India, Sri Lanka & the Maldives

2015 India, Sri Lanka & the Maldives Field Report

Shirley Campbell|February 9, 2016|Field Report

Saturday & Sunday, November 28 & 29, 2015 - Mumbai, India / Embark Island Sky

Mumbai, the Bollywood capital of India, is a bustling city of 22 million people. We assembled at the Hyatt Regency, conveniently located near the airport, for our overnight stay. After our long journeys, we were able to refresh before an early dinner and much needed sleep.

The next morning we headed to the Gateway of India and boarded local boats for a leisurely ride to Elephanta Island, located in Mumbai Harbour. 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. They tried to remove the sculpture but their chains broke under the weight of the elephant and it dropped into the sea.

Today, the cave complex is a World Heritage Site; we visited the Hindu caves containing stone sculptures cut from the rock and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. The central masterpiece at the back of cave is a three-headed “Sadashiva” representing the God’s three aspects—Shiva the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. As we climbed the more than 120 steps to the caves we encountered bonnet macaques, cheekily watching our lumbered climb past merchants selling all manner of souvenirs.

We had a fabulous lunch at the elegant, world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace, before we embarked the Island Sky. Following the mandatory safety drill, our Expedition Leader, Mike Moore, introduced the rest of the expedition staff.

Monday, November 30 - Mumbai

Mumbai spreads out over reclaimed land that was once an archipelago of seven islands and is now home to fishing communities. We drove by what is left of these communities on our city tour this morning, making our way through the fort precinct dotted with old colonial buildings of the British Raj. The roads were busy as we absorbed all the colors and sounds of today’s Mumbai. We went up to Malabar Hill, the most exclusive residential area in Mumbai; passed by the Hanging Gardens which camouflage Mumbai’s water storage reservoir and the Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence,’ where the deceased are left for ‘recycling’ by vultures; and stopped briefly at the Dhobi Ghat where men spend long days washing, drying, and ironing the city’s dirty laundry.

From there we made our way to Mani Bhawan where Mahatama Gandhi stayed when he visited Mumbai; it is now a museum and library. Our next stop was a Krishna temple where a wedding was in progress. We found it interesting that the wedding was between an Indian and a Westerner, though our guides told us both participants were Hari Krishna followers. Upstairs a beautiful temple contained images of the god Krishna at one end, while at the other end a statue of the man who founded the temple faced the god he worshipped. We drove to Victoria Station and saw dabbawallas collecting hot lunches at the train station for delivery to the white-collar office workers in the area. There are more than 5,000 dabbawallas working in central Mumbai alone!

We were treated to lunch at the Khyber Restaurant, which has received a well-deserved sixth place in TripAdvisor’s Best Fine Dining Restaurants awards. Well fed, we spent an hour at Fabindia searching for colorful Indian outfits before we headed back to the Island Sky for our captain’s welcome cocktails and dinner.

Tuesday, December 1 - Goa

Waking this morning to the gentle rocking of the ship, we sailed south to our destination, Goa. Puneet Dan started our lecture series off with his presentation, An Introduction to India, followed by Allan Langdale’s, The Churches of Goa. We had our first lunch on board, many of us braving the mid-day heat and humidity to eat out on the Lido Deck.

After lunch we disembarked the ship and enjoyed a tour of Old Goa. Our visit coincided with a special occasion for Christians in India—the Basilica of Bom Jesus holds the body of St. Francis Xavier, resting in a silver casket. He died on December 2, 1552 and each year, thousands of worshippers line up to pass by his casket and listen to sermons.

Across the street we visited the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, built by the Portuguese in 1661, and the small museum attached to it. Nearby is the much larger Santa Catarina Cathedral. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honoring the historical and religious significance of Old Goa. We walked through a fair selling trinkets and religious souvenirs, as well as local snacks.

Wednesday, December 2 - Goa

After breakfast on board we left the port for Panjim, the official capital of Goa. This historic city still exhibits the cultural influences of the Portuguese merchants who first landed here in the 16th century. Our visit began with a stroll through the vibrant city markets. We walked through the fish market, the butchers’ chopping blocks, a variety of stalls selling all kinds of small household and domestic goods, and finished at the colorful fruit and vegetable section. Some of us took the bus to the old Latin Quarter while others walked a mile or so through the bustling streets. The picturesque Latin Quarter has a surprisingly Indo-European ambience with quiet streets, quaint houses, whitewashed churches, guesthouses, and cafes.

Some of our group returned to the ship for lunch. They then had an opportunity to enjoy time on the renowned beaches of Goa, a magnet for Europeans looking to escape the severity of Continental winters. The rest of us traveled further south to the town of Quepem, located on the banks of the Kushavati River. Our lunch destination was the beautiful Palàcio do Deão, built in 1787 by a Portuguese nobleman, Deão Jose Paulo. The grand house, together with its lush gardens, has been painstakingly restored by the current owners, Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama. We were treated to an authentic Goan meal, a fusion of Goan and Portuguese cuisine. After lunch we enjoyed a cooking demonstration by Celia before returning to the ship.

Afternoon tea awaited us on board, and Shirley Campbell presented her lecture, Conquering the Sub-Continent: A Complex Peopling of India.

Thursday, December 3 - Mangalore

Cleared by Mangalore’s officials, we departed for our day-long tour of the city. The main port for the state of Karnataka, Mangalore exports coffee, spices, and cashews. Our first stop was a bustling cashew factory that predominantly employs women, providing transportation to and from the factory as well as childcare facilities. We witnessed the painstaking processes that go into producing the delicious nuts we take for granted. We will never eat another cashew without appreciating the labor-intensive work that goes into its production!

We drove through the Karnataka forests, with the Western Ghats to one side, until we reached our next stop. We climbed to the top of a hill to see the magnificent statue of Bahubali, also called Gommateshwara, an esteemed Jain figure and, according to legend, one of the sons of the first Jain saint. The 57-foot statue is carved from a single block of granite, his stance reflecting his year-long meditation in the forest to achieve moksha, release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Constructed in 983 CE, it is one of the largest freestanding statues in the world.

We next visited the Temple of 1,000 Pillars; begun in the 15th century, it took 55 years for the temple to be completed, each pillar unique. To enter we passed the Ego Column, encouraging us to leave our egos behind, and climbed a few steps into the cool charm of the portico and into the inner space of the temple. A Jain priest kept guard over the doorway to the next sacred space where the eight-foot tall golden statue of Chandraprabha stood.

We had a delightful lunch at Soans Farm, a 100-acre orchard growing all manner of tropical fruits, nuts, and spices. Welcomed by Mr. Soans himself, we tasted the farm’s completely natural pineapple juice. The fresh taste of this juice is due to the lack of additives and sugar.

Back on board, Shirley presented her second lecture, Into the Folds of the Sari: Women’s Lives in India.

Friday, December 4 - Kochi

As we gently sailed into the harbor the sun was just rising, casting a soft light over the “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” Kochi. The large dockside cranes used to load and unload produce dominated the skyline, while the delicate Chinese fishnets offered a more traditional engineering solution to removing the sea’s bounty.

Once cleared, we boarded buses and headed south to Alleppey, a seaport town where spices, particularly pepper, were exported to Portugal from the time of Vasco de Gama. We boarded kettuvallam boats, originally used to ferry produce along the canals of the backwaters. The backwaters are often referred to as the “Venice of the East.” These ‘boats with knots’ are thus named for the coir (coconut-fiber rope) knots tied to hold the entire structure together. We enjoyed a slow-paced day through the busy canals observing village life together with white-throated and stork-billed kingfishers, little cormorants, green bee-eaters, and hundreds of farmed ducks. Along the banks of the canals we saw people wandering between villages, schools, and churches. Women laundered their clothes while men and children bathed. Beyond the banks were rice fields with swamp herons stealthily searching for little fish and egrets stalking their prey. We stopped for a stroll before a typical Kerala lunch was served back on board, efficiently prepared by two able cooks in the small kitchen at the stern.

Saturday, December 5 - Kochi

After overnighting alongside, we made our way to Fort Kochi. An important spice-trading center from the 14th century, Kochi was the first European colony in India, occupied by the Portuguese in 1503. Our first stop was along the banks of the old fort to view the so-called Chinese fishnets. They are commonly found in southern China and Indochina, but are rare in India. While fixed to land, the large nets hang over the water and are lowered by the weight of a man walking out along the central beam. Stones suspended over land counterbalance the net and with the aid of up to six fishermen, the net is raised to reveal its catch.

We walked through the streets to St. Francis Church, India’s oldest church, before visiting Mattancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese in 1557. We had an opportunity to visit Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1524, or to enjoy shopping in the streets of this delightful quarter.

We returned to the ship for lunch followed by an afternoon visit to the Folklore Museum. This valuable ethnic and antiquities collection is housed in a wooden building constructed using Kerala’s three architectural schools. Inside is a wonderful collection of traditional masks; statues made of wood, stone and bronze; musical instruments; manuscripts; and more, all collected by one man whose vision was to preserve Kochi heritage.

Back on board, Kathakali dancers demonstrated the complexity of their makeup preparations prior to their performance. A Kathakali actor uses considerable concentration, skill, and physical stamina in his performance of scenes from the epic Mahabharata. Actors acquire their skills through a regimented training based on Kalari Payattu, the ancient martial arts of Kerala. The training can take from 8-10 years! Kathakali dates back 400 years, incorporating extraordinary makeup, colorful costumes, ornate headdresses, and tells 101 classical Keralan tales with a dramatic accompaniment of percussion and song. A barbecue dinner on the Lido Deck completed a splendid two-day visit to Kerala.

Sunday, December 6 - Trivandrum

Advised to be up early and on the outer decks as we sailed into the tiny harbor of Trivandrum, we were not disappointed! It was a Sunday morning and the majority of locals were at church, which was so crowded that many worshippers stood on the outside plaza. The service was broadcast over loudspeakers so that those unable to attend could hear the prayers and hymns of the devout congregation. The scene was stunning! Hundreds of colorfully painted fishing boats were aligned in groups of 2-10 throughout the harbor, our ship nudging a few away so that we could dock. Two beautiful mosques identified the Muslim side of the village while the Christian side had two magnificent churches.

We walked through the village, engaging with local villagers as they returned from their first service of the day, and we were soon off to explore beyond the harbor, traveling inland to Marnallor Village. Unable to negotiate the narrow, rutted road we boarded tuktuks and made our way to the home of Kannan, one of our Exotic Journeys agents. We sampled various fruits, saw a variety of spices, and visited the rubber plantation nearby. We watched a block of latex mixed with formic acid being rolled into flat, waterless sheets. In this state they are dried before being shipped to market.

Tuktuks transported us to a nearby hall were 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 whips may be obstructed by simple hand and arm blocks.

Returning to our ship, we set sail for Sri Lanka, seemingly the entire village of Vizhinjam all on the dock to wave us off. Shirley presented, The Peopling of Sri Lanka: A Prehistoric Encounter of the Mahavamsa, followed by Allan’s lecture on Ritual Architecture in India.

Monday, December 7 - Colombo, Sri Lanka / Kandy

We docked early in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city of two million people. A small group chose to have a leisurely morning and enjoy a tour of Colombo while most arose early for the day-long journey inland to the central hills and our destination, Kandy, the ancient capital. We drove through tropical plantations to reach the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage; as we arrived the orphans were being herded across the road towards the river where twice a day they cool off and rollick in the gentle rapids. Originally established by the government to protect abandoned, injured, and orphaned elephants, it now houses them and their offspring under the care of the mahouts, or elephant-keepers.

Reaching the busy city of Kandy, the second largest in Sri Lanka, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Temple of the Tooth, founded in the 16th century. The temple is one of the most significant pilgrimages for Buddhists. It was constructed by the Kandyan kings and originally formed part of the Kandyan Royal Palace. Across the street we had a delicious buffet lunch at the Queens Hotel, situated in an old colonial building. After lunch we stopped at the Royal Botanical Gardens where we strolled the extensive grounds, admiring the plantings from around the world, before heading back to the ship.

Tuesday, December 8 - Galle

Our day began in the small town of Koggala where we saw a traditional way of fishing astride poles. Men balanced on thin poles planted on the reef and cast lines into the rolling waves. From here we visited the fabulous Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum; a famous Sri Lankan novelist born in 1890, Wickramasinghe wrote about Sri Lankan traditional life and collected material items depicting life and culture in the southern region of Sri Lanka. Wonderful examples of domestic and cultural life were on display.

Our next stop was Galle Fort, built by the Dutch in 1663, and the Dutch Reform Church. Enticing shops lured us in to discover lacework, gems, folk masks, and tea. Some took the time to walk the ramparts, enjoying the town and bay.

We returned to the ship for lunch and to set sail to look for blue whales, known to frequent the deeper waters off the continental shelf. Our search was to no avail; as we turned towards the Maldives late in the afternoon, Rich Pagen gave his presentation, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef. We just had time to dress in our colorful cocktail gear for the Splendors of India Cocktail Party on the Lido Deck.

Wednesday & Thursday, December 9 & 10 - At Sea / Vangaaru and Utheemu Islands, Northern Maldives

A day at sea was just what we needed and Jack Grove started the morning off with his presentation, Marine Diversity and Why it Matters. This was followed by Brad Climpson’s lecture, Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea. After lunch Shirley helped us discover our dosha before a Zodiac and snorkel briefing.

The next morning, we woke to threatening gray clouds, but that deter us! Beachcombers took their time walking around beautiful Vangaaru Island, collecting shells and soaking up the peace and quiet offered by an uninhabited island. Many tried out their snorkeling skills for the first time in years, while others enjoyed pottering along the inshore reef. We saw pyramid butterflyfish, clown and redtooth triggerfish, as well as a variety of wrasses.

Divers dropped 18 feet onto a flat bottom with shallow drainage channels. There were hard corals and an occasional bommie, together with tons of fish in the shallows. In deeper water they saw schools of fusiliers and unicornfish. They dropped down to 90 feet along a wall and encountered three large manta rays feeding; they observed them for 15 minutes!

In the afternoon we visited Utheemu Island, an inhabited island famous as the birthplace of Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu who, with his brothers fought an eight-year war to drive out the Portuguese in the 16th century. We went ashore on fine white sand, in stark contrast to the black clouds now emptying in a steady drizzle. We visited the old mosque, built perhaps 500 years ago where Thakurufaanu’s father’s and grandfather’s graves are. Despite the fact that a drizzle had become a downpour, many of us explored the village further before returning to the ship.

Both divers and snorkelers saw lots of table coral. There was a strong current bringing in plankton and plankton-eating fish. The divers found a few small caves along the edge of the drop off where they spotted stingray and a nice sized lobster together with a mantis shrimp sitting in the open.

Friday, December 11 - Baa Atoll

We traveled further south overnight and escaped the unsettled weather to the north. Snorkeling and beach operations were located together on idyllic Muthaafushi Island with its long sandy spit offering solitude. The narrow island enabled us to move from the landing site to the other side where the snorkel platforms were anchored. Some swam off the beach while others cooled in the shallow lagoon. Still others observed Oriental sweetlips, green scorpionfish, and cushion stars. Divers worked their way down a sheer wall off the ship’s stern where they saw lots of fish life, including moray eels, mantis shrimp, and masses of bannerfish. A hawksbill turtle and several yellowfin tuna were among the highlights.

While we ate lunch the ship repositioned to Gaaviligili Island, again with a perfect beach setup close to the snorkel boats. We had drinks on the beach under umbrellas and watched black-naped terns, gray herons, and fruit bats fly overhead while underwater there were dogtooth tuna, shoals of black pyramid butterflyfish, as well as lunar and blue-stripe fusiliers. Divers explored a partial wall with drainage channels. Incredible marine life included a white-tip reef shark, moray eels, and red-tooth triggerfish.

In the afternoon a huge pod of what is thought to have been Indo-pacific dolphins spent quite some time hunting and feeding near the ship. We all had good views of these beautiful mammals, as they arched above the surface of the sea. Once they finished a beautiful sunset kept us on the outer decks. The distant clouds seemed to be rimmed in fire as the sun set behind them.

Saturday, December 12 - Thulhaagiri Sandbank

We awoke this morning near Malé, the capital city-island of the Maldives. Our first snorkel was on a submerged reef some distance from the ship. As there were no beaches for those wishing to simply dangle their toes in the water to stay cool, a nearby lagoon was selected for those ‘noodlers,’ while snorkelers made the long Zodiac ride to the submerged reef. It felt rather risqué to be snorkeling in what appeared to be just open water, until you looked down and saw the fish life just under the surface. Lots of lovely reef fish and coral kept our attention all morning. Divers found a protected wall dropping 90 feet; they found lots of nooks and crannies to explore in the submerged reef.

The ship remained at anchor over lunch while the scouting team searched for new snorkel and dive sites. Divers had another nice dive on a steep, sloping reef where they saw better corals and good-sized moray eels, a white-tip and a gray reef shark. Snorkelers traveled in another direction to an inner reef. There was a gentle slope into deeper water where they saw schools of triggerfish swimming from left to right; it felt like a triggerfish super highway!

Back on board another beautiful sunset accompanied our farewell cocktails after our group photo. The captain’s farewell dinner was held in the cool of the Dining Room. Following this, Brent presented the slideshow he had been working on throughout the trip; a splendid memento of our two weeks together along the west coast of India, into Sri Lanka, and through the Maldives.

Sunday, December 13 - Malé / Disembark

As morning dawned we sailed into Malé, a rather surreal image to behold on the horizon. The capital of the Maldives is an island crammed with high-rise buildings, a mosque, shipping containers, and fishing vessels. After breakfast we disembarked the Island Sky for a walking tour of the official center of Malé. We had lunch near the airport, before saying our goodbyes and our long flights home, on to our lives far away from the Indian Ocean.

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