Monthly Archives: February 2014

Chaos in the City

It’s the end of the month and time for a guest post. (How time flies!) We have the honour to present Gaia’s first post.



It is six pm in Kampala and traffic flow is at its peak. Ten hours earlier, at eight am, the situation was the same. The slow movement of cars, mini-vans and even large trucks on the congested roads has become more than a slight irritation. As the long lines forming across the city become longer and longer, with what seem like each passing day, more and more are anguished by this sudden increase in the number of vehicles on the road.

 caosin the city 1

The major roads in Kampala were constructed in the 1980s and the population at the time was 480,000. There is still little difference in the roads and road networking but the population has increased by more than 300%. Almost 1.5 million people now reside in Kampala central, with many more commuting daily into the city from Greater Kampala. So is it any wonder that there is a traffic surge when the width and number of our roads have stayed the same?

caosinthecity 2

The despondent motorists sit, clutching the steering wheel and inhaling the thick black smoke that is spit out by the vehicles ahead of them and watch with more than a little envy as those on motorcycles (commonly known as boda bodas) whiz past with smug looks on their faces. Of course, these boda bodas must stop at the front of the line. They swarm around the first car, waiting for a gap in the traffic to zoom off to the front of the next queue of cars. Adding to this horde of people and metal are salesmen who take advantage of the standstill and try to sell various goods to the motorists.
During these peak times of traffic flow, some motorists seem to toss away the idea of civility and begin to behave in an almost belligerent manner. Creating three lanes, all going in the same direction, on a road that can capacitate only one lane in each direction would be a fine example of this. The major culprits of this crime are the matatu (a 14-seater van) drivers. One of the most upsetting things about this loutish behaviour is when an emergency vehicle, especially an ambulance, is unable to get through the masses of cars and simply has to wait like the others while the life of another person is in jeopardy.
Many new cars and motorcycles are registered everyday and if expansion of roads does not take place soon, could the traffic flow in Kampala come to a complete standstill? Perhaps the government will suggest implementing high tolls for motorists, but is this the right solution? A better way to approach it could be through improving the city’s public transport system or through expanding the roads. Making public transport safer would encourage more people to use the provided services and therefore reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Expansion would lead to smooth flow of traffic and reduce bottlenecks.

caosinthecity 3

It’s not all bad news though! The Uganda National Roads Authority is definitely on the right track to improving the situation. The expansion of the Northern Bypass in Kampala is one such example and there are many other projects in the pipeline for the UNRA: But for now: sit tight, put on that radio and imagine that the car horns bleeping around you are an accompaniment to the music!



28 Feb 2014

The big banyan tree and silk worms

So… so our quest to find the tribal settlement where they make their traditional jewelry ended without much success. And the time was only around noon. What now? Bala came up with a solution… let’s go take a look at Innovative Film City. And there we headed right away.
Innovative Film City is a combined movie shooting and entertainment facility. Located about 25 miles from Bangalore, it has a facade built up in the style of Roman monuments. Though the place boasts of many attractions, everything except for the Mirror Maze and Ripley’s Believe It or Not were total disappointments.
Now what? Time on our hands… And true to form Bala came up with the suggestion… Dodda Alada Mara! And we set out in that direction immediately.

Dodda alada mara is a huge banyan tree, located in the town of Ramohalli, 17 miles from Bangalore. It is the fourth largest banyan tree in the whole of India.

Banyan trees (scientific name: Ficus benghalensis) are a variety of fig trees that sprout aerial roots. When these roots touch the ground, they take on the role of supporting the tree and start growing in girth. Slowly, they begin to resemble a tree trunk and soon one will not be able to tell them apart from the main trunk. Thus the tree spreads across vast areas as if walking across the area.

According to Wikipedia, the Ramohalli banyan covers an area of three acres and is 400 years old. It has more than a thousand aerial roots, with the circumference at the crown reaching close to a thousand feet.
By the way, banyan is the national tree of the Republic of India.
The tree is teeming with whole families of monkeys, always on the prowl for any food stuff that can be snatched from unwary hands. Curiously, they seem to have developed a taste for soda pop!

On the way back from the dodda alada mara, we saw an interesting sight. Huge frames made of bamboo and palm leaves are set on the sides of the road. The frames hold concentric circles with what looks like fluffy white oval shaped cotton balls in them. These are about an inch long and half as much wide.

Looking closely, I realise that these cotton balls are cocoons of the silk worms.


And sure enough, there are other frames nearby which have silk worms crawling along the circles on the frame.

We tried speaking to the person tending to the frames, but he couldn’t understand English. Some others nearby came to our help. I was mainly curious about how the cocoons are processed further. However, we were told that they are not processed locally, but sold to silk makers by the weight in the nearby market.
What impressed me throughout this trip was how friendly people are. I am always wary of taking photos without asking permission first, but was so happy to see that people had no problems with being photographed. I still remember clearly the incident where one of my friends was yelled at by a homeless person near Columbus Circle over just the suspicion of a photograph being taken!


26 Feb 2014

In search of tribal treasure…

The car flies along the Mysore road. My cousin Bala is driving and the roads are delightfully empty as it is a Sunday morning. We are headed for the Lambani tribal settlement on the outskirts on the city. This tribe makes beautiful metal jewelry and embroidered cloth with mirror work, well known for their excellent craftsmanship. We are hoping to see the making of the lovely artefacts and to buy some, if available.
The progress is not so fast though, as we have to stop frequently to ask for directions. Many of these stops turn out to be exercises in character assessment as it seems inconceivable that anyone would willingly say ‘I don’t know’ around here. So one has to gauge whether the directions given are anywhere near dependable, based on the person’s apparent confidence, his body language, whether he looks you straight in the eyes…
From the highway we turn onto a paved road; just barely paved. Soon the going gets worse as the paving disappears from under the wheels and the terrain gets increasingly tough. Soon the path becomes two ruts hardly visible among the high grass, climbing up and down hillocks. The vehicle is lurching from side to side, the bottom often touching the ground with scraping noises. I’m getting more and more uneasy, as I’m the instigator of the plan. The other occupants of the car – Min and Bala’s wife Su – have this scared look on their faces and are looking uneasily around.
Soon the trees on either side are brushing the car and we can hear scratchy scrapy noises. Any indication of a road or path is almost gone. There is all kinds of discussion in the car… what if we get stuck somewhere, how will we turn the car around, what if we are not welcome where we are going… Su and I try to dissuade Bala from going any further. And Min looks like she is ready to scream at the first indication of trouble.
But apparently Bala is looking for adventure. We have come this far; now we don’t want to turn back without seeing the village… the road is sure to get better further along, says Bala the eternal optimist.
All of a sudden, the car bursts out into a clearing. Far off across the flat ground we can see some kind of construction. Just as we start looking around from the now stopped car, there is this loud whoop and flurry of action. A bunch of men, all dressed in tribal finery and shaking huge spears, rush towards the car from across the clearing. The loud shouting and yelling fill the air, combined with the noise of their running feet. Bala makes a tight circle with the car and in the blinking of an eye, we are driving helter skelter out of that clearing. As the car turns, we catch a quick glimpse of a huge cauldron, steam rising out of it, set on three gigantic stones with a roaring fire under it, in a corner of the clearing. It is being stirred by a bunch of women who are standing on stilts so that they can see into the pot. That is all we see and that is enough to set us out of there at the speed of thought…
Aah… I guess my imagination ran away with me… The story up to the point where we burst into the clearing is all true. We find ourselves in a grove of young mango trees, with some construction happening at one end of the grove. We speak to the people there… yes, we are on the right track; the Lambanis live around the area. No, they do not carry on their traditional arts anymore, at least not around there. And at this time, mid-morning, most of them will be at their work places.


Young mangoes – mouthwatering stuff!

So, a wild goose chase, but we thoroughly enjoyed it! 🙂 And the day provided many other enjoyments as well. On the way where we stopped for breakfast, we got to taste moode idli, a delicacy of the locale. Made of a mix of rice and lentils, it is steamed wrapped in pandanus leaves.


Moode Idli

Also, we stopped at Janapada Loka, a cultural center set up to nourish the arts and crafts of Karnataka. Founded in 1994, it is located on the Bangalore-Mysore Road on a 15-acre campus.


Statues inside the gate of Janapada Loka

Artists in residence perform and conduct training in the traditional dance forms and music. Bangalore University has recognised Janapada Loka as a research centre.


Dancers at the Janapada Loka


The day we visited, there was a Yakshagana performance scheduled at Janapada Loka. But unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for that as we had to go see the Lambani settlement… 🙂



With sincere apologies to the Lambani people. The above story is no indication of the behaviour of the friendly and peaceful tribes; it only proves the influence of popular fiction on my imagination.


24 Feb 2014

Namma Metro… Bangalore ahead…

Last time I was in Bangalore, construction was going on all over the city for the Metro transit system, named Namma Metro meaning Our Metro. As you probably know, Bangalore is the tech hub of the country, with a population surge already way beyond its infrastructure can support. And extended traffic snarls during the peak hours are as predictable as the sunrise every morning.

All this digging in the middle of the roads added considerably to my commute times. It was easy for me to not get irritated by this as it was a matter of only three weeks, after which I would be going back to my PATH trains… And I had a grand new Metro system to look forward to on my next visit… 🙂

Hence I was a bit amused by the venting of the cab driver one day on my way to work. We were stopped at a traffic signal and had to inch forward missing at least two greens. ‘Madam, who are they building all this for? Can the ordinary people afford the fares of the Metro? Never. All it has done is fill the pockets of the politicians… they all get rich, a white elephant Metro will sit there, and god alone knows whether it will even be completed!’ And I had to wonder whether his frustration had anything to do with the possible competition his trade would face from an efficiently run, on time Metro!

The first stretch of the Metro – from M.G. Road to Baiyyappanahalli – was inaugurated in October 2011. This visit, I took a ride on the Metro on that same stretch. First impression… Wow!

The stations are expansive, spic and span, and maybe because I entered around 10.30 am, deserted. The personnel in charge of the strict security screening of all passengers are extremely courteous. Energy saving escalators, helpful signs… above all, everything spotlessly dust free; it is a bit hard to believe you are still in Bangalore! 😉

The train compartments are of international standards and not at all crowded, especially at the non-peak hour that I travelled. Now I do have to check out the crowds during the peak hours, of course!

To my delight, the trains run on elevated rails, not underground. And provide a wonderful view of whatever can be called the down town on the M.G. Road – Baiyyappanahalli route.

Two things to do next… check out the longer Malleswaram-Peenya stretch and check out the downtown stretch during peak hours. Another day…


21 Feb 2014

Crested Cranes – the crowned beauties of Uganda

When you plan to write about different birds at Kibimba, Bugiri district in Eastern Uganda, it’s quite appropriate to begin with Crested Cranes, the national bird of Uganda. It’s one of the most cherished birds in Uganda and features in the country’s flag and coat of arms.
At Kibimba we always get to see flocks of them in the fields as they prefer freshly ploughed fields to tall grass and plants. They also prefer wetter habitats near water bodies for nesting. Crested Cranes are a friendly, gentle and peace loving bird, which is pretty much true about the Ugandan people as well. 🙂

Crested Cranes (3)
The large flock of crested cranes moving slowly and gracefully along a field is a beautiful sight. You would think you could just walk up to them and touch them. But as you move towards them, they too will move at the same speed. So that even after following them for a long time, the distance between you and the flock will be exactly the same. Only if you make any threatening move or sound would they rise up and fly away. Clever birds indeed.

crested crane close up
The scientific name of the grey Crested Crane is Balearica Regulorum. Their body plumage is mainly grey and wings are predominantly white. Younger birds are greyer than adults. These cranes are tall, generally over 3 feet, standing on slender black legs. Their necks are almost as long as their legs. The black velvety forehead, yellowish golden crest and the bright red wattle make the crested crane an elegant bird. These three colours on their heads make Uganda’s national flag.

The crested cranes are a monogamous species; they have only one breeding partner through their entire life. The crested cranes are known for their spectacular dancing. Dancing is an integral part of their courtship. In East Africa the mating season is throughout the year, peaking during the rainy months. During their mating dance two cranes hop and jump gracefully with each other, with their wings partly spread. Then they open their wings and jump in the air. Also can see them running around each other during courtship. It’s quite obvious that traditional dances have adopted many movements from their dance.

flock closer

Crested cranes have a loud, booming two note call  except when they are calling their family; they use a guttural purr when calling to their chicks or mates.

Crested Cranes are omnivores . They feed on cereal heads, grains, new tips of grasses, insects, frogs, lizards etc. They stamp their feet hard on the ground when they walk across the ploughed fields. This flushes out the insects which they pick and eat quickly.
The crested cranes generally live up to 22 years in wild and 25 years or more in captivity.
Unlike other cranes, crested cranes are the only cranes that roost on trees as their hind toe is adapted for grasping. They are the earliest evolved species among cranes which is evident from the animal fossils of Eocene period (about 58 to 37 million years ago).

Enjoying a stroll with other cranes

Enjoying a stroll with other cranes

According to the International Crane Foundation, crested cranes are an endangered species and the population has declined 50 – 79 % for the past 45 years. They are most abundant in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.


19 Feb 2014