Tuesday 6 March 2012

Kerala locks

Fort Cochi, Kerala, S India
Ornate lock rather well polished
We came across this very remarkable lock on the doors of Rossitta Wood Castle hotel when we were having lunch at their restaurant - in a very attractive courtyard and many rooms were around it. All of the rooms had the same locks on their doors.
I was impressed. The building was rather interesting too; apparently it is a 300 years old house now converted to a hotel, I was told at the reception.

Later, at the Indo-Portuguese Museum we saw another ornate lock and the person in charge explained to us that it had the meaning of the symbols for five faiths: Christianity, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Chinese. 
I got rather excited about it and he let me take a photo so that I could show it here; extremely generous. This was a very big exception and it helped that there was nobody around. Of course, photography was forbidden, but we had had a very lengthy conversation with him about the role of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the Portuguese arts and, above all, why Gulbekian had left his fortune to Portugal. So much so that he felt that he would like to visit Lisbon.   
Here it is!

Kerala lock with symbols for 5 faiths
With a stretch of imagination one can see the 7 Jewish candles, two overlap with the Hindu trident. But the most difficult faith to spot is the Chinese - look between the trident spears.  
The museum label informed us that it is painted iron Kerala lock (Manichitrathral) dated 19th-20th century.
Another blogger has commented on it too, no luck with a photo though. See http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/jackcaesar/1/1266087544/tpod.html
Now, if you compare both locks you can see that one faith is missing in the first one: Christianity. I wonder if the ones at the hotel were the originals? To me they all looked too shiny and unblemished to be 300 yeras old, but I might be wrong... 

Anyway, later in Munnar a new mosque had its own lock: just one faith.

Brand new mosque lock
A much simpler and humbler lock was on the door of a nearby dwelling.

Simple lock
 But the door had remains of previous locks...

Our last hotel room in Kerala, Tamarind Kalady, had a lock too. It was a charming budget hotel. 
An austere lock
As it happens we walked out with the key and managed to post it back from the Arrivals in the Mumbai international airport when we were ready to depart on on last flight back home. It took a lot of doing, but that is another story…
Guys, I've locked the blog with a Kerala lock! This is my last post about what it turned out to be a very exciting and rewarding 4 months trip! Thanks for visiting and your stimulating feedback.

Monday 5 March 2012

Flying squirrels

Periyar Tiger Reserve & Bird Sanctuary, Thekkady, Kerala, S India

We were staying at Aranya Nivas and somehow on our last evening David had a call just before dinner: it was a good night for flying squirrels and would we like to come and see some? Well I was in the swimming pool but quickly jumped out and fetched the camera.
The viewing place was beside the entrance to the hotel grounds, we had been there on a previous night and met some guides and other people hanging around, not tourists. Apparently it is a good spot for the flying squirrels.

By the time that I arrived David had already seen one squirrel flying: "it was just like a piece of paper being blown through the air". Wow! I wish that I had seen that!

My task was to capture the squirrels on the trees, rather a tall one because they were very high I and did not have a telephoto lens or a tripod! It was pitch dark but the guide had a very powerful torch which saved the situation because I could aim at focusing their shiny eyes. Below are the best results of my clumsy attempts.

A flying squirrel

 We were told that they were the Travancore flying squirrels, I did search in the Internet and found two kinds: the giant and the small and I'm not sure which was ours. Perhaps the giant? but if so it is a very species. Hmmm. Whatever it was, it was a lovely animal, love fur, brown on the top but much paler underneath. See below.
Ready to take off?

I did focus on the eyes, didn't I? I shall not attempt to correct this though, I think that it is rather charming ;-)

I did see one flying, it was just a glimpse of a floating creamy thing. An amazing sight! We went to back to our dinner  floating on air with the excitement. The highlight of our stay in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Friday 2 March 2012

Stingless bees nest

Periyar Tiger Reserve & Bird Sanctuary
Thekkady, Kerala, S India

Bees nest on a tree trunk, note the mud construction
We spotted this nest on the trunk of an old tree. Someone nearby got quite excited about it. He hadn’t seen one since his childhood and had fond memories of their honey that his father had given to him for medical purposes. Very tasty.
When a bee jumped onto my hand he promptly calmed me down, they were stingless! This gave me a clue and now I have found out that there is only one species of stingless bees in India: Trigona iridipennis.
Have a close look at the bees guarding the entrance to the nest. It is quite OK, they don't sting ;-)
They are rather small bee
Another nice encounter!

Wednesday 29 February 2012

A close encounter with weaver ants

Kumily, Kerala, S India

We saw these ants when we were visiting the Muthuplackal Aroma Spices Garden. They were climbing up a post and the owner, Sebastian, promptly squashed one and told me: "Smell my hand!". Well, I did and it smelled rather strong but I wasn't sure where the smell came from. His own hand? Hmmm. So I asked if I could smell his other hand and indeed that strong citrusy smell was from the poor ant.  From then on I was given many, many things to smell and to taste, and guess what they were... Absolutely wonderful collection of aromas, but I digress.

Back to the ants. With great emphasis and flourish Sebastian explained to me that they did not bite humans. He demonstrated this by placing his hand on the post that they were climbing.

Weaver ants Oecophylla smaragdina leaving Sebastian's hand alone
I was really excited by this fantastic chance encounter and was frantically taking photos. 
Sebastian also told me that they were gardener's friend and in some of my pictures I captured some ants carrying things up to their nest up in a tree.

Weaver ants cooperating with the carrying of prey, possibly harvester ants

Then, were they the ants that the Chinese used a long time ago to keep their orange orchards free of insect pests?
I found the answer to this recently in a Safari Ecology blog: A few things you (probably) didn't know about weaver ants. Yes, the Chinese used weaver ants! They nest up in trees and this is really rather convenient position to clean things down below. 

Another exciting discovery, this one with the help of my friend Theo Tamblyn, I was able to identify something puzzling that one ant was carrying. A mealybug!

Weaver ant carrying a mealybug

Now in Alex Wild Photography absolutely brilliant website there is even a photo of weaver ants milking mealy bugs inside a silken tent, click here
As for their nest, it was a fresh one. 

The nest of those weaver ants
I was delighted with such a find, we had seen puzzling nests high up in trees in various places. First, in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore. Then, in various places in Bangladesh. Sometimes they cover quite a wide area and look quite striking when the trees have lost some of their leaves, this was our closest nest.

We had a good look through David's binoculars and then passed them on to Sebastian and his wife. They were fascinated. He said: " Each ant weighs 1 kilo!".

I have also learned in The Superorganism (a very nice present from David) that the ants weave their nests with the silk from their last instar larvae by moving it around with great skill. Also that they have a very developed social structure and have been the subject of intensive research. They have a number very speciliased secretions either from their mouth or special glands, I'm not surprised at that strong smell in Shaybu's hand ;-)

Amazing how much I've captured in such a short time, I wished that I had stayed longer... 

Monday 27 February 2012

Present monkeys and absent porcupines

Periyar Tiger Reserve and Bird Sanctuary, Tekkady, Kerala, South India
Looking for lunch
This picture was taken from inside a restaurant. They just stood by the window and the older monkey made heart rending begging noises. The youngster got himself busy with the curtains…

On the same day, a couple of times, we had monkeys in our hotel room, uninvited. Alas, I did not have time to take a picture of their visit. We had been warned not to leave the windows open. One of the monkeys went from behind the curtains straight to the sugar sachets. Experienced?

These bonnet macaques Macaca radiata are very common in the park in the places where people congregated.  I took lots of pictures trying to capture their expressions. To my surprise afterwards I realised what another youngster was up to.

Playing with a porcupine quill, then he suck it
I hadn’t noticed it then. Surely, porcupines must have been very common in the area;.they left more than quills…
Fresh porcupine droppings and quill, top right
 This quill was much smaller than the other one, all the same they are part of the food chain and we left it there. No souvenirs.
Close by saw their prints.
Fresh porcupine prints. Note the pointed claws.
In all, it was good to know that there was such a healthy Indian crested porcupine Hystrix indica population. Unfortunately, we never saw any in action, they are nocturnal herbivores.

In the Sundarbans NP they are very rare; this probably because they can’t cope with the mangrove mud.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Do deer nibble on mangrove roots?

Sundarbans NP, Bangladesh

Chital or white spotted deer Axis axis together with wild boars Sus scofa were the largest land animals along the river margins. At low tide in particular we could often see the deer grazing by the margins. What were they eating? Things left by the tide or the ubiquitous mangrove roots?
 So when we had a crack of dawn activity on land I decided to have a look. There were plenty of deer in the area.
A shy herd foraging at low tide
Sorry, it is a very bad picture but it gives an idea of the habitat. No grass.
Some mangrove roots had clearly been nibbled by someone, see below.
Mangrove roots showing clear signs of grazing
And another example.

Mangrove root missing a  huge chunk of bark
 These were roots of the blinding mangrove Excoecaria agallocha, gewa in Bangladesh, and they looked rather soft compared to roots from other trees. By the way, in a mangrove an experienced person can tell a tree by its exposed root system.
Blinding mangrove was a rather common small tree along the river margins and the beaches and we were strongly warned to keep clear of its leaves. It belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family which is well known for sometimes causing allergies with its milky sap.

And this raises some questions:
Were the roots poisonous in any way? Or have the grazing animals acquired some immunity?

Spotted deer are known to forage on fruits and leaves washed by the tide and I have found very nice video illustrating just that. Click here to view it.
However, I have found no reference to their nibbling of mangrove roots but deer in general aren’t averse to bark... 
Do let me know what you think about this, please.

Friday 24 February 2012

Strange brown tree ferns

Sundarbans NP, Bangladesh

When we were sailing to the national park, I noticed in the distance some tree trunks with an unusual light brown aspect. Later, during our small boat trips along the creeks I had the change to have a closer look. Indeed, some tree trunks were densely covered with large brown leaves.

Mangrove tree trunk covered with leaves
Some of these leaves had been under water and had a ghostly aspect.

Leathery leaves covered with dust

Emu [this is short for Emamul], our very knowledgeable guide, told me that they were epiphytic ferns which in the rainy season turn green. Now this was rather interesting.

Coincidentally, by the time that we arrived in Cochi, Kerala, S India, I came across them in some trees.
Large street trees festooned with ferns
The ferns gave the trees a strange somewhat untidy aspect to these majestic trees though. In Cochi, unlike in the Sundarbans, there were some rather tall trees.

Looking closer at the tree trunks, there were some long ferny green leaves, rather different. The same plant?

Two distinct types of leaves
I asked around and was told that indeed they were the same plant. The oakleaves are the first to appear; they form a kind of protection/support for the longer green ones. See below a baby fern that I found on wall in Kumili, also in Kerala.

Very young fern growing on a wall
What was it?
The mystery was solved when I saw their photo in the book Traditional Uses of Ethnomedicinal Plants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, it was the oakleaf fern Drynaria quercifolia, a dimorphic epiphytic fern! It is a humidity loving plant, hence the growth of fresh green leaves during the rainy season. By the way, Ripon gave me this book, a very nice present.
Their range outside Bangladesh covers India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia to Polynesia and tropical Australia. I'm just rather surprised that nobody has made a Wikipedia page for such an interesting plant!                 

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Dolphin research in the Sundarbans

Sundarbans NP, Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh

During our Guide Tours trip in the Sundarbans NP, we had some visitors. On our return from a crack of dawn walk in the Kotka Forest Station we noticed a vessel by Bonbibi, our tour boat.

Bonbibi, right, and a visiting vessel
It was the dolphin research boat and this generated great excitement because the authors of the extremely useful Sundarban field guide were abroad!

Elisabeth & Rubaiyat Mansur
Apart from happily posing for photos they were also quite willing to sign our copies, to show us around and chat about their research. They were spending 2 months of this boat together with other researchers monitoring the dolphins. This for the Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP), banner shown below. 

David chatting with Elisabeth
Note how she is balancing, this trick was also played by her husband…If I had done the same I wouldn’t have been left with very wet socks.
Rubaiyat showing off the toilet
Mind you, the compartment to the left of the rudder is now used for storage but used to be the kitchen. Currently, they have a two ring gas cooker, somewhere else.

Another excitement, their 17 month old son was on board too!

The youngest passenger
 Back to their dolphin research; they photograph their sightings as this helps enormously with their identification.

The tools of their trade
Also, the pilots of all the Guide Tours boats monitor the dolphins on their trips. On the last day of our return voyage to Khulna they logged in 34 sightings. I’ve only seen a few splashes, never a glimpse of a fin!
Last page in the sightings book
The commonest species was PG (Platanista gangetica) the Ganges River Dolphin and the OB (Orcaella brevirostris) the Irrawaddy Dolphin an endangered species.

This research reminded me of Marine Life, a very successful project whereby passengers in commercial vessels have been monitoring whales, dolphins and seabirds in the North Sea and the Bay of Biscay. I wish 
BCDP all the best for their research!

Saturday 18 February 2012

Fruit or nuts?

Khulna, Bangladesh

Fruits being sold on the street
Now, here was something that I have never seen before. What was it?
The intuitive seller promptly opened one for me.

Curious seeds inside
He split one seed, deftly, peeled it and gave it to us: delicious nutty favour.
So I bought one and at the hotel took more photos and we worked on the nuts.

Another close up of the nuts
One had to get through 3 layers of skin to get at the meat, but it was worth the fiddle.

The problem was identifying it. At the hotel restaurant they plumped on kaju badam. Certainly not a caju nut! I know it well, the nut hangs from a pear shaped soft fruit. People were clearly baffled. Eventually, someone at Peter’s office came up with “jongli badam, caju badam, [kat] কাঠ badam” (badam means nut in Bengali) and this time on the Internet I hit the jackpot with jongli badam: Sterculia foetida a Malvacae. I was very pleased with this because in my devious ways I had already got the genus right via an extraordinary tree that I had seen in Singapore Botanical Gardens - Cola gigantea. It had similar seed pods.
 Never saw a  jongli badam tree which was a pity.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

PSS picnic

Rajshahi, Bangladesh

Protibondhi Shwanirvhor Shangstha (PSS) is a fairly well established disability organisation based in Rajshahi. It held a picnic, coinciding with our visit, in a very nice public park, a popular venue for picnics. The food was prepared and cooked on the spot, in big cauldrons set on wood fires; 32kg of rice, some meat and vegetables, plus lots of spices. There were also cucumbers.
It all started mid morning and by 2.30 pm a wonderful biriyani started being served in two sittings.
The cooking team, plus some of the participants
 Peter is the bearded one in the blue kurta, and David is the first on the left.
Preparing the cucumbers with a typical sickle shaped knife fixed on a wooden base
 In Bangladesh all the cooking is done squatting; there are no such things as cooking benches.

The cooks tending the cauldrons

One and half hour later, the cooking is going strong, nearly ready
The first sitting started at 2.30 pm. The biriyani was deftly scooped out of the cauldrons with a plate/bowl on to the plates. The sliced cucumbers were handed around in a bucket. People ate squatting with their right hand as it is the custom. Some of them, of course, stayed in their wheelchairs and quite a few had to be helped by their carers. But, I guess, they all enjoyed it as the food was delicious.
View of the people feeding under the PSS banner
 In between sittings, the dishes were washed nearby under a water tap.

Dish washing, again squatting
We ate at the last sitting together with Mohammed Sadar Ali, affectionately known as Baba, the father of many people. Baba, who is a great supporter of PSS, paid for most of the picnic. We were given chairs though. By then I had had enough coaching and practise about eating by hand, so I didn’t disgrace myself, hopefully.

End of the feast
 The cauldrons had the owner’s name, just in case. We do exactly the same with our bicycles and travelling gadgets.
After the food, prizes were handed out by Baba.
In all, everybody enjoyed the occasion; the location and the weather could not have been better. People queued up to have their photo taken some of  which can be viewed here.
If you want to know more about PSS, please contact Shoel Rana on pss2001.org@gmail.com

Monday 13 February 2012

Fuel for thought

Sirajganj/Rajshahi/Khulna, Bangladesh

Soon after we arrived in Sirajganj I noticed some lumpy brown stuff drying by the side of the road along the river Jamuna. Sirajganj is a bustling town in central Bangladesh and the river is a big magnet for people.

Hand pressed dung cakes
From the look of it my guess is that it is cow dung. The other domestic animals were goats.

Then in Rajshahi, a much bigger town, I saw dung being dried in the outskirts on the walls of a house which had a bit of land. In a nearby agricultural village, dung threaded on sticks was a common site.

Dung drying in a village
Still in this town, by the river Padma, there was threaded dung by a house.
Dung skewers drying by a doorway
These skewers looked much fatter than the village ones; this house had no front garden. 

Dung sticks being taken to market? Photo taken in Rajshahi.
Later, when we were travelling from Khulna to Jessore, along the road the trees were festooned with hand pressed dung patties. I managed to taker a passable picture from inside the car.
Dung with clear hand prints
So it seemed a widespread practise from the outskirts of towns to the countryside.

These sticks sell for 10 taka/kilo - the price of 2 cups of tea on a street stall.
However I never saw it being used as fuel on the street stalls. The stall workers used fire wood or some curious dark sticks which, at first, I thought were branches of some plant. See below.

Hollow fuel sticks
Their price is 80 taka/kilo. Much more expensive.

After a bit of research, I found out that these sticks are made out of rice husks and other types of waste like saw dust or even engine oil. These materials are compressed and heat treated in a sawdust briquette extruder. There is even a video about this process: Bangladesh Cooking Fuel From Rice Hulls: An Integrated Food-Energy, presented by Compatible Technology International.
CTI also has a page about this project: Biofuel from Ag-Waste heals the Earth & Bangladesh . Congratulations! I'm impressed with their work too.
Even though the sawdust briquette extruder seems to be quite expensive I hope that this bio-fuel will become afordable and replace the non-ecological use of dung as fuel.  

Apologies for posting a blog about dung, but to me not putting the dung back into the soil is s sign of great poverty and it made me rather concerned to see it. The soil needs feeding in order to maintain its fertility.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Goat fashion parade

Rajshahi, Bangladesh

Rajshahi in the winter gets rather cold after sunset and people dress up in woolly hats and scarves. They feel the cold badly and so did we when riding in their open autos [electric rickshaws]. What was amazing to see was that their goats were dressed up!

Goats are the commonest domestic animal; it seems that some of them are treated as pets. Yesterday we were shown a lovely pet goat at a the house of one of Peter’s friends. We were told that she was in a bad temper [didn’t show] because she had been kept outside. This goat is allowed to share a bed and is bathed regularly. Not so much in the winter because she feels the cold and might get a fever.
Anyway, below is a selection of the most fetching apparel.

Does my bum look big in this?
Off to play cricket

Which of us looks better?
Colourful stripes for the youngster

Designer label for a  different breed


Extra layers and a scarf for a nursing mum
 And she deserved it as she has twins!

Cows were dressed up in sacks, and in many ways they were no match for the goats. For one thing they lack the goats' expressive faces.
Bangladeshi goats are really lovely animals and I hope that you will feel as captivated as I was.