Splendors of India with Sri Lanka & the Maldives
Published on Thursday, January 10, 2013
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - Mumbai (Bombay), India: After assembling in Mumbai, the bustling city of 22 million people, we enjoyed a lesiurely morning at our elegant hotel, the world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace, before making our way through the fort precinct containing the old colonial buildings of the British Raj. As we made our way through busy and noisy traffic, we took in all the sounds and colors of today’s Mumbai. We stopped briefly at the Dhobi Ghat where laundry was attended to by the caste of men who spend long days washing, drying, and ironing the city’s dirty laundry. From there we made our way to Mani Bhawan, once the home of Mahatma Gandhi and now a museum and library, redolent with the spirit of this great man. Leaving here we drove by the Hanging Gardens where Zoroastrians, now sadly near extinction, left their dead to be eaten by the vultures. We passed by a Jain temple and finally made our way back into the fort precinct to stop at the Mumbai Railway Station, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where we were able to jump off the buses to take photos. In the evening we joined our expedition leader, Mike Messick, and the expedition team for welcome cocktails and dinner.
Wednesday, November 21 - Mumbai / Elephanta Island / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Sunrise over the Gateway of India was a superb way to greet another bustling Indian day. We boarded local boats for a relaxing journey to Elephanta Island; known in ancient times as Gharapuri, the present name was given to the island by 17th-century Portuguese explorers after seeing a monolithic basalt sculpture of an elephant near the entrance. The island is famed for its caves carved into the hillside during the 6th and 7th centuries, the entire complex of which is another of India’s World Heritage Sites. The caves we visited were the Hindu caves containing stone sculptures cut from the rock and dedicated to the god, Shiva. All along the way to the top of the island, we encountered bonnet macaques, cheekily watching their primate cousins clamor up the stairs.
Returning to Mumbai for lunch, we enjoyed a delicious meal of authentic Indian cuisine. Shoppers made their way to the nearby Fab India to delight in the wonderful tunics, shawls, and saris with their rich colors, sparkles, and beauty. Finally, it was time to head for the port where the Clipper Odyssey awaited. We settled into our home on the Indian Ocean for the next twelve days.
Thursday, November 22 - Marmagao (Goa): Thanksgiving Day, we woke to the gentle rocking of the ship as we sailed south to Goa. Not a conventional way to spend this great American holiday, but certainly a day that promised all kinds of potential to explore India and anticipate what the chef might have in store for us at the Captain’s Welcome Dinner. In the morning we commenced our series of lectures with Puneet Dan starting us off with, An Introduction to India, drawing our attention to the huge diversity that is India. Shirley Campbell followed with, Conquering the Sub-Continent: A Complex Peopling of India, where she gave a broad-brush picture of the prehistory of human development in the region.
Following lunch we disembarked the ship and enjoyed a tour of Panjim, or for some Panaji, the official capital of Goa. The historic city still exhibits the cultural influence of the Portuguese, who first landed in the early 16th century as merchants, and conquered it soon thereafter. Goa existed as an overseas territory of Portuguese India for about 450 years until it was annexed by India in 1961.
Our visit to Panaji, with many old colonial government buildings, included a stroll through the vibrant fruit, vegetable, and fish market and a walk through the picturesque old Latin quarter with its strangely Indo-European ambience—quiet streets, quaint houses, whitewashed churches, guest houses, and cafes. The air was soft and the temperature warm, but with a cool texture against our skin. We then headed back to the ship to clean up for our welcome cocktails and dinner with Captain Nikolay Tililyuk. Having enjoyed an exotic Indian outing, Thanksgiving seemed an incongruous intrusion, with the dinner menu featuring a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings of an American Thanksgiving.
Friday, November 23 - Marmagoa (Goa): This morning we had an early start for our full day tour of Goa. The birders left even earlier to spend their day searching for both endemic and introduced species. The rest of us made our way to old Goa to see the Basilica of Bom Jesus wherein lie the relics of St. Francis Xaviar. We were visiting at the start of a ten-day build-up to an annual festival to honor the Saint, and the site was covered in colorful canopies of cloth to shield the pilgrims from the sun. It was expected that later there would be hundreds of visitors for the first sermon to mark the beginning of the festival. Across the road we found the smaller Church of St. Francis of Assisi dwarfed by the much larger Santa Catarina Cathedral. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honoring its historical and religious significance.
On our way to our lunch we drove through lush tropical vegetation, passing coconut palms, mango and banana trees, and fields of local Goan rice, where water buffalo grazed. On the wires we could see common and white-throated kingfishers, black drongos, blue-tailed bee-eaters, little and Indian cormorants, and black-rumped flame-backs (woodpeckers).
Finally reaching our destination, we were warmly welcomed into the Palacio do Deao, once home to the priest responsible for the building of Candor using prison labor. He offered petty criminals the opportunity to be out of jail doing something useful rather than to spend their sentence fully incarcerated. Now a private home, the owners introduced us to an authentic Goan meal, a fusion of Indian and Portuguese cuisine. We enjoyed a cooking demonstration and tasted a delicious prawn curry.
Back on board, showered and rested, we enjoyed Jonathan Rossouw’s presentation, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, where we learned much about the coexistence of the human population and the bird life of India. Over cocktails our team gathered for the first recap of our voyage.
Saturday, November 24 - Mangalore: As soon as we were cleared by immigration, we departed for our day-long tour of Mangalore. We were pleasantly surprised that our expedition leader had organized a visit to a Jain Temple, the Temple of 1000 Pillars. This was a welcomed and rare opportunity to be invited into the sacred space of the Jain religion. We passed by the Ego Column and climbed the few stone stairs to the upper level of the temple.
We then drove to Soans Farm, a 100-acre orchard growing all manner of tropical fruits and spices. We had a delicious lunch and tasted the completely natural pineapple juice made on the farm, containing no added sugars or preservatives. Before returning to the ship we stopped at a bustling cashew factory. The experience allowed us to witness the whole process of husking, sorting, roasting, and ultimately packing these quality nuts. Will we ever eat another cashew without remembering the labor intensive work that goes into producing them?
Back on board, we continued our lecture series with Jack Grove delivering a presentation entitled, Indian Ocean Dynamics & Marine Life, reminding us of the dilemma we face with global climate change and the delicate balance the oceans play in nurturing this planet we live on.
Sunday, November 25 - Kochi (Cochin): During breakfast we enjoyed our approach to Kochi and caught our first glimpse of the famed Chinese fishnets. Our morning tour took us to the splendid Folklore Museum housed in a traditional Cochin structure built of timber, with elaborate carvings on the doors and beams. Inside was a wonderful collection of traditional masks, statues made of wood, stone, and bronze, musical instruments, manuscripts, jewelry, and terracotta and stone-age utensils. All of this was collected and brought together by one man, concerned that Cochin’s heritage was being lost.
We returned to the ship for lunch where our executive chef and his wife had prepared a wonderful Keralan lunch. Once replete, we departed for our afternoon tour, visiting one of India’s oldest churches. We continued our walking tour of the city passing the colorful street market on our way to the river with its enormous Chinese fishing nets. Our next stop was Mattancherry Palace with its impressive murals depicting elements of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. Also displayed were the royal portraits of the Palace’s previous residents together with a variety of royal artifacts. Leaving the Palace, we walked the streets of the Jew Town market quarter. Some continued through the maze of streets and shops to visit the Paradesi Synagogue built in 1524, while others were drawn to the delight of the little shops and their enticing merchandise.
Our spectacular day ended, appropriately, with an equally spectacular performance of Kathakali theater on board the ship. A Kathakali actor uses immense concentration, skill, and physical stamina, gained from regimented training based on Kalari Payattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, to prepare for this demanding role. The training can often last for 8–10 years, and is intensive. Kathakali dates back 400 years and incorporates extraordinary makeup, colorful costumes, ornate headdresses, and tells 101 classical Keralan tales with a dramatic accompaniment of percussion and song.
Monday, November 26 - Kochi (Cochin): Today we set off for a more rural experience, heading south to the town of Alleppey where we looked forward to our gentle cruise aboard houseboats on the backwaters of this, ‘Venice of the East.’
One of the main industries in this area is the processing of coconut husks into coir for rope, mats, and other floor coverings. We stopped to visit one of these government-owned factories and marveled at the ancient art of processing this fiber, little changed from medieval days. Women took small strands of the husk fibers, twined them together to form long strands, then twisted them again to form the strong rope that is dyed and woven on large wooden looms, each operated by two men working in unison to produce long rolls of coir carpet.
Rural Kerala is a maze of irrigated rice paddies and palm groves, which gently unfolded through our bus window as we headed further south towards the canals. The kettuvallam boats were originally used as ferries to carry produce, but now many have been converted into houseboats so that visitors can enjoy the backwaters. The experience of lazily drifting along the canals, observing scenes of village life with kingfishers and bee-eaters overhead, ducks and cormorants on the water, provided a wonderful contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kochi. Endless distractions included people wandering between their villages, tending their laundry on the banks of the river, bathing, and chatting with neighbors. Beyond the banks we could see fields of rice with swamp herons stealthily searching for little fish and egrets stalking their prey. Lunch was served on board by two young men at the back of our boat with a wonderful display of traditional Keralan dishes. After lunch we made a short stop to walk along the riverbank. Young children were attending classes, giving us a chance to see them hard at work in their neat uniforms before continuing on our boat to Alleppey where we boarded our buses and made our way back to our ship.
Tuesday, November 27 - Trivandrum: We woke early and were on the outer decks to appreciate our arrival into the colorful port of Trivandrum. Once docked, a group of us made our way into the fishing village to witness the early morning trade. Jack found a shark he was unable to positively identify, bringing it back to the ship to ‘share’ during recap. We walked through the village, many people just waking to the day, children readying for school, men washing in communal bathing areas and women ensuring that the household got off to their daily tasks. We ventured inland along winding roads to Marnallor Village, riding tuktuks down a bumpy track. There we viewed a display of the fruits, spices, and vegetables grown in the area. A coconut harvester scaled a tree to bring down coconuts and we enjoyed both the soft flesh of ‘green’ coconuts and the more familiar mature coconut right off the palm.
Nearby we watched rubber tapping in a plantation followed by the rolling of latex, which is formed from the rubber tree sap, mixed with formic acid. This is formed into patties which are then passed through rollers, rather like rolling out pasta, to rid the latex of water. The sheets are sun dried before shipping to market.
On our return we witnessed a performance of the ancient, and arguably the oldest, form of martial arts, Kalari Payattu, unique to Kerala. This was a magnificent display of athleticism, flexibility, and lightning-fast hand and foot movements. Swords, knives, poles, and metal strips were often fended off by hand and arm blocks.
Returning to our ship for lunch, we set sail for Sri Lanka. In the afternoon Shirley spoke on The Peopling of Sri Lanka: A Prehistoric Encounter of the Mahavamsa, introducing us to the prehistory and early colonization of Sri Lanka together with the origins of the continuing ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Puneet continued our introduction to contemporary Sri Lanka with his presentation, An Introduction to Sri Lanka.
Wednesday, November 28 - Colombo, Sri Lanka / Kandy: We docked early in Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, a city of two million people. A group of us rose early to start our day-long tour into the central hills, our destination—Kandy. By mid-morning we had reached the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and were able to get up close to these magnificent beasts. Originally established by the government to protect abandoned, injured, and orphaned elephants, it now houses them and their offspring in an extensive herd kept under control by their mahouts, or keepers.
Reaching the busy city of Kandy we enjoyed a splendid Sri Lankan buffet lunch at the beautiful Queens Hotel situated in a wonderful old colonial-style building. After lunch we had an easy walk across the street to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This World Heritage Site is the most significant pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and arguably the world. It was constructed by the Kandyan kings and originally formed part of the Kandyan Royal Palace. From the temple we made our way to the Royal Botanical Gardens where we strolled in the extensive grounds admiring the plantings from around the world.
Another group left the ship after a leisurely morning, for a tour of Colombo itself. Our first stop was St. Lucia Church; as we walked inside we were greeted with the stunning acoustics of the church reverberating as the naval orchestra was practicing for its celebration of Naval Day on December 3rd. The church was filled with naval personnel making last minute preparations for the celebration. We drove through the city seeing the major sites and old colonial buildings, finally arriving at Independence Square. Traveling on we visited Ganarama Temple, inside of which we heard more music before the head monk led worshippers in prayer. We finished our tour at an arts and crafts shop where we enjoyed some shopping before returning to the ship for lunch, after which several of us enjoyed a lazy afternoon at Mount Levinia Hotel for tea and a relaxing afternoon by the pool.
Thursday, November 29 - Galle: Our tour of Galle began in the small town of Koggala where we saw both the traditional way of fishing, men sitting on poles planted in the reef, and the fabulous Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum. From there we went into the Fort and wandered through the maze of narrow streets with enticing shops selling lacework, gems, jewelry, and folk masks. Some took the time to walk along the ramparts, enjoying the town and bay.
We returned to the ship for lunch and set sail for the Maldives. Our afternoon was devoted to relaxation and of course, learning more about this part of the world. Jack started the afternoon lectures off with his presentation on Indian Ocean Fishes, followed by Shirley, appropriately dressed in her sari, discussing, The Folds of the Sari: Women’s Lives in India. The evening now upon us, we dressed in our Indian splendor and went out on the pool deck for a cocktail party.
Friday, November 30 - At Sea: We woke to a relaxing day at sea, sailing in what seemed like a giant pond. The seas were calm, the weather was splendid, and with a gentle breeze we made our way south to the Maldives. Giovanna Fasanelli began our ‘university of the sea’ with her brilliant presentation, Understanding Coral Reefs. She covered the different kinds of island formations around which reefs are formed, the diversity that can be found on the reefs and the danger our reefs now face in a world that has not treated them as the precious resources they are. Jack followed with his presentation, Indian Ocean Fishes: Part II, continuing the theme of ocean conservation. In the afternoon a fellow passenger, Richie Meyer, lectured with All You Ever Wanted to Know About Bollywood, sharing his passion and collection of priceless footage. Finally, Jonathan finished the day speaking on Biodiversity & the Bucket List: The Land of the Tiger, with magnificent images of the mammals of the Indian subcontinent. In between the education program we enjoyed the day on the outer decks where we saw sooty terns searching the ocean surface for food, while spinner dolphins could be seen frolicking on the water’s surface.
Saturday, December 1 - Vagaaru, Island, Maldives / Utheemu Island: We eagerly woke to another beautiful morning, one that promised we would get in the water! The divers got ready for their first dive off Vagaaru Island and were treated to a diversity of fish, with schools of blue-lined snapper, as well as black-backed stingrays and hawksbill turtles. In the afternoon those who went diving saw walls of hard and soft corals, lots of fusiliers, and black-foot clownfish, an endemic species to the Maldives.
Snorkeling off Zodiacs, we had the advantage of a lovely wall on which a rich array of reef life provided us with hours of joy with lots of hard and soft corals, powder-blue tangs, butterflyfish, parrotfish, and wrasses. The glassbottom boat took those not wishing to get wet on a cruise over the reef.
In the afternoon we had an opportunity to visit Utheemu Island, our only village visit in the Maldives. We were pleasantly surprised to see how neat and tidy the entire village of approximately 400 people was. There was a newly built mosque, the old one no longer big enough to accommodate the population.
After dinner Giovanna and Jonathan treated us to images from their wedding. Those who have traveled extensively with them were delighted to be able to share their special day.
Sunday & Monday, December 2 & 3 - Baa Atoll / Akirifushi / Olhahali: Sunday began with excellent snorkeling and diving, and a lovely little beach to relax on. We saw schooling bannerfish, black-pyramid butterflyfish, and lots of starfish and gorgeous coral. Divers had a great dive enjoying 60-70 feet visibility. There were thousands of red-tooth triggerfish, amazing nudibranchs and crayfish, as well. After lunch on board, the ship repositioned to Ohlugiri Island and we were back into the water in no time. Divers saw one-armed starfish, black corals and seastars, black-spotted pufferfish, clown triggerfish, plus a large Napolean wrasse! Snorkelers had a great afternoon with more schooling bannerfish and moray eels.
Monday brought another beautiful morning in this Maldivian paradise, with clearing skies and flat seas. We were in the water soon after breakfast with divers dropping into the depths and experiencing overhangs and caves. White soft corals covered the wall and there was a 60-foot visibility to delight those enjoying the undersea world via scuba. Snorkelers encountered lovely soft and hard corals, a rich variety of fish, several different starfish, and a wide variety of cushion stars. Tangs, parrotfish, butterflyfish, wrasses, and black-spotted pufferfish were busy on the reef tending to their territories. The beach was a delightful spot where some enjoyed a relaxing morning, swimming in the lagoon or being entertained by a lone turkey!
Over lunch the ship relocated to Olhahali Island, a beautiful little resort paradise with an excellent fringing reef. The current provided us with the opportunity to drift snorkel, taking some of us effortlessly along the wall where we had great visibility and lots of beautiful fish and corals. Divers dropped onto a long ledge with white soft tree corals hanging off the overhang. Schools of paddle-tail snapper were to be seen and the bottom was covered in black corals and colonies of tubastrea hard corals. On the island we explored beautiful white sands and lounged on the resort’s reclining chairs.
Our trip nearing its end, we had dinner with the captain, as he bade us farewell and happy travels. Following dinner we viewed Mike Moore’s memory-filled slideshow of images from our trip. Packing to complete we had an early night.
Tuesday, December 4 - Male / Disembark: As the morning dawned we sailed into Male, the capital of the Maldives. In approaching Male one beholds a rather surreal image on the horizon; an island crammed with high-rise buildings, a mosque, and one side of the island jammed with shipping containers and fishing vessels. After breakfast we disembarked the Clipper Odyssey for a walking tour of the official center of Male where we visited the President’s Palace, Parliament, the Grand Friday Mosque where there were old grave-stones, and a tomb, typical of Maldivian ancient architecture for the elite. We then visited the impressive National Museum built as a gift from the Chinese Government, and the new mosque.
After a visit to the fish market we boarded local boats and jetted across to Hulhule Island Hotel where we had lunch and were able to prepare for our homeward flights. Here we said our goodbyes and returned to our lives far away from the Indian Ocean.