Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 25th – Mayhem in Madras

As soon as the ship began to pull into Madras's harbour, you could tell we were reaching India – the air was hot and muggy, the sky was hazy with smoke and pollution, the noise of the constant hooting of traffic grew ever louder, and the nose was hit by the occasional unpleasant smell coming up from the water. This was the city in a microcosm – chaotic, sweaty, unkempt and dirty, but exotic, atmospheric and enticing.

Madras (or Chennai as I should be calling it, since it changed its name 15 years ago), is a bit like a smaller, less grand, but less extreme version of Mumbai, although, for me, it doesn't quite have the charm of Mumbai. We took the ship's "Majestic Chennai" tour, which showed you most of the city's main sights, in an exhausting morning's tour. Just driving along the road introduced you to Madras in all its glory, and all its grime – we passed grand old colonial buildings, tumbledown shacks on the pavement containing whole families, omnipresent rubbish, clogging traffic, and a mass of people everywhere.

After struggling through the traffic (amazingly enough, this was "light traffic" because it was the weekend), we first went to the city's museum, where we saw an excellent collection of historic bronzes – full of statues of Shiva dancing in a ring of fire. Then, we went to the San Thome Cathedral, which was built to house the remains of Doubting Thomas (amazingly enough, after Christ's death he had travelled from the Holy Land down to India, where he set up a Christian community on the Sub-Continent). In the end, he was martyred in a fight with the locals here in Madras, and he was buried on the spot the Cathedral was built on. As a result, the Cathedral claims to be one of only three churches built over the tomb of an apostle (along with St Peter's in Rome and Santiago de Compostella). Actually, his remains might well have been moved elsewhere (Ortona in Italy claims to have them), but it was still an evocative spot.

From this sacred Christian site, we moved onto a holy Hindu temple – the Kapaleeshwarar temple. This place was utter pandemonium – there were people pushing and shoving everywhere in the street as we tried to hand our shoes in, and then we had to walk barefoot across some incredibly filthy pavements to get in. The atmosphere inside was marginally less frenetic, as drums banged and pipes wailed, as we made our way through the large temple complex and witnessed the fascinating prayer rituals of the locals.

Our next stop was to the place where it all started - to the old fort built by the British, when they first set up a trading centre here in Madras. Many of the grand old colonial buildings are now occupied by Tamil Nadu governmental offices, so we had to pass through strict security to get through the thick walls of the Fort. Inside, looking at the grandeur of the buildings, you got an idea of how much money the British were making out here in colonial India.

We headed to the oldest church in India (and one of the oldest colonial buildings in the Raj), the 17th century St Mary's Church, where the walls were covered with plaques to the British colonials who died out here, carving out the empire – not many of them seemed to have got to much beyond 45 years old. It was strange to be in a church that seemed to be so quintessentially British, but in a completely alien land – a church that would once have been the centre of the governing classes here, but was now a dusty and little-visited relic to an era that's quickly being forgotten about, as India looks towards a bright future.

Obviously, with all the poverty and chaos on the streets outside, there's a lot of work to go for India to reach its massive potential; but if the country can harness even a small amount of the energy that this frenetic city generates, then it should do well.

An exhausting, but enjoyable day.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February 23rd – At Peace in Colombo

The last time we spent any time in Colombo, in 2008, it was in the middle of the terrible conflict with the Tamil Tigers and the city was a war zone (in fact, a navy ship in the port was bombed by the Tigers the month after we visited). As a result, the place had a really depressing and tense atmosphere out on the streets. You weren't allowed to take photos in the city centre, and there were soldiers about every 100 yards on the street constantly doing spot checks.

This time round, the experience was utterly different – peace broke out in 2009, with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army, and the threat of terrorism has been largely lifted from Colombo. So, after 40 years of being in a State of Emergency, and a 26-year conflict in which at least 70,000 people was killed, there was a really liberated and friendly atmosphere on the streets, as if a dark shadow had been lifted from the city.

When I say people were friendly, that doesn't always apply to the voracious tuk-tuk drivers who were as full of scams and aggro as ever. Having got out of the port gates, we approached our first guy, who seemed nice and gentle, however he could scarcely understand English. As we tried to get him to understand, another couple of sharks began to circle. Suddenly we became the prize in a tug-of-war between three drivers who began to argue furiously amongst themselves. Every time we tried to walk away, we got dragged back into it, as a couple of them began to push each other around, shouting wildly.

While they went round a corner to have a punch-up, we snuck into another tuk-tuk and told him to drive away as quickly as possible. He turned out to be a nice man, so he took us off to our destination, the Kelaniya temple – a really atmospheric Buddhist temple, with some high quality stone carvings. There was a really relaxed atmosphere in there, and everyone said hello to us, and a couple of people stopped us to explain the rituals.

After that, we visited a couple of Catholic churches, including the enormous St Lucia Cathedral, (a relic from the days of Portuguese rules), which actually had a very similar atmosphere in the devout worship going on, to the temples we saw elsewhere.

Seeing as we'd ended up on an unofficial tour of religious buildings, it was time to visit a Hindu temple, so we popped into the Ponnambalm temple, a stone temple dating back a couple of hundred years. We did have to walk barefoot across the scorching tarmac to get inside, but this was probably the most atmospheric building of the lot – its dark corners lit with oil lamps, bells clanging, drums banging and pipes screeching away.

Next, we walked to the incredibly busy Pettah district, its teeming streets a claustrophobic riot of traffic, people and stalls spilling into the road. At this point, we were hot, hassled and hungry, so we caught a tuk-tuk (a metered one, so thankfully, no annoying negotiation with the driver), to a great restaurant we'd been recommended at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, called Chutneys, where we enjoyed the air-conditioning almost as much as the delicious food.

From there, we walked up along the coast, past Galle Face Green, and into the Fort area, with its wide streets of colonial hotels and department stores. This is the only place where we felt the hangover from the war, as what should be the showpiece street of the city, was lined with run-down old shops with scarcely a thing on the shelves.

So, a really enjoyable day in a city that's beginning to shine again, now that it's at peace.

February 21st – Coup, What Coup in the Maldives?

As it's taken four days to sail from Mauritius to the Maldives, we've had plenty of time to try to work out what's happening on the islands, given that a coup is meant to have taken place there a couple of weeks ago – our big fear that the situation would be too unstable for us to call in there. Two days before we got there, there was a big demonstration, and it appears that the "interim government" has agreed to hold free elections "in the near future" (whenever that is). The reports are that this has calmed the atmosphere down a little, and thankfully this means that the ship feels that it's safe to call in at its busy capital Male.

Male is about the exact opposite of what people expect of the Maldives. Rather than a palm-fringed desert island of white sand, this is about the most densely populated place on the planet, with roughly 100,000 people crammed onto a tiny island of about 1 square mile. Almost every square inch of the island is built upon, with concrete high rises and office blocks lining the narrow streets filled with noisy motorbikes.

Anyone who comes to Male in search of the stereotypically relaxed Maldives resort is in for a big surprise; but, it's easy to find all that within a short boat trip from the capital. I took a trip to the beautiful resort island of Bandos, about 45 minutes away, and this place offered everything you'd imagine of the Maldives. The luxurious holiday cottages, swimming pools and beach bars all made this feel like a world away from Male.

But the star attraction were the picture perfect white sand beaches, lined by palm trees and lapped by impossibly blue waters. The clear water was lovely and warm, and the coral reef was just yards out to sea, filled with an amazing array of colourful sea life. It was so hot and steamy that you wanted to be in the sea anyway, but the snorkelling was some of the best I've had in a long time – the sheer variety of fish chomping away on the reef, and the palette of colours they were painted with was breathtaking.

Our time on the island was over all too soon, so it was time to get back to the real world in Male. A place this busy with people is never going to feel relaxed, but the atmosphere on the streets didn't seem like the place was in political turmoil. In fact, the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming – Tracy and another female passenger had explored the town earlier in the day, and people were constantly offering help and telling them about what they were seeing.

Let's hope that these beautiful islands and their lovely people will see their government restored to democracy soon – they deserve better.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February 16th – Mauritius

The beautiful Indian Ocean island of Mauritius has a remarkable mixture of cultures and ethnicities that gets on pretty well together in one of the best functioning and most stable countries in the region. The island's largest group are Hindu Indians (the descendants of indentured workers who arrived in the 19th century to work on the sugar plantations). The next biggest group are "Creoles" – people of all shades who are the mixed descendants of French white settlers and their African slaves; while there's also a significant Muslim population (Arab traders and Indian muslims); plus a Chinese population too.

The result is that the island's busy capital, Port Louis, can provide so many different atmospheres and experiences – we visited florid Hindu Temples, restrained Catholic shrines and churches, exotic mosques, and a bustling Chinatown. When you look at the architecture and the people, one minute you could be in Madras, the next in provincial France, the next in the Caribbean, and the next in Arabia or Hong Kong.

For a small place in a large patch of empty ocean, Mauritius seems to have done pretty well for itself – the bustling market is stacked full with exotic fruit and veg grown on the fertile soil, while much of the interior still grows the sugar cane that once brought great wealth into the island. But, since the decline of sugar, the island has now turned itself into an IT and banking centre for the region, as you can see from all the modern office blocks in the centre of town.

And, of course, this is a major tourist island too, so people flock to the resorts and beaches to the north of Port Louis (Tracy did a boat trip on the beautiful turquoise seas off the coast). The latest addition to Mauritius's economic mix is to turn itself into a major shopping destination – they've seen what the Caribbean islands have done with their Duty Free Shopping, and the island has attempted to trump this with the sleek Caudan Waterfront area, an area of upmarket boutiques, souvenir shops and casinos. Arguably, this is the least atmospheric part of town, but its sanitised streets are still pretty busy with people spending money and enjoying themselves.

Mauritius is a place that seems to make everything it has work for it – and, having come from the dictatorship of Madagascar, left strike-hit Reunion, and next heading off to the coup-struck Maldives, this thriving democracy seems to be working well.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 15th – Struck Out in RĂ©union

Having given a lecture on the French Indian Ocean possession of Réunion, I explained that; a) it can rain a lot; and b) they feel thoroughly French here. Both these facts were proved fairly conclusively by our time here.

I was excited to be doing a tour to into the island's lush volcanic interior, to visit one of the world's most active volcanoes, the awesome Piton de la Fournaise. However, as we prepared to get off the ship, we were given some bad news. The Réunionnais clearly feel so thoroughly French, that their militant unions share the same propensity to go on strike as their mainland counterparts. Apparently, all the major roads on the island were being blockaded by the truck drivers, who were protesting about the high price of petrol.

In effect, we were stranded in the port, unable to go anywhere – it felt like a prison sentence, having tantalising views of the lush mountains behind the port, and yet absolutely no opportunity to get out there and see them. This didn't stop the taxi drivers trying to lure us on a day trip, which had a good chance of not being able to get us back to the ship. Being stranded on a remote island like this was not something anyone fancied.

So, our only option was to go to the town at the port (unimaginatively named "Le Port"). As it turned out, it was market day, so the stalls were packed with colourful fruit and veg, plus a few souvenirs too – so, if it hadn't absolutely tipped it down with rain all morning, it wouldn't have been too bad. However, not many places look good in the rain (even if it was warm, tropical rain), and most people were soaked to the skin and gave up after an hour or two.

What a shame for an island that's obviously suffering economically, to reject the serious amounts of income that a rare visiting cruise ship can inject into the local economy. And, what a shame for the passengers, who were left with such a negative impression of an island that's truly wonderful, if only you could get out and see it.

February 14th – An Unromantic Cyclone

We've missed the cyclone, but we're struggling through the swell that it's created. A night of banging, crashing, shuddering and creaking, was followed by a slightly improved day of lurching and wobbling our way through 20 feet high waves.

Feeling nauseous all day, doesn't make you feel particularly romantic on Valentine's Day – which, combined with losing yet another hour's sleep overnight as the clocks were set back again, gave me a thick head until the evening, when at last the seas began to calm as we approached Réunion.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February 13th – Playing with Lemurs in Madagascar

Well, the cyclone hasn't hit yet, so it hasn't stopped us arriving in Fort Dauphin; although, as it nears the island, we're going to have to sail at 1pm, to avoid the worst of its wrath.

For our short time here, we had arranged for a driver for the morning to take us to what there was to see in this impoverished part of the world. She wasn't allowed into the port, so on a boiling hot day, we had to sweat our way over to the port gates to meet up with her.

The roads around the port are pretty good, which gives a slightly misleading introduction to the area – these roads have been put there by the mining company that ships out titanium from a huge mine outside of Fort Dauphin; while the rest of the infrastructure is literally falling apart. We drove along a heavily potholed dirt track through the ramshackle streets of the villages outside of town – we were incredulous to find out that this is one of the island's main highwaya (a Route National) that connects the south with the capital, Antananarivo in the centre of the island. You hardly meet any cars on the way, just lots of people walking (many barefoot) from place to place.

But, where Madagascar is poor is economic terms, it's incredibly rich in nature. It's an extremely lush place with a totally unique range of flora and fauna, that's evolved totally separately from the rest of the planet. Obviously, the star of the show is the beautiful lemur, so our mission was to spend as much time as possible with any lemurs that we could find.

Because of the terrible state of the roads here, you can't get into the Rainforest or the Spiny Forest (even if we had a full day); so our guide took us about 7 miles out of town to the Nahampoana Reserve, a well-run little place that showcases some of the beautiful nature on offer.

We first met some tortoises, but we couldn't wait to get to the lemurs – and they didn't disappoint. We can to a little copse, and the guide pointed into the trees and said "lemurs". I couldn't see any, but as soon as he made a high pitched noise (that obviously means "come and get some food" in lemur-speak), it felt like it was raining lemurs, as they leapt down the branches of the tree. It was magical.

These have got to be amongst the cutest animals on the planet - they're so inquisitive and combine being slightly shy with being slightly cheeky. He had cleverly brought some bananas with him, so we had the unforgettable experience of hand feeding these gentle beady-eyed creatures. Unlike monkeys, who now terrify Tracy with their skittish and aggressive grabbing of food; these timid lemurs were so calm as they timidly grabbed your finger to steady themselves as they nibbled the banana off your hand.

Their hands felt like soft velvet and we couldn't feel any nails – what a fantastic experience. So, we fed ring-tailed lemurs, some brown lemurs (who got chased off by the ring-tailed lemurs who had claimed us as their own); and then we got to my favourites – the white jumping lemurs. Unfortunately, we couldn't coax them out of the trees for them to do their endearing, hands-in-the-air jumping little run, so we fed them in the trees instead. The baby ones were so adorable, we just wanted to smuggle one back on the ship – you'll be glad to know we didn't.

Sadly, as we ran out of banana, we didn't quite have the same allure to our furry little friends – next time, we're bringing a crateful. So, we were now on cloud nine, and had fallen in love with the island, purely on the basis of the lemurs. But, the rest of the reserve was pretty beautiful too – we went on a walk through the different trees, and then did a boat trip round a peaceful little stream. All very picturesque.

With the fear of getting stranded on Madagascar an ever-present danger in the back of our minds, we headed back to Fort Dauphin to explore the city a bit. The town is every bit as run-down as the roads leading up to it, but the people seemed friendly enough (although some passengers found them a little too "grabby" when they got off the shuttle bus). We visited the chaotic market, where the hot and sweaty fly-covered meat section smelt pretty ripe, but the exotic fruit and veg showed you how fertile it was.

We also visited a beautiful beach – turquoise seas and yellow sands, with not a tourist in sight. We asked the guide why somewhere as naturally blessed as this, wasn't bringing some much-needed cash into the system by developing a tourist industry. She explained that the infrastructure here just wasn't up to, and the ongoing corruption in the system prevented things from improving.

As if just to prove the point, as we drove along, we were pulled over by a policeman by the side of the road. He demanded our papers, which he tortuously inspected, constantly shuffling them in his hand. Our guide told him again and again that everything was there and in order, while he kept up with his delaying tactics. Eventually, she weakened, and offered him a "cadeau", a gift of a few ariary (the local currency). As soon as the note was in his hand, the problem with the papers miraculously disappeared, and we were on our way again. Apparently, this happens at least every other day.

So, having encountered wild lemurs and untamed cops, it was time to head back to the ship, where we were treated to some energetic dancing, while we waited to embark. If this country can ever get its act together, it could be a massive tourist destination – for the time being, we felt privileged to just be here at all.