Wednesday, September 1, 2010

50 percent allergy, 50 percent luck

I asked Soni what decent people like him think about all such misery, like the people in Ambala or the tailor and his consort; he replied, "50 percent karma, 30 percent government corruption, 20 percent no education". A very fitting defintion if you ask me, which could be further fine-tuned to include a healthy ratio of arrogance, ignorance, inertia, stupidity and superstition too, depending on whom we meet in incredible India.
When I saw it first in 1994 I very much loved Manali but now it was just another tourist trap, and staying in the backpacker's haven of Old Manali I realised I'm too old for this stuff, or it was simply the rain that made me hate the place. I was qiute happy to leave the place next morning (4 August, Wednesday) but a tyre had to be fixed and when we arrived to the first slopes of Rohtang Pass it was already 12.15 with the unavoidable traffic jam - trucks, jeeps, buses waiting bumper-to-bumper for a miracle to happen. The scenery was gorgeous, though.

Photography was challenging - the clouds were bright, the valley dark, making landscape shots very challenging for the 5D's dynamic range. As usually, it was a choice between blown highlights above and seriously underexposed areas below. I didn't had a tripod so HDR was no option. I therefore used a Cokin Z-Pro series ND4 neutral grad filter to slightly tame the highlights, measured the exposure on the darker areas and underexposed them by -2/3 or 1; this was enough to avoid blown areas in the sky and the underexposed areas are easy to light up in post-editing, either by shadow contrast in RAW Shooter or the soft light brush in PS.

We still could have made it in a long day to Jispa or at least Keylong but I decided to turn back to Manali; after all, we were not in a hurry. Back in town I used the afternoon for a stroll on the Mall and portrait-hunting; it was a pleasure to meet again a few people from last year like him:

When I met him, this friendly old laundry-man was ironing some shirts exactly like last year (hopefully not the same shirts) and still had this look, a mixture of enigmatic, annoyed and disapproving. Hard to believe that he put it on only when I photographed him. There was another man too who is a good example to show some of the challenges in Indian portrait photography: bright clothes and very dark skin.

Using a fill-in flash is tricky because it's hard for the camera to find the correct exposure, and besides, usng flash on dark skin like this can easily screw up the skin tones and result in blown areas on the nose and forehead. I had a Lightsphere flash diffuser on my 580EXII Speedlight but it's not really for outdoor shooting and didn't help me much in such situations. Again, taking a shot avoiding blown highlights in the bright areas and lighting up the face in post-editing was the solution (this one is not edited at all - the face tones could still be improved).

We spent the night at Hotel Mount View, a budget place where the atmosphere of bygone times made up for the not-so-classy bathroom facilities (meaning: when I flushed the toilet, the water came back from a hole in the plumbing - let's call it water recycling); in the evening I had a rush of loneliness and homesickness, as inevitable in the first days of travel as diarrhea, but painful nonetheless. I called someone who should know this feeling very well as he was on the road himself, and I wished he were here or me with him in Israel, but my call was bruised off with an "if you've nothing important to say don't call me, it's expensive for me". Actually there's a point to that... probably it's also time for me to save money on phone calls to Hungary.

Next morning, 5 August, we started out early, enough to avoid the worst of the traffic up Rohtang Pass. In vain. We got there early enough but the inavoidable traffic jam was already waiting for us, turning the misty Pass into a mud-wrestling between trucks and jeeps in the slow, depressing rain.

We slowly made up to Marhi, a little cluster of small dhabas and a temple, where we had breakfast for the body and Baba Ramdev on TV as food for the soul; I don't understand Hindi, and my soul remained rather hungry.

I had hoped that after the damned pass weather will improve like last year, but the mist prevailed, only occasionally fading away into pale sunlight.

But at least the rain stopped, and as we slowly approached Keylong the sun came out (later I wished it wouldn't have, for very inconvenient reasons). My left forearm was itching and when I pulled up my sleeve I saw to my horror that my skin is covered with ugly, disgusting rash - some already running pus. An allergy was all I could think about, even though I never ever developed an allergy to anything (probably it was not such a good idea to start the day with a Red Bull - paracetamol combo?). Even though we could have made it to Leh with a very long afternoon trip, we had to stop at Keylong and visit the hospital as I had the nightmarish vision of the rash getting over all my body by next morning. I took a few shots in Keylong though; then left our gear at a hotel and rushed to the hospital.

Keylong's state-run hospital is far better than one would expect. It was funny too, because a policeman brought in another officer who was allegedly drinking on duty and the young doctor had some difficulty trying to find out the truth:
"- What's your name, officer?
- I swear I didn't drink, doctor!"
Guilty as charged if you asked me... anyway, in the end I got two anti-allergic shots, medicine and a balm wth the advice to avoid sunshine. That was really cool - all I wanted was to escape the bad weather, and then I mustn't because going to the sunshine was verboten. Back in the hotel I spent the night trying not to scratch, applying the balm and watching boring Hindi news channels.
However... soon news were to turn exciting because that was the night when a cloudburst devastated half of Leh, several kilometers of the highway and two vital bridges beyond Sarchu. If we don't return the day before, it hits us in Leh; if we don't have to stop for treating my allergy at Keylong, it hits in the Indus Valley or more likely, in the wilderness beyond the Morey Plains. But for the time being we were safe and sound in Keylong.
Here's our refuge, as seen from the Buddhist monastery opposite the town.


Stefania Cruceru said...

Excellent images Balazs!!! :)

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