Category Archives: travel

Mutiny in Mombasa


Holidays were magical when we were children. Then they grew progressively duller as we began to rebel against the subtle pressure to do something ‘special’ and fun and slowly the holiday traditions began to disappear. We stopped trying to pretend that we care, and eventually it got to a point where  ‘staying home and doing nothing’ on the big days became a bizarre mark of honor.

Obligation sucks the joy out of everything.

Due to a series of unfortunate events over the holidays, once again, this year, I found myself staring down a lonely Christmas. This time though, I saw it for what it was- a double edged sword- either a pity party for one, or an opportunity to do whatever I wanted with my time, free from expectations. So I went online, hoping to find a sweet little deal that would whisk me away to a magical place far far away, if only for a moment.

As luck would have it, I found a really great package deal for two nights in Mombasa, mostly- inclusive. It was really good. Like too good to be true. And when something seems too good to be true, it usually isn’t. But they promised snorkeling and camping, and if everything else went to shit, at least I could remember that I was in the ocean, if only for a little while.

So I paid up and packed my bags and soon enough, we left Nairobi at 4.30 am sharp in our gigantic overland truck, destination somewhere in the South Coast. (Where all the rich people are?)

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Home for the next few days

Once in a while,  I enjoy long road trips. I like drifting in and out of conciseness. I love watching the landscape change, and when that gets boring, reading a book and then just staring out into the distance, completely zoned out. Mindlessness can be meditation.

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My surrogate family

We stopped at Mtito for lunch. At 11.15 am because after that there would be nothing but the endless scrublands of Ukambani, the SGR and the occasional wild animal until we got to Voi.

It was all fun and games until we got to the ferry to cross over to the South Coast. The traffic stretched for kilometers and kilometers and was barely moving. We sat there for four hours, inching slowly towards the front of the queue.

If you continue at this rate it will take Kenya 1 000 years to develop.

Japanese guy dragged along by his daughter and family

Of course it was a hot mess. Cars were jumping the queue, facilitating this service with an unknown amount of money passed on to the gatekeepers. On the left, thousands of pedestrians were waiting to board the ferry.  Apparently during peak season, at least one million passengers make the crossing, each round trip. You have to wonder, where the hell are all these people going to?

A massive truck from Botswana caused a commotion because it got stuck and very well could have caused a horrific accident. All the while, unintentionally ironic messages about safety and wearing life jackets on the ferry were playing on a huge LCD screen on the right on loop.

At this point all I could think was, it is surprising that any of us live past 30 in this sorry excuse of a country.

Eventually we crossed over, and only had a few more hundred kilometers to go. We pushed on in the darkness, past Diani and other places until, finally, finally, we got to our destination. Shimoni. And more specifically, the Kisite Mpunguti campsite managed by KWS.

I can only use ‘managed’ in the loosest way possible. Managed means near total darkness and abandoned looking shelters with no identifiable purpose. Managed means only two sockets in the entire campsite. It means chaos and inconvenience for those with more delicate sensibilities and crushing disappointment for those with fantasies about hot showers and decent toilets.

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The next morning, we had mahamris and tea. I only mention this because there was no coffee. Not even a single sachet of Nescafe which I would have paid good money for. But the chai rangi was amazing. Black sugary tea infused with cardamom, all served up by Moha and his crew of hardbodies, who, to be honest, looked more like gang bangers than chefs. But then again, he confessed that it was actually his wife and daughter who fed us, which made a lot more sense.

Finally we set off to the sea. The sun was out, we got onto our boat and headed out to the marine park.

Sailing in the ocean is amazing. The breeze feels great, the sun looks great, the sea looks great and you can’t really worry about anything. It makes you feel aireeeey.

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Swimming at the marine park was bliss. It wasn’t like the other park up in the North Coast. The water was deep. And there were so many fish. I couldn’t identify any of them, and our guides only knew the names of a few. But still, it was fantastic, seeing thousands of tiny fish darting about in big shoals, and a few solo ones near the bottom just chilling and taking it slow. The corals too were gorgeous, although many of them are still dull and lifeless because they haven’t regenerated after the havoc wreaked by the last el nino- and other factors, re global warming.

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Open waters

I swam out far and kept going farther, enjoying the total silence under the sea and drinking it all in.  Eventually the tide started coming in so they dragged us back onto the boat, destination Wasini Island for lunch.

We went in and had more coconut rice, tiny pieces of red snapper and more seaweed. I asked for a bigger piece of fish and I was told

Hapana, utamalizia wengine!!

Ouch.

I could live with the baby portions, but not the payment of  700 shillings for a feast of sea food that clearly never materialized. Daylight robbery right there.

We walked through the island and it was your typical backwater village. Many of the windows had no glass or screen and we could see the dark interiors. Raggedy washing hanging on the lines. Groups of teenagers hanging around tuck shops. It felt a little desolate. And invasive.

Wasini island made me sad. It reminded me of how badly our government wastes peoples’ lives and just how on our own we are out here.  In this country, where we are taxed and taxed and then taxed some more and we  barely have anything to show for it.

There is nothing romantic about poverty.

We went back to shore and dropped by the Shimoni caves. As our really enthusiastic guide told us, the Shimoni site is the only visible part of a network of underground caves that were used to transport captives from the interior to sail to the slave markets of Zanzibar.

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Caves are spooky and full of bats

They were maintained by Arab slavers who grew rich from ivory and human cargo. Then he showed us some brutal looking metal hooks on the walls that were used to chain rebellious slaves for a violent beating as a warning to the rest.

Today they are managed by a community group and entrance fees are used to pay fees and buy medicine for the local dispensary.

Back at camp, discontent was brewing. The sad lunch had left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths and if I know something, it’s that you never mess with food (and over charge for it). Bad food makes people catch major feelings. People have rioted and countries have been brought down because of food related issues. (Hello Arab Spring)

We packed up and headed back to Mombasa, waited another couple of hours on the road to board the ferry, drank amazing tangawizi coffee by the roadside and shacked up in some dump of a hotel in downtown Mombasa.

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Off-guard moments with my friendly strangers

The next day, the plan was to go to Fort Jesus and then hang out at the beach and leave for Nairobi at 6.00pm.

While we were taking pictures at the Fort and learning about the plague, poisoned wells and Portuguese graffiti, our facilitator materialized and said that we had to leave for Nairobi at that very moment because the truck was not authorized to travel at night. He was quite flustered and nearly hysterical about the whole thing.

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Now the other thing that you don’t mess with is people and their children. We had families in the group who had young children, and most of them had woken up ready to go swimming. Many of them were even dressed for it and I am sure that they patiently endured Fort Jesus because it was simply a prequel to the real (swimming pool) treat that would surely come afterwards.

Before we knew it, there was a stand off. No leaving Mombasa before the kids get to swim. The facilitators were full of threats and bluster. But we had heard the call of our leader and we were not budging.

Revolution!

It all came spilling out. The food. Oh the terrible food and the squat toilets at that waste of a campsite. Back to the food again. Me helpfully pointing out the fact that they couldn’t really claim surprise because they knew about the truck’s travel restrictions.

Lines were drawn. We weren’t going nowhere.

Eventually we reached a compromise. We drove to a campsite by the beach and pitched tent. They made one last effort to get us to pay for the extra night.

But we had smelt blood and moved in for the kill. We would pay 20% and they would pay 80% for their fuckery. That translated into about 300 shillings per person.

Done!

There was no greater feeling than the sweet, sweet taste of victory. The kids got to go swimming, the rest of us with no responsibilities headed to the beach for one more glorious day by the ocean. The sky was bluer than blue and the beers were chilled just right. There was a sense of camaraderie because we had fought and won the battle together.

And for one more night we could forget about our cares and live in the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to Samburu County – Maralal


Last weekend, I was invited to spend a few days in Maralal. The spelling is MaraLAL, and not MaraRAL, as would be kinder on the tongue. I consider visiting a place like that a once in a lifetime opportunity because even though Maralal is about 350 km from Nairobi, it’s not exactly the kind of  place that you can go for a weekend barbecue. It’s not the kind of place you go to unless you have serious business there or you are one of those die hard tourists determined to go off the beaten path. And off the beaten path it is.

Nonetheless, Maralal is beautiful. And it is a special kind of place. The kind of Kenya we hear about on the news but can hardly conceptualize. The kind of place that foreign film crews visit to make a slice of ‘Africa’ documentaries that irritate urban Africans with digital tv. The kind of place where little girls and boys don’t swat at the flies covering their eyes and noses. The kind of place where brightly dressed morans saunter into town without anyone batting an eye.

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Heading to Maralal is cutting a line right up to Kenya’s center. From Nairobi, you drive upwards to the rift valley. Past the donkeys in Limuru and the mysterious plantations in Kijabe. Past the hysteria of Soko Mjinga and past the panoramic views at the Rift Valley View Point. Mount Suswa on your left, passenger cars and trailer trucks acting out video games on the winding road before you. You bypass Naivasha town and push ahead into Nyahururu.

You go further still and slowly the fertile hills so coveted by colonial farmers ( now little patches where thousands of Kenyans were resettled after independence, payable in installments and demarcated by redwood ciders) give way to Laikipia’s ranches and acacia trees.

Rumuruti marks the end of ‘Kenya Kenya’ and marks the beginning of what I call ‘greater Kenya’. Even before independence, that settlement marked the spot where the road abruptly shifted from the deep greens of the Rift valley and took a sharp turn into the seemingly hostile, parched pastoral lands. Where, like the colonialists before them, the Kenya government is reluctant to venture into.

The wild.

Not much has changed because just after Rumuruti town, the tarmac gives way to what is still technically a road, but really isn’t. It’s not gravel, or murram or even plain old sand. It’s hard, jagged rocks poking out from the ground and daring you to ruin your engine’s suspension. At this point, you have covered half of the journey in 2 hours. The remainder could take 4 or 5.

Laikipia

Laikipia

Now the lushness of the Rift Valley gives way to the dryness of the scrub lands. The maize plantations become less frequent and the agroforestry approved trees give way to acacias and thorny bushes. Soon the tin roofed houses give way to thatch and then to nothing at all.

The people disappear. In front of you and behind of you, is nothing but grass and the road stretching endlessly before you.

You spot a man with a herd of white cows. Where did he come from and where is he going? Because there is nothing in sight except for the road. And in the far distance, low undulating hills.

At the back of your mind, you worry. Because the Morans are now called bandits. Because now, livestock market days means that gangs of young men slinging AK47s can jump in front of your lone vehicle and bundle you out.  Because police men dare not wander out that far. And even when they do, they go in peace to negotiate with the Samburu elders. To beg them to ask their troops of thirsty young men to leave innocent tourists alone.

But you drive on. On and on; even here, reckless matatu drivers speed by in garrish minivans – the only difference is that theirs have massive ground clearance and lorry tires.

You wonder, who’s ancestors consciously decided to settle in these wastelands?

There are only two towns between the long forgotten Rumuruti and the promise of Maralal. Suguta and Kisima. Calling them towns would be generous. Like calling Nairobi a megapolis. Both are nothing more than a few shops on each side of the road. Mpesa is here though. As is coca cola and plastic bags.

Kisima is 38 kilometers from Maralal. But it will take another hour and a half. By now the scrubland ceases to be exciting. Sure you spotted a few antelope, maybe some giraffes and possibly the dark outlines of elephant herds in the far distance. At this point all you want is food and rest. And for the moment of when you will be finally be released from the rattling vehicle. Your back hurts and your legs are stiff. There hasn’t been a single petrol station or kiosk in sight for the last hundreds of kilometers.

The road that doesn't end

The road that doesn’t end

How do people survive here?

Subtly, the landscape shifts around you. The odd maize field and fenced yard appears. The first stone houses since Nyahururu begin to materialize. Buildings, too. A girls’ high school. A church. A dispensary. All brand new and presumably courtesy of the Samburu County Government.

Maralal is a typical rural town. There is evidence that the colonial government had a plan for the town. Uniform police houses surround the Maralal Police station. They are now in disrepair, the windows are boarded up and the grass has grown wild. Washing lines run between homes because people still live in them.

There is a petrol station staffed by Somalis and men from Nyeri, all chewing mogoka. Laikipia university proudly proclaims its presence with a campus housed in one building. Equity Bank, KCB, Faulu and KWFT too have laid their stakes here. Apart from World Vision, there are no visible NGOs here.

What else is in Maralal town? Where the government stopped, private developers took over. Rows and rows of tin shacks line the road, selling those brightly colored shukas and blankets so loved by the Samburus. Lots and lots of miraa. A couple of cafes selling milky tea and ‘food food’ and not nyama choma.

Boda bodas, cows and ancient cars with reckless drivers, who no longer care about the damage the brutal roads caused their shock absorbers.

The bus station, with all the accompanying seediness and chaos that bus drivers and conductors carry with them. Hidden in sight are dozens of boarding places where you can get a room for 250 bob a night. But you probably shouldn’t.

A few hundred meters out of town is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It is on 5 square kilometers of land leased from the county government. It is an animal sanctuary where guests can watch eland, zebras, impalas, bush bucks, warthogs and the odd stray cow from the comfort of the lounge.

Unlike other over the top Safari Lodges, they keep it real over there. It has recently been renovated and has shed most of it’s stiff colonial decor. Bright orange lampshades and big, comfortable couches.

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The lodge is run by a father daughter team and is host to the kind of characters you would expect to find here. KWS rangers, residents and the odd politician. The conversation too, is fitting of such a place. Nairobi is a distant memory.

Turkanas are becoming a problem, sneaking into Samburu to poach their precious wildlife. Members of parliament gave away gazetted land for private development and now the wildlife corridor is slowly disappearing.  The best way to show your wife that you love her is to give her a good beating every so often.

Kenyatta House is a little three bed roomed property managed by the National Museums of Kenya. It is remarkably well preserved and is Maralal’s long forgotten but biggest claim to fame. During the war for independence, Mzee Jommo Kenyatta spent years in jail – in Lodwar and Kapenguria, which are even more remote than Maralal.

Maralal's legacy

Maralal’s legacy

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

He spent his last year and a half under house arrest in Maralal. It must have been a big improvement because he finally had the luxury of going to town to fix his shoes. He was given a little bungalow where his wife and daughters (Jane and Christine) could live with him. He could receive groups of friends and associates. Eventually, that little house in Maralal is where the British government negotiated Kenya’s transition into an independent nation. The care taker also claims that Uhuru Kenyatta was likely conceived in that house.

Mattress ya makonge

Mattress ya makonge

Maralal represents an uncomfortable kind of truth for me. It represents the facts and the statistics that we read about but don’t understand; that Kenya is mostly arid and semi- arid, that most of Kenya is rural, that most of Kenya is barely serviced by the government. That our national symbols are less lofty than we like to imagine – miraa, mPesa and trash. And yet, where our governments fail us, we pick up.

I hated leaving Maralal. Not just because of the 8 hour drive ahead, but also because I would miss how I felt in Maralal. I would miss the lack of responsibility and obligation. The feeling of novelty and freedom. Most of all I would miss the wide open spaces. Maralal made me fantasize about living in the wild (but somehow still have access to services and convenience). It made me wish that I could own a property that I could escape to on occasion.

Clearing up a few things: notes on the human condition


Travelling gives you perspective. When you live and work in a culture different from your own, you get to expand your horizon. It can be enlightening, annoying, frustrating and sometimes downright awful. You probably don’t find yourself, but you do get a better sense of how the world works. Here are a few things that really stuck with me.

1. No-one cares about your country: Local media is astonishingly egocentric. It makes you think that the world is focused on you. That, of course everyone knows your history and your current affairs. It is easy to build conspiracies about how the world is out to get you, because of course everyone is focused on you and what you are fighting about.

Occasionally, I found myself starting discussions with phrases like ‘everyone knows that Kenya…’ Turns out no-one does actually. I mean, once, my classmate came to tell me about the cool book he read about how the mau mau terrorists were so brutal. I was absolutely enraged and insulted until I realized that I had absolutely no idea about anything that happened in Croatia. And that he spoke to me in the same way- assuming that I have, at the very least a comprehensive knowledge of his country’s drama and history. Specifically, he and his fellow Croatians would always talk about THE WAR. Over and over again and in capital letters. And I had absolutely no idea what they were on about. My mind did not make the connection between the news I heard in the 1990s that inspired me to nickname my little sister Sarajevo and what they were talking about.

Every country is obsessed with its own internal politicking and everything else is just a passing affair. Pages will be dedicated to whatever local bullshit is going on, and international news gets a few lines. If you think about it though, it makes sense. With the exception of people majoring in political affairs, few people have the time or the emotional energy to follow every little story coming from every corner of the world. It’s impossible.

2. Everyone thinks that their weather is unpredictable: I had a Belgian colleague who loved to use the phrase ‘Belgium is the only country where you can experience four seasons in one day.’ Noooo….no it isn’t. For me, Belgium came in two seasons: cold and rainy, or just rainy. I honestly don’t understand why people are so proud of this.  And it’s not just the Belgians. South Africans, the French, Kenyans, literally everyone. I mean, really who cares? The weather happens, lets get over it already.

3. Magic exists in the world: I have had the great fortune of meeting three people who made me feel like I had reunited with a long lost best friend. I don’t know why or how but we just gelled almost from the word go. Despite coming from profoundly different worlds, these people just got me in a way that was unbelievable. There was none of that awkwardness about trying to be politically correct. They did not have to modify their vowels and neither did I. I could make a joke and they would get it, and vice versa. They were my partners in crime. People I could sit with in silence for hours or have long, elaborate arguments about fuck-all. And also do the most incredibly stupid shit possible and get away with it together. It’s like finding a part of your soul that was missing and it is pure magic. (This is not gender specific by the way)

Also, I have to mention the astonishing kindness that people treated me with on so many occasions. Virtual strangers who went out of their way to help me. For example, my first night in France was a comedy of errors that led me to being homeless for the night. My neighbors were having a party and they took me in, gave me champagne, good food and a place to sleep. When was the last time you hosted a scared looking foreigner who’s name you couldn’t pronounce? People can be awesome.

4. People are overly concerned about their accents: Every time you open your mouth, you announce to people where you came from. Where you went to school, your social class, your level of education and quite often, the region that you came from. And it makes people uncomfortable as hell. In every country I have ever visited, certain regions are mocked for their backwardness (and often, implied bestiality) and they are mercilessly mocked for their accents. Then you have people who speak French, Spanish, Hungarian or whatever as a first language. Some of these people go to the UK for six months and as a consequence, speak in a bizarrely contrived ‘English’ accent for the rest of their lives. It sounds just as awful and as painful as a Kenyan guy trying to speak American. True story

5. Food is astonishingly political: If you grew up on beans and maize, the food is just fuel that gets you by. If your country has more than 300 types of cheese, then it is perfectly acceptable to get into arguments with other people about what region produces the best cheese. You can have a beer with your friends, or you can sample wines and complain about the lack of body and therefore imply that your friend has poor taste and is therefore a pleb, probably with a back water accent and incest running in the family.

6. The world is deeply racist: yes, yes, not everyone is racist. Sit down. Even within your own borders, you harbor some deeply held beliefs about people from other regions. Luos waste money on stupid things, Kikuyu bosses will work you to death. People in Paris are arrogant, people from the south of France only care about plastic surgery and getting tans. South Indians are not very smart, North Indians are arrogant racists. This is all on a national level. When you go international, things get even worse. If you want an example, scroll down to the comments section of news on immigration, ebola and other third world concerns. Such thoughts and opinions are the result of years of deep conditioning. I doubt very much that people’s opinions have changed from the 19th century on some things. Different words are used now, like ‘developing’ instead of ‘savage’ and the like but the basic idea remains the same.

7. We are all slaves of our culture: Politicians in Africa have a tendency to shout about how African culture is somehow superior to others and that we should maintain our ‘culture’ because it is pure and unadulterated, unlike the rest of the world, which is drowning in moral decay, weekly abortions and rampant ‘gayism’. Everyone is having the same discussion. Culture is not something that can be controlled in a laboratory. It evolves and changes and it informs everything you do in your life. Everyone is worried about the erosion of their culture, and is, to a large extent, convinced that their culture is somehow superior to the others.

8. You will never be as happy as you are right now: Life can be easier or more convenient in places where the government functions. Life is good when your family and friends are intact. But your outside surroundings will never make you happy. In fact, the added stress of being in an unfamiliar culture can make you downright miserable. Sure, the adrenalin rush of adventure and novelty can distract you from whatever is going on in your mind and soul, but generally, your state of being is a constant. If you are unhappy at home, then you will find reasons to be unhappy, no matter where you go.

So yeah, and that is that, I would say. I still have hope in humanity.

5 Common coping strategies used while living in the diaspora


Sometimes, living in a foreign country is much less glamorous than Facebook pictures would have you believe. Life gets in the way of all that fun, and different people have different ways of coping with all the confusion that comes with planting yourself in a new environment. Here are commonly used coping strategies:

1. Become a caricature of your former self

This one is pretty straight forward. Take all stereotypical aspects of your home culture and magnify them 100 fold. Impose your new identity on everyone you come across, and make sure you do it loudly and obnoxiously, lest people not realise that they are dealing with a foreigner from country X.

So, for example, if you are a Kenyan man (because this seems to be much more common in men than in women…) have conversations at the top of your voice in order to assert your masculinity. Reject many types of food because ‘real men don’t eat leaves’. Get outrageously drunk every time you can because, we are, after all, a drinking nation. Justify every bad decision with the words ‘In my culture…’

Try (and fail) to score with as many native girls as possible, by using charming lines such as ‘have you ever been with a Kenyan before?’

Fail to understand why you aren’t making any friends.

2. Go Native

First off, latch onto the first person who seems interested in having some kind of relationship with you. Mysteriously develop an accent within a few weeks of your arrival. Follow this with ‘forgetting’ the names of ordinary objects in your native tongue, and replacing them with your host country’s language. (Never mind that your vocabulary is limited to ordering food by pointing at pictures and smiling). Start casually mention how much more American/French/ South African you feel in order to demonstrate how well you fit into your new found home.

Hang on to your boyfriend/girlfriend even though you have nothing in common and are slowly starting to plot each other’s murders.

3. Find your pack

It is entirely possible to live in a foreign country and never ever integrate. I mean never. Find your country men and base all your social activity around them. Plan elaborate festivals around every single public holiday from back home, and get overly excited about them, even though you never celebrated any of them before.

Spend all your time being utterly baffled by the strange things that you see the natives doing. Fail to understand why they would live the way they do.

Date each other, and then date each other’s friends until it becomes more convoluted than those Gossip Girl love triangles. (This may or may not involve several trips to the gyna and awkward social situations.)

Flat out refuse to try anything new and get your friends to bring you stuff from back home.

Have Ketepa teabags, Blueband, royco and your favourite brand of flour in your kitchen, even though you don’t live in Zimbabwe.

4. Become the Hulk

Get angry. Get really, really angry. Transform every conversation you have into a long, furious tirade about everything that is wrong with your host country. Claim that all the men/women are racist. Or very slutty, or a combination of both. Blame your unhappiness on the food, the weather and live only for your brief trips back home.

Remain mysteriously silent on why you are currently applying for citizenship in the country you claim to hate so much.

5. Develop a bit of a split personality

Get fluid and get fluid fast. Try out everything that’s put in front of you.Go out and meet as many people as you can. Ask stupid questions and make questionable decisions. Develop amnesia when you don’t feel like you should explain your country’s entire history every time you meet new people. Suddenly become your country’s fiercest ambassador when it suits you.

Alternate between the exhaustion of running yourself ragged and the thrilling excitement of all the new stuff you get to try. Post pictures on Facebook and relish every ‘Like’ that you get.

India: A Reading List


A lot of the time, I prefer the company of books to that of real people. I’m not ashamed to admit it because I know I’m not the only one.

I especially like reading books about the places that I am in – its fun to see stuff that you read about in the book, or to have things that you did not understand explained to you by your friendly, non judgemental author.

Here are my favourite books about India:

1. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

I ‘discovered’  this guy by accident last year (in the way you discover someone who has a Fatwa on him, has won the Booker Prize at least once, been knighted by the Queen and generally stays in the limelight by trying to go visit Pakistan and India every couple of years.)

Salman is not the easiest author to read, and he has a tendency to  go off on a tangent that shows his absolute mastery of the English language but also leaves the reader hopelessly confused. But Midnight’s Children, I think, is one of his easiest books to read. (It’s also the one that won him the Booker Prize.)

It tells the story of India from Independence, covering India’s most important events after the British left.(But with a LOT of poetic licence.) Apart from vivid descriptions of Mumbai and Amritsar, the book gives a general understanding of India’s thorny issues (Looking at you, Pakistan…) This is how I learnt that Indira Ghandi is not related to Mahatma Ghandi decades after the rest of the world. And also why she was assassinated by her body guards.

He kept me laughing out loud through out the book by mercilessly poking fun at Indian cultural quirks and oddities.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure that ‘Heroes’ ripped off on his plot and characters.

2. Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)

Lots of Westerners go to India to ‘find‘ themselves. Some of them end up writing nauseating, self indulgent books that are then adapted into embarrassingly clichéd movies.

Not Greg. He lands in Mumbai on a fake passport after breaking out of an Australian jail. When his money runs out and his visa expires, he moves into the slum with his Indian friends. Life happens to him and he finds himself working for the Mumbai Mafia, after almost dying in an Indian jail.

As a wanted man, Greg doesn’t have the time or the luxury to be condescending towards India.  You don’t get that weird attitude that spoils many books about the developing world by Westerners who have decided to settle there.

(Binyavanga explains this kind of rubbish very well here and  an Indian guy vents here.  Also this insane woman’s story.)

He is busy navigating the Indian underworld, and his book is full of interesting characters that smash the stereotype of Indians as peace loving zen masters who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Despite too many annoying bits of wisdom and pseudo-philosophy to justify his bad life decisions, I thought this book was a really clear view of Indian culture, language and society.

3. The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)

This one also won a Booker Prize. It’s based in Kerela, a state in the South of India.  It follows two kids growing up in the 1960s, their terrifyingly dysfunctional family and how rapidly their lives completely go to shit.

This book is pretty heavy – its set in the 1960s, and she really goes into how messed up and nasty the caste system was. It also deals with ‘inappropriate’ love. I was pretty depressed by the end of the book.

Apart from that, it was the first, and only book I have read that describes south Indian history, culture and politics. (Kerela has a communist government.)

4. The Liquid Refuses to Ignite (Dave Besseling)

Dave thought he wrote a book about spiritual enlightenment, but it’s really just a log of his life as a long-term traveller. (Yes, that’s a thing and I met one in real life too!)

He writes about sniffing coke in Japan, getting trashed in Budapest, bar hopping in Thailand (complete with a ladyboy story) and supposedly finding spiritual enlightenment and food poisoning in Varanasi, before supposedly having a life shattering epiphany in Kathmandu/Nepal.

It’s a terrible book, full of fake philosophy and a disappointing ‘climax’. But I included it in my list because his booze soaked journey appeals to the drunk in me, and it has one chapter about Indian ball scratching styles that had me weeping with laughter.

So there you have it. Nothing too strenuous on the mind. Any suggestions?

India, I will be back!


I only have a few days left in India and I honestly do not want to go back home. Things were rough at some point, but every day had at least one moment when I would be like,

Wow, only in India!

Here is a random list of things I will not forget about in a hurry:

1. Indians and their theories: It’s not that I have been discriminated against. It’s just that these guys have the guts to say things that the rest of the world considers politically incorrect.

For example, there is this belief that the ‘real’ Indians come from the South. And the guys in the North are not real Indians because they are descendants of Alexander. From what I know, he did pass through India. But the superiority that the Northerners derive from this knowledge is what irks me just a little bit.

Then there is the obsession with skin color. The shops are packed with skin lightening creams, for both men and women. In fact, the ads and the labeling are pretty straightforward. It’s called whitening cream.

2. Indians and Hitler: Closely related to the above. You can buy a copy of Mein Kampf in waaay too many places. And a few too many street vendors stock tattered copies. And talk for just a bit too long about how he was a great leader.

3. Nightlife: I finally discovered Chandigarh’s nightlife. A well kept secret. Also, a gigantic sausage fest. They tried everything – free drinks for girls on Wednesdays. Couples only entry even into pubs. But good Punjabi girls have to be home before 10.00pm (even if they don’t live with their parents) so yeah, cheap Vodka cocktails and drunk, awkward Indian boys on the dance floor.

4. English is a fluid concept: I assumed that Indians are pretty good at English, based on their 200 years under British rule. I was wrong. So, in India you can have scrumbled eggs for breakfast, veg macheronni for lunch and you get warnings like these:

there are worse things that can happen to you than dying. [picture of broken arm]…Drive carefully!

I think that word play was totally lost on me.

5. The staring: This one deserves a post all on its own. Before I came to India, I asked one Miss Bree how she was finding life here. She said,

‘Everything is fine, except for all the stupid staring.’

I thought, yeah, whatever, how bad can it be? Well it seems that not being the right shade of brown in this country draws a lot of attention. I’ve had parents prod their children so that they can see the human anomaly walking in their midst. I’ve had groups of friends nudging each other and laughing at my freakish appearance. And families coming up to touch my strange hair and marvel at my bizarre countenance.

I’ve had so many pictures taken of me, with or without my permission, and been manipulated into impromptu photoshoots with every single member of the family. [I just hope none of them turn up on a weird Indo-African website somewhere on the internet..]

And no, this was not in a remote village without television and contact with the outside world.

I had many doubts about coming here and spending a precious (and now too short) four months of my life, working for some unknown start-up, instead of supposedly establishing myself in the grown up world.

So, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ in India? I don’t think so.

Still,  I’m glad I came. Yes, I learnt some yoga. And yes, I worked for an IT company. No, I did not get Delhi belly, and no, I did not find any spiritual enlightenment. And I might even have a little bit of an American accent by now. (Don’t ask why)

All I can say is that I loved every moment of my stay: short enough to be sweet but not long enough to become exhausting.

I will be back!!

Real India? No thanks, could I have mine airbrushed and airconditioned please?


The search for ‘Real India’ usually comes up when tourists and visitors see something that does not match their Googled images of India. Like tall buildings. And large stretches of smooth road with no traffic.

At this point, person A usually says something like,

‘This is not the image of India I expected. Let’s get away from the commercial areas, I want to see the real thing.’

Which, of course, is claustrophobic streets reeking of urine, dirty kids begging for money, cows  weaving in and out of traffic and lively market scenes that will later be Photoshopped into artistic black and white pictures that supposedly capture the beauty of Incredible India.

And then everyone goes home happy that they experienced the Real India, not like those fake ass tourists who lounge about in air conditioned coffee shops to complain about not being able to wear tiny shorts in public.

hey! let's travel  like the natives do!
hey! let’s travel like the natives do!

 

But even getting followed by drunk men in small towns, sampling whatever the locals eat at roadside restaurants with questionable hygiene and traveling in rickety, old buses is still not real India. That’s called budget traveling.

‘Real’ anything happens to you when you have to take on the systems of the country: It could be going to a hospital in the middle of nowhere, or having to file a report at the police station. (None of which have happened to me yet, touch wood)

Or it could be being given two days notice to find another place to live due to ‘cultural differences’ with your housemates. It could be having to negotiate with people so that you can keep your job after getting into a massive amount of shit.

Real India is when you start to realize that cultural differences are not ha ha, these people all use bidetsbut are more like,

Oh shit, I’m in trouble because I broke rules I never knew existed and how do I get these people to understand my perspective?

Let’s take the house example. Before, the other trainees had a list of somewhat reasonable complaints:

  • the washing machine looks funny
  • it’s too hot in here
  • the shower does not have enough water pressure
  • I can’t stream movies here because the internet is too slow
  • these guys are always scratching their balls when talking to us.

First world problems (source: http://imgace.com/pic/tag/rfirstworldproblems/)

And now, new housing options:

  • Creepy old female landladies hiding knives in the folds of their skirts
  • paying to live in a building with 20 other people and only sharing one toilet
  • opting to stay in a girls’ only prison ‘Paying Guesthouse’ with a 10.00pm curfew
  • Not being allowed to bring ‘non-veg’ food into the premises

Nothing like being downgraded to bring a little perspective into your life.

Chandigarh’s most famous trainee was a guy named Edward. On his birthday, he convinced a bunch of other trainees to go sleep at the train station, in order to experience ‘real India’.

A friend of AIESEC gave the cops a small bribe to keep an eye on these idiotic daring and adventurous youths. And so they got to experience ‘Real India’ in all its mosquito infested glory. And a feeling of accomplishment because they survived a night at a train station.

Congratulations! thanks for showing us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source; http://travelawait.blogspot.in/) )

Congratulations! You just showed us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source: http://travelawait.blogspot.in/)

My point? I rarely ever travel  with the explicit goal to make friends with the locals and experience ‘real‘ life in that country. I don’t want to because its difficult. And frustrating. And I would just rather have a good time and let things happen,  than going around smiling at the natives like an idiot, trying to show how well I can fit in.

And in any case, ‘Real country x’ will come around and smack you when you least expect it.