A day on a boat.. with plenty of time to sit and stare

Sundarban… The name entered my brain during a book club reading of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh… and stayed there doing in some dark corner, doing nothing, waiting to be forgotten.

Then, with all the Kolkata planning, I thought, why not use the opportunity to travel a little further – Darjeeling? Sikkim? Agartala? Thanks to the internet, the mind can travel without any constraints. As it turned out, all my potential travel partners had to leave right after the wedding, and I only managed to convince my parents to stay on a couple of days longer, then frantically tried to find some places near Kolkata to visit.

That’s when (aided by Google and some other sites) Sundarban jumped right out from that cold storage of my brain right to the forefront. It made perfect sense to fit it in our West Bengal travel – Baba likes his art and architecture, so we had Shantiniketan – and Mummy likes nature and wildlife – Sundarban made just the right balance. There is only one good place to stay if you want any chance of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger; that is the Sunderban Tiger Camp, situated inside the protected area of the forest. But, good luck with trying to get them to respond over a simple email from overseas. I had none.

Quick facts: Sundarban is a protected area of dense mangrove forests that straddles the south-eastern tip of West Bengal, India and parts of Bangladesh, and is one of the largest reserves of the Bengal tiger. It derives its name from the Sundari trees that are present in abundance in the region.

We settled for another tour company that were much more responsive. Their resort in the village bordering the Sundarban was neat and comfortable enough.

Tour around Sunderban

There’s no electricity in the village. The power in the evening comes from generators. And the villagers choose to use that power to blare long music all evening. It may have been a way to scare off man-eating tigers, now that I think about it. Not much crowd in the middle of the week, but we had some Baul geet entertainment until late at night. This kid seemed to be quite popular, he makes appearances on TV, and some of the audience had him sing requests too.

Tour around Sunderban

The first afternoon we set out to the Watch Tower, which was actually a tiger (protected) area. No tigers in the wild, a couple in enclosures, the less said about that the better.

Tour around Sunderban Tour around Sunderban

A disappointing start, but we had some lovely sunset views to enjoy.

The next morning, we set out earlyish, along with another family from the resort, on our boat cruise.

Tour around Sunderban

Tour around Sunderban

Our timing for visiting the Sunderbans was off, most of the animals are to be spotted early morning or evening, and we were wandering about in the middle of the day. We did see a few deer, monitor lizard, crocodiles from a distance, but for the most part we lounged on the boat, chatting and eating.

I wish I’d planned the excursion better, but as a means to bond with parents (who often complain that I’m forever running off), this one was perfect!

Tour around Sunderban

And as I was writing this post, I remembered a painting by Rabindranath Tagore. Was the scene above the inspiration for that painting, I wonder?

tagore4

Santiniketan: The Crucible of Bengali Culture

It had been Baba’s wish for years to visit Kolkata and Santiniketan. The wedding in the family gave us the perfect excuse to be there and do that.

En route to Shantiniketan, we took a little detour to visit Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramkrishna Mission, established by Swami Vivekanand, a disciple of Ramkrishna Paramahansa. The flowers were in full bloom everywhere, and some of them will make an appearance here. Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple complex, including the museum, which is probably a good thing. We could focus on the exhibits and feel the aura. You’re expected to take off your shoes and walk around, which is surprisingly not a big problem as the campus is very neat and clean.

On the way out, we stopped to sample some jhaalmudi, checking off one of Mom’s wishlist items. And admired the cool battery-powered e-rickshaws running around.

Weekend in Shantiniketan

Someone was drying their laundry on the sidewalk. All laid out in order.

Weekend in Shantiniketan

Santiniketan is what gives the Bengalis most of their bragging rights, thanks to the achievements of Rabindranath Tagore and his family. Artist, author, poet, composer, dramatist, and all-round renaissance man, Rabindranath Tagore set up the Viswa Bharti University, based on his principles of offering a natural, open environment for education to free minds from the confines of a classroom. The university was expanded with the help of his Nobel Prize money, and is considered one of the foremost institutions for the study of the arts.

We had a tour of the University campus to see the open classrooms. The government has taken over the university, and effectively negated most of Tagore’s concepts, by building uninspiring department blocks and compound walls. It’s a pity that past visitors to the site have not respected the sanctity of the campus, and created such a nuisance that most of the ‘classrooms’ are now cordoned off, to be viewed only from a distance.

We did get to see an exhibition of landscapes, by various noted artists, including Rabindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore.

tagore4

170px-Tagore_manuscript6_cA interesting bit of trivia that Souvik had told me was how he would doodle on paper while writing – crossing out a word or phrase could end up as a little piece of art around the text.

It’s hardly my place to write about Rabindranath Tagore, but there’s an excellent museum dedicated to him that showcases how talented and prolific an individual could be. His reputation is well-deserved. No photography allowed at the museum, and also around the houses of the Tagore family, just behind the museum. With the great weather we had, it was uplifting to walk and breathe the same air as many great folks have done before us.

We had a bit of insider advantage at Santiniketan, with Souvik’s mom being an alumnus of the university. She arranged for us to stay in a charming guest house, where we had some excellent meals, and enjoyed hot cups of tea in the wintery morning sun.

Weekend in Shantiniketan

Baba is keen on making some flower-inspired art, so here’s a gallery especially for him:

And some village life on our drive back to Kolkata:

On the Streets of Kolkata – #2 (A Tale of 2 Bridges)

I had a great day, photo-walking in Kolkata on the last day of my trip. On the advice of some local photographers, I set off at sunrise to the Flower Market just below the Howrah Bridge.

While flowers never fail to excite me, the Howrah Bridge (officially “Rabindra Setu”) is actually the iconic structure in the city, and a pretty impressive one at that. I walked the span of the bridge and back – there’s a comfortable pedestrian walk way on both sides, and offers interesting sights of the river Hoogly. I imagine it gets busy and crowded later in the day, but an early morning walk is a pleasure.

Sightseeing in Kolkata

At one end of the bridge is Howrah railway station, and at the other, the flower market. Kii Sundor!

Sightseeing in Kolkata

Marigold season – all those unbelievable snake-like garlands of orange & yellow, dahlias so large that I thought they were fake, roses, chrysanthemums, and the people! I wasn’t the only person doing a photo walk here, I met at least 3-4 other people with the same idea. Some folks friendlier than others, some curiosity about why were they the subjects, some fairly mucky sections to walk through – oh! I was in travel-heaven!

Having had plenty of glimpses of Kolkata street life, I was not entirely satisfied by the flower market alone, and set off walking towards the other iconic bridge down the river – Vidyasagar Setu. On the walk I was treated to the sights of the city stirring to life, and some views of the river.

There’s a section of the path that has been beautified for walking, just before the Princep Ghat. It’s a great spot for photos of the suspension bridge.

Sightseeing in Kolkata

Sightseeing in Kolkata

By the time I got to the Princep Ghat Gardens, the day had truly well begun, and the city was up and about.

And I was hungry. Which meant the end of walking. So into a cab I hopped, straight off to Park Street. Bought a book and found a table at Flury’s, being in the mood to tick off all the checkboxes.

Sightseeing in Kolkata

On the Streets of Kolkata – #1

My India visit this year was set in Kolkata, land of my in-laws, thanks to a wedding in the family. In between all the wedding hungama, I did find some time to explore the city.

The streets are always exciting. Kolkata, even more so. Old and abandoned, or bustling with manic energy.

Sightseeing in Kolkata

Sightseeing in Kolkata

I drew the line at pushing my way into the Kalighat Mandir (no photography allowed inside). But the market adjoining the temple had plenty of willing subjects.

This first trip whetted my appetite, and I couldn’t wait to get out again for a proper photo walk.

Sightseeing in Kolkata

Photo Walk Taman Situlembang

I had a rain-soaked photo walk in Menteng just before the Kolkata trip. A lovely lotus pond tucked away in the heart of downtown Jakarta, a short walk from Taman Suropati:

In spite of all the plastic bag covers, the camera got wet, and I had to cut short the walk to dry out the lenses. First, dehumidification in the car air-conditioning on the long drive home. After taking the camera out of the car it fogged up again, but the sun was shining at the perfect angle – all the better for round 2 of drying.

There were some butterflies in the garden, for some more photo ops.

I didn’t want to take a chance with the camera, and let it dry out in the fan for an hour more.

Surprises in Semarang

The Indonesian Heritage Society is my gateway to new and interesting experiences all over Indonesia. Such as last week, when we took the train to Semarang, a city planned by the Dutch in North Central Java, ostensibly on a shopping trip for ceramics. We took the long but scenic route via train, a 6-hour comfortable ride past Javanese towns, rice fields, and even bits of the coast.

Semarang 1

From the station, we were transported by becaks (cycle rickshaws) straightaway to the Sango Ceramics Factory Outlet to spend a glorious afternoon shopping (think 15 women, factory outlet).Semarang 6

So engrossed were we, picking out dinner sets and other things we didn’t need that I, for one, didn’t even think of taking a photo in there. Of course, with my history of breaking stuff in shops, all dangling things were safely tucked away.

My friend, Sara, donated her photo to this post:

Factory outlet

It only tells a part of the story; there were 3 enormous shops, and I may have walked 5 km within.

The reward for spending all that money was a super-elegant dinner filled with gifts and surprises, organised by James, our tour leader.

 

 

 

There was a full day of sightseeing thrown in, the following day. A real eye-opener. I had imagined Semarang to be a boring industrial town. Industrial it is, boring not. There’s a rich history of colonial, Chinese and Javanese heritage, surprisingly well-preserved, and a delight to behold. We spent an intensely ‘spiritual’ day, starting with the great Masjid Agung, then the protestant Blenduk Church, a Buddhist temple, and finally a Chinese temple, punctuated by a tour of Museum Jamu Nyonya Meneer and Lawang Sewu (Thousand Doors) – the old Railroad Office.

The Masjid might have been more interesting had we been able to enter the main prayer hall, or seen the large umbrellas opened (a unique feature of this mosque), but we wanted to stay on track with our ambitious agenda, and had little time to stop and stare.

Lawang Sewu is rumoured to be haunted, but apparently the ghosts stay away in broad daylight. There’s a beautiful stained glass window to be admired, and the climb to the roof is rather thrilling.

Our group was starting to wilt under the extremes of the sun and rain, when we arrived at Sam Poo Kong, our last spot before heading to the airport. This is the oldest Chinese temple that was originally established by the Chinese explorer, Zheng He, during the 15th century. It was destroyed and renovated several times since then, and now has a fresh coat of bright red paint, guaranteed to energize the most jaded tourist.

Great planner that James is, he arranged for all our ceramics shopping to be shipped directly to Jakarta, while we travelled light. The goodies are home already, and we’ve created space for more dinner plates, snack plates, serving bowls and platters like they belonged there forever!

Photo walking in Kuningan

Kuningan – a neighbourhood in downtown Jakarta characterised by high-rise buildings and traffic snarls. Get on foot, and into the back lanes, and you can discover a completely different picture and a myriad of individual stories.

Photo walk Kuningan

No dearth of colour:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

80-years old, perfectly happy to pose:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

Kids at the fish farm:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

Pigeon racing trainer:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

Cock-fight trainer:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

A world view of their own:

Photo walk Kuningan Photo walk Kuningan

Just happy:

Photo walk Kuningan