Backpacking sans plan in Madagascar

Children

Madagascar is a beautiful and interesting experience. In making this statement I am conscious of the element of novelty which makes any new place appealing to a traveler, but fades away as one gets used to the place. My impression of Madagascar remained beautiful and interesting beyond this element of novelty. If you’ve traveled a bit, you will agree that traveling is a rewarding experience. It opens us to spaces that hitherto didn’t exist in our minds. It’s an amazing feeling when we realize that we travel to discover new places and people and cultures, and in the process we end up discovering ourselves. This is how I felt backpacking in Madagascar.

Boabab look-alikes

Football

Fruit baskets

Pous-pousse stand Antsirabe

My goal was to experience the Malagasy culture, food, people and nature. I asked myself what is the best way to do that, and the idea of backpacking without a plan sounded very exciting. So, I decided to not have a plan, instead play it by the ear, make on-the-spot decisions about what to do, and head wherever my instincts led me to. The three things I was certain of were, (1) I will NOT go North and to the beaches, because they are touristy (2) I will NOT hire a vehicle but travel by the local transport, and (3) I will be detached from the world as I knew it i.e., no phone, no email, and no WhatsApp. A colleague at TSiBA gave me a Lonely Planet book on Madagascar that I carried as a back-up resource, for just-in-case situations.

As a result, I traveled with ducks and chickens along with people squeezed in taxis, discovered tribal villages in hills, experienced Malagasy hospitality, slept in people’s lawns and in stranger’s houses, went to family celebrations in villages, ate heaps of rice with sparse side dish and burnt-rice water, climbed Madagascar’s highest accessible peak, chased taxi on a motorbike, met numerous craftsmen and craftswomen, camped in a rainforest, enjoyed an open-air Jazz music festival, had conversations with strangers with no common languages, saw numerous plant and animal species endemic to Madagascar, was awe-struck with some of nature’s wonders, met ambitious youngsters, watched young men playing different sports, and most importantly saw and felt how happy and helping the Malagasy people are, despite their abject poverty.

Red house

Basketball-3

Drinking water from Antaranoombi river

Rickshaw

Youth

Petanque

Man spreading paddyKickerTyre sportShoe shop in FianarLibrary in RanomafanaBrick kiln

Taxi-Brousse, the lifeline of Malagasy life

Taxi Brousse StationTaxi-brousse is the universal transport in Madagascar and is perhaps the best opportunity for an outsider to get a feel for the Malagasy life. In addition to people, these taxis transport anything and everything except the live big cattle. Grains, Plastic containers, Mats, Steel, Chickens, Vegetables, Clothes, Pigs, Bicycles, Ducks, Water…
Pig on taxi

Cycle on top

Traveling by taxi-brousse is a trade-off between time and money. They are inexpensive but don’t start until they are full, and will stop anywhere and everywhere for passengers. One stretch of 90 kms took me 3.5 hrs to travel. Most landscape is hilly and roads windy, which slows you down. And poor condition of the roads adds to travel time. There are potholes all along the road. On one stretch of the road I saw so many deep and wide craters, I felt a meteor shower had hit that road 🙂

In taxis, people travel in all positions, sitting, standing, bending in all directions, scooching, sitting in spaces between seats balancing on the edges of thighs and bottoms. One of the taxis I traveled by, squeezed 35 people in a 14-seater (inclusive driver) 🙂 But no one complained. At every stop, people welcomed the new comers with a smile and made space.

Scooching in between seats

Squeezed in a taxi

There is music, and if you are lucky, video songs as well. Most numbers are monotonous and cacophonous, and some are close imitations of hit western numbers. The videos are fraught with booty shakes. On one stretch of my taxi travel, a total of about 30 songs were played, and only 3 of them were free of booty shakes 🙂 Initially I felt a tad irritated by the blaring music, but the numbers were surprisingly catchy, and I started enjoying them 🙂

Taxi

Nature and The Landsape

Pano Andring

Terraced fieldsLake AndrinkibaNature is perhaps the biggest draw of the country. Most places are untouched and retain their pristine quality. The land, mostly red soil, seems to be very fertile. There is abundant vegetation. And apparently water resources are adequate as well, evidenced by ubiquitous paddy cultivation. The landscape is mostly hilly, red, and undulating. Red and brown hills laced with green patches, mostly symmetrical, with sparsely distributed red houses on the hills, and red mud roads as the veins and arteries is a common sight. By carving terraced fields, the Malagasy seemed to have coped well with the hilly terrain. Early in the morning, the moisture vaporizing and rising from freshly ploughed fields is a sight to watch.

Red house-2

House of celebration

Village-2

And then there are national parks. I visited two very diverse ones. Andringitra – dry, hilly and mostly granite wilderness. This park is home to the highest accessible peak of Madagascar, Peak Imarivolanitra, or Pic Boby in short. This is an all-in-all-out park, so you have to carry all supplies for the hike, and bring all waste back with you out of the park. With the help of an English-speaking guide and a local guide I was able to hike this peak. The start point of our hike was a good 2-hr drive off the highway, on a dirt road through villages. From there, a 15-km trail, winding through villages and fields, crossing multiple small streams, passing the Antaranoombi river, cutting through a Palm forest, reaches the base camp which is at a height of 2000 meters. From the base camp, the peak is a 3.5 km hike climbing through steep rock faces.

Palm forestLandscape

There were several awe-inspiring moments during the hike. At the door step of a plateau called The Lunar Landscape, we watched the sun setting behind the mountains on the west. In the park, there is a rock that’s named La Chameleon for its uncanny resemblance to a chameleon. A millipede rolled itself into a tough but amazingly beautiful marble when touched. Awesome!

Marble millipede

At the base camp at night, it was pitch black all around, silhouettes of mountains were dwarfed against the backdrop of the sky illuminated by millions of twinkling and steady stars, shooting stars every now and then, away from all sounds of civilization the only sounds I could hear were those of the nature, crickets and other insects, water running downhill somewhere far away, the wind, and that of my own breath. It is one of those moments when my heart wished time stood still because the beauty of that instant is far beyond expression. And then the thought of how hiking makes me sensitive to each breath and how wilderness inspires me to introspection. When I am climbing, and I take a break and turn back to appreciate the beautiful view from that height, it’s then that I can hear and feel my pounding heart and my heavy breath, and my eyes are treated to the beauty of the wilderness around me, and in that moment time freezes and loses meaning.

Mirror Image

Ranomafana – a wet, dense rainforest, best known for the high scope of spotting lemurs. I camped in this rainforest and went on a lemur-spotting tour with three American tourists. It’s amazing that it was raining when we were inside the forest but the rain did not reach us. This forest is so dense! The guide told us some parts of the forest do not receive sunshine ever. Saw four different species of lemurs and some birds.

Lemurs

Both of these parks are home to various species of plant and animal life endemic to Madagascar. Ranomafana is easily accessible. Park entrance is by the highway which is well connected. But not Andringitra. There are two entrances to this park and both are a good 2-hr drive on a rough road off the highway.

Food

Tana market-5Snacks at taxi stopThe Malagasy seem to love beef, called Zebu. It is the most commonly available meat. In addition, there is pork, chicken, duck, vegetables and sea food. Rice is the staple food, and the Malagasy eat rice three times a day. Most of the other items such as snacks are also made of rice flour.

Street side snacksRice Flour

The typical Malagasy meal consists of three parts (1) Rice (2) Side dish, usually meat, and (3) Burnt-rice water. The rice is served first, and is usually served in a troughed-plate, and there is so much rice stuffed into it that it looks like a mountain of rice 🙂 Looking at the quantity of rice, I was expecting huge quantity of side dish to eat it with, but to my surprise the side dish was totally inadequate. I had chicken and duck on different occasions, and both were very bony. So, effectively the side dish was too little. When I mixed the side dish with rice, it was barely visible 🙂 Nevertheless, every meal I had, the rice and the side dishes were very tasty. The most interesting part of the meal for me was the burnt-rice water. After the rice is dished out, water is poured into the vessel and the bottom is raked multiple times until the water almost comes to a boil. The water turns brown due to the rice that stuck to the bottom of the vessel. This hot brown water is then served. The first time I drank it, it tasted weird, primarily because it smelled of burnt rice, but I quickly acquired a taste for it because the next time I had it, I enjoyed it.

Street side eateries

Another important food item is the bread. This foot-long bread seems to be the favorite of many and is available almost everywhere. The peculiar thing I noticed about this bread is that it is fluffy. If you press it, it will crumble into a much thinner mass.

Bread

While most of the meals I had were mild in spice, there was one meal at a street-side eatery (hotely) that burnt my tongue and stomach. I had something called a coutlet, a deep-fried rice-flour dumpling, stuffed with tasty potato curry. I asked for some sauce, and the hotely person brought me something that looked like an Indian pickle. I dipped the dumpling in it and ate. It was tasty. The spice didn’t hit me when I chewed it but only a few minutes after I swallowed. So, by the time I felt the spice I had already eaten 5 coutlets. It was so very spicy that that night I had to drink about 1.5 liters of water to douse my burning stomach. Deadly delicious!

Hotely

Poor but happy!

BreakfastHard child labor The taxis stuffed with people and everything imaginable, huge quantities of rice with little side dish, the burnt-rice water and the fluffy bread are reflections of the poverty of the people. The country is very poor. Most people, including children, are seen in ragged and unwashed clothes and with greasy faces, and there are people begging for food at every taxi stop. But in all the places I visited, even in crowded markets in the capital city, I never saw people fighting or arguing. I never heard a complaining tone. No one seemed to be protective or hoarding.

Man carrying child

People were always smiling, and when I greeted them in Malagasy they greeted back with a big smile. Always helping one another, always adjusting and making way for others. Whenever I bargained, if my offer sounded unreasonable to them, they gave a big smile, waved their palm to signal “not acceptable”, and counteroffered.

Passersby

Woman with child on back

Tana was a surprise!

Royal palace in TanaTana

Narrow laneThe first 11 days of my trip were spent in villages and parks that were characterized by a laid-back, easy-going, rustic and simple life. Coming from this vibe, the capital city of Antananarivo, Tana in short, was a complete surprise. The city has an urban appeal to it, and in rush hours is like any major city in a developing country. The hilly, cobbled streets and the vintage local taxis give it a unique old-world charm.Tana cobbled street

Steps in Tana

Blind musician-2

The markets are huge and crowded. Each market seemed to be a world in itself. Hiking the cobbled streets to the royal palace and watching the sun setting over the city, watching the hustle and bustle in the markets, eating at the hotelys are quite an experience.

Analakeli Market

Pochard market

Analakeli Market-Chickens

People reading newspaper

And a day before my return, about 100 jazz artists had converged in Tana for a music festival. I spent one whole afternoon enjoying the mix of local and international instruments, and artists.

Jazz festival

Culture

Bestilo tribe The Malagasy are polite, hospitable and guest-friendly. Whenever they give something to the other person, they bend down a little, use the right hand to give, and the left hand touches the right elbow underneath. All family events are celebrated with music and dancing and feasting.

There are a lot of beliefs or superstitions that are called Fady. In some places, such as in the Andringitra National Park, it is believed that pork brings bad fortune. My guide narrated one instance. On one of his trekking expeditions, one of his assistants, unknowingly brought pork into the park. Apparently the weather suddenly turned stormy, and the locals were convinced that someone brought pork into the park. There was one other lake I visited, and there too, pork is believed to bring bad luck.

And the thing that impressed me most about the Malagasy is their hospitality. One morning I was exploring villages on a hill, and I heard music coming from a distance. With the help of basic Malagasy phrases I learnt from the receptionist of the hotel, I was able to find my way to the house from where the music originated. No common language, but they invited me in, showed me around, the cooking, the dancing, the music, and served me a meal. And when I left, the head of the family asked one of his boys to accompany me to my destination 🙂

Celebrations-2

On another occasion, I ended up at my guide’s place for a night’s sleep. His wife prepared and served me egg-noodle soup with bread, which I had absolutely not expected, because I had already told my guide that I had food with me.

People

Youth-2

With a craftswoman in AmbositraWhile nature is the biggest draw of Madagascar, people made the biggest and strongest impression on me.Traditional dress

Jean On a taxi ride to Ambositra I befriended Jean, who spoke very little English. When I got down, he started walking with me. Initially I thought, his destination was in the same direction. After a while I asked him if that was so, and he said his place was in the opposite direction. When I asked him why then he was walking with me, he told me just to make sure I don’t get lost as this was my first time in Madagascar and I didn’t speak French or Malagasy. I was in smiles, and showed him my iPhone to reassure him that I can find my way using the GPS. He smiled, shook hands and left.

Youth-3

Onja After receiving the Malagasy hospitality at the village family celebration, when I left, Onja accompanied me. He spoke no English and I spoke no French or Malagasy barring 4-5 basic phrases. It was raining, and the path was steep and totally slippery. He told me caution at every step, taught me how to say many things in Malagasy and asked me how they are called in Indian language. Path, Slippery, Ox, Food, House, Marriage, Wife, School, Cigarette, Cycle, Clothes, Water, Rain, Fields. It felt strange but amusing to have that conversation. We spoke no common language, but kept talking all along the 4 km walk.

Zu He was the English-speaking guide for my Andringitra trip. Almost fluent with English, I found him to be a very friendly, solution-oriented and jovial person. He picked me up from the taxi station in Fianarantsoa, had his student drive me to the hotel, and when the hotel said they don’t allow camping when rooms are free, offered me his courtyard to camp, but when we reached his place, he offered me his bed to sleep for the night 🙂 When I told him I can’t afford his tour package, he worked with me to adapt it to suit my needs and had his student drive us to the park to bring the costs down.

Alexander My local guide on the Andringitra trip, a soft-spoken, unassuming, caring person. He learnt a little bit of English for his profession, but is very poor and lives in the village. We trekked 15 kms on day 1, and 22 kms on day 2. He was on flip-flops, but no complaints. At the base camp, I was eating plain rice since the side dish was beef. He noticed it and without me asking for it, he asked and brought vegetables from the other group of hikers for me. He moved me so much that before parting I gave him some money, my trousers and t-shirts. It meant I had to spend the next 8 days of my trip with one pair of trousers and 3 t-shirts but I was convinced that those clothes were more valuable to him than to me.

Eating rice with Alexander

Nantenaina (Naina) was the receptionist at the Ranomafana Park Office and Roland her husband. When I arrived in Ranomafana, after talking to Naina about the fee details, I wanted to pay for the campsite and that’s when I realized my jacket was not with me. My wallet, with my credit and debit cards, and all my cash, was in the jacket. I had taken it off during the lunch break and forgot to take it when I alighted the taxi. I was in total shock, it was already about 15 mins since the taxi left and there were not many villages ahead for the taxi to stop. I asked Naina if there is someone who can help me chase the taxi on a motorbike. She understood and asked Roland to drive me. Roland spoke no English, but once we were on the road he said, “Don’t panic.” We chased the taxi through the winding roads and hairpin bends of the forest. He showed presence of mind to fill up the tank and to carry an extra bottle of fuel, just in case. After about 25 kms we found the taxi. It had stopped in a village for some check on the tyres. I found my jacket. I stayed in the forest for 2.5 days, and during that time Naina helped me with information about many things and translation when required.

Receptionist and Night Watchman at the campsite in Antsirabe
No showers for campers, but the receptionist told me she can give me hot water in a bucket, and that I can use a small bathroom used by the workers on-site to take a bath. It was three days since I last had a shower, so I said I’ll take it. The next morning when I asked for hot water, the receptionist showed me to one of the vacant rooms and let me use the shower there 🙂

It got very cold during the nights. I managed one night in the tent somehow, but on the second night it got colder, and so I asked the night watchman if I could bring my sleeping bag and sleep by the couch in the reception area. He spoke no English, so all communication was in signs. He took out a thick rug from the cupboard, gave it to me and made signs which I interpreted as “Use this to sleep in the tent, and bring it back tomorrow morning.” I gladly accepted the offer. The rug was so warm, I had a sound sleep in my tent 🙂

Worth one more visit
On a stretch of about 500 kms, all my time was spent in the central highlands, at least 200 kms from the beach in any direction. This part of Madagascar is charming, beautiful and interesting, and with the diversity of people and places I experienced, I am convinced that traveling to other parts of the country would be a different experience and worth another visit.

Doing thatched roof

Person carrying sticks on bridge

Backpacking without plan, worth it!
My decision to have no plan and to be not connected helped me gain some invaluable experience in dealing with uncertainty. Enquiry at the check-in counter in Johannesburg airport revealed that ZAR is not accepted in Madagascar, not even at the airport foreign exchange offices. This meant I had to carry EURO/USD in order to change in Madagascar. The first thing that hit me on this trip was some financial regulation in South Africa due to which I, as a volunteer holding an Indian passport, was restricted from changing money at any bank. So, my only option was an expensive one and that limited the ZAR I could change to EURO. I could only get 295€. And in Madagascar ATMs did not accept Maestro cards. So I could not draw any cash. This put me in a position like no other time in my life. I was all by myself in the country, spoke no French and no Malagasy, knew no one in the country, had no internet, and had 295€ to experience Madagascar in 13 days. A moment of reflection, and I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-life-time experience. I smiled!Fishing

Over the next 13 days I explored options that I otherwise would not have, made decisions knowing that I had absolutely no other way to get additional money, bargained using signs and calculator on iPhone, rationed my supplies prudently and stringently, ate very limited food when traveling and resting, purchased only the absolute essentials, took chances and waited at the park office to find tourists who could share guide fee, and despite the limited resources I could donate money and clothes, and buy food for poor people and small children. This experience taught me something about myself, that I can empathize with others’ difficulties even when I am constrained by resources, that I can trust strangers, that I can persist under unfamiliar circumstances, and most importantly that I can explore options to handle uncertainty.

Marbles game

Thank you Madagascar!
santom

Senegal: A cultural paradox

After staying in Senegal for four months I have grown accustomed to the question – What do you think of Senegal? I always ask the other person to be a little more specific because I have a mixed bag of YES and NO’s in my repository of experiences. If you ask me whether I like people, culture and life in general? Then, it’s a yes to all three questions. Do you think that the economy is in good shape and poised to grow? Then the answer is NO.

People in Senegal are extremely warm and welcoming. This is reflected in their day-to-day lives, community functions, work place and even clothes. Unlike India, which is also undergoing economic transformation, people in Senegal are patient, content and easy going. A dinner in a restaurant can easily extend beyond an hour because most people delve into conversations while the staff takes 20-minutes to bring the menu. It takes another 20-minutes to order and then another 30 minutes finishing the food. Sometimes my urgency in placing the order and eating food surprises the staff at the restaurants and cafés. Senegal is so easy-going and laid back that if you don’t ask for the check it never arrives. Similarly, confrontations in the society are resolved by arguing politely about the issues and sometime involves several volunteers that listen to the parties and help them reach a settlement. For e.g. if one cars slightly rubs off another car on the road then there is small exchange of words by pulling cars aside or some honking. If the damage is serious then settlement is immediately reached by involving the curios bystanders to assess the damage. That’s it! I have never seen people getting into heated arguments, heckling or brawls. I’m sure it happens but is not so visible in regular life.

This sense of calm and satisfaction is also observed at work. People show up early but morning discussions are important and small talk takes priority. If something goes wrong with the equipment at a convention or an event then you don’t see people running helter-skelter to fix it. Usually a person is sent out to find the person who can fix the problem. While the technician takes 5 minutes to arrive and fix the issue, the crowd breaks down in chatter as if it was expected. The speaker/ organizers stay calm as if this were a part of the show. This is how most things work here. In the beginning I had reached a pre-mature conclusion that people were lazy and productivity at work was extremely low. This is the point where I was completely wrong. For I had assumed that people didn’t do enough. In the process I missed the point the people don’t want to do more.

Understanding culture and people takes time, observation, and interaction. People in Senegal are deeply rooted in their culture. The culture of Senegal is defined by four words namely – Kersa (respect for others), Tegin (good manners), Terranga (hospitality) and Thiossane that stands for history, tradition and culture. These four tenets of Senegalese life pretty much define how they conduct and live their lives. It took me four months to understand this aspect of life and accept it. In the process I learned that people were more happy, content and in harmony with each other. This is contrary to the life of modern societies, in which materialistic wealth is seen as an important factor for achieving happiness but we are always short or looking for it. From the western perspective output at work may seem inadequate but from the Senegalese perspective it’s adequate as long as someone is working on it. Relationships and people are given priority over work and its often more important to preserve those rather than getting the work done. I have now come accept this way of life and it raises a profound question in my mind – We live to work or work to live? I’m glad that I experienced this and I hope that I would take these values back with me.

Although these ideals are a good way to lead a life, they cannot exist without a stable/economically developed society. Ignoring the fact that economic development and good quality life are not mutually exclusive is like ignoring the very peaceful existence Senegal has enjoyed till now and the factors responsible for it. Thus it becomes all the more important for Senegalese people to be economically stable, which will ensure survival of this culture and values. An economically unstable society cannot thrive on good conduct and culture. This is where most people in Senegal disagree with me and firmly believe that they are better off given the prevailing economic environment, simply blaming the government for all shortcomings. Most Senegalese are oblivious to the fact that the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and it is this constant influx of capital that it has managed to avoid wars, coups, and economic collapse that most of it neighbors have experienced in recent history.

Majority Senegalese believe that low agricultural productivity and underdeveloped infrastructure is an outcome of bad government policies. They also think that its entirely government’s responsibility to take care of agriculture and infrastructure industries. Although it is true to some extent, it would be wrong to just blame the government. Most millennial, start-up founders and businessmen have jumped onto the bandwagon of digitization/ ICT and ignored the opportunities in these foundational industries. They see digital businesses and service industry as the key to change the economic landscape. Universities, business schools and research centers also echo similar outlook with hardly any investment in R&D of agriculture, infrastructure and primary industries. It is only the foreign countries that see the opportunity and are thus investing heavily by leasing large swaths of land, building highways and investing in medical services amongst other industries. Senegalese people have nil or very little investment in these businesses. In my opinion agriculture forms the basis of a strong economy. All modern economies were built on agrarian societies, whose first goal was to become self sufficient in terms of food. Only when there is enough food for everyone, the governments and society can think of progressing into industrialized economy. It is very hard to find a country that was entirely able to skip this crucial step in transitioning from a developing country to a developed country. China and India are prime example of this transformation. Many young people are oblivious to this fact and strongly believe that recent growth in the ICT sector is the answer to end this dependency on foreign aids.

Even if we are to assume that ICT holds the key for economic transformation in Senegal there are other factors that pose as a major challenge. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Language – Today’s businesses are global and the primary medium of communication is English. People hardly speak English in this part of the world and this limits their reach and access to information.
  2. Limited natural resources –Senegal is not so rich in natural resources. For e.g. the entire energy requirement of Senegal is fulfilled by producing energy from imported oil. There is no hydro electricity or other forms of energy production. Surprisingly no one here in investing in renewable energy production given the high incidence of wind and sun all year long.
  3. Poor banking infrastructure and weak policies – BCEAO is the sole central bank for eight West African countries and the French treasury is the only guarantor. The French treasury sets the exchange rate between countries and the CFA is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate. The French treasury also plays a big role in defining the policies that govern the BCEAO. Need I say more?
  4. Interference of international politics – Every government decision is heavily influenced by their French or American counterparts. I guess that’s the price you pay for This interference is noted not only in politics but also in the economic sphere. Most telecommunication companies, tourism businesses, and other important industries have international organizations holding majority stake.
  5. Dysfunctional relationship with neighbors – Senegal’s relationship with its immediate and extended neighbors is dysfunctional. One day they are friends and the next day you have a trade embargo that jeopardizes all the past efforts.
  6. Lack of R&D in agricultural, indigenous industries and life sciences – I met a lot of students, professionals and government officials but none seem to focus on mentioned areas. Other indigenous industries such as fishing, which is one of the biggest employers, are rapidly deteriorating and no investment is being done to improve its performance.

So going back to the original question – what do I think of Senegal – I have to say that I have mixed feelings. Most debates that start with that question somehow end with the preceding context. Although I am able to convince some people and my counter arguments raise a doubt in their minds it does not deter their belief in the Senegalese way of life. At one business event a similar conversation had captivated about 5 people and there seemed to be no end to it when one gentleman, who after patiently listening to all the arguments, turned to me and said – “You may be right but life goes on. The dinner is served and its time to eat. Everything else can wait but food should not!” For a moment I was stumped but I knew that he meant to say that with all the respect and warmth in his heart. Although the western values and way of life slowly creep into the Senegalese culture, I am hopeful that Senegal will continue to carry on the traditions and build upon that a progressive and sustainable country that will serve as an example for other West African nations.

Till then JerraJef !

ESMT’s first time at the MBAT. What a Marathon!

When I arrived at Charles du Gaulle airport, I realized that the MBAT would be a greater challenge than what I expected. So far, pre-organization went smoothly, thanks largely to the support of Hongmin Kim, my co-captain and the help of the ESMT Marketing Team, represented by Rick Doyle.

But now, things seemed to be harder than I thought. It was 9am. I should arrive at HEC at around 12am, but the campus was three hours away with public transport. I needed to be on time to register our participants and play our first beach volleyball match in a couple of hours later. Plus, I was the captain. What kind of message would I be sending as a leader if I were not to arrive on time? Anyway, sport is about challenges, so I just tried to get into that spirit. Plus, the weather was awesome.

After a three-hours odyssey, I finally reached HEC campus together with 300 students from Cambridge and Oxford. During registration, I found out that many other schools were late too, which made me relieved. Some of my colleagues were already at HEC, while others were soon to come. HEC understood the struggle of schools to arrive on time and was flexible in the first matches, letting us play with mixed teams. Some colleagues would arrive only in the end of the afternoon, enough soon to attend the first evening party.

In the opening ceremony, crowds from LBS and IE shouted when their mascot and captain came up on stage to bring the school flag. We were the third to present. Even coming with only 19 participants (15 MBAs and 4 Masters in Management students), ESMT was one of the loudest crowds. Carolina Rincón was our mascot: the “beer bear”. Our presentation video showing Berlin sports heroes (from the 1936 Olympics to the 2016 MBAT) entertained the crowd. Carolina gave me the mascot uniform and I dressed it up for a pie-eating contest among mascots. Picture a bunch of dudes dressing as animals trying to eat a whole pie as fast as possible. We argued that the man underneath the lion from Cass was not really eating the cake, but simply throwing the pie inside of the mouth in the uniform and he was declassified. Finally, the giraffe of ESADE won the competition with merits. Party continued strong until drinks stop being sold and we had to go back to out hotels at around 2am. It was a good idea. Next day would be a long one.

The second day was the busiest day in the competition, with tournaments happening in almost all the sports. Since we were a smaller team, we only participated in basketball, beach volleyball, chess, kicker (table football) and cross-country. The day was very sunny and we were chilling at the gym area – stage of most of the sports – waiting for our time to play.

That was our winning day. One of our two beach volleyball teams won all the group matches and a tough quarterfinal match to qualify into the semifinals. The ESMT crowd was so united that our excitement infected our opponents, who jumped in and celebrated with us, even after their defeat. The basketball team won its last group match to get its ticket into the playoffs. The highlight was Patrick El Murr, who used to play at Lebanon’s national team and ended up being selected for the All-Star Team of the Tournament. Last, but not least, one of our kicker teams won the first-ever ESMT medal: silver. Roberto Zincone and Enrique Thayer beat teams from Rotterdam, HEC, Frankfurt and Oxford to face LBS in the final. Roberto and Enrique were practicing a lot at ESMT’s Kicker table and that proved to be helpful against all the teams. In the final, though, the opponent was way too strong, with a young German prodigy from LBS Masters in Management showing powerful skills to overpower our favorites.

After such a long day, we needed to go back home and take a shower and dress up for the party. But where was the shower? Not working! We called the reception and they blamed on us: everybody wanted to take the shower at the same time. We could not wait until the shower would be repaired, so we needed to improvise. Some people asked for water bottles from receptions. Others realized that the shower worked with very hot water, which meant lots of painful shouts coming from the bathroom. The party in the evening proved to be the best with bands from all the schools showing their skills. After the official celebration was over, some of us moved to the after-party at HEC’s MBA Building, with extra drinks and music until 5am.

On the final day, survivors of the tough group matches (and last night’s wild parties) would face the playoffs. We were playing in basketball and beach volleyball, but our opponents were way to strong for us. In basketball, we lost in the quarterfinals against IE and in beach volleyball we stopped in the semifinals against Oxford, who would soon become champions. In the bronze medal match, we had a tough match against HEC, loosing for only two points-difference. Nevertheless, the whole team was united and celebrating and we hugged each other, as well as the opponents. Finally, we went to the lake to see our girls running a confusing cross-country competition. Competitors could not find the right path and got lost on their way. One of our runners, Carolina Rincon, found her way after some time and finished the little marathon with merits.

Later in the evening, our small group gathered to celebrate the final evening with our first-ever medals being given to Roberto and Enrique. We were hugging each other and exchanging love messages even without drinking that much alcohol. It was a tough challenge to be the captain of ESMT at the MBAT. But that team made it easy and, moreover, worth the effort.

Before coming, I thought that the MBAT would be the perfect occasion to connect with students from other schools. But what actually happened was different: I created even stronger bonds with my colleagues and – contrary to the captains of those monster-crowds from the bigger schools – I knew all my team members by name: Alex, Amir, Aniket, Carolina, Cristina, Christoph, Dylan, Enrique, Florian, Hongmin, Matthias, Nai-Wen, Patrick, Phyllis, René, Roberto, Viara and Vladimir. Our partnership evolved to friendship and we will never forget this wonderful time spent together.

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About the MBAT

What is the MBAT?

The MBA Tournament (MBAT) is a student-run 3-day sporting event that takes place on the HEC Paris Campus every year in May, with around 1500 MBA participants from 17 leading European business schools.

ESMT participated in the tournament for the first time, representing Germany along with Frankfurt. From the UK, came LBS, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Cranfield, Lancaster and Cass. ESADE, IE and IESE represented Spain. Rotterdam and TIAS were the Dutch schools. St. Gallen and IMD came from Switzerland. The host, HEC, was the only school from France.

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Sports:

Competitions included Badminton, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Billiard, Chess, Cross Country, Dodgeball, Football, Table Football, Golf, Petanque, Poker, Rock Climbing, Rowing, Rugby, Salsa, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis and Ultimate Frisbee.

Participation in one sport with one team gives the school one point. A bronze medal gives the participant an extra point; a silver medal, two extra points and a gold medal, three extra points. Under that system, the number of participants is the main decider. Therefore, not surprisingly, the host HEC was the overall winner followed by LBS (sending around 200 students) and Oxford (sending 140).

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Networking and Fun:

Besides the sports competition, there is a lot of opportunity to network and have fun. When not in competition, the majority of students gathered around the lake, a beautiful green area in the campus, to drink, chill and chat. Dinner was served in the cantina, offering another chance to get to know people from other schools.

In each of the three evenings, everybody joins a huge thematic party fueled by alcohol and dance music. The first evening was the opening ceremony. In this gala party, young men and women dressed up with suit and business shoes would dance with giraffes, zebras and bears (school mascots), as well as athletes, who did not have time to dress up. The second evening was the battle of the bands. This extra music competition among the participant schools proved to be the best party. In the third evening, there was the closing ceremony, where winners could dance showing off their medals and trophies.

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Organisation:

Located far from Paris, without easy access using public transport, HEC’s main challenge was to host and bring back all the 1500 participants into the school and back to their accommodation every day.

Each participant student paid a fee of around 350 euros, which would include accommodation in a hotel close to HEC, transportation to the campus and three daily meals. A shuttle bus provided by HEC would pass at the hotels each 30 minutes (sometimes less than that, often more than that) to pick up students, reaching HEC in around 30 minutes. Once at HEC, you could pick up your breakfast and/or lunch (usually a banana, a sweet and a sandwich). In the evening, dinner was served in the cantina.

The highlight of the organisation was the payment system: a wristband in which you could charge some money. To buy alcoholic drinks or more food, you could simply show your band to the seller, who would swipe it over his or her phone. That decreased the queues dramatically and allowed us to pick up our drinks in a convenient way, without dealing with cash.

The downside was the transportation between hotels and campus, which took sometimes more than one hour to arrive. Many athletes could not reach campus on time of competition due to the lack of shuttle buses. Hotels were not an unanimity either. ESMT’s hotel shower was not working on the second and third days, forcing us to take showers somewhere else. Finally, the arrival was chaotic. It was on a Friday, during public holiday, when public transportation was not running frequently. We needed more than three hours to reach HEC from downtown Paris or from the airports.

Cape Town Chronicles – III: Food For Life

Hunger. A primal need. To me it’s a special idea that brings forth vivid images from my childhood, some of my strongest memories. Growing up in poverty, starving was one of the constants in my life for more than two decades. The physiological and psychological feelings that empty stomach causes are so indelibly etched into my psyche that they have influenced an essential part of my conscious and reflex behaviors. When I see food getting wasted a part of my stomach aches and I feel the burning of an empty stomach. Perhaps this is why, almost unknowingly, I don’t waste food. Seldom, but if I waste food, I get livid on myself. My friends and family tell me that I never criticise the taste of food, and that I don’t waste food. I didn’t notice these about my eating behavior, until many people gave me this feedback. On my 25th birthday, my best friend inspired me to think about the hungry and the homeless people and feed at least one hungry person before I celebrate. I started doing that, and soon it became a regular activity and not associated with any occasion.

According to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we human beings are driven to satisfy our higher needs of social bonding and self-actualization only after we satisfy our basic level needs. That leads to an interesting observation, that our ability to realize our potential, as an individual, as well as as part of a collective unit, is contingent on how well we are able to meet our basic needs. Hunger being one such basic need implies that malnourishment is an impediment to our individual and collective progress.

Consider these facts*

  1. In 2015, close to 800 million people suffered from chronic malnourishment worldwide. This is more than three times the total number of people affected by HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined (about 37 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, approximately 214 million malaria cases reported, and close to 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis).*
  2. More people worldwide die of hunger than of AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined.
  3. Every night, one in every nine people, sleeps with an empty stomach.
  4. About 45% of deaths in children under five – 3.1. million each year – are attributed to poor nutrition.

*Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization.

These numbers reveal a grim reality of the state of malnourishment globally. It is sad that the problem of malnourishment does not merit the same level of concern in a majority of us as much as the idea of AIDS or Malaria or any other disease does. But there are a few individuals and organizations that are contributing their mite to fight hunger. During my fellowship here in Cape Town I got an opportunity to add value to one such organization, Food For Life Cape Town.

In Mitchells Plain. A mother with her young toddler after receiving food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food
PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography

Food For Life Cape Town (FFL CT)
A colleague at TSiBA introduced me to FFL CT. It’s a non-profit volunteer organization that distributes freshly cooked vegetarian food in townships in Cape Town on Saturdays, and is affiliated to Food For Life South Africa (FFL SA), which is affiliated to Food For Life Global (FFL G).

How FFL came into being, is an inspiring story. It happened in 1974 in India. Srila Prabhupada, a well-respected wise man and founder of ISKCON, once saw a few hungry children fighting with street dogs to scavenge food. This sight shocked and deeply upset him, but more importantly inspired him to his vision that led to FFL, that no one within ten miles of a temple should go hungry. He urged his yoga students to immediately start serving food to the hungry. This became the seed that slowly and steadily grew into a global humanitarian organization, a worldwide network of kitchens, cafes and services, that feeds the hungry, including daily routines in many cities around the world. Today, FFL feeds more people worldwide than the UN. Amazing!

What we at FFL CT do?
FFL CT uses the kitchen at ISKCON Temple in Rondebosch. There is a lot of emphasis on cleanliness, consciousness and compassion when cooking. Those who cook attend their morning nature routines and shower before entering the kitchen. Once they start cooking they don’t go to the restroom. However, if one needs to, then that person should take a head bath before entering the kitchen again.

Every Saturday morning, one or two volunteers cook vegetable biryani (Biryani is an indian rice-based dish). The vegetables for the biryani are prepared on Friday evening. Cooking starts early morning, between 5:30 and 6 am, on Saturday. Alongside biryani, beans are cooked, to be served as a side dish. Once the food is cooked, it is offered to god. After a little while, the offerings are then mixed with the rest of the food. This is believed to sanctify the food, and the food is called Prasadam (sanctified offering). We then transfer the food into plastic containers, garnish them up with mint and coriander, and load them into the mini-truck. While the food gets decanted into the containers, volunteers enjoy the delicious biryani for breakfast.

Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast
Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast

In addition to the biryani and beans, we also prepare juice and load it up into the truck. The truck and the participating volunteers then leave, usually between 11 am and 12 pm, for the day’s destination where distribution takes place.

Currently we cook 1,800 meals and distribute in Grabouw, Mitchell’s Plain, Nyanga, Phillipi, Overcome Heights, Stellenbosch, Hanover Park, Kensington and a few shelters. We visit a different township every Saturday, and rotate every two months.

In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings

The recipients of our food are predominantly young children, with some elderly and other community members.

In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Stellenbosch
In Stellenbosch
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera - all I ask!
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera – all I ask!

Temple devotees also join us for the food distribution. They bring a lot of joy and celebration to the atmosphere by joyously singing and drumming mantras with the children.

Regardless of the location, children rejoicing and celebrating the music, singing and dancing with our volunteers is an inspiring and a beautiful sight. And this embodies the true spirit of service that we at FFL CT strive for. One of the things that has impressed me about this organization is that none of the people involved, volunteers and management likewise, carry the feeling of charity. No one looks at, and feels, what we do, as an act of charity to underprivileged people. The attitude is one of compassion, and selfless service to fellow human beings. And that sets them apart.

In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Overcome Heights. Children dance to Perez's tunes
In Overcome Heights. Children dance and sing in tune with our volunteers
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Mitchells Plain.
In Mitchells Plain.
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master

My contribution to FFL CT
I volunteered to help FFL CT by joining them on Saturdays for food distribution. Soon came an opportunity to help the organization with strategy and management. As part of the core management team, I am helping the team with strategy for future. Based on my understanding of the activities involved and the vision for the future, near and long-term, I suggested a simple organizational structure to achieve three-fold impact (1) Make sustainability a key strategic focus for the organization (2) Build and strengthen the brand, and (3) Focus on efficiency for the business-as-usual activities/routines.

Core Team meeting
Core Team meeting

I have been fortunate that around the same time I came onboard, some enthusiastic and energetic folks started volunteering for FFL, and agreed to help us with the execution of above strategy. We formed a task force and we meet once a week to explore, discuss and debate different options to achieve our goals. We’ve made good progress on branding, and we are heading in the right direction with fund-raising and operational efficiency. We have big plans for the next few months, and are pursuing multiple threads to grow our network of benefactors.

The path forward
Strategically, we are evaluating the option of turning our weekly program into a daily one to create a stronger and longer-lasting impact on the communities we serve. This is a major strategic shift in the way our organization works. I am convinced that the current volunteer-based organizational structure has to give way to a few salaried office-bearers, part or full-time, in order for us to make and sustain this strategic shift. We also want to bring joy and smiles into the lives of more people and set ourselves the target of increasing our weekly capacity to 5,000 meals in the near-term. And we are launching a literacy project for young children in townships.

We are pursuing three major options on our path forward.

  • Living The Legends: On 23rd of July 2016, FFL CT will celebrate the legacy of two legends, Nelson Mandela and Srila Prabhupada, whose vision led to the efforts of FFL. Living the spirit of service of these two visionaries, 10,000 meals will be cooked and distributed on this day. This will be a flagship event of FFL CT going forward. This year’s event will have about 50 students from Northeastern University (NU) joining us. NU students will conduct free vision tests, and has sourced 2,000 eyeglasses from VisionSpring, an India-based NGO, to distribute to the needy for a nominal-to-zero price. Work is underway to raise funds, and to source volunteers for the event.
  • TSiBA-NU Consulting: We pursued the TSiBA-NU program for Entrepreneur Business Consulting, where business students from these universities will review and consult businesses in Cape Town to address business challenges, and have been shortlisted as one of the finalists on the program. We are excited to be on the program and hope the recommendations from these young business students will give us insights into how we can create more and sustainable sources of revenue and how we can take the brand closer to the young.
  • Read For Life: We are embarking on a literacy project that will be rolled out as a pilot in one township to begin with, and gradually developed into a working model that can be scaled for a wider roll out across townships, with minimum to no changes. I am anchoring this project for FFL CT and I am very excited about the execution of the pilot. The project has already generated keen interest in some of the people, and we look forward to the pilot roll out. More on this project soon.

How you can help
Every Saturday after our food drive in townships, I return home feeling glad that my efforts brought joy to people who are not as fortunate as I am. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that I grew up in a slum, and I had faced hardships caused by poverty. I can empathise with the people I see on Saturdays, who are living in abject poverty. Seeing the circumstances they are living in, is a humbling experience for me. And I think everyone of us can do something to make the situation better, directly or indirectly.

The best thing we can do is to not waste food. I urge you to sensitize yourself to food wastage, and make an earnest and consistent effort to not waste food. There are millions who are struggling to find food, and your efforts will make sure the situation doesn’t get any worse.

By supporting FFL CT you can make a difference in the lives of potentially many people. The biggest challenge facing us in pursuing the above mentioned goals is the inadequacy of resources, both financial and human. We are looking for people with the right vision and experience in fund raising, marketing and operations to come onboard and help us. We are also looking for generous donations, especially from overseas, to support our weekly operations. Given the fluctuations in Rand, any funding received from overseas would be a great help. You can also help us by volunteering for cooking and distribution on Saturdays.

If you are in Cape Town, join us on a Saturday to experience what we do, and how we do. Find out more on our website http://www.fflsa.org/branches/cape-town/, Facebook page (Food For Life Cape Town) and Instagram (FoodForLifeCapeTown) about FFL CT’s efforts to bring joy and smiles to different communities.

In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day's work
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day’s work

Till next time,
santom!