Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Colombo Calling - Honeymoon Part II

Eisha Sarkar

"What Mumbai is to India, Colombo is to Sri Lanka," the smile on the Sri Lanka Tourism Board (SLTB) official's face widened as we waited for him to give us some information about hotels in Colombo. Few Indian honeymooners would make an unplanned trip to Sri Lanka. Ours wasn't completely unplanned. We had indeed gone through hotels recommended by the Lonely Planet at a bookstore in Male. Our return flight was supposed to be via Colombo, so we thought of stopping over for a day.

Hotel bookings: Having reached at the dead of the night, we thought of enquiring about hotels in Colombo at the SLTB counter at the airport when a Colombo Hotels Corporation official materialised from nowhere. For two hours we haggled over the prices of hotels in downtown Colombo. We'd booked our rooms for $50 a night (SL Rs 111) at Hotel Goodwood near the airport but official suggested we board one in downtown Colombo so we looked at brochures for various hotels. Our final pick: Hotel Grand Oriental at York Street in the Fort area of Colombo for SL Rs 4,500 (Around INR 2,000) a night.

Call a cab: The airport is 32 km from Colombo so you have to either hire a taxi or take the airport bus to Colombo. At that odd hour, keeping security concerns in mind we opted for a taxi that would cost us SL Rs 2,200 (it can cost you up to SL Rs 2,800 if you ask for a hotel pick-up). Transport in Sri Lanka is quite expensive. A half-hour journey by rickshaw in Colombo may cost as much as SL Rs 500 so please bargain carefully before you board it.

Whogunnit! Barely had we gone a few kilometres south towards Colombo, our car was flagged and asked to stop. Next a man with a gun, tapped on my window and asked me to open the door. He then pointed a gun at me and asked me for my identity card. My heart started thumping as I fumbled for my passport. The taxi driver flashed his card and said that we're Indians. Thankfully, our soldier just let us pass and I heaved a sigh of relief without realising that we would be checked nearly six times in a day's course in Colombo.

Fort precinct: We were put up at the Grand Oriental Hotel opposite the Port Trust. The hotel building which resembles the Great Western Building in Mumbai. The Fort area of Colombo is a lot like D N Road in Mumbai with British styled buildings. York Street is the main business district, lined with banks. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre stand right in the centre of this area. The President's House is closeby as is the Tourist Police Office. As this is a high-security zone, movement into and out of this area is really restricted especially at night when the army erects barricades and conducts random searches on evening walkers.

Attractions: A trip down to the famed Gangaramaya Temple is a must. If the giant tusker in the temple compound doesn't impress you much the ten-feet-tall brass statues of Buddha inside the temple definitely will. Colombo is dotted with many Buddhist and Hindu temples, with architecture very similar to that found in Tamil Nadu. Besides places of religious worship, the other tourist spots are the Town Hall (a carbon copy of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata), the Vihara Mahadevi Park that has a spice garden and the Art Gallery near it which showcases the works of some of the finest Sri Lankan Artists since the 1930s (you can also buy prints of their works here for a few thousand SL rupees). While the National Museum buzzes with foreign tourists, the Dutch Museum in the heart of Pettah (equivalent to the Crawford Market in Mumbai) traces the links between the Dutch and the Sinhalese Kings in Kandy and about the sapphire and spice trade between the two countries.

The travelogue has been published in Mumbai Mirror's online edition:

Colombo Calling appeared in print in Mumbai Mirror on February 25. Do check it out here

Slumdog's Ghajini

Two films in a week - that's a reason to write. Well, I started off with the well-acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire at a suburban theatre in Mumbai and on Republic Day, I watched the power-packed Ghajini. Both films have had their fare share of media attention - Slumdog for its bullish run at the international awards fests and Ghajini has earned its print space with a rather brawny Aamir Khan.

What I like about Slumdog is its crisp editing. The story is simple - slum boy yearns for childhood love and finds her through a quiz show on television. The story of his life unfolds as he goes into his past looking for answers to the questions he's asked on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Had a regular Bollywood director picked up the subject, there would have been an overdose of drama and emotions. There are no graphic images of poverty and misery. Instead what you find is a suggestion of pain, grief and violence.

Ghajini is an unusual film. For one, in the history of Indian cinema, this may be one of the rarest of films to be named after the film's villain. We've had our fair share of Gabbars and Mocambos but even Gabbar couldn't have a film named after him. Ghajini scores on that one. The film isn't an entertainer, nor does it seek to be one. There's gruesome violence but not much of a show of it. The acting's superb and the background score is more a character than an accompaniment. The story's simple - one of revenge. Only, the protagonist suffers from anterograde amnesia. He can't remember anything for more than 15 minutes and has to write everything down. While Aamir Khan stole the show with his superb acting, I must say newcomer Asin has also done a pretty good job in the film. The rest...let Aamir's punches do the talking.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Vibrant Gujarat: From behind the scenes

I am not a Narendra Modi fan. In fact, I don't know him at all. Yes, I had heard of his propoganda campaign during the 2002 Godhra riots, but that's all I had known of him before I attended the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit 2009 in Ahmedabad earlier this week. Modi looked suave in a suit and he did look powerful. But this wasn't just a show of power. To organise a well-attended (all those industrywallas who matter shared the dias with his at the inauguration ceremony on January 12) event such as this one at the time of one of the world's worst economic crisis while brushing away terrorist threats, is indeed commendable. Modi spoke in English. He didn't have a choice - the Kenyan Prime Minister was his special guest and there were delegations from various countries. But he made an impact only when he delivered a few sentences in chaste Hindi, so much so that they would garner a thunderous applause.

"Cameramen please sit down"
Modi doesn't like the media very much. It became even more evident during the inauguration event for the industrial exhibition. The hall was packed. Many were left to stand as there were few seats. Much to our surprise Modi apologised to the crowd for poor management on the part of the government. There he'd touched a chord. As a speaker (one of the many) took the stage, a group of cameramen near the stage jostled for space. Modi grimaced (we caught it on the display screens they had put up). A few minutes later he rose from his seat and walked towards the speaker who stepped aside. Modi grabbed the microphone and said, "Cameramen, please sit down. Please, please." Our media friends just didn't know what to do. They stood ground for a moment, but usherers rushed in to put them in their seats. We saw more smiles on people's faces then than we saw after Modi's speech on bringing investors in Gujarat. That sure spoke volumes.

"Jai Hind"
When British Member of Parliament Barry Gardinar concluded his speech with these very words, little did he know he'd created history. Gujarat is the land of Gandhi and his Dandi March. If Gandhi were present on that day, he would have beamed. His disciples and descendents didn't let him down.

Where do we go?
The mammoth event was organised by the government of Gujarat. Like most state events, this one too was found lacking in organisational aspects. For one, there were no directions. The helpdesks offered no help, so much so that when we asked for directions to the office of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the man was perplexed and asked us whether we'd come to the correct venue. He of course had no clue that CII was one of the event partners.

Food for grabs
Gujaratis, like all Indians, love their food. We geared up for some traditional undhiyu and kadhi after Modi's inauguration address only to be greeted by a sight more fitted for a relief camp for flood victims. There were 10 counters for food and no plates. The caterers had misjudged the number of people who had come to the event. Corporate delegates in suits scrambled for the few plates that were available, often breaking into fist-fights. Others seemed resigned to their fate - they used rotis as plates and ate from them. That's innovation!

Industrial exhibition
The exhibition was the prime focus of the event. It gave various businessmen opportunities to know and network with others of their kind. While Tata Motors, Bombardier, Reliance, Cadilla, Sandesara Group and Gujarat Tourism took centrestage with huge stalls manned by dainty women in chiffons, there were others that sold everything from religious ideology, to tyres to even galvanometers (I hadn't seen one since college). "I'm not stupid anymore"That was Ratan Tata's reponse to bringing Nano to Gujarat. Besides Gardinar, Tata's speech was the only other that was laced with what we common folks call humour. Nano was a big talking point. In fact, Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rashid said, "In Singapore, everything is very small. It's all nano-nano. But here in Gujarat, even Nano is very big." Tata was happy. He said, "A few years ago I had commented, 'If you are not in Gujarat, you're stupid.' Now, I have followed by own advice. I am no longer stupid."

Mr. Minister, what did you say?
While all Indian businessmen and Modi spoke in the Queen's language, Paolo Pertini, Minister for Agriculture, Italy, spoke in only Italian. It didn't matter to him that there were no translators available. He simply didn't budge. What he spoke may not have connected with the crowd, but his Italian pride was saluted nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Honeymoon

I had a lot to write on the honeymoon in the Maldives and Colombo...but was warned against giving out a few details. So I've done something better...written a travelogue for Mumbai Mirror.


By Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Tuesday, January 06, 2009 at 12:52:33 PM

Pristine beaches, clear waters, rich marine life and scuba diving -- for most honeymooners, Maldives provides the ultimate sun-and-sand experience. With a land area that makes up just four per cent of the country (the rest is water), Maldives doesn't have much of a population to boast about, which makes it a perfect destination for those who want to escape the hustle-bustle of city life. While Mauritius, which lies further west in the Indian Ocean has become a regular for Bollywood shoots and Indian holidaymakers, Maldives remains surprisinglyyp untouchced. "Indians don't come to Maldives primarily because of the food and the cost factor," an official of the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, Male points out as he expresses surprise at our nationality. But if you are ready to explore a new culture (not to mention cuisine) and eager enough to shell out the money, then Maldives can offer much more than you've bargained for.

Nearly 1,000 islands make up the country, out of which around 99 are resort islands (there's one resort per island), another 200 islands are inhabited by the locals and around 700 islands are uninhabited. Kuramathi, an island resort that spans 2.5 kms in length, is one of the largest islands in the Alifu Alifu Atoll (an atoll is a group of islands) in north Maldives. The beach resort has cottages lined up on the seafront just 10 metres from the shoreline and water bungalows on stilts near the sea.
How to get there: A two-hour ferry-ride from the airport at Male that costs 10 Maldivian Rufiaah ($1).
Activities: The main activity at Kuramathi is scuba diving. Aspiring divers (mostly from Europe) attend the five-day diving certification course here that costs around $700 (all prices at the resort are quoted only in American dollars). Snorkelling is the next big activity. While a snorkelling trip to the reef costs around $50, most snorkellers prefer to explore the reef on their own near the island. A 500 metre-long coral reef connects Kuramathi with two other smaller uninhabted islands. You can hire snorkelling gear for around $20 a day from the resort shop. Besides, the resort has a spa, a swimming pool, gymnasium, water sports centre (that offers catamaran sunset cruises, banana boat rides and kayaking facilities). The resort also offers day-trips to other atolls such as Rasdhoo (for shopping) and Velidhu (an uninhabited island).
What you see: Corals in all shades of red, blue, green and yellow. Fishes - from bright coloured rays and angel fishes to huge sting rays that are about three feet wide each. If fishes are all you want to see, you don't even need to go more than two to three metres away from the shoreline where you'll find curious baby sharks and yellow-fin tuna.
Food: The islands cater mainly to European tourists so food is essentially a mix of continental cuisines. Maldivian food is also served in the buffet. Most local dishes are very similar to coastal food in western India - such as roshi (roti), dhal curry, samosa and fish curry. Tuna is the staple fish here so if you're looking for the typical pomfrets, you may be a bit disappointed. Vegetarian fare is rare, so it is advisable to carry along some dry food packages.
Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink: Drinking water is very expensive in Kuramathi and even in the rest of the Maldives. It's more expensive than fresh fruit juice. A bottle of 1.5 litre of water costs around $4 so do account for it when you plan your trip.

While Kuramathi is the idyllic village resort just like its Mediterranean counterparts, capital Male resembles a north African town with its bright coloured buildings and crude architecture. The contrast is so striking that few tourists actually come to visit Male. Most use it as a sleep-over destination so that they can come out of their jet lag before heading to the resort islands.
How to get there: You can fly via Thiruvanathapuram or via Colombo.
Activities: Male is the administrative centre. There are sightseeing tours from the city to the neighbouring islands but there are few choices in the city. Diving courses conducted by Japanese expats are quite popular.
Heritage gaze: Male, unfortunately, doesn't have too many heritage buildings, except for the President's house, the palace and a few mosques. A visit to the National Museum Medhuziyaarai Magu costs $3 per head but proves to be quite a dampener, especially after you've been to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. The museum is literally a shack with several objects simply tagged with 'This piece was brought from the palace' sign. There are some remnants of the clothing of the sultans who ruled Maldives since it was converted to Islam from Buddhism in the 12th century. There are also several 2500-year-old Buddha relics that have been unearthed from some of the atolls. There is also the Friday Mosque with its Golden dome and the Sultan's tomb.
Shopping: For most locals, Male is the ultimate shopping destination. Walk down the main street Majeedhee Magu and you'll see a line of clothes and shoe shops with signboards in Dhivehi (the local language with a script that resembles Arabic) and English. From shops selling bright North African hijab scarves to traditional reed mats and coconut shell rings, there are few typical Maldivian souvenir choices. Dollars are more readily accepted than the local currency Rufiyaa (12.75 Rufiyaa = $1), so much so that you can get your dollars changed at the local tea shop. Shops close five times a day during namaaz in this 100 per cent Muslim-populated country.
Food: There are limited choices for Maldivian food in Male but Jade Bistro near the State Bank of India Boduthakurufaanu Magu is a good option for local food. Besides, there are several Indian restaurants and even tandoor joints which serve small portions of Maldivian food.

What not to do in the Maldives:
  • Bathe naked
  • Expect someone to offer you a glass of water for free
  • Expect a cabbie to take you to your destination directly
  • Stand on the corals while snorkelling as you can get gashed
  • Venture out without sunblock (buy one with the highest SPF because you are sure to get sunburns)

Check it out: