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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Old memories of times in Iraq


Recently while browsing the net I came across an article about the water quality of Lake Razaza, Iraq becoming more saline due to restricted inflow of water and immediately the floodgates of my memories opened up to the times i was working in Iraq.

After my engineering degree in 1979 I was working in one of the reputable companies in Bombay / Madras (now Mumbai /Chennai) involved in Mechanical projects. My discipline being Electrical engineering I was desperate to go back into that field and when I was offered a job as Junior Engineer Electrical with an Indian Company called Makers Development Services Private Limited(Builder and developers of Makers Chambers at Nariman Point ,Mumbai) who were contracted to build a township in Baghdad, Iraq. The lure of Petro dollars and the adventures to come by I grabbed the offer in spite of objections from my mother because of ongoing war between Iraq and Iran.

Reached Baghdad on 7th April 1981 with a group of 10 persons after traveling on road for over 20 hours from Kuwait since all international flights terminated there or at Amman in Jordan due to the war. I have written a incident which took place on our road journey in an another note called Carnivorous Brahmin about our dinner on the road side where I got to taste camel meat…an experience. Since I was part of the mobilization team we went direct to the camp area which is within the site premises and to my utter disbelief I found myself staring at few cabins which served as our accommodation and a huge barren tract of land with no buildings in sight and few kilometers away in the line of sight was the Baghdad International airport which was being used by the Iraqi air force at that point of time. The persons with whom I traveled from India were of my same age group and we became good friends during our stay there and we have gone around most of Iraq on sightseeing and fun trips.

Most weekends in summer we take local beer in ice box and travel to Razaza Lake for having a refreshing swim and beer on the shore. This was the second largest fresh water lake in those times and we used to drive 90 to 100 kms  all the way from Baghdad to Razaza lake through the holy city of Karbala and our normal mode of transport was a 3 ton single cabin dyna pickup with mattress at the back where 6 to seven of us would be seated or sleeping. One of such trip is etched on my mind because of the gruesome incident that took place that day. We were coming back from the lake and the roads had little or no illumination except for the headlight of the vehicle and at a distance we saw another vehicle parked on the side of the road with hazard lights blinking and a little ahead of this vehicle there was a dark shape on the road. My friend who was driving the vehicle stated that it is an animal hit by the vehicle and he would take this between the wheel base of the vehicle since we were traveling too fast to avoid it…he did that and we bounced a bit when we crossed over the thing but then we gave no thoughts of it till such time the vehicle started losing power and started stalling and making noise in the crankshaft. 

We then parked the vehicle on the side of the country road in twilight and started checking the crankshaft and to our horror we saw black clothe wound in the shaft..it was a piece of abaya normally worn by women in gulf countries and the underside of the vehicle splattered with blood, bone fragments and white substance which we later knew as brain. We were shit scared because the realization had just set in that we had driven over a women who was initially hit by the earlier vehicle and we were in a place where war time military rule was prevailing and if caught in the check post prior to entering Baghdad , we sure could kiss our ass goodbye forever. Well we pulled out the bits of the clothe tangled in the crankshaft and drove the vehicle in the muddy area beside the road to hide the traces of blood and flesh and then drove towards our camp in utter silence. Cursory check of our papers and we were through the check post with a sigh of relief and immediately on reaching the camp took the vehicle direct to the washing bay and washed the vehicle clean to avoid any unwanted question the next day.

We never dared to go back to Razaza lake for next three months due to the fear of being recognized by someone or the other. Thinking back I feel bad that I had to experience this incident for we never knew if the woman was already dead or was she grievously injured in the first place . Even today this incident sends a shiver down my spine !!!!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Onasadaya........ Today


Crappy feeling this morning..maybe because of the wakeup call from Rahul who did not realize that he is in India on vacation called at 6.40 am that too on a Friday. Tried to go back to sleep but after tossing and turning for few minutes it was evident that I would not go back to the land of the nods.. so woke up and had my morning tea.


Onam being celebrated today by the people from “ Gods Own Country” ( Kerala) so called up few friends and wished them on the festivities. Being curious by nature started browsing the net to find out the reasons for the celebrations and this is what I learnt about the festival

Onam is an ancient festival still surviving in modern times celebrated the annual  home coming of Demon King Mahabali from Patala (Underworld). Onam is an unique festival since Mahabali has been revered by the people of Kerala from prehistory times. According to the legend everybody in the state were happy and prosperous and the King Mahabali was highly regarded by his subjects so much so that the gods under Indra were jealous and they approached Lord Vishnu stating the Mahabali is now equivalent to Indra now and the universe cannot have both as it would create an imbalance. Mahavishnu took up the Vamana Avatar and tricked Mahabali to Patala. By the grace of Mahavishnu each year Mahabali visits his people on an annual 
basis.

Onam falls in the Malayalam month of Chingam (August-September) and 10 days festival showcases the rich traditional culture of Kerala with Intricate flower carpets, elaborate banquet lunches, Vallamkali ( Snake boat races) on river Pamba, Thumbi thulla and kaikottikkali dances by women and folk dances Puli Kali and Kummatti kali. The central feature of Onam is the grand feast called the Onasadya, prepared on Thiruonam ,a 9 course meal have between 11 to 13 essentials and is had on banana leaf with people sitting on the floor.

 The following Malayalam song is generally sung during Onam

“maveli nadu vaneedum kalam,

manusharellarum onnupole
amodhathode vasikkum kalam
apathangarkkumottillathanum
kallavum illa chathiyumilla
ellolamilla polivachanam
kallapparayum cherunazhiyum
kallatharangal mattonnumilla
adhikal vyadhikalonnumilla
balamaranangal kelppanilla “

and the translation of this song is as under

When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,

All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Deaths of children were unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless races

Such a rich heritage of the people of Kerala is celebrated with lots of pomp all over the world where you have Malayalees residing and gulf having a huge population of people from Kerala is no different. So this day I have been invited to have Onasadya along with my colleagues at their mess.

Though an Indian I never really gave a thought to reason for this celebration but today i got to know about this festival. I know many of my friends would know all the things i have written about Onam, however this is for few of them like me who are totally blank about this festival. By the way King Mahabali is the grand son of Prahalad whose father was slain in Narashiman avatar.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Wahiba Sands trip… not to the high expectations we had set !!

Six of us in two cars set out on the trip to Wahiba sand desert camp and then on to Wadi Bani Khalid at 11.30 am as planned on 31st morning. The beer session dragged on until late night the previous day and the whole day I had a splitting headache and hence I could not enjoy the drive. We traveled toward the meeting point at Badiyah Shell petrol station which is around 206 Kms from Muscat while traveling on the Ibra-Sur highway. Single lane traffic and winding roads meant that we needed to drive pretty conservatively at about 100 Kms/hour max in order to be safe. We reached a Shell Petrol station near Badiyah and were desperately trying to find the office of the Al-Raha Desert camp but then the meeting point was about 20 Kms further up the road and we reached there at 2.30 pm. Al Raha Desert camp’s office within the petrol station complex beside Badiyah Optical and we met the owner Mr.Ali who confirmed our booking and also arranged for two 4x4 vehicles for taking us 20 klicks into the desert to the camp.

We followed the 4x4’s to the edge of the desert where we had to park our saloon cars, had our packed lunch of Poori bhaji’s and hopped on to the 4x4 vehicles with lots of excitement anticipating an incredible drive to the camp…but alas just an ordinary drive on the sands to the camp with hardly any dune bashing. We then thought that the dune bashing would be later in the evening as the drivers sated that they would take us at 5.30 pm in the evening into the desert for sunset view. Reached Al Raha camp which has over 75 rooms and we were fortunate that we could wrangle three rooms with window air conditioners…which can be switched on only at 6 pm when the generator comes on… otherwise the camp has solar power for the lighting. So at 3.15 pm with nothing much to do we broke off for a small nap but then the heat was killing and the fans were of no use and we hardly slept few winks !!! Headache getting worse.

At 4 pm we went to have some coffee and water which was arranged by the camp in the Majlis and we saw a group of tourists climbing a small dune just behind the camp. With more than a hour and half available for the ride into the desert we also decided to go up the dune for some photo shoot. The dune sand was so fine that one of the group member decided to slide down the dune….Sand Butting !!!! Lolz…instead of sand boarding ,a little fun here. At the appointed time we went searching for our vehicles but alas they had already left with other guests in the camp to the dune summit. On enquiry the camp owner stated that all guest would be driven up irrespective of which vehicle they had travelled into the camp and finally we got our vehicles and off they went over couple of smaller dunes and a 45 degree run on a dune and final reached the summit of the dune which should be around 130 meters tall. The time was just about 6 pm and our driver started telling us to hurry back to the vehicle and when we said we would wait for the sunset they just went back to the camp to ferry more guests up…..over 120 guests were ferried by just about 8-10 vehicles (too much crowd due to Eid holidays). Just three of us were able to come back by vehicle down the dune and the vehicle had to travel at about 70 degree slope downwards. Many guests were left on the summit and they had to walk down the dune to the camp………. That’s all of dune bashing we had and we were cursing ourselves of having shelled out RO 60 for two vehicles.. utter waste of money.

Once back to the camp we met the camp attendant and arranged for a bottle of chilled red wine of South African origin since I do not take Whiskey which we had bought over from home…another expensive purchase almost triple the price available at Muscat . We started our drinks early and went into the dining hall at sharp 8 pm.. the time the camp opens up the buffet dinner and finished our dinner early …ok food nothing to rave about and we had a choice of non vegetarian and vegetarian food to choose from…tandoor chicken and mutton, pulao, rice,sambar, bhindi sabji and salads.

Couple of local Omani singers were already performing in the Majlis one with stringed instrument known as Ud  and it looks similar to guitar and singing Arabic songs and the other playing the doumbek (similar to a drum). So we guys spent few minutes at majlis taking few snaps of the singer and ourselves. Then I was so bushed that I called it a day and went to the land of the nods early …just about 9 pm. At about 11.45 pm I suddenly woke up feeling hot and I notices that there is no power…came out of the room and saw that rest of our gang standing outside in darkness..they had been relaxing in Majlis enjoying the holiday atmosphere around a bon fire. On enquiring about the power supply we were informed that the generator has tripped and the power would be available soon…well we did get the power but then the generator kept failing quite often throughout the night ….generator was getting overloaded since all the air conditioners were working (100% occupancy due to holidays). My suggestion to all those people going to Al Raha camp not to travel there during public holidays…too much crowd creates such failures !!!

Somehow forced myself to sleep and next day woke up early and at dot 7 am we were the first guest to hire Quad bikes at RO 5 for half hour each and had real fun of driving these four wheeled bikes in desert sand..this was fun and we thoroughly enjoyed this. Then the breakfast of bread butter jam, macaronis and fruits and after that the check out from camp. By 9 am we settled our bills at the camp and were driven back to the edge of the desert where we had parked our cars…this short trip was the highlight of the trip wherein our drivers took over few dunes at breakneck speed and at last we got the taste of dune bashing…though not enough to get our adrenalins  going up. Finally reached the car and decided to go back to Muscat instead of going to Wadi Bani Khalid as was feeling tired and spent!! An uneventful drive back home and the trip to an end!!