Chris Hutchinson discovers Authentic India, becomes an adopted Dabbawalla and has a happy return to Sri Lanka
At school in a history lesson, I learned of the exploits of Vasco da Gama, the first European to discover India; at the time, I dreamed of visiting this fascinating country.
This dream became a reality when I read the innovative itinerary to ‘Authentic India’ with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. I was further excited that it included a stay in Sri Lanka, where I spent time many years ago.
I pursued this by contacting the shore excursion staff, whose knowledge helped enormously to select tours. I booked immediately.
We boarded the good ship Boudicca in Mumbai to a very warm welcome from the crew.
Our first ship’s excursion sounded intriguing, entitled ‘Delivery with the Dabbawalla’. A Dabbawalla is a lunchbox delivery man taking freshly cooked individual meals to office workers throughout the city – unique to Mumbai. In her introduction, our guide Lakshmi told us there were 8 religions in Mumbai, but everyone embraced the 9th – cricket!
The tour began with a drive taking in the highlights, including Colonial, Indian and Art Deco buildings, stopping at Dhobi Ghat, the open air laundry, the largest in India, which has over 750 workers washing by hand.
Time to join the Dabbawalla, we boarded a train at Mahalakshmi station and met our man in the luggage carriage. The journey to Churchgate Station took 15 minutes, during which we interacted with him. He told us he was one of 5,000 who deliver individually cooked meals in lunch boxes before 12.30pm each work day. In total, there are over 200,000 daily deliveries.
Alighting from the train, the challenge is to negotiate your way through a maze of traffic…the only highway code is reserved for the sacred cow!
We accompanied our Dabbawalla on his deliveries; I donned a white Gandhi hat and helped to carry his lunch boxes, he then made me an adopted Dabbawalla! He told us that he only delivered one wrong box to a lady, she is now his wife!
Thrills of the day continued, as we gazed at the Gateway of India, an imposing monument completed in 1924, commemorating the visit of King George V. Next to it and in contrast is the elegant Taj Mahal Hotel. Our first-day sights of India were mesmerizing.
We sailed into Goa to the sights and sounds from traditional musicians and dancers. Our excursion to Old Goa took us through tropical countryside, stopping at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where St. Francis Xavier’s relics can be seen. Then we meandered through the quaint Latin Quarter, admiring individually designed Portuguese houses dating back over 200 years. Our day ended in the small town of Panjim, where there was an array of silk clothing to be bought at bargain prices; my wife indulged and, to my relief, I was left with little damage to my wallet! Throughout the day, you see women adorned in shimmering saris reflecting every colour imaginable. Sights to admire.
The following day, we boarded an Indian-style motor boat to begin our next adventure – crocodile and bird watching. Entering the Cumbarjua Canal, we hugged the banks, getting up close and personal within a few feet to crocodiles of all sizes; the sound of exotic birdsong created an environment of sights and sounds of nature at its best.
Then a drive into the hills to a spice plantation, during which we weaved our way through an abundance of trees and colourful bushes, giving off sweet smelling aromas, learning about the spices used for cooking and medication. At the end, it is tradition to have water and lavender oil poured on the back of your neck, very refreshing.
Lunch was a sumptuous buffet served on banana leaf, with local beer – an exhilarating day.
Dusk saw me in the deck Jacuzzi watching an amber sunset, then followed by evening highlights. At dinner, we chose from a mouth watering 5-course à la carte menu, then on to enjoying a variety of top evening shows.
A relaxing day at sea gave us the opportunity to enjoy Boudicca’s many amenities, and the smaller ship’s intimacy.
Again, sights and sounds of India greeted us, as we berthed in Kochi (Cochin); the drum band accompanied by dancers wearing colourful saris swayed to the rhythms.
Our trip took us to the backwaters of Alappuzha, where we transferred to an authentic houseboat, with stylish interior of teak, mahogany and polished coconut. We cruised lakes, rivers and narrow canals, passing tiny villagers, observing activities of daily life, while eating fried banana and tapioca crisps. I admired the skills of the fishermen in dugout canoes, using one hand to paddle, the other to operate their nets, a skill going back centuries.
Next day in Kochi, we boarded a canoe at Kumbalangi Village, operated by two boatmen using long bamboo poles, skilfully gliding under Chinese fishing nets to an island. Here we saw how fishermen caught prawns and crabs, then we watched the art of extracting sap from the coconut tree to make beer. The next process involved removing the shell, then grinding the coconut, adding water to make milk for cooking; the fibre is then made into rope using a spinning wheel. Cultural skills of a bygone era still practised.
We enjoyed a delightful buffet lunch at the edge of the lake, before climbing into a tuk-tuk for a bumpy, but exhilarating, ride back to Boudicca.
Last stop, Colombo, Sri Lanka. I eagerly looked forward to revisiting this city after decades of absence. A scenic drive over hills and through valleys brought us to the Ingiriya Tea Plantation. In this tranquil setting, we watched ladies picking leaves, dressed in their beautiful saris. Inside the factory, we followed each process, from drying the leaves, sifting and grading. It was fascinating to see how your cup of tea is made.
A great way to see Colombo is through a city tour, which highlights the sights, reflecting Colonial and Sri Lankan cultures.
Boudicca’s final evening excursion took us to the grand Galle Face Hotel, built in 1864, a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, where I stayed on my visit years ago. We were entertained on the lawn by Kandyan dancers and musicians. The combination of music and dance routines reflected different regions throughout different eras, their national costumes and saris were dazzling. A fitting finale.
My dream become a reality, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ itinerary and excellent shore tours exceeded my expectations, leaving indelible memories characterised by Sights, Sounds and Saris.
A similar cruise with Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines in 2020 will be a 14-night ‘Authentic India’ fly- cruise (D2003), departing UK on 6th February 2020. Joining Boudicca in Colombo, Sri Lanka, ports of call include: cruising Maldives’ Northern Atoll; calling at Kochi, Mormugau and Mumbai (all for an overnight stay); followed by a call into Porbandar, cruise ending in Dubai, to disembark and fly home.
Prices currently start from £1,749 pp, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board Boudicca, return flights from the UK, port and airport taxes and transfers.
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit www.fredolsencruises.com, or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 ( Monday-Friday, 8am-8pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 10am-4pm).
Source : BournemouthEcho