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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


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

Mt Kenya during Sunrise

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 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

Sunrise across the Masai Mara and a Hot Air Balloon about to begin its ascent. Acacia trees dot the horizon.

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.


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

Durga puja pandal with Durga, Kartikeya, Lakshmi, Ganesh and Saraswati

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”.

A Homestay and Navratri at Baroda…..


What drew me last to Baroda for a pro-active trip – my better half of course! Having got a number of guided tours of this cultural hub of Gujarat, a Home Stay and Navratri weekend was not to be missed. My host, befriended during our Kailash Manasarovar Yatra threw his doors open for me to experience the Hospitality and the festival.

Baroda is a perfect getaway during the Navratri festival and is easily accessible from Mumbai (5 hours) or Ahmedabad (1 hour). For those Mumbaikars who crave for authentic Ras Garba, Baroda offers the best opportunity to savor one. A morning Shatabdi express from Mumbai gets you to Baroda in time for a fabulous lunch; What else, a Gujarati Thali of course! Families with businesses are continually buzzing with activity and my host and his parents were on their toes fulfilling customer orders, getting on with a home renovation activity, negotiating with a home appliance supplier and even a conference to attend. But, not for a moment did their attention swerve from serving me a wonderful meal and ensuring my comfort. They made it all seem pretty effortless. The lunch was simple but the accompaniments and embellishments made sure that there was enough color on the plate. A lunch such as this does send you to the nearest couch. I was definitely drawn to one and did manage to catch a few winks before i was bundled away to my hosts’ offices. It was a great opportunity to understand their business area and how employees were treated as family, customers were heard out patiently and served with due care. The Rangbhoomi concept of business was in action – viewing business as an opportunity to provide livelihood and Money (lakshmi) walking in wherever there is good customer focus and orientation. Learning Maximized!

Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host

Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host

Now, back to the Garba hop! Nothing starts before 930 PM in the evening, so one has close to 7 – 8 hours to prepare (incase you are getting in to the ring) or just wander around in this city. According to a pre-travel briefing by my better half The United Way Garba and the Fine Arts Garba were the ones to visit as they attracted maximum participants and an equal if not less, number of visitors. For the United way Garba, the passes i understand were sold out atleast a couple of months in advance. We still tried but were promised some intelligent perching at the Fine arts Garba, MSU. Navratri time is a time for Takeaway dinners as families head to Garba venues in droves, some in cars but many in two-wheelers. The Garba at Fine arts is organised by the students (alumni and current) with enthusiastic participation by the faculty. Rhythm players themselves sing Garbas while playing the instruments. This rare style of Grab is in place for the past three decades. The name given to this category of Garba is Pracheen Garba, tracing its origins back to before Poet Narmad, a Gujarati Poet – Scholar from the 19th Century. Music emanates only from traditional instruments like dholak, Nasik dhol, drumset, kansi-joda, ghugharis, conch (shankh), and temple bells. All this without a single microphone. Fusion in the rawest form – Drum and Kansi-Joda add beauty to the Garba songs. We got a ringside view of the performance, thanks to a few friends of my host. The energy levels of the students encircling the performing instrumentalists and vocalists were driven to dizzying levels. The circle moved to music in a rapid pace and one had to either get in or just stay out. Unmindful of the sultry weather and pouring sweat, the performers were themselves transported and made sure they took the audience along with them. The dresses were traditional with no footwear, as a mark of respect to the goddess. The music reaches a crescendo before dying down in respect to the Goddess and of course, the rules. Once the dance dies down, the stomachs start rumbling and the crowds head out in search of “any” place that serves snacks, food, tea, coffee, soda etc., Coffee shops we visited were buzzing till 2 AM.

New Garbas in town but the classics endure!

New Garbas in town but the classics endure!

Navratri culminates with Dussehra on the 10th day. While many fast, an equal number or more feast. The sweet shops in the city were on an overdrive, preparing the savory Fafda and stacking them till they hit the ceiling of their shops. Deep fried and served with a Raw papaya chutney, it is nice to watch during preparation but tough to digest. The sweet cousin, Jalebi when combined with Fafda are a deadly duo and it ensures that you are within your limits.

Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations

Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations

Baroda can get oppressively hot during summers but families have their traditional means of keeping their heads, their guests’ heads and the animals’, cool. Cement tanks are very thoughtfully placed outside homes, filled with cool water to provide stray cattle, horses and dogs with a sip. Here, in Baroda hospitality is all encompassing.

Busy Junction, Cement water tanks for animals, Train journey, Eating out and crowds heading out of Garba

Sights of the Journey – Busy, relaxing, journeying, enjoying and chilling out

Now for some dance practice. Targeting to get in to the ring next year.

Bolo Shri Ambe Mata ki! Jai!

Dwarka and Somnath…….Spending a few days in Gujarat 2

Jyotirling at Somnath

Dwarka to Somnath is a fantastic seaside drive on the NH 8E and the Porbandar – Veraval highway. Large windmills dot this landscape which is swept on both sides with sand. Temperatures hover in the 40’s and you are better off in the air conditioned comfort of your SUV. It gets extremely tempting to step on the accelerator in this stretch but maintaining a steady drive at 80Km/hr ensures that you are relatively safe.

Porbandar is the first major stop on this route. Kirti Mandir, the birthplace of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a popular stop for tourists. Located in the busy Bhatia bazar area, this residence has now been converted to a museum housing vintage photographs from Gandhi’s life, his personal effects, books on his life and other memorabilia. Get your chauffeur to drop you at the entrance to the bazaar and you walk down the narrow lane to reach Kirti Mandir. During summers the stone floors are scorching so ensure that you are hopping around in the shade. Gandhi’s birthplace is a small corner within Kirti Mandir. Both the Mandir and Gandhi’s birthplace open at 730 AM. Kirti Mandir stays open until 7 PM where as the birthplace shuts at 6 PM. Take the opportunity to walk the streets which are lined with traders selling wares ranging from plastic, paper boards and even hand made flowers. Make sure you stop by at snack shops selling fresh out of the oven “Nylon Khaman“, a savory dish made from roasted chickpea flour garnished with curry leaves, sesame and mustard. Make sure you pack in about half a kilo as these are light and fluffy. A great evening snack that can be followed by a good cup of tea.

Porbandar and Kirti Mandir

Porbandar and Kirti Mandir

37 kms before Somnath, we come across the coastal town of Chorvad. The Beach palace was a home of the Nawab of Junagadh. These days however it is known as the birthplace of its famous son, Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance. The entrance gates to the town have been erected in his honor and the Reliance mansion is a well guarded property. Everything else resembles a simple town with its regular features of corner shops, bus stops, houses, municipal corporation offices and restaurants. Summer season drives people to guzzle lemon soda by the glasses. Don’t miss to down one of them from the numerous shops lining the main highway on chorvad.

Chorvad Town arch memorial named after Dhirubhai Ambani

Chorvad Town arch memorial named after Dhirubhai Ambani

Driving in to SOmnath on the Veraval Somnath road, the aptly named Lord’s inn is a comfortable place to check in for a stay. The hotel is located close to the newly opened Somnath Railway station. The Somnath temple (“The Shrine Eternal”) is 3.9 kms away and is considered the foremost of Jyotirlingas. A stone’s throw away is the Triveni ghat where the rivers Kapil, Hiran and the mythical Saraswati meet before they merge in to the Arabian Sea. The coming together of the three rivers is said to symbolize birth, life and death. The place though well gated with shops selling religious prayer articles, falls short on the cleanliness front. Many devotees take a dip in this confluence before they visit the Somnath temple.

Vehicle drop off points are about 250 meters away from the main Somnath temple. Conveniences like counters to safe keep your mobile phones and cameras, footwear are plenty and service is quick and courteous. All this is free but if you are happy, you can definitely drop a coin in their service box. Make sure you preserve your token number issued against your valuables. From here you need to walk barefoot for about 100 meters before carpeted walkways welcome you in to the temple precinct. Mandatory security checks follow before you get to enter the temple. Also, make sure you wear clothing that completely cover your legs as required by the temple management as a dress code. What strikes you is the orderliness, cleanliness, accessibility, facilities that have been thought through by the temple management. There is a separate enclosure for the elderly who can have a look at the proceedings in the sanctum sanctorum over LED screens. There are golf carts too to ferry the elderly. The queues in to the temple sanctum sanctorum is orderly with separate ones for the men and the women folk. Viewing the Lingam (representation of Shiva) can be done between 6 AM to 10 PM. Religious chanting and prayers are done three times a day at 7 AM, 12 noon and 7 PM. A not to be missed event during your visit is the light and sound show for which tickets can be purchased within the temple premises. A story on the history of the temple, accompanied with melodious music and narration by the peerless actor Shri Amrish Puri give you the gossebumps. Make sure you get your seats atleast 45 minutes before the show. An important landmark within the premises is a pillar which has a direction marked as indicating an unobstructed sea route to the south pole (nearest land is 9936 kms away). Reflects ancient wisdom of Geography and strategic location of the Jyotirling. Plan to enter the temple premises around 530 PM, finish your prayers, watch the sunset, relax on the stone seating before getting to the light and sound show. Wind up with a simple dinner of Khichdi + Kadi and hit the sack.

The Somnath Temple

Sangam and Somnath

A hearty breakfast and you are back on the Veraval – Rajkot highway to get you back to base, Rajkot. 193 kms that will be covered in a time of 3 hours, this route takes you past the famous Gir forests, Girnar hill (Older than the Himalayas and equally revered by the Hindus and Jains) and a town called Virpur made famous by a saint – Jalaram Bapa. One often sees shopkeepers (observed in Gujarat and maharashtra states) paying Obeisance to Jalaram with “Jai Jalaram” written on the name boards of their shops and establishments. This is an opportunity to understand this in a better way. Followers of this saint follow his path of service without any expectations to the extent that devotees manning his memorial ensure that there are no contributions / offerings by devotees. Devotees are fed twice a day and offered a cup of tea once a day and all of these without a single rupee being asked of them. The trust relies entirely on donations to feed devotees and run charitable activities. Wade through the bazaars lining the narrow street leading up to the memorial, look through all the items on sale and understand the significance of this place better. Like Shirdi, this town too lives, breathes and survives thanks to a saint.

Rajkot is ready to serve you a solid lunch. Kathiawadi food (core of the people of Saurashtra). A lunch that cools you down even during the worst summers – comprising of millets, buttermilk, onions, mangoes, jaggery, ghee and of course spicy gravies to go along with it. Rajkot is a bustling city and is part of the Smart cities project unveiled this year. There is a fully functioning Bus Rapid Transit System which over a period of time can surely scale up to handle volumes. The Fern Residency in Rajkot is a comfortable choice for both the leisure and the business traveller. An evening in Rajkot involves a little bit of shopping, dinner and of course a grand dessert. The race course ground in Rajkot hosts a fair once in a while and it has all the usual stuff for kids like trampolines, ferris wheels, dragon boats, shooting the balloon, merry go rounds, loads of popcorn, cotton candy and of course chana chor and Bhel

Since everything starts sweet, it is mandatory to have sweet endings. Make sure you pack up a good quantity of pure milk pedas from Jai Siyaram Pendawala located in Sadar. Delicious, mildly sweet and outrageously fresh, this one steals your heart and tongues a million times. Watch them pack these pedas fresh from the trays. Other varieties include chocolate, strawberry, kesar etc., but the one from milk is a killer. An alternative sweet ending can be at Maganlal Ice cream opposite the Race course. Fresh seasonal ice cream with fresh cream, faloodas, kulfi….it becomes an endless treat. If you still have some energy left in you, make sure you stand by a pan shop and listen to all the chatter of frequent visitors and treat yourself to a calcutta sweet paan.

Sugarcane juice, kathiawadi food, Pedas and dessert and of course a lot of fun

Dinner, fun and dessert

A hearty breakfast later, head to the airport with a short trip that leaves you with the memories of a lifetime….