Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

On a trip to any country in South East Asia, it is a rarity to not come across a Hindu Temple – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, all of them have benefited from contacts which they have had with India over the centuries.

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms
THe region of Kambuja had deep connects with India between the 6th/7th century right up to the 12th/13th century. Not only Kambuja, Monstates(present day Myanmar), Champa (central and south vietnam), Annam (North Vietnam), Java and Malaya regions too benefited from Indian influence – all without use of force or economic coercion

Historian RC Majumdar writes in his lecture series, Ancient Indian Colonization in South-east Asia, “The term Hindu is used here in a very broad sense. As is well-known, the word Hindu is derived from Sindhu, the name of the mighty river on the western border of India. The parsis used this name to denote also the territory lying on the bank of the river, that is to say that part of our country which was known to them. Gradually the name Sindhu in its phonetically changed form Hindu came to denote the whole of this country. Advent of the Muslims necessitated the use of two different terms to denote the two distinct classes of people. Henceforth the term Hindu came to denote the people of India other than the Muslims.”

This Diwali vacation, i had the opportunity to visit Cambodia, a vibrant tourist hotspot famed for the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat temples, beach city of Sihanoukville, historic capital city of Pnohm Penh and of course the mighty Mekong river which emerges from Tibet and nourishes countries on its way before emptying in to the South China Sea.

With Siem Reap being the only stop in #Cambodia, my effort was to go beyond Angkor Wat and explore the visible remnants of the region and how Indian culture had an influence. One such place of Interest is Kbal Spean, an Angkor era archeological site which is also called as the Valley of 1000 lingas.

Before embarking on a trip to Kbal Spean, one has to purchase the Angkor Pass – One day for USD 37, Three day for USD 62 and Seven day for USD 72. These are available at the complex on the main road to Angkor Wat. Kbal Spean is an hour’s ride from Siem Reap and the access begins at the Kulein mountains. Enroute is another major temple complex of Banteay Srei with Banteay Samre being a detour. The three put together form a day excursion. It is important to note the timings in order to avoid disappointment.

The walk to the valley of the 1000 lingas begins at a checkpoint. It is 1.5 kms but takes a good 40 minutes as one navigates slippery rocks and rough terrain. Stairs are available at steep climbing points but one definitely needs to watch their step at every point to avoid a fall. Pause and take a look at breathtaking views of the forests below, the rainforest canopy, natural rocky outcrops, tough creepers and climbers and of course a few reptiles. There are countdown boards egging you on during the short but tricky trek.

Way to Kbal Spean where nature mesmerizes you
The Walk to Kbal Spean from the base camp is about 1.5 kms and takes a good 40 minutes across boulders, rocky paths, natural rocky outcrops, valley views and beautiful creepers and vines

For the majority of visitors Kbal Spean is a picnic spot with a waterfall to cool off; The first sight of the lingas carved in to the river bed just made me bring my palms in union. It was not just about the reliefs of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi that were carved in to the river bed but how the thoroughness with which Indian culture and civilization , in all its aspects would have been imbibed in Kambuja (ancient name of the great kingdom of present day Cambodia)

Two bas relief's showcasing the trinity brahma, vishnu and siva
Top above, Siva and Parvati on Nandi; Vishnu reclined on sesha with Brahma emerging from his navel. Below – Lord vishnu, Brahma and lakshmi on a lotus at Vishnu’s feet

Scholars, priests, merchants and persons of various hues who travelled from India to Kambuja desa left a distinct imprint whether it was about a religious, ethical & spiritual life, spirit of piety & renunciation and most importantly the concept of emancipation from birth & deaths. A peek in to texts of scholars, archeologists and historians who have taken immense pains to read through inscriptions (In sanskrit and Khmer) will tell us that all the cultural maturity was achieved between the 6th century and 12th century. The indian influence was without any force or economic colonization. The 700 golden years of Kambuja desa ended as India was trampled upon by the Mughal empire and Cambodia remained a French protectorate till atleast the 19th century.

Images of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva
Brahma, Vishnu and Siva at various points in rocks strewn across the river bed in Kbal Spean

The site at Kbal Spean was discovered by Jean Boulbet, french ethnologist in the year 1969. Cut off during the Cambodian civil war, it was not until 1989 that the site was thrown open for visitors.

4 images of lingams and snanadronis at various places on the river bed
Not only the presence of lingas on the river bed, there are a number of Snanadronis without their lingams. Snanadronis are sculpted structures which drain the water flowing over the lingam

During the period from 6th and 12th century, Kambuja Desa began as a Saivite (rever Shiva as the supreme being) kingdom. The Angkor Wat temple was dedicated to Vishnu (Vaishnavite – Vishnu as the supreme being) around mid 12th century before Kambuja desa embraced Theravada buddhism as its main religion. The Kbal Spean site is said to have been carved during the 11th and 12th century which saw the reigns of some of the greatest kings of Kambuja – Suryavarman I and his successor UdayadityaVarman II. The kings had laid out very clear rules in society – conduct of oneself, treatment of seers & the learned and priests & physicians being held in high esteem.

Lord Siva is venerated across many temples in the world. THe most commonly worshipped form is the linga and the linga is kept cool with a continuous dripping of water at its head. The Kbal spean site with its “SahasraLingas” (1000 lingas in Sanskrit) has a continuous stream of water flowing on top of it. The water having flown over the sacred lingas enters the city of Angkor thereby said to be blessing the city.

Lingas on the river bed and representation of Shakti
The full stretch of the river bed over which the river flows bathing the lingams perpetually and keeping them happy and cool. There is also a grid pattern with the water flowing out representing the Yoni, a representation of Shakti, Siva’s consort

The carving sites have been fenced off to ensure that visitors dont desecrate the holy site. Still, one can reach out and grab a hanful of the cool water that has flown over the lingas and drink up without fear of any contamination. On a hot afternoon it is an absolute delight.

Walking downstream one can watch revellers below a cataract which further flows over many more lingas before meandering its way through the forests and entering the city of Angkor.

4 images of a rainforest stream, waterfall, a chamelon and tree mushrooms
The downstream area of Kbal spean is full of vibrance. Cataracts, reptiles, mushrooms and beautiful Rain forests dot the landscape

Having visited Kailash Mansarovar in the year 2015, the import of the visit to Kbal Spean and the opportunity to be in his presence was not lost on me. The place is pure energy and brought out a determination in my wife who despite a tricky trek was able to make it and savor the moment.

After this visit, i came back and immersed myself in two books by a highly respected historian of India – Shri R.C Majumder. Kambuja Desa – An Ancient Hindu Colony in Cambodia (Sir William Meyer Lectures 1942 – 43) and Ancient Indian Colonization in South East Asia (The Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad Honorarium Lecture, 1953-54). These opened the door to understand the extent of influence of India in the region. Needless to say, i am restless to go back to Cambodia and explore other wonderful places of the Kambuja Empire.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

A photo blog and Supporting information guide for Yatris preparing to travel to #KailashMansarovar organized by Ministry of External Affairs, India

A photo blog and Supporting information guide for Yatris preparing to travel to #KailashMansarovar organized by Ministry of External Affairs, India

From June 11th of 2017 till September 2017, 1430 lucky yatris will be able to accomplish a cherished goal – One of successfully completing the Holy Kailash and Mansarovar Yatra. The Yatra, excellently organized by our Ministry of External Affairs with support from Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, ITBP, Sashastra Seema Bal and the Chinese authorities is a massive exercise in logistics, co-ordination and participation. The Yatris can do their bit by preparing well, staying fit and extending their co-operation to the organizers and fellow yatris. I have been part of Batch 5 of the Yatra during 2015. This photo blog captures my preparatory experience with supporting visuals wherever possible. I see this as my way of paying back to the Holy feet of the lord himself. Om Namah Shivayah!

BAGS – The bags are carried throughout the yatra with the help of mules. It is better to stick to a maximum of 10 – 12 kgs. Select a light weight duffel bag which is water resistant and a good duffel bag. Check out the choices available here for duffel bags and day packs. At the Gujarat sadan, the organizers provide you with a plastic/fertilizer bag to seal the bag. Add your identifier like a satin tape with name and batch number. This is useful when luggage is picked up and handed over at the lipulekh pass. Keep one empty small bag which can be left at Gunji with clothes you may not need. REMEMBER – As you climb altitude, shed your bag weight and get lighter.

Bags and packing for Kailash
Starting Top Left Clockwise 1- A Tarpaulin material water resistant duffel bag which gets transported throughout the Yatra. Use Plastic covers to line the insides and pack your stuff. Should be around 10 to 12 Kg maximum. A Day pack – for carrying on self or with the porter containing a change of clothes, medicines and thermals. A smaller bag which can store used items that can be either left at Dharchula or Gunji and collected upon return 2. Day pack by Quechua – Forclaz 30 Air 3. Tatonka – Medium size Duffel Bag 4. Waist pouch with Passport and Cash – always on self 5. Packing at the Gujarat sadan Using fertilizer grade water resistant bags, ropes and identifiers like satin tapes and yatri name and registration number on the bags.

MEDICAL KIT – The following 9 items are more than sufficient for your entire Yatra. This is apart from any other medication that your physician has advised. Listen to the advise of doctors at Batra Hospital in Delhi, ITBP hospitals in Delhi and Gunji. If you have to take a Pony + Porter both on the Indian side and Chinese side, take them. You will need them when your legs tire. It also helps to stabilize your breathing and settle your blood pressure. If you feel the need for an oxygen can, you can find one at Taklakot in their markets. For Altitude sickness – TR Coca 200 Drachms / Coca 6x can be purchased from any homeo clinic in your home town or in Delhi. Follow the schedule as advised and it should keep you in good shape till you start the descent back.

Essentials in the bag
From Top Left – Band Aid Strips, Paracetamol Tablet, Anti Allergic Tablet, Vaseline lip balm to avoid chaffed lips – to be kept in pant pocket, SPF 30+ cream on face, hands and exposed parts – to be used from day 2 regularly till return, Vaseline petroleum jelly – rub in nostrils before sleeping for easy breathing, Neosporin powder for any wounds before bandaging, Candid anti fungal and bacterial powder – dust in to socks before slipping on shoes. Muscle relaxing cream for any sprains

HYDRATION – Important to stay hydrated throughout the trip. Often long walks can leave you short of salts. Keep sipping water every 30 minutes and consume ORS/Electral if you feel drained of energy. Ask your porter/pony handler to fill up water from the streams on the indian side and experience the goodness of nature. Nothing can beat the taste of a natural spring.

Water bottle, ORS and Electral
A water bottle of maximum of one liter that can fit in to the sides of your day pack, a packet of ORS or Electral to support your water requirements and salt replenishment. If water is exhausted, ask your pony handler or porter to fill it from the nearest stream. It is absolutely safe. Please consume water every 30 to 45 minutes and an average of 3.5 to 4 liters per day. Don’t stop drinking water even if you don’t feel thirsty.

OTHER SNACKS – Make small sized packets of dry fruits and sugar candies. They are excellent for snacking during long walks in the sun. Keep some in your day pack and some in your trouser pockets.

Dry fruits and sugary sweets
Make small packets of dry fruits – Walnuts, Almonds, Dried Grapes, Dried Figs and sugar sweets to keep you fit when you walk long distances – on an average of 15 – 20 kms per day. Keep them in your day pack or in the pockets of your trousers

CLOTHING DURING INDIAN SIDE TREKS  – On the Indian side treks begin at 5 – 530 AM and yatris reach their guest houses post lunch around 2 / 3 PM. It is usually sunny and one sweats extensively during such treks. Stick to simple cotton t-shirts (around 6 should be enough) and a water resistant trouser; Two such trousers are sufficient for the entire trip. Rain coats are fine but keep it only for the upper part. Advisable to keep two pairs of strong shoes. One for a lower altitude and one for higher altitudes.

Clothing for the Yatra on the indian stretch
When walking on the indian side from Dharchula to Gunji via Sirkha, Gala and Budhi it will be quite sunny. Use a cotton T-Shirt, wear a water resistant trouser (no jeans) and wear shoes which give you enough grip. Use cotton socks in this stretch. If it rains, carry a rain coat (2 pieces). You can leave them in Gunji in a spare bag if you feel you don’t need it. The trouser, usually has multiple pockets to store instant snacks, ORS and medicines if required

CLOTHING DURING HIGHER ALTITUDE TREKS  – Starting from Gunji after an extra night of acclimatization, treks are always on a higher altitude. During this period it is wise to switch to full hand t-shirts with trousers, liberal application of sunscreen, sun goggles and full UV protection caps. One may also use Quick drying T-shirts during this stretch. They can be purchased from here

Full T shirt and Trouser
When walking at higher altitudes starting from Gunji up to chinese side and return, use a full length, quick dry t-shirt and a water resistant trouser. The full hand t-shirt will keep you safe from UV rays. For high altitudes and snow, use a stronger shoe which is water resistant as you may have to cross streams, walk in ankle/knee deep snow.

CLOTHING DURING THE PARIKRAMA – Clothing during the parikrama needs care and attention to avoid exposure to the wind. Starting from the crossing at Lipulekh to Dolma, exposure to winds is going to be high. During these times, it is important to have three layers of clothing as given below – T-shirt, Fleece Jacket and a wind + water proof jacket. Apart from these, important to have the right protection to cover your face to avoid chafed lips. Useful to have anti-frostbite socks if possible else woolen socks too will suffice.

Yatra Clothing
Starting from Navidhang where yatris depart at 3 AM, right up to completion of the Yatra, it is advisable to wear 3 layers. Inner layer is a T-Shirt, On top of the T-Shirt, you can consider wearing a warm fleece jacket and finally a Wind, snow and water proof jacket. The final jacket should completely cover your neck and should have a hoodie provision. Trousers can be the same water resistant one. Use either a woolen socks or a

FOOTWEAR – Important to carry two pieces of robust footwear. Break in to them atleast a month before the Yatra and feel comfortable walking in them. Go for shoes with Ankle support. You can review the models for lower altitudes and higher altitudes. Gaiters are extremely useful to avoid any leeches or insects getting in to your legs, stones and even snow. Hiking poles are an absolute must especially while crossing streams and checking for depth of snow. Buy one which can be adjusted for height.

Footwear and walking
On the left is a low altitude trekking boots usually used up to 10,000 – 12,000 feet. On top of the green shoes are Gaitors which are used when walking on slush or Snow to avoid leeches and snow seeping in to shoes. On the right are shoes with heavier tread and increased water resistance useful when walking in higher altitudes. Use the extensible hiking poles (green and red) while walking. Use only one pole during hiking.

HEAD GEAR – Extremely important considering the UV exposure, sun rays, winds and reflection of sunlight from the snow. Avoid any temporary blindness that could come out of reflected light by having a wrap around goggles always accessible.

Head and Hand gear during walking
Cap with UV protection, Wollen beanies to wear, Microfibre to protect against harsh winds especially at higher altitudes in Lipulekh pass and Dolma La. Complete eye protection from UV rays and sunlight reflecting from snow. One has to make sure that the eye wear can be worn with a neck band and hung on the neck. Leather gloves during high altitude and windy terrain are more effective in keeping one warm

GUEST HOUSE / YATRI NIVAS WEAR – During overnight stops at Yatri Nivas’, it is important to be appropriately clothed and also stay protected as the overnight temperatures dip to single digits on the Indian side and sub-zero on the chinese side.

Guest house resting wear
On the left – Simple wear when in the guest house. A cotton track pants, Cotton t-shirt and a shell jacket and/or Wind protection jacket. On the right – Quick dry underwear. Having 4 or 5 of them can help you through the Yatra without any pressure of having to wash them and waiting for them to dry.

THERMALS – Thermals have a very important function at high altitudes and at low temperatures. It is important to understand the function of Thermals and use them appropriately. Recommended to go for one pair of Cotton thermals and one pair of synthetic thermals. Use is described in the image below.

About Thermals
Thermals – When to wear them and How to use them. On the left are Cotton thermals and on the right are polyester mixed thermals. On the indian side and up to 10,000 – 12,000 feet, cotton thermals can be worn during night before going to bed. Wear only thermals when going to bed as it can keep you very warm. No other layer on top of it. During Yatra and at higher altitudes wear the other thermals. If during the yatra you feel the need for a thermal pant during walking, wear one and then put on a water resistant trouser on top. Simple rule – At night, only thermals will suffice. During walking, it is optional.

This Yatra is led by extremely competent liaison officers who are well oriented, well equipped and one who has a direct line with the ministry regarding the status and well being of the yatris. Our only job is to listen to the instructions regarding safety & comfort given by the officers along with ITBP & SSB officers and KMVN guides. This guide follows the official document provided by the Ministry; Any other items required over and above the official list is as per the discretion of the yatri.

Wishing you all a successful Kailash Mansarovar Yatra 2017

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 3

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 3

Did you read about The Migrations of East Africa? If not, read about it here. Let us now help you prepare for this once in a life time experience. Have a sit down session with your travel partner, inform yourself and carve out a personalized itinerary catering to your requirements and budget. We spoke about health requirements and transit points in Part 1 and about the people and their lives in Part 2 . In this concluding part, we discuss about unique and easy eats, how the local people move around and about entry and exit points in to Masai  Mara and Serengeti.

Food – The local choices and No Fuss eating experiences

Cafes, restaurants in Malls cater to palates of all kinds. The Artcaffe coffee & Bakery is a must stop at all times of the day especially for their soups, breads, pastries and of course coffee. Ask your driver guide to take you to at least one of their outlets during your stay.

Soup, Falafel, Pasta and Cake n Coffee
Artcaffe in Nairobi for a light lunch and great coffee – Soups, Falafels, Fresh Pasta and great Salted Caramel cake with an Americano

Restaurants attached to lodges serve set meals/packed lunches during your game drives. For a vegetarian packed lunch ask for stir fried veggies with Rice OR Sandwiches along with a fruit and drink.

Sandwich, Rice and stir fried veggies, fruit and a drink
Packed lunch during a game drive – Sandwich, Stir fried veggies with Rice, Fruit and a drink

Apart from great tasting local coffees across Kenya and Tanzania, do try the Bitter lemon soda – Kale and a Schweppes Pineapple soda – Nannasi. Extremely refreshing on a hot day.

A bottle of Krest Bitter lemon and a bottle of Schweppes pineapple drink
Kale Bitter Lemon and Schweppes Pineapple drink

Make sure you buy some bananas (East African Highland Bananas) as it is the cheapest source of nutrition around and extremely filling during the long drives. If you dare to venture, try out the porridges on offer at some of the stops enroute. Of course, take help from your driver – guide.

Ragi porridge with BrownSugar and a Kidney Bean salad with Vegetables
Porridge with Sugar and a hearty Bean + Salad breakfast

Morning breakfast is incomplete without a steamed tuber/vegetable like potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, arrowroot or Pumpkins. The starch fills you up plus loads you up with essential minerals. The corn based dishes like Ukale along with a spinach stir fry will make you go for a second helping and make sure you have them hot. Eggs, the perennial favorite are cooked everywhere per your choice.

Omelette preparation and a finished omelette
Eggs – Everywhere and in all forms. Readies you before your arduous game drive

The lodges experiment with vegetarian variations of African dishes like the Moroccan Tagine for example which has a mix of spices, chickpeas and vegetables. With so much of indian influence, rare to not have an indian dish in the set menu for dinner at the lodges. Some of the lodges have a live meat counter much like the beloved weekend favorite NyomaChoma (Grilled Meat) available across the region.

Highlight – A few tented camps like like Kichwa Tembo offer a wake up call with Coffee, Tea and Hot Chocolate served via a pantry window at the time of your choice.

French Press, Flasks of Milk, Hot Chocolate and cookies
Wakeup Service at Kichwa Tembo – Fresh French Press, Hot Chocolate and cookies

Using services / Take Help offered

The local guide, hotel bell boys insist on taking your luggage and servicing you right from the moment you land. They insist that it is disrespectful to allow the guest to carry his/her own luggage. A decent tip atleast 100 Kenyan Shilling ( 1 USD) / 2000 Tanzanian Shilling (1 USD). For all local driver guide services, please do consult your travel partner on Tipping etiquettes, plus consider your safari experience before tipping. For all lodge services, either use the common gratuity box or tip in person. For Indian travelers it is advisable to carry USD from their point of origin for better rates at the exchange point. INR almost always fetches Kenyan shilling on parity basis.

How people Travel in the region

You must be in your 4*4 watching the traffic and wild life outside.

Matatus in Kenya and DalaDala’s in Tanzania are mini bus based transportation systems that can transport about 25 people in a vehicle. Respectable and easily accessible, they are by far the most reliable form of transportation around for those without private transport. There are about 400 Matatu Saccos registered for operation in Kenya. Saccos are cooperatives or companies for ease of management and enforcement of discipline. It is wonderful to see such a self- organised system in this fast developing region. This has brought in a lot of sanity to public transport, the locals say.

Matatus mini bus in Kenya
Matatus & DalaDala’s are the most organized form of transport across Kenya and Tanzania. Many have declared support for Football teams

It was mandatory for all those seeking a Transport Licensing Board (TLB) certification to be members of a Matatu Saccos in Kenya or belong to a company. About 1,000 matatu Saccos and 400 companies have been registered. Matatu operators, who constitute 80 per cent of the public transport system, are estimated to have an annual turnover of Kshs73 billion. To its credit, the Matatu sector buys Kshs 4 billion insurance premiums every year and remits Kshs 1 billion taxes annually. The Matatu Saccos have played a significant role in the growth of public transport and some have now become respected brands in the sector.

The Saccos proved to be the most viable way to manage large public transport fleets. They have also been pioneers in changing the image of public transport, which was dominated by rogue drivers and touts without regard for traffic rules.

Bike Taxis or ‘Boda Boda’ is another popular yet a risky mode of transport across cities and towns of East Africa; You can see more of them in Kenya. Targeted typically at the bottom of the pyramid, the bike taxis transport people and goods at affordable prices. Some of these bikes are chinese made and have to handle poor potholed roads. There is talk of a new type of bike called ‘Kibo’ designed specifically to tackle the poor roads across Kenya.

The roads in tanzania are wider, well banked and in much better shape. The current PM of Tanzania was formerly the roads and civic infrastructure minister of Tanzania. That says it all.

Masai Mara & Serengeti Entrance Gates

Whether you or your agent has selected the lodge, it is important to prepare yourself before traveling for this once in a lifetime experience. Masai Mara has 6 entrance gates and Serengeti has 5 entrance gates. It pays to understand the approach to the lodge, the closest entrance gate and if there is an option of using an air strip close by. This has an overall impact on your itinerary and helps you decide if you want to begin from Nairobi, Kenya or Dar Es Salaam/Arusha in Tanzania. This could potentially give you more ideas; For example, if you were entering via Arusha (Kilimanjaro airport), you could spend an extra couple of nights at Tarangire or Lake Manyara, visit the Ngorongoro crater and continue your onward journey in to Serengeti via the Naabi Hill Gate. In any case, be prepared for a minimum of an hour’s ride in order to get to your lodge. The option of air is a smart one and is a popular one as well. But, you visit the park for the game drives and those precious sightings of every kind.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Emirates, Dubai and Etihad, Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.

 

 

 

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 2

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 2

Did you read about The Migrations of East Africa? If not, read about it here. Let us now help you prepare for this once in a life time experience. Have a sit down session with your travel partner, inform yourself and carve out a personalized itinerary catering to your requirements and budget. We spoke about health requirements and transit points here.  Now to understanding the people and their lives.

It is very well know that workers, traders and merchants of Indian Sub-continental origin found their way to Kenya and Tanzania and set up businesses that are a major source of employment. But, the region and its Indigenous people through their unique skills and diligence continue to make huge contributions to their countries’ progress.

The People of the Region 

It is important and interesting to know more about the country being visited and its indigenous people. Kenya (Kamba, Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Maasai, Ameru, Samburu, Swahili)

Tanzania (Chagga, Maasai, Makonde, Swahili, Hadzabe, Sukuma, Mbulu/Iraqw people in the great lakes region).

All indigenous people have contributed to various aspects of their respective nations’ progress be it politics, sport, diplomacy, freedom struggle, human rights, agriculture or conservation. The Tea-growing Kalejins comprise the legendary long-distance runners of Kenya, The sukuma tribe who mainly fish in the Lake Victoria are among the most able bodied men and enlist in the Tanzanian military in large numbers. Thanks to tourism and the consequent establishment of lodges, many indigenous people have found year long employment. An example is the decision of Tanzanian government to call for a halt on constructions near the Ngorongoro crater and shift all lodges near the town of Karatu thereby providing meaningful employment. Karatu is dominated by the Mbulu tribe, a large farming community.

There are the big cities of Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Arusha but it is the countryside with its small businesses – trading in coal, sweet potato, banana and other fresh fruit etc., which captivates you.

A municipal council office near Isabania, Coal sacks, finished earthen pots and butcheries
Small Business rules across Kenya and its countryside

Wildlife has opened numerous opportunities for the people across the service industry, knowledgable driver guides and as in-house naturalists at many safari camps. James, from the Kichwa Tembo is a much loved and respected in-house naturalist; He conducts awareness sessions for guests where he talks extensively about the Masai Mara ecosystem and human-beast co-existance.

The Masaai tribe cultural session on a cold evening at Kichwa Tembo, Masai Mara
At the Kichwa Tembo camp, James (in the front) from the local Masaai community introduces guests to their culture and also doubles up as the In-house Naturalist

Skilled craftsmen too sell their wares on highways at the fringes of safaris and cities. Your bargaining skills will be put to test as you set your sights on masks, shukas and other collectibles. For the art collector, a lot of these stores also sell oil-on-canvas landscapes.

Shukas and Masks on highway curio shops
Curio shops dot the highway.Bargain hard.

The Impact of Mobile Money

Many households in these parts also have a family member working in any of the big cities and supporting them. Mobile Money has become the newest symbol of empowerment for people across the society.

M-Pesa, Airtel Money – These are the most visible brands;Infact much more popular than CocaCola i reckon. The concept and resulting service has empowered the people of the region and is acknowledged universally. Every small town is serviced by the corner M-Pesa cum general store thereby overcoming the tyranny of distance, often cited as a challenge when it comes to providing banking services. There is an untold trust that has developed as a result of this system.

The service is designed to work on all types of phones. Overseas remittances, money transfer from the husband working in the city, pension transfers etc done over this network can be collected as physical cash at M-pesa centers or paid for via M-pesa money.

If you are running short of cash to tip your service personnel, dont worry, M-Pesa is there!

M-Pesa shops across East Africa
M-Pesa mobile money shops dot the landscape of East Africa. Convenience and Empowerment

Aga Khan contributions to Kenya and Tanzania

As you travel across Tanzania and Kenya, the sight of women and children carrying jerry cans for potable drinking water is unmissable. Access to clean water still remains a huge challenge in many countries in Africa. It is here that the Aga Khan Development Network, part of the Aga Khan foundation runs many programs and diverse institutions to effect social and economic development in Kenya and Tanzania.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Emirates, Dubai and Etihad, Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.

 

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 1

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 1

Did you read about The Migrations of East Africa? If not, read about it here. Let us now help you prepare for this once in a life time experience. Have a sit down session with your travel partner, inform yourself and carve out a personalized itinerary catering to your requirements and budget. Let us now cover health requirements and the Transit points.

Yellow Fever and Polio Vaccination

The Ministry of Health and family welfare has locations across major cities where Yellow fever and Polio Vaccination is administered. Access the list here http://www.mohfw.nic.in/showfile.php?lid=3642. In Mumbai, the center is located close to Terminal 2 Airport. Important to note that only 75 people will be able to receive the dose in a single day. People start queuing from 630 AM, write their names in an informal sheet of paper circulated by the first enterprising passenger and wait for the gates to open. At about 9 AM the officials start issuing tokens after verifying passports and a valid travel ticket; This is mandatory if one accesses this facility. The process inside is smooth and you walk out with a Yellow card for Yellow fever and a Pink one for Polio vaccine. Do savor the Vadapav and Pohe sold by a resident couple within the airport health center premises. Carry some water in case you plan to queue up early in the morning. There are no stalls close by.

Airport Health center Mumbai waiting queues
Passengers waiting to be administered the Yellow Fever and Polio vaccine outside the Airport Health center

Choice of airlines while flying in to East Africa

Kenya Airways is just a functional airline which focuses on just getting you from India and Nairobi;That’s it. If you are expecting pampering, better seating, in-flight entertainment and wide assortment of food, you should look at the gulf based options (Emirates and Etihad) or the increasingly popular Ethiopian. The service from Mumbai to Nairobi is on a 737-800 in a 3-3 seating. It gives you a feel of travelling in a domestic flight on an international sector. Limited leg room, Compact collection of recent Indian and long released international movies on the inflight system, one customary meal on the 5.5 hour flight and Non-alcoholic drinks complete the experience. At time seat allocation is random during full flights and the added prospect of leaving your luggage behind in case of a full flight. The last two are areas where Kenya Airways could do better with proper communication. Kenya airways was operating a dreamliner on this sector which was subsequently discontinued. Twice a day service to Nairobi is adequate for now and we will egg them on to improve Service Quality. Assorted traffic – Tourists, businessmen, MICE groups and a few religious groups as well. Affordable fares make this a popular choice.

Kenya airways Banner, Kenya airways flight and the drinks and nibbles on flight
Kenya Airways has a huge opportunity to become the Best Affordable Carrier to Africa

At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)

Instead of walking straight in to the first currency/Mobile shop, just ask your guide to take you to the Annex building of this simple airport which houses a Safaricom shop and currency changers. Safaricom plans are cheap and start from 500 KSH upwards for a prepaid card. USD, CHF, UKP are the most recognized currencies. Indian rupee, though trades at 1.51 for a KSH fetches KSH only on a 1:1 basis. Travelling with USD is quite helpful and a pre loaded Forex card is welcome almost everywhere across Kenya and Tanzania. The immigration is smooth and the folks are welcoming. The airport, like its country’s airline, could do with better passenger amenities like better seating in common areas, multiple restaurant options and of course free WiFi. Passengers often have to endure long transit times in JKIA due to itineraries and international flights departing in the evening. JKIA will do well to make their airport experience a comfortable one if not memorable.

Joao Kenyatta International airport welcome sign and airport premises
The modest JKIA needs to do a lot more if it wants to be called the “Hub of Africa”

At the Isabania border crossing

If you have not opted for air transfers from Kenya to Tanzania, the best transit point is at the Isabania border crossing. Quite a streamlined process at the border. Just make sure that your travel partner is ready with the PAX manifest with all details filled in before exiting Kenya. Once done, just pass through Tanzanian security, present proof of your vaccination, pay your Visa fees and get your passport stamped. Get a glimpse of the no man’s land before entering Tanzania.

Isabania border crossing. Tanzanian immigration building
The Isabania border crossing. Tanzania’s wonderful road quality deserves a pat on the back.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Dubai and Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.

 

 

 

Migrations of East Africa

Migrations of East Africa

Karibu, Welcome

Many reasons why the modern day traveller and/or tourist heads to the diverse regions of Africa; The Safaris and natural wonders in the east, South West and the South of Africa, commodities in the west of Africa and ancient wonders in the northern parts of Africa. As we learnt during our trip, the people, cultures, lifestyle are not as homogenous as one expects. The influence of the British, French, Belgian and Dutch colonial rule are visible everywhere – mannerisms, food, name of the currency, driving systems et al.

People who are used to seeing Africa on wildlife channels and then choosing to discover them almost always end up heading to South Africa’s game reserves or to witness the annual twice a year event – The Wildebeest Migration across the Tanzanian Kenyan border.

The Mara River
The Mara River – Gushing and Ferocious. Also, a death trap for the unseasoned crossers

The Serengeti Mara ecosystem combine encompass an area of 30,000 sq km. About 1.3 million of these brown beest’s are joined by Zebra and Thompson’s Gazelle to form the largest, long-distance terrestrial mammal movement in the world.

Wildebeest, Zebras and Thomsons Gazelle
Wildebeest, Zebras and Thomsons Gazelle – At the heart of Migration

The migration commences from the southern fringes of the Serengeti. Early spring is when the Calves are born; the Wildebeest (or Gnu’s as they are called) calf spend exactly 9 astonishing minutes learning to stand and stabilize in the world after their birth as there is no time to get tutored in to the wild ways of the Serengeti; It is time to run. With calves in tow, the animals commence their run westward, and then, northward across the gushing Mara River and, in July-August, barge in to the Masai Mara in Kenya, before returning back to Tanzania. The Wildebeest lodge around 1000 Km of annual galloping through the grasslands; or an average of 30,000 km in a lifetime.

The wet season migration from November to May. Month wise map.
Migration during the wet season
Migration during the dry months. Month wise activity map
The Dry season migration

Humans or Animals, the urge to move seems to be inscribed in to our DNA’s; For the Wildebeest it is probably more pronounced. Biologists also aver that it’s the concentration of phosphorous in the savannah grass that guides the Wildebeest in to nutrient-rich corridors. Others point to the seasonal showers, which the animals track in search for tender vegetation and water. Yes, just juicy green grass and lots of water. The act of crossing is carefully planned. First, the scanning of the other side of the banks of the Mara river for any lurking predators, the presence of fellow Wildebeest encouraging the crossing and of course someone taking the lead. Wildlife enthusiasts waiting for a crossing at a particular time are in for disappointment. While we were able to watch a disciplined line of Wildebeest egging their counterparts on the other side to cross but they could not muster the courage to do so having sighted huge crocodiles on the banks.

Wildebeest herd on either sides of the Mara River
Top Left – Wildebeest on one side of the Mara waiting for the Wildebeest from the other side – Top Right. A disciplined herd marching to a crossover point

When we finally watched the wildebeest take their decision and hurtle down in to the Mara it was late evening and in a completely unexpected area of the park. Once the decision was made, these wonderful creatures did not back off irrespective of the threat which was lurking.

It is during this time that predators lurk – Crocodiles, Lion, Cheetahs, Leopards, Hyenas – rely on the seasonal, predictable feasts the Wildebeest – and especially their calves.

All the predators - Lions, Leopards, Hyenas, Cheetahs and Crocodiles
The consortium of predators who lurk across Masai Mara and the endless plains of Serengeti

Watching the Migrating Wildebeest told us that there was a predator lurking nearby for sure. Yes, a young female leopard was patrolling the steep and muddy banks with impeccable balance waiting for the right moment and entry point to grab its prey. It looked very much like a newbie out for its first kill – trying and failing, unable to net the bigger and heavier wildebeest, scared for a moment by the stomping herds but in the end she does manage to get hold of a young wildebeest probably a few weeks old and ends a satisfying day both for herself and us. Watch her in action.

The massive migratory movement also leaves in its wake a lot of manure and urine which ensures nitrogenous fertilizers for optimum production.

Challenges confronting the ecosystem

The second most populous continent after Asia is expected to double its population of a billion people over the next 20 years, with under 18 year olds comprising almost half of it. When human beings inhabit land, they raise fences to ward of predators, thus cutting and fragmenting the wildebeest migratory corridors. One one side is saving the ecosystem and the herds and on the other hand making sure that people benefit, improve their lives, and have good education for their children.

The need for cheap protein (bushmeat consumption) for households lead to deaths of about 70,000 to 129,000 wildebeest per year; This amounts to about 10% of the entire Wildebeest herd. It is still not clear if anti-poaching measures via community outreach programmes will lead to reduced consumption of bushmeat.

Making Wildlife Pay

When there are families to feed, it is a hard one to convince people to save wildlife and habitats. People who are claimants over lands that serve as wet-season pastures or dispersal areas for wildebeest, tourism, wildlife and civil stakeholders – mainly in Kenya – have made the animals “purchase back” their right to freely roam. About 900 sq km of land across 8 conservancies bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve are leased from its individual or communal land owners at advantageous rates. The lease prices under conservation are more advantageous than under livestock or agriculture. The returns – educational and job opportunities.

Masai Mara and Serengeti are wonderful destinations but the journeys they offer are Non-Pareil.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Dubai and Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.

Credits

Dima Vilanova for facts and observations regarding Migration made in her article featured in the PAA Tanzania Magazine

Map of Serengeti for the Migration pictures

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

The Ganesh Chathurthi @ Mumbai and Durga Puja @ Kolkata have seen a regular upgrade in the Puja fervor and experience but the sanctity and the sense of tradition associated with the occasions have been well preserved. Getting to Kolkata during this grand occasion is still a dream waiting to be fulfilled. In the meanwhile there was a wonderful opportunity to experience the joy of another “Community festival” here in Mumbai. The Mahakali Sarbojanin Durgotsav Samiti , a charitable trust religiously organizes the annual durga puja celebrations in the Apartment/high rise neighborhood of Poonam Nagar in Andheri (E), north of the island city. The celebrations are held in a spacious public park, one among the many in the area, thanks largely to the legislator Shri Ravindra Waikar.

Durga Puja invite and schedule of events starting from Mahalaya
The beautifully done invite for the Durga puja festival

When asked about the significance of the tradition, one of the organizers said, “Once a year, in the autumnal month of Ashvin, Durga visits her parents with her four children, Ganesh, Laxmi, Kartik and Saraswati, and enjoys all the love and affection of home for five long days”. It just felt like my mom bundling us in to a train compartment for our holidays.

Kumortuli, a potter’s district in Kolkata is the place which supplies the idols for Puja pandals in India and now around the world. Orders for the images are placed on the Rath Yatra Day. A layer of rich Ganga mud is moulded onto the frame of clay, bamboo and paddy husks, and the final form is dried, polished, painted and dressed. It is said that the most important part is the painting of the third eye and at this point, the artisan is said to go in to a trance and in one stroke of the paint brush completes the third eye. The platform of the image along with themed backdrops enclosed inside a huge decorative tent are also constructed.

The Celebrations

Mahalaya is the day of invocation, and six days later the grand festival begins with Bengal and all mandals across India and the world reverberate with the sound of conch shells, Rhythms of Dhaaks and the chanting of hymns, prayers and offering of flowers. The Mahakali Mandal had invited a troupe of traditional drummers to lend a touch of Bengal to the occasion.

The image of Durga with the demon at her feet has become the symbol of Bengal. It is on the sixth day or Mahashasthi that Durga is decorated with the various weapons that she has received from the different gods to fight the buffalo demon, Mahishasur. Having come to know this, Mahishasur pleaded that he too be worshipped along with her and this was readily agreed to by the goddess.

Visiting the Pandal on the 8th day or Ashtami is said to be a special one for this is the day the demon was killed by the goddess and hence an important day in the festival calendar.

A closer look at the idols of Durga, Ganesh, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kartikeya
Intricate work done on the idols mesmerizes you

The Dhunuchi dance is a mesmerizing one where devotees move to music along with a pot of burning coal on which coconut husk and incense are placed. This follows the aarthi to the goddess and is an important part of an engrossing sequence of events.

A ‘Sandhi Puja’ is held during the transition from Ashtami in to Navami. This occasion is marked by lighting of 108 lamps accompanied by drumbeats to the call of the conch. After a festive treat to the goddess on Navami, the farewell of the goddess happens on the 10th day which is Bijoya. The occasion is a joyous one and also a painful one where the separation draws out tears. The ladies of the mandal celebrate the 10th day with vermillion and sweets. The immersion in Bombay happens in the seashore and creeks surrounding the island city.

The Pandal and Bhog

The Pandal at Mahakali drew out all the hidden bengali culinary artists. It is not surprising to find both vegetarian and Non-vegetarian delicacies being marketed. A lot of live counters are set up to serve traditional kolkata rolls, Fish and mutton chops and other dishes. Vegetarians prefer to hangout at the sweet counters and find that they have over indulged. The counters at Mahakali also threw up varieties like chowmein.

food counters serving rolls, chops, sweets and other bengali delicacies and not to forget the chowmein
The buzzing food counters at the pandal

Apart from the counters, the bhog served at the mandal is well and truly a delectable feast and the entire darshan crowd hung out patiently amidst all the heat to grab a plate of this puja flagship item. The traditional bhog consists of Khichuri (Rice and gram gruel), Cauli flower (phoolgobi) and other mixed vegetable curry, A tangy tomato chutney and followed by a lip smacking payesh (sweet dish). Since we were also served a rossogolla, a bite of rossogolla along with the payesh was pure bliss. The volunteers serving bhog did an admirable job of keeping the crowds’ spirits high and ensuring an orderly conduct. People from all walks of life strolled in to the pandal to partake of the bhog.

Bhog queue and the Bhog plate consisting of Khichuri, Chutney, Subzi and Payesh with a Rossogolla
The Bhog at Mahakali

This was enough to underline the fact, “all the world is one community”.