A change of seasons

As the winter wraps its cold fingers around us tightly and as the year draws to an end – it is time to recap what has been a great year as far as natural scenic beauty is concerned. Germany is very beautiful and the outdoors are a treat to the senses. With it beginning to get dark earlier by the day, I am drawn to the time when I reached here – winter was fading away and the days were getting longer, sunnier and prettier. A sheet of ice and a blanket of snow often remained, but the sun was up, and the colors were spreading. Here’s a toast to Nature!

Frozen lake and setting sun - Fire and Ice!

Frozen lake and setting sun – Fire and Ice!

On one of my evening strolls, I stumbled on this lake. It was frozen over completely and was the first time I had seen such a sight. Was splendid, to say the least.

Over the next few days, the ice thinned out and was hesitantly slipping into the lake – almost as if it wanted to stay out and enjoy this pretty overlap of climate for some more time.

Ice thinning out and the trees and grass all colorful now!

Ice thinning out and the trees and grass all colorful now!

And in the next few days: birds! Sun bathing, catching up with their buddies, discussing plans for the summer and probably complaining about the winter? ūüôā

With the birds I shared this lonely view

With the birds I shared this lonely view

With so much changing around us everyday, the most constant and cyclic of changes – seasons – have so much to offer.

Freefalling

magical falls!

magical falls!

A joy as pure rose as the water which fell,

that whistling bird whose echoes floated into me,

a gently lounging butterfly in the breeze,

and the hypnotic rhythm of the waterfall.

The tiny gurgling streams joining hands with their louder elders,

stitching the green fabric like silver glistening threads would;

the rickety yet sturdy bus carrying our brittle selves,

the falls turning adults into kids.

The clouds opening, the rains pouring,

the falling water, seemingly powerful enough to destroy Matter,

the rocks holding their place and flinging the water away, not budging,

a spectacular perpetual battle.

The sky at its dullest gray but never feeling so,

we baby stepped our way towards the destination,

through soil which looked squeezed out and had become a water body.

The ‘I’ in me humbled by the hills, silenced by the roar of water,

the illusion of control washed away by showers of rain.

Bred and surviving on flat lands,

the mighty showcase of gravity lifted my spirits,

defying a stagnating inertia and a slow-but-certain fall,

an endless torrent of water breaking an endless spiral of thoughts.

straight from the heavens

straight from the heavens

 

Awe inspiring Mount Vesuvius

It has been a dream since a long time to see a volcano. While I did not exactly see a ‘live’ one, I got a chance to recently see Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. Needless to say, I was super-impressed by the scale of the eruption that had taken place and of what was left behind.

Present day crater

Present day crater

blown off

blown off

Still steaming at places, with life growing in now

Still steaming at places, with life growing in now

and more steam

and more steam

I bought a book about the volcano and its history from one of the shops there. Here, I am typing out some of my favourite and relevant text sections from the book for all to read and to be transported into, however briefly, the world of mountains and imagine Nature’s forces.

Note: It is going to be lengthy!!!

The plain stretches from Mount Massico to the Lattari Mountains (the Sorrento peninsula), from the coast to the Caserta and Piacentini mountains. When the land sank, it became an arm of the sea and then an area of volcanic activity. At first the eruptions took place below sea level, then on land, their debris piling up to form volcanic edifices that can be seen even today. There are areas which were only recently discovered when deep wells were drilled in the search for geothermic energy. The last to to appear, and therefore the youngest of all, was Somma-Vesuvius.

Lava flows were found recently at a depth of about 1,345 m in a well drilled at Trecase, and presumably represent earlier acitivity, some 300,000 years ago.”

“The Somma Vesuvius complex is composed of two concentric volcanic structures, of different size, shape and age, but rising from a common base. The external one, formed in an earlier period was called “Vesuvius” (or Vesvio, Besobio, Besvio, Besuvio) by the Romans. Vesuvius proper has a truncated cone shape with the present day crater at the top.”

“‘The oldest picture of¬†the¬†volcano can be found in some frescoes discovered at Herculaneum and Pompeii; it is shown as a single peak¬†covered with trees and wild vineyards.”

Fresco of Vesuvius

Fresco of Vesuvius

From 79 A.D. on, the Great Cone changed shape and height with each eruption, and its present¬†appearance¬†is the result of its most recent¬†activity, from 1631 to 1944. Vesuvius, which was 1,186 m above sea level before the 1944 eruption, is at 1,276 m today. Once, before the formation of the Great Cone, many scholars believed that Vesuvius (or more precisely Mount Somma) had only one peak, over 3,000 m high, built up slowly by layers of lava and ejecta (from this the name ‘stratovolcano’).

From a stratigraphic study of Somma Vesuvius’ eruptive material, the volcanic activity of the past 17,050 years can be subdivided into 9 great cycles, separated by lengthy periods of quiescence: these are documented by the presence of thick paleosols which separate the piroclastic products of each cycle. Prehistoric¬†artifacts¬†and animal bones found buried under the volcano’s¬†pyroclastic material indicate that this area was populated from early times. The people of Pompeii remember the volcano as quiet, covered with vineyards up to its peak. Its wine was famous and was bottled in terracotta amphoras to be sold in other centres.

The eruption of 79 A.D.

The eruption started on August 24 in the year 79 A.D. As documented by Plinius the Younger, who vividly described the eruption in his letters to Tacitus; here are some excerpts: “…my mother pointed out to me a cloud that had appeared, of an extraordinary size and aspect – a pine tree indicates its form and appearance better than anything else. In fact, rising straight up like a very long trunk, it spread and then branched: I believe pushed first upward by an impetuous puff and then dropped back on¬†itself¬†when this¬†abated, or beaten by its own weight; then it faded away as it spread out: at times white, at times dark and spotted, depending on whether it had blown up earth or ashes.

At the same time ashes began to shower on us, not yet thickly; I turned and saw behind me a thick cloud that pressed upon us like a river, flooding the ground. Let’s go back, I said to my mother, while we can still see, so that we will not be taken unawares along the way, and crushed by the crowds of people that come from behind. As soon as we sat down, night fell; not a cloudy, moonless night, but as if in a closed room when the lights are out. Finally it cleared a bit;¬†nevertheless¬†it did not seem day to us, but rather the foreboding¬†of a nearby fire; only the fire did not come, instead there was new darkness and a new cloud of thick ash. Getting up every once and awhile, we shook the ashes off, otherwise we would have been not merely covered, but buried, by them.

The eruption lasted three days, the sky was clear again on the 26th. Pompeii was covered by 7 metres of ashes and lapilli, Herculaneum by a mud flow (lahar) 15-25 m thick; more than 2,000 lives had been lost.

Models of the eruption:

During the volcano’s long quiescent phase, both the viscosity and the gas content of the magma increased due to the differentiation produced by the slow and continuous cooling. A thick permeable crust of solidified magma prevented contact between the magma (within the magnetic chamber at a depth of 2-5 km in the carbonate formations) and the groundwater, which was of meteoric origin and contained in the limestone. When the pressure of the gases inside the chamber became greater than the load of the rocks above, the eruption began. Meanwhile, with the conduit open, the pressure suddenly lessened, and the resulting expansion of gases in the¬†viscous¬†mass produced violent explosions. Thus the “volcanic pine” (Plinian volcanic column) was formed; the¬†violence of the explosions split and shattered the impermeable crust inside the magnetic chamber, but the groundwater (of meteoric origin) contained and circulating in the limestone could not penetrate it because of the enormous pressure of the gases still present therein.

The first phase of the eruption ended when there was no further pressure from the gases that had accumulated in the magma and that had shot ash, pumice, solid blocks and scoriae mixed with gas more than 17 km into the air. No longer held up by the pressure of the gas, this material began to fall and buried almost  all of Pompeii in just a few hours, while flows of finer ash and water devastated Herculaneum and other towns on the slopes of Vesuvius.

Activity at the mouth of the crater greatly diminished now that the upper part of the magnetic chamber had been emptied.

Present day crater

Present day crater

Once the eruption ceased, many inhabitants of Pompeii, possibly thieves amongst them, returned to the city, which was by now almost totally buried. Meanwhile the grounwater circulating deep within the limestone flowed into the magnetic chamber for about 10 hours; during that time it appeared that the eruption had ceased.

During the final phase the eruption recommenced with violence (at 6.00 a.m., Aug 25), when water which had filtered into the partially empty chamber came into contact with the magma there. This produced an extremely strong increase in pressure within the chamber; the volcano swelled and rose up. The entire gulf shore-line shifted. The volcano spewed a new, violent cloud consisting not only of magma but principally of products of a “freato-magmatic” process.

Catastrophic piroclastic surges, i.e. explosions on the surface of overheated, high energy steam, formed a ring-like cloud of gases and ash around the center of the explosion. The ring spread out horizontally with the destructive speed of a hurricane, descending the slopes of Vesuvius and destroying everything in its path in just a few minutes.

Those people and animals in Pompeii that did not flee died from suffocation, due to the high temperature of the clouds of overheated steam mixed with piroclastic material and other toxic fumes.

The eruption ceased in less than 24 hours, after having completely destroyed the city and ruined the fertile countryside, which was burned by strong acid rains where not covered in a blanket of ash.

It was an unbelievable sight – something so powerful and devastating. Trying to recollect and picture all that I had read and seen then, and imagining peering into the crater as I type this, I feel the same feeling overcome me. One of awe, fear and disbelief at the scale, among others. Deep respect.

What to expect and what not?

I am fascinated by expectations. They are all around us – society, family, media, etc. etc. all present something or the other at times – do this, buy that, this is considered to be correct, don’t do this, and so on. However, I have realised that somehow the expectations that reward and punish the most, are our own.

Several times, we have wandered in the search of experiences, vacations, events and social gatherings – anticipating something special and have come back slightly disappointed. On the other hand, random, unplanned and accidental events have been some of the most memorable and priceless.

Is this something that arises from the way our minds work ? Does it compare what we have in front of us with something that is “better” or “perfect” according to popular opinion or several other criteria? What if we saw events without rating or measuring them – but just by what they were? Can we? Of course, once in a while our tendency to compare will creep in, and maybe it should too, but what if we could see something in a balanced way first, and then try to put a label to it?

Often, I have seen, for example, a sunset, and wondered “if only I saw this from a beach” or “if only I was in the mountains now; they would have made the horizon look so much prettier” and so on. What I realise is that by doing this “what if” business, I am ruining the current view while my thoughts wander around!

In this age of extra information, job pressures, increased uncertainties of the modern lifestyle and high expectations, I choose to simplify things. I do not wish to squander away the present via looking elsewhere, by looking way ahead in time or backwards all the time. There is much to learn and apply to the self.

That’s why, when I saw the rain stop and the skies suddenly explode in colors one evening, or when I woke up groggily and just happened to glance out of the window without expecting to see a nice sunrise, I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the moments much better than what I could probably have a few months back. I did not care about the less-than-perfect vantage point, I did not regret not having the best view, I did not think if clear skies would be that frequent anymore or not. Rather, I learnt to ignore the huge crane in the picture – and focused on the colors!! Glad I did so. ūüôā

The dawn of day A few minutes later Forgot to open the window! Ignored the crane! Bliss!

This is one of the things I love about travelling and trying to be in touch with Nature by trying to understand it – the opportunity to see something unexpected comes so easily. It could be something as small as a different preparation of tea or coffee to something big enough to eventually shed light on us. Like a glorious sunrise or sunset.

Gear review – camping stove

We were going to be on a 2 week backpacking trip of central europe – from Germany down through Italy. We wanted to camp as much as possible and decided to buy a small stove so that we could cook some basic food and refreshments at will. After zero research, we shortlisted the stove that came up on an internet search and ordered one.

 
Here’s a photograph of it after I attached the fuel canister to the burner in the tent. Of course, I lit it outside!
 
 
While I do like to read reviews of products before I buy them, I think reviewing everything in great detail is not really essential. What makes the whole review reading process so annoying is the unwanted hyperbole and big fluffy descriptions.
 
Here is what you might come across in say, an automobile magazine РThe new Lamborghini is so powerful it rips out the tarmac when it accelerates, and the sound it makes is that of God roaring. In a culinary show, when the food is good, it is portrayed to be so tasty that the presenter is willing to saw off parts of his body for a chance to eat another serving. And so on. At times, it feels we are reading a compilation of exaggerations rather than a precise review of the thing being reviewed. Of course, nothing wrong with hyperbole, but everything in moderation, including moderation and exaggeration. 
 
 For this gear review, I have chosen to use the flowery language which they use in lots of magazines and TV shows for no reason thinkable. Here is my review, crappy journalism style.
 
Coming to the Campingaz stove – It was like carrying a small nuclear¬†reactor with me – so intense was the heat that the instant soup i made on it took my taste buds to an orgasm while burning my tongue to a pulp. This¬†is a dynamite of a product.¬†The response time of the stove is quick: with minimal skill, it lights up sooner than the match is blown off by the wind, in a carefully designed intuitive and almost spontaneous manner. Built to be lightweight and strong, it feels like it has been made from an amalgamation of space age carbon fiber and Titanium, while still managing to look like ordinary metal. What’s more, it has 4 swiveling support legs finished in shining steel, which are lockable in place to support whatever type of vessel is thrown on it. After the cooking is done, the support legs look mean – a burnt – black signature of the aftermath, staring back with a vengeance while blending in with the violence of the act of cooking. The canister is beautifully packaged in the same shade of blue as the sky above you – in perfect harmony. It has a nice smooth rounded finish, like a cannonball. The bottom face is finished to be as flat as the Earth was once considered. The inside of this power plant has¬†high calorific gas¬†filled almost to the brim, something like Mount Vesuvius waiting to explode,¬†only¬†that it (the canister, not the mountain)¬†is controlled by a¬†threaded, finely calibrated¬†control valve, one which is intuitively placed for ease of use. Life may not be fair, but the placement of this knob sure is. The sound it makes when it is switched on¬†is something that I do not have enough¬†hyperbole for.¬†It sounded like the world’s largest and angriest snake hissing in the bottomless throes of Hell’s pits; it sounded like a fierce hurricane was blowing¬†through a valley and whipping up waves on¬†the oceans a continent away. Part of¬†this must be because of the aerodynamically designed venturi holes on the burner, which spit out hot flames a dragon would be ashamed of.¬†Cook your soup and noodles on this, make sure you don’t pulverise them and turn the heat off . Once turned off, it starts to resemble a cooling planet – with a red hot liquid core and..¬†Ok. I can’t do¬†any more.
 
This was a lightweight, easy to use, inexpensive, stove. It came with a fuel cartridge that snapped into place and could be removed quickly and safely. Spare cartridges of various capacities were available in most camping sites. The stove and accessories are available online and in most big stores in bigger towns. It looked like a commonly used brand Рwe saw service areas in a couple of campsites, and it needed hardly any cleaning in 12 days of use, even though it got soaked in rain for half a day and several times via overnight dew.
 
 
If needed, you may please buy this model of the stove, but under no circumstances fall for one of these flowery reviews. Order one and enjoy the wait till the 18 wheeler truck delivers it.

Kolkata continued..in Kumartuli now

Having been in the company of a lot of Bengalis, I have long been curious about Durga puja.

Typically the conversation between two Bengalis one is bound to overhear would be : Baadi kobe jaatcho? (when are you going home?)
Most commonly heard Answer: Pujo.

During my college days, I often attended the festival celebrations in Bangalore and always heard my Bengali friends talk about how different the Kolkata version was, especially when it came to the idols, mandaps and the food. As part of the tradition, idols of Godddess Durga are made, in all shapes and sizes. Preparations start months before the actual festival which takes place in September – October each year (the exact dates are determined by the Hindu calendar). Kumartuli (“potter’s town”) is an area within Kolkata particularly known for its craftsmanship.¬†The ‘kumar’ in kumartuli comes from ‘kumhar’ or ‘kumbhar’ which means a potter, and was in fact a sub caste or caste of people who have been potters since generations. I am not entirely sure about what ‘tuli’ means – it could be community or town, but i need to check what it means in the Bengali language. I will check that out and share an update here. While earlier, a lot of households would hire the services of the sculptor and invite him at the house where he would stay and make the idol, these days, the market (Kumartuli) is where the idols are readied and then sold. It looks like it is a year round thing now, since even in February, although at relaxed pace, work was still going on.

Clay from a water body is taken (I guess clay from the Ganga would be the most sought after, given how she is worshipped in India) and mixed with grass or straw to make it fibrous alongwith modern day glue and plaster of paris etc. The artisans then carve out some really impressive statues. We saw them working hard, yet in a relaxed, un-frenzied manner: I think one needs to be in a very peaceful, and pious frame of mind when one is making a statue of God.

Eye to eye

With a framework in place, the artisans use basic tools and mould the clay into beautiful statues – of the Goddess herself, of her Tiger and so on. The dark grey statue, wet while being sculpted, is worked on in the outdoors – is it to air-dry them slowly so that no cracks develop or was it just because their shops were small?

larger than life

It is a job which requires a lot of time, and a lot of patience. We were impressed at the amount of time one of the artisans was spending on the big statue. At the other end of the spectrum though, a smaller statue did not seem to need that much time – a quick brush stroke to remove finger prints and smoothen the surface, a quick swipe of the thumb’s nail to give creases in the neck, and it seemed done. Beautiful!


some more touches

We had seen similar craft in Gujarat, where locally available clay is mixed with dried grass (which provides fibrous strength). This mud-work is then applied to a lot of things – from utensils to artifacts in the house to entire walls. More on this in a separate entry. In Kumartuli, we could also see a mesh like structure (of fiber glass) below the clay in the idols, but we dared not disturb them while they were at work. We want to go again and spend some time with them in the evenings, or during lunch, when they are free to talk a bit.

Post the Puja, the idols are taken to a water body and immersed there – there are several reasons why this is done, about which I will write separately. This of course, leads to concerns about environmental issues – especially about fiberglass and chemical based paints being used. There are changes happening and lots of artisans have been using more organic paints and only clay.

It is sad that in the modern age, older and more natural techniques like extracting colors and pigments from flowers and vegetables have been replaced by quicker solutions – solutions which are not necessarily better. I pray that we all switch back to realizing that nature is priceless and is very delicately balanced and intertwined within life. It can only take a certain amount of crap from us. Beyond a certain amount, it will just reset and we will be the sufferers.

The switch back to more natural ways of doing the Puja, involves a lot of people – the consumer, the supplier, the idol makers, the government, and so on. We all need to change and realize our priorities. One can only pray that with more awareness and more people working and spreading news about such causes, this issue will gradually disappear. It needs to be done. It can be done. Let us all take the name of God and start!!

Eye to eye, with a stranger

With the onset of Fall, the trees had begun to explode into colors. The wintry sun lit them up in its soft, warm and orange glow. The lake was as still as a mirror. We were walking around the lake and I saw a tree which had branches coming out of it at an angle; hovering over the lake. The reflection caught my eye, because in it, I could see an eye: an Iris formed by the yellowish-greenish shrubs with the pupil drawn out in the black shadows where no sunlight was reflected from. The tree with it’s bent branches formed the body of the eye.

Do you see the eye?

Is it just me or do you see His eye too?