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Zakopane: The Architectural Gem in the Tatras

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

(Published first in the Deccan Herald, Jul 2015)

We left Krakow under an overcast sky and out on the two-hour undulating highway to Zakopane it drizzled intermittently and fogged up the views. Unless you are looking to ski, climb, glide or snowboard you come to the hills for the views. But the hill weather is unpredictable and there was no way we were going to see the splendor of the Tatra Mountains that looked so alluring in all the guidebooks.

We saw bits of them though, between the pines and the rising fog. Some had broad swathes of white running down their slopes.   These were not the glaciers, Christopher, our guide, reminded us. Tatras have none. These were the ski slopes. Zakopane is Poland’s unofficial winter capital, attracting skiing amateurs and aficionados from across Europe and the world.

We had left Krakow full with the history of the place to a geographically isolated clime further south of Poland. Relatively untouched by the horrors of the Wars that had scarred Krakow and much of Poland, here was a place of quite and harmony.

The Tatra Mountains – the tallest mountains of the Carpathian Range – form a natural boundary between Slovakia and Poland. Mushrooming in their shadows are a host of towns among which the resort town of Zakopane is the biggest and the most popular.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Battling rain and poor visibility we glided smoothly to this Polish town passing rolling hills with hamlets studded into their even slopes. The villages were but a clutch of houses, sitting amidst tidy farms with chicken running amok in the front yards. It was the advent of spring and some farmers were already atop their tractors tilling. A church with a high belfry was the most dominant building. Not surprising in a country with 80 percent Catholics who take their church attendance seriously.

It was an idyllic Central European rural setting one could say. Except this imagery was rudely broken by the occasional strip-club signs in the woods. A surprise, but promising unadulterated adult- fun for weekend revelers spilling out of Krakow.

Zakopane, however, despite the onslaught of tourism and technology, retains its Goral or Highland culture. It is there in their clothes, their music and their food. The attire is however only ceremonially worn. But it was the official dress for the waiters at a restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The restaurant with its cedar-wood ceilings and walls plastered with stuffed animals sought to recreate an otherworldly hunter’s den. A nightmare for any animal lover. But the good food was distracting. As was the local music which had an unmistakable Scottish lilt to it. No wonder then that the Zakopane dance is a group affair bearing uncanny resemblance to the Scottish Ball.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

But the Zakopane culture is synonymous with its architecture inspiring home construction not only in Poland but across Europe.

The houses look complex with an overlay of pattern over pattern. What makes the Zakopane houses look so distinct are the roofs. They are steep, usually over 70 degrees or more and have gables jutting out of them at different levels. These roofs are made of shingles or galvanized iron but in the older houses , the roof and sometime the entire building is hewn of wood.

We stopped by to marvel at the Jasczczurowce Chapel, an epitome of Zakopane architecture built by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, the man who popularized the Zakopane style. He built the church in 1904 and it was one of the many buildings that formed the blue print for what came to be known as the Zakopane style.

The best way to take in the beautiful architecture is to walk down Krupowki street- the main Zakopane street. Tidy row of houses line both sides of the near- empty street. There are small stand-alone stalls manned by women who sit inside them, selling condiments mostly made of local cheese.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

We didn’t see any tourists though there were many horse -carriages at the ready. The gabled houses, the stalls, the ubiquitous old churches and the horses with tufts of ankle -hair all lent an old world charm to Zakopane.

Too add to this, a short drive from Zakopane, are the mineral water springs. Our hotel Termy Bukovina had channeled the therapeutic waters into their pools where one could partake of what is believed to be waters with therapeutic and rehabilitation powers.

Perhaps we needed it for the next day when we went snowboarding in the Tatras. Snowboarding is the best option for any fly-by-nigh tourists who cannot ski and have no time to learn how to. You just sit on the machine and press the accelerator. To stop you simple let go the accelerator. But unlike Lapland where I had successfully ridden the snowmobile on the flat snowfields, I had trouble veering the machine in the steep Tatra slopes.

But then as we stopped for a barbeque lunch in a somewhat boggy forest clearing, I realized that what I may have missed in views, I had more than made up in experience.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

How to get there:

There are no direct flights to Krakow from India. Depending on what airlines one takes one has to halt to change planes in one of the several European cities. From Krakow Zakopane is 109 kms by road. It a less than two hour journey on the smooth highway.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Ngorongoro Crater: Africa’s Natural Zoo.

He looks no different than your average pet dog at home. But this guy is a lot lazier and loves to wallow like this all day. At night when the lioness hunt and make a kill he simply bullies them all and walks away with the proverbial lion's share. (sanjay austa austa)

Ngorongoro Lion stretches out, Tanzania. 

 

(The travelogue first appeared in Mumbai Mirror ,  feb 2014)

Standing on the crater’s rim you get a sense  of immense distance. From this height, the crater out below, looks quite small and insignificant. And even when you squint into the binoculars you spot no animals.

There are only   shadows of the cumulus  clouds on the green crater floor making  interesting patchworks, which change if you stare long enough.

We were driving along the crater’s rim on our onwards journey to Serengeti when Musa our driver cum safari guide lets us slip off the Toyota Landcruiser to take in the view of the Ngorongoro crater.

We saw no wildlife  but this stopover fuelled our expectations. The idea of  wild animals  (25000 of them) living in close proximity  in a  natural enclosure was just too surreal.   But Ngorongoro is not just a wildlife attraction in Tanzania. It is also a geological marvel. Two to three million years ago a volcano collapsed on itself forming this deep caldera- one of the biggest in the world.  I wondered if the splendors of the Serengeti would make us  indifferent to Ngorongoro.

The ostrich is hardly on the menu of the predators as it is very fast for most of them. However the cheetah with they are in a group are known to attach and bring down the ostrich. (sanjay austa austa)

The ostriches with the pink flamingos in the soda lake in the background,  Ngorongoro

But they  didn’t.  After a two day Serengeti trip we were eager and expectant at  Ngorongoro.  We had pushed a late- rising  Musa to be the first  at the Ngorongoro check-post for the morning safari.   As he went through the bureaucracy we stood on the rim to view the crater again.  Today it  was an  overcast sky   and I rejoiced that  unlike in Serengeti -where I faced the full brunt of the sun,  I wouldn’t  have to worry about hard shadows in my photos.

A long line of safari jeeps queued up behind us. But when they  signaled us to move, our jeep spluttered,  shook  and spluttered some more. As jeep after jeep of binoculars-and -camera armed tourists whizzed past us,  I wondered if the view from the rim would be  all I’d  take  home.

One of the lessons from my African safari was – choose your safari jeep well.  If the vehicle breaks down, it can put paid to all your plans and joy can quickly turn to irritation.  I was now sharing the rundown Landcruiser   with an aggressive Brazilian man, a shouting  Italian girl , a  cursing  American guy and   one cranky girlfriend.

And we almost never made it to Ngorongoro. They  tried to push -start the jeep on the sloping crater road but to no avail. They shoved us down into the crater alright but the jeep was dead.

The Rhinoceros has a very poor eyesight. It can only make out other mammals from a very close distance. We stood almost two kilometers away but he did not know what to make of us. From that distance the safari vehicle we were in could look like another Rhino to him. (sanjay austa austa)

The rare Black Rhino in  Ngoronogo, Tanzania

As we waited for a replacement vehicle,  I felt hemmed in.  We were stranded near the crater wall, which rose to about 650 meters. Standing here deep below in the caldera with  zebra and wildebeests herds  just a gallop away, we got the real sense of being in the African bush.

From here , unlike at the rim, the crater seemed like a vast endless plain,  much like Serengeti itself. But it’s actually only between 16- 19 kilometers across– with a total area of 264 square kilometers. The crater walls are steep but the ungulates- the wildebeests, the zebras and the buffalo migrate into and from the crater annually.   Many wildebeests,  zebras and elephant  herds make their way out of the crater in the wet season even as the cape buffalos make their way in. The giraffes however are conspicuous by their absence. The steep walls of the crater are too much of an obstacle for them. Besides the crater does not have their favorite acacia trees whose leaves they feed on.

The crater lions, have unfortunately  remained cooped up in the caldera for generations, leading to inbreeding.   There are many reason for this. The main reason is of course man.  The crater’s rim is littered with human habitation. This includes both the burgeoning tourist lodges and the Maasai dwellings.  The crater lions also chase away any marauding lions that might  slip in. With no new blood the lions have poor immunity and become easily susceptible to diseases-including the deadly canine distemper. Their population now stands at less than 65.

Zebras love to cuddle against each other. I saw loads of zebras standing and nuzzling each other like this (sanjay austa austa)

  

 

But when our replacement jeep finally arrived and we were taken on a whistle stop tour of the crater, we were lucky to chance upon three lions in quick succession. One lay sleeping near a safari track, occasionally turning on his back with the cuteness of a pet dog.  We came across two other male lions  in the woodlands near their zebra kill. They had had their fill and were now resting.

We were too immersed with the lions that it took us a while  to notice that the zebra had been pregnant. It had been disemboweled and the tiny dead zebra foal lay by its mother. The other prized sighting here is of the black rhino. Their population is down to a mere 26 . We saw one at a distance and as we closed in on him, he  became skittish.Rhinos have a  very poor eye-sight and Musa told us the rhino had possibly mistaken our jeep for another rhino.

It was our cue to move on.  And  we drive  past Magadi – the soda lake (dotted pink with flamingoes) and past zebra , wildebeest and buffalo heads and climb the escarpment back to the crater’s rim with our perspective completely altered of this  great Natural Zoo.

The elephants i saw in the Ngorongoro crater were either solitary or were in pairs. I did not come across a herd here. Perhaps the crater cannot sustain a big elephant herd. (sanjay austa austa)

 The male elephants live away from the herds, Ngorongoro

 

The Ngorongoro lions are in serious trouble. They have been isolated in the crater from other lions since millennia leading to inbreeding and all the diseases it brings about. (sanjay austa austa)

The Ngorongoro Lion

 

 

A heard of wild buffalo rest but there is always one buffalo standing guard. The buffalo take turns guarding. (sanjay austa austa)

A heard of wild buffalo resting with one of them standing guard, Ngorongoro, Tanzania. 

 

Munich on a Bicycle, Germany

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Cycling in Munich, Germany

This  travelogue  was first published in Deccan Herald, Sep 2013

The last time I rode a bicycle, I was in my 10thgrade and still wobbly. So when our guide suggested a cycling tour of Munich, I was sufficiently alarmed. Why don’t we just get onto one of those HOHO buses, I thought. We could sit comfortably in their open- air comfort and sip on the excellent  Bavarian beers ( yes  its legal to drink in public in Germany).

But Munich prides itself as a cycling city. Cycling  in Munich is not only encouraged but most motorists complain cyclists  are an overly pampered lot. Cyclists  have the right of way here and are given many concessions including being  tolerated on the wrong side of the road on  212 one-way streets.   Cyclists  are sometimes  called the ‘silent killers’ or ‘Rambo Riders’ our guide informed us , for their propensity sometimes to crash  into you from behind.

The city recently anointed itself as  Radlhauptstadt or  the Bicycling Capital. More than 80 percent of Munich residents own a bicycle and there are 17 dedicated Fahrradstrassen or bicycle streets where vehicles are limited to 30kmh and cyclists have priority.  All this is not surprising in a country that is in the vanguard of environmental protection. Cycling is just one of its many initiatives to achieve their ambitious eco-friendly goals.

 

Cycling is the best way the beer loving Bavarians burn all those calories. Also one of the many environment friendly measures of this eco-friendly nation. Munich. Jul 2013. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Cycling is the way the beer loving Bavarians burn all those calories, Munich

We gathered near the Munich City Center one balmy morning and walked few  streets  to the cycling stand. I tinkered with my cycle for a bit and found it daunting.  The next option was to trundle on a rickshaw.  That would have been humiliating.  Especially since I saw my companions, which included pretty members of the fairer sex, whizz  past me on their cycles.  Its amazing what that can propel you to do.

I hopped on my cycle without a thought and viola I was peddling like a pro.  I crossed my first traffic signal without incident  and rode two blocks and saw   our cycling leader head straight towards heavy pedestrian traffic. This was cause for panic and I began to think of myself as the ‘silent killer’ our guide spoke of , unleashed on Munich’s roads but hoped  I would  be tolerated  in a cycle- friendly metropolis.

But coming from India, I used the little cycle horn liberally and was successful in scattering pedestrians, other cyclists, children, dogs on leashes and feeding pigeons out of my way.

The cycling route was through some of the most scenic parts of the city.  Isar river that cuts across Munich has  a nice wide bank which is a great place to cycle and we cycle a fair portion of it. The day before, we had walked a great length of the river and were witness to a carnival of sorts along the riverside. People of all age-groups were lounging on the river banks. Some reading,  some barbequing, some drinking beer,  others,  tanning or sleeping or in various stages of indolence.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 

This was surprising as the weekend was still far away.  Our guide informed us that most people come to the Isar  to unwind straight after work. More and more Germans  are choosing not to marry and consequently don’t have children to  fetch from schools, crèches, and elsewhere, leaving  them with  lot of time for themselves.

Cycling down the Isar one realizes that Germans are perhaps more comfortable with nudity than their other western counterparts.  If they want to sit without their clothes on the banks they simply do so without calling themselves nudists or this a nudist beach.

After taking in the views at the Isar, we  cycle a  large swath of the English Garden and here too find the  locals out in hordes.  Munich’s English Garden  is one of the largest urban parks, bigger than New York’s Central Park and is called so because its contouring  is reminiscent of an archetypal English garden of yore.

The man-made river Eisbach runs  across the English Garden and we stop by a bridge where the waters throw up a  standing wave. Surfers queue up here to surf  on the one meter high wave created by the force of the waters gushing under the bridge and meeting still waters. The surfers jiggle on the wave from one end of the bank to the other and can barely keep at it for  30 seconds before the force of the water pushes  them away.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

We cross many historic buildings and despite the  nervousness of my ride,  I could observe  that the city planners had taken  elaborate pains to maintain the architectural congruity, avoiding the modern homogenous steel and glass edifices altogether. The façades of the new buildings including shopping malls wear the old gothic look to blend in seamlessly with  Munich’s past, though on the inside the buildings  could well resemble any glitzy modern mall.

After almost two hours  ride we enter the crowded City  Center again.  In  an effort to catch up with the group   I take liberties with the traffic and witness motorists deferring to my erratic swerves, some stopping while others   waving me on.

Finally at the  the cycling stand I come to a halt  with an exaggerated  flourish. I park my cycle with  both a sense of relief and  exuberance. A city tour on a cycle is a different experience altogether and if its Munich its surely something else.

How to Get here:

Lufthansa Airlines has daily direct flights to Munich from New Delhi and Mumbai.  Bangalore has daily fights to Munich via Frankfurt.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

They lost their childhood to the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots

(Click on photos to go to gallery)

Tripal Singh was 11 years old when his father was killed in Nandnagri. He used to run a small dhaba and Tripal would help him after school. Tripal was in a bus with his cousin and going to his father on 1st Nov. He had a turban then and he remembers being slapped by strangers on the way. But someone also warned him not to travel any further. He was given shelter by a Hindu family. He hid for three days and after the riots found his father's dhaba burnt. They never found his fathers body.

Tripal Singh was 11 years old when his father was killed in Nandnagri. He used to run a small dhaba and Tripal would help him after school. Tripal was in a bus with his cousin and going to his father on 1st Nov. He had a turban then and he remembers being slapped by strangers on the way. But someone also warned him not to travel any further. He was given shelter by a Hindu family. He hid for three days and after the riots found his father’s dhaba burnt. They never found his fathers body.

(Interview with Rediff.com on my photo-essay on the Second Generation  1984 anti-Sikh riot victims, Delhi)

They lost their childhood to the 1984 riots.

In a moving photo documentary, the children of the horrific October 31-November 1-2, 1984 riots narrate personal tales bound together by the common themes of violence, loss and the death of their childhood, reports Sanchari Bhattacharya.

When photographer Sanjay Austa knocked on the doors of the ominously named Widow’s Colony in Delhi, the residents — all survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots — assumed that he had come to do a routine story. But when he asked the women if he could talk to their children instead, they were taken aback. For residents of this colony in Trilokpuri, west Delhi, are used to talking to inquisitive journalists, who often ask them to recount details of the communal carnage that had taken away their beloved husbands.

They are also used to the sudden media attention every year around the time of the anniversary of the riots, or when a senior leader is rapped on charges of inciting them 26 years ago. But their children had so far remained beyond the spotlight of journalistic curiosity.

“Whenever one thinks of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, we think of the widows of the victims,” says Austa. “But no one pays any attention to the children of these widows. Perhaps because the children don’t appear to be as interesting as victims, or maybe because they were too young at that time to give any gory account of the riots,” he adds.

Rajinder Singh was 10 years old when his father was killed in the 1984 anti-sikh riots in New Delhi. Rajinder was hiding in his neighbour's house with his six siblings. His father was advised to cut of his hair but he refused. He hid in his house in Nandnagri but the mob found and killed him on 1Nov. He was also a ricksha-puller.

Rajinder Singh was 10 years old when his father was killed in the 1984 anti-sikh riots in New Delhi. Rajinder was hiding in his neighbour’s house with his six siblings. His father was advised to cut of his hair but he refused. He hid in his house in Nandnagri but the mob found and killed him on 1Nov. He was also a ricksha-puller.

The vivid images of From Lost Childhood to Uncertain Future, his photo documentary, starkly outline the stories of children “who grew up in the shadow of the riots. These children were newborns or only a few years old or in their mother’s womb when they lost their fathers, brothers and uncles,” says Austa. Now in their mid to late twenties, these youngsters narrate personal tales bound together by the common themes of violence, loss and the death of their childhood.

 

While working on the photo documentary, Austa discovered that the riots had not only left an indelible scar on the minds of the survivors, it had also altered social and financial equations forever for the bereaved families. “The male members were the only breadwinners and the women were housewives. Suddenly the women had to take up clerical posts to make a living and there was no one to look after the children at home,” says Austa. “Some of the widows remarried and their children from the first marriage were often neglected or alienated,” he adds. “All these children had a difficult childhood and it showed. As children, they either dropped out of schools or had to help their mother supplement the family income,” reveals Austa. “Today, more than 60 percent children born in the wake of the 1984 riots are either drug addicts, or unemployed or involved in petty crimes.”

Austa, who visited the colony for an earlier assignment, was struck by the sight of several young men milling around on the streets, apparently ‘doing nothing’. “I made enquiries and found out that these were people who were born during the riots. Most of them were school dropouts and were unemployed. Some of them were clearly on drugs,” he says, explaining how he chanced upon the unusual subject.

Manjeet Singh was three years old when his father was killed by a mob in Bhanjanpura on 1Nov. They descended on their house and dragged his father out. His mother went with him pleading with the mob. They even threw her 10 year old son in a burning pyre. But someone from the mob rescued him. His father was taken away and his body was never found. (sanjay austa austa)

Manjeet Singh was three years old when his father was killed by a mob in Bhanjanpura on 1Nov. They descended on their house and dragged his father out. His mother went with him pleading with the mob. They even threw her 10 year old son in a burning pyre. But someone from the mob rescued him. His father was taken away and his body was never found.

On why he chose to take up photography full time, Austa says, “I think a photograph can convey a story in a stronger way than words. In words, we can exhibit our prejudices, our biases, but a photograph is just what is there. I am not really comfortable with the idea of shooting someone on the street and not having anything to do with him or her later. I like to engage myself in the subjects I shoot. The subjects I choose must have an interesting story to tell which I  try and tell through pictures,” he says.

Austa realised that the process of sharing the tragic stories of his subjects would require extremely sensitive handling and a lot of patience in this case. “During the first few visits, I did not take a single picture,” he says. Instead, he spent that time meeting the families, talking to the youth and forging an understanding with them. “It was much later, after I had won their confidence, that I began shooting,” he says.

Many youth as well as the middle-aged people in the widows colony are unemployed with no permanent job. (sanjay austa austa)

Watching the world go by. Many youth as well as the middle-aged people in the widows colony are unemployed with no permanent job.

The members of the second generation of the riot victims are painfully aware that life has dealt them a raw deal, that they lost their shot at a better life when their fathers lost their lives in the riots. The trauma of either witnessing or hearing stories about the brutal murders of their family members continues to haunt these youngsters. “Some of them, who were four years or older, remember the events vividly. Very few second generation victims could make something of their lives,” says Austa.

His photographs, which capture the moods and moments of the second generation survivors, have garnered a considerable amount of attention after they were posted online. They also received a fair amount of interest from an unexpected quarter. “Hardline sympathisers of the Khalistani movement, who are settled abroad, wanted to appropriate these pictures for their anti-India propaganda. But my intention is only to tell the story as best as I can,” says Austa.

On how the young residents of the Widow’s Colony have reacted to being photographed thus, Austa says, “Some of them were happy (with the photographs), but others wanted to know why I shot them from such crazy angles. They wanted to know why I didn’t take straight shots like they do in studios.”

 


Jordan, Middle-East

I was at the Dead Sea shooting the usual drab stuff you shoot at a beach when these gorgeous Jordanian girls approached me and asked if I could shoot them as well. They said they were of Palestinian origin and wanted to get shot with their homeland in the background. From the Jordanian coast you can see the Palestinian cities clearly and for the Palestinian Jordanian seeing the Palestinian city- lights is always an emotional moment. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

I was at the Dead Sea shooting the usual drab stuff you shoot at a beach when these gorgeous Jordanian girls approached me and asked if I could shoot them as well. They said they were of Palestinian origin and wanted to get shot with their homeland in the background. From the Jordanian coast you can see the Palestinian cities clearly and for the Palestinian Jordanian seeing the Palestinian city- lights is always an emotional moment.

(click on photos to go to gallery)

Why would Prince William and Kate Middleton  want to spend their honeymoon in Jordan  of all the places in the world? Like everyone else I  had wondered about it when I read the news. But on a  recent trip to this middle-east country I realised why. Jordan is an oasis of peace in an area where suicide-bombings, repressions, reprisal shellings and  political uprisings are a daily norm. Driven primarily by tourism this desert country has managed to keep away from the  daily bloodshed that embroils all its neighbors.  It is the only middle-eastern country that has successfully brokered peace with Israel even though more than 40 percent of its population are Palestinian refugees. We traveled from the Roman city of Jerash in the north through the Biblical sites at Madaba, Mt Nebo and Bethany -the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Horsemen in Petra. The horses were on hire to walk to around Petra. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Horsemen in Petra. The horses were on hire to ride around Petra.

For a non-believer the Biblical sites can be the most boring part of the trip. No ancient structures grace these ancient  spots. The churches are  no older than 50 years. Even Moses’s memorial at Mt Nebo was just a slab of not very old stone. He was said to have been buried somewhere on this mountain. However Moses has a big Indian connection if some Christian scholars/ archeologists are to be believed. They claim after his work was done Moses lived and died in Kashmir. (Just like Jesus after his crucification) In fact there is a grave of Moses and Jesus in Kashmir to show for it too. A jewish family has been overlooking these graves since generations. The Vatican of-course does not validate these revelations. But I like this story.

Dead sea was a night’s  halt. If you don’t know how to swim, Dead Sea is very good for your confidence. You float effortlessly. However if you know how to swim the extreme salinity of the water (31 percent) will ensure that you cannot do move much. After which we travelled south to the landscaped mountains of Petra and deserts of Wadi Rum and finally ended the journey at the shores of the Red Sea in Aqaba.

camels and bedouins. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

A bedouin with his camels in Wadi Rum desert.

Petra by night is an otherworldly experience indeed. Its a long walk down the narrow siq or gorge. It was indeed a surreal experience walking in near dark with looming mountains above you in this ancient city . And then suddenly you chance upon this site- thousands of candles illuminating a three-story gateway into the mountain. You are made to sit here and listen to the beduins play some music. This was the treasury of the ancient city of Petra. The Egyptian Pharaoh is said to have hid his treasures here on his pursuit of the Israelites.

Wadi Rum is the archetypical middle-eastern desert with an Arabian Night aura. You have jeep safaris here but of course you can also hire a camel  but the distances are so huge that jeeps fair better.

We terminated our journey at the Red Sea at Aqaba- Jordan’s commercial hub and only sea port.

You will keep bobbing on the surface of the waters at the Dead Sea. The water is very saline so lying on your back is the best way. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Everyone wants to be photographed floating in the Dead Sea

 

Beyond the Arctic Circle, Lapland

I missed the spectacle of the Northern Lights but even in the bleak, cloudy weather there were eerie hues towards the evening. (sanjay austa austa)

I missed the spectacle of the Northern Lights but even in the bleak, cloudy weather there were eerie hues towards the evening.

(Click on photos to go to gallery)

( In March 2010 I had an opportunity to fly to Lapland and photograph the life in the Arctic.  While the rest of the world was preparing for a  fine summer the Arctic had not fully woken from its long winter slumber. Following is one of the travelogues I wrote for newspapers . )

Arctic circle is not an imaginary line. At least not in the  Santa Clause village in Lapland, where elaborate lamp-posts tell you exactly what side of the latitude you shiver. This is just as well. Crossing the 66 degree latitude is   indeed a big deal not just for equatorial inhabitants like me  but even for the Northerners who come here to make this big ritual crossing.  And as if to emphasize its significance, once you cross over they  give you a certificate (all for a few Euros of course).

But did I fly across the globe for this hot-selling touristy kitsch?  I had come  for some serious Arctic adventure.  And Lapland,  the Northern Province of Finland,  offers it in truckloads.

So it was quite a relief when Jari our guide backed out his Wagon from the Santa Clause village and drove us on the long straight highway further north.  Lapland has four seasons and from canoeing in summers, to  snowmobiling in winters, it packs enough activities to keep your adrenalin pumping all year.

Marek perhaps made the mistake of tying a female Alaskan Malamite along with two males of the species to the sledge. He tied her behind them but it was not long before they caught her scent. This distracted them and they would sniff the air , the path, and turn around intermittently breaking the ride from time to time. Marek had to shout `go' more than once. But the scent of the female was clearly too overpowering. In the pine and birch forest Mareks `go' echoed back along with the excited yelps of the dogs. But despite the frequent interruptions in which the dogs performed their mating rituals in front of me , I was at least happy that unlike on a Reindeer sledge I could at least see where the dogs were dragging me. (sanjay austa austa)

Marek perhaps made the mistake of tying a female Alaskan Malamite along with two males of the species to the sledge. He tied her behind them but it was not long before they caught her scent. This distracted them and they would sniff the air , the path, and turn around intermittently bringing the ride to a halt.

 

This  was already April. But the winter showed no signs of retreat. It was  longer, colder and more unpredictable than normal.  Usually by April,  the snow begins to  melt. Finland’s over one thousand frozen lakes thaw and crack. The birch and pine forests sprout new leaves and the ground awash with freshly melted snow  begins to  breath life into fauna lying dormant for over six months under several feet of snow.

But this extended winter was perfect for the winter activities Jari had in mind for us. We had already experienced one in Rovaniemi,  Lapland capital , within one hour of our flight’s landing!.  A reindeer sledge ride was a perfect way to throw us headlong into what Lapland represented.

It can be pretty cheesy doing the usual exotic activities a country is famous for.   Riding a reindeer sledge in the Arctic is  like jumping on a bullock cart or a rickshaw ride in India.  But Reindeer Sledging is something much more. The Reindeers are strong reliable and mild  arctic animals who wait for a tug of the reign before they move. But  my reindeer seemed to have a mind of his own. He chose to ignore any tugging on the reign and dragged my sledge of his own volition.   From the sledge all you can see is the narrow hump of the Reindeer and his flat hoofs as they spring back and forth. I wondered how anyone riding the sledge could possibly see where they were going.   But my reindeer had gone down this path many times before and after cutting a large swathe in the pine woods we were soon back at the reindeer farm.

Reindeer Ride is mostly a tourist activity in Lapland but long time ago, along with the Husky sledging it was the only means of transport in these parts.

This man grows potatoes in the summers and with his suspenders and a comely paunch looked every bit the archetypical Arctic farmer i had imagined. Here he rests against the bunkers that the lumberjacks of yore slept on during their night halt. (sanjay austa austa)

This man grows potatoes in the summers and with his suspenders and a comely paunch looked every bit the archetypical Arctic farmer i had imagined. Here he rests against the bunkers that the lumberjacks of yore slept on during their night halt.

 

If Reeinder ride is surreal the husky ride is a fairytale.   The huskies are not really dogs in the true sense. They have a wolf ancestry and similar domination fights, some of which so vicious that they end in a blood bath. However they are surprisingly benign to humans. For that reason they make very poor guard dogs for they  fawn and wag their bushy tails at any stranger.

Marek the Husky keeper would not take us anywhere near the  dogs unless we had heard the last detail about them including their names.   A  husky keeper is  called a  Musher in Finland. It’s a  French word meaning `go’. “When we set off on a  Husky safari we say `go’ to the dogs when we start. That’s how we got the name,’’ explained  Marek.

Marek kept two breeds of huskies. The  Alaskan Malamites and the Greenland Dogs. The former is a much larger and stronger dog but the latter is more wolfish in demeanor.  This was put to good display the moment when half a dozen one year old Greeland puppies began fighting for nothing.  Marek explained they were having domination fights and will continue until status is  established.

Our sledge dogs were the less bad-tempered  Alaskan Malamites. They were overfriendly and clearly raring to take us on a ride.  Marek said the arctic dogs loved long excursions but were put off if they knew the ride was short. They looked huge but weighed only 35 kilos.  When I attempted to pet one of them my hand sank in the furry coat.  The dogs were all hair and  fur and that’s what kept them going in the sub zero Arctic winter.

From the once hard life dependent mainly on hunting the Sami people have come a long way and some of them are so rich that during the herding -season - late September- they employ helicopters to herd in their large Reindeer flocks. (sanjay austa austa)

From the once hard life dependent mainly on hunting the Sami people have come a long way and some of them are so rich that during the herding -season – late September- they employ helicopters to herd in their large Reindeer flocks.

 

Early next morning it was snowing. But snow is never a problem in the Arctic. It just adds to the fun.  So the snowmobile safari would  go on as scheduled. And as I sat astride a sleek snowmobile it occurred to me that I was raring to go even though I had never ridden a bike in my life.  That’s the level of comfort and confidence you get from helpful snowmobile instructors. But the snowmobile is also an incredibly easy machine to operate. After you turn the ignition all you need to know is when to accelerate and when to press the brake.

 Skiing is another popular activity but Finland does not have the great Alpine slopes of central Europe.  It is a relatively flat land but the few slopes it has are great.  The flat swathes of land particularly those bereft of any trees are usually  Finland’s frozen lakes that number in thousands.  They are perfect for testing your patience at ice fishing. But I gave up after standing over a drilled hole with a small fishing rod in  less than a minute. After riding with the reindeers and huskies,  fishing is the last  activity on your mind.

How to get there.

There are a plethora of flights to choose from everyday from both Mumbai and New Delhi. Finnair has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai  and cuts the shortest route to Helsinki from India.

Rovenami Lapland’s capital, is the gateway to Lapland. You can either fly here from Helsinki or take the train or  railroad car at night.

 

The Reindeers are strong reliable and mild arctic animals who wait for a tug from you on the reign before they move anywhere. But my reindeer seemed to have a mind of his own or perhaps he could sniff out nervous tourists. He choose to ignore any tugging on the reign and dragged my sledge of his own volition and speed. From the sledge all you can see is the narrow hump of the Reindeer and his flat hoofs as they spring back and forth. I wondered how anyone riding the sledge could possibly see where they were going. But my reindeer had gone down this path a lot many times before and after cutting a large swathe in the pine woods we were soon back at the reindeer farm. (sanjay austa austa)

The Reindeers are strong reliable and mild arctic animals who wait for a tug from you on the reign before they move anywhere. But my reindeer seemed to have a mind of his own.

 

Mauritius. Deep in the Shallows.

 

DCIM@GOPROGOPR4264. (sanjay austa austa)

The water in the tropics is crystal clear.

Published first in the Deccan Herald,  April 2017.

Nothing prepares you for two astonishing sights at the soft sand Mauritian beaches. The stunning blue-green lagoons and the two-piece bikini clad Indian women, choora draped to their elbows. Both these spectacles, will want you to dive into the waters as fast as your finned feet will allow and stay underwater for as long as the boatman comes to fetch you.

For hiding in the lagoons is a wealth of marine beauty that can temporarily wash off any terrestrial visual assault. But Mauritius, much like other tropical islands, scattered messily in the Indian Ocean, can often satiate all touristy appetites, simply with the show of its beaches. The spread of the white sands, fringed by palm trees on one side and lapped on the other by a calm blue ocean, can bring on a lazy holiday stupor.

However, coming to a tropical Island and not exploring what lies underwater, is like, to use the trite phrase, coming to India and not visiting Khajuraho. Which is not to say, all tourists give in to this inertia. Mauritius, being nearly as far away from Europe as Asia, gets footfalls from all sorts. India’s middleclass throng the island, because it’s neither as exclusive as Maldives nor as promiscuous as Thailand.

DCIMAGOPROGOPR5262. (sanjay austa austa)

Between the reef and the beach is the coral filled lagoon.

Many, especially India’s newly married, having wagered on matrimony, seem to be up for any other foolhardy enterprise, including sky diving, paragliding and also diving. They cheerfully sign the waiver of liability and disclosure form and enter the waters, the Chooras, thankfully, out of sight beneath the wetsuits.

I am at Beachcomber resort’s lagoon in the Island’s North West, barely two hours after touchdown. The water is warm and crystal clear as the tropical waters should be. So much so, that with the snorkeling mask on, I can see anything within 20 meters or more. The clarity comes from the nutrient deficient waters. An irony since the tropical waters supports the most diverse ecosystems after the rainforests. This is known as Darwin’s Paradox, since the phenomenon also perplexed the great man. The answer was recycling. The smorgasbord of organisms teeming in the coral reefs have an efficient recycling system, perhaps the best in nature, where nutrients are passed from one class of organisms to another.

The shallow lagoon is girdled in a protective embrace by the third largest reef in the world. From the sky you see best how the reef protects the Mauritian coast from erosion. The waves crash on the reef far back in the ocean and from the beach to the reef there is a placid coral-filled lagoon. The reef almost entirely encircles this amorphous volcanic island, formed barely 8 millions years ago. From up above, you see the encircling white surf formed by the wave-bashing. Here the deep blue opaqueness of the ocean suddenly gives way to the green-blue transparency of the lagoon, which stretches, languidly towards the coast.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Perhaps from the sky you can see how the reef protects the Mauritian coast from erosion.

If you go on resort organized snorkeling excursions, you will be well within waving distance of your not-a-water-person friend at the beach bar. Though you see more dramatic seascapes and creatures beyond the reef, the shallow lagoon abounds with corals and fish. The most ubiquitous and recognizable is of course the clownfish, better known as Nemo in the public imagination. They sway with the limp gelatinous tentacles of the sea anemone. The sea anemones are genetic oddballs. Growing out from what looks like maroon cloth-sacks, they are both plant and animal. Nemos are fascinating creatures themselves and pioneers of sex-change and matriarchy. They are led by a female and if she dies, a male can lead a group only after he mutates into a female.

It’s also in the shallows that you see bleached corals, victims of both human induced global warming and El Nino. Climate change is not unfortunately a Chinese hoax, as President Trump would have us believe. The corals are infact its first indicators.

The corals cannot bear rising water temperatures and as a defense mechanism expel the algae living on them, turning white before dying. Corals also die because of ocean acidification, which occur when there is too much carbon dioxide in the air. Over fishing and even diving and snorkeling can damage the delicate corals if you don’t wear the right sunscreen. Most sunscreens have the chemical oxybenzone which destroy the corals.

DCIMAGOPROGOPR5237. (sanjay austa austa)

Coral filled lagoon.

Snorkeling has never been this easy with the new masks available now in the market. They snugly wrap around your face and you can breath normally through the nose unlike in the labored way through your mouth with the traditional masks.

Donning this new gear, I could easily outswim the snorkeling guides who had to occasionally come up and pluck off their traditional snorkeling masks to breath normally.

While the western coast  is the favoured place for all underwater aficionados- Flic en Flac offering the best diving and snorkeling spots- its however the south of the island which has some semblance of wilderness.

One early morning a fisherman drove me 10 kilometers along the coast from my hotel in the south to a place untrammeled by tourists and the newlyweds. There with the lagoon all to myself, I wallowed in the waters witnessing a fisherman catch a fish with his bare hands, an octopus-the smartest invertebrate- release his cloud of blue ink before escaping into the warrens of the reef and schools of all manner of skittish fish swimming this way and that almost without a purpose. Just like me.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR4197. (sanjay austa austa)

Teeming with all sorts of fish.

 

DCIM@GOPROGOPR4439. (sanjay austa austa)

Bleached coral

 

DCIMAGOPROGOPR5271. (sanjay austa austa)

The waters abound in Boulder forming corals or porities.

 

DCIM@GOPROGOPR4047. (sanjay austa austa)

Fisherman makes a catch with bare hands.

 

Treasures Of The Sea. Watamu, Kenya

DCIM@GOPROGOPR0761. (sanjay austa austa)

Snorkelling in Watamu, Kenya

(Published first in Outlook Traveller, Oct 2016)

“It is no problem my friend. You just jump”, declares the snorkelling guide gesticulating wildly towards the ocean. We are about a kilometre from the Watamu coastline in Kenya and he has forgotten the life jackets.

I stare at him through the smudgy snorkelling mask, and try to grimace. But my mouth is already twisted awkwardly on the breathing piece, through which I hear myself breathing hard.

I have flippered, cold feet. I am not sure if the rocking of the anchored boat on the choppy waters is making me giddy or his absurd suggestion.

But I had, in an impulsive airport-buy bought the latest GoPro especially for this underwater event and I have to make it look good.

The tiny camera is at the ready, encased in its waterproof housing, stringed tightly around my right hand wrist.

“Are you going or what? he says with something of a rising irritation. I take the proffered ring buoy and descend into the Indian Ocean.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR0850. (sanjay austa austa)

The zebra fish mill about for any scrap of bread the boatmen throws

Clasping that buoy for dear life with one hand, the other clinching the GoPro, I keep my head down for over an hour until the guide wriggles up with the creatures of the ocean and coerces me back aboard.

It isn’t  as if I had not been surprised before in Africa. Five years ago I had made an impulsive trip to Zanzibar from Tanzania with my fiancé. I had read about the archipelago’s ancient trade routes that ferried slaves and spices but no one told me about the dazzling beaches, the centenarian giant tortoises and other marine life.

Indeed, when you think of Africa you seldom think beyond the ‘Big Five’. At best you picture the marauding wildebeest and zebra herds. Africa as the place of pristine soft sand beaches and turquoise waters that hides incredible marine life, or Africa as a place of our origin with evolutionary links dating back to 17 millions years, (Proconsul fossil housed in Nairobi Museum) is lost in the mad touristy ticking –the- animals-off-the-list game.

In Africa, the spectacular terrestrial creatures overwhelm the senses completely and anything else on the continent is just a bonus.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR0757. (sanjay austa austa)

The snorkelling guide showed off some diving stunts

Just a few days before in Maasai Mara and Lewa Downs we had had our moments with the Big Five in the less than half hour of the airstrip to camp drive by. But there were no herds. It’s an awful time to visit the savannahs when the herds are gone. It was late December and having grazed up the Mara plains, the wildebeests and zebras had swept across to the wider expanse of the Serengeti.

And as if to make up for the missing zebras, the Watamu reef below me bubbles with zebra fish, named so for their black and white stripes. With every bread morsel the boatman chucks into the ocean- not recommended, since this interferes with the fish’s regular feeding patterns- schools of zebra fish appear from nowhere, gobbling up the morsels greedily.

The Indian Ocean stretching from South East Asia to East Africa is an astonishing cornucopia of marine life. But unfortunately compared to the other oceans there hasn’t be an adequate research on its species, many of whom, scientists believe, still lie undiscovered and many that could be going extinct in the havoc of climate change, vanishing without documentation.

Circulating in labyrinthine coils in that distance are the ocean currents. Therefore any rubbish emanating in the Indian coast can wash up on the beaches of East Africa and visa versa . “We have been doing some research. We haven’t so far got any rubbish from India but we have from Malaysia and Thailand. So its really interesting how the currents work”, says Steve Trott a marine zoologist, Chairman of Watamu Marine Association.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR0648. (sanjay austa austa)

In the tropics nutrient deficient waters, you can see a long distance off in the ocean

The water is nutrient deficient in the tropics making for great underwater viewing. In Watamu, you can’t just wade into the ocean from the beach and find the corals in the shallows, as you can in the beaches of Indonesia or the Maldives. Here you have to take a boat a kilometre or two into the ocean to hit a reef.

The reef I hover over, mainly has boulder brain corals. These, as the name suggests, are brain-shaped with many tiny rifts, ridges and valleys in which tiny fish seem to play hide and seek. Because of their slow growth and sturdy shape, they are somewhat resistant to coral bleaching compared to the other delicate corals. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon triggered by global warming. The warm waters force the corals to expel the algae living on it. The corals then look white or bleached. The El Nino event in 1998 had bleached almost 70 percent of the corals in East Africa save the boulder brain corals.

The marine wildlife to really look out for in Watamu waters is the green and the hawksbill turtles. But as elsewhere in the world, rampant beach development is encroaching on their traditional egg laying sites on Watamu beaches. Evolution has designed the hatchlings to make for the ocean as fast as possible using the light of the horizon as a beacon. But the bright lights of the resorts confuse making them waddle the wrong way, becoming easy prey to predators.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR0287. (sanjay austa austa)

In Watamu, they take you a kilometre or so from the coast for diving

A visit to Watamu is incomplete without exploring the Mida Creek. It’s a 32 square kilometres tidal inlet that comprises a mangrove forest. There is a boardwalk that takes you through this forest. Its not the sort of polished primed boardwalk you have at Santosa, Singapore. Here wooden planks are strung together in a rough and ready way, with many of them missing and many rotting. Some of the heavier members in our group worry about crashing the planks as they wobble, flailing at the rope railing.

At the end of the boardwalk is a bird-viewing platform from where one can feast ones eyes on a host of migratory birds fleeing the  European winter. Flamingoes congregate in huge numbers in the vast mudflats fringing the creek. However in the midday sun we see only a smattering of birds. “If you come one hour before high tide you can see a great aggregation of sea birds. They say it’s the largest aggregation of sea birds in east Africa. They number over ten thousand and more. September to April is the best time to come. You just need to time the tide”, says John our guide.

 (sanjay austa austa)

A visit to Watamu is incomplete without a visit to the Mida Creek

We descend on the mudflats to reach our dugout boats anchored in the shallows. The walk forms a fascinating 20-minute study in marine biology. Every now and then John swoops down to dig out or point an invertebrate. He scoops up a triangular shaped organism. It’s a razor fish and like most organism here, it’s a mollusk with a razor sharp shell.

“They say one square meter of this mudflat has the same energy as a full chocolate bar. I mean there are so many organism living here”, he says patting the loamy earth where we see nothing. But he scoops up the earth from right under and points to some squiggly, squirming organisms, exclaiming excitedly, ”See its so full of life. See”.

The dugout boat is made out of the hollowed out trunk of the Boabab tree, a bottle shaped tree that dots the coast liberally. You sit one behind the other in the narrow hold with the boatman rowing with a long pole behind you. And as our boats move the boatmen sing.

 (sanjay austa austa)

The dugout ride in the creek is surreal

There may yet be a lot to sing about in this part of Africa which is comparatively serene and unpolluted but it is not exactly safe from the scourge  of overdevelopment. Biggest danger to marine biosphere in Watamu, as elsewhere, apart from climate change, is overfishing. For example the overfishing of the predator fish and mollusks often leads to the proliferation of sea urchins here. The sea urchins then feed on sea grass unchecked. This destabilizes the sea bed, leading to more wave action. With no buffer the waves erode the beaches. And so it goes.

But many marine conservation organisations such as Watamu Marine Association have stepped up to the challenge and from waste management, to recycling to educating the fishermen, they are fighting to protect the unique marine biosphere of East Africa so it becomes more than just an off beat destination for the African traveller.

 (sanjay austa austa)

The boardwalk at the Mida Creek is just some planks put together in a rough and ready way.

How to get there.

Kenya Airways has two flights daily to Nairobi from Mumbai. From Nairobi one can take the Safarilink aircraft to Malindi. Watamu is over 20 kilometers from Malindi by road.

Where to stay.

Watamu is just like any other beach town. All the crowded markets selling touristy bric-a-brac are inland, while the fancy resorts and hotels face the sea. At the high end is the Madina Palms built with persian architectural elements. It is situated a stone’s throw from Watamu beach. Budget tourists can find the cosy Hossana Guesthouse welcoming, though its on the Watamu main road and a bit of a walk from the beach.

 

 

 

 (sanjay austa austa)

Fascinating marine life exists on the coast, like this razor fish.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

But unfortunately most travellers have eyes only for these big guys.

Land of Dragons. Flores Islands

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

That salvia has a deadly cocktail of over 60 bacteria

Published first in Mail Today (Jul 2016)

For the lay, Eat, Pray, Love tourist, Indonesia is Bali and Bali Indonesia.  For them it is as if the other 17000 or so islands of this archipelago do not exist at all. But Indonesian islands were to British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, what Galapagos islands were to Charles Darwin, both regions helping them formulate their theory of evolution independently.

Interestingly however, in what may be one of the scientific world’s freakish misses, Wallace, who spent eight long years painstakingly studying, chronicling and discovering thousands of species in this part of the world, lived much like the Bali revelers, in complete oblivion of a beast that today is wild Indonesia’s hottest emblem. The komodo dragon, in fact remained shrouded in mystery until as late as 1910, when one of them was killed and its skin sent to scientists in Java.

Today komodo dragons cold-stare you from hoardings, coins, souvenirs, brochures and T-shirts across Indonesia.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Komodo Island. One of the five islands where the dragons dwell

“Komodos here are not tame. Not like in Zoo”. Our guide is at pains to impress on us the ferociousness of the world’s largest lizard. He is one of the many who narrate to us the unfortunate incident of a Swiss trekker who many years ago, went off the beaten path in the Komodo National Park and was made short work of by the dragons.

“It is lucky if you find the komodos and lucky if you don’t”, the guide concludes epigrammatically.

We take it all in, in the 40 minute speedboat ride to Komodo National Park from Labuan Bajo, the largest city in Flores Island, and a springboard for Komodo National Park excursions.

Komodo National Park includes   four of the five islands where the dragons live. These four islands are brown with clumps of green clinging only about their coast. A perfect habitat for the cold-blooded that like to sun in the dry savannah grass.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Baby dragons have to keep out of reach of the cannibalistic adults.

The dragons however also sun themselves right on the pier making for a frightful reception committee. However when we alight at Komodo Island, we meet only fork stick wielding rangers at the other end of the long wooden pier. Along with the island’s herbivores; the buffalos, the wild boars, and the deers, humans are also on the dragon’s menu and the forked sticks come in handy to stave them off .

Thankfully on our trek in the savannah , the rangers don’t launch into a maddening dragon chase, a la the tiger safaris in India. Our ranger, like a latter day Wallace stops for every bird sound in the trees and any scampering in the undergrowth. However in the dappled light of the midday sun, the birds are camouflaged and we only get a good glimpse of a brightly coloured jungle fowl.

The ranger then turns his attention to the trees. He tells us in particular about the galand or the palm tree. It’s different from the palm tree whose cultivation has wrecked havoc in large swathes of Indonesian jungles, particularly in Borneo. This one is a wild variant, with no oil, bearing fruits only once in its lifetime. After bearing fruit- perhaps having thus fulfilled its evolutionary duty- it dies. “ There is a soft place inside this tree which is inhabited by geckos and baby dragons”, the ranger informs us. The baby dragons, barely twelve inches at birth, no sooner hatched, scamper up trees like this, to hide from cannibalistic dragons including their mother.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR1562. (sanjay austa austa)

The dragon habitat is surrounded by beautiful coral reefs

“Komodo no good mama no good papa”, as the ranger puts it. The baby dragons live in their arboreal confines for as long as four years until they become bigger, eventually tipping the scale at about 70 kilos. This is when they lose their ability to climb, keeping in turn other baby dragons out of their reach.

A short walk away we see an array of fork stick armed rangers hard pressed to keep a menacing dragon at bay. He swaggers, head swinging from side to side, tasting the air with its forked tongue. Another dragon – the bigger of the two – lies absolutely stationary. From both their mouth drips saliva, which scientists say has over sixty deadly bacteria.

The aggressive one is the female says one ranger. No it’s an adolescent says another. They debate. But soon concede its hard to tell a male from a female. Males in the dragon world however are pretty much dispensable. The dragons are one of those few miraculous creatures capable of Immaculate Conception. In the absence of a male, the female dragon reproduces asexually.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

An adult dragon can weigh upto 70 kilos

What made these dragons so big? The dragons are a perfect example of what biologists call ‘island gigantism’. Cold blooded reptiles if geographically isolated for a long time have a tendency to grow larger, while big mammals have a tendency to grow smaller, a tendency the scientists call ‘island dwarfism’. Before man introduced the buffalo, the wild bore and the deer on these islands, the dragons used to feed on the now extinct pygmy elephant.

Wallace, besides chasing butterflies and insects, was always on a look out for fascinating fauna in Indonesia. He found many but missed the most unusual of them all. How the dragons might have shaped his ideas on evolution is only a matter of speculation. But as strange new discoveries continued to be made in these islands east of Bali (the fossil of yet another human species; the Homo floresiensis was discovered here only in 2003) the last world on these islands has not been said yet.

Male: An Island Unto Itself

 

 (sanjay austa austa)

Island of Male, Maldives

(Published first in Outlook Traveller, Jul 2016)

 

“There is nothing in Male”, everyone barks, astonished that I would want to forgo –even for a day- the hedonistic delights on offer at the resort, to shuffle about in one of the world’s smallest and densely packed cities.

Indeed, it takes a supreme effort of will to drag oneself out of a Maldivian resort’s infinity pool, and the personal butler’s (thakuru) pamperings to venture anywhere. Even to the sea. Most cottages fan out into the turquoise lagoons and from the sundeck, with the beach way behind you, you feel you are already in the waters. So why bother?

Most tourists to the Maldives see and  care for nothing besides, whisked as they are from the airport in such an efficient hurry by the resort speedboats, as if to prevent them from wandering into the Maldivian capital, Male, just an island hop away. The perception that Maldives archipelago is just a collection of world-class resorts has therefore stayed.

Thankfully my guide Firdaus is enthusiastic and launches into the history of Male no sooner I am ejected off the resort speedboat into this tiny city. The contrast is indeed compelling and you begin to see why no one wants you to spoil the illusion of Maldives as an ultimate utopia.

 (sanjay austa austa)

From the airport , tourists are quickly whisked away to the comfort of their resorts

Where at the island resorts one is accosted by soft white sands, clear blue waters, tropical trees, coconut with umbrella topped straws and scented damp towels, here in Male, there is just one concrete wall of buildings. Below me, among the fishermen’s detritus, float Coke and water bottles. Male’s architectural element is clearly expediency not aesthetics. The idea seems to be to pack as many buildings as close together as possible on the space-crunched island.

Paucity of space is also why there is a roar of bikes and mopeds on the roads. All solidly stone-paved, the streets are narrow and the two-wheeler is the transport of choice. “If I invite you for a coffee and you see a Maldivian woman and you say, I like her, can you arrange a date with her? The first thing she will ask is do you have a motorbike? The first condition is the bike or else bye bye”, says Firdaus.

But the 1.7-kilometer long and 1 kilometer wide island can as easily be traversed on foot. Every monument, museum and mosque is just an arm’s length away. We first visit the Old Friday Mosque. This once upon a time Buddhist temple was turned into a mosque after the Moroccan scholar Abu al Barakat travelled to Buddhist Maldives and converted the Sultan and with him the country to Islam in the 12th century A.D. The mosque was renovated three times, the last in 1656. It is an important relic of history for all Maldivians. The door and window frames are made from corals. Wooden beams supporting the roof are engraved with Koranic verses but they still hide untold stories of a 1400-year-old Buddhist past. Its a sort of place writer V.S. Naipaul might have wanted to ruminate about in “Among the Believers”, his book about what he termed the “converted people”.

 (sanjay austa austa)

A once upon a time Buddhist temple . Now the Old Friday Mosque.

It is in Male, the mercantile and political centre of the Maldives where you get a glimpse of any Maldivian culture. You may see the Maldivians at the resort’s sand-floor receptions   deal coolly with the booking queries of bikini clad Europeans but outside the resorts, Maldivians are conservative   and intend to stay that way.

In fact, until the 1980’s the government kept the world of tourists and the world of locals assiduously apart, making the inhabited islands  tourist no- go areas. But tourism is Maldivian economy’s backbone, therefore some concessions were made, like modest guesthouses have now been allowed to spring up not only in Male but in many inhabited islands for the bag-packers and the off- the -beaten -path travellers. However the usual tourist debaucheries of winning, dinning, and bikini sunbathing are alright as long as they are cordoned off from the locals.

Every Maldivian is not only a Muslim but also a Sunni Muslim. It’s a paradise where no other religion can be practiced. There are over 35 mosques in the tiny island of Male itself. We visit many of them including the biggest of them all, the Friday Mosque, which pierces the Male sky with its gold-plated domes.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Two-wheelers are a transport of choice in Male

There is a Museum, which is a steel and glass building, a gift from China, built in the year 2010. Among other things, it houses old canons, pictures of important political events and a replica of the pen used to sign the Maldives ‘declaration of Independence’ from the British Empire on 26th July 1965.

Male is crowded with a population of 100,000 people. It’s a tiny landmass that rises up barely one meter above the surrounding ocean. But this is a mere statistics for the Indian traveller accustomed to a sea of people in everyday urban India. In comparison Male looks empty. “ People here take care of their skin and don’t come out in the day. They come out only in the evening for shopping”, says Firdaus by way of explanation.

The fish market at the jetty is a place where merchants from all over Maldives congregate to sell vegetables and fish.   I meet Suresh an Indian fisherman from Chennai who says he is not happy with the day’s catch. “The weather is not good. We spent three days out in the ocean and only got this”, he says pointing to a pile of what looked like a good haul to me. There are many Indians like him in Male who earn over 300 dollars a month and visit home once a year.

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The fish market here is always busy

Male also has a beach, which is monopolized completely by children. They are minded by Maldivian women, some of whom wade into the waters after their wards fully clothed.

Not accustomed to tourist footfalls, Male offers little choice for souvenir hunters. But there is almost everything to suit almost everyone’s palate and, if you like Thai food, you are in luck. Male, for some reason, has many restaurants catering to Thai taste buds.

But our guide took us to what he called a local ‘hangout’ joint- the Aioli Restaurant, which seemed more popular with the locals for the shisha than its food. The restaurant did not serve authentic Maldivian food but it was a welcome break from the European-dominated cuisines of the resorts. For example, the smoked salmon served there in the breakfast buffet was imported all the way from Belgium, the hostess on duty told me. We went with the recommendation of a skittish waiter and ordered the Hot and Sour Prawn Soup. The soup was great but very spicy. But thats because you are an Indian, explained Firdaus. “They adjust the chillies according to the country you are from”, he said, slurping comfortably on his soup, shisha smoke from another table whirling about his head.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Firdaus my guide who loves Bollywood cinema and many Indian actresses.

From the restaurant and just about at any other street corner in Male, huge posters of Mohamad Nasheed, the popular ex-President sentenced to 13 years in jail, and who recently got asylum in Britain, stare down at you. With him the message of  global warming rings ever louder for every Maldivian and the world at large. Should global warming continue at the current pace, there will indeed be nothing in Male in the next two decades. Barely two meters above sea level, Male and all the other 12,00 or so inhabited and uninhabited Maldivian islands will simply go underwater forever.

How to Get Here:

The only direct flights from India are from either Thiruvananthapuram or Kochi. Travellers from any other Indian city will have their flights (on Air India or SpiceJet) routed though one of these cities. SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka offers connections from India via Colombo for about the same price or better and about the same number of flying hours.

Visas :

Visitors don’t need visas to enter the Maldives. Citizens of all nationalities are given a 30-day free visa on arrival, provided their passports are valid for six months, they can show a return ticket and proof of funds or a resort booking.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy : Reviving Africa’s Rhinos

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Black Rhino is a majestic beast

Published first in Deccan Herald  (Jun 2016) 

 

We had barely brushed the dust off our 45-minutes flight from Nairobi, when we spotted the wallowed-in-the-mud white rhino. A few twist in the dirt road later, our open-sided Land Cruiser came head-on with a herd of galloping zebras. A little further up on the savannah, an elephant family grazed languidly by the flattop acacias. Not far from them, we eyeballed a cud-chewing male cape buffalo. And just a stone’s throw from our camp, we surprised a pride of resting lions. In this 20-minute, airstrip to camp drive by, we had ticked off almost all the African Big Five and many other animals besides.

Animal safaris have often been called voyeuristic affairs. But on the first day in the bush, you expect the thrill of a peek-a-boo not a full monty. With such easy viewing ennui can set in.

To add to that, the lions were all radio collared. Making them look protected and somewhat domestic.

It reminded me of my venerable old guide at Kaziranga National Park, who after a frustrating day of tiger chasing, exclaimed, ‘in Kaziranga there are real wild tigers. Unlike the tame ones in Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh, that any fly-by- night tourist can spot’.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The lions here are everywhere

But we were in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in central Kenya, a place synonymous with conservation. In colonial Kenya, it was a cattle ranch owned by the Craig family who in 1983 turned the 500 square kilometers property into a conservancy. This was all in an effort to stem the tide of rhino poaching, which had threatened to completely wipe out rhinos from Africa. Little over 30 years, Lewa Conservancy has expanded many folds and has been at the vanguard of providing a safe haven for its rhinos. (Although in 2014 the record was broken when six rhinos were poached.)

Today Lewa has over 75 black rhinos and over 65 white rhinos. The rhinos are not only easily spotted here but are less skittish than rhinos elsewhere in Africa. In Ngorongoro, several years ago, a rhino remained a small fidgety dot on the horizon, which assumed any shape only though my zoom lens. Rhinos have a hopelessly bad eye-sight and as the guide told us, from that distance the rhino probably mistook our jeep for another rhino.

In our evening safari in Lewa, a rhino came so close to our jeep, that to fit him into the frame, I had to switch to a wide angle lens. Led by its enormous horn, the prehistoric beast serenely pushed through the dry and long savanna grass, aware but unmindful of our presence. Over our heartbeats, we heard the crunch of its feet over dry twigs and leaves.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Eland, the largest antelope keep their distance

The rhino was massive but the Indian rhino is bigger and looks more ancient with its armor-plated skin. But both the species evolved almost 50 millions years ago. To be exact more than 48 millions years before humans came into being.

Biologists say, in the evolutionary scheme of things, animals develop traits to counterbalance the traits of other animals in order to survive and maintain that essential ecological balance.

Sadly no species has been able to evolve fast enough to counter man’s rapid evolution from an insignificant cave dweller about eleven thousand years ago to a lethal gun wielding marauder today.

Least of all the rhinos. The demand its horn has spurred a legion of poachers, pushing their numbers to the brink.

In Lewa, the rhinos are well looked after, in the happy marriage of private enterprise and community involvement. Whether it’s India or Africa, the engagement of locals is intrinsic to combat poaching. In Lewa the local community has a stake in keeping the rhinos safe. Their school, their hospitals, their water management programs are regularly funded by the revenue generated by the Conservancy. For its work Lewa was declared an UNESCO world heritage site.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

In the Savannah, there is no place for the reticulated giraffe to hide.

The savannas in Lewa are rolling. No matter where we drove there were hills that ran like walls all around and hid animals in their folds. But there was no cover for the reticulated giraffes anywhere. We saw a towering neck of one rising up from behind a small escarpment. There were a lot of dry twisted acacia trees. It was the handiwork of the elephants, our guide told us. Man is after all not the only special responsible for deforestation. There were many acacia swathes in Lewa where elaborate electric fencing was built two meters or so from the ground. This was to prevent elephants from getting in, while allowing passage to other grazers.

We saw two of the largest grazers from the antelope family. The arid specialist, the oryx and the eland; the world’s largest antelope. Camouflaged in the undergrowth we also spotted one of the smallest antelope dik-dik. The Ostrich family showed up with their clutch of nervous chicks that ran helter-skelter between their mother’s stilt-like legs.

Getting a surfeit of Africa’s glamour animals right at the start has its pluses after all. You finally take notice of the other delightful animals in the savanna grass.

How to Get here.

There are regular Kenya Airways flights from Mumbai to Nairobi. From Nairobi one can either drive the 270 kilometers distance to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy or take the 45-minute flight via the small Safarilink aircraft.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

These are the smallest antelope and funnily called dik-dik. Yes they are really small.

 

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Another species responsible for deforestation is the elephant.

 

Maldives: A Paradise on the Brink

 

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The water villas are built on a lagoon. 

(Published first in Mail Today, Feb 2016)

 

You won’t find Maldives on an average sized world map. On a large atlas, the archipelago looks like iron fillings strew vertically southwest of Sri Lanka on the Indian ocean.

It’s a short 75 minute flight from Colombo with the ocean obscured by wisps of gossamer clouds for most of the journey.  The pilot announces the descent, and as if in a delicious conspiracy, the clouds suddenly vanish, and we get a glimpse of the most astonishing sight we have ever seen. Florescent pools of blue, dot the almost black brooding ocean.  These are the coral reefs. They are ring-like with the bright blue lagoon in the middle. On their fringes are beaches, from whom extend cottages built on stilts.   These pools, some of them with a smidgen of green, extend far into the horizon that you can only guess at.

Remember when you are flying into Maldives it pays to grab a window seat.

Maldives airport is tiny and with corrugated iron on its walls it has an appearance of a factory from which swarm different nationalities, only to be quickly whisked to the pools of blue that you see from the skies.

  Maldives is an archipelago of 1190 coral islands, out of which  200 are inhabited and 105 are luxury island resorts. These resorts are fully sufficient, insulated and built for ultimate indulgence; so much so that it takes a supreme effort of will to step out of these hedonistic cocoons.

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The water-breakers may stop the waves but not the rising ocean. 

And it suits the Maldivians well because ever since the 1980’s, when tourism took firm root in Maldives,   the effort has been to shield the locals from the tourists. Maldives is an Islamic country and intends to stay that way. There are some inhabited island, that now allow travellers to get a cheaper guesthouse accommodation,  but  the tourist beaches are fenced off so that the five time namaz praying and the  hijab donning Maldivians don’t get corrupted by the typical tourist debaucheries of wining, dining,  hand-holding and swimsuit sunbathing.

Going by the epicurean Maldivian standards, Meeru Island Resort, where I am staying is not top notch. But it is difficult to imagine how one could improve on the extravagances on offer here.

The roofs are intricate and vaulted from which hang artsy lamps. The restaurants are labyrinthine sprawls with elaborate menus to suit every palate. There are two sand floor receptions. One football field. Three capacious swimming pools ; one for children and one only for adults where women  can’t go topless  but can saunter in wearing a string bikini if they are so inclined.

The water villas on stilts have a jacuzzi for two. The bathrooms open to the skies and the balcony has stairs that dip down into a shimmering lagoon.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Maldives is only one percent land and 99 percent water. 

But to take all this for Maldives is to take the wood for the trees. Lulled by the luxuries, it’s often a mistake many tourists make. For, after all, Maldives is only 1 percent land and 99 percent water.

And despite all the man made extravaganzas on land, they are no match to the splendor of what the ocean hides.

I first hop on a dolphin sighting safari but its often a,  you- blink- and- you -miss -it affair.  After two hours of keeping our eyes peeled, we see a blur of a dorsal fin.

What is avoidable is  the fishing safari. It’s a pretty contrived touristy affair where a boat, all polished and primed takes you to catch fish, not for food but entertainment.  The fish wriggles pathetically on the hook after which it is cast back into the ocean. Ironically,  in our group, the only fish caught is  by someone, who describes herself as a pure vegetarian.

The water in the tropics is nutrient deficient making it transparent and therefore excellent for any under water activity. Face down on a wobbly ocean for my first snorkeling experience, I wonder, as a whole new universe opens up below me, why I never thought of doing this before. Coral reefs are the rainforests of the deep.  I understand now why Charles Darwin said they,  “rank high amongst the wonderful objects in the world”. There are warrens in the reef that lead to formidable darkness. The iridescent corals shimmer and occasionally small colorful fish sheltered in them wriggle out.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Once islands like Maldives were home to countless bird species. Today they are replaced by countless luxury resorts. 

 Marine life in Maldives is famously non aggressive.  Small but fully formed sharks and   sting rays, that frequent the  shallows, are completely harmless.

However, if the global temperature keep rising, this paradise would be lost forever. Maldives is the lowest lying country in the world (the average height is 1.8 meters above sea level). Scientists estimate that melting polar ice caps could raise the ocean level by about 2 meters by the end of this century. This would swallow Maldives whole making its inhabitants the world’s first environment refugees. The rising temperatures would also destroy the corals leading to what is called ‘coral bleaching’. Maldives under the charismatic ex president Mohamed Nasheed, pledged to become fully carbon neural by 2019. But the rest of the world has to follow, else the iron fillings would be erased forever from every atlas.

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Marine life including sharks in Maldives is surprisingly non aggressive. 

 

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Maldives has some of the finest resorts in the world.

 

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Dolphin sighting is a blink-and-you-miss-it-affair, so the tourists turn their cameras on one another. 

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The beaches are beautiful but nothing compares with the marvels the ocean hides.

 

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Snorkeling  or scuba diving, the island provides very good sighting of  corals reefs.

Wild In Borneo

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The proboscis monkey, endemic to Borneo. 

(Published first in the Deccan Herald, Feb 2015)

It is fitting that it rains on my  visit to Borneo’s rainforest and  I get somewhat drenched despite the wafer thin ponchos that wrap me till my knees. It is fitting too that Celina my  guide is a member of one of the island’s many tribes.  Unlike travellers or the scientists who fly into Borneo, Celina has a more intimate connection with the creatures of the forest. Her tribes, in the manner of most tribal societies, name all their deities after the  animals  the birds and the trees.

And Borneo has a plethora of each of them. Geographically isolated from the rest of the world for the most part, many of them are endemic-including 44 mammals,  17 birds and 155 dipterocarp trees.  The diversity of flora and fauna in this world’s third largest island is staggering, so much so that new species are discovered here each year.

I am in Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo where I am visiting the famous Bako National Park, one of the many national parks in Sarawak, where a lay tourist can get a fair sampling of Borneo’s immense bio-diversity.

A wooden causeway suspended about a foot from the ground leads us into Bako.  It is not exactly my idea of a rainforest walk. But that’s the best option when the forest floor is wet with water collected in small leaf filled pools.  The sky is overcast but even if it was a clear day, sunlight has no chance of seeping in though the thick canopy.  Perhaps that’s why trees, many of them a variety of durians, stretch tall and disappear in the thick foliage of other trees overhead. However the star animals of this island are two primates; the long nosed proboscis monkey and the orangutan, both of whom we hope to get a glance of.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The orangutan with whom we share more than 28 unique physical characteristics  including an opposable thumb. 

But to scamper about in a rainforest in a mad rush to see prize animals is to miss the point. A rainforest  is not the African Savanna where you come to tick off the big five or marvel at the stampeding herds. In fact you may not see very many species at all. But they are all there. Many of them hidden in   the thick multitier canopy. Many others concealed in the thick undergrowth.

However when you let the rainforest open unto you, you realize that the forest itself is a primordial beast heaving with its own cadence and rhythm.  In the silence you are overwhelmed by the persistent bell like sound of the cicadas broken only by the sounds of crickets. The forest is still but crawling with the little things that are so beautifully camouflaged that without a guide you would miss them altogether.

Celina points out to us a green tree pit viper on a tree trunk twisted upon itself, green as the leaves behind it. It is frozen and its golden eye unblinking, glazed and cold. It is a tiny creature but its venom packs a punch.  What a fright to realize that these tiny reptiles could be hanging from any branch above us.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The venomous pit viper

But the sight of a marsupial colugo or flying lemur cradling its baby has us throw caution to the winds as we follow other shutterbugs for a closer view. We leave the security of the wooden pathway and trapeze on the forest floor- crushing twigs and brushing aside branches much like the ones on which the viper perched.

The colugo is a ball of fur suspended upside down, seeking us out goggle-eyed. The baby occasionally joins in the staring before retreating to the safety of its mother’s belly. The mother unfurls her wings laboriously once or twice and tries half-heartedly to get away, stretching out to find a suitable purchase on another tree trunk.   Though an excellent glider, colugo is a clumsy tree climber and after what seems like a lot of effort it manages to disappear behind a tree trunk. We return having spent close to half an hour on the colugo, but the viper  had not moved an inch in the interim.

Borneo has its rhino, its clouded leopard and the pigmy elephant but the primates remain its signature species. It is home to over 20 of them. Celina spots the endemic proboscis monkey close to the Bako center where it rests on a tree turning this way and that, visibly  languid in the hot humid midday sun.  It’s nose, after which it got its name,  hangs over its face like an overripe fruit and comes in handy, as they say, in attracting mates.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The cologo or the flying lemur with its baby

We see more of the proboscis monkey in the evening in the mangrove forests skirting the South China Sea. They crash about the branches looking for succulent leaves, surprisingly agile despite their potbellies.

The most charismatic animal on the island is however the orangutan, an ape we share 28 unique physical characteristics with, including an opposable thumb. The Orangutan Conservation Area in Sarawak rehabilitates orphan orangutans often those whose mothers were hacked to death by machete wielding men. The plight of these remarkable apes perhaps best epitomizes the state of Borneo’s rainforest, which is today barely one third of what it was 30 years ago.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The deadly scorpions scamper everywhere on the forest floor.

Large swathes of Borneo’s forests have been cleared for timber and for the cultivation of palm oil or ‘green gold’ as its known for the lucrative value it fetches around the world. Borneo, one of the world’s, most diverse ecosystems is in danger and with it the existence of the so many unique species of animals and trees hangs in the balance.  Also in danger of extinction are the unique way of life of the  indigenous tribes like the one to which Celina belongs.  For centuries they have lived in complete harmony with nature.

Demands fuels supply. And the best one can do on an individual level to save these rainforests is to eschew the use of palm oil. Another remedy is to visit these forests insuring a steady footfall that will stop deforestation and fuel conservation.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Fishing in the South China Sea.

Sex and the Indian Journos.

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Yearly  ‘Sex Surveys’ by magazines are now a norm.

(Published first in The Hoot Feb 2016.) 

One of the many books I ordered from Amazon to read in the new year was journalist Avirook Sen’s book,  ‘Aarushi’ . But  frankly I  had no intention of going anywhere near it until I had ploughed through  books on my current passion- astronomy and evolutionary biology.

So ‘Aarushi’,  with the rather unimaginative cover (embossed blood  drops) lay buried under E. O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, Jared Diamond, for most of January. It was rescued from the heap when I attended a panel discussion at the 2016 Jaipur Lit Fest, where  senior journalist Madhu Trehan remarked that, had Avirook  been in America, he would have won the Pulitzer !

Being a sucker for phoren  validations, I quickly substituted the   big-bangs, worm holes, gene pools, and natural selection  for the hurly burly world of crime, cops, hacks and sundry inanities.

The book is deeply distressing. You  come away thinking that  god forbid if you are in a soup one day,  there may  be no hope. The cops are incompetent and will screw you if they want to screw you.

 Our so called forensic experts, who can harness the wonders of science to silence conjecture are either bumbling fools or can easily be tutored to present their findings anywhere the strings are pulled.

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Nupur Talwal who the media said did not cry that much.

And the  courts, the last bastion of remedy and redress  can sometimes arrive at a judgment even before the defense has completed its  arguments. (Presiding over the Aarushi-Hemraj case, Judge Shyam Lal began typing out the judgment even before the  Talwar’s  lawyer had begun making  his final arguments, claims Sen).

But what really got my goat was the role of the media. In every whodunit cases like this, the media has been held by the scuff of its neck as it were and made to sniff any shit the cops chooses to shove  its way.

Covering crime is a right of passage for any reporter, so I too have had my brush with the crime beat.  It usually goes like this. Someone is murdered. You go to the scene where the cops officially tell you one thing. You talk to the relatives, neighbors and other players and they each give their versions.  But you also have some ‘source’ (who conveniently goes unnamed in all your stories).

 The ‘source’ usually calls you up with a leak . Even if it is freakishly  absurd you feel privileged with the info and go to town with the ‘exclusive’.

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Gurdarshan Singh (IGP), calls the 13 year old Aarushi ‘characterless’ and the media lap it all up.

You would have to be a nincompoop be believe that the scurrilous stories of orgies and  wife swappings concerning  the  Talwars had something to with the twin murders, even if they were true. But they   were served up that way by the cops and the media faithfully presented them as facts, insinuating by extension  that the Talwars were guilty.

Why does the media obsess with sex so much? Writing about the blundering cops,    Sen quotes senior journalist Vir Sanghvi.

“This is not a sex crime So why is the Noida police going on and on about sex, ruining the reputation of the dead and the living without a shred of evidence?

My guess is that they are not just incompetent, they are also sex starved. Perhaps the IGP needs professional help”.

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Channels like Times Now said they felt ‘vindicated’ after the guilty verdict.

Sanghvi could well have been talking about his own reporters on the case or about journalists at large. Journalists like cops are sex starved and any whiff of sex will get them into a mad frenzy. And the cops know this only too well. They both after all feed on the same dirty dish.

Spend any length of time with a group of journalists and the topic of sex somehow always wafts up like the putrid passing of wind that everyone at the table wants to acknowledge. It is usually   gossip about the sexual prolificacies of the   rich and the famous and has the usual  cast of characters including Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, Sachin Tendulkar etc. etc. Stories of their sexual escapades are presented in lurid details and embellished with each retelling. The stories are not offered as light hearted blather mind you, but as  facts and upon  journalistic authority and ‘first hand’ information.

Most journalists,  unlike maybe the jet setting Sanghvi, come from the middle class  and represent middle class values and obsessions. They like  to believe in the salacious exploits  of  others because these stories makes them feel better about their own sexually repressed lives. Nothing makes the middle class feel more moral than when they discuss the sexual immoralities of others. Outrageous sex stories about the celebrities bring them down a peg or two and make them look more human. And this is helpful because journalists brush shoulders with the famous but can never actually be them.

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Moninder Singh Pandher’s dissolute life which made the media link him to the murders.

It would be okay if the journalists stopped at being just prurient purveyors.  God help you if you are accused of any crime and you have had an extramarital fling or two or if a   stash of Sunny Leone porn is found on your laptop.  Your sexual peccadillos will be paraded as proof of your guilt. You- do –sex- so- you -must -do -murder-too is the harebrained logic. Never mind if the  narco analysis does not suggest it, or there are no eye-witnesses, or if  your  finger prints are not there, or as in the case of  Moninder Singh Pandher, – co-accused in  the infamous Nithari serial murders- you are not even in  the country when the murders take place.

The Pandher case is  another sad example of miscarriage of justice brought  on by a sustained  media’s trail that careened  out of course because of sex.  Pandher was made a villain by the media after his appetite for prostitutes came to the fore. The dots from debauchee   to murderer were joined quickly even though the CBI admitted it had not a shred of evidence linking him to the murders.

A job of a journalist is somewhat like that of a scientist. You claim something only if you have the facts. Aristotle asserted as far back as 340 BC that the world is round. But he did so only after painstaking calculations and observations like for example how one sees the ship’s sails on the horizon long before one sees the hull.   Journalists spot a convict even before they have surveyed the crime. In the 21st century India we journalists need to banish ourselves from the flat world we inhabit.  More importantly, while reporting, we must keep at home our middleclass morality, so we can see not in blinkered binaries but in multi shades of grey.

Annika Roser and Boudoir Photography. Is India Ready for it ?


 


The story first appeared in the Deccan Herald, June 2014. 

“I must warn you. You may find the images offensive”, she says, handing  me her business card over dinner in one of Jodhpur’s splendid  open-air restaurants.  American photographer Annika Roser, 25,  has just told me she specializes in  boudoir photography.

For the uninitiated, boudoir photography simply means taking pictures of people in the nude or semi nude for sensual or erotic appeal. It is pronounced as you would pronounce Wednesday in Hindi with an American accent.

I am a bit hurt for being taken for an average Indian  prude. Defensively,  I  fill her in on the debaucheries of Khajuraho, the Hindu tradition of nude sculptures and paintings , (including of our gods and goddesses). I mention Prabuddha Dasgupta  and I mention Sunny Leone.

Indian photographers (most fashion photographers at any rate) have indeed been doing a variant of boudoir alongside their main work all along. In their website’s  drop-down menus, ‘personal’ is an euphemism  for nudes.  But the women gracing their galleries are professional (or wannabe) models who have often been cajoled or paid to pose in the buff.

In Boston, US, where Annika lives and has her studio ( Ma Cherie Studio) ,  it’s the other way around. Women pay her to shoot them in all manner of undress. She charges 450 dollars for two hours of shoot time. And these clients are not professional models but regular American women ; school teachers,  doctors, housewives and just about anybody   with a desire to look beautiful.

“Today’s society weighs women down by constantly forcing their idea of true beauty upon us. Boudoir photography is a celebration of the female form, no matter what size, age, ethnicity, or social class the woman ”, she says.

The celebration of female form has been a tradition in India , long before boudoir photography began in the West . But keeping that tradition alive have been our  painters and sculptors. Not   photographers. While painters like Raja Ravi Verma and Amrita Shergill and thousands of nameless sculptors of Khajurao and  Konark, depicted the full bodied Indian women in all their voluptuous glory, Indian photographers, including the best of them, like the late Prabuddha Dasgupta , only ended up stereotyping Indian women into a certain body type. Their ‘personal’ galleries sadly imitate and perpetuate a western notion of beauty with their skin and bones models.

Boudoir, thankfully can reverse that trend. But will India take to it? India has been slow on the uptake but once it warms up to a photography genre, it takes it by storm.  We saw that with wedding photography. Till about 10 years ago,  everyone was happy with their regular wedding pictures but today anyone with money, is willing to throw obscene amounts of it, to hire, what in India is called, a ‘candid wedding photographer’,  propelling many a software engineers and B- school pass outs to  quit their jobs to become one  fulltime.

And Annika with her 5 years of experience believes boudoir can be done in any part of the world,  including India. She wants to test the Indian waters by coming here this winter.

Is it easier, however to be a boudoir photographer being a female? Annika admits that to to start off,  it helps. “ But I know a lot of men who are doing boudoir photography now, and at times I feel that the male photographers provide a different look. They understand how men look at women and what other men would like to see. They can show off the female form in a very different way from a female  photographer. I do not personally think that one way is better than the other, but its more of a personal preference for the client of whom they are comfortable with”, she says.

The most vital element of boudoir is the pose, says Annika. “With boudoir photography, you always have to pay attention to the pose. It is the most important thing. Since there are no clothes covering or hiding the body, you as the photographer have to pay attention to every little detail. I think, that is what makes boudoir such an interesting form of photography”, she says.

Annika does not only take the photos but offers to go out shopping for props or lingerie with her clients.  “I approach my clients as if they were one of my close girlfriends and we are just hanging out playing dress up. I talk with them a lot, often sharing personal stories”, she says.

Being constantly bombarded with  images of anorexic models, the fashion and the advertising industry, often  contributes to body-image issues in impressionable girls.    Boudoir with its depiction of everyday woman, can perhaps  do a bit of course correction. Annika, thinks  that with boudoir’s popularity women will realize they don’t have to look like the aseptic models  in magazines and  that they can be comfortable how they look and embrace their individuality.

And the gorgeous Annika Roser herself

Living with Leopards, Rajasthan

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

As the sun goes down, the leopard emerges.

(Published first in Deccan Herald, Sep 2015)

I wake up at the crack of dawn with strange bedfellows. An arms length away is a three-month-old calf. Further away under a tree swishing its tail feverishly stands a black horse. Perched on the trees are desi hens and somewhere on the ground hobbles an injured eagle owl- called Ganguraja.

Just beyond the wall of this menagerie that is Raju’s courtyard, is an outcrop of rocks I can see lying prone on my string cot. Somewhere in its fissures lives a leopard (or panther as it is referred to in these parts)

Despite the assurances, it is not easy sleeping out under the stars barely 50 meters from the leopard’s lair. I startled myself awake several times in the night to the mating croaks of frogs and the impatient stomp of the flea-harassed horse. My host Raju, 21, slept like a corpse, tucked in his cot with a red shawl, from head to foot.

The only comforting sight was the tawny calf. The leopard would definitely pick him over me I told myself as I tried to sleep.

But except for the infernal din the rooster has begun to raise, it is all peaceful in the morning. I walk out of the courtyard and see Raju’s cows . They are tethered just a bound away from the leopard’s hideout. Can it really be true as Raju claimed that the leopard comes at night to drink from the cattle trough?

Raju, tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed emerges with a plateful of dried corn. “Lets go. Its time”, he announces indicating to the outcrops. This is nothing but foolhardy. We are heading to the leopard’s den. We cover the short distance and climb the rocks. Raju clambers up with practiced ease and is soon on the top scattering the corn. Peacock feeding is a family tradition. His father did it regularly, taking him along and now after his death Raju has taken his mantle. He is often joined by his 12 year old brother Manhoar and six year old sister Pranchi.

Raju with his injured owl Ganguraja. The Eagle owl, Rajasthan (sanjay austa)

Raju with his injured owl Ganguraja.

Raju indicates a cleft in the rock below us barely a few meters away. “This is where the panther shuts himself off during the day”, he says sitting down. Heralding the dawn, the sky in the east is just beginning to turn from pale pink to orange. It’s time for the leopard to return from his nocturnal hunt. What if it comes now as we sit few feet from his den?

“Let him come. He will go into that crack what else”. he says. Won’t he feel threatened by our presence? “He has seen me many times with my siblings. He knows we mean no harm and he won’t have his guard up”, he says.

The previous evening just after sunset I had my first glimpse of the spotted cat from Raju’s house at almost the same place where we were now sitting. The feline head was silhouetted and it was surreal to watch it merge into the blackness of the sky.

There are more than two dozen villages like Raju’s scattered over 11 panchayats in Pali district in Rajasthan where people have lived in eerie harmony with the felines. The rocky outcrops in which the leopards live, stand like islands in their fields. The farmers tend to their crops with the confidence that can only come with complete trust.

There are many like Raju who have their houses next to these outcrops and see the antics of the leopards everyday from their rooftops.

Peace has prevailed for generations. Occasionally a calf or a goat is lifted and sometimes even a cow but unlike in other parts of India, the cattle carcasses are not left poisoned for the predator. This is surprising as the compensation offered here is paltry. Five thousand for a cow and one thousand for a goat.

The leopard had entered Raju’s courtyard just a few days ago and made away with one of his hens- (perhaps the reason why the hens have taken to sleep in the trees.) But Raju downplays it. “A young leopard learning to hunt sometimes may do that. It’s a rare event. And anyway it was just one hen”, he says. There is no compensation for hens.

And in the morning Raju scampers up the leopard's den to scatter bird-feed for peacocks. Heerola. Rajasthan (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

And in the morning Raju scampers up the leopard’s den to scatter bird-feed for peacocks.

Raju perhaps best epitomizes the unique respect for the wild that is characteristic of this region. After his father’s death a year ago, the burden of providing for this family rests on his shoulders. He has grown up sisters but the Rajput clan they belong to forbid women working in the fields. He has to work singlehandedly to make ends meet but that does not stop him from feeding almost half a kilo of dried corn to the peacocks every morning. It did not stop him from adopting Ganguraja the injured owl for whom he buys 100 rupees worth of liver every day.

It was 20 years ago that a leopard picked up a child in this region- the only incident of its kind. In Vellar village not far from Raju’s own, lives Santosh Kunwar Chauhan , 20. She was barely one year old when a leopard scampered down from the rocks and picked her up. Vellar village fringes the hillock inhabited by leopards. Santosh’s house is on the outer fringe.

“It was about 9 in the evening. We were sitting in our homes when a panther picked her up from her neck and scurried away. We made a noise and the leopard immediately dropped the girl near a temple. It looked confused and then ran up the slope. Santosh was crying. There was a deep flesh wound on her upper back from the canines. We took her to the local hospital, where after administering some first-aid she was okay”, says Ranjeet Singh, 60, Santosh’s chacha.

Santosh has teeth marks to show for the story. There is a blackish sutured smudge on her upper back. Her life did not change except that she was given the nickname Setri– the local word for a female leopard.

Ranjeet and other village elders who were witness to this event are more inclined to blame themselves than the animal. “ Santosh was wrapped up in a bundle and lay out in the open near the cattle shed. The leopard could have easily mistaken the girl for some other animal. She should not have been kept there”, says Ranjeet.

Santosh’s lifting up is seen as a freakish event rather than a future possibility. The children as small as two years play about in the same spot and beyond from where Santosh was picked up. There is no fear. There is only a calm acceptance of how nature works. The occasional calf or goat that is preyed upon by the leopards is taken in the stride as though it was an offering to the Gods.

Santosh summed up the attitude succinctly. “ The leopards don’t eat grass. It has to eat flesh so what’s unusual about it”.

'' I live here so how can i be scared', says Santosh, 20, who was picked up by a leopard near this house when she was a baby. That incident is the only cat-man conflict in the last two decades. Here people have learnt to live in complete harmony with the predators. Vellar. Rajasthan. (sanjay austa austa)

Santosh, 20, who was picked up by a leopard near this house when she was a baby.

 

“People here have traditionally accepted the leopard’s ways and they don’t react violently if it does pick on their cattle”, says Rahul Bhatnagar, Chief Conservator Forest, Udaipur Divison.

Thankfully however the favorite animals on leopard’s menu are not the farmer’s cattle but dogs. And there are many a proliferating packs of strays in the region which have fed a legion of leopards since decades. The dogs are preferred even over the other wild animals found here like the neelgai, the wild boar and the chinkara. The donkey makes the second best choice.

“The leopards here are almost like pets. They seem tame but are wild all the same. But the harmony between man and predator here has lasted because there is no disturbance from either side. In the day the leopards lie in the caves and the shepherds are outside but neither disturbs the other”, says Jaswant Raj Merwar, Pradhan of Samunderi village.

The famers here who grow cotton, maize, wheat, mustard, groundnut infact welcome the leopards presence. The big cats keep the neelgai, the wild bore and other herbivores that raid their fields, tucked away in the forests.

But could the menacing march of consumption couched in slogans of ‘development’ engulf this unique leopard habitat one day? The day I arrive at the Jawai Dam area, the forest department was in a huddle over a leopard’s death. A big healthy male leopard was found dead on a transformer. “Apparently he was chasing a peacock and he jumped on the transformer after the bird , electrocuting himself. The body was found almost three days later by school children”, said Narpat Singh, range officer. The body, bloated disfigured and swarming with worms raised a nasty stench.

But the biggest danger is the mining lobby which has set its eyes on the vast riches of granite and other stones this area is replete with. There are more than 140 proposed mines here. The forest department gave NOC for mining for some of these mines. Because of the objection raised by the villagers the state government overturned the NOC and put a ban on any mining in the area. Conservationists and forest official agree that the only way to safeguard this unique leopard habitat is to make it a community reserve area.

Under this rocky leopard's lair are tethered Raju's cows. The leopards surprisingly don't touch the cows even though they come at night to drink from their trough. Heerola. Rajasthan. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Under this rocky leopard’s lair are tethered Raju’s cows.

 

“If the area is declared a community reserve, there won’t be any mining. There will be rules for building hotels. The leopard is a shy animal. Any commercial activity here will drive it away”, says Shatrunjay Pratap Singh, 31, a conservationist and hotelier belonging to this region.

Besides stopping the mining and construction it will regulate and restrict the flow of tourists which can often get out of hand.

“A lot of people from nearby towns and beyond come in droves during the weekend. They make a lot of noise often throwing stones in the caves if they don’t see the leopard. This should stop”, says Shatrunjay.

“ If there is a community reserve the tourists can be ticketed and the revenue collected can be used to dispense compensation if any cattle is taken by the leopard”, says Rahul Bhatnagar.

However only three panchayats out of the 11 have given their approval for a community reserve so far. Shatrunjay says that mining lobby is working overtime with its propaganda, misleading the villagers. The battle is on and no one knows which side it will swing.

This is a unique leopard habitat. It’s a place where leopard sightings are a matter of course. Serious wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, filmmakers and photographers are drawn here from all across the world. One evening, I join a group of wildlife photographers and sit for hours in the bushes waiting for the leopard to emerge from the hillock across.

Wildlife photographers wait for the leopard to emerge from its den in Bera, Pali District, Rajasthan (sanjay austa austa)

Wildlife photographers wait for the leopard to emerge from its den in Bera, Pali District.

 

At first it seemed like a fruitless exercise. The sun was already low on the horizon. The granite rock-face before us betrayed no sign of the leopard and I had gotten wary of staring at nothing. There were no alarm calls by the peacock. A stripped hyena walked lazily by the foot of the cave. But like clockwork, just as the sun was poised to disappear beyond the Aravallis, a leopard emerged. The photographers said it was a female leopard. They had photographed her with two cubs in the morning. The big cat sat on the rock majestically surveying the lands swaddled now in the golden glow of the setting sun. It comes as a shock to realize that its rock faces like these that the mining companies are eyeing. Not far were farmers in their fields wrapping up for the day. Its reassuring to see them and to be secure in the knowledge that as long as their love for the cats remain this unique leopard habitat will survive.

But this remarkable attitude towards the wild percolates much beyond Pali’s borders. The Bishnois of Jodhpur who worship all life and would give theirs to save any animal, is legendary. In Jodhpur district there is a wildlife vigilante group called Bishnoi Tiger Force– that is a menace to any poacher prowler. They undertake daring animal rescues battling gun-wielding poachers in the dead of night. In Kichan, a nondescript village in western Rajasthan the villagers feed sacksful of birdfeed to the migratory demoiselle cranes who fly here in their thousands in winter, all the way from Mongolia.   30 kms short of Bikaner on the Jodhpur- Bikaner highway stands the famous Karni Mata Temple which is overrun by rats that are revered as gods. There are remarkable individual stories like that of the 77 year old Ranaram Bishnoi of Ekalkhori village in Rajasthan who singlehandedly planted over 25 thousand trees to stop the march of the desert or of Kiran Bishnoi the famous Bishnoi woman who breast fed a chinkara kid when it lost its mother.

The elusive striped hyena in Rajasthan (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The elusive striped hyena walks by the leopard’s den.

 

The leopards living in these rocky outcrops that sit in the middle of farmers fields. Pali District. Rajasthan (sanjay austa)

A leopard lords over the rocky outcrop where it lives