Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sex Tourism

Canary Wharf tube station has an interesting advert for Expedia, a travel website. It shows airline baggage tags for Sun Valley (Idaho, USA), Seattle (Washington, USA), Seno (Laos) and Sembach (Germany).


I am not saying I would go to Sembach just for the sake of the baggage tag, but if I had to choose between Sembach and another destination, all other things being equal, I would probably opt for Sembach. “Sex tourism”, Anasua called it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

London, 3:38 pm

This photo, shot on Mudchute Farm, is a few days old, but with the bare branches and early sunset, it seemed appropriate for a midwinter post. It is ironic (though by no means unpleasant) that the walk to my local supermarket takes me through a farm.

Happy solstice, everyone.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Law Firm Toilet Humour

In moot court competitions at college, the court clerk would hold up sheets of paper saying 5 MINUTES LEFT or 1 MINUTE LEFT in large bold letters, so that the speaker would know how much time they had. One time, after our college hosted a moot court competition, someone (perhaps the same miscreant who was behind the Mystery of the Locked Loos) pasted these sheets at eye level on the inside of the loo doors in our hostel. I thought it was a sobering reminder not only of our limited time in the loo (there were 6 loos on our floor and 48 boys, all of whom wanted to use the toilet at the same time, i.e. 5 minutes before class, which meant that no one could occupy the toilet for more than a few minutes without attracting copious abuse), but also of our finite lives in this mortal coil.

Today in the office toilet I saw another witty use of stickers meant for other purposes. CONFIDENTIAL WASTE stickers are not hard to come by in a law firm, and someone had had the bright idea of sticking one at a strategic spot on the toilet wall.

Monday, December 10, 2012

London, 1:45 pm

You have seen a hundred other photographs of this view, but it is still a classic: looking west along the Thames from Waterloo Bridge. The London Eye is on the left bank; Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are on the right. The afternoon light these days in London is unusually golden.


I think I now have enough posts with titles of the form [City], [Time] to justify a new label.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Scrabble Proverbs

A recent post on Tommyjournal linked to a wonderful collection of Go proverbs. Here are my top 10 from that list:
There are possible things, impossible things, and things that happen. Sometimes things happen that were impossible.
The axe’s handle rots while the mind lives to the rhythm of the stones.
5 lines for extension in front of shimari.
It is difficult to know exactly what you are doing.
Proverbs do not apply to White.
Strange things happen at the one-two points.
Never try to cut bamboo joints.
In the corner, five stones in a row on the third line are alive.
If you have one stone on the third line, add another, then abandon both of them.
You can hide nothing on the goban.

I have never played Go, but of late I have been playing a lot of Scrabble, and between moves I came up with some Scrabble proverbs.
There are words, and there are spaces between words.
Seven tiles sit side by side, meditating on possibilities.
Be wary at family games, but remember that your reputation is not worth more than 50 points.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. Then flip the board over (as if by mistake).
There is only one g in crzjgrdwldiwdc. (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
Aspire for the seven-letter word, but make friends with the TWL98 two-letter word list. Played rightly, UT (syllable used in the fixed system of solmization for the note C) can be worth more than QUIXOTIC.
Ecstasy is a seven-letter word.
Here the word, there the meaning. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)
In the bag, all letters are worth nothing and everything.
Let no one see your rack.

If you can come up with any others, please leave a comment. Just to get you thinking, here is the board from last night’s Scrabble game.


And before anyone objects to SEXT (L-13), I hasten to clarify that it means the fourth of the seven canonical hours of the divine office, or the prayers prescribed for it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Truck on Kalikapur Road, Kolkata

Are you annoyed by the ringing of mobile phones? Do you wish that mobiles were always on silent and didn’t have any other mode at all? And do you wish that such mobiles were widely available, so that you could use them yourself, and better still, hand them out to others?

If so, help is at hand.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fishmonger Wisdom

This is not a political blog; nevertheless I thought I would share an anecdote about Mumbai and Bal Thackeray, the recently-deceased right-wing politician and founder of the Shiv Sena.

In the wake of his death, there is no shortage of fawning obituaries, but if you are unfamiliar with Thackeray and his legacy, this Hindu Op-Ed is worth a read. It is also worth noting that over four decades, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena have been responsible for fomenting hatred variously against communists, trade union activists, Dalits, Muslims, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kashmiris, South Indians, North Indians, Biharis and people who celebrate Valentine’s Day – hatred which has led to violence and sometimes murder.

I was in Bombay last week, and on Thursday, it being the day after Diwali, Jogeshwari market was nearly deserted. When Mrunmayee went to buy fish for dinner, there was just one solitary fishmonger. This was two days before Thackeray’s death was officially announced, but the fishmonger (like many other Mumbaikars) believed that Thackeray had died already, and his death was being hushed up so as not to clash with the Diwali festivities. She said her main concern was clearing out her stock before the announcement brought Mumbai to a standstill. “बालासाहेब ने हमारे लिए क्या किया?” she said. “मुझे तो मेरी मछली बेचनी है । काम करो, महेनत करो ।” (“What has Balasaheb done for us? I need to sell my fish. Work hard, do your job.”)

This is why I like Bombay.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Cooler Room

Delhi girls who are concerned that their room is not cool enough may want to call the numbers on this poster, which I saw today at Alaknanda Market in South Delhi.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Report Card

I was rummaging through old files and books at home (i.e. in Calcutta) and found an old report card from Class II.

I was eight years old. “Disturbingly talkative” got me into a lot of trouble with my parents.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Brief Discussion on Love

This Sunday’s cycling trip took us to Victoria Park, where gathering clouds created a dramatic backdrop to the autumn foliage.


The building on the right is the park café, where we stopped for a bite to eat. Everyone else was feeling cold, so I was drawing a considerable amount of criticism for taking my time over my sandwich, coffee and carrot cake. I thought they were overreacting (it wasn’t that cold), and to substantiate this I pointed to a couple who were boating on the lake in their shorts.

Saha: My god, how are they wearing shorts? It’s freezing!
Natalie: But it’s different with them. They are in lurve!
Saha: That doesn’t help! Have you not watched Titanic?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two Tings

It is generally better for public signage to be precise rather than vague, but you feel things may have gone a bit too far when the Regent’s Canal Towpath Code of Conduct prescribes not only that you ting, but also the appropriate number of tings.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Wisdom of Batman

I generally try to cook dinner at home. But if I have had a rough day at work, sometimes I feel tempted to cheat and buy a microwave meal. But then I think of a picture sent me by my wise friend the D-man and now taped (on the D-man’s recommendation) to our microwave.


And I smile sanctimoniously and start chopping onions.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Search Results

Existential messages generated by a computer are always funny, and this post reminded me of one of my favourites. I am no fan of Microsoft Outlook, but I love the question which appears below a search result.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Old School Close

Another Sunday, another cycling trip with Saha, another amusing street name.

None of your newfangled closes in Bromley: they like their old-school ones just fine, thank you very much.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Picnic People

Today is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere. I can no longer live in denial: summer is truly over. 

But this has been a good summer in many ways, not least because we managed to organise several picnics. If I had to pick my one favourite thing about London, it’s probably the parks.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ha-Ha

Saha and I went for a cycle ride this morning – a great route which included Greenwich Park, Blackheath, Gilbert’s Pit and the Thames Barrier.

On the way we saw this sign which would appear to be mocking motorists (and indeed cyclists).


In fact this is not a misplaced display of juvenile humour on the part of the civic authorities: Ha-Ha Road is a real road, named after the Royal Artillery Ha-Ha. This is one of my favourite street names in London, probably second only to Of Alley.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Kitchen-Shelf

Since I have posted photos of my bookshelf, my kitchen-shelf (which is equally, if not more important) should not go unrecognised.


From left to right, these are: water (labelled in a purely ironic sense), chili powder, turmeric, sugar, semolina, sesame, garam masala, coriander powder, pepper, cumin and (below that) cumin powder. There are others which I did not include in the photo.

When we finish, say, a jar of coffee, I clean it, remove the labels, stick on a handwritten label and use it to store spices. There are basically no downsides to this practice: aside from aesthetic considerations and the benefits of recycling, it also reminds me of an xkcd comic.

I get interesting reactions from visitors who look in our spice cupboard. Aditi visited shortly after mine and Saha’s parents, and opened the cupboard and said, “Wow. Who did this? Or rather, whose mom did this?”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Pimp My Cat

When I was in school, packing meant a family holiday. In college, I associated it with going home for vacations, or coming back to hostel at the beginning of next term – each exciting in its own way. When I was packing for my move from Calcutta to London, I was sad to say goodbye to family and friends, but thrilled about moving to a new city and starting work. Packing means change, and I like change, so (with one exception) I always get excited about packing.

This weekend we moved to a new flat which I really like, and not surprisingly, I was in high spirits while packing. And when I am in high spirits, I am apt to be reckless. From a conversation on Sunday:
Me: There’s a half-bottle each of virgin olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. I am mixing the two so that it’s easier to pack.
Nirmalya (with a pained expression): Go ahead. A few hundred Italians just died, but go ahead.
In a similarly reckless spirit, I decided that Mafatlal (the cat who appeared in a previous post) looked too staid in brown, and could do with a makeover. Accordingly, I stuck it all over with bits of coloured paper, and finished it off with a layer of varnish. The effect, I think, is not disagreeable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Messing about in Boats

‘This has been a wonderful day!’ said the Mole, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. ‘Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.’

‘What?’ cried the Rat, open-mouthed: ‘Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?’

‘Is it so nice as all that?’ asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

‘Nice? It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing—about—in—boats; messing—’
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Last weekend we nearly settled for a day walk in the countryside. Country walks are better than sitting indoors, but we were rather regretting not having planned a camping trip or something more exciting.

Luckily, just in the nick of time Saha came up with an inspired idea. We took a train out of London, hired a canoe for a day and rowed nine miles down the River Nene in Northamptonshire.

It must be noted, however, that while Saha’s enthusiasm may be infectious, not all his weekend plans are equally appealing. From a recent conversation:
Saha: Man, we ought to learn surfing.
Me: Hm, I’m not all that interested in surfing. And I don’t think I’ll be good at it.
Saha: Just think about it! You on a beach, surfboard in hand, floral bermudas, bleached hair.
Me: *gags*
Saha (trying a different tack): Look, you know how to swim, right? What’s the next logical step? Surfing!
Me: Saha, that is not among the next one hundred logical steps.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Foxes Come at Night

Not the first time I am posting about foxes, but we try to avoid monotony, so while the previous post referenced a song, this one references a book.

Some nights the yelping of foxes outside my window is loud enough to wake me up. I tried to take a photo, but foxes are elusive creatures. Besides it was dark outside and I was half-dazed with sleep, so it’s not a very clear image.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

tokyobike

tokyobike opened their first store in London this year. Surely, of all the vehicles devised by the ingenuity of man, the single-speed bicycle has to be the most beautiful.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Moral Ambiguity

Lalanti was our house guest for a week, and quickly made herself popular by baking apple pies and cupcakes. She also got us a basil plant, and left it in my care. The plant is doing well, considering we have denuded it already on two occasions (for French toast and pesto).

Eschewing my usual policy, I have not given it a rhyming name: instead I have named it Rathbone. The Basil Rathbone.


This morning I was idly gazing at the plant, and wondering if it bears any similarities to its namesake. The two things I know about Basil Rathbone (the actor) are: (a) he played Sherlock Holmes and (b) he was a good fencer. My plant, in its short life, has failed to secure any Hollywood contracts, and basil plants are not known for their fencing skills. But Wikipedia says Basil Rathbone was known for playing morally ambiguous roles, and there, I believe, we have hit upon a similarity.

For when you come to think of it, what can be more morally ambiguous than a basil plant? There it sits on our kitchen-window sill, its leaves ruffled by a gentle breeze. Does it have ideals? Can it distinguish right from wrong, and does it believe they are distinct? Does it believe in the transmigration of souls, or the common ownership of the means of production? What gods does it pray to?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Coffee in the Shadow of a Battleship

Our neighbourhood park, Island Gardens, overlooks the river Thames. The park has an outdoor café, where we often go on weekends for breakfast or afternoon tea. The coffee is unexceptional, but I like the view of the river.

For the last few days though, a large, unattractive object has intruded on the view: a battleship is moored on the river as a safety measure for the Olympics.


There are other safety measures in place, besides the battleship. Surface-to-air missiles have been installed on the rooftops of apartment blocks, and people have been arrested for not smiling, and for ‘cycling in a group north of the river Thames’.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

সাইকেল ভাড়া

This week London’s cycle sharing scheme celebrated its second birthday. For a while now I have been using these bikes to travel to work. Not everyone is a fan of the sponsors, but I like how the computerised docking terminals have a large number of language options, including Bengali.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rainbow Country

The northern lights get all the press, but as we found on our trip to Iceland earlier this year, rainbows are also surprisingly common.

I think it is the changeable weather, coupled with the low angle of the sun, that is responsible for this profusion of rainbows. On our second day in Reykjavík, we saw a glorious rainbow over the Faxaflói bay.


And those are just the ones in the sky. Then there is the sculpture which greets you on arrival at Keflavík Airport.

And the many graffiti rainbows on the walls of Reykjavík.


And finally, my favourite: a poster in Café Babalú, a wonderful little coffee-shop in Reykjavík.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Beaked God

The most outrageous thing I have ever worn to an airport was a tall Ladakhi ceremonial hat. Shocking pink with a silken sheen and golden tassels, it caused a sensation at Leh airport in the summer of 2010.

I had acquired said hat at a street-market in Leh, but when packing at the end of the trip, I discovered it wouldn’t fit into my backpack. The only way out was to wear it to the airport, a solution which had the added benefit of providing long-suffering air travellers and airport staff with some free entertainment.

Recently in Venice, I bought a papier-mâché carnival mask, too fragile and oddly-shaped to go in my hand-luggage. But it was a striking and beautiful thing, hand-painted in bright colours and embellished with gold-leaf, and with a sinister, phallic beak, like the god Quetzalcoatl.

Naturally I wore it to the airport. Italians, naturally excitable, thought it was hilarious. Some tried to engage me in conversation, but behind my mask I remained silent and inscrutable. Occasionally I raised an enigmatic index finger. When the fancy took me I drew a finger across my throat in a slicing motion, or nodded in stately fashion. With these and sundry other cryptic and sinister gestures, I frightened off the curious. I was like unto a beaked god among these babbling imbeciles. But for security check and at the immigrations desk they made me take it off.

Unfortunately there are no photographs of the pink Ladakhi hat, but Myshkin took one of me wearing the mask, and a bed-sheet for a cloak.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Zone 1 Snobs

Transport for London has a system of fare zones: Zone 1 is a roughly circular area covering central London, and Zones 2 to 6 extend around it in concentric rings.

I stay at Island Gardens, on the Isle of Dogs. Though this is in Zone 2, it’s close to work (only a 15-minute cycle ride away), and rents here are lower than in central London. But these reasons are not good enough for the Zone 1 snobs.

Most people of my acquaintance who live in central London are, to a greater or lesser degree, Zone 1 snobs. Spoilt by their proximity to tube stations and good restaurants, they look down on anyone who lives in Zone 2 or beyond. As for dwellers of Zone 5 or 6, a Zone 1 snob barely deigns to acknowledge their existence.

Should some errand require a Zone 1 snob to venture into the outer boroughs, they do so with many a complaint and protestation, and great is their relief once their mission is accomplished and they can return to familiar territory – “back in civilisation,” as the Quaker (himself a confirmed Zone 1 snob) once said, on arriving at Leicester Square after a long walk that skirted the outer reaches of Zone 1.

Anasua is moving to London later this year, but because she is planning to live in Bloomsbury, she has become a Zone 1 snob even before she has arrived in the city. Last week I was telling her I stay near Canary Wharf, to which her reaction was, “Canary Wharf sounds so uncool! Exactly like living in Howrah. Or even [shudder] Garia.” Readers who are familiar with the geography of Calcutta will recognise what a damning indictment this is.

But Anasua is not alone in her disdain for the Isle of Dogs: Zone 1 snobbery is by no means a recent phenomenon. From an 1858 publication quoted in the Survey of London:
The island is peopled by a peculiar amphibious race, who dwell in peculiar amphibious houses, built upon a curious foundation, neither fluid nor solid. Damp is a thing unknown in the Isle of Dogs – everything that is at all wet being thoroughly wet through. The houses, in many cases, drop on one side, at a greater angle than the notorious Leaning Tower of Pisa … productive of great inconvenience in a thickly-inhabited house, especially where there are crockery and children.
And on that note, here is a photograph of a fellow resident of the Isle of Dogs – neither peculiar nor amphibious, but fittingly, a dog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sunset on the Grand Canal

Yesterday, after dinner in Venice and with nothing better to do, I applied myself to the problem of finding the perfect spot on the Grand Canal to watch the sunset.

My objective was to find a spot whence the setting sun can be seen reflected in the water of the canal. This is not as easy as it may seem: unlike, say, a west-facing seashore from where you can always see the sun go down over the water, the Grand Canal curves this way and that.

It is possible to find the right place by trial-and-error. But this would involve a lot of walking about (I speak from experience) and is not guaranteed to produce results: the Grand Canal is nearly 4 km long, and not all sections have fondamenti (canal-side paths). Alternatively, you could take a vaporetto (water-bus) ride along the canal, but (a) by the time you realise that you are at the right place, the boat may have taken a turn, or (b) when you are at the right place, the sun may be too high or have already set, or (c) more aggressive tourists may have occupied the best windows. The other option of course is to hire a gondola, but private water transport involves more cash than I am willing to shell out, and is therefore outside the scope of this discussion.

So I did some maths.

The Grand Canal is shaped like an inverted S.

Image created by NASA, used with permission.

If you modelled a mathematical function to approximate its shape, tangents to the curve would make all possible angles to the horizontal. For a given solar azimuth angle, there are at least two spots on the canal where the tangent is parallel to the perpendicular projection on the surface of the vector from your position to the sun.

My maths not being advanced enough to come up with such a function, I cheated a little. I used an online tool to calculate the azimuthal angle of the sun. Then, with the aid of a ruler, I approximated tangents to the curve and determined the points where the angles matched. A spot between the San Stae and Ca' d’Oro vaporetto stops looked promising. So today, for about half an hour up to the predicted time of sunset, and armed with a ticket which gives me unlimited vaporetto rides, I embarked on a succession of rides back and forth between these two stations.


The photos are not out of the ordinary: it wasn’t an especially spectacular sunset, and there were no buildings with interesting silhouettes. But it was fun to do the maths.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Facial Exfoliator

Another overheard conversation, this time from the security check area of Luton Airport where, much to our annoyance, airport security staff were closely questioning passengers about any liquids and gels in their hand-baggage (even when these were within the 100ml limit and packed in transparent, resealable plastic bags as per regulations) and sometimes taking samples:
Security person: What’s in this tube?
Male passenger: It’s a facial exfoliator. It’s for the New Man.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Goodreads

I overheard this conversation at the Southbank second-hand book market:
Mother (to teenage son): Now what’s this thing called Goodreads?
Son: It’s like Facebook, but for people who read books.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Advantages of Being Alive

On a visit to Dr Johnson’s House this weekend, I was flipping through the guestbook: a most rewarding exercise, for some schoolchildren had visited on an excursion and left a string of entertaining comments. This one is my favourite:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mountaintop Zen

They say the only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Last year I climbed Fuji by night, timing the climb to reach the summit in time for sunrise. I brought with me no Zen at all, and I found none at the top – I found only a spectacular sunrise and unexpectedly, a ramen stall.

But who can say?  – maybe Zen is steaming ramen when you’re hungry, and the pinkgold sky at dawn.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Egg Printing Explained


Let it never be said that you can’t learn anything useful from this blog.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

London Marathon

As I type this, the London Marathon is happening just outside my window.


On days like this, I like London more than just ‘kind of’.

Monday, April 16, 2012

London, 7:45 pm

All day I was craving a cycle ride, but the Barclays bike terminals were down because of some computer failure. In the evening, I could take it no more, and borrowed Saha’s cycle for a spin.

On Westferry Road, there is a small wharf overlooking the Thames. I reached it just in time to see the sun go down behind the Central London skyline.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Chasing the Lights

“Looking for the northern lights,” said our bus driver, as we left the outskirts of Reykjavík and hit Route 41, “is like fishing.”

She did not elaborate, because Icelanders like their sermons short, and because she was simultaneously driving a bus, scanning the sky for northern lights and keeping up a running commentary – activities which left her with little or no leisure for explaining metaphors. But this is what I understood it to mean: Having invested in a fishing-rod and tackle and a day’s outing, if you catch no fish at all, you may be tempted to call it a waste of a day. And this can cloud your appreciation of the sunshine, the smell of grass and the music of the river.

February is not the most popular time to visit Iceland. The days are short, many roads are still impassable, there is limited public transport, and it is – as you might expect – fairly cold. But the Quaker and I wanted, if possible, to see the northern lights. In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about our quest, and promised to apprise you of further developments. The time for a fuller account is now come.

First, of course, you need a project name.

We take our trip-planning seriously, and I enjoy it nearly as much as the trip itself. Occasionally, we get carried away: to plan our Edinburgh trip, for instance, we booked a meeting room in Prakruthi’s swanky condominium.


Needless to say, we have project names for our trips, which are chosen early on in the planning process. Edinburgh was Project Kilt. Iceland, of course, was Project Aurora.

Being sensible people, we knew, project name notwithstanding, that a glimpse of the northern lights is by no means assured. By going in February and spending eight nights in Iceland, we were improving our chances. But aurora displays depend on the interaction between solar wind and the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and even when they do occur, you may miss it because of an overcast sky, or the glare of city lights, or simply because you are not in the right place at the right time.

We based ourselves in Reykjavík and Akureyri, but within city limits, chances of seeing the lights are slim. So we signed up for ‘northern lights tours’ – nightly bus trips into the countryside run by tour operators, using weather information, aurora forecasts and their own considerable experience at chasing the lights. Conveniently, they offer you a free second trip if you did not see the lights on your first. We were able to take advantage of this and make two trips from Reykjavík and two from Akureyri.

Trip 1 was from Reykjavík, on a partially overcast night. We went south-east, all the way to the south coast of Iceland, where the sky was supposed to be clearer. We saw the North Atlantic Ocean by night, but although we made several stops – by the ocean, on a deserted side-road outside Selfoss and, of all places, at a KFC – we saw no aurora. Then, around 1 am, just when we had given up hope, we stopped in the middle of a snowfield and spied a faint glow overhead. Behind a veil of cloud, the lights faintly flickered and moved, and vanished after a few minutes. The tour operators were, nevertheless, kind enough to offer us a free second trip.

Trip 2 was from Akureyri. There were not many tourists in the whole town, and only eight of us went on the tour. So we had a van, which was much cosier than a large bus. We were better prepared too, with biscuits, water and more warm clothing than we wore in Reykjavík.

I think it was on this trip that I really started enjoying the whole experience. Seeing the lights was still the main objective, but I began to appreciate other things: the vastness of the scenery, the incredible clarity of the stars, the icy crispness of the night air, the warmth inside the van and the sense of common purpose – something almost akin to the thrill of the chase.

To occupy ourselves during the long hours of standing around in the cold, the Quaker and I would play around with the settings on our cameras and take practice shots, so that when the aurora finally made an appearance, it would not find us unprepared. We have compact cameras and no tripods, but in our efforts to make the best of our limited resources, we left no technique untried. By the end of it, we could have written A Cheapskate’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights.

A Cheapskate’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights
(condensed version)
• 
Switch to Manual mode.
• 
Set a long shutter speed (on my camera, the longest possible is 15 seconds).
• 
Set the widest possible aperture (f/2.8 on my camera).
• 
Select a high ISO speed, but not so high that the grain is unacceptable (I opted for ISO 800).
• 
Set a 2-second timer, to eliminate camera shake caused by depressing the shutter.
• 
Find a horizontal surface, or failing that, put your backpack on the ground and balance your camera on it.
• 
Learn to do all of the above with gloves on, unless you want to lose a few fingers to frostbite.

It was an almost cloudless night; still we saw no aurora. But we saw the glimmering lights of Akureyri reflected on the waters of Eyjafjörður, and we got another free trip.

Trip 3 was also from Akureyri. There was a thick cloud cover over northern Iceland, and we knew from the start that we stood almost no chance of an aurora sighting. But by this time, it mattered less to us. We drove north, right up to Siglufjörður.

Our guide and van-driver was Inga Svavarsdóttir – a sheep-farmer and part-time tour guide. She kept up a stream of cheerful conversation, telling us about scientific explanations for the aurora, local folklore, the Siglufjörður fish industry, hiking in the surrounding hills, and Icelandic farming techniques. (Long-time readers may recall that this is not the first time I have been lectured on farming techniques.)

In case you’re wondering what an Icelandic farm looks like, here is a photo of one in the daytime.


At one point, after we had stood outside for a while vainly scrutinising an opaque sky and shivering in our shoes, Inga revealed homemade kleiner and thermos flasks full of hot chocolate. I doubt if even a sudden and dramatic appearance of the northern lights could have delighted me so.

Trip 4 was on my last night in Reykjavík. We had briefly wondered whether we should quit chasing the lights and do something else, but we decided we may as well avail of our remaining free trip. It was another cloudless night, but we had learnt not to expect too much. We drove west of Reykjavík, towards the Keflavík peninsula.

Around 9:30 pm, we made our first stop near a church. Excited tourists on their first northern lights tour piled out of the bus, quivering with anticipation and excitedly discussing our chances. The Quaker and I also disembarked, but with a dignity befitting four-trip veterans, with an indulgent smile or two at the over-enthusiasm of the first-time tourists: what did they know of disappointment and of long waits in the bitter cold?

Then the aurora lit up the sky, just like that.


People madly took photos. One dude, for reasons best known to him, pointed a red laser at the aurora. Having finely honed our photographic technique on the preceding nights, the Quaker and I reeled off a few quick shots, which left us with some time to forget our cameras and gaze at the sky.

The display lasted almost an hour. A vivid green streak formed in the northern sky, then a second streak curved into a horseshoe shape.


Some Aurora Myths

A Finnish folktale says that the aurora is caused by an arctic fox flinging fire into the sky with its tail. Some Scandinavians believed that the lights are the celestial reflection of a giant school of herring. Inuits thought they are the souls of dead children. Icelanders, typically, eschewed such romantic notions, holding only that if a pregnant woman gazed at the northern lights, her child would be born cross-eyed.

The Koyukuk Indians in northwest Alaska banged on metal pans to attract aurora – I know not to what end. In Lapland, people were warned not to mock or whistle at the aurora, though I must confess that the one time I saw the lights, it did not occur to me to do either of these things.

The next day, I was back in London.

Icelandair offers Northern Lights City Breaks. Our dispreference for package tours meant that we did not consider it an option, but I still read their disclaimer, because I am sad like that. It says:
Please Note: The Northern Lights are a natural phenomena and therefore their appearance cannot be predicted. [...] If the weather conditions on the evening of your tour are not favourable for searching for the Northern Lights, the tour will be cancelled and you will be given the option of going on the tour the following night. Please note that no refunds will be offered for the tour portion of the package.
How much nicer was the disclaimer we got from our bus driver: chasing the lights is, indeed, like fishing.