Saturday, April 21, 2018

April 19th – A Bumpy Boat Ride in Muscat

When we sailed into Muscat’s attractive harbour, with the Sultan’s huge yacht (the size of a small cruise ship) manoeuvring next to us, it seemed like a great day to go for a boat ride – clear skies, warm breezes and what looked like smooth seas.

I should have guessed that trouble lay ahead when they offered us seasickness pills before we got on the boat. We all laughed – don’t they know we’ve been on a ship for the last 3 and a half months, the odd little wave won’t trouble us!

Wrong. We then embarked on an incredibly bumpy ride on a small speedboat through what were probably 2-metre high waves, getting smashed around like we were on an out-of-control rollercoaster, while getting regular soakings from the waves. The purpose of our boat ride was to try to see some dolphins, but the dolphins had clearly been better briefed on the sea conditions than we’d been, so they stayed below the surface.

After an hour of fruitless dolphin hunting, I finally persuaded the boat driver to end the torture and take us to the coast for some snorkelling. Fortunately, we found a sheltered cove and dived in. The water was “refreshing” but not too cold to stop us having about an hour’s snorkel over the coral. I don’t know if it was the sea conditions that day or if it’s always like that, but there was a lot of sediment in the water so visibility wasn’t the best, however there was plentiful sealife down there – a couple of people even spotted a turtle emerging out of the murk.

Then it was time to get on the rollercoaster again, as we bounced our way past the spectacularly stark coastline, passing plenty of luxury hotels along the way.

At the end of our trip, I was feeling a little queasy, but I’d arranged to meet up for lunch with some friends in town. We ate at a nice Omani restaurant called Bait Al Lubain, which isn’t too far from the port gates (opposite the fish market), however the morning’s stomach-churning activities had meant that my appetite had left me somewhat. We had expected (I’m not sure why) that the food would be similar to Lebanese food, but there wasn’t a hummus, falafel or moutabal in sight, and the food seemed to have more of an influence from India than the Levant. Nevertheless, the food was tasty and the company was good.

Today was a reminder that sometimes, when you take to the water, it’s better to do it on a large luxury cruise ship with stabilisers than on a small, bumpy speedboat.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

April 15th and 16th – 2 Days in Mumbai

Our two days in Mumbai were, exhilarating, exotic and exhausting. The colours were eye-popping, the tastes were mouth-watering, and some of the smells were stomach-churning.

Everywhere you looked there was something photogenic – enthusiastic games of cricket being played out on the street, cows sitting by the side of the road, incredibly busy markets, people having haircuts on the pavement, shops piled high with colourful saris. This city is as close as you can get to sensory overload.

Our first day started gently – being a Sunday, there wasn’t too much traffic on the road in the morning (over the course of the day, the traffic volumes steadily increased, as did the volume of the constant hooting of the increasingly jammed roads). We decided to do a walking tour of Mumbai’s collection of Art Deco buildings – it’s a little known fact that Mumbai is home to the second largest collection of Art Deco in the world (after Miami), over 200 buildings. We started at the Oval Maidan, where the Bombay Deco buildings stare across at Mumbai’s more famous Victorian Gothic buildings in a fascinating architectural stand-off.

Mumbai is only just beginning to celebrate its Art Deco heritage (apparently it’s applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for them), so they are in varying states of disrepair, although some seem to have been renovated recently. We wandered through the Churchgate district which is being rapidly gentrified (although the construction work for the new, much-needed underground Metro system may hold that up), and then enjoyed the sea breezes on Marine Drive, with its sweep of graceful Deco buildings.

We then headed to the super-busy street markets along Bhuleshwar Road, and escaped the crowds (and the almost as relentless heat) at Shree Thaker, where we had a wonderful Thali lunch. Unfortunately, eating a ton of food and then emerging onto the chaotic streets and being blasted by furnace-like heat is a bit of a shock to the system, so we headed back to the A/C of the ship to cool down.

That evening, we had another World Cruise Event at the Trident Hotel – loads of effort had been put into re-creating scenes from Slumdog Millionaire and trying to capture the spirit of Mumbai. Another fun evening.

The next day, we had booked a private guide from Reality Tours to show us some more markets and to experience some of the transport systems of this huge city. We caught a bus to the amazing CST train station (probably Mumbai’s most impressive colonial relic), and we joined the hordes on the train system. Fortunately, we were going against the traffic but it was still pretty busy.

It’s a times like this that the scale of Mumbai hits you – a city crammed with 22 million people that seems like it’s on the verge of absolute chaos and gridlock that somehow still functions. We paid a brief visit to Dhoby Ghats, the world’s largest open-air laundry where hundreds of people toil away cleaning the city’s dirty washing. We saw the Dabba Wallahs in action at Churchgate station, as 5,000 people deliver personalised lunches to up to 200,000 people in one of the most amazing daily logistical exercises.

Mumbai is an exhausting city to be a part of, but the energy of the place is just awe-inspiring. Life isn’t easy here – it’s hot, dusty and humid, while the congestion and noise are relentless, never mind the prevailing poverty for a large chunk of the populace. However, there’s a colourful charm to this place that I just love – the people are friendly and there’s always something to see. Incredible India just about sums it up.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

April 13th – A Glimpse of Rural Kerala in Cochin

Cochin provides a very gentle introduction to India for most cruise passengers. It has that wonderfully exotic and colourful Indian atmosphere, but there’s nothing like the same level of poverty, traffic or chaos that the passengers will experience in manic Mumbai.

Today we joined an interesting tour that showed us an even gentler version of Kerala than even relaxed Cochin presents. We were taken away from the city into the countryside to get a glimpse into the rural ways of life along the waterways that have made Kerala famous.

We boarded a large canoe propelled by two guys with poles (like punts on the River Cam) for what must qualify as the slowest boat ride I’ve ever taken, gliding a glacial pace across the limpid waters to an island where we were shown around a traditional farm. The pace of life out here is almost as slow as that boat ride, and we were shown around the farm, seeing how they fish, how they process cocoanuts (every single part of a coconut, from leaf, to nut, to husk is used), and how they make pots.

It seems like pretty much anything can grow in this fertile tropical environment (fruits, spices, and cocoanuts of course), and for us westerners only the oppressively hot weather stops this from qualifying as a Garden of Eden. While we were all perspiring profusely, the super-friendly locals were scarcely breaking a sweat, even as they effortlessly shinned up cocoanut trees or span the wheel to make their pottery. For them, Kerala definitely lives up to its nickname – “God’s Own Country”.

Kerala is a place which shouldn’t be rushed, so spending our half day out in the slow-paced countryside was most appropriate. If only we could have a few more hours here to really appreciate time slowing down to a standstill.

Friday, April 13, 2018

April 11th & 12th – Tea and Crabs in Colombo

It’s been interesting to watch Colombo blossom over the past 10 years. With every year I visit, the city seems to get better – cleaner, more prosperous, more relaxed, more developed. There are so many building projects going on that this place may be unrecognisable in 10 years time, but so far the city hasn’t lost its charm – it’s exotic, but accessible; frenetic, but friendly; changing fast but retaining its traditions.

Our first day started with a trip out of town to a tea plantation. The long drive was entertaining in itself – through Colombo’s rapidly changing urban landscape, through its sprawling suburbs, into the countryside with forests and rice paddies, and passing lively towns busy with shoppers before the Singhalese New Year.

The trip confirmed that Sri Lanka was changing fast, but our time at the Tea Plantation was like a visit to old Ceylon. We saw the neat tea bushes being picked by hand as they have done for centuries, and although the processing plant was fairly mechanised, it looked like much of the machinery still dated from the times when the British left in the 1940s. It was fascinating to watch these machines chugging away as they dried, fermented, shook, vibrated and processed the leaves into becoming the tea that we know today. At the start of the process, the green leaves smelt like composting grass, and over the process the familiar smell of tea bags got steadily stronger.

All the work on the sweaty shop floor was being done by women – who gave us toothy grins as we watched them labouring away. We were assured that the men work elsewhere on the estate, doing “the hard work”. If this was the “easy” work, I dread to think how exhausting the men’s work must have been.

I’m not a tea drinker myself (I’m a very bad Englishman!), but I have now got a much greater respect for the drink – I was even inspired to have a cup of it in the plantation house at the end of it.

That afternoon, we walked into the Pettah District to explore its street markets. It was full to bursting with shoppers, and the noise from the shouting vendors and the hooting tuk-tuks rose into a sensory overload. I don’t think that I have ever been on busier streets – it was similar to the packed crowds you get when you’re going to a sporting event, only here everyone was heading in different directions.

Everyone was really friendly and it was great fun, but there is only so much of that you can take, so we headed to colonial haven of the refined Galle Face Hotel for a bit of peace and quiet (and a much-needed cold beer).

That evening, we headed back into town to feast on crab at the legendary Ministry of Crab. It’s very expensive (not just by Sri Lankan standards), but the food was absolutely heavenly – I think I am going to smell of crab for weeks.

We only had half a day the next morning, so we limited our sights to visiting the National Art Gallery. The reviews on Trip Advisor had been fairly disparaging (one calling it a “National Disgrace”) so we were prepared for it to be disappointing, and it pretty much lived up to its billing. I appreciate that the colonial British would have done nothing to foster the local arts here, while the wasted lives and wasted energy of the long Civil War would have sapped a lot of creativity from the country, and I acknowledge that the Museum next door has some great historic artefacts; but I find it hard to believe that a creative nation like Sri Lanka can’t come up with something better than this - just one room of unlabelled, dusty pictures that seemed fairly unremarkable. Such a shame.

Anyway, the rest of the morning was more inspiring, as we walked around the peaceful Viharamahadevi Park and into the splendid colonial set piece that is the Old Town Hall – full of bureaucrats working as hard as bureaucrats do.

As ever, Colombo has delivered – good food, great sights, lovely people, busy streets, and an interesting mix of colonial and modern architecture. Our plans for where we go this winter may have changed as a result of this trip….