We are back, another COVID travel

So, here we are back home once again and done with the self isolation of 14 days. Back in Kenya 🇰🇪 , our home for now. This phrase “we are back home” sometimes perplexes me as I use it for so many places that I consider home. Our own homes in Kenya 🇰🇪 and Canada🇨🇦, our kids’ homes often in two different places, some friends’ and family homes that are no less than home to us. I must say that we are fortunate to call so many places home, what more can one ask for in life 😜?We had some of the best times of our lives during this stay of almost four months in Canada🍁. Traveling back to Kenya 🇰🇪 was both enthusing and stumping at the same time. We didn’t feel like parting from kids, leaving our safe haven and sweet home in Kingston. Nevertheless, we wanted to get back to Kenya so that Manoj could have a normal workday and work life.The travel itself was quite hassle free. I guess it was because we were prepared with all that was required in these difficult and confusing travel times. A COVID negative certificate, a bar scan code for Kenyan health authorities, a mask on at all times and keeping distance from people at the airports – it all worked out. In fact, it was quite reassuring to notice:1. That the airport authorities at all the 3 airports we passed through (Toronto, Addis and Nairobi) were quite diligent in following public health guidelines to keep everyone safe.2. Fellow passengers were largely also following the new norms.3. All passengers were supposedly COVID-negative as almost all airlines and airports now require a negative certificate to board a plane.4. There was no cutback on any services on the flights or at the lounge in Addis (though the Toronto lounge was closed), even the entertainment system was now working unlike on our flights into Canada.Though it was relatively warm the day we departed from Toronto, there was a heavy snowstorm the next day, so it is nice to be back to a green and warm Kenya exuding with the warmth of good friends Arun and Brij. Their kindness was felt when we entered a clean house with food prepared and groceries in the refrigerator waiting for us. Settling back into our routines has been a cake walk in the last two days, and I was even more excited to see that my terrariums 🪴🌱survived without any attention given to them in about 4 months. I can contentedly say that the journey back was equally good.

लो चले हम… वापिस अपने घर को! ये अपने केन्या वाले घर की बात हो रही है। अब क्या बताएँ कि कितने घरों को अपना घर कहने का सौभाग्य प्राप्त है हमें। किंग्स्टन 🇨🇦और केन्या 🇰🇪 में तो घर हैं ही, अब बच्चों के अलग अलग शहरों में घर, ऐसे दोस्त और परिवार के सदस्यों के घर जिन्हें हम अपना घर ही मानते हैं, अब हमारे घरों की फ़ेहरिस्त में आते हैं 😜।सोच के देखें तो ज़िंदगी से इससे ज़्यादा और क्या माँगे?यह पिछले चार महीने कनाडा 🇨🇦 में बहुत अच्छे से बीते। केन्या वापिस आने का सफ़र भी बिना किसी परेशानी के रहा पर दिल और दिमाग़ बहुत असमंजस में रहे। बच्चों का साथ छोड़ना और किंग्स्टन 🍁जैसी सुरक्षित और सुहावनी जगह से कहीं जाने का मन नहीं था पर दुनिया के अलग अलग देशों के समय का फ़र्क़ मनोज के काम को बहुत मुश्किल बना रहे थे। केन्या 🇰🇪 वापिस आना ही एकमात्र समाधान था।करोना के मुश्किल समय होने के बावजूद सफ़र के दौरान कोई कठिनाई नहीं हुई। वो इसलिए कि हम इस सफ़र के लिए पूरी तरह तैयार थे, कोविड टेस्ट के negative होने का प्रमाणपत्र लेकर, केन्या के स्वास्थ्य विभाग के लिए एक bar code ले कर, सारा समय mask पहन के रखने से और दूसरे लोगों से दूरी बनाए रख कर। असल में यह काफ़ी सांत्वना देने वाली बात थी कि 1. तीनों airport , Toronto, Addis Ababa और Kenya की Airport authorities बहुत तल्लीनता और सहज तरीक़े से सब लोगों की स्वास्थ्य सुरक्षा का ध्यान रख रही थीं।2. सहयात्री भी बड़ी सहजता से सब नियमों का पालन कर रहे थे।3. हम यह मान कर भी चल रहे थे की सब सहयात्री कोविड negative हैं क्योंकि विमान में चढ़ने से पहले airport और airline वाले यह प्रमाणपत्र माँग रहे हैं।4. विमान या lounge की सेवाओं में कोई कमी नहीं थी (Toronto की लाउंज अलबत्ता बंद थी), यहाँ तक कि विमान में मनोरंजन कार्यक्रम भी TV पर दिखाए जा रहे थे जो तब बंद थे जब हम कनाडा 🇨🇦 अगस्त में गए थे।जिस दिन हम Toronto से रवाना हुए उसके अगले दिन वहाँ बहुत बर्फ़ पड़ी, तो केन्या 🇰🇪 आना अच्छा रहा। यहाँ के सुहावने मौसम और अरुण और ब्रिज जैसे दोस्तों की गर्मजोशी ने हमारा स्वागत किया। साफ़ घर , फ़्रिज में बना रखा स्वादिष्ट खाना और किराने का सामान अगर आपका इंतेज़ार कर रहा हो तो क्या बात है। और ज़्यादा आश्चर्य और ख़ुशी तो मुझे अपने terrarium 🪴🌱(काँच के गमले) देखकर हुई जिनमें कुछ पौधे अब भी हरे थे (जबकि चार महीने तक उनकी कोई देखभाल नहीं हुई थी)।


COVID Travels

So, we are home in Kingston after a long wait and a considerable amount of anxiety about travel plans over the last few months. Although we are very comfortable in our second home in Kenya, getting back to our first home in Canada and seeing the kids has constantly been on our minds during these uncertain COVID times. It was a long wait for international travel to open back up in Kenya and the very day it opened, we were on a plane. We for sure had a distinctive travel experience this time compared to all the travels we have done throughout our lives.
What an experience it was see so few people at all the 3 airports we travelled through. No long queues at check-in or immigration or security. Though our flight was in the evening that day, we were the first ones to use the lounge so were greeted by lounge staff with a lot of excitement and attention. They even took pictures with us as we were their first clients in the last five months. We have been traveling on Ethiopian Airways for some years now as we love their excellent staff, good connections, great food, lounges and of course their fares. Things that were clearly unusual and unexpected for us this time were: having no entertainment system in the plane throughout Ethiopian airlines, no magazines/newspapers on board and no add-on authentic Ethiopian meals. We really did not mind all this because we realize that all airlines have been running into billions of dollars of losses, and they may not be left with many choices other than to shave off unnecessary costs. As for procedures and protocols at the airports, masks were required everywhere, but no COVID test reports were required by airport authorities or by the airline. The plane was only at 1/3 of its capacity, maybe because it was the first day of the travel or maybe people are just not traveling again yet. While everyone was wearing masks, the airport in Addis did not have strict social distancing protocols when getting people on buses offloading the plane. At the Toronto airport only 50 people were allowed to get off from the plane at one time and walk through the hanger and then after 5-10 minutes the next lot of people were offloaded. A buffet was laid out at both the lounges in Nairobi as well at Addis, but Nairobi airport staff served it at the tables to meet COVID related health requirements whereas Addis lounge did not follow this protocol. Seating was however set up to follow social distancing requirements at both the lounges. Airline staff wore masks all the time and gloves only when serving food, but they did not have face shields or other more intense PPE for their own safety.

While all of us are feeling completely healthy and asymptomatic, we are now in self isolation with both the kids for 14 days in our home in Kingston and have been thoroughly enjoying their company and the quality time we have with them. Having said that, the mere thought that we might have contracted the virus while traveling and may pass it on to somebody here is the heaviest burden on my mind at this time while we are in isolation. Looking forward to catching up with friends after the isolation period.

This post would be incomplete if I did not thank Sanjiv Sam Kapoor and Aparna Kapoor who graciously made sure that we were stocked up with everything we might need during this isolation period.

Deadly Nyama Choma..

This memory ruminated back early this week after I met some of my long lost friends from my time working at the IRC in Kenya, two decades ago. A quickly arranged reunion at our new home in Nairobi turned out to be such a pleasant afternoon catching up with everyone. It was great to see the same old faces with a new look — more mature, yet holding the same expressions, nuances and  innocence of twenty years ago. We talked and chuckled about all the time we spent together as colleagues. One memory from 1998 that we all fondly recalled and could not stop laughing about was when I had suggested hosting a small house warming party at our new home in Nairobi. This was going to be the first get together with just my finance colleagues. Reacting to my proposal, Gabriel instantly came up with the idea that we should have a nyama choma evening — a traditional Kenyan barbeque. It seemed like a good idea to me to do something that would introduce me to the local culture.

I was new to Nairobi so I asked them where to get the meat for nyama choma, Gabriel readily offered to arrange for it. I was relieved that I just had to make some Indian food to compliment the main dish. It was agreed that the meat would be sent to my home and I would marinate it to be roasted in the evening.

On the day of the party, I was busy cleaning and getting the house ready when I saw somebody coming in through the gate. They were accompanied by a hopping, healthy, breathing and very much alive 3-foot-tall goat!

Seeing the live and kicking mammal, it did not occur to me even once that this could be the meat that Gabriel had promised to arrange. I was in a shock. I could not visualize this live goat lying in tiny pieces in the evening on the small outdoor griller we had. I called him and shared my sentiments as best as I could without sounding too distressed or tousled. I asked how he could possibly help in the situation and what to expect next. To my respite he offered to arrange for the meat to be made available in the form that we are used to see it. Soon enough there was somebody who took the live goat behind the house and came back with a torso of the goat without the head. It was again a sight that I had not expected. So I asked for it to be cut into a size and form that could be roasted. It took a couple of hours and the sacrifice of two chopping knives to get the meat to be ready. I once again cringed when I saw the quantity of meat we had on hand, considering that we would have a maximum of ten people that night for the get together. I recall mentioning to Manoj that we needed at least 50 people to tackle this much meat. Nevertheless, we had a great evening and all of the meat was polished off.

We not only created some treasured memories, we got acquainted to the local custom of nyama choma in the best of company we could have had.

There goes my precious betel vine!

paanLet me start by telling you what a betel plant is.The betel plant is an evergreen perennial, with glossy heart-shaped leaves. A sheaf of betel leaves is traditionally offered as a mark of respect at auspicious beginnings, and to greet elders for their blessings at wedding ceremonies. Fresh crushed betel leaves can be used as an antiseptic for cuts and wounds. It is also good for the respiratory system and is used in treatments of bronchitis, cough, and cold. Betel chewing increases digestive capacity when used with lime. It also neutralizes acidity and acts as a blood purifier. Along with all the medicinal benefits this leaf has to offer, it is most commonly served as a digestive and mouth freshener after meals. In this form it is commonly known as PaanPaan is made by wrapping cardamon, rose petal jam, fennel seeds, areca nut and other condiments into a betel leaf.

So considering all of these great features of betel leaves combined with my love for growing herbs at home, I felt quite lucky when I came across a very good variety of betel vine to grow while we were living in Ghana. The weather was perfect and the vine flourished into a glossy bed of shiny green hearts. There were so many leaves on the vine that I had a standing offer extended to all my friends to take as many leaves as they wanted for their house parties.

Now before I tell the interesting part of the story, I have to lay the backdrop. We were living in a house that had a guard at all times, their duty changing every 8 hours. Most of these guards were staffed by a security company and did not understand much of English. However they were very nice, smiling all the time and nodding their heads to every conversation and question as if they have understood everything.

So, one of my friends called to ask if she could get some betel leaves for a party at her house, I gladly said yes. As I was not going to be home when her driver was to come to pick up the leaves, I showed the vine to the guard on duty.  I told him that a driver will come to get these leaves and let him take as many as he wants. Though it was a simple instruction, still I repeated it twice and the guard nodded his head and confirmed with saying “Yes, I understand”.

When I got back after a couple of hours, I just got into the house without thinking much about whether the betel leaves were picked up or not. Later in the evening when I was taking a stroll inside the compound of the house, I felt that the kitchen garden area was looking really neat and groomed. Soon I realized what had happened. I got the shock of my life. There was NO betel vine any more. The entire area had been cleared. I could not trace even the uprooted vine or roots anywhere. And that guard I had spoken with earlier had gone off duty. I was so upset and simply assumed that it was possible that my friend’s driver might have taken the entire vine instead of only a few leaves. I hesitatingly called my friend to check and to my disbelief I got to know that she could not send the driver for some reason and had changed her mind about using betel leaves for the party. Now, I was having a hard time understanding what actually happened to my beloved vine. it was a difficult night to pass by waiting for the guard to turn up next morning.

When he came I asked him what happened to the vine, he was still smiling and saying “Yes, yes, I understand” and actually had a sparkle in his eyes as if waiting for me to say “job well done”. I was feeling really troubled but could not express it as he was all smiles and I could now see that he actually did not understand English at all and just knew the few words: “Yes, yes, I understand”. Later I had to get his supervisor (who came on daily rounds) to explain to him what I wanted him to do and what he did. The supervisor told me that when I showed him the vine, he presumed he had to uproot it and was proud of the great job he had done!

And so, that is the sad tale of the betel vine that became victim to language barriers! I still miss the distinct flavour of that particularly rare variety, but on the bright side I now have a great story to tell at parties!




Missing Battery!

This is an anecdote that amuses us every time we recollect our memories and talk about it with family or friends.

On a bright morning in Accra, as Manoj was about to leave for work the office car, a Toyota RAV4, would not start. There was no ignition sound other than a dead click. Manoj thought that the battery may be dead. He opened the engine hood and to his shock found that there was no battery in the car, even the cables connecting the battery to the circuits were gone. In a private house where the car was parked inside the compound that is guarded 24 hours, this sounded outrageous. The guard on duty was summoned and enquires started. We had been ignoring earlier instances of minor things missing from the compound but now Manoj decided to report it to the police as well as the security company. So, within an hour of this, a police complaint was made and supervisors from the security company got busy starting the enquiry. Both the police and the investigating officer from the security company took photos of the crime scene. Meanwhile Manoj requested the office admin to get a new battery and send another car with a jumper cable to drive him to work. Coincidentally the other car that was sent was also a RAV4 of the exact same model year. Manoj enthusiastically called for the guards to show them the battery in this car and how it was connected to the cables. As he opened the engine hood to look at…voila..there was no battery in this car too…and this was the car that had just driven in through the gate. You can imagine his dismay, what would it have been like.. the first reaction was – how is this possible?? In no time we found out  that the battery was hidden behind a panel as a part of engine design. It was hilarious and dumbfounding at the same time..how could we have missed seeing the battery. After realizing our mistake all we did was laughed and laughed and this became one of the most interesting stories of our time in Ghana. A full round of apologies were made to the guards, security company officials, police and the office staff for creating the confusion.