March 19-22, 2015 – Mumbai (Bombay), India.

March 19: Mumbai, India.

Our destination for the next two days is Mumbai (formerly Bombay), in the state of Maharashtra, India. We had scheduled an excursion for today, Marvels of Mumbai, but just as we had experienced in Cochin, we had to pass through Indian immigration procedures in order to leave the ship. Then, in order to walk on the dock, we had to show our recently inspected documents to certain officials. Then, while we were on the tour bus and before the bus could leave the port area, we had to show these same documents again to a different security officer. As today’s guide Heena pointed out, the key word in dealing with India is “patience.”

The purpose of our tour was to allow us to experience the highlights of Mumbai. [NOTE: the name change from Bombay to Mumbai happened in the 1990s, and our guide said that most locals still use both names.] Our drive started in South Mumbai, in the heart of the business district, where streets and sidewalks were crowded with folks attending to their daily business. Along streets planted with many, many trees, we passed parks and all sorts of public buildings, such as police headquarters, an art museum, naval dockyards, banks, the mint, and government offices. As we drove along, the neighborhood changed and the sidewalks became filled with one small business after another. They occupied a few square feet at the base of many of the buildings and sold every imaginable kind of product. The traffic was heavy on every street we traveled, but with liberal use of the horn, the bus driver just kept on going. Here’s a quote from Heena, who lived in the United States for a couple of years but who has been a guide here for 25 years: “There is some kind of order in the chaos.” She loves her city, is not intimidated by it, and finds it exciting.

Our first stop was at the Gateway to India, an archway built in 1911 to honor the current British monarch, King George V. There is a large plaza in front of the monument, and nearby are the striking Taj Mahal Hotel and a small park with a statue of a famous person (don’t know his name). Next we drove to the Victoria Terminus railway station, “an extraordinary conglomeration of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets” which was built to honor Queen Victoria and through which today millions and millions of commuters pass on their way to and from the city. Our next stop was at the small, three-story home of India’s famous hero Mohandas Gandhi. This museum and memorial contains his personal library and all books ever written about him, dioramas which depict the major events of his life, and the room where he slept, complete with his bed, writing desk, and bookshelves. We had a little difficulty in leaving this building because two or three other tour buses arrived after us, and all these tourists made passage up and down the narrow stairway quite a challenge.

Next, we drove to Dhobi Ghat, a huge open-air laundry where washing from all over Mumbai is brought to be soaped, soaked, boiled, and beaten into cleanliness. We could see water-filled stone troughs, workers beating the pieces of cloth against the sinks, and clotheslines full of colorful clothes drying in the sun. The guide told us that nothing ever gets lost despite what looks to us like complete disorder. As we left here, we heard about what is evidently another aspect of life in India – bribes. To wit – The viewpoint for seeing the laundry was on a highway bridge. No parking is allowed on the bridge. But in order for the tourists to see the laundry, the buses must park on the bridge anyway. So the bus driver has to give the local official a bribe or risk being given a ticket. If he refuses to give the bribe and takes the ticket, he must take a day off work to resolve the ticket. So it’s just easier and cheaper to pay the bribe, which is about 100 rupees, or $2. Heena was very philosophical about the situation and implied that it’s just a part of life here. Hmmmmm.

On the way to our next stop, an Indian-made goods emporium, Neena pointed out how new and expensive apartment buildings are being erected right next to neighborhoods which surely must be regarded as poor. She said that this juxtaposition of rich and poor is possible because there’s no crime in Mumbai. And there’s no crime because family ties and religion are important to everyone and they do not tolerate criminal activity. I wonder if she’s right. Our final stop was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales Museum, which featured artifacts of India’s history in a beautiful domed building. We also found that the museum shop had a nice collection of hand-crafted pieces by India’s master craftspeople.

March 20: Mumbai, India.

For today, we had selected an excursion to the markets of Mumbai, but our tablemates Juliana and Roger had found the excursion disappointing when they did it yesterday. Also, I didn’t feel like being on a tour bus for the second day in a row, so we decided last night that we would skip the excursion and go off this morning with our friend Jim, who had been told of a shopping area that we wanted to investigate. Once we made it through port security – two times because of two different checkpoints where two sets of officers looked at the exact same documents – we started on our walk towards Fashion Street with two other friends whom we had asked to join us, Sobie and Al. We had heard that Fashion Street was only a few blocks away from the ship and that it was easily walkable. What we had not heard was that its shops wouldn’t be open until 11:30. Well, it was easily walkable for us since we like to walk in cities, but when we got there and found that nothing was open yet, we decided to walk “a little further” and go to the main train station for Mumbai, Victoria Terminus, an amazing architectural wonder that all of us had wanted to see anyway. As the morning wore on and as the sun got hotter, we were thankful that Mumbai is a city of trees: we walked in their shade most of the way. We were not prepared with decent maps, so we weren’t really aware of the significance of the buildings we were passing, but we were getting a definite sense of what Mumbai is like on the ground, complete with crowds of people, vendor stalls lining all available sidewalks, cows munching on a pile of grass at the curb, lots of smells (like garbage, flowers, incense), and sounds of heavy traffic (engines, but especially honking horns). As we walked in the direction of the train station, we kept asking people if we were going the right way, and they were always happy to help our little group of tourists.

When we approached the Victoria Terminus station, we were across a wide and very busy street from it but noticed an underground passageway leading in the correct direction. After taking a few pictures, we took the stairs down and found ourselves in a shopping area with small shops selling all sorts of things. Our friend Sobie saw a shop she wanted to check out so all five of us went in, totally filling the store, especially since there were already four or five employees there. It was a shop which specialized in the salwar kameez. This is the outfit that many Indian women wear which consists of a long, loosely fitting tunic, long pants, and a matching scarf. On the ship we’re having an Indian theme night coming up in a few days, and Sobie and Denise wanted to have a non-sari garment which reflected our experiences in India. So all three of us eventually chose something that we thought would work and in the meantime had a pleasant time chatting with the male employees, who were very helpful and friendly. Jim and Al maintained their patience throughout, helped along perhaps by the air conditioning in the shop. Next, Jim wanted to try a men’s shirt store across the way but was less successful, so we continued on our way to the train station. Once back upstairs, we entered the huge cavernous space, as train stations usually are, and looked around for a while. Jim, who knows London very well, said it reminded him of Victoria Station in London, but less clean. Not surprisingly, trains were coming and going and commuters were rushing about, but there was also a man there who was trying to polish the floors. He was spreading some liquid on the floor and then pushing a mop back and forth, at the same time that people were walking around on all sides.

When we finished the train station experience, it was getting close to lunch time, and since we had no idea where to go, we decided to go back to our shop friends and ask for a recommendation. They knew of a restaurant, and one of them agreed to take us there. We walked a couple of blocks, thanked our guide, and went up a flight of stairs to the dining area. But after we were there, we thought better of our decision to eat at a non-hotel restaurant, so we left and started walking towards the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was about two miles away and which had been highly recommended as a place to refresh and eat lunch. Jim decided to go in a different direction, so he left us, and we saw him later when we returned to the ship. Our walk to the Taj was in the same direction that we had come from the ship but on different streets, so we saw different buildings and sights but saw the same amount of traffic, perhaps more since it was later in the day. When we reached the hotel, Denise and I were ready for lunch, but Sobie and Al were not, so they went their own way, and we went to the café in the hotel for a lovely Indian lunch. I even had an Indian dessert (gulab jamun) and realized that the food I get at my favorite Indian restaurant at home is comparable to what this hotel offers.

After lunch, I sat in the lobby and watched the people while Denise looked into the hotel shops, which had very nice jewelry, clothing, fabrics, books, shoes, etc. This hotel break revived us, and we decided that we would prefer to walk back to the ship rather than take a taxi. But our walk back had another challenge for us. For much of our route, there was no sidewalk, so we, and many other walkers, were having to squeeze into an eighteen-inch wide space between a wall and the oncoming cars, bikes, and motorbikes. So why not cross to the other side of the street, one might ask. Well, we tried that a couple of times, but the traffic was so heavy in both directions that it seemed safer not to attempt to cross. Eventually, sidewalks appeared again, and we made it back OK.

In India we were hot, crowded, and sometimes uncomfortable, but we met many lovely people and feel enriched by having experienced some of India’s contributions to the history of humankind.

Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai

Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai

Home of Mohandas Gandhi

Home of Mohandas Gandhi

 

Dhobi Ghat - Mumbai Laundry

Dhobi Ghat – Mumbai Laundry

Prince of Wales Museum

Prince of Wales Museum

 

Mumbai Street Scene

Mumbai Street Scene

Cows Munching Grass

Cows Munching Grass

 

Inside Salwar Kameez Shop

Inside Salwar Kameez Shop

In Front of Salwar Kameez Shop

In Front of Salwar Kameez Shop

 

Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai

Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai

Indian Formal Night

Indian Formal Night

 

March 17-18, 2015 – Cochin, India.

March 17: Cochin, India.

We docked this morning in the port of Cochin, in the state of Kerala, on the southwestern coast of India. Before we could leave the ship, we had to be processed through the very detailed Indian immigration procedures. Then once we had reached the pier, we had to have another inspection of the same documents which we had just produced for the officials inside. We had been counseled to have patience during this procedure, so I tried to remember that and not be annoyed.

We boarded our bus for a panoramic tour of Cochin, and our guide told us a little about India, the state of Kerala, and the city of Cochin.

  • Just as in Sri Lanka, this area was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British and was important in the spice trade.
  • Cochin is the oldest European settlement in India.
  • Compared to the rest of India, Kerala has a higher literacy rate (95%) and its citizens have a longer life span (72 years for women; 71 years for men).
  • The three major religions are represented approximately equally: Hindu 40%, Muslim 30%, Christian 30%. Our guide emphasized that religious tolerance is practiced here and that everyone has learned to get along. He must have told us that five times, so I guess it was important to him to get that point across to us.

Our first stop was at a Hindu temple, which was located a short walk past a massive gate. We had a good lesson here in Indian traffic etiquette. The bus had to park across the road from the temple gate, so all of us had to cross the road in order to enter the temple grounds. We had a traffic person on the bus with us who was supposed to help, but he had the devil of a time getting the vehicles to stop for us. He held up his hand, stepped out into the road when the traffic had cleared a little, and beckoned us to follow, but the vehicles kept coming, darting in front of us until we had filled the street and they had to stop or run over someone. No one was injured, and there seemed to be no hard feelings among the drivers, but we learned something about Indian driving habits.

After driving through some neighborhoods and villages, we stopped for a break at a fancy western hotel, Le Meridian. The port agent had set up tea/coffee/cookies for us in the conference center, which was a starkly modern facility unlike every other building we had seen on our tour. Back on the bus, we continued driving through villages and towards what our guide called a “model village.” In this area, most dwellings were single-family homes with quarter-acre fenced lots, many with a porch on the roof where laundry was drying or people were relaxing. Many homes also had businesses at street level which kept the streets from feeling particularly residential. This was a Catholic neighborhood where preparations were underway for a “free food” festival honoring St. Joseph’s Day on March 19. Temporary outdoor shelters and strings of shiny garland appeared every few blocks. Again, the guide mentioned several times how people of all faiths would be welcome at the festival.

Our next stop was at an access point for the ocean where fishing nets leftover from Chinese activities hundreds of years ago lined the shore. Still in use today, these cantilevered nets are powered by men pulling on ropes to raise and lower them into the water. The weight of the nets is balanced by rocks which are tied to ropes like beads on strings. Not surprisingly, there’s a fish market in this area with a variety of really fresh-looking fish. Next on our tour was a neighborhood of Dutch and British homes built during the colonial era, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Very substantial and still impressive, they were all two story homes with large yards and spacious verandahs. Another feature of this neighborhood was the number of huge old trees called Rain Trees. They are evidently a tourist attraction because our guide called our attention to several of them as we drove by. Our last stop was at a so-called department store, which was nothing like Macy’s or Nordstrom. It was a two story building with expensive Indian products (jewelry, carpets, textiles, wooden ware, furniture) arranged into different “departments.” They had some nice things, but we managed not to buy anything.

As I mentioned above, the state of Kerala has achieved a higher quality of life than other parts of India, so that may explain why our impression of Cochin was more of prosperity than of poverty. The most glaring problem that we noticed was the lack of an infrastructure for garbage pickup. But as our port lecturer has warned us, we must not impose western values on the countries we visit. So we’re working on that way of responding to what we see.

Inside Hindu Temple

Inside Hindu Temple

Cantilevered Fishing Net

Cantilevered Fishing Net

 

Rain Tree

Rain Tree