Rumblings from a bowl of Ladakhi Maggi

It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch  time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More

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Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh Reprise – Zanskar

Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.

The smiles of childhood

The smiles of childhood

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Somewhere along the Leh Kargil Highway

Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.

A chiildhood to wake  up these views?

A childhood to wake up to these views?

Or some place like this?

Or some place like this?

And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.

School time in a pick up truck

School time in a pick up truck

Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Just a girl and her love for toffee

Riding high

Riding high

The hotel owner's son.

The hotel owner’s son.

And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.

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This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The

The Many faces of Mumbai – One for the Birds!

On a cool winter morning, as one walks down the road to the Sewri jetty in Mumbai, it seems more like taking a guard of honour from the oversized trucks that line both sides of the road. Pass them, and the road opens up. Towards the left, a smattering of old ship wrecks marks the foreground. And beyond them, a rising Sun glints upon the Arabian Sea, trying to figure its way between the clouds and the smoke that mark the usual Mumbai sky. But there’s so much here that’s unlike the usual Mumbai. It’s the east coast (yes, Mumbai has one!), and in a city known for its evening Chaupati sunsets, we are here to witness a sunrise and so, even the Sun is atypically benign.  But more than that, we are here for a glimpse of nature in the otherwise industrial area of Sewri.

A Sunrise through the wrecks

A Sunrise through the wrecks

A keener look at the sight reveals those thousands of birds that we’ve come looking after. They stand, in row after row, at the edge of what’s called the Sewri mudflats – wetlands formed by mud deposited after tides. Eyes marvel at the congregation of the white birds as we walk past rows of worn out and junk ships, or rather, large boats. Once at the jetty, the Flamingos are closer, their white bodies contrasting with the grey landscape and the nuanced pink flavours of their wings gelling with the reddish hues of an early morning. It’s like a sea of several curved dark beaks & long necks craning down to find fodder in another sea. Every now and then, one of them flaps its wings, to reveal a plumage of white, pink and black, all woven together by the careful & yet seemingly effortless precision that only an artist, or the nature itself, can afford. They come in huge numbers, an entire colony of tens of thousands that lines the swamps. The question really though, how did they land up here & why?

A colony of flamingos against the Sun

A colony of flamingos against the Sun

So here’s the thing. Every year, Mumbai witnesses a migration of Flamingos, mostly lesser Flamingos (more populous with darker bills and white-pink plumage) and a few greater flamingos (less populous, plumage is pink-red). Though one can’t be sure, it’s being said that these migrate from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, already known for its Flamingo sightings. They usually look for swampy habitats & mangroves, which are easily provided for in areas such as Sewri and Thane creek. From the start of the winters till May, these are the abodes of thousands of these birds and several other species. Egrets, Sandpipers, Ibis are some of the other species of birds that can be easily spotted here.

A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food

A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food

Living in the constant grind of a city such as Mumbai, it is sometimes difficult to grasp that such natural beauty may be lying in your backyard (Also Read : Biking through the heart of Mumbai – SGNP).  Sometimes, one just needs to look around. Take a moment to catch one of these birds in flight and ponder at the amazing story of migration that Mumbai is, of birds that flocked from all other parts of the country, to find food & shelter here; of the swamps & marshes, of mud & concrete alike, that provided them all of this; the mud-flats that in a way, represent the richness & also the shallowness of our city lives that all drain into the urban sea called Mumbai. Look at them, an Ibis here, an Egret there, at one moment flocking together, at the other competing for a piece of the same food.

Aren’t you and I, birds here too?

A sea of Flamingos

A sea of Flamingos

Have you witnessed a Flamingo sighting? Where and how was it?

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Did you visit the other side of Dubai?

Here we go again. This is the second time I’ve lost myself in the alleys of Dubai. As I try to figure out a way through these narrow lanes, surrounded by the archetypal wind-towers perched on restored middle-eastern dwellings, I realise that I’ve achieved the unthinkable. Getting lost in Dubai! It’s true. Dubai relishes in its unabashed youth. With its perfectly carved out roads, immaculately laid out signboards in Arabic and English, its sky-scraping buildings that’d rather kiss the sky than touch a traveller’s heart, it’s a little tough to get lost here. Wherever in Dubai you be, you’ll always have the tallest building in the world to show you a way, If nothing else. But what if you indeed came here to get lost, in its medieval past or in its meandering, dusty wadis, or its manipulative bazaars? Wait. Does Dubai even have them? Let’s explore.

Roaming the alleys of Bastakiya

Roaming the alleys of Bastakiya

Al-Bastakiya

This is where the past of Dubai comes to life, in the restored village in Al-Fahdi district. More commonly known as Al-Bastakiya, almost a century ago, it was the abode of the Iraqis, Indians and other communities that arrived then in Dubai. Now, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding(SMCCU), located in the same premises, organises guided heritage tours & cultural meals within the restored quarter, both of which lend wonderful opportunities for visitors to gain insights into Emirati culture, religion and even cuisine! The tours take you around Bastakiya, with guided commentary on the old architecture and its pertinence with respect to the culture of the Emirate and usually end with a visit to the Diwan mosque followed by coffee (with Arabic dates!) in a Bastakiya house. Needless to say, all of these, including the time at the mosque and the coffee time, are great chances to have a candid conversation on the Emirati lifestyle and the SMCCU guide and host will most probably ensure that you don’t return unanswered.

The Bastakiya quarter

The Bastakiya quarter

And if (like me), you too get lost in Bastakiya, you may just find yourself in a charming art gallery or its quaint café! The XVA art gallery and the Arabian Tea House cafe are two such places and can help with some great breakfast.(Read : Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai) And, as if this wasn’t enough, there’s accommodation at some of the guest houses within Bastakiya. Ever thought what it’d be like to stay in a (at least) 100 year old restored village in the heart of a bustling metropolis like Dubai?

Hatta

‘Outdoors’ is a good question in Dubai where even the ski-resorts tend to be indoors and probably the best answer we have heard to this is the ‘evening desert safari’. Ditch the desert and instead try out the morning Hatta safari. No, there isn’t any belly dancing music here, only the beeps of your international roaming cellphone to tell you that you’ve crossed the UAE-Oman border multiple times.  Take some time off the phone, to have a look at the Hajjar mountains among which Hatta, the exclave lies. Hatta boasts of an array of Wadis (valleys) and to add colour, pools of blue-green water among them. One can hike, one can bike, and if nothing else, at least take a morning dip or two in the waters of these pools before stopping at the Hatta heritage village on the way back. This is another restored village with a museum of sorts to exhibit the old village life style. The return route is a scenic ride through muddy mountains, best enjoyed through a self-drive.

As a separate itinerary, one can also head to the Musandam peninsula, where camping, fishing and snorkelling are the norm of the day. Do check for entry rules for your passport though, for both Hatta and Musandam will involve border crossings between UAE & Oman.

The pools in Hatta

The pools in Hatta

Souks

Yes, there’s one inside the Dubai mall also and that’s not the one we are talking about here. The Souks (local markets) have been an important part of the middle-eastern lifestyle and continue to remain even today, albeit only a little more charmingly. Cross over the creek to the other side of Dubai, quite literally, where the old markets, of gold and spices promise to bedazzle at least two of your senses, optical and olfactory. And if your taste buds feel left out, wander in the lanes till you stumble across a camel milk ice-cream shop tucked away in a quiet corner. Eat to your heart’s content and then head out, haggle for the Persian and Kashmiri zafran, smell in the Arabic coffee, gaze & gap at the magnificence of the jewellery in the gold souk and lose yourself in the aroma of spices flowing in from every direction in the spice souk.

Souks on the other side of the Creek

Souks on the other side of the Creek

And after all these sensory overloads, end the day with a stroll along the creek, where the water front buildings light up with bridal elegance in the night and watch the dhows pass by with an ease that’s in stark contrast with the speeding SUVs behind you. Spend some time wondering which of these is the real Dubai. That, of the tallest tower tearing through the winds into the sky or that, of the wind-towers of Bastakiya?  Either ways, you’re already lost in (the thoughts of) Dubai!

A beautifully lit Dubai Creek

A beautifully lit Dubai Creek

Have you been to Dubai? What did you like or dislike?

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Us & Them – Sri Lanka

Who am I? I wonder. A pearl perhaps, in a necklace of history, woven by the oldies around me, who cease not, to boast of their past. Who am I, but just a tear drop, in an ocean of identities, of claims, of conflicts. But a dream, in a sea of confused realities. They called me ‘Serendib’, that which was discovered by chance! And I wonder, again. You could have been lost, traveller, but I have always been here. Forever, in temples that store a tooth of the Buddha, in the folklore of the tears of Sita, in the spirit of a legendary Ashoka’s Dhamma. I was always here, as a thought, a belief, a land in the legend of your legends, the pearl of an island, the keeper of a stories thousand.

Did you forget me traveller?

For I was here when you brought the Dharma to my fortress, dressed as Mahindra..

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& I was still here till so late when those waves struck us together..

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But did you forget me traveller? For I waited for you in those green hills..

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..Waited to shower you with smiles, when all you wanted was just a glimpse

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I stood here, while you painted my walls with colours of thee, Dutch somewhere, somewhere else Portuguese.

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And colours I did have of my own, those splendid hues of blue, which men & fish alike, would day after day cling to.Image 

I was there In the taste of the cinnamon, sweet and savoury both, akin to that of a conversation with the family that grew this  ‘kurundu’  

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I was there, in the sheer astonishment of my folks so humble at anything new..  

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..In those headlines of a newspaper that’d soak the occasional morning dew

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And also among those lines that divided my children..

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But even today my friend, I continue to remain in those cricket-loving roars of  “I AM KUMARA SANGAKARRA!” that unite them!

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Yet, I wonder, did you forget me traveller?

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Have you been to Sri Lanka? What were your thoughts about the place?

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This is a part of the writer’s series, Us & Them, documenting the people of the places he visits. Some of the earlier posts under this series are-

Us & Them – Rajasthan

Us & Them – Kashmir

Us & Them- Kids in Ladakh 

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