24 July 2014

Dharamsala: an alternative meditation

A pigeon flies past, going somewhere fast in the hazy grey morning. Pigeons in flight always seem to be intent on a destination; even when they circle they seem to be building momentum for an eventual arrow-like flight to somewhere that must be reached as quickly as possible. Strangely, I've seen very few pigeons here, unlike most other built-up places where they're almost always abundant. Perhaps the kites keep their numbers low, or maybe the climate's not good for pigeons. The old controversy about the regulation of animal populations comes to mind, and I have to work hard to remember the names of the most famous protagonists: Nicholson I remember easily, but I struggle to eventually recall the names Andrewartha and Birch. My own dabbling in the field as part of my work all seems so long ago now and brings to mind my own career -- if it could be called that -- as a scientist. Almost nothing of that time now seems worthwhile from the point of view of a direct contribution to science; what little might be considered worthwhile was largely a result of supporting the work of colleagues. Was that time wasted? Maybe, but the past is irretrievable and inaccessible. Perhaps not irredeemable, though, and I wonder sometimes if what I do now is in some way an attempt to redeem time I might have spent better. The less time that remains, of course, the more urgent this becomes, which is why I wonder why I don't feel a greater sense of urgency -- in fact, any sense of urgency.

The Gakyi restaurant's already open at 7.30 a.m. and I'm the first customer. I order a bowl of porridge with banana and honey, and black tea, having drunk enough more than enough lemon honey ginger over the last several days. I think about how I might photograph Mrs Dickyi if she turns up before the restaurant starts to fill with customers -- and, of course, if she's agreeable. The light's low in here; even at ISO 400 and f2.8 the shutter speed's a mere 1/30s. As I write, though, the sunlight strengthens on the rough brick wall on the far side of the narrow road, and the light inside the restaurant brightens a little accordingly.

A few days ago the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch passed by, going down the road to the past; this morning the doppelganger of Pete Garrett strides past, going up the road and also into the past. He glances inside, catches my eye for an instant, then looks away and carries on.

Let me explain. On Thursday I looked up from my usual seat in the Gakyi to see a small, shrivelled monk with a woollen cap pass by. His resemblance to the subject of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of the Last Imperial Eunuch was so striking I felt momentarily displaced, as if in a different country and a different time, but later I thought the sense of fleeting disconnection from the present to be at odds with the nature of life, which is mostly concerned with connections. I've long felt the linear metaphor of a life -- as, for example, a fuse burning inexorably to final destruction -- to be unsatisfactory. Life, it seems to me, is a process of enrichment, a process not of using up but of adding, and the more connections we make, the richer the life. When I saw the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch tripping down Jogiwara Road , swaying slightly as he went, my life became slightly richer not just because I'd accumulated another vivid memory but because that memory connected McLeod Ganj, the Gakyi restaurant, and a particular moment in my life with the art of Cartier-Bresson's photography. Yes, life imitates art at times and art enriches life -- it's almost a truism to make that claim -- but, perhaps less obviously, life can enrich art: I hope it's not too grand a claim to say Cartier-Bresson's photograph now has an additional connection.

Perhaps, too, this is a characteristic of great art -- that it can accept these connections without being overwhelmed by them.

The small, whiskery French man who comes here regularly arrives, this time accompanied by a woman who might be Tibetan or Chinese. She says hello then corrects herself and says 'Bonjour,' then laughs and explains how she's always mixing up her languages.. She speaks good English with a US accent. Mrs Dickyi arrives but leaves shortly afterwards with her handbag tucked under her arm and prayer beads in hand. She returns soon and I can't quite pluck up the courage to ask if I might photograph her. If there's a trick to this, I think it might be to relax and not think about it too much -- just switch off and ask, then concentrate on doing justice to the person.

I order another black tea, partly because I want to keep writing, partly because, well, I simply want the tea. The pen runs out of ink; I switch to the yellow Safari. Snippets of conversation between the French man and the multi-lingual woman (I heard her say she speaks nine languages) drift across. Much, it seems, concerns buddhism, and I feel an unreasonable, unwarranted sense of -- what? It's not quite cynicism -- I'd like to think I'm more respectful than that (although maybe I'm not) -- nor is it entirely a kind of disillusionment (which true buddhists might approve of, given their apparent belief that all is illusion). If anything, it might be a kind of shame at the way, back in New Zealand, I've referred to aspects of buddhism as if I knew something about it (and as I've just done), but here everyone seems either to have much greater knowledge or actually practises these beliefs. Here, ironically, I feel far more distant from these beliefs which seemed to make so much sense to me; here I am an outsider, the other, a simple observer. Perhaps I don't belong here, although I feel comfortable in Dharamsala. This might be akin to the feeling of the perpetual guest, made welcome, treated hospitably, but always apart. The simplest description might be that here, where most visitors seem to be seeking something -- some kind of instruction or enlightenment or a furthering of their understanding -- I doubt I'm seeking anything, at least not until I find it.

Another regular customer arrives -- the French woman with shoulder-length, wavy, dark blonde hair. She smiles, says hello, joins the other two, and I return to my writing. More customers arrive, and Mrs Dickyi calls to a Tibetan woman passing by. She's obviously a friend, and the two sit to have breakfast together. I'm still trying to muster the courage to ask for a photograph when I pay my bill, but she seems distracted and I wimp out. Besides, I've thanked her for the time I've spent here, explaining this is the last time, and I don't want her to think I'm just buttering her up to get her to agree to a photograph. This sounds like a rationalisation of my wimping out, and it is.


On the way to the Tibetan Mandala Cafe: a monk stands outside a shop, looking into the street; he seems weary, as if the burden of negotiating the world of samsara to make his way back to the refuge of his monastery is too great. He holds a tray of white eggs, tied with thin, orange, plastic twine, in his left hand.

Outside the cafe, the valley lies behind a blank wall of white mist and even the cedars as close as the far side of the road have turned almost to silhouettes. Rain might not be far off, which is why I've chosen to sit inside at one of the western-style (and very comfortable) booths rather than outside on the cooler patio. My Assam tea arrives -- a pot with a strainer but only one glass. I ask for another glass, which the waiter brings just in time for me to salvage the rest of the pot. The rain holds off, the mist draws back a little, and the little housefly on my table goes about its exploration, looking for something it can't find, oblivious to the changing weather outside, and unaware that here in this buddhist stronghold it might live in one of the world's safest places for houseflies.


On the evening of the last day in Dharamsala, mist comes and goes; from my table at the window of the Kunga's restaurant I see the cedars on the opposite hillside in silhouette, the tiered buildings with their colourful roofs below -- then the mist closes in. The valley vanished a long time ago. One of these views will be the last I'll see of McLeod Ganj; when I leave, the mists of memory will begin to roll in, and all that will remain will be parts of these scenes, fragments of these events, the ruins of the moment.

1. 'Dharamsala' most often refers to Mcleod Ganj, the upper part of the town and the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile.

1. Evening forest on the Dharamkot Road above McLeod Ganj.
2. The main chowk of McLeod Ganj in the evening. It gets much more chaotic than this.
3. One of the most disconcerting things I've seen in a long time -- the cadaver of a macaque.
4. A happier sight.
5. I photographed this common myna in Manali, but they're abundant in Dharamsala too. Actually, they're abundant everywhere I've been so far.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

21 July 2014

Amritsar to Dharamsala

I rise early and go downstairs to use the wifi in the lobby. The ferocious female manager asks if I want tea. Yes, thank you, I say, so she yells aggressive instructions to someone out the back. Soon after, a deferent young man arrives with a full-sized cup of tea. The Volga might lack reliable electricity, but the staff do look after their guests.

Later I ask if any a/c buses go to Dharamsala. She shakes her head, confers with a man sitting nearby, and they both say no, no a/c buses.
 'Only State buses?'
They both nod. I check out soon after and negotiate a 20 rupee ride to the bus station, where the platform for the Dharamsala bus proves simple to locate. A ticket seller at the adjacent platform says the bus leaves around midday -- over four hours to wait. Four hours in 40 degree heat? I'll never survive.
 'Bus to Pathankot?'
 'This bus,' he says, indicating this platform.
  'When does it leave?'
In half an hour, apparently. I buy a ticket and he explains I have to change buses at Pathankot to catch the bus on to Dharamsala. That's fine; I already knew the deal, and I'm happy to find a seat that suits me well -- right at the back in the corner, where my bags are safe and I can gaze out the open window while the slipstream cools me nicely, or at least adequately. For most of the three hours I sit there, contented, relaxed, letting my thoughts drift, and enjoying the feeling of being on the move, knowing that for the next few hours I won't have to do anything and will be responsible for nothing. The only downside is the inability to scribble anything legible; even on the newly-paved sections of road we encounter from time to time, the bus bounces and bumps so badly it seems the wheels have been beaten by incessant pounding into some irregular and definitely non-circular shape.

So, with nothing to do but think and enjoy the view, I relax into the journey. Thoughts go unrecorded and, as I write up these notes later, are mostly unremembered save for one or two -- for example, the realisation that being appalled or even offended by the filth and squalor of much of India is pointless or worse; it's just a fact, and not the most important one either, unless you think it so. Or, the way birds have a freedom denied to us, and how this is particularly evident in India where escape from everything except the shriek of the streets is no further away than the few wing beats needed to lift into the air above it all. Birds can look down on us in more ways than one.

Or, a related thought, when I wondered how or whether I'd survive if I knew I'd never leave India: I realised I wanted to be a bird for precisely that reason, for exactly that freedom.

I'm still lost in thoughts like these when I hear someone calling to me. The conductor beckons from the street, calling 'Dharamsala!' and urging me out through the back door. I drag my bags up from beneath the seat, past the men crammed beside me, and out of the bus. Later I realise I've forgotten to retrieve the small pad of blue closed-cell foam on which I've been sitting, but after a momentary pang of loss, I let it go, hoping it will serve whoever claims it as faithfully as it served me. Of course the loss is tempered by the knowledge I have a second pad in my daypack.

The conductor confirms I want to go to Dharamsala then indicates an attractive, immaculately dressed woman in her late twenties (I guess) standing nearby.
 'Go with her,' he says.
She smiles and says 'Please, follow me,' and leads me across the street to a rickshaw, which takes us to the bus station. As I reach for my pocket to pay for the two of us, she waves my hand away; 'No,' she says, shaking her head and swiftly peeling off two 50-rupee notes and handing them to the driver. She gets out of the rickshaw and leads me into the station. I ask where she's going and she says, 'Too my work,' adding something I might have misheard; she says, I think, that she works for the Punjab Police.

She finds the bus to Dharamsala, checks what time it leaves -- in half an hour -- then smiles beautifully and gently shakes my hand. I thank her sincerely and she walks off, very upright, head bowed slightly, graceful and self-assured. I can't quite believe I've been so lucky but mentally berate myself for not having thought quickly enough to have given her one of my cards or thought of some other token of appreciation. Still, if I can't repay her generosity, I'll pay it on; I'll do my best back in New Zealand to treat some visitor with similar grace and generosity.

Chai in a little bus station dhaba, under a mostly ineffective fan; a purchase of a bottle of cold pani (water) for the bus, where a Chinese woman with golden silk Ali Baba pants and a yellow T-shirt stands with a pile of bags. As I approach she smiles and holds out her hand and introduces herself.
 'I'm Suri,' she says and, soon after, her husband William arrives. We board the bus, where I score the prime window seat by the front door.

The bus begins the gradual ascent into the hills. The first Euphorbia slips past the window, then the first macaque; cattle become numerous. The traffic veers around a cow and a calf sitting relaxed, chewing the cud, in the middle of the lane and no one honks their horn. Much lantana, and the forest grows more jungle-like. The first pines appear as the bus continues to climb, and I'm astonised to realise I can smell their resiny scent even from inside the bus. I buy two bananas from a wallah and eat them immediately, finding their scungy skins belie their firm, clean, delicious interiors.

At a brief stop to wait for a roadworks queue to clear, dragonflies flit and hover around the roadside ditch. Of all animals, are we the only that have any comprehension of related lives beyond our immediate experience? These dragonflies know only their own lives, not those of other dragonflies on the far side of the mountains the bus climbs, and they certainly have no idea that other dragonflies live in the Pohangina Valley.

With apparently only 20 km to go, the driver takes a 20-minute break. However, as the bus pulls out of the small village where we stopped, another sign says 39 km to Dharamsala -- the previous sign, three quarters of an hour before we stopped, had said 42 km. Then, a kilometre or two later, another sign says we suddenly have just 25 km to go.

The first prickle of rain arrives during the final 8 km uphill crawl to Dharamsala, but the higher I get the better I feel. We arrive at 3.10 p.m. and, after a short wait, transfer to the bus to McLeod Ganj, where we arrive in a torrential downpour. After waiting for the rain to abate and finding it doesn't, I pull on my parka, unfurl my umbrella, and set off in search of a rickshaw. I return to tell William and Sarah I've found the rickshaws, but William says the Green Hotel's only a hundred metres up the road, and he leads us there through the rain. Apparently he's been here before. They get a double room with a view; I opt for the cheapest room I can get: a double with no view and a fusty smell, for 800 rupees. Free wifi, though.

We eat together in the evening, and during the conversation I get to see some of William's photographs. Not only is he a buddhist, as I discover when he refuses to kill the pestering mosquito, he's also an outstanding photographer. I like these new friends a great deal, and hope to see more of them from time to time over the next few days. Of all the joys of travelling, these meetings and encounters, with which I've been so fortunate today, are among the greatest.

1. Despite reassurances that the photographs look O.K., they don't on my tablet -- they're enlarged, so they look soft and pixelated. 

1. Samtin, one of the people I met after I reached Dharamsala.
2, 3. Scenes from Naddi village, on a visit there with Suri, William, Bombom, and Samtin. The motor cycle's a Royal Enfield, the classic Indian bike. This one was in particularly good condition.
4. A typical street scene -- this was photographed from the bus between Amritsar and Pathankot.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

18 July 2014

Notes from the Golden Temple

Up early, away shortly after seven, and already the heat's building. If I'd been more motivated I'd have been up before dawn and at the temple by sunrise, but this will have to do. I take a detour through the back streets to avoid the chaos of the main route--a good move and much more enjoyable; a glimpse into a more genuine Amritsar, largely free of the trinket and souvenir hawkers--and, as it turns out, a detour that takes me almost directly to the main entrance. I already have my head covered with the Buff, and I slip my scuffs off and put them in my backpack before walking barefoot through the footbath. This, I'd heard, was a thick, slimy soup, but that's far from the truth; when I walk through, the clean, cool water feels delightful. If I'm going to catch anything unpleasant, I doubt it'll be from that welcome to the Golden Temple.

The number of people visiting almost defies belief, particularly in light of the knowledge that this is still early in the day and is neither peak hour nor peak season. I don't know whether to think the crowd awe-inspiring or appalling. Thousands circle the great pool--the Amrit Sarovar; the Pool of Nectar--where the Golden Temple stands in the centre at the end of a causeway and devotees bathe at the edge. As the bathers emerge, they carry water in cupped hands and drink it when they've stepped a few paces from the edge. This would poison me for sure, but is it simply the adaptation to local water that means these people are apparently unaffected, or does their devotion, their belief, protect them? This devotion makes me acutely conscious of my own lack of belief, but at least I respect theirs.

The enormous queue waiting to enter the temple itself puts me off, though. Even if I could swelter for long enough without suffering heat stroke, the ordeal would ruin the visit for me. Also, I have mixed feelings about visiting holy places as a spectator, so I'm happy to admire from a distance. What does strike me, though, is that the temple looks much smaller than I'd imagined: still brilliant in both senses, and I'm never again likely to look at hundreds of kilos of gold, but the edifice isn't the vast structure I'd expected. It doesn't matter.

A huge carp cruises through the bathing area; further out, a fish jumps. The presence of such obvious life in this pool gladdens me; it feels fitting in a place that seems imbued with respect. Shortly after I entered, an elderly Sikh man came up to me and asked me in poor English whether I would like cold milk. He gestured to the nearby stand where several people were dispensing small steel dishes of milk to a large crowd. I declined as graciously as I could and he smiled. Any place where generosity and hospitality are so evident touches me; even now, remembering that brief encounter, I think this is truly one of India's great places. Perhaps partly that's because, unlike the Taj Mahal for example, its primary purpose hasn't changed and has nothing to do with tourism.

In the whole time I was there, I saw just one other obviously foreign visitor.

At a flight of steps, I climb a short way to look out over the crowd and frame another photograph. A young, turbanned man comes over and asks me to 'snap him'. At first I'm wary, wondering whether I'll be asked for payment. Eventually I say O.K. and photograph him with his two friends, then show them the photograph on the LCD. They seem pleased. 'O.K., thank you,' he says, and they leave, leaving me feeling too suspicious, as if I've been slightly disrespectful. Nevertheless, some caution is in order: the big red LED issues warnings to take care with purses, handbags and jewelry, and not to give something (I don't remember the word) to unknown persons. Holy places attract huge numbers of people; huge numbers of people also attract unholy people.

After the Golden Temple I take refuge in my air-conditioned room for a while, until I've recovered enough to venture out again. This time I make it most of the way to the railway station before giving up and taking a rickshaw to the Grand Hotel. I like the way the driver moves through the chaos--careful but efficient, not aggressive. At the Grand, he asks me where I'm from. 'Beautiful country,' he says, beaming.

The Grand Hotel, however, has no budget rooms available, only an excessively expensive one. The rickshaw driver takes me a hundred metres down the road to the Volga and follows me in. Yes, they have a room: 800 rupees, a/c, free wifi. I check it out and it looks good: spacious and clean. I sign up and get the rickshaw man to take me back to the Bharawan da dhaba, a landmark he'll probably know (he does) and won't confuse with the Golden Temple. I've learned quickly that when any rickshaw driver here doesn't understand me, he'll assume I want to go to the Golden Temple--apparently, all English words translate to 'Golden Temple'.

I'm almost sad to say goodbye to my helpful, amiable driver. Sure, he's had a profitable morning's work, but on the way to the dhaba he took pains to point out places of interest and help me get my orientation (unsuccessfully).  'Hall Market', he said at one point, turning to smile and explain to me something I couldn't understand. At least the traffic was light then and he had several metres of clear space before running into anything. At the dhaba we shake hands and I walk the few hundred metres back to my hotel, feeling as if I'm leaving behind a friend.

1. Again, this is just an edited selection of more extensive writing.

1, 2. Two views of the temple itself.
3. The edge of the Amrit Sarovar, the 'Pool of Nectar'.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

11 July 2014

First days in India

At the rooftop restaurant on the roof of the Lord Krishna Inn: memories of eight years ago. Could it really be so long? Little seems to have changed, though, other than the terrific heat and a few new, electric rickshaws that look just as battered as the old CNG versions. Other travellers seem less evident, too, although that's hard to judge from just a day here in Delhi.

A pigeon speeds past, high up above the teeming bazaar in a grey, hazy sky, travelling faster than its few deliberate wingbeats suggest; the screens shading much of the cafe sway and flap in the breeze, which is augmented by the wind from a furiously-spinning fan directly overhead so I have to weight the pages of the notebook with a salt shaker to keep them flat as I write. I sip the best mango lassi I've ever had -- bright yellow, the colour of my pen, and intensely flavoured, as if the essence of mango-ness has been distilled and concentrated into this rich, thick drink. All it needs to be perfect is the ice I dare not risk.

This morning I walked along Main Bazaar to see if the Sikh tea-seller still had his shop (he didn't; the roller door, covered in dust, still had his name in faded print but clearly hadn't been opened for a long time). A rickshaw driver greeted me and fell into step beside me. I knew the deal -- strike up a conversation, find out what I wanted to do, offer to help me -- but I didn't mind; I hadn't yet been jaded by constant ploys, perhaps because surprisingly few had tried it on or had given up easily. I let him show me the abandoned tea shop then lead me to another tea seller, who sold mostly spices rather than tea and offered only a limited and disappointing range of teas: generic first flush Darjeeling, generic second flush Darjeeling, generic Assam.

Raju the rickshaw driver then led me down the road to show me the CCCI supermarket. On the way, he showed me small photographs of his 6-year old son and 4-year old daughter. I asked where he was from.
 'Delhi,' he said. 'All my life in Delhi.' He gestured, indicating all of Delhi. 
We arrived near the CCCI store. 'Anything is possible there,' Raju said. 'Anything. Cheap.'

He then pointed to a set of big glass doors. 'Government tourist office,' he said. Right, I thought, a government tourist office. This means two things: first, it's meaningless -- every other shop in Delhi seems to be a government tourist office -- and second, with the exception of the one true government tourist office, the term 'government' means 'government approved'. This is also meaningless.

Nevertheless, I walked into the government tourist office and was instantly overwhelmed -- by relief at entering an air-conditioned room, and by several young guys apparently delighted to find their long-lost friend. I explained I wanted to go to Ladakh and after being transferred among several consultants finally ended up talking with Ahmad. Ahmad liked me instantly, even before knowing anything about me. Very quickly he told me how my attitude reminded me of his grandfather, a wonderful man who had taken Ahmad off the street (Ahmad was an orphan) and raised him. Within ten minutes he'd shaken my hand several times; eventually he explained how, when his family felt comfortable with someone, they hug them three times, and he embraced me and delivered three bear hugs. 

He planned an itinerary, quickly and in minute detail but insisting everything was flexible. The usual stuff: houseboat in Srinagar, trekking with 'gypsies', homestays, etc. In fact, he said, he'd be trekking in the area at the same time, with his fiance, an American yoga teacher who, by selling yoga mats, raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the orphanages Ahmad was setting up in three regions of India. Jennifer would be happy to have a complete stranger from New Zealand join them on their month-long trek, he insisted.

He offered three budgets. The deluxe budget amounted to more than I earn in a good year; the least expensive exceeded my budget for the entire four months of my travel. Pointing this out didn't faze him.
 'Tell me your budget and I'll work out an itinerary for you,' he said. Presumably this would take care of the entire sum. Despite his outrageous approach, I couldn't help liking him -- not enough to accept his offer, though.

Back at the hostel, I dropped off my gear and visited the nearby barber for a meticulous, expert shave by a guy seemingly too young to need a shave. At four o'clock I met Raju and got him to drive me through the insane chaos of Delhi traffic --and this wasn't even peak hour -- to one of Delhi's famous tourist attractions: Humayan's Tomb. Delhi traffic operates by no apparent rules; if any exist, I saw no evidence. Instead, the apparent anarchy seemed to operate according to some underlying law of nature less obvious than that of schooling fish, which seem in comparison to be of one mind; Delhi drivers seem to be more like swarming ants, often in conflict but somehow achieving the desired result. During the drive there and back, I saw no accidents, which seemed impossible. The rear of many rickshaws exhorted other drivers to 'Keep distance', which I took to mean they should come no closer than the thickness of a coat of paint. The same distance applied in every direction and was tested to its limit.

In contrast, the tomb itself could have been an oasis. The place felt like a refuge: tranquil; a few people wandering about slowly, some photographing the monuments, others photographing themselves; leafy trees providing shade for a few panting dogs with bright, intelligent eyes and surprisingly few signs of mange or malnutrition. Mynas gasping; black kites circling in the grey, shimmering sky; crows calling. I heard a palm squirrel chirring from a well-trimmed, knee-high hedge and later saw one stretched out partway up a palm trunk -- the first palm squirrel so far. The sight felt like a welcome back to another aspect of India.

I spoke with the man whisking the floor of the main tomb. 
 'You look after this?'
He nodded, with the characteristic Indian head wobble that can mean anything the listener wants. He showed me the tombs, pointing out which belonged to whom. The whole family lay here -- had lain here for four hundred years, and given the obvious care with which the complex was being looked after, would continue to lie here for hundreds more.

Later I asked if I might photograph him with his broom. He head-wobbled, picked up his broom, whisked a few strokes, looked at me -- glowered would be a better term but I think his expression arose from anxiety about whether he was posing correctly -- and whisked a little more.

Then he took me over to the grating in the wall and pointed out the Sikh temple gleaming in the distance, and I understood he meant me to frame the temple in one of the gaps in the grating. I obliged. When I thanked him and turned to leave, he said something -- something about 'something', then, 'teep'. Fair enough, so I gave him a small tip and left him to his whisking.

I returned to the rooftop restaurant late in the evening, hoping it would be cooler. It wasn't. I ordered aloo mattar with a plain naan and another mango lassi, but the heat had killed my appetite and I managed to force myself to eat only half the meal; the lassi, however, went down just as well. I kept thinking of a beer in a cool, air-conditioned bar, but that seemed like admitting defeat. Perhaps, though, it was simple common sense.

1. This is just a selection to give a flavour of life in this part of Delhi. Much more has happened, but you'll have to wait for the book (ha ha!)
2. Please excuse any errors of formatting -- I'm trying to produce this on an android tablet and don't want to waste time trying (probably unsuccessfully) to deal with the idiosyncracies of an operating system obviously designed to 'consume' rather than create.
3. I'm also worried about the quality of the photographs, which, try as I might with the only android app that processes RAW files, seem to fall well short of the quality of those I process back in New Zealand in Lightroom on my Windows desktop. In particular, they seem consistently unsharp, although the originals are definitely up to scratch. Sorry.

1 & 3. The tomb-whisker.
2. One of the other monuments at the Humayun's Tomb complex.
3. The view at night from the rooftop restaurant.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

02 July 2014

Walking the No. 1 Line track

The way to pay tribute to a place is not always to go there and wear it down, and capture it, and make pictures of it, and describe it.
— Nicolas Rothwell

Maybe the best journeys are the ones that are worth repeating, and are repeated.
— Rebecca Solnit

Late in the afternoon I sat again at the top of the No. 1 Line track and waited for the water to boil. A heavy overcast sky hung low, dimming the light on the mountainsides, turning them dull and flat; a long way out over the Manawatu plains, grim grey cloud obscured the horizon. No view of Kapiti; certainly no view of the distant South Island which just a day earlier had floated, hazy and silhouetted but distinct, above the dull shine of the midwinter ocean. I hadn’t stayed long then, partly because the cold wind had made sitting uncomfortable, but mostly because I’d forgotten the tea. I’d scribbled a few notes, tried to photograph the little male miromiro who’d appeared almost the instant I’d sat down, mentally kicked myself for also forgetting the binoculars—was I really so distracted by imminent travel that I could forget such essential items as tea and binoculars?—and soon started back down the track into the dusk.

Now I sat sipping Lapsang Souchong tea, cupping the blue tin bowl in my hands and every so often jotting down another thought. A blackbird sang quietly a long way below in the steep gully; a pair of hedge sparrows called to one another nearby; otherwise only the sound of occasional gusts of half-hearted wind sighing through the pepperwood and a few distant shotgun blasts broke the silence. I realised I missed the insects of summer. Nothing buzzed past; no crane flies bumbled around in the bush rice grass below the seat; nothing crawled or scuttled along the seat or over the damp cold ground or up the old stump reaching into the sky. The worst of the winter cold hadn’t yet arrived—that might not be far off, with the forecast saying snow below a thousand metres in the next few days—but already the small lives that animate this place in summer had shut down, or died, or changed into some other, possibly even more alien, form.
Life existed in abundance all around me, but the impossibly slow lives of plants can’t replace the intensity of insects. Trees may outlive us but we burn brighter; we, if we’re lucky, outlive all insects but they burn like arrows on fire. This raises the question: which is the better life—slow but long, or intense but short?
I’ve heard it said that what counts isn’t the length of a life but its quality, but that has never seemed satisfactory to me. A short, intense life might be wonderful but, barring bad luck, a long, wonderful life must surely be possible and just as surely more desirable; after all, the longer you live, the more opportunities you have. What you do with those opportunities—more accurately, how you respond to them—is up to you, but even if you stumble and waste some, or struggle to make the most of circumstances that seem on the face of it to be those you’d rather have done without, a life of 97 years, say, offers many more opportunities than one of, say, 23. For example, not the least of the advantages of a long life is the ability to develop what we usually call wisdom—the application of a life’s experiences to help interpret, tolerate, and appreciate life’s events; and to use those experiences and a lifetime of accumulated knowledge to grow, to help others, and to make the world better for the fact we’ve lived in it.

I walked back down No. 1 Line, sometimes inadvertently glissading on the mud that constituted much of the upper part of the track and wondering whether this might become a new winter sport particularly suited to the Tararua Range, that often-disparaged but popular range of mountains immediately south of the Ruahine and notorious for its weather and mud. Where the track made its way through the bush, so little light remained that I packed the camera away and enjoyed the freedom of having both hands free. I negotiated the bog at the top of the Copper Glade, passed quietly through the Possum Bones Clearing, took the usual detour past the Stinkhorn Step, and paused at the lower lookout. A tui warbled and coughed from the miro; the volcanoes of the Central Plateau hid behind a pall of dark, hazy cloud; the familiar farmland below looked bruised and worn out in the cold dusk.

How many times had I stood here and studied the same but not-quite-the-same view? I wondered about people who return to the same place, over and over—the same mountain, the same hut, the same wild little beach, the same swimming hole in the same river—the people who return year after year and sometimes become so associated with that place that it becomes part of their identity. Does this represent a lack of imagination, a lack of curiosity about other places? Or, does it indicate a love for the place, the gradual building of a relationship with it so, finally, it becomes home?

Both, I suspect, and to varying degrees depending on personality, but I like to think my own inclination to return to places like No. 1 Line and the headwaters of the Pohangina reflects a deepening love for those places; that the more I come to know them the more they come to know me and welcome me back. What I try hard to avoid, though, is any sense of ownership of those places—the kind of attitude I’ve encountered (fortunately, rarely) where a person who’s made a habit of of returning to a place projects an air of superiority, of knowing more about it than anyone else—a kind of verbal marking out of territory. This can be a subtle trap because the more you know about a place, the greater the temptation to share that knowledge, and that can be analogous to name-dropping—a particularly tempting and objectionable tendency that probably arises from insecurity. This knowledge-dropping—most noticeable among blokes, who seem unable to resist the challenge of competitive storytelling—might be well-intentioned, but that makes it no less distasteful for the listener. I’m guilty; I’ve done this far too often. Now I understand the trap I hope to avoid it, but habits die hard; in fact, habits are almost impossible to kill—the way to defeat them, I think, is to replace them.
Below the lookout I picked my way down the steepest part of the track, into the gathering dark. I tried as always to walk as quietly as possible, an effort made easier by the damp ground and harder by the silence. The breeze higher up had died away and nothing disturbed that silence other than the occasional fall of something small—a twig or berry, a leaf, or a flake of bark—and the shuffle of a large bird roosting, probably a kereru; intermittent rifle shots from somewhere down the No. 1 Line road; and my own quiet tread. When sight begins to fail the first sense to take over is hearing, and the snap of a small twig made me pause and listen harder. Nothing more, though. Possibly the first possum; perhaps even a deer; probably just the land adjusting to the approach of night.

I walked on, enjoying the thought that, in my camo bush shirt and dull green longs, I might be almost invisible. To come to know something well—some person, some place, some event—you have to interact with it, but to interact with something is to change it, and sometimes the change affects the characteristics you most love. Sometimes those changes might be for the better; too often they’re not; most often we don’t know whether they’re good or bad, and the very concept of good and bad might be irrelevant or meaningless. If my presence here, moving through the dark under the trees along a rough track, changes this place, I want those changes to be for the better, but I have no way of knowing. The best I can do, then, is to have as little effect on the place as I can, and that means moving quietly, disturbing nothing, leaving no trace, and resisting the urge to take anything. Sometimes, even photographs seem too intrusive.

But when the land seems to offer something, I’m not strong enough to resist, nor, I think, should I resist. When a miromiro flies to a perch a few metres away and eats its caterpillar there, brazenly, right in front of you when your camera’s sitting next to you with the right lens on, what should you do?

Here’s my answer.

1. The introductory quotation by Nicolas Rothwell is from page 172 of The Red Highway, Collingwood, Australia: Blank Inc., (2010). ISBN 9781863954938. The one by Rebecca Solnit is from her essay ‘The art of arrival: On movement, stillness, and the arc of a life’, in Orion 33(3): 58—63.

1. Kapiti Island from the top of the No. 1 Line track. June 2014.
2. Jacob’s Ladder (‘God beam’) over the Pohangina Valley. April 2014.
3. Popokatea (Whitehead) on the No. 1 Line track. May 2014
4. Miromiro at the top lookout on the No. 1 Line track. June 2014.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

16 June 2014

The urge to collect

'...he was also in the grip of an urge that gained a stronger hold on him with every day: it was the collector's disease, that unsleeping impulse to acquire, to classify, to create a microcosm where order and pattern can be shored up against the world.'
 — Nicolas Rothwell

In Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll, one of the hemulens first appears in a melancholy, almost distraught state. When Moomintroll questions him, the hemulen reveals the cause of his despair: an obsessive stamp collector, he has finally completed his collection. He now has every stamp, every error; nothing remains for him to collect. Mommintroll begins to understand.

‘You aren’t a collector any more,’ he says, ‘you’re only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun.’

As a very small boy, I too collected stamps. Briefly and badly, I admit, but I shared the hemulen’s urge to collect. I soon lost interest in stamps but not in collecting; that impulse took decades to dissipate. For much of my life I was possessed—and I use the word deliberately—by that urge, which manifested most obviously in the accumulation of a collection of pinned, pickled and labelled insects that to the best of my knowledge remained for some years the most extensive and interesting insect collection submitted for the fourth year entomology paper at Canterbury University. Still, compared to professional research collections like those of the university's zoology department or the New Zealand Arthropod Collection, my dead, preserved insects barely registered [2].

Somehow I eventually lost the need to own boxes of dead insects. Perhaps getting a job that came already supplied with a large—by my standard—insect collection meant most of the insects I encountered alive were already represented by dead cousins in the collection, so adding another to the killing jar and eventually to a wooden box seemed pointless (mostly, it is, although the study of variation within a species remains important for distinguishing species). Eventually the loss of the urge to collect developed into a mild aversion. My taste for collecting not just insects but most other things has become exhausted, or, perhaps more accurately, I have become exhausted by the accumulation of things and stuff. I now have more than enough things and stuff and get more satisfaction from getting rid of things and stuff than from accumulating more.

I wonder about photographs, though. I wonder in particular about photographs of insects. Having recently discovered the NatureWatch web site and at roughly the same time settled on an excellent system for macro photography, I’m getting a great deal of satisfaction from posting observations of insects and plants, thereby slowly building a record of interesting things around the house, up No. 1 Line, and in the Ruahine. Could this be a way of satisfying that urge to collect? I thought that was long gone, but maybe it was just dormant.


Collecting photographs, though, seems harmless. Who could object? What harm is being done? Certainly none to the subjects—the spiders and flies and beetles and little flowers and other things so easily harmed by other, even temporary, forms of capture [3].

There, though—that word: ‘capture’. At the risk of disclosing my crankiness, I’ll admit that the word ’capture’, along with an increasing number of other too-often thoughtlessly used words, bugs me. Look at the photoforums and you’ll see the comments infested with statements like ‘Great capture!’ or its twin, ‘Great catch!’ The subject hasn’t been photographed; it’s been captured, ensnared, possessed. My aversion to this has become so unreasonable I don't even like to say I 'took a photograph', preferring instead to say 'I photographed'.

'Nit-picking,' you say. 'Semantics—"capture", "catch": they're just words.'

No, they aren’t. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a collector’s attitude. I’ll stress that I accept no harm is being done to the subject, unless of course the photographer is one of those morally suspect or possibly well-meaning but ethically unaware individuals who breaks branches off instead of tying them out of the way, or who persists in trying to get closer to a bird that’s clearly anxious. In general, though, most subjects will have no awareness that they're being photographed. Many won’t even have what we could reasonably consider ‘awareness’ of any sort; for example, a little gentian flowering on the side of the No. 1 Line track responds to its environment in only the most basic of ways. When did you last hear a plant exclaim ‘Eek! A photographer!’ and close its petals over its pistils?

If any harm is being done, therefore, the most obvious recipient of that harm is the photographer, the collector of photographs.  Mostly, no harm will be done even to him (or her). Another possibility is that those who view the photographs might in some way be harmed. The obvious way this might come about is through inurement: after repeated viewing of photographs that at first kindled wonder and awe, the viewer might lose not just that ability to be moved, but the empathy that accompanies it. This, however, seems to draw a long bow; if it's true at all, I doubt it's common enough and important enough to agonise over. Feel free to disagree.


Moomintroll was right when he said owning isn’t nearly as much fun as collecting. What he didn’t say was why it’s not as much fun. That’s a much bigger question, though; it has many answers and Moomintroll might never have carried on with his adventures if he’d stopped to philosophise about the consequences of owning compared to collecting [4]. However, as far as I can work out, the main reasons owning isn’t as much fun as collecting are twofold. First, the owner has the responsibility of looking after the collection, and that can lead to the gnawing fear that something dreadful might happen to the collection — theft, fire, pestilence, the depredations of small children, and so on. Second, an owner is no longer creating anything, at least in any significant sense. That second reason rings most true for me because the act of creating something is the primary way a life attains meaning [5].

Perhaps this, then, explains why I continue to add to these collections of words and photographs: because I'm driven not by the desire to amass, but by the desire to create.

1. The introductory quotation is from page 11 of The Red Highway, Collingwood, Australia: Blank Inc., (2010). ISBN 9781863954938.

2. If the hemulen had chosen insects rather than stamps, he could have spent his entire life collecting with no risk whatsoever of completing his collection. Even specialising in beetles, the most numerous organisms on earth in terms of species, would have left his collection incomplete and him permanently happy.

3. Unless you believe, like Dr Brett Mills, that animals are aware enough to understand the concept of privacy.

4. That’s a job for the Muskrat who, if his whiskers have anything to do with it, might be a cousin of Nietzsche (although this has been disputed and a reasonable claim advanced that the Muskrat was modelled on arch-pessimist Schopenhauer). The Muskrat, however, would undoubtedly have considered collecting to be useless—possibly even as useless as owning anything.

5. Richard Taylor makes a persuasive case in support of this claim.

1. Copper butterfly on the No. 1 Line track, southern Ruahine Range, January 2014

2. Crane fly at the top of the No. 1 Line track, southern Ruahine Range, January 2014

3. Fungus gnat on Agrocybe parastica fungus, Pohangina Valley, late February 2014

4. Native gentian near the summit of Tunupo, southern Ruahine Range, mid February 2014

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

23 March 2014

The functionally invisible world

This is a female booklouse. Booklice aren't lice (although the parasitic lice probably evolved from one of the groups of booklice) and they don't eat books (although some species are associated with them and may nibble the paste in book bindings). They belong to an order of insects called Psocodea [1], which includes 'booklice' (in the narrow sense), 'barklice', and the parasitic lice. The female in the photograph is one of New Zealand's native barklice but that term is far from entirely accurate too, because they're found in far more habitats than on bark. I found her on a lichen-festooned fence batten, where she seemed to be doing her best to avoid the attentions of a male who was displaying vigorously at her.

Many years ago, this unmistakable species was included in the genus Myopsocus. Later, it was transferred to the horribly-named genus Phlotodes (which sounds to me like something you might find honked into a handkerchief); it stayed in that genus for a few years before being shifted back to Myopsocus. Now, apparently, someone has moved it to the genus Nimbopsocus, a name roughly ten times longer than its owner even without the part that identifies the species: australis.

What often strikes me about these kinds of tiny creatures is the way they're unknown to most people. I'd be amazed if the number of New Zealanders who'd ever noticed Nimbopsocus australis [2] got beyond double figures. This species is fairly easy to find: just look closely at anything with a good growth of lichen and eventually you're likely to see either the adults or the herds of nymphs (which cluster in mobs like tiny wildebeest, grazing on algae, fungi and lichen). But who bothers to look? A few oddballs like me; weirdos who get more delight out of peering at lichen-encrusted fence battens and stockyard railings than polishing their Holdens; eccentrics who'd rather know about barklice than Bathhurst. They (these barklice, not me) are beautiful to look at, and the antics of the males when displaying to the females are hilarious (but the same is often true of us, although I've yet to see some bloke doubled over with his head on the ground, waving his arms in the air behind his back, and rocking from side to side).

They're not just beautiful, though: they're fascinating too. Think about everything needed to allow an insect's tiny body to be called 'alive' — the complexity of that astonishing number of structures and processes packed into something so small we overlook it unless it stings us or drowns in our soup. Despite our remarkable advances in engineering, an insect remains utterly beyond our ability to construct; compared to the little barklouse in this photograph, a V8 Supercar is about as complex as a brick.

In short, they're worth watching and thinking about (although I'm unlikely to have convinced the petrolheads [3] I've just antagonised). Yet hardly anyone does watch them — not just barklice, but most of the thousands of species of tiny animals that surround us every day. We don't even see them. They're out there in plain view, but functionally they're invisible.

1. Psocodea is sometimes considered a superorder comprising the order Psocoptera ('booklice' and 'barklice') and the order Phthiraptera ( parasitic lice).
2. More photographs in this NZ NatureWatch entry.
3. I'm using 'petrolhead' in the sense of definition no. 2 in the wiktionary entry.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor