Mein Tha Tab Hari Nahin‚ Jab Hari Hai Mein Nahin
Sab Andhiyara Mit Gaya‚ Jab Deepak Dekhya Mahin

(When "I" was, then Hari was not, Now Hari "is" and "I" am not
All the darkness (illusions) mitigated, When I saw the light (illumination) within.....
couldn't resist..hehe)

धीरे धीरे रे मन, धीरे सुब कुत्च होए
माली सींचे सो घर, ऋतू आए फल होए

Dheere Dheere Re Mana, Dheere Sub Kutch Hoye
Mali Seenche So Ghara, Ritu Aaye Phal Hoye

(Slowly slowly O mind, everything in its own pace happens
The Gardener may water a hundred buckets, the fruit arrives only in its season)


Artists - Prahlad Tipanya, Muktiyar Ali

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cow's it going?

Their tanned smiling faces are still etched in my memory. On my way to the Sufi Durbar in the Nagaur Fort in Rajasthan, there was a large cloud of dust, meaning only two thing in the still desert. A dust storm or an exodus. It turned out to be an exodus all right but joining the humans and their monster trucks were cud chewing cows, Arabian looking horses, scared goats and loads of haughty camels. Inspection and business were the order of the day along with some good old cattle wrangling. Buyer and sellers had arrived from all over Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and even Gujarat to bargain their way into a new herd or at least a few heads.

Mini-temporary encampments had mushroomed up everywhere and by the seventh invite to partake a meal, I realised there was a spirit of camaraderie as well. This was a expo, picnic and excursion all rolled into one nice thick, spicy aloo ki paronti. As you might have assumed, I didn't wait for the eighth invitation to tuck into the aromatic delicacies tempting my olfactory nerves.

After plenty of handshakes and sometimes forced, sometimes voluntary petting of what seems like 500 animals, I felt like I was part of this wandering group of livestock farmers. Accepted into the fold, if I may. But two days later as I passed that way again, straining to see that cloud of dust, I was disappointed to see the well behaved desert once more. Vast, arid, shrubby but completely devoid of all life. My temporary family and other animals had disappeared like a mirage.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Downtown, where all the lights are bright....

I don't think I ever looked down on my first two visits to Manhattan. The glowering shimmering giants on all sides drew my gaze like reflecting magnets. Even the gleeful abundance of lovely ladies in their summer best couldn't coax my eyes down to earth. At times they were almost people and I walked about naming them, sometimes I even waved. And at others the shapes and angles, windows and blocks all merged into abstract visions. Let's go downtown....

Friday, May 15, 2009

A railway runs through it

It was a bit surrealistic really. Vishakapatnam is a city I wouldn't visit again in my wildest nightmares. It didn't help that the only 'beach front' motel that we could afford was a moth eaten glorified brothel. I kid you not. I've been around and this is pretty much the shadiest place I've ever had to stay. Lingering odours of cheap choking perfume in the hallways. A so-called office room facing the sea, apparently of limits turned out to be a garishly decorated bedroom straight out of some b-grade skin flick (don't ask how I know that). Then the mosquitos. Not in the tens but apparently in the thousands, buzzing about our room gorging on our four sapped blood lines. And the sticky stifling heat, making me long for an AC in a way I didn't think possible. With this kind of introduction to the Andhra coast, which btw is hardly awe inspiring, we were left with hardly any hope as we made our way to the hills.

But then we got off at TYDA, a tiny glorified hamlet with one, thankfully mosquito and cheap perfume free, affordable and all round nice hotel run by the Andhra tourism department with rooms with names like Golden Oriole and Raquet Tailed Drongo (bird watchers of the world, UNITE). There we were in the hills, in the midst of a large patch of forest and glory be, it rained. After two days of stiffling soaring Andhra temperatures, it was more than a miracle. It was heaven on earth. And wonder of wonders. This little place in the hills had a railway station. Ya, the ones in and around Darjeeling and Shimla are charming but this was the real thing. A broad gauge railway line higher than anywhere else in our impressive Indian railways. And in the middle of a veritable jungle. Instant love.

Even more than a couple of hamlets and some tribals the largest concentration of humans here is the railway community, from Andhra and across the border from Orissa. They live in their humble but charming quarters adjoining the stations and lead a fascinating, even enviable life. The youngsters here don't think so, yearning for the multiplex-mall lifestyle so glorified in most movies. No hot girls waltzing by in minis, no superbikes whizzing around the corner, not even a movie theatre in a 50 km radius. Who can blame them? Meanwhile we city slickers yearn for the quiet simplicity of the hills, away from the noise, pollution and constant bombardment of information. Ironic huh?

Anyway, I've figured out that flickr slideshows can be imported here, so that means a lot less scrolling for you lazy fingered folks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obamania

Travelling in the states in the height of election fever had its advantages. I thought a photo essay on his supporters would suffice but through a series of fortunate incidents I found myself in Times Square, New York City, on the day the results were being announced. People turned out in droves and I got to capture some truly joyous reactions.



Friday, August 08, 2008

Gold, Maroon and Red








Nepal's Goa

I'm aware that Nepal is landlocked and does not posses a beach. In fact many people I met on my travels have never seen the sea, ever. But Pokhra (not to be confused with Pokhran in India, the site for our nuclear tests), which is a 40 minute flight or a 5-8 hour bus ride from Kathmandu evokes the same ethos that Goa does in India. It's the getaway, the sun and lake water, the firangs and trippers. It's most importantly the easiest gateway into the mighty Himalayas, in this case the Annapurna range. Again, due to my brilliant timing I could see no mountains but on most Oct/Nov and Feb/Mar days you can see the whole Annapurna Range distantly towering over the town of Pokhra. Like Goa, you can rent bikes and bicycles and like Goa, you can chose from a range of accommodation that can either dent or caress your wallet. There's also the never ending line of shops, bars and live music to keep you occupied.
If you like me is more of a romantic, deserted South Goa type, you should head to Begnas lake, 23 kms away (scroll down for photos). Or trek up one of the many hills surrounding Pokhra to get unparalleled green views.

Lord Shiva Cave temple a couple of Kms away. You can cross the lake, walk up to the Buddhist Stupa on the other side catching fabulous views on the way. In the photo below you would see a snow mountain range where you see clouds. From the stupa you could go around to see the Shiva Temple and then get back to the lake the long way around. Around 10 Kms totally.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hard Rain


It was supposed to be a four day trek through paradise. Green giving way to white and the broad, steep trail taking me higher as I reached Ghorepani, where the view kisses the snow mountains of the Annapurna Range.




But I am the rain man and the clouds follow me as I move. Don't get me wrong. I love the rain as much as the next umbrella but when you're trudging up a 75 degree slope as water gushes down in torrents you tend to question your beliefs. Even more, when there's no one in a 2 km radius to sit down and have a good complain. Its just you and the rain and the constant prayer that your shoe souls won't decide to do yet another slip and slide. All that is a boogie on the dance floor compared to the little worm like creatures that take an instant liking to you.




Actually, they're leeches and unlike the imaginary Nosferatu, they are indeed "here to suck yourrr bllluddd." From all the most unlikely places. They could be nice leeches and drink their fill from your feet or even your arms but no. Instead you will be happily squishing your way through some jungle and catch the first human face you've seen in hours scrunch up in horror as they reach out for your neck and pull out a swollen slimy creature dripping with your blood sucked two inches from your jugular. What fun. What a laugh. Shall we sing? Shall we dance?



Are you crazy? Splash and dash brother. That's the only way to escape these little blood lusters. This being a brilliantly planned circuit around the Annapurna range has places to crash and stuff one's face every two to three hours so you can take your pick for accomodation at the very basic and mostly clean lodges that have rooms for a hundred nepali rupees a night with a hundred more for a hot shower. Now food comes at a premium here especially in the off season, when pony trains and porters are less frequent. You could be spending upwards of 700-800 bucks a day to replenish your lost energy. The higher you go the more expensive everything gets. But you like I can save a good amount by not hiring a guide or porter. Doing it alone might not have been the best idea in hindsight but I have no regrets.



Except not seeing the mountains. Did I mention that the wonderful clouds that are my friends successfully obliterated every possible view I could have all along the way. At Ghorepani and Poon Hill, loved and praised for their wall to wall mountains I got to see what it feels like to live in a cloud. Permanently. The fog never lifted although my spirits didn't suffer too much. I splashed my way down realising for the hundredth time that going downhill is so much more difficult since you have to focus constantly on every single step especially since the continuous rain has resulted in a waterfall, through which I gingerly descend.


The rain Gods might have been smirking but I guess somebody else up there seems to like me since I managed to get back in one soaking piece. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had a bad fall up there on my own. But its all good and another experience chalked up from the game of life.



If you don't want similar experiences do the circuit in Oct/Nov or Feb/March. The views are fabulous I'm told. :)

Shanti Stupas






Sunday, July 27, 2008

WE WANT GORKHALAND!!!

"It was a terrible time," says my dear Darjeeling buddy, Ujwal, the memory of the Gorkhaland riots of the late 1980s etched in his mind as clearly as the air in the hills. And it was. The official death toll was put at 1200 and many times that number was injured. It's hard to imagine such a time, as I gaze out at a zen-like tea garden, in a Darjeeling, I've swiftly and surely begun to love.



With the brilliant coverage that our nation's fine press gives the North-East, I'm sure everyone knows everything that goes on there. Oh, wait. That's in some parallel universe. Here, no one gives a shit. Until the protests reached this fevered pitch resounding down to the valley.


Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Subash Ghishing, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) terrorised the hills in a demand for a separate state for the Gorkhas, until the wonderful art of negotiation the GNLF, innocuously renamed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council to have a free run, in exchange for dropping the Gorkhaland ideal.


But corruption and atrocities will only be ignored for so long. In 2007, Ghishing was run out of the hills and a new party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) was formed under the leadership of the Bimal Gurung. They resurrected the ghost of Gorkhaland and are now demanding a state comprising Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, a few other regions in the hills and Siliguri. Of these the last has proved to be a thorn in the side for the West Bengal government. As a gateway (albeit a city of squalor) to the whole of the North East of India, Siliguri has the enviable job of collecting a tax and toll from every truck, train or aircraft bearing cargo to and from the region. There's the catch. Even if the West Bengal government was prepared to relinquish control of the hills, mainly prided for tea and tourism, giving up Siliguri would be too big a bitter pill to swallow.


That hasn't stopped the GJM and as I lay languishing in the sweet pre-monsoon of Darjeeling, the chants rent the air, already thick with fog. The looping almost musical Nepali and English cries of thousands of Gorkhas demanding their identity. I'm looked on with curiosity as every other tourist has flown from the intermittent strikes and constant peaceful protests. Whether they are adequately equipped to handle their own affairs is left to a time when they will be given the key. Until then, like my many friends in Darjeeling keep saying, we can only wait and watch.