Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Msafiri at Masaai Mara

Can emptiness be pretty? Can lack of anything interesting be interesting ? I asked this question first time when I visited spiti valley in Himanchal. After reaching that height – in that unusually empty cold desert it’s the lack of everything-vegetation, birds, sounds, smells and even humans that results in beauty. A place where even a sigh is heard so clearly…where the blue-ness of sky is overwhelming and where eyes search for an object to rest on for a while . Such austere , stark and yet stunning beauty. So incomparable in its components. I got a similar feeling while travelling towards masaai mara. I am not so much of a wildlife enthusiastic but Masaai Mara has a snob value. It is one of those places where I would have liked to go before I die …A kind of place one reads about in Travel magazines and sees in adventure movies ….so I agreed to Fred’s proposal of visiting it in Kenya . Me and Fred were much relieved as this trip started after completion of our rather hectic official work at Uganda . We were in vacation mood. Even the terribly inefficient Nairobi airport could not dampen our spirits .
The moment we were out of Nairobi , it was a different world …..the great rift valley was open in front of us . It is vast in its expanse and suddenly reminds you about a chapter in your geography text book on fossils and the east African rift . If one word defines our journey from here it is –Bare . After a while even the road was over. It was just a pair of tyre marks in dusty way what we were following . But we were not alone .There were many cars like ours. For miles, there was nothing more than an occasional bush or tree here and there. O yes, before I forget there was a cathedral – built by prisoners of war from Italy in 1944. A small yet beautiful slice of Italy in Kenya . Later on I found that even America has many such cathedrals and chapels built by POW. I was so tired that even the heat or the bumps from the road could keep me awake. Next time I open my eyes , we were already passing through masaai villages. Masaai- is perhaps world’s most famous tribe , may be because of their distinct dress, height or may be location of their residence near the safari parks .While it was heartening to find some children in school dresses- it was very apparent that poverty and age old customs mark everyday life in this part of the world. They love their colourful dresses and have continued to wear their dresses but it would to assume that the influence of outer world has not reached them. Try clicking one picture and they shout “ dollar ! dollar!” with a strange smile . They too understand the cost of their exotic looks .

Its difficult not to get moved by Masaai mara. You see so many animals and birds that it thrills you . They are totally at home in this place. It is very visibly their home and you remain a visitor. They continue with their business uncaring of human eyes and camera shutters. Sometimes I got a feeling that some of them specially the lions even enjoy their celebrity status- they pose sometimes and sometimes they stubbornly hide while the cars full of eager tourist wait for their glimpse. I somehow did not like the way we humans track them . To my eyes it was almost breach of privacy ….but still we followed the drill . The great fun started next morning . We had debated about it for many days and finally decided to go for it. The expensive but very alluring hot air balloon safari – was something we were really looking forward. The day started early for this. By 5 we were already at our ‘launchpad” the balloon was getting inflated. We were accompanied by an elderly Japanese gentleman and a Kenyan family . The pilot and his girlfriend – a wildlife photographer completed the crew. In minutes our beautiful balloon was ready to fly. What an experience it was !!! Watching animals from up there. We saw so many of them. The reverse migration of wildebeests was still on….and we saw hundreds of them. The migrations of animals and birds are fascinating stuff. It makes you believe in the intricacies of plot written by the Great Scriptwriter for this world. They travel all over the globe- every year …and they rarely lose track. These wildebeests were of course going back to Serengeti , following the rain . It was an amazing sight , the way they follow in long lines of ‘immigration ‘ to Tanzania . The view from the balloon was superb. It was a majestic view of the animal kingdom and we saw zebras, cheetahs , elephants and giraffes. Then followed the wonderful breakfast right there in the middle of the forest. It was unbelievable and very exciting . The river mara was flowing behind us quietly .
Back home yesterday I happened to meet a senior in my office who is an Africa veteran and is working with UN for past many years .When I told him about my journey through Uganda and Kenya he gave a very knowing smile and said: “Wealth is not always in money – this is what you learn in that continent .Isn’t it ?” Well, I couldn’t agree more.
(find my other photos from Kenya here )

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Uganda: First impressions

Its difficult to miss India in Uganda. Rows of familiar tress – mango, jackfruit, banana and a very similar climate ensures that you feel at home. I realized this after almost a week in Kampala . There are infact many things about Kampala which one realizes only after some days. The simmering tensions beneath the peaceful city – the complex equations between people and the politics to list a few . But I was lucky that I could afford to remain unaware with these difficult truths of east Africa. Being a foreigner has its own advantages. You can appear ignorant on many things – but then, Indians are not considered foreigners in Uganda. Even common people know them. The Indian Community has a presence in the city . Indians and Chinese are vying for the market of this distant nation for past many decades. In a reception at India House( Indian High Commissioner’s beautifully located house) I got to meet many such rich and elite Ugandan-Indians – people who have made fortune over here. People who own tea estates here or those who are personal physicians to the presidents. Bankers and businessmen , social workers and socialites ….Indians do have a presence here and thankfully after Idi Amin , they too have changed. If you believe the tales, it appears that my countrymen tried to rule over here in the same inhuman way the British ruled over us. No wonder that the local people do not like most of them. They feel uncomfortable with the shrewdness and cunningness of Indians who came here for business….but still they associate India with Mahatma Gandhi. Its surprising , how even the younger generation knows about him and his life . Somewhere it humbles you- tells you that in the end only pure things survive and are appreciated .
Every day while going for work , I list things typical of Uganda. I found you can’t miss three features of Kampala- Bikers- ready to sail you through the terrible traffic jams, the mobile company ads- which are literally painting the town pink, yellow, blue and orange and of course, the bananas. Then you can't miss the huge marabou storks. Now, anyone who has travelled in Uganda, particularly in Kampala, knows about the marabous. They are simply EVERYWHERE. They are scavengers of note. They are huge. They are semi-ugly, semi-pathetic- looking in the same way as very old men do - virutally bald reddish heads. In Kampala they sit on virtually all the trees; on the corners of buildings, on lampposts, in empty lots. They have a menacing feel about them, with their necks hunched into their wings like the boney shoulders of a creepy old man , almost ready to pounce. Other than these , whatever the Lonely planet guide tells you about the country and the city is right . Yes, people are extremely polite and friendly and the city is largely clean and welcoming . But you cannot miss acute poverty while you are here- as much as you can’t help noticing the simplicity of the people . It touches you very deep somewhere. The country runs on the funds of “development Partners” – Its their money that shows even in the remote parts . A young Japanese girl- here to manage one such fund , accompanied me to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We wondered her courage to come and work here – living alone, far off from home and in such different environment. But there are many like her- everybody here knows the Donors. They call shots and dictate terms . It’s ironic that same people who once tortured them as colonizers and rulers, today come back to them as consultants and businessmen – the equations of exploitation remain unchanged despite modern nomenclature.
As for local people they have a sad acceptance of fate- of bad systems – of unequal fight with disease and poverty. It almost breaks my heart when a well travelled , well off young man at AG office here informs me about the death of his 32 year old sister. It’s almost without emotion. She died after an unsuccessful cesarean- he tells me flatly. It was suppose to be her third child . People die of malaria, of AIDS and of childbirth all the time. Death and disease have been associated for so long that they have become part of life . And yet these people found things to celebrate, to dance and sing about. In the historical Makerere University Campus , where I am staying, it is difficult not to find groups of young collegegoers singing, dancing playing football and tennis. A gold medal at Commonwealth games is as much a cause of celebration as is winning a inter university match . Students in this campus look very simple, keen and pure .I know there are difficulties in their young lives- of drugs, of sexual abuse or HIV but it does not become apparent in the first meeting. Most of them come across as just shy youngsters happy and happening – curious about world and things around them .