Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whaling in Denmark – Dispelling myths of Fwd mails

I have a habit of checking the veracity of the ‘Fwd mails’ I get – you know the e-mails on some remote subject that are forwarded by everyone. About dangerous viruses, on health and the most recent trend – violently shocking pictures of wars, killings and suicides. I usually reply to the friend who sends me the mail sometimes asking them to refrain from forwarding graphic pictures without checking their genuineness. For example when the civil war in Sri Lanka reached its height before the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran I received lots of mails with pictures of gruesome dead bodies, some reportedly killed by the LTTE and some by the Sri Lankan army. In fact I ended up receiving the same photos of dead bodies twice – one claimed it to be a massacre by the Sri Lankan army and the second claimed it to be a massacre by the LTTE!

Another one I have received recently a couple of times is about the killing of whales in Denmark. The mail shows a sea stained in red with hundreds of dead whales. The whales are supposedly killed by teens as an initiation into manhood. The cruelty must stop – this is the content of the mail.
The pictures looked authentic. What could possibly make men so cruel and why is it still happening in the modern world? So I did my research in the internet and here is what I came up with. I am not going to say if it is a good or bad thing – readers have to draw their own conclusions. Here are some of the facts:

The pictures of the mass killings of whales (the particular species is called pilot whale) are authentic. It takes place in an island called Faroe Islands – a constituent of Denmark. However I can’t find anything to suggest it is a ritual – rather it is a community action, called the grindadráp, to provide food. The whale meat is never sold; instead it is divided evenly to everyone who wants it. Records of whale drive hunts in the Faroe Islands date back to 1584. Most Faroese consider the hunt an important part of their culture and history whereas animal-right activists consider the hunt as being cruel and unnecessary.

According to The Office of Protected Resources, an US government agency responsible for protecting marine mammals and endangered marine life, there is no danger of the pilot whale becoming extinct.

From Wikipedia: “Most part of traditional Faroese food consists of (whale) meat. Because of the harsh Faroese climate, grain and vegetables have not been able to grow very well... During the winter months the Faroe Islanders´ only option was to mostly eat salted or dried food… including pilot whale meat. This means that over the centuries, the pilot whale has been an important source of food and vitamins to the isolated population on the North Atlantic archipelago.” (edited)

So what may seem repulsing in one culture may be quite acceptable or necessary in another. Cultural differences have to be taken into account while passing judgment on issues. Such mails and pictures could offend people and cultures we don’t know about and we have no right to criticize as much as they don’t have a right to criticize ours. Though I agree with the good intentions behind most of these mails I urge my friends to be a little more cautious and understanding while forwarding such “Fwd mails”. If not, you could end up producing the opposite of the desired effect.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part VII

Finally we reach the top of the summit after a three hour walk and lie down on the rocks with joy and exhaustion. However we are forced to jump up in less than a minute as the cold wind gets us shivering. We are disappointed to find that we cannot observe the majestic sights from the top as we are covered in mist. However we cannot help feeling that we are among clouds and the wind threatens to sweep us off our feet into the heavens itself.

At the top there is an idol of Agasthya muni where pilgrims make their offering. Small trees surround this statue and not surprisingly it is less windy here and therefore less cold too. All of us huddle together in this place to keep ourselves warm while other groups make their offerings and perform pooja. We are told that on clear days we can see three dams from the top. We wait for one hour braving the cold even after other groups have started their descent in the hope that the fog will clear and we can take in the view. However this proves futile as the wind and mist only seem to get stronger.

So after spending one hour on the top we start our downward trek which turns out to be even more dangerous than the upward one. Now the winds are blowing against us and we can’t even stand up straight or the wind will bowl us over. So most of the group sit and crawl through the rocky part. But once we pass AC Vanam and Ponkalapara most of the downward journey becomes smooth and we reach back at Athirupara at around 1: 30 PM.

(To be continued...)


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part VI

On the second day of our trip we wake early from a well-earned sleep, all ready to take on the mighty Agasthya peak. We start early around 6:30 with minimum supplies, which includes lots of food anyway, as we don’t want to be burdened with too much weight through the steep climb that awaits us. We also take only empty bottles since we are told that water can be found in plenty on the way, in places such as Ponkalapara. As we keep going we realize the true beauty and varied specimen of nature that is endemic to this place. Most of us can’t identify any of the plants and flowers that catch our eye. We found trees that weren’t very tall, blooming with violet flowers, spread throughout the hillside.

The major resting point on the way up is called Ponkalapara. By the time we reached the entire area has been covered in mist with strong winds. If we sat down for two minutes we would start shivering and most of us weren’t adequately protected with sweaters. We had let our bigger sweaters behind at Athirumala not wanting to carry the additional burden. That turned out to be a mistake. It was colder that usual that day. At Ponkalapara pilgrims make ‘Pongala’ as offering and carry it to the top which is how the place got the name. After Pongalapara the climb gets unusually steep and dangerous. At a couple of places you have to use all four limbs to make your way up.

The next major point is one of the most amazing places of all - a forest near the top called (aptly) ‘AC Vanam’ as it very cold in there all throughout the day. It is said that the forest is always dripping wet and indeed there is no single dry rock to sit or a dry leaf to see. It is said that due to the numerous medicinal plants present there anyone who spends some time in the AC Vanam will not fall sick for one month. This is the final stop before the final climb to the top.

On days such as this day when there is constant mist the rocks will all be slippery and dripping wet making it even more hazardous. At two places big ropes have been placed for helping people to climb up. Here the strong wind blows upwards to the peak actually helping us to climb.

(To be continued..)


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part V

There is a dormitory in Athirumala built by the Forest department for trekkers to take rest with a canteen that provides food - for a small price. Small considering that most of the ingredients are carried up there by tribals since it is not allowed for anyone to cultivate or take anything from the forest.

You get delicious hot ‘kanji’ and rice as well as other food during the day. They also provide free hot water to drink which is a blessing in the nights when it can be unusually cold. The building however has a scary look – not in the sense that it looks haunted but that it looks like it could fall on your head anytime. Another typical example of government inefficiency when you learn that it is only a few years old. Well something over your heads is better than nothing. At night the wind, which was a blessing during our long walk in the day turns into wild ravaging animal, smashing window panes and threatening to hurl the roof off and break huge branches over our head. It is also extremely cold and having to lie in the cement floor without sufficient blankets will make you feel frozen stiff in the morning.

However it a festive atmosphere inside with all kinds of people, nearing about 100, engaged in their own activities. Some groups chose to pray and sing hymns while others play cards or tell stories, some secretly smoke or drink – anything to make your forget today’s exhaustion and get ready for tomorrow’s walk to the summit.

It is from Athirumala that you can actually see the Agathya peak which you are going to climb. It sits like a huge boulder, like a sentinel guarding our territory. You can usually only see the summit during midday as in the mornings and evenings it will be covered with mist. Seeing the hills also remind you of something – that these hills like the Agasthyamala played an important role in creating the collective consciousness that we call Kerala. Bordered by sea on one side the Western Ghats somewhat isolated this geographical place from the rest of the Indian sub-continent and thus played an important role in shaping our culture. This is the reverence we feel when we stand at the foot of the imposing mountain range – that we owe something to them, something that is a part of us.

(To be continued...)


Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part IV

The water from the stream there was the tastiest I have ever drunk. And so cold even at midday. The Agasthya forests contain numerous medicinal herbs and plants that are not found elsewhere. And the water that comes trickling through the roots of these plants and filtered by nature is supposed to be medicinal and healthy. After drinking like 2 bottlefuls after trekking – I totally have to agree.

So after the refreshing dip at the Bona Falls we continued our journey – again through the dense forest till we re-joined the official trail. All through our slight detour we only saw one soul – a tribal guard. He was amazed to see us emerge from the dense clearing with no guide. Anyway he pointed us to right direction and we finally joined the others who had started before us. The last group that went before us were obviously going slowly and we were moving very quickly, which is why we could catch up with them even though we had taken a longer route.

Another exciting feature of an Agasthyaarkoodam trip is that you pass through all types of scenery – from dense forests with huge trees to grasslands peppered with bonsai trees to steep rocks. We pass all these to come to Athirumala, about 10kms below the summit, where we rest for the day. Since the next stage of the trekking is extremely steep and dangerous no one is allowed to proceed after dusk. However there are pilgrims who insist on going the same day itself but since we are devoid of any divine intentions we stop and rest for the day.

(To be continued...)


Friday, February 12, 2010

Gerald Posner resignation

.Gerald Posner, a noted writer and journalist, resigned from the newspaper he was working for - Daily Beast - on allegations of plagiarism. He published his views on the issue in his blog where he expresses regret for the inadvertent mistakes he made. I think this is an important letter to be read by every journalist, especially in the age of the New Media.

Some excerpts:

"I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.” For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic – that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words.

In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote."

I am posting the link of the entire letter below. Read on.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part III

Luckily the wind came to soothe our fears a little bit. The breeze brought us relief as we were soaking wet with sweat from walking with our backpacks (as well as fear too, I believe). The wind also provided some much needed noise through the swaying trees. We continued walking and the sound of the breeze grew bigger and the forest grew thicker.

Suddenly Pakaran stopped and said “Listen carefully!” We stopped dead in our tracks. “What? What is it?” He said “It is not the sound of the wind getting stronger. It is the sound of water. Falling on rocks. A waterfall!” We listened carefully now and realized he was telling the truth. We ran straight ahead. We could see a clearing in front of us and we ran together and came out from behind the last tree to see the most breath-taking view of a wonderful waterfall nested right there in between lush greenery, the spray from the fall drawing a rainbow in front of our eyes! This was paradise! And not another single soul in sight but us! A small lake had formed where the water fell and the rocks right below the fall was raised like a platform and we immediately slipped out of our clothes and those of us who knew swimming swam there while the rest of us waded through the side between the rocks to reach there. And we stood there right beside the water falling from such a height with so much power. We held our hands together and shouted like we had conquered the world. All our tiredness and exhaustion had disappeared like a bad dream. This was certainly the closest place to heaven on earth.

Pakaran told us that this time the water was less since it had been a couple of weeks without rain. Usually the water falls from the top to much farther so we can actually stand on the platform behind the waterfall. We could see the place where water usually fell was deep though it looked shallow. Even then it was an amazing sight. The pit formed from the waterfall was colourful like nothing I had ever seen before. There were designs on the smooth rocks below, presumably algae, in different colours – green, blue, red, yellow. You couldn’t stop looking – it seemed as if a magical world existed down there. So alluring and so deadly too for we were warned it was much deeper than it appeared. And with the ice cold water someone not an expert would be in real danger if he tried to swim cross.

(To be continued ...)


Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part II

By the time we started it had become almost noon and all the 4 groups allowed for this day had proceeded with the designated guides, leaving us without anyone to guide or protect us. All the more better! Pakaran was making his 9th trip and we were pretty much confident in him. Going without a guide could prove to be a blessing so we could do as we pleased – though I must certainly admit it was dangerous.

We followed the official trail for some distance and then Pakaran took a detour. He said he would take us to the Bona Falls which is a waterfall in the middle of the forest a little far away from the official path. It was near here where last year’s tragedy had taken place and so it was strictly forbidden for anyone to go near the falls. Anyway it was apparent that the way we were going was through thick forest and there was absolutely no trail of any kind. Or any sign of water or a stream let alone a waterfall. Our confidence in Pakaran quickly turned into skepticism and then doubt and then fear as we went deeper into the forest and had to climb over or crawl under fallen trees as it became more and more silent all around. I have been to many forests and I have heard elephants and other animals roar. They are frightening but absolute silence is eerily more frightening that the deafening roar you expect to hear in a forest.

Every few steps we would ask “Brother, is this the right way?” and he would simply say “Follow me” without saying yes or no. Now that answer makes you very uncomfortable because you don’t know whether he knows the way or he too is lost. I mean if he just said “Yes this is the way” or at least “No we are lost” we would have felt better. Knowing you are lost is definitely better than not knowing whether you are lost or not. And so we continued our journey wondering what lay ahead.

(To be continued...)

Agasthyarkoodam Trip - Part I

I have always wanted to go to Agasthyaarkoodam since I had first heard of it. It is the second highest mountain peak in Kerala after Anamudi, standing at a height of 1890 m above sea level. It is a protected ecological area and you have to obtain sanction from the Forest Office at Trivandrum to make the trip, which is usually only permitted in January – February period.

We started our journey early morning on 27th January, 2009. We traveled by car and bike to Bonakkadu from where the trekking starts. We had reached by 7 AM when the first team of trekkers is allowed to go. There are about 15 people in one group and a guard / guide will be assigned to them. Though we had reached before the first group took off some technical problems delayed our start. There were seven people in our group. But two of them couldn’t make the trip due to personal reasons. So we included two other friends in their place at the last moment. The senior most person in our group, affectionately called ‘Pakaran’ by us, said that this would be no problem with the forest authorities since they had gone likewise in the previous years too. But when we reached there the forest authorities wouldn’t permit these two ‘others’ to enter.

Last year one trekker had been killed by an elephant and it seemed the authorities were very strict after that. We couldn’t blame them for taking stringent precautionary measures but we were desperate too. We wouldn’t get another chance this year and so made some phone calls to the Forest Division office in Trivandrum to contact the forest officers here and convince them that we weren’t trouble makers or terrorists and in the end we were allowed to proceed.

(To be continued...)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Greatest discovery of the century in the Antarctic – 100 year old whiskey

We usually find ice in whiskey. But this time whiskey has been found in ice.

One of the greatest re-discoveries of the 21st century was made in the Antarctic this year when 5 crates containing whiskey was recovered after lying for more than 100 years in the ice.

They belonged to the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton who attempted to be the first person to reach South Pole in 1908. Due to hazardous conditions the trip would not be successful although he became the man to come closest to the South Pole at that time.

The crates containing the whiskey were found buried beneath Shackleton’s Antarctic hut where his expedition team was forced to leave behind supplies. According to the researchers who found the crates they are confident the liquor is intact inside as liquid could be heard when the crates were moved. It is believed the crates contain Mackinlay’s whiskey and according to the company this discovery may open a door into history since the original recipe no longer exists – “a gift from heaven for whiskey lovers.”

So here’s a toast to the bravery of men like Shackleton who journeyed into uncharted lands in the most hazardous conditions armed with nothing but strength of mind and whiskey – Cheers!

Wayanadu – brilliant political move by CPI (M)

The latest struggle by Adivasis for the land held by Shreyamskumar and George Pothan is the result of a brilliant tactical move by the CPI (M). M P Veerendrakumar should have been expecting this since after being with them for so long he should know that CPI (M) never forgives its enemies.

M P VeerendraKumar though his books and speeches gives out the image of someone who loves nature. As far as we know a good part of the land in Wayandu district belongs to him and his family. And his friends. Even the opposition leaders are finding it extremely hard to protect his interests since it was Oomen Chandy himself who first spoke out about the encroachment by Veerendra Kumar some years back when he was with the Left.

Even Mathrubhumi has utterly failed to in its attempt to malign the CPI (M) in this matter. Even though they have now dedicated an entire page with rants against the ‘encroachment’ by CPI (M) led Adivasis on the ‘encroached’ land, these outbursts of protest are by leaders of small parties, mostly JanataDal, within the UDF. No major literary or cultural figures have come out in support of Veerendra Kumar.

CPI(M) already has the upper hand in this political labyrinth. This battle is political, no doubt about it. Either way it is a win –win for CPI(M). If the courts decide against Veerendra Kumar hundreds of Adivasi families will get land. Even if it ends otherwise CPI (M) has already wreaked enough damage to Veeran’s reputation.