Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

January 18, 2019

On Friday, January 18, the ship laid anchor at the port city of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka.  Portuguese, Dutch and others colonizers had long preyed upon this ancient, natural harbour so that by the time the British took it over in 1795, it had changed hands seven times.

The ship offered a choice of excursions: a full day tour to Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO site, one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved archeological cities dating to the tenth century AD or a half-day tour around Trincomalee itself.  The Polonnaruwa trip meant a three-hour bus ride each way. I turned that one down in spite of the promised view of “lush countryside” from the coach windows. The rocking movement of the bus would inevitably have put me to sleep and I wouldn’t have seen a thing in any case.

I opted for the half-day excursion to Fort Frederick, once the largest European fort in Sri Lanka. Portuguese invaders built it in 1623 (they called it Fort Triquillimae) only to have by the Dutch wrest it out of their grasp in 1639.

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Vendors line the roadway leading to Koneswara temple

We got off the buses and climbed into waiting tuk-tuks, which conveyed us to the base of the sacred site. The temple sits atop Konesar Malai, a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean.  The tuk-tuks let us off at the base of a hill and we walked along a road, lined on either side with vendors that service just about every religious site up to the temple.

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Worshippers write down wishes and place them in the small wooden boxes to ask for Lord Shiva’s intercession

Although the Koneswara temple site is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka, the temple which exists today was built in the 20th century. The original structure (founded around 400 B.C.) was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 17th century. Built in the classical-medieval style, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

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A detail of the Koneswara Hindu temple near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After an hour we climbed back into the tuk-tuks, into the bus and sped to the remains of an ancient Buddhist temple complex.

We were welcomed to the ruins of the two-thousand-year-old Velgam Vihara Buddhist temple by the saffron-robed monks who live nearby. According to information provided by the monks, the ancient complex was abandoned in the 11th century when the Sinhalese people were compelled to migrate southward.  “Within twenty years, the premises of this Vihara was covered with heavy jungle which was full of wild elephants and leopards.”

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The remains of the Velgam Vihara temple (built around 300 BC) near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, historically a place for worship for both Sinhala and Tamil Buddhists

We were the only people walking among the partially-excavated site that day. (The pace of excavation depends on the generosity of worshippers and visitors.) The tranquility of the place came as sweet respite from the bustle and hurry of getting from place to place.  A hidden peacock screeched in the background.

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The ancient site of the Buddhist Velgam Vihara temple in Trimcomalee, Sri Lanka provided a quiet respite from the hurly burly of touring

After that it was back to the ship for two unhurried days at sea until our next stop:  Port Blair (Andaman Islands) India. Good, old bureaucratic India, where it takes six to eight people (sometime in groups of three) to examine and stamp your passport before they’ll let you out of the harbour terminal.

 

Colombo, Sri Lanka

January 16, 2019

Our visit to Sri Lanka took us to the spectacular Kelaniya Buddhist temple compound, one of the most sacred in the country where tens of thousands of worshippers flock annually. Buddha is said to have once visited the temple site to stop a war from erupting between two brothers over a jewel-encrusted throne.

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Inside the grounds of the Kelaniya temple

 

Walking along its expansive grounds, a sense of peace settled over me in spite of the number of people in attendance.  Worshippers sat on the ground praying, meditating; they lit incense sticks, they placed food offerings at the feet of statues. And if you happened to catch their eyes, they smiled.

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Worshippers sitting on the warm sand around image house of the Kelaniya temple 

The temple site lies some twelve kilometers outside Colombo on the banks of the Kelani river. The original buildings went up around 350 B.C. Only the stupa (a white 90-foot structure resembling a heap of rice) remains.  The others were destroyed by invaders again and again only to be rebuilt by locals after each and every destruction. The last big blow was dealt by the Portuguese in 1510. Since then many, many major renovations have taken place with the last big reno undertaken in the early 20th century.

The pièce de résistance is the image house. Every wall and ceiling inside this elegant, yellowish-cream-coloured building is covered with sumptuous murals depicting scenes of the life of Lord Buddha and historical events of ancient Sri Lanka.  You could spend a week looking up and down and all around and never get your fill of the beauty in every detail. The murals were done in the early 20th C by an artist called Solias Mendis.

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The image house in foreground with white stupa in the shape of a heap of rice behind it
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Murals cover the interior of the Kelaniya Buddhist temple
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A mural scene near the ceiling in the Kalaniya Buddhist temple image house

As we walked out the gate and back out into the street, the hypnotic sound of chanting monks followed behind us.

Next, we climbed back on the bus and headed to Colombo’s National Museum, where we spent a couple of fascinating hours looking at everything from royal regalia to antique demon masks to textiles.  Child that I am, I was especially taken with the life-size recreations of ancient communities.  The museum had a really good souvenir shop, unfortunately, we got no time to browse because we had to get back to the ship in time for lunch. (Really, I could do with fewer meals…)

Next stop: Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Galle, Sri Lanka

January 15, 2019

We left the Maldives on the evening of Jan 13 and spent the next day at sea, wending our way toward Sri Lanka.  The ship-board itinerary included a morning lecture about Nehru, India’s prime minister from 1947 to 1964, and another in the afternoon about the mammals of the Indian subcontinent. I attended neither, preferring to catch up with this blog, go to the gym to work off some of daily post-dinner dessert I can’t seem to walk away from, and to nap instead. I did, however, catch the Nehru lecture in my cabin later on closed circuit TV (I’m not a complete philistine).

Three excursions were available when we docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan 15: Kandy (it held out against colonial takeover for two centuries before falling to the British in 1818); a visit to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage or a trip to the town of Galle on the country’s southwest coast.

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Fishermen in the Galle, hoping to catch dinner from the Indian Ocean

(Those of us taking the Grand Journey, traveling all the way to Malaga, Spain, went to Galle since we’ll be coming back to this way after visiting Thailand. We’ll get the chance to visit both Kandy and Pinnawala in February.)

It was a hot, beautiful day and I enjoyed the 2.5-hour drive to Galle comfortably seated in our air-condition coach as we cut through the city of Colombo and sped past rubber, cinnamon and tea plantations.  (Yes, I nodded off now and then. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to getting up at 6 a.m. to get ready for these excursions.)

The ride from the pier to Galle took almost three hours. Our first stop was a “short” visit, as advertised, to the former house of Sinhalese author, Martin Wickramasinghe, which is now a folk museum. True, it’s a small museum, but we got a mere fifteen minutes to walk through it—literally in and out.  Why?  Because organizers had made reservations at a fancy hotel for lunch. It was hardly worth the time to get us all off and back on the bus.  I’d rather have spent more time at the museum and none at the fancy hotel that followed.

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The hotel in Galle where we had lunch had a most unusual bannister

(When I asked excursion staff why we always go to these five-star hotels instead of local restaurants I was told local places don’t often have the facilities to accommodate such large groups, including for the seniors with minor disabilities among us.)

After lunch we motored to the old part of the city, to Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese four centuries ago, and later modified by the Dutch. Its ramparts and alleys are something to see.

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A model posing  in front of  a store in Old Galle during a commercial photo shoot 

Shopping was good, too, especially for semi-precious stones.  I bought a pair of small silver earrings with a blue topaz and bargained so hard the sales clerk, who wouldn’t let me leave when we couldn’t agree on a price, ended up calling the store owner. After yet more smiles and shakes of my head and many attempts to leave,  the owner let me have my price. (The earrings dangle prettily from my ears as I write this.)

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A peculiar store sign on a Galle street

The ship remained docked in Colombo that night, and we got a tour of the city itself the following morning.  When we come back this way on the way to Burma, my new friend and fellow Grand Voyage passenger, Felicia, and I have decided to wander around the city on our own.

 

 

Uligan, Maldives

January 13, 2019

After Cochin we spent a day sailing the Indian Ocean (it covers about 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface) toward the island of Uligan in the Maldives. The ship stopped there for a few hours so passengers could enjoy the beach. The island, however, isn’t a tourist destination. It has few facilities and its inhabitants are strict Muslims, which meant modest dress and no alcohol could be taken ashore.

But the promise of wriggling my toes on the Island’s beautiful, tranquil beach, which is said to be full of coral reefs and tropical fish did not induce me to get off the ship. First, I don’t swim, and, second, I’m allergic to the sun. Don’t judge me too harshly, okay? It would have meant spending a couple of uncomfortable hours stewing inside my clothes, covered up from head to toe to prevent itchy blistering from exposure to the tropical sun.

Those who went said they had a wonderful time in the scorching heat.

 

 

Uligan Island, Maldives (picture from scorpio.com)

I stayed on the ship and spent a pleasant morning reading.

 

Cochin, India

January 11, 2019

The famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, died in Cochin in 1524 and his body entombed in the chapel of Santo Antonio in St. Francis church before it was sent off to Lisbon 14 years later.

It’s a beauty of a city, its face shaped by the influence of centuries of invaders, traders and rulers evident in palaces, mosques, churches and even a synagogue. The Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, Italians and Portuguese helped Cochin emerge as a centre of commercial activity. Its port is now second only to Mumbai.

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We visited St. Francis church, the oldest in India, and the only one that survived after the Dutch became the dominant power.

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St. Francis church in Cochin, India, built in 1503, is one of the oldest in India. Vasco da Gamma was buried in a chapel here for 14 years before his body was repatriated to Portugal

The highlight of the tour was the Mattancherry district, which was once home to a thriving community of Sephardic Jews who had fled the Iberian peninsula because of persecution.  Only a handful of Jews remain now but the old synagogue is still in use, and open to the public.

 

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As 700-hundred-year-old building Mattancherry district of Cochin building in the former Jewish district of Cochin
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A mere handful of Jews remain in the Mattancherry district of Cochin, once predominantly Jewish district.  The old synoguge lies at the end of the street

The Mattancherry district is also filled with shops: antiques, spices, textiles, jewels.  I bought a number of things at a women’s cooperative, a thriving two-storey shop that sells just about everything but furniture.

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A member of the women’s cooperative in Cochin. Their shop teemed with customers buying everything from spices to carpets to jewelry

We spent the next three days at sea.  I like being at sea. The only problem, however, there’s far too much time to eat. No matter how many times I promise myself to steer clear of the dessert table (gorgeous sweets are provided at both lunch and dinner) this day, I fail badly and had a little something after both meals. I’ll have a lot of work to do on this weight thing when I get home.

Also, almost no one on the ship has escaped this bacterial cough. One by one, they’re falling like bowling pins and keeping the doctor busy dispensing antibiotics.  I got it early on and pray I don’t come down with a second time.

After Cochin we headed to Sri Lanka.

Goa, India

 

January 9, 2019

The ship docked in Marmagoa, Goa’s main port, population about 100,000. The town was first developed as a fortified settlement in 1624 by the Portuguese and remained its capital until the 18th century plague struck and the town abandoned. The Portuguese set up the new capital in (what’s now called) Panjim, which remains the state capital.

We took a walk through the Fontainhas quarter of Panjim, a neighbourhood that could have been plucked out of the residential streets of Lisbon.  Portuguese is the main language spoken in this district today.

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Fontainhas is the Latin Quarter of Panjim in Goa.  Portuguese influence is seen in its  architecture. 

 

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The pale blues, yellow or green villas with projecting balconies and tile roofs in Panjim’s Fontainhas district show the influence of Goa’s Portuguese colonizers

We also visited other examples of what the Portuguese left behind: St. Catjean church, said to be modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, and the Jesuit Basilica of Bom Jesus, which holds the embalmed body of St. Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit order.

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The church of St. Catjean was built in the second half of the 17th century. The intricately carved wood Baroque-style altar is dedicated to Our Lady of Providence

 

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The basilica of Bom Jesus (infant Jesus) was consecrated in 1605. The church contains the remains of St. Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit Order

 

Next stop: Beautiful Cochin, India

 

Agra, India

January 6. 2017

The Agra train station teemed with persistent beggars and hawkers.  One man, who sat in a wheelchair in the middle of them all, had a lower leg and foot swollen to the size of an elephant’s.  To me this came as a wrenching sight, and then I thought of all the homeless people in Toronto and how they’re mostly hidden from my view.  Our guide told us not to give them money.  Supposedly, many of them are professional beggars.

The glorious Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a garden tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal,  was our first stop. ( She died died giving birth to their fourteenth child.)

Completed in 1653, it took twenty thousand workers, five hundred kilos of gold and 22 years to build.  It looks spectacular in pictures but it’s sublime when you stand within touching distance.  Its beauty lies in the harmony of the architecture, how light plays on the surface of the white marble and its placement at the far end of an elaborate entrance with its back to the Yamuna river.

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The gorgeous Taj Mahal. We went on a weekend when it was busy with local visitors
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The intricate details cut into the stone is stunning

But as much as I enjoyed the Taj Mahal the afternoon trek to the nearby Agra Fort engaged me more.  The giant complex with its imposing red sandstone ramparts was built between 1565 and 1573.  This is the palace where Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal and many other monuments, lived and died.  Sadly, in 1666, Jahan died a prisoner in a wing of the fort—within view of the Taj Mahal he had built–to honor his wife–after a war of succession among his four sons.

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Emperors of the Mughal dynasty used the Agra Fort as their main residence until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi

 

 

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The Agra Fort occupies 94 acres on a semicircular plan. its Its walls are seventy feet high
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Bedroom of Shah Jahal, fifth Mogul emperor, was placed under house arrest by his third son after winning a war of succession.  He died in 1666 after being confined for six years.

Then we hustled into our waiting coaches to take us back to the train station for the return trip to Delhi.

January 7, 2018

Back in Delhi, I fell into bed exhausted. The following morning at 8 a.m. sharp we got a tour of Delhi. The highlight was a visit to the Qutub Minar, a  72-meter minaret, in Old Delhi. Built in 1193 after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom it sits among the remains of the city’s oldest mosque, which was once part of an ancient complex.  The craftsmanship they display is beautiful.

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The Qutub Minar stands 72-meters tall and contains a spiral staircase of 379 steps
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The remains of an ancient mosque complex in Old Delhi is a UNESCO World Heritage site
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Construction of the Qutub mosque in Delhi began in 1193 after Islamic conquest of India. It was built on the site of Hindu temple using materials taken from twenty-seven destroyed Hindu and Jain temples.

Then it was off to the airport for our return flight to Mumbai. The coach trip from the airport to our ship, which was docked in Mumbai harbour, took two, long hours–longer than the flight from Delhi to Mumbai.

While I slept the ship wended it way to Goa.

Delhi, India

January 5 and 6, 2019

After a morning of racing around Mumbai, a lovely lunch, a very brief shopping interlude, a long traffic-choked drive to the airport and several more hours of waiting for our (delayed) flight to Delhi, we lifted off.

Darkness had already settled over Delhi, a city of 25 million, when we hauled our weary selves onto the waiting coach for the hour-long trek to our hotel.  Through the bus window I caught a glimpse of a city much like Mumbai multiplied by ten:  the garbage along the road sides, the noise level, the number of construction projects elbowing shanty settlements, stunning remnants of the old city, and the thickness of the smog that hangs over the city like a translucent curtain.

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In Delhi pollution makes your eyes itch and your throat scratchy

Between collecting our baggage, getting to our coach, and driving from the airport to our hotel, the Lalit, almost three hours went by.  We dumped our bags and headed straight to the hotel restaurant, which offered an excellent buffet, everything catering to the Western palate as well as local fare.

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The lobby of the LaLit hotel in Delhi where we stayed two nights

My room was spacious and the bed comfortable as you’d expect in a five-star property.  The bathroom, too, was huge, all marble with a deep tub and separate shower stall.  So it took me by surprise to see rust along the edges of the big mirror over the double sink.  The light switches turned on the lights on either side of the mirror but not the ceiling so I showered in the dark. (The next day a fellow passenger told me to press the small blue light on the main switch for the ceiling lights. That did the trick. But pressing the blue light didn’t turn them off. As far as I know they may still be burning.)

I fell gratefully into bed as we had to gather n the lobby by 6:45 a.m. the next morning to catch the train to Agra, where we were to spend the day.

We drove to the train station in the pouring rain.  Coaches cannot park anywhere near the station entrance, which meant a 15-minute walk to get to the platform.  All of us on this trip are seniors (except the hard-working crew), some with creaky joints or more serious mobility issues. As a consequence our local guide immediately set about hiring a team of tuk-tuks, shepherded us into the tiny cars, which got us to the station relatively dry.

We boarded the Gatimaan express to Agra. The express train is the first luxury high-speed train in India. At 160 km/h we reached Agra in 100 minutes, and on time. (Another group went to Agra via coach; it took them nine hours.)  Although it was a comfortable ride, luxury is in the eye of the beholder: I detected the smell of urine upon boarding, the window where I sat was cracked and when I pulled down the tray when coffee came along, it was thick with grime.  But the coach was pleasantly air-conditioned, the staff friendly, and soon the motion of the train rocked me to sleep.

 

 

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The “luxury”Gatimaan express from Delhi to Agra took only 100 minutes but standards of luxury are not those of North America. Service, however, was friendly

Next stop provided visual delight: Agra.

 

Mumbai, India

January 5, 2019

From Porbandar, we sailed north to Mumbai, went through customs where our papers were checked at three different points by dour officials before we were allowed to board coaches en route to the city of some 20 million.

When you travel in groups as we are doing you have to stay with the pack. There’s lots of waiting, and line-ups for everything, including going to the loo.  And since we’re going to so many places in a relatively short period of time, each excursion gets you a mere bird’s eye view, only enough to discover if you like the place enough to want to go back some day.

I took to Mumbai right away. Maybe I saw something familiar in the architecture left by the English, and in the wide avenues and high-rises similar to downtown Toronto’s business district.

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The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opened in Mumbai in 1903. Legend its suggests its builder, Jamsetji Tata, built it after being refused entry to the grand whites-only Watson Hotel. The Taj was one of a dozen sites attacked by terrorists in 2008. The attacks lasted four days took the lives of 174 and  wounded 300 more.
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A commercial laundry in Mumbai

We arrived on a Saturday, which meant traffic wasn’t as bad as it might have been on a work day. But it was still pretty bad.  Our coach honked its horn regularly (adding to the cacophony of the city) to get tiny tuk-tuks to move over a few inches so we could get past  them, after which then the bus zoomed ahead, so close to other vehicles it made me catch my breath.

We studied the city through the windows of our bus, our assigned local guide providing  running commentary on what we looked at plus Mumbai’s history, architecture and a whole lot more. Sometimes too much more.  More than once he pointed out the state of the art cricket field used by the national team, and more than once and mentioned that India had won against Australia. (Don’t ask me when. I know less than nothing about cricket.)

The tour took about two hours.  We got off the bus a couple of times but only for photo opportunities, although we got a whole twenty minutes to shop at a government supported department-store-type place at a brisk pace.  In India and many other places it takes more than twenty minutes just to agree on a price once you’ve picked what you want to buy.

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On the way to the airport we saw some of the less glittery side of Mumbai seen from our bus

At midday, we were taken to a very good restaurant in the Worli district. We had a whole hour to enjoy a marvelous buffet serving curries, dahls, breads, and other Indian specialties.  I finished the terrific with a delicious cup of coffee.  (I don’t care for the coffee on the ship and had been longing for a great cup of coffee.)

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A Mumbai woman huddles under a blanket in the pouring rain

At 1 p.m. we hopped back on the bus for the hour-long drive to the airport en route to Delhi.  After more scrutinizing of documents, carry-on bags and purses our flight took off at 4:15 and landed in Delhi at 6:30 p.m. where yet another coach waited to take us to our hotel, the LaLit for a two-night stay.

If I’d thought Saturday traffic in Mumbai had been pretty bad in Delhi I learned what bad really means.

(It’s three days after this stop in Mumbai as I write this.  I’m sitting in the ship’s Charleston lounge having a cappuccino around midday.  A young man plays smooth jazz at the piano in the background as the Indian Ocean glitters and ripples and winks on either side of the ship.  A fellow passenger stops by and we chat briefly before she goes on her way.   How easily I could get used to this life, to having all my meals prepared for me, served to me, my bed made and my room cleaned and whose job it is  attending to my every request.  The best part is I have almost three more months to go before it ends.)

 

India

Porbandar

January, 3, 2019

After leaving Muscat we spent a couple of days moving eastward across the Arabian Sea before docking in Porbandar, birthplace of Mahatma Ghandi.

Coaches took us from the ship to the terminal where our papers and handbags were scrutinized by customs officials.  Outside the terminal a sea of auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks) waited to take us into the town.  We’d been assigned a particular tuk-tuk two by two and told to stick with the same vehicle throughout until we returned to the ship.

It took forty-five minutes to get to the city proper.  And what a ride it was–like sitting inside a popcorn popper.  The roads weren’t good and the drivers moved fast, but they knew what they were doing in spite of how close we came to the tuk-tuk ahead of us.  Like me, everybody clutched the strap hanging above the open doorway.  This nervous exhilaration harkened back to how I felt as I child when I went on the roller coaster in the amusement park.

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A small army of tuk-tuks wait to take us to our next stop in Porbandar, India

 

Porbandar was my first-ever view of India, and it shook me: so much garbage along the roadside as we rode into town, mangy dogs rooting around the piles of refuse looking for food; rotting sea vessels piled up along the banks of the sea, and shacks where locals made their homes.  At one point I saw graceful flamingoes in a waterway that stunk so badly we covered our mouths and noses.

Porbandar has a population of about 150,000.  At first glance, the town’s main thoroughfare me think of an old-fashioned Western movie with its one- and two-storey buildings. We made our first stop at the Sudama Mandir temple.  Built in the early 20th century it is the only one in India dedicated to Sudama, the childhood friend of Lord Krishna.

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Sudama Mandir, the only temple in India dedicated to Lord Krishna’s childhood friend, Sudama
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Sudama Mandir temple in Porbandar was built in the twentieth century 

After the tour we found our tuk-tuk driver without too much trouble and moved on to Ghandi’s birthplace, Kirti Mandir. This townhouse or haveli had belonged to Ghandi’s  family for many generations. In the mid-20th century an adjoining temple (79-feet tall, one for every year of Ghandi’s life)and library were added, and turned into a shrine.

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The townhouse where Mahatma Ghandi was born

 

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A temple standing seventy-nine meters, one for each year of Ghandi’s life, has been erected next to house where he was born

After that we had a little free time for shopping at a bustling local market.  This time I didn’t buy anything, although they had lots of lovely things on offer (lots of jewelry shops!) and prices were extremely reasonable.  However, since it’s not a destination for foreign tourists shopkeepers spoke almost no English, and it was difficult to make myself understood, and even more difficult to barter with them.

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A thriving family textile business in a busy market area in Porbandar

This excursion was also my first encounter with beggars, kids mostly. They follow you around, tap you on the arm and stare at you with their big eyes.  (Our local guides discouraged us from giving them money.)

The excursion also came as my first encounter with stately sacred cows wandering the streets as if they own them, which they do as everyone makes way for them.  The animals looked clean and well nourished, unlike the many dogs, who mostly sleep in the shade during the day.  I caught sight of a few goats in the market area, and got a peek at a sow and her piglet in a courtyard.

Most of left the market without any loot, and returned to the agreed upon meeting area where the tuk-tuks waited. But a surprise awaited.  In tuk-tuk number eight (mine and  Felicia’s) sat another fellow passenger. The seat assignment system had broken down and those of us who hadn’t already started  back to the ship on just any old tuk-tuk  had to wait almost forty-five minutes for things to get sorted out.