Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dubai to Dar-es-Salaam - 25th April 2011

Indian time refused to part ways with the body clock.  After readying material for the blog I ‘played’ around with the coffee maker for some time, even summoning additional sachets of coffee mix.  I impatiently waited till it was respectable time for breakfast in the Hotel Coffee Shop.  I was offered Dosa and Sambar, but opted for a masala omlette and accoutrements.  A huge helping of fresh fruits briefly embellished my plate.  Strong coffee with milk got me into the right frame of mind for the flight to Dar es Salaam.
The Airline gave me a drop to the T3 terminal and I wandered aimlessly for a while in the Duty Free, at times comparing the liquor prices with that in Bangalore International Airport.  The prices in Bangalore are definitely lower.  In the Emirates airport lounge I downed an excellently made Bloody Mary and filled out a feedback form (on the experience yesterday) while awaiting announcement for the flight.  The service on EK 725 to DAR was definitely better – the food and drinks I got what I wanted and not what was left over.  Moreover, the pretty Thai girl was friendly and full of life.
The flight from Dubai to Dar-es-Salaam lasted all of 5 hours.  When the flight was landing I got a glimpse of the various islands that dot the Indian Ocean close to the erstwhile Tanganyika coast, including Zanzibar.  No high rise buildings, just rusty, tin roofed single floor houses.  The port is a pretty sight from above and so are the water bodies.  I had planned to obtain a visa on arrival at the Julius Nyerere International Airport and accordingly filled out forms.  The way it was processed showed how entrenched the old British systems are.  They were neither fast not efficient.  But what saves the day are the friendly Tanzanians who man the counters and other services.  They have a smile for everyone and for everything.  After examining the documentation I had for yellow fever vaccination I was asked to pay $50 for the visa.  The officer examined the currency note studiously and informed me that they accept only notes that are 2001 vintage and later.  Apparently, this precaution is to avoid counterfeits that almost subsumed the ‘exchange bureaus’ a few years back. Later I learnt that the dollar notes of 1996 etc are not of much use here.  They could be exchanged, but at a huge rebate to the normal exchange rate of 1500 Tshs to a $.  100 Tshs is roughly Rs.3.  The Customs department did not bother about the two bottles of whiskey I brought in.  The climate was humid. I had worn a jacket as I was told that it is winter time in Tanzania.  I ‘burnt’ in the airport arrival hall and the jacket was quickly abandoned.
When I came out of the Airport I was received by Irfan Khan and Omar Noor.  I was booked into the Tanzanite Hotel, a new facility in the midst of a large Indian community in Dar.  The Hotel has large rooms and decent facilities. What immediately caught my eye were a few Masai tribesmen sitting in front of the Hotel constantly chatting amongst themselves.  Tanzanite is a stone discovered by the Masai in the 1960s.  A stone of immense color and beauty, it is much sought after.  What adds value is its limited availability.  Irfan has been doing business in Tanzania for a few years now and his local contact is Omar, a Somali by descent. After a wash we decided to go to ‘The Slipway’ for dinner.
The first impression I got of Dar from the drive from the airport and to ‘The Slipway’ is that people still do not have access to Malls and organized shopping places.  Dar is just an overgrown village with a desire to be urban.  Traffic blocks are legendary even though the vehicle density is not so high.  The population of the large country is just about 42 million – it is said that even if 10 hectares is distributed free to every Tanzanian the State will still be left with enough land for a few generations more.  This mineral rich country is still in a very nascent stage of development and prospecting.  The mineral wealth includes gold deposits in 19 of the 21 provinces of the country, coal, iron ore, limestone, copper, etc.  The country is blessed by huge lakes such as the Victoria, Nyasa, Tanganyika, Manyara, Nutron and Eyasi.  However, the presence of these natural sources of water and the abundant rainfall have not translated into organized irrigation and farming.  The potential for this is massive.  I made out from the tourist leaflets at the airport that the country is a tourists’ delight.  It offers a wide range of places to visit for the tourist from the revered Kilimanjaro to the amazing craterland of Ngorongoro to the rich wildlife of Serengiti National Park to the spice trading centre of Zanzibar to the Lakes of Victoria and Tanganyika to the picture postcard centres in the South like Mbeya.  It has so much to offer and I have very little time.  What happens in such a circumstance is a kind of desperation to visit this and see that and go there and be here.  I decided to spend time with Irfan and Omar and try to understand the place and people a bit more interspersed with a few visits to places of interest.
At The Slipway we took a table close to the waterfront and ordered a round of the local beer, ‘Kilimanjaro’.  Even the ‘favorite’ bottled water is called that.  Omar and Irfan decided to have a soda – all aerated beverages are called soda.  They settled for Stoney, a ginger drink from the House of Coke.  Over the drinks I got a flavor of Tanzania from my two friends.  The people are so friendly that one seldom sees them breaking out into a fight.  Everything is amicably settled with a smile and a handshake.  Even total strangers are greeted by the locals in traditional style. 65% of the population is Muslim and over 30% Christian.  There are many tribes in Tanzania, prime among them being the Bantus (mainly in the south) and the Masais (in the north and the north-west). However, a common language, Swahili, knits them together.  Swahili is an interesting blend of Hindi, English and local languages using a Roman script.  Casinos are many and so are the nightclubs.  Cabs are very expensive in Tanzania.  The cars are mostly used ones imported from Japan.  Hardly any major automotive manufacturer has a showroom in Dar.  Interestingly, both diesel and petrol are priced the same. In Dar a litre of fuel costs about 2000 to 2100 Tshs; roughly about Rs.60. Dinner consisted of Beef Misaki (barbecued beef), Beef Samosas, Kalamari, Red Snapper and chips. The preparations were delicious and Omar promised to get me ‘Ugali’, the local maize staple, tomorrow.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bangalore to Dubai - April 24th 2011

I am presently located in Toranagallu village, Bellary District in Karnataka.  The once sleepy village has been transformed by the ‘House of Jindal’.  JSW Steel is the largest steel producer in the country today. From a humble 1.6 million tonnes Hot Metal production in 2005, it has grown into a 10 million tonne Plant in 2011.  Plans are already on the anvil to scale up the capacity to 16 million tonnes in 2 phases by 2014. The size and scale of the Plant can be appreciated by a fact that there are 145 kms of railway track within the Plant premises. The company has deployed 22 shunting engines of its own and will shortly be doubling their number. It is not untrue to state that many railways do not have as many shutting locomotives as JSW Steel has in Toranagallu! To be part of this historical expansion is exciting.  One can also take pride in the yeoman service of the Company to society by way of its Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives in the spheres of community health, education, women’s empowerment and such like. The JSW Steel is served by 3 self sufficient townships, prime among them being the Vidyanagar Township. The employees number nearly 17000, both direct and indirect; the township is open to all.  The Vidyanagar township of JSW Steel is arguably the best in the country. It is understood that Shri Sajjan Jindal and Smt Sangeeta Jindal take personal care to ensure the upkeep and growth of the townships. The green environment is reputed to be the initiative of the First Lady.
Ajay, my son, had joined me in the township on the 22nd after his examinations. We left early this morning for Bangalore via Hiriyur and NH4.  Breakfast was at the Kamat Upachar in Sira.  The Kesari Bath was delicious. The Easter lunch in Tom’s house was a majestic meal preceded by Baccardi Breezer.  The ‘Kuttanadan Duck’ preparation was difficult to tear away from.  The quick disappearance of the Appams from the serving plate, I blamed, on the excellent gravy!  Time went by very fast in the company of Maria and Lizy, the perfect hosts.
The chauffer driven pick up of Emirates Airlines arrived at the appointed hour to take me to the airport for the flight.  The airport lounge of the Bangalore International Airport was a disappointment in so far as the drinks and food were concerned.  EK 567 to Dubai took off ahead of schedule from the Bangalore International airport.  It is Shakespeare who said: “Sorrows come not single spies, but in battalions…”. The flight by EK 567 from Bangalore to Dubai proved that practical wisdom was the hallmark of the Bard of Avon.  When the opportunity came to travel to Tanzania and Dubai for tourism I had booked on Emirates Airline and got upgraded to Business Class, first to transit Dubai enroute to Dae-es-Salaam and then to return to Bangalore via Dubai.  The exceptionally poor quality of service on board EK 567 today made me feel like a stowaway.  The Airline lays a lot of stress on service and quality of food on board, it is advertised.  Whether the attitude of the staff that served me was intentional or just part of his natural ‘armor’ of customer service was difficult to tell.  But either ways, it is debilitating to the Airlines.  While taking food orders I was told that “we have only one Seafood Pie and two Chicken”!! It made me wonder if I was travelling Business Class or ‘Cattle Class’ (move over Shashi Tharoor) by Emirates Airline.  As if that was not enough, the steward took upon himself to decide how I should have my drink and brought me a drink he had mixed to the proportion of his choice.  Later when I asked for a refill of the Single Malt, Chivas Regal was produced! Such shocking attention and behavior from the Emirates Airline staff in Business Class is not what I had factored in for the journey of such immense personal importance.
At the time of booking I was told that the Airline would take care of the transit Visa and accommodation in Dubai on the 24th.  Accordingly, arrangements were made for the Visa to visit Dubai on the return leg on the 30th April.  At T3, on arrival in Dubai, I got the manual visa made from the Airline Help Desk proximate to the Immigration.  Then I was handed the rude shock by the Immigration that the manual Airline Visa would not be processed since the Visa for the return to Dubai on the 30th was ‘already in the system’.  I had arranged to meet with Haism, who I knew from my days with DP World, upon arrival. The delays after arrival ensured that the entire pre-scheduled program is ‘consigned to the shredder’.  After many clarifications and unacceptable alternatives from Emirates Airline staff (such as ‘sleep in the lounge’) I was left with no option but to use the Visa that was ‘in the system’.  All through the ‘drama’ lasting over a half hour the staff at the Emirates Help Desk refused to intercede on my behalf with the Immigration citing non-existent customers to serve!  The embarrassment and the precious time lost were nobody’s concern.  I rued the decision taken to travel with Emirates Airline.
Mercifully, Avis provided a car pronto to transfer me to the Meridian Hotel (chauffeured by a guy from Kannur, Kerala).  The hotel room was comfortable to rest the weary legs and mull over the events of the day.

This time for Africa - 23rd April 2011

The railwayman is at it again. I am packing my bags for a short trip to Tanzania. I have never travelled to the African Continent before. This place, where human civilization is reputed to have begun, is still a ‘dark continent’ to many. I may be pardoned if I sound like David Livingstone, for I am all excited about the five day trip to the country of Julius Nyerere. Tanzania as we know today is an amalgam of the erstwhile States of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. While the former was a British colony the latter was under the control of the Germans till the First World War. Vasco Da Gama, during his exploration of the Orient, is said to have stumbled upon Zanzibar reputedly the center for spices, ivory and slave trades during that time. The reluctance of the Germans to let it go as a pocket of its influence after the World War is well documented.  In 1961, Tanganyika won independence from the British under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. Some history books give more credit to the financial sate of the British Empire at the time rather than to the people of Tanzania for their independence. Whatever, the role played by Julius Nyerere in lighting the sparks of independence from colonial rule in the African Continent cannot be understated. When Zanzibar won its independence in 1963 Tanganyika and Zanzibar came together to form the United Republic of Tanzania. Dodoma is the Capital, in name only.  Dar-es-Salaam is the erstwhile capital city and the major port, vital to trade in East Africa.
The objective of the railwayman’s journey this time is no different from what it was in October 2010. Adventure and education have ramped up the levels of excitement. Five days is too short to do justice to any country particularly an African country that is so rich in history, culture, art and wildlife. Nevertheless, I have five days to see and enjoy what I can. The railwayman is on the road once again. 
Today is 23rd April, the 55th anniversary of my parent’s wedding. Achachan and Ammachi, a couple who lived almost exclusively for their children, are no longer in our midst. But the memories of their loving and caring ways, the selfless sacrifices they made and the solid foundation of values and morals they provided will keep them in our memories forever.  This journey to them.