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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Carnivore Restaurant: A Meat Eaters Paradise and one of the Top Restaurants in the World

Even before I had embarked on my journey to Kenya, I was very kicked about visiting the Carnivore Restaurant at Nairobi. I had heard a lot of great things about it. Some said, it was the best restaurant in East Africa, while the others said that it was one of the top restaurants in the world. But, everybody unanimously said that they serve some of the best meat in the world. And I was all excited even though I am a vegetarian.

Different meat with different types of sauces on them
This restaurant, which opened its doors in 1980 became popular for its game meat: giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich and crocodile. Today, most of the game meat is not served owing to the government ban on serving game meat in Kenya. But, they make up for the lack of game meat with an interesting assortment of meat that includes: legs of lamb and pork, ostrich meat balls, crocodile tail, ox balls, ostrich, rumps of beef, sirloins, racks of lamb, spare ribs, sausages, chicken wings, skewered kidneys and more.

Carnivore Restaurant - The best restaurant for meat eaters in East Africa
The specialty is that all these different meats are roasted on traditional Maasai swords over a huge, spectacular charcoal pit that is bang at the entrance of the restaurant. And to ensure that the meat is succulent, well flavored and cooked to perfection, a group of chefs constantly brush the meat with the choicest of sauces and turn the meat over the charcoal fire.

Entering the Carnivore Restaurant - the place that is top one every tourist's list especially if they are meat eaters
And for helpless vegetarians like me, the Carnivore has 8 continental items on their menu, which span Italian, French, Mexican and Indian cuisines. The restaurant works on a buffet mode, wherein a non-vegetarian meal would cost 2,550 shillings and the vegetarian meal about 2,050 shillings. For this price, one gets to sample all the food on the menu, starters, soups, bread and their desserts. Drinks attract an additional fee, which is roughly 500 shillings per drink (60 ml).

The jumbo size barbecue grill that roasts a variety of meat
Coming back to my experience…Me and my meat loving friend were booked a dinner slot here (the restaurant is open all day long) and we came in early at about 6:15 pm to begin work for our taste buds. The restaurant is situated in the Langata suburb of Nairobi and about 5 long kilometers (owing to city traffic) from the city center. As you approach the restaurant, you will notice that this place is close to the domestic air field and during the drive you might get a good view of the small aircrafts landing into the airport. In fact, this was the best part of our drive from Nairobi, coz the other part was spent completely in the evening traffic.

Nice wooden work inside the Carnivore restaurant
The Carnivore is situated on a large and well maintained property, which would give you a good idea about the affluent status of the Tamarind Group (owners of the Carnivore) and the class of the restaurant. A huge Carnivore board greets you at the entrance followed  by a large parking lot and a couple of gift stores that stock some pretty antique stuff.

The omnipresent restaurant staff in animal print
As you enter the hotel premises, you will notice two boards. One that leads into the Carnivore restaurant and the other that leads to Simba Saloon, a a la carte restaurant by day and a popular nightclub once the sun sets. Since, our booking was for the Carnivore, we made our way into the buffet restaurant. Here, we were greeted by the restaurant staff dressed in zebra patterns and very shortly, we were assigned to our seats.

Preparing Kenya's favourite drink - 'DAAWAA' - a mixture of honey, lemon, sugar, ice cubes and smirn off vodka
The restaurant was only about 20% full when we arrived at 6:15 pm, but as expected, the fairly large restaurant was fully occupied by 7 pm. And all this in spite of it being a week day. I guess such is the popularity of this place.

Dawa or medicine is indeed one helluva exotic drink
As soon as we were seated, a zebra patterned staff carrying an assortment of bottles and glasses made our way to the table. This was going to be our first experience of Kenya’s local cocktail – Dawa, which is made out of 60ml of Smirn off Vodka, lemon wedges, 2 teaspoons of thick local honey, some sugar and lots of ice. And a nice stirrer to mix the honey into the drink properly. The drink was fantastic and thus set the right precedent for the rest of the evening.

The table has been set with all the sauces. Now the meat has to arrive
Shortly, a double decker rolling counter arrived at our table. This counter held a variety of sauces and salads. The waiter tried to explain which sauce and salad goes best with which meat. But, in all the excitement, nothing registered in our head and up on seeing that, he said that he will come again and explain when the meat arrives. 
 
I am told that the sauces make a huge difference in meat tasting
After the counter, we got our soup, a variety of bread, butter, potato wedges and some other hot starters. While we were enjoying our starters, the restaurant brought our sizzling hot cast iron plates. This meant they would begin serving the meat and would serve until you burst.
 
And that is how meat is brought to your plate
Soon, every kind of meat arrived at our table and I watched the smile on my friend’s face increase with each bite. I guess they started with beef (rare) and then ostrich meat balls, ox balls and basically the entire menu. Each meat would be brought along with the Maasai sword onto our table and then a slice would be cut onto our plate.

Meat placed on maasai swords and hung over the barbecue
After every bite, I would take notes from my friend as that was the only way I could get to know which meat is cooked best. At some times, I didn’t have to ask him as his lost facial expression or cooing sounds would let me know that the meat was really good.

The completely packed restaurant on a week day - that is carnivore's speciality
And after tasting all the available meat options, my friend was smiling like a cheshire cat and that too after Round 1 only. While my friend was busy enjoying his meats, I ordered an Italian vegetarian dish, one more Dawa and went around the restaurant to do a bit of exploring.

Drinks offered by the Carnivore
The Carnivore has both outdoor and indoor seating facility in their premises. I could see a lot of families here at this restaurant, which means this place is popular with families too. And after a quick round, I felt that the entire globe was sitting in the restaurant. May be, it is because of the migration season that I could see such a diverse crowd in this restaurant.

Soft lighting inside the Carnivore restaurant
Soon my Italian vegetarian dish arrived. It was nothing special like the meat servings presented to my friend, but it tasted a bit better than alright to me. I guess vegetarian dishes are not their specialty. Finally, both of us finished our main course after 2 and a half hours of eating and ordered our dessert followed by locally grown Kenyan coffee. The dessert menu was not elaborate and not out of the world. In simple terms it was good.

The Carnivore Menu
I would definitely recommend ‘The Carnivore’ to every tourist just to soak in the experience. Being a meat lover is a definite plus. Having a deep wallet is also a criteria as the drinks and the buffet are quite pricey. My meat loving friend tells me that some meat was fantastic, while some was average. And the vegetarian and desserts were decent, but nothing great. But, as I have said, it is the sheer experience that makes this place so special and that is why people come here in droves. No wonder it is one of the best restaurants in East Africa. Personally, I would expect the food to be a tad better if it were to get the title of the “Top 50 Restaurants in the World’.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Curious Adventures in Greece

Some travellers dream of turquoise waters blending into a deeper shade of blue. Some others, though, seek instead a secluded, shabby mountain shack nestled in remote mountains. One would think it’s hard to combine such ideas of holiday, but some unique places like Greece have it all.

Regardless of all the rural, rugged sceneries all around this country, Greece holidays in previous decades have mainly meant 40-something affluent travellers on package tours. However, there are countless unexplored areas to whet the appetite of intrepid travellers: we have listed some of them.

Idiosyncratic Ikaria Night owls and those with a taste for quirky experiences should seek out Nas, a tiny resort on the island of Ikaria, nestled within strange sculpted rock formations that enclose a pebble beach.  Seek out the village of Raches, where nocturnal locals lie in until late morning, take a nap in the afternoon and then stay awake through the entire night.

Vatera: Ouzo and Hot Springs Vatera is around 50 kilometres from the busy capital of Mytilini on the island of Lesbos. As such, it's off the radar of most travellers on a whirlwind package tour. The beaches there have little foot traffic, calm water and powder soft sand, making it perfect for a family outing. Couples should also get to a nearby ouzo distillery in Plomari, then go to the hot springs in Poliknitos: combining the pleasures of both is the perfect way to revive tired bodies.

Zig Zag Through Zagorohoria When people think of Greece, they don't think of brown bears and wolves roaming through a mountainous national park. That's probably why not many travellers know about this peaceful part of the country. What a shame, as the region of Zagorohoria boasts 45 pretty villages dotted through the Pindus mountain range. One day's hike can get visitors to the UNESCO protected Vikos Gorge, and the expansive alpine vista that is the pay-off for a strenuous hike.

The Hippy Haven of Gavdos The waylaid traveller can do worse than mistakenly land on Gavdos – the most southerly island of Europe in the Mediterranean. It has a Robinson Crusoe vibe about it, with not a noisy bar in sight and instead the sound of silence. There is coarse rock formation, silken sand, blue skies and not much else really. The area of Sarakiniko caters well to hungry castaways with fresh seafood cooked over coals, while Agios Ioannis has a nudist colony of hippies who give new meaning to the term 'happy campers'. Tents can also be hired at a reasonable price.

For many, Greece means a predictable package holiday on the beach. Not so for adventurous types: with plenty of off-the-grid options and individual experiences, this country is full of surprises.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Samburu Tribals: Some People Photographs

The Samburu tribals are semi-nomadic cattle herders who live north of the equator in Kenya. They are related to the famous Maasai of Maasai Mara, but have their own traditions. Recently, I got to meet them while exploring the Samburu National Reserve. And I have to say that they are quite a sight with their bright attire, hair-do, bead work and customs.

A shy but beautiful Samburu woman

Here are some people photographs I took during that visit. I plan to write in more detail about them in my upcoming posts. Do stay tuned for that.

A handsome young Samburu

Samburu Women Portraits

Young Samburu Kids strike different poses

A Mean Samburu Warrior look

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A festival not to be missed.... Coachella Music Festival

If you are a live music fan who loves big festival experiences that are one of a kind and totally unique, then Coachella is an event that you really need to attend. Occurring annually at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, this music and arts festival is traditionally a three day event in April that features a wide range of several different genres of music that includes Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop and Electronica and that has run since 2001...

Artists who have featured in previous years include Eminem, Prince, Sir Paul McCartney and Rage Against The Machine amongst many others and this year’s most notable and talked about event yet saw one of the first ever projected holograms take the stage for a performance. During the course of Dr.Dre and Snoop Dogg’s set, a projection of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur appeared for a unique, one of a kind performance that left audiences gasping as Tupac performed his hits “Hail Mary” and “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” from beyond the grave. Though next year’s line-up has yet to be announced, there can be little doubt that organizers are already looking to top this years’ experience and the festival is due to be based over two consecutive weekends starting April 12-14 and ending on April 19-21.

Since 2002, Coachella has offered both on and off-site camping with luxury “Safari” tents available on-site that offer either one or two queen sized beds, a lounge area and real Air Conditioning. These are designed to provide festival goers with a luxury hotel experience whilst still offering the experience of camping. Many very decent and reasonable hotel packages are also available and the festival even provides a coach service for those residing in neighboring hotel accommodation with pre-determined drop off/ pick-up points convenient to the festival.

Recently it was announced that Coachella was also returning for two weekends in December of this year when the festival is due to take over the cruise ship Celebrity Silhouette. Artists already confirmed for this unique event include Pulp, Hot Chip and D.J Harvey with many more due to be announced. The cruise ship is part of the World renowned luxury Solstice class and features 12 dining venues, 9 bars and multiple live music settings amongst its attractions. This looks to be the most unique Coachella experience yet and advanced sales are proving to be snapped up quickly indeed!

Overall, Coachella is looking to be a festival set to go from strength to strength in future years and an event not to be missed by hardcore festival fans. And travel to California has never been easier with lots of reasonably-priced regular flights now available from Heathrow Airport and Stansted Airport!

For more information on Heathrow Parking and Stansted Airport Parking, please click the following.

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Nanyuki’s Equator Point: A great place to understand the Coriolis Effect

I am sure a lot of us would have read about Coriolis effect as part of our Physics course back in school. But, I am not sure if many of us remember what it means and its significance. However, if you are standing on the equator at Nanyuki in Kenya and see this experiment live, the Coriolis effect will have a long-lasting effect on your memory.

At the Equator Point
The Nanyuki town, which is right in the center of Kenya is known mainly for its equator point and hoardes of locals and tourists alike pay a visit just to stand on the equator. But, for those who are technically interested, locals arrange for an experiment to depict how the Coriolis effect works.

The Coriolis Effect experiment in action at the Nanyuki Equator point in Kenya
The setup is fairly simple. One jug with a hole at the bottom, one liter of water and 2 small pieces of sticks (like match sticks) and an empty bowl. The first step of the experiment is done at 10 feet north of the equator. Here the water is poured into the jug while the hole at the bottom is blocked by our finger. The sticks are allowed to float on the water. Then, the final step is to remove our finger from the bottom of the jug and allow the water to flow into the empty bowl below. At this instant, you will see that the sticks start rotating in a clock-wise direction. When the same experiment is repeated at 10 feet south of the equator, it is noticed that the sticks move in an anti-clockwise direction and when the experiment is conducted on the equator, it is noticed that the sticks don’t move at all. This basically shows the deflection or the force that is an artifact’s of the earth’s rotation.

School kids get to know more about the equator at the Nanyuki Equator Point in KenyaOnce the experiment is complete, the locals will also entice you to buy a certificate stating that you have witnessed this experiment at the Nanyuki Equator Point (for a price of course) and also take you to their shop in the nearby Equator market to buy some batiks, masks, wooden or cloth items. Nanyuki makes a great pit stop while heading from Nairobi to North Kenya.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Off Road Driving in Alaska: The Life Time Adventure

Where Off Road Driving is the Norm
You’ll never find more four wheel drive vehicles per capita in any other state beside Alaska. There are two basic reasons for this. One reason is our incredibly harsh, unforgiving winters. Snow remains in some areas nine months out of the year. Changing weather conditions are accompanied by icy storms, torrential late summer rains, black ice and white-out blizzard conditions. Not only do driveways and off-roads become impassable, so does the main highway.

The other reason for this is that Alaska has only four main highway systems; The Richardson, The Glenn Highway, The Parks and the Seward Highway. There are more miles of unpaved roads than there are paved ones. Many of these unpaved roads are not kept up by the Department of Transportation, or are given low priority for snow plowing, sanding and clearing, yet half the population of Alaska lives on an off-road or has a difficult to access driveway. One out of every four vehicles you find on an Alaskan road is a truck. Two-thirds of the families in Alaska own a four-wheel drive, whether it’s a mini-van, truck or a big boss four- door Wrangler Rubicon. A four-wheel drive is a complete necessity for commuters driving forty to sixty miles back and forth to work on a daily basis.

Beyond necessity, there is another reason Alaskans love their Jeeps. There are very few Alaskans who find contentment with urban life styles. They are consumed with their love for fishing. They go out of their way to find remote camping spots. They have a passion for gold panning and mountain climbing. Many Alaskans subsistence hunt. All of these activities require driving on roads that are sometimes no more than tire tracks crossing bare ground.

Matching it out in the Matanuska Valley
You’re just getting your feet wet when you step off the plane in Anchorage, Alaska. While there are plenty of restaurants, night life, museums and shopping malls, it’s hardly an off-road experience, even if you can find a few bumps. If you’re a Jeep enthusiast, the first thing you’ll want to do is buy or rent a Jeep and buzz out to the Valley; the Matanuska Valley that is.

The Matanuska Valley is the heart of Alaska’s farmland. It sits in a crown, with the ominous Talkeetna Mountains crunching in between the Chugach and the Alaska Range. While two main highways, the Parks and the New Glenn, inter-connect in the valley, the rest of its myriad roads are unpaved. If you’re a fishing enthusiast, no greater thrill can be found than bouncing down a rock strewn track, following the banks of the Little Susitna River, where the salmon rush in during the summer months, and the rivers stay alive with trout.

The Matanuska Valley area is honey-combed with rivers, lakes, creeks and streams. The access roads are generally gravel, but to get down to a prime fishing spot is a bit more challenging. Valley soil is a thick, black silt, created by the passage of the glaciers. Underneath that silt are unmovable boulders that let their presence be known only when you hit them. It’s also famous for its pot holes. Since it’s a valley, it’s more of a mud bogger’s treat than it is a rock climber’s, but if it’s climbing you want, point your vehicle at Sutton.

Sutton is the first town you’ll come to after laboring up the Old Glenn at the far corner of Palmer; Alaska’s one and only, genuine farm town. At Sutton, you make a left for the Jonesboro Road. It seems sedate at first, but the pavement abruptly ends, and then you’re on just a little bit of everything. The Jonesboro Road climbs for miles up into the sides of the Chugach, and a mountain full of coal deposits. There are many branch-offs, none of them marked, so unless you’re very good with directions, you might not arrive at the same place twice. At least, however, all trails lead back to the bottom.

Much of the Jonesboro Road is gravel until you start climbing. Then you are on glacier silt, red iron clay and submerged boulders. The area is riveted with numerous wash-outs that were never graded, and occasional creek beds that sometimes hold water and sometimes don’t. Once you reach the top though, you’re in a rock climber’s paradise. Some of the locations are absolutely insane. Giant cliffs that twist one way, while others heave forward from the opposite end, making it hard to decide whether you’re up, down or sideways. Jagged boulders, belching canyons, tumbling hills with nestling ponds, all make up the topography. To top it off, not only is it great for climbers, it’s great for rock hounds. If you know what to look for, you can find petrified wood, fossils, ambers and agates.

Forever Mud Bogging
Southeastern and South Central Alaska is rain forest country. Apart from the thick, glacier soil, the terrain is layered with the top soil of decomposed trees, and underneath it all, gray clay; also known as bootlegger clay. The bootlegger clay is firm when dry, silty and treacherous when wet. It can hold a lot of water, making you think you’re on a solid surface until you bog down. This clay, most prevalent along the Cook Inlet, is directly affected by the tides. On an off road, the biggest thing you’ll notice is that what you thought was a dry trail, is suddenly seeped with water, due to the tidal effect on the clay. On the inlet, it’s a whole different story.

During low tides, there are miles and miles of mud flats to play on; in fact, they cover the entire 180 mile length of the inlet. Mud bogging isn’t just a pastime; it’s a tradition. There is no greater feeling than being out there on the mudflats, practicing wheelies and jumping creeks. A favorite place to go is Knik River, where its headwaters flow into the inlet. Trail blazers follow the river up to the Knik glacier, cutting in and out of the river banks, while mud boggers cross over on low tide mud flat bridges. Your day on the tidal flats is not complete until you have mud splattered up to your windshield.

Anywhere you go along the Kenai Peninsula is great for mud bogging. The Peninsula is filled with marsh land, giant lakes and a spectacular coastal view of five active volcanoes; Spur, Redoubt, Iliamna, Augustine and Douglas. Anchor Point is one of the best spots for off road mud bogging. You’re truly off the road. It will take a while to get past the motor homes and campers that braved the rugged trail to nestle next to their favorite fishing hole, but that mud flat freedom ride just couldn’t be greater.

There is only one thing to remember. When the tide comes in, it comes in fast. Those fantastic flats you were spinning your heart out in, very quickly fill with water. At the top of the hill that leads down into the flats are giant cranes waiting to pull in the off road adventurers who forgot their vehicles don’t make very good float planes.

Braving the Wilderness
The deeper you go into interior Alaska, the more opportunities there are for off road adventures. If you take the Parks Highway, you’ll find mainly, clearly marked roads and an opportunity to explore Denali Park. The Parks Highway is fine, but unless you turn off for Talkeetna or Jim Creek, it’s more like driving a sedate country road. There is nothing to raise your back hairs except a momentary blip as you cross Hurricane Gulch. The bridge is solid, as fine as any money can buy, but it’s still a long way down to the bottom.

If you choose the New Glenn however, you’re in “old” Alaska, a somewhat forgotten and neglected area. Although the highway is famous for its hairpin curves, it also has some of the most incredible views, and is saturated with off roads and old hunting trails.

The terrain is very rugged, with thin soil, rock cropping, slate piles, old creek beds, and if you choose an off road, plenty of pot holes. By the time you reach Eureka, your elevation is 3,294 feet, on a road that takes sudden dips and twists around cliffs or look down at miles of tundra. If you turn off the main highway, you’re basically on your own. Gas stations and settlements are far apart, so if you choose an interior back road, take along a buddy. Cell phone reception is poor to non-existent, and you are in a land with bears, flash floods, dizzying heights and yawning canyons.

At Glenallen, you can take the junction, either leading you to Clearwater or farther north to Fairbanks. Although it’s paved road, it’s still pretty challenging as it cuts into the Alaska Range, with the typical sharp turns and steep grades of mountain roads. If that still sounds too tame for you, there are many places you can pull off to experiment with a bit of rock busting.

The Glenallen Junction is also the turning point for that big decision of going to the Wrangell Mountains or Valdez. The Wrangell’s have very little public road access, and can only be reached by plane, walking, or four wheel drive. It’s an incredible land, practically untouched by civilization, with meadows and valleys, tall blue mountains, and even an extinct volcano at Nesbesna. During my last trip there, it was raining. My camping buddy and I had arranged for an overnight stay at a cabin; something very easy to do if you call the State Parks management in advance. There is no charge. You simply sign the register so they know it’s in use.

It had stopped raining by morning, so we decided to continue our journey, which involved viewing the extinct volcano and the St Elias gold mine. Little did we know, our adventure, which had already covered two hundred miles, had just begun! The creeks had flooded during the night, and our journey involved crossing three that were raging over the already rather primitive road. At one point, we had water flowing almost to our windows, but there were fresh tracks on the other side, so we just aimed the Jeep toward that promising exit and kept on trucking.

The trip was well worth it. The Wrangell’s are a little piece of heaven. You hear nothing; no traffic, no buzzing electric lines, no clatter of civilization; only the music of the mountains. The St. Elias homestead is the end of the road, but we were content. We spent the whole day hiking up to the mine, gawking at some of the best scenery on earth, notching away in our minds a few good mountain climbing spots we’d noticed, then returned to our Jeep for the trip home. The waters had receded by then, and though it was still a gnarly drive, it seemed a lot tamer than it had that morning.

Valdez has a paved road access. It’s only when you wish to climb the emerald green mountains to have a better view of its incredible waterfalls that you need a rugged vehicle. The view from the top is breath taking, but Valdez is rain forest. The back roads are often slick, with huge cracks and rivets from past flooding, very rocky, with no gravel surface. The locals tend to keep their back roads secret from tourists, so the best way to find out how to get to them is to get a little friendly with the town’s folk. I had gone to Valdez three times, entertaining myself mainly with going around the backside where the salmon come in to spawn, and visiting Worthington Glacier, which is well worth the trip all on its own, before I struck it lucky. The locals finally opened up and told me about the back roads that wind high into the mountains and look down on the waterfalls.

It was, as usual, raining, and the road was neither paved nor graveled. At least the top soil was thin, so there wasn’t a lot of slip. There were a few good sized rock crops, but mainly bumps and holes. Some narrow turns and an occasional glimpse to remind us we were climbing; then presto! There were at the top, with the mountains swooping down like green velvet.

Friendly is the ultimate word in Alaska. If you’re friendly, nearly everyone is eager to tell you where you can go and what you can do to arrive at the ultimate back road driving experience. Nearly everybody has that favorite, secret place they’re just dying to share, but don’t want the world to come flooding in on them. If you’re friendly, you’ll always find someone who will help out if you break down, get stuck or run out of gas. We all understand the desire to enjoy the great outdoors and it’s just a little more enjoyable when you’re friendly.

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Learning Swahili

I always find it real exciting to learn a new language. Knowing even some words from the local language elicit a lot of warmth from the locals. And this principle applies to the entire globe. During my recent trip to Kenya, I did manage to learn some Swahili words especially around the activities that I was engaging in and to form my basic language survival kit. I did manage to listen to some audio tapes prior to reaching Kenya, but as always first-hand experience and a local connect is the best way to learn a new language. Here are some random words, phrases and sentences that I managed to learn and remember during my Kenya holiday. And if you look closely, you will find that some words are similar to Hindi. This could be either because a lot of Hindi speaking Indians migrated to Kenya two centuries back or the common Arabic/Persian influence into both our respective languages.

Chakula Food
Asante Thank you
Asante Saana Thank you very much
Karibu Welcome
Karibu Saana Welcome very much
Thwende Let’s go
Kapisaa Put the gun to the metal or floor it or press the accelerator
Pole Pole Slowly
Chakula Chamchana Lunch
Samahani Excuse me
Keeingereza English
Hapana No
Lala Salama Sleep well/ Sleep tight/Good night
Safiri Salama Have a safe journey
Duma Cheetah
Simba Lion
Chui Leopard
Nyati Cape Buffalo
Kifaroo Rhinoceros
Ndorvoo Elephant
Baynkee Bank
Ni Bei gaani How much is it?
Wapee Where?
Polisi Police
Asubuhi Morning
Mchaana Afternoon
Jioni Evening
Pasipoti Passport
Choo Toilet
Maridadi Beautiful
Hakuna Matata No worries
Pesa Money
Hakuna Pesa Hakuna Matata No Money No Worries
Heka Pesa Heka Matata More Money More Worries
Ni Sawa That’s fine
Saawa Okay
Sawa Sawa (2nd most common word) OK OK
Bareedee Cold
Dooka Shop
Matatu Public van
Bota Bota Public Motorcycle Taxi
Jaambo (Most commonly used word) Hello
Beema Insurance
Kliniki Clinic
Dawa Medicine (also a vodka based drink)
Saboonee Soap
Majee Water
Choopa Bottle
Sifuri Zero
Mohja One
Nyama Meat
Nyama Choma Meat grilled over charcoal
Chapati Flat Indian Whole Wheat Bread
Chai Tea
Pili Pili Green Chillies (Hot Pepper)
Sukuma Wiki Green Vegetables
Kachumbari Mixed Vegetables
Ugali Steamed Maize Cake
Mazeewa Milk
Githeri Dish that is made of mashed potatoes, maize and beans
Irio Mashed Potatoes with greens
Sookaaree Sugar

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Red and Blue Car Travels: A Luxury Car Rental Service in Mumbai

A month back Red and Blue Car Travels, who call themselves a boutique luxury car rental company approached me to evaluate their services. And I did get a chance when I stopped over in Mumbai for a day to meet family and friends enroute from Nairobi to Bangalore. It was decided well in advance that I will get to evaluate their services when I land at the Mumbai international airport and that they would drop me to my destination of choice in Mumbai city. I had totally forgotten about this arrangement while I was away and hence was pleasantly surprised when on landing at Mumbai I saw a text message that said that a Toyota Innova was waiting for me along with the driver details.

Now, you might be thinking what is so special about this arrangement. There are a whole lot of travels out there that offer great service in good vehicles (Toyota Innova included). That is what I also thought till I met the Red and Blue Car Travel’s representative holding my name placard at the airport exit section.

First, the driver was well dressed and very well mannered. He greeted me, took my baggage and led me to the Toyota Innova Car. It was only when I entered the car that I realized that RnB is indeed a luxury car service provider. The car had excellent leather upholstery that made seating very luxurious. It had an excellent sound system that was controlled by an iPad that was lying next to me. The iPad was already pre-loaded with a decent collection of Hindi and English songs. The car had wi-fi, which I could use to browse through the iPad. And the best part was individual TV screens for each seat that could be used to watch movies, play games and more. Now, all these put together accounted for some serious luxury. This kind of service is for the luxury connoisseur, one who likes to splurge and indulge and may be who is accustomed to that kind of lifestyle.  

That was the tangible side of luxury. The thing that I really liked was the way the driver was driving through the traffic of Mumbai. Over 40 odd kilometers, he honked may be once. Now, that was something new for me as all cab drivers honk more than normal drivers. And driver quite rashly, but the RnB driver drove so well that I hardly felt a swerve or turn during the entire drive. Now that is luxury in my mind, which promises you safety and peace of mind.

That was my overall experience! Keeping my experience aside, RnB cars have some high-end cars, such as the Mercedes sedans, Range Rovers, Audi Q7, Mini Countryman, BMW Luxury Sedans and more in their stable. I am sure the luxury in these cars will be un-paralled. My driver informed me that RnB is primarily based out of Mumbai, but they do take their clients to destinations such as Pune, Shirdi and Goa.

I was extremely pleased with my RnB experience and given an opportunity, I will avail their services again. If you love luxury and need a ride in Mumbai, I think you should look at RnB cars.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Some Random Things about Kenya

A few random observations and interpretations based on my recent visit to this exotic equatorial country.

1) Even though the Kenyans are predominantly meat eaters, they have some very tasty vegetarian dishes like githeri (maize+potatoes+beans), irio (mashed potatoes with greens), ugali (steamed maize cake) with greens, mukimbo (pigeon peas in Swahili coastal style) and others.

2) There is no middle class in Kenya. Either people are really poor or really rich.

3) The Kenyans of Indian-origin form the richest group of people in this East African country. They own everything from shopping malls, hotels, key industries and shops to prime real estate.

4) Ki-Swahili, the national language of Kenya has a lot of words from Hindi and Urdu in their dictionary owing to deep Indian influence in their culture and their history with the kingdom of Arabia especially on their eastern coast. For e.g., chai (tea in hindi), chapati (Indian whole wheat bread in Hindi), kachumbari (mixed vegetables or Kachumbar in Hindi), safiri salama (have a safe journey  or safar salaam ho in Urdu)

5) Kenya is a very expensive country even though the people here are very poor. Cabbage, bought from a farm is 100 Kenyan Shillings (roughly 66 Indian rupees) and the daily newspaper costs 50 Kenyan Shillings (roughly 33 Indian rupees). There are a lot other such instances.

6) In spite of being an equatorial country, Kenya has pretty cold winters in most of its provinces. Some places see multiple seasons in a single day (cold mornings, warm afternoons and evening showers).

7) A very high percentage of the Kenyans speak good English.

8) Even though the Kenyans drive on the left side of the road (right hand drive), they have a US like driving system with a wait, yield and go policy.

9) Kenyan drivers are very patient. Even when stuck in morning and evening traffic in Nairobi.

10) The roads of Kenya are pretty much noiseless. People honk only when someone commits a mistake while driving. A true relief for the ears for a lot of us.

11) Marabou storks (a scavenger bird) nests on top of trees in huge numbers right in the busy part of Nairobi.

12) A lot of Kenyans are unhappy with their government.

13) There are a lot of places in Kenya, which the local himself avoids owing to safety reasons.

14) Nakuru is the theft capital of Kenya. All it requires is a momentary lapse for you to lose your belongings including your car.

15) Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have a open roads policy. This means that vehicles of these 3 countries are allowed to drive on roads of all these countries provided they have the right passenger papers.

16) The ‘Lunatic Line’, the railway line from Tanzania and Kenya to Uganda, which took a lot of lives is hardly used these days. In fact, I hear that they use it only for irregular trips between Nairobi and Mombasa. And since they are very expensive, the locals give it a miss.

17) Kenya has hardly any road-based public transport system. This holds good for both inter and intra city transport. Matatu (a van that seats 13 people) is what is used by the people for mass transit. These are run by private players.

18) Kenya is highly corrupt. One can easily get out of an offence by paying a bribe.

19) The Chinese are building most of Kenya’s roads.

20) Maasai Mara tourism, single-handedly accounts for a huge chunk of Kenya’s GDP, but in spite of this benevolence, the government doesn’t want to lay a road to Masai Mara from Narok (roughly a 2 and a half hour  bone-rattling ride).

21) Kenya has the world’s largest tropical lake in Lake Victoria, which it shares with Uganda and Tanzania.

22) Kenya has Africa’s second highest peak in Mount Kenya after Mount Kilimanjaro.

23) It is in Kenya’s Rift valley that mankind originated.

24) Tea is grown on a high plateau in Kenya unlike most of the other tea growing areas in the world where it is grown on slopes.

25) A Giraffe can be regularly seen grazing near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at Nairobi.

26) Toyota has more or less a monopoly in Kenya. Nissan comes a very far second.

27) Indian car brands – Maruti, Tata and Mahindra and Mahindra are considered pathetic automobile brands by the Kenyan locals and are frowned upon. 

28) In spite of Kenya being a democratic country, its citizens face the government with awe and believe that something bad will happen to them if they complain about the government.

29) The Maasai tribals believe that the Maasai Mara is their home land and birth right. They do not like any other tribe entering their space and take key positions. A lot such inter-tribe animosity can be seen regularly.

30) Race bias is very prevalent in Kenya. A person’s surname can be easily mapped to their tribe. Hence, a lot of students today want to register only their first names in school and colleges.

31) On reaching the age of 18, a male belonging to the Masai tribe has to undergo circumcision. If he sheds a single tear, cries or shouts during this event, he is banished forever from the community.

32) A Masai boy has to kill a lion to become a man.

33) Polygamy is pretty much the norm in all of Kenya’s tribes. A chief of the tribe is known to have a huge harem.

34) The Kenyan law supports its women in all domestic matters! There are no questions asked. If a man is hit by wife and he complains, he is thrown into prison.

35) Most of the Kenyans are scared to break the law because of the extremely shoddy treatment meted out in its prison.

36) The Kikuyu tribe has the prettiest women in Kenya.

37) During the annual wildlife migration, the entire masai mara landscape looks like it is crawling with ants. That is how many animals that are dotting the horizon. In fact, few people will ever see more animals (wild or domestic) in one spot.

38) Kenyans love bargaining. Most of their bargains are done in good jest.

39) Some places in Kenya have unbelievably straight roads/highways.

40) Kenyan tribal women are more hard-working than the men, much like their lionesses.

41) A lot of Kenya’s athletes train in the high altitude zone of the central highlands. They can be regularly seen running and cycling on the highways here.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to find a great hotel for business or pleasure

Searching for a hotel, whether one is traveling for business or pleasure, can be a daunting task. With so many different options available, all promising to make hotel shopping fast and easy, many people can be confused about the best place to start. Luckily, it only takes a bit of homework and some knowledge of a few basics to take a lot of the hassle out of finding a great hotel.

Hotels for work or play One of the keys to conducting a successful hotel search is to first figure out what characteristics the hotel must have to fulfill your needs. Facilities, such as a business center, free internet access and proximity to a large airport or a city’s commercial district may be really important to business travelers, while families looking for a vacation hotel are likely to be more concerned with amenities like a pool, complimentary transportation to nearby attractions and spacious rooms. Knowing exactly what you need in a hotel can make finding the right search tool much easier.

Finding the best tool These days, there are a number of ways travelers can look for hotels. Internet travel sites are always popular, as are trusted hotel or resort websites and general search engine keyword searches. In addition, mobile apps are an increasingly popular way to search for hotels, especially for on-the-go business travelers. And, of course, many vacationers and business travelers still place their travel plans in the capable hands of traditional travel agents or tour companies.

There’s really no hard and fast rule to deciding which tool is best. Most of the time, travelers simply choose the method that they’re most comfortable with or the one that fits best with their lifestyle.

Comparing search tools

Travel search sites: for many travelers, this is the most popular way to find a hotel. Travel search sites give users access to a wide range of accommodations, from five-star resorts to budget-friendly motels, along with information on location, amenities, guest reviews and availability. A new feature that many of these sites are offering is a calendar that gives users the lowest room prices on each day for which info is available. Some sites even eliminate sold-out hotels from their results, which really helps streamline the search process.

Mobile apps: This is how many tech-savvy travelers prefer to search for hotels. Compatible with iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and other smartphones, these apps are offered by many hotel chains and travel sites: many are free to download. Guests can search for hotels, check rates and make reservations right from their phones. It’s a convenient way to book a room for those who know what they’re looking for.

Travel agencies: Those who don’t travel much or aren’t comfortable trusting their vacation to anonymous guest reviews may prefer to use a traditional travel agency or tour company to search for a great hotel. The benefits of this method are face-to-face interaction and the confidence of recommendations that come from a reliable source. There’s also the added benefit of an agency’s experience with a particular destination or hotel chain.

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Useful travel finance sources

Planning a vacation can be as stressful as it is exciting. Once the destination has been carefully chosen, all the details of going on a trip need to be addressed: transportation, activities and sightseeing, packing, budget, etc. One of the most often overlooked aspects of travel is having a reliable, secure credit card available for last-minute or unforeseen expenses.

Why having a travel credit card is important In these tight economic times, many people prefer to deal exclusively in cash. However, when traveling, having a credit card at the ready for emergencies can be an invaluable resource. Overseas travelers especially can benefit from the great exchange rates offered by most major credit card companies. They’re generally safer than cash or traveler’s checks, too, because users aren’t held responsible for unauthorized charges should the card become lost or get stolen; credit cards are also a lot easier than cash to carry around. Reward cards that offer points or cash back on purchases can also yield great returns when traveling.

Finding great deals on credit cards Believe it or not, social networking is a fantastic way to find the best deals on travel credit cards. While sites like Facebook and Foursquare can provide connected users with exclusive offers, Twitter is fast emerging as the outlet of choice for card issuers to roll out new programs, promotions and discounts. Say, for example, that someone planning a vacation is looking for a deal on a Green Dot card and decides to follow Green Dot cards on Twitter. By clicking on the issuer’s favorites tab, the user might find the hashtags that could yield exclusive offers, free tickets, contests and more. Aside from hashtags, card issuers also provide valuable information and links via their Twitter feeds, helping card holders keep up with the latest news, merchant deals and discounts, rewards and more. Most of the major credit card companies are now providing the same or similar content on Twitter.

Many credit card companies are also using Twitter and other social networking sites to allow users to link their accounts for even greater savings from specific merchants. A simple retweet can earn card holders significant discounts on products or purchases, bonus membership points, extra rewards and more. Linking an account with the social network makes the process of redeeming these offers effortless for the user. Once the hashtag has been retweeted, the offer is automatically loaded onto the user’s card and is ready to be applied as soon as the user makes the corresponding purchase.

As social networking continues to gain momentum, credit card companies are always looking for new ways to interact with customers and merchants certainly want in on the action, too. Now is a great time to find credit card deals and exclusive offers via Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. Before making travel plans, it’s a smart move to check out what the major credit card companies are offering to their Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Upcoming Travel: Wild Kenya

I have always been amazed whenever I saw the great migration on National Geographic/Discovery/Animal Planet or other wildlife television channels. The sheer numbers and the diversity have always bamboozled me. And as I kept seeing more of such wildlife series, my yearning to see this spectacle in real got much stronger and finally that day has dawned as I am headed towards ‘Wild Kenya’ tomorrow.

The ‘Great Migration’, which is often dubbed as the 8th wonder of the world is the special component of my trip. This is when the animals from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania make the annual migration to the greener pastures of Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. The migration season is from July through September and starting October, the animals start the reverse migration to Serengeti. I am spending 4 days at Masai Mara Game Reserve where the action takes place (The Big Five + millions of wildebeest, millions of zebra, hundreds of thousands of gazelle and lots of hungry predators: lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, Nile Crocodile and others). 2 of these days will be located in the center part of the reserve and next to the Mara river to be close to the wildlife frenzy and the other 2 days will be on the eastern part of Mara, which is where most of the camps and lodges are located. I am hoping that I will also be able to take a hot balloon safari over the Maasai Mara and get an aerial view of the spectacle. Though I have not finalized on this hot balloon ride as it is working out quite expensive on an already expensive trip. So I am on a ‘Let’s see’ mode on that.

Apart from the Masai Mara, I am planning to spend 2 days at Lake Nakuru National Park in the Rift Valley, which supposedly has the biggest congregation of flamingos in Africa. It is also famous for the black Rhino.The Great Rift Valley is also known to be the place where mankind evolved from, but I am not exploring that side of the Rift Valley. 2 other days will be spent in the northern part of Kenya in the Samburu National Reserve. Northern Kenya is more drier and desert-like than the rest of the country. Samburu and Buffalo Springs are also known for great game and again a lot of wildlife can be sighted here.

The wildlife component of the Kenya trip lasts 8 days and 13 safaris. In between, I plan to explore the tribal life especially the Masai and the Samburu tribes given that I am going to be located real close to them. And an additional 3 days in Nairobi to explore the fast-growing East African city, sample its special cuisines, a definite visit to the famous Carnivore restaurant even though I am a vegetarian and to may be do some shopping.

A short trip in my standards, but hopefully it will be a sweet one. I am hoping that I will have great experiences and photographs to share when I am back.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Sholayar Dam nestled in the pristine Anaimalai hills of Tamil Nadu

The Sholayar dam is supposed to the second deepest dam in Asia, but it is not this feature of the dam that strikes me the most. Rather, it is the sheer size of the dam that astonishes me.

Sholayar Dam near Valparai is surrounded by tea estates making for a fantastic sight
Generally, one does not get a real perspective of the dam’s size as our view is limited to one entrance or at most  one side of the dam. However, the Solaiyar dam is very different. In the case of this reservoir, one can drive around its entire length and breadth. In fact, the road from Valparai to Athirapally falls provides stunning views of this massive water body.

The winding road that connects Valparai to Chalakudy - Sholayar dam comes enroute
The Sholayar dam is actually split into two reservoirs. One is called the Upper Sholayar dam, which we tourists have access to and the other deep in the forests is called the lower Sholayar Dam. It is the combined waters of the Sholayar and the downstream Parambikulam reservoir in Kerala that provide water to India’s Niagara – the famous Athirapally Falls.

Tea Estates by the waterWhenever I have seen this reservoir, I have seen it a bit below is full capacity. Locals mention that it remains full during the rainy season and one can continuously hear the sound of gushing waters when the sluice gates are kept open.

Enjoying the beauty at Sholayar Dam
The Sholayar Dam is situated about 20 kilometres from the hilly town of Valparai, but the reservoir waters start very close to the town itself. In fact, it crisscrosses a large area from near the town to the actual dam setting. Most of its banks are decorated with tea gardens. The ones which are not, are decorated by evergreen forests.

Trickling from the sluice gates of the Sholayar Dam
In terms of tourist infrastructure, there is not much, but the people can enjoy a good picnic near its banks, enjoy its beauty while driving through the winding roads that connect Valparai to Chalakudy or stand right below the dam walls and enjoy the water gushing out from the open sluice gates. So whether you are planning to explore the Valparai are in Tamil Nadu or the Athirapally area in Kerala, do give Sholayar Dam a visit. I am sure you will be proud of your decision.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Black Rumped Flameback Woodpecker at Valparai’s Anaimalai Tiger Reserve

The forests of Valparai are excellent for birding. Most of the bird species seen here are endemic to the Western Ghats and their spread here is phenomenal.

Black Rumped Flameback (Lesser Golden-Backed) Woodpecker at Valparai - 1
A walk through the buffer zone of the Anaimalai tiger reserve that crisscrosses through Valparai throws up a lot such birding opportunities. Whistling and laughing thrushes, hornbills, woodpeckers and many more can be seen here quite regularly all throughout the year.

Black Rumped Flameback (Lesser Golden-Backed) Woodpecker at Valparai - 2
It was during such a walk that I saw a Black rumped flameback woodpecker. It is also known as the lesser golden-backed woodpecker. The bird is very colourful and pretty. Unfortunately, it was late in the evening and the woodpecker was jumping from tree to tree in the shade. Hence, I did not get good shots and had to make do with these. Hope I get better luck with the woodpeckers when I am next in Valparai.

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