Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Bangalore - June 13 2011

The ‘imported’ cooks had had a busy evening at the Royal Flora last evening. The South Indian food counters were extremely popular. The breakfast this morning was the regular fare at the Hotel. The spread was impressive and encompassed many cuisines. Pancakes and waffles with liberal helpings of maple syrup received my initial attention followed by sausages, ham and poached eggs. Fresh fruits and a large cup of strong coffee gave me adequate fuel to explore the local market immediately after breakfast. With little local currency in hand (I was loathe to exchange more of either USD or INR as I knew I would pick up stuff I would not need if I had more local currency) I decided to walk around the territory in the vicinity of the Hotel to observe the commerce and businesses.

The local market was just a km away from the Hotel. The place was bustling with activity. Every shop was open and the pavements were also used to set up shops. There was barely enough space, if the pedestrians moved aside, for motorised vehicles to ply in the street. The aroma of food and spices was strong - people on their way to work in offices or shops dropped by for quick bites at eateries or to pack their favourite dishes. Tourists were few. There were numerous signages announcing discounts and bargain buys. Just to sample the selling ‘habit’ of the local shops I walked into a textile shop that had on sale many ‘foreign’ brands of menswear. The politeness with which I was served and the trouble the salesperson took to explain the features of each and every material that I enquired about took my breath away. I was convinced to buy and I shortlisted two - one an Italian material and the other English. When I asked if they would accept a credit card I was told that I would have to make a sale of 1ooo THB at least. Apologising for the trouble I left the shop; but am convinced that I left behind good bargains.

I left the local market to explore if I could catch up with some more history of Chiang Mai before departing for the airport. This small town has a history of more than 1000 years. The Upper North of Thailand started getting ‘colonised’ from 1000 AD by the ‘Yuan Tai’. It is their revered leader Mengrai who founded Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in the last quarter of the 13th century. The Golden Age of the ‘Lan Na’ was for about 170 years between 1355 and 1525 when Theravada Buddhism took deep roots and many important wars led to consolidation of the Lan Na ‘kingdom’. The prosperous land went into decline from 1525 to 1558 and paved the way for its occupation by the Burmese between 1558 and 1774. The period of restoration of the Lan Na lasted from 1774 to 1899. Between 1899 and 1937 Lan Na became a part of Siam as its Northern Province.

Walking to the Tha Phae Gate (TPG) and along the moat one gets a feel of the history and the power that this place would have wielded in the past. The TPG is the eastern gateway into the old city of Chiang Mai. The TPG is a plian red brick gate with stout teak doors. Tha Phae means ‘raft landing’ – people would travel on the Mae Ping River and arrive by rafts for commerce. The entire east side of Chiang Mai those days was protected by a wall and a moat. Vestiges of the brick wall can be seen when one walks around and the moat is now a water body with fountains at the centre of its sections and lovely flower beds on either side. The busy roads do not give any indication of the crucial role played by this region in the development of Siam and the later day Thailand. The Mae Ping River (known as the Lifeline of the Chiang Mai Province) and the other four major rivers make this area fertile and green.

While walking back to the Hotel from the TPG I came across the Wat Bupparam. I was not aware of its historical significance, but I stopped at the gate of this temple when I saw the ‘Three Lions of the Asoka Pillar’ on either side of the entrance to the temple premise. Experiences such as this help one to link up the cultures of the East UP, Bihar, the eastern States of India, and countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Sri Lanka. The site of Wat Bupparam is historically significant as it is from here that the then King took back the Chiang Mai from the Burmese after over 200 years of occupation. 

Walking around the city was enervating for the humidity. I had a long and luxurious bath in the Hotel to cool off. However, I felt extremely bad about having to leave “The Land of Smiles” without keeping the promised appointment at ‘Le Best’. The 50 THB remained in my wallet the whole day. I was on the same bus to the airport as Mr Aggarwal, who is a businessman from Coimbatore. This Marwari gentleman is a second generation settler in Coimbatore. His father set up many flour mills in the South. A detailed conversation with him lifted the air of ignorance on the origin of maida, suji, bran flakes and bran. The processing of wheat produces five products that are individually sold for different applications. This low investment business venture served the Aggarwals well for over 50 years in Coimbatore.

At the airport there was a slight confusion on whether to check in at the domestic or the international section of the airport. After that was cleared the check in was done in the fastest possible time with absolutely no hassles and with smiles all around. The visit to ‘The Land of Smiles’ was over and it was time for the return journey to the homeland. I spent the 50 THB I had on a packet of assorted crackers and used it to quieten the grouchy growls from the deprived abdomen, for I had foregone lunch.

There were many Indians on the flight and they did give the crew a hard time. The behaviour from many was downright shameful and I could make out that the crew discriminated the service of Indians on the flight. The stopover at Bangkok was just a couple of hours and the flight landed in Bangalore a half hour in advance of the appointed time before midnight. The baggage clearance took time; I used the time to shop for Single Malts – was lucky to get the Lagavulin that I had been in search of for nearly six months.

I tagged along with the ‘KPF’ team of Mr Modi that was returning to Bellary and got back to my township in time to attend office on the 14th. It has been a most amazing journey – the wedding, the hospitality, the Land of Smiles, the massage, the arts and crafts of Chiang Mai, etc will remain an evergreen memory.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Chiang Mai - June 12 2011


The day of the wedding dawned bright with a few rain clouds hanging low. The idlis served at breakfast were so soft that I found it a task to spoon it on to the plate. I also tried out the rava dosa, which was super. A cup of strong coffee was the last item of consumption at the breakfast table. I reported at the travel desk a bit early for a vehicle to complete the rest of the sights I had on the schedule. I was provided an exclusive vehicle to visit the Chiang Mai Zoo, the Gondee Gallery and a couple of the more visited temples.

The Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium is located on a 210-acre woody land at the foot of Doi Suthep Mountain.  The entry ticket to the Zoo does not include the Panda enclosure – the stars of the Zoo – the internal bus ride or the Aquarium. I decided to skip the Aquarium for want of time and took the 100 THB entry ticket to walk around the zoo. The Zoo is home to over 7,000 animals in a wooded, natural environment and is a popular attraction with the Pandas and the large number of animals and the beautiful natural setting. December 2003 saw a turnaround in the fortunes of the Chiang Mai Zoo. It has become a ‘must visit’ place for local and foreign tourists as it then received the Panda couple Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui from Sichuan, China.  Six years later, in May 2009, the couple produced a cute baby Panda named “Lin Ping”, who is now a new star of the zoo. Entry to the Panda enclosure cost a further 100 THB. Paying to visit these facilities do not hurt you when you see that the money is well spent on keeping the premises clean, neat and visitor friendly. While photography is not prohibited, the security person at the entrance seals the flash on the camera. The highlight of a visit to the Pandas is the photographs you get to take ‘with them’. For 50 THB you can get a photograph cuddling the baby Panda or just sitting on a bench with the family of Pandas around you. The computer assisted picture is a treat and a good souvenir of the visit. I also got some excellent shots of the couple, who were housed in separate enclosures. While the male was content feeding on bamboo seated royally on a garden bench, the female was seen pining for him with doleful eyes through the bars of the adjacent enclosure. The mournful wails of the female had no effect on the abdominal indulgence of the male.

The Chiang Mai Zoo also houses four koalas which it got from Australia in July 2006 to mark the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s Accession to the Throne. Besides these star attractions there are lots to see and enjoy in the Zoo such as the pygmy hippos, Thai elephants, African animals like the giraffe, ostrich, zebras, camels, birds like parakeets, macaws, magpies, painted storks, flamingo, Albino RB Tigers, Royal Bengal Tigers, Lions, Leopards (normal and black), Jaguar, a large number of flowers and orchids in a huge area. What strikes you the most are the cheerful and smiling faces of those minding the Zoo and their overarching desire to be of service to the visitors.

The Gongdee Gallery is the area’s primary incubator for young artistic talent. It is a lane full of showrooms that showcase a mix of home decor, furniture, sculpture, art and paintings. For instance, one showroom was almost entirely full of a young artist’s wood carvings of elephants in different ‘poses’. They are all so realistic that some of the large pieces in the showroom can intimidate you. The items are a bit pricey, but they are worth it. The Byzantine icon–like Buddhas and altars painted by Chiang Mai artist Barinya are considered to be the most famous in the block. Some of the needlework on display was exquisite.

Chiang Mai’s most visited temple, the Wat Phra Singh, owes its fame to the fact that it houses the city’s most revered Buddha image, Phra Singh (Lion Buddha), and it has a fine collection of classic Lanna art and architecture.

The Wat Phan Tao, located near Wat Chedi Luang, contains a beautiful old teak vihara that was once a royal residence and is today one of the unsung treasures of Chiang Mai. Constructed entirely of moulded teak panels fitted together and supported by 28 gargantuan teak pillars, the vihara features naga bargeboards inset with coloured mirror mosaic. On display inside are old temple bells, some ceramics, a few old northern-style gilded wooden Buddhas, and antique cabinets stacked with old palm-leaf manuscripts. The front panel of the building displays a mirrored mosaic of a peacock standing over a dog, representing the astrological year of the former royal resident’s birth.

As preparation to attend the wedding I decided to try out the Le Best for a Thai body massage! As I was being prepared for the massage the lady masseur suggested that I opt for a two hour session instead of one hour as that would be more beneficial. I would have definitely heeded her suggestion if I knew in advance how relaxing the massage would be. I chose to have the one hour session as a sample and as the session went on I regretted not having opted for the longer version. The knots on the legs and shoulders were systematically addressed and I felt relaxed after the session. I promised to come back for a two hour session the next day and accordingly made a booking too.

The wedding was to be conducted in Royal Thai style in Royal Flora, which was readied as a tribute to His Majesty the King. The gardens reportedly don 1.8 million flowers. The late evening wedding unfortunately did not present the opportunity to experience the floral delights. The Royal Flora has been a venue for weddings only twice before; it is that exclusive. The setting was perfect for a romantic, theme wedding. The Thai temple at the centre of Royal Flora – reached by a steep climb - was turned into a mythological setting with lovely girls dressed as Apsaras and Rama, Seetha and a host of Hindu pantheon represented at the foot of the temple. While I reached the venue the ‘Barath’ of the groom was just being welcomed to the venue. It did take more than half hour for the groom to reach the exact site of the Varmala. Thereafter, it was a long wait for the bride to arrive. And finally when she did arrive on a doli made of solid bamboo and borne by about 50 young thai boys in traditional attire Shweta looked radiant atop the lotus shaped doli. The Varmala ceremony did take a while with laser displays and fireworks in the background. The ceremony was grander than what could have been visualised.

After the Varmala it was time for drinks, food and music, of which there was plenty. At the bar I encountered a few brash youngsters who took offence to the bartender offering them wine from a bottle that was already uncorked – the privilege of the rich and that of their scions! In contrast was Mr Gupta, a down to earth entrepreneur who pioneered the use of seat belts in Indian cars and drove it through many years of legislation and lobbying. He is now betting on the more widespread use of airbags and the new seat belts that would be required for that purpose. He narrated an instance where a car manufacturer charged Rs. 150,000 for an air bag from a customer while its supply cost is Rs. 4500. The margins in auto components are squeezed by the manufacturers, but they themselves inflate the cost of spares.  Another interesting meeting was with a Coke bottler from Delhi. He explained how the coke concentrate is blended with water, sugar and other ingredients in controlled conditions so as to make the product available all over the country with a single taste. The bottler also has the responsibility of the supply chain, product visibility in the market and advertising.

Technically I completed the sights I had identified for Chiang Mai with a late night visit to the famed Night Bazaar of the city. This extensive market sprawls along several blocks. Roofed concession areas, regular shops and street vendors offer a huge variety of Thai goods at bargain prices. Designer goods - real and fake - are also on offer. I was particularly impressed by the ceramic work (picked up a pair of ducks and two doggie families). The quality of wood carving is just too good – the elephants, owls, tigers et al on display are almost flawless. I picked up an elephant herd on a stand for about Rs. 450. The large number of stores that vend a variety of T-shirts and other cotton fabric will make you want to buy. I resisted and resisted till I was offered a ‘midnight bargain’ for three cotton shirts. At the end of the purchases I was left with only 50 TMB for the rest of the stay in Thailand. I was fated to miss out on the rendezvous at Le Best for the Thai massage.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Chiang Mai - June 11 2011

Everything relating to the wedding was custom-made. So was the breakfast – the 44 culinary specialists flown in from India took care of the palate of those invited and present. Had I not been conscious of being in Thailand I would not have believed that the Dosa, chutneys and sambar served for breakfast was made there. They were delicious and naturally, I could not stop with one or two or even three! The poha, the Bhatura and chole and everything else was so Indian in taste that one felt firmly ‘seated’ in India.

The first half of the day was reserved for local sightseeing. The Hawaiian Party and the Citrus lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel were sacrificed to flavour the local culture and history. I took the free transportation that had been arranged for the guests. First on the agenda was the Bhubing Palace, the winter residence of the Royals in Chiang Mai (usually between January and March), built in 1961. The Palace is set in a salubrious environment where the weather is different from that in the city, which is only 20 kms away. The Doi Suthep and Doi Pui mountains keep the Palace air nippy and misty. The entire area of the Palace grounds is a healthy walk; battery operated golf carts are another option. The log cabins, the rose and fern gardens, the water reservoir (where there is a musical fountain called ‘The Fountain of Celestial Water of People’ which comes to life by dancing fountains moving in sync to musical compositions by the king and beautifully laid out flower beds), the Palace itself and the biggest bamboo in the world are all sights to savour at leisure. Thai food and fruits can be sampled in shops in the Palace Grounds.

6 kms down from the Palace, at the foot of the Doi Suthep Mountain, is the Khruba Siwichai Monument. The revered monk was instrumental in inducing the local people to build the road up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in 1935. The Wat located 3000 feet above MSL is perhaps the most important landmark in Chiang Mai and is a ‘must visit’ for those who come to the province. The Wat can be approached either by the 300 step Naga stairway or by an elevator (it is a misnomer to call it a cable car – it is an enclosed, inclined elevator). It is recommended to go up to the Wat in the elevator and walk down the Naga stairway to experience both the accesses. The golden pagoda of the temple contains holy relics of the Buddha. The temple also offers an interesting collection of Lanna art and architecture and can offer lovely views of the city views if the day is clear. Perhaps due to its importance in the tourist circuit the temple is full of self proclaimed professional photographers. A few children had set up dance and music shows for donation, which was a pleasant diversion for tourists visiting the temple.

While exiting the stairway of the Wat I was besieged by vendors selling paintings and handicrafts. The workmanship of the handicrafts is of a high quality, I noticed. On the way to the car park I came to the ‘Jade and Orchid Factory.” While admiring the jade pieces and a magnificent wood sculpture called ‘serpentine’ I was invited to visit the factory by a pleasant young girl. I told her that my interests only lay in quenching my curiosity and not in purchasing. She took me around and showed me different types and quality of jade and how the craftsmen work on the rough pieces to create unique works of art for buyers from all over the world. In between admiring the local handicrafts and the jade I bought two skewers of grilled sausages for lunch. They tasted yummy, though I did not check what the filling was. I was attracted to a vendor selling gems. He took a ruby and cut a glass piece into two. But what attracted me the most was the ‘Burmese crystal’ that was white but radiated a bright blue. I could not muster enough courage to strike a deal – they were at a good bargain – suspecting that the gems would not be originals.

The next stop was at the Three Kings Monument, which is right in front of the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre. The Monument commemorates the alliance forged between the three northern Thai-Lao kings Phaya Ngam Meuang of Phayao, Phaya Mengrai of Chiang Mai and Phaya Khun Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai in the founding of Chiang Mai. The bronze statues of the three kings are seen proudly wearing 14th-century royal garb. The Monument marks one of the city’s spiritual centres and has become a shrine to local residents, who regularly leave offerings of flowers, incense and candles at the bronze feet in return for blessings from the powerful spirits of the three kings. A huge tent had been erected in front of the Monument for dancing and festivities. Young and old were seen shaking a leg to local instrumental music to seek blessings.

The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre offers a kaleidoscopic primer on Chiang Mai history and culture. The Centre is located in a building of vintage architecture where the royal hall once stood. The beauty of this post-colonial building, Chiang Mai’s former Provincial Hall, is best appreciated from the second floor.
What I could see wherever I went were the smiling locals – no wonder Chiang Mai is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ - clean roads, disciplined driving, greenery and flowers everywhere. The tuk tuks and taxis never collared you; they were extremely polite in soliciting a fare. Some naughtily announced a visit to ‘Thai massage’ parlours. However, I headed for the ‘Le Best’ once again for another round of neck, shoulders, leg and foot massage at 180 THB. The one hour goes by so quickly that I was tempted to ask for another hour of the same treatment! I reluctantly dragged myself off after the customary cup of Green Tea.

The Sagai and Tilak were listed to be at 7 pm. Wiser from the experience of the previous day I knew that the program would not start in time. But, habits are not easy to change. I landed up at the Shangri-La a bit after the appointed time and waited for the functions to start with a cup of coffee. The Lanna Ballroom had been done up exquisitely and a stage had been specially got up for the wedding related events and the RDB band (flown in from UK) and the VJs. The sagai and tilak ceremonies finally started at a half past eight. By that time I had made a few friends and occupied a table with some starters and a Single Malt. I was fascinated by the company of two sisters who had come from Bangalore. I admired their happy go lucky attitude, warmth and friendliness. The younger of the two works in the Administrative section of the Narayana Hridalaya and is almost exclusively in charge of their charitable activities and CSR. The two of them, in their Kancheepuram sarees enjoyed the programs to the hilt and were always there when the situation called for a few shakes of the legs and hips!!

The Sagai and Tilak were done within a half hour. The family members then occupied the stage with some skits and dances to ‘warn’ Shweta and Ankit of what they are in for. The MCs tried their best to drum up crowd enthusiasm, but it fell a bit short. The RDB was a bit too loud for my musical sensibilities. But it did get the crowd swinging finally. The food was in plenty – Amritsari, Jaipuri, Japanese, Continental, etc., etc. I left for my hotel close to midnight when I felt that the sounds emanating from the speakers would still my heart and the food would choke my gullet.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bangalore-Bangkok-Chiang Mai - June 10 2011

The in-flight announcements about the impending landing and arrival requirements at Bangkok woke me up. There was no time for a bed coffee. With summer timing in force the time difference between India and Bangkok is 2 hours. The new Suvarnabhumi International Airport is not very exciting. It is a large facility no doubt with live orchids and quite a bit of greenery within the airport.  However, one does not get the feeling of it being special. On disembarking from the flight I headed for the ‘On Arrival Visa’ section.  A ‘morning walk’, albeit on travelators deposited me at a desk peopled by a couple of cheerful youngsters. Upon ascertaining that the visa would have to be paid for in local currency I submitted myself for a complete rip off at the airport currency changers. The premium is as high as 50% for exchanging Indian currency. After that was done what ensued was a horrendous wait of over two hours for issue of the visa. Wherever you are bound for in Thailand one has to obtain visa and immigration clearance in Bangkok. I soon realised that the delay was caused by a combination of less counters, lack of documentation and understanding by the arriving passengers. The Fast Track counter did brisk business, where one has to pay 20% more than the 1000 THB for the normal counters. I was short of the local currency and I had time on my hands; so I decided to wait it out. The queues had only Indians, in groups and otherwise. What irks you the most is the ‘Indianness’ of wanting to be the first in the queue even when you have arrived late. And, such attitude is not the preserve of brash youngsters, even senior citizens display this – is it because they feel that there is so much more to be done and there is not that much time left for it to be done in! After a patience and energy sapping wait of over two hours I presented myself before a young lady officer of the Thai Immigration. I presented all the documents required and waited for the necessary stampings on the passport. Instead the Officer passed me on to another as she was stumped and we could not communicate clearly with each other. Fortunately, I got my visa done soon with immigration clearance.

Another long trek took me to the transfer counter for Chiang Mai. I was in for a major panic when I discovered the loss of my travel kit with foreign exchange after the security check in. I ran out of the security enclosure in complete panic. Fortunately, the immigration officer stopped me and handed over the pouch; I had left it at her counter on the way for security check after completing the immigration formalities. With the anxiety of the loss and the relief of retrieval behind me I waited another couple of hours for the flight to Chiang Mai.

The flight was a short hop of over an hour – the distance from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is nearly 800 kms by road. Chiang Mai looked absolutely gorgeous from the air – a green valley surrounded by mountains.  Large tracts of agricultural farms, virtually manicured and geometrically laid out, was a visual treat.  Later I could connect the visual pictures of these farms with the lovely fruits and vegetables I consumed and the brilliant array of flowers that were so much part of the venues of the three days of various ceremonies connected with the wedding. High rise buildings were not part of the landscape – the city grows horizontally rather than vertically. The majority of houses have terracotta tiled sloping roofs and the blocks are well arranged. The misty mountains lend their magic to the city. While collecting the baggage i noticed a team that welcomed wedding guests at the airport.  Spectrum Events was in charge of all the arrangements for transport, accommodation, venue preparation, etc. They were very efficient at the airport, assisted by a group from Bellary. I was assigned a room at the Le Meridien and a transport allocated to take me there. The Hotel was just about 20 minutes from the airport. Another team comprising of Modi’s employees and Spectrum handled everything from specially erected booths that made the guests instantly comfortable.

After checking in and unpacking I was eager to schedule the next three days. I took the assistance of the Spectrum team at the Hotel. They drew up a two day schedule to visit the places I had shortlisted from the bits and pieces I picked up from the Internet. The beauty of the schedule was that I could cover the places I intended to visit and yet attend all the wedding related events; the entertainment related events had to be carefully chosen from. I sought the advice of the Spectrum team to go for a Thai massage before the evening program at the Shangri-La Hotel. With a naughty smile and a wink one of them asked me what kind of massage I wanted to go for. They seemed relieved when I told them that I had the traditional one in mind. They suggested a few places, but I had to get some local currency first. The poor rate offered for the INR came as a bit of a shock; against the official rate of 0.67, what was on offer was just 0.58. The USD was better treated and hence I exchanged that for the Thai Baht.

Just around the corner from Le Meridien is the ‘Le Best’ massage parlour. There was a long list of services advertised by the parlour. They had a promotion offer of foot, leg, neck and shoulder massage for 180 THB. I decided to try that out and walked in to a hall where a few customers were being massaged and many chairs were empty. A lady was assigned to me and I was asked to sit on a chair where my feet were thoroughly washed first. Then over the next one hour I was given an excellent massage that relaxed the ‘tough’ muscles and prompted me to decide on the same routine for the next three days too. It was then time to get back and get dressed for the ‘Thai Carnival’ and the many programs (including gaming and games of chances) that had been arranged from 7 pm at the Shangri-La Hotel. Before I left for the program I asked at the special counter where I could procure a local sim card from. Immediately I was given one with 105 THB worth of calls on it! All that would be necessary for the guests while in Thailand had been factored in.

I felt a bit guilty when I walked in to the Hotel at 7.15 pm, as it was a quarter hour later than what the invite mentioned. There was still a fairly large gathering at the High Tea counters and none to be seen near the Poolside, where the first function was to be held. I had completely forgotten the fact that the Indian Standard Time would be sacrosanct, even in Thailand, I walked around some and then decided to partake of the High Tea. There was a small offering of Thai eats while the Indian foods were predominant and all foods were vegetarian. The chat counter worked overtime.

A massive dose of rain ruined the most fascinating arrangements done in the open air. There was a fair amount of discussion on whether the program should be conducted inside the Hotel, more so because the Met Department forecast a 40% chance of further rain. However, by 9 pm it was decided to start the program at the Poolside. When I walked to the venue I found a man dressed like an entertainer. When I asked him what his repertoire was he told me that he could capture a silhouette merely by a few cuts of a scissor on a piece of paper. I asked if I was too complex a subject to start his evening! What he achieved in a few moments was nothing short of astounding. After he had finished, a lady who was passing by made a few positive comments and I could not resist asking if the comments were directed at me or the artist. I suppose she did not mean it at all when she said it was meant for both!

The program finally kicked off with the ‘Thai Carnival’ that showcased Chiang Mai handicrafts and the Lanna foods. The guests were asked to choose whatever handicrafts they liked as a souvenir. The perfumed flower candles, perfumed flower soap in a wooded dish, hand-painted wood pulp umbrella, hand-painted fan, coconut tree leaf hat, jasmine garland and handmade stone and gem jewellery were all on display. The candle making and the painting of fans and umbrellas attracted the attention of most of the guests. Another artist specialised in caricatures and I got mine done in the woven hat. The Lanna food spread was a stunning array of the most incredible vegetable preparations. I started with the delicious sugarcane juice and worked my way up noodles, rice, sattays, various dips and grills. I gorged on every fruit that was in sight. The Dragon Fruit was a discovery.

With the stomach looked after I settled down to the happenings at the Poolside. The couple looked absolutely stunning as they were brought into public view in a boat rowed by a traditionally dressed Thai oarsman. The floating of candles in the pool followed, which was meant to wish the couple. The music, the singing and the juggling acts all complemented the lovely evening. Personally I was disappointed by the two MCs. Through it all I had a couple of drinks and my head began to swim – a combination of exhaustion and the heady festivities. After a helping of a local recipe of the most delectable coconut soufflĂ©, the fireworks and the display of gas powered air borne lanterns I decided to call it a day. The Le Meridien is a short walk from the Shangri-La Hotel. On the way I sampled a few things on offer in the ‘Night Bazaar’, which was listed as a ‘must see’ in the Chiang Mai itinerary. The wood carvings and the ceramic work of Chiang Mai are famous. I short listed a few items to buy when I have the time to bargain. Back in the room I found a huge hamper of eats and beverages; no effort had been spared to take care of the guests.

A Destination Wedding – 9 June 2011

If you had asked me ten days back when I would be contemplating my next trip abroad I would have laughed in your face with incredulity. Alas, mere mortals we that do not know what the new dawn holds for us! A telephone call on 31st May set such an unusual string of events in motion that I am right now waiting for the gate to open for the red eye Thai flight to Bangkok, en route to Chiang Mai.

The call was from SK Modi, the Proprietor/CMD of BIOP, a leading iron ore export firm based in Bellary. Modi is exceptionally gifted in making friends and keeping them. I had made his initial acquaintance in September 2003 when I was posted in Hubli, then recently established as the headquarters of South Western Railway. That was the beginning of the iron ore export boom with China picking up anything even vaguely resembling iron ore to meet its commitments to build state-of-the-art infrastructure for the 2008 Olympics. South Western Railway was the star on the horizon with more than 10,000 rake indents pending for loading iron ore at various stations in its jurisdiction. Mine owners started amassing wealth beyond their wildest dreams, but few honestly accepted it. Modi was an exception. He used to narrate his early days of struggle when nobody wanted iron ore fines and mine owners were at the mercy of the consumers. He constantly thanked the Almighty for the riches that came his way. He used his extra finances to indulge in his passion for cars, tourism related foreign travel and experimenting with electronic technology.

Over a period of time we became family friends and I remember speaking to him on a few occasions even after I moved to Cochin after taking leave of the Railways. Thus, it was only natural that I announced my relocation to Toranagallu with JSW Steel as soon as I moved in there. He was abroad – not unusual. The next time I called him was to book a Maruti car at his Bellary dealership. He was abroad then too; he arranged to get the booking done.  He called up on 31st May to invite me to his daughter’s Mehendi ceremony in Bellary on the 2nd June. I apologised to him for I was travelling on duty to Chennai and Bangalore on the 1st and hence, would not be able to attend the function. He insisted that I drop in to his office on the way to the Guntakal railway station. I could not refuse that.

In his office Modi told me of his plans to celebrate the Mehendi in a humungous AC tent with dancers from Brazil and Russia! The program he detailed to me for the wedding in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was nothing short of extracts from fairy tale books I had read in my childhood. He must have fathomed the desire in my heart to attend the wedding, going by the widening chasm between the two sets of teeth. He had made arrangements to house 800 guests in Le Meridien and Shangrila Hotels in Chang Mai. Group booking in flights to Bangalore to Chiang Mai via Bangkok was also done. He offered air tickets and accommodation to attend the wedding. It was too good to believe. And, as luck would have it, I had my passport with me for Modi to arrange visa. Thus, in less than half an hour, the Thai trip for a ‘Destination Wedding’ was given shape to. The final requirement was the permission of my boss to take leave (it was easier than I expected).

By the time I returned from the visits to Chennai and Bangalore all except the visa was done, which I was to obtain on arrival in Bangkok. The wedding invitation card is by itself a piece of art.  The invitation contained programs for three days in Chiang Mai.  Besides, it also had a travel kit which did not leave anything to be ‘found out’. It even had baggage tags and ribbons for easy identification of the group baggage. The ‘Travel Guidelines’ listed every little matter that was needed to be known and acted upon, including the amount of foreign exchange that must be on the person arriving in Thailand and the weather conditions likely to be encountered.. The wedding itinerary of Ankit and Swetha did not leave a minute for any activity outside the Shangri-La Hotel in Chiang Mai. I had downloaded information on places to be seen in Chiang Mai. If I am to attend all the programs I will not have any time for it till the 13th. So be it. Attending the wedding and all its programs is the prime purpose of the visit.

Over the past two days I was more concerned with what I should pack for the trip and mentally trying to picture the likely gathering for the special functions. This can put a lot of pressure on the sartorial choices. In the end I discovered I had little choice for I had only to carry what I would fit into. Weight gain over the past three months in Toranagallu pared down choices to the bare minimum. The next issue was to arrange transport to the Bangalore International Airport. Here again, I was in luck. A Siemens engineer was being ferried to the airport this afternoon. I shamelessly tagged along.

The flight was scheduled to leave a half hour after midnight. Such flights are absolute ‘sleep slayers’. I reached the airport well in time to be told that the flight is delayed by an hour. After a dinner of Pizza I had over three hours to kill. I sauntered around all the Duty Free shops and even picked up a bottle each of Lagavulin and JW Double Black – only to be told that it may not be permitted into Thailand with immigration and customs clearance slated in Bangkok. I let go of the ‘liquid desires’ for I did not want to take the chance that could possibly sink me by more than $100. Rest of the time I spent watching late night news and working a tad on the laptop. The flight was full and it pulled out a few minutes to 2am from the parking bay. A most fortuitous journey was underway.

Some time into the flight – think it was 3 am IST – I was woken up for dinner; had a full meal over a gin and tonic! A strong cup of coffee set me up for a couple of hours of sleep.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Arrival in Bangalore and onwards to Toranagallu – 3rd May 2011

I slept so soundly on the flight that the passenger on the adjacent seat was ‘polite’ enough to give me unsolicited feedback about my snoring as soon as I awoke upon hearing the Pilot announcing his intentions to land in Bangalore.  I suppressed my sarcastic repartee and started worrying about the quantum of duty I would have to pay for the TV and the harassment I would face from Customs.  I should not have worried.  I approached a Customs Officer on duty and identified myself as a ‘superannuated’ government officer.  I was taken in by the politeness and the speed with which I was ‘cleared’.  While paying the minimum duty I ‘forgot’ to pick up my entitled duty free booze.  I had mentally marked to pick up a couple of bottles of Lagavulin.  An opportunity lost but money saved!!
Emirates had the chauffer driven car drop me at my friend’s place, where I freshened up.  I left soon, against saner advice, so as to attend office. However, my purpose was defeated as I almost drove into medians and off the road a few times due to jet lag.  I felt so sleepy at one stage that I decided to park in a fuel station and sleep a while.  When I woke up an hour later I was ravenous.  Fortunately, I soon discovered a Kamat restaurant and ate as if I had been fasting the previous 48 hours.  I took to the road without haste for I knew that I would not be able to attend office.  When I passed through the gates of the JSW township I thanked Him for the wonderful trip and for bringing me back safe and sound.
Finaly, a few Swahili words of everyday use for you: Lipa – Pay, Kwanza – first, Dawa – medicine, Duka – shop, Safari – travel, Hatari – danger, Njema – safe, Kinyozi – barber shop, Nyama – beef, Vali – rice, Mahindi – maize, Yai – egg, Mkate – bread, Gari – car, Dereva – driver, Barabara – road, Mke – wife, Mti – tree, Nyota – star, Moja – one, Mbili – two, Tatu – three, Simu – mobile, Basceli – bicycle, Choo– toilet.
So friends, Karibu Tena – Welcome Again.  I hope to do a more ‘organised’ trip to Tanzania, sooner rather than later.

Dubai to Bangalore – 2nd May 2011

I was free the whole day to explore the newer delights of the city.  That meant only one place –the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man made structure in the world today.  Quite interestingly, none of my friends I met in Dubai had been to the giant building that looked from afar like a taller Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur rooted on a single limb.  I got a drop to the Dubai Mall complex that stands at the foot of the giant tower.  The complex around the Burj Khalifa is awe inspiring.  The Dubai Mall, The Address, etc are classic styles in architecture and landscaping.  The Dubai Mall is a city in itself.
Walking into the Dubai Mall you feel dwarfed by the giant ceilinged structure and the experience.  Fashion houses and swanky stores ensure that the Mall has everything that good money can buy; it has everything you could desire, it has thrill, magic, romance and movies.  The Dubai Mall is the world's largest shopping mall going by the area and sixth largest by leasable area. It is part of the 20-billion-dollar Burj Khalifa complex and includes 1,200 shops.  The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo in the Dubai Mall has been acknowledged as the single largest acrylic in the world – it holds one of the largest tanks in the world at 51m x 20m x 11m and featuring the world’s largest viewing panel at 32.8m wide and 8.3m high. It holds 10 million litres of water and has more than 33,000 living animals including over 400 sharks and rays.  Dubai Aquarium's 270-degree acrylic walkthrough tunnel makes for incredible close-encounter experiences with some of the most fascinating underwater animals on the planet. A special 'lunar-cyclic' lighting system changes the ambience of the tank depending on the time of day.
The Dubai ice rink is another fascination in the Dubai Mall.   It is a multi-purpose venue which uses refrigeration plant technology – this ensures that the consistency of the ice-bed is maintained at all times - and has developed an Olympic-sized attraction. The Ice Rink has a capacity of seating 2000 guests with world class multimedia facilities including a giant LED screen.  This top class facility offers the best to train future generation of ice skating champs for which over 1,800 pairs of skates have been imported to fit children and adults of all ages and sizes.

Burj Khalifa was known as Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration.  At 828 metres, it is currently the tallest man made structure in the world.  Construction lasted over five years and the building officially opened on 4 January 2010 and is part of the 490-acre flagship development called Downtown Dubai.  The cost of the project has been given out as $1.5 billion.  The project's completion coincided with the global recession and Dubai was almost subsumed by its debt from ambitious projects and the Dubai government sought multibillion dollar bailouts from Abu Dhabi. At the opening ceremony, the tower was renamed Burj Khalifa. 
I was disappointed that I could not make a trip up the Burj Khalifa.  While a previous day booking costs 100 Dhs same day entrance costs 400 Dhs.  I did not perceive the experience to be of such premium value.  Hence, after drinking in the sights from the outside I set out to explore the Metro.  I bought a NoL (Road Transport Authority) card for 20 Dhs and was told that I could perform RTA bus and rail journeys for 14 Dhs, after which I could recharge the card.  I found the Metro very popular with commuters, visitors and shoppers.  The Metro links the happening places of Dubai and has good interfaces with RTA bus routes to link the rest.  This is the cheapest way to travel around in Dubai and is efficient too.
With the heat was getting to me a bit I had to get to the Hotel to cool off before setting off for the airport.  I went to the Panasonic showroom at the Fish roundabout and picked up the 42” TV which was on offer with a Blue Ray DVD.  With the packaging I was a bit shaky as to whether the Airline would permit it as check-in baggage.  The next stop was the Carrefour store in the Diera City Centre.  A couple of hours and many $ spends later I reached the Hotel and flopped, completely exhausted by the heat.  The Airline arranged pick up for the airport and I was assured by Nancy, the Emirates customer service agent at the airport, that the TV would pass muster as check-in baggage.  The first hurdle crossed I engaged two baggage clerks to take my baggage to the check-in counter.  The lady at the counter, with extreme politeness, told me that I have 19 kgs of excess baggage for which I would have to pay 1080 Dhs.  The baggage clerks cleverly pulled out a bag from among those I had planned to check in and said that two pieces of hand baggage are permitted in Business Class.  With one bag taken out I did not have to pay for excess baggage and only due to the alacrity of the baggage clerks.  I showed my appreciation of the timely assistance with a handsome tip.  All anticipated hurdles crossed it was time to it the lounge with a vengeance.  The food in the lounge was excellent and the drinks plentiful.  I helped myself to both in sufficient quantity and told the flight attendant on board not to disturb me till the aircraft lands in Bangalore.  I avoided all the in-flight hospitality and slept soundly on the flight.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Dubai – 1st May 2011

Normally an early riser, the late night kept me in bed till 8 am.  The hotel has an interesting arrangement for breakfast.  The voucher for breakfast at the hotel reception costs only 40 Dhs against the 50 Dhs charged in the restaurant.  The spread was mouth-watering but the mouth could not take as much as it should have.  The waiters were mostly youngsters from Kannur.
After breakfast I decided to catch up with a few friends in Dubai and had to travel to Jebel Ali Free Zone.  The route to Jebel Ali was not as crowded as it used to be in the past when I made trips to Jebel Ali during my days with DP World.  Nostalgia welled up.  It was once said that the National Bird of Dubai is ‘Crane’ for Dubai used to deploy the most number of cranes per sq km during the boom time.  With recession having taken its toll and projects having been scaled down the roads and work sites seemed free and empty.  The commissioning of the Metro must have also added to weaning traffic off the roads, which is indeed remarkable.
After meeting up with friends I decided to scout for an appropriate TV to buy.  I was given to understand that certain brands cost half of what it does in India.  Even factoring in the duty it makes sense to cart one home from Dubai.   I had set my mind on a Sony and visited Sharaf DG in Festival City to buy one.  Once I walked into the TV section of the showroom I was totally lost and confused.  Every brand had its own merits and some of them came with bundled freebies.  Despite the vast selection I decided to go with the Sony.  The youngster handling customers in the TV section brightly told me that they would deliver and install the TV in two days.  When I said I have a flight to catch the next day he told me that I would not be able to get the model of Sony I had zeroed in on anywhere in Dubai within 48 hours.  So my challenge was to like one that could be bought to accompany me on the flight to Bangalore in the next 24 hours.  The next choice was an LG – again out of stock.  Then I settled for a Panasonic 42” that would give me a Blue Ray DVD free with it for 2499 Dhs.  While it was out of stock in Sharaf DG I was told that the Panasonic showroom near the Fish Roundabout would be able to service my requirement.  Thus, having finalized the TV to be bought I went to the IKEA showroom to scout for anything interesting for the new flat in Cochin.  I picked up some and was ready to leave when Binu (Mathew Zacharia) arrived at the store to pick me up.  Binu is Chitra’s brother, about who I had written in my blog of 2nd October 2010.  Binu and I grew up together as neighbors for many years. We were the smart kids on the block during our times and have had our share of fun under the sun including many hours of ‘gulley’ cricket.  Binu is a top executive with the Kanoo group in Dubai and we share a lot in common, much of which I would not like to commit to a blog.  Suffice to say that I enjoy his company and that of Meena, Binu’s wife, who is the quintessential teacher that loves to be engaged in the development of the GenNext.  Binu is passionate about movies, cricket and football – he continues a family tradition.  He has downloaded nearly 450 movies in Blue Ray format from many sites and stored them on a 1 TB external hard disk.  The clarity of the playback is awesome.  I have requested him to copy the same for me too.  Even if I am not able to delight in viewing all of them the thought of having the collection is in itself a delight.  After a few pleasant hours in their company I insisted on taking a Metro ride back to the Hotel.
When the Metro was in the planning stage and later on when it was being built I got to see many artists’ impressions of the stations.  They were to have rivaled the Moscow Metro in grandeur.  The recession seems to have scaled back the grandeur for the Metro is very functionally designed and maintained.As in the West and in the Far East, the Metro is easy to use in Dubai and well mapped out for the debutant.

Dar-es-Salaam to Dubai – 30th April 2011

Having fallen behind on the updation of the blog I spent the whole morning translating the aide memoire into readable format.  In the meanwhile, I also got confirmation of my flight to Dubai.  The timing of the flight is such that one could not have utilised any part of the day more productively than what I had planned to do.  While waiting for Irfan and Omar to join me I scrolled some of the tourist attractions in Dar on the web and came across the mention of Mwenge carvers and tinga-tinga paintings. The description was such that I wished to see the art, if not buy some if affordable, if time permitted. As soon as Irfan and Omar came in I asked if it would be possible to visit the places where I could appreciate the carvings and the paintings. Omar, as is his wont, immediately jumped up and said, “Let’s go.”  He assured Irfan and me that we had enough time to visit the places, have lunch, come back to the hotel to check out and be in time for the flight at the airport.  It took time to get a taxi, despite it being a Saturday. The roads are relatively free during the weekends. However, after a while we got stuck in serpentine queues and traffic jams. Omar’s incredible knowledge of the lanes and bylanes and the taxi driver’s skill saved the moment.  We reached a small market place where the carvings and paintings are arranged in numerous shops.  Handicraft and wood carvings are some of the major attractions of Tanzania's tourism industry. The Makonde community who originally hail from the southern part of Tanzania is among those that have made it possible to showcase the carvings. Handcrafts and carvings are sold in some other places in the country but Makonde Village Market in Mwenge Dar es Salaam is supposed to be the best among all.The Makonde village market does a lot besides just the art of selling, final touches on carvings like decorating, smoothing and polishing work are done at the village market yard. The art work comes from places like Mtwara, Bagamoyo, Chanika and Kimanzichana. The carvings are incredible. The exquisite art in ebony made me spend more time than I would have otherwise.  I have heard that ebony is the most difficult wood to work on because it is the hardest wood of all. That makes the carvings all the more valuable.  The detail and the translation of skill to wood were awesome.  I wanted to buy all I could lay my hands on. But, ebony is heavy and I picked up just two pairs of wall hangings.  Bargaining is heavy. I paid Tshs 50,000 against the 75,000 asked for.  With some more time I may have been able to bring the price down some more. But then, art is art and the money paid goes to sustain the artists.
The tinga-tinga paintings are named after the person who started the ‘trend/school of painting’.  Edward Tingatinga began painting in Tanzania around 1968. He employed low cost materials such as masonite and bicycle paint and almost immediately attracted the attention of tourists. The paintings of African life are colorful, childlike and almost surreal. When Tingatinga died in 1972 his style had become so popular that it had started a wide movement of imitators and followers. Due to paucity of time I could not sample many and hence left the purchase for the next visit!!
I thanked my lucky stars that I left the Mwenge market tearing way from the lure of the tingatinga paintings.  The traffic jam had become worse.  Again a combination of Omar’s knowledge of the bylanes and the driver’s skill behind the wheel took us to the hotel in good time. Lunch was forgotten. I checked out in good time, but not before learning that they do not accept USD currency of vintage prior to 2001 in Tanzania.  The traffic to the airport seemed to get worse every 100 meters.  I started mentally preparing to stay another day in Dar.  At a couple of junctions we could not move for over 20 minutes. Omar assured me that it could be worse!  He confirmed from the Emirates counter at the airport that the counter will be open till a half hour before departure.  Sweat and exasperation all the way.  I finally made it to the airport with 45 minutes to spare for the flight.  I did not have much time to thank Omar and Irfan for making my stay in Tanzania memorable.
I checked in and was given a lounge card.  I hogged all I could in the airport lounge for I was famished and had expended a lot of anxious energy in the humungous traffic jam to the airport.  Accompanying the shorts eats and the single malt (!) was the traditional Tanzanian smile and graciousness. I boarded the flight to Dubai hoping that I will be able to come back to Tanzania for an elaborate tour of the tourist spots.  The friendliness and the smiles of the Tanzanian people remained etched in my mind long after the visit was over.
I spent the time of the flight watching two movies, Guzzarish and Pokkiri Raja.  I enjoyed the poignant Hindi movie with a power packed performance by HritikRoshan.  The latter was a slap stick Malayalam flick that had some laughs but was mostly forgettable. I did not have a visa for the stay in Dubai.  Hence, I had to check into a hotel to obtain a transit visa.  The process seemed to take forever, especially since I was extremely tired from the flight.  Finally, I checked into the Floris Grand at 3.30 am!  However, the counter at the airport had got me a good deal at the hotel - $257n for two days plus visa.  I did not wait to change clothes; saw the bed and hit it hard.

In Dar – 29th April 2011

Breakfast at the Tanzanite Hotel is an unvarying fare. And so is the smiling service.  The hotel does not have a regular restaurant. But they manage to rustle up breakfast every morning, which consists of cornflakes, cold milk, doughnuts, bread, apples, fruit juice, coffee and eggs in any form that you would want them as long as your order is omlette!! Normally I have four slices of white bread toast, butter and marmalade with a double egg omlette. This morning was no different.
Omar was in attendance immediately after breakfast.  Having worked in the Port sector for five years I wished to visit the DAR port.  Irfan and Omar managed to get appointments with the Container Terminal Manager and the Port Operations Manager.  The Ports of Dar, Tanga and Mtwara, along with the river ports, come under the Tanzania Ports Authority.  Tanga is a lighterage port and Mtwara is a seasonal port, which assumes a lot of importance during the cashew season.  Cashew is grown near the Mozambique border area of Tanzania andis better served by Mtwara port, from where cashew containers used to be received in Cochin during the season.  With the possible exploitation of minerals and ore in the southern part of Tanzania, bordering Malawi and Congo, I feel that the Mtwara port will assume a lot of importance in the years to come.  There is no rail connectivity to Mtwara; the road connectivity also leaves a lot to be desired.
The Dar port is in the ‘centre of the city’, so to speak.  The presence of Omar ensured that we go in to the Port without any entrance pass. The Dar port dates back to 1867 and presently has 11 berths and an oil jetty over 2600 metres of quay length.  Berths 8 to 11 are operated by Hutchinson on a 25 year concession agreement with the TPA.  330,000 TEUs are handled by Hutchinson.  The CA was amended in 2008 to exclude the non-compete clause as Hutchinson was unable to handle additional volumes due to lack of additional ground slots.  The non-availability of CFSs in and around the Port has increased dwell time of imports in the Port.  The overall dwell time is in excess of 15 days.  Presently, the TPA uses two of its seven general cargo berths for handling container vessels with an annual throughput of 80,000 TEUs. The general cargo berths handle foodgrains, fertilizer and ro-ro vessels.  Additional investments are underway to augment the container handling capacity of the Port.  The Port administration is very receptive to ideas for business and process changes.  The new wagons imported by TAZARA for transportation of containers were at the Port.  The Port handles traffic of TAZARA and TRC on two different gauges.
While I was in the Port it rained heavily and humidity increased.  From the Port I walked with Omar to the St Joseph’s cathedral.  I was drenched in sweat and the shirt clung to an out of shape ‘single pack’.  On the way are the terminals that operate ferries and speedboats to Zanzibar.  I wished I could go.  But there is no time now; perhaps on the next visit.  The St Joseph’s Cathedral was built between 1897 and 1902.  It is one of the oldest in DAR.  The adoration chapel was full of devotees.  The next halt was at the Kilmanjaro Kempinski Hotel to get a first hand update of the Tanzanite stone.  The stone is only mined from an exclusive area called Mererani near the foothills of the Kilimanjaro.  The color of the stone ranges from deep blue (AAA grading) to light blue (B grading).  The exclusivity and the limited area keep the price of the stone high – a one carat stone is sold for as high as $850.  The high rate and the non-availability of smaller stones kept me away from closing a deal for a ‘take away’.
Lunch was at the Chef’s Corner, not very far from the Tanzanite Hotel.  The restaurant had turned on the sound of the TV to ‘announce’ the Royal Wedding.  I thought I ordered a chicken dish, but what landed up was a fish fry!!  However, I enjoyed the meal with a couple of chappatis and chips.  A visit in the evening to the Kariakoo market was an experience.  This is reputedly the cheapest market in Tanzania.  Goods from China are available at bargain prices.  Bags, clothes, belts, shoes, hankies, jeans, undergarments, and such like are vended on the streets.  You name it and it is there. The place can be overwhelming for the number of people that throng the streets.  Lack of proper lighting is a challenge and the condition of the roads is bad.  It is best to be careful about your belongings as the surging crowds could relieve you of many of your valuables. It is also a market for Mitumbe – second hand goods (literally, ‘dead man’s clothing’).  I bought a few DVDs of African music as souvenir. 
Dinner was at Mamboz – an eatery down the place from where I stay.  Akhtar, the owner, is a third generation Gujarati businessman in DAR.  He told me of the generous tips to the Police and Civil authorities that are required to keep his business going using the pavements.  The sheek kebabs, misihikaki (BBQ) and the tandoori chicken were yummy and filling.  I was tempted to sample a fish fillet served to the adjacent table.  Akhtar told me that the fish is found only in the waters of Lake Victoria.

In Dar – 28th April 2011

When the car stopped I woke up and enquired of the ‘battered’ Steve where we were.  It was around 5 am and the commuting public could be seen even at that hour.  Most schools and offices start business at 7.30 am, I understand.  We were about 20 kms short of the Tanzanite Hotel.  Then we hit the most incredible traffic jam I have encountered in my life.  It took us over 3 hours to travel the 20 kms and get to the hotel. I did not have anything much lined up for the day and hence asked Irfan if I could meet with the Managing Director of Tazara Railways.  I was keen to know how Railways are organized in Tanzania and get a larger picture of the African Rail system, if possible.  The resourceful young man got me an appointment for the afternoon, till when I relaxed in the Hotel.
I had a most interesting meeting with Mr. Lewnika, the MD of Tazara in his office.  And I learnt the following from him.
Tanzania has two railway systems – the Tanzanian Railway Corporation (TRC) and the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara). The Tazara railway line was built to give landlocked Zambia a link to the port of Dar, as an alternative to its export rail routes via erstwhile Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique.  The rail link was a project financed and executed by China costing about $500 million, making it the largest foreign-aid project undertaken by China at the time.  The railway was originally envisioned in the 1930s and till the 60s the project was considered economically unviable and floundered for funding.  Strategically, with the West shutting off all funding avenues to the project, the leaders of the newly independent States of Tanzania and Zambia turned to China and secured their financial and physical commitment to the terrain challenged project.
Tazara railway spans 1,860 km from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia.  The railway is often regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of its kind. The railway took only five years to build and was finished ahead of schedule in 1975. It is said that before the construction actually began 12 Chinese surveyors travelled for nine months on foot from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya to fix the alignment of the railway line. Thereafter, about 50,000 Tanzanians and 25,000 Chinese were engaged to construct the historical railway.  The Chinese labor was rumored to have been convict labor.  Braving the challenging environment and natural elements the workers successfully laid the track through some of Africa's most rugged landscape. The work involved moving 330,000 tonnes of steel rail and the construction of 300 bridges, 23 tunnels and 147 stations. The bridge across the Mpanga River towers 160 feet and the Irangi tunnel is more than two kms long. Construction of the Mlimba (the Kingdom of Elephants) to Makambako (the Place of Bulls) section was considered to be the most difficult along the route, crossing mountains and steep valleys.  The railway passes between the Mikumi NP and the Selous Game Reserve.  Hence, travelers on this railway get the opportunity to see the rich wildlife of Selous, which with time have got used to the rumbling noise of the train. From Mbeya town, the railway heads northwestwards and crosses into Zambia at Tunduma.
The gauge of the railway was kept at 1067 mm to match that in the Zambian Railways that are connected to Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Thus, Tazara is a point of access to the railway systems of Central and Southern Africa. Tazara has never been profitable and more recently it has suffered from competition from road transport and the re-orientation of Zambia's economic links towards South Africa after the end of apartheid. A Tanzanian newspaper described the railway's condition in late 2008 as being "on the verge of collapse due to financial crisis".  It is understood that the Chinese government stepped in with some much needed assistance to the financially crippled Tanzania-Zambia Railways Authority to revive its operations.
Tazara is connected to the TRC, which has a gauge of 1000 mm, at the transshipment station of Kidatu and inside the Dar Port.  The Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) is state owned and operates a railway network that was once part of the East African Railways Corporation (EARC) operating in Kenya, Uganda and the erstwhile Tanganyika.  TRC spans about 2,600 km.
In 2007 RITES of India won a contract to operate passenger and freight services on a concession basis for 25 years. The concession agreement did not take off for various reasons and the government terminated the contract and resumed control in 2010.
It was fascinating to get the story of the Railways from Mr Lewnika.  Later we met over dinner at the swanky ‘Sea Cliff’ Hotel with the Indian Ocean on one side for company.  Mr Lewnika had held various positions in the private and public sectors in Zambia, even being a Cabinet Minister, prior to being given charge of the Tazara.  He mentioned that his father, who was a founder member of the Northern Rhodesia Freedom Movement, had travelled to India in 1950 and visited Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.  He had met with Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi during his trip.  Mr Lewnika expressed a deep desire to trace the journey of his father to and in India.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mbeya to Dar – 27th April 2011

Irfan and Omar were to make a few business calls after breakfast.  I tagged along to further appreciate the countryside.  The landscape is pristine and the air absolutely cool and clean.  I was so taken in by the surroundings that I absent mindedly took off the seat belt, lowered the window and started clicking away as if there would be no tomorrow.  This went on for a while till we were once again waved down by traffic cops.  As soon as we stopped a cop came near me and told the driver, Steve, that I was not wearing the seatbelt.  I tried to explain that as a tourist I was clicking away and had inadvertently taken off the belt.  The cop would have none of it.  Negotiations began almost immediately.  Finally, the fine was reduced to Tshs 2000.  The cops send us on our way with a smile and the greeting ‘Safari njema’ (Safe journey).
While Irfan and Omar made their business calls I chatted up the taciturn Steve.  I wanted to appreciate the ‘Bantu’ tribes people in their original environment.  Very reluctantly he pointed out a few people, who were on their way to work, and asked me to observe their short stature, darker complexion, thick lips and short curly hair.  This southern part of Tanzania is rich in natural deposits of coal, copper, iron and manganese ores and gold.  On the way back to Mbeya I requested to be taken to a railway station to appreciate the facilities.  Irfan and Omar took me to two.  We went first to the Mbeya railway station, which is a major transit point on the Tazara Railway line which links Tanzania and Zambia.  The gauge is slightly over a metre – 1067mm to be precise.  The fact that little investment is being done on the railway system is amply evident from the condition of the railway wagons and locomotives.  Uyole railway station is just a few kms away from Mbeya.  The station is not functional now.  The loop lines have been spiked and the signaling and communication systems are defunct.  When we were at the stations we saw many children returning home from school.  When I asked some of them for a photograph many of them ran away.  It took Omar’s vernacular skills to get them to come together for a photograph.
Instead of staying another night at Mbeya we decided to drive back to Dar.  This meant that we would have to drive through night, Steve willing.  He agreed to it and Irfan said that he would take over at the wheel if Steve felt tired.  We had ahead of us 14 hours of travel to get back to Dar.  Before checking out from the Mbeya Hotel Omar took me on a walk through the city centre and pointed out Bantus, Pygmies, Somalis, Masais and mixed tribespeople.  Irrespective of the tribes the Tanzanian geniality could be seen everywhere.
It was pitch dark when we entered the road through Mikumi NP.  I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife.  I was not disappointed.  A ‘tall’ giraffe darted across the road at speed and we almost ran into an angry elephant. Memorable moments.  All along the way eateries were open to serve the fairly heavy cargo vehicle movement.  We stopped at one such place and had a quick bite, which helped Steve to relax and stretch his legs a bit.  We could make out that he was tiring.  I offered to drive but Steve wouldn’t hear of it.  We resumed the journey and I promptly dozed off.

Dar to Mbeya – 26th April 2011

Since Irfan and Omar were going on a business trip to Mbeya I decided to tag along to see a countryside that is normally not on a tourist’s radar.  We left Dar es Salaam (Dar) at around 8 am.  Irfan told me that hiring a car in Tanzania is a costly affair.  For the two day trip that we were embarking on we could be spending up to $35000!!  The driver of the car that Irfan hired for the trip, Steve, is a boxer. His biceps could make Salman and Co feel like ill fed kids.  Immediately as the journey began, Steve stopped to buy a fire extinguisher and the attention triangle.  I was told that the Police are quite tough on the non-availability of safety items on the vehicles.  Nice to know that such traffic requirements are ‘in vogue’!  Talking about the Police, it did not take long to be waved down by a batch of traffic policemen.  On the hand held radar the speed of the car was registered as 64 kmph against the permissible 50 kmph on the highway!! The normal fine for traffic infringement is Tshs 20,000.  A suitable compromise was struck after a combination of tough talking, groveling and invoking the names of the people in high places.  We got away with a fine of Tshs 5000.  The police officer wrote out three copies of the booking record as he did not have carbons.  More than the money spent it is the time that was a matter of concern for we had ahead of us more than 800 kms to go.  Adding to the delays en route was the strict application of traffic rules by Steve behind the wheel.  He refused to overtake unless the visibility was clear and even when the driver in front permitted him to.  It was exasperating at times.  We had to pay one more compromised fine of Tshs 3000 for not having a safety sticker on the windshield.  As it is, the front windshield was full of statutory stickers.  An additional windshield may be in order to comply with all the regulations.  With the stoppages and the exasperating driving techniques of Steve we were well short of the intended destination for lunch.  However, I gave me a wonderful opportunity to take in the landscape and understand Tanzanian way of life a bit better.
In Dar city ladies can be seen moving about their chores wearing brightly colored head dress, called Kilemba in Swahili.  But exposure to the western life styles has introduced modern hair braiding which is meant to be flaunted rather than be concealed beneath a Kilemba.  One of the common sights in Dar is the amount of commerce that happens at road blocks and traffic intersections.  Vendors with Chinese made cheap items, food and fruits do brisk business.  From one of the vendors Omar asked for ‘gazetee’, a newspaper.  He got me an English newspaper, ‘The Guardian’.  The newspapers are full of the 47th Union Anniversary, a Union that is not without its problems.  The perceived neglect of certain regions of the Union of Tanzania and regional aspirations contribute to the fissiparous tendency.
The road from Dar to Mbeya was mostly a two lane road, but certain portions had three lanes and almost all through there were service niches that could be used for overtaking or temporary parking.  Advertisements along the way suggested that the mobile data cards are cheaper in Tanzania than it is in India.  On arrival in Dar Irfan had got me an Airtel prepaid connection.  While SMS costs slightly over Rs.3 per message the international calls are cheaper – I was told that Tshs 10,000 (equivalent of Rs. 300) could get you a half hour call to India.  In the suburbs of Dar one could see a few Bajaj autos.  However, here again the Chinese have gone a step further.  They have marketed auto-like dump trucks that operate hydraulically.  They are a big hit for marketing farm products.  The prices of diesel and petrol are the same with minor regional variations – a litre costs between Tshs 1950 to 2150 (between Rs. 60 and 65).  All fuel is imported into the country by private companies, who operate fuel stations too.  Most of the fuel is transported over land routes in humongous trucks specially manufactured for the purpose. The majority of cargo vehicles on the road are from Scania and heavy duty too.  There is substantial movement of containers on the Tanzania-Zambia highway moving to the port of Dar.  One fact must be highlighted here.  The drivers are extremely conscious of traffic regulations and safety.  They are ‘well behaved’ in the sense that rash and negligent driving is not something that you see on the highway, which makes driving less stressful (cannot say the same in Dar, though).
The countryside is dotted by mango trees, paddy fields and unorganized farming of tomatoes, potatoes, sunflower, sweet potatoes, cabbage, passion fruit and other fresh fruits and vegetables grown organically.  The road side sale is brisk.  A bucket full of tomatoes weighing about 20 kilos is sold for less than Rs. 50.  The abundant fertile lands call for organized farming with upstream and downstream industries to produce good seeds for the farmers and process the produce after harvest.  The 40 million Tanzanians can be induced into entrepreneurship, farming and marketing.  Despite the presence of large lakes and water bodies and more than abundant rainfall irrigation is largely absent.  There is a crying need to ‘stitch together’ a network of canals and bunds so as to bring the fertile lands to life.  Power supply is another problem area for Tanzania.  The country produces less than 1400 MW of which nearly 600 MW is produced using gensets.  The availability of large deposits of coal has not been exploited till date.  There is scope to enhance hydel generation, which also is lagging behind its potential.  The government needs to act expeditiously on these issues so as to leverage the benefits of natural wealth for its citizens.  As one drives through the rural landscape one cannot but appreciate the clean villages.  You will not find garbage and muck thrown about.  Even in the rural areas there seemed to be good civic sensibility amongst the citizens and an efficient collection and disposal system.
Omar turned out to an eager teacher.  I picked up a few words of Swahili, which has more than a smattering of Hindi in it.  One can appreciate it from words like Duka (shop), Dawa (medicine), Safari (travel), etc.  The blue skies against the Uluguru Mountain gave me a lot of photo ops.  The route from Dar to Mbeya passes through the Mikumi National Park for 50 kms.  ‘Hatari’ has remained one of my favorite movies.  This day I realized the meaning of the word after nearly 40 years of seeing the movie – at the entrance to the NP was the word ‘Hatari’ painted in bold letters, meaning ‘Danger’.  The NP, established in 1964, covers an area over 3200 square kms and is the fourth largest NP in Tanzania. The landscape of Mikumi is often compared to that of the Serengeti. The road that crosses the park divides it into two areas with partially distinct environments - alluvial plains and imposing rock formations of the Rubeho and Uluguru mountains.  The fauna in the NP includes many species characteristic of the African savannah. The park contains a subspecies of giraffe that biologists consider the link between the Masai giraffe and the Somali giraffe. The 50 km drive gave me an opportunity to appreciate elephants, giraffes, zebras, gnu, black antelope, baboons, wildebeests and buffaloes.  The small Museum at the entrance to the NP has skeletal exhibits of elephant, hippo, buffalo and antelope.  The road traffic that passes through the NP is fairly high.  Hence, it is not uncommon for wild life to be run over and killed by passing vehicles.  Photographs of such ‘accidental’ deaths are on display in the Museum.  The Mikumi NP is not normally on the map of international tourists to Tanzania and therefore, is better protected from the environmental point of view.  We had lunch at the NP, with Omar obtaining special permission to enter the NP.  I utilised the chance to observe and commit to camera baboons, birds and elephants.  Accommodation at the NP is frightfully expensive - $165 per night.
A hand raised in greeting, a warm ‘Karibu’ on their lips and an ever smiling face is what describes Tanzania for me.  The Tanzanians mean their ‘Karibu’ (Welcome).  Wherever you go in Tanzania you feel welcome and never threatened.  It makes Tanzania all the more attractive for foreign tourists.  After more than an hour over lunch in the Mikumi NP we resumed our journey to Mbeya.  We reached there after 9 pm, after more stoppages to buy tomatoes and passion fruit.  I was told that Mbeya would be cold.  I did not have proper winter clothing.  But the air was just a wee bit nippy and I weathered it.  We were booked into the Mbeya Hotel, in the city centre.  It is a railway property that has now passed into private management.  It is a no frills accommodation.  The rooms are adequate but the water in the tap was not the color of normal water!  Omar ordered ‘Ugali’ and chicken tikka masala for me.  Ugali is a steamed powdered maize preparation.  It is very heavy but easy on the digestion.  I fell in love with it.  The combination with the chicken curry, which had a strong taste of tomato, was fantastic.