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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You're a Tiger, Baby, You're a Tiger!

Ok. Now that I am officially back in Oz I can finally finish these tour notes on my blog. Sorry for the delay everyone! Now...where was I up to? Oh yes. Kanha. Wow...Kanha.
Kanha National Park is a tiger reserve in the remote and rural part of Central India.Covering 940 square kilometres it has plenty of room to house the variety of wildlife that resides within its borders. Among these are the beautiful tigers that roam wild in this beautiful jungle. People come to Kanha from all over the world to see...tigers.
Arriving in Kanha was not a simple matter of getting into our bus and driving. In fact, we said goodbye to Mr Singh and his bus at this point. We had become so familiar with him and his bus too. But now, things were changing. We took an overnight train from Agra, which is never easy. Sleeping on trains with other people in your booth is....interesting - especially if they are complete strangers who enjoy turning all the lights on in your cabin at 4am. When you finally arrive in Jabalpur, it is another 4 to 5 hour drive to Kanha itself by car. The roads are difficult but the countryside becomes less polluted and more beautiful with each passing kilometre. You notice also that fewer signs bear any English at all. Everything you have become used to about the India you thought you knew slowly disappears as you drive. Its quite interesting.
We arrived in Kanha in the late afternoon. We quickly freshened up and then ventured out in open Jeeps to see what we could find within the reserve. Within minutes we had spotted a tiger in the soft light of dusk. He was about 100 metres or more away and photography was useless. But his roaring could be heard for miles. With the light fading, we headed back to The Baagh (our accommodation was fabulous!) for dinner and a deserved rest. After all, it was going to be another sunrise to wake to in the morning.
The entire next day was spent driving through the National Park. We saw it all - Sambar Deer, Langur, Gaur, Peacocks...but no tigers. It was a great day but unfortunately no tigers. The rain didn't help either. Dinner conversation that night was lively, which was not unusual for our group, but there was a little bit of negative talk about seeing any more tigers. It had to be quashed.
"You know what?" I said, addressing my wonderful group. "Tomorrow, not only will we see a tiger, but that tiger will come out, sit down, smile and say 'Here, take my picture!' " I smiled to the group and returned to my rice and lentils. I had no idea that I had sent a message into the universe.
The next morning I spoke with our wonderful guide to see if it could be arranged that we have a brief stint riding on the elephants that roam the park looking for tigers. He said he would see what he could do but no promises. Fair enough. You can't always get what you want. Didn't somebody sing that once?
So once again, we loaded up into the Jeeps and began our search to photograph the wildlife. After a few hours we found ourselves on a back road. Ahead were some elephants and their mahouts, their drivers and masters. These fellows search through the park on elephants reporting tiger locations. It seemed that they were having a break.
Our jeeps stopped and we were invited to climb the ladders to the platforms atop each of these magnificent creatures. Nathan and I got into one together and we all headed into the jungle in which the elephants forge paths for themselves by simply ripping small trees out of their way with their trunks. It was a whole lot of fun.
I thought we were just getting our obligatory elephant ride, the one I had requested for the group earlier that day.
Suddenly, we began a descent into a creek bed. Nathan suddenly gasped and said in excited undertones "Dad! There's a tiger!" In disbelief I looked to the place he was pointing. There she was, sitting on the other side of the creek bed not twenty feet away, unperturbed by the presence of the elephants or their riders. She sat their for some time, not minding the whirring and clicking of excited cameras and the gasps and whispers of photographers who knew that this was one of those moments in your life you will never forget. After all, who gets to photograph a wild tigress from atop an elephant in the Indian jungle? Not many. Not even in this park. We were among the few to be ever so privileged. For several minutes we simply sat and watched her as she tired of putting on her show for us and lay in the bushes, moving only to yawn in signal of her indifference over our presence. She was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Nathan and I looked at each other with our hands on our hearts as if to check that they were still beating. Or, perhaps it was to ensure that the moment never escaped their excited chambers as long as we lived.
As you can imagine, the dinner table was filled with the vocabulary of a very different conversation that evening. We all knew that we had been given a special gift. And, as you can imagine, I reminded everyone that I had predicted it. Well, I have to take credit for something, don't I?
If I only have on regret it is that I didn't use the old Austin Powers line that would have made this moment even more perfect.
"Come on Baby! You're a Tiger! You're a Tiger!"
Somehow, I think she knew that already anyway...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Agra and the Timeless Love

This city is not to be missed should you ever visit India. It is the site of the famous Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, two sites each person should see once in their life. I have seen some of the great wonders of the world – The Great Pyramid of Cheops, Machu Picchu, Abu Simbel, Angkor Wat and Ta Promh, The Sphinx, Karnak, The Reclining Buddha, the Great Wall of China and many more, but I must admit to having been completely gobsmacked by the sheer grandeur, size and intricate beauty of the Taj Mahal. Completed early in 17th century, it is a testament to the architectural and engineering genius of the time.
We arrived to line up for entry at about 6:30 am. By this time the lines of tourists were already beginning to swell – women on the left, men on the right. This is done because you are frisked as you go through security. Yes, the Indian people care for this monument with great affection. And so they should. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
As the sun rose over the Taj Mahal, you could begin to see its effect on the fine precious stones inlaid within the beautiful white marble with which it is entirely constructed. You wait your place to photograph from that perfect point in front of the Taj where everything lines up in your frame using the perfect symmetry with which the entire project was intentionally designed. So much so that two mosque buildings were placed beside the Taj Mahal, one on the right and one on the left, each the mirror of the other. However, the one on the right is on the east side of the Taj and was only built for symmetry. It is a fake. The one on the left is still an active mosque. The other thing about this incredible structure is its size. It is an immense construction and its architectural perfection has to be seen to be believed.
Leaving the site about three hours later, we visited a smaller mausoleum known as Idmad Ud Daulah. This mausoleum was built for the Prime Minister of the region and predates the Taj Mahal. It is in fact thought to be the building that inspired the Taj itself, although it is much smaller. Nonetheless, it is quite impressive.
After a rather late lunch, we returned to the Taj to photograph it at sunset. However, we would do this from a more interesting perspective – from a boat on the river behind it. The sun sets beautifully to the right and behind the Taj from this perspective and the photographs of it from here are a necessity for the photographer. Yes, it has to be done. We all fit onto this small craft, manned by one lone boatman who knows the best points in the river to take you to. We left it to him to manoeuvre his craft into each of these places and positions and we simply fired away. As the sun set into the Agra smog, it became a glowing orange ball of such distinction you could look straight at its glowing sphere and photograph with ease. I would say that I have taken some of the most wonderful photographs of my life in that glorious and unforgettable hour.
The following day saw us in the Agra Fort. This seemingly impenetrable stronghold was started in 1565 by the great Emperor Akbar, whose grandson was responsible for the Taj Mahal. It became both palace and fort by the time of Shah Jahan, and he and his wife lived in opulence and unparalleled beauty within this citadel. You can enter their private palace, once described by a British historian who visited there at the height of its beauty as ‘paradise’. Since then, the jewelled walls and golden towers have been looted, but you can stand within its walls and know the love that existed between the two people who lived here, a love whose testament can be seen across the river from the fort in the shape of the Taj Mahal. One can only wonder at the conversations, the emotions and actions that were exchanged by these two famous people within these walls.
Places such as these are never easy to photograph. There are tourists to navigate and manoeuvre out of your compositions, or simply wait patiently for that perfect moment when there is no one within your frame. Then there is the place itself, one which can not really be conveyed accurately in photographs. Nevertheless, we gave it our best shot. Either way, you have to visit these places to believe them. They are really quite magnificent.
That morning, Graham, Nathan and I decided we would represent the Five Minute Photographer family and do another street walk through old Agra. Of the eight of us, we were the only three interested in this activity, and we loved it. So we grabbed a taxi and headed for the old part of town. Arriving found us walking in dirty streets and alleys the nature of which even I had never known. God only knows what we were stepping in as we walked through this 300 year old bazaar, but we didn’t really care. There was so much to see, smell, experience.
Monkeys play and persecute by their dozens on the maze of power lines that crisscross above the streets, the nature of which leaves us wondering how many people die from electrocution in these cities. Bovine creatures of every size, shape and breed amble blissfully unaware through each street and lane, unmolested and unseen by the shopkeepers and their customers. Flies buzz around fruits and meats as they are exhibited in the open sun. Men openly urinate on the walls and spit from their throats into the streets. Beggars bearing a variety of deformities and maladies punctuate the street floor while clean and uniformed school children cycle past them on their way to school. It is not a sight for the delicately minded. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  There is a photojournalist in me who loves being here and capturing what he can. It is the same with my son. He has never been to a place like this before and he is feeling the fascination. It is not that we lack compassion or that we are so blind that we don’t see the issues here. We certainly do and our hearts go out. But neither is this a place for judgment or narrow-mindedness. It is a place where you leave those things behind. You simply broaden your eyes, open your heart, close your nose and go walking - camera in hand.

For more images, go to my Flickr site.

We're all out of birds at Bharatpur...

Leaving Jaipur we drove to Bharatpur. Bharatpur is a small town with some interesting history. It is the place where Shah Jahan’s wife died shortly giving birth to her 14th child. Her husband, the Shah, was so grief stricken he built a mausoleum in here memory. In so doing he nearly bankrupted the region with a twenty year project known as the Taj Mahal.
With that famous structure situated in Agra, Baratphur is now better known for its bird sanctuary. This famous sanctuary has seen visits from royalty from all over the world for nearly two centuries. These famous individuals were here to shoot birds too, although not with a camera or with the best intention. One of these famous visitors is recorded as having shot over 4000 birds in one day. Why the destruction of innocent animals fascinates gentlemen of this stature evades me. I would rather point a long lens, hear the repeated clicks of a shutter and let the creature live. It is a far more creative and environmentally friendly endeavour.
The monsoons have not been too good over the last decade and the birdlife has somewhat diminished in the park. The authorities have tried to keep the park active by pumping water into its lagoons but it has not been overly successful. Nonetheless, we found ourselves in the park at sunrise photographing what we could. There are antelope in the sanctuary, along with cattle of course. But the birdlife was a non-event – at least for photography. Whatever was to be seen was too far away to be adequately captured no matter what lens you had.
As usual, I found walking through the village near The Bagh (our fabulous accommodation) more interesting and rewarding than the sanctuary. We were welcomed into private homes and got to see the real life of the local people. Even the simplest houses and homes were fitted out with colour TV sets and satellite dishes, naturally tuned to the Australia vs India cricket match. Being from Australia made our conversations very lively and humourous with the locals and there was a great opportunity for common ground. However, while we may enter each village with the intention to remain as inconspicuous as possible, it is not long before the children catch on. In some cases they become very excitable and will sabotage your attempts to photograph other things. This they do by jumping in front of your lens or in front of the subject in the hope that you will once again take their picture instead. After a while this gets beyond your control and you have to leave. So, we did. Nonetheless, we had a lovely time in the village area and we are all grateful to the lovely local people who made us feel very welcome.
Leaving Bharatpur we headed for Agra, the famous city of the Taj Mahal and the Amber Fort. On the way however, we stopped in at an amazing site known as Fatehpur Sikri. This site was once a large city built by a powerful Moghul and the size, design and architecture are all quite incredible. However, after only a 14 year reign in this place, it was abandoned. One can only wonder why you would do such a thing. It was quite something in its day.

Pink City, Amber Fort, Black Motorcycle...

The one thing I was hoping to do when I was here in India was to keep you all up to date as I have travelled through each town and region. However, time and internet issues have conspired against me in the fulfilment of that desire. So, here I am…finally getting you up to date. Now, where did I leave you last? Ah yes. Pushkar.
After the marvels of Pushkar I thought that India would be disappointing, a decline in fascination. However, Jaipur would prove me wrong. It is an incredible city, one with a rich history and city streets that are presently under consideration for World Heritage listing. And so they should be. They have to be seen to be believed. Jaipur’s old district, once a 17th century walled city, is now known as the Pink City, because of the unique colour of the street’s shops and dwellings. Jaipur was planned as a grid hundreds of years ago and its shopping district is lined with identically sized shops the variety of which is only altered by the contents within. It is wonderful to walk through and photograph. However, watch the traffic.
I learned this the hard way. Our guide had told us that if we were to cross the street, walk and don’t alter your stride or pace. The traffic will go around you. Now, I am used to this concept, having crossed streets in cities like Cairo and Saigon. Our guide also told us to look both ways, no matter what side of the road you are crossing. Unfortunately, I broke both these rules. Stopping halfway across I checked the traffic coming from the direction it is supposed to come from. However, in India, traffic never does what it is supposed to. Thinking it was all clear I stepped out from the halfway point only to be swiped by a motorcycle coming the wrong way. The foot pedal grazed across my shin, knocking me a little and taking a small chunk out of my leg. I walked across to the other side and lifted my jeans to see what had happened. Nothing too bad. It was ok. However, a young salesman came out from one of the shops to help me out, bringing water and the news that his offsider had gone down the street to buy a bandage for me. I thanked him, opting to use the water from my water bottle instead, knowing that it would be cleaner than the water from the tap that the young man had brought. Returning moments later from his errand, the young man gave me two bandaids which I quickly applied. Within a few minutes I returned to the group who were buying silver jewellery. In that rather upmarket shop I was given cotton wool and antiseptic, so I went about cleaning it properly. I think there is still some cotton wool in the wound. Oh well. It will make its way out eventually. I remind myself that if I had been two inches more across that street it would probably have snapped my leg in half. So all in all I did rather well!

That same city and evening found us all heading for yet another damned Carpet Factory. Man, as if I haven't seen enough of these places as I have travelled! Every guide wants to take you to their special carpet maker, each one being so incredibly 'unique'. Normally, I don't agree to these kinds of manipulation but the group wanted to go. So, off we went. I just wanted to hang around outside. As Nathan and I did (he wasn't interested either) we heard a great deal of noise coming from a property next to the carpet place. So, naturally, we grabbed our cameras and ran toward it. As we approached the sounds of music and merriment, we were ushered into a wedding! Yes, here we were, complete strangers in dirty, sweaty clothes being ushered into this celebration. We were encouraged to take photographs from whatever vantage point we wanted. And...we did! It was much better than sitting in a damn carpet factory, let me tell you! It was a taste of the real life. We only had a few minutes, but they were wonderful.
Jaipur is well known for the Amber Fort, the City Palace and its 380 year old observatory with 20 metre high sundials that are accurate within two seconds. Amazing stuff. Naturally we visited each of these and they were fascinating. However, for me, there is nothing like walking the streets with a camera in hand. This very thing Nathan and I did on our own the last night in Jaipur. We were the only ones in the group who wanted to do this. While we were limited in our photo options, we won’t soon forget the experience. Not many tourists take this option and walk the back lanes where the real thing happens. We were fish out of water, most definitely. But we were never in any obvious danger and we were greeted and welcomed by all those to whom we smiled and waved. We have found that to be the case here. Stories abound of danger, pickpockets, thieves, scoundrels and terrorists. However, I have not felt that from anyone. I would quickly respond that I would also feel apprehensive about walking alone in the evenings in my own city of Melbourne or any city in the United States, Europe or the UK with that much photographic equipment on my person. In fact, I would feel more apprehensive in these places I think than I have felt anywhere in India. Some may think me na├»ve, but I am here. I am feeling it. I am doing it. This is what I have come up with. As with all things you have to have common sense. But that applies no matter where you go. I only know that I would not risk my well being or my son’s just to get a handful of street photos unless I felt it was safe to do so. Having done it I am glad of it. Nathan and I won’t forget that evening.
Neither will we forget the tuk tuk ride on the way back to our hotel. Our driver managed to cough his way through the most horrendous traffic jam I have ever seen, taking out a headlight or two of other tuk tuks as he did! The fumes and the noise made it a rather unpleasant trip from a sensory perspective, but we laughed our way back to the hotel with each turn of a corner and each crazy piece of driving. If I remember correctly, we even broke into a chorus of "Born to Be Wild"...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Three days in Pushkar

Pushkar is an amazing place. It is without doubt one of the most interesting and wondrous places I have ever visited - and I have visited my share. However, I would probably only apply that to this one particular time of year - the annual Camel Festival. Apart from that I would imagine that Pushkar would appear like every other sleepy Indian town in this region of India's north.
But, once a year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Pushkar for the annual Camel Festival and with them, hundreds of thousands of camels, horses and goats. There are manufacturers of all sorts of farming implements and household implements, leather workers, blacksmiths and cooks. There are snake charmers and circus performers, common people and businessmen. It is a melting pot of Indian life that could not have been a better introduction to everything we would want to see and photograph in India if we had even asked for it.
Among the Hindu population, Pushkar is considered a very holy place in India. So this festival also brings with it thousands of pilgrims who come to wash in the sin-absolving pools that remain alongside the lake around which Pushkar has been established. The photographer has to balance his or her photojournalistic tendencies and desires with the cultural sensitivities of the people, although there were are no real problems with photographing most of what goes on.
That said, there is no shortage of images to acquire here anyway. In this regard you have to forget the million photographs you didn't get and live with the ecstacy of the thousand or so that you did. Its that simple. Everywhere you look among the thousands of tourists who also come here, digital SLR cameras abound. Pushkar is a feast for the photographer, no matter what level of experience that photographer may have. In the group that I have the privilege to travel with there are photographers with years of experience and one who has only just found the love. All of these wonderful people are getting some of the most incredible photographs of their lives. So am I, for that matter. I won't soon forget this experience. Actually, no. I never will.
The final day of the festival is pandemonium, and by that I mean ten times the normal pandemonium that every other day of the festival is. So it was on this day that we decided to steer clear until nearly sunset, when we all returned on Camel carts for the evening light. During the day however, we found ourselves walking through the local villages. Because most (if any) tourists ever visit these places, we suddenly became the talk of the town. Children rushed from everywhere to be with us. Teenagers came from schools to try their English skills. Families came from their homes to get a peak at the western visitors. It was a wonderful experience and it yielded some wonderful images to match. You often wonder whether it is the photographs or the experience that drives you. Personally, I think one begets the other, no matter which you put first.
On a high mound above one of the villages was a 500 year old fort, which of course Nathan and I had to climb to and photograph. We were shown the best way to get there of course by a crowd of local children to whom we had become quite the spectacle. Getting to the top was not easy but it gave us a chance to stand in an old fort and to photograph the area and the village below that it no doubt once protected.
But as I said, the evening saw us for the last time as a group in the Pushkar Festival area. The sun sets behind the Festival and the dust in the air carries the light in such a beautiful manner. Through its orange haze rise the silhouettes of camels and horses and in its sweet soft light we also find the faces of the people who remain. You lament the turn of the planet, knowing that with each passing moment the amazing photographic opportunities that are presenting themselves fade below the horizon with the setting sun.
Our final morning was supposed to be a group camel ride through what remained the festival. However, dawn saw us clambering around a hot air balloon near our tent accommodations taking pictures of the preparations for its morning flight. As it was about to take off, one of the staff asked me if I wanted to climb in. As you can imagine I was inside the basket before I even had the chance to say 'yes' ! As the sun rose over Thar Camps in Pushkar, I was floating in a basket over the small farms and villages as their inhabitants were beginning a new day. It was the quietest experience I'd known since I had arrived in this rather noisy country. We landed in a small field in a nearby village only to be greeted by a growing number of excited locals who had run to see the big balloon. Within minutes they were all pitching in, helping to fold and pack the now deflated balloon that only moments earlier had carried us over their homes. Knowing how useless I would be in the packing and folding, I opted to take pictures. After all, that's what I do, isn't it?
It was a wonderful finale to a fabulous few days of festival and photography. As we drove from Pushkar I wondered if I would ever return to photograph it all again. If ever the chance arises I will not take a moment to hesitate. I would love the experience the madness all over again...Now...on to Jaipur...
For more India images, go to my Flickr site

The Life, Times and Images of photographer, Shelton Muller

Images on this blog are copyright Shelton Muller