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Azamara Club Cruises – Azamara Journey Asian Adventure – Part V (Cochin, Goa & Mumbai, India)

Two homeless street children of Mumbai.
No begging, but a few rupees for a photo.

My focus, so far on my Asian Adventure on Azamara Club Cruises Azamara Journey has been on the ship with the exception of my time time in Sri Lanka.  With so many sea days on this repositioning cruise, my experiencing three ports in India with only one sea day between them changed things up…and it was welcome. I needed to get my body and mind moving!

Backwaters of Cochin, India

Before I get to my adventures I want to mention that Azamara Club Cruises gives it’s captain a great deal of latitude as to scheduling, including a lot more fuel to make up for the old saying of “ship happens”.  On this cruise, despite quite a collection of unexpected issues:  five guests being 1.5 hours late because their private excursion was with a very unreliable tour operator; a guest, unfortunately, passing away; uncooperative pilots; and, immigration issues, we have not only arrived on time, but in some instances early.  This was a big assist in Cochin, India where a face-to-face immigration inspection was necessary.   Essentially whatever it takes for the captain and crew to deliver the expected ports on time will, within a broad definition of reason, be delivered.  Very impressive…and comforting when you have tours booked; especially private tours.  (By the way, if you think it isn’t important to provide you mobile telephone number think of this:  If the delayed guests couldn’t have been contacted by the ship, the ship would have sailed without them.)

We arrived three hours early in Cochin, India and, thus, completed our face-to-face immigration process hours early.  If I had known I probably would have organized something as we were originally scheduled to arrive at 6:00 pm; figuring if we completed same by 8:00 pm it would be too late to do anything.  Oh well.

I was very much looking forward to my Cochin excursion, “Cycling the Backwaters” with Art of Bicycle Trips; a 25 kilometer (15.5 mile) bicycle ride through the Backwaters south of Cochin proper.  With temperatures in the mid-90’s and humidity in the 80% range, it was going to be interesting.

But before I could leave the terminal I had to have my e-Landing Card scanned…and, of course, this 8×10 piece of paper didn’t scan.  After six different people tried to scan it, I received a stamp and a waive through.  This would occur in all three Indian ports.  This leaves me wondering if the scanning logged me into and out of the country or was just verification that I had an e-Visa.  Don’t know and doubt I ever will…until I seek another Indian visa and am accused of overstaying this one!

However, it was far more interesting in visual and cultural ways!  I loved this excursion which was a classic “Put The Camera Down!” experience.

The best roads I saw in Cochin, India…and it was while driving:
Bus, truck, car, tuk tuk, motorcycle all at the same time.

After being picked up at the ship, our guide was a bit quiet.  This allowed for me to chat with the couple that was also taking this tour…which they booked through Costco.  I was shocked that they were not happy with the cruise, but as they chatted I said, “So you like NCL and Celebrity.  I bet you shopped on price and the Costco agent just took your order.  You thought an Azamara experience would be the same even though you are on a small ship that focuses on destinations rather than the on-ship entertainment, right?”  They agreed.  So I had to say, “So do you think you saved a few dollars or you wasted thousands of dollars and much of your time being disappointed because you put yourself on the wrong ship?”  Suffice it to say, they didn’t want to agree, but shook their head inferring, “Kinda”.  (They also sort of insisted I sit in the back seat of the vehicle and be at the rear of the bike tour…while, again, kinda offering otherwise.  It is what it is…and it most certainly worked to my advantage as I had my peaceful time.)

Alas, “peaceful” is relative!  After 45 minutes we arrived at our guide’s “cousin’s house” where we were given identical bicycles in good condition along with helmets and a waiver to sign saying they carried no insurance.  (Travel insurance anyone?)  Our cycling experience was a bit scary at first, but once you got into the flow of traveling down an almost two lane road dodging buses, trucks, cars, tuk tuks, other bicycles, people and potholes, it became quite enjoyable.  And, of course, the further into the backwaters we went the quieter it got (but never actually quiet until the last 5 kilometers).

With the brackish water prawn harvest over,
a man throws his net fishing for any fish that happen to be there.
An Indian Pond Heron looks on.

The backwaters is an area that is focused, in large part, on the farming of fresh and saltwater prawns and fishing the canals.  Housing ranges from simple structures to new, colorful, modern homes…with a number churches (a couple very large and garish) and temples. Income comes from people working in the fishing industry (from fishing to processing) as well as working overseas and sending money home.  I now understand better how what many of us perceive as harsh overseas working conditions are actually the same or better as may be available back home in Cochin.

 What I cannot show you, because I put my camera down or, more accurately, did not take it out for fear of crashing, are the many people, especially children and young women, smiling and saying, “Hi”.  The pops of brilliant color from the women’s saris against the dull brown of the dirt, buildings and men in ordinary clothes, was like an ever-changing kaleidoscope coupled with so many smiles was amazing.  Wow!

We stopped along the way to see backwater life and to have some of daily life explained.  It was interesting to learn how these former prawn and rice fields are now used solely to raise prawns:  Brackish water prawns in the dry season by the fields being flooded with the nearby ocean water and then, as the monsoon season sets in, the fields are pumped dry so that they can fill with rainwater and the more profitable freshwater prawns can be raised…pushing out the low profit rice farming.  In between:  Catch whatever fish happen to also be living in the waters.  From landowner to leasing farmer, to laborer, to fisherman, to processor, to shipper, etc. there are many hands and – for most – meager profits.  But that is life in the backwaters of Cochin, India.

Another stop was to see how the traditional wooded boats are built; a dying art as the younger generation moves to the cities or works oversea.  Slats of wood are literally stitched together and caulked with coconut husk rope and then covered with an organic tar.  Never saw a sew-together boat before, but it works and has for well over a hundred years!

After finally turning off the main road we headed down a quiet path ending at a canal.  We then loaded our bikes into one of these boats and quietly headed down a canal…the entire time being serenaded by the cawing of dozens of crows.

While passing dozens of ramshackled homes next this polluted creek, which serves as fishing grounds, washing facilities and sewer…along with repository for too much plastic…there were Chinese fishing nets – which are dropped into waters at night with bright lights above to attract fish and then raised – and flashes of visually stunning moments.

As our ride was coming to an end, we were riding on a small road in between some prawn ponds where I saw three small, downtrodden, women with very dark skin and sunken eyes hauling baskets of small black clams out of the water and across the road right in front of us.  No smiles.  No waves. No even looking up acknowledging our existence. Just some of the hardest working people I have ever seen, in the blazing sun, eeking out a meager living carrying the heaviest of burdens.  I will never forget those women; a fleeting moment that will last forever.

After a very interesting, exhausting, but more importantly, moving experience, I was glad to hop into the back of the air conditioned vehicle to return to the Azamara Journey.  I felt both physically and mentally challenged and so much better for this day.

After an early evening, it was time for my experience in Goa, India.  I, again, sought avoid the tour of churches and buildings and head to the more rural areas.  So to South Goa we went with our first stop being the large local Margoa market.

I note this was grasping a good tour out of a bad one; as our guide sought to rush the tour.  And, again, there were only three of us…and this couple also relegated me to the rear seat…and, again, are bargain-hunters.  See a pattern?  Be forewarned when booking even small group tours.

Anyway, the market was, even compared to those I have visited in rural Indonesia, far from hygienic….which also made them quite interesting.  It was also curious that most all of the vendors did not want their picture taken, but photos of their offerings was fine.

Margoa Market in South Goa
Mutton vendor.  One of the few willing to have their photos taken
Chaotic and haphazard was the rule

Chaotic would be an understatement.  The only organization I saw was vegetables in one building, dried fish in another and “fresh” fish in a third.  Fish was simply dried on a tarp outside by the parking lot and then packaged in plastic bags, while live (or almost so) fish were displayed on trays with no ice to be seen.  And mussels sat in a bucket with garbage in the bucket.

To say the guide rushed us through the market would be an understatement…and I was not happy.  It became clear that our tour was going to be shortened by his rushing us, so it was agreed among the three of us that we would ask him to spend some time in Old Goa afterwards.  He said that would be fine…at least then he did.

Next up was, honestly, a surprise.  We headed to the private Chitra Museum of old Indian carts and the agricultural tools of Goa.  It was a surprisingly impressive collection, but what will be memorable is our museum guide.  She clearly has done the tour hundreds, if not a thousand, times and gave all the information you wanted and more in a forthright, but utterly charming, way.

Typical South Goan windows made with Mother of Pearl
Allows light in, but not the heat and gives privacy
A still. I love to see the differences from country to country.

Things were looking up!  But, not surprisingly, our guide now said with traffic, etc. there just wouldn’t be enough time to see Old Goa.  Shocking…not!  So we said, what about the famous Goan beaches, a viewpoint, the Portuguese houses?  Oh, yes, we can do that.  Whew.

We headed to the beach on a very hot day.  The long wide white sand beach looked inviting…right up to the point I had to walk over an open drain/sewer creek that meandered over to the beach.  With shacks lined up and watersports boats anchored behind the break it could have been Mexico or the Caribbean…heaven for some, but not for me.

After a stop at a viewpoint and for a refreshing coconut

we had a very enjoyable drive through the rural roads enjoying the combination of old Portuguese, new Goan and ramshackled homes before arriving back at the ship.

After a day at sea, it was time to visit Mumbai.  I am not sure what I expected, but what I saw was both more enriching and somewhat disappointing.  In sharp contrast to my guide in Goa, Shailesh of Mystical Mumbai, was my excellent private guide that more or less insisted on a laid back, take your time and ask questions, approach.  His concern was not the promised hours of my tour, but rather only that I get back to the ship before it departs.  Fantastic!

Speaking of that, as I was about to disembark to meet Shailesh, I saw Captain Johannes and Hotel Director, Hieke, by the gangway.  I asked what time the ship was departing Mumbai.  Heike quickly said 9:00 pm, but fortunately the Captain saved me and advised it was 6:00 pm.  I hope she was only kidding and not trying to get me off the ship!  Seriously, the officers, staff and crew simply could not be more charming, friendly and helpful!

Anyway, Shailesh is a quiet but very intelligent and courteous guide who carefully measured me as to how adventurous I was.  And then we were off. 

I saw no begging among the homeless we walked past,
but rather making baskets as a way to earn a few rupees

Our first stop, after walking over a railway overpass, was the famous Dharavi Slum where we spent about 1.5 hours.  While the poverty is obvious, the commercial and personal vitality is absolutely amazing and inspiring.

Mumbai’s Dharavi Slum

Respecting the millions of those living and working here, I did not take photos of the people, but I was regularly greeted with smiles when I stepped into, for example, plastic recycling “factory” (and a caring warning not to hit my head as I climbed a homemade ladder to a roof!)  Most people, however, simply went about their business…which included many food stalls that I so wanted to stop at, but which caution made me avoid.  (And I would note that the streets were essentially devoid of litter.  Small swept up piles awaited a truck to come by and pick them up.)

The Dharavi Slum, of Slum Dog Millionaire fame…but so unrelated in real life…has three main industries:  Plastic recycling (mostly of US and Chinese plastic waste), leather (goat, sheep and buffalo) and clay pottery.  Other industries such as cardboard recycling and paint can recycling (I shudder at the toxicity of that) also exist.

Automobile hoods waiting to be recycled
Recycled paint cans…which are, one by one, reshaped by hand
Goat skins hanging and ready for further processing
A shipment of buffalo hides just arrived…by bicycle
White clay pottery waiting to be fired

While Western thought probably focuses on the poverty and menial labor, what struck me was the willingness of the people to do whatever is necessary to live (not just survive) and the peacefulness of the people doing the work. Living and working the best one can was what I saw and I was impressed. 

In the 100 degree heat it was time to head for a cold drink and an early lunch.  The first place we went to wasn’t ready to serve us on a Sunday morning, so we went to a second place nearby.  I was going to have a local beer, but Shailesh has another idea:  Local rum with a vanilla essence and Pepsi. 

Nothing like an unidentified liquor in a carafe while in Mumbai!
It actually was a nice local rum with vanilla essence.

It was then time to eat and a conversation of “Veg” versus “Non-Veg” culture. Many still hold on to a vegetarian diet while others are open to chicken and goat supplementing same.  In discussing Shailesh’s homelife it was, as in many homes worldwide, as his mother prefers:  Veg!  Essentially he is not going to be disrespectful in her home, so any meat-based dining…just like drinking alcohol…is not happening in her home. 

Our lunch included Jeera rice which combines rice with toasted anise and coriander…something I will definitely make at home, as well as Chicken kolhapuri masala, Vegetable Handi and Mutton kheema masala.  Trust me, while they may look somewhat similar in the photographs, their flavors were so different.  All were delicious, but the Mutton kheema masala was my favorite.

Chicken kolhapuri masala

Vegetable Handi

Mutton kheema masala

I had been looking forward to enjoying some Mumbai street food, but with temperatures approaching 100 degrees the beaches, and therefore, the vendors, were empty and would remain so until after the sun started to set.  I could say I was disappointed, but only for the experience.  My lunch was great.

It was then time to be a bit more tourist, seeing the “expected” sites.  First up was the outdoor laundry; a somewhat remarkable and enduring business.  Again, an industry that is extraordinarily hard, but performed well and, thus, continues.

We then made a brief stop as Ghandi’s home for 17 years,

Ghandi’s Home for 17 Years

and the Gateway to India,

The Gateway to India

and the Victoria Train Station,

Victoria Train Station

before heading to the local markets which, due to it being Sunday, late in the day and extremely hot, was not the most interesting.  It was, however, the first time I have encountered a store with all things needed to start your own poultry business!

Shailesh had me back to the ship with plenty of time and, once again, I was both fulfilled by my experience and glad to get back to air conditioning.

I am still pondering my experiences in India which, obviously, were wide-ranging and an overload both culturally and visually.  India, to the limited extent I have sampled it, is truly unique.  Taking it in on a cruise is a great way to experience but a sample.  For some it will most certainly be enough of an exposure, but for others you may well want to further delve into the vast country on a land vacation.

The contrasts from Singapore, to Yangon, Myanmar, to Hambantota and then Columbo, Sri Lanka and now Cochin, Goa and Mumbai, India are incredible.  And Azamara Club Cruises not only has provided an itinerary that makes it possible, the overnight and late nights allows for you do it better.

Interested in experiencing Azamara Club Cruises or want to ask me a question? Give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)
UK: 020 8133 3450
AUS: (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530 562 9232

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