Sunday, 25 December 2011

It's That Time Of The Year......

                          Christmas is in the air,
                           Bells are ringing everywhere,
                           There is warmth,there is cheer,
                            It's that time of the year!


Another year is drawing to a close.Christmas Day is almost over and the next celebration will be on new year's eve to welcome 2012.That will be followed by tons of resolutions being made on new year's day, the predominant one on most lists being 'efforts to lose weight'!The last week of the year is also a time when one looks back and remembers the year that has been,the highs,the lows,the pluses,the minuses...What we did,what we did not do and should have done,what we could have done but did not do,what we did and should not have done not and so on and so forth.It is time to take stock...
On a personal front it was a year of big changes for us as a family.We changed cities,shifted to another country and another continent too!We moved from the arid desert that Pune is rapidly(and unfortunately) becoming to the lush green environs of Nairobi.The children faced the biggest change of all.From the Indian school system they leapfrogged into the American system of education!My daughter was preparing to face the ICSE exam in a couple of years,now she has to take  the very American SAT!
The last couple of weeks saw us attending Christmas programs in the children's school before they closed for the holidays.I baked a lot of cookies for bake sales(something new for us Puneites) and the school donated all proceeds for charity.That felt good!We also had to supply snacks for the Christmas parties without which no school anywhere in the world ever closes!
The familiar parts of both the programs were all the hymns and Christmas carols beautifully sung by all the children who were part of the school choir.For all those of us who have studied in Catholic or  Protestant schools across India,carols were an integral part of our school life every year.I do not, even for a minute,think that when Lord Macaulay introduced his Minute on Education in 1835,did he imagine that ultimately it would be the English language,its's literature,it's poems and songs that would enable us to seamlessly integrate anywhere outside India and also make us a power to reckon with in the world today!And thus it was that when the school music teacher here in Nairobi, asked us parents to join them in singing 'Silent Night', I was able to joyfully chime in,awash with memories of my own school days and my own school friends......
My son's teacher had a very nice way of signing off all the notes and mails that we received from her throughout  the month of December.'In Him,the reason for the season!'And believe me in the middle of all that shopping,the hoardings announcing the sales in all those magically decorated malls choc full of toys and clothes,it is very easy to forget the true reason for the celebration.Whether it is Diwali or the Ganesh puja,Durga puja or Laxmi pujan or any other festival, as we chant shlokas or sing hymns,we must keep in mind the reason for the season!
                                 Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Great Rift Valley

It happened again!Friends from our Dar days managed to coax and convince(not coerce!) us to come out of the cosy confines of our comfortable home.This time it was not to celebrate any festival but to visit a part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches from Syria in South West Asia to central Mozambique in South East Africa.The place we visited is called Naivasha,a market town which is around a two hour drive from Nairobi.It is bordered by Lake Naivasha,and being at an altitude of 6,222 feet above sea level, is the highest Rift Valley Lake.
Naivasha,being at a higher altitude than Nairobi,meant that we were gradually driving up a slope.But the inclines are so gentle that only the pressure on our ear drums and the stunning view of the valley unfolding before our eyes made us realize that we were on an ascent!Being mentally prepared to face something like the Western Ghats of Maharashtra,the hair pin bends of the Cherrapunji Hills in Meghalaya or the steep slopes of the Usambara mountains in Tanzania,the relief I felt was immeasurable!
The narrow gauge single train track often ran parallel to the road and I spared a thought for the many poor labourers,mainly Indian,who had stuggled hard to lay this line more than a hundred years ago under Kolonial rule,often risking or losing their lives in the process.For remember,this was a time when wild animals like lions,hippos,rhinos,wildebeeste,really ran wild and were not confined to the borders of the National Parks by electric fencing and intense patrolling!
After a six year stint in Tanzania and numerous wildlife safaris,I thought I was immune to the sight of zebras and giraffes.But seeing herds of these beautiful animals grazing by the side of the national highway along with cows,sheep and goats came as a pleasant shock!I was as thrilled as I had been when I caught my first glimpse of a giraffe and then zebras almost ten years ago.I suppose one can never become indifferent to beauty in nature!
We travelled on through a green landscape dotted by gigantic hand-fan shaped cacti and thousands of acacia trees silhouetted against a cloudy sky.The children enjoyed parathas,pulav and samosas enroute to Naivasha.We might have been in  the heart of rural Kenya but that did not stop us from tucking into our very Indian meal!Finally we reached our destination and saw that Naivasha is peppered with lodges,resorts and spas, all ideal for people looking for a quick week end getaway.
We spent the day relaxing in one such lodge with what else but water buck,giraffes and zebras for company.A sign warned us not to venture out for the nature walk towards the Lake unless we were accompanied by securitry personnel as there was danger of being attacked by wild animals!We chose to stick to the safety of the main lodge area.
The children frollicked in the azure blue kidney shaped pool while we unwound in the mild sun surrounded by flocks of the prettiest coloured birds I have ever seen and by wild flowers of varied hues.Gradually,slate gray rain clouds gathered in the sky and we knew it was time to head back.But not before the children had played in the park to their hearts content!We,too,swung on the swings,forgetting for a few minutes that we were adults and children no longer..But,that I guess,is the whole point of a break from the daily routine!
The drive back was to the tune of fat rain drops drumming on the car roof.The rain made the valley view even more enchanting.A fresh, cool breeze accompanied the rain and I opened the car window to breathe in the pristine air and felt truly refreshed and blessed.Broad bands of sunlight filtered out from behind the dense clouds which were pouring out their water load.It looked as if God had crafted pathways of light from heaven to Earth.With a little stretch of imagination,I could easily believe that with Christmas round the corner, God had made these massive slides for Santa to slide down on.....What a lovely end to a gorgeous day!
Sadly,I had to prise away my daughter's I pod nano and my son's PSP in order to draw their attention to this magical phenomena of nature.The new generation is hooked onto technology and it is time we weaned them onto nature!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Summer Is Here.......Or Is It?

                           Nairobi skies are always gray,
                           The clouds,it seems,are here to stay.
                           Sweaters and jackets rule the day,
                           Summery Pune feels far away.
                           We're near the Equator,so they say,
                           If the sun shines,do make hay!
 


A Pune summer, that time of the year when the sun scorches the earth,the throat is always parched,your clothes cling to you even as streams of sweat pour down your body,water cuts rule the day,the fan is never switched off and only the thought of the ever increasing electricity bill makes you switch off your air conditioners and coolers.
Summer in Pune also brings with it the sharp tang of mango blossoms which permeate the air everywhere,or at least it used to until about a decade ago, before most of the mango trees in and around Pune were chopped off in the name of development.Our housing colony was surrounded by mango groves and as school children not a day of the summer vacation went by without an early morning walk in the groves,following the silvery trails left by snails sometime during the night.We would rush home to a breakfast of what else,but mangoes,lovingly washed and peeled and chopped by our grandmother!The King of fruits made my sister and me feel like Queens throughout summer.Today,sadly, the space occupied by each mango tree has given way to apartment buildings and that is all my children can see....
When I got married and moved to Russia,I got a taste of a very different summer.After a long and bone chilling winter replete with ice and snow,the first thaw at just a few degrees above zero degree centigrade with a few weak sun rays,was greeted with much joy.People thronged beaches and river banks,stripping down to bare essentials, as they basked in the sun and their long deprived skin soaked up the warmth!All this while my husband and I still shivered under thick overcoats and fur caps to say nothing of fur lined leather boots and gloves.We must have seemed like fools to the local population but what could we do?For us the start of the Russian summer was very much like being in the thick of a severe Pune winter!
 Dar Es Salaam gave us our first taste of a summer in the Southern Hemisphere.What, till then, had just been a Geography lesson drilled into our heads by our school teacher,suddenly became a reality!A really hot December and a Christmas Day on which we drank chilled lime juice and not hot cocoa!Tanzania summers are hot and humid,very different from the ones we had experienced in Pune.The only respite from the heat and the long power cuts was an escape to the beach once in a while where at least we were fanned by cool breezes blowing across the Indian Ocean.The tang of mangoes had been replaced by a salty one!
Cut to Nairobi,we were once again below the Equator and once again a December summer awaited us,or so we thought!Now we are well into the month of December,the school summer break starts this week,but where on earth has summer disappeared?We are still huddling under thick blankets at night,the children still burrow into their jackets each morning as they wait for the school bus and we never leave the house without an umbrella as the heavens might open and pour down on us anytime!
Agreed,Nairobi is a no fan station,as Pune was till the late seventies.Thus we have no fans or air conditioners in our house here but will we even get a glimpse of the ever elusive sun?After all,what's summer without the sun, an icecream cone in your hand and a summer hat on your head?


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Our Askaris,Entrepreneurs Too!

They are the people thanks to whom we sleep peacefully at night,as snug as bugs under our rugs.They are the people thanks to whom our children play without a care in the world in the housing complex compound.They are also the people thanks to whom no visitor can ever arrive unannounced to our house,giving us a crucial five minutes to clear our usually messy living room!They are our Askaris!
The Kamusi ya Kiswahili-Kiingereza(the Swahili-English Dictionary) defines the word 'Askari'as a guard.(Yes,the alphabet K does seem to be predominant here,a la eKta Kapoor,Karan johar and raKesh roshan!But,I assure you the K syndrome is not a Kolonial legacy!)Askaris are ominipresent across East Africa and it is impossible to imagine our lives here without them.
They are a must have in all bungalows,in housing and commercial complexes,at the entrances of embassies and of course,like in India,outside malls, multiplexes and schools.They are outsourced from private security agencies and have smart,up to date uniforms,bringing to mind the guards outside Buckingham Palace,minus of course,the change of guard ceremony!When their shift gets over, they just sign out and leave,a vast improvement over the Kolonial system of marching up and down till even the onlookers start feeling exhausted.
Here,the Askaris are well trained and courteous, always making it a point to greet us even as their eyes expertly scan the interior of our car.They are fearless too and quickly rifle through bags,purses,boxes even the boot of the car,before giving us the all clear to move on in any commercial complex that we might happen to visit.Askaris will always be the first ones to be exposed to the danger,if any,and as they report for work each day,I always wonder what goes through their minds.After all,we live in uncertain and dangerous times,where man is out to get man.
The Askaris of our building have shown great entrepreneurship too as they have started keeping pre paid phone recharge cards,prepaid net recharge cards and even the daily newspaper!So whenever we need to recharge the phone we just need to run down to our front gate!A blessing indeed.And they have the recharge cards of the entire gamut of cell phone and net operators in all the possible denominations!And we,being slaves to modern technology,are really grateful to them.
My husband and I take a brisk walk in our compound every morning.We have two security gates,with a distance of approximately a hundred meters between the two.One day,while walking sedately as usual,we decided on the spur of the moment,to make a quick dash from one gate to another.We started running and when we reached the outer gate,we were surprised to hear loud laughter ringing out from the Askaris at both ends!They found the sight of two huge Indians running so funny that even they could not control themselves!That is when I realized that the people who we place next only to God for protecting us,are human after all!
Who won the race?Well,we both reached the finish line at exactly the same time!

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