Half-baked Pilgrim

The good part about hanging out with Rajbir is that she is so organised about photo trips that I don’t have to do much except copy-paste the packing/booking lists and soon the program is under way. I do miss Sara, and not just for her delicious chocolate mint cupcakes that were a photo hunting staple.

So, this year, thanks to Rajbir, we made it to Borobudur on the holy day of Waisak, or Buddha Purnima. No less than pilgrims, with a load on our backs, tracking the monks with our cameras, giving up some of our worldly necessities of food and shelter.

The walk from Candi Mendut to Candi Borobudur in the heat of the afternoon morphed into a moonlit, chaotic evening following the path of lanterns as they took our prayers and wishes into the heavens above. Something like nirvana was achieved at daybreak after a night spent in the company of sermons and chants, with the final pradakshina (circumambulation) of the monks around Borobudur.

Pradakshina at Candi Mendut

Pradakshina at Candi Mendut

Pradakshina at Candi Borobudur

Pradakshina at Candi Borobudur

I found the whole ‘light-and-sound’ show a little too much for my nirvana-seeking sensibilities. A giant golden Buddha statue seems wrong to me somehow, as do the floodlights and loudspeakers. The glow of simple fire lanterns was far more benign, the chants of Buddham Sharanam Gachchami in unison by the people minus the electronics, making goosebumps.

We did earn our reward that morning of a foot soak and massage at the airport, which is my definition of pure bliss.

Waisak-28

The Return of the Photo Walks

After a long hiatus, I’m back at photo hunting with my good friend, Rajbir. She is determined to let me have my Indonesia farewell through as many photo opportunities as possible in these last few weeks. I am ever so grateful!

Sunda Kelapa, where I first started exploring in Jakarta. The ancient port that is still functional, with the traditional phinisi boats, transporting cargo between the islands of Indonesia. The boats at the dock weren’t our target this time. We were looking for a strip of solidity on the water, to plant our tripods and make some pictures.

sunda kelapa-2

The boatman who brought us here was only too happy to extend our ride further out on the water, to spot some boats, old and new.

The sun has been playing spoilsport on some of the photo days, but on this occasion, I was literally ‘saved’ from disappointment when it stayed hidden at sunrise. See, I was meant to wake up at an absurdly early hour and get a taxi to pick Rajbir and head to the pelabuhan. Only, the phone accidentally was set on silent, and I slept through the alarms and the cabdriver’s calls! We got there well after all the exciting light, but thankfully no sun, and no guilt.

And for old times’ sake, a clichéd photo of the harbour:

sunda kelapa-12

The water may be murky, but the boats look grand.

Above the Water Level

Diving in Manado was one of those boxes that I should have checked off long ago, rather than waiting for ‘things to happen’. Now that I’ve made the decision to relocate, I want to make time for all those dream trips, and can manage only a fraction of them in the few weeks left.

While I had no success with underwater photography, being ‘grounded’ for a day before the flight with a tour in the highlands was totally worth it, and highly recommended for all Manado visitors. 

Sulawesi, called Celebes by the Portuguese, is an island with some interesting and some mind-boggling features. Some say it looks like an orchid flower on the map. It is home to some of the most unique and diverse life forms, both over land and under water. There are fascinating ethnic cultures all across the island, and I literally just scratched the northern tip of the land.

The half day drive is near perfect, self-contained with a mix of adventure and entertainment, vast landscapes and scenic villages, the ordinary and the bizarre. No sighting of the famed tarsiers or the maleo birds though – that would take a proper trek through the forests.

There are the ubiquitous farmlands:

manado-2

The ‘Pasar Extreme’ is not for the faint-hearted, where roasted whole dogs vie for shelf space with bats fried mid-scream and pythons spilling their guts. I’m sparing you the gory sights, but after walking through the extreme-meats lane, I remember thinking that self-mutilation aka tattooing was probably the gentlest activity of this region.

manado

Clouds played spoilsport on the vista views, but made some nice ‘atmospheric’ shots:

 

manado-5

The villages – Tomohon and others – had this European quality about them, with highland-type blooms and cute cottages.

Then I came upon this:

manado-12

Don’t know what they use it for, but it’s my idea of a perfect vacation homestay!

Coffee by the changing-colour Linow lake was so pleasant, I never wanted to leave, even though I saw only 2 of the 3 colours.

A couple of quick stops to see the wooden houses being constructed in the village of Woloan:

manado-25

And a copra processing unit by the roadside, with a beautiful cacao pod as a sideshow:

manado-29manado-28

If I were a pescatarian, I would be over the moon at the last stop, but I’m just a live-fish lover so I let them go by.

Goodbye, dive boat. So long, Manado.

manado-32manado-33

A New Low

I’ve just got back from an exhilarating trip to Manado in North Sulawesi, diving at Bunaken 5 days in a row. After a number of plans that came apart in the past, this time I decided to not wait for anybody, and took off on my own, with an objective to complete the Advanced Open Water Certification.

…… Aaaaand…………..SUCCESS!

PADI-2

Not that it is too difficult, like, for example, climbing a mountain. If you enjoy diving, and have the means and opportunity, it is simply a matter of applying yourself to the task, completing the required dives, and voilà! The certification is yours. As it is mine now. Qualification is one thing, but the diving itself is something else. An experience that transports you into another world; in Bunaken, it is one of those life events where your jaw drops and wants to stay that way, but no… you must not lose your regulator, so shut that mouth and open your eyes wide.

In this part of the world there is a wall… a beautiful wall… With the most amazing forms, shapes, colours and creatures, descending straight down into infinity. For once, I had no camera to document my journey – in retrospect that was a good thing – but I came away with no photos of that wall. If you are curious, you might want to check out the photos by a professional photographer here. Matt (http://matthew-oldfield-photography.com) was kind enough to share this beautiful picture that represents my experience perfectly:

It was my first time going down to 30m (part of the course requirement). I descended with equal parts trepidation and excitement. But the deeper I went, the calmer I got; deep steady breathing helping a lot. At this point, I wasn’t looking at the reef, just feeling my own presence at that depth. Bunaken is special. One plane is this wall, and the rest is deep blue nothingness above, below, behind and sideways. Stunning. My instructor had a slate with a few arithmetic problems to solve, just to make sure my brain wasn’t going over the edge, as it is liable to, at such depths. At one point I was giggling at the absurdity of that situation, which might also be a SIGN, but my amusement was only because those problems were getting a little complex (with brackets and all) and I could be doing better stuff down there like admiring the fish!

Actually, in the larger scheme of things, not having a camera was a blessing. Hands free, I could focus on developing and improving my diving skills, and really looking at everything, rather than chasing photos. The pranayam breathing practice came in handy; with my breathing technique well-regulated, almost all dives went up close to the limit of 1 hour with 50 bar left in the tank. Buoyancy control much better too, and marine life spotting and identification skills improved slightly. I am still terrible at remembering what I saw while logging the dive (which is where the camera helps, bad photos notwithstanding), but when I close my eyes, I can relive the feeling.

Yes! Qualified for Breathing, Diving and Arithmetic!!!

Nail-biting Tail-biting Pacu Jawi

While I’ve been lamenting that I haven’t done anything fun in a while, it’s more a case of being too lazy to sort and edit photos. These have been incubating for some months now.

One of the most popular photo hunting grounds in Indonesia has to be the Pacu Jawi bull race, held in West Sumatra, after the harvest season. I was fortunate enough to have my opportunity last year, tagging along with a friend and a largish group of enthusiasts for a day trip to Padang.

We arrived a few hours before the start of the races. That allowed us to walk around and look at the larger landscape. This event is held every year, but in a different field each time, so as to share the benefits of the economy with all members of the local community.

pacu jawi-2

PJ-3PJ-2PJ-1

People gather around the race arena: the field with water added for extra effect. It is not exactly a ‘race’, but more of a competition. The bulls are brought out in pairs, the jockey hangs onto them by their tails, and they are sent charging through the wet muddy field. The jockey’s challenge is to stay on till the end in the most commanding/graceful way possible. The winner is adjudged on the performance at the end.

IMG_2311

For a photographer, this is a great exercise to capture motion. And the good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to practise while you are there, as there are runs and reruns and more reruns. You can get thousands of photos in burst mode, and then is that problem of wading through plenty to pick the ones you like!

The races themselves are charged affairs. The bulls are lined up, the jockey takes charge, then the spectators yell and cheer wildly, egging them on to make a big splash and knock off the jockey. Sometimes the bulls run too close to the people, and that causes some more frenzy.

pacu jawi-12

pacu jawi-35

pacu jawi-31

Each run lasts less than a minute, and the jockey, even after a faceplant in the mud, will come back for another round. He might even bite the tail of the bull to get it going wilder!

pacu jawi-34

There’s a little sideshow with food, drink and simple souvenirs, but it is pretty difficult to drag your eyes away from the real action.

pacu jawi-29

pacu jawi-36

pacu jawi-3

pacu jawi-23

The jockeys were also performers; with their identifying bandannas, their grimaces and muddy, they cut a fine figure themselves.

pacu jawi-33pacu jawi-37

I was a little sad to see that the bulls were being dragged into this game for the amusement of a few people, including me. While it looks fantastic in a picture, I can’t imagine how it feels to the bull to have its tail pulled and bitten, and being forced to run like that. Having said that, they do look majestic, whatever angle you look from!

pja-4

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 10.59.55

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!

teesta-9

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

Gangtok-7

Gaze

Of the 3 days that we spent in Sikkim, we managed to pack in quite a bit of action after the initial hiccups of getting the right permits and the right transport.

Our homestay in Gangtok was the charming Bookman’s B&B. The cafe and bookstore attached to the homestay were wonderful too, especially with all the lovely baking smells on our floor. Before exploring Gangtok however, we had to find our way to Zuluk one way and back another. After the sunrise spectacle from the peak at Zuluk, the plan was to pack up and drive to Changu Lake, stopping at sights along the way. The driver promised us that we would see Kanchenjunga again, but the off-season clouds chose to pick that day to cover up the mountain and deny us the sight.

Still, there was so much to admire. Longthu and Nathang Valley:

Baba Harbajan Mandir (the old one):

Elephant Lake and Cafe 13000, with long distance views of the Chinese border:

We couldn’t visit Nathu La pass as it was a day of trade/exchange, when the gates would be closed for visitors. We did spot the odd trucks carrying Chinese goods for sale in India, and hopefully going back with some Indian merchandise.

By the time we arrived at Changu (Tsomgo) Lake, it was shrouded in mist. The “blue lake” was a vast expanse of grey. With some yak fashions. And dress-up photo ops: