Prays

Buddhist prayer flags are to be seen all over Sikkim, but no visit is complete without a trip to a monastery. We went to Rumtek – serene, intricate and intriguing.

I’d been hankering for some local ‘organic’ food and beer throughout the journey (Sikkim is supposedly the organic farming capital of India). We did our fair share of momos, but it was at the foothills of the monastery that my beer wish got fulfilled. Local beer and a serving of thukpa, momos and fried rice.

And all those clouds that had been obscuring our views finally burst into rain, catching us on our dinner run to M.G.Road.

Bookman’s bookshop got a well-deserved browse for gifts for my nieces and nephew, and I came away with a recent book on the history of Sikkim for myself.

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And what did I learn? Beyond the breathtaking landscapes, Sikkim has a murky history, with most of the action set between the 1940’s until the 1970’s.

Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the Himalayan state and head back to Bagdogra. The Teesta river accompanied us all along the way, even beckoned us to stop a few times.

My last photo just before we entered West Bengal, after which I spent all my time looking at the phone and trying to resolve a transportation dispute!

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I end my Sikkim travel diary with some words of wisdom:

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Rays

Sikkim. Viewing the peaks in the non-peak season. Therefore, none of the clichéd photos of either the summer blooms or the wintry snowy landscapes. Mostly barren mountains, with the promise of colour. Expecting clear blue skies and getting clouds. Making us look harder and deeper. Winter may be coming, but we got there first.

As always, I began my holiday planning from the homestay search. Gangtok, Lachung, Lachen, Rumtek, Pelling … all beckoned, but when Airbnb lobbed ‘Zuluk’ at me, there was no other place I wanted to see. Mum and Usha Aunty, my travel companions, had little choice but to go along with my plans.

It took a fair bit of my hard headed determination to get us to Zuluk, and what a delightful experience that journey was. Living with the locals, partying with strangers, and the private theatre of the sun’s romance with Kanchenjunga at dawn to cap it off!

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Our hosts’ kitchen at Zuluk

 

 

 

Getting to the viewing site was an adventure itself. A series of misunderstandings and an overcast sky the night before all threatened to put a dampener on our excursion. We left late, and hoped and prayed with all our might that it was not too late. That wish was granted:

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Kanchenjunga waited alone until we got here

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The sky turned fiery

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The clouds made way

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And the sun came out in a blaze of glory

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While Kanchenjunga blushed

We woke and dressed up at 2.30 am to get to this spot in time, and were blessed to be the only ones at this spot. More of the scene unfolded as the day got brighter.

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Paused our chattering teeth just enough for a sunrise selfie

After we had thawed a little in the sunshine ourselves, we looked beyond the obvious landscape, and found this:

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A bit of frost that couldn’t decide whether to stay icy at the freezing temperature, or to thaw with the gentle persuasion of the sun’s warmth.

And the reason I picked Zuluk? The ‘roadscape’:

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Prayer time

Ramadan and Idul Fitri is always an interesting time to be in a country with a predominantly Muslim population. For one thing, the focus on food goes up tenfold, with the high point of the day being buka puasa, the breaking of the fast. People take the opportunity to connect with all their friends and family and almost each evening ends up in a big party. Closer to the end of the month is the golden week in Jakarta – the mudik – exodus of people from Jakarta to their hometowns – causing all kinds of angst for those traveling, and sheer bliss for the ones staying behind, in terms of traffic. The two weeks in the year when you have to do your own housework brings its own brand of anxiety, and checking in to local hotels is a perfectly acceptable practice for many.

Devout I am not, but a visit to the Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan seems to have become a regular feature for me. The Masjid Istiqlal is the largest in Southeast Asia; for the second year running, I have joined the hordes to the big mosque early, early morning, just to soak in the atmosphere and try to make a few good photos.

What always impresses me about the mosque, and Indonesia in general, is how chilled out the people are. Everyone is relaxed, happy, friendly, and ever-willing to pose for a photo. I feel bad thinking about the terror strikes across the world, a number of them in quick succession in the last week, but hanging out with Indonesians brings a feeling of calm and good cheer.

The prayer itself is short, and if you’re like me, photo-hunting, it’s best to strategise where you want to spend your time in that 15-minute window of opportunity. The grand hall and the 4-5 tiers are impressive, but the outdoors are interesting too. Some of the fashions are extraordinary, as people always make an effort to dress up for the occasion. Very important for families to be completely colour-coordinated too! Another photographer tip: there’s a lot of photos to be had of people bowing their heads respectfully. Just try to compose the shot minus the smartphone that they’re poring over :-D.

There’s also the effort it takes to wake up super-early, and try to arrive at the mosque well before daybreak, to get in before the large crowds. It’s quite an adventure.

I’ve combined my photos from this year and last:

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri! Mohon maaf lahir dan batin!!

P.S. Cleaning the house is overrated. I’ve instructed Mia, the cat, not to shed, and we’re managing to co-exist with minimal physical exertion, while Rofa gets her well-deserved break.

 

Of Butterflies, Dragonflies, Flies, and How Time Flies

It’s been FOREVER since I logged in and blogged, mostly thanks to a slight change of pace in my real life. Photography had taken a backseat, until this morning, when I joined a bunch of friends for a macro photography shoot.

I am a macro novice, and never been tempted to buy the expensive lens. We’ve found a great guy to rent camera equipment from in Jakarta – these people are priced reasonably and they give great advice too. I shan’t share the name, coz then my secret will be out! Hahaha, just kidding, good service deserves good publicity, and I shall do my bit for www.sewakamera.com.

We went to the butterfly park? museum? thingy at Taman Mini – the Indonesian showpiece ‘amusement’ park – which had to be the saddest butterfly display ever. Pity to see the live ones in captivity (Yes!). Singapore has a better park at the airport! In any case, I was there to learn macro photography, with all its technicalities, and was pretty determined to look beyond the obvious.

And then my eyes opened. WIDE. Who knew that these creepy crawlies were so cute! I’ve seen other people’s macro pictures, of course, but looking through your own (or rented) lens is a completely different feeling.

I have a long way to go, and a lens of my own to buy some day, this is just the beginning. Click on a pic and see the enlarged view, I absolutely insist. That humble little fly, I just want to enlarge and give a great big hug!

I’m not winning awards any time soon, but thanks are due to my friends who taught and inspired me today. The knees hurt from all the crouching, but who cares.

It may be the Chinese New Year of the Monkey, but it’s gonna be a weekend full of the lil bugs for me!

Photo Walks in Kemang

The upmarket neighbourhood of Kemang is great for walking, not just for photography, but to explore shops, cafes and restaurants. And to think there’s not a single functional sidewalk anywhere in the neighbourhood! Still, armed with cameras, the scenery changes drastically.

Half a dozen photo walks later, I found that the heart of Kemang also lies, just like elsewhere in Jakarta, in its kampungs, with energetic kids, loads of colour and plenty of quirky sights.

I climbed up a volcano!

We rounded off April with a quick trip to the Ijen volcano at the easternmost end of Java.

I must admit, I thought of Ijen with a little trepidation; by all accounts the climb was arduous, and I’m no climber even in my wildest dreams. Tried to build up my stamina over the week, but it was never gonna be enough.

We flew from Jakarta, via Surabaya, to Banyuwangi – a town bigger than I had anticipated. They seem to have caught the tourist bug in Banyuwangi, with no less than 36 festivals planned for the year, starting with the Festival Toilet Bersih (clean toilet); as good start as any! The weekend after we were there was meant to be an international Tour de Banyuwangi cycling competition. One of the most exciting aspects of this town is that the island of Bali is in plain sight, and just a ferry ride across.

Seaside at Banyuwangi

Cutting to the chase, we had arranged with our driver to start from the hotel at 11 p.m., which meant a quick nap in the evening was in order. The drive to the ‘base camp’ took about an hour, and as they hadn’t opened access yet, we were able to catch another hour of much needed sleep. At 1.30 a.m. the gates were opened, and we started our uphill walk with scores of other enthusiasts. The weather was surprisingly chilly, good thing we had warm jackets and scarves among the other essentials – headlamps, sturdy masks, walking shoes and camera with tripod!

I quickly realised the futility of trying to match speed with the others. The road surface is good, but the gradient is steep and challenging. I begged my friends to go on ahead and let me carry on with my barely-there pace. One step at a time, a pause after every hundred steps, if not to catch my breath then to rest the burning calves. It was a physical struggle for me, but the mind was determined, and as long as I was able to pause, there was no question of giving up. There were hundreds climbing, and once I saw that other groups also needed to rest and I was able to catch up with some of them, I was encouraged.

My guide was a patient young fellow who let me set the pace without any complaint. Once we got to the top of the crater,  however, he drew the line at letting me climb down into the caldera to view the blue fire from up close. That terrain is very rocky and uneven, and I would’ve probably spent half a day getting back up.  I did spot bits of the blue flame from that distance, but the mind’s eye can see bigger than the camera can capture.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

After shivering up there for a while, we decided to chase the sunrise instead. More climbing, then some walking along the rim of the crater, and I was ultimately rewarded with some spectacular landscapes. (Must click on the images to see larger views!)

The unique feature of Ijen is the sulphur miners, who trek into the caldera twice a day, and carry back 50-60 kilos of sulphur to sell in town, for a paltry sum of around $5! They stop for a rest at the 2 km mark, to weigh their loads, have a smoke and sell some of their catch to us tourists.

Climbing down was much easier than going up. My monopod doubled up as a hiking stick, to take the load off my knees.

Afterwards, we had a bonus visit to a nearby waterfall. Note how green the water is, from the high sulphur content.Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And fresh honey from a beekeeper.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And a foot massage back at the hotel.