The border

The Serengeti plains dominate most pictures of Africa’s wilderness in our culture today, perhaps driven largely by the ease of making movies there. It is possible that Howard Hawkes’ movie, Hatari!, starring John Wayne has something to do with it. It was made almost exactly when Tanzania and Kenya became independent, and may have been seen as a template for earning precious foreign exchange. Having seen the iconic movie at an age when I was not sure whether I preferred to be human or rhino, it was only a matter of time before I came to the gates of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The district around the reserve is one of the last remnants of the Maasai expansion of the 19th century. As we approached the reserve we saw more and more of the Maasai, recognizable by their colourful shukas (the blanket worn around their shoulders). The Maasai are symbolic of the great changes that colonialism brought to Africa. In spite of their reputation as killers of lions, the Maasai beliefs in the sacredness of soil ensured that they lived in equilibrium with their new lands. The territorial expansion of a small population also made sure that their impact on the land remained small.

As at Njoro, my house looks over the Rongai Valley and, as at Njoro, the Mau Forest broods in resigned silence, close on the edges of fields fresh robbed of their ancient trees.
—West with the Night, Beryl Markham

They have not fared well since the beginning of the 20th century. The desperation with which the people around the gate of the reserve tried to sell us hand-crafted wood or beaded jewellery was an indicator of their marginal existence. The Maasai counted their wealth in cattle, and were completely dependent on it for food. Now, with land fenced off, and wealth having a different function, the Maasai are still having trouble reconciling their faith and traditions with the twenty first century.

The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the degradation of the human population.
—North of South, Shiva Naipaul

We paid our entrance fee to the park and passed easily through the gate into the reserve. But for the Maasai tribesmen, this barrier has become as impermeable as any international border since the area was declared a game reserve in 1961. I would rather have a sanctuary for wildlife than not. But as the border opened to us and we passed through into a dream of another century, I had enough knowledge of history to know that this refuge was made necessary by the colonial greed which cleared forests across the world and replaced them by tea and coffee plantations, and enough knowledge of animals to know that many antelopes, lions, elephants, and leopards can live in forests as well as in grassland.

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Crawling through downtown Nairobi

Traffic in downtown Nairobi can be slow at rush hour. Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid it on all days. The video here is speeded up 10 times; you can see pedestrians zip by while motorized traffic crawls!

Nairobi’s shops

Eight hundred years ago, the Chinese admiral Zheng He launched expeditions to Africa which tried to link up with the Indian Ocean trade network. Six centuries ago, Vasco da Gama found the same extensive trade linking the Indian Ocean, and hired a Gujarati pilot to guide him from Kenya’s coast to India. Colonial militarism and the slave trade shredded these links in the subsequent centuries. In 1907, the British Imperial Under-Secretary of the Colonies, Winston Churchill, wrote an article which whitewashed the old history of this trans-oceanic trade. “It is the Indian trader who, penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places where no white man would go, developed the early beginnings of trade.”

But this was a prelude to a statement of what he thought was a crucial problem, “The entry of the Asiatic as labourers, trader, and capitalist into competition in industry and enterprise not only with, but in, the Western world is a new fact of first importance.” It is hard to read this article today without coming face to face with the fundamental problem of empire- it is geared to maintaining the prosperity and privilege of the colonizer through brute force, hidden behind an invented moral justification which, for the imperial British, was racist (“These people are unable to govern themselves”). But I digress.

What was true eight centuries ago remains true today: East Africa is a microcosm of the world. The small Gujarati-run grocery stores, called duka (from dukan, the Hindi word for a shop) are common throughout East Africa. We stepped into one briefly to pick up some cheese and yogurt to take with us on the long drive to Masai Mara. The shop was bustling with the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Nairobi. Kenya’s economy has prospered by never descending into the populist distraction of Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin. The frame does not capture a Chinese couple, who were also in the shop. They are the newest entrants to the East African mix. If Indian labourers built the railways a hundred and thirty years ago, the Chinese are building today’s roads.

At the other end of the spectrum of shops was the infamous Westgate Mall. The terrorist attack of 2013 on this Israeli owned mall and subsequent scenes of looting seen on TV screens across the world, seem to be almost forgotten today. Almost, but not quite, since entry to every mall now requires you to pass through metal detectors and mandatory scanning of bags. We went in late, looking for an ATM, and then stayed to wander through shops. The Westgate mall has not recovered completely yet; many spaces were empty, unlike what we saw in other malls. Many see Westgate as a microcosm of everything that is happening in Kenya today. But one part of the story is clear; Kenya is beginning to boom. To Kenyans the story may not look simple with the ongoing hiccups in world trade, but malls are there to stay, as much as the duka, and the recovering trans-oceanic trade.

Street food of Nairobi

Nairobi is a great place for restaurants: a wide variety, extremely fresh ingredients, and imaginative chefs. But the biggest fun in eating when you are in a completely new place is street food. It always gives you a wonderful introduction to local ingredients, used in ways that attract local palates. For me the high point of discover was street side mogo chips. I’m sure every East African will groan at my predictability, but a paper bag of these fresh thin wafers of cassava (mogo), fried to a crispy gold, covered with flakes of chili, with a whole lime squeezed over the bagful, was a fabulous discovery. It is not an unfamiliar taste, but the flavour of cassava is very different from that of potato, and that touch of the exotic made my day. The young man in the featured photo was one of a line of vendors who had brought traffic to a standstill with this single item.

Not quite a single item. There were also vendors selling grilled corn (exactly like back home in Mumbai) with lime and chili to flavour it. I’d missed the fact that the stall that you see in the photo above also featured banana flowers. I’ll have to wait till my next trip to Nairobi to figure out how banana flowers are used in local fast food.

Through rural Kenya

I had dreams of a long restful sleep on my first night in Kenya, but the reality was quite different. We got up early to leave for Amboseli National Park. Since we would spend large parts of two days inside the car, I was happy to see that the interior was spacious enough for four. There was considerable traffic in Nairobi, and it was more than half an hour before we hit the Mombasa highway.

Highway travel in Kenya is completely different from that in India, as you can see in the video above. Almost everyone keeps to the speed limit of 80 Kilometers an hour (in fact tourist vehicles have a governor that enforces this limit), so there is almost no overtaking. No one honks. Lane discipline is strict. It is as boring as driving in Switzerland. One other interesting thing that you see in the video above, and in the featured photo, is that even out on the highway you can see people on foot. There are fairly frequent buses to ferry people between towns, and we could see many people walking to these stops.

The most common shops are those which deal in mobile phone services. These green and white shops of Safaricom are everywhere, quite outnumbering the shops for other service providers. Vodafone’s tremendously popular electronic payment portal, called m-Pesa, works over the Safaricom network. Very large numbers of people travel far from their villages to look for work, so the popularity of mobile services is quite understandable. With so many people living away from home, it is no surprise that bars come a close second in popularity.

Electricity clearly reached every village on the highway; not surprising since the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch is the biggest trade corridor inside the country. But the ubiquity of mobile services meant that electricity does indeed reach much further. What didn’t was drinking water. I would notice these yellow plastic jars of water in many places after I saw them being filled at a mobile water tank (photo above).

We sped past many small towns or villages. Along the highway one saw many of the services you might expect: hardware stores, general stores, car repairs. A century ago Winston Churchill had remarked on the enterprise of Indian merchants who had, according to him, “opened up the continent.” They were not in evidence any more. Native Kenyans have taken over this niche. Only the word duka, meaning shop, adapted from Hindi, remains of this vanished history.

Some of the towns along the route clearly housed larger markets. We barreled past a deserted marketplace (photo above). Our guide, Anthony, explained that this was a weekly market. The place must be something to see on a market day. Unfortunately, we never got to see the market.

In spite of the very large number of bars and restaurants on the way, Anthony brought us to a rest stop at a place which advertised itself on its gate as Bethel Global Art Gallery. This was something like the Masai market we had seen the previous evening, but larger. The Family and Mother of Niece Tatu were soon engrossed in looking at the works on display.

Father of Niece Tatu and I were meanwhile eyeing other shopping opportunities. A little stall in the corner of this complex served tea. It was mid-morning and a tea was exactly what was needed. Although the complex was full of tourists, we were the only people who stopped for tea. Most tourists left with little packets of handicrafts, we exited with a cup of Kericho Gold warming us.

The Family went off to take a photo of the duo which guarded the gate. One difference we’d noticed between India and Kenya was that in Kenya you when your tried to talk to a guard or a shopkeeper, they would talk and joke with you. In India most talk of this kind is extremely businesslike. A guard will seldom joke with you. The Family came back beaming; she’d had a nice and funny conversation with the two you see in the photo above.

We’d been driving for a couple of hours already, and I’d spent the time sitting next to Anthony in the front. Now I changed seats and joined the rest of the group at the back. Instantly MONT unpacked some food and began passing it around. I had my share and dozed off. As a result, I never saw the interesting things that The Family clicked, like the little market place that you see in the photo above.

The per capita GDP of Kenya is about three quarters that of India, so Kenya cannot be considered to be a very poor country. It is perhaps the most successful economy of East Africa, in spite of the current slow down. The income distribution is not terribly skewed either (currently, going by the Gini coefficient, Canada, India, and Kenya have roughly similar levels of inequality). So it is common to see a three story bungalow, and ramshackle shops close to each other.

I was completely asleep when we turned away from the Mombasa highway on to the southward road which would take us to Amboseli. The surroundings turned more pastoral. The Family told me of an increasing number of herders. Could this person whom she clicked be a Masai? Perhaps. There are Masai settlements around Amboseli, and the Masai are herders.

The landscape also changed about then. The photos that the family took show that the flat land of the Nairobi plateau had given way to the hills that would lead on to Mount Kilimanjaro. We were near our destination.

Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.

Five hours in Fatih

It was hard to say goodbye to Istanbul. We walked until the last possible minute and left the dealing with fatigue for the flight back to Mumbai.

Constantine’s column

Our last day in Istanbul started with a tram ride down the central axis that Constantine built for his new city: the street once called the Mese, now Yeniçeriler Cadessi.

We hopped off at the stop called Çemberlitaş. The square here is as old as the city; it was part of the Roman forum. The column is Constantine’s column, today called Çemberlitaş, meaning burnt column, The base has been raised over centuries, the old base lies well below the level of today’s ground. The mosque behind it was built by Atik Ali Pasha. The single minaret designates that the Pasha was not of the royal family. The sultan’s family was allowed to put up two minarets in mosques they financed, the sultan would normally use four. There’s a nice hamam right in front of the column, across the square from the mosque. One reason we need to go back to Istanbul is that we didn’t find the time to go to a hamam.

Nurosmaniye mosque

We were at the northern end of the square. At the other end we could see the Nurosmaniye mosque, one of the exemplary Baroque Ottoman mosques, and our second stop for the day.

I should write more about this grand 18th century structure, which may, quite deservedly, be included in the World Heritage list soon. Started in 1748 CE during the reign of sultan Mahmut I and completed seventeen years later in the time of his successor, sultan Osman III, the architect Simeon Kalfa built a structure bathed in light. I should write more about it, but, for completely different reasons, I must repeat the words of Evariste Galois, “Je n’ai pas le temps.”

Grand bazaar

Just outside the mosque was the covered bazaar which is the big destination for tourists. So many carpet sellers in the rest of Turkey had told us that their prices were much lower than we would find in the Grand bazaar, that we were looking forward to it.

The Turkish name, Kapalıçarşı, literally would mean covered bazaar, but grand is a good description. Its construction started immediately after the Turkish victory over the Byzantines in 1453 AD. This area stands just across a hill from the ancient port on the Golden Horn, and the end of what used to be Theodosius’ forum (now Beyazit square). So there must have been ancient market here even earlier. In the 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and this market was deemed to be the biggest in the world. It remains picturesque even today. The Family and I could roam through this market for a full day, looking for carpets, ceramics, calligraphy, meerschaum pipes, and even food. So it was hard to walk through quickly in half an hour.

Streets of Fatih

The Beyazit mosque was under repair. On another side of the vast Beyazit square was Istanbul University (which produced two Nobel laureates and the founder of Israel). We walked up to the enormous ceremonial gate (featured photo), then detoured into the used-book market. The only planned stop in our walk after this was the Sulemaniye mosque. The rest of the time was for immersing ourselves into the life of Istanbul.

We walked past a few meyhane. My subconscious went into overdrive and reminded me that the Turkish hane is the cognate of Urdu khana, so meyhane is the same as the Hindi maikhana, a pub. They were closed now. Could it be because of Ramazan? Nerval had come to Istanbul in Ramazan in the 18th century, and described it as a fast and a carnival. We’d expected nights to be livelier than they were. Much has changed in the intervening years. Nerval’s friend, Theophile Gautier, walked through these streets (“labyrinth”, he called it) a few years later, terrified by snarling packs of dogs. The Turkish writers Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar followed in their footsteps in the 20th century and called then “ruined, poor and wretched.” Now, as we proceed beyond the beginning of the 21st century, the area is quite gentrified.

Egyptian bazaar (spice bazaar)

Our final stop was the spice bazaar, behind the in-repair Rustem Pasha mosque. The area outside the covered bazaar was truly a bazaar in the Indian sense; lots of little shops, a huge press of people rushing about, others, like us, holding up traffic by taking photos. But we would be back in such places the very next day, so we passed by familiar pleasures and walked into the Misir çarşısi, ie, the Egyptian bazaar.

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Located just behind the New mosque (Yeni cami), the spice bazaar had an astounding variety of things to eat. I was really taken by the balls of nuts held together by a gummy matrix like lokum, and bought a single piece by weight. Istanbullus are like people in any other city; shopkeepers are a little surly when you do things that no local does. But tis man sold me a weirdly small amount of food after a little grumbling. There was a lot of lokum on display, but I’d earmarked a special shop for the sweets I wanted to take back. Did I want rose water, or orange essence? No. “Time to move on”, The Family said. Indeed, we were back in Eminönü after a five hour walk. Time to leave Istanbul.

Kedi coy

Kedi is Turkish for cat, and they aren’t at all coy in Istanbul. Although the featured cat sat in a little plot of garden in the cemetery in the Sulemaniye mosque in Istanbul, the words which popped into my mind reminded me of the district of Kadıköy, which is on the other side of the Bosphorus. Köy is Turkish for village, but Kadıköy is not named after cats. The folk etymology is that it means the village of the judge (kadi in Turkish is cognate to the Hindi and Persian kazi). I understand that it is considered more likely that the name comes from the ancient Greek name for the area, Chalcedon. Taking over an older Greek name into Turkish is not unusual, since Istanbul comes from the Greek phrase stim poli (meaning the city) which was used to refer to Constantinople.

We met this cat near Tophane in the Karaköy district of Istanbul. The word hane in Turkish is the cognate of the word khana in Hindi, so Tophane becomes top khana, which is literally, cannon place, and therefore means armoury. It is named after a 15th century factory of cannons and cannonballs, and has not survived until today. The cat must have mistaken us for someone else, since it stood at attention while we walked past. “Do we need to salute him?” The Family asked. It wasn’t necessary. It is a singular honour for a cat to give you a standing ovation, so I took a photo.

Street art and ambush photography in Karaköy

Parts of Karaköy seem to be in terminal decline. The Family and I walked through back streets of these “old, poor, historic neighbourhoods”, as the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk calls them in his memoirs entitled “Istanbul”. The large number of tourists gave me an opportunity for ambush photography: the photographing of people who are being photographed by others. Where tourists thinned out, the walls became dense with graffiti. Plaster was falling off the walls of some of these buildings, revealing weathered brick. This is the area downhill from the Galata tower.

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The outline of the 14th century tower, a tall grey cylinder topped by a darker cone, is so clear and visible that I got used to orienting myself by it. I don’t suppose that there is any trace left here of the Genoese colony which built the tower, since the whole area became a fashionable district during the 18th century. Most of the crumbling buildings in these back streets are likely to be from the 19th century. I should really locate a street by street architectural guide to Istanbul when I go back there.

A book market

The Beyazit Mosque was hidden under scaffolding: more repair work. We went around it, and there, opposite the library, just behind the mosque was Sahaflar Çarşısı. The name means antique market. Does the name refer to the second hand books here, or to the fact that it was reputedly a book market since the Byzantine times? I couldn’t figure that out. The courtyard was a pleasant place to stroll through. Although I read no Turkish, I love to look at books while trying to figure out who buys them.

The Istanbul university occupies the whole area between the Beyazit and Sulemaniye mosques. So most of the people who pass through this lovely arched gate are probably students; there did seem to be an enormous number of textbooks. But there were some who were looking at the books without picking up a single one; probably tourists like us. One gate of the bazaar opens up to the University, but the other stands just outside the Grand bazaar. In any case, it no longer seems to be the haunt of novelists and antiquarians that it was in the early twentieth century.

The fountains and the structures here are not very old. I’d read about a fire here some time in the 1950s, so all this would have been built after that; even the rococo-looking water fountain near the gate. There was a bust on one side which neither The Family nor I remembered to take a photo of. This was of Ibrahim Muteferrika, an Ottoman diplomat, who published the first Turkish book in 1729, a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary.

Stacks of books lay around on the warm stone paving. From what I’d read, there wasn’t a single market place for books in the early Ottoman times. Some shops in this Sahaflar bazaar and several in the Grand bazaar next door would deal in books and manuscripts. They were moved here in the late Ottoman times, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th or the end of the 19th century. The line of Marvel comics here showed a recent interest in the American superhero, probably due to the movies, which have been as big in Turkey as in the rest of the world.

The interest in Tintin and the other French and Belgian comics is much older. Orhan Pamuk, in his book Istanbul, writes “When the first Tintin film was made in Istanbul, a pirate publishing outfit issued a black-and-white comic book called Tintin in Istanbul, the creation of a local cartoonist who mixed his own renderings of various frames from the film with frames from various other Tintin adventures.” I casually flipped through these books. No luck with counterfeits, they were all the usual genuine articles.

Inside the Grand bazaar we’d seen several shops selling calligraphy and paintings, nice, but very ornately framed. Here I stopped at a shop which was clearly geared to the same tourist market (note the books on Turkish food in various foreign languages). I can barely read any Arabic, but one doesn’t need to in order to enjoy Arabic calligraphy. The Family and I lost ourselves in thumbing through the plates, and wondering about the pencils and brushes and inks to be used. We may have spent no more than half an hour in this place, but we carried away very pleasant memories.