Thursday, April 24, 2014

A month in Mumbai

I caught my first flight, since starting my journey in July 2012, from Dubai to Mumbai. The plan was to cycle through southern India before moving on to Southeast Asia. A self-inflicted injury to my hand would ensure that my plans to cycle India would be stalled be some weeks. My first impression of the traffic in Mumbai suggested it would not be a good idea to attempt cycling with one hand!  So upon arrival in Mumbai I booked into the Anjali Homestay, a quaint travelers hostel, and ended up staying for a month to make a full recovery. My flight landed in Mumbai well before sunrise, so I arrived at the hostel tired and disorientated, and greeted by the calls of House Crows perched on the buildings. Some would fly across the gap between buildings; mere shadows in the dim light. Welcome to India I thought. Though I had arrived early without warning, I was kindly let in by Natasha, who manages the hostel, and offered a couch to crash on until the first bed became available. I soon learnt that Natasha actually does a marvelous job of running the hostel, together with owner Raj, so it was not surprising to hear that the hostel had been rated as one of the best in Mumbai. One of the perks that came with staying at Anjali is that Raj often treated everyone to chai masala, a deliciously spiced variation of the ordinary cup of tea. 

Raj operates one of the best hostels in Mumbai. Probably the best actually!

Staying in one place for such a relatively long time brought about some new life experiences, while also an opportunity to make new friends. It turned out I was not the only one taking a break in Mumbai, so I got to meet a host of like-minded travellers. While much time was spent on the comfortable couch at Anjali, we also spent extended periods feasting on cheap and delicious Indian cuisine in nearby restaurants. Either alone or as a group, most mealtimes were somewhat of an occasion and often included a casual walk through the busy streets. It was sometimes hard to resist the freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and chai masala sold on the streets, despite the potential havoc it may cause to the digestive system by drinking from re-used tumblers.

A night out with fellow travelers in Mumbai.

Catching a ride with a rickshaw in Mumbai; what an experience!

Chai masala being prepared by the road side.

A few times I caught the train into the city centre of South Mumbai with fellow travelers, to take a look at some of the sights, such as The Gateway of India, the Hare Krishna Temple and the beaches at Juhu and Bandra. The Gateway of India is an arched monument that was completed in 1924, and built on the site where dignitaries landed upon their arrival in India. While birding was not high on my agenda during this time, it was impossible to ignore the ever-present House Crows in the city; they left their mark on me twice, so I guess I am very lucky. Black Kites were probably the second most common species in Mumbai and could be seen soaring over the cityscapes. Back at the hostel, one could hear Oriental Magpie Robins calling from the dense fig trees. During several day trips to various corners of Mumbai I also had views of Asian Pied Starling, Indian Pond Heron, Common Myna, Black Drongo and Indian Jungle Crow, but that was the extent of my birding. 

Not the best view of the Gateway of India in Mumbai.

Boats drifting in front of the Gateway of India.

The view from The Gateway of India.

Traffic in South Mumbai. Don't be surprised to see a cow crossing the road!

Practicing cricket in South Mumbai. Cricket is big in India. 

These lads did not waste time posing for a photo when they saw my camera.

Impressive buildings from a bygone era.

Together with Michael, another traveler and volunteer worker, we visited the Global Vipassana Pagoda in northern Mumbai. Getting there was an experience in itself, and involved catching a rickshaw, followed by a train ride, then another rickshaw, and finally a ferry ride across the Gorai Creek. The Global Pagoda is an impressive structure at a total height of 96 m, and always has a Black Kite or two swirling about. The dome is built with self-supporting, interlocking stones and reaches a height of about 29 m, making it the world’s largest stone dome without supporting pillars. It is an expression of gratitude toward the Buddha, who, out of compassion for all beings, taught a non-sectarian technique towards achieving Supreme Enlightenment for the good and benefit of mankind. The Global Pagoda serves as a centre for continuing the art of Vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha, but also as a monument of peace and harmony. It is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Mumbai. It made me realise again how important gratitude is, a quality all too often lost in our seemingly busy lives.

Ferry ride across the Gorai Creek on our way to the Global Pagoda.

Approaching the Global Pagoda.

A rather impressive structure, and a monument for peace and harmony.

A visit to the Tungareshwar Temple was another memorable experience. I joined French traveler Thibaut and his friend to this secluded temple tucked away in the lush woodland of the Tungareshwar Hill. Raj, owner of the hostel where we were staying, kindly met up with us during one of his regular visits, and gave us a tour of the temple and surrounds. This gave us the opportunity to experience it from another perspective; we had the chance to make offerings of fruit and milk, say of prayer of our own, and witness a prayer ceremony attended by several devotees. Afterwards we had tea with a group of men who attended the ceremony, and I believe I was the only one that did not take a puff from the pipe that made the rounds (a habit I have no intention of starting!).

The Tungareshwar Temple on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Lush woodland surrounding the Tungareshwar Temple.

Thibaut and the pipe.

The greatest fun had in Mumbai was during my attempts at becoming an actor. Well, not a real actor, but rather an extra. Since there was a regular bunch of us staying at the hostel, we were often called upon to make appearances as extras on Bollywood movie sets. Most Bollywood movies are filmed in Mumbai, and almost all of these are searching for foreigners to serve as extras on some of their sets. I figured this would be another great opportunity to experience something different, and ended up spending five days on four different sets. The films included ‘Happy New Year’, featuring Bollywood’s top actor Shahrukh Khan and actress Deepika Padukone, and ‘Kick’ featuring action hero Salman Kahn. There are many Kahn’s in India! From being dressed in over tight black tie suits to a doctor’s white cloak, I got a glimpse of what it takes to make a movie. Most of the time we were just required to walk in front or behind the main actors to give the particular shot some special blurred effects, so there was no need to look smart or learn any lines. It was rather fascinating to see how movies are made, at least Bollywood movies. What appears on the replay screen looks like a work of magic compared to when a scene is actually being shot. Despite the sometime long waits between scene shots, we all had an absolute marvelous time and shared many light moments.  

The name's Bond, James Bond. With Luyang and Natasha at a Bollywood set.

After the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, it was again time for the dust of the road. Getting out of Mumbai by bicycle seemed like it would be a nightmare, but fortunately Raj kindly stepped in and offered to guide me through the traffic to the city’s outskirts. Rather than return home, Raj spent the night at the hostel so we could have an early start. I followed him on his motorcycle and was surprised how easy it was thanks to the route he had chosen; I realised that I probably could have left Mumbai a week earlier! It was a 20 km ride before we reached the last stretch before the bridge over the Thane Creek, where Raj and I enjoyed our last cup of masala tea together. I couldn't help but feel real gratitude towards Raj for his hospitality and willingness to assist in so many ways; I was going to miss Mumbai! After farewells I took to the road, eager to explore India’s countryside and bird life.  

Taking the train in Mumbai is another experience! A passenger making a dash for it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

New Year in Dubai

For the first time, I was actually not prepared to leave one country for another. I had had such a great time in Iran that I somewhat dreaded the thought of boarding the ferry to Dubai. The only thing I was looking forward to when arriving on the other side of the Persian Gulf, was that I would have an opportunity to downscale my touring gear. That way I could tour lighter than ever before, and live with only the essentials.

Skyscrapers in Sharja, UAE.

The ferry crossed the gulf overnight, and we arrived in Sharjar after sunrise. Since Ivo and Brigitte were also heading to the centre of Dubai, we cycled the odd 30 kilometers together. With few hotels rooms available and end-of-the-year prices being somewhat above our budgets, it took some searching before we finally settled for a room to share for the first night. The next day we parted ways, but with the idea of meeting up again at some point in the days to follow. I was off to get my visa for India, my next destination, as soon as possible. The plan was to spend a few days in the city before heading to the most northerly Emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, to meet up with Ryan, old friend from student days. On New Year ’s Eve I met up with Ivo and Brigitte at the Burj Khalifa Tower, where we ended up having dinner on the floor of the over-crowded Dubai Mall, before the fireworks kicked off at midnight. I decided to film the Burj Khalifa going up in sparks and smoke, so did not get a photo. Perhaps the most spectacular display was the fireworks along 94 km of the Dubai coast, though we could only see a fraction of it from where we were.

The Burj Khalifa moments before the fireworks.

The Dubai Creek.

Before leaving Dubai for Ras al-Khaimah, I met up with Tinus and Corna, South African’s living and working in Dubai. They kindly hosted me for the night and accommodated my 15 kg of excess luggage that I was planning on leaving behind for good. My first day on the bike, now without front panniers, and with a somewhat reduced load on the rear, felt amazing. I was instantly hooked on this new travelling setup. I had also switched my tent for a hammock, figuring that I would never be too far from at least two trees during the rest of my travels. Admittedly, my first night in the hammock was not as cosy I had had hoped, and it took some time getting used to the new sleeping arrangement.

I switched my tent for a hammock.

I took the highway skirting the eastern edge of Dubai towards Ras al-Khaimah. I had planned to do some birding while in the Emirates, so used the extensive database of birding sites available at UAE Birding ( Common birds along the way included Grey Francolin, Southern Grey Shrike, Crested Lark, Green Bee-eater, Purple Sunbird, White-eared Bulbul and Brown-necked Raven. Once I reached the coast at Al Rafaah I saw my first Socotra Cormorants, followed by a mixed flock of half a dozen wader species, including Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, and Ruddy Turnstone. A Gull-billed Tern also made a fleeting appearance.    

A pair of Brown-necked Ravens on a dune.

Ryan and his family kindly hosted me for a couple nights; it was great catching up on the last 12 years. Red wine for the first time in more than five years also never tasted so good! The copious amounts of good coffee that Ryan served also went down well; even the simple things in life become a luxury if you abstain from them for long enough while on the road. Ryan also arranged that I could camp a couple nights on the reserve that he manages on the side, which, with its dunes and Ghaf trees, looks as close as anything to the Kalahari. It felt like I was home. A morning birding around the reserve with Ryan and a colleague delivered the usual species such as Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Arabian Babbler and Hume’s Wheatear, but also a couple surprises and firsts for me, such as Plain Leaf Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Asian Desert Warbler. 

An Arabian Babbler performing on a branch.

Ghaf trees and dunes in the UAE

Arabian Oryx on a red dune.

The striking Indian Roller.

An Eastern Orphean Warbler, surprise bird of the day.

Red-wattled Lapwing, a common lapwing in the Middle East.

Ryan (right) and a work colleague.

The next day I cycled further north to visit a number of birding localities, amongst others the Al Hamrania nursery fields and the Saqr Park. At the nursery fields I found the Caspian Plover and a couple of Buff-bellied Pipits in winter plumage, as reported by other birders. Numerous Common Snipes were among other wader species present, all foraging across the soaked grass fields. A break in the clouds allowed me to enjoy the Red-necked Phalarope wading in the water puddles in the parking area of the Saqr Park. I also searched for Pallid Scops Owls in the trees with no luck, but then I have never been good at spotting owls! 

The fields at the Hamrania nursery.

A Buff-bellied Pipit in winter plumage, at the nursery fields.

Traveling the back roads in the UAE.

I retreated to a restaurant for lunch, where Abdul, the owner, not only insisted I didn’t pay for lunch, but that I be his guest for the night. So I was not surprised to hear that he was Iranian! After breakfast he made sure I had a lunch pack before I left for the mountains and wadis near the Oman border. Though I did not find anything unusual here, the ruggedness of the mountains was breath-taking. Striolated Bunting, Desert Lark, Plain Leaf Warbler, Pale Crag Martin and White-spectacled Bulbul were good to see though.  

The UAE flag near the Oman border.

A male Striolated Bunting.

A lone tree near the Oman border.

A Pale Crag Martin collecting mud at a pool of water.

A goat with an attractive facial pattern.

News that my Indian visa was ready made me head back south to Dubai, where I had the fortune of staying with Tinus and family again while making final preparations for my departure to India. Fate would have it that my travel plans for India would not go as planned, but I ended up having a rather interesting stay in Mumbai.