Friday, December 26, 2014

When Thoughts Become Beautiful Things

On Sunday, December 26, 2004, while much of Asia was reeling from the news and aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, I was busy shopping around Khao San Road, Bangkok's backpacker haven, for the cheapest bus tickets to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, completely oblivious to the mayhem the tsunami had wreaked. 

That night, I was on my way to Chiang Mai in a rickety bus with torn seat covers, open windows, no airconditioning, surrounded by shady looking, mostly hooded and non English-speaking, Thai men. Around midnight, I woke up as the bus rumbled to a halt for a break about an hour east of the border with Myanmar (from hereon Burma, as I like that name better). My cautious solo-woman-backpacker sensibility ensured I stayed put, but I watched with envy as some of my co-passengers stepped out to indulge in street food from a Burmese ‘roti’ seller, selling from a shop counter propped on his bicycle seat.

As I looked on with yearning in the pitch dark, only able to smell the unbelievably fragrant food, I thought of what it might taste like, if it was just plain ‘roti’ – the kind I ate everyday in India – or whether it had a typical Burmese filling, and what that filling might be. I wondered if I’d ever find out – for from where I was then, in my mind, there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d make it any closer to Burma, ever. 

Today, exactly 10 years later, by the calendar, by the clock, on December 26, 2014, by complete coincidence, those fleeting thoughts are about to become something real. I’m about to enter Burma – and hopefully be surrounded by an abundance of Burmese ‘roti’ stalls and everything else that the country has to offer. 

The thought of going has crossed my mind few times in the past 10 years. How enchanting to travel to a country that was mostly off-limits; it had direct flights from only two countries – Tibet and Thailand – at the time. But would I be able to pull this off at home? My mother’s voice reverberated in my head from the time I called from Ladakh just two months ago and told her I was planning to head to Kashmir next. “You are doing no such thing – just pack your bag and come back to Bombay!”

Burma’s 50 year military dictatorship ended just as we returned from our holiday in Cuba in 2011. Spending a few days in a country just emancipated from decades of isolation – it would be the perfect way to relive bits of what I had just experienced in Cuba. Get time warped, all over again. I first suggested it as a potential holiday destination last year, only to end up in exactly the same latitude, but 99 degrees West, to Mexico, instead of 99 degrees East, to Burma.  It's pointless trying to book if you haven't started at least 6 months in advance! 

We’ve lost some time since the country ‘opened’ up - and flights from over 20 countries are now possible to Burma - but everything I’ve learned about it since we booked our holiday has convinced me I’ll still get my fair share of that old world charm. The Whatsapp and Facebook exchanges with a couple of ex colleagues describing the scary ATR flights between Yangon and other parts of the country; the proudly proclaimed lack of basic infrastructure I almost take for granted every minute of my life; the Burmese visa application, which is one of very few in the world that still asks for your father’s name, and the colour of your eyes and of your hair; sub-continental English written like it were from a conversation straight out of Shantaram. Few things could charm me more. 

Though the food is what initially roused my interest in Burma, I know little about what to expect when I go there. Barring a couple of mediocre food (but seemingly authentic cultural) experiences at London’s only Burmese restaurant, Mandalay, and the fact that I grew up eating Burmese khauk swè my mum cooked from a recipe she got from my aunt whose family lived in Burma for many years, I know little about Burmese food. Any Indian friends I’ve told about my travel plans have invariably said Burmese food is very good, though nobody seems to have eaten anything other than khauk swè. So I am undoubtedly going to be eating a lot of khauk swè, but I hope that’s not just it. What I do almost certainly know though is George Orwell was wrong when he described it as ‘what is almost the worst thing in Burma, the filthy, monotonous food’. And if he wasn't, our strategically planned food stops in Hong Kong either side of Burma will more than make up for it.

Some of the things that charm about Burma

The proudly proclaimed lack of infrastructure…
Note: In Myanmar, Internet connections are often slow and sometimes unavailable and international mobile phones do not work. While there is no problem making and receiving international phone calls at all the major hotels, we suggest advising clients to tell families and friends before they leave that communications can be difficult, and so “no news is good news.”

Sub-continental English written like it were from a conversation straight out of Shantaram…

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Build Up to the Pakistani Elections… and the Bollywood Twist

Politics doesn’t interest me much, but there’s something about elections and pre-election campaigning that is incredibly gripping.  Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney campaigns are entertaining alright, but South Asian politics takes entertainment to a different level altogether.  Here, it’s not just about promises and empty promises; the events taking place in the background alone make the whole process so sensational and thrilling.  You finally begin to realize that the most nonsensical Bollywood storylines are not unfounded after all. 
The Pakistani general elections – the aam intekhabat – really held my interest this time.  Pakistan – the ‘terrorist flavour of the month’ (to quote the Dawn) – was coming pretty close to a state of no return; a time bomb waiting to explode.  These were going to be landmark elections.  It was the first time the government would transition from one civilian democracy to another.  The country was about to make history.  Pakistani friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues and taxi drivers I spoke to in the months leading up to the elections – though unconditionally in love with the country – mostly had a very grim view of its future.  Some, quite shockingly, even said a military dictatorship would be ideal for the country’s progress. And then there were surveys which revealed that almost 40% of the Pakistani youth would prefer that Sharia (Islamic law) be implemented.  Would the Pakistani Taliban, who deem voting un-Islamic, let the transition happen?  Was another military coup ensuing?  These were the kind of questions that kept me hooked on (apart from being depressively overdosed with reading about women of all ages being raped, and struggling to stay abreast of the never ending political scams, back home).
So as I started watching, a few key parties emerged.  The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which had horribly failed to deliver over the past 5 years, the twice ousted ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (the PML(N) or Nun League), the sixty but sexy ex-cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI - the party of justice), and others such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Awami National Party (ANP), and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
Just as I got my head around what those parties with royal sounding names stood for, one fine day in March, Pervez Musharraf, the ex-army chief who had ousted Nawaz Sharif from Prime Ministership in 1999 announced his return from self-imposed exile in London, and the intention to contest the elections, in an attempt to “save” the country.  “Ab sirf mai hi Pakistan ki awaam ko bacha sakta hu.  Mai laut ke aaoonga!”
The last time he had tried to return home, back in 1999, Nawaz Sharif had denied him the permission to land on Pakistani soil.  So there he was, hovering over Pakistani airspace, circling and circling, with only a few drops of fuel and no clearance to land.  And when he finally did, he declared a military coup in Pakistan.  This is the kind of reality that Bollywood movies derive their inspiration from.  Tumne mujhe land nahi karna diya, ab dekho mai iska kya suluk deta hu tumko!
This time around, fully prepared with a pre-arrest bail, Musharraf arrived back in Pakistan without any resistance.  No sooner had he arrived than, in a dramatic turn of events, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the PPP, decided to leave for Dubai.  Wait, wasn’t he their frontrunner?  His father, Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan, was technically not allowed to campaign while still in office.  Rumour had it that the 24-year old had decided to abandon the campaign after a tiff with his father.  Perfect Bollywood twist.  Abbu jaan, hum aapse bahut khafa hai.  Jao hum PPP ke liye campaign nahi karte!  Ye hi aapka sabak hai.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan in what seemed like a foolish decision at the time.  Apart from being at a high risk of being assassinated for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Benazir Bhutto when she returned from self-imposed exile in 2007, he also faced the risk of getting tried for his misdeeds from back then.  Soon enough, a judgment was passed – he was banned from contesting the elections, and ordered to be arrested.  He fled the scene, to his heavily guarded, posh farmhouse outside Islamabad.  After a wild goose chase with his super-strong personal security guards, the Pakistani police gave up (this is the real reality of South Asia, not just Bollywood reality) and decided to guard the property from outside instead. So there he is, on house arrest in his palatial farmhouse.  Better than being in exile in foren land, I’d say.  And not such a foolish decision after all!

In the meantime, Bilawal released a video campaign from exile in Dubai.  It wasn’t actually a tiff with his father, it was a threat to his life that had forced him to flee the country.  The Taliban had threatened to kill him.  They were against parties with secular leanings, and the PPP was one of them.  Khabardaar jo tumne jalsa nikala… zinda nahi bachoge tum!”

So there he was, campaigning through video releases from Dubai, his assassinated mother Benazir Bhutto’s portrait strategically placed behind him in every video in the hope of gaining some Bhutto votes.  “Maaaa!”  For the face of the country’s leading political party, he struggled with his Urdu just a little bit more than the Hawaiian accented Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif in her early days in acting

As time progressed, only two parties were allowed to campaign – the PTI and the PML(N) – for their ‘soft’ stance on the Taliban; others who tried were either shot dead or blown up, leaving over 100 people killed in election related bloodshed.  So there we had Nawaz Sharif, the sher of Punjab, campaigning with actual tigers, the mascot of his Nun League.  He had done well for himself – he fled the country and Musharraf’s wrath in 1999, spent 10 years in exile Saudi Arabia, got a hair transplant, and returned just in time to form a coalition government led by the PPP in the 2008 elections.  This time, he  ousted and exiled Musharraf instead.  “Dekh liya na mujhe exile mein bhejne ka anjaam!”

That left you with the party of the sanest, and sexiest, political leader – Imran Khan.  And, interestingly, the only one by this point who has never been in exile.  How unfashionable!  Imran Khan’s campaigns were the kind you’d find in an Oscar nominated Bollywood film, a winner, or a strong contender, at the very least.  In all my years watching South Asian political leaders, I have rarely seen one with such charisma, such passion, such jasba, such junoon, such an ability to stir a whole population.  Such a forward looking plan, and such love for the country.  Creating the dream of a Naya Pakistan, a new Pakistan, this man had singlehandedly managed to mobilize the Pakistani youth. His campaigns, run via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the conventional live jalsas, warned people that they dare complain about the state of Pakistan if they don’t come out and vote.  As I saw him talk about tabdili, I couldn’t but help feel jealous of the country Naya Pakistan would be if this positive change he spoke about did come to fruition.

But even the most sensational Bollywood films can have nonsensical twists, so just as he was about to give one of his final speeches in the run up to the elections on May 11, Imran Khan fell from a forklift, from a height of 15 feet, broke his spine, and was bedridden for the rest of the time.  “Aur phir ballebaaz ne ain waqt par chhalaang lagaai… AUR… WO… gir pade!!”  Later that week, from his hospital bed, Imran Khan promised that regardless of which party won, we’d be welcoming a new Pakistan at the end of the day on May 11.  A “tsunami” was about to sweep Pakistan.

With such a (melo)dramatic build up to election day, I didn’t need an alarm to be up at 7am on a Saturday and tuned in to Pakistani television.  I woke up to news of a bomb blast in Karachi.  Only 11 people – about the daily average for Karachi – had died, so the elections were actually taking place as planned, I concluded.  The Taliban hadn’t stuck to their word and let out a brigade of suicide bombers.  Men, women, people from all walks of life, voters of all ages, senior citizens on wheelchairs, all came out to vote in large numbers.  The will of the people of Pakistan had prevailed.  A Naya Pakistan was actually on its way. 

Of course, in true South Asian fashion, not everyone who went out, or wanted, to vote could actually vote. The excitement continued as a friend from Karachi posted on Facebook saying he’d been waiting in line since the morning, but no ballot boxes yet.  As everyone cheered him to keep at it, the ballot boxes finally arrived.  Another waited literally all day outside a closed polling station, unwilling to budge as “every vote counts”.  Amid lingering hopes of “free and fair” elections came the news of rigging and re-polling in the constituency, the infamous NA-250. Pakistani friends outside of Pakistan continued to express disappointment at not being able to vote – the President only signed the ordinance to allow overseas voting two days before election day.  Five years too early for the next elections, a tad too late for May 11!

In the end, the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, voted by post from an undisclosed location, in hiding from the Taliban.  Ironically, two of the contenders – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Imran Khan – weren’t themselves able to even vote!

Purana Pakistan...

Naya hair transplant
As the night progressed, the Nun League appeared to be winning by a clear majority, and Nawaz Sharif breathed a sigh of relief.  Even as the Pakistani stock market rallied the next few days, the youth expressed their discontent. “Purana Pakistan, naya hair transplant”, some said.  “It feels like an India Pakistan World Cup final going the wrong way”, one sighed.  Maybe the Naya Pakistan some were hoping for didn't arrive, but history was made - one civilian government was on the verge of successfully transfering power to another.  Big changes come in baby steps, as they say, but a stride had clearly been made. 
As with the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s most recent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, this story could well be based in India.  If it were in India though, you might have an inaudible Prime Minister (“Pakistani PM: Nawaz Sharif, Indian PM: Na awaaz, na sharif”), less poshness and suaveness overall, fewer suicide bombings, and no foren exile stories (in India, it’s fashionable instead to persist with corruption – the tardiness of the legal system means judgments are only passed after 20–30 years, which exceeds the remaining useful life of most Indian politicians).

And now, as I say goodbye to the thrill of the events related to the Pakistani elections, I look forward to watching the caricatures that will emerge in the election campaigns in the country that invented Bollywood.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Back to my roots.... one day

December 7, 1992 – 11.30am, just after short recess, my class teacher asked me to pack my bag, and escorted me to the foyer coordinator’s office; my mother had come to collect me from school. She was panicking, and before I knew it we were rushing home.

Earlier, mum had been driving my 87 year old grandfather, Pitaji, to my paternal Uncle’s home in South Bombay for his birthday that day. They encountered a naka bandi en route, in Mahim, a predominantly Muslim area of Bombay. Cars ahead of them were frantically turning back in an attempt to escape the stone pelting. Babri Masjid (the mosque of Babur) had been demolished the previous day, and communal riots had broken out in Bombay. My father was in New Bombay on work that day, and didn’t return until a week later, when the riots had subsided.

Those next few days, Pitaji was visibly disturbed. “I haven’t seen this kind of tension since the Partition”. 47 years ago, he had abandoned his home, Narain Niwas, and all his belongings, in Karachi, and ridden his last and most uncomfortable train ride to ‘this side of the border’ along with his wife and seven sons.

Until then, the Partition was only a chapter in the history books. Now, it was real. It was when I saw the change in Pitaji’s otherwise composed demeanour that I realised how profound an impact the Partition had had on peoples’ lives. The life that followed couldn’t have been better, but the memories of that day were deeply embedded. Suddenly, there was more to my lineage than ‘my father was born in Karachi and my grandparents migrated to India during the Partition’. Suddenly, there was a curiosity about the life that they had led on the other side.

Growing up, I listened with amazement as my mother told me stories about the India-Pakistan wars. Days on end, they’d be tucked into their homes, all windows covered with newspaper to block off any light or signs of habitation, and hear sounds of military aircrafts hovering outside.

But there were more pleasant things that also touched my life. Listening to my mum’s favourite Nazia Hassan song Disco Deewane as a toddler in the early 1980s, watching pirated video tapes of the Pakistani play Dhoop Kinaray with my mum’s Sindhi friend, watching in awe as Imran Khan accepted the 1992 World Cup, listening to music by the Pakistani pop band Strings in my early teens, and the rage over Zeba Bakhtiar when she starred in Raj Kapoor’s film Henna.

My first direct interaction with real Pakistani people was while studying in Canada. Most of my desi friends at university turned out to be Pakistani. It amazed me how we similar we were, and how comfortably we coexisted, given the ugly history our countries together had had.

Most of the hikers I met during my early backpacking trips couldn’t stop raving about hiking in the Karakoram Mountains. And that’s when the thought of going to Pakistan crossed my mind for the first time – I could visit the beautiful north, and then make it south to Karachi, where the majority of my family originally came from. Pakistan soon made it to my list of top three countries I want to visit, only to remain a permanent fixture after being completely shot down by first my mother, and subsequently my husband.

Recently, as part of the requirement for my British passport application, I dug out a bit about my family history, and learnt a bit of Pakistani geography and current affairs! There’s more to it than just a Karachi connection. Pitaji was born in Lahore; my maternal grandfather in a town I always thought was fictional, but which actually exists – Dera Ghazi Khan – before moving to Peshawar. My paternal grandmother grew up in Quetta, which, until the day I found out was her birthplace, was a part of Afghanistan in my mind. A day after I discovered the Quetta connection, the city made big news. A series of bomb blasts had killed about a hundred people. Not a day has gone by since that people haven’t died as victims of terror attacks.

Sixty six years on, Narain Niwas still exists. On a street just off I.I. Chundrigar Road, the financial district of Karachi, renamed from McLeod Road (we’re similar even in our obsession with renaming things with a colonial legacy!). The plaque bearing the Narain Niwas name is now covered with another one bearing the name of the current owner, but it still exists.

This month, on the occasion of Pitaji’s 108th birth anniversary, I wish that one day I will go back to where he came from, and one day I will find out first hand is there such a thing as Karachi halwa or Pakistani fine dining. And if all Pakistani restaurants in Pakistan are also called Lahore, or witness what exactly makes Lahore so important on the Pakistani food map. One day, I will add personally acquired Pakistani rupees to complete the collection of ‘British India’ and ‘India’ coins that Pitaji bequeathed me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A little bit of Israel on my plate

My earliest memory of Israel is back from school in India, when I read about David and Goliath.  Don’t recall what year that was; maybe when I was in Class 4 or 5.  I then did a few pages on the political tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of my final year contemporary history project in Class 10.  And then I got a firsthand insight into Judaism at university in Canada, when I saw my friend, Rebecca, observing Sabbath every weekend, and later covering her head, like any married religious Jewish woman does.

I then went backpacking in Europe during my Easter break in my exchange term in England, back in 2002, literally exactly 10 years ago.  A girl I met in my hostel dorm in Paris was visiting from Jerusalem, shopping for her wedding dress, which she said is not so great to shop for in Jerusalem.  When she learned where I was from, I very distinctly remember, she remarked about how lucky she thought I was.  “In Jerusalem, life is so unsafe; you can never be sure when the person standing next to you will just explode”.  (I hope my mother only reads this after I return).  The impact of that statement stuck on over the years, and Israel never made it to my ‘countries I’m dying to go to’ list.  And then I saw pictures from one of my closest friend, Rahul's, holiday in Israel few years ago, and I knew I would go one day. And then I met Israeli classmates and (super cute) professors at Kellogg, and it was only a matter of time when.

The final push (and it didn’t take much to push at all!) was when I saw the Israeli-British chef Ottolenghi’s documentary ‘Jerusalem on a Plate’ on BBC in late 2011.  Literally 7 minutes into the documentary I knew that Israel was going to be one of my next few holidays.  For anyone who hasn't seen it and has even the slightest interest in food or history or culture, this is a must watch!

So here I am, in Heathrow Terminal 5, waiting to board my flight to Tel Aviv, and be transported to a different world.  After seeing Jerusalem on a Plate four times, and picking on my Israeli friends' brains for some time, I will be experiencing it, and everything that the country has to offer, firsthand over the next 12 days :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mangalorean magic... on a plate

I’m a bit obsessed with food. It’s flattering when friends who politely deal with my constant food-talk encourage me to write a food blog. I’d rather eat than write a food blog, but as I deal with withdrawal from a gastronomically fulfilling trip to India to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday – the grandmother who introduced me to the food for which I live - I am writing this little snippet.

I’m three quarters Punjabi and quarter Konkani. Yet, there was no direct Punjabi influence from Punjab in the food I grew up eating – my paternal grandmother passed away when my father was still in his teens, my paternal grandfather had lived abroad so much he never demanded Punjabi food, my maternal grandfather had run away from home in Delhi and moved to Bombay, where he later married my Mangalorean grandmother, who knew as much about Punjabi food as I do about Assamese. My mum, the eldest amongst her siblings, had been helping my grandmother cook since she was 10 (as I often heard during her several unsuccessful attempts to awaken my conscience and get me to help her in the kitchen). So while I was growing up, everyday food was the regular vegetarian roti–bhaji–daal with the occasional kadhi chawal or rajma chawal thrown in, but seafood and meat was always cooked Mangalorean style, using authentic recipes straight from the source. Now that I think of it, I can’t really remember seafood being cooked any other way at home, apart from the occasional continental stuff like grilled or baked fish, or fish cakes, but mostly with non-conventional fish like salmon, Vietnamese basa, etc. I don’t usually crave Indian food, and can go for months without eating it, but Mangalorean food is so finger-licking, plate-licking, cooking pot-licking good that I simply cannot imagine a life without it.

My grandmother, now 83, doesn’t cook anymore. But when she did, she was so good at it, I can spend a lifetime just cherishing all the food she ever cooked for me. While growing up, eating granny-cooked Mangalorean food was an event. She’d wake up early in the morning and go to the local Chaar Bangla fish market, get the best pomfret (or paaplet, as they call it in Bombaiya) or make a trip to the ‘broiler’, the local poultry store, where you can choose your live chicken from a cage and see it butchered in front of your eyes. She’d then grate fresh coconut, roast all the whole spices, and grind the mixture to make the curry. Once it was cooked, Shyaama Bai, an old Gujarati lady who looked after my mum and her siblings when they were growing up, would pack the fish (or chicken) curry and all the fantastic aromas emanating from it into a cylindrical steel ‘dabba’, and deliver it to our home. My grandmother would finish all the household chores and then join us at lunchtime. All the women - my mum, her sister (in the summers only), my grandmother, my sister, and I would then sit cross-legged around the pot of fresh fish curry and steamed surti kolam rice, and polish it all off until there were only fingers left to lick. On a good day, this would be accompanied by fried fresh bhangda (mackerel), or pomfret (it’s so good, you can have it fried and in curry form all in one meal), or bombil (Bombay duck), or jhinga (prawns), or shimpli (mussels) cooked in Konkani style.

For someone who swears by Mangalorean food, I am appallingly ignorant about the names of most of the dishes I know. All I know is that when you combine the goodness of whole spices such as coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorn, red chillies, etc. with the chastity of freshly grated, sweet, white coconut and the sanguinity of deep ruby red, sour kokum (a variety of mangosteen indigenous to the Konkan region of India) you can create magic. Throw in some fresh Indian Ocean seafood, and you’ll never want to eat seafood any other way.

It’s my dream to travel to Mangalore some day, identify a few veteran cooks, and learn all I can about Mangalorean cuisine from them. While I continue dreaming, I spent my Bombay trip eating all the foods I so immensely miss when I’m away from home. Until I get my next dose of mum made Mangalorean magic, here are some pictures (of food that I ate in Bombay this time) that will help me survive.

Surmai curry (usually made with pomfret)

Rawa fried paaplet

Crab masala

Chicken gassi

Surmai masala

The glorious paaplet

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Time Warped in Cuba - II

Sitting in our tree-house in Le Perche region of France as I write this, quite kicked about the fact that I’m back in France for Easter break exactly 9 years after I first backpacked here. Anyone who knows me well knows how besotted I used to be by France, the language, and lots of things French until few years ago. But instead of feeling excited I can (albeit limited) converse with the French in their own language this time, I feel sad I didn’t know a word of Spanish before I went to Cuba. The interesting thing is I find myself ‘si’ing and ‘gracias’ing instead of ‘oui’ing and ‘merci’ing. A good start!

I’ve been spoken to in Spanish before – the first time being in Venice, when a Spanish tourist approached me and asked if I spoke the language – so I wasn’t completely surprised when the flight attendant on Virgin, an English bloke, greeted and directed Hitesh to his seat in English while instantaneously switching to Spanish for me. We were both quite amused then, but little did I know that Spanish would be assumed to be my first language by default for the next 12 days (absolutely no exaggeration there). Each and every place we went to, Hitesh got asked, “Español?? Inglesa??” and the minute he said “No Español” they’d turn to me and give me the “Arre tu to Spanish bolti hi hogi (surely you must speak Spanish)” look couple of times until I somehow managed to convince them, every time, that I don’t. One Cuban woman, and subsequently many other Cubanos, we had a drink with insisted, “Tu similare... fisico... Cubano” (I figured she was trying to say you look Cuban). I must admit I was quite flattered the first few times. Not least ‘cause I think Latin Americans in general, and Cubans in particular, are a cool people. But there isn’t another country in the world where people haven’t guessed my ethnicity, so the truth really is that the Cubans aren’t exposed to as many Indians to be able to tell!

So we landed in Havana after a 10 hour flight, to be greeted by an old Bombay airport style Jose Martí airport; our bags were to arrive on carousel number 5 but after a 30 minute wait we found them doing the rounds on carousel number 8 without any notice; about 15% of the lights in the baggage area didn’t work and of the ones that did 5% flickered; as soon as we exited the airport we were surrounded by loads of touts trying to convince us to ride their taxi. I was already beginning to feel at home in this place.

As a rule, Cuban Immigrations don’t stamp your passport – they only stamp the “Tourist Card” which is somewhat like a visa but not attached to your passport. I don’t know the official reasons behind this, but I’d guess it has something to do with Cuba’s attempt to attract tourists despite it being officially banned for travel by non-Cuban Americans. But how can you come to Cuba and not have any evidence of it on your passport? So I am the proud owner of a passport with a Jose Martí arrival stamp on it. And for anyone who is wondering, I did travel to the US few weeks after returning from Cuba - they didn't seem to care.

We shopped around for a cheap taxi, and agreed to go with the next one as the fares were fairly standard, as I saw with a lot of other things later during our trip. It was only once we got to our taxi that I realized what Hitesh had been talking about when he kept insisting our trip to Cuba would transport us to life back in the 1950s. So here we were, just about to ride a vintage Chevvy from the airport to our hotel and see hundreds of others along the way. Instead of helping the driver load my heavy bag onto the car, I was totally consumed by taking pictures, quite excited about what the next 10 days had in store for me.

We stayed the night at the Oasis Panorama Hotel in Miramar, Havana, for the first night. Rated as #2 on Tripadvisor, but definitely one of those that got truly lucky. It was clean and cheap, and served our purpose of being reasonably close to the airport – just right for us to be back to the airport the next morning.

I still remember the time, back in 2003, when I’d wonder why my Brazilian colleague and good friend, Eduardo, complained about the Caipirinhas and Caipiroscas in Bombay regardless of how good the bar we went to. It took me all these years, and my first Mojito in Cuba, to really understand where he was coming from. My first sip of a Mojito in Havana, and I knew that Mojitos would never be the same again. There was something about Cuban Mojitos (which is where they originate anyway) that I had never experienced before. And I was determined to take some of this magic back home with me.

We started quite early the next morning, to catch our flight to Santiago. So we were back to the domestic portion of Jose Martí, which was completely like a smaller version of the old Delhi domestic airport. More lights didn’t work this time (surprise...surprise), and there were couple of women doing jhaadu katka (cleaning / mopping the floor). The check in staff didn’t speak a word of English so we just presented our passports and tickets and stood there and watched. And we saw something we haven’t even seen in India before. Our passports were inspected and then a sticker with seat numbers 16A and B were stuck on generic boarding passes. We were checked off as passengers number 39 and 40 on a hand-drawn floorplan of the aircraft. We were then handed counterparts of our baggage tags, which had absolutely no reference to our boarding passes or tickets. Simple and easy. No unnecessary involvement of computers. Complete commitment to confidentiality.

We were hoping to fly one of those old Russian military aircrafts one of Hitesh’s colleagues told us she flew – a 10-seater with metal seats, and ropes in place of seat belts. What we got instead was a Russian aircraft (no Boeings or Airbuses in Cuba) that was exactly like GoAir on the inside. Fifteen minutes after we were seated, and 10 minutes before departure, an announcement was made and we saw everyone evacuating so we followed. Twenty minutes after waiting in the bus we were allowed to board again, and almost ready to take off. “So what exactly is going on? Was there a bomb on the flight? Has it been defused? Are Russian aircrafts safe? Am I going to get to Santiago today? Or ever?” There was no way to find out, but an hour and a little bit later we had safely landed in Santiago.

Santiago airport was a bit like the Udaipur airport I remember. Just one carousel, about 20 feet long in total, so you see the same bags circulating about 5 times in 7 minutes. And I saw something I have never seen before. Not in any airport around the world. Two security men were matching the counterpart of your baggage tag with your baggage tag, and collecting it before you exited. So you could only leave with your own bags. No room for manipulation there.

My holiday in Cuba was finally about to begin!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Time warped in Cuba - I

In the few years that I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad, I’ve been to several countries that I’ve liked, some that I’ve really loved, and couple that I want to – and hopefully will, although right now I don’t see practically how – go back to.  No other place has touched my heart like Cuba has (or like Ladakh did few years ago), so this one calls for a blog entry.  And what better way to spend a four and half hour train ride to Aberystwyth (with the noisiest British kids and a bunch of Spice Girls (of Wales?)) than write about the most charming country I have travelled to, one that I have missed very fondly every single day since my return few weeks ago. 

It all started couple of years ago, when we were planning our next group holiday with friends from London.  Fear of risking my student status in the US, especially in light of my consistent poor track record with US Immigrations despite being a citizen of the friendly neighbour up north, kept us from planning this trip back in 2009.  However, after reading a detailed email regarding things to do from our friends, Tarun and Shilpa, we were convinced we’d go there some day.  It wasn’t until Hitesh consistently brought up Cuba as a potential holiday destination that I realized he’s serious about going there.  So “a trip to Cuba before the country’s completely out of Fidel Castro’s hands” it was!

We flew Virgin Atlantic – the only major airline that flies direct from London – to Havana, the country’s capital.  After a night in the Miramar area of Havana, we then took an early morning Air Cubana flight to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country, and spent the next 10 days discovering the country and driving all the way back west to Havana. 

Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Ignorant as this may sound, all I knew was that the US had imposed an embargo against Cuba, a Caribbean island, in the 1960s, primarily to express its opposition of Cuban human rights violation and communist policies of the government led by Fidel Castro.  “So Fidel Castro is a dictator, and Cuba must be at least as unsafe as I was made to believe Russia is before I went there.  What’s more, it’s still communist, unlike Russia and most of the Eastern European countries I’ve been to, so the people must be quite suppressed and it must be quite an eerie country too”.  And then there was the whole Guantanamo factor.  “God forbid, if anything goes wrong they will just put us in the Guantanamo Bay prison” (Very very ignorant, I know!). I don’t know where I got that from, but I do faintly remember reading somewhere that if the police stop you even for a minor driving offence they will just put you in prison and you can’t fight your way out because they don’t speak English”.  Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive before I landed in the country, and any mention of Cuba just conjured up images of us arguing fruitlessly with the Cuban police.  Not least ‘cause we were going to be driving around the country and didn’t speak a word of Spanish.  Add to that, as far as we knew, no mobile service provider with any US ties could partner with mobile networks in Cuba, so Vodafone would likely not work (and we don’t count much on O2 anyway), and use of GPS was illegal.  It promised to be quite an adventure!  Oh, and I knew about Cuban cigars – not so much about Cuban rum, which, by the way, was invented there (rum in general, not Cuban rum). 

And an adventure it was, but as they say, little knowledge is dangerous.