‘The Walk Home’

A travel story about my trip to Tanzania last October was published in Gulf Business in December. For more pictures and a video of the wildebeest migration, click here.  

Maria the lionness takes down a wildebeest

Maria, the lionness, takes down a wildebeest

The annual migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the world’s most wondrous spectacles.

By ANGELA SHAH

Leonard Kivuyo’s smile is enigmatic. “There is definitely, maybe, possibly a chance to see a lion,” he says.

We look at each other quizzically, wondering about the maybe-yes, maybe-no response of our Tanzanian tour guide. Kivuyo has just picked us up at a gravelly airstrip, a scar in the serengeti landscape at Kogatende. He wants to know what animals we want to see.

We respond with an all-star list of the Serengeti: black rhino, lion, elephant. And, of course, we want to witness the main attraction of a northern safari this time of year, a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River. He nods in agreement at our wildlife wish list. There have been regular crossings, just one this morning, Kivuyo tells us. But whether one would happen today, he can’t say. As he unlatches the roof of our jeep so that we have nearly unobstructed views of the grasslands around us, my friend Angel and I exchange bemused looks at our guide’s Yoda-like responses.

Shortly into our journey along a dirt track, we come across a pair of giraffes. About 20 feet high, the male nuzzles the female’s neck as it creeps closer to her. Realising we have stumbled upon the pair mid-romance, we giggle like school children. A few more nuzzles later and the male giraffe has accomplished his mission, walking off towards a tree for a snack.

“Part of the circle of life,” Kivuyo deadpans and we laugh heartily. We continue our drive and Kivuyo keeps an eye out on the horizon. The hum from the jeep’s walkie-talkie is on low; the guides at the various camps chatter amongst themselves, exchanging information on locations of nocturnal cats, rare rhinos or the anticipatory swarm of wildebeest gathered on the banks of the mara.

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A lion’s life: lazing in the sun

Within an hour, the serengeti’s abundance of wildlife emerge. We spot impalas and elephants silently grazing, and hippos submerged to their ears in the river to ward off the late afternoon heat. Skittish zebras dart in and out of clusters of their fellow prey animals.

By evening, however, a crossing hasn’t formed and we have to reach camp before sundown. From July to October, about two million animals follow the rains, migrating from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in neighbouring Kenya. One of the highlights of the annual migration is the crossing of the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk underwater and lionesses prowl on the banks alongside.

At dinner that evening, our fellow campers rave about the raw power they witnessed as thousands of wildebeest stampeded through the Mara River. A baby zebra walked into the open yaw of a hippo, which then crunched down on it! We watched a wildebeest taken down, mid-river, by a crocodile!

We have no such stories to contribute to the fireside gathering. I am not worried; we still have a few days left for our safari.

The next day, the walkie-talkies are ablaze with chatter of migration-style critical masses forming along the Mara at several crossing points. We travel from site to site, eventually staking out the one nearest to our camp. The hours tick by but by late afternoon, the first of the wildebeests slide down the steep bank and into the river. And just like that, the migration begins. The zebras’ shrieking bark seems to offer directional guidance to the wildebeest, who in two and then three single-file lines half-swim, half-gallop through the water to the greener pastures on the other side. Zebras, we discover, are the bouncers of the wildlife world.

After that first crossing, we begin stumbling on crossings on a regular basis. The next morning we watch a particularly large group of wildebeest for 20 minutes when suddenly a lioness bounds in from the left. We watch, dumbfounded, as she charges the unlucky wildebeest directly in her path. As she wrestles her prey to the ground, the zebras’ shriek grow even more shrill and the tide of wildebeests reverses course.

ESSENTIALS

Olakira Camp

DSCN0978This luxury tented mobile camp sits just off the banks of the Mara River during the migration season in the summer and fall. Olakira has only eight tents and guests enjoy meals in the common dining/living tents. Dinner is preceded by drinks and snacks around a campfire. http://www.asiliaafrica.com/olakira

Zanzibar

The island, known as Unguja in Swahili to Zanzibarians in order to distinguish itself from Zanzibar city, is dotted with beach resorts. We stayed at Shooting Star Lodge, located on the northwest part of the island. The inn, which features cozy villas on a perch above the beach, was the perfect setting to unwind after our day-long drives in the dusty Serengeti. http://www.shootingstarlodge.com

Stone Town

DSCN1370The House of Wonders and the Palace museums’ exhibitions are few but give visitors a sense of the island’s place along trading routes between India, the Gulf and Africa. The palace museum served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until he was overthrown in 1964 and it includes pictures and history of Princess Salme, the Tanzanian royal whose affair with a non-Muslim German businessman caused her to flee to Europe, where she lived until she died at age 80 in 1924.

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Looking toward the skies

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

 

I was 10 years old, on a family trip to India, when I first learned about Kite Day. Imagine, a holiday just for flying kites. Everyone was out on their rooftops flinging thinner-than-paper-thin kites into the air. The sky was littered with pastel diamonds, bobbing in the breeze. It was a day of simple joy, enjoying the mild Indian winter, out in the sunshine with family and friends, flying – and cutting – kites.

The festivities relate to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn) and takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice … Read more and view a slideshow here.

‘Journey to Gujarat:’ Gujarat 101

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I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

As part of my preparation for my travels in Gujarat, I decided to treat it like I would a reporting assignment, researching as much as I could about the state’s history, politics, economics and sociology. I bought five books, including one novel, written by economists, academics and social workers in order to get a deeper understanding of Gujarat.

photo-12 The first I read is a travel guide, modeled on the Lonely Planet series, edited by Anjali Desai, who it turns out went to UT with my Dubai friend, V.P., and is also from Houston. (How’s that for a coincidence?!) Anjali went back to Ahmedabad after graduating from UT, and has been involved in a number of voluntary organizations there, including Indicorps, an India-wide Peace Corps-type organization that is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.

Gujarat is located on the northwest of India; it’s not one of the places that most non-Indians know about. It’s an amazingly diverse place, both industrial – once known as the “Birmingham of the East” – and agricultural, the home of both Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah (the father of Pakistan,)  and has India’s longest coastline – 1,600 kilometers (994 miles.)

Its communities range from tribal groups who live in Kutchh’s salt flats, to Catholic communities tied back to Portuguese missionaries from the 17th century, to descendants of royal families whose patronage is related to the Muslim khans who ruled India for centuries. It is also the home of some of the worst Hindu-Muslim communal violence to ever strike India. With the controversial Narendra Modi – who some believe was responsible, at least passively, for the deaths following the devastating riots in 2002 – as chief minister, Gujarat has aggressively developed an industrial and technology-driven economy. Yet agriculture remains a powerful driver, just as it did in the 1960s when India’s green revolution brought millions of Indians out of a starvation existence, a model for many developing countries still.

I fly out to Ahmedabad tomorrow night. My three, obscenely overweight suitcases are packed. My father’s cousin’s sons are meeting me at the airport at 3 a.m. Sunday. The journey is about to start …

Gingerbread Alsace

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The Alsace region on the French-German border is full of tiny villages founded in the 15th and 16th centuries with the charming gingerbread-style buildings we Americans usually only see in fairy tales. It’s especially charming during Christmas when the businesses are all decked out.

 

U.A.E. crackdown update

The RAND Corporation’s Abu Dhabi office has been shut down by U.A.E. authorities – the latest move by rulers to clamp down on what it believes is unacceptable speech. RAND has been in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and “facilitated evidence-based research and analysis by RAND experts in such areas as education, public safety and environmental health,” according to a Reuters story that quoted an email response from Jeffrey Hiday, director at RAND’s office for media relations.

The move follows the forced closure of Abu Dhabi outposts of Gallup, the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung last spring. Since the start of the Arab Spring movements two years ago, the U.A.E. has aggressively pursued and detained individuals who it has said violated speech codes. Last month authorities here announced a new, tighter law on online dissent, saying they would impose jail terms on anyone who derides or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online.

Yesterday, four people, including a former Emirati diplomat, were arrested and about 60 people in total have been detained relating to their calls for greater speech rights. Many, but not all of them, are members of Al Islah, a group that authorities say is conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the U.A.E.

Last summer, the U.A.E. expelled Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism who had been teaching at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike Bahrain, there have been no mass protests in the U.A.E. For the vast majority of people living in the country, life is peaceful. Still, the government has taken strict measures against the minority of its citizens who are advocating for change. The Federal National Council, a quasi-elected legislative body with advisory power, announced that it would set up a committee to support the country’s human-rights efforts at home and abroad. Essentially, the committee will serve a public relations function for the government, defending its actions against those people whose behaviors are deemed unacceptable.

“If people badly use freedom of expression, and participate in demonstrations that impose religious intolerance or pushing others to commit anti- government crimes, the government has the right to interfere and limit those freedoms, and the parliament has the right to approve laws that run this,” the FNC report said.

Scenes from the Serengeti

Back in October, A.W. and I went to Tanzania where we spent five days in the Serengeti watching the wildebeest migration (including a lioness taking one down in a pretty stark reminder of our place on the food chain), elephants, cheetahs and a myriad of wildlife in Africa.

A new journey

Four years ago today, I landed in Abu Dhabi amid the furor of celebrations for the U.A.E.’s 37th National Day. Now, I’m preparing for the next step in the adventure I started that day.

I’m crossing the Arabian Sea to India — the state of Gujarat, where my family is from. They say you can’t go home again, but can you just go home? I’ve started a new blog called “Journey to Gujarat” to chronicle the answers I find to this question. I hope you’ll subscribe and come along with me on this next adventure.

About six months ago, I was thinking about my time in the Gulf, how much I’d learned about this part of the world, a place that I had never expected to call home. And I was a little wistful that I couldn’t do the same in India, in the western state of Gujarat, a place where I have strong personal ties. But then I thought, why can’t I?

So, that’s what I’m doing. Starting in January, I’m migrating across the Arabian Sea, traveling through Gujarat’s varied regions and speaking to writers and playwrights, tribal textile workers and wildlife tour guides, CEOs and teachers. I want to immerse myself in the place that my family calls home and maybe bridge the inevitable gap formed when immigrants leave one country to make a home in another. I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey.

The ‘Newsroom’

The first parallel universe I encountered was in the Abu Dhabi newsroom. Yesterday, American Journalism Review ran a story written by Tom O’Hara, an American editor who had spent two years there most notably, it seems, on the foreign desk.

On journalism:

“When the newspaper launched in 2008, its goal was ‘to establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world,’ according to its Web site. Well, that hasn’t happened. The mission statement should say: Don’t offend the government or anyone who has a link to it.”

On ethics:

“The censorship isn’t the only burden mainstream journalists must endure at the paper. The paper is basically a British publication with British spelling and style. But British ethics also rule – and they’re, ah, loose, shall we say.

The most flagrant abuse is putting staff bylines on wire material. It is routine practice. … The practice caused The National some embarrassment when someone sent an e-mail to media blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko with details about systemic plagiarism in the business department. Here is part of the September 2011 post.”

A memo went out from the editor-in-chief instructing staff to comply with correct sourcing policies, which were, immediately ignored. ‘I know this because I did it myself several times a week,’ O’Hara writes.

On accuracy:

• “I would rather the readers be confused than offended.” Deputy Editor Bob Cowan, August 2010.

“Cowan, once a respected editor at the Telegraph in London, issued that guidance after telling an editor on the foreign desk to remove all references to religion from a fascinating story about an Iranian Shiite imam. The story made little sense without the religious details.”

• “This is no time to be intellectually honest.” (Editor-in-Chief Hassan) Fattah, January 2011.

“The editor shared this gem with the foreign desk after reading a story from one of our best correspondents about speculation that the revolt in Tunisia might spark other uprisings. As we all know, the speculation was accurate as the Arab Spring spread across the region in the months that followed.”