Friday, March 25, 2005

Uganda: starting all over again

When I learnt about my visit to Kampala, Uganda. Only two events could link me to this place. Entebbe airport rescue operations by Israeli commandos and Idi Amin. However Idi Amin was single most potent factor that made me relate to Uganda. With nothing more to except than abject poverty, hostile climate and lawlessness resulting from rampant corruption and non-governance, I boarded Emirates Flight from Nairobi to Entebbe.

How wrong my perception was soon became evident as the plane started its descent to Entebbe airport. All around, I could see sprawling Lake Victoria encompassing string of lush green mountains and red soil. I was wondering if I was landing on Greek or Cypriot Island.
Most of the visitors have no choice but to apply for visa upon arrival. Not many countries have Uganda embassy/consulate, at least UAE didn?t have. It was amusing to watch the immigration office take your passport to his room and put visa sticker from his visa book. One must carry US$ cash as there is no sign of ATM at the airport however immigration officer may allow you to go outside by giving you a note (retaining your passport of course) to fetch US $ from outside. Entebbe must be the friendliest airport in the world.

Journey from Entebbe to Kampala is like being in Konkan or Goa. Both sides of road lay brick houses with abundance of Banana trees. Far flung you can see red mountains with all types of equatorial trees. With a rainfall almost 8 months in year with a gap of 2 months dividing two rainy seasons -Lake Victoria is always plentiful of water. What defies my logic is the sight of people carrying plastic containers to fetch the water. Is it askew water management or Nile water treaty lacuna? With an altitude of 1180m above sea level and with av. Temp of 17-21 degrees, Entebbe is very pleasant and tranquil place.

Next day, we traveled 80km to Jinza - a place known as source of Nile. Water gushes from all sides of the mountain range. The Nile has her own aura ? 6,650 km at stretch flowing through Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt covers a basin that of 1/10th of Africa. It takes 3 months for Victoria water to reach Mediterranean Sea.

Nestled in the corner is the statue of Mahatma Gandhi- as recent as 1997. Visiting Jinza Tertiary hospital makes one depressed with hardly any facilities or drugs. Seeing so many patients suffering made me wonder if this hospital was built just to bring patients to deathbed. Around the Jinza, you see signboards of ?mukesh madhwani? a rich Indian origin businessman who shot to fame after his marriage to actress Mumtaz. This town was virtually owned by Indians till Idi Amin evicted them.

Kampala - a city of 1.5 Millions is swarmed by people and tempos. People though poor are polite and fluent in English. Pre Idi Amin era, Uganda GDP was similar to that of Malaysia but now is largely at the mercy of UN aid. Aware of the enormity of the task, Govt.authorities don't get tired in saying that they are developing country from scratch. With 1600 shillings to Dollar, most goods are expensive. Indian restaurants like Khana Khajana, Handi draw your attention.

HIV incidents are rampant and most of the pages are devoted to sex related awareness programs. It is noteworthy to see efforts of Kenya and Uganda to save their country from clutches of HIV menace. With alarming rise of HIV cases in India, we still have not come to understand the risk of HIV/AIDS turning into an epidemic. With Congo, Sudan and Tanzania bordering the country, influx is another issue the Uganda has to face. But with Kenya, Tanzania forming East Africa economic block, this would hopefully address some of their economic issues.
Today Uganda is limping back to normalcy. People who have taken the brunt of foolish decisions of stupid political leadership are struggling hard to make their country to erase its rotten image. However, amidst all this chaos and Tyranny, Lake Victoria and lush Green Mountain relentlessly pursue their dream to make Uganda "Pearl of Africa".

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Bangkok – city of contrast

My journey to discover nuances of Bangkok city and its people started with my first trip in 97 and since then is continuing with almost once a year visit. This city is so similar in character to Mumbai or Calcutta. Every visitor in his first visit would be shaken by extreme social, economic conditions that nestle side by side in stark contrast. But slowly this contrast gets glossed over by subtleties of Thai people, their cuisine and most important their culture that is ingrained with hospitality and innocence.

Bangkok brings images of pagoda, cheap textiles, massage parlous and atrocious traffic snarls. Over the years, traffic situation is somewhat eased with the introduction of sky rail. Nonetheless, going from downtown to airport at peak hours can make one nervous- no matter how early you start your journey. The sight of small shrine in front of every home reminds of ‘tulsi vrindavan’ in village home ‘aangan’. In India, ‘namaste’ is overtaken by western handshake. In Bangkok, it is very much “Sawasde” all across economic and social spectrums.
How often we attribute the dishonesty and cheating to poor living conditions. We blame dilution of ethical standard to blatant pursuit of western life and material happiness. Bangkok represents unique paradox in this regard. Here night clubs are mushroomed like grocery shops in bazaar, alcohol/drug abuse is rampant and so is flesh trade. But amidst all that -one thread is common – ‘sincerity to customers and modesty ‘. You can walk in any of these joints any time- you can be not just safe but are treated like a VIP. However the same cannot be said for shopping in bazaars. You could do all the hard bargaining and would always end up feeling of being over smarted by a seller.

Visit to world’s largest and sprawling restaurant – Royal Dragon is a must. Here waiters serve food on their skates. Most rooms have glass panes with Karaoke facility. The restautarant is like a floating palace over a lake - Chinese architecture design with sloping roofs of orange-red tile roof. Most Thai restaurant would serve leaf similar to beetle leaf with combinations of peanuts, tiny green chilly and few spices. Add more than one chilly and you need a bottle of local Singa beer to start rescue efforts. Robinson, Carrefour malls bring western ambience and Indra Market – motley of shops selling fake ‘Rolex watches to branded shirts’. Baiyoke Sky Hotel is ubiquitous from anywhere in downtown, however paying money to go to top of 84th floor revolving restaurant is not value for money - at least not for food, view of city can be great but subject to vagaries of pollution levels . Thai boxing and music unfolds another dimension of Thai culture.

Often visit to Bangkok rounds up with crocodile park, pagodas and shopping. But one must keep aside a day to visit Ayuthaya (I often wondered if this name came from Ayodhya). This place app. 85 kms from Bangkok was Thai capital from 1350 to 1767. Ayuthaya is located at the confluence of the Chao Phaya, Pa Sak and Lopburi rivers. A canal joins them and encircles the town. Ayuthaya has many historic ruins, two museums and is a tranquil place to visit. There is Ayutahya Wat Phra Sri Sanphet temple and Wat Phanan Choeng that contains a highly revered 19m high Buddha image.

Next time when you visit Bangkok, do tell others that you have been to ''Krungthep Maha Nakorn, Amarn Rattanakosindra, Mahindrayudhya, Mahadilokpop Noparatana Rajdhani Mahasathan, Amorn Piman Avatarn Satit, Sakkatultiya Vishnukarn Prasit''. Yes that’s Bangkok – longest city name ever found!!