I went for a practice session of our Barbershop chorus for the first time in a long while yesterday. The last time I had sung with the chorus was at the fair, before my trip to India. After an absence from the scene of slightly less than two months, after weeks of not practicing, and being away from the three other parts that also make up the Barbershop chorus, it felt like I was learning to sing once again. It was a mortifying experience. I did not have the energy to hold the high notes, or even sing complete songs. I was tentative in trying to find my notes. I had been hoping to play a supporting role during my first practice, leaning on some a strong lead singer who had been at practice more regularly than me. That was not to be. I was thrown into the fire.
I was reminded in real time that what I was doing was not a simple thing. Since childhood, I have had the false impression that I could sing, but the more I learned about singing, the more I realized that I did not know what I was doing. People were being very kind when they listened to me. But now, I believe I can honestly claim that my skills are not as bad as they used to be. I believe that I am improving. I can perhaps claim that I am an integral part of a craft that can bring some pleasure to others. It has taken me many years to get this far, and perhaps in a few years time I could even realize how bad I really am at this moment in time when I am writing this blog. All of this will be a part of the learning experience, an experience that will go on as long as I can join others in trying to create a joyful sound.
With support from the director of the chorus, my singing ability started coming back to me slowly as the practice session continued. The director had been intending to cut the practice session short because we did not have a strong lead singer. Instead, we actually continued singing through to the original end time of the rehearsal.
I settled for this basic barbershop polecat song when it came time for me to sing in a quartet.
A lot of barbershop songs are sung in the key of B♭.
The Getaway Outpost near the park that we were going to stay at was located closer to its southern end, just outside the village of Stanardsville, VA. My initial thought had been to drive to Stanardsville directly, driving on the main highways in order to get there as quickly as possible. I changed my mind shortly before we started out. We decided to start our explorations of the park on Sunday itself, starting at the northern end of the park. That entrance to the park, just outside of the town of Front Royal, VA, was very easily accessible to us via Interstate-66 – the most direct route to the park from Washington, DC. This was how we usually got into the park. This was also Mile 0 on the Skyline Drive.
I-66 transported us from the crowded suburbs and the unending construction close to the city to the bucolic countryside of Virginia. Soon we were approaching the eastern ridges and the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.
As we got closer to the park, we could not help but notice that the foliage everywhere was still green.
The Senior Pass that I had just got helped us bypass the longer lines at the entrance to the park. The first order of things was to stop at the Visitor center to decide the places that we wanted to visit within the park. A ranger indulged us with maps and suggestions for places to hike. The places suggested were located all along the park – starting close to the visitor center where we were beginning our visit, and extending to the place that would exit the park to get to Stanardsville (just beyond Mile 65 on the Skyline Drive) at the end of the day.
I could not help but notice that the Dickey Ridge visitor center that we were at was busy, but not overcrowded as it sometimes gets during the autumn season. People from the Indian subcontinent were present in large numbers.
Thankfully, the crowds diminished as we drove further into the park.The first stop was in the Compton Gap Area, just beyond mile 10. We hiked up to Compton Peak West from the Compton Gap Parking area. The parking lot was full but we found some space next to the road.The hike was mainly along the Appalachian trail.
We realized very quickly that this was not going to be like our typical weekend walks along the C&O Canal. The climb started right from the beginning of the trail. The climbs were significant and persistent.This being the first of our hikes for the week, we had to take more than our usual quota of breaks to catch our breath. I did not think that the altitude was significant enough to be contributing to our troubles.
The Compton peak viewpoint itself was occupied by a group of young people who seemed to have had settled themselves in for the longer run. I had to settle for this picture.You may be able to actually make out the Skyline Drive on the ridge in front of us in the picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it). The roadway itself can be seen in one spot through a gap in the trees. You can see the road better in the zoomed-in picture below.
We did see some yellows on the trail.This being the first day of our visit to the park, we still had hope that we would see more Fall colors.
After the hike, we continued our way south into the park. We stopped at the Elkridge Wayside area and found a picnic bench where we could eat our peanut butter and cranberry marmalade sandwiches.
Along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of seasonal change.
Our next hike was in the Hawksbill area. We took the Upper Hawksbill Trail from a parking lot south of Mile 46. This trail had a shorter climb to the peak than the Lower Hawksbill Trail, but was longer in distance, and also took a longer time. Our choice of trails is a good indication of our mindset when it came to hiking at that stage of our travels. We were conservative in our efforts.
The climb up the Upper Hawksbill Trail was not as challenging as the one we had done in the morning. We did see more signs of early autumn as we made our way through the woods.
The wind was picking up as we hiked the trail. We could hear it howling through the trees by the time we got to Hawksbill peak and the viewing platform there. It was even difficult to hold steady while taking pictures at the top!
Shafts of intense sunlight cut through the dark clouds moving over the valley, lighting up parts of the valley selectively.
As you can see below, the ridge line was clearly visible from the peak. If you open up the pictures below and look at them carefully in sequence, you can zoom in on an overlook on the Skyline Drive near the top of the ridge line. The overlook is on the west side of the ridge (on the left side of the ridge as seen in the picture). These pictures should hopefully give you a good idea of the scope of the panoramic view we were getting from this mountain top.
There were clearly signs of autumn in this section of the park.
This is a picture of Byrds Nest 2 shelter near Hawksbill peak. There are shelters and cabins throughout the park.Incidentally, Hawksbill is the highest peak in the park.
This was our last significant stop for the day. We drove further south on the Skyline Drive towards our destination for the evening, and left the park at the Swift Run exit just south of mile 65. We took US Route 33 East out of the park towards Stanardsville. We had to descend from the ridge on which the Skyline Drive is located on a winding road which was a little challenging, especially at the advertised highway speeds. The town was a few miles away from the park. We first did a bit of light shopping at the grocery store in town before heading out to the Getaway Outpost just outside of town.
The first evening at the outpost was a bit of an adventure. It was simply a matter of getting used to our own place in the woods.
The inside of the tiny home was quite cozy.
That evening we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs that we had brought with us from Gemelli’s Italian Market! I had been having a craving for spaghetti with meatballs during that period of time. It was a part of my physical and mental recovery from my trip to India.
We were quite tired from the day’s activities and crashed out soon after dinner, well before our usual bedtime.
You can read about the second day of our trip here.
The re-engagement process started in earnest last weekend. The period of time after my return from India had been difficult. I had mostly been in recovery from some strange ailment that had hit me towards the tail end of my travels. The doctors at home could not figure out what I had caught, but whatever it was had thrown a few of my systems off-kilter. I lost a lot of weight – still have not made up the deficit. I was feeling a very strange lack of energy, and, other than a few isolated cravings, had no desire to eat or drink stuff that I usually enjoyed. The situation had kept me indoors most of the time since my return home.
But things could not stay this way indefinitely. I was getting stronger. I had to get out of the house andre-engage with my daily routines. I had to figure out how much I was really capable of doing.
What finally forced my hand was a trip that had been planned about six months ago. We had made arrangements to go down to the Shenandoah National Park to enjoy the autumn colors, staying a couple of nights at a place featuring tiny homes parked in the woods. The booking at the Getaway Outpost was not refundable. Making a reservation so far ahead of time to see the Fall colors had been a gamble.
As it turned out, we were, unfortunately, a little early for the colors of Fall. We could see the beginnings of change in the park, especially in the higher elevations, but the rest of the space was still green and lush. But how could that be a bad thing?! Regardless of the colors, you cannot go wrong visiting the Shenandoah National Park, especially if the weather cooperates. We enjoyed three gorgeous days in the park. We had clear skies all the time we were there. The mornings were quite chilly, more than I expected, especially when compared to home, but the days warmed up nicely for hiking. We had a wonderful time!
We drove to different locations along the Skyline Drive, stopping at a few of the overlooks along the way that provide views of the valleys below the ridge line, but spending much more of our time hiking on trails that started from beside the main road. The park was less crowded than I expected it to be. We were always able to find some place to park the car. We would split the day into a couple of somewhat shorter hikes, having lunch in-between – either at a picnic bench or seated in the car itself. Even though the distances covered in each of these hikes during the day were shorter, they were pretty intense hikes for novices like us, with steady climbs and descents. We covered about 16 miles, and did over 4000 feet of climbing and descending. We pushed ourselves, even when on the rough and rocky trails that we sometimes encountered, taking breaks as needed. We learnt more about our capabilities and limits as the days went by. We were really capable of doing more than we initially thought we could.
A lot of our time was spent on the Appalachian Trail that runs all the way through the park. Destinations on the trails included mountain tops and waterfalls. We walked up to the highest point in the park. We went down to what might be its most popular waterfall. Since the park runs over a hundred miles north-to-south (or south-to-north, depending on your point of view!), we were able to find trails at several spaced-out locations along the Skyline Drive, far away from the park entrances where the crowds tend to gather. We had a lot of time to ourselves on some of these trails, while some of the more popular ones got a little bit crowded. But, surprisingly, even the popular trails were not as crowded as I expected this close to the phenomenon of the autumn colors. We were usually walking in solitude in the woods by ourselves – surrounded by the thick forest vegetation. Whether we encountered signs of autumn was a matter of luck.
This ended up being one of my stranger trips to India. I had gone with a purpose, a purpose that consumed a lot of my mental energy during the trip, a purpose that was largely unfulfilled. I spent almost all of my time at home, and around home, mainly because of the coronavirus, the only exception being the visit to the IIT campus. While in town, I met up with only one of my friends. I also ended up doing quite a bit of physical work around the house. Not the usual circumstances I would say.
And then I fell sick towards the end of the trip. I was concerned about the possibility of not passing the coronavirus test, a requirement to be able to fly home. While I recovered from my fever early enough to be able to take the test, I still had to deal with shenanigans at the testing lab in terms of the availability of test results. Thankfully, the test results were negative.
I could not sleep well the night prior to my flight. It gave me the opportunity to take a couple of street pictures in front of the house in the night.
This is not the way the place looks during the day. The junction in front of the temple is usually filled with people and vehicular traffic.
I flew out of Chennai the next night. I went through the airport processes just like I had done many many times before. I tried to be patient with the process. It was a comical scene when the security officer informed me that I had something metallic in my pants pocket. I searched around and found a One Rupee coin that had somehow escaped my attention at home. Fortunately, the officer did not make a further fuss about it.
The flight out of Chennai appeared to be full. They gave us face shields to use for the duration of the flight (in addition to usual masks), and some of the passengers who were sitting in the middle of a set of three occupied seats got what looked like hazard suits. It was really pointless, considering the discipline on the plane. The guy next to me sprawled out into the seats on his two sides, proceeded to remove his mask and face-shield for extended periods of time, and coughed a phlegmy cough occasionally. I leaned away. I was happy when this flight ended.
My mood changed when I stepped on to the tarmac at Hamid International Airport in Doha. The sun was rising over over the Persian Gulf. I had gotten into the back of the bus taking us to the main terminal, and I was facing the back of the bus – the right direction to see the sunrise! My got the camera out. The other passengers must have considered my actions a little loony. It was half-way to the main terminal on the bus when I felt an very clear lifting of a weight off my mind. I had stopped thinking about the unfinished business at home in Chennai, if only for a little while.
Hamid International Airport turned out to be a super-efficient setting for a transfer. Going through security was an actual complete process, with the support from the staff causing the least anxiety. The airport itself was laid out nicely, with a lot of open space. I could relax and catch up on what was happening in the world.
The flight from Doha to Washington, DC., was very comfortable. The flight was not full, and the seats seemed to be more comfortable than on my first flight. The flight attendants were top-notch. The crew seemed to be dominated by Filipinos. I was still dealing with some unfinished business from having fallen sick in Chennai. I was peeing very frequently. An aisle seat facilitated movement in this regard. But a flight of 14 to 15 hours is still a challenge any way you look at it. They did take care of us well, fed us nicely, and kept us hydrated.
One would have thought that having made my way back home, I would finally be able to relax and try to get back into the scheme of things. That was not meant to be. The first night I walked around the house in a daze looking for the bathroom, still thinking that I was in the place I had just returned from. My mind concocted imaginary passageways. I was still somewhere else.
I then fell sick once again, this time quite seriously. Perhaps I had never healed completely from the previous attack. Or perhaps my physical and mental state left me vulnerable to catching something else. I had a high temperature and I lost all appetite. This particular attack required a trip to the Urgent Care Center, and all kinds of lab tests being ordered to rule out different tropical diseases. The nights of jet-lag and fever in the meantime have been taking me back to India in my dreams. I am still wiped out. Thankfully things are improving, although slowly. We still are not sure what I caught, but at least you now know why I have not blogged for a while.
I spent a few hours walking around the IIT Madras campus yesterday reliving some of the memories of my youth. My dad used to be a professor there at one time. I grew up on campus. Later on, I also went on to get my undergraduate degree from the university. I am a true child of IITM.
This is one of the houses that I grew up in on campus.The approach to the house looked somewhat overgrown. Perhaps nobody lives there these days. These set of homes were called the Wardens Quarters. My dad was the warden of Tapti Hostel when we used to live at No. 8. It must have been towards the end of the sixties. I used to go to elementary school at that time. I remember one day not getting on the bus that I normally took when returning home from school. I walked home instead, taking a shortcut through the stadium. My brother might have also been with me. I do not remember why we did that. Perhaps I had lost the money that I had been given for the bus ride.
The campus looks as green and lush as ever these days, but there are so many new buildings. The banyan trees still catch your attention and retain their places of prominence along the roadways.
The monkeys are everywhere.They were not as aggressive as I expected them to be. I remember the times when I was growing up when they would enter the house to steal food. They would destroy things and create havoc when you chased them away. Some of them would make threatening faces at you and make a move towards you when you tried to scare them. We had screens on the windows of the house to prevent the monkeys from getting in, and you had to make sure that the external doors of the house were closed when you were not around.
And then there are the deer. They are still plentiful, and there are spaces on campus now where they are left alone and protected. The two deer in the picture below are the spotted deer and the blackbuck.
This picture was taken at the campus stadium. One of the deer is an albino.
The Gajendra Circle is a familiar landmark of the campus.My old high school grounds are next to Gajendra Circle. The place looked a little unfamiliar. The small outdoor theater space where we used to have our school gatherings was no longer visible. But there were some kids out there playing cricket – just like we used to do when we were young. Three cricket stumps stood by themselves in the middle of the grounds while the kids played in a corner of the field.
I walked past the Open Air Theater, also called the OAT.Many a weekend of my youth was spent in the evening in this open space watching English movies out in the open under the stars. The well-built screen that you see to the right of the picture did not exist during my times. Instead, three metal frames would be rolled to the front of the stage and placed next to each other, and a white screen made up of some flexible material (cloth or canvas, I do not know) pulled up and tied to the edges of the overall framework of metal for the duration of the movie. The movie was projected on to the screen from a room above the entrance on the left side of the picture. When watching a movie, the celluloid reel could rip and tear apart once in a while. You could hear the collective groan of the audience – the students and the faculty and staff of the college. There would be delay while the projectionist patched the reel back together. And then the show continued under the stars.
I was hoping to do some birding while on campus. The place has apparently become well known for this activity since I left. I got a recommendation from a friend to go to a swampy area next to the Social Activity Center. I saw a few birds that were less familiar to me.
My only company this early in the morning was the dog that kept barking at me when I stepped out on to the street. I promptly retreated back into the compound.The dog’s compadres on the nearby streets also joined in the noise making. They might have been passing messages to each other. The only other person who was up was the owner of the store across the road. She will soon start washing out her store front, a ritual that she has probably been doing for most of the years of her life. The Kolam will be the final step in the process that gets her store ready for the day’s business.
I never really overcame the jet lag of the trip completely. I am up very early in the morning with almost no exception. But it is OK. I try to make up for the early start with a nap during the day. The early start for the day gives me an opportunity to clean out the house before the rest of the neighborhood comes alive. Chennai dust is special. You just have to wait a couple of days for a layer of the dark stuff to collect on any untouched surface. The dust is relentless. It is fine enough to enter the house through the screens covering the doors and windows. You find yourself cleaning the place regularly. And then there are the fallen leaves that need to be swept up from the yard every other day.
Early mornings also give me the opportunity to go up to the terrace – before the sun is up.
The crows are the most common birds that you will see in these parts.Crows are said to be very social animals. I sometimes see them gathering in large numbers on the cellphone towers that are close by.I have noticed that some of these birds clean and preen themselves excessively in the mornings.
There was surprise guest in this picture I took at the time of the sunset. I do not know what it is.
I was talking to a friend over the phone while in the house when the rain began. I heard the sound of a loud thunderclap. The power went out. I lost my phone connection. Pretty soon it was coming down in buckets. The rains did not last too long but it was enough to cause the street to flood. Here are a couple of shots taken from the front gate of the house after it stopped raining.
Today is another hot and sunny day. That is what you usually expect in Chennai!
It is a strange thing that is happening to my body. Over a week has passed since my trip across the globe and I am still fighting the effects of jet lag. My avoidance of afternoon naps to enable nights of longer sleep duration have not panned out so far. I end up waking up a few hours before the sun is up, much before the sounds of the street begin to pick up, even earlier than the wake up calls of the birds. But this state of affairs did also offer an opportunity. I was awake early enough to be able to go up to the third floor terrace of the house to greet the sunrise and the dawning of the new day. Armed with information about the expected time of sunrise in Chennai, I ascended the stairs to the top of the house yesterday just before the dawn was due.
This first picture of the bright light in the skies turned out to be a show well before the actual sunrise. The colors in the sky disappeared very quickly.
Store fronts began to open and set up on the street. This is a little cafe.
This is a little store front right across the road.The banana leaves you see in the picture will probably be used for packing food that is sold. Later in the morning, the owner will wash the store front and complete the Kolam, the auspicious floor design on the ground in front of the home that is a tradition of South India.The milk packets for sale have already arrived are in the yellow crate.
Another false sunrise appeared in the sky shortly after the first one. It was brighter still than the first burst of light, and could be seen in a slightly different direction from that first light show. This time the light appeared over a building next to the terrace I was standing on.
This is the way the sky looked when you turned away from the sunrise phenomenon.
The color in the sky in the direction of the sunrise lost its intensity fairly quickly after the second burst of color.
The next distinct indication of the continuation of the sunrise was the light of the sun falling directly on a building that lay across from the rising sun.
It was a peaceful scene. Birds could be seen flying high across the sky in little groups. They seemed to have a sense of purpose. They flew in straight lines from one edge of the horizon to the other. From below me, on the street, arose the sounds of an awakening city.
But I still could not see the sun. It was hidden by the building in front of me. I could see the faint flare of light, somewhat like an aura, at the level of the building as the process continued.
The picture below shows the final phase of the whole transformation.
I departed the terrace at this point. My experience of the magic of this sunrise was now complete.
It rained once again the next day. Nighttime had fallen. We were watching TV in the living room when it began. Without any warning, the wind began to pick up. The screen door to the verandah began to move in the breeze, gently making contact again and again with the door frame – moving to its own rhythm. You might laugh at me when I say this, but there was the smell of rain in the air. I knew it was coming. Within a matter of minutes, I began to hear the sound of the rain hitting the branches of the trees. It soon became a continuous sound, getting louder and louder and filling the air.
I went out to the verandah to experience the sweet rain more fully. I walked up to the front gate. The water collecting on the road in front of the house was illuminated by the reflected light of the street lamps. The bright lights of the store fronts across the road almost shone in the rain. Vehicles splashed their way through the water, spinning up a light spray with their wheels. A few people made they way on foot carrying umbrellas. Others waited out the rain in front of the stores. I settled into a comfortable cane chair in the verandah to immerse myself in the sound of the rain. I closed my eyes. I fell into a gentle and soothing sleep.
Sometimes we do not even understand the nature of the gifts and the baggage we carry with us. It is possible that we do not even know that we are carrying gifts and baggage. How does one remain open-minded enough to get an adequate understanding about this? How can we build up relationships without understanding the nature of what we are carrying, something whose nature can change even within the context of the relationship itself?
How can I best use my gifts to relieve other people of the burdens of their baggage? Do I even understand the gifts and the burdens of the others in my relationships properly and adequately? It is still a work in progress.