Sunday, 27 December 2009

Island of the Gods

Bali Temple
The similarities were unmistakeable..the swaying palms, the small shacks all along the streets, the rented scooters and motorbikes thronging the roads, the many sea-food places advertising the best food in town and the swarms of European and American tourists everywhere..Bali was a larger version of Goa, India's most famous sea-side resort.

Bali has a very strong Hindu culture, in fact it has its own version of Hinduism-Balinese Hinduism. Hinduism is not a stranger to many different sects and streams, all with their own Gods and Godesses gathering under its umbrella. It's probably the most diverse religion in the world, and Balinese Hinduism, with its presiding deity, Acintya, is one of these many forms.

Bali TempleThanks to this religious influence, Bali has a multitude of temples, with their own unique architecture, motifs and ornamentation. The dwarapalas or the temple guardians at the gates here are some of the best I've seen. With their fierce faces and fangs, they reminded me of Chinese dragons and the ornate statuary of South India at the same time.

Here's a closer look at one of the Balinese temples, bang in the centre of Kuta, the town close to the Ngurah Rai International Airport. All around the temple, which formed a largish traffic circle, the evening traffic screamed and honked and fumed, and shops buzzed with people. And yet, right in the centre was this calm little temple that looked strangely out of place.

Bali TempleOther Balinese temples are located in much more spectacular locales than traffic islands.The temple at Tanah Lot for instance is built right into the sea, on a giant monolithic piece of rock jutting out of the sea a few hundred yards from the coast. It can be reached on foot during low tide, but during high tide it is guarded by fierce waves and a frothing churning sea.

BaliBali TempleI also happened to witness this evening prayer ceremony taking place at one of the shrines on the mainland near the Tanah Lot temple. A prayer is beautiful by itself, but a setting like this makes it seem as if the prayer itself has come alive in the sky,the clouds and the sea.

Bali's traditions and customs are as beautiful as its scenery. Its a pity we did not have time to watch any traditional Balinese dance performances, but they're quite beautiful watch, with splendid traditional costumes and finery. And equally splendid is Balinese food, with it's liberal use of spices, seafood and rice. Seafood lovers, its your paradise; vegetarians, its a golden chance to convert.

Bali is famous for is its coffee. We did manage to go to a coffee plantation located on the higher slopes of Bali's hills.As we reached there at around 4ish in the afternoon, it was coffee time already and the aroma of freshly roasted coffee was very welcome in the cool mountain air. We were ready for a steaming hot cup of coffee, or hot chocolate or herbal tea, and we tried all of that. We also tried a very unique Balinese coffee that makes for very intersting coffee time conversations, if not anything else.

The Asian Palm Civet, a small cat-sized animal, produces this highly sought after and expensive coffee. It's called Kopi Luwak ( Kopi = Coffee, and Luwak = Civet), and believe it or not, its made out of coffee beans defecated by this blighter, the Luwak. Some explanation is in order. The Palm Civets love eating coffee berries. They tend to pick the ripest and the sweetest berries, and thereby the ripest coffee beans. Moreover, the digestive system of the civet breaks down the protiens that give the coffee bean it's bitterness. The enzymes also 'add' to the flavour. The rest of the bean, stripped of its bitterness, passes out undigested. The beans are then lightly roasted to produce this coffee. We tried it out. It was a bit anticlimactic though, it seemed quite unremarkable to me at least. ( The coffee beans in the picture above are the regular ones.)

Batik is Indonesia's gift to the world of textiles. We  had a look at this traditional process of block printing, at a handloom centre. This is the stuff that interior designers are probably looking for all the time, to get that 'ethnic' look and feel. The cotton fabrics were indeed quite handsome, and we saw exactly how the painstaking process of handweaving them was.

As the sun set on the last day of our visit to Bali, I was thinking about our short 3 day trip. Bali has something to offer everyone. Whitewater rafting, paragliding, parasailing, scuba diving, spas and massages, shopping, great food, traditional performing arts, a national park for nature lovers, temples with some eye-catching architecture, plenty of opportunities for the photography buff and nightlife for the party lover (HardRock Cafe, Kuta, has a mean rock band). Of course its a paradise  for honeymooners, but that is equally true for families, friends and casual vacationers. Whoever you are, the Island of the Gods has something for you.

Truly Asia

Its been a little bit of a predicament to discover the real Asia, and that's pretty ironical coming from an Asian. But the truth of the matter is that Asia's simply too vast and too diverse to have one 'true' self. It also true that South East Asia is a much more closely knit region than South Asia. South Asia, due to its adjacency to Persia, the Middle East, and its connections to Europe via the sea was always in a state of diffusion of cultures and peoples. And so there have always been significant differences between India and her eastern neighbours - differences that go way beyond that fold of eyelid skin that gives East Asians their 'oriental' look. And the Orient traditionally meant lands to the east of India.
Malaysia's marketing campaign claims it to be 'Truly Asia', but the capital city of Kuala Lumpur spoke of an Asia very different from the conventional images of a 'mysterious and exotic' Far East. It spoke of a region fast rising on the wings of western capitalism, riding new technology, new business practices and creating its own place under the sun. Nothing could be more emblematic of KL than the twin Petronas towers seen above, taken at a really low shutter speed.

Downtown KL glittered and sparkled after a late downpour, and city looked like a party-goer and shoppers paradise. The conversion rate of the Malay Ringit makes spending in SGD deceptively easy, and that never bodes well for the shopper's purse. KL has all the brands you've ever known about, and probably some that you've not known about. The stores and malls can give any American mall a run for its money, and the downtown is studded with diners and cafes for the hungry and watering holes for party-goers.

Kuala Lumpur is doing all the right things: working towards establishing a good infra-structure, inviting retailers from all over the world to tap into its very receptive markets, and getting it's people hooked on to a diet of malls and showrooms and shopping. Selling itself as the ultimate shopping destination and drawing in hordes of tourists from within the country and abroad, KL is is doing everything it can to whip up a voracious retail appetite in its markets.

It has a casino at the near-by hill resort of Genting. The clown here was one of the many attractions on the way to Genting, trying to make life a little more entertaining for people queueing up for the 20 minute cable car ride up the mountain. And as soon as we reached the top, we were greeted by a blast of chilly mountain air and some freshly brewed Chinese herbal jelly. The dark mahogany decoction was steamed in huge brass vats, so that it congealed to form a jelly, and was served steaming hot. Its hot pungent aroma filled the air, and very soon, we'd downed two cups of the jelly each, with some very sweet honey water to complement the slight bitterness of the blend. The jelly seller lady who served us with much ado about its health benefits, agreed to pose with her vat of jelly.

The Genting Highlands are roughly an hour's drive from KL, followed by a 4km ride on a cable car that takes you to a height of well over 1700 m. In spite of being in steamy Malaysia, Genting enjoys an almost perfect climate with temperatures ranging between 16 and 24 degrees celcius. Plentiful rainfall ensures lush rainforests covering the slopes. This comes the closest to my idea of an ideal climate...I had never imagined I'd ever want to wear a sweater and sip on some hot chocolate at 4.00 in the afternoon anywhere in South East Asia.

But Genting is too busy being the Las Vegas of Malaysia to pay heed to nature's gifts. We saw a colossal resort filled with an indoor and outdoor amusement park, and of course, a casino. The casino was overflowing with gamblers and the amusement parks were overflowing with picnickers and kids. I saw these two little dudes waiting patiently for their balloons outside one of the many rides.

We had a lovely time trying out the rides. And a little less lovely time watching the games of roulette, and wishing we had enough money to just blow it off on a night in the casino. The shoestring budgets that we had planned our trip on had no room for such extravagances. We did cook up a hypothetical fool proof scheme for making some money on the roulette the next time we came back.

The dining was very fine, and inspite of constraints faced by our vegetarians, we sampled some Vietnamese food. The restaurant had some lovely decor.The food of course was very nice too, but to people famished after a day of trudging theme parks and casinos, I wonder if the taste would have made any difference.
Thus ended our very first attempt to discover Asia. Even though what we saw was the very superficial, fast changing, market driven face of Asia, it was nevertheless one facet of this exotic place. Perhaps there are other things to be discovered by going, not on a trip to a Casino resort, but perhaps on a trek to the rainforests of Indonesia, or a trip to the rice fields of the Phillipines or the temples of Angkor. I hope I get a chance to write about these places in this blog.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Jersey City WaterFront

Its difficult to find an Indian living in the US who has never been to Jersey City. If you are a US NRI, you probably know someone who lives here and have visited him-that is if you don´t live here yourself. The reason for Jersey City's popularity lies across the Hudson river: New York.

Seen here is the lower Manhattan skyline is made up of the buildings from the Financial District . The delicate gem-stone like colours reflected from the buildings made this sunset a rare and special one. I loved the warm glow of the lamps against the cool blue of the water and the sky.

The Empire State in the evening light
The famed Wall Street employs vast numbers of Indians to drive itś IT systems. This is the secret of the NRI love for Jersey City. The city is a natural choice for the 20-something college graduate starting out as an IB analyst, or the 30-something newly married manager looking for a ćlassy´apartment within commuting distance. With its wide range of housing options, Jersey City has something for everyone. Besides having a huge Indian community, it has the lower taxes of New Jersey, a lower cost of living (although that is now fast catching up with Manhattan), an almost seemless connectivity to Manhattan, and and a conveniently located airport of its own.

The waterfront here is perhaps the best part of the city. With extensive views of Manhattan, apartments on the waterfront charge a heavy premium. The boardwalk serves as a park, as well place to relax and socialize. It is always an interesting place in the evenings. Grandmas and Grandpas come out for walks with their grandchildren in strollers. Some tenacious souls with fishing lines try to get something out of the dirty Hudson. Pretty young things in little pink clothes walk their (quite ugly) toy dogs. Joggers whiz by with iPods strapped to their arms. The office worker in full formal attire and a briefcase tries to get in his daily exercise by walking along the waterfront to the train station. It is very entertaining even to just sit on a bench and watch the whole cross section of the community walk past you. 

Young Asia
This Asian brother-sister pair was down for Sunday evening dinner at the waterfront with their dad. Its amazing how innocent kids can look, and it can be quite humbling to realise that losing this magical quality is a trade-off of growing up.

An evening catch up

These two Spanish grandmas were also out for the evening walk and perhaps a catch-up session on the day's gossip. Both these photos were possible only because of the a zoom lens that lets you get right in the middle of the action without getting physically close and disturbing your subjects.

Sunsets can be quite beautiful here, with Manhattan glittering pink and purple at times, and looking like gilded gold at other times. That Manhattan has one of the most well known and well loved skylines in the world helps make the view special. Up until a few years ago, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre stool tall and imposing, completely dominating the lower Manhattan skyline. 9/11 irrevocably changed the skyline, and so will the Freedom Tower that will replace the twin Towers.

Manhattan Skyline at dusk

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Last Great Wilderness

Yellowstone National Park  is one of the last remaining pieces of large untouched temperate wildernesses. Windswept moors, steep broken cliffs, vast stands of dark conifers and swift frothing rivers, all make up Yellowstone.
The park has been blessed with a rich variety of wild life, including elk,bison,brown bear,grizzlies, wolves and coyotes. This magnificent bull elk in the photo had settled down to chewing the cud right next to the road, and refused to move inspite of us photographers. His unmoving countenance allowed me to shoot him at a low shutter speed in the fading light of the twilight. I could even avoid the flash and prevent a red-eye.

Yellowstone however has some unique geological features thanks to its location on a hotbed of volcanic activity. The core of the park sits on a 28-47 mile caldera or basin, that had collapsed during the last volcanic eruption here about 600,000 years ago. The boiling hot magma under the earthś crust is unusually close to the surface here, and is responsible for the unique geothermal features of this region.
Yellowstone has geysers (pronounced ´guy-sers´ in American English), hot water springs and pools, often with brilliantly coloured deposits around their rims, steam vents and mud volcanoes. In addition to Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world, Yellowstone has many more.Hereś an image of a geyser about to erupt, taken at high speed in the blazing afternoon sun.

We had the perfect spring weather on our trip to the Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks. Unpredicatable though the weather was, the spring air was refreshingly clear and crisp when the sun did come out. The Nissan Altima we drove was a driving pleasure, and the magnificent vistas meant that my camera was spoilt for choice. This picture of the Idaho river with the montains of Yellowstone as the backdrop was taken enroute the park.

Yellowstone has a huge lake, made up of a portion of the caldera which is now submerged. The lake too has many underground vents releasing hot water close to the shore. This prevents patches along the coast of the lake from freezing over, while the rest is covered by thick ice for most of the winter. In this photo you see one such volcanic vent, seen against the calm and brilliant blue waters of the lake.

A surreal feel envelopes this photograph taken from some distance along the shore of the lake. The picture was clicked from a high point, and you can clearly see the unfrozen coastline of the lake, followed by miles of frozen ice stretching to the mountains in the horizon. It was a brilliant sunny day and the blues of the sky and the water were incredible.

Winter lingers much longer here than the rest of the country, and while the east coast was well into summer, parts of Yellowstone still looked as if in the dead of winter. This black-and-white picture taken at the Lewis river enroute Grand Teton might well pass off as a winter scape.

The highways in Yellowstone are often the best places to watch wildlife. As we were travelling along an open moor, we spotted a pair of grizzlies in the distance. Unfortunately, they were too far away for me to get them on the camera, but I did capture this father and son duo watching the bears.

Yellowstone is a photographer's paradise, just as it is a nature lover's eden. It keeps you on your toes all the time, you never know what surprises might turn up round the next bend in the road. The greatest moment for us on this trip was when we locked eyes with a wolf. This was a little after we photographed that elk in the brush at twilight. As I was driving, my friend practically jumped out of his seat (and the car) and made me come to a screeching halt a few hundred metres up ahead. We walked back the road, four guys unarmed guys, alone on a huge grassland, with the night closing in fast, knowing that there were wolves out there, and we weren't at our bravest. We neared the spot where we thought we had seen it, and were stopped in our tracks by a huge head appearing out of the bushes.
To look straight into the yellow eyes of a wolf in the wild does make your blood curdle.Especially when your are on his terrain, his kingdom, where he is in his element. That moment is pretty much frozen in our memories.
I guess he was pretty averse to our company as well, because the huge head slowly retracted back into the bushes, and we saw him cross the road a few yards futher down, scattering a herd of elk on the other side as he went through the brush.

The Frangipani

The heady scent of the frangipani wafting over the warm summer air has mellowed the harshness of many an Indian summer for me...

The dark glossy green leaves cast a cool shadow underneath its boughs twisted like aged wrinkled hands. The flowers themselves look so dewy fresh even under a blazing sun, they can make you forget the heat for a few moments.

The Frangipani, better known in India as ´champa´ in north India and ´chapha´ in Maharashtra is a tropical plant native to Asia and the Americas. It has a great many species producing exquisitely coloured flowers in many hues and shades.
Moreover these flowers often have an irresistible sweet fragrance.

Little surprise that these flowers have found their way into love songs and symbolise beauty, romance and love in many eastern cultures.

A famous marathi song talks of a maiden whoś hiding her feelings for her lover. Her friends compare her hidden love to the fragrance of the green champa flower hidden under her drape, try as she might to hide the flower, its fragrance still surrounds her.

The picture here was taken at Lalbaug in Bangalore, on an overcast day in late July.

I sign off this first post with a beautiful piece on the Frangipani by Rabindranath Tagore. 

The Champa Flower
Rabindranath Tagore

Supposing I became a champa flower, just for fun, and grew on a branch high up that tree, and shook in the wind with laughter and danced upon the newly budded leaves, would you know me, mother?
You would call, "Baby, where are you?" and I should laugh to myself and keep quite quiet.
I should slyly open my petals and watch you at your work.
When after your bath, with wet hair spread on your shoulders, you walked through the shadow of the champa tree to the little court where you say your prayers, you would notice the scent of the flower, but not know that it came from me.
When after the midday meal you sat at the window reading Ramayana, and the tree's shadow fell over your hair and your lap, I should fling my wee little shadow on to the page of your book, just where you were reading.
But would you guess that it was the tiny shadow of your little child?
When in the evening you went to the cow-shed with the lighted lamp in your hand, I should suddenly drop on to the earth again and be your own baby once more, and beg you to tell me a story.
"Where have you been, you naughty child?"
"I won't tell you, mother." That's what you and I would say then.