Trip to India
(originally posted 6/3/2014 – 6/7/2014 and explains why my career as a travel blogger never took off)
Where do I begin? It has taken far longer to arrive at my destination than I had anticipated but what better way to combine my 2 passions: meteorology and travel than to go chase tornados in India for four days. I have chosen not to clog up my blog today with funny or interesting stories so I will not go into any details about my journey here but instead pick up the tale from my arrival in Chennai, an Indian version of a big city. I guess in the past few years they banned cows from roaming freely in the city but it still hasn’t cut down on the amount of shit on the streets. I guess a more traveled person would react to the noise and squalor with a bit more sophistication but my only thought was that the whole place needed to be bulldozed. It was time to meet and get acquainted with my traveling companions for the next 4 days. One bit of bad news though. Due to a miscommunication we have all completely missed the tornado season so we will be spending the next week driving around with a 0.0% chance of actually seeing a tornado. I have to admit that the news was a bit of a shock given the time and money I’d spent on this trip but as long as I was here I am going to make the best of it.
There are 15 of us ‘clients’ and 4 drivers. There are 4 of from the US and the rest is made up of people from England, Australia and Ireland. The leader of our trip is Ramaswamy. He is a local and he assures us that he is an expert in avoiding rush hour traffic in urban areas … which he proves by immediately getting us caught in a traffic nightmare that had us all watching in envy as the rickshaws maneuvered around us. We were moving so slowly that some members of our group disembarked and then caught up to us some minutes later bearing cups of Chai tea that they had purchased from the local Starbucks-wannabe. Apparently getting to the counter and ordering is akin to a rugby scrum but the prices are dirt cheap so it all evens out. Apparently the tea is a little stronger than I’m use to as I am now unable to blink and the urge to leave the van and run up and down stairs is getting overwhelming.
We are on our way to Mysore now. I am in the lead vehicle which is packed with technology that gives us real time atmospheric information and GPS data that would have given us the best chance to be near super cell activity … if there would have been any. The complete lack of anything to ‘chase’ gave us all time to get to know each other better and to discuss the effects of strong Chai tea on the digestive systems of non-natives. We all wished that the windows had the ability to be rolled down as we took turns creating our own “winds” … each more foul than the next. After driving only a couple hundred miles we got to witness some lightning and we all poured out of the vans for this photo op. The fact that we are all driving around hoping to see a tornado when there is no chance of actually seeing one is like the 300 lb. gorilla in the van. Well … only 3 more days to go! More updates to follow.
A beautiful morning in Mysore. We are all perched up on Chamundi Hill where we can see the entire city and the complete lack of storm clouds before us. It’s obvious to all that we’ll be driving a long way today if we even hope to catch a thunderstorm. We take consolation in the cheap baked goods we were able to buy this morning and the group of young boys who seem intent on teaching us cricket. Their cries of “good bowling man!” make us all laugh despite ourselves. They find it quite amusing that we are all driving around trying to find a tornado and no one is really able to explain to them why we would travel so far to see one. Another one of our drivers, Shwas, explains to the curious boys that while the US has more tornados it was India that was the scene of the most deadly. Somehow they all seem to take a certain amount of pride in that. Then it’s back into the vans for another day of driving.
We spend the next few hours talking about “low level jet”, “shear”, “inversions”, “thermal caps”, “baroclinic zone” and why our guide feels the need to drive between 80-90 miles an hour even though most of the roads look like they are something from a post-apocalyptic movie set. The thing about tornadoes is that so many things need to be aligned for development to occur. You can have 30 parameters in place and just one missing and boom you end up watching your bread-and-butter typical T-storm. Once again, after driving only 500 miles, we are able to climb out of the vans and take pictures of some lightning. We are headed towards Kolkata (Calcutta) now as there are some good weather conditions developing there.
Just when we had all about given up on seeing anything interesting … our mobile radar showed the line of T-storms developing faster and moving quicker than we anticipated. As we hurried towards Sikkim the storms to our to right and north developed an outflow boundary, aka a “gust front”. This occurs when strong storms develop a rapid down draft of cold air from as high as eight miles up. When this downdraft hits the ground it is forced to move horizontally ahead of the T-storm cell. This mini-front of cold air moves out as far as ten miles in front of the storm. Where we were it picked up the dry soil with its near hurricane force velocity and the front became a black, one thousand foot tall monster screaming towards us from the west. As John, a nice guy from Britain said ” It was like nuclear Armageddon”! The bright sky turned into a hellish blackness in seconds as the right side of our caravan was blasted by the ferocious front. Visibility went to 10 yards at best and we had to struggle to keep our vehicles on the road. Vegetation and loose dirt were pelting the vans but we could not afford to slow down.
For the next two hours we raced south in a tangential dance with the front. I figure we entered and exited the front six times and got some great photos. It was time to call it a day so we found the Indian equivalent of a Motel 6 for the night. Apparently we were supposed to have gotten some sort of paperwork to enter Sikkim that we didn’t get so in the morning there will be some waiting around while we get the right documentation.
Anyway, my thumb is becoming sore from typing on this small QWERTY keyboard so I will send out my next update tomorrow.
Last night pulled into our hotel only 5 minutes ahead of the approaching gust front. After checking into my room the walls pulsated with the ferocity of the storm. A horizontal, blinding rain immediately followed and a few close lighting strikes added to the “The Greatest Show on Earth”. To give you an idea of how powerful the storm was the rain was forced thru the edges of the window frame and air conditioner in my room creating a two foot wide puddle of water. Not able to get to sleep the only thing on the TV I could stomach was a crappy James Bond 007 movie … couldn’t tell you which one.
Apparently getting permits is more time consuming than it appears. As our guides attempt to find a working Xerox machine we are left alone to battle the forces of local shopkeepers who’s only interest in life seems to be getting me to visit their stores. After trying the polite way to say no I then went through my complete vocabulary of American profanity to no avail. Ever hear the expression “beggars can’t be choosers”? I found a beggar that was also a chooser. I actually offered him 45 rupees to just fuck off and he insisted that I fuck off with him and come see his store. With nothing better to do I walked a couple blocks and was rewarded with a store filled with such complete shit that I actually was glad to have seen it. The next time you complain about the quality of K-Mart apparel I invite you to take a quick walk around Desikechar’s House of Clothes That Actually Come Apart in Your Hand as You Examine Them. As his English was not very good I was able to explain in great detail what I thought about his merchandise and what he must think about any foreigner dumb enough to buy anything from him. He smiled and asked for his 45 rupees to fuck off. It was 45 rupees well spent.
Then it was off to the vans again! I fell asleep at one point and when I woke up I was completely disoriented. I actually enjoyed the feeling of not knowing where I was for a few seconds … if possible I would like to recreate that feeling at least once a day from now on. It’s very grounding. It also takes away from the crushing boredom that this amount of driving creates. Then all of a sudden Ramaswamy will identify a location where we need to be to view a storm and the driving becomes a white-knuckle event. 4 vans going 90 miles an hour on a single lane rain-slicked road, passing cars, trucks, tractors and farm animals, is not for the faint of heart. Note to self, don’t eat things that look like beef jerky without knowing that they are in fact beef jerky.
We left Yuksom and traveled north. Our travels were rewarded when we watched the development of a full blown mesocyclone or “SuperCell”. Standing in the flat, grass filled fields just west of Bolpur we had front row seats to one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Lightning strikes in the distance ignited several fast moving grass fires generating thick, gray smoke plumes that were sucked into the massive, black, rotating core of the Supercell directly above. As close to a tornado as we are going to get.
A good day … although time in the van is starting to get a little old and the music sounds like what I imagine the elevator to hell must play.
It’s hard to believe that we have driven almost 1400 miles in only 3 days. Today we are headed towards Delhi … in part to chase down a promising storm and in part to give us some places to see on our ‘whirlwind’ tour of India (excuse the pun). Because most of us were getting a little weary of the vans we arrived on the outskirts of Delhi in the early afternoon and quickly broke up into smaller groups to explore on our own. Due to bad timing and a poor decision to try to take a bus into town my ‘group’ ended up consisting of myself. Believe it or not I later ran into the guy at the front desk who had checked me into the hotel some hours earlier and I joined him and his 2 friends as they took me to various ruined temples and forts. Did I fail to mention the temperature? It was 121 degrees. I later found out that in hell that day it only got to 116. I walked around in 121 degrees. At least the humidity was stifling. From all my whining you must assume I had a bad time but it was just the opposite. After a long dinner and a few cups of tea the four of us began a trek through bramble infested woods in the dark to visit an unused Mosque that was supposedly ‘haunted’. Keep in mind that my new friends were wearing saffron Kirtas and chain smoking bedes (a form of leaf tobacco) so it was hard to feel like I was in the middle of a Hardy Boy’s adventure but I did my best. Later, inside an ancient grave, I laid back and tried to remember why the fuck I came to India in the first place. Getting late, better head back to the hotel so I can catch up with my group before they assume I am dead. Don’t want to miss the flight home.