Category: India

Regardless Of 2020’s Various Constraints, This Is Probably As Close As Many Of Us Will Ever Get Anyway

Hello, you all right? I hope so. And if you’re not, then I’m flattered or appalled that you’re here, though in all honesty you might be better off dealing with whatever it is that’s making you not all right than reading my nonsense…

But to business: for a variety of reasons which are so well publicised that I don’t need to list them here (and history will list them as well), 2020 has been a year when many of us have been unable to travel – and in fact, most people have been constrained to moving within a very small radius centring on their home.

So, for people (myself included) who like travel, and mountain vistas, I thought you might enjoy the facility offered at this link – National Geographic are hosting a virtual re-creation of the view from near to the top of Mount Everest (aka Sagarmatha, aka Chomolungma, aka the highest mountain on the planet), and you can interact with it, rotate and zoom and so on. All without the usual dangers of being at high altitude (don’t want to sound bleak, but there’s a reason why the upper areas of Everest are called the Death Zone).

Notwithstanding that the land on one side of the mountain seems to be labelled China when it really ought to say Tibet (sigh, cue eyeroll) I think it’s a pretty glorious image, and is one of those things that – like looking out to sea, or at a sky painted with stars on a cloudless night – reminds one of the vastness of existence, and the gosh-darned amazingness of this world we live in.

There Goes The Sun, Diddle-Da-Dah…

Last summer, I wrote about watching the solar eclipse in India, and mentioned that there’d been thousands of other people observing the event.

However, what I didn’t know at the time was that a camera crew was there making a BBC science-based programme, and you won’t be surprised to hear that their film of the eclipse is much more professional.

The footage forms part (some might even argue the centrepiece) of the first episode of the BBC2 series Wonders of the Solar System, presented by physicist Brian Cox, who’s both smiley and enthusiastic about his subject matter, and it’s generally a very interesting programme.

The eclipse stuff is around the halfway point, but I’d heartily recommend watching the whole show (not least because, if it’s phenomena in the sky you like, there’s a great sequence about the Northern Lights towards the end of the programme).

One of the things Cox does well, I feel (in addition to explaining issues clearly) is to convey a genuine sense of wonder and amazement about things; so often people will tell you that something is important or startling, but Cox is good at telling you why he thinks this is the case. I understand they’re doing a trimmed-down version of the show for children, which sounds like a terrific idea.

What’s that you say? Where do you find the programme? Why, m’love, tis right here. Enjoy.

My First Attempt At Uploading Home-Made (Well, Abroad-Made, But You Know What I Mean) Video To The Blog….

… so please be gentle with me if it doesn’t work.

Presented for your delectation, though, some footage of the 22 July 2009 total eclipse of the sun, which Mrs MyWife and I saw on honeymoon last month. The footage was shot in Varanasi in India, on the banks of the River Ganges, and runs for just over a minute, with totality occuring about half-way through.

If you decide to watch it, you may well want to turn the volume down a bit, as the sounds of the crowd and the like are pretty loud. And also because this stupid-sounding chap keeps on talking during it, and making asinine remarks. Honestly, some people have no sense of occasion.

I shot this, on a small hand-held digital camera, so I apologise for the shakiness and slightly dodgy picture quality, and for the way it looks a bit grainy – probably avoidable if you’re some kind of expert in editing and formatting, but I’m still finding my way with this techie malarkey, so please indulge me.

Anyway, hope it’s of interest, and that the reaction of the crowd gives you a flavour of the atmosphere and general sense of excitement at seeing what is, I think it’s fair to say, something of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

If this embedding doesn’t work, I’ve also uploaded the video here by way of a backup, though you’ll need Windows Media Player to view it.

First With The News! Especially The Bad News! (May Contain Italics)

I’ve written before about how my then-boss was keen to be the first to tell us about the “50 planes that were unaccounted for” on 11 September 2001, and I noted then that it wasn’t true; I was interested, then, on holiday, to note how many time people seemed keen to be the first ones to share bad news, whether or not it turned out to be accurate.

An example was almost directly before we got onto the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi; the train station was pretty dirty and smelly, and the trains passing through looked packed with people (and don’t forget I’m used to the London Underground, which as we all know is often the worst transport system in the world*), and it was oppressively humid, when one of our party confidently stated that she’d been on the overnight sleeper before, and it was like a tin sweatbox on wheels. A groan went around the group, and even though another of our number said she’d been on the overnighter a couple of years ago and it hadn’t been that bad, it was as if the miserable possibility was inherently more plausible. It took root almost instantly… and was pretty quickly proven wrong.

Similarly, a couple of days before the total solar eclipse, someone from our party told us that they’d had a conversation with someone in the foyer of our hotel, and that he’d said the best place to view the eclipse wasn’t likely to be from the banks of the Ganges river, but instead from the roof of our hotel, in the city of Varanasi. I suggested that the middle of the city might not be ideal, as there might be some glare or other visual pollution from being in a built-up area, but the idea that we shouldn’t get up and go and watch the eclipse from the ghats in Varanasi seemed to seize people’s imaginations quite quickly – though it quickly fell by the wayside when someone actually went up onto the roof and reported back that it wasn’t so scenic – nothing against the HHI hotel, you understand, but being on a roof usually means walking round air-vents and ariel cables and the like.

I was struck, though, by how the people passing on these stories (and I use that word in its most ‘fictional’ meaning) seemed enormously keen to be the imparter of news – specifically, bad news. It was almost as if they had a schadenfreude-esque glee in being the first to be in the know (or, as it turned out to be, the ‘don’t know’), but particularly in relation to something grim. In a way, I think this is echoed in the general tone of newspaper headlines (and certainly of opinion columns) – there’s a general sense of being appalled or outraged, and if someone can point out a hitherto-unknown but ultimately grim proposition, or point to something current as being a sign that the barbarians are at the gate and that society’s fraying at the edges and young people nowadays no respect always on Spacebook and exams aren’t proper exams anymore it’s not like it was in my young days we’re all doomed don’t you see the end is nigh we’re all going to die –

You get the idea.

I think it was Douglas Adams who noted that the only thing that travels faster than light is bad news, and it does seem that people often take a strange pleasure in sharing the grimness, even if it applies to them – misery, as the saying goes, loves company.

Whilst I’m always keen and eager to be the first to make some devastatingly insightful remark and point out something which no-one else in the room seems to have spotted, I’m increasingly becoming wary of doing so from a reflexively negative angle, because my recent (and indeed not-so-recent) experience suggests rushing to be first with the bad news can mean that one overlooks little things like facts and accuracy.

And that genuinely is cause for concern.

*Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but given that all the tubes to and from East London have, for the last year or more, been as good as switched off all weekend, every weekend, I think my sense of grievance may not be entirely misplaced.

Indian Summer Holiday: Part Three Of Two*

All right, all right, I know I said that I wouldn’t post any more about our recent holiday (it’s mere footsteps away from blogging about what I had for lunch, I know)… but I forgot to share one picture.

What do you think this is ? Apart from what a policeman would call ‘probable cause’, I mean…

Well, yes, we all know what it looks like, but it’s far more innocently than it appears: as mad as it may seem, the above is how the HHI Hotel in Varanasi provides you with in-room powdered milk for making tea and coffee.

Whilst I’ve – ahem – been known to avail myself of the little shampoo and shower gel bottles you get in hotel bathrooms, I’d certainly think twice about nicking the HHI’s in-room powdered milk. I mean, imagine the reaction if customs search your luggage.

“And what’s this, sir?”
“Um, I think it’s Coffee-Mate, but it could be Marvel – some kind of powdered milk, anyway.”
“Of course, sir. Would you like to come into this back room for a humiliating strip search?”

*This numbering system is valid, by the way – both Douglas Adams and Mad magazine have used it, so it must be all right.

Indian Summer Holiday: Part Two Of Two

Previously in the blog: on their rather belated honeymoon, Mr and Mrs Soanes have arrived in the Indian holy city of Varanasi, in time for the 2009 total eclipse of the sun. Now read on…

Varanasi – also known as Benares – is one of the holiest cities to followers of Hinduism. The belief is that if you die in Varanasi, you’ll be released from the wheel of life, and instead of being reincarnated, you head on to … well, a better place.

The River Ganges runs through the heart of the city, and the faithful come to bathe in it from many miles around, as you can see:

Just a little further along the river from these pictures, on what are known as the ghats, cremations are held; the bodies are wrapped in white burial shrouds and a fire is lit (accelerated with large amounts of clarified butter), and the deceased is cremated. It’s seen as disrespectful to take pictures of the cremations, so we didn’t – but I was particularly interested to find out that the cremations are supervised by one family, who make a considerable amount of money from this, but because of their bottom-rung status in the very strict caste system, are seen as ‘untouchables’. I can’t imagine people of such obvious wealth being social pariahs in the same way in the west, and a part of me almost prefers the fact that money, rarely, isn’t the yardstick of a person’s standing… I said almost.

Every night in Varanasi, they hold a ceremony to honour the sunset – and, I suspect, to seek its rise the following morning – on the banks of the Ganges. We were able to attend this the night before the eclipse, and had really rather good seats, as you can see…

But we were up early the next morning to see the solar eclipse. The sun was due to start being obscured around 5.30am, and so we were up at stupid o’clock to see it, but I have to say it was worth it. And many other people clearly thought this, too – there were thousands of people on the banks of the Ganges to watch it:

As I say, it was well worth seeing, and being where we were for one of the longest eclipses expected in the next century or so was pretty startling. By now you’ve probably seen the footage of the eclipse (most of which was filmed where we were, as many other areas had cloud cover spoiling the event), but in case you haven’t, here are a couple of snaps…

One just before –

– and a couple during the eclipse itself (slightly distorted by the effect of the camera, I think, but you get the general idea):

It was, in a very real sense of the word, amazing to behold, and at the moment the moon completed obscured the sun, a gasp-stroke-cheer went up from the crowd, myself included. It was genuinely startling to see, and I have to admit there was a tiny part of me that wondered if the sun was going to come back out… and I wasn’t alone; Varanasi is one of the cities devoted to the god Shiva, who’s linked with the sun, and so when the sun started to emerge once again, the cheer that went up made it like being at a football ground when the home team has just scored; people were very happy indeed.

The path of the moon over the sun was pretty much from NNE to SSW, but oddly enough the local papers reported it with the following pictures:

Hmm. Looks like the press are pretty much the same the world over, eh ?

That’s probably enough self-indulgent posting for today, so I’ll stop taking up bandwidth; if you get the opportunity to visit India, though, I heartily recommend it – there’s something overwhelming to all the senses about the immensely busy cities, but the way religion is such a strong part of daily life is almost refreshing, and I found the history and scenery really interesting. It’s very apparent that there’s an enormous amount of poverty – oddly counterpointed by adverts by expensive consumer durables, both on TV and in the teeming streets – so I was kind of mindful of being a ‘poverty tourist’, if you know what I mean. That said, it is, from the admittedly small section of the north of the country we saw, quite fascinating, and we plan to go back.

Okay, I’ll shut up about India now. The usual self-absorption and snark will return tomorrow.

Indian Summer Holiday: Day One Of Two

Well, like a character from a 1970s sitcom, I’m now going to inflict my holiday pictures on you.

However, as they’re not only my holiday, but the rather belated honeymoon of myself and Mrs S, and furthermore they include a total eclipse of the Sun in addition to lots of other sights in India, I hope you’ll indulge me… and if not, well, this shameless use of bandwidth will be over by Monday. Honest.

Okay, so we started off in Delhi, where they have a long tradition of blowing into a Butternut Squash to charm cobras:

A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Comedy.

But seriously ladies and gents, one thing which came over very strongly was just how strongly interwoven religious belief is with Indian life – as you can see from the following, which we spotted on the landing in our hotel:
No vase of flowers in the Hotel Gautam in Delhi, they instead have a statue of the deity Ganesh. Newly adorned with flowers and saffron too – Ganesh is the god to whom you traditionally make requests and/or offerings at the start of an endeavour, so I like to think that the hotel had started the day off by freshening up the accoutrements around Ganesh.

After a day or two looking at temples in Delhi, we moved on to Agra, where you can see the Taj Mahal (as evinced in this post). The thing about the Taj Mahal is, it was built by the Shah Jahan as a monument to the memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, but he was never actually able to set foot in it while he was alive; his third-eldest son, keen to become king, killed his elder siblings and imprisoned his father in a fort in Agra. No, I know, not the most persuasive approach to get Dad to let you take over the family business, and just to make it even worse, the rogue son imprisoned Shah Jahan where he could see the Taj Mahal being completed – here’s the view from Shah Jahan’s quarters in the Agra Fort:

Kids can be so ungrateful, can’t they? Tch.

After Agra, we travelled by overnight sleeper train (mercifully air conditioned – I haven’t mentioned it, but apart from the occasional bursts of monsoon-style rain, it was very hot) to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges where we planned to watch the eclipse – a full solar eclipse was predicted for 22 July, with five minutes or so of totality. One of the best for the next hundred years or so, they suggested… and on that almost cliffhangery notes of built anticipation, I’ll leave you.

Second and final part of this brief summary tomorrow.!

Swiping From The Thieves, Perhaps?

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for longer than is recommended under HM Government health guidelines may vaguely recall this post, in which I (rather clumsily, now I re-read it) suggested that the scams of the TV Series Hustle appeared to extend to the meta-theft of the tagline from the film Bowfinger.

Well now, take a look at this film poster which I saw repeatedly whilst in India last week:

From the USA to the UK and now on to India, this phrase seems to be making its way round the globe in an easterly direction … if you spot a version of it from Japan, do let me know.

He’s Back… And You Never Even Noticed He Was Gone

Well, the ongoing updates here should have meant that you didn’t even know I was on holiday – that’s a professional level of service, I know – but I have been, and now I’m back.

Where was I, you ask? I’m glad you asked…

That’s right, Mrs Soanes and I went on a rather belated honeymoon to India. I’ll post more pictures, and some simply gripping travellers’ tales, over the next few days.

In the meantime, you may have seen about the longest total solar eclipse of the sun this century which took place this week. We were there, and it was awe-inspiring; our view of it, over the Ganges in Varanasi, was as you can see at about 0’29” in this BBC video:

Because, y’know, nothing says ‘romantic honeymoon’ better than the sun turning black and darkness cloaking the face of the earth.

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