Tag Archives: travel

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-cherished 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.

ACCESS_Autumn_2017_Birdwatching

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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!

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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

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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!

 

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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.

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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…..

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

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

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A close-up of the bottlenose dolphins 

 

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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.

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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.

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Tulip extravaganza at Keukenhof, South Holland

It is impossible to live in Amsterdam in spring and not hear the name ‘Keukenhof’ tossed around a fair bit. This being my first spring in Amsterdam, I was not going to let my allergies stop me from visiting this floral wonderland.

The literal translation of Keukenhof is ‘kitchen garden’. It is said that in the early part of the 15th century, the Countess Jacqueline of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland, gathered fresh produce for her kitchen from the woods surrounding her castle. Soon enough, the area began to be referred as ‘Keukenhof’.

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The main entrance to Keukenhof

Over the centuries, the area went through a series of transformations and today, Keukenhof serves as a platform for Dutch floriculture suppliers to showcase their best, spring-flowering bulbs. In the current edition of Keukenhof (held from 23rd Mar till 21st May 2017), an estimated 7 million flower bulbs were planted in the 32-hectare park, by nearly 100 suppliers.

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One of the many stunning tulip patches

Visiting Keukenhof is a highly sensory experience. Interestingly shaped flower patches, the vibrantly coloured tulips, cultivars with flowers in every conceivable shape, a medley of floral scents – all  dazzle the senses. The many passerine birds that dart furiously across the shrubs and trees, provide a cheerful background symphony.

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Vibrant colours everywhere! 

Beyond the periphery of Keukenhof, are privately owned tulip fields. These fields are harvested by end-April, so be sure to go early if you’d like to pose amidst long rows of brightly coloured tulips. I went mid-May and sadly, missed seeing the tulip fields in bloom.

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Harvested tulip fields as seen from the viewing platform of the Keukenhof windmill

I have however, seen the tulip fields from a distance, during a train ride from Amsterdam to Delft. A real feast for the eyes, despite the distance and the speed of the train.

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View of the tulip fields in Lisse, from the train

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Another view of  tulip fields from the train

On the subject of tulips, few people know that these flowers, so synonymous with the Netherlands, are not actually native to the country. They were introduced here by botanist Carolus Clusius in 1493, when he served as Director of Leiden University’s Hortus Botanicus, now the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. To cut a long story short, it was those very tulips that birthed the Dutch tulip industry.

The name ‘tulip’ is widely believed to be derived from the Persian word dulband, meaning turban; possibly in reference to the shape of the flower resembling the male headwear that was popular in the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa, in those times.

Back to present day! Both Keukenhof and the tulip fields are located in the town of Lisse, an easy day trip from Amsterdam. The connectivity via public transport is excellent. For exact directions, click here.

During the 8 weeks that Keukenhof is open, there are several events and activities – a delightful Flower Parade, flower shows, flower arranging demonstrations, guided tours and the likes. You can read more about that here.

I leave you with a few more pictures from my visit to Keukenhof….

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Windmill at the edge of the gardens

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Chessboard display at Keukenhof

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Above the treetops at MacRitchie Reservoir Park, Singapore

Up until a few months ago, I was living in sunny Singapore. Since then, I have moved continents, to the land of canals and krokets, Amsterdam, and find myself trying to make sense of a very fickle spring.

When I think about my time in the Little Red Dot, I’m happy I was able to capture different facets of the city, via my articles for PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. So here is, the last of these nuggets from the city I called home for nearly 6 years.

My article in the May-June’17 issue of PASSAGE encapsulates my many wonderful memories of the MacRitchie Reservoir Park in Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

2017_May-June_MacRitchie

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

I’d like to reiterate that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb wildlife and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

The Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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Birdwatching in Amsterdam

Following my birdwatching experiences in Singapore, India, Seychelles and Sulawesi (Indonesia); I’m delighted to add Amsterdam to the list. In the 6 weeks that we’ve lived in the Dam, I’ve been able to observe and photograph a good number of birds. Staying in the vicinity of Vondelpark has its advantages.

I know very little about European birds, so this is a great opportunity for me to educate myself on the subject. And make some great additions to my ‘Life List’ too. Here goes….

In our garden / neighbourhood

Common Chaffinch

A female Common Chaffinch enjoys the onset of Spring

Eurasian Blackbird

This is the legendary Eurasian Blackbird, popularised in the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of six pence’

Common Wood Pigeon

The Common Wood Pigeon is a large bird in the pigeon/dove family

Tufted Duck

A male Tufted Duck photographed in a neighbourhood canal

Eurasian Coot

The white frontal shield of the Eurasian Coot gave rise to the phrase ‘as bald as a coot’

In Vondelpark

(photographed over multiple visits to the park, including a Amsterdam Bird Walk led by Arjan Dwarshuis, the record holder for the Global Big Year 2016)

European Robin

The adorable European Robin is called ‘roodborstje’ in Dutch, in reference to its red chest

Long-tailed Tit

The tail of the Long-tailed Tit (at 7-9cm) is much longer than its tiny body (5-6cm)

Eurasian Blue Tit

The Eurasian Blue Tit is a delightful little bird with a blue crown

Great Tit

At 13-14cm, the Great Tit is a larger in size that other species in the tit family

Eurasian Nuthatch

This is the Eurasian Nuthatch. The name ‘nuthatch’ comes from its tendency to hack at nuts it has stored  away in crevices

Great Spotted Woodpecker

The male of the Great Spotted Woodpecker exhibits red markings on the head/neck

Carrion Crow

A Carrion Crow walks around looking for food

Eurasian Magpie

The Eurasian Magpie, a species in the crow family, is a highly intelligent bird

Egyptian Goose

A family of Egyptian Geese. This  species is native to Central & South Africa but there is a self sustaining population in the Netherlands

Common Moorhen

The Common Moorhen is part of the rail family

Grey Heron

A Grey Heron watches the water for its prey

Male Mallard

The blue speculum feathers of a male Mallard visible as it preens itself

Female Mallard

A female Mallard enjoys the water

Indian Rose-ringed Parakeet

A sleeping Indian Rose-ringed Parakeet. This tropical bird has made Vondelpark its home

In Zaanse Schans

(a charming Dutch town on the outskirts of Amsterdam)

Northern Lapwing

The Northern Lapwing is listed by IUCN as ‘Near Threatened’, due to habitat loss and the fact that it’s eggs were once considered a delicacy

Black-tailed Godwit

Also listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN, the Black-tailed Godwit was once highly prized as food

Eurasian Oystercatcher

The national bird of the Faroe Islands, the Eurasian Oystercatcher is also listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN

Caspian Gull

A Caspian Gull rests in the grassland

Greylag Goose

The Greylag Goose was revered in ancient European cultures

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There are many more species that I’ve spotted or heard. Hopefully, I’ll be able to photograph them in the days to come. So do check back for more pictures of birds, seen in and around Amsterdam.

Tot ziens! 😀

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A Himalayan Retreat in NYC – The Rubin Museum

Like most seekers, and artist of every kind, I’ve been drawn to the Himalayas for as long as I can remember. Thanks to my recent relocation to Amsterdam, it’ll be a while before I can even think of undertaking a trip to this wonderous part of the world.

During my last trip to New York City (Dec 2015), I was thrilled to hear about a museum dedicated to Himalayan art, right in the heart of the Big Apple. The Rubin Museum of Art focusses on the preservation and promotion of Himalayan artistic traditions, and has a permanent collection of over 2,500 paintings, sculptures and textiles from the Tibetan plateau as well as neighbouring areas in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China. The private collection of Donald and Shelly Rubin forms the core of the permanent collection but the museum is a non-profit, public one.

One of the highlights of the museum is the recreation of a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. I could have spent hours in this serene haven. If at anytime, you are looking for an oasis of calm in the midst of the NYC chaos, this is the place to visit.

More about the Rubin Museum in my article for the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore.

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

Rubin Museum_NYC

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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Memories of Pasir Ris Park, Singapore

I was reminded by a fellow-nature lover that today, March 3rd, is World Wildlife Day. So the timing of this post couldn’t be any better! 🙂

Following my much loved blog post on Pasir Ris Park, I had the opportunity to share some of the pictures once again via a photo feature in the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

Once again, I’d like to emphasize that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

************************************************************************

For my original post on Pasir Ris Park, please click here.

You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Birds of Singapore

Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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My Farewell Tribute to Singapore

After six wonderful years in Singapore, the hubs and I recently moved to Amsterdam. I couldn’t have offered a better farewell tribute to Singapore than this 12-page feature in the Mar’17 issue of Holland Herald, the inflight magazine of KLM airlines.

First published on 21st January 1966, Holland Herald has been around for over half a century and holds the remarkable distinction of being the oldest inflight magazine in the world. There had to be a history angle! 😉

So without further ado, here it is – my article about the city I once called home. Kindly note, that the pictures in the article are not mine.

(Please click on the image below to read the PDF of the article)

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(Reproduced with permission)

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Vasai Fort: Remnants of a Forgotten Empire

A white peacock dances in all its ethereal glory. Sadhus (holy men) in their flowing, orange robes float across the screen. Beyoncé is dressed in resplendent Indian (more like Bollywood) attire. This is the opening sequence of Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ video, filmed at the imposing Vasai Fort, on the outskirts of Mumbai (Bombay), India.

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Entry to the Gonsalo Garcia Dominican Church, established in 1583. This one of the 7 churches in the Vasai Fort complex.

My fascination with Vasai Fort goes back a long way. I spent my childhood and early adult years, not too far from this magnificent edifice but it is only more recently that I began digging into its history. Here’s my attempt at crunching 500 years of its history into a quick read.

After 11 perilous months at sea, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed on the shores of Calicut in southwest India on 20th May 1498, thus pioneering the highly sought after sea route to India. But even before this momentous discovery, the city of Vasai (on the west coast of India, to the north of Calicut and Bombay) was a thriving port, frequented by traders from the Middle East and Europe, including the famous Venetian merchant, Marco Polo.

Early navigational maps, like the India Orientalis (1579) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, mention Baçaim (the Portuguese name for Vasai). Such was its prominence in those days.

On 23rd December 1534, the city of Vasai was ceded by its then ruler Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat to the Portuguese. The Portuguese went on to build a massive fort, Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim (Fort of St. Sebastian of Vasai), with an entire town enveloped within the fort walls. Vasai Fort served as the capital of the powerful northern Portuguese province (Corte da Norte) and until it was lost to the Marathas in 1739. After multiple battles between the Marathas and the British for control of the fort and surrounding areas, they came to a mutually convenient arrangement in 1802. The British however, preferred the neighbouring island of Mombaim (Bombay), which became a key centre for the East India Company; and in due course, Vasai lost its significance. Presently, the fort is managed by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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The inside view of one section of Vasai Fort

On our recent visit to Vasai Fort, we only had a couple to hours to spare. This was barely enough time to walk through even one small section of this 110-acre fort complex. But even in this very short span of time, it was not hard to imagine the grandeur of the fort in its hey days.

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An art student sketches a part of the Vasai Fort

So if you happen to be in Mumbai and are looking to do a fun day trip, consider the Vasai Fort. Best visited via a tour company. If you are local, you know how to get here.

I leave you with some of my pictures taken in and around the fort.

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The Church of Our Lady of Life (Nossa Senhora da Vida), established in 1536

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A grazing cow accompanied by a Cattle Egret, walks around the fort

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An uncommon sighting of a Bengal monitor lizard at the fort

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A Rose-ringed Parakeet enjoys the morning sun

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A golawala (‘gola’ means ball, ‘wala’ means seller) readies his cart for business, outside the fort. He sells shaved ice balls, served in a variety of flavours.

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A local friend shares the front seat with the rickshaw driver, on the ride from Vasai Railway Station to the fort

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Salt pans spotted en route to Vasai by train

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