Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tips for first-time travellers to Mauritius

Each time I plan a new trip, I look for some basic information that will make it easier for me to navigate through the new destination. So here I have compile a few tips for those who are headed to Mauritius. Please feel free to add your questions and suggestions in the ‘Comments’ box below. I will do my best to answer any queries.
  1. Exchanging currency: The official currency here is the Mauritian Rupee. On occasion, Indian Rupees work too; as do Dollars. It is best to just find an ATM and withdraw the amount you need. ATMs generate cash in Mauritian Rupees only, so it eliminates the need for getting your currency exchanged when you visit.
  2. Buying a SIM card: One of the best ways to prevent spending money on international roaming is to buy a SIM card at the destination itself. Plus, most people today prefer using data services during their trips so that they can keep updating their social media channels. I personally had a difficult time acquiring a SIM card in Mauritius, but I met two travellers from Hong Kong who bought theirs at La Gaulette supermarket. However, they had to go to the Orange store to get their data plan activated. I am told many hotels also have SIM cards available for sale at their in-house stores; so do check if your chosen hotel offers one.
  3. Car rental: Mauritius is a tiny island spread over a mere 2,040 sq km. The best way to move around is to rent a car. My friends rented theirs from Active Waves and got a pretty good deal. The good thing is that if you have a valid driver’s license issued from your country of origin, you can use it to drive around in Mauritius during your stay. Please note that Mauritians drive on the left-hand side of the road.
  4. Buses: For those on a tight budget, buses are a good option. They are reasonably priced and the frequency is quite decent. I used the buses there and was glad to save a lot of money travelling long distances.
  5. Taxis: When it comes to tourists, taxis are rather expensive. However, I found a way to cheat the system a little. I met a local—owner of a coconut water stall—who told me to tell the taxi driver to charge me the local price to avoid the huge amount I would have to pay as a tourist. The difference was huge; almost MR 200 for tourists as opposed to MR 20 for locals. I would suggest you talk to some of the locals you meet and ask them the cost to wherever you are headed. Chances are they will tell you what they usually pay and help you save some money.
  6. Rain wear: While the weather is mostly pleasant during summer and winter time, rain showers come unannounced on occasion. So do carry some raingear along.

Thailand's Tiger Temple—a conservation project or a tourist trap?

I recently wrote a piece on Thailand's Tiger Temple for Travel Wire Asia. Coincidentally, the temple was raided around the same time as it was suspected of wildlife trafficking. This piece was then published on Asian Correspondent's website as well. I have shared my experience and observations about this controversial tourist attraction. Please feel free to share your opinions too.

The tiger temple tour at Kanchanaburi, a few hours away from Bangkok, I was told was a popular tourist attraction. Which is barely a surprise seeing how obsessed the world is with selfies and being a popular figure on social media. I suppose a picture clicked cuddling with a tiger is sure to garner numerous ‘Facebook likes’. But the purpose of my visit was to find out what the tiger temple was really about. Known to be a monastery cum sanctuary, the tiger temple (also known as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua) received its first cub in 1999 when it was rescued from poachers. That cub died soon after, but since then, many cubs have found a home here, while many have taken birth here as well. Until last year, there were said to be almost 122 tigers living here.

But the temple has been at the centre of controversy for several years. Rumours of the tigers being sedated, ill-treated and even being trafficked were doing the rounds of the online world. But I wanted to see it for myself.

Treatment of the tigers
After you have paid a hefty fee of THB500 to enter the premises, you sign a waiver essentially claiming that the temple will not be held responsible should you get mauled by a tiger. Once you leave your life in their hands, you are taken to an open area flanked by a few trees under which the tigers are seated. I was saddened to see that the animals were chained to the ground. If the temple claims to provide these animals with a sanctuary where they can roam freely, why put the animals on chains? I thought it was possible that they were chained to protect the tourists (not that it justifies it), but that was not the case. The tigers were chained in the ‘Tiger Canyon’ as well—an area where they can roam freely. The tigers also appeared to be sedated as most of them were lying about without much movement. When asked as to why they were so inactive, we were told they had just eaten lunch.

What was worse is how they were treated by the staff. Many of the staff members were pulling the tiger’s tail or hitting them hard with their hands and sometimes with sticks. Some were even found sitting on the tigers like they were a stool. All this just to ensure that tourists get the photo op they have paid for (there is a separate fee to pose sitting on the tiger’s back and feeding a cub through a milk bottle). If the temple’s goal is conservation of these animals, how is hitting them and forcing them into posing for photos with humans helping? It appears the animals are treated like circus clowns to appease the crowd that pays to see them perform.

Later a monk walked by with a tiger on a leash and asked the tourists to form a line and walk with him holding the tiger’s leash till the ‘Tiger Canyon’. At the canyon one of the staff members explains how they take care of the tigers and then urges us to come into the canyon for more photo ops. This of course has an additional cost attached.

The goal of the temple
The temple claims that all donations made are used for the conservation and breeding of these animals so that some day they can return to the wild and live in their natural habitat. In that case, how does it help them to interact with humans in this manner? Keeping the animals in captivity will only add to their aggression and their desire to lash out at those who cause them harm. And if such an incident occurs, one only blames the animal and not the one who caused him to lash out.

While I understand that conservation of animals is not easy without the required funds and so the temple is finding an alternate way to acquire money by promoting this as a tourist attraction. But I do believe that if they truly care about the welfare of the animals, then they would treat them humanely and not as show puppets to earn money.

Have you visited the tiger temple? Share your thoughts and observations below.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival 2015

Chhattisgarh Tourism’s tagline reads ‘Full of surprises’, and it couldn’t be more apt. Archaeological ruins, ancient temples, different tribal communities and their unique musical notes and dances, Sirpur had a lot more to offer than I was able to explore. A small town situated close to 94 km away from Raipur, Sirpur hosted Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival’s third edition this year. I was graciously invited by Chhattisgarh Tourism to attend it and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to visit a state that has been marred by a history of crime and violence creating a volatile environment for outsiders. But once you are there, you realise that there is another side to this state that sadly gets shrouded under its foggy past. This is why the Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival has been a successful initiative in showcasing the state’s oft-ignored talented artists and local art forms.

The festival
From percussionist Pete Lockett and santoor player Rahul Sharma to saxophonist George Brooks and Kathak’s most revered exponent, Pandit Birju Maharaj, this year saw a blend of Indian and international artists perform on one platform. But the musicians who stole the show were the tribal percussionists from a group known as Taal Chhatisgarh. The stage was set against the backdrop of the Laxman Temple, one of India’s oldest brick temples. Sadly, the temple was not quite visible from the audience seating as the stage comprised giant replicas of dancing deities, together with pillars bearing intricate carvings representing some of the prominent archaeological finds in Sirpur.

The Laxman Temple

While many of the attendees were offered special invitations, there were a huge number of locals present as well. As an initiative to allow locals at Raipur to also come for this festival, the tourism board organised about seven buses that would ply to and from Raipur for attendees, explained Mr Santosh Misra, MD, Chhattisgarh Tourism.

Here are some of the highlights of the three-day event.


The inaugural day began with a performance by Rekha Dewar presenting ‘dewar geet’—songs of joy and merriment that represent the tribal culture of the Dewar sect of Central India’s largest tribe, the Gonds. This was followed by Danda Nritya by Sampariya and Group—a stick dance celebrating Chaitra Parva or the arrival of spring. Other notable performances included the graceful kathak dancer Yasmin Singh of the Rajgadh gharana and abhangs by Shounak Abhisheki and Asha Khadilkar.
Danda Nritya

The performance that stood out though the amalgamation of sounds created by 50 tribal percussionists and their unique musical instruments, together with Grammy Award winner Pete Lockett.

Pete Lockett with a few of the tribal percussionists

They were joined by other well-known percussionists such as Giridhar Udupa on the ghatam, Swaminathan on the kanjira, Anubrata Chatterjee on the tabla and Umar Faruq on the bhapang. It was quite a spectacle to see the tribals in their local garb. The ensembles were colourful and distinct, making each one stand out from the other.

Gaur Maria Dancers
On the second day, it was santoor maestro Rahul Sharma’s impromptu collaboration with Rajasthani folk musicians that got the audience asking for more. It was the first time I had seen Rahul Sharma perform. I am not an ardent follower of classical music, but I really enjoyed listening to the delicate tunes of the santoor. Among other performances on this night were devotional songs on Maa Durga by Anuradha Paudwal and Group; an Odissi dance presentation by Purnashree Raut and Lucky Mohanty Troupe; Gaur Nritya by Maya and Group; and Panthi Nritya by Uttam and Group.

Rahul Sharma

My personal favourite on day two though was Taiko drumming by Leonard Eto and Group. Taiko (meaning fat drum) are Japanese percussion drums, usually of different sizes. Leonard Eto, one of the most prominent Taiko drum players, has been playing since almost 30 years. He radiated with bursts of energy and his synchrony with his team of two was incredible. I was quite mesmerised by the music, tapping my feet and doing dance moves in my head! I hope to attend more of his Taiko drumming performances in the near future.
Leonard Eto
Leonard Eto's team

On the last day I had the honour to watch Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj perform. After his students completed a series of dances, he took on the stage himself and enthralled the audience. At the age of 76 and on a seriously cold winter night where even he was wrapped in a shawl till the moment he took to the stage, Panditji performed with so much energy and grace; it was inspiring. He combined his dance steps with a dash of humour and said “It is so cold that you are unable to clap with both your hands.” This of course drove the audience into a clapping frenzy and many even gave him a standing ovation. He also said, “I am feeling so cold, but yet I can keep going all night as the conversation between the ghungroos never stops...” It was a pleasure to see a legendary artist like him being so humble and dedicated to his art.

Pandit Birju Maharaj

Yet another memorable performance was the result of a merging of Indian and western artists. Sitar player Ustaad Shujaat Khan, ghatam player Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram, guitarist Prasanna and saxophonist George Brooks together created a magical symphony. For me, it was Vinayakramji command over the ghatam that really stood out. He so effortlessly played the instrument with such finesse.

Ustaad Shujaat Khan and Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram. Photo courtesy: Chhattisgarh Tourism

For more information, log on to the festival’s official website.

*This trip was an invitation from Chhattisgarh Tourism