7 books for the road!

I never travel without books. And I don’t consider travelling time as catching up on my reading. To me reading and travelling go hand in hand. Reading occupies my space everyday in intervals as fillers – that little time in the morning before I get up get up, that little time waiting for my travel partner to get ready before we step out, that little time after we order food in a restaurant and waiting for it to arrive, and wherever there is a scope for waiting there is scope for reading. Usually, my Kindle is stocked with books that I want to read during my travels. Sometimes, I also travel with paperbacks. My reading is a good mix of both electronic and print versions of books.

Here are the Seven books I travelled with and enjoyed reading (or sometimes left me with a deep sense of longing). I associate these books with the trips I made.

1. Footloose in the Himalayas – Bill Aitken

Part memoir, part travelogue, Footloose in the Himalayas chronicles Bill Aitken’s  eternal love affair with the mountains. A British citizen, Aitken travelled to India after his studies in the 60s and the book is a record of his time living and working in the ashrams of Kausani and Mirtola. The book provides rich, insightful anecdotes on life in the Himalayas and is also an often humurous account on daily life in the hills.

Footloose in the Himalayas

Footloose in the Himalayas – picture from amazon.in

2. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s classic college love story ages quite well. No matter how many times you read it, you never tire of its characters set in the middle of 1960s Toru Watanabe, Naoko and Midori. This book is also considered to be Murakami’s ticket to superstardom. To me though, the book is often reminiscent of rides in city buses.

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood – picture by beckybedbug.com

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed lost her mother, drifted away from her family and went through a divorce fueled by her drug abuse. While going through a terrible phase in her life, Cheryl decides to hike the 1,100 mile long Pacific Crest Trail. She subjects herself to the physically gruelling trail and provides glimpses from her life that led her to the hike, capturing many beautiful moments in a beautifully felt narrative.

Wild - picture by grownorthwest.com

Wild – picture by grownorthwest.com

4. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer

Travel writing legend Pico Iyer’s essay collection is about his travels, as the title suggests, in some of the lonely places of the world. Richly insightful and extremely entertaining, Iyer’s travels take him to far off corners of the world – North Korea, Iceland, Paraguay and Cuba.

Falling off the map - picture by thehindu.com

Falling off the map – picture by thehindu.com

5. The Road

If you are into reading apocalyptic novels, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is quite your type of book. This novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows the struggles of two survivors – a father and a son. McCarthy dedicates the book to his son John Francis McCarthy and the novel derives its roots from a road trip he took with his son.

The road - picture by amazon.com

The road – picture by amazon.com

6. Beautiful Ruins

The title for Jeff Walter’s Beautiful Ruins sits quite well with the book’s narrative and setting. Set in 1962 Italy and present day Hollywood, the narrative switches places and characters following the life of Pasquale and the mystery Hollywood actor Dee Moray who arrives at his doorsteps on a boat, seemingly to die. Walter’s writing evokes visually rich imagery and the book is quite, ahem, unputdownable.

beautiful ruins - picture by goodreads.com

beautiful ruins – picture by goodreads.com

5. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller memoir gets trashed a lot but it is quite amazing what she did with this book. With a cynical eye and never letting an opportunity slip up to laugh at herself, Gilbert’s entertaining account of her travels in Europe (Italy) and Asia (India, Indonesia) is quite a travel companion. And I read it when I was in Bali just so I could get a feel of the place through Gilbert’s voice.

Eat, Pray, Love - picture by gatheringbooks.org

Eat, Pray, Love – picture by gatheringbooks.org

Do you read during your travels? Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Chasing the Northern Lights – Part I – Guestpost

There is a benefit of having a bunch of well travelled friends. You can badger them with requests for guest posts. This post is a result of my badgering a well-travelled, well-so-on-and-so-forth friend who is currently based in the cold corners of London. Sownak (whose travel journal can be accessed here http://doesnotxsist.blogspot.in/) When you can’t be everywhere, you have friends who can write a guest post for you. This is a two-part post about Sownak’s experiences visiting the Northern Lights. Do read and leave a comment.

The day I landed in Oslo, I made a promise to myself, that I will see the Aurora Borealis popularly known as the Northern Lights, whatever it might cost to me. And when I boarded the early morning flight to Tromsø, I was happy that I was about to fulfill my promise.

Tromsø is situated in northern Norway, very much inside the Arctic Circle, which makes it a popular destination to catch the Lights. Due to its location near the sea as well as the presence of the Gulf Stream, it is warmer than other places on the same latitude, and is hence more popular. The best time to catch the Lights is between October and March, as during these times, the nights are completely dark. December to February is more suited due to clearer skies.

The flight from Oslo landed in Tromsø at about 10 am. It was like twilight outside and it was going to stay so till about 3 pm, and then it would get darker. I was booked via airbnb and my host was kind enough to pick me up from the airport. After a quick freshening up, I was dressed in 5 layers again, and was ready to brave the nearing zero temperatures.

The aurora forecast was good (check http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/ ), but the weather seemed to be a little gloomy. I was booked for the Aurora tour at about 6 pm, and I had a lot of time to kill till then. There are a few interesting places to visit in the town.

The temperature was nearing zero which means there was lot of ice on the roads, and since this is no city, no one bothered to clear the road of the ice. Even with my big snow boots lined with 200g thinsulate insulation, I was feeling the chill and I had to take care not to step on the ice. It was almost like walking in a mud-ridden street in India, where the only difference was that I was trying to avoid the ice patches instead of the muddy patches. It was time for some hot Gløgg – a warm, spicy drink similar to German Glühwein.

The architecture in Tromsø is quite interesting, from the Arctic Cathedral, to the Public Library, it was evident that the architects tried to break the gloominess of the winter through their creations. And in my opinion, they did not fail.

Tromso City at night

Tromso City at night

Soon it was time for chasing the Aurora. We boarded the mini-van, and our guide took us to a really dark part of the Island. The only light was the light from our cameras and the moon. The best location to view the Lights was from some place which is really dark, so as to reduce the possible light pollution. We waited at the location, partly illuminated by passing cars, but the Aurora was playing hide and seek. The skies were not clear either, and as soon as we got a faint view of the Lights, the sky was covered by clouds.

Star Gazing

Star Gazing

Waiting at the Beach

Waiting at the Beach

Road less travelled

Road less travelled

We moved around to a different place, on some kind of beach. We had to be careful about the slippery ice, and our second phase of wait started there. It wasn’t too bad to wait in a place far from civilization, sitting under the skies, on a beach illuminated by the moon, and sipping a cup of hot chocolate. The faint Lights were visible again, and some of us caught it on camera, but it was not very satisfying.

Moonlight

Moonlight

Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral

Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral

Faint View of the Aurora

Faint View of the Aurora

Arctic Cathedral at night

Arctic Cathedral at night

By 12 am we all were cold enough and accepted that catching the Aurora needs a lot of luck. By then the sky was overcast and light snow started. We packed all our camera gear and wrapped up for the night. By the time we reached Tromsø, an inch of snow has covered the roads, and hoping that tomorrow will be a better day (or night), I wrapped myself under the double quilt.

Looking at the pictures, it wasn’t a bad day after all.

Is Northern Lights on your bucket list? Or have you struck it off recently? Do leave a comment.

IUCN Red List – 8 Indian bird species have been added

According to the latest IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List (2014), a whopping 173 Indian bird species now fall under the category Threatened. Many moved from Vulnerable to Threatened, and even Critically Endangered (like the case of Bugun Liocichla from the North-East). According to a press release by Bombay Natural History Society, studies conducted by BNHS-India, BirdLife International (UK) and other partner organizations have found that eight other bird species have newly entered the threatened list.
Woolly-necked Stork, Andaman Teal (both uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable), Andaman Green Pigeon, Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, Red-headed Falcon, Himalayan Griffon, Bearded Vulture and Yunnan Nuthatch are the eight species of birds newly added to the list. These birds have been uplisted from Least Concern to Near Threatened. Uplisted, in this parlance refers to moving up the list, “deeper into the danger zone” according to the press release.
Bugun Liocichla
First described by modern science in the 1990s this tiny bird has till now been reported from a few areas such as Eaglenest Sanctuary and Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, India. It is likely to exist in other areas of the state and some neighbouring areas of Bhutan and China.
Bugun Liocichla - courtesy Wikipedia

Bugun Liocichla – courtesy Wikipedia

 Woolly-necked Stork
Although found in most parts of India Woolly-necked Stork is facing rapid population decline.
Woolly-necked Stork - by Kaipally on Wikipedia

Woolly-necked Stork – by Kaipally on Wikipedia

Andaman Teal
Andaman Teal is found only on Great Coco Island and Andaman Islands of India with less than 1000 individuals recorded till now.
Andaman Teal courtesy Indianaturewatch.net
Andaman Green Pigeon
Endemic to the Andaman and Nicobar islands of India, it is estimated that a couple of thousand individuals may exist.
green pigeon courtesy indianaturewatch.net

green pigeon courtesy indianaturewatch.net

Ashy-headed Green Pigeon
 This bird is confined to the north-eastern states of India.
Red-headed Falcon
Still found in declining numbers in most parts of India (except the Himalayan ranges) and several neighbouring countries, it has disappeared from many areas. In Pakistan it has declined partly due to the falconry trade.
Red-Headed Falcon - courtesy Wikipedia

Red-Headed Falcon – courtesy Wikipedia

Himalayan Griffon
Found only in the Himalayan ranges, Himalayan Griffon is likely to decline further due to the impact of diclofenac use in livestock, as in the case of several other vulture species.
Griffon by Jan-reurink on Wikipedia

Griffon by Jan-reurink on Wikipedia

Bearded Vulture
Bearded Vulture or Lammergeyer is also found in the Himalayan ranges in India and similar habitats in other parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. It has been facing moderately rapid population decline.
Bearded Vulture - by Richard Bartz on Wikipedia

Bearded Vulture – by Richard Bartz on Wikipedia

Yunnan Nuthatch
Yunnan Nuthatch found in Yunnan province of China, has been recorded only in Arunachal Pradesh in India. Habitat loss from a variety of factors such as infrastructure development and forest fires and poaching and use of chemicals are jeopardizing the existence of these and other threatened species.
Yunnan Nuthatch - by L Shyamal on Wikipedia

Yunnan Nuthatch – by L Shyamal on Wikipedia

The total number of species recognised by BirdLife in the 2014 Red List is 10,425. Among them category-wise break-up is as follows: Extinct: 140; Extinct in the Wild: 4; Critically Endangered: 213; Endangered: 419; Vulnerable: 741; NearThreatened: 959; Least Concern: 7,886 and Data Deficient: 62. Species are assigned to a particular category based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trends, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as Threatened.
All data from BNHS press release.

 

A brief ode to Muscat

Before Oman became what it is now – its grand mosques, white sand beaches and mud castles are haunted by tourists from far and wide thanks to the explosion in tourism – it used to be a flourishing Middle Eastern destination for Indians seeking better wages. It still is, in many ways but it has opened up so much it seems virtually impossible for me to identify with the Muscat it is now. Because I spent three years in the country and its capital Muscat working in an automobile conglomerate.

The work was nothing much to rave about – it seemed to me that I am no more than a glorified office assistant – and the living conditions were strictly ok. I was put in an accommodation facing an empty ground past which stood a lifeless, craggy mountain face but I loved the privacy my room offered. I made long lasting friendships – many of them still are my friends – and the experience sort of shaped me up as an individual.

Perhaps owing to its oil wealth dwindling, Oman decided to go the tourism way. Because even when I was living there between 2003 – 2005, I knew the country had potential as an offbeat touristic destination. Regardless of what Muscat offered me in life and what I gave the city in return, I loved the country’s pristine beaches. Despite the humiliation an Indian might suffer at the hands of a local businessman selling trinkets at the Muttrah souk (these rings are for women, said one strictly to me when I dug into the basket of silver rings), I loved its vibe. There could be nothing authentic about the crowded alleyways of Ruwi and its jeweler shops or its nut sellers but scratch a bit deeper, the real Oman will reveal itself in layers.

The abandoned mud castles from centuries ago, the country’s green patch Salalah, the world class roads and the automobiles and the fast-as-the-wind drivers are part and parcel of the country that so staunchly did not want to leg go of its identity in the region. Well good for them, Oman is increasingly being perceived among the top must travel destination lists by glossies. Backpackers destination it is not. It is being marketed as the travel destination for the luxury vagabond.

In a similar vein, Bollywood is waking up to Oman now. In 2004, an insipid Akshay Kumar movie named Aan: Men At Work was only one of the few movies to be shot in the country. Now though increasingly Bollywood wants a piece of Oman.

Revisiting Oman is sure on my list, albeit not on a priority list. And when I do, I want to retrace my footsteps and to witness the changes (if any) the country has gone through in the years since I left it.

Here are a few pictures, courtesy Sreelesh, a friend from my Omanese days..

Royal Opera House - Muscat

Royal Opera House – Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

An Omani Castle

An Omani Castle

A windswept Omani castle

A windswept Omani castle

Sultan Taimur Bin Faisal Mosque

Sultan Taimur Bin Faisal Mosque

Muscat on a cloudy day

Muscat on a cloudy day

Taimur Mosque

Taimur Mosque

Qurum beach

Qurum beach

Sultan Taimur Bin Faisal Mosque

Sultan Taimur Bin Faisal Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

 

Have you been to Oman? What do you think? Leave a comment.

Access more of Sreelesh’s photographic awesomeness here.

Birds of my backyard – Part II

The rains have brought in a bevy of beauties to the backyard. I spotted a few newbies in the bunch and some strange behaviors too. Although the pictures this time are better, they are no way world class. But I am quite satisfied with the peacock picture you will see here. There is something about that picture I can’t quite put a finger on that is making it a cut above the rest. To think that I took it in a hurry.

Plus, I am also not promising totally new ones as opposed to the earlier post but the ones here are certainly better pictured. Or so I think. Read and leave a comment so I know you visited!

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-hooded Orioles are very common in our backyard in Kerala. Their stark yellow coat, black hood and pink beaks are ubiquitous as they hop from tree to tree looking for insects and fruits.

Black hooded golden oriole

Black-hooded Oriole

Black hooded golden oriole

Black-hooded Oriole

White-cheeked barbet a.k.a Spot the Bird in the Picture

Honestly, this bird has got to be a lifer (the term used to denote in birders tongue that I am seeing this one for the first time). Though these resident birds are not rare to come by, they are supremely well camouflaged making them difficult to spot. As you can see, let your eyes get used to the picture until you figure out the bird in the picture.

White-cheeked barbet

White-cheeked barbet

White-cheeked barbet

White-cheeked barbet

Common Birds – Myna & Jungle Babbler

These are resident birds of every household in Kerala. If you have a house with a big enough front-yard, these birds will be constant company on your lazy afternoons and rainy evenings. Rain drenched, their beauty is accentuated as you can see here.

A jungle warbler

A Jungle Babbler

A common myna

A common myna

Green Damselfly

No that’s not what this damselfly is called, I just made it up (although it is quite possible it is what this one is called). I take my excuse in the fact that classification of damselflies (in western ghats) is still at a nascent stage.

A dragon fly

A dragon fly

Jungle Owlet

This one seems to have mistaken the clouded, gray day to be the onset of the dusk. He was out around noon, when on a drab, rainy day. Also I think this guy / gal is a juvenile.

Jungle Owlet

Jungle Owlet

Rufous Woodpecker

Another common resident with a ‘shaggy crest’ and ‘short black bill’ as noted by Carol & Timm Inskipp in their ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent.’

Rufous Woodpecker

Rufous Woodpecker

Yellow-billed Babbler

I saw a Yellow-billed babbler feeding on a chick. The chick was making quite a racket but it got me thinking whether it could be the chick of the Yellow-billed babbler at all. Because for one, the chick seemed to be bigger than the adult babbler itself. Any thoughts? Have I got the bird wrong and witnessed a strange behavior?

Yellow-billed Babbler

Yellow-billed Babbler

Yellow-billed Babbler feeding

Yellow-billed Babbler feeding

Mystery birds

I couldn’t fathom what these birds are. One looks like a sunbird and the other I have absolutely no clue of. Care to clarify? Leave a comment and let me know. I will be grateful to you, expert birder.

Mystery bird - sunbird?

Mystery bird – sunbird?

Mystery bird - no clue

Mystery bird – no clue

Peacock

Peacock is a persistent company in the backyard, so are their calls. This one knew he was the center of my camera’s attention and skittered away soon. But I managed this shot. You like? Leave a comment.

The skittering peacock

The skittering peacock

What does your backyard have? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Nainital to Delhi – Trip to the tear-drop lake

Delhi’s weather in March is a breeze, literally and metaphorically so. There is still that slight nip in the air and the sky gets clouded momentarily bringing down unseasonal yet welcome showers – signs the winter is bidding goodbye. However, its conniving pleasantness in March also effectively holes up the impending harshness of its horrid summers and its extremely dry and punishing days. March, hence, is the season for road trips.

Almost rubbing shoulders with the foothills of mountains, Delhi is flanked by the hills of Uttrakhand and Himachal Pradesh and Himalayas is only at an arm’s reach. Or say a few hours’ drive, the only gripe being that the drive extends outside the well-laid highways of Delhi and into the hinterlands of UP’s non-existence road infrastructure. A Delhi – Nainital road trip was never in the scheme of things but when I had a few spare days left and when Delhi’s weather turned drippy like a sick child’s runny nose, I decided to hop on a ride with a friend.

He wanted company, a riding partner, I sought adventure and our interests boded well. It was his first long-distance mountain ride after he purchased his Bullet 500 and he naturally thought having a pillion rider will provide moral support in the event of a breakdown. His greater fear, though I discovered later, was that the dreaded man-eater tigress Mysterious Queen that was in the prowl in the sugarcane fields in the villages around the Corbett Reserve Area. In the off chance of an encounter, he did not want to be alone. She had already devoured about a dozen humans.

Suddenly, his mundane question about what I prefer during my travels, the journey or destination made so much sense to me. I told him it was the journey because it is filled with experiences, stories, people and so on. Looks like, there will be drama too.

We left Delhi around afternoon and reached Ghaziabad a little later than lunch after beating Delhi’s weekday traffic. After filling up on aloo – pyaaz paratha in a nameless dhaba off Ghaziabad, we rode into the mid-day sun. A Google map suggested diversion took us from Moradabad through Tanda, which was god awful to say the least. There were potholes where there should be a road the size of lunar craters filled with slush from the recent rains. The bike moaned but never gave up on us and brought us to NH47 but we couldn’t take it anymore. We decided to give our battered bodies and rattling bones rest and stayed the night in Bazpur.

Riding through Corbett country

Riding through Corbett country

 

But it was update time and Adamya called his mother with the latest. “You should see Prathap now, he looks like a raccoon,’ I overheard him tell his mother. I quickly slipped into the bathroom to inspect my face in the mirror and found myself staring at a face resembling not unlike a raccoon’s – caked in layers of grime, except the area of the skin hidden under the sunglasses. Sure, raccoon sounds apt. A raucous wedding party in the next building and half-decent beds notwithstanding, we slept like babies that night.

The next day we started from Bazpur and rode through hordes of wheat fields and as we gained elevation, terrace fields, grazing cattle, river deltas came into view. Before reaching Naini, we ate a hearty plate of Maggie and bread omlette for breakfast. Adamya wanted to know if Maggie tasted better in high altitudes to which I answered Maggie tastes like Maggie, no matter the altitude.

With tiny alleys overflowing with shops, roads congested with four wheelers and shops announcing paraphernalia from hill products to high-end clothing, Naini has all the makings of a hill station. I sat in the bench by the tear-drop shaped lake and stretched my legs, basking in the sunlight while Adamya went hunting for a room. That being a weekday, it wasn’t difficult to find a hotel. For a decent rate, we found a place that also offered a slice of the view of the lake. After a while, we hired a pedal boat and went into Naini. The sun was at its peak and cormorants dove into the water for fish.

Soon enough it was time for the ultimate Naini attraction, the cable car. We bought our tickets and hopped onto one. The driver, an elderly gentleman, operated our car and when it reached the destination he let the vehicle ram into the pillar next to the platform. Not so much because he wanted to, but there is no other way to ensure precision while landing. That explains the hundreds of scratch marks on the car. I flinched but for him it’s all in a day’s work. On the way back, I got bunched up with few women whose convivial banter with each other bordered on morbidity, mocking the safety of the car. What if this thing snaps and tumbles down? One asked. As a manner of addressing their husbands, another one answered: ‘saalon bachch jaoge’. You’ll be saved fellas. Perfect, I thought, this trip has so far been all about threats and humiliations.

Boating on the Naini lake

Boating on the Naini lake

 

Naini town is charmingly unassuming and its attractions range from lakes (Bhim Tal, Naukuchia Tal, Khurpa Tal) to many other strategic regions in the Kumaon Himalayas. Thanks to its history and heritage steeped in colonial times, Nainital also has picnic spots (tiffin top), summer homes (Gurney House) and the astronomical institute of ARIES on Manohara Peak. We rode to Kilbery and found the season’s last snow piled up on the road. Adamya, from Delhi, couldn’t resist the snow and dove straight in asking his pictures to be taken in various poses.

We rode further up to Pangot and returned after tea. Chatting up with the chaiwala at Pangot provided us with the knowledge that there exists an alternate route to Delhi that reduces the possibility of us encountering lunar craters on the road by more than half.

Naini - the tear drop shaped lake

Naini – the tear drop shaped lake

 

The rapid increase in tourism – Nainital being the quintessential honeymoon destination – is increasingly spelling death knell to the town and the lake’s eco-system. Conservation efforts by the district administration and municipality seem to have yielded results at least in the Naini Lake. The lake is not cluttered with plastic waste and recent studies have suggested that pollution levels have drastically reduced in the lake improving the quality of the water. It is a good start but with increasing tourism activity, the problem though is sustainability of these measures. Of which I sincerely hope there should be no dearth.

The sights, smells and other senses of Eid in Bangalore

Yesterday I went to Sivaji Nagar in Bangalore to experience the Eid festivities first hand. Muslims across the world culminate their month-long fasting and celebrate Eid shortly. The Beef Market area, a culinary mecca for meat-lovers, comes to life during the Eid period serving up delectable varities of chicken, beef and lamb dishes by roadside stalls. The clank of metal ladles in big, aluminum vessels containing biryani, the smoke rising up from the shashlik counters and vendors selling sweets fill the already constricted area. Locals come in hordes to break their fast, feast on the variety on offer and catch up with friends. Shops that sell clothes and other stuff are also aplenty.

Some pictures.

The mosque - all done up

The mosque – all done up

Biryani, anyone?

Biryani, anyone?

Haleem, ready to be served

Haleem, ready to be served

Haleem, in a pot

Haleem, in a pot

Meat being skewered

Meat being skewered

IMG_8025

Some chicken, anyone?

Some chicken, anyone?

Tiger bhai is ready to serve

Tiger bhai is ready to serve

Lassi, for the greasy stomach

Lassi, for the greasy stomach

Custard, lined up

Custard, lined up

Deep fried, sweet snack

Deep fried, sweet snack

Savory vermicelli

Savory vermicelli

On the rocks.

On the rocks.

Catching up.

Catching up.

Fire burning, Fire burning...

Fire burning, Fire burning…

Mosque, at a distance

Mosque, at a distance

Are you celebrating Eid in your part of the world? Leave a comment.