Bah! Humbug! Why tourists should steer clear of Goa’s overrated Carnival

Bah! Humbug! Why tourists should steer clear of Goa's overrated CarnivalPhoto Credit: YouTube
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Earlier this week, residents of Panaji, Goa’s capital, awoke to the sight of large pink masks and blue, red and green buntings being draped on the street along the Mandovi River, where a sprinkling of brown-headed gulls enjoyed the early February sun.

This weekend, Carnival ‒ the burst of celebration before Christians begin to observe the 40-day period of abstinence ‒ is being held across the state. The advance preparations for the four-day festival came as a surprise for residents, who are more used to seeing white-cloth barricades being hastily erected at one end of the street even as the parade is about to begin at the other.

From February 6-9, with the backing of the state government, the streets in Panaji, Margao, Vasco and Mapusa will be awash with colour, parades and floats. King Momo – the mythical king of the Carnival – and his entourage will take over the state and there will be music, rejoicing and much revelry.

Or that’s the story we tell to bring in the tourists.

How Goa does it

In times bygone, revellers dressed up in colourful home-made costumes would go around the main Carnival areas singing and dancing. Mock fights would take place between groups of boys, employing rotten eggs and tomatoes as the weapons. “Cocotes” or bombs made with paper and filled with clay, were used during these pretend battles.

These days, the boys on foot have been replaced by groups of entertainers on floats decorated with larger-than-life papier-mache depictions of flora, fauna, events of local interest and other newsworthy items. In recent years, floats have themes portraying the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, global warming, the disappearing tigers, and local crafts.

This year, the iconic coconut palm is likely to take centre stage after the state government last month controversially decided that it wasn’t a tree after all, and didn’t deserve the conservation protections afforded to other foliage.

The long line of floats is undoubtedly the star attraction of the parade. The vehicles will carry massive speakers that will echo live and recorded music for the entertainment of the thousands who gather to watch the spectacle. Those close to the action will need to keep earplugs handy.

This year, in a bid to improve the quality of the parade, the state government has providedfinancial assistance of Rs 1 lakh to “selected floats” as part of a collaborative project with organisations from the UK and South Africa.

The Goa government has also added a dress code to “curb obscenity” at the parade, but the exact restrictions remain unclear. Does this mean that King Momo (or Queen Momo, as in Margao) and his bevy of ladies will not show a shoulder or a hint of a leg? Or perhaps the dancers in their Kunbi saris will wear longer blouses to hide their bellies?

The government’s moral scruples are likely to be the cause for disappointment for the thousands of tourists from all over the country who throng the streets. For many, this is as close as they will get to the samba drums of Brazil, where the festival is celebrated on a much larger scale. But dress code or not, anyone expecting to see dancers in feathers and little else is living in a fantasy world: the Goa Carnival has always been far more demure.

Some visitors familiar with other Carnival parades around the world come dressed for the occasion with masks and hats, costumes and high heels. They stand out among the “I love Goa” T-shirts and young Indian women in tiny shorts with hands full of wedding henna and red, just-married bangles. Vendors will attempt to make a quick buck selling them masks and noisemakers.

Preparing for chaos

Long-time Carnival watchers know that despite the careful preparations of the authorities, the event will probably follow the traditional routine. For instance, even though white-cloth barricades have been constructed to regulate the flow of people, the enterprising audience can be expected to climb over the piles of uncleared garbage and squeeze through the gaps. They will find a tear in the cloth and make it larger. No matter how tightly the fabric is tied, it is no match for the strength of a thousand grasping hands.

For many local residents, the barricade and the crowds are an effective deterrent. It’s much more relaxing to watch the parade on live television, with close-ups of the action and tea and friends for company.

By early in the evening, chaos will reign. Motorcycles and cars will clog every surface available, including pavements and zones that have been cordoned off. Eventually, the police will give up and the traffic will sputter and freeze like a mythical beast with a life of its own.

By sundown, as the parade has ended and the tourists are wandering off, residents will heave a sigh of relief. The familiar mound of trash near Panjim’s new Patto Bridge will have doubled in size. There will be plastic bags and bottles on the river bank and in the water.

The gulls will not come back at night. And, if they’re wise, neither will the tourists.


When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter

When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter
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Meeting Garang was a bit of an anticlimax after our exotic encounter with the Tuposa. To start with we were placed under informal arrest in a jungle clearing that Garang’s people laughingly called the International Hotel. Then we were told we would have to wait our turn while Garang held talks with a visiting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Every now and then some of Garang’s people in their fatigues and dark glasses would come and check us over again. One of them was especially sinister. Tall, thin and aggressive, he sneered through his dark glasses, asking, “Why should I let you meet our leader? How much money will you give me?”

As time wore on, waves of bewilderment and fear rolled over us in equal proportions. An overnight sleep did nothing to help. Quite the contrary because when we awoke we realised the makeshift pillows on which our heads had been resting were actually canvas sacks filled with grenades.

Finally, nearly twenty-eight hours after our arrival, we were ushered into Garang’s presence. A well-built man with a PhD from Iowa State University in the US, he had very little to say that was original, preferring to stick to the SPLA mantra: “We are the government of the area, anyone who contests this fact is entertaining an illusion.” He insisted that the SPLA were no separatists, merely political activists who wanted peace based on genuine dialogue with all the country’s political forces.

Before my interview the Thames crew had theirs. As previously planned Gill and Stewart had decided that their team would focus predominantly on the famine gripping south Sudan. For them it was more of a visual story and their cameras could really paint in chilling detail the human cost of the civil war. Stewart in particular went very quiet as the scale of the tragedy hit him. Clearly, the money raised the previous year from Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Live Aid concert hadn’t helped this part of Africa—something he especially seemed to be particularly aware of. Garang’s seeming indifference to the plight of his fellow Sudanese and the belligerent comments of his close advisers upset all of us. For these particular African warlords life was all too cheap.

The following morning, after our interview with Garang who appeared to have vanished, we again teamed up with Kwol and another older guide called Majak to head back to Kenya. Ten hours after leaving Buma our convoy stopped. It was a good excuse to stretch our legs and for someone else to take their turn driving. I had been in the second car—a far from pleasant experience because of the dust and sand constantly kicked up by the lead vehicle. Stewart asked that everyone change cars because one was considerably more comfortable than the other. He’d spent the previous ten hours being rocked about in a seat that was badly welded to the floor and the bumpy dirt road had been playing havoc with his knees. Nobody objected, not least because of how withdrawn Stewart had become since the meeting with Garang.

My car started up, I was sitting in the same uncomfortable seat that Stewart had been complaining about. He was now lying with his long frame stretched out in the boot of the other Land Cruiser, sleeping.

A few minutes later there was a sound like a dull rumble or what I imagined was a mini earthquake.

I remember turning to Hutchings to ask if the Land Cruiser behind had punctured its petrol tank, someone may even have shouted, “It’s their petrol tank.” As we raced back we could see Stewart lying spread-eagled on his back with a bloodied Majak next to him. Their Land Cruiser had driven over a forgotten landmine planted months earlier by Garang’s forces and the sheer force of the resulting explosion had thrown Stewart clear through the air into a clump of trees. When we got to his fallen body on that mud track in southern Sudan, we could see there was a thin branch sticking out of his head.

Kwol simply disappeared and was never seen again, but Majak was lying half in and half out of the Land Cruiser. Both his legs were twisted in an unnatural way and there was blood trickling out from one side of his mouth, but he was nevertheless in a better condition than Stewart who was moaning but still sufficiently conscious to help me unbutton his shorts to help him breathe more easily.

There were also tricklets of blood dripping from his forehead, so we ripped off our own shirts to make a turban of makeshift bandages, while Gill raced off to find the nearest habitation, a government-held town called Kapoeta, where, despite heroic attempts, he tried and failed to find a doctor. He did make contact with the local SPLA commander who sent him back to us with a temporary military escort. We had absolutely no idea what would become of us. In that gathering gloom, surrounded by African scrub, nothing was clear or certain. That sense of desolation has been pushed so deep into my subconscious that it is almost impossible to recall.

What I do remember is that while Gill was away Hutchings, Heasman, Killlian and I tried to do what we could to make Stewart comfortable. As he lurched between different states of consciousness, we held his hand, talked to him and he in turn talked back at us, at least for a while. I wished at the time that we’d been able to lay him out more comfortably on a bed or a mattress. No such luxury was available. All we had was the hard, sandy ground.

I’d come close to death before a few years earlier in Afghanistan when fellow passengers on a bus travelling from Kabul to Kandahar were killed one by one by the mujahidin in front of my eyes. But, however horrible that experience, my murdered fellow bus passengers were anonymous casualties who spoke a language –Pushtu – that I didn’t understand.

The crisis involving Stewart and Majak was completely different. Both men were part of a much smaller, more closely knit group that had travelled together in convoy from Garang’s headquarters in Buma. Stewart for his part had taken the trouble to introduce himself to each one of us. By the time we got to Buma he and I had told each other everything there was to know about our schools, colleges and families. He was someone I had got to know and like. We had shared jokes and stories about our lives, played silly games to while away the time.

Unlike me, Stewart was still a bachelor. There may have been references to a girlfriend in the distant past, but what he talked about most were his parents and in particular his sister to whom he was especially close.

At the time the idea of stories or pictures did not even enter our thoughts. All our thoughts were with Stewart and Majak who to our untrained eyes, although wounded, was in no danger of losing his life. My fear for Stewart was mixed with anger about the landmine. How come Garang’s forces had left it there? It must have been Garang because his forces had been in control of the area for the past few years. Why didn’t Majak, the Garang guide designated to help us, know about the location of the mine? Had we been set up by Garang’s aides – one of them had demanded money with menaces – and were there other randomly scattered mines that would take all our lives?

There were no obvious answers and the questions seemed irrelevant because by the time Gill returned from his futile search for help, Stewart’s breathing had stopped. He was dead at the age of thirty-five and there was nothing we could do about it. The sheer sense of helplessness has never gone away. His last words were, “I don’t want to go there, I must survive.” One of us closed his eyes, I don’t remember who, as we knelt next to him, crying like little children. By my watch it was 7.30 pm Kenyan standard time.

Soon afterwards a platoon of Garang’s SPLA soldiers walked past. They must have been watching us before they suddenly loomed out of the dusk because they were not hostile. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Gibson, one of twenty seemingly barefoot soldiers, asked if there was anything he could do. We asked what medicine he could lay his hands on. All he had was a useless pack of paracetemol tablets. No good for wounded or dying victims of a mine blast.

But Gibson was practical in other ways, helping us brew a mix of coffee and whisky that each of us drank. Then we prepared for the long drive back to Lokichokio. There were difficult decisions to make.

Stewart’s body wrapped in a sleeping bag took up a huge amount of space in the one surviving Land Cruiser that had to stop several times because of two punctures and a leaking radiator. It could not accommodate all of us, as well as Majak, so our wounded SPLA guide was left behind. When we finally reached Lokichokio, shivering from a mix of shock and hysteria, news of our accident had travelled ahead of us.

Helen Fielding met us at the border crossing, together with locally based representatives of the International Red Cross. To his eternal credit, a young Swiss delegate from the ICRC took charge of a medical team that drove back into Sudan to tend to Majak. They returned with him to Kenya where he was treated in their field hospital and made a full recovery.

As for the rest of us, we were put on an ICRC charter aircraft that flew us with Stewart’s body back to Nairobi where the next twenty-four hours are still just a remembered blur of hot baths, whisky and sleep. Local contacts said Kenyan police wanted to interview us, and there was some possibility of actually spending time in a Kenyan prison cell. But before the police could get to us British diplomats had us out on the first available commercial flight to London.

My wife, Amanda, met me at Heathrow airport and drove me straight to the office where I spent the next several hours writing up the story of our tragedy. Looking back, the writing up of the story and wringing out the details on the keyboard of my typewriter was a cathartic experience. No psychiatrist could have suggested a better, although temporary way of coping with the aftermath of the tragedy.


‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry

‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry
Photo Credit: pixabay
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Most Europeans take pride in recycling. A good citizen separates glass from plastics, biowaste from metal cans and brags about it to their friends. Recycling helps soothe some of the anxiety driven by endless consumption.

However in Russia, recycling comes with a sense of shame. This is reflected by the fact that more than 80% of Russian domestic waste ends up in landfill, and most of the rest is incinerated. For comparison, Europe’s best recyclers – Austria and Germany – reuse well over 60% of their municipal waste while the UK manages 39%. A 2012 report by the International Financial Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, found that Russia’s waste recovery rate was “nearly zero”.

I first became aware of negative social attitudes to recycling in Russia during research in Samara (formerly Kuybyshev), the country’s sixth largest city and which lies in a twist of the river Volga 1,000km from Moscow. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a closed city hosting aviation and automobile industries. Along with a team of Russian and Finnish researchers, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the local culture and learn about the potential for developing eco-innovations in an economy undergoing rapid transition. The results of which were published late last year.

We focused on how people dealt with their waste. At first the task didn’t seem too gratifying as the people whose lives we followed told us they threw all their waste in the bin and that there was neither waste separation nor recycling.

Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided
Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided

But as we observed their daily lives, we noticed some people leaving beer bottles under the staircases of their apartment building. We also saw bottle collection points outdoors under trees or in shabby basement premises. The outdoor collection points were tended by women who told us their salary was some 200-300 roubles (about £2) a day, but they refused to tell who collected the bottles and paid their salary. We were usually thrown out of the basement recycling places as soon as it turned out we wanted information.

When we asked people whether they ever took bottles to these recycling points, most regarded the question as ridiculous. The question made a lot of sense to us as the families we asked were from the low-income tiers of society and could certainly have used the extra money. Probing the issue further we were told that “only alcoholics, drug addicts or poor babushkas [elderly women] who clean corridors” take bottles to recycling points.

In addition to the bottles, we also saw used cardboard neatly packed as if it was going somewhere. But nobody seemed to know who it belonged to and where it was heading for. Once, when taking a photo of one such cardboard pile, a bulky man came shouting loudly and chased us away.

The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided
The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided

It’s not easy to get access to companies in Russia, but we were lucky to find one waste management firm willing to talk to us. One morning we met the CEO in his office. After some champanskoye (sparkling wine) and chocolate he took us to visit his company’s landfill site. The company focused primarily on landfill, he told us, because to get involved in recycling or reused items was too risky a business; and waste fragments of any value, such as bottles and metals, were already in the hands of the mafia.

Recycling goes overground

Integrating this informal, underground recycling with official efforts to deal with waste is tough.

To give one example, we recently worked with Baltika brewery in St Petersburg, which wanted to start bottle collections because of the environmental policy of its parent company, Carlsberg Group. As part of an intensive course on corporate sustainability, an enthusiastic group of international and Russian students were asked to design bottle collection and recycling methods that would encourage Russians to recycle. Baltika wanted to set up an independent, stand-alone system.

Knowing about the informal bottled recycling, which seemed to be as well-organised in St Petersburg as it was in Samara, I suggested a collaboration with independent recyclers, given there was a system already up and running. The question was met with a cold response: such informal bottle collectors were regarded as criminals.

In Russia, informal recycling identifies you as some kind of undesirable. It is a heavily stigmatised activity and ordinary Russians make an effort not be seen doing it. People also view many recycling companies as either having links to organised crime, or risking conflict with such groups. So at both an individual level and more organised corporate level there are major barriers to setting up the types of systems taken for granted in other parts of Europe. And despite the best efforts of citizens and companies, don’t expect to hear about major advances in systematic large-scale recycling in Russia any time soon.


Microsoft to Bring Windows Phone’s Word Flow Keyboard to iOS

Microsoft to Bring Windows Phone's Word Flow Keyboard to iOS

Microsoft until now restricted its Word Flow Keyboard app to its own Windows Phone platform. The Redmond-based tech giant is now planning to bring it to Android and iOS as well.

In an email sent to some Windows Insider testers, shared by The Verge, Microsoft said it is hunting foriPhone 5s (or later) users to test the Word Flow keyboard app on iOS. The company however, did not mention as to when it will bring the final version of the app outside its ecosystem, or when work would begin on the Android version.

“Word Flow keyboard has long been one of the highly praised features on Windows Phone and was used to break the Guinness World Record for fastest texting. We are now working on extending this keyboard to other platforms, starting with iOS,” said the company in the email. “Before publicly releasing this keyboard to the App Store, we’d love to give Insiders like you a preview. With your feedback, we’ll build a roadmap of improvements to the keyboard over time.”

The Word flow keyboard debuted with Windows Phone 8.1 in 2014. The Swype keyboard-like feature allows users to glide over the display and type words. Like other third-party keyboard apps, the Word Flow also features word and emoji prediction.

Talking about keyboard apps, SwiftKey last month rolled out an update on Android that brings several new features including a revamped emoji panel. The update primarily brings a redesigned emoji panel, apart from new light and dark themed emoji panels. It also adds double-word prediction and offers two free new festive holiday themes for all users. The emoji panel will now also remember the last used category for user convenience.