India is a completely different world in itself. If I had to choose one adjective to describe it, it would probably be “overwhelming”. Too many people, too much traffic. Just too much. But also an incredible diversity of cultures and biotopes, rich history and of course stunning wildlife, as you’ve seen in my last two articles, Unholy river and Bharatpur.
After my family had joined me at the hotel in Delhi, our driver took us to the Qutab Complex. From the car, we witnessed the fury of the city: cars, bikes, tuktuks, pedestrians following absolutely no rules (“the only rule is that there is no rule”, as reader Stuart put it), mens showering on the sidewalk inches from exhaust pipes, Black kites (Milvus migrans) and Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) flying overhead, cutting the thick smog with their stretched wings and strident calls.
(Sidenote: an interesting piece about kites in Delhi by photographer Luke Massey can be found here > link)
At the complex, the queue was so big we thought we would never be able to get in before closing time… until we discovered that there was a “foreigner only” counter. Sure, we paid many times more than locals, but we were alone. At the entrance itself, guards even made room for us to go in without queuing. Pleasant, but also disturbing. This would prove constant through our trip in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan: special fees for foreign visitors, and guards shoving aside Indians to let us go through, sometimes almost brutally.
Also, make sure you always keep your ticket, for there will be one more control that you think for sure!
We visited around New Year, during local holidays. Therefore, we saw only few Western tourists, but places were nonetheless crowded by Indians. Guards would use whistles to direct the people – not very effectively, but they had strong lungs and whistled endlessly.
Qutb Minar, an old minaret, overlooked the scene, itself overlooked by planes on final approach to Indira Gandhi International Airport.
The day after, we were in Agra, to see the incredible Taj Mahal. Built by a Mogul ruler of Islamic faith, it still incorporates feature of local Hinduist art, so that everyone would be happy. We saw this kind of mixture everywhere in the region, where it seems muslim kings didn’t try to force their own culture on their subjects too much.
By the way, the black motifs on the facade are not paintings but stone insets, stunning feats of craftsmanship that local shops replicate to sell to tourists… after telling you (in French!) how much work it is and how good they are at it.
I didn’t like the touristic face of India, but I liked the colours. For years I’ve complained about what people choose to wear in France, all shades of black, white or grey, sometimes dark blue… there, all colours of the rainbow showed up, especially in women’s sari. A delight for the eye. I like colours.
During this holiday, we visited lots of ruins. The Red Fort of Agra, the forsaken capital of Fatehpur Sikri, the famous Amber Fort. It was too much, but interesting nonetheless, visually and intellectually.
Red Fort of Agra
If I were to do that trip again, I would skip the Amber Fort (yes!) to stay one more day at the Chambal Safari Lodge. Amber Fort was impressive, but in the end, just another ruin, even more crowded than the others. Unsure of how they were treated, I refused to take the elephant ride. It just felt wrong, it made me feel uneasy, so I didn’t do it. I walked up with the guide, zig-zagging among the beasts while trying not to step in their excrement.
(Sidenote: for more on Jaipur and Amber Fort, check Arv’s blog, Jaipur Thru My Lens)
What I liked in Jaipur was the Wind Palace and, most of all, Jantar Mantar, sort of an astronomical observatory from the 18th century. That they used these colourful sundials for astrology (that’s not very serious) couldn’t hide the prowess needed to built an instrument that gives accurate time with a precision of 2 seconds (admittedly; I wasn’t too convinced).
After Jaipur, we flew to Goa, on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Decrepit cathedrals stood on the site of the old Portuguese colonial town, Velha Goa, and Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) ruled the skies. Goa knows no winter, so it was never cold like in the North. Even the sea was warm.
Goanese beaches are famous, and overpopulated. Fortunately, a few birds attracted my attention.
First, I was able to photograph House crows (Corvus splendens). It’s a very common bird in India, it had been one of my first lifers, but as you can imagine, lying down in the dirt of a city is not a very appealing prospect, especially not there. So I got them at the beach.
Then, I found my target: sand plovers. There are two species, Lesser (Charadrius mongolus) and Greater (Charadrius leschenaulti), and they are very similar. Initially, I was a bit confused… how am I going to identify these birds? Then I saw both species together, with a clear difference in size, and I was locked in: yes, I got both species.
After a short swim in the sea, I got to important matters, lay down on my belly and started to shoot. The plovers ran on the beach, usually at the edge of the water. Turned out that’s also where most people walked… this was possibly the most hostile location I’ve ever shot birds.
Not that the people were intentionally ruining my shots, but they clearly didn’t care about the birds. More often than not, a bird I was focused on was flushed by an incoming walker… when it wasn’t a dog.
Stray dogs are common in India, and one should be careful not to be bitten (rabies is very much present), but fortunately they were not aggressive. They still chased birds!
I was not mad at this situation. I knew the holiday hadn’t been planned, especially not for bird photography. I did my best, and even if the experience was not the best, I went home with nice images. Like most animals on earth, these tough migratory birds see their habitat destroyed, and have to bear with humans to get their food.
I’m a bit concerned, though. When I look at the pictures, I think they all show Greater sand plovers. Did I really not take any pic of a Lesser? Or… did I imagine them, while all birds were Greater? I’ll never know… unless there’s an expert here to spot a Lesser sand plover in the pictures! Let me know, please 🙂
After the easy shots, I started hard mode and shot into the sun. I wanted the bird’s silhouette against sun reflections. I faced two main hurdles: first, the birds seemed to stop just before the spot where I wanted to shoot them, run accross and then stop again after the spot… it’s tough to shoot a running wader! Second, in these challenging conditions, my camera was a bit lost and couldn’t focus properly on the birds; I of course have uncountable blurry images, but that’s the game we play! I was very happy nonetheless.
Conclusion? Hell… next time I come to India (and I’m sure there will be a next time), I’ll flee the cities and hide in the wild, where birds and tigers (hopefully) will make for a much more agreeable company.
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