Explore the Elements: A Thomas Cook Photoblog Competition

I was recently made aware of the #ExploreTheElements photo-blogging contest from Thomas Cook. A photoblogger has to display 4 photographs, representing one of the 4 elements – Air, Water, Earth and Fire – on his or her website, and then tweet about it, with the hashtag #ExploreTheElements and include @ThomasCookUK in it. Intriguing! So here are my four entries –

Fire: Represents the energetic, forceful, moving things in the world Associated with security, motivation, desire, intention, and an outgoing spirit.

A fiery sunset blazes the city of Florence in shades of purple, orange and yellow.

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Water: Represents the fluid, flowing, formless things in the world Associated with emotion, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism. 

Fishermen depend upon a century old boat design and the forever-generous Ganges (Hooghly) river for their livelihood. Things haven’t changed for over 3 centuries as far as these fishermen are concerned.

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EarthRepresents the hard, solid objects of the earth Associated with stubbornness, collectiveness, physicality and gravity.

The image below shows a stubborn 200+ year old banyan tree settling over, around and across an old temple in eastern India.

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AirRepresents things that grow, expand, and enjoy freedom of movement Associated with will, elusiveness, evasiveness, benevolence, compassion, and wisdom. 

Don Quixote came across these 12 windmills near Toledo, Spain and perceived them to be fire breathing dragons, that he should lay siege upon and slay, contrary to the wisdom of his squire Sancho Panza. This thick fog engulfs central Spain every day.

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Also, I am supposed to pick 5 of my favorite bloggers and nominate them. Here are my fav photobloggers:

Castille y Leon y Cordoba

IMG_5596Our jet-lagged and tired eyes finally succumbed to the pressure of venturing out and we embarked on our Iberian journey in Madrid at around 7:30 p.m. Our achy legs were forcing us back to our cozy little beds but our restless minds wanted to wander in Madrid’s ever-so-famous bull-fighting rings or taste the exquisite tapas that we had heard so much about.

We took a quick bus tour on the second day of our stay, with a detailed stop at the Palacio Real or Royal Palace. The palace stands on a 9th century Moorish fort, which was converted to an Alcazar (castle) in the 16th century which got burnt and eventually got replaced by this palace was in the seventeenth century. Spain is full of such sites, where inside every great monument lies several layers of history buried deep.

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Toledo was our next stop. It was a city established by Jews in the 5th century BC. The Romans made it into a hub for trade but Toledo became the capital of the Visigoths around 6th century AD. The Arab muslims took over the Visigoths by invading Toledo. Capturing Toledo was of prime importance for every ruler. Toledo finally became a Christian empire again in the 10th century and Christianity was forced into the city.

The city sits on a high gorge and entry into it was possible only through one gate. This city had co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslim culture for centuries and is known as the “City of three cultures”. The Cathedral in Toledo,  known as the magnum opus of Gothic style in Spain, was a monument that displayed Spain’s exorbitant luxury and wealth and leaves no doubt in the tourist that they were once the richest kingdom in the entire world.

Close to Toledo is the town of Consuegra, which hosts the wind mills of La Mancha. There are 12 of these but we were not lucky enough to see them clearly as they were bathed in the infamous relentless fog of central Spain for hours. The legendary Don Quixote fought these windmills, thinking they were fire-breathing dragons, against the counsel of his squire, Sancho Panza.

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Further south past miles of olive trees over rolling hills, we entered Cordoba (known as Qurtuba in Arabic). Under Islamic Iberia, the city of Cordoba flourished over 700 years. Found in the region Andalusia, in the south of Spain, Cordoba was the first kingdom the Arabs, known as Moors, established in Spain. In its prime, around 800 AD, Cordoba was considered as the prettiest city in the entire world – rated higher than Paris or Vienna or any other European city. The Kingdom of Cordoba was conceived of by a Syrian prince, Abd-ar-Rahman, who miraculously fled from Syria, reaching the shores of Southern Spain, and eventually defeated the existing rulers to become the Emir of Cordoba.

The Cordoba Mezquita, mosque built under Abd-ar-Rahman’s rule, was a stunner, probably one of my favorite sights in Spain. The mosque was previously a church under the Visigoth rule, then got converted into a mosque and finally was converted into a church under Christian rule. The mosque’s red and white arches are inspired from Damascan architecture while the red color signifies the colors of Spain. The arches span over three centuries of construction over the Umayyad dynasty. The mosque initially began with arches made from red bricks, then was expanded with more arches with a different kind of brick of an inferior quality and finally the mosque was expanded furthermore with arches in which the red was just painted over, showing the decline in the power of the dynasty.

My Bhopal – now a Curate’s Egg?

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.”
Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

The term derives from a cartoon published in the humorous British magazine Punch on 9th November 1895.

As I am about to end my almost thirty day stay in Bhopal, India, and after scanning it all these days through my America-influenced eyes, I arrive at one question. How was I ever so tolerant over all these days when I used to actually live here? I have spent eleven years of my prime pre-teen and teen life here in this City of Lakes and now all I see around me is complete chaos. Was it like this even before or time has played its unforgiving destructive role?

The unforgivable are being forgiven, the law-breakers are being pardoned, the rules are being broken relentlessly with no consequences. For some, the city is a dream that starts from their beautiful mansions, continues in their air-conditioned cars, enters a few chic places, returns back to their mansions where their real and dream lives reconcile. These people are comfortable with their lives as-is and no one seems to be complaining. The chaos stays shielded outside their dual-pane windows. Maybe eventuality plays an important role in living in India and we all eventually drape ourselves with this apathy.

The traffic seems to imitate a murderous zoo with people resembling wild animals that have been abandoned by their keeper and are ready to burst out free. They are running in every possible direction with no sensibility towards the ones who are adjacent to them. The intersections have no traffic lights or police personnel and there is no prescriptive way to cross a street. The little cars or scooters scoot over to the other side with a giant car shoving them aside. When the mighty car finally soars ahead in the mad rush, the little ones meekly creep in.

The whole nation still enjoys their craze for gold jewelry – as if the sky rocketing prices of gold seem to not bother our fellow nationals. But to wear jewelry in Bhopal is a different story. The jewelry that is actually worn are cheap imitations priced at sub Rs. 500. Why is that, you may ask, to which the obvious answer is crime. Theft of gold chains and the snatching of women’s bags has become the past time for idle youngsters. Quick money is all they see. We cannot walk outside with a beautiful chain adorned around our neck – even in marriages people prefer wearing imitation jewels. People getting robbed in trains by good looking and polished gentlemen is common news on the wire. They target henna adorned females as they correctly assume that these could be returning from a wedding and their purses would be loaded. Women are learning to keep their “real stuff” in bank lockers and opt to travel with a light heart.

Trash-spills all over the city are so annoying that the entire city seems to be covered with an obnoxious blanket of plastic. Mosquitoes and cockroaches are a part of daily street life. There is so much construction associated with new and existing buildings being modeled and re-modeled, that almost every lane has barely two meters of space to drive in while the rest is covered with mounds of sand, dirt and bricks. Hence, every morning  one’s house furniture looks as if it has taken a round-trip back from the dust bowls of Mars.

Bhopal has undoubtedly become a Curate’s egg. As used in the original context, the term refers to something which is obviously bad but which is willfully described euphemistically as being only partly so, its immaterial good features being given undue weight. Sadly this couldn’t be more true for this once palatial city which I was always so proud to be associated with. Now the entire city seems to be living in a state of denial. The population is growing by leaps and bounds, the city’s decay is not paid proper due and respect and yet prosperity is flourishing like never before amongst a select few. The skeleton of the city seems to be decaying but parts of the exterior are being made to shine by putting flashy malls and countless multinational fast food joints. Some see it prosperity and progress. I see it as Botox injections into an aging system.

You might think that these issues are making me all grumpy and miserable here but my stay is as wonderful and relaxing at it could have ever been. I am thoroughly enjoying the comfort of being in a fully-furnished shielded house, moving around the city in an air-conditioned car, loving the world-famous DB mall, and cheerfully experiencing a tornado-speed-boat ride in the Bhopal Lake. Spending time with one’s parents is a feeling of happiness that nobody can displace. I am loving it here and the impediments are enough to perturb me but are not enough to interfere with my precious moments with my family. I too have draped myself in the Bhopali customs and apathy and am trying to keep the problems outside my window. Or simply jotting them down in bytes.

Spain

Over 14 days, we drove through southern Spain – Andalusia. Starting out in Madrid and mostly recovering from jet lag, we crawled through Segovia (with a quick side trip to Penafiel), Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, the Pueblo Blancos (Arcos de la Frontera, Rhonda, Zahara, Olvera and Osuna), the stunner that is Granada, and a short stop in Valencia towards our final two days in Barcelona.

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Here is the JPG of the full trip. If you need a .kml of this so you can zoom in to every nook and corner of the places we visited in Google Maps or Google Earth, drop me a note.

Cast Iron and Glass

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Outdoor markets started getting converted to permanent housing made out of cast iron starting around the 1850s through the early 1920s, like the Burroughs Market in London which was built between 1851-1860 with additions all the way through 1932.

The Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain, was built in 1916, and though not as large as its counterparts in London or Budapest**, is perhaps the finest example of a cast iron and glass architecture in Europe.

**The Great Market Hall is a large three storied cast iron and glass indoor market in Budapest, Hungary, built in 1896. It clearly shows the transition between the simple cast iron structures of Burroughs Market, built in 1850, and the artistic cast iron & glass marvel of Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, built in 1916.

Facebook: From Inception to Honeymoon

Unfortunate victims of globalization that we all are, it has made us part ways, relocate and consequently misplace our bonds that we nurtured at some point of time in our lives. Staying in touch with the silver age ones, reconnecting with the golden ones and building brand new sparkling ones gave birth to a few web-based social communication mediums about less than a decade back.  These networking portals enabled people establish “connections” with others, not in a professional setting like LinkedIn, but strictly on a personal level – where a membership into the social system would enable us to find others with the end result to maybe regain a once but forgotten golden bond.

Social networks were gaining their well deserved attention and then came a time around seven years back, when I was pestered by my friends to join yet another social media site – Facebook – a Harvard university bi-product. How I was dreading dislodging myself from my cozy little world that I had created in Google’s Orkut and debuting in a brand new social cosmos. Sadly, Orkut never seemed to gain any momentum apart from India and Brazil (but who was I interacting with anyway?) My initial notion of Facebook was that it was primarily designed for college going kids and I was technically and unfortunately too old for it. But social pressure makes one succumb to whims of others, and I hesitantly hooked myself into it. The transaction was a bit difficult and I clearly remember saying that I find it cumbersome to use! Now I laugh at myself as I remember my confused state – that too coming from a Masters in Computer Sciences. Well, when was the new ever easy to adapt to?

The way Facebook infected the world is another story all together. Old and young, village and city, remote countries and developed: it knocked on everyone’s door; it touched everyone’s heart. The world got connected, started feeling even smaller. I reestablished my old-but-gold contacts, reconnected with relations that were a no-no otherwise. I built brand new and ever-lasting social and real friendships. Facebook totally won over my heart!

There was some initial reluctance in sharing personal information and photographs and I clearly remember how we all were apprehensive in putting our picture even as the profile pic. Gradually we all overcame the unwillingness as a society and embraced the unfamiliar uneasy public social life.

Comfort and ease settled in and made us genuinely accustomed to our newfangled lifestyle on Facebook. We were literally living Facebook in the moment. Every happy detail of our personal lives was being readily logged and shared to the vast kingdom of followers we had assembled. Traveling through it became an exercise in virtual reality. We got to visit places that we had either just dreamed of or had never ever thought about. Facebook was doing a better job selling tourism than a Lonely Planet or Costco Travels could ever imagine.

Buying a brand new wardrobe every so often, and then photographing oneself in it became a dire necessity as the photo shoot would eventually be shared. How could we “post” without the “pose”? All of us regular folk became celebrities and our photo shoots were no less than a session for Vogue. The ordinaries starting looking extra-ordinary, the already beautiful became the prettiest damsels in town. Only the geeks were left behind – but they inherited the world anyway.

The notion of expressing ourselves and consequently being noticed by others was novel, exciting, and like a drug. The explosion of mobile devices all over the world propelled Facebook’s exponential growth further. The ease of accessing it anytime, anywhere made Facebook a wondrous miracle better than sliced bread.

Facebook gave us all a unified mission, a sole purpose, a deep narcissistic desire  to login into our computer systems first thing every day. The red-flashing-notification-number on messages or comments started giving us an ecstatic kick. A new message flashing was far more exciting than any email we had ever received. Pouring comments and Likes on posts were way more ego boosting than any honest verbal appraisal.

Our phones in our hands and our Facebook app on our phone we ventured into the real world donning virtual rose (or blue) colored glasses. Who needed to talk to the person right next to them when we had our friends waiting for us on the other side of the under-sea link. Life suddenly became so satisfyingly purposeful. Facebook had created a euphoric la-la land for a billion of us around the world.

Animal Farming – have they no hearts?

On our way back from Los Angeles, driving on the interstate I-5, arguably the dullest interstate I have ever seen, we always have to change the car’s air circulation mode to stop the outside air from coming in whenever we pass this humungous herd of beef cattle which is located right next to the freeway near Kettleman City, known as the Harris Ranch.

I guess everyone who has driven on I-5 simply cannot miss this “pleasant scene”. And every time I have passed these pitiful cows, it simply fills me with utter grief and sorrow. There are typically a hundred thousand cattle at this lot, clogged right next to each other,  with their knees and below covered in their own feces, in a tiny patch of land, standing there, be it rain or shine, with hardly any shelter to protect them. This “farming” for beef makes me ponder why is it that people are ready to eat regardless of the suffering?

The Harris Ranch site is a proof of cruelty to animals and also highlights that meat eating in this modern world is such a pedestrian delight. Years ago, back in India, eating non-vegeterian dishes was considered a supreme delicacy and, to be honest, a very expensive affair. I still remember so vividly how happy I was when chicken curry would be cooked in our house – the whole experience was such a gala affair. My brother and I would not be able to contain our excitement as we too were equally involved in the process of its making. My mother does not eat nor even touch chicken but was generous enough to make it, and she left no stones unturned making it with the utmost perfection! This “glorious” event used to happen probably twice a year – much to my brother’s and my dismay. The reason being the expense of the meat.

On the contrary, here in the U.S., chicken and cauliflower are sold at the same price per pound. How could the life of a living animal, a life aware of all the five senses in its body,  a life that goes through birth, youth, happiness, pain and all the emotions, cost the same as a vegetable? This is only possible when animals are raised and dumped as a bag of potatoes, and finally when the animals are delectably “ripe” they are mercilessly butchered (many are electrically stunned before being killed so that they don’t realize their oncoming fate). This assembly-line kind of animal farming has consequently brought down the cost of meat so drastically that eating a living being has become mundane. This is definitely not an answer to feed a population!

The animal in such farms lives its entire lifetime in extreme chaos, it is deprived of all the basic decencies of life, and simply waits mindlessly for its turn, one final day. We simply cannot exploit their innocence and naivety, though it gives me some solace knowing that these animals are not intelligent enough to ever realize it.

This cruel and inhumane way of animal farming has to be stopped. Farming sites have to provide animals their basic rights – freedom of movement, hygiene and should be naturally fed. They cannot be medically or electrically stunned or given harmful steroids to artificially and rapidly gain weight that birds can’t even fly. Meat prices would sky rocket and eating a beef burger will rightfully be a delicacy the same way eating Beluga Caviar is, hunt it or farm it, but the produce is rare.

I am not a proponent of be-a-vegetarian, but going to Safeway and spending more money on capsicum and less on a pound of chicken does leave me baffled and eventually saddened.