Hornbill Festival ’17 – Nagaland, India

My introduction to the enigmatic northeast corner of India came via the state of Assam. The second state I visited in that region was Nagaland, home to 16 major tribes and several sub-tribes. The 16 major tribes gather every year at the Hornbill Festival, held from December 1st to 10th at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, on the outskirts of the state capital Kohima. Possibly the best introduction one can get to the rich tribal culture of Nagaland!

During my time in Nagaland, I constantly had flashbacks to other tribal cultures I’ve experienced, or read about, or researched in the past – the Maoris of New Zealand, the Asmat of Papua New Guinea, the Iban, Dayak and other tribes of Southeast Asia. Each of these tribes, while unique in their own ways, have (or had) several traditions and practices in common – headhunting, hand-tapped face and body tattoos, the architecture of their houses, the slash and burn farming technique, the young men’s dormitory, the single-log drum, the list goes on. It would be FASCINATING to dig further into these commonalities someday!

For now, a small photo-feature on the Hornbill Festival 2017, which appears in the Mar-Apr’18 issue of PASSAGE (the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore).

Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.


(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)



Filed under Asia, India

A few glimpses of rural Assam, India

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to experience the country of my birth – India, through the eyes of organisations that are doing remarkable grassroot level work. And in doing so, I hope to be able to bring their stories to light.

That is was what prompted my journey to the state of Assam in the northeast corner of the country. I was based with an absolutely remarkable non-profit called the ant, which among several other rural development projects, has been able to tap into the traditional knowledge of weaving among Bodo women, to create livelihood opportunities for them. (The Bodos are the indigenous people of the state and weaving is one of their prized traditional skills.) The women are commissioned to weave fabrics, which are then fashioned into garments and sold in India, and exported internationally as well.

While a larger piece about ‘the ant’ is almost ready, I’m pleased to share with you a few glimpses of rural Assam via this article which appears in the Mar-Apr’18 issue of PASSAGE (the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore). This article has been written to suit the theme of the issue, which is ‘travel’.

Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.2018_Mar-Apr_Assam

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

For my article on the birds of Assam, please click here. 🙏

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Filed under Asia, India

Ushering in the ‘Year of the Dog’ – He Hua temple, Amsterdam

In the six years that we lived in Singapore, the Hubs and I really looked forward to Chinese New Year. It was an opportunity to learn more about a culture we knew little about, and of course, to celebrate with our wonderful Singaporean friends. Bright red lanterns and street decorations everywhere, lion and dragon dances, yusheng (the salad toss to invoke prosperity), mandarin oranges in fancy gift packs, stacks of containers with CNY goodies, and so many more enduring images of CNY in Singapore.

In 2016, I even got to welcome the ‘Year of the Monkey’ in Mumbai. This year, as we approach our one-year milestone in Amsterdam, I wondered if there would be a chance to usher in the ‘Year of the Dog’ with some sort of authentic commemoration.

And then, I found out about the Chinese temple in Amsterdam! Who knew???!!! So we paid a visit on the second day of CNY (Feb 17th / Sat).


The He Hua temple, designed in the traditional Chinese palace style

The Buddhist He Hua temple is located in the heart of Amsterdam’s Chinatown. He hua is Mandarin for ‘lotus’, a flower of great significance in both Chinese and Buddhist symbolism. Inaugurated in the year 2000, the temple was founded by the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, which is based out of Taiwan.

The temple can be easily reached by foot from Central Station. Just type in its postcode (1012BB) in Google Maps and keep walking till you spot the traditional roof of a Chinese temple. The temple is sandwiched between typical Dutch buildings, which makes for quite an interesting sight!

The He Hua temple is the first (and the largest) temple in Europe to be built in the traditional Chinese palace style. The main shrine is dedicated to Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy).


Temple staff place fruit offerings before Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy

The statue of Guan Yin is flanked on one side by Qie-Lan and on the other by Wei Tuo, both revered as guardians of Buddhist monasteries and teachings.

Given that it was the second day of CNY, the temple was pretty crowded. We managed to pay our respects quickly, take a couple of pictures and head out. But I’m glad, that in some small way, we could join a fifth of humanity, in welcoming the Lunar New Year.

I can’t wait to come back at a quieter time, to learn more about the temple. Free guided tours (lasting about 30 mins) are offered on Saturdays at 2:00, 3:00, & 4:00pm.

You can read more about the temple and its activities, on their website. The temple is open Tuesday to Saturday from noon till 5:00pm, and on Sunday from 10:00am to 5:00pm. It is closed every Monday and on January 1st.

For now I wish you a dazzling ‘Year of the Dog’!

🍊🍊 Gong Xi Fa Cai! Huat Ah! 🍊🍊

(Happy New Year! Be prosperous!)


Filed under Europe, Netherlands

Birds of Assam, India

2018 has been declared the ‘Year of the Bird’. This is a collaborative effort between National Geographic, National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and several other organizations, and marks 100 years since the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  This American federal law from 1918 makes it illegal to hunt/kill, capture or sell migratory birds, and over 800 species are included in this list.

As far I am concerned, every year is the ‘Year of the Bird’! Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the state of Assam in northeast India, and got to see many bird species for the very first time. Given that nearly a third of Assam’s geographical area is covered by forests, it is no surprise that the state has the highest bird diversity in India, with over 800 recorded species.

To give you a little bit of a background, my journey to Assam was prompted by a slowly disappearing tradition – Bodo weaving. The Bodos are the indigenous people of the state and weaving is one of their prized traditional skills. I was based with an absolutely remarkable non-profit called the ant, which (among several other rural development projects) has been able to tap into the traditional knowledge of weaving among Bodo women, and create livelihood opportunities for them. The women are commissioned to weave fabrics, which are then fashioned into garments and sold in India, and exported internationally as well. (More about ‘the ant’ soon.)

Visiting different villages with members of ‘the ant’ team meant that I got to see a lot of birdlife en route, as well as in the villages. But on most occasions I didn’t have my ‘birdie cam’ (Nikon Coolpix P900) with me and so, sadly, there are no photographs of the hornbill I glimpsed while traveling on bike from one village to another, the beeaters and other species of passerine birds that lined-up neatly on power cables, the colourful kingfishers near the rivulet, the distinctive-looking Hoopoe, the Rufous Treepie and several more species whose names I have yet to figure out.

I did however, manage to photograph a few common birds around ‘the ant’ campus. Here are some of them:

Blue-earred Barbet

The colourful Blue-eared Barbet

Crested Serpent Eagle

A Crested Serpent Eagle seated on an electricity pole

Chestnut-tailed Starling

A Chestnut-tailed Starling

Jungle Babbler

The super-noisy Jungle Babbler! You will hear it long before you see it!

Indian Roller

An Indian Roller preening itself

White-Rumped Shama

A male White-Rumped Shama

Black Drongo

The Black Drongo does a great service to farmers by feeding on insects & pests

White Wagtail

A White Wagtail (‘baicalensis’ sub-species) – several species / subspecies of wagtails are winter migrants to Assam

Cinereous Tit

A Cinereous Tit

Red-vented Bulbul

The ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – As the name suggests, this bird usually accompanies large, grazing animals like cattle.

Slender-billed Oriole

The picture is out of focus but you can tell why this bird called a ‘Slender-billed’ Oriole

During my time in Lower Assam, I made one quick visit to Manas National Park and saw a few more birds there as well (blog post on Manas coming soon).

I’m confident my recent trip to Assam was the first of many to come, and I can’t wait to add to this list of birds. Stay tuned!

For more of my birdwatching posts, please click here: Singapore, Sulawesi (Indonesia), Seychelles & Amsterdam


Filed under India

A new life for abused elephants at Wildlife SOS, India

Think back to the last time you had a paper cut. Painful, right?! Or got punched in the face by a bully. Now imagine a lifetime of such pain and abuse – relentless, day in day out, and a million times worse. That is the life of a captive elephant.

So while that elephant ride may seem innocuous, the reality behind how the elephant got there, is anything but.

Taken from the wild at a very young age, tortured into submission by a horrendous ‘breaking of the spirit’ process (which involves beatings, starvation, confinement and other forms of subjugation), and then for decades – chained, forced to work, poked and prodded with sharp hooks, blinded even sometimes. The elephants suffer grievous injuries on their spines from carrying people, on their legs from being constantly chained, on their feet from walking on hard terrain (like concrete / tarred roads), not to forget the emotional and mental trauma. These magnificent creatures have no escape till the day they drop dead.


Some of the tools used by handlers to control elephants

The Asian elephant is listed as ‘Endangered’ by IUCN. Yet an estimated 16,000 elephants are in captivity across 11 Asian countries; of which about 3,500 are in India alone.

I recently visited Wildlife SOS (WSOS), an absolutely remarkable non-profit in India that rescues and rehabilitates captive elephants. I had met the WSOS founders, Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, way back in 2014, and was in awe of the fact that they had rescued every single ‘dancing bear’ (over 620 in all) from the streets of India. In this 400-year old barbaric practice, sloth bear cubs were snatched from the wild and their muzzles pierced with a hot metal rod (without anesthesia), to insert the control rope, and their wounds were not allowed to heal. When the handler tugged the control rope, it would cause an insane amount of pain to the bear, making it writhe in pain, which was seen as ‘dancing’. In addition to rescuing the bears, WSOS also rehabilitated the owners of the bears – a nomadic community known as kalandars. They were provided with monetary support, alternative skills training, as well as education for their children, in exchange for a written promise that they would not indulge in the trade again. This holistic approach, along with the herculean efforts involved, lead to the surrender of the last ‘dancing bear’ in 2009 and the practice was completely eliminated in India.

The rescued bears are housed and cared for in 4 different centres across India, the largest one being in Agra. So whenever you plan to visit the Taj Mahal, I highly recommend that you add the WSOS Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) to your itinerary. I could spend forever watching the antics of those adorable bears!

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Kajal, a rescued bear at ABRF, enjoying a snooze in the sun

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Chottu relishing the honey his caretaker has smeared at the very top of his ‘enrichment platform’

Back to elephants! During my visit to the WSOS Elephant Care and Conservation Centre (ECCC) in Mathura, not too far from Delhi/Agra, I got to spend time with the rescued elephants housed there. The elephants are extremely well looked after, and what is truly commendable are the efforts made by the WSOS team to understand the personality and likes-dislikes of each elephant, in order to make them as comfortable as possible.


Do not disturb! It’s sugarcane time!

I loved every second of my time at the ECCC – the walks with the elephants, the feeding sessions, watching them play with their enrichment toys and how they interacted in their small groups. This experience was (once again!) a reminder of the fact these animals possess an incredible intelligence, that we as humans need to learn to respect.


Phoolkali (in front) & Maya, two of the several elephants rescued by WSOS, out for their daily evening walk


I often wondered what the elephants were thinking or what they could remember of their horrible past

These elephants still bear the scars (both physical and mental) of their decades in captivity but now thanks to WSOS, they will live out their lives being free, and just being elephants! ❤️


Bijli (L), Chanchal & Laxmi (R) enjoying their time together

Tourist demand for riding elephants is a major contributing factor to elephant captivity. There’s a lot we can do to change the situation:

  • Don’t support elephant captivity in any form – don’t ride them anywhere or watch them in a circus or feed a begging elephant. The same holds true for all other wild animals as well.
  • Create awareness: Use every opportunity on social media (or any other form of media) to speak up for elephants and other captive animals
  • Volunteer: Organizations like WSOS welcome volunteers. If you love working with animals, especially elephants, this is an experience you will never forget! At WSOS, you can also divide your time between the ECCC and ABRF. Read more here http://wildlifesos.org/volunteer-with-us/
  • Donate: There are so many ways you can financially support organizations like WSOS. Organize a bake sale to fund raise or buy their merchandize (https://www.armtheanimals.com/collections/wildlife-sos-collection) or pick something else that works for you from these options (http://wildlifesos.org/donate-2-2/) Every little bit counts!

Elephants belong in the wild and need to remain there!

If you’ve visited an organization that rescues captive elephants (or any captive wildlife for that matter), please leave me a comment with your experience. I would love to visit them someday 🙏🙏🙏

South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony (1950-2012) in his book ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ said “…..until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” Amen to that!

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Filed under Asia, India

Namaste 2018! 🙏 🙏 🙏

After spending 4 incredible months in India, it is only appropriate that I should welcome the new year with a ‘namaste’. I traveled through some spectacular landscapes in the northeastern, north and central parts of the country, with a few days in neighbouring Bhutan and the Seychelles.

Let’s talk about 2017 for a moment. I lived out of a suitcase for most of the year. First, the big move from Singapore to Amsterdam at the end of February. Just in time for the tulips!

And I was so fortunate to be able to offer a farewell tribute to Singapore, via the cover feature of the Mar’17 issue of Holland Herald, the inflight magazine of KLM Airlines, also the oldest inflight magazine in the world! 😊

Then as soon as we were settled into our new home in Amsterdam, I flew to NYC to meet family, followed by an unforgettable vulture-watching trip in the Spanish Pyrenees (blog post follows soon).

Before I knew it, I was on my way to India, to visit a few non-profits that I’ve been meaning to visit for the longest time. I wanted to experience the country meaningfully, through the eyes of these organizations that were doing remarkable grassroot level work. And in the process, gather enough information to write about them, as well as the social issues they are working to address.

As you can well imagine, at the end of the 4 months, I have a ton of content that I need to sort through. But any publicity these organizations can get, will mean a lot to them and their beneficiaries. So I need to get cracking!

In 2017, I had 15 articles in print, more that I’ve ever had in the 4 years that I’ve been writing! My deepest gratitude to the editors of PASSAGE, Lens Magazine, Holland Herald & ACCESS magazine, who published my work this year. You can read some of my articles at this link https://noroadbarred.wordpress.com/in-print/

And finally, my resolution for 2018 – to blog a lot more and be more active on social media. So for starters, I’ve created a Facebook page for the blog 🎉🎉🎉 

More content and more interaction! Here’s the link…..


Don’t forget to like the page and share it with your friends too! And if you haven’t already liked ‘No Roads Barred’ on Instagram and Twitter, please do that too.

As Dutch will say, ‘Dank je wel’ (thank you) – for joining ‘No Roads Barred’ on its crazy journey over the past few years! Can you believe, the blog turns 4 in April???!!! 😮😮😮

Wish you an incredibly fabulous year ahead, filled with exciting adventures and novel experiences. May your roads never be barred!


Anne ❤️


Filed under General

An oasis in Mumbai’s concrete jungle – the Sanjay Gandhi Nat’l Park

Growing up in the western suburbs of Bombay (now Mumbai), the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) was the venue of my annual school picnic for many an academic year. But despite the yearly visit to the park and its proximity to my parents’ home, I had no inkling about the ecological value of this ‘national park’, till very recently.


Map of the SGNP

As one of the few national parks in the world located within city limits. I’ve been told SGNP is 35 times the area of NYC‘s Central Park. But the comparison is quite unfair – the former is a naturally occurring forest, the latter a man-made park. But I digress!

In a space-starved city like Mumbai, the SGNP is a refuge for the city’s inhabitants. You have to be at the entrance gate at 6am to see the incredible number of people who use the park for their morning run/walk or simply just to socialize.

Having lived away from India at a stretch of nearly 7 years now, every trip back to Mumbai has included a quick visit to the forests of SGNP. Home to nearly 600 species of fauna and over 1,300 species of flora, SGNP is best visited in the monsoons when the foliage is lush, the streams are gushing and the verdant hillsides are streaked with small waterfalls. Sadly, most of my recent visits to the SGNP have been in the last quarter of the year, when the forest is dry and appears sparse as compared to its monsoon avatar.

The most remarkable aspect of the SGNP is that it has the highest leopard / carnivore density anywhere in the world (40 individuals in an area of 104 sq.kms.), in a city that also has one of the highest human population densities in the world. This unique cohabitation of humans and a big cat species, has garnered a fair bit of international attention, including that of the hallowed National Geographic, which thankfully has helped the leopard’s cause.

I’d be ecstatic if I spotted a leopard (from a reasonable distance of course!) but the creatures being nocturnal in their habits, are impossible to spot during the day. I’ve had to make do with leopard droppings and their pee markings, along some of the trails I’ve visited in the park.


A section of the Bamboo Hut Trail, which stretches about 12kms (start to finish)

The SGNP website (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in) has lots of great information about the park and its flora and fauna. Sign on to the SGNP FB page (https://www.facebook.com/SanjayGandhiNationalPark/) for updates on upcoming treks and workshops. You may also contact the Nature Information Centre of the SGNP for a special tour request (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in/1127/About-NIC).

Also within the SGNP limits are the Kanheri Caves, a spartan (yet stunning!) cluster of Buddhist rock-cut caves, some which date back to the mid-3rd century BCE. There are a 100+ of these caves and the exact number differs based on which source you refer to. However, all sources agree on the fact that the name ‘Kanheri’ comes from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, meaning ‘black mountain’, alluding to the basalt mountain from which the caves are carved. Once a major Buddhist centre, the complex is a protected archeological site today. Best visited with a knowledgeable guide.

The forests of SGNP also support two (of seven) lakes that provide potable water to Mumbai – Tulsi Lake (completed in 1897) and Vihar Lake (completed in 1860). The forests serve as a catchment area for these two lakes and play a crucial role in ensuring water supply to the city.

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View of Tulsi Lake (in the foreground) and Vihar Lake (partially visible in the background)

Both lakes can be clearly seen from Jambulmal, the highest point not just in SGNP but also in the entire city, located 468 meters (1535 ft) above sea level. Given the key role the lakes play in the city’s water supply, direct access to them is restricted and requires special permission.

The SGNP is revered as the ‘green lung’ of Mumbai. However, it is no match for the rapid development in this bustling metropolis. Hopefully, Mumbai’s citizenry will continue to value this last vestige of forest, and preserve the city’s fragile and last remaining connection to nature.


View of the concrete jungle beyond park limits

I leave you with a few pictures of the fauna I’ve seen along the Shilonda and Bamboo Hut trails of the SGNP……

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A Green Bee-eater enjoys the sun


A male Purple-rumped Sunbird, a species endemic to the Indian subcontinent


A Long-tailed (Rufous-backed) Shrike


A female Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, also known as the Yellow-throated Sparrow


The Southern Plains Gray Langur, known locally as the Hanuman Langur









A handsome male Chital, also known as the Spotted or Axis Deer. The metre-long antlers are shed (and re-emerge) annually.


A Brahminy Skink (also known as the Keeled Grass Skink) hidden in the foliage…









The nest of the Crematogaster Ant (made with dry leaves, saliva and mud) resembles a pagoda and is hence called a ‘pagoda ant nest’

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The maze-like exterior of the Harvester Ant nest prevents the entry of water into the dwelling


The Baronet Butterfly

Blue Pansy

The Blue Pansy Butterfly

Oriental Common Sargeant

The Oriental Common Sergeant Butterfly


Filed under Asia, India

For the Dutch love of birds!

6 incredible months have flown by since our move from Singapore to the Netherlands. Over the past few months, we’ve enjoyed watching winter turn into a very colourful spring, and spring turn into the much awaited summer. And by way of our birdwatching trips, the Hubs and I have managed to explore a little bit of our new home country.

To commemorate this milestone, I’m very pleased to share my article which appears in the Autumn 2017 issue of ACCESS, a magazine aimed at the international community in the Netherlands.

This article revolves around the Dutch passion for birds and birdwatching, with fantastic insights from Remco Hofland, President of the Dutch Birding Association, as well as from Arjan Dwarshuis, the 2016 Global Big Year record holder. Last year, this bird-obssessed Dutchman traveled to 40 different countries and observed a staggering 6,852 bird species in a span of 366 days.

Hope you enjoy reading the article! Please click on the image below to view the PDF.


(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)


And wherever you are in the world, happy birdwatching! 🐦🐦🐦

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Filed under Europe, Netherlands

An Experience of Rural India in Dehene, Maharashtra

My Dehene village guide, Raksha, is a remarkable young girl in her late teens. She could barely contain her excitement as she lead me to the spot outside the village, where peafowls from the nearby forest aggregate every morning. For me, as a birdwatching enthusiast, that would have been ‘the’ spectacle to witness!

Rural experiences like these, have been made possible by a Mumbai-based social enterprise and responsible travel company – Grassroutes. Dehene is one of several villages that Grassroutes works with as part of their rural tourism program.


A mist-covered section of the Western Ghats, as seen from Dehene

An idyllic village at the foothills of the Sahayadri mountains in the Maharashtra state of India, Dehene is located a mere 120kms from Mumbai. During off-peak hours, it could take anywhere between 3.5 to 4 hours (approx) to get there by car, from the city.


Rice fields….

An estimated 70% of India’s 1.23 billion population lives in rural settings and a majority of this rural population is well below the poverty line. The affliation between Grassroutes and Dehene village has created several livelihood opportunities for the villagers – many people in the main village have received training as guides (like young Raksha) and several households are involved in some way with the rural experiences that Grassroutes offers in the village (for e.g homestay hosts, meal preparation etc). This arrangement has enabled the villagers to supplement their agricultural income, and to a large extent, has addressed their need to migrate to cities for work.


This ‘aaji’ (grandmother) demonstrated how rice is pounded, winnowed, ground and ultimately, made into a ‘bhakri’ (a type of unleavened bread)

There are about 40 Hindu Maratha houses in the main village and the nearby tribal settlement consists of nearly 500 households.


Path to the tribal settlement of Dehene village

Furthermore, for every tourist visiting Dehene, Grassroutes contributes a specific amount to the village kitty, to be used strictly for welfare initiatives. Grassroutes implements a similar model in all of the villages it works with.

As for me, having lived away from India for almost a decade (I was born and raised in Bombay, now Mumbai), every trip back is an opportunity for me to learn more about the country of my birth. This day-trip to Dehene turned out to be a great initiation to rural India.

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We met this friendly tribal lady en route to the forest. Her herd of cows were grazing nearby….

There couldn’t have been a better time to visit Dehene. The southwest monsoon was working its magic on the village, and the hills beyond were bursting with every imaginable shade of green. Dehene is often referred to as the ‘Land of a 1000 waterfalls’ as these mountains are streaked with a multitude of streams gushing down its slopes.


Greenery everywhere you look….

It is heartwarming to see people living in such close harmony with nature. The villagers recognise the nutritional or medicinal value of ‘wild’ plants, build houses with available natural materials, make disposable plates/bowls by stitching-up dried leaves, and so much more. Solutions to so many of our urban problems lie in studying the environmentally-friendly lifestyles of our rural counterparts.


Communal lunch at the temple, served in a disposable plate made of dried leaves stitched together

To experience Dehene in a leisurely manner, I would highly recommend an overnight stay. Sadly, I was there only for the day. So no photograph of peafowls for me! 😦

As the old adage goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. I leave you with these images from my brief (but extremely memorable) time in Dehene village…..

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A nutritious breakfast of ‘Kande Pohe’ (rice flakes sautéed with finely chopped onions, spices & peanuts)


I first noticed this tribal lady as she skilfully carried two filled pots of water on her head and managed another in her hand. Imagine doing this everyday, multiple times a day – bare feet that too!


Despite her extremely hard life, the lady from the previous picture, was happy to be photographed with her adorable grandchildren

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A tribal house with walls made of karvy sticks held together by a plaster of cow dung mixed with mud

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These tribal ladies were on their way to catch crabs for their next meal


Even after being provided with subsidised gas stoves, the villagers continue to use the ‘chulah’ (firewood stove) as they prefer the taste of food cooked on it…

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A real treat for sore (city) eyes!



Filed under Asia, India

Of humpback whales and dolphin pods, in NYC

As incredible as this may sound to some, for the past few years, humpback whales have been making a regular appearance in the waters off New York City. Once driven to the brink of local extinction during the city’s whaling years, the whales are said to be back in these waters, after nearly a century.

One of the key reasons attributed to the return of the whales is the decades of efforts invested in cleaning up the city’s waterways. This improvement in water quality has led to an increase in the numbers of marine microorganisms like zooplankton and algae, which in turn has rejuvenated the entire food chain. Thriving numbers of menhaden (also known as bunker), a small fish that feeds on these microorganisms, has enticed the humpbacks to return to NYC’s waters to feed. Other initiatives like enforcing catch limits for industrial fishing, have also helped maintain the number of these small fish.

The last time I saw a whale in its natural setting was in Kaikoura (NZ), over 11 years ago. Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales all year round. More recently, in 2016, I wrote about a sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the shores of Singapore, possibly the victim of a ship strike in the South China Seas. The skeleton of this female sperm whale found a final resting place in the local natural history museum, and is used to educate visitors about the many dangers faced by these behemoths in today’s waters, the main ones being ship strikes and plastic pollution.

During my recent visit to NYC, between visiting family and meeting old friends, I managed to squeeze in not one, but two (!) whale watching trips (on two separate days, of course).

The journey from my hotel in Tribeca, to Riis Landing from where the American Princess ferry departs for its whale watching tours, took about two hours. Getting to Riis Landing can seem a little daunting for a first-timer to the city, so I’ve included directions at the end of this post.


View of the ocean from the ferry


Catherine Granton from Gotham Whale, the naturalist on board, was terrific with educating visitors on onboard about whale protection programs like ‘See a spout, watch out’ as well as simple things one could do in daily life to protect the oceans, like not using plastic bags or straws. Here are some more easy to do tips for protecting the ocean.

Gotham Whale lists 59 different individuals in their Humpback Whale catalog but sadly, none of them made an appearance on either of my tours. I sat staring at the horizon, recalling every image of lunge feeding humpbacks that I had seen on social media, hoping the scene would unfold before my eyes any second…. but it didn’t! 😦

I’m completely aware that we cannot control nature, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. We did see plenty of bottleneck dolphins though…..


A surfer off Rockaway Beach, cannot believe his eyes as dolphins swim by him!


More bottlenose dolphins! Empire State Building is in the background.


A close-up of the bottlenose dolphins 



Another pod of dolphins swims by

There have been some spectacular humpback whale and cownose ray sightings on the trips after mine. Hopefully, the city will continue to control shipping traffic and pollution in these waters, and some day in the future, there will be another opportunity to see NYC’s humpback whales. Till then, fingers crossed!


Directions to Riis Landing: Take the A train to Far Rockaway and disembark at the 67 Beach Street station. Walk out of the station, past the line of stores, towards the Shop ‘n Save/YMCA and take the Q22 bus from outside the YMCA. Get off at the very last stop, Fort Tilden and walk back to the main road (where the bus turned). Cross the street and walk to your left for a few seconds. You will see the Riis Landing signboard, right opposite the main entry gate of Fort Tilden.


The Riis Landing entry gate


Bonus tip: There’s a food truck outside Fort Tilden, Breezy Dogs and Shakes, that’s a real lifesaver after 4 long hours at sea! Refuel there before heading back.


Filed under N. America, USA