Kobe

Monday, October 11, 2021

Of shellcasings and bunkers in the land of milk and honey

    Tramping through the last patch of forest towards the end of Day 7 we are in anticipation of what the next guesthouse was going to bring. Every evening, capping a day of hiking along the pristine 'peaks of the Balkans' trail, stepping into the rest stop was like unwrapping a xmas present :) We could not have predicted the experience @ Guesthouse Shqiponja in the Drelaj village. The Shala family runs it and the senior Osman Shala had a personal war journal which was subsequently published and in the forms of books we all could take in. Flipping through with trembling hands, you are transported to the horrors of the not-too-distant-past war that ravaged these parts. The dark history that kept the western Balkans under wraps and isolated from the rest of the world, rears its ugly head.

     Until this point, our encounters of the myriad bunkers on the trails were mostly curious photo ops. Not so much thoughts of war or divided peoples. But Mr. Shala's diary makes one confront and learn what makes people tick even in the midst of jaw-dropping beauty. The war crimes unspeakable, the scarring permanent for most who endured it. A few seemed to wear it on their faces, given all this transpired a mere 20+ years ago.. in our generation. Not a distant Nam memory or a WWII tale from grandpa. But what stood out in the 10 days we spent hiking was how resilient people are, how fast they rise back up and build livelihoods. The warmth and genuine affection they offer complete strangers, the smiles as they worked their butts off. As if only they knew all too well how blessed it is to have the moos of a cow and the baahs of sheep penetrate the cool nights in the place of artillery and gun fire. The prayer call from the mosque snapped us back to the evening and the pleasant company of fellow hikers in a cozy home. Dinner was promptly served and we are once again treated to the riches the land offers - produce from the garden, freshly baked bread and the fresh milk, cheese, curds from our company in the latter part of the hikes as we descend into valleys lined with pastures of cows and sheep.  On cue Ranga asks for chili or hot sauce only to get back an all too familiar shrug that seemed to say no and 'nice try' at the same time :) We won't get into the ifs and but ifs of the long and bloody war, complexities of the former Yugoslav territories far exceed the layers of the Flija bread! The flija bread of the Kosovo region is a labor of love, takes a few hours to bake and transports you to a special place as you peel the delicate 40 something layers and indulge in its buttery goodness. 

       As we hiked from one hut to the next and met with some of the folks who run the guesthouses, we heard tales of the visionaries and planners of the PoB or Peaks of the Balkans loop trail. Some of them we later learnt actually worked on it, like Enko and Plav Polia! After the war, they set to work on an ambitious blueprint- A 120 mile cross-border trek through the Accursed mountains (part of the Dinaric Alps) and unite people in a shared goal of establishing a spectacular hike through pristine regions while providing means to the shepherds of the region. They were convinced to open up guesthouses for the hikers, thus creating one of the most beautiful and unique experiences for people on the multi-day traverse. For decades, these mountains dotted with thousands of bunkers installed by the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha seemed impregnable and imprisoned its own people within its giant massifs and steep gorges. These days, some of the only reminders of the past are the occasional shellcasing in the dirt.

        It truly is one of Europe's last remaining wilderness. The endangered Balkan lynx, wolves and bears are known to roam its mystic corridors. We were stoked to see the Triton newt in a few glacial lakes. These prehistoric creatures are so agile and thrive in the vegetation-rich waters. A diving rat was making their lives hard though, he would dive every few minutes, grab a newt and bring his catch to his borough on the lake shore for a quick meal and swoosh..back in the water. A couple of days, the huts are in very remote regions, basic but comfortable and most true to the sensory lode of living among livestock and the hardy people inhabiting this rugged landscape. Staying in a Kulla or a miniature stone fortress offers a peek into the traditional style of living of affluent mountain folk forged by weather, culture and need for security.  One of the highlights of the path is that it is filled with fresh, ripe berries (black, blue, rasp.. and billberries) all over, giving us purple tongues and making us unwitting seed dispersers 😜. In the valleys and close to the pastures, the way is lined with fruit trees - apricot, plum, pears and apples, all in season. These fruits go into making a potent mountain spirit called Raki or Rakia, a strong distilled liquor made with fermented fruit. It's been called the drink that unites, for good reasons that I can't seem to recall..hmmm. The slopes on the Albanian side are famed for their rich bio diverse plethora of prized herbs that bring about everything from flawless skin to eternal life. The mountain tea (Caj Mali) from some of these herbs is soothing, flavorful and an excellent starter on cold mornings. Colorful bee boxes dot villages in lieu of post boxes and produce decadent honey of varied tastes and hues, also a daily treat served with the day's dairy output. 

       Even the stray dogs seemed to inherit the fierce independence distinctive of the region. On our very first day from Theth to Valbone, over a 1000m high mountain pass, a dog from the village of Theth accompanied us all the way without so much of a hint of weariness or doubt. On the first few turns, heading out of Theth, we were convinced she would turn around and head home. But no, she was surer than us, seemed at ease and definitely pushed us too! This became the common theme over the upcoming days as we chatted with other hikers who shared similar stories. I was glad to save juicy morsels from our guesthouse meals for them keeping the 'bland' cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese for my trail lunch. The dogs wanted no part of that trio and we too shared that sentiment by Day 5 :) Oops.. did I say that out loud!

     The multi-day hike has a bit of everything - gorgeous mountain scenery shrouded in cool mist in the mornings, craggy peaks that sometimes straddle the boundaries of 3-5 countries, forests and meadows covered in a riot of flowers & insects, turquoise alpine lakes and sheer knee-shredding descents into valleys and pastures. Some of the sheep, in their unshorn splendor reminded us of Bob Marley and seemed to mime

'One love, one heart.. Let's get together and feel all right'. How apt in this place and in these times!

One love, one heart

Let's get together and feel all right

Hear the children crying (one love)

Hear the children crying (one heart)

Sayin', "Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right"

Sayin', "Let's get together and feel all right"

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa

Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (one love)

There is one question I'd really love to ask (one heart)

Is there a place for the hopeless sinner

Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?

Believe me




Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Pandemic missteps - Episode One


Among the lucky people, who are able to ride out this pandemic from home..I'm sure there are some epic tales of doing silly shit. Here is my humble contribution.

In the quest to keep fit in the absence of the usual avenues like gym, tennis, etc, the hubby and I are forced to become workout buddies and few options to do that. There is one bicycle that hasn't been used in years, one  waiting to be assembled and sitting in the box it arrived last October! Before we summoned up the right mindset to work on that project, we started to go for short runs in the neighborhood to work up a decent sweat and justify the food & beverages that were to follow during the course of the day.

Two days into the running 'regimen', hubby decides that we must mix up the scenery a bit. Sure.. as long as it isn't too far from home, as per the governor's orders and conscious of watchful eyes. We drove up to the nearest univ campus which has been evacuated to clear out all the germ-carries aka college kids. It's deserted and we feel good about ourselves. Dear hubby, who is running for the 3rd consecutive day for the very first time in his life, slows the pace a tad bit ... to a crawl. He is a good n natural athlete, just not into 'mind-numbing' running. I don't want to get ahead and lose sight of the one and only physical connection I have in the whole world now (sorry Kobe) and decide to follow 2 steps behind like an obedient doggy. 10 mins or so into the run, the campus dorms and sports venue comes into view and he looks over to assess the emptiness of it all. "Never before seen footage of deserted college campus". Feeling confident in my stride and pace, I follow suit to take in the empty scene and ..whoosh. Splaat..kaboom!

I'm splayed out on the concrete pavement wondering what hit me, super mad at Ranga who seemed pleasantly amused by why I'm licking the very pavement we are running on, while just 10 mins back, I gave a preparatory pre-run lecture on "don't touch anything. I mean nothing, not trees, not buttons to trigger walk signs, fences, nothing. Just keep your head straight, be aware and run a steady pace"!! Splotches of blood start to appear on my sweatpants and I glare at the culprit who had no business being there, right in the middle of the pavement - a fire hydrant...argghhh. Thankfully due to the lockdown, nobody else saw the Darwinian event unfold or watch me eat crow with a serving of humble pie :) Running has been a little different since then, I nearly slammed my head into a signpost while keenly watching the pavement for rouge fire hydrants and now I can't figure out what I should be looking at while running. How did I do it all these years?

Details no one asked for: It was a solid hit by metal on knee but thankfully nothing broken and no serious injury thanks to the 0 mph pace, and no visit to doc needed. Only shame and embarrassment punctuated by laughs and back to working out with the same partner and hubby the very next day. Just lot more aware of the surroundings. And I keep safety tips close to my chest, no need to lecture other adults :)
Funny Fire Hydrant High-Res Stock Photo - Getty Images
Stay tuned for the next pandemic misstep next week, that one on bicycles!



Wednesday, February 19, 2020

An ode to the porters of Kilimanjaro

We are here to fulfill our dream of climbing Kilimanjaro. And here you are climbing the mountain every other week to fulfill your individual dreams of becoming a farmer, becoming a tourguide, dream of becoming unshackled from the rigors and burden of hoisting us, tourists on to the mountaintop.

The irony of our dual goals is not lost on us as we scramble daily to remain dry amidst the constant downpour. Our guides tell us it's a blessing in disguise. The rain constantly recycles the freshness of the air, keeping it replenished with much needed oxygen for our starving lungs. We had the air knocked out of us just the day before we were scheduled to start our climb. In a cruel twist of fate, Kobe & his daughter Gigi and seven others were snatched too soon from us. True to mamba style, we resolved to do our best to honor Kobe and his unmatched determination to be better than the rest, better than Mike.

Rain, our constant companion in the 6-day climb, kept us wet, just uncomfortable enough to savor the day's end at the campsite. The entire crew was amazing, constantly working to dry our gear, most importantly the boots, so much so one day Afraeli, one of the team, came back to the tent with a sheepish grin and shoes that were toasty and smelled like bbq :) Chef David made the right mix of soups, carb laden pastas and meals to keep us energized and the guides shut out any talk of how we are doing pace-wise or what was ahead more than a day in front. It was simple - pole-pole and sippy sippy. Walk slow and easy, drink plenty of water throughout. And drink we did, how can there be any water left on the mountain at the rate at which we are gulping it. The wonders of diamox, the altitude adjustment meds, comes with a complementary curse -  you have to drink water constantly to let it do its thing. And that meant peeing the whole time. In the cold and wet night, we had to scramble out of the tent to pee several times. I was going to reflect on life, ponder some heavy topics during the trek and instead my mind was constantly flooded with recurring urges to pee!!  My dreams all had the same abrupt ending - I was rushing to relieve myself mid-scene. A couple of nights though, we were treated to spectacular, starry skies with the shining mountain in the backdrop.

The flora and scenery on the climb was unique, unlike anything we've experienced in diversity and shapes on any single mountain. Being so big, atleast 5 different ecological zones are thriving and each comes with it's own set of flowering plants, ground-hugging vegetation and critters. Starting with the cultivation zone on the lowlands, where crops like banana, maize and coffee are grown on the well-watered slopes, giving way to the montane forests upto about 2800m. The forests are filled with ample bird song, chatter among colobus and blue monkeys and fluttering butterflies in a canopy of wildflowers in all their tropical glory. Bearded lichen sway back and forth on tree branches and contrast with the resplendent colors and emerald green of the forest floor. Next up is the most distinctive and defining zone on the mighty mountain - the healthlands and the moorlands. Giant lobelias and towering groundsels or Dendrosenecio kilimanjari dot this landscape. Dead leaves are never shed, instead forming an insulating layer to protect the plant's core. These giant groundsels are a study in evolution nurtured by the mountain over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. White-necked ravens seemed like they tagged on from home, keeping us familiar company and at times the only life in sight amid misty and dreamy curves along the trail. Scenes from LOTR and 'the never ending story' drift in my head as we amble along the ethereal slopes and valleys that dominate days 2 and 3.

 Now the end of day 3 was a tale in itself. The itinerary calls for a long day's hike upto Lava tower which stands at 15000 and some feet for acclimatization before descending to Baraanco camp at a much lower 13000 ft. On our way down from Lava tower, things turned chaotic. We heard several guides shouting warnings in Swahili at the top of their lungs amid loud, crashing noises. A group ahead of us was crossing over a raging stream made turbid by months of incessant rain when suddenly there were calls to stop. A massive landslide got set off along what was now a violent river and boulders the size of buildings came crashing down. We were in shock and watching the spectacle unfold. The group that was crossing was splintered in half and the other half was stranded with the rest of us on this side of the mountian. Nature's fury unfolded righ before our eyes for a good 40 mins or so and finally some of the guides collectively decided to turn back. A smaller stream that we had just crossed a short while back turned into it's own horror show of a landslide and rocks came crashing down there as well. We were caught in between the dueling slides and I could hear fleetwood mac ominously singing landslide at our group funeral! Another 30 mins later, this slide subsided and water began to flow once again in the place of rocks. We made our way back up the punishing steep slope once again to the top of Lava tower. We had pretty much given up on forward progress at that point and were resigned to getting off the mountain in one piece, albeit a few days earlier. Our guide Joseph, who is a study in patience and cool proved his grasp of the mountian and it's varied moods. Rather than continue retreat like some of the other groups, he chose to wait and wait.
And it paid off, the mountain eventually calmed down and some of the porters from our group who had crossed over came back to assure us things are well once again. We were heaved across the once scary chasm and made it to camp in moonlight and pensive silence. What a relief!

One of the highlights of the hike, is the scramble up Barranco wall which was shaped by violent lava shearing and collapsing a side of the mountain. Several hugs and kisses to the wall later and helped at times by our guides who helped bridge my 5 foot reach across wider breaks in the jagged wall, we reached the top of the wall followed by Karanga camp for the evening. This is in highland desert territory, all the way till 5000m. The landscape is barren and alien like Mars. This eventually gives way to the arctic zone, marked by scree, snow and the last vestiges of the glaciers.

Switching gears to the team that makes it all happen. Our group was two guides, Joseph and Ismail aka Suma, a cook - David, a guide-in-apprenticeship MBaeni and 10 porters with each porter limited to carrying 20 kilos on his/her back. Yes, there are the occasional female porters too. Recent rules established by the union has brought some welcome changes to the climbing tours and conditions of the porters and are enforced very rigidly by the authorities at the gates where we set off. The porters in their stride like gazelles, sprint at unbelievable speeds while at the same time balancing the heavy loads on their shoulders or heads. They set off last after breaking down camp every morning and are all magically set up and ready when we reach the next campsite in the evening - majji moto (hot water) in hand and wide smiles masking a hard day's work. At the outset, we felt like the sheer size of the group was over the top. Not like we were breaking a pioneering path along a never before trodden mountain and we are used to carrying all our stuff in our backpacks in our forays in the wilderness. But our guides assured us, this is all 'good' income for the locals and not to worry ourselves guilty about what seemed like needless luxury - a portable toilet for ourselves, hot food for every meal, warm water bottles to tuck in our sleeping bags to keep us warm in the freezing nights and a dedicated customer rep of sorts among the crew to tend to any request we had! In short, we were pampered and kept in good spirits the whole time.

Day 6 and we arrived early at the last camp before summit, at Barafu - an elevation of 15,000 ft. Nervous and anxious, we plan all the details, our attire, food and hydration. Took around 20 mins to put on 4 layers of clothes on the top and another four on the bottom and turn ourselves into stuffed dolls ready for a night on the cold slopes. Rain had turned into snow that afternoon and promptly at midnight after downing another hot porridge made miraculously at that ungodly hour at that ungodly elevation, we set off. Lines of headlamps snake around the dark edges the whole time and 6 hours later, welcome streaks of red dawn broke through the sky revealing a snowy mountaintop cloaked in sheer, blinding white.  Mawenzi, one of the three peaks (Kibo and Shira are the other two) is stunning in the morning light and our muted trudge continues till Stella point. It's a few hundred feet from here till Uhuru peak, 'Freedom' in Swahili. A quick history on the name Uhuru Peak aka Freedom Peak. The peak was named Uhuru in 1961 to celebrate the independence of then Tanganyika from British colonial rule. An army officer climbed to the top of the moutain and hoisted the national flag at the peak. Tanganyika later joined together with Zanzibar islands to form Tanzania.


After about 45 mins along the rim, between glacier on one side and the crater on the other, we make it to the said point of Freedom, the roof of the great continent of Africa. Note in hand proclaiming our love for Kobe, we take a few pics and murmur silent goodbyes to Mamba. On our way down, gazing at the deceptive snowcover, it's hard not to draw parallels between the dwindling and scarce glaciers atop Kili to the fate of the entire planet balanced precariously in our bungling hands. Are more mountains on this beautiful earth, going to turn into brown ghosts of their former snowy glory? Creating in turn arid, desolate foothills that were once thriving and rich ecosystems sustaining abundant life now only existing in lore. Will the elephant herds of Amboselli fade away into mere images in coffeetable books and relegated to the history channel :( The rapture of monkeys and birds in the forest below dispel the foggy thought and the entire team breaks into the customary Kilimanjaro song at the base. More Mambo-Jambo-Abari-NZuri till we reach the gate and Hakuna matata for now.

Mamba...out!



Monday, June 18, 2018

Добро пожаловать в Россию

Greetings earthlings!
Every 4 years, around mid-June most of the planet goes into soccer frenzy while the US keeps itself strangely entertained with the NBA draft, summer picnics and graduations! FIFA world Cup 2018 is underway and the host country Russia's mascot for the games  is the goal-scoring wolf, Zabivaka.

But the true animal ambassador this year, is the soothsayer/mouse-slayer/museum-dweller cat Achilles. He resides in the St. Petersburg museum and has been designated the official psychic. He predicts the victors by choosing between two bowls of treats with flags above them. Check him out in action here:



I have a prediction too - with all the picking left to do, Achilles is going to be packing on some pounds before the world cup ends! 



Friday, May 11, 2018

Biomimetics or biomimicry

Biophysics is not so much a subject matter as it is a point of view. It is an approach to problems of biological science utilizing the theory and technology of the physical sciences. Conversely, biophysics is also a biologist's approach to problems of physical science and engineering, although this aspect has largely been neglected.

— Otto Herbert Schmitt, In Appreciation, A Lifetime of Connections: Otto Herbert Schmitt, 1913 - 1998
Orangutan
Orange Tabby























And now, a brief history of humans stealing(mimicking) from cats

“Cat Eye” Road Reflectors
On a foggy night in 1933, Percy Shaw was driving home along a dangerous stretch of road with a perilous, sheer drop off on one side. Drivers knew where the edge of the road was when their headlights reflected off of tram tracks, but the tracks had been removed for repairs. As Shaw strained to see through the blackness, his headlights caught the eyes of a cat sitting on a fence. As he pondered the possibility of replicating how a cat’s eyes reflect light, an idea took shape to make dark and dangerous roads safer for drivers. Shaw began manufacturing reflective road markers in 1935. Today reflective “cat eye” road studs are incorporated in roads worldwide.

AC Current
Nikola Tesla began his career working with Thomas Edison, but they had a falling out over which was more affordable, efficient and safer, DC current or AC current. Edison thought direct current was better, and Tesla championed alternating current. Tesla was right, and we have him to thank for how electricity is used today. A family feline inspired Tesla to learn about electricity when he was a kid. One day while petting his cat, Tesla was zapped with static electricity. That incident put him on the path to becoming one of the world’s most revolutionary and forward thinking scientists.

Honorable mentions:

  •  Sensitive electronic (e-)whiskers pave the way for increased interaction between robots and their external environments.
  • Boston robotics:  The cheetah-cub robot was designed by Swiss scientists to move like a cat. 
  • Cats’ Tongues Are Inspiring Smarter Hairbrushes For Humans
  • Thumbtacks based on cats' retractable claws
You are welcome, people!




Sunday, November 5, 2017

Another book recommendation, this one for adult kitties only

Funny, philosophical and very endearing, 'The Rabbi's cat' is delectable, enjoy! Again, PG-13 only.



Saturday, November 4, 2017

Kedi ...aka Cat

Close on the heels of my post on cats in Istanbul was the 'you tube red' release of the Turkish movie Kedi.
It follows the lives of seven cats on the streets of the metropolis capturing beautiful glimpses of their daily lives and the people around them.


Can't wait to see this one!