India, Sri Lanka & the Maldives

2011 India and the Maldives with Sri Lanka & the Lakshadweeps Field Report

Curtis Fox|February 17, 2012|Field Report

Monday, December 19, 2011 - Chennai (Madras), India: Time to hit the ground running! Arriving into the Chennai Airport, one has no other option than to immediately give in and acclimate to the beautiful organized chaos that is INDIA. We convened at the gorgeous Taj Coromandel Hotel, before embarking on a tour of Chennai that included the National Art Gallery, introducing us to bronze statues of Hindu gods Pavarti, Shiva, Ganish, created in 10AD. From there we visited the colonial Fort St. George Museum, as well as the San Thome Cathedral.

We ended the day at Kapaleeshwar Hindu Temple. The temple itself sits in the middle of a bustling market where vendors weave beautiful garlands of marigolds. Devout Hindus walked underneath the temple’s ornate spire, praying and chanting as they laid flowers and lit candles below the gaze of thousands of colorfully painted statues.

The night ended with a welcome dinner and reception back at the hotel, with everyone going to bed early to rest for the next day’s adventures.

Tuesday, December 20 - Chennai / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Our day at the Taj Coromandel began with a fantastic Indian-themed breakfast buffet, before we boarded our coaches for a drive through Chennai’s downtown streets. Though our destination was the famed World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram, many would argue that journeying on these chaotic Indian roadways proved to be just as enlightening. During our stopover in ahabalipuram we were able to visit the Five Rathas, Arjuna’s Penance, and the Shore Temple, all examples of the sheer breadth of this incredible complex.

After a delicious lunch at the Radisson Blu, we journeyed on to the Port of Chennai. Our first sight of the Clipper Odyssey brought with it warm greetings as we joined the rest of our expedition staff on board.

Wednesday, December 21 - At Sea: As we sailed south across the Indian Ocean, we spent the morning both recapping our previous days, as well as learning many great insights into the art of photography from Allan Langdale. Later in the day we were greeted by gorgeous blue skies and sunshine as we sailed into our overnight docking location at the Sri Lankan Naval Port.

Once docked, we enjoyed a discussion on the ancient history of Sri Lanka with our host from the Archaeological Institute of America, Nancy Wilkie. We rounded out the day with a welcome dinner hosted by Captain Peter Fielding.

Thursday, December 22 - Trincomalee, Sri Lanka / Habarana: After breakfast, we boarded buses and were engrossed in the lush green fauna that covers Sri Lanka. To everyone’s delight, we were greeted in the first hour by a magnificent Sri Lankan elephant as it made its way down the side of the road.

Before long we arrived at the World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa, where many of us enjoyed photographing both red- and blackfaced toque macaques during our exploration of the medieval capital’s many shrines. Our next visit was to Avukana where we encountered the first of many super-sized Buddhas. The site featured both a standing and reclining Buddha, each over 40 feet in length, carved right into the mountainside.

After a pleasurable introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine at the Deer Park Hotel, we drove back to Habarana. Upon arrival, we were greeted by not only a procession of silver clad dancers and drummers but also by a mahout and his trained elephant. Many of us carried on to the Minneriya Eco Park for an exotic four-wheeled safari. After a long day on the bus, it felt fantastic to hold onto the Jeep’s railing as we charged through the park’s muddy roads, encountering several elephants, water buffalo, and birds.

We returned to the Cinnamon Lodge for a well deserved dinner and luxurious overnight.

Friday, December 23 - Habarana / Kandy / Colombo: Many enjoyed an early morning exploration with Craig Ward and Peter Zika, searching for local birds and wildlife, before we all traveled on to the awe-inspiring site of Dambulla. Truly a marvel of both the feats of man and the power of devotion, the Dambulla Caves feature a series of mountaintop temples. Further discovery into the temples reveals myriad Buddha statues and frescos, some of which are reported to date back over 2,000 years.

After lunch at the historic Queen’s Hotel, we crossed Kandy’s busy main street for a visit to the famed Sacred Tooth Relic Temple. Now a World Heritage Site, this phenomenal temple was built as a royal palace for the Kandyan Kingdom.

A bus ride down Sri Lanka’s western slope brought us to the ocean-side capital Colombo. Traveling through Colombo’s busy streets in the evening reminded us of the encroaching holiday, as we drove through city streets adorned with Christmas lights and decorations.

Saturday, December 24 - Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), India: After several days of non-stop trekking in Sri Lanka, it was refreshing to enjoy a somewhat slower start to the day. Allan led a wonderful lecture on the rituals and architecture of India, after which breakfast was served.

Many would agree that our entrance into the festive and photogenic port of Trivandrum was the day’s highlight—magnificent mosques perched on jetties greeted us as we navigated our ship into the vibrant harbor. Between the colorful fishing boats and music blasting from a purple and red church, it was a marvelous spectacle.

Our afternoon included options for either a museum and city tour of downtown Trivandrum, or a rural visit to a local rubber plantation as well as a martial arts performance. Those who participated in the city tour enjoyed the colonial architecture of Trivandrum, specifically at the Napier Museum which houses a wonderful display of historic treasures from both India and the South Pacific. Those who chose to travel to the town of Pongumoode were introduced to the great joy of riding in an Indian tuktuk. The fruit and spice display, as well as the rubber tapping exhibition, were an incredible demonstration of local agriculture and production.

All were able to return to the Port of Trivandrum ahead of schedule, and many of us chose to walk through the lively seaside town before heading back to the ship. Once on board, we settled in for our first official recap, hosted by Jack Grove. Immediately after dinner, everyone gathered in the main lounge for a celebratory round of Christmas caroling!

Sunday, December 25 - Lakshadweep Islands: Christmas Day began bright and early with a wonderful sunrise service, put together by Tom and Emily Nissley. As one staff member pointed out, we were at that moment a group of many nationalities gathered together in commemoration of a Christian holiday, having just come from both Hindu and Buddhist nations and headed for a Muslim chain of islands.

In the morning we tuned in for a lecture by Jack Grove titled Indian Ocean Fishes Part I, a nice introduction to many of the species inhabiting the Lakshadweep Islands. Peter was next, with a great lecture covering the biogeography of islands.

After lunch we arrived at one of the outer Lakshadweep Islands, Cheriyam, and before long we were all racing off in Zodiacs for our first day of snorkeling. Within minutes bobbing bodies filled the water, pointing out butterfly fish, parrot fish, Oriental sweetlips, and even an octopus. Craig’s dive group also had a fantastic day, seeing several green sea turtles as well as a white tip reef shark.

That evening everyone assembled around the pool for a beautiful Christmas barbeque. As an extra highlight, the ship’s crew gathered on the top deck and serenaded us with holiday songs. Tired and content, we strolled back to our cabins feeling quite blessed to have had such an amazing holiday.

Monday, December 26 - Lakshadweep Islands: After a poolside breakfast Expedition Leader Lia Oprea announced we would all be going ashore at Tinnakara Island. Once there, everyone spread out in different directions: some followed Peter for a birding tour of the island, while others jumped into the crystal clear waters and enjoyed several hours of snorkeling. The true highlight came when our Zodiacs began the journey back out of the island’s reef encircled lagoon—cruising back we spotted dozens of green sea turtles gliding through the lagoon’s waters!

Shortly after lunch we were back in the water, this time swimming on the outer ring of an atoll’s reef. While snorkelers pursued a marbled sting ray, Peter took guests out on the glass-bottomed boat for a dry look at the underwater world of the Indian Ocean.

Afternoon snacks were followed by a very enthusiastic evening recap hosted by Jack. As everyone settled in for dinner, the ship turned its sites back to mainland India!

Tuesday, December 27 - Kochi (Cochin): After a wonderful Indian brunch of sambar and fresh coconut chutney, we boarded buses for a full day’s city tour. Our first stop was the exceptional Kochi Folklore Museum which houses the private collection of one Keralan family, including antique sitars and Kathakali masks.

A visit to St. Francis Church provided an introduction to the colonial Fort Kochi area of the city. Besides being India’s oldest European church, St. Francis also marks the location where famed Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s remains were previously housed. A short walk from the church brought us to the famed Chinese fishing nets. Though an impressive feat of engineering, our local guide reassured us that the men operating the nets are the world’s only fishermen who make more money getting their photos taken with tourists than they do catching fish.

Later in the afternoon we drove further into Cochin to Mattancherry Palace. Built in 1557 by the Portuguese during their colonial rule of Kerala, the inner walls of the palace are covered with beautifully preserved murals from The Ramayana. We were then able to explore the many stalls and bazaars of Cochin’s Jew Town. Back on the ship, we were treated to a stunning Kathakali Dance performance.

Wednesday, December 28 - Kochi (Cochin): This morning we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise for our final day in India. After disembarking, we headed towards Cochin’s city center. Expert guides helped to translate all the hustle and bustle which took place on either side of the bus.

Before long we arrived at our day’s first destination, a coir factory outside the city. The factory itself was a glimpse into a bygone era. Wooden cantilevers bound by rope and primarily human-powered spun coconut husk into a fine thread. Humongous looms came to life when maneuvered by the feet of two men who simultaneously wove thread in and out in ornate patterns. The whole place was a photographer’s dream, with light reflecting off the beautiful wood of the machinery mixing with the poised faces of the workers.

We continued on our journey to Alleppey Jetty. Upon arrival each group found its way to a private, converted houseboat. Each group sat comfortably in what could best be described as the front foyer of the luxurious boat. As we navigated Cochin’s intricate backwaters, an entire life unseen from the city’s congested roadways unfolded. Homes dotted the banks and a way of life dependent on the canals was revealed. Along the way our crew served us a delicious onboard lunch of local Keralan cuisine.

This evening Zegrahm, World Wildlife Fund, and the Archaeological Institute of America treated everyone to a farewell to India cocktail party. As with any good experience which draws to an end, the party brought with it airs of both sadness and pleasure. Not long thereafter we were southbound for the Maldives.

Thursday, December 29 - At Sea / Uligamu, Maldives: Back at sea everyone awoke to the calm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, and our continuing lecture series. Nancy went over the preservation of cultural heritage in both India and Sri Lanka, and Jack continued his engaging series on Indian Ocean Fish.

Shortly after lunch we were able to anchor just off Uligamu Island, our first introduction to the Maldives! The atoll of Uligamu is the second most northerly island in the entire Maldivian archipelago. We boarded Zodiacs and headed ashore for a mid-afternoon walk and birding tour of the small island. Upon arrival we were warmly greeted by Abdul, our guide in the Maldives, and a procession of local dancers bearing freshly cut coconuts. Having just come from the bustling streets of India, the serene setting of Uligamu, mixed with the somewhat reserved nature of its residents, was a stark contrast. We walked in small groups exploring much of the atoll’s northwestern tip. Peter led an intrepid group of birders who were successful in identifying both a male and female korel, while many of us were fortunate enough to witness a lively soccer game.

Friday, December 30 - Vagaaru Island / Utheemu Island: Our second morning in the Maldives found us anchored just off Vagaaru Island. As with many of the picturesque islands we’d passed since entering the archipelago, Vagaaru was a gorgeous white sand island dotted with coconut trees and surrounded by a thin barrier reef. One can’t lay eyes on a place like this without immediately feeling like they belong in a postcard.

After a quick breakfast, Zodiacs were lowered into the water for another busy day of excursions and water sports. As Peter led his loyal band of bird-watching explorers ashore, other guests raced off to the island’s outer reef to absorb the local underwater culture.

Lunchtime provided the perfect moment for all on board to relax and enjoy a fantastic poolside barbeqeue. While we snacked and lounged, the captain moved us north to Utheemu Island. Activities this afternoon included both an offshore snorkel as well as an island visit. Those of us who went ashore were greeted by what appeared to be all 850 residents of the small island. Fresh coconuts were proudly presented by several of the islands inhabitants. Soon thereafter we were led off in small groups headed by local guides for an island tour.

We walked along the sandy streets of the village, listening attentively to our guides’ depiction of local life and history. Some of the island’s more popular attractions included the site of a 400-year old mosque, as well as a massive and regal whitewashed new mosque. We were also able to tour the grounds, said to have been the former residence of Utheemu’s legendary warrior prince, famed for his valor during the nation’s struggle against Portuguese occupation.

After a quick recap and dinner, it was an early night.

Saturday, December 31 - Baa Atoll: How fortunate we all are to have finished out the year in such a beautiful setting. Snorkeling began early near Olhugiri Island, with close proximity to the beach from the snorkel area. Numerous varieties of wrasse and angel fish, as well as many of the area’s famed powder blue tang, kept snorkelers occupied all morning.

After lunch we lounged by the pool as we repositioned near Hanifaru Island and were able to quickly enjoy an offshore snorkel. Much to the pleasure of the non-snorkelers among us, the glass-bottomed boat was also lowered into the water, and Peter led the group around the reef. This evening the mood was festive as all gathered around the pool area to sip cocktails and bid farewell to 2011. After a photo-filled recap the joviality continued with an out-of-this-world nine-course dinner in the main dining room. Amongst the bounty of delicious dishes, the savory lobster tail ranked with many as the best thing on board. Even more enjoyable was the fabulous after dinner entertainment put on in the main lounge by the ship’s crew. Acts which included a tribute to the Village People’s In the Navy as well as several song and dance numbers by the Omara family granddaughters kept guests clapping and cheering well into the night. The mood after the performance was so elevated that many stayed on to dance and party into the New Year!

Sunday, January 1, 2012 - Baa Atoll: We awoke on the first day of the New Year to a picture-perfect paradise made up of turquoise waters and idyllic islands. We were shuttled ashore to explore our last stop in the Maldives, the tiny island of Akrifushi. As if the best had purposely been saved for last, Akrifushi proved to be just the natural habitat we’d all been hoping for, with an abundance of living coral. The impact of such an environment was immediately obvious as life around Akrifushi’s reef was clearly thriving. Schools of black durgon triggerfish swarmed around our snorkel boat and we witnessed massive fluorescent parrotfish position themselves at “cleaning stations” to be picked over by cleaner wrasse. We also witnessed luminous sea anemones teeming with families of orange and yellow anemonefish.

Those not interested in getting their feet wet were able to enjoy the reef as the glass-bottomed boat ferried guests back and forth. The conditions were so superb that those aboard were even able to spot a green moray eel! Delighted to have seen the Maldivian underwater life we’d all imagined, we returned to the ship for the sail down to Male.

This evening, while cruising over glassy waters, all were treated to a wonderful slideshow presented by Allan; his beautiful images provided the perfect recap of the many adventures we’d undertaken during the expedition. Later in the evening we all toasted to our success as Captain Peter bid us a generous farewell.

Monday, January 2 - Male / Disembark Clipper Odyssey / Singapore / USA: As the sun rose over Male’s bustling harbor on the final day of our journey, all on board stopped to reflect on the amazing experience we’d been so fortunate to have. As with every day leading up to today, we tried to pack in as much as humanly possible.

Soon after breakfast everyone was shuttled by Zodiac into Male’s central pier. The city was such a stark contrast when compared to the other sparsely inhabited islands we’d seen so far in the Maldives, yet Male on first impression actually felt very pleasant. The city is unique in that its small two square miles hold the majority of the nation’s population. Male is in fact one of the world’s most densely populated capitals.

Our short city tour began with a visit to the National Museum before continuing through one of Male’s well maintained parks. The city had clearly made great efforts to maintain the lovely park which was full of flowers and banyan trees, a difficult feat considering the shallow sand which makes up the island soil.

After walking by the president’s downtown residence, we visited Male’s original mosque and minaret. Both structures are over 400 years old and appeared amazingly well-kept. Each was built entirely using coral stone harvested from the nearby reef. Intricate Sanskrit passages from the Quran appeared on the mosque’s exterior.

The highlight of our brief tour was a visit to the local fish market, located immediately across from the jetty. The busy market turns out hundreds of freshly caught fish daily and can fillet whole fish, recently purchased, in a matter of minutes.

In the days leading up to our final farewell much was said about the way time had “flown by.” Seasoned travelers such as ourselves know this sentiment to be true any time we retreat to fresh and exciting places, but as Jack mentioned, we are fortunate to possess the gift of memories which are full of amazing people, environments and experiences.

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