Journeys Through Six Continents

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Somewhere in Ladakh

It’s like any other addiction, I suppose. One needs a fix, may be not right away, but the hankering continues until satisfaction looms inches away. The frequency varies but the desperation rarely does. One can feel it in the bones, evoking a very physical response. Occasionally living vicariously feeds it, but mostly it makes it worse. Like other addictions, it invariably causes problems. Especially of the financial kind. How does one without deep pockets feed the habit?

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Lone tiger in a scrub forest

Wanderlust is both my purpose and undoing, all at the same time. This addiction to travel drives me to the ends of the earth and drags me into unpredictable experiences. It has been this way for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, if I was not outdoors and on my feet, I could be found on a tree, book in hand, reading about faraway lands. It’s an integral part of me, makes me who I am. Never believe someone who claims to be free of addictions. And never befriend them if they truly are so.

I am a millennial but my travels make me feel older. Wiser, you ask? Ah, that I’m not too sure of. A wise woman never calls herself wise, anyway.

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Thara Ticket at the (Probably) Thakara Theatre

There is a little shed on a tiny sliver of land jutting into the lake. I am no metallurgist, so excuse me if I take it to be made of tin, or thakaram as it is called in Tamil. That paints a nicer picture for the romantic in me, you see. This shed is unlike any other, or so I tell myself. It is an amphitheatre where such drama unfolds, the likes of which even Bollywood could not have seen. So pardon me for calling dibs on a permanent seat on the floor. The tharai ticket, as we Tamilians like to call it, used to be the cheapest ticket at the local cinema, typically on the floor, right in front of the screen, and affording the spectators (usually children) the simple pleasure of squatting, and the supreme luxury of erupting in a raucous jig at the slightest excuse. Sadly, this disappeared with the advent of multiplexes, aerated drinks, and airconditioning, not necessarily in that order.

Anyway, this little tin shed on the Powai Lake has played host to romances, tragedies, thrillers, mysteries, and everything in between, but with some serious twists. Firstly, the actors are not always human. And secondly, it is all spontaneous and impromptu, kind of like improvisational stand-up comedy – the blink-and-you-shall-miss kind of action that goes against the theatre norms of scripted films, re-runs, show-timings, and advertisements. The kind that one is unlikely to ever find on torrent sites and DC++. Lastly, it is always, always free (as in “free beer”).

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An osprey with its catch

As you may have surmised by now, I am a happy resident of a campus by the lake. And it is not just any old campus, mind you. I live inside the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay campus. And, consider myself privileged to stay here - a little haven within the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, a tiny island (metaphorically speaking) that is cut off from the city's concrete jungle, fumes, pollution, famed commutes, and crowds. It is nicely ensconced between the breathtaking (and crocodile infested) Powai lake on one side and a hillock worthy of picnics on the other. What is more, it shares borders with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) – borders and fences that the numerous wonderful residents of the park frequently disregard! There are even notices warning folks to not venture into certain areas that are prone to, say, a stray leopard that wandered in from its home adjoining the campus. During the rains, tracts transform into miniature rainforests, replete with leopards and langurs, pittas and pangolins, macaques and magpie robins. So in this case, the adage 'good fences make good neighbours' can be left to rust unburnished. For here, there is scope for osmosis, for the city's green lungs to breathe, for good neighbours to evolve and learn to co-exist. How much fun is a neighbour who does not visit, share, interact or borrow? How can a neighbour be good if there is no interaction? For good neighbours come into existence not when fences go up, but when walls crack, crumble and fall.

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Nothing Like Figs

I'd be hardpressed to find the perfect spot for me in the universe, but I'm pretty sure there will be a fig tree involved. For where there is a fig tree, there is life aplenty. A raucous party with birds of all shapes and sizes will definitely be happening, for instance. For someone who adores fig trees, I'm not a big fan of dried figs or anjeer as they are known in most of India. But fresh figs? Fresh figs, I can die for! The deep purple hues of a fig in the peak of ripeness, with ginger streaks of green calls to me like a beacon. And the vibrant red speckled with seeds that you can see when you bite into one? Um, divine!

So you can imagine my joy when I found plump, ripe figs at the campus' weekly organic farmers' market last sunday. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with them - roast them in the oven, with a dash of cinnamon, until they are all oozy and caramelized from their natural sugars. Oh, I'm still salivating at the thought!

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Mint and vanilla bean panna cotta with oven roasted spicy figs and a honey balsamic drizzle

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The Magic of Mint

There are a few magical combinations out there that most of the epicurean world loves - raspberry and white chocolate, apple and cinnamon, tomato and basil, mango/pineapple/guava/watermelon and salt/chilli powder/chaat masala, peanut butter and jelly, strawberry and aceto balsamico, caramel and sea salt ... You get the drift. In fact, Mashable has a neat listing of a 100 such food pairings that are so legen-waitforit-dary!

Some of my favorite food pairings involve a surprisingly commonplace herb. This little herb marries wonderfully with chocolate, strawberry, cucumber, and lemon, among others. In my humble opinion, a sprig of mint brings in a shot of magic to many a dish and elevates it to another level. For instance, something just clicks, when one introduces mint to chocolate. Just adding a touch of mint, transports a simple dessert to realms far, far away. To summarize this soliloquy on a sprig of mint, it is the chocolatier's (not that I am one) equivalent of rocket fuel. Period.

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Mint and chocolate chip cookies

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India's Wild West

Legend has it that much impressed by the prayers of a pious monk, a Jain teacher granted him the wish that when the monk opened his eyes, whatever he looked at would be consumed by flames. When the monk opened his eyes, the land in front of him became desiccated. He happened to be somewhere in Kutch. The local lore and belief is that this is what happened - the land continues to burn once a year as a consequence of the wish granted to this monk, only to resurrect and become a grassland after the rains, year after year. There are many variants to this tale and nothing really adds up, but a place with folktales has much to offer.

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A herd of camels at Chari Dandh Wetland Reserve

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The Trials of Trail Life

"Ecology isn't rocket science. It's much more difficult!" - Steve Carpenter

I've been told many times over that I have a "bad-ass job". Isn't field research all about traveling to exotic parts of the planet, exploring spectacular wilderness areas, encountering the coolest organisms, and just basking in the glory of the natural world? It is, and I love what I do! But like the Bob Dylan song goes, "most of the time", it isn't. One has to put up with not having creature comforts for extended periods of time, frequently making do without even (what most would consider) basic necessities or amenities (imagine no phone or internet connectivity for weeks together, and you can forget hot water!), being away from family and friends, and dealing with field situations ain't always smooth-sailing.

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The Barbet's Lullaby

"My life has recently intersected, in a most personal way, two of Mark Twain's famous quips. One I shall defer to the end of this essay. The other (sometimes attributed to Disraeli), identifies three species of mendacity, each worse than the one before - lies, damned lies, and statistics."

"Just think, I almost got to repeat Mark Twain's most famous line of all: the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

-- Stephen J. Gould, The Median Isn't the Message

It is now five months since I stepped out of Bombay. Almost to the day. I can't remember the last time I was in one place for so long. One can count and recount almost every visit outside of the home that was not to a hospital. If the monotony has been insufferable, the breaks have been more so. I'm not sure which I prefer, to hide in the daily routines or to run from the unforeseen experiences. I have come to trust the stability of things. Like the constant, unchanging view of the rain tree outside my window. And, the unpredictable but daily, metronomic call of the coppersmith barbet, that became my diurnal lullaby.

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The Restaurant at the Edge of the Reef

"Island biogeography, I'm happy to report, is full of cheap thrills. Many of the world's gaudiest life forms, both plant and animal, occur on islands. There are giants, dwarfs, crossover artists, nonconformists of every sort. These improbable creatures inhabit the outlands, the detached and remote zones of landscape and imaginability, in fact, they give vivid biological definition to the very word "outlandish."" - David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo

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Your average tropical island

Islands around the world are special places for many reasons. With their unique floral and faunal compositions, and a high degree of endemism in species, they are live laboratories to watch evolution in action. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are no exception. They have a wealth of wildlife that is largely unexplored, not unlike parts of the vast coastline of mainland India. The rocky and sandy inter-tidal coasts, mangroves, coral reefs, and deep sea harbour multiple habitats for unusual creatures, all fascinating and beautiful. These habitats interact intimately with their organisms and are intricately connected with each other, frequently with cascading effects and unforeseen consequences on associated life. A walk on the beach is a lesson on life and adaptation. The mangroves are amphitheatres for waders, juvenile fish, and marine invertebrates, alike. The coral reefs are odes to diversity and complexity, and lessons on the fragility and interactivity of systems. The deep sea holds secrets and mysteries unsolved, as one ventures farther from the seashore. "Cheap thrills", as Quammen puts it, include the dolphins and dugongs, sharks and rays, tropical fish and marine invertebrates. This is an attempt to recollect some experiences from the islands, and hopefully introduce the uninitiated to some of these habitats and their creatures great and small.

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Ecological History in Six Questions

1. Why should I, as a scientist, study ecological history?

George Orwell makes a powerful statement in his book (1984), "Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future". One cannot help ponder over this, and be moved once realization dawns. At some level, it feels like a fairly obvious, even innocuous statement, but the more one mulls over it, the more dimensions get added. A mental debate later one figures out that the first half of the sentence is straightforward - the latter half is the tricky portion. Can this be a syllogism - if A = B and B = C, then A=C? If those who control the present control the past, and if those who control the past control the future, can it be that those who control the present control the future? Thought games apart, one can at least establish that there seems to be a complex relationship between the past, present, and future. What if we substitute "control" with "understand"? How about, "Those who understand the present, understand the past, and those who understand the past, understand the future"? That somehow does not sound right. Should the argument be flipped? Don't we need to understand the past to understand the present?

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Puerto Iguazu and the Iguazu Falls

There was a slight mist rising from the middle of the forest green and body of water. It seemed like a plume of fumes rising more than fifty feet in the air and was visible from miles around while everything around it was still. I gasped in sudden realization just as the aircraft turned and we had our eyes glued to windows on the right side through which we could still see what we had come so far to see. I exclaimed,"That must be the falls!" as the airplane started its descent to the Aeropuerto International Cataratas del Iguazu - we hadn't seen the falls itself, just the indication of its existence.

The Iguazu (Iguassu or Iguacu) Falls, considered amongst the world's largest waterfalls, straddle the state of Parana in Brazil and the province of Misiones in Argentina. They form a semicircular shape, running some 2.7 km along the Iguazu river, and divide the river into upper and lower parts. They are said to be the result of a volcanic eruption which led to the formation of a large crack on the earth's surface. The Iguazu Falls are said to be made up of some 275 smaller falls, many of which have their own name (such as Bosetti Falls, Devil's Throat, and San Martin's Falls), with the Devil's Throat (Garganta del Diablo in Spanish) being the tallest of them all at a spectacular 80 m height.

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The Iguazu Falls

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