Sunday, June 26, 2016

Yellow Fever - All you want to know.

For a Gujju, the absolute pinnacle of travel and adventure is a safari in Africa. I am not joking. The vegetarian, ahimsa believing, teetotling and God fearing Gujjus love a safari – and boast about how many kills they saw.

HRH the Queen of Kutch is preparing to do just that, i.e. go on a Safari. I must point out that except for the fact that her origins are from Kutch [which is in Gujarat] she does not have the Godly attributes of a Gujju. She fears nothing except raw onion.

One necessity when going to Africa is that you need to get a Yellow Fever vaccination. This is where the fun started. I tagged along on this wild and woolly adventure as I was HRH the Queen of Kutch’s bodyguard.

Yellow Fever is caused by a bite from an infected mosquito – much like Malaria. There is no cure for Yellow Fever. Stomach pains, nausea, fever, headaches and bleeding are the symptoms. It can be fatal. This is a serious problem in Africa, but can be prevented by taking a vaccination. The WHO has mandated that people travelling to Yellow Fever affected areas have to be suitably inoculated. The WHO distributes the vaccine which is administered by the Governmental Authorities. In Mumbai there are 4 centres where you can get the vaccination – the Airport Health Organisation at the T2 approach road at Sahar, J J Hospital and at Ballard Estate and a new one at Colaba. The consensus was that getting the vaccination at the Airport Health Organisation was the simplest way of getting this done. Once vaccinated you are given a card, the vaccine lasts 10 years. When you travel you take the card and produce it at immigration when you return.

All this sound perfectly logical and simple. But, my dear readers, we are Indians, and operate in India. The reality is totally different. In the short 3 odd hours I spent with HRH the Queen of Kutch at the Airport Health Organisation for her to get the vaccination were wildly entertaining, thankfully not very aggravating and I learnt so many ways to sort things. Yes folks, how to sort things.

Without being in the least facetious, reading this post will really help you if you intend getting a Yellow Fever vaccination. This is your all in one guide answering all the possible FAQ’s and not so FAQ’s on this process.

Let me give you a bit more information.

If you are travelling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Syria and Cameroon, you require a Polio vaccine too. Yes folks, Polio is alive and well in these countries.

The Yellow Fever vaccine is distributed by the WHO in a pack size or dose of 10. Thus, if there are 11 people or 19 people, only 10 will get the vaccine. The others have to take their chances the next day.

Not only do you have to be in multiples of 10 but the authorities administer no more than 70 vaccinations a day. Presumably, it is mentally exhausting for the staff to handle more than 70!!!

To add to the mayhem, is the fact that you need to stand in line early enough in the day in the fond hope that you are not No 71. So how early do you come? How do you know how many fellow travellers will come on any given day? Really tricky. That morning we had some people who had arrived at 6 am. The doors open at 10 am. This was worse than applying for the US Visa in the bad old days. HRH the Queen of Kutch and I turned up at a seemingly respectable 9.30. HRH the Queen of Kutch was the 37th person. Phew. Now with labour cheap, and being a feudal community many fat cats had sent their domestics/peons/drivers/travel agent reps and other similar creatures falling in the Mango People category to stand in line so that Saab and Mem Saab could saunter in at 1030. You could do this if you like.

Once the gates are opened you are allowed in on producing your passport and ticket. Since I was bodyguard I was allowed in. An announcement was made that people could have breakfast in the canteen if they were feeling peckish after waiting from 6 am. The way to the toilets was also kindly shown.

You are then given a form to fill in, please fill both sides, you are told. The reverse of the form was most interesting. It warned you in no uncertain terms that you should not take the Yellow Fever Vaccine if you had/were:

·         Pregnant
·         HIV positive
·         Allergic to egg, chicken or other proteins
·         A weak immune system on account of radiation and so on
·         Liver or kidney damage
·         Myasthenia Gravis

Reading this I realised in a flash that Amitabh Bachchan cannot get a Yellow Fever vaccination – poor chap has Myasthenia. Anyway, the egg allergy had me intrigued. Our friendly Gujjus are vegetarian along with the Khandelwals, the Jains and the Ramaswamis. Poor creatures have never had an egg pass their pious lips! How in God’s name were they to determine if they were allergic to egg or chicken? I had visions of these poor unknowing creatures collapsing in a heap with hives on their skin, a swollen tongue, bulging eyes displaying all the signs of massive anaphylactic shock. Presumably, the Airport Health Organisation keeps equal measures of anti-histamine shots to revive these creatures.  

You then pay the fees – 300 for Yellow Fever 100 for Polio or 400 for both – no discount – and wait. Then at some magical moment you are herded in 3 groups of 10 at a time to another room where you wait some more.

Then each group of 10 is taken to yet another room where sit the Doctor and her assistant. Assistant’s job is to fill 10 syringes with the vaccine and line them up. Then its vaccination time. Yippee!!! Right handed people get the vaccination on the left hand and vice versa. Then you go back down to fill in your certificate.

The certificate is stamped and signed and handed over to you. Job done. This took for HRH the Queen of Kutch, from 9.30 to 12 noon. Not that bad. Of course if you ask someone who had lined up at 6 am, he would have a different tale to tell.

Now for the wonders of sorting.

You know that in most of the civilised world there is a queue. You simply join the end of it and life goes on. Yes, I accept that your place in the queue may be taken by your hireling. In India we have clumps – no queues.

When HRH the Queen of Kutch arrived at 9.30 AM the gates were shut and a straggly queue was formed with a clump at the head. One gent handed HRH the Queen of Kutch a foolscap sheet and asked her to enter her name. She was number 37. One thinks this will be your number for the day.

Nope, we were wrong. This is India. Let’s fuck it up really well.

The moment the gates opened the queue disappeared and a big clump formed. Slowly, after a stupid peon checked your passport and ticket and had a long illogical and excruciating arguments with non-compliers, you went into and large waiting area. Here you were made to sit and given the form. The form had a new number and your seating position corresponded with that form number. So this meant that the original No 37 that HRH the Queen of Kutch had as well as the No 1 Mr. 6 am had were all rendered meaningless. You now had a new number. Undoubtedly, this would have been the most equitable system. But who gives a fuck as to what is fair, certainly not anyone with a modicum of power.

Then, as I have written earlier, you were herded in 3 groups of 10 to a room. Then, for some apparently very logical reason, despite you having this new number, all women were called out and vaccinated before the males on that group of 30!! So once again the world goes topsy turvy. The men have to wait.

After this is done you have to fill in your own certificate and give it for stamping. If you fill your certificate quickly and give it in you will find that yours is on the bottom of the pile and all those who fill in the certificate later will have their certificate above you. So once again you are destroyed.

I honestly wonder why things are so insane. In today’s day and age, surely an online system can be devised. You book your slot. Pay the fees online and release slots in lots of 10. I am not a specialist in this but surely there are more sensible ways to do this. The details given at the time of getting the appointment could be captured and a certificate generated automatically. You could easily add in the AADHAR number and the goddamm PAN number for all I care. The Yellow Fever certificate could become a form of ID. So much is possible. But we will continue in this absolutely anal, cruel way. People do travel to Africa for business, to visit relations and on safari. They travel from all over India. Why can this not become less insane, less terrifying, more humane and more transparent?

I do not know why the authorities regard the Yellow Fever vaccination as some sort of huge benefit that is being taken by people. It is not by any stretch of the imagination. Come on, no one in his right mind would want to voluntarily take this vaccination. We do have better things to do. So why all the cloak and dagger with Passports and tickets. I mean you can easily get a ticket, get the vaccination and cancel that ticket. I am sure no one does that, unless of course they have to cancel their trip.

Acche Din?

Of course there are stern warnings.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bellamy's - London

The area around Berkley Square in Mayfair London has several quality restaurants. The newly opened Sexy Fish with its Pan Asian, carbohydrate lite food for the swish set and the ladies who lunch, Benaras for the rich homesick Indians who have offices and homes in Mayfair and Novikov for the Russians are just a few examples. Two out of the Holy Triumvirate of restaurants that every Desi visits, – Nobu and Hakkasan – are also at Berkley square while the third, Royal China, is not.

In a quiet lane off Berkley Square are three excellent restaurants. The extraordinary Steak & Pie place Guinea Grill, the 2 stars in Michelin Kaiseki restaurant – Umu; and the utterly delightful Bellamy’s. Bellamy’s was where we were to dine.

A bit of history. For what it’s worth, the Tattler magazine in 2014 designated Bellamy’s as being “The Most Civilised Restaurant”. Now is that not charming and something you would want in restaurant? And there is more. Some 10 years ago, to celebrate the 80th birthday of her closest friend Lady Prudence Penn, Queen Elizabeth attended a private dinner at Bellamy’s. What is all the more enchanting is that in May 2016, to celebrate Lady Penn’s 90th birthday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne and others from the Royal family had a private dinner at Bellamy’s. This is unusual as the Queen does not dine in restaurants.  

The restaurant itself is helmed by alumni from Annabel’s – the legendary London nightclub. The food is partly French, partly English with a strong emphasis on fish. The menu has several old style, old fashioned dishes and in the bar at lunch you can order sandwiches. In addition there is a very good fixed meal changing every week at a very economical £ 21.50 for two courses.

As we walked in we saw an older lot of patrons, all decently dressed with men wearing jackets. Of course there were only whites in the restaurant, and, of course, we were the only browns, no blacks and no yellows, no Hispanics, no ragheads. A glass of Rose Champagne for HRH the Queen of Kutch and a Gin & Tonic for me while we scanned the menu.

The menu was an absolute delight. So many wonderful dishes – Artichoke Salad, Avocado Vinaigrette, Brown Shrimp Croquettes, Prawn & Avocado Cocktail and so much more. This was just starters. We chose three – the Fish Fingers, Smoked Eel Mousse and Sashimi of Yellow fin Tuna. The more cynical of you may question ordering Sashimi in an Anglo French restaurant. Not to worry folks, remember Sashimi involves no cooking – simply sourcing and slicing fish and serving it with store bought Wasabi and Soy. The Sashimi was pronounced as amazing by HRH the Queen of Kutch. I ate a piece too – brilliant. The Smoked Eel Mousse was top class. Smooth creamy & smoky served with thin Melba Toast points. Just what I wanted. The Fish Fingers were very good too. As the cliché goes, well begun is half done.

Smoked Eel Mousse

Fish Fingers

Sashimi of Yellow Fin Tuna

Choosing the main course was a difficult task. So much to choose from. To me a test of a good restaurant is where you have a short menu and find that you have so much that leaps out at you. This was an instance of that phenomenon. Dover Sole with steamed Potato, Scallops with Vegetables, Lamb Noisettes, Steak Tartare and so much more. Finally HRH the Queen settled on Roast Cod with a Black Olive Crust while I ordered a Salt Beef Pot au Feu. Both dishes were knockouts. Extremely tasty, light with no heavy saucing, no spices just deep flavours. Excellent food. Plates cleaned.

Roast Cod with Black Olive

Salt Beef Pot au Feu

A side of Green Beans

Desserts were old fashioned too – we had a Tunisian Orange and Almond cake, moist and not overly sweet with a lot of Orange flavour, and a Salted Caramel Ice Cream. This was washed down with a Brandy for HRH the Queen and a Calvados for me.

This was a very good meal. No fireworks and no fancy service, just simple straight forward old style cooking. This would be a neighbourhood restaurant where you could eat once a week and always have a good meal. Friendly wait staff, thoroughly competent. This is a place we will happily return several times.

Another wonderful evening.    

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Long live Red Tape

A few days ago, an Indian Visiting London [IVL] went to Marks & Spencer [M&S] as all Indians do and bought herself a top. Only problem was that she was size 10 and bought a size 18 top. Needless to say, the top did not fit. This was discovered after IVL had returned to Mumbai.

HRH the Queen of Kutch to the rescue – she was going to London. The size 18 top was handed over to HRH the Queen of Kutch with instructions to go to M&S and (i) exchange the top for a size 10 and (ii) to buy one more size 10 top of the same design in a different colour. So, we trooped off to M&S and found a size 10 top. Task (i) was completed. We went to the exchange and refund department, handed over the size 18 top, exchanged it for the size 10 top, obtained a receipt and went back to the shop floor to complete task (ii).

There were tops of the desired different colour but, unfortunately, none of them were size 10. So the helpful staff said that the best way to obtain the top was to order it online using the in store computer terminal. The top could be collected free of cost from the store the next day. So HRH the Queen of Kutch took a top and scanned the label on the small infrared scanner next to the computer. Up popped the tops on screen. Colour was chosen, size was selected, payment made by credit card and job done. The top would be available for collection in store the next day. A confirmation of the order was sent by email to HRH the Queen of Kutch, and, with a smartphone, the confirmation number was available on the mobile.

What happened next was an eye opener.

We turned up at the collections desk and HRH the Queen of Kutch was asked for her name – she told the clerk her name. The clerk turned on his heel, went to the inside and reappeared a few moments later with a package. The package had the top. That was it. Finished! I have nothing more to say.

We were literally gobsmacked. Can you imagine this in India? You would have had 3 layers of imbeciles to deal with. Each one more suspicious of your motives. You would have been asked for ID proof, PAN Card, AADHAR, birth certificate duly notarised and fuck knows what else. Then you would have had to fill in a form and sign in at least two ledgers and probably obtain a `Gate pass’ to exit the shop without a bill.

Why oh why are we so bloody anal in India?