Journal Journeys: Solitude of the Ghats

In Valparai this summer, I went for several walks in the surrounding coffee plantations – in the solitude, there was a quiescence such that I had not known before; it felt wild in a way you cannot find in Singapore, even despite the manicured coffee plants.

One encounter with a Nilgiri langur, one of the Western Ghats endemics in the region, stood out to me.

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Journal Journeys: Face of the Maasai

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An excerpt from the journal of my cousin, Preetu (a fantastic writer who gives herself far less credit than she deserves*), about her experience in the Maasai village we visited in Africa to accompany rare evidence of my forays into portraiture.

“I remember, as a child, opening up on of those massive geography encyclopaedia things. On that page was a picture and a few words about a tribe called the Maasai. They were wrapped in bright red shawls and wore layers and layers of beaded jewellery. One can’t help but be intrigued by them.

I read what was written on the page, thought – Oh wow! –  and then shut the book and went on with my life.  Little did I know ten years later I’d actually be in their village singing along with them!

The sun beating down on our backs as we stepped out of our jeeps onto arid land.  The glint from this woman’s necklace caught my eye. Strange faces surrounded us. Unfamiliarity and curiosity painted on their faces, as was on ours. We scanned the milieu and found about ten to fifteen small huts arranged in a badly shaped circle and dung.  We manoeuvred skilfully past all the dung as the vibrantly dressed woman led us to centre of the circle and their little settlement. The head of the tribe saw our discomfort as we walked on the cattle excrement and tried to put us at ease by telling us that stepping in cow poo – to put it plainly – was good luck. Not that that really changed much.

We were told that this was where all the cattle was kept. The cattle were now out grazing with most of the men as well. Soon our family was divided into smaller groups and each group was escorted into a hut. The smell of smoke stung as we walk through the narrow passageway. It led to a rather small unassuming room, the only one in the hut. With our heads bent we looked around, bewildered yet amazed at the dark cramped room. This was the residence of four people and two goats. The darkness was attributed to the one hole of a window that might as well have been absent.  One thought that was on everyone’s mind was – How?! The sunlight blinded us as we re-entered the central area.

On our way back to the camp my mind was filled with smiles on the children’s face as we spoke to them and shook their hands, the sound of their voices as they chanted in unison, and the quiet jingle of the beads they wore with so much pride.

The book hadn’t even come close to explaining what they really were.”

2014

We have come to the end – of an era, maybe not, but of a rotation around the sun, of the usage of 2-0-1-4 in dates, of – well, really, nothing. Still, it’s as good a time as any to round up what I’ve done and figure out where I’m going. No doubt you’ve been overladen already with these kind of posts, but really, I can’t think of a better time just to say thank you. When I began this blog, I expected nothing. And I mean nothing. As in zilch, zero, nada, in terms of followers, or likes, or really anything. You guys have overwhelmed me. The fact that people want to (or are forced to) actually read my rants about nature is beyond comprehension. This year has been a huge one in terms of my photography and my experiences in nature.

My trip to Africa in July produced many unforgettable experiences which I am far from done with sharing with you guys. In October, I visited Kullu, a district in the Himalayas; aside from 25 species of birds, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the simple beauty of nature. And just recently – two days ago, in fact – I returned from a trip to Coorg and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary. I’m still at a loss for words to explain my experience there, but when coherence returns you will see what I saw, as best as I can show it to you. Closer to home, I made numerous trips to MacRitchie (including one trip with Lavanya of My Nature Experiences, who is a person so amazing I have no idea why I didn’t meet her sooner, and also my former partner in crime for the Crazy Tiny Insects challenge), Dairy Farm Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh, Greenleaf Forest, the Green Corridor, and many, many more fantastic places within Singapore. When this was combined with an afternoon spent with Birds of Singapore, my count of birds I’ve seen within – you guessed it, Singapore – was pushed up to a whopping 92, not including swiftlets. (They are irritating little buggers to identify, ok?)

On the photography front, I would like to say I have gained a greater understanding of a) how and when to use my camera and b) how and when not to use my camera this year. Maybe it paid off. I won a Consolation Prize in the NParks Trees for Life competition, and also received third place in an intra-school photograph competition, for a photograph I featured earlier on one of my Journal Journeys posts. (I haven’t mentioned this earlier on my blog, actually. So yay?) In addition, my photograph of Karambe, the largest black rhinoceros on the Masai Mara, received Spotting of the Day on Project Noah. My photograph of a yawning African Spotted Hyena was selected as Pic of the Day on National Geographic’s Great Nature Project.

I have no idea why any of you would have wanted to read all of this or indeed why any of you came here in the first place. I certainly have no idea why I came here or, indeed, where I’m going. So my New Year’s Resolution, I guess, is to keep it fresh. Never forget the feeling of whispering forests in the afternoon, or the call of birds at some unearthly hour in the morning, or the thrill of excitement in identification and realization. Nature is – well, nature is what it is, and that is something uncorrupted by humans, something more beautiful than hoping or wishing or any of these twenty-six letters, really. And nature, I believe, is essential – for us, in the moment of knowing, and for itself, in the moment of being.

Beneath are all of the photographs I’ve uploaded to this blog this year. See at will. This is my 100th post, fitting for my final words of 2014, which (really) don’t matter. Still, for what it counts – thank you.

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Journal Journeys: Paradise

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Tuesday, 21st October, 2014

We arrive here after three and a half hours of continuous trekking: the Great Himalayan National Park. We walked under the arch that demarcated the entrance – in a fit of grandiloquent ceremony characteristic of my dear brother – holding hands. Inside wasn’t much different – a few buildings indicating the civilization that had been absent the past ten kilometers and a large signpost, but the same trail was climbing up, up, up – A side note: we are at an elevation of 2,000 meters above sea level. And now we are eating lunch on a sun-warmed rock, and I do believe this is the closest one gets to perfection. The water is bluer than you could believe. Rocks, like the playthings of some giant, lie scattered about; the river dances delightedly around them, wreathing their granite surfaces with foam. The remains of a bridge bookened the rushing brook. On one of the banks, a variegated cloth shrine flaps maddly in the winds: the gods are present here, they whistle. And at its very mouth is a waterfall, cascading, throwing with white clouds about with alacrity, with a single rainbow curving delicately over the white froth and paying homage at the base of where an idol once stood. But the deity is no longer there, and so it prostrates itself before the stones, the water, the trees, the mountains.

Journal Journeys: The Balloon Ride – End

The sequel to the balloon ride. Aerial views of a place always provide a completely different perspective.

Monday, 21st of July, 2014

‘The sun is just above the ruler-straight horizon, an orange flower blooming into a brilliant blue sky, and beneath it, the grass glows gold. Up here, you can see first hand the sparseness of the acacias that, as large green-brown umbrellas, speck the plains. They cast long shadows that stripe the ground.

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A river meanders through it all: glistening like a stream of silver in the morning light, it is clustered in greenery, packed thick and tight in the brightest shades of lime, olive, and emerald.

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From above, you can see the harsh white rectangles in the center of the grove—a hotel.

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The rolling grass is gashed and scarred with roads that rip brown strips through it, neatly segregating the Mara into shapeless heaps.

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Everything is spread below us, a vast dinner plate for our eyes: the iridescent lily pads just peeking through the water, the glowing hyena silently trotting through waist-high grass, the still yellow heap of a dozing lion and the assorted vehicles gathered around it, the vast single-file of wildebeest slicing across the savannah that arbitrarily breaks into joyful gallop and spirals round and round in complex formations below us.

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Journal Journeys: The Balloon Ride – Beginning

Arguably one of my most memorable experiences of my Mara trip: the balloon ride. Hot air balloon rides across the Masai Mara are said to be the second best in the world. This did not disappoint. However, due to the length of this particular journal entry, I’ll be staggering this post across a couple of days. This, quite literally, is just the beginning.

Monday, 21st of July, 2014

The sudden bursts of flame above us that light up the garishly colored balloon are surprising, not to mention more than pleasantly warm – but even more uncomfortable is my position.

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I’m sitting on a bench at a 90º angle, my camera wedged precariously between my feet, my hands tightly gripping rope-holds above me. My entire body weight is on my back, which is resting on the closest thing that can be called a ground presently, even if it is woven and a few feet above the actual surface – shelved below me are four people similarly contorted.

The noise is deafening. There are at least four other balloons also being inflated and therefore four fans blowing gas at desperate rates, periodically interspersed with sudden wooshes of fire. But if I crane my head just so, and peer past the Japanese tourists clicking at a million miles per minute, I can see one teardrop-shaped balloon rising slowly and steadily into the just-beginning sunrise, and it is all worth it.

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Journal Journeys: Lion Pride

When one thinks of Africa, it is inarguable that the first image that comes to mind is that of the ‘king of the savannah’, the African lion– the classic Panthera leo. Adjectives used to define them encapsulate confident, proud, arrogant– but not vulnerable, or threatened. But that they are. Of the 100,000 in Africa in the 1960s, only 32,000 remain. With the growing human encroachment of their habitat, they hold a tentative future.

Sunday, 20th of July, 2014

The grass is golden, and so are the lions. They glow in the newly-risen sun, their stride confident, their head held high. The jeeps eagerly watching them are not even spared a disdanful glance.

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Image courtesy of Sarath Champati (sarathchampati.com).

The male that heads the pride, scraggly-maned and arched-back, walks with single-minded pupose; the lioness that accompanies him is his equal, if not superior, in style, poise, and grace.

Image courtesy of Sarath Champati (sarathchampati.com).
Image courtesy of Sarath Champati (sarathchampati.com).

She pauses not three feet from a jeep that resounds with the delighted clicks of at least ten animated shutters without a sideways glance. A small cub dogs her footsteps diligently, and following it are two more females and two more young ones. The cubs are ecstatic from their meal, now abandoned in a handy depression for the vultures that are already gathering. They burst into random sprints and stop abruptly, their full bellies wobbling precariously below them. One lioness, till then watching it serenly, mock-pounces the small lion.

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Its delight is obvious; it immediately rolls over onto its back.

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She licks its face, pretending to bite its neck– their play continues till the cub gets too boisterous and is silenced with a quick swipe of paw. Then they sit together, content, and survey their domain with a self-assured ease. The sun, behind them, is fresh and new in the sky.

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