Friday, April 10, 2009

A Trip to Senegal

There are two things attractive about a trip to Senegal. The Air France flight to Paris, which is the first leg of the journey to Senegal, leaves at 00:35 Hr.s, which is as earthly an hour as you can get for a flight to Europe. The Air France flight is to Paris, which is the second attractive part - the connecting flight to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, embarks after 8 hours and, so, you can get a few hours in Paris.

This time I had a French-speaking companion on my trip - Ramachandran - who was so interested in matters of religion that it was but natural that I, who was fresh from my Haridwar trip, waxed eloquent on it. In no time at all the conversation (that, according to my ‘friends’, is a term that I misapply to my monologues) veered towards mythology, which interests me as a true-blue fan of Tolkien and the like. My companion, unfortunately, merely sneered at mythology and said, “I am not interested in all this folklore. The true essence of Hinduism is in the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita. The high philosophy of Hinduism as represented in ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ and ‘Tatvam Asi’ is what should interest any elevated soul.” Having thus crushed me for my spiritual immaturity in being interested in such puerile things as the birth, ancestry, character and deeds of the people of the Puranas, he settled back in his seat and opened up his ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ - the ritual chants of the birth, ancestry, character and deeds of Hanuman! Ha! The vagaries of human nature!

Let us pass lightly over the rushed revisit of the Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe etc. in Paris and take up the tale from the arrival in Senegal. We landed in muggy weather at Senegal in contrast to the relatively cool climes of Delhi in October and the extremely cool climate in Paris. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I had worked up quite a sweat.

The hotel we landed in at Dakar was a grave disappointment to me. A small digression about PSU employees on foreign tour is in order here. It would take a Sesh to write a full monograph on the subject but I will attempt a small prĂ©cis of the issue. When a PSU employee is on a local tour, he fishes around for a 3 star (5 Star if he is a big enough shot) or so wherein people from his organization have already arranged for breakfast and dinner to be included in the room rent so that he can save his entire daily allowance. When on a foreign tour, however, with all the difficulty in managing the hotel chaps to include meals in the room rent (except where B-and-B applies), nothing less than 5 star will do (the fact that you either spend US$170 per diem on room rent or surrender it back to your office may have something to do with this insistence on 5 star facilities). So, when confronted with a 3-Star hotel, I was outraged. Unfortunately, in this trip the hotel was being organized and paid for by the Senegalese company, ICS - a joint venture between IFFCO, the Government of Senegal and a host of other governments. (The last time they extended hospitality to me they had me stay in Paris at the Hotel Intercontinental for 860 Euros a night. What a fall it was, my countrymen!). Regardless of my kicking and screaming, I had to make the ‘Hotel Al-Afifa’ my home for the next 9 days.

Senegal is a French-speaking country with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population. I never thought that religion would have serious implications for me but this visit to Senegal proved me wrong. We had landed during Ramadan and since they observe the fasting strictly between 6 AM and 7 PM (no water or food) our entire official day passed without a single person offering us water, tea, coffee or cool drinks! We could truly say that “Un logon ne hame paani tak nahin poocha!”. What is more, they had assumed us to be Muslim too (the one country where people assume that an Indian has got to be necessarily a Muslim! Usually it is the other way round) and, so, when we made our customary afternoon exit for food, they used to ask “What about Ramadan?” in such a wounded tone that we actually felt like apologizing for being Hindus.

I am getting ahead of my tale. We had just about arrived at the hotel (that “Al-Afifa” set me off on my digression) that outraged me. Well! Having willy-nilly registered in and after finding out that the A/c would take at least an hour to cool the room to a bearable temperature we made a beeline to the restaurant for dinner.

Much as my taste buds dance in step with Sesh’s when it comes to “Arachu potta Sambar” and the likes, they curl up in a coma when it comes to hake, smoked haggis or any such previously unencountered ‘culinary delights’. To make up for their quiescence the rest of the digestive system rises up in arms and gives me a torrid time for as long as I persist in expecting it to digest material that it had not encountered previously. Thus, it is with great trepidation that I approach a restaurant in any country other than India. Add to that the problem of explaining my unconventional needs in my nonexistent French and my extraordinary ability to imitate Charlie Chaplin at his hilarious best when it comes to using common implements like the knife and the fork, you can understand why I looked upon a visit to a restaurant as a Labour of Hercules. Ramachandran sprung a delightful surprise on us. (I forgot! There was a third chap - Mr.Singal - with us. Since ICS had claimed that the abysmal rail transport from their plant to the port was the reason why they could not manage full capacity utilization at their units, we had a railway expert along with us). He had not only brought along some curry powder but he had also trained, on his earlier visit, one of the Al-Afifa chefs to use it to make a stew of vegetables and boiled eggs which tasted enough like Indian food to satisfy our palates (After a day of Air France food, it tasted like ambrosia). Over the next few days I must abashedly admit that we spent a sizable portion of the day planning on what to have the chef make for dinner. (I am sorry for my inability to provide any guidance on the culinary specialties of Senegal. Sea food, I suppose, would figure prominently but, going by the ICS canteen, they apparently believed in dunking a huge fish in oil on an as-is-where-is basis and serving it. We stuck to vegetarian food which seemed to automatically include eggs.)

With a 1 ton A/c trying to cool a 1.5 ton room, the night was not particularly comfortable. I thought my case was bad till I heard Mr.Singal’s tale of woe. Apparently his A/C was so noisy that he called upon the hotel management to do something about it. The hotel sent a chap who set it right within seconds - or would have but for the unreasonable insistence of Mr. Singal that in addition to the A/C being noiseless it had to be switched on as well. This double demand was too much for the night staff and, since the hotel was fully occupied, Mr. Singal had the choice of being sung to sleep by the A/C or swelter without it on. The hotel management having eschewed fans in its staunch belief in the wondrous cooling powers of its A/Cs, Mr. Singal opted to be lulled to sleep by the A/C. (Lulled! You should have heard him on the subject the day after! As an aside, the day staff did manage the impossible and the A/C managed both to function and to be noiseless thereafter.)

ICS is a company that was born to cause trouble to its Indian sponsor - IFFCO. It took periodic cash infusions to keep it going. Though there was no direct financial logic in making these periodic infusions, it was felt by IFFCO that its role in breaking up budding phosphoric acid cartels was important enough to keep it alive. There were also diplomatic wheels within the commercial wheels. Senegal is considered diplomatically important to India and, therefore, IFFCO’s dealings with ICS have to stand up to the Ministry of External Affairs’ scrutiny. This time round the requirement was so high that an expert (yours truly) was expected to assess the actual requirement, which included a sizable outlay for revamp of their units. My knowledge of chemical engineering is expertly concealed from me in the mists of time but that excuse does not wash with people who think that if you have the certificate you have the know-how. My time at IIM and on the job has, of course, taught me that it is enough under the circumstances to get the proposal of ICS and poke holes in it till you can point out enough changes to assure your people that you have done a serious job of work. So, I was relatively sanguine about the job at hand.

What I had not bargained for was the trouble that language could cause to me. The first (and only) lesson for me was that where, in India, each sound has different alphabets attached to it in different languages, in Europe each alphabet has a different sound attached to it in different languages. (I, of course, am ignoring such minor things as the squiggles, dots, lines and other such geometric figures that litter the spaces above and below the alphabets.) It is thus that the capital of France is actually called by the Hindi name for a fairy (actually Paree with the ‘Par’ sounded as in Parrot. ‘I’, apparently, is pronounced ‘e’ in French) and not by the name of the chap who abducted Mrs. Menelaus and made her Helen of Troy. It is because of this that if I asked for the loan balance of SGBS (Ess Gee Bee Ess) I would get a blank look. By the time it is understood that I am asking for the figures relating to Say Jay Bay Ess, enough looks to the heavens for succor would have been cast by both the parties to the conversation that, if the heavens were kind, a bevy of translator angels would have been dispatched to the rescue. The Tower of Babel had nothing on us when Madam Sene and I were at it hammer and tongs - she did know some English but not enough to use or understand the alphabet in the English way - what with her propensity to bark at her subordinates in Wolof, which is the predominant local language.

The plant visit was a wholly different tale. The chap who accompanied me had good English and, so, the language problem was kept totally at bay. The plant, however, was in pretty bad shape. My companion said, “Look at the plant. Leaks everywhere. Very bad maintenance”. You could not help feeling sympathy for the outraged professional marooned in this sea of incompetence - till you are informed that the said outraged professional is the chief of maintenance of the plant. It is this quality of feeling genuine outrage for the appalling results of their own callous disregard for their responsibilities that set these people apart from the rest of the world! Apparently, to inform their subordinates to do a certain job ended their responsibility. On the last day of my stay there, Madam Sene had yet to give more than half the information that I had sought from her. She said, “I am not able to give you the information. I am unhappy” and gave me a huge smile as though that piece of dialogue had applied satisfactory closure to my due diligence. Well! I was unhappy as well and more so because my expression of unhappiness would not be considered a sufficient closure by IFFCO.

The Railway chaps had a whole different tale to tell. From what they said about the lack of sleepers, ballast, fish plates and the like, it appeared to me as though the Senegalese just laid two lines of rail side by side and ran their trains on them. Apparently, the fare-paying propensities of the travelers were such that, if someone paid the fare for his journey, the government declared a national holiday to celebrate the achievement. Their statistics of derailment of trains made me think that the train-travelers went home and wrote strong letters condemning the railways if their train failed to derail on any given day. Looks like traveling by train in Senegal is a sportive affair. You got onto it and took bets on how far it would carry you towards your destination before it went off the rails. The other speculation was that the cabin crew took the train on the rails for as long as they felt like working and gently nudged it off when the work got too much for them. This viewpoint gained credence from the fact that the trains that derailed never capsized - though it is difficult to capsize a train traveling at less than 20 KM/H on a level surface. All of these are mere speculations founded on hearsay evidence but I can vouch for the fact that the concept of a manned level crossing (or even barriers at a level crossing) was alien to them considering that there was not one at any of the crossings in the capital of Senegal - Dakar.

So much for work. As for tourism in Senegal, I had scant chance to think of really out of the way places. The vicinity of Dakar had two major places of interest. One is Goree Island. This island, if it could speak, would utter such tales of horror that you could scarce sustain your mental equilibrium for this is the place from where slaves were shipped out to the good old U S of A or tossed to the sharks, if found unfit. The other place is Lac Rose. This is a lake which is reputed to turn pink at sunrise and sunset, owing to the salt content and/or microorganisms living in it. Unfortunately, on my visit to Lac Rose, the sun veiled itself in clouds and, so, it was merely a lake. Dakar itself is a port off the Atlantic Ocean and thus its beaches are worth visiting. The Corniche (I only heard it pronounced, so my spelling may be off) is a drive along the Atlantic and the view was well worth that vaguely fishy smell that pervaded the area (and, indeed, all Dakar or so it seemed to me). One could not help consider the contrast between the two sides of the Atlantic!

The one problem about tourism in Senegal is that it is one of the places where even Indians are considered rich! So, you have the hawkers pestering you with calls of “My friend” echoing everywhere. Before you let your friendly feelings overwhelm you, it strikes you that it is no more than a translation of “Mon Ami” and the French use it practically as an equivalent of “Hey You” and, so, you really have not made a new friend in a distant land. The pester-level is so high that, as Ramachandran put it, you dare not glance at a shop for fear that the shopkeeper would drag you in by main force. (That is an exaggeration, of course. The Senegalese are not prone to violence). The drainage system and the garbage disposal methods make you feel proud of being Indian. In fact, the visit to Senegal made me realise how much worse things could have been in India. Thanks to a indigenous Capital Goods industry and to some forward looking industrialists, we are in a much better position than we would otherwise have been. The Tatas even supply most of the buses running in Dakar these days.

Returning to India at the end of it all was a real pleasure. As Ramachandran put it, it is nice to return to India and feel for once that you have come back to a posher country than the one you just visited. Of course, I am still warring with my report - my techniques for dealing with insufficient data are proving futile against the near-absence of data that I am faced with now - but, Inshallah, I shall get over that as well.

Au Revoir


  1. Interesting read narrated in your usual impeccable humorous mood.

    1. Thanks TF! Good to see you on one of my old ones.

  2. My dear namesake Chandrasekaran,
    Reading your narration made me go down the memory lane to recall 'This is for Real' written by James Hadley Chase in which Mark Girland travels all the way to Senegal...
    Suresh Panje

  3. Travails or travels? Guess I will simply sat that, your posts will always entertain your readers with their delectable humor. Thanks.

  4. Good recollections of work plus travel experience!