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!

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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!!!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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!

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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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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:

 

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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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Laze

A journey through India is never complete for me without stopping by in Kolhapur. It’s a shame that I had a 3-year gap from the last visit to this one. Happily, not much has changed in our neighbourhood, except for the addition of many new neighbours. The lake is still visible from the terrace, and plenty of birds to be sighted and identified. 2 out of 3 was not bad for me (identifying birds… ahem… not my specialty).

First, I had to drive out to the Khidrapur temple (or Kopeshwar temple, as it is known), a 7th? 12th? century, ancient site that has been on my wishlist for a few years now. Baba told me about the design of the temple: how the natural light is gradually cut from the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum which is completely windowless. The idea being, your eyes gradually get used to the darkness, and at the most sacred spot you can feel one with God, with no further need for external light. However, the Archeological Society of India has put a dampener on this experience with strategically misplaced tube lights. Plus, the guard at the entrance prohibits photography inside, simply as a show of his power, I guess. The temple is beautiful, and atmospheric, and some other lucky people have made nice pictures in their blogs here.

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Besides the odd outing around town, there’s nothing better to do at home than loll around, breathing the fresh air, and walking down to the lake. Which was made even more fun this time with my uncles and aunts visiting, and college friends driving down from Pune to spend a weekend together.

There’s a happy family portrait from that time sitting in my camera chips somewhere. I must shake off the laziness and put it up one of these days.

 

Forays

A wedding in Agartala. My reason for the last India trip. First time in the north-east part of the country. Suitably excited.

Wedding excitement aside, there are always sunrises to chase and palaces to paddle to. Scenic lake inside the college campus, great spot for landscapes and pre-wedding photo shoot (did both!). Would’ve liked to venture out further north and east, but for now, this will have to do.

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Sunrise at College Tilla Lake

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Before the wedding party could wake up, I was perched on their terrace, enjoying the views and the stillness

Ma and I spent a day out of town, driving up to the Neermahal and back. Agartala feels more of an extension of Bengal than the exotic “northeast” of my imagination, but hey, the wedding and the company all made up for it!

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Our day of sightseeing at the Rudrasagar lake

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Approaching the Neermahal

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Maharaja Bir Bikram was inspired by a palace in Jaipur, and built this one in the middle of the lake

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Life is a boat…

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Yes, it is!

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Lake. Tree. Sky.

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Live for the Golden Hour!