Saturday, 26 September 2015

Why moving to Dubai was a good idea for my boys!!!

My husband and I lived with our two boys (10 and 6.5 year olds) in Mumbai until two years ago. We were happy to send them to an ICSE school there, knowing it was an extremely grounded one. It gave them the much needed foundation in terms of introducing the concept of school, timings, uniform, being independent, and largely sticking to a time-table for the day. But what the school offered in terms of education has always been a favorite topic of debate and discussion between the two of us, and among friends in India with school-going kids.
Education in India three decades ago did not do as much for my husband and me, as did the way we had been brought up, or the experiences our lives had given us. What schools and teachers taught us outside the curriculum has made us what we are today. Our scores and rankings were poles apart at school and college, yet we have been equally successful in our careers. Our ability to handle situations, make decisions and to reason out issues are comparable.
The system that was followed in India back then has changed in many ways, in order to accommodate the easy access to information today. But the basic framework is the same: subjects, tests, text books, homework, heavy bags, projects, learning by memorizing etc. The more we spent time in Mumbai, the clearer we were that this was not the kind of education we wanted for our children. Our children needed much more learning outside of books to prepare them for the future.
The International schools in Mumbai offered much better facilities, extra-curricular activities and the kind of education that we wanted for them, but they were unaffordable. Moreover, we wanted their early years to be spent with children that belonged to a similar economic background.
So, in 2013, when we were transferred to Dubai (a move that we had actively pushed for), we instantly looked at enrolling the kids into an international school very close to home. We have gone through a lot of challenges and changes due to this move, but it has given them the kind of experiences that education cannot.
  • The curriculum at the school here is based on learning to think, rather than just learning. They are encouraged to explore on their own with basic guidance from the teachers. They are tested not based on their knowledge of “correct” answers but based on opportunities that mandate application of their learning. This is almost always done without the children even knowing that they are making that effort.
  • We have hardly had any homework since we moved, except for a few weekends where work has been given that would require parents to share some ideas with the children. A lot of their free play during the evenings is invariably influenced by all that they are learning in school. It is so interesting to see them use varied material as props to support their games.
  • The school uses programs that are based on monthly or term-wise topics across the primary school. Hence, both the children are learning the same topic but the extent is different. Our weekend discussions revolve around the same subject. They come up with some amazing questions, quite thought provoking even for adults. They are always hungry for more information, and that is exactly what we want the school to do for them.
  • Their teen years will likely see them all confused about many things. The school will, however, present them with many opportunities and expose them to varied professions so that they will be better equipped to make decisions on what to study at university. It will also give them the courage to do something out of the ordinary and to follow their passion, if that’s what they’d prefer.
  • Their tolerance towards members of different communities, nationalities and culture is much higher thanks to an international set up. Yes, they make stronger bonds at this age with other Indian kids since they can relate to each other better, but with the others, they already know what works and what doesn’t.
  • In India the choice was between taking the school bus or the car or an auto to school: which was the most convenient mode to get from Point A to Point B. Here, the children needed to be educated about incomes and expenditures and affordability to make them understand why we could not buy a luxury car or a sports car.
  • We were now arguing and discussing pros and cons of having their own devices; why carrying a book made more sense than carrying an iPad to school every day; why being a 10 year old does not mandate carrying or having a mobile of his own.
  • The older one took a lot more time to settle into the school. He had to break into a group that had been together for 7 years; he had to move from being ‘popular’ in India to ‘insignificant’ in Dubai and then to ‘acceptable’ in his class; he was also being bullied for a long time by another child in his class. It taught him and us as a family a lot about his coping mechanism, but it was an ordeal we went through for a large part of the first year.
  • They are now exposed to older kids in their bus-ride back from school. This unsupervised interaction gives them a lot of unwarranted opportunities to learn about things that we are not sure they are ready for. We are having to sit with the 10 year old discussing appropriate / inappropriate behavior, objectification of, and respect to privacy of, women, sex, sexual preferences. In fact, at the end of the first day of school, we were wondering how we could tell him it was ok to be the only one in class who didn’t know the meaning of the ‘F-word’!
In a way, the last two years have seen an incredible amount of growth in their personality, knowledge base, and in their ability to make decisions. Yet, they have quite suddenly lost their childhood, innocence, and some of the important life skills that educating in India would have retained in them.
After all this, do I think I made the right decision 2.5 years ago? I most definitely do

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Our Trip to South Africa (Last Part)

Our drive to Kruger was lovely, very different from the garden route, but as good as....

It was a fairly long 4 hour drive because we did get confused between GPS and Google Maps and finally landed up at the wrong entrance to the park. We were then redirected through another path within the park, and this one forced us to rely on the Camp's signboards. 

For about 7 minutes, we simply followed the well-driven path with our windows and doors locked. We saw a lot of impalas, ostriches but we did not see any sign board, and I was starting to get worried. And when I asked my husband, what we would do if we saw a lone male elephant on the road right in front of us, he said, let's find out, look who's there up ahead..... Scary but beautiful... Our first view of Kruger.

Thankfully we saw the jeep from our camp on the other side of the elephant, and we knew we were on the right track. We were checked-in 10 minutes from then into the best one ever - Honeyguide Tented Safari Camp, and this time our older child, the 10 year old was sick. So we took the day easy, and were ready for the next morning's safari.

Kruger gave us the best setting of the lot, we were right in the middle of the park where animals roamed around freely and there was NO fence. Animals could walk up your path from and to the tent at anytime during the day. We were given clear instructions, 'Do not run, just calmly walk up to any tent next to you, and let the animal pass by'. We were talking about small herbivores, monkeys, elephants, and hold your breath, lions. We were told that a big pride of 11 lions came to drink water from the small swimming pool behind the lobby just a few hours before we had dinner. We did see some fresh paw prints too.

All our meals were with our ranger, and other guests from our jeep. The food, the service and the care taken by the staff of this lodge was far far better than all the others we had been to. We didn't miss any of the safaris over the next few days, but we did go out on a 45 minute drive to Hoedspruit, to see the doctor.We desperately wanted to see the leopard, hyena and cheetah, but we did not see any through our 4 day stay. But we saw tons of animals, and many many different birds. Our ranger was very sharp and spotted so many of them for us, and patiently gave us information about each, and also waited for us to take pictures. 

Every night, after our safari and dinner, the ranger would take a bright flashlight and lead our way to our tents since the path wasn't lit and we could encouter any animal enroute. It was so exciting. 
During the night and all through the day, our tents were closed and locked with the help of thick zippers and string to tie them together, because if we didn't this naughty monkey sitting just outside would have pushed through the smallest gap and entered. They were so many running up and down the roof of the tent. We heard animals, calling out, rustling of the grass just at the side of the tent all night too. We saw fresh elephant dung very close by in the morning. Only wish there was a way we could actually see them, would have been so exciting.

On the last day of the safari, our ranger told us that a lion pride had killed a buffalo a couple of days ago. Since all the buffaloes in Kruger national park have tuberculosis, they were vaccinating two lions at a time. We were taken to the spot on our way back from the evening safari, and we could see the efficient medical staff doing their jobs. The kids were so excited to see this.

There was a morning when the older kid was quite badly off and so we skipped our safari, but there was a walking safari of 45 minutes, and my husband went with our ranger who carried a gun, into the bush. He did not see any animals, but he got to see some unusual things like the hyena's poop (white because they eat only the bones), and the beginning of a water hole, and a wart hog's burrow that could well be occupied by a leopard (hence the shot from the side and not from front).

The next morning, we woke up early and after a quick shower and a good breakfast, left the camp. It was the best 3 weeks ever, completely satisfying, brilliantly ended, quite eager to go back home (unlike our usual one or two week ones). But our appetite for bush hasn't been satisfied. 

We had very long drive (5 hours) to the Johannesburg airport, and a 9 hour flight back home to Dubai. We will come back Africa, we loved you!!

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Our Trip to South Africa (Part 4)

Our drive to Port Elizabeth the next morning was for 2 hours and it was the last part of our scenic garden route drive. We soaked-in every bit of it, the green pastures, the golden fields, the rainbows, the animals, the sunsets, the many different textured and shaped mountains. We were staying at the Ibhayi Town Lodge at Port Elizabeth for just one day, before we took the flight out to Jo'burg for the latter part of the trip.

We reached PE at around lunch time, and were desperate by now for a good Indian meal (after having great food everywhere for 12 days, we still yearned for comfort Indian food). We hunted for one nearby, and landed for some nice butter chicken, naan and dal at Royal Delhi Restaurant. Seemed to be a local favorite, we saw Indians and others on a weekday afternoon here. Service was good, but the food on hindsight, I admit was quite rich and oily (buttery, to be precise).

Our night at PE, did not go too well, since the 6.5 year old started a bad fever and cough. With a home delivered burger from Mc Donald's and some quick medication, we spent a disturbed night. The next morning, we returned our car at the PE airport, and flew to Johannesburg. With the help of a friend, we quickly got him some medical attention. Stress out of the way, we sat down for an amazing vegetarian lunch at Dulce Cafe, within the Fourways Life Hospital. The Avo & Halloumi salad and wrap were to die for.

A 2 hour drive from here on a rather boring route (psst.... compared to the lovely ones so far) took us to Suncity, we were staying at the Hotel Cabanas just for one night. We just had to see Sun City, so we stopped here, but we thought it was a destination that was highly over-rated. Its association is more with a few movies, and the fact that it is the first man-made resort etc. The service was very very sad; after being on the garden route and meeting extremely friendly, pleasant and helpful people, this was really a let-down. A Pakistani man at The Raj, was the only guy who was happy to see our family coming in for some biryani and raitha. Suncity was just good for one thing, a break in our 4 hour drive to the latter part of our trip - The Safaris.....


All Safaris and animal encounters are alike. Except for the weather, the time of the day, the location, the scenery, the animals, the birds and of course, the biggest part, it has to be a lucky one....
  • We stayed at places called game lodges which were situated right in the middle of the national park. 
  • Our rooms were tents with four poster beds, open bathroom and toilet (the bed being the barrier, but no doors), no TV, no Internet, no phone, no fridge. (Blissful)
  • The stay included three meals a day as part of the buffet at the restaurant. We were not allowed to go to the room or the restaurant after 6 without someone from the lodge. This was just to ensure the free roaming animals weren't alarmed by our presence.
  • The schedule for each day was the same. Early morning wake up call with coffee, then go on the safari, stop for another coffee or hot chocolate and snacks in the bush. Come back for breakfast, rest for a while, lunch, rest for a while, tea, then safari again, stop for some wine or coffee and snacks in the bush, come back in time for dinner.
  • A ranger who was assigned to us would take us on the safaris and show us the animals and birds, and ensure our safety. Each safari lasted 3 to 4 hours depending on how much we wanted to or got to see. There were hot water bottles and blankets to help us keep warm during the early morning and late evening open drives.
  • The rangers were extremely efficient, knew what we wanted to see, where to stop, were patient for photo ops, gave us loads of information on all the animals and birds, spotted the most elusive animals in the bush, were extremely pleasant and supportive of the needs of the kids in the jeep.


The drive from Suncity to Madikwe was 3 hours, most part of this was off-road (thankfully we had a 4x4 Nissan) and we kept seeing impalas, warthogs, cows, donkeys, guinea fowls, forest chickens, mongoose.... But our drive was great and we finally reached the beautiful Thakadu River Camp after lunch time.  (Thakadu is the name for an Aardvark in the Tswana language of Botswana, so their logo is a black aardvark). Madikwe is on the edge of the Kalahari, and is covered from all sides by mountains. This part of the bush is so full of green in the mountains that surrounds it, yet the ground is brown. The air is really chilly and there are quite a few water bodies. Apart from the common ones like the rhino, elephant, lion, impala, wildebeests, giraffes, we saw the African wild dog which is supposedly a rare sight.


This national park occupies an extinct and eroded alkaline crater, and is right behind Suncity. It is surrounded by an industrial area, suburbs and seems like a zoo because it is reclaimed agricultural land. But in effect, about 40 years ago, 6000 animals were released into this park, and they have grown since then, and a large number of animals and birds are roaming freely in the wilderness. 

We checked into Black Rhino Game Lodge in the afternoon, and found that this was a fancier game lodge. It had stand-alone cottage like tents, with fridge, TV,  and an unusual open air shower area. 

The highlight of our stay here, was the hot-air balloon ride with Airtrackers, that lasted 60 minutes and floated over the park slowly. One should never assume, that the grey elephant, white rhino, black and white zebra, brown lion, deep brown giraffes are of different colors. It is only when they come together in a park with tall brown vegetation, that one realizes that all these colors camouflage and blend in so well. From that distance up in the air, we could hardly spot them. (See if you can in the pictures below) Expert binocular view is what actually helped us. We also saw the eroded crater in the distance. We were taken to the stylish Bakubung Bush Lodge, for our breakfast at the hot air balloon table. The buffet was huge and the food was amazing.

Our longest drive so far was the one from Pilanesberg, up further north. So we broke the journey at this quaint and lovely small town called Dullstroom. As we were close to the place, we noticed the terrain changing and looking like some on the garden route, it was full of green mountains, many water bodies, bridges, winding roads, hilly drives, and we witnessed a beautiful sunset. We stayed at the Dunkeld Country Estate, which is a great weekend place for fishing, horse riding, golf. Our room overlooked a green pasture where we saw zebras and bonteboks grazing.

We had a late dinner at their restaurant and after a good night's sleep, left early morning. On our way out, we saw the town slowly and lazily waking up on the Monday morning. A chirpy place served us some scrumptious breakfast. Waffle & Co. and their waffles, omelettes, shakes and juices were out of the world. Our next part of the journey, a 4 hour drive up and down and winding around the mountains, was to the spot we want to call the 'icing on the cake'...... our more than perfect end to the 3 week holiday.........