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.
We visited St. Francis church, the oldest in India, and the only one that survived after the Dutch became the dominant power.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Luxor, Egypt, we returned to the ship in Safaga. Tired and concerned about a suspicious scratching in my throat, I slept through most of the four-hour bus ride and looked forward to five lazy days at sea on our way to Oman.
Those five days were quiet all right: five days mostly spent in bed with acute pharyngitis and coughing up a storm, so to speak. The ship’s doctor (an Italian fellow from Torino) prescribed eight days of antibiotics and a big bottle of cough expectorant for the same length of time. The cost for his services came in at just under $400. (Thank goodness for travel insurance.) Over the next several days, almost a quarter of the passengers got sick. One man was sent home with pneumonia.
Nevertheless, the ship provided a spectacular Christmas feast. Sadly, the pills I was taking made everything taste like metal.
We reached Oman three days after Christmas. Our first stop was the port of Salalah. To get to there we had to go through the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, an area where pirates had once been active, although not for several years. Our captain gathered us together to reassure us. Pirates, he said, had little interest in cruise ships. They targeted freighters so they could hold the cargos or ransom. In any case, our ship has barbed wire where intruders might try to board, and armed guards n board if the worst happened.
We docked in Salalah, an important in the Arabian Sea because it connects Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is also the birthplace of the current, much-loved sultan, Qaboos bin Said who, according to our guides, took over from his despotic father almost half a century ago and went on to build the county’s infrastructure from scratch. The sultan is now in his late 70s. He never married and has no heirs, and people worry about who’s going to succeed him when he dies.
The city of Salalah isn’t much to write home about. The morning coach tour took us to Mughsail beach where, if the conditions are right, fountains of water explode from blowholes created by collapsed caves. We did see a spray of water that day but it was was more like a shower than an explosion.
We hopped back on the bus and headed to an isolated hilltop overlooking Salalah and the Jubriah Plain, where the prophet, Job, is said to be buried.
“What evidence do you have this is Job’s burial place?” I asked.
“None at all. It’s legend,” the guide replied.
And yet the hilltop has become a sacred place to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike and they visit in droves.
What’s a visit to a new city without a bit of shopping? Our guide took us to the Al Husn souk. Unfortunately, except for a couple of stores offering frankincense and cheap souvenirs, most of the shops have been shut down in favour of Western-style malls.
In the afternoon I could have taken a second excursion but took it easy instead. (The cough, you know.) The tour went to Taqa, a fishing village, to Sumhuram, once the capital of Arabia’s frankincense trade, and to the remains of what is known as Queen Sheba’s palace on a hill overlooking Kjawr Rawri beach. Those who went on the excursion said it was a magical experience. Too bad I missed it.
From Salalah we sailed northward to Muscat, the country’s capital, located on the Gulf of Oman. The city is the cleanest I’ve ever seen. The buildings glow white in the sun (by law exteriors must be white or cream). Muscat’s history dates back to antiquity but the modern-day city mixes high-rises with Western-style shopping malls.
The magnificent marble-clad Grand Mosque was competed in 2001 and can hold twenty thousand worshipers. Inside the mosque a magnificent chandelier made of Swarovski crystal hangs from the centre of a fifty-meter dome. Everywhere you look, the tile work, the expanse of Persian carpeting, the carvings embellishing the giant doors leaves you in awe. This place has been built with loving care.
After visiting the mosque, we got a half-hour of shopping at the huge Mouttrah Souk (yes, I bought a little something) before we rushed off to the Bait al Zubair museum. It was a nice little museum displaying traditional Omani dress, khanjar daggers and other Omani artefacts but we had only fifteen minutes there before we had to get back to the ship to lunch.
That evening the ship arranged a lavish New Year’s Eve party, which started at eleven. Those with the energy drank champagne and danced into the wee hours. As for me, I had a lovely dinner with a group of lovely people and went to bed just after eleven, where I coughed the night away.