It seems that with time I am getting worse at this blogging thing. Life has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride over the past few months, so, that's my excuse. Anyhow, no time to dwell on the past. Moving on...
I’ve been in Belarus for almost a couple of weeks now. Most of the time has been spent catching up with family and friends, not doing much photography, but I am making some “grand plans”, so to say. It’s fascinating to be back here. So much changes over the years; especially if I think back to the time when my family left Belarus, shortly after the break-up of the USSR. These days the center of Minsk, the capital of Belarus is not so different from centers of cities in the “Western” world. There are restaurants with foreign foods, expensive cars on the roads and all sorts of “super” and “hyper” markets, where unlike in the past the check-out-ladies say “Thank you for your purchase”. There’s even a futuristic looking railway station, albeit futuristic only on the outside.
But, in many ways Minsk is a time-capsule. Step away from the center into what’s called the “micro-suburbs” – neighborhoods with blocks of high-rise apartment buildings, where most of the population lives, and you’ll see the Minsk of 20 years ago.
In the the streets of the “micro-suburbs”, children still play the same games that they played when I was a kid, old grannies still seat on benches and gossip about their neighbors, groups of youth still hang out the front of the “pod’yezd” (entrances to the high-rise apartment buildings) and there are occasional drunks stumbling around the streets and pissing in elevators. Oh, the memories.
In all honesty though, there is a great vibe here during summer time and I’m glad to catch at least the end of it. I’m writing this entry from my grandmother’s house, about 30km outside of Minsk. She’s a fascinating and wacky character and I’m making a little film about her with the new 5D MKII.
Oh, almost forgot to mention. I’m now connected to a mobile internet, courtesy of my new, awesome cousin-in-law. So, I will try not to disappear for too long, as long as there’s coverage, I should be able to get online.
The light eBook is also coming very soon, but meanwhile check out the wonderful David duChemin’s eBook on 10 ways to improve your craft.
Above is an image of modern youth, hanging out by the leftover relics of communism.
If I do not see another Theyyam performance for the rest of my life I will not be devastated. Don't get me wrong, watching these was amazing, surreal, but maybe this is the case of too much of a good thing being not that great. "Theyyam Overload", perhaps. The highlight of our little endeavor into the world of Theyyam must have been the second time we met up with Vipin - the Theyyam artist I mentioned in the previous post. That day, in many ways embodied what travel is all about. It started horribly, we were 'evicted' from possibly the most amazing hotel I've stayed at. Our room's balcony had a view of the Arabian sea. Every morning we watched dolphins splash around within 50 meters from the shore.Long and strange story about the eviction - in short, the hotel was meant for government employees only, but somehow we managed to stay for five days, then some genius finally decided it was enough. The main point is - once you've tasted the good life, it really, really sucks getting back to mediocrity. Getting told to 'vacate' our perfect room and to exchange sea views for views of a sea of traffic on one of the towns busiest and noisiest roads set up what could have been the most disappointing day of our journey, yes the place was that good (and cost about as much as a McDonald's value meal). But that wasn't the end of our bad luck. First we couldn't find any half decent hotel to move to and then my meeting with a professor at the Folklore Academy, the man who had promised to hook me up with some Theyyam artists was cancelled due to an unexpected meeting that could not be put off. I wanted to see him to get reliable information on where I could see more Theyyams. Having been given the wrong information the day before we traveled a couple of hours along a dreadful, traffic filled road for nothing. Now I had to face the fact; I had come to the region to photograph something that I couldn't even find, I really wasn't getting anywhere. Ready to cry like a child who's been told he's not getting a bicycle after all, I decided instead to go to Vipin's village and give him the Theyyam photos I shot on the night I met him. Vipin was happy to see me and to receive the photos, I couldn't quite match his enthusiasm. But that all changed when he told us that there was a Theyyam performance in his very village. In fact there were two performances that night. These weren't Theyyams aimed at mass audiences, media and tourists, instead I witnessed what was probably as close to Theyyam as it had been hundreds of years ago - raw, sometimes brutal and always full of energy. By late night we had seen a Theyyam performer, possessed by the divine spirit behead four roosters...with his bear teeth, another performer walk through fire and yet another, dance around frantically to some of the most incredible drumming I've heard. We called it a night close to 11pm - real late for rural Kerala. Vipin had been called home a couple of hours before and we were left in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, dependent on our memory to get back. After almost getting lost in the narrow, dark village roads we somehow made it to the main highway that led to Kannur. As we rode the motorcycle back to town, we reflected on the day that pretty much summed up the realities of this life on the road. We were reminded once again that even in the face of the biggest disappointments something amazing could be just around the corner. Knowing that Tanya - my wife was sitting behind me on the bike, ready to face all the obstacles with me also made me realise just how lucky I am. The Theyyam stuff, the heat of coastal Kerala and continuous, hectic rides to the surrounding villages again left us feeling a little drained. We had been contemplating going to Coorg - a hilly region with a cool climate, to refresh for a couple of days, then we'd head back down the coast to Thrissur - one of Kerala's cultural centers. On the map Coorg isn't far from Kannur - 113km. But as always, in India - expect the unexpected. A relatively small patch of the road, known locally as the forest road, was how shall I say - damaged. The damage was so bad that the road looked like it had been bombed continuously for 16 km. I figured that I had traveled on similar roads before, so I didn't make that much of it. BIG mistake! Almost 10km through we started hearing all sorts of noises from our beloved motorcycle. We stopped, I lifted the bike seat and there it was, my worst fear had come true - the motorcycle frame/chasis was broken, snapped right in the middle. To avoid messing things up even more we couldn't continue traveling with all that load and Tanya on the back, and so my poor wife had to walk 6km up a winding, hilly forest road, while I slowly and carefully navigated my way around giant pot holes towards a better road. We decided to stop for the night at Madikeri - Coorg's biggest town. Our chances of fixing the chasis in this remote region were slim, but Madikeri was our best bet. Again we were facing a very unpleasant situation, but as has happened countless times in India, a stranger came to the rescue. After failed attempts to explain what I need and a few rejections from mechanics and welders who understood, we unexpectedly came across Joe - a catholic Indian man from the coastal city of Cochin. Joe was looking to buy a motor to use for a crop-sorting machine on his spice estate. He came to the same place where we were trying to find out whether our problem can be fixed. After hearing our predicament Joe took it upon himself to help out the guests in his country. The next day his two equally helpful nephews Jeremy and Ronald were involved and although the task became a job of epic proportions (Madikeri is a relatively small town) it was done by the end of the afternoon. It was a little late to head to our next destination and we decided we'd stay another night in Madikeri, that was until Ronald, Joe's nephew called. Ronald found out that I was interested in checking out some tea or coffee plantations/estates and so he invited us over to his estate for the night. We couldn't resist. Another potentially horrible situation had turned in our favor. The next morning we woke up in a mini forest of coffee and pepper bush, as well as some very tall (and apparently expensive) trees. The golden light played it's role in making everything magic. Tanya and I wondered around, appreciated the surroundings and shot a few frames. We expressed our gratitude to our new friends, who saved us and turned a potential disaster into one of the most memorable moments of our journey. Then it was time to move on. Next stop - Bylakuppe - a Tibetan refugee settlement. That's where we are as I type. Bylakuppe is a peaceful place, full of maroon robed monks and monasteries. It ain't Himalaya, but there's still something special about it. Monasteries and monks are always photogenic, so we've already spent a few days photographing here. Tomorrow we head off on a little detour, to avoid the dreadful 'Forest Road'. We'll probably end up in Mysore for a few days, then it's on to Wayanad. This cool climate and nature stuff has inspired me to spend some more time up in the hills, in India's forested areas. Now to the photos. From top to bottom: Monks rushing out after the Morning Prayer, Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe. Coffee berry picker at Ronald's estate, Coorg. Morning along the road in Coorg, Kushalnagar region. A mahout washing his elephant at the Dubare Forest Reserve (Forgot to mention we went there. Shot this while standing knee high in water filled with elephant urine and crap ) Bottom: Inside of Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe.
The last ten or so days have been intense. We have covered over 1000km of road, sometimes extremely bad road, pot-holed, narrow and full of half-competent drivers. But riding on these kinds of roads often brings unexpected amusement. Close to the Madhya Pradesh/Rajasthan border we came across a 'holy man'. He had obviously been walking along the road for a long time, but he was being followed by an entourage - people with sun-blocking umbrellas and cars with large signs promoting his pilgrimage. Not so unusual for India, except for the fact that the man was completely naked.Less than one hundred kilometers later we were treated to a sighting of an almost literal clash of two worlds - the ancient and the modern. A caravan of bejeweled tribal women with camels and children (most of them on top of the camels) crossed the road as cars and trucks moving at insane speeds somehow managed to slow down in time not to run anyone over. Our first stop was Ujjain - a place of pilgrimage that holds a great significance for Hindus around India. Every twelve years it hosts what is possibly the largest gathering of humans on earth - the Kubh Mela. The next mela is eight years away, so the city was rather subdued when we visited. Ujjain offers a glimpse of the exotic Hindu India that we often see on TV and in picture books. Every morning devotees bathe in the holy waters of the Shipra river, they wash away their sins and make offerings. The Brahmins (priests) at the riverside temples perform various religious ceremonies, the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years, the only difference now seems to be the priests' short attention span, evident from their constant checking of the mobile phone right in the middle of the ceremonies. Our next stop at the small town of Maheshwar by the Narmada river, was meant to last for a day and a morning, but once we felt the peaceful rhythm of life here and the warmth of the locals, we got 'sucked' in and stayed three days. Maheshwar is also a place for religious pilgrimage, but it is much, much lower scale. It is what I imagine India was like a long time ago, before the whole modernization and population explosion occurred. There is definitely magic in the air, perhaps because it hasn't yet been killed by the blaring sounds from stereo systems and the large rubbish throwing crowds, so common around similar places. A walk along the riverside in Maheshwar is one of the most serene experiences one is likely to have in India and a swim in the Narmada river here at sunset is like nothing else (yes, I braved it and went in, but Narmada is not as polluted as India's other rivers). Floating in the water and seeing the huge fort and the numerous temples towering above, while the setting sun’s rays painted everything gold felt absolutely surreal. We would have liked to stay longer in Maheshwar, but at this stage time is not a luxury we possess. Our stop at Nasik (another Kumbh Mela destination) was brief, but the next one at Pune was longer than expected. Not that I am complaining, since Pune turned out to be quite fascinating for a place where I didn't even think about photographing, but more of that in the next post. I am posting some images from Maheshwar. The first two (one at the top one below) are of a Sadhu we met at a small, isolated temple on a hill overlooking the Narmada. Sadhus are also known as holy men, ascetics and saints in India. In reality they are often very far from anything holy or spiritual. Most that I had come across were simply wanderers, beggars and in worst cases scam artists, in fact I am always cautious when a Sadhu asks me to come over and speak with him. Usually any conversation simply leads to how I should give him money, but there are also plenty of stories of naive travelers being drugged, robbed and having other not so nice things happen to them. If I am in famous pilgrimage places full of tourists I will not even waste my time, but here I was in Maheshwar (which only seems to get a trickle of visitors) and this Sadhu gestured with his hand from his temple for me and my wife to come up. While the isolated location seemed like an ideal place for something bad to happen we decided to go, we simply wouldn't drink or eat anything offered to us, paranoid maybe, but safe. The Sadhu spoke less English than I spoke Hindi and that is about 20 words. Our conversation revealed which pilgrimage places he had been to (very many). He had many children and whether they were biological or spiritual was not easy to understand, but they did live all over the world. Suddenly he got me to right down an address, which turned into a collection of random names and places in different countries. His children maybe? Finally I managed to communicate that I wanted to photograph him by the window of his room, he agreed, I asked if he could smoke his chillum (the pipe used to smoke opium) he did. There wasn't quite enough light in the room to photograph without setting the shutter speed too low, so again Tanya helped with the flash from the window side, used in a softbox at 1/64 of the power. The next image was taken outside of the Sadhu's temple. The sun was setting and the location seemed perfect, with the Narmada in the background. After the little photo session the Sadhu invited us to follow him somewhere, just for five minutes. We got a bit worried, as that's how those horror stories usually started, but again decided to take the risk. At this stage the Sadhu's nature seemed quite friendly, even if a little mad. We followed along a narrow path surrounded by vegetation and ended up at what seemed like another temple and a small room. There were houses with people nearby and one young man spoke some English. I asked him whether the Sadhu wanted us to come with him for some particular reason. – No, he just wanted to offer you food and milk, just ‘time pass’. It really didn’t seem like the Sadhu had too much to offer, so we politely declined and instead took down the address of his temple, to send him the photographs. The rest of the photos are just grabs of everyday life by the Narmada river.
Amidst the madness surrounding the Mumbai bombings it is hard to imagine that there could be a place where people wouldn’t be aware about the tragedy that took place. Well, we have just come back from what is probably just one of many places like that, right in India, about 210 km from Jodhpur, but more like the middle of nowhere. We went on a little camel ride with the old cameleer we met at the Kolayat fair. People in his village are quite oblivious to anything outside their area, no TVs or computers there yet. I was curious whether the cameleers that accompanied us had heard the news, so I asked Hardik to find out. – “We watch, the news…on TV…sometimes” was their answer. The journey itself had its share of madness and adventure, but more on that in the next post. Before we went off into the desert I did some shooting in the streets of Jodhpur, not much really, however in Jodhpur you can’t help but come across at least something or someone photogenic in a day’s shoot. The old city is full of people who go on about their everyday work in the most photogenic of environments, surrounded by wonderfully textured, stained walls, rusty tea-pots and pans or some strange medieval looking machines. I wanted to capture some of these individuals doing what they do and went out on a little search.The lady at the top of the page (and above) was taking the stuffing out of mattresses; she would put it into the machine which turned the stuffing into what seemed like huge snowflakes. My guess is that this is some sort of cotton recycling; the ‘snowflakes’ would be collected into a bag, weighed in another room and shipped off somewhere. It was a little challenging to photograph in this particular environment, the floating flakes/stuffing goes directly into the nose, eyes and wherever else. I covered my nose with the top of my shirt and shot for a few minutes. By the time I got out I looked like I had a furry hat and Santa Claus eyebrows. For the first shot Tanya helped me with an off-camera flash in a portable soft-box to accentuate the natural light and to give a bit more depth/shape to the face. In the second image natural light is penetrating the woman’s ‘office’.Suraj is a tea maker at a tea-stall just by the first gate (from the outside) to Sadar Bazar. He has worked at the stall for 25 years, while the business has actually existed for 50. Suraj had an almost royal quality about him, the way he went about his work gave the impression that he wasn’t simply making chai, he was running the business, filling up hundreds, maybe even thousands of tea-cups every day and doing it with tremendous dexterity. Again an off-camera flash in a soft-box to accentuate the natural light and sculpt the face.I couldn’t resist taking a few shots of this man making traditional sweets. He would boil the oil with some strange gadget and then unload the content onto the large metal plate. I was attracted to the textures of the scene, but it was getting dark, so once again comes out the flash. Same as in the images above. I find the flash increasingly useful these days, of course I would probably not use it at all if I had to have it camera mounted. I thank God that my wife isn’t sick of carrying it, sometimes in a soft-box around the streets. Surprisingly it hasn’t drawn much attention. When she instinctively put the soft-box on her head in a crowded area some local women had a bit of a laugh.