Saturday, 28 December 2013

From Kenya To Kodai ( Via Pune, Chennai And Madurai... )

I have been getting a large number of mails from the Head Office in Mumbai pertaining to the next conference for the Speech and Drama program whose franchise I hold in Pune, my hometown. This time it is going to be held in a tiger sanctuary next month and sadly I will miss it as I will be in India only by next June. But those mails reminded me that so many things have happened since I attended the last conference in June in the beautiful hill station of Kodaikanal in the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India , that I never got around to writing about it.
The first step, after I was invited for the Kodai conference and was told it was compulsory to attend, was mentally preparing myself to spend three nights and four days away from my children who I would have to leave with my parents since my husband would still be in Nairobi at that  time. Linda Goodman's typical Capricorn mother that I am, staying away from my kids even for a couple of days is a huge challenge for me and I am continuously haunted by questions like  'Have they brushed their teeth and have they had their milk?!' Little wonder then that she says and I quote ' If you have a Capricorn mother you do not have to worry for the rest of your life..'
The next step was figuring out tickets which I bought on line in Nairobi and thus discovered that I would be travelling from Pune to Kodai via Chennai and Madurai. I had forayed into Tamil Nadu more than two decades earlier just after my tenth standard board exams to visit my Aunt and Uncle who were based at the Army Staff College at Wellington (yes, the colonial touch still reigns and we still have towns named after Brit Lords!) near yet another famous hill station, Ooty. But I had not visited any of these cities whose glimpses I would be able to catch now. An added bonus was that I would be staying at the very same hotel 'The Carlton', where my husband had stayed many years ago for one of his conferences. He had said then that we should visit this place together and since then we have been all over the world but have never visited Kodai. It seemed I was destined to visit it by myself !
My Dad dropped me off at Pune airport and I, as usual, popped into the airport book shop to arm myself with a good book. After all what's the point of spending so much time travelling if you do not use it to read? Soon we were winging our way to Chennai and all our Tamil friends came to mind. Chennai is one of India's safest metros and I have read about the pure silk saree clad, top to toe gold laden 'atthais' (Aunties), fragrant jasmine flowers in their hair, who move confidently around town and  have no fear that their jewellery will be snatched by bike riding thieves, just the way women could move around in Pune a mere twenty years ago...
I only got an aerial view of Chennai and of course there was a brief halt at the airport as I changed planes to head to Madurai but I liked what I saw and someday I would love to visit this city. The next aircraft was much smaller and sadly the airline served no food. Used as I am to good Indian vegetarian meals on all our international flights, it hurt to buy food but it could not be helped and I bought a packet of tortilla chips at an exhorbitant cost!
Finally I landed at Madurai where my colleague received me at the airport and we began the last leg of my journey to Kodai which was still a three hour drive away. Clean air was a welcome relief after my poor polluted Pune and swaying palms were easy on the eye. Driving on winding roads, through small villages, climbing up into the hills, with a GPS navigator by our side, there was no way we could lose our way and sure enough we soon reached Kodai, ready to participate in the conference. Our meals were included in our package and we bonded with fellow franchisees from all parts of India including Manipur, over Dosas and Sambar, Idlis and Vadas ( that is typical and very popular South Indian cuisine for the uninitiated!) rounded off with ice cream at every meal! Every one else loved the cool Kodai weather but since I live in Nairobi, another hill station, all year round, it was the norm rather than the exception for me!
Chocolates, supposedly hand made, tea, fresh from the surrounding hills, medicinal oils and spices were on my shopping list as Kodai is famous for all these and my suitcase was full to bursting point by the time we were ready to leave. I also won a rolling trophy at the conference on an all India level and that, alone, made my trip worthwhile! The cuddly 'Bear Trophy' was also added to my 'threatening to burst at the seams' long suffering suitcase!
 We drove back to Madurai very early in the morning and I was blessed to witness a beautiful, golden sunrise, a sight I would have otherwise surely missed, as getting up early tops the list of things I hate! Since our flights were in the evening I was invited to my Master Franchisee's sister's house for the day. After dropping another colleague who had an early morning flight, to the airport, we headed straight there. And, thus, I had the fortune of meeting some of the most generous people I have ever met in my life!
 What is it about small towns that somehow manage to produce people who actually care about others? We, from the big cities are so busy with our own lives, that we rarely have a minute to spare for anything or any one that does not directly concern us. The saddest part is that things were so different even in a mini metro like Pune just a handful of years ago.. My host's father actually made it a point to go up to his aged mother and tell her he was leaving for office and he also increased the volume of the television set so that she could clearly hear the religious discourse that was on. Most people I know seem to have forgotten these minor courtesies and look upon their parents as a burden they cannot wait to get rid off.
My hosts ensured that I got to visit the famous Meenakshi Temple of Madurai that has visitors from all over the world! They personally dropped me close to the temple, where their friend who owned a huge garments shop right in the temple premise, fixed up a guide for me and then they told me they would pick me up and take me home for lunch! I would have been content to study the marvellous architecture alone ( my M.Phil thesis dealt with temple architecture!) and would have worshipped from afar but thanks to these people whom I had met for the very first time I was able to go right  up to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. I was mildly surprised to find that only Hindus were allowed inside the temple...Since I had not expected to enter the temple, I had dressed comfortably for travel in a pair of knee length capris and so I was stopped by the lady security guard and told in no uncertain terms that I was violating the dress code of the temple! Oops! I assured her I would not make the same mistake twice, begged her to let me enter and she finally relented!
My mother's birthday was coming up soon and I was determined to gift her some gold from the South. The kind shop owner sent one of his sales ladies to guide me to a reputed jewellery store. The same lady accompanied me to an ATM machine to withdraw cash for my purchase, without a word of complaint, when my credit card refused to work due to network issues. Yes, small towns have their share of problems! And then I had to practically force a tip in her hand. There was no expectation nor was there any sign of the greed  in her eyes that one normally sees in our metros.
A delicious home cooked lunch followed by juicy mangoes and a short rest later, it was time to leave for the airport. I thanked my hostess, who despite having had a baby just a fortnight earlier, had taken great pains to ensure that I was comfortable during the course of the day. I invited them to Pune and I hoped I would be able to reciprocate at least a fraction of the hospitality I had experienced that day!
Hitherto my only experience of Madurai had been through A.K Ramanujan's poem that I had studied in school. 'In Madurai, city of temples and poets who sang of cities and temples....'. Well they should have sung about the amazing people who live here too! I would not have been blown off my feet by all the kindness shown to me then!
It was only fitting that my trip to India that had begun with a journey to Chennai should end with watching a movie just a day before we came back to Kenya, whose name begins with Chennai....I am still recovering from that particular experience and am in no hurry to repeat it...
                                           Carved Shikhar of the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai
                                                  The room with a view at the Carlton, Kodai
                                                          The lovely lake and stately trees.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Amboseli-In The Shadows Of Kilimanjaro...

We are blessed in the sense that wherever in the world we may be living, we never feel the need to get away from it all. By God's grace, we are perfectly content within the four walls of our house, be it in Pune or in Nairobi or earlier in Dar Es Salaam,St.Petersburg and Krasnodar. Pubbing,clubbing,partying, is not our cup of tea, though we do have delicious cups of 'masala tea' of course! This is not to say we do not travel or never go anywhere. We do, as my blog testifies, but that is more to expose the children to their surroundings and to make them appreciate beauty in nature and not because we have had it up to here at home! More often then not, all evenings of every week end or all day on other holidays finds all four of us with our noses buried in our individual books, surfacing only for lunch or dinner or, in my case, to cook as well. I do not get tired of cooking either nor do I feel hemmed in by my kitchen and the amount of vegetarian variety of food churned out of my kitchen would put a Michelin starred chef to shame! This, of course, would be true of any mother of Indian origin. As I often say, feeding our kids and making them study tops the agenda of Indian Moms, regardless of whether they work outside the home or are homemakers.
The last couple of months have been difficult for us. It is not that we are mall rats but I used to go to Westgate even to buy the flour I need for making chappattis for every meal and to buy the rice without which no Indian meal is ever complete. Considering that Westgate is exactly a kilometre away from our house, it was simply the most convenient place to shop for our groceries. The tragedy there left us, like everyone else here in Nairobi, completely stunned and questioning the very purpose of our lives. The pall of gloom that had descended over Nairobi affected each one of us because every one of us knew someone who was at Westgate that day and did not come out alive. It is as if the very fabric of our lives has been altered and for the rest of our lives there will be always a before Westgate and an after Westgate for us, no matter how much we may try to deny it.
The other issue we have had for the last few months was that my husband's permit was under renewal and it had got delayed due to the revamp that was taking place in the immigration department, after the change of government in Kenya last March. Our daughter is in tenth grade this year and our biggest fear was that if it did not happen soon and we had to return to India, she would lose an academic year as no student can join tenth grade in India once the session has begun due to the board exams that take place in this particular year. So we were under tremendous pressure.
Finally the permit came through after a three month delay and its arrival coincided with the School's 'Spring Break'(yes, we are at the onset of summer here!)  and a national holiday in Kenya, which meant my husband was free as well. So in the span of an afternoon he made the bookings and we were off the next day to Amboseli National Park, to 'get away from it all ' a feeling we were experiencing for the very first time in our lives!
This national park is located on the road to the coast but short of Mombasa we turn towards South and it is very close to the Kenyan- Tanzanian border. In fact, its claim to fame is the magnificent views of Mount.Kilimanjaro- the highest free standing mountain in the world and of course, the highest mountain in Africa, located not in Kenya but in Tanzania. But borders are man made and this glorious creation of nature towers above them all!
A four hour drive found us at the gates of Sopa Lodge where we were staying and a cool welcome drink of fresh mango juice washed away the dust and the thirst from our throats- for the drive from Nairobi had been hot and dusty! Soon we were escorted to our rooms,styled in the shape of Masaai huts, for remember we were in Masaai land again! Even the curtain rods were in the shape of Masaai spears, the curtains had elephants printed on them and the shower curtains had giraffes!All this set the tone for the week end! A very Indian lunch lunch of aalu mattar (peas and potato curry)  and parathas and then a siesta in our four star 'hut', with a lovely breeze blowing through the windows refreshed us and did not make us miss the lack of electricity at all. The lights ran on generators and came on only for a few hours at night. We did not mind in the least-our main aim was to leave the city behind! We were now ready for the first of our four safaris..
As our driver was buying tickets at the entrance to the national park, a number of Masaai women thronged around our van selling beautiful Masaai jewellery and other crafts. My daughter and I indulged in a bit of retail therapy by buying some charming beaded Masaai bracelets- a few for ourselves, others to give as gifts to friends and cousins in India.
Then it was time to spot animals! This, being the dry season, we were told, is the best time to visit this park. The grassland is dry and yellow, forcing the animals to come out and congregate near the few water bodies that have not run dry yet. We saw large numbers of giraffes, hundreds of zebras and wildebeest, impalas, frisky gazelles, more ostriches than I have seen in any other national park, hyenas, wart hogs and at one point we counted more than seventy elephants at a stretch! I was struck by one elephant in particular- he was a magnificent tusker but seemed young. He trailed at the end of the herd and appeared to be dancing by himself, embodying, as we say in French, an absolute 'joie de vivre'- a joy of life and living. He taught me a big lesson- he knew he could meet with a poacher's bullet anytime (when will people learn only elephants should wear ivory?), as humans can meet terrorist bullets anytime, even while simply having a cup of coffee or buying groceries, and yet he was completely at ease and just savouring life! And yes, elephants know. Beryl Markham, in her autobiography, 'West With The Night' clearly says that elephants began co relating her air sorties to spot tuskers with hunters coming on the scene soon after. The females used to quickly form a head to head circle around bushes, the minute they heard her aircraft overhead,  thus concealing the size of their tusks (African female elephants also have tusks) , confusing Beryl and giving the male elephants time to flee.
On the second of our game drives we saw two huge lions guarding their freshly killed wildebeest- we had just missed the hunt! They were there all morning, too lazy and content to move after their massive meal. And who would dare disturb the King of the jungle?! The scavengers had to patiently await their turn.
The lake had flamingos, many kinds of cranes, ducks and storks and the heads of thirty five submerged hippos, all enjoying the cool water on a hot summer's day. As the last volcanic eruption changed the salinity of the soil, it is not unusual to see palm trees thriving in the middle of Amboseli! So you have palms , golden Savannah grassland and fresh green grass by the swampland, a sight I have not seen any any other game park so far.
The setting sun threw light on Kilimanjaro, highlighting the snow on its peak. Its highest peak is also a dormant volcano. The last time it erupted, many millions of years ago, it changed the whole topography of Amboseli. Who knows what will happen next time it roars to life! Sadly the snow at the top is now rapidly melting thanks to global warming and yet the mountain stoically stands upright. Stoicism is what the world needs now, in the light of the uncertainty of our lives, specially in all the major cities of the world. Stoic is what I have to be as I catch a glimpse of the face of my son's friend on the school bus every morning, whose mother was shot and died at Westgate, even as he hobbles around on crutches due to the bullets he took in his legs. Being stoic is what helps when I happen to see the piles of burnt cars brought out and kept outside Westgate while passing by, even as I try to avert my eyes from the bullet marks that have gouged out concrete at the side of the building and where the window panes still lie shattered...
As we headed back to the Lodge, the disc of a full, orange moon hung over the sky. Used as our eyes are to the halogen lights of the city, we had to blink twice before we could ascertain that it was, indeed, the moon rise that we were watching! It was just the soothing sight that our jaded, weary souls needed. Nature, in her own inimitable way, had readied us to face life in the big city again! The shadows of Kilimanjaro had somehow chased away the shadows in our hearts....
                                                   Sometimes clouds have a golden lining!
                                                   Kilimanjaro- the life giving mountain!
                                                            The dancing elephant!
                                                   Game for the lions...
                                                  Our Masaai Kraal (Hut)!
                                                  Lions on guard near the carcass
                                             The varying topography of Amboseli.
                                                        Masaai essentials-masks, shields, spears..

Friday, 11 October 2013

Parvatibai Khale-The End Of An Era

Yesterday my mother called me up from Pune and gave me the sad news that Parvatibai Khale had passed away. Who was Parvatibai Khale, that she merited an international phone call? Was she our close blood relation, or was she a dear neighbour or a good friend? Oh no, she was none of these and yet she, in her time, had more than fulfilled all these roles. She was our house help and had been since the early 1970s until a few years ago, when she grew too old to work anymore.
Parvatibai (bai is a sobriquet that is often used for house help is all parts of India) or 'Parubai' as she was first conveniently and later fondly called, came to work for my grandparents when my paternal grandfather retired from the Indian Army in the early seventies, constructed a bungalow in Pune and settled there. Our housing society had only a handful of bungalows then and Parubai rushed in and out of each house like a whirlwind -sweeping, swabbing, washing clothes and utensils by hand (and all for a pittance), for this was an era when dishwashers, washing machines and vacuum cleaners were unknown in India. And she did not have a choice- she had ten children to feed and a drunken husband to boot. But in every single house the vessels gleamed like brand new mirrors, the clothes were spotless, the broom swept every corner of every room- such was her dedication to what some might term 'menial work'. She took pride in what she did, a rare quality nowadays! Once, when I was in high school, I had spotted her entering a bedroom but when I came in, she was nowhere to be seen! As I looked around in astonishment, she crawled out from under the bed! She had gone there to clean this unreachable area.I mentally doffed my hat to her...
A diminutive, spry figure, clad in the traditional Maharashtrian nine yards saree, she found that she had a new skill when the children of the seventies began being born in those bungalows. She was a skilled masseuse of new mothers and newborns, this being a traditional requirement of Indian society! The baby, it is felt, will not achieve it's full growth potential till it has been rubbed and scrubbed with oil every single day followed by a hot bath and then snugly swaddled in a cotton cloth. And so Parubai found a welcome second occupation and it added to her sparse kitty, besides giving her joy, for she truly felt connected to those babies as she tenderly ministered to them...
I was one of those babies she oiled and bathed and going by the Indian theory her skills certainly seemed to have worked on me, given that I have surely reached my 'full growth potential' as I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, rare among Indian girls of my generation!
My mother and Parubai formed a bond that only two mothers can when one of them shows special consideration for the others child. Parubai had no choice but to get her tenth baby, who was born at the same time as I was, to work with her and she kept the new born child under a tree in our garden when she came in to work, just a few days after she had given birth. She, of course, could not afford the luxury of a lying-in period. My mother, the minute she noticed this, made her get the child inside, made up a little bed in a corner for the baby boy and gave Parubai enough time and privacy to feed the child at regular intervals.
When my grandmother's younger brother met with a fatal accident in the mid seventies, she had to close the house at a minute's notice and fly to Delhi. When the day for paying salaries came around, she despite her terrible grief (her brother had young, school going children), made it a point to phone my mother from there, and asked her to go and pay Parubai, for she knew how much this poor lady needed every paisa she earned. At this time, my Dad was doing a course in the Army Engineering College on the outskirts of Pune and we were staying there, a good many kilometers away from my grandparents bungalow. I was a toddler, my mother was expecting another baby and yet she did not hesitate for a minute after that phone call. She and I got into an autorickshaw and came all the way to the other end of town, left a message for Parubai with the neighbour asking her to visit our house, and settled down to await her.
The minute Parubai saw my mother, she guessed why she had come and promptly burst into tears.She said 'How could I think of money at a time like this, I feel as if my own brother has passed away, why did you come?' Such were the emotions of a lady who eked out a hand to mouth existence..My mother had to finally force the money in her hand but neither of them forgot that day, so long ago.
 The years flew by. My Dad was posted all over India but we came home to my grandparents house during every vacation. When it was time for us to leave, Parubai made it a point to prepare a snack for us in her own house, pack it, get it to our house and put it in our hands.'To eat on the train' she always said...
 Parubai continued bathing babies, though by then, she had grown too old to do the more strenuous household work in other people's houses. My Dad retired, came to Pune and she continued working for my parents, even as my grandmother passed away. I still remember her admonishing me for eating too many mangoes during the last months of my pregnancy, as she felt it would be harmful for the unborn baby! When my daughter was born it was, of course, Parubai who bathed her! I had put my foot down where vigorous massage for the baby was concerned and she endlessly grumbled at me for the same but took it in her stride. She contented herself by complaining to my new born daughter who hung onto every word and stared at her with huge eyes! Such was the magic that her voice had where new borns were concerned. I was the first person in Parubai's history of bathing babies where she had bathed the mother and then, more than two decades later, the daughter! She was so happy when my husband and I gifted her a pair of pure gold earrings to mark this momentous occasion! Gradually, of course, she catered to the second generation babies in all the bungalows which had been built in the seventies but we were the first!
Five years later, when my son was born, it was time to call her again. How can I ever forget the gentle way in which she lifted his many chins (he was a chubby newborn!) and cleaned underneath them? And this time it was she, who with her very generous heart, gifted him a gold finger ring, when it was time for me to leave for Tanzania with the children.
I have photos and videos of her cooing to my children and such lovely memories too! Her passing marks the end of an era, when feelings mattered and people were not ruled by money, no matter how great their financial need and how dire their straits.
I take solace in the fact that the day she passed away was also the day of my paternal grandmother's sixteenth death anniversary. There surely is an eternal connection and as we remember my grandmother on this day every year, we will remember Parubai too, whose willing, glass bangle clad hands served us for so many years and who will always have a very special place in our hearts!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Westgate- It is finally over.....

A Saturday that had begun on a happy note and had rapidly turned into a nightmare was about to come to an end. We were finally all together and home safe after my son's return from the birthday party but hundreds of others in Nairobi waited desperately for news of their loved ones. We had switched on our television set as soon as the news had broken and we were continuously glued to it. Given our residential compound's proximity to Westgate, we were in the ambit of the Kenya Police helicopters and the military camouflage patterned plane that were doing rapid rounds of the area. The only thing we usually use our television for is to watch the news and that too the news as it unfolds in India. Now for the first time since our arrival in Kenya we were rapidly flicking through all the Kenyan news channels, hungry for any morsel of news that we could get about Westgate.
The sales person promoting the Wipro Unza products was at Nakumatt Westgate that day as she would be on any other normal day. I kept telling myself that if she did not get out alive, I would blame myself for the rest of my life. No logic-it is just the way the mind works in such situations.Mercifully my husband was able to find out later in the day that she had escaped safely after hiding in the store for a couple of hours after the attack began.
We watched on live televison as people were rescued and came running out or stumbling out or were carried out.We waited up till midnight hoping against hope that the crisis would be over and the hostages would be freed. We knew there were many more people  inside as we know how crowded Westgate is every weekend. In fact my husband used to joke that if you are an Indian or a person of Indian origin, it is mandatory that you visit this mall each weekend! I loved the way the sales figures of the Wipro products skyrocketed each weekend in all the malls and as my husband gets the sales breakup of each Nakumatt branch everyday, I used to always observe that the Westgate Nakumatt Branch more often than not had the highest sales given the high number of footfalls there! Someone else, it seems, used similar statistics to plan and execute this attack in this particular mall...
A disturbed night's sleep punctuated by thoughts of people who were still trapped inside led to a Sunday that began on a very sombre note. The choppers and plane began doing the rounds again and we knew even before we had switched on the televison that it was not over yet...And it continued throughout the day with tragic stories of what had transpired that day from the mouths of eyewitnesses and survivors. We know every inch of this mall. So we could relate to every single picture that they were showing about the scene inside. As we identified each location the whole scene looked even more unbelievable and horrifying to us. Our thoughts and prayers were with those who had lost loved ones. If we were in this mental state, only God knew what they were undergoing. This is the first mall I ever visited in Kenya, given that it is right next to the service apartment complex that we stayed in when I came to scout for schools in Kenya, before the children and I decided to move here. This is the mall where I dropped off my then about to turn fifteen daughter a day before we all left for India for the holidays at the end of last May. It was her school friend's birthday party and it was the first time ever that I was leaving her with a group of friends with no adult supervision. After I had dropped her right up to Java coffee house in Westgate where her friends were waiting, I had messaged my sister that I had taken the first big step towards letting go. And she had asked me if it was safe. I have my answer even today on my Whats Aap and I quote," Oh yes, the malls are absolutely safe and Westgate has a lot of security.."
Monday began with sniper mounted choppers whirling overhead. The school had given us the option of not sending the kids and given our location, we chose not to send them and spent the day watching the news.
By four in the evening thick smoke began swirling upwards from Westgate.Loud and rapid explosions began as the operation to end the siege reached a critical stage. Now we had come to a point where what we were watching and listening to on our television screen was also what we could see and hear from our rear balconey. This was a first for us and to add to that we could smell the smoke too.. I had tears in my eyes, which I struggled to control for my son's sake, as I thought of the victims inside and those striving to free them and also because a lovely place was being ravaged.
Another night spent tossing and turning, another dawn with sniper silhouettes against the sky,with no news of the end. By now every sound had began to sound like gunfire or blasts to us- the dryer of our washing machine, a car door being slammed, the carpenter hammering away while renovating a flat a couple of floors below us, the toddler next door banging away on his iron safety door, the flush in the washroom...The news we got that day from my daughter's friends was that my son's school bus friend had been injured in the attack finally broke my defences and I burst into tears. Surprisingly my son who cannot bear to see me cry was the one who rose to the occasion and consoled me and said his friend would be fine and that I should not worry.
Finally by Tuesday night, after another day of keeping the children home, there was confirmed news that it was over. I messaged family and friends who had been so worried about us, that one part was over. I know the other part has just begun. While watching the smoke over Westgate, my son had said that he wanted his Westgate back! He said he had so many good memories there. I know. I have the same memories too. As do my husband and daughter And I promised him that yes, Westgate will rise again, like Phoenix, from the ashes rose, and we will go there again. No one can stop us! The only difference will be that we will pay a silent homage to those who died there that day and we will salute those who risked their lives to save others there, every time we run up those familiar steps.They died but the Kenyan spirit did not die and will not die..

Sunday, 22 September 2013

We Could Have Been At Westgate....

Yesterday, 21st September, was not a typical Saturday for us. It was a day when there was going to be a deviation from our normal routine. A normal Saturday finds us starting our day slightly later than usual, then my husband drops off our son for his cricket coaching and then heads out to see the latest stock and sales position in many of the malls and shops that carry the Wipro Unza products, meets the promoters and addresses any concerns that they may have and takes actual on ground feedback. More often than not he lands up going to the distributor's office to discuss issues that may have cropped up in the previous week or that need to be handled for the forthcoming week. Our daughter spends the morning studying and then both the kids head out for art class after lunch.
But, yesterday, as per plan, was going to be different. My daughter and I had been invited by one of the teachers in our school along with seven other teachers, to visit an NGO called Heshima which meets the needs of differently abled children, by selling products under the label Dignity Designs, made by the mothers of these very children. This ensures their financial imdependance, skilled therapy for the kids and the right to lead a dignified life. So early last morning we hopped onto the school van from a predesignated place which was the very popular Java coffee shop near the school and my husband dropped off our son to his classmate's house whose parents were taking the boys out to a resort on the outskirts of Nairobi to celebrate their son's birthday. He would be out all day and my daughter and I were to come back home after lunch.
Then my husband headed out towards Westgate, which he had visited exactly forty eight hours before, on Thursday. Stock positions there were running low and he wanted to ensure deliveries had been made as per schedule just before the huge weekend crowd of shoppers thronged this mall. Halfway there, thanks to modern technology, he read a mail on his phone from his boss, asking him to urgently give some details about another matter. So he asked the driver to turn around and take him back home so that he could respond immediately.
In the mean time, after our fruitful visit to the organisation, my daughter and I, along with the teachers had stopped for lunch at yet another popular mall similarly crowded with shoppers. A quick lunch and we were on the way back home when one of the teachers got a call from her husband asking where exactly we all were. Then he updated her about the tragedy unfolding at Westgate and asked that they avoid that area on their way back to the school. So we were dropped off across the road from our house and the teachers rushed back by an alternative route. Our car picked us up as it's not the wisest thing to walk around on the roads and we heard the first updates about the situation on the car radio. I called up my husband and told him to turn on the television.
Westgate is in the same area we stay in,Westlands, and is a less than a ten minute drive in heavy traffic from our house. Whenever people in India ask me about the security situation in Nairobi I tell them the malls are absolutely safe! Westgate is the only place, in fact, where I used to feel safe enough to go and watch a Bollywood movie as they have guards systematically checking you no matter from which entrance you come in. In fact I had mentioned to my sister on facebook just the previous day that I would be watching the critically acclaimed new movie 'Lunchbox' this weekend, where else, but at Westgate.The Nakumatt at Westgate is where we buy our groceries most often and that branch of Planet Yogurt is most frequented by us. As we watched live on television some of the blue coated  Nakumatt staff rushing out,some of them carrying kids to safety, I thanked God that at least some of the people who cheerfully serve us day in and day out were safe.
A call to my son's host confirmed that she was aware of the situation and they, too, would be taking an alternate route back to their house as they brought the boys back from the birthday party venue. Again I thanked God they had not chosen Westgate as their party venue. We heard that someone else from our school was actually having their party at Westgate at that hour. My son was home finally by 6:30 p m and my heart was in my mouth till then.Many little children who were at Westgate yesterday did not make it out...
In the meantime, everyone around us was talking of whom they knew who was hurt or dead. Disturbing images were being circulated on the social media and this brought back memories of 26/11 in Mumbai.
Police choppers and planes began circling continuously overhead, as they are even now thirty hours after the siege has begun, even as I messaged our small group of friends asking each if they were safe. I called up immediate family in India and gave them the news first hand as all of them are well acquainted with Westgate.
What if my husband had made it to Westgate if the mail had not made him turn around? What if many malls had been simultaneously targeted including the very large and popular one where we had had our lunch? What if the birthday party venue had been Westgate? What if the attack had been planned for the evening when we would have surely been there for the movie? What if the breakfast crowd at the coffeehouse from where the teachers picked us up had been targeted as well, given that it's location is very close to the United Nations East African Headquarters?
The school sent us a mail telling us of the tragic death of a parent in the shootout at Westgate. His daughter was injured but is recovering. Ironically on the evening prior to the attack I had read out a story to my son in my mother tongue Marathi about how a mother monkey first tries to save her baby by holding it above her head as the water level of the river rises. But as it keeps on rising she stands on the baby to elevate herself in an attempt to stay above the water. My daughter was listening too and all  three of us vehemently agreed that any mother (or father) would always save the baby first never mind if they died in the attempt. The most precious life is your own, that is, until you are blessed with a child whether biological or adopted. That, I am sure, is what happened during yesterday's tragic events and many parents protected their babies or died doing so....
The siege continues with hostages still holed inside. Now I am just praying that there are no children still trapped inside. My nine year old son is hoping if, God forbid, there are children there, they are helping themselves to Nakumatt's stock of candies, peanut butter, Nutella and bottled drinking water.
O child, if only life was just about chocolates and Nutella it would not be called life.....

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Impressive Independence

The invitation came in my husband's mail box. Over the years the invitations have come with clockwork like regularity. And why shouldn't they? We are Indian passport holders after all! But despite being out of India for eleven odd years neither my husband nor I had ever attended a flag hoisting ceremony in the Indian Embassies or the Indian High Commissions. In Russia we did not live in the capital city Moscow, in Tanzania our son was a baby and then a toddler and who knew if children were welcomed at such high brow events! We had just landed in Kenya a week before 15th August two years ago and weren't even registered in the Indian High Commission here. So getting an invitation when they did not even know we existed was out of question. I honestly do not have an excuse for missing the event last year....So all in all, my memories of independence day were centred around my own school days, hoisting the flag in school as Head Girl, attending the event as a college student followed by breakfast with friends in Pune's own 'Vaishali' and then having to compulsorily attend flag hoisting when working as a lecturer in a Pune college. The penalty for non attendance by staff was that a day's pay used to be docked if we profs bunked! This was followed by memories of having to get up early to drop off my daughter to school in the odd year that the authorities decided to make it compulsory for younger students to attend flag hoisting...School buses don't run on such days forcing parents to double up as chauffeurs!
And so yesterday when we received the invitation, my husband and I decided, in unison, to go! The children had school, of course, so there was no way they could accompany us. So we put them on their bus and then set off, game to experiencing something new! I made sure my outfit represented one of the colours of the Indian Flag!
Nairobi traffic can be unpredictable, to say the least so we had made sure we left the house well in time.But this turned out to be one of those days when the flow of cars was specially smooth and we were at the residence of the High Commissioner in next to no time. The parking was inside the compound itself. The residence is in a beautiful area of Nairobi that is dotted with residences of Ambassadors and High Commissioners. This, sadly, was not the house that my Mother's uncle had occupied as the first Indian High Commissioner to Kenya and East Africa. During his tenure in the late forties and early fifties, this particular area was open only for the British, Indians and Africans not allowed!! Passing through the mandatory metal detector, we were ushered onto the lush green well manicured lawns by smiling Indian faces, enclosed by formal black 'Bandagalas'.What was it I felt? Was it a sense of homecoming?
The Naval Attache stood to attention close by in full ceremonial dress. He was smiling but I wondered if he had lost any of his colleagues in the tragic events that occurred yesterday on board our submarine the INS Sindhurakshak, just off the coast of Mumbai. Right next to him stood an army officer from one of our peace keeping forces based in this continent. Ironically he was from the same army core that my Dad has retired from. A glance at his epaulettes sent me tumbling into the safe and secure world of my childhood! The world, I thought, is indeed a small place.
If it's anything to do with India the saree surely makes its presence felt! A number of ladies were draped in silks of all hues giving close competition to the myriad colours of the flowers that dotted the High Commissioner's immaculate garden! A sharp nip in the air ensured that all those 'Made in India', stored in napthalene balls, woollens got a good airing today!
Soon it was time for the main event to unfold and I am proud to say Indian Standard Time does not work in Nairobi! The High Commissioner marched out of his house at the stroke of nine and our flag 'The Tiranga' was unfurled against the overcast Nairobi skies...The colours Saffron, White and Green made a stark contrast against the grey clouds, as did the red rose petals which slowly fluttered to the ground in perfect synchronization with the strains of our National Anthem which had now begun playing...Here, I will have to quote from 'Aurangazeb At His Father's Bier' as my own words are not adequate! ''O mine eyes, what means this rheum, I will not call them tears...'' I doubt that there was a dry eye in that motley crowd. No matter what we were doing in Nairobi or where we were working or how much we were earning.In that one moment the only thing that mattered was that we were all Indians holding valid Indian passports, not people of 'Indian origin' as is the norm in Nairobi! It is a different feeling altogether to see our flag flying high in alien skies!
The High Commissioner read out extracts from the President's speech of the evening before, reminded us that we face a general election next year and that we are, in our own ways, as much an Ambassador of our country as he is!Wise words.
No Indian independence or Republic day celebration is complete without samosas and motichoor laddoos.Add dhoklas and gulabjamuns to that and it was a veritable feast for us! A hot cup of tea was just the right way to end a lovely, patriotic morning. The more 'British' among us could choose from fruit juices too while there was Coke for all Americanized Indians! I was happy to settle for some well made Indian chai..

Monday, 20 May 2013

Mombasa

It was difficult to shake off the luxurious stupor that had steeped into us at the resort. The only stimuli we were responding to were food, more food and a lazy swim before crawling back to sink into the air conditioned bliss of our rooms. We were so close to Mombasa and yet, so far, in our somnambulant state, we had not made the slightest attempt to go across the strip of water separating us from this historical city. My husband had been there a few months ago but that was purely a business trip. Friends dissuaded us, saying there really wasn't much to see here. Others we met at the resort recounted waiting for a nightmarish two hours just to come across by the ferry to Diani, where we were holidaying. But I knew Mombasa had been the gateway to British dominance over East Africa, all those people of Indian origin who were brought here to work by the British had first set foot on this coast, as they stepped off their ships, before spreading inwards over this vast and magnificient continent. My own great grandfather, the erstwhile ruler of the princely state of Aundh in Maharashtra, along with my great grandmother, had visited Mombasa and Nairobi in 1950, where his son, my grand uncle, was the first Indian Commissioner of East and Central Africa. When all these distinguished people from our family had graced this city, how could I not?
So finally on our last day on the South Coast, we hired a car from the hotel and set off to explore Mombasa.A twenty minute drive brought us to the queue of cars, all waiting to board the ferry and go across to this busy port. As we joined the line, a young boy sold us fresh coconut water through the car window. A nice entrepreneurial opportunity, as on some days these queues are really endless and the weather is always hot, leading to many a parched throat! And what a refreshing change from the acidic and sugary soft drinks the children had been downing at the resort! Luckily for us, as it was a Sunday, we were on the ferry in less than half an hour and ten minutes later, we were in Mombasa.
The first 'attraction' here are the intersecting tusks on one of the main avenues. They were built to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to this town in 1952, at a time when ivory was considered to be an exquisite commodity. They also spell the letter 'M' for Mombasa. Today, I thought, they are a sad reminder of man's greed and a testimony to his gruesome slaughter of innocent elephants.
Next on our touristy list was Fort Jesus, a stone's throw away from the man made tusks. We had, by now, hired a guide to take us through the Fort which had been built in 1593 by the Portuguese as a military base, to safeguard, of all things, their sea route to India! I am often amazed at how these European powers sliced Africa and Asia like pizza and shared us among themselves and then had the audacity to 'protect' what was not theirs to begin with!
The fort was designed by an Italian architect from India's own Goa (which was then under Portuguese dominance) and is in the shape of a man's torso, with each limb being a line of defence. The Portuguese and the Omanis fought it out amongst themselves with each occupying the Fort at some time or the other, before the British finally gained control over it towards the end of the 19th century. It had been named Fort Jesus as the Portuguese saw themselves as representatives of Christianity first and foremost.
We walked through the huge Fort, visited the museum housed in it and my son tested the weight of cannon balls of cannons made by the Portuguese, the Scottish and the British, each type being unique in their own way. The upper part of the Fort offers unparalled views of Mombasa's natural harbour. Today, as you breathe in the tang of salty air and gulp a cool drink, these spots are a tourist's delight, but in the era of no radio communication, views from all four corners of the Fort gave the first indications of an imminent attack by ships from the sea! My son was delighted to peep through all the holes and see if he could spot any pirates! On our way out, we saw the paintings which had been created on the walls of the area which housed prisoners. They are a delight to see and one can only marvel at the fact that men so far from home, with  no prospects of ever seeing their loved ones again and with no means of communicating with them ever, did not allow their creative spirit to die and amused themselves as best as they could.
Then it was time for a walk through the old Indian Quarter of the town. As we strolled through the small bylanes we could have been in the older parts of Mumbai or Pune in India. A Little India had been recreated here by people who had left their own land for good! The guide pointed out the first Indian dwelling constucted here sometime at the beginning of the last century, it's ornate balconey being exactly like the ones you can see in India even today! He also showed us the building where the old post office used to be housed. It is a heritage structure today. It was here that Indians used to queue up every month to send money to their families at home in India, for remember, the British had brought them to work on laying down the East African railway line. Mercifully they had not been brought as slaves, so they were paid salaries.
A walk through a typically Indian Bazaar and a 'subji mandi' ( vegetable market) brought us to the end of our tour, we thanked our guide, got into the car and were back to the ferry landing in a few minutes. Back again across the creek by ferry and then it was a pleasant drive back to the resort, accompanied by the dying rays of the sun and the memories of Mombasa fresh in our minds.
Next day, it was time to head back to Nairobi and as we boarded the tiny aircraft I automatically glanced at the pilots.Both of them were young girls! I had been terrified while flying in but now I buckled my seat belt with supreme confidence! I knew nothing could go wrong with not one but two women at the helm.What a kick in the face for all those perpetrators of female foeticide in India and for all those whose faces turn sour at the birth of a darling little baby girl! I could not have asked for a better ending to what had been a wonderful trip, even if I had been asked to write it myself!
                                           Dial M for Mombasa!
                                           Inside the Fort -Cannons ready to roll.
                                                Peep hole to spot pirates!
                                             Paintings by prisoners.
                                                 Old Indian bungalow.
                                               Old post office.
                       Mombasa harbour

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sun....Surf....Sand!

Though I was born in Mumbai, which lies right on India's west coast,melding into the Arabian Sea, I am not, per se, a 'beach person'.Give me cool climes and hilly,rainy environs any day!(Did I just describe Nairobi?!) But children of all ages love the beach and so in our six years of living in Tanzania, we made many a trip to the beach!Living in the city of Dar Es Salaam meant that we just drove down to the beach on any holiday that the fancy overtook us.Certain beaches were reached by going across by the ferry,car,kids,plastic beach sets et al!For our daughter's ninth birthday, as a special last 'single digit' party treat,my husband booked an entire beach resort for the day and the party theme was, what else,the beach, of course!All the little kids (and their parents) had great fun taking part in the sand castle building and decorating competition that I had organized and there were surprise prizes for any symbol of the sea on your clothes too!(For the record, by the time our son's ninth birthday came around I had resorted (pun unintended!) to bribing him NOT to have a party!Eight previous occasions of rambunctious little boys running around had made me reach my party tolerance threshold!He had twenty kids over anyway,regardless of what I wanted or, in this case, did not want...)
After moving from Dar Es Salaam, my husband put in a couple of years of work in India's very own Goa and every vacation had the children and me commuting there from Pune,our hometown. So we experienced life on an Indian beach too and by the time we moved to Nairobi, we had had more than our fill of watching the sun dip into the sea.And hence we were in no hurry to rush to the Kenyan Coast!
The Easter vacation early this month was the last holiday the children had before the school closes for the year next month and we head home for the long vacation.We are nearing the end of almost two years in Kenya and so we decided to take the plunge and finally visit the coast!We were told that the Southern coast beaches are better and so we booked a holiday in one of the resorts there which had been highly recommended to us by our friends in Nairobi.My husband applied for and was granted a couple of days leave, which, combined with the long weekend, gave us enough time to spend in Diani, near Mombasa.
Our flight would take us directly to an airstrip which is a five minute drive from the resort but when we booked our ticket, we did not realize how small the air craft would be!We are all seasoned fliers, the children have been flying since they had been swimming around in amniotic fluid for mere days and we all enjoy flying! But one look at that twenty seater aircraft and both my daughter and I paled.What had hitherto  been just a matter of getting into the car for a day at the beach, suddenly became a life threatening proposition! With great trepidation we climbed up the minuscule ladder after having watched our luggage being loaded by hand!The pilots were already seated and just turned around and told us to fasten our seat belts. My heart was in my mouth.From the comfort of my home I had enjoyed reading about aviation pioneers in Kenya-Tom Black, Denys Finch Hatton, Beryl Markham.Now for the first time I realized what they had actually undergone in their tiny two seater planes, all to boost aviation in Kenya! I silently saluted them.
With a great shudder the tiny craft finally took off and we were air borne.Once at cruising altitude, the pilots relaxed and I could see them laughing, reading the newspaper and chatting!It seemed as if we were being borne along by the clouds and were buffeted by the wind alone and I sent a fervent prayer to the son of the Wind God, Hanuman!My son did not help matters by casually remarking that the plane felt like it had been programmed to crash!He nonchalantly munched the apple I had packed for him while my daughter and I looked petrified!
None too soon, I spotted a glistening stretch of water and soon we had landed safely!As we got off the plane, after having fervently thanked the pilots, I felt as if I had stepped back in time and was in Dar again! Diani had exactly the same hot,muggy weather and as we retrieved our luggage in the sweltering heat, rivulets of perspiration drenched us, something we do not experience in Nairobi even at the peak of summer!
Soon we were at Baobab Resort, named after the stately and exotic Baobab trees that dot the entire area around it! The resort grounds were impeccably and beautifully landscaped, tall green palms waved their fronds in the balmy air ,our rooms faced the beach and we could see the ocean, a stone's throw away and hear the soothing murmur of the waves as they crashed into the shoreline.It had five pools one of which was so placed that it looked as if it was spilling over into the ocean!It was packed with Europeans soaking in the sun and I felt as if I had receded into the past again, though it was Russia that came to mind this time and we felt overdressed just as we had then! Italian,Dutch,German,Spanish with some English thrown in were the predominant languages that we heard throughout our stay there.And I thought Europe was reeling under recession!
The chef in charge of Indian cuisine turned out to be from India's magnificient hill station Dehradoon, made famous by both Ruskin Bond and the Doon school.He was delighted to know that my husband was a fellow North Indian and specially made a very Indian dessert for him. Hospitality with the home touch! We had a vast variety of Indian vegetarian dishes to choose from at every meal, though we were greatly outnumbered by the Europeans.The package being all inclusive meant that the children gulped down ice cold cokes to their heart's content from morn till night without having to ask us for money first!Since colas are something I usually frown upon, I think this trip will stand out in their memory for all those soft drinks alone!
A walk on the beach had a surprise in store as I realized there was hard coral immediately after the tightly packed, clean,white sand tapered off!This was a new one for us and we could actually walk on this coral strip and wade out for quite a distance! The children enjoyed collecting shells and pieces of coral and tried to avoid the slimy seaweed which gives the water here it's gorgeous green hues.It is safe to swim in the ocean here if one can overcome the revulsion that clinging strands of seaweed evoke! We stuck to swimming  in any of the many pools!
We hired a glass bottomed boat to see the vast variety of coral that lies further in the ocean and were thunderstruck to see mountains of coral in the shape of potatoes,fans and hills growing on the seabed! We came across starfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and shoals of multicoloured fish, straight out of a 'Marine Life' book! We also snorkelled just off a huge sand bank right in the middle of the water! This was a first for all of us and was a 'not to be missed' experience!All of us frolicked in the water here as it was absolutely crystal clear and we were hammered by waves from all sides as we were literally in the middle of the ocean...
Walking along the shore every night by the light of a million stars, after all the sun worshippers and beer guzzlers were in bed, my husband and I, like King Canute before us, were overwhelmed by the power of nature, by the sheer force of the water as it pounded against the boundary that the ocean had chalked out for itself and if it crossed that, the havoc it would wreck!Neither of us drinks but the thought sobered us just the same!
 
                                                                    The tide is in!
                                                        The Baobab Tree!One of many here!
                                 What is this life, so full of care if we have no time to 'sit' and stare?!!
                                           The boat with a view!Glass bottomed!
                                                   Walking on Africa's Coral Strand!
                                                  A glimpse of the resort grounds!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Thrilling Trio-Treetops,Sweetwaters and Mount Kenya Safari Club

When my husband and I were based in Russia, my Dad was still serving in the Indian Army and needed the permission of the Indian Government to leave the country. This was not very easily forthcoming and so my parents were unable to visit us then. Fortunately my sister had paid us a visit and I had to be content to leave it at that!When we moved to Tanzania, my mother accompanied me when I took my two month old son and five year old daughter back there.So she managed a bit of sight seeing in Dar Es Salaam and a colleague of my husband's was kind enough to escort her to Zanzibar and back on a day trip. But she had not done any'animal safaris' because in Tanzania, unlike in Kenya, you have to travel overnight to see an animal! This was not an option for us then, as neither my mother nor my husband and I believed in toting a three month old baby around all over the countryside and upsetting his routine!
When my Dad visited us in Dar Es Salaam, it was with the primary purpose of escorting my father in law there as he was not well enough to travel by himself. Again it was impossible for us to go on safari with him, as my father in law had a stomach ailment and special dietary requirements.Couple that with a very active toddler- my son and a daughter who was in the third grade by then, in the Indian school there-which translated into tons of school work! So my Dad traversed across Tanzania's game parks alone and, needless to say, enjoyed himself in the bargain!
We had been in Kenya for more than a year by the time my mother finished her baby sitting duties for my sister's baby in Singapore. (This is something most Indian parents readily do!In fact,many parents pack their bags and wait for the call right from the day their children get married, in anticipation of the 'good news' as it is euphemistically termed in India..There is no logical explanation for this,it is deep rooted in the Indian psyche!) She had finally come back to India. By this time my father had also wound up his (post retirement) work commitments and they were both free to visit us!At long last!
We had timed their visit to coincide with the children's Christmas holidays and the first few days were spent visiting Nairobi's numerous tourist spots and many malls.A day trip to 'Elsamere' in Naivasha gave my mother a close glimpse into Joy and George Adamson's life and times as she has long been a fan of 'Born Free'  and Elsa, the most popular lioness in the world!We have all the books and the movies too! That particular day will surely shine extra brightly in her memories of Kenya!
We had left the 'piece de resistance' (actually three in our case!) almost till the end of the holidays and a warm,sunny January morning (remember the Southern Hemisphere has January summers!) found us driving to the world famous 'Treetops Hotel' in the Aberdare National Park. The check-in procedure for this particular hotel is in another hotel called 'Outspan' located in the little town of Nyeri. Hunter turned conservator Jim Corbett's cottage which was also earlier occupied by Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, is located in the hotel grounds. In our case,we threw out the bath water in 1947 but were left holding the twin babies -the boy scouts and the girl guides. Hence generations of school children even after India got independence continued to be a part of these,my mother included. So she spent a nostalgic hour in the cottage which has now been turned into a Scout's museum.
After a sumptuous and very Indian lunch of 'Paalak paneer' and rotis we were on our way to Treetops which is an hour's drive from there.Treetops, which had begun life in 1932 as a two room tree house constructed on a fig tree by an overindulgent husband for his beloved wife,skyrocketed to fame faster than fig trees usually grow when a young English girl went up a Princess and came down the next morning as Queen Elizabeth, the second!Her father, the King, had died while she was perched up there viewing game...
We, too, spent the night there,though we went up as commoners and came down the same way!Today, of course it is a huge hotel which just gives the semblance of being a tree house!The original structure burned down many years ago but the new one does have a Q.E II suite! The difference is that here we wait for animals to visit the salt lick instead of driving around to spot them as is usually done on a safari.We were fortunate to see a huge herd of elephants, a baby and mummy rhino out to slake their late night thirst, wild buffalo, wart hogs, deer and flocks of many birds.
After a continental breakfast the next day, we set off for the next location on our itinerary,Sweetwaters,which is a private game park.A regular game drive followed wherein we spotted  all the usual animals barring the lions! Our guide told us the mid day sun was too hot for them and so they had retreated into shadier areas!And who could blame the lions? The Equator runs right through this park....The rhinos here were enclosed in a particular area as poaching is very rampant in this park.In fact,some had even had their horns sliced as a preventive measure against being killed.How greedy can man get? An onsite animal museum was like an animal anatomy and physiology text book come to life and my daughter, whose life ambition, since the age of five, is to be a veterinary surgeon, was in raptures!Vertebrae and other bones of various animals including giraffes and lions, their teeth,skin,fur and the like were on display  and we were welcome to touch and feel everything.We also got a reality check of all the species that will soon be extinct if man continues riding rough shod over nature...She had to finally be dragged away from there as we were in danger of missing lunch at our final place of visit!
After the hectic schedule of the last couple of days. the Mount Kenya Safari Club was a place where we could just relax, walk from one hemisphere to the other (yes the Equator passes through!) and enjoy the food and the ambiance. Once a private home, it was popular among the rich and the famous from Hollywood and Winston Churchill was a visitor too!( Many years ago my husband and I had visited Mr.Churchill's residence in the United Kingdom,Blenheim Palace, and I could quite understand why he must have felt at home here!) A stone's throw from the town of Nanyuki and located at the base of the majestic Mount Kenya, the club is a true throwback to Kolonial times. Sprawling lush lawns, a quaintly shaped pool, catch and release fishing, even a Harry Potter kind of maze,an animal orphanage whose inhabitants included a baby Lama and had my Mom and kids in raptures,table tennis, a croquet lawn straight out of Agatha Christie and even a golf course!In short, if the Brits do it, you will find it here!Our twin cottages complete with fireplaces, were on the banks of a pond and we were visited by a variety of birds from dawn to dusk...
All too soon it was time to leave this enchanting place where we had stepped back into another era and we readied ourselves to face the modern world again! We were fortified by a very Indian breakfast of 'Upma'(made of spices and salted semolina)If the Kolonial shadow loomed over this particular hotel, could the Indian influence be too far behind?!!
                                          The grounds of Outspan...
                                           Part of the big herd at the salt lick in Treetops.
                                          The all new creeper covered Treetops!  
                                          Mount Kenya in the distance!
                                          The Harry Potter Maze!

Sheer Bliss!!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Airport Agony

Come April and it will have been eighteen years since I first embarked on international travel.Those were the days when a few Indian parents were just waking up to the fact that a Masters Degree from the United States Of America for their little (Parle G fed) geniuses was literally a passport to a green card which in turn was a great way to finally get rid of the blue passport which is anyway frowned upon at most immigration counters the world over! So barring a handful of students who had managed financial aid, some workers bound for the Middle East and a few business executives (information technologists en masse had yet to really take off and jobs hadn't been 'Bangalored' yet!), there really never used to be too many people at any of the international airports in India. New Delhi,of course,being our capital was a notch above other airports, where footfalls were concerned.
Terribly rich Indian families used to take a break in Europe or the States once their eldest child had appeared for the first hurdle in the Indian system of education-the tenth standard board exams! It was completely unlike today, where every vacation right after pre-nursery to the post twelfth standard entrance exams merits a visit abroad and there are even loans available to fund such trips! So one can imagine how deserted and desolate Mumbai Airport used to be....Friends of ours knew the Airport Manager and he was kind enough to let us wait in his personal cabin till it was absolutely imperative that I started the preboarding the formalities.Yes, those were the days before 9/11 and 26/11 and before the Kathmandu hijack. The world of international travel was comparatively a safe and secure one, open to the privileged few.
Hand baggage was not even weighed in those days, as long as you carried just one it was fine.No Indian can ever travel light and I often had as much stuffed into the strolley as I had checked in!Jackets were not X rayed separately and I ensured each jacket pocket was filled to overflowing...Oh those were the days of royal travel for sure!
Then my daughter was born, followed by my son and from being a lone traveller I got accustomed to travelling in threes! (My husband zips in and out of airports as his schedule permits and it is rare for him to be free exactly at the time school closes or reopens so most of the time we have to battle it out on our own!) We saw many airports across the world being given face lifts, we saw ever increasing queues for immigration and check in (this despite numerous counters being opened up, compared to the six that Mumbai had earlier!) and we stumbled upon huge (pun absolutely unintended!) joint families bonding over parathas and pickle, thalipeeth and theplas at international airports, as they embarked upon a Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge  inspired Swiss holiday or a destination wedding...
As the years went by family and friends often compared our airports, especially the one in Mumbai, very unfavourably with others across the world.I used to be up in arms at once and protest vociferously in defense   of our own.After all,I argued,where else in the world is one passenger accompanied by at least five other people who have come to bid him good bye?Can we blame the airport authorities if there is a jam right outside or if the washrooms are unable to handle this extra load? We should be the change we want to see... And so on and so forth.
All this changed last Tuesday.After a quick visit home it was time to fly back and we were at the Mumbai international airport.Since I practice what I preach,the children and I had come from Pune (our hometown) alone and the driver dropped us right at our terminal gate, bang in the midst of a traffic jam accompanied by the cacophony of horns.
The trolley bay there was empty and so I asked the kids to wait with the luggage while I walked a kilometer across to the other end to get a trolley.After pushing and shoving the trolley through a stream of people yelling out bon voyage to their loved ones, I managed to get back to the kids,only to find that the bay behind them had finally been replenished and my daughter had managed to lay her hands on a trolley.Unfortunately they were standing right outside a reeking washroom and when we finally loaded our luggage and began entering the airport, my son whose nose and ears are way too sensitive, could not bear the olfactory overload anymore and threw up in the first washroom we came across inside! What a start to our long journey across the Indian Ocean!
After standing in the now mandatory queues, we finished all the formalities and finally settled down for what would be a long wait as flights from this airport are generally delayed due to long lines of aircraft waiting for take off on the tarmac.. I asked the children to settle down as best as they could and to try and catch forty winks. Little did I know then that the worst part of the nightmare had yet to be.Almost immediately we were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes! We changed places twice but all in vain.The children were bitten so badly in a short period of time that both of them were in tears! I could not believe this was happening to me, in my own country to boot!At this rate our government should give up the fight for the patent for Basmati rice and take out exclusive patents for dengue,chikungunya and malaria as we are surely exporting these diseases from our international airport. Complaints were of no use at all as I was categorically told no spray works on these giant mosquitoes! Really? Well,those mosquito repellent  adverts on television that we are constantly bombarded with, certainly had me fooled!
Using the washroom unleashed a further wave of these monsters as they were thriving in the dark, dank depths of the commodes and the children landed up being bitten on hitherto unbitten parts! I ,as a mother, have never felt so helpless and I was immensely relieved when our flight was called and we entered the aero tunnel to board.My relief was short lived!The mosquitoes had bypassed immigration and customs and were merrily entering the aircraft along with all of us! I spent half the night swatting mosquitoes around us!
India may or may not be incredible but the way these insects are ruling the roost at the airport certainly is!They have subjected us to two types of agony-the physical agony of being bitten from head to toe and the mental agony of now being in quarantine for so many dreaded diseases!The female anopheles mosquito certainly gets crowned for being a 'femme fatale'!


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Kenyan Elections-A Poem For Peace

                                       

A country holds on with breath that is bated,
For five long years a community has waited.
In March '13 the Kenyan Polls have been slated.


To the polling station,
Will march an entire nation.
Democracy brings about a heady elation.


Though there are heart wrenching memories of 2008,
And of justice that had a lengthy wait.
But to give peace a chance it is never too late.


Church bells ring,temple bells chime,
Their message is supremely sublime.
Together we will firmly bond,
Of 2013 we will create memories fond.


A stronger Kenya will surely emerge,
Hatred it's head of course will submerge.
Here's to our very own piece of paradise,
Here's to a beautiful nation's imminent rise!



From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

                                               My Alma Mater, St.Helena's School, Pune. As we went back and forth on the Core ...