The population conundrum

Mauritius is a country in the Indian Ocean with a population of 1.2 million people. India (the country from which, incidentally, the Indian Ocean gets its very name) has 1.2 billion people – which is exactly 1000 times the population of Mauritius.

This fact struck me as we were driving across Mauritius last month. As we drove past the softly rolling country, I got to see huge expanse of land on both sides of the road with very little sign of human habitation – totally unlike what one sees in India. Clearly this was a country with a small population.

Till I thought a bit more about it and decided to dig further and examine this whole population issue from the density perspective. Population density of a country is the number of people living in a square kilometre and should normally reflect how congested living conditions are likely to be in that country. Here is what I found:

India has a population density of 382 & Mauritius has a population density of 631. Which means that Mauritius has double the number of people of India living in one square kilometre. So, why is it that India feels so crowded and Mauritius so open?

The answer – India’s overcrowded & over populated cities. India is not as crowded a country as seems to us urban folk. Those of us who have spent time travelling in the rural interiors of India (especially in the North) have encountered large tracts of land with very little signs of human habitation. The problem of crowding seems to a uniquely urban phenomenon. So I looked up some more numbers.

Here is the population density of some of India’s top cities:

Delhi – 9340

Mumbai – 21,261

Bangalore – 4378

The problem, though lesser, continues into some of the smaller cities as well:

Ahmedabad – 890

Kanpur – 1449

Coimbatore – 748

So clearly, we need to quickly figure out how to make Indian cities less congested & so more livable.

Incidentally, the world average for population density is just 45.3 people per square kilometre of land area. A good target to try to get to.

Holiday Dangers

The news that a Zimbabwean tourist taking an outdoor shower in a wildlife camp got killed by pride of lions once again reminds us that vacation trips can have dangers. Remember the 2009 boat tragedy on the Periyar river in Kerala that killed 40 people? Or the large number of tourists that go to our beaches and rivers and get washed away.

Nature is an unforgiving place and those of us who venture out from the confines of our cities should understand this. Many of us don’t and that adds a layer of significant risk to our vacations which often goes unrecognised. The fact that we mostly emerge unscathed from our trips does not mean that we have not, knowingly or unknowingly, taken big risks; it just means we have been lucky.

What is equally disturbing is that safety is an aspect that neither the tourism industry nor the government is paying any attention to in India. It is time that we changed this inattention.

Peri Peri sauce

Let me start with heresy. Chillies are not from India at all. They originated in South America and reached India and the rest of Asia through European traders, especially the Portuguese.

Nandos is the latest twist in that story of the migration of the chilli. Nandos is a ‘chicken restaurant’ chain from South Africa that has now spread across the world. Last month in Singapore, I visited their outlet in Bugis Junction. Nandos does a Portugese / Mozambique-an take on the chicken, which I must confess is a pretty good take on that humble bird. Chilli is a major part of that take.

Peri Peri sauce – found wherever Portuguese influences are found such as in Goa – is a key ingredient used by Nandos. It is a not-so-very scary chilli sauce made from an interesting combination of chillies, garlic, parsley, paprika and a few other goodies. And over time, it has morphed into multiple avatars which can be even be bought online. Or if you want to make it in your kitchen, here is a recipe.

Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…


How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be

Please let me know immediately.


Another Africa story – this time in Zimbabwe

From The Dispatch:

A Zimbabwean newspaper reported that while transporting mental patients from Harare to Bulawayo, the bus driver stopped at a shebeen for a few beers. When he returned, the 20 patients had vanished. He stopped at the next bus stop and offered lifts to people waiting. At a Bulawayo mental hospital he handed over his charges, warning the nurses they were particularly excitable.

After three days the hospital staff finally became convinced of the truth by the consistency of the stories by the 20 people. The real patients have vanished, apparently blending back into Zimbabwean society.

Not that such stories don’t occur in other places (and God knows India has even crazier stuff making it to newspapers practically  every day). But somehow these Africa stories warm my cockles more.

Gaia hypothesis : human limitations : hindu philosophy

in which I promised to tuck away all things not tourism, not travel, not food & likely not of interest…

This morning I read that scientists believe that the Sahara desert might be in retreat with water & life slowly reclaiming it.

The Mahabharata (as most other expositions of hindu thought) talks of life as an endless cycle of Cause and Effect. I remember reading in primary school that the Sahara desert was once (a few million year ago) a lush green landscape. The wheel seems to be turning.

It was in the 1970s that James Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, whereby he suggested that the Earth’s biosphere and its physical components are all so closely linked in a manner that keeps the balance on earth (‘homeostasis’) enabling Life to flourish. Effectively, he said that we needed to think of the Earth and its biosphere as one huge organism. This is not an easy thought to hold for most of us. And if you extend this idea to saying that the whole universe is actually a single organism and everything is closely linked to create the same homeostasis, then the problem of holding this in one’s head becomes bigger.

Human beings seem to have a problem of scale. Our cognition seems to be finely tuned to the scale at which we operate. Scale can be across many dimensions – the most obvious ones that cause us regular grief seem t0 be Size and Time. It seems to me that we cannot recognize and therefore cannot understand things much much larger than ourselves  or much smaller than ourselves. Modern Science, which is after all a product of human observation (‘empirical‘) was forced to take many a fall, when it was faced with the very small – and the new body of knowledge of the very small is now called Quantum Physics. It is my belief that the very same experience is likely to recur when human beings expand our horizons to be able recognize (however dimly) stuff much larger than ourselves. The same is true of things that occupy much longer or much shorter time spans in relation to human beings.

So, while I appreciate the temporary benefits that accrue to the human race from the energetic work of Mr Al Gore et al, I am unable to get terribly enthusiastic. There seems to be too much going on that we do not understand.

Here is another earlier post I did on the subject of Scale.

Swaziland’s merchant navy

Read on for some ‘news’ from Swaziland that I was pointed to recently:

The situation is absolutely under control,” Transport Minister Ephraim Magagula told the Swaziland parliament in Mbabane. “Our nation’s merchant navy is perfectly safe. We just don’t know where it is, that’s all.” Replying to an MP’s question, Minister Magagula admitted that the landlocked country had completely lost track of its only ship, the Swazimar: “We believe it is in a sea somewhere. At one time, we sent a team of men to look for it, but there was a problem with drink and they failed to find it, and so, technically, yes, we’ve lost it a bit. But I categorically reject all suggestions of incompetence on the part of this government. The Swazimar is a big ship painted in the sort of nice bright colours you can see at night. Mark my words, it will turn up. The right honourable gentleman opposite is a very naughty man, and he will laugh on  the other side of his face when my ship comes in.”


The most chilling sentence in world tourism

Of late, I have been researching Africa. Going by my past experience of my own behaviour, a trip there seems imminent.

But I was brought up short by this one sentence. I was on the Zambia tourism website, in the section which gives you lots of information on how to travel around the wonderful country of the Zambezi river & Victoria falls. Right at the bottom of the page, after all the enthusiastic stuff about Rail journeys inside Zambia, is one line, lurking all by itself. It reads:

“To be safe, ask the station police to escort you to a taxi”

Trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain – the Kilimanjaro


(Photo :

“Like a herd of elephants on the African plains, the subject of tipping is a bit of a grey area..”

Henry Stedman has written a well-researched, comprehensive and easy to understand guide book to climbing Kilimanjaro. But it is the ocassional quirky comment (as above) that somehow transports this book from being another good guide-book to an interesting read.

The book published by Trailblazer, has sections that cover all of the must-knows including excellent detail on planning the trip such as whom to book the trek with, budgeting for the trek, route options and what to take. It also has good sections on the natural history of Kilimanjaro, its flora & fauna and its people. The hand-drawn maps that give a good deal of information on trek routes and topography will obviously help prepare the trekker well. All in all, a good book to buy, if you want to climb Kilimanjaro.

Of course, the book is primarily for a British audience – so if you happen to be travelling from India (as I imagine many of the readers here would be), there are gaps in information that will have to be filled in. For instance, Continue reading


(Ethiopia : The historic route, a John Douglas Art video on Youtube)

My friend Mohit often talks of his childhood in Addis. He tells me that great weather, ditto food and a benevolent despot made for a good time in the sixties Addis. So, we have decided to do a trip back there; ‘a return to roots’ for a beef-eating, hard-drinking, wise-cracking, displaced baniya from UP.

Co-incidentally, the last issue of the National Geographic magazine featured an Ethiopia tour among the 50 Tours of a Lifetime. So, the gods seem to be telling me to go. And in the face of such clear signs, I cannot hesitate. So sometime in 2008, I shall go to Ethiopia.

My knowledge of Ethiopia is heavily coloured by the many Time magazine cover photos of starving children and I cannot escape a certain squeamishness. But, I also happen to know some little bit of the ancient culture of the Amharic people, their Christian roots, their Islamic heritage and their food. So, it does look like a place real travellers go to.

Plus, in my stamp-collecting days, long gone now, I had a vivid blue stamp of Haile Selassie. Talk of signs.

Want to go to Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro & the Serengeti?

Watch this video to find out which country you need to go to for a combination of a great island holiday, a fabled mountain climb and the world’s best wildlife viewing.

Click here for all my posts on Africa.

Size Matters

(A Youtube video of Pokhara, Nepal)

Trips to Nepal (some time ago) & Hong Kong (recently) have convinced me that I am a ‘size matters’ kind of person. And, please cut the snigger – I am talking about dress sizes and currency values here.

For as long as I can remember, I have travelled to countries where One Indian Rupee converts into less – a lot less – than one local dollar/drachma/whatever. Essentially, the Indian Rupee was always ‘weak’. So how low or foolish or insecure I felt in a country was directly correlated to the weakness of the Indian Rupee at that time, against that currency.

And then I got to Nepal. For the first time in my life, I was faced with the shocking reality that One Indian Rupee could actually fetch you more than One of the host currency. I puffed my chest, walked with long strides, complained freely about the strange food and funny people and generally became a pest. At which point I realised why western travellers appear in a certain way to Indians. If I were an American or Brit and got 40 Rupees or 80 Rupees for every Dollar or Pound I converted, I know how I would behave. Given that, the Americans and the Brits are a reasonably well behaved lot in India. So, unfortunately for some of us, the size of the wad of notes you get everytime you convert currency is one of the strongest ‘mood creators’ in international travel. A fairly compelling case, I would think, for quickly establishing a worldwide single currency system. Mr Ban, I hope you are listening.

Hong Kong brought me another perspective on size. I walked into Marks & Spencer and asked for a shirt. The shop girl looked me up & down (actually she was at least 85 years of age, so there was no real danger) and said ‘XXL I think’. Wow. In India I am a firm ‘M’. So, it was great to swagger into an XXL. And I had discovered the next ‘mood creator’ of international travel, which fortunately for some of us, occasionally works to our advantage. Once again, this helps the westerners, but also helps Africans & Pacific Islanders. So that is ok.

If you are from a country occupied by a small-built race with a weak currency, a sense of humour might be an imperative for international travel. On the other hand, if you are big-built and have a strong currency, please go easy on the whining. If you are somewhere in between, grow-up. You need to find other pegs for your self esteem. How about playing kho-kho well?

Top 5 holidays for winter 2007


(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)

So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?

In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).

Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.

  • Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
  • Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
  • Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
  • Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
  • Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.

Buffalo vs Lion vs Crocodile

If you have the slightest interest in wildlife, check out this video I found on Youtube. In additon to amazing scene unfolding in front of your eyes, listen to the comments of the people around the camera. All in all, a perfect vignette of the world of animals; all animals including homo sapiens.

Apparently took place in the Kruger National Park.

Song & Dance in Timbuctoo


(map courtesy CNN)

Off the beaten track, there are a number of interesting holiday opportunities peppered across the world. One such set are tours that revolve around music & dance. Here is a ‘music vacation’ that I found unusually fascinating:

Mali World Music Festival Tour (Festival Au Desert) : covering 15 days in Mali, the landlocked nation in West Africa, this tour takes you to one of the most intriguing music festivals anywhere – the 2 day music festival among the “Free people” (Tuaregs) deep in the african desert. In addition, you also get to hang around Mali’s main towns, one of which is Timbuktu (yes, there really is a Timbuktu).

(catch a Youtube video of mystic Tuareg chanting at the Mali fesitval, somewhere deep within the ocean of sand that is the African desert – video from oknomad)