Tag Archives: #india

To click or not to click

Travel and photography have always been strange bedfellows in my head. I have been ambivalent what one is to do in the face of raw beauty. To gawk at it and let it occupy some place in the recesses of your mind. Or to photograph the hell out of it, every square inch of it. The less dramatic answer: you do both, what’s the problem here then?

When I observe my reaction on coming across something beautiful in the process of travel, I normally tend to pull out my mobile camera and start clicking away with more passion than my brethrens with the DSLR. At some point, I almost have to remind myself, to keep the darn thing in my pocket and just gawk, absent mindedly, mesmerized. I mean I want to see the place when I am there in person, not back home while browsing through the photographs I clicked.

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But then there are so many tourists who will come to a spot or ‘point’ and go beserk with their cameras and don’t know when to stop. It would not be that big a problem in my head if it was solely not restricted to that. When I look at most of them, I get a feeling – and I could be wrong here – all some of them are hoping for is their next display picture for facebook, to show these particular people on their timeline what a swell time/life they are having.

This coming from a guy, who in the words of a friend: put up a photo diarrhea instead of a photo diary about his travel on facebook, may seem ironic. But like I mentioned above, I think at some point, I do realize that the camera has to go in. I do think of facebook and other sites when photos are being clicked. And honestly, I then try not to think of it that way. I remind myself that beyond the likes, shares and comments, these are memories in the long run (too many memories if you ask me). If it was just about taking photographs, well you could download a few from google.

The deal here is the moment you are out there. At some point you stand there (ok I am not pontificating about postures here, do what you want) and just feel the place. You try to find that unique relationship with the place that will stay with you. You observe the feelings the place evokes in you. This feeling that may come back to mind three weeks after the trip just between the time you have shut your eyes and before sleep finally overpowers. You can regurgitate it in your head and unknowingly doze off. Well if you’re lucky, dream about it.

During my trip to Chherapunji, we had visited a cave. It was so dark inside that we could not click photographs. Maybe it was the best thing. When we returned from the cave and discussed the experience, all three of us could feel the vibe of something ancient in there. Some ancestral shiver had run down our modern day spine, when we looked at a leaf fossil embedded in a rock. That uncaptured, unclicked moment will stay with me like so many others.

What I am trying to say, is that in the process of making memories, I hope we don’t end up trading them for raw experience, something that is the very nub of what travel should be about. Whenever I think about these things, it brings to mind one of my favourite scenes from movie The Namesake. Irfan Khan (Ashoke Ganguli) along with his son reach the far end of the beach and realize they forgot to get the camera along.

Ashoke Ganguli: The camera! It is in the car. All this and no picture, huh? We just have to remember it then. Huh? Will you remember this day, Gogol?

Gogol: How long do you I to remember it?

Ashoke Ganguli: [laughing] Ah, remember it always. Remember that you and I made the journey and went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.

photography

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Through monasteries and the dance of death (2/3)

The next day we would head to north Sikkim for an overnight trip. It would be the coldest leg of our trip, or to put it crudely: the real shiz bro. Bro, I learnt there was also the abbreviated version of Border Roads Organization. Although, their boards will remind you less of safety and more of the Bro Superior: Barney Stinson.

The BRO code

The BRO code

Anyways so we travelled from Gangtok (East Sikkim) to North Sikkim. North Sikkim is like one mini incursion away from China. Ok sorry :P. While we could not go to the Nathula Pass, one of the three open trading border posts between India and China, or the much touted Gurudongmar lake due to snow – making me realize that visiting that part in December was not exactly a bright idea –we did go to the beautiful snow clad Yumthang valley.

The scenic and snowy Yumthang valley

The scenic and snowy Yumthang valley

It was an organized tour and like all organized tours there were little groups formed which made for some good old saas bahu moments during the trip. And all this was happening in the backdrop of some absolutely retarded numbers belted out by our driver. While I thought they were songs from shady B grade movies, I am now horrified to find they are songs from our mainstream Bollywood movies. I shall sample a few:

(You have to read the lyrics. Hyperlinked for you above)

Now once we reached North Sikkim, I realized that the absence of heat has to be filled in by will power. The thing with these near sub-zero places is that even deciding whether to drink water or go to the loo is a painful process. You need a constant supply of will power as your body refuses to get out of the little comfort zones it gets into. But I do carry fond memories of the bonfire we arranged for and the conversations with several locals there in that little oasis of heat.

The recipe of a good journey includes this pungent ingredient called blunder. We had a good journey which therefore entailed a mini blunder. A day before we were to board a train from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Guwahati, we realized that the train was not at 11.30pm from NJP but was rather reaching Guwahati at that time. The boarding time at NJP was 2.30pm, roughly 10 hours earlier. I had not checked the tickets properly. And assuming the train was at 11.30pm the next day which give us another day, we had planned to leave for Darjeeling and travel bookings were almost done.

Now it is at such times you realize the importance of whom you are travelling with. Some hyperventilating clown could have blown up the issue and some unwanted drama would be in place. Vijay and me on the other hand, quickly cancelled the bookings and in half-an-hour from the time we had stumbled upon the blunder, were on the way to Rumtek and Ranka monasteries in Sikkim. No tempers running high. No unwanted fuss.

An ever smiling driver (he was smiling all the time even once when he was slightly miffed with us) took us to Rumtek monastery which is the most beautiful monastery in Sikkim. The moment we stepped in there, I had a feeling that plan B was better than plan A. Maybe I had reason to be optimistic considering I had screwed up.

The beautiful and serene Rumtek monastery

The beautiful and serene Rumtek monastery

In what further confirmed that it was not merely some guilt that was brought out the aesthete in me at the monastery, when we reached the Ranka monastery, we were witness to the Lama dance: a dance that takes places only once a year. Maybe the gods were happy that we accepted our karma (the fuck up) earlier that day with aplomb and was rewarding us. Ok maybe it’s the monastery talking. There were monks with masks and constumes dancing with knives in hand. It was a scary sight. And apparently it was meant to be that way.

The lama dance. This particular dude was quite scary.

The lama dance. This particular dude was quite scary.

When I asked someone about the relevance, they told me that it was believed that anyone who saw the dance would no longer fear death. It made perfect sense to me, as by now it had instilled the fear of god in me. There were several children who were being encouraged/coaxed by their parents to see the dance (when I searched online I came across a slightly different explanation for the Lama dance although I like the one the lady told me better)

Dance in progress

Dance in progress

And then I did something that I had wanted for a long time. I have always been curious about the lives of monks and finally got talking to a 23-year-old monk from Bhutan. I went bonkers. The journalist in me took over.

Me: Are you allowed to eat meat/marry/play/../..? and on and on

Monk: People generally think that life in a monastery is hard. That Buddhism is very rigid. But it is not that way. There are certain things we are not allowed to do in a monastery but once we are on leave, we are allowed most things. Buddhism is not that rigid.

Me: So when you go to Bhutan and meet your friends who are not monks do you envy that?

Monk: No ya, I think Buddhism is Ok. I think it is about being satisfied with what you have. You will always want more. Its about being satisfied.

Now every third person you meet could tell you something like that. But somehow when it came from him, the words had a peaceful effect on me. I realized sometimes the WHO matters more than the WHAT.

On the way back we got talking to a father who had come to drop his son, now a monk, to the monastery and discussed religion with him. All in all by the end of the day we did not regret missing Darjeeling. What I felt bad was not being able to meet this friend (the stranger with whom I celebrated my birthday) based in Darjeeling who was looking forward to meet us there. Some other day I guess, some other trip rather 🙂 . Like they say Inshaallah

For me one of the best things about travelling is the actual travel time. I love those bus rides which will take like 5-6 hours. All I need is a window seat (optional as years have gone by) and some good music. This time round I had great music. Some wise cell in my head prompted me to take Rabbi along and his music resulted in so many beautiful moments. In fact looking back on of the best moments I had was on this bus ride from Gangtok to Siliguri listening to Rabbi’s songs. Like a friend said, ‘That man is something else.’

Now it was that time of the trip when trains were trolling us. When we reached the NJP station, the train – because of which we had to skip Darjeeling was – wait for it — 17 hours late. We somehow got a ticket and bundled ourselves bag and baggage into the next train and landed at Guwahati station in Assam at 4am.

I think all the fatigue gave way when we found these special tea stalls in Assam. So in Assam, the tea stall owners have these mini plastic packets containing different types of cakes, donuts, puris, that you can have along with tea. I freaked out and had nearly five cake slices and a few donuts atleast.(pic) One day Vijay and me would spend Rs 125 on one tea stall where the cost of tea was Rs 6 :-/ I knew for the next three days, my breakfast was sorted.

The tea seller

  The tea seller

The tea seller's wares :)

The tea seller’s wares 🙂

Then I had the best baths of my life. It had nothing to do with the facilities. I had not bathed for like 4 days :-/ Before you judge me don’t negate the extreme cold and the following water problem in our Sikkim hotel. I felt I was in some kind of trance and could go on bathing. Nevertheless, post the bath, I was now set to explore Assam and Meghalaya . . .

Through the land of prayer flags (1/3)

Hours before the trip to Northeast India, the most ambitious trip I was to undertake, Vijay and I felt we were almost caught off guard as the temperature prediction for NE kept going down with every new person we met. While I knew December in NE was going to be cold, I did not want to only end up battling the weather during the course of my trip to this already unknown place. While we were ready with thermal wear and other ammunition to battle the weather, we would know if the firepower was enough only when we reached there.

Every trip has fucked up moments, irritating moments, moments that make you question why you had to step out of your comfort zone (the topic of an earlier blog). For good or bad, we were faced with a relatively milder version of this on the very first day when we took a tempo traveler ride from Siliguri in West Bengal to Gangtok in Sikkim(I love mentioning these far off places like I travel there every third day).

The prayer flags in Sikkim

The prayer flags in Sikkim

Three of us had barely cramped into the back seat of the traveler knowing well this is how travelling happens: with multiples of the actual seating capacity stuffed in the vehicle. The multiples vary depending upon how ambitious the driver is. Just about when we felt we had barely fit in (I am not the fittest person around), the back door was pulled open with such ferocity, that the guy sitting in the middle – whose back rest was attached to the back door – almost tumbled down.

We looked behind to an ambitious sidekick of our driver standing with another man smiling ear to ear. We tried to make as scornful a face as we could since we knew what was going to happen. We looked at the sidekick in disbelief. The sidekick told the smiling guy ‘baith jao’ pointing towards our seat with conviction that would make Pratibhatai Patil proud. The guy looks at us, we look at each other. I muttered something to the effect of ‘kahan baithega ye’. Before the words had reached the sidekicks ears, the funny looking guy had already parachuted into the car.

By that awesome law of physics operating exclusively in Indian tempo travelers, the guy managed to squeeze in. We could curse under our breaths till the cows came home, but the guy was not only seated, he was on the phone to someone directing where he was. As we look at him bewildered, the dude not only managed to give his co-ordinates on a busy Siliguri road, he was now half leaning on Vijay, waving out to the guy he was directing on the phone. It was a little vertical opening of a window carrying silhouettes of four cramped people at the back of a moving car, but the power of foolish optimism.

After being cramped like ill sized peas in a rickety pod, the next thing you hope in such a circumstance is to see the vehicle zoom off. (Or maybe that another person is not packed off to this little space which the powers that be feel is elastic) But then remember that bastard Murphy? Yes, the vehicle doesn’t start because once the driver is there and the sidekick is not. And then the other way round. We look on helplessly.

Well to cut a long story short, when the vehicle stopped at Gangtok I was not sure if I was touching my legs or some random stumps left behind. I couldn’t confidently deny the possibility of the next two days being spent in nursing an injured back. I think the only silver lining in the pitch black cloud that we found all around was the random unverified trivia blurted out by one of the fellow commuters like 70 % of people in Sikkim are Nepalis and so on and so forth. And the second silver lining: I had my birthday in a few hours 😀

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The first high of the trip (apart from a loving birthday gift that really made me both happy and highly emotional) was the fact that at 12am on December 17, I was chilling with three people, the existence of two of whom I was oblivious about till December 16, 11.55pm. So we saw two people chilling outside our hotel room, invited them in and the four of us brought in my birthday. Nothing fancy but I was kicked by what was happening.

When a friend called up asking how the birthday was going, I replied “this is the most ‘different birthday’ I have ever had.” I loved it. And I will tell you why: Before starting the trip, I had asked myself what did I want the most from the trip: one of the answers was I wanted to interact with a lot of new people. I wanted to know how people lived their lives outside my little social circle. And hence I asked many questions to whomever we met during the trip. And so in my head, this box was ticked off. Here I was, of all things, celebrating my birthday with new and interesting people.

Well here I have to mention this funny hotel manager we met. We would remember him through the trip for the funny encounters we had with him. During a conversation with us, when the manager was boasting to us his friend’s drug taking prowess, he held his hands at a distance of a horizontally held brick and said, ‘itna ganja khaaya woh’. Vijay and I were aghast. I mean he could smoke that up but as we enquired in unison ‘khaaya?’ wondering what beast eats up a brick full of dope.

He attempts to clarify his claim: ‘khaaya nahin khaaya’ :-/

We look on.

Then it strikes him we are not bongs: ‘khaaya matlab piya’ hum log piya ko khaaya bolta hain.

This episode would generate us a journey full of lame jokes.

Another funny episode with the guy happened was when he realized Vijay deals in foreign exchange. He got 1000 Vietnamese dongs, some 500 Tanzania shilling and other relatively decent amounts in foreign currency that he got as tips from foreigners. Looking at him one felt that he was secretly hoping that the money will secure his old age. He was hopefully looking at Vijay as the later did his calculations. After a few minutes Vijay tells him: they are worth around Rs 30. To rub it in Vijay says ‘ tum ek time ka khana kha sakte ho isse’ (it is enough to purchase lunch once). I will here not attempt to describe the look on the poor man’s face. I can say with some certainty that the next batch of foreigners that go there will not be well served.

The next day we went for a ‘local sightseeing tour’ which began on an interesting note and ended up on a rather funny one. We went to the directorate of Sikkim handicraft and handloom where we had a good time. Of all the awesome things we saw, I think worth mentioning is the cute little typewriter which was actually used as a calculator back in the day. It had no alphabets only numbers and the calculation signs. I had no clue such a thing existed.

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The second interesting thing was a preserved beehive dating back to 1937. As it is bereft of any honey, one can actually see the structure of a beehive. Like there are little floors in it and small pillar like things. I was blown away by it.

I could have had a photograph of it because of Narendra Modi. No, no, I am not some random Muslim blaming him for everything 😛 He had visited the place a month back. He told them to stop photography as repeated clicks could impact some of the paintings that had paints made out of fruits. So well depending upon your political affiliations you can decide accordingly.

Passing through some waterfalls and ‘view points’ we reached the funny part of the tour: the flower exhibition. Someone on a blog had rated it pretty high on the to-do list. What we found on reaching there were some dead flowers (to be fair some were alive)!!.

In fact there were so many flowers refusing to look at us, relegated to dejection that Vijay quipped ‘dude this is like ‘phoolon ka kabrastan’ (a graveyard of flowers). I think I agreed with him. We also clicked some dead ones for proof !But an awesome photo exhibition by the Sikkim photography club on the same premises more than made up for the earlier bereavement.

Some of the dead flowers

Some of the dead flowers

The alive ones

The alive ones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However the one thing that accompanied us throughout the day were prayer flags. Sikkim is full of prayer flags. Seen in the background of the blue skies it is such a picture of serenity that ironically I could not hardly resist the temptation to go bonkers with my mobile camera. The day ended on another high: a Nepali rock band performance. The trip was going well so far. Some fuck ups were on their way though…

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