Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tanzania -part 1

Here is a trivia question that you will never hear anywhere else except this blog: What do Freddie Mercury (from the band Queen)and Jaideep Nair (from this blog) have in common? Before you answer that question, let me squash with brute force, any wild guesses that might be forming in your fertile imaginative mind by emphatically stating that 'sexual orientation' is definitely not the right answer. The correct answer to the question is - (i) Both are Indian (ii) Both grew up in Bombay and (iii) Both spent some time of their life in Tanzania. Well, I am stretching the Tanzania part a bit. Freddie Mercury (or Farrokh Bulsara) was born in Tanzania and he must have spent a few years there, whereas I just happened to spend 3 weeks in Tanzania recently. Now that you have realized that the true intent of my trivia question was just a shameless attempt to mention the fact that I had visited Tanzania recently, let us all move along and you can waste your time by reading my post.

I went to Tanzania for 3 weeks in the middle of December, returning back to the US at the end of the first week of January. Tanzania is a beautiful country with a lot of friendly people and I recommend it. With apologies to my friend TK for misusing an abbreviation usually meant for cakes and cookies, let me just say that Tanzania is a JCC (Jaideep Certified Country). If any of you ever plan to visit it, here are some words of wisdom gathered from my experiences in the country. Whether my pointers are useful or not is a separate matter, but I hope they are interesting enough for a good time-wasting read.

1. Only one foreign currency is the King. Although the state of the current economy may lead you to think otherwise, the US Dollar still rules. It is the only currency which, you can be sure, will be accepted anywhere in Tanzania. In fact to enter any national park, foreign citizens have to pay the fees only in USD. No other currency is accepted. Only Tanzanian citizens pay in Tanzanian shillings (Tsh). Everyone else pays in USD. The exchange rate is about 1000 Tsh to 1 USD for notes of denomination 20 USD and lower. Anything above that is about 1200 to 1300 Tsh. So carrying higher denomination notes will give you more bang for the buck. Travelers' cheques are not accepted even at Banks unless you have the proof of purchase (the receipt), which Bank of America in the US clearly tells you not to keep along with the Travelers' cheques. So if you are like me, you will take BoA's advice to a higher level and keep the receipts at home in the US and walk around in Tanzania with some completely useless travelers' cheques. By the way, if you are in a decent sized town, there will be ATMs to solve your problems since as long as your debit card is a visa card, you can withdraw money from your home bank account.

2. When you meet someone for the first time, try not to fall asleep during a conversation. Definitely don't lurch your head violently falling sideways, when somebody you met 15 minutes ago is talking, especially when you are going to rent a place in that person's property and run into them almost daily. But in my defense I must say that jetlag and 48 hours of continous travel can overcome the best of us and I had mastered the art of sleeping when someone is talking, way back in college during Geology and Construction Engineering lectures. But having put forth all the excuses that I can think of, I confess that I have not felt as embarassed as this in a long long time.

3. When you stay at any place, do check if there are any roosters close by. We (the wife and I) stayed in a picturesque town called Morogoro
which is at the foot of the Uluguru Mountains. We were put up in a nice little place built inside the property of a professor teaching at the University where my wife is doing research (see point 2 above).
The first night we fell asleep at 9 pm and at about 4 am, I woke up with a start when I heard a loud screaming sound right next to my ear. My wife is not a morning person, so I knew it was not her. I woke up and there it was again - It was a rooster and it was so close that it felt like the bloody bird was sharing our bed. He was screaming his lungs out in a long-drawn out 'kukdoo-koooooooooo'. I have heard roosters before and this was not a normal rooster's call. It had a sort of mischief in its call and the last part of the call - the long drawn-out 'koooooooo' felt like he was enjoying the fact that he was disturbing everyone's sleep. And of course, his other rooster friends in the neighbourhood joined him very soon. When the sun came out and I ventured out, I realised that right outside our window, hardly 10 feet away, there was a chicken coop and that is where the offending bird operated out of.

The rooster continued his sadistic calls every day at an ungodly hour and we soon realised that we had to go to bed at 8 pm so in order to get a decent night's sleep.
But one night I thought I would pay the rooster back in his own coin. My wife would not let me crow like a rooster at 10:30 pm outside the chicken coop and I am thankful for her judgement. Sleep-deprivation had diminished my faculties. So I got a flashlight and shone it inside the chicken coop on the rooster for some time. It did wake him up and he fluttered his wings sleepily and I felt a sense of satisfaction that one only gets from sweet revenge. I don't know whether it was a coincidence or whether it was my "light-treatment", but the next morning the rooster crowed at 6 am instead of 4 am. This may be a solution for anyone who is faced with a similar problem. Do try it out and let me know the results.

This is turning out to be a very long post so I will break it up into parts

To be continued.............

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


When was the last time you filled up a page writing down stuff instead of using a keyboard? Most probably in college? Writing using a pen or pencil has almost become obsolete these days. Which brings us to the topic of handwriting. As it is, not everyone has good legible handwriting. And fewer people writing fewer things means handwriting in general is only going to get worse in the future. Which is fine as long as your handwriting is not something that is critical to your job.

Please observe the 3 lines in the following picture from a package that was addressed to my wife:

If you observe the words 'Documents', 'Stagecoach Rd' or 'Dublin', you will come to the conclusion that the person who wrote this has a chronic disability to write the letter 'D' properly. His 'D' has low self-esteem and strongly wants to be a 'B'. But sadly, it is in reality a D trying to pass off as a B. We know this because there are no words called 'Bocuments' or 'Rb' in English. Niether is there a place called 'Bublin' in California. So almost all the attempts of D trying to mislead us into believing that it is a B fail miserably, except in one place - that is right after the word 'Apt'. If you were not to take a look at the other words carefully, you would be easily led to believe that the package was addressed to Apt. B and not Apt. D. Which is what happened to our poor DHL delivery guy. Instead of delivering the package to Apt. D where we live, he delivered it to Apt. B, which is a foreclosed unit and no one has been living there for many months. And thus began our African adventure, a little too early in America instead of Africa.

My wife had applied for funding to do research in a national park in Tanzania, studying some antelope species. The competition for funding is fierce and the process is very long drawn-out. It can take upto a year or more for your proposal to be reviewed, weighed against the competition and then finally funded. I am not even counting the time and energy for preparing the proposal. So anyway, her proposal got funded, but in order to do research in Tanzania, you need to get research permits from different government bodies over there. Just getting the permits takes about 6 to 8 months. We had finally got the necessary permits and those precious permits were shipped to us from Tanzania via DHL. But unfortunately, the person working in the DHL shipping outlet in Tanzania, who wrote down our address on the ship-to section of the package was the one whose 'D'- writing abilities I have tried to describe above.

So the permits made it all the way to Dublin without problems but they went to Apt. B instead of D. My wife was wondering why the document had not appeared yet when it should have been delivered a couple of days back. So she got the tracking number and checked it online on Thursday evening, where it said that it had been delivered to the front door of Apt. B on Monday. We rushed to Apt. B, but there was nothing there except a locked door and a photograph and phone number of the real-estate agent who was selling the place. We were planning to fly out on Monday. Without the permits, we could as well have stayed home. So began our tryst with DHL's customer service. My wife and I interacted with them a few times on Thursday night and Friday morning, and I have reached the conclusion that they must selectively choose their most disgruntled employees to be in their customer service.

Both of us spent a sleepless thursday night. If she had to re-apply for permits, it would set her back by another 6-8 months plus probably a loss of a few thousand dollars (permits are expensive). More than the money, it was the loss of time that bothered us. On Friday morning, I decided that I had had my fill of DHL customer service and I went to the DHL shipment processing unit in Dublin to see if our package had gone through them and sure enough it had. The lady there was very helpful and she paged the driver who had delivered it. She took my phone number and told me that she would have the driver contact me as soon as she heard from him. Sure enough the driver called me in an hour apologising profusely. He said he was not sure where he delivered it, but it was definitely not D. I was at work in Cupertino. So the poor guy went back to our apartment complex and knocked on each door asking if there was a package delivered to them. He stuck notes on the doors with his phone number etc. He told me that he would wait for me to come back and even if he was off-duty he would knock on all the doors and try to see if we could get the package back. He even gave me his personal cell-phone number. I appreciated his concern.

In the meanwhile my wife had left a message with the real-estate agent of Apt. B on early Friday morning, before she went to the University. In the afternoon, she got a call from him saying that one of his men had gone there a couple of days back to show the apartment to some prospective buyers and he had seen a package at the door. So without looking at what it was, he had just thrown the package inside the apartment. So the real-estate agent went to the property on Friday at around 12 noon and he called my wife saying that there was something from DHL addressed to her and he was going to leave it at our front-door. At that time, my wife was 110 miles way in UC Davis collecting some equipment for her trip. She gave me a call and I rushed home from Cupertino. Sure enough there was our package. I called up the DHL guy who was as relieved as us.

We felt so grateful to the real-estate agent that he had taken out time to come to the property for us. I decided right then that I would not let Cooper (our dog) pee in front of his photograph again. For some reason, that spot has always been one of Coopie's favourites. I felt guilty for the many times that I have chuckled before at the thought of what the guy must feel if he ever knew that our dog wants to pee as soon he sees his photograph.

So that was the beginning of our African adventure in the US and I must say that it was not a very pleasant beginning, although the ending was good. I sincerely hope people in jobs like the DHL shipping guy's job realise what implications their handwriting can have on other people's lives. If you know of any children who write their alphabets ambiguously, please stop them now and correct them or they may grow up and work in a courier facility some day and control your lives inadvertently.