Category Archives: Travel Stories

Heaven’s Beach

“I’m not staying here. I’m going back to Zanzibar” I said in horrified tones to Catherine, my traveling companion. ‘Here’ was a 3 walled hut containing 4 army cots with rough blankets. “Sit on the bed and look at the view” Catherine said in measured tones.  “Don’t panic. I know it isn’t the Four Seasons, but if you stay it’ll be the best 5 days of your life. Trust me.” I looked at her. She seemed so calm. A room without a door didn’t seem to faze her one bit. I went over to the beds and sat on one. It was lumpy. I leaned against the wall and looked out. It was fantastic. I was looking out on the most astoundingly beautiful view. Golden sandy beach stretched out endlessly in a vast crescent. Palm trees dotted the beach. The crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean twinkled under the bright sunlight. “It’s fabulous” I cried. Catherine was smiling. “Shall I ask the driver to go back to Zanzibar then?” she asked. “Yes, yes, yes” I said, jumping up and down on the uncomfortable bed.

We were on Bwejuu Beach in Zanzibar’s remote east coast. Today a few resorts and hotels dot the beautiful but sometimes treacherous beaches of Zanzibar’s gorgeous east coast. Then, in 1989, no such thing existed, or if it did it was too expensive for the ordinary traveller. This beach we were on was neither resort nor guesthouse. It was a collection of 3 small huts and an outhouse. One three walled hut was the boarding area with 4 beds. One hut was a communal living area with a few chairs, a table and a killer view. The smaller hut contained a small cement tank, which served to hold the water we would use for bathing. The outhouse was simply a hole in the ground covered by a wooden lid enclosed by corrugated sheets and a flimsy door. Local women from an unseen village nearby brought us simple meals and fruit 3 times a day. They also filled our cement bathing tank with water they drew from a nearby well. They smiled and gestured at the food, but we had no language in common.

My misgivings came roaring back as we checked the facilities (or lack thereof). But there was no turning back. The jeep that had driven us out here over several hours of bumpy roads, had gone back to the city far away. We were essentially marooned here until the driver came back 5 days from now. Catherine looked remarkably chirpy considering how dire our conditions looked. She was humming as we made our way to the golden sands just in front of us. “This is heaven” she said in her beautifully accented English. “She must be mad” I thought. We walked on to the water’s edge and got our feet wet. That first sensation of the waves around your feet and the sand in your toes can never fail to excite. Catherine was making bird noises, her arms outstretched, twirling about in the shallows. I smiled looking at the sheer joy of her reaction. “Do those facilities back there really not bother you?” I asked her. She stopped her bird impression and smiled. “Come on, let’s sit a while on the beach and I’ll tell you my life story” she said. We headed back to the beach.

I hardly knew this woman, my traveling companion in a foreign country. We had bumped into her at a cafe in Zanzibar only 2 days ago. I knew she was French and a nurse with the Red Cross. She had told me she was taking a break from her job in Sudan. “I grew up solidly middle class in Nice. France is a great place to be middle class in”, she said, smiling at her memories. She said her father was a doctor back in France. “I always knew I wanted to be a medical professional like him, I simply didn’t have the grades to make it into medical school. So I decided to be a nurse.” She’d worked in Nice for a few years before the wanderlust had hit. She decided to join the Red Cross,a chance to work and travel she thought. Soon after she joined up, she was deputed to go Sudan, where a bitter and brutal conflict had been raging for years. It was like being thrown in the deep end before learning to swim, she said. The sink or swim reflex kicked in. She worked long hours mired in mud and blood and gore. It had been 8 months of this since she started she said, without a break. “It’s a long away from the plages of Nice” she said, with a wry twist of her mouth.

“I am sick and tired of the blood and the mayhem. The wounded are pitiful, many of them have lost limbs in the fighting. So many of them die before we can help them. The contagions spread so quickly and sepsis kills the rest. The Red Cross is trying to plug a leaking dam with a finger. The sheer pointlessness of the activity makes me tired. I’m exhausted. I have seen rivers of blood in the Sudan and I am so tired. So yes, this lovely, peaceful place is Heaven’s Beach. And you my friend are my heavenly friend.” Catherine sat back against the palm tree that swayed gently in the breeze. She did look exhausted.

I was appalled at her story and even more appalled by my own superficial concerns. I leaned forward and took my new friend’s hand in my own. “Let’s go have fun in the water Catherine. You can forget about everything else” I said. We romped around for hours, taking short naps in the shade of the palm trees. Eventually as the sun slipped low on the horizon, we watched a fiery sunset and made our way back to our humble lodgings. The lovely ladies of the village had brought us bread made of fried dough and crabmeat cooked with coconut. Never had I had a more delicious meal. We retired to our lumpy beds serenaded by the cool ocean breezes that came in through our nonexistent fourth wall. We slept the dreamless sleep of babies and woke up invigorated and ready to go diving among the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean.

Those five days slipped through my fingers like fine, golden sand. We had spent our time diving off a narrow boat, swimming in the crystal clear waters, looking through the colorful collection of local fabric and cooing over the gorgeous babies of the village women who took care of us. Too soon our idyll was disturbed by the sound of a car engine. Our ride had arrived to take us back to Zanzibar airport and on to Mombasa in Kenya.


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A Dargah Story

We stared in dismay as we saw the scene in front of us. A river of humanity flowed towards the dargah front door. We had hoped to have a leisurely walk through Ajmer Sharif, the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the 13th century Sufi saint. We could barely see the dargah for the people flooding in. Desperately looking for a parking spot, three of us adults left the car while my brother-in-law, Kishore stayed behind the wheel. As we stood there, outside a mechanic’s shop, a young man materialised beside us wearing what looked like a pillbox hat. In spite of the heat of the day he looked cool in his white kurta-pajamas. He reached over to a passing handkerchief seller and snagged a few white kerchiefs which he thrust towards us. In beautifully pure Hindi he asked us to take them and tie them about our heads. I looked at him with my city person’s wide-eyed distrust of strangers. Step back he told us and amazingly, we did. We were now at the entrance to the mechanic’s shop. “I’ll take you inside the dargah” he said. I looked at Naresh, wildly shaking my head to tell him to ask the man to go away. “Park your car there” he said pointing to an empty space in the auto shop’s rear.

By this time, we seemed to have collectively taken leave of our senses because Naresh went off to tell Kishore where to park. I couldn’t believe he had found us a spot to park in. As my sister and I busied ourselves with the kerchiefs and our children, our husbands joined and did the same. “Come with me” the man said and led us a short distance away down a side street. He summoned two auto rickshaws and asked us to pile in. He gave the auto drivers some concise instructions and they jumped to do his bidding. Was he someone these locals recognised as important or were they all three in on some scam to cheat some obviously bewildered out-of-towners? “I’ll meet you there” he said as he waved us off and turned away on foot. Where was ‘there’?

Thus began a journey that was less than a mile in physical distance but it transported us to a strange plane where four of us disbelievers achieved a faith of a sort, at least in miracles. With our kids tucked in between us, the two families set off, we weren’t sure where to. We fell about in nervous giggles as the auto rickshaws drove through narrow tracks that barely had enough room for the three wheeler. We drove between the homes of Ajmer, with open drains running lustily by the side. The houses rose like cliffs around us as the autos careered crazily, threatening to spill us into those drains any minute. In a few minutes, the autos came to an abrupt, jittering halt. We stepped out groggily to see we were at the dargah’s back gates and there he stood, our unnamed and unasked for saviour. We had put our lives and our faith in him the moment we got into those auto rickshaws without a clue to where we were going.

Smiling hospitably he ushered us along a dirt path and into the dargah. He told the auto drivers to wait for us where they were. We hadn’t even paid them. My faith inched up a notch. He didn’t say much, this man who had brought us into Ajmer Sharif when we ‘d thought we’d have to turn around and return to Delhi. As we came around the inner walls of the dargah, the noise hit us first. There were thousands of people thronging the outer courtyard and the din was unimaginable. But we were in and we hadn’t had to subject ourselves or our young children to the sweaty, smelly crush. He walked a step ahead of us, the man in white, as I had mentally named him.  We followed like a herd of sheep, keeping our eyes straight ahead as the crowd parted for him. We walked in his wake and lo! before we could fully comprehend it we were in the enclosure around the saint’s tomb. How had we gotten here? I still don’t know. We just walked behind him and the sea parted for us. We had briefly stopped just once, so we could buy a ‘chadar‘, a sort of green blanket that the devotees draped over the tomb before they made their ‘mannat’, a plea or a prayer particular to each devotee. As we stood there, the crowd surging around us, looking at the saint’s tomb being covered with our chadar, we saw him on the inside of the velvet rope that separated the tomb from the devotees. Inside, with the committee that ran the dargah. He brought the Chishthi dispensing blessings towards us and we were duly blessed.

Immediately after this, our man in white led us back out into the seething outer courtyard. Away to one side, a Qawwal and his troupe were performing in the usual mystic ecstasy of the sufi style. The music rose above the noise like a bird soaring into the sky.  All around us people knelt or sat, praying aloud or under their breath. While the noise level was deafening there was an underlying sense of peace, many centuries old. Our kind friend led us around the main dargah, showing us everything of note. The most notable thing was that there were people of every faith there, muslims in their lace skullcaps, Sikhs in their turbans and many Hindus like us, wearing kerchiefs and shawls to cover their heads in respect. This dargah has always been a beacon for Indians of every religion. People in prayer here showcase the best in Indian culture, reflecting the depth of our syncretism. One walks into Ajmer as a human being, not a hindu, a muslim, a christian or a sikh. For a person of decidedly agnostic tendencies, it was a moment of pure spirituality. It is the purity of the experience that stays etched clearly in my mind.

With our tour done, our guide led us back the way we had come, and there they were our old friends, the auto drivers. With an admonition to them to not overcharge us, the man in white sketched us a farewell with his hand and turned to stride away. Kishore called out to him to stop. “We would really like to give you something for all your help” Kishore said. The man in white stopped him with a gesture and smiled. “I am a Chishti and I’ve only done my duty as a Chishti” he said. “Go back to your towns and spread the word that in Ajmer you don’t need  to spend money to receive the Khwaja’s blessings, it’s always free”. With that, he waved at us once more and disappeared inside the walls of the dargah. Leaving four speechless adults who could once more believe in the genuine good in people.

We made the journey back to our car in a strangely quiet mood, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We paid the drivers and thanked them still lost in thought. We got in the car and drove towards Pushkar still in awe of how events had unfolded. A Chisthi of Khwaja Moinuddin’s own order had almost magically appeared by our side and taken us under his wing when things had looked so uncertain. We had heard magical music that had somehow transcended the sound of a thousand pleas being spoken. Who knew who would hear those pleas or if they’d ever be answered. But for one moment in time, I had been part of something monumental and yet I had been separate and at complete peace with myself and the world. What more can one ask for? I did not go to Ajmer for a religous experience but I came away with a deep spiritual experience. And all of this was made possible by meeting a man who lifted us out of the dusty street into a transformative experience.


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Temples of Doom

“Please don’t go” the handsome Frenchman said, looking into my eyes. His lovely wife leapt up, saying “ooh la” as she grabbed hold of my hands. “Don’t go” she said, so persuasively. “It’s been less than two weeks since the last pair of foreign tourists were kidnapped, then killed. Those men will do anything to protect their ruby trade”. We were in their beautiful home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The couple was attempting to dissuade me from going to Siem Reap province to visit the renowned Angkor Wat. There had been a recent spate of kidnappings and killings there by the ragtag remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Literally they were the Red Khmers, the dreaded communist group that had attempted to socially re-engineer Cambodia so disastrously just over a decade ago, ending in a gruesome genocide. But this was 1995. The UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was firmly in place in Phnom Penh and national elections being readied for. A coalition government of sorts was nominally running the country and the Khmer Rouge were almost completely routed, except for the fierce band that survived in the northeastern regions near the Thai border. It was spoken of in rather loud whispers in Phnom Penh that the group kept themselves afloat by trading Cambodia’s fabulous red gems in exchange for arms from crooked Thai border/army officials. In the Cambodia of 1995 you never could tell a rumour from a news story.

I cannot honestly say that I met any Cambodians who were thrilled to have so many foreigners running about their capital, taking charge of everything. Still, UNTAC was generally viewed as an improvement on the Vietnamese controlled government that came into power, after Vietnamese troops chased the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh (and most of the rest of the country) in 1979.  The opening up of tourism however was a blow to the Khmer Rouge activities in Siem Reap. An influx of tourists ensured higher levels of security and greater risk of being caught. Visitors to Angkor Wat were a prime target, simply because that is where we all flocked to now that the gorgeous temples were open to the public again.

The chorus of  “don’t go” had been getting louder and more pressing each day I passed in Phnom Penh. These were good, brave people who lived with the risk of extreme danger everyday but they wanted to protect me, their guest. All my acquaintances were UN personnel who had learned to live with the risk of kidnapping and stray bullets, even here in Phnom Penh. We could hear it at night in our hotel rooms, the sound of gunshots that sounded like cars backfiring in the night. It was not a constant sound like in a warzone, but we did hear them. I never did discover who was shooting at whom.

I was exhausted by Cambodia and its horrendous problems. Making the trip from peaceful, prosperous Malaysia to Phnom Penh was like going back in time. Efforts were under way across the city to re-build and restore some of  the damaged buildings and infrastructure. You could see it had once been a gracious city of wide boulevards, parks and french colonial architecture. The Khmer Rouge had done it’s best to destroy everything, from wrought iron balconies to the macadamised roads and water pipelines because they believed everything modern needed to be replaced, including people who wore glasses. That’s all it took to earn a shot in the head, your reading glasses, because they proved you were an ‘intellectual’.

I visited the National Museum to get a look at some of the amazing riches the Khmer empire that built the city of Angkor is famous for. It was a ruined place with much of its priceless art lying in pieces in some forgotten basement or attic. The destruction had been total. The few pieces on view were fabulous, if you could get past the score or so of limbless beggars you passed to get into the museum. A great many Cambodians have been maimed after the conflict,by landmines, lying forgotten, mined by both sides in the desperate struggle for power after 1979. The landmine sweeping expedition a Belgian explosives team took us on made me hopeful that there may be an end in sight but also left me breathless at the enormity of the effort. The trip to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum had drained me. How could these gentle people live under such a burden every day? My respect for the Cambodian people grew with each gruesome sight.

I had a couple of days before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur and I decided I must sample the glories of the ancient Khmers, which modern Khmers had tried so assiduously to destroy. Hence the plan to go to Siem Reap.  The host organisation, CECI, were not too happy but it was my decision to make. I had a call from Naresh, safe in faraway Auckland. I asked him what his opinion was after I had enumerated the risks. “Go” he said, simply. Really? Was this guy trying to get rid of me?  I asked him as much. He laughed and said he wished! “If you don’t go now, you’ll regret it forever. Do you even know if you’ll ever go back to Cambodia?” he said. As always this man has a way of getting to the very heart of the matter. I had been dying to see Angkor Wat and Borbodur since I had done a short course in Art and Architecture all those years ago in college. He was right. I hadn’t come this far to go back without seeing those awesome odes in stone.

And so I hopped on a tiny propellor plane to Siem Reap the next day. With a hope and a prayer I landed there and went to a tiny guesthouse near Angkor Wat, the beginning of another glorious journey. But that is another story….


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The name says it all

The gators stayed underwater in the cold bayous but the crocodiles were out on the streets. Whoever nominated Las Vegas ‘Sin City’ doesn’t know their sins. New Orleans, now there’s some serious sinning going on there! I’ve just returned from a trip to the Big Easy and let me tell you, it’s always summertime and the living is easy. Here’s a city where you can count your blessings as you sin. The whole place is one big party and it ain’t even Mardi Gras yet.

The most amazing sight has to be the hordes of tourists trawling through Bourbon Street, drinks in hand. They don’t even carry them in brown paper bags. By the second day I got used to seeing people strolling about, many of them three sheets to the wind by the time ordinary people would take their elevenses. It takes some getting used to. But it is a trip.

New Orleans is very much a walking city. What you can’t reach on foot you can get to by using the old- fashioned streetcars. You can get around town all day on multiple streetcar and bus lines for the nominal fee of 3 dollars! Unheard of, no? It’s a cheap and relaxed way to see the stately, gracious homes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that line both sides of St. Charles Avenue and the Garden District. Or ride up and down Canal Street to do some people watching.

The local Creole and Cajun cuisines are to die for. The seafood is so fresh it’s still almost thrashing around on your plate. We gorged on gumbo and jambalaya and etouffes till we couldn’t walk anymore. Then we walked around the city some more. We took the steamboat cruise around the crescent that gave the city it’s name and marvelled at the ships going up and down the mighty Mississippi. You can almost picture it as it must have been when it was America’s lifeline. The steamboat gave new life to Mark Twain’s stories. The best boat ride though was the free ferry between Canal Street and Gretna or Algiers. Cars pay a dollar and pedestrians can walk on for free. It’s good to note that some things in life are still free.

We visited Oak Alley Plantation and walked around the old, stately home where rich white plantation owners once ruled the roost from the wide balconies as they sipped their mint juleps. Unsurprisingly, the second largest home on the estate belonged to the overseer, aka the man with the  whip. The alley of 300 year old oaks was glorious though. This is the second most photographed home in the US, second only to the White House. New Orleans native Ann Rice sets her stories in this area and Interview With the Vampire was shot on location right in this plantation home. The best part of this guided tour were the three young Japanese exchange students who shared our ride. They had very funny stories to share about their year at university in Portland, Oregon and their travels around the US as backpackers. One of them was on tenterhooks wondering if he was now obliged to marry his American girlfriend because she took him home to meet her parents over Thanksgiving.

Oak Alley

The bayou tour we took was pretty much a bust. The cold temperatures kept the alligators hidden underwater. The trip was worth it just for the running commentary kept up by the swamp boat captain. He was a real character, like those people on the show ‘Swamp People’. He kept showing us the pelts and stuffed river rats he had collected over the years. Of course we got the usual tall fisherman stories in addition to excruciating detail about how much each small swamp animal’s pelt and tail and teeth are worth on the market. He had a baby gator and a snapping turtle in iceboxes for our edification. The small shacks and leantos we saw along the bayou reminded me of Huck Finn and Injun Joe’s drift down the backwaters of the river. The funniest part was stopping to watch a raccoon at play at the water’s edge. I’ve only ever seen them flattened under car wheels as roadkill before. They are awfully cute creatures and apparently they love marshmallows.

Shack on the bayou

The one outstanding quality about a stay in New Orleans has to be the excellence and variety of live music on tap. We walked up and down Bourbon Street for a couple of nights, stepping in and out of blues, rock, swamp music and country music bars. As we drank our beer and apple martini shots, we got to hear some really wonderful local bands perform with great zest. It was fantastic. The tradition with shots here is to buy from the waitresses who walk around with little test tubes of the alcohol and then you sip it from one end as she holds the other between her breasts. I must report that the germophobe in me is still active even on a brain addled with alcohol, so I declined. The icing on the cake however was the evening spent on Frenchman Street enjoying a wide selection of jazz musicians. We started the evening by enjoying a street band of local youths performing with great joie de vivre on a street corner. We then went from one jazz bar to another, sampling the food, drinks and music. They were uniformly excellent. Frenchman Street is where the locals come for the music and the quality of the bands is superb.

'Big' Al sings at the Funky Pirate on Bourbon Street

This was the first real adult vacation Naresh and I have had since Aditi’s birth. It was well earned and well enjoyed. New Orleans is the epitome of a grown up city. I’m glad Aditi wasn’t with us, as many avenues of fun would have to remain closed with a child in tow. This is not a city for the early to bed crowd. It’s the city where you don’t have to search to find ways to have fun. You can be anyone you want to be and do anything want to do in New Orleans. Just one caveat, leave your mom and children at home.

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How Do I get to Timbuktu?

It was all arranged so meticulously. I was to make the road trip from Nairobi to Namanga, where I’d cross the border from Kenya back to Tanzania. Another car and driver would meet me on the Tanzanian side to take me back to Arusha, and then on to Dar Es Salaam. I’d had a wonderful trip, travelling around Zanzibar before going to Nairobi and then the Maasai Mara. I was ready to go back to Dar Es Salaam, I missed my aunt and uncle. My hosts were a lovely young Gujarati couple in Nairobi, friends of my uncle (he has loads of them, all around the world). They had made my stay welcoming and comfortable. Now I was ready to get back to the house on Magore Street.

It’s true what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…The drive was uneventful. We joined the queue at the border. My driver Paul said he’d make contact with his counterpart on the other side, so he’d be ready for me the minute I walked out the Tanzanian immigration building. I walked in to the Kenyan border post and had a friendly chat with the immigration officer as he stamped my passport. Then I walked up the few hundred yards that made up the no-man’s-land between the two border posts. When I got to the immigration building a peon of some sort said I had to wait outside till the officer was done with the bunch of tourists already in there. So I waited. And waited. It was taking inordinately long. I could see the air-conditioned coach they had come on, idling as it waited too. No one would tell me what was going on. Finally a group of 11 English men and women came out, quiet as can be, got on the bus and it chugged into the other side as a guard opened the Tanzanian gates.

I could go in now, so I went. Inside the building was an immigration officer at a rickety looking desk. He was rocking back in his chair with a big grin on his face. He waved me over and silently held his hand out for my passport. Without looking up at me he said “can’t enter Tanzania”. I’m pretty sure I squealed like a stuck pig at this point. “Your visa is cancelled” he said. “That can’t be right ” I said unwisely. He gave me a look that could have killed at two paces and flung my passport across the desk at me. “Next” he called loudly to the peon at the door. I had been dismissed. Already another group was entering the building. I looked at him in real distress but he refused to catch my eye. I stepped out and walked back towards the Kenyan post, beckoning to Paul. When he reached the gates I told him what had happened and that I was at a total loss what to do. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it” he said. After a word with the Kenyan guard Paul asked me to walk back to the Tanzanian. With great dread, I trekked back there.

Paul went in the moment the group from inside exited. I stood there wringing my hands like a blithering idiot. Finally Paul emerged but he was looking downcast. He said he had tried everything with the man from begging to offering a bribe but nothing had worked. Another clerk inside had finally told him that no bribe would work this day. The English coach group ahead of me had harboured one with a South African visa. The man had demanded a huge bribe in Pound Sterling  from each of the eleven and was now sated. He need not take a single bribe for the rest of the month, the envious clerk had said. It was 1989, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and many African countries denied entry to anyone showing a South African visa.

Even as I took in these details my mind shut down. What could I possibly do? Telling Paul to wait there, I went in for a last ditch effort at reaching the man’s heart. I approached him cautiously, like he was a caged bear. “Sir” I said. The Indian in me knows the power of that word, specially on those least deserving of respect. He looked up, bored. He yawned hugely and did that rocking thing with his chair again. He called me over and asked me to sit. He took my passport again and studied it. “Still can’t get in. Still cancelled”, he said and smiled at his own cleverness. I knew the time had come to grovel. I couldn’t reach his acquisitiveness, perhaps I could reach his compassion. “Please sir”, I said in my most obsequious tone, “surely you can make it happen if anyone can “.  He looked up again but his cat-that-got -the-canary look was back. “But I won’t” he said in a tone of such finality. I was almost in tears by now. “Please sir?” I said again. He looked away and said “go now”. I’m pretty sure I was a genuinely pitiful sight because I felt like I was on the rack and he was  tightening the screws. “But where will I go sir?” I asked him. “Go to Timbuktu” he said callously.

I was aghast at his attitude. He turned away from me and picked up a file from his table. I stepped into the sunshine in a daze. What was I to do now? By now I was openly crying. I wasn’t a seasoned traveller, just a young woman on the adventure of a lifetime. A hand on my elbow made me look up. It was big, kindhearted Paul, he had waited. He led me back to the Kenyan side and took me to the small border post. Inside, he spoke softly to the officer on duty and gave him my passport. Through these exchanges I was a basket case, unable to focus on anything. “Miss would you like a drink?” the officer asked me. You could have struck me down with a feather. The Kenyan was being nice to me! The contrast was shocking. He called me over to the desk and said “Don’t worry, you’re welcome  in Kenya. You’re not the first visitor to sent back from that building”. He was busy with my passport and handed it back to me with a smile. I was so profuse in my thanks, he had to smile. “It’s all right, just doing my job” he said as he waved at me.

OK so now I  have a restored Kenyan visa but what do I do? In the end, Paul decided for me. We are going back to Nairobi he said and took me back to the cab. Back I went to my hosts in Nairobi. They were gobsmacked to see me back. Then began a series of phone calls between my host and my uncle. When I got to finally talk to my uncle, I burst into a fresh round of tears. Hearing the familiar voice was enough to turn me into a snivelling idiot once more. He told me he’d fix it, not to worry for another minute. So I spent a nervous couple of days in Nairobi waiting to get back to Dar Es Salaam and be with my uncle and aunt again. I got on that flight in Nairobi, a mass of nerves. I should have known better. When I got off the flight, there was my uncle at the gate, as dapper and suave as always. I rushed up to him and his smiling face calmed me down. He had an official looking man with him. “This is Mr. —- from the Prime Minister’s office and this is my niece”, my uncle said introducing us as casually as if we’d met at a cocktail party. The man smiled and said ‘welcome to Tanzania. I am sorry for your troubles at Namanga” he said. In the blink of an eye all my misgivings about Tanzania were shelved. We were taken into the Immigration Hall where an officer stamped my passport with a flourish and I was free to walk out into the sunshine of Dar Es Salaam. I felt as if I had escaped prison.

At home, in Magore Street, I looked with pleasure at all the familiar things, the Zairean parrots screeching away, the banana plants in the backyard laden with fruit as my aunt plied me with the most delicious fish curry and rice. It was the best food I’d ever tasted. My uncle told me that the immigration office was taking a no-holds barred look at the Namanga immigration post and the officer would be dealt with properly. I felt no sympathy for the man who had cavalierly told me to go Timbuktu. In hindsight, I think I should have asked him what time that bus left. At the time though, I had no room for sarcastic thoughts. I’d been busy being a sniveling idiot.


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Waiting for Kilimanjaro

The drive from Arusha to Moshi was exhilarating. I was bubbling with anticipation as I waited for my first sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the distance I could see a lone Maasai tribesman standing on one foot, the other foot resting on his knee. This is a distinctive stance they can keep up for hours, I am told by the driver. As we neared Moshi we began to see more Maasai tribesmen, many of them with young sons, waving down passing cars to ask if tourists wanted Maasai pictures. I remember Maasai like these on my drive to Ngorongoro Crater. Tourist cars would stop, pay them a couple of dollars and just like that it was a photo op. Took the mystery out of the Maasai in a flick of the ubiquitous dollar. Everyone must make a living somehow I guess. The driver just grimaces and shakes his head in disgust.

As we neared the outskirts, the huge massif came into sight. It took my breath away. There it was, the mountain that defines east Africa. Its upper reaches were swathed in cloud. On this, the southern approach to the climbing trails, the mountain can stay hidden in its cloud cover all day. “If you’re lucky and are out early in the morning or in the evening, the clouds might part, good luck”, the driver says as he drops me outside the beautiful old, colonial style inn. Inside, a little piece of Europe has been forever preserved. It’s beautiful and warm. I am shown up to my room as the sun is setting, the last rays casting an incredibly beautiful light on the mountain. In the room I find I can see a side of the mountain, but not the cloud blanketed peak. The day ends early as I am quite exhausted from all the travelling of the past two days.

In the morning I wake up to a glorious day outside. Even before I have breakfast I step outside to see if I can see the mysterious peak. No such luck. So I step back in and have a hearty breakfast. I spend the morning  wandering around the marketplace. In Africa marketplaces are living, breathing things. It is always such fun and always unpredictable. You never know what you might find. In an hour or so I’m beginning to feel a bit bored and the book in the room beckons. I look up the slopes of the mountain wishing I had the ability to climb. I find I don’t even have the desire. As I walk back to the inn I am beset by little boys who want to help me find trails, caves, anything. I smile and walk away, dispensing my bunch of bananas among them. I am almost at the door when a lanky little boy comes right up to me. Jambo he says. I stop and look at him again. He has the sweetest smile. He isn’t quite a teenager, skinny, wiry and smiling. “What’s your name?’ I ask him. “Goodwill” he says, ” I ten”.  I reach out to shake his hand and in one simple gesture I have a new friend.

He wants to know my entire life history, where I am from, how old I am, have I been up the mountain. “You want see caves?” he asks me. No, I say, I want to see the peak without the clouds. “Hamna matata” (no problem) he says, “I show you Kilimanjaro. You give me dolla?”. You know what they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be. “You gimme dolla, I call you when you can see. What your room number?”. Still sceptical, I hand him a dollar bill and give him my room number. “Asante sana” he says as he walks away. I know the inn staff wouldn’t let him into my room. Today,21 years down the line, I shudder at my naiveté. That day, I was just elated at having made a friend in this little corner of the world.

After lunch I stepped back out and there was my little friend Goodwill with another little boy. They walked up to me, Goodwill thrust his right hand at me. In it were two ripe avocados. “For you, is gift”, he said. Then issued an angry exchange in Kiswahili. His friend obviously wanted payment. “No is gift for lady” Goodwill insisted, handing me the avocados. I thanked them. The other boy gave in graciously. They then bombarded me with questions about Dar Es Salaam where they both wanted to go when they grew up. We walked together for a distance. Then Goodwill said he had to go watch the mountain for me. I said I’d be right there on the terrace if he had any news. As the shadows grew longer I despaired of seeing the peak at all. I had only one more full day left in Moshi. It was almost 5.30pm and I thought I’d go in and get a cup of coffee when I saw Goodwill tearing up the driveway. “You come now” he said, “mountain will show”. Still doubtful, I walked to a clearing where the whole massif was visible. We stood about for a few minutes indulging in desultory conversation. Goodwill’s mouth was beginning turn downwards as if it were his fault the clouds hadn’t parted. Then all of a sudden he yelled out something in Kiswahili. I looked up and there like a painting being slowly revealed the clouds parted and I had my first glimpse of the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro. It was like a moment frozen in time forever. It was the most glorious sight to behold. I felt like Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific. I let out the breath I was holding. Now I could return to India satisfied. For me it was as close as I had ever come to a religious experience.  The curtain stayed parted magically for several long minutes as I drank in the sight. Then as suddenly as they had parted the clouds closed in again. Mount Kilimanjaro was once again simply a mountain, not a clue to the gorgeous equatorial snows.

I went to bed a happy camper. I slept in and woke up to another beautiful day. After breakfast, I stepped out and walked down the way to where we had stood the previous evening. But the snows stayed hidden from view. All at once a great clamour of bells began. All across the city church bells were ringing. I was alarmed enough to run inside the inn and inquire at the desk. My alarm receded as I saw smiles on every face in there. A waiter was doing an impromptu dance. “What has happened?” I asked the clerk at the desk. Never breaking his smile he said “Nelson Mandela is free at last”. I was pumping my  fists up and down in joy, my smile as wide as anyone’s. “This is the best day ever” I told the clerk. It was. It was February 11th, 1990. The church bells pealed joyfully all day. I’m sure they pealed everywhere in Africa that day. It was a great day to be alive. As for me, I will forever be glad that I was in Africa that day.

PS: I want to thank my Aunt and Uncle who lived in Dar Es Salaam then, for giving me the opportunity to travel and for encouraging me to go forth on my own. Thanks, it really opened my eyes.


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