Monday, May 24, 2010

Close encounters of the Massive kind

When you read of lands that live under the shadows of smoking volcanoes and those that have seas inhabited by massive sea creatures, you might dismiss it as figments of a writer’s fertile imagination. But before you do that, I would suggest making a visit to Legaspi and Donsol in the Philippines. Here, there are sights beyond your comprehension, even after seeing them. Read that as the active volcano Mount Mayon, and the whale sharks that swim in the seas during the months of December to May.
My husband and I had wanted to explore the region for a long time now. We had even made the twelve hour long bus-ride to Donsol for a much awaited encounter with the whale sharks. Yet a Tsunami alert had banned us from the waters and we had returned disappointed. This time, we had caught a last minute flight in from Manila and had our fingers firmly crossed.
We started by hiring an All Terrain Vehicle or an ATV to follow Mount Mayon’s 2006 lava trail. The humongous tires ground pebbles firmly into the volcanic ash and made its way through streams up the trail. Driving through what was once a river and now a grey wasteland we reached a dead end, a 60 feet high wall of volcanic rocks. We clambered up loose sand, holding onto rocks and emerged to see the tops of coconut trees. We were standing on a sea of rocks that extended all the way to the crater. From July to October 2006, Mount Mayon had spewed fiery lava that had burnt all that stood in its path, which was mainly, the coconut farms in the area. It had slowly cooled down till this sea of rocks had been formed, as a memorial of sorts.
Yet, there is no sadder testament to the destruction that Mount Mayon has wreaked than the Cagsawa ruins that stand forlornly in the town. Seeing an ancient church tower that is the sole reminder of an entire town that was engulfed by an 1814 eruption of the volcano is indeed a sobering sight.
However, we had no time to dwell on past misfortunes as we made our way down a winding road to Donsol. This sleepy fishing town has now been dubbed the Whale Shark capital of the world.  We quickly registered at the Whale Shark interaction centre for the next day and were herded into the AV room to watch a video on the ‘Butandings’ as the whale sharks are called here. The video talked about how the whale sharks were the biggest fish in the world and that they grew up to forty feet or more and lived up to 150 years. It ensured us that there was no reason for alarm as these gentle giants only fed on plankton. That last part was reassuring to say the least.
To calm my nerves, we decided to head out on the ‘Burning bush’ tour.  This is the very imaginative yet apt name given to the firefly river cruise here. We settled down in a canoe to be slowly rowed up Donsol River that is lined on both sides by mangroves. As we looked on, certain trees lit up as if adorned by fairy lights. “Fireflies” our boatman told us in a hushed voice, as we watched entire trees flicker radiantly in the darkness.
The next morning, we were back at the Butanding interaction centre at 6:30 am. Within half an hour, our boat had left the shore. Thrilled on finally getting out there, my husband and I quietened down to listen to our Butanding guide’s instructions.  We would be taken around twenty minutes into the ocean. There was a whale shark spotter who would stand in front and instruct the boat on when to halt. By then we had to wear our snorkelling mask and fins, and sit on the edge of the boat. As soon as the guide yelled ‘Go’, we would jump into the water and swim behind him. 
As we neared the waters where the Butandings were said to flock, the spotter took his place. My heart was pounding uncontrollably. Suddenly he gestured with his hand and the boat’s motor was abruptly killed. “Ready, Go!” our guide called out. Before we knew it, we were jumping behind our guide into the open sea.
We jumped into the cold green water and swam after the guide.  As soon as I reached near him, he held my hand and said with urgency, “Look Ma’am! Look!” I instantly plunged my head into the sea. I could see nothing but murky water, when suddenly out of nowhere a huge head emerged. It was as wide as a double bed and was a dark grey adorned with a pattern of criss-crossing dots in shades of white and blue. It was my first encounter with a Butanding and it was swimming directly towards me. I panicked and jerked my head out of the water. Despite the video and photographs I had seen, nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of what was indisputably the biggest fish in the world. I wrenched my mask off, took in a deep gasp of air and then put it back on, to peer into the water again. To my astonishment the Butanding was still majestically swimming below me, swishing its forty feet long body gracefully as it dove to deeper waters.
We swam back to the boat only to make many more jumps through out the interaction. We ended up seeing nine Butandings in the course of an hour. We were very lucky our guide told us. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. But not just because of the number of whale sharks we saw, but because we had gotten the opportunity to intermingle with these magnificent creatures that taught you a thing or two about perspective. After all, once you’ve encountered a century old massive sea creature, you can no longer have illusions about the grandness of the human race.

New Indian Express, May'10

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Javanese Sojourn

“We are Javanese first and everything else after that!” our guide proudly told us as she led us to the Javanese cottage where my husband and I would be staying in Yogyakarta. We were in Indonesia for a week and were all set to explore this region in Central Java. Stepping into the house with a black oxide floor and a thatched roof, replete with wooden beds covered by mosquito nets, Java did not seem all that different from rural India. Yet, we soon realized that the sort of religious harmony that exists here is something that our country is yet to achieve. And everything we saw during the course of our travels only reinforced that.
Flourishing under the shadow of the active volcano Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta or Yogya, is what many would call Indonesia’s soul, the culture capital of sorts. We had six days and therefore no time to waste. Determined to experience the town as the locals did, we set out on a walking tour with our guide. Before starting the actual tour though, we spent an agonizing ten minutes attempting to cross the road while Yogyakarta’s manic and trademark traffic rushed on.  That adventure behind us, we followed our guide into an alley that turned out to be a peaceful residential colony. We walked past grandparents sunning themselves in their patios as their toddler grandchildren stumbled and crawled away. Our guide had a smile and a greeting for every person we met. They returned the greeting, not only to her but also to us, teaching us that a smile goes a long way in these parts. We made our way to the Alun-Alun or the South Square and then walked down a cobblestone path, to the back door of the Kraton or the Sultan’s palace. This was not our destination for the day though. We walked on to a small shack just beyond the back gate. There, hanging from the walls and casually left on a worktable were the famed Indonesian puppets in various stages of formation. As we looked at the Krishnas and Hanumans and other characters of the great epics, the puppet maker told us that his family had been creating them for seven generations. With the white paint coming from the crushed horns of the Caribou and the black from the volcanic ashes of Mount Merapi, a ‘Walang Kulit’ puppet as they are called is all Yogya.
As is the Kraton, that we visited the next day, armed with the mandatory palace guide who dutifully pointed out the artefacts and the Sultan’s family tree. Yet what caught my eye were the ‘offerings’ that the Sultan had left at odd corners of the vast palace. Freshly plucked flowers placed on a cut banana leaf were something I would have expected in a Hindu temple, but certainly not in a Muslim ruler’s residence.
A stroll through Yogya’s traditional bird market later, we were ready for the sights that travellers come to Yogya for. The temples of yore! Ever ready to take us to our destination, our guide and her friend revved up their bikes and whisked us away to the ninth century Prambanan temple complex. Standing proudly erect, apparently unaware of the small town that grew around it, we caught our first glimpses of Prambanan while waiting for the signal at the junction.
The temple complex was badly damaged by the May 2006 earthquake that affected Yogyakarta severely. Though the site got a lot of immediate attention due to its status as Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and a UNESCO world heritage site, today a lot of the smaller complexes are nothing more than a pile of ancient debris. Rising above the calamity though, is Candi Sewu the 8th century Buddhist temple that is within the complex grounds. Despite the yellow lines that warn the tourist of the ongoing restoration, the stone monument is still stunning.
As the sun started to make it’s descent we made our way through manicured lawns to the central shrines that are dedicated to the Trimurti or the Creator, Destroyer and the Preserver trio from Hindu mythology. The Vishnu and Brahma shrines flank the Shiva shrine on either side. Covered from the top to the bottom with intricate relief work, the Prambanan complex is awe-inspiring, as the busloads of school children swarming the area would testify. The sight of the three central spires bathed in the fiery rays of the setting sun is one that will be etched in our memory forever.
The next day we drove through congested highways that were lined by paddy fields and streams to Borobudur, home to the world’s largest Buddhist monument. We were told that the best time to view it was at sunrise. And so we spent the rest of the day gorging on scrumptious Javanese street food. From Ayam Goreng Kalasan and delicious Padang food, it took a superhuman effort to tear ourselves away from the eateries and head to our hotel. After all, we had a sunrise tryst with destiny to wake up to.
At four thirty in the morning, we were herded along with a handful of tourists to the base of the massive monument that rises to a height of 400 feet. Armed with flashlights, we stumbled up the narrow stone stairs and thresholds to the top and found ourselves nooks to view the sunrise from. As the sun’s rays cut through the pitch-black night, we feasted our eyes on what Borbudur was famous for - the perforated stupas. As Borobudur awoke, we peered into the one of the stupas only to gaze upon one of the 504 statues of Buddha on Borobudur. Making our way down, taking our time through each level that told the story of the pilgrim’s ascent to heaven we were overwhelmed at the artistry of those ancient creators.
Finally with a deep sigh of farewell, it was time to head home. But not without a Batik painting ensconced safely in my bag as a piece of Yogyakarta that would always remain with us.

May 2010, New Indian Express