Sunday, October 24, 2010

Small Talk

At any given instant in time, people in this world can be classified into two categories. The talkers and the listeners. Listeners of course can be sub-categorized into listeners who actually listen and listeners who pretend to listen while dreaming about more pleasant things.

Talking is a gift. Especially making small-talk. People who can walk upto perfect strangers and talk like long-lost friends are indeed gifted. But then they are very few of them. Most people are bad at small-talk, including yours truly. But I am glad there are some people in this world whose ability to do small talk makes me look like God.

A few months ago, at a dinner that I had to attend, I was stuck between 2 people, whose idea of small talk was listing all the countries they had visited. In fact both of them were trying to one-up each other and impress their largely uninterested audience. Person A would say, "when I went to Vienna, it was like this...." and Person B would interrupt and say, "Oh, when I went to Paris, it was not like that that all...". And it continued like that the entire time we were having dinner. Initially I had shown some polite interest towards them which slowly morphed into complete disinterest. Thankfully the food was good and I kept my mouth stuffed with chicken and naan so that any verbal acknowledgements from me were ruled out. Anyway my lack of participation in the conversation was no hindrance to either of them at all. At one point of time, I was shocked when suddenly out of the blue, with absolutely no relation to the current topic at all, person A looked at me and said "You know, I am a graduate from MIT." I could see that he was bothered when I seemed largely unimpressed and continued with my chicken and naan strategy. Later that evening, after the dinner, I told my friend MS about this. Both of us were of the opinion that when you are in a situation where you have to make small-talk, you are not gaining anything by speaking about yourself. You already know who you are. So just by saying things about yourself, you are gaining absolutely no new insights. But on the other hand, if you ask questions and listen to the answers, you might gain something new and useful.

This has been specifically my strategy of small-talk. Asking questions. But I must confess that I have chosen this strategy purely because of its ease and the minimal effort that it needs. Coming up with questions is so much easier than holding a discourse on a topic. But many a time, I have been guilty of asking a question and not paying attention to the answer and then asking the same question to the same person again. My wife has pointed this out to me a couple of times, when I have repeated my questions with strangers. But repeating questions is at least not as embarassing as the time, when I introduced myself to a person, who I was actually introduced to just 5 minutes before that by my friend. All the witty things that I could have said to make light of the situation sadly came to me the next day when I was at work.

But nothing can be more embarassing than the time I talked to a stranger and I did not even know that I was talking to him. Yes, that sounds strange, but it won't when I tell you that I was talking in my sleep. Before you wonder why I am sleeping with a stranger, let alone talk to him in my sleep, this happened in a flight - when I was flying from Tanzania back home to the US. I fell asleep as soon as the flight took off and I had a dream that I was camping in a tent in the jungles. Having spent the majority of my time in Tanzania doing precisely that, the dream was not entirely unjustified. I could hear the whirring noise of the engine because my seat was right above it. For the life of me, I could not figure out what animal in a jungle was capable of making this constant whirring noise outside my tent. So I expressed my doubts aloud, "Do you hear that sound? What animal is that?". Nobody answered me, so I repeated my questions again, slightly apprehensive that my talking might provoke the strange animal outside my tent. And that is when I woke up, and I found myself staring at the man across the aisle who had leant forward with a quizzical expression on his face. A proper British chap that he was, he said 'Pardon'. I just looked at him, shook my head, closed my eyes and never looked in his direction again. Thankfully there was no one else to witness this (I hope) since the flight was fairly empty and there was no one sitting next to me or him. Well, if nothing else, at least I can now proudly say that I can make small-talk even in my sleep!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racist/Sexist Dog

I went jogging a few days back after a gap of almost an year. This is part of my 'keep fit' endeavour for an ahem...'endeavour' (cannot disclose details now) that I am planning to attempt sometime next year with a friend of mine. Anyway I have never been a jogger nor have I been a gym-frequenter. I have always kept fit playing sports and I have been more or less proud about my fitness levels. That was when the Huntington beach incident happened. A friend SB was visiting and we went to Huntington beach. We were just kicking a soccer ball around when a group of people comprising of mostly girls in their early 20s passing by asked us if they could join us and if we could split into 2 teams. We agreed and what ensued was some 'total football' in which I was everywhere - I was defending, playing mid-field, playing forward. You name it and I was there. I was all over the place. It was some frenetic soccer. And it lasted 3 minutes. I could barely stand up after that. I realised this, when in an attempt to regain some breath, I stopped near our goal post and soon I found myself clutching the side of my stomach and falling over. I could barely breathe. And that is when a girl in our team offered me her goalkeeping job so that I could rest, while she went ahead and took care of a job that I clearly could not do. To say that I was ashamed is an understatement. That is when I realised that I could not measure my current fitness levels using statistics from 10 years back. And that is how my friends, I decided that I would run/jog every now and then so as to never embarass myself in this fashion again.

My layoff and subsequent travel out of the country for several months stopped my running for a while, but this endeavour that I told you about has given me the boost I need to start running again. Anyway when I started running again I realised that the dogs in my running path really don't approve of my exercise routines. Thankfully they are locked behind their fences. There is one particular house whose fences I am really grateful for. The dog here has a special dislike for me. While the other dogs are just happy to bark at me, most of them half-heartedly, this dog barks with unbridled vitriol and he hurls himself at the fence. I just hope that fence stays strong enough to withstand all his hurling atleast until I am running that way.

Now many of you might say "Of course the dog is barking. You are running, Stupid! What else can you expect? You are triggering the predator-prey instinct." To those I say, "This dog barks at me with the same hatred even when I walk in front of its house. Who's Stupid now?" And the interesting thing is when I am walking with my wife, it does not bark at her. If I walk with my wife near the fence and me near the road, there is no barking. But the moment we switch positions, the barking ensues. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we have a racist and/or sexist dog.

I did a google search on 'racist dog' wondering if such a thing can actually exist and surprisingly a lot of other people have also pondered on this theory. Apparently there is a movie called White Dog made in 1982 which deals with the exact same theme.

Coming back to the dog in question, I really don't know if he is really racist or just sexist. Maybe his problem is just that he does not like men but is fine with women. The question as to whether this dog is racist or sexist has been bothering me for a while. The only way I can think of resolving this is by asking for volunteers. I need a White man or a non-White woman to walk in front of this dog's house and see how he reacts. If the dog barks at the man, he is sexist and if he barks at the woman, he is racist. And if he barks at both, he is racist and sexist. Of course, it might very well turn out that the dog is neither racist nor sexist and just singles me for out for special treatment. In that case, I think I will just change my running route.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Growing up a middle-class kid in Bombay, a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, I knew that when I grew up, I would most probably end up living in a 1-bedroom or 2 bedroom or maybe even a 3-bedroom flat. The thought of living in an independent house (or single-family home as we call it in the US) never occurred to me. Only movie stars or extremely rich people could afford such houses in Bombay. Like everyone else in Bombay, my idea of a dwelling was limited to an apartment. That is all that would be needed to make me happy. I just did not picture myself living in anything else. An apartment seemed the most natural thing to live in.

After living in the US for the last decade or so, my idea of a dwelling for myself has changed. Very few people live in apartments (or condos as we call them here). Most people favour single-family homes compared to flats. Most of my friends who have bought a home here have bought an independent house and not a flat. And if I ever buy a home here, strangely I picture myself buying a single-family home as well and not a flat, which just years ago seemed like the most natural thing to do. It is not like I have bought a bunch of elephants and I need space to keep them. The size and volume of my possessions have not changed drastically, but a single-family home is what I thought would be a dwelling to make me happy.

After I got laid-off from my job in November 2009, I spent a few months in Tanzania. Most of the time during those 3-4 months were spent camping out in the jungles in a tent which was barely big enough for my wife and I to sleep in. But I was content. I was happy. The tent was as much of a home as a flat in Bombay, a big house in the US or anywhere in the world.

So how big a place did I or anyone need to call a home and be happy? All of us have heard of the 'When in Rome..' saying. That rings especially true in this context. We may not realise it but is the idea of 'our perfect home' a case of keeping up with our neighbours in a broader sense? Some might argue that our needs are directly related to the choices we have and can afford. I completely agree with that, but in the end, we are the ones who make the choice - to end up with a crippling mortgage payment for a large home for a substantial portion of our life or make a less expensive choice and spend the same money on other life experiences that we can now afford?

I may be wrong but I think whether you buy a large mansion or a studio apartment, like most of your other possessions, you are only super-excited about it for some time and then it becomes a a routine taken-for-granted thing. It just becomes home. So why not make a more rational choice? Because in the end, when we reflect back on our life, we are more likely to reminisce fondly about our family, our friends, the vacations and other life-experiences that we could afford than remember the size of our homes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


A few months back, in Tanzania, we were camping in Malinzanga - a death-ground for clothes. There are so many varied and very robust thorny bushes everywhere that no matter what material your clothes are made of, they don't stand a chance. Some of the thorns are so strong that they pierce through regular sneakers, so expecting cloth to be intact in Malinzanga is almost laughable.

Anyway, we set out on our walking transect at 7:30 am. I had not eaten very well in the morning primarily because eating left-over rice with peanut butter did not sound appealing in the morning (or at any time). I like rice, left-over or fresh. I love peanut butter. But I just can't accept the rice-peanut butter combination. It does not taste bad at all, but somehow psychologically, it just seems wrong. Anyway I still ate a little just so that I had something in me. Everyone else had seemed to have adapted to this strange combination of food. Maybe if you spend a long time in the bush, you tend to get less fussy about food. Maybe if I had spent a few more weeks in the bush, I would be devouring it by the mouthful.

Our walking transect consisted of walking 9 kms in a equilateral 3 km triangle. 9 Kms (less than 6 miles) does not seem a lot, but the terrain was such that it took us 9 hours to finish it. The terrain was the nastiest terrain I have walked over. We were constantly bending, kneeling and sometimes even crawling on our stomachs through thick bushes. The machete (Panga) was brought out constantly to cut down bushes and make way for us to proceed. And to top it all, most of the bushes were thorny- the nastiest thorns that I ever come across. And of course, the drinking water that we had taken fell short and we had to ration it. We had a few cookies with us because usually we would come back to the camp for lunch. But this had taken longer than usual and by the time we had come back, it was after 4. The hot sun blazed away, sapping the last drops of energy I thought I had. Just after noon, I started feeling nauseous. We had almost no water and I knew we were not even half-way through. I spent the next 4 hours thinking about all the water I would drink when we would reach the camp. I don't think I have ever concentrated on one thought for so long and with so much determination ever. I was feeling sick and ready to throw-up, but meditating on that reward of drinking water at the camp prevented me from stopping and got me through those final 4 hours. The others were miserable too, but none of them looked as bad as me.

As soon as we reached the camp, I grabbed a 1.5 litre bottle of water, went into my tent, laid down and just sipped on that sweet nectar for half an hour. I finished the entire bottle. I laid there for another 30 minutes, before I felt somewhat ok. Later when I emerged, Mzee said, "Bwana Jai, after this, you can walk anywhere for any length of time. No terrain can be as difficult as this". That felt good because I realised that it was not just me, who was having a tough time!

While I was laying in the tent with my water, I was thinking about how much part of endurance is purely mental and how much of it is physical. I thought about the farmer we met on the outskirts of Kitisi (another village), a few days back. We were on one of our walking transects there too. The distance was the same, but it was a much more pleasant walk. Mzee had stopped by to talk to the farmer. I noticed that the farmer had suffered a wound on his foot and it did not look good at all. It had swollen quite a lot and he was hobbling on his one good foot. But he was still working on his land. Partly because he did not have much of a choice and partly because he was mentally strong. I think a large part of the mental aspect of endurance is just a choice. Sometimes you make it for yourself and sometimes it is made for you. Either way, the choice determines what limits you can push your body to.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


One evening as we were relaxing at the camp, Mzee, the master story teller that he is, was telling us stories about the bush and he casually mentioned to me, "You know, Bwana Jai, you always have some chance of survival in the event an animal decides to attack you". After a deliberate pause, he continued, "Except when the animal in question is an elephant. If an elephant decides that he doesn't like you, you are most likely done for. You can't run because it will outrun you. You can't climb a tree because it will topple it. The only tree where you some chance of being safe is a Baobab tree but then the trunk of a Baobab is so wide and high that you can't climb it in the first place." So what I gathered from his little monologue about elephants was to stay clear of them.

My first run-in with an African wild elephant was in Ruaha National Park. My wife and I were standing in the back of the truck. Mzee and DE were inside. As we had finished our game-drive, DE was driving around the park just for fun and we were enjoying watching the animals like regular tourists. We came across this solitary bull elephant and DE stopped the car. The elephant was on the right-hand side of the vehicle, maybe 40-50 metres away. He looked at us and stared. Of course, we stared back, snapping away with our cameras. And all of a sudden, he started shaking his head and we realised that it did not like us standing there and staring. Had no one told us, staring was impolite? It did a little trumpet as if to shoo us away and DE drove away a little just to allay its fears and then stopped. All this time, I was asking my wife to get a good picture of me with the elephant in the background. I asked DE to stop and my wife was taking a few photos of me, when the elephant decided he had had enough and he kind of mock-charged us. He was not serious about it, but it was enough to terrify me. Being in the back of the truck, you feel completely exposed. Not that it would have made much of a difference if I had been inside the truck. But being in the back made mee feel so vulnerable. One swipe of the trunk and we would be history. All that time I was saying "DE, stop, stop." And then when the elephant started his mock-charge, all I could frantically say was 'DE, go, go go". We got away and the elephant barely ran a few steps towards us trumpeting loudly. I think it was playing with us, showing us who was boss. I, of course, had absolutely no doubts right from the beginning, as to who the boss was.

The next day, we had just come back from a round of sample collection in Ruaha and we were resting at the camp before we started processing the samples. My wife and I were sitting on the ground under a tree. Mzee was sitting on his makeshift inverted-bucket seat trying to put some tobacco in his pipe, when all of a sudden, an elephant walked up from the banks of the Ruaha river. It seemed startled to see us and so were we. It was hardly 15 metres away from us. We stayed as still as possible trying to convey that we were not at all a danger to it. It stared at us for a while trying to figure out if we were in any way a threat. The status quo continued for a couple of minutes and finally thankfully, it decided that we were harmless. It then started to rub its whole body against a thorny acacia tree and it was really amusing see it rub its body all over the tree. It was enjoying it a lot. I managed to captured that in video on our crappy camera.

The other elephant incident that comes to mind occurred in Kinyengesi. We were doing our walking transects and that involved walking 9 kms in a triangular transect, recording vegetation, animals and animal tracks. One of the transects passed through really thick foliage. Just as we were about to enter the thick foliage, Mzee called us all together and said, "This is elephant habitat. You can't see them from a distance because the foliage is so thick and they might very well be around a corner. Remember, elephants unlike other animals will not make noise or run away when they hear you. So we have to be as noiseless as possible as we move through this area. I will go ahead and when I raise my hand you stop wherever you are and if I gesture you to sit, you sit or crouch down as low as possible. They have a keen sense of smell, but their eyesight is not very strong. So if we come across an elephant, we will just have to move in a direction such that our smells are not driven to it by the wind. Just follow my movements, in case we come across one." Now I had never seen Mzee like that during my entire stay there. So pretty much, my level of comfort and ease in the bush has mirrored his demeanour. So when you see that Mzee is tense and cautious about something, you automatically take notice. I then turned around to see how MM and SM (our game scout) were reacting to the whole thing and that is when I noticed that SM had 2 explosive flares in his hand. I had never seen him like that before. Not in any of the other sites. I had no idea that he even had flares with him. Even my wife, who has gone out to these sites far longer than I have, had never seen both of them like this. This really made me realize the gravity of the situation as if Mzee's talk was not enough.

For the next 20-25 minutes, we moved as cautiously as possible. I winced at the snap of every twig I broke while moving through the foliage. But we were more or less noiseless. We stopped whenever we saw Mzee's raised hand. But his hand was mostly raised in caution than an actual elephant sighting. Those were one of the most thrilling 25 minutes of my life. I loved it. Soon we cleared the foliage without incident and we were out in a relatively open vegetation. Normalcy was restored and we started talking again. As we were walking with our heads down looking at animal tracks, my wife and I were debating over some animal tracks. MM joined us and Mzee was just about to give his verdict on the tracks, when suddenly SM shouted 'Tembo'. Tembo is Elephant in Swahili. We looked up and about 50 meters away, there was a large bull elephant standing under the shade of a tree. After coming out in the open vegetation we had dropped our guard and had been so engrossed in looking for tracks that we would have actually walked right into that elephant. Thankfully, SM, our expert game scout, who sees things that no one else usually sees , saw it this time as well otherwise we would have literally walked into quite a mess. We traced our steps backwards and stayed behind some bushes for a while. Soon the elephant walked away and we skirted its path, taking a larger detour keeping as far away as possible from it.

Elephants, like most animals, are most dangerous when they have babies with them. We came across quite a few of them driving in Ruaha as well as Serengeti. But thankfully, nothing untoward happened. They say, if you come across one on the road, you are supposed to put your gear in neutral and gun the accelerator a few times to scare them away with the noise. We did that a couple of times, but it did nothing. Finally we gave up and just drove as fast as possible besides them. Thankfully we were not chased.

Elephants are also responsible for knocking down most of trees in the parks. As Mzee says, 'that is the best way for them to get access to every part of the tree from the bottom to the top.' But for some reason, as I noticed, they seemed to be choosing to knocking down trees only near the roads thereby blocking them. One day my wife and I were driving in Ruaha as tourists and we came across 3 blocked roads because of elephants knocking down trees. We had to change our route 3 times. I was quite annoyed that the elephants did not have the decency to knock trees away from the roads. Maybe someone should take that up as a research project - elephants behaving badly.

I was really lucky that I got to see the African elephant in the wild. I have been around Asian elephants in India. But, of course, they were domesticated temple elephants. As a child, I have touched these temple elephants and even remember feeding one of them bananas once. After seeing the majestic African elephant, these gentle fearsome giants in the wild, I have promised myself that I definitely have to see an Asian one in the wild. And someday, I don't know when, I will.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


It all started in Ruaha National Park. It was my first time going out on data collection, which basically involves walking around in the sun for a few hours. Depending on whether we were collecting antelope poop samples or doing a walking transect observing animals, animal tracks etc, we would end up walking anywhere between 4 hours to 8 hours. As we were leaving, my wife handed me a bottle of sunscreen after she was done using it, as if it were the most natural thing to do. I stared at the bottle and then back at her in part-disbelief and part-contempt. Had she forgotten how invincible I was against the sun? I, with the armour of melanin coursing through my skin? I, who had played cricket for hours on end under the blazing Indian sun my entire childhood. I, who had practically grown up mocking the sun and the only damage it had done in all these years had been a temporary darkening of my skin by several shades every now and then (which I later came to realise was what a tan was). My wife had handed the sunscreen to me a couple of times before in the US and she had been duly chastised because you don't ask Michael Jordan to wear shoes with bouncy springs in it to dunk basketballs. You don't give Sachin Tendulkar a wider bat to belt the cricket ball all over the ground. You don't give Lance Armstrong a motorcycle to win the Tour de France. Everyone knows they don't need it. My wife, recognizing the familiar look on my face just shrugged, shook her head and just said 'ok, suit yourself'. I smirked condescendingly.

Off we went on our data collection rounds. I was wearing these overpriced field shirts bought from REI with a flap stitched into the arms to hold on to your rolled-up sleeves. Well, if I was going to be in the field, I was going to look the part as well. So of course, my sleeves were rolled up and tucked under the flap and I had my explorer hat, worn stylishly tilted on my head, announcing to the world about the arrival of a great adventurer. I don't know what the others saw when they looked at me, but I saw Indiana Jones. And Indiana Jones set out into the sun with the rest of the team every day at 7 am sometimes returning at noon, sometimes later.

After a few days, one evening as we were relaxing at our camp, I told my wife, "I think I have may have brushed up against some wrong plant. Look at my forearms. Seems like I am having some kind of allergic reaction. My skin is turning white and it is peeling off in some places. It is itchy as well."
My wife looked at me in that way she looks at me when she thinks that I am acting stupid just to annoy her. And then she realised that I was being serious because this was my first ever sunburn and there was no way I would have known that I was sunburnt had she not told me. She laughed in that 'I told you so' manner which wives all over the world seem to master without any training and asked me, "So are you going to use my sunscreen tomorrow?". I nodded meekly, knowing that I was finally defeated by the sun after 34 years. Indiana Jones never showed up again because every day after that, my sleeves were worn long and my hat was pulled down straight trying to cover as much skin as possible. The sun in Tanzania had humbled me after years of unsuccessfully trying it in India and the US. Later on just out of curiosity, we checked the temperature one afternoon using a thermometer we had and it read 53 degrees C (127.4 degrees F). No wonder.

In the 1992 movie, White men can't jump, Woody Harrelson showed us that white men can indeed jump. In Dec 2009, I discovered something similar about brown men. Not about jumping because honestly speaking, when have you ever heard of a basketball star from anywhere between Iraq and India or even from Latin America? Never. So yeah, brown men still can't jump (or to give them the benefit of doubt, maybe they are not that interested in basketball) but brown men, as proved by yours truly, can get sunburnt.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


We decided to go to Serengeti as tourists since none of us except Mzee, who had worked in Serengeti for a few years, had been there. We drove for about 10-12 hours during the day from Morogoro up north and rested for the night in a hotel in Arusha. We picked up our journey the next morning and drove another 4-5 hours to Serengeti National Park.

Serengeti is spectacular but expensive. Very very expensive if you are going in as a tourist and you are not a Tanzanian citizen. We had our first shock at the entrance of what is known as the 'Ngorongoro Conservation Area'. The road to Serengeti goes by the Ngorongoro Crater and whether you actually drive into the crater or not, the charge for just using the road with a view of the crater was $50 for non-citizens and 1500 Tsh (equal to just about $1) for citizens. And this charge is just one-way. Which means that you may not even see the entrance to the park, but your pocket will be lighter by $100 by the time you turn around and drive back home. If you actually want to drive in the crater, that will be an additional $200. We had not budgeted for the 100$ road-use charge and were a bit shocked by it. But having come all the way up north, we were not going to let a $100 per person fee stop us. So we coughed up the amount. While we were paying the fees inside the office, outside MM was warding off some very aggressive Olive Baboons who wanted to get into our stuff and steal food from the back of our truck. The fact that everything was tied down tightly with a tarp did not discourage them. One particularly aggressive female baboon was already on the task of loosening the ropes. MM tried to scare it away with a stick, but it tried to fight him. But soon enough seeing that it was getting nowhere near the food, it left for greener pastures or vehicles if you will. So on we went towards the park after paying the fees. We stopped at a point mid-way where you could view the entire crater. The breathtaking view convinced us that the money we shelled out for using the road was worth it.

The road was unpaved and full of ruts and for the next 3 hours until we reached the entrance of Serengeti National Park, every bone of our body was subjected to constant jarring. Here, we had to shell out another $50 each per day per person to camp inside the park. Compared to the $20 rate in Ruaha National Park (which as researchers in Ruaha we don't have to pay) for a non-citizen tourist, this seemed extorbitant. But in many ways we were lucky, because I heard that the rates were hiked up to $100 per day just a month or so after we visited. Once inside the park, we had to drive a few more kilometers to reach the campsites and we happened to chance upon 2 cheetahs on top of an abandoned anthill bathed in the soft light of the setting sun, looking into the distance at all the different kinds of antelopes and deciding what dinner was going to be like. They had absolutely no problems with our vehicle just about 10 feet away. They just did not care. The animals in Serengeti are far more relaxed around humans than in Ruaha. Probably because there are so many more tourists in Serengeti and poachers are also a lesser menace in Serengeti.

By the time we reached the camp it was almost 7 pm and the sun had set. We went to 2 different campsites but neither of them had any water. So we ended up camping in another very crowded campsite which had water. I looked around and realised that we were the only people camping there by ourselves. Every one of the other tents belonged to Safari Companies. As we were unloading in the dark, a group of young park officials came by and demanded gruffly to see our permits and they were yelling at us for parking in the wrong place. Mzee, who is generally a patient man, had enough of their rudeness. He just walked to them and asked them what their problem was. He told them that as far as he knew they were not breaking any rules and he should know since he had worked in Serengeti as a park warden for so many years. As soon as they heard his name and designation, their demeanour changed completely. They were literally grovelling before him and apologising. As soon as they left, Mzee translated his conversation with them into English for me imitating their mannerisms and we all had a good laugh.

The Serengeti is more famous than its fellow national parks for a reason. It's spectacular grasslands ensure that you can see until the horizon in any direction you look and so you are absolutely ensured of seeing animals because they have no foliage to hide in. You could easily go to Ruaha and not see a single animal. But that will never happen at the Serengeti. We were lucky to see the start of the wilderbeest migration. Millions migrate as you have probably seen on National Geographic. Mzee tried imitating their call and some of them responded to him. This only encouraged me to try the call out and add it to my already expanding repertoire of animal calls used primarily to annoy/amuse (more annoy than amuse) my wife. The wilderbeest migration season is also their birthing season. Mzee says that the hyenas are called midwives because they will follow pregnant wilderbeest females and then pull the baby out of the mother just as they are being born. The poor babies never even see a single minute of life before they become a meal.

We almost saw a Cheetah hunt in the afternoon. Three Cheetahs on top of an anthill were surveying the land before them and they decided to go after a reedbuck. They split up and 2 of them covered the flanks and lay in wait amongst the reeds while the third one went directly to the reedbuck to chase it into the waiting jaws of the other two. But the reedbuck was smarter than them and it ran away before the cheetah could get near it and it ran in a direction away from the other two. The Cheetahs gave up and walked right between the tourist vehicles to rest under the shade of the only tree for miles.

We saw a bunch of lions as well in a couple of places. One lioness was resting alone and our truck was the only one near it. None of the other tourist vehicles had reached there yet. Of course, I wanted a picture with the lioness in the background and as I was posing on the back of the truck, Mzee asked me to get down from the vehicle and pose. I thought he was joking and laughed. But then I realised that he wasn't. The lioness was a good 50 metres away and it was a very hot afternoon. So the chances of it moving to do anything 'mischevious' were absolutely none. So I got down somewhat hesitantly and stood a few feet away from the truck with my back to the lioness. My instructions to my wife were, just say 'run' in case of danger and I will be in the back of the truck in a second. Thankfully like the majority of females I knew during my bachelor days, the lioness was also not interested.

We saw a bunch of other animals in the Serengeti and I won't bore you with the details but I wish MM and I had seen the baboons who stole our pineapple from our closed tin trunk near our tent. The trunk was locked on one side with the bolt on the other side not quite shutting down. Although it was quite difficult to get into the trunk through this side, the baboons got into it. By the time we came back, the area near the camp was a mess of trash, earbuds, Mzees' tobacco and pineapple rind and we were heartbroken. MM and I over the loss of the pineapple, Mzee over the spilt tobacco. I hope the baboons got acidity from eating too much pineapple in one go.

When we signed out of the park, we happended to glance at the vistors book. It was filled with ridiculous comments. About security, condition or roads etc. There were also comments reprimanding those who had complained. It was very much like the comments section of a youtube video. But seriously some of the complaints were quite amusing. One of the complaints was that there were no security guards in the camp. I wonder if the people know that they are actually going into a national park, which is just another way to describe a jungle. If they want security guards, they should just visit the airport and camp there. Another person complained about how much money they had to shell out to use the badly rutted unpaved road. Which I agreed to somewhat but at the same time I can understand why the authorities would not want to build a tarred road to go to Serengeti. If they did that, the number of tourists going there would get blown out of proportion and that would just be bad for the park, the animals, tourism and just about everyone involved.

We stayed overnight at Arusha once again and that evening my wife and RC planned to eat at an Italian restaurant, while Mzee and MM were planning to eat Tanzanian food. I decided to accompany Mzee and MM and let the ladies have their Italian food. As Mzee and MM and I were walking in search of a place that Mzee used to frequent many years back, we found out that the restaurant was no longer there. In its place, there was a large building belonging to a Safari company. As we were waiting there wondering what to do, I saw a man, desperation writ on his face, most of his shirt buttons undone running towards us, as fast as his legs could carry him. There was another man running after him a few feet away and shouting 'Mwizi, Mwizi'. He was gesticulating towards us and I thought he wanted us to do something. I realised at once that something was amiss, but I had no idea what 'Mwizi' meant. I looked at Mzee and MM and they were just standing and staring, just like me. The man running in the front looked at us to see if we were going to react and then he was past us in a flash. Another guy crossing the road tried to trip him with his leg but the guy stumbled a bit and kept running. He suddenly changed directions and tried running into an alley close by. I just needed to confirm my suspicions and I asked MM if Mwizi meant thief and he nodded. The thief was eventually caught in the alley but we could not see him as he was surrounded by people. Next I saw a man running barefoot towards the crowd carring a large vicious looking knife with serrated edges in his hand. He was already holding it tight with his fist, tip pointing downwards, the way you would hold it if you were going to stab someone. We walked away and soon there were a bunch of people on motorcycles honking and going towards the crowd. The honking was quite disturbing. As if someone had just won a football game. Mzee said that if the thief was lucky, the police would arrive soon. Otherwise he was a dead man for sure. MM asked me if I had noticed that the man who was carrying the knife was running barefoot although he was quite well-dressed. I nodded. MM thought that the man must have been so angry and desperate to get at the thief that he must not even had time to put on his shoes. That night I went to bed hoping that the police had arrived soon or atleast that the thief's death was quick.

Serengeti was bad for my wife's vehicle partly because of the road and partly because of the hidden speedbumps all across Tanzania's highways. There were speedbumps at the most unexpected and unwanted places and sometimes without any signs. And in many places where there were signs for speedbumps, there were none. The very sharp speedbumps were definitely designed by a sadistic mind or by someone who gets a commission from all the car repair shops in Tanzania. Thankfully it did not cost a lot to fix the car and that ended our very very memorable Serengeti trip.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Kitisi is a village just outside the Ruaha National Park. Since the animals don't know where the park boundaries end, they venture into Kitisi all the time. They usually keep their distance away from the houses and people, but they wander all the time into the farms which are mostly on the outskirts of the village. And that is where we were camping. Underneath a tamarind tree. In fact, twin tamarinds. It was quite a unique looking tree and we camped right below it.

Kitisi is the place which I had mentioned in my previous post about Mzee - the site where the lion walked by the tents and scared the hell out of NM, the place where the impala headed straight towards Mzee's tent in terror and leaped over it. Anyway when we reached Kitisi, it was a nice afternoon and we put up our camp rightaway. There were lots and lots of pesky flies and I had to improvise my attire (more on that later) using my hat, my glasses and a handkerchief to keep them away from my face, much to the disapproval of my wife who thought that I looked completely ridiculous. I ignored her negative comments and protected my face from the flies with my 'ridiculous-looking' improvisation till the evening, when the unsuccessful and tired flies finally called it a day and flew away to rest. We could hear a couple of lions in the distance and the trumpet of some elephants. All other animals were wisely keeping their distance from the village or maybe there were present but just not announcing it to us like the elephants and lions were.

Night fell and Mzee regaled me with the story of the visit of the lion when they had camped there last time. I was told that when a lion roars/grunts near your tent, your tent vibrates and you can actually feel the sound in your chest. Unfortunately none of the lions roared next to our tents when I was there. They roared from a respectful distance so as not to disturb my sleep. I think the real reason is that they might have seen scared of me after seeing me in the afternoon in my fly-proof improvised-attire.

The next morning, I did something I had not done for a long long long time. I think I was 19 and in Goa the last time I had done something like this. I don't know how to say it politely so I will just describe the something as 'crapping in the open without a toilet'. Not the best of topics, but it has to be addressed. Ruaha National Park, being a park had very good toilets, probably the cleanest camp toilets I have seen anywhere in the world. But Kitisi being just an unmanaged site outside the park, had no such provisions. So you took a shovel with you, dug a hole, squatted, did your business and covered all traces of it with the dug-up dirt using the shovel. However I saw 2 problems with the whole process:
i) The first day I dug up the hole in the morning and I did not like the time spent digging the hole, when there were more urgent matters to be attended to. My process-improving solution was to dig up 4-5 holes behind some bushes right that afternoon for use during the rest of our stay there. Everyone else in the camp thought that the idea of pre-dug holes was funny but I just thought it practical and even invited them to use it.
ii) The holes had to be far off from the camp for obvious reasons of privacy and cleanliness, but also not that far that you were no longer in the relatively safer area of the camp. Safety was a major concern because you did not want to become the next meal of a lion or or just be squashed by an angry startled elephant. This has to be one of the most embarassing ways to die. Even if you don't die and just try to escape, running from danger with your pants down is not only difficult but also quite ego-deflating. I had no solution for this, so I just hoped that I chose the distance of the holes from the camp wisely.

A few things at Kitisi remain stuck in my mind. When we went out on our daily data collection effort, we walked by a few farms and I noticed some pieces of cloth tied to the wooden rickety fences along the farms. On enquiring about it with Mzee, I was told that these pieces of cloth were soaked in a mixture of oil and a kind of crushed green peppers (called pili-pili in Swahili). They had been placed on the fence since that was the only thing that kept the elephants away. Elephants despised pili-pili. I thought that was quite a smart approach to protect your crops. I remember how much they sting. Once I was chopping some pili-pili for dinner and I accidentally wiped my face right after that and it burned. It burned for a few hours. Washing my face with water lessened the burning sensation very slightly. It just spread the burning feeling to the other parts of my face. Thankfully I had avoided my eyes. It could have been much worse. I am glad I did not pee rightaway either.

One day we were processing the samples in the afternoon. Test tubes, chemicals, centrifuges etc were all over the place around us. I guess we must have looked like people of some medical knowledge because a woman walked towards us with her baby on her hip. The baby was hardly a few months old and was fast asleep. The woman who looked quite distraught walked directly to my wife and said a few things to her in Swahili all the time pointing to her baby. I had no idea what was being said, but one look at the baby confirmed what I thought she was saying. The poor baby was covered in rashes. Its face,arms and legs were scaly and covered in rashes. At first glance, it looked like the baby had eczema. We felt so sorry for it. The woman said that she had taken the baby to the local dispensary but they did not have any medicines. The closest town, Iringa was about 3-4 hours away and she had not taken the baby there yet. We apologised, saying that we were not doctors and there was nothing we could do. But she was so desperate for help that she almost insisted that we give her some medicines. Seeing her so desperate was very very moving. My wife finally gave her a generic over-the-counter kind of topical cream for rashes that we had and told her that the cream was meant for adults and not for babies. So she had to be really careful to apply a very tiny quantity on a small area of the baby's legs to see if it caused any problems first, before using it elsewhere. The woman seemed very grateful to have atlast finally got some help. We never saw her again the rest of the days we were there. So I hope that the cream worked in some way in alleviating the baby's discomfort. I thought about all the tiny little things that we who live in cities rush to the doctor for and I felt ashamed. It felt really unfair that one section of the world's population had access to medical care more than they needed to have and another section had nothing at all.

We had the option of washing ourselves either at the Tungamalenga river or just bringing the water back to the camp and wash behind some bushes. I chose to wash myself at the river so that I had all the water I needed. I went there to actually look for a river, but what I found was a little puddle of water, barely 12 feet in diameter and it was surrounded by tall chest-high grass and some bushes. On a closer look at the puddle of a river, I realized that it had an underground source. The water was cool, fresh and had an aroma of the minerals in the soil. This was the same place where Mzee had scared NM during their last visit to kitisi. I stripped and started washing myself, when the thought that a lion could be lurking in the tall grass came to me. After all it was almost evening by then, which is usually the time they start to get active. In such a case, my only option would have been to to run naked. Quite embarassing. But not as embarassing as running away with your pants down like I described before. Atleast I would be clean if I got killed now. Although I had gone to the river to ensure that I had enough water to wash myself, I think that it was probably the fastest and least water-consuming wash that I have ever had. If any place has water shortages, all they need to do is prohibit inside bathrooms, and let some lions loose.

We left Kitisi and on the way out we had to sign out at the village ward office. The office was opposite a school and children were walking to school. All of us signed out in the village office's visitor-register and returned to the car except for Mzee, who kept chatting with the village ward officer. All of us patiently waited for him in the car and soon we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by the school children who were staring at us curiously. We waved and smiled. Some of them waved back, but most of them just stared at us. It was getting a little awkward with us just sitting there and about 50 odd school children standing a couple of feet away and staring. So I finally said 'Habari za asubuhi? (How are you this morning?)' to the closest boy and he laughed out loud and said 'Good morning'. I replied, "Good morning." I wish I had not opened my mouth because that set of a chain of the largest number of individual 'good mornings' that I have heard in a space of 5-10 minutes and of course, we could not be rude. So my wife and I kept saying Good mornings for the next 5-10 minutes to as many children as possible, praying that Mzee would finish his conversation and come back quickly. Even NM was getting antsy about Mzee not coming back. Finally he did, and we set off on our way back. The children running after our car and waving goodbyes frantically.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


AP, who is assisting my wife in her research as a tracker/botanist/wildlife-expert extra-ordinaire is referred to as Mzee (pronounced M-zay) by all of us. Mzee is a term used to respectfully address older people. Mzee AP is 64 years old but he has the energy and stamina of a 24 year old. Although small in stature and slight in built, he is fitter than the fittest person I have ever met. His endurance levels belie his age. His knowledge about flora, fauna and the bush in general is beyond comparision. You point out any plant, any animal to him and he will tell you it's name, it's latin name, its characteristics and how you can use that information to your advantage in the bush. He can tell you what bird it is just by hearing its call. He does not even have to see it. He still makes notes for himself on little scraps of paper about the plants and animals he encounters while he is doing his regular job, just because he likes to continously keep himself updated and that is because he is so interested in what he does. And because he is so interested in what he does and he likes what he does, he is the best.

Mzee started his career in the department of wildlife for Tanzania National Parks when he was 22. He joined the department as a Game Assistant and retired as a Chief Park Warden. He spent close to 40 years in the bush, working in almost every national park in Tanzania. During this period, he worked with many famous biologists and ecologists. But he is as modest as can be. He became a master at botany, tracking, research, survival in the bush, basically everything related to the jungle. But just focussing on his professional skills won't do justice to the portrayal of him as a person. Because he is much more than just his work.

Mzee is a very warm person. He knows everyone whether he is meeting them for the first time or if he is old friends with them. To see him talk with strangers, you would think that he has known them for years. He is a favourite amongst small children as well. Every time that we went to pick him up or drop him at his home, he was surrounded by his little followers who would run after him chanting 'Babu, Babu' (Babu = grandpa in Swahli). In many ways he is also a child at heart, because even now he does not shy away from practical jokes. Mzee is also a great entertainer and a master story teller. He tells his stories laden with voice inflections and sound effects and being in the bush for so many years, he has some great stories.

One day when we were camped outside the village of Kitisi, I noticed that he had put a bunch of thorny braches cut from an Acacia tree along both sides of his tent. He had not done that in any of the previous camp sites. So I asked him about it. He replied, 'Bwana Jai (Mr. Jai), last time when we camped at Kitisi, a lion was patrolling this area. He walked right next to the tents of NM and MM grunting in the territorial way male lions do. At that time, a few impala which were sleeping somewhere close by panicked and they ran - a few of them directly towards my tent. I could hear the sound of their hooves coming directly towards me and a couple of them jumped right over my tent. Thankfully the lion was not looking for a kill and did not chase them that night or he would have come straight at my tent. So these thorns are to discourage both impala and lion". He continued, trying to pull NM's (driver/cook) leg, "NM was so scared that time that he did not breathe for 10 minutes. He did not move his body one inch the whole night." NM of course laughed it off. But the truth is that NM seems scared more than the others and rightly so, because when we go off during the day to collect data, NM is alone at the camp. He has always said that he feels a lot relaxed when he sees impala grazing without showing signs of fear, because that means there are no lions around.

Mzee told me that after the lion and impala incident at Kitisi, the next evening each one of them went to wash at the river at some point or the other, but NM refused to do so. He just did not want to go anywhere away from the car. He definitely did not want to go to the river alone. The river had pretty much dried down and was more of an underground river with fresh water surfacing from a very small area. It was surrounded by long dry grass. So it gave you the privacy you wanted, but at the same time the bushes could easily have hidden a lion. So anyway NM refused to wash himself and Mzee kept teasing him about it. Finally NM decided to take the car to the river along with our game scout SM, because he needed to fill up water in the large buckets that we carried for cooking. When they got to the river, SM went into the water to wash himself and also fill up the buckets while NM refused to step out of the car. Meanwhile unknown to NM, Mzee had taken a short cut to the river and he had hidden himself in the tall grass near the river. From his vantage point, he saw where NM was and he crept close towards the car and started making some rustling noises in the grass. Mzee says NM was terrified and started asking SM what he thought the rustling was. SM assured him that it was probably some small animal. That is when Mzee started imitating the grunting roar of a lion. I have heard his lion imitation and it is pretty good. From a distance, it actually feels like a real one at a distance. That pretty much did it for NM and he ran out of the car in panic towards SM. That is when Mzee started laughing and stood up revealing himself. When Mzee narrated this to me, I laughed but I also felt sorry for NM, who usually comes across as a tough guy in town, but as a lamb in the bush. I was also amazed by Mzee having the energy to play practical jokes at his age.

Mzee has an unbelievable endurance and stamina. When we would go out during the day for data collection, we basically would end up walking for atleast 6 hours and sometimes 8-9 hours. Some days there would be small periods of rest and most days there would hardly be any rest. That meant 6-9 hours of continous walking in some of he harshest terrains possible under tha harsh sun. All of us except Mzee would finish our drinking waters way before we returned to the camp. Only Mzee would open his water bottle after he returned to the camp. It was almost a competition of sorts for him. It seemed like he was constantly challenging his body to endure as much as it could. He also smoked his pipe incessantly (more on this in a separate post). For someone to inhale all that tobacco for so many years and yet have this unbelievable stamina at 64 is really incredible.

There are so many other things about Mzee that can be told but this post is getting longer and longer and maybe I will split them into different posts. Mzee has also told us a truck load of stories, some of which I am going to chronicle in a separate post exclusively for his stories. Sorry for the abrupt end, but I will be back.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My first foray into the wild

To get to Ruaha National Park, we had to first get to the closest town Iringa, where my wife had rented a place. We went to Iringa from Morogoro (the University town) by bus, a 6 hour journey. Mid-way, the bus made its regular stop at the 'Al-Jazeera' restaurant. It was most likely a tribute to the Al-Jazeera TV channel, because unlike the US, the Al-Jazeera channel has a very good image in Tanzania, probably as good as the BBC has in the rest of the world. And rightly so, because from what I have seen so far, the Al-Jazeera English channel seems quite balanced in its news coverage. Unfortunately, in the US, the very words Al-Jazeera have negative connotations probably because of the way, the US news media have covered the stories of Al-Qaeeda sending their videos to Al-Jazeera. But all that not withstanding, I sincerely believe that Fox and CNN should take a leaf out of Al-Jazeera's news coverage and actually cover news instead of mostly having individuals (or commentators as they prefer to call them) mouth their own extreme opinions.

The next day we set off to the Ruaha National Park, accompanied by my wife's research assistants DE (a masters student from the US), AP referred to as Mzee (pronounced M-zay, a retired parks game warden and walking encyclopedia on all flora ,fauna and everything related to the bush ) and NK (driver/cook). We packed the back of the pickup with stuff needed for all the days that we were spending at the field site. Enroute to the park, we stopped at the closest village and bought tomatoes, onions and a pair of goat legs. Contrary to popular opinion, the goat legs were fine without refrigeration and we had goat for 2 days without anyone getting sick.

We reached the camp site at about 4 pm and set up our tents right next to the Ruaha river at the public campsites. Usually our team is all alone there but this time there was just one other elderly tourist couple camping about 50 metres away from us. The sun was about to set and some baboons were playing in the drying river in the small pockets of water left. Some impala and zebra were having their last fill of water before the onset of night. Soon the sun set and the nocturnal creatures started becoming more vocal. I heard something that I thought resembled the zipper of a tent. I was corrected by Mzee that it was a hyaena. By this time, the baboons had retired to their trees and were continuing their chatter up there. The hippo in the pool close by kept snorting every now and then. Far-off some elephants trumpeted. And then there was the unmistakable grunt of a lion. 2 lions. Each of them patrolling his territory and answering each other's grunts to keep the other away from his area. They kept grunting for a while with a few breaks in between to catch their breaths. It felt really close but I did not want to ask Mzee how close they were because I did not want to seem cowardly on my first day in the bush. First impressions stick.

That night, I kept waking up every hour or so, which is very unlike me. Usually when I go to sleep, I am as good as dead till the morning. I told myself I was jetlagged but I honestly feel that it was due to the fact that I was still unaccustomed to the nocturnal sounds of the jungle and every new sound woke me up. At about 3 am or so, I heard some rustling in the bush right behind us and then the footsteps of a big animal, a few feet away from our tent. I was absolutely certain it was a lion. I turned my head to see if my wife was awake. She was. She looked at me, smiled and put a finger on her lips asking me to be abolutely quiet and still. I had a small knife with me which I am sure would have been completely useless even if a stuffed toy had attacked us, but it provided me some comfort. The animal waited outside our tents for a while, moving back and forth. By this time, my body started to get stiff and I really wanted to move my muscles a bit. Of course as luck would have it, I had taken off my shirt before sleeping due to the heat and the rubbery mattress from REI that we were sleeping on had small depressions (like a golf ball), on which inevitably a vacuum had formed in some of the depressions due to my sweaty torso. As soon as I moved hardly half an inch, some of the depressions made a popping sound and I froze. My wife looked at me in irritation. I abandoned the idea of moving my body and let my sore muscles get even stiffer. My legs felt like they were losing sensation. I really wanted to uncross them. It is funny how these things work. In a normal situation, my legs would never be sore. Thankfully, whatever the animal was, it walked around for a few more minutes and then finally left. I decided right then that no matter how hot it was, I would always wear a shirt at night before going to sleep in the tent.

Very soon dawn scattered away the night and all kinds of birds had started their morning songs. This defintely has to be the best way for anyone to wake up. No more alarm clocks for me, just set a White-browed Coucal next to my bed.

In the morning, I asked my wife what she thought our animal visitor at night was and she seemed to think it was either a hippo or an elephant. I don't know why she did not think it was a lion. I really wanted to believe it was a lion. But when you think about it, all 3 animals would have been as dangerous as the next. The next few nights at Ruaha, I heard the same sounds of baboons, hyaenas, lions, elephants, hippos etc. But I went back to my old sleeping habits of going dead for the night. I guess I must have grown accustomed to the sounds of the jungle.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The case of the missing seat

In one of Sherlock Holmes' stories, I forget which one, he tells a visitor to his apartment that he knows that before taking the train to London, the visitor sat on the right hand side of a horse-carriage with one missing mudflap driven through the roads of some county etc etc etc. I forget the details but you get the picture. The vistor is astounded and wonders if Holmes followed him. In response, Holmes explains that it was just logical deduction since only the right side of the man's coat had tiny spots of mud etc etc etc. At the end of the explanation, both Watson and the visitor marvel at the genius of Holmes.

But I have a case which would stump even Holmes. There is absolutely no way Holmes could deduce my seat number on the bus from Dar-es-Salaam to Morogoro. In fact he could not even guess which side of the bus I sat on - even if I showed him my bus ticket with seat number 42 printed on it. Why? Elementary, my dear Watson! There was no seat number 42 in that bus. 40 yes. 41 yes. 43 yes. 44 yes. But no 42. I searched for it everywhere. I walked up and down the aisles thrice in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive 42. But no, there was just no sign of it. So I alighted from the bus and told the driver,conductor and their cronies, who were contently sipping some tea near the bus that there was no seat 42. So where should I sit? They seemed annoyed that I disturbed them during their period of rest for such a flimsy reason. "Sit anywhere, the bus is half-empty as you can see," was the retort.

So I boarded the bus again and sat on a seat which seemed empty and hoped that no one would board the bus on the next stop who had that seat. Of course at the next stop, only one person boarded that bus and he had been assigned the seat that I was sitting on. So I moved to the other side of the aisle. And to prove that Murphy's law was working overtime, at the next stop, I had to move again because my current seat had been assigned to the person who boarded there. By this time, I was slightly irritated and decided that I would not move again and just have the bus conductor solve the problem. Of course, after my firm resolve not to move, there were no more stops and the bus reached Morogoro without event.

So my dear Holmes, there is no way your extraordinary powers of logical deduction and reasoning could conclude what seat I sat on, because I myself don't know the answer. And what happened to seat number 42? Was it a seat-sign painter's mistake or was the seat abducted by aliens since everyone knows that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. We will never know!

Thursday, January 21, 2010


When I had started writing this blog, I had promised myself something. 72 virgins? No! It sounds appealing but could be somewhat of a logistical nightmare, plus it would not go down well with my wife; so I just promised myself something simpler - that my blog would not be a personal diary. But some events occurred over the last 2-3 months which I wanted to capture before my already failing memory became more fuddled. So this is my attempt to build a time-capsule for myself. Maybe in a few years from now, I will read this again and relive it all over again. Also, for my few friends who actually waste their time reading the useless drivel that I churn out every now and then, maybe it will provide a glimpse of what I was doing in the last 2-3 months.

On Thursday, Nov 12, I got an email from my manager's manager saying that he wanted to set up a call with me on Nov 13. For some reason, I was quite sure that it was regarding my promotion which I had been trying to avoid for the last few years for the very simple reason that my salary would go down if I got promoted. Yes, that is a strange compensation structure. Anyway, I spent some time on thursday thinking up arguments on how best to present my case. But the call that came on Nov 13 had nothing to do with my promotion. I had picked up the phone and had just said 'Hello', when my manager's manager told me that I was being laid-off and Nov 13 was my last day of employment. A large chunk of people from my department were laid-off that day, including my manager (which explained why my manager's manager had to do the unpleasant call) as part of a general reduction in force.

For some strange reason, I did not feel upset about it. In fact I felt no emotion at all. Maybe it was a consequence of knowing that it was only a matter of time before my number was up and the sputtering economy was going to get me. But atleast now, some day I can proudly boast to my kids and grand-kids that I lost my job during the big recession of the late 2000s.

The next thing I did that day was look up tickets to Tanzania and India. Within 36 hours, I had booked my tickets. I left for Tanzania in a week and there in commence the interesting parts of my narrative.