Impressions of India   March 6-9

Someone said that India remains an enigma, a perplexity, a puzzle you simply can’t solve.

To say the least! I’d call it a land of massive but fascinating contradictions.

As we sailed from the Arabian Sea into Cochin, our entrance into this nation of paradoxes, I didn’t really know what to expect. But I was eager for my first experience in this nation that today possesses 20 percent of the world population and in fifty years will overtake China as the most populous nation on earth.

Cochin, the place where Christopher Columbus intended to land, is called the Queen of the Arabian Sea for its beautiful lagoons, lakes and lush greenery. You see all this and palm trees and villas on the hillsides as you sail through the backwaters of the dredged harbor heading for Willingdon Island. This would be a gentle entry into India, I thought as we disembarked. Hardly!

Immediately we hit a sub-tropical wall of heat and humidity! By the time we reached the bottom of the gangway, I was so hot and sticky and unable to breathe the dense humid air that I seriously considered retreating back to the comfort of our air-conditioned R2 stateroom.

But we had been warned that the heat would be oppressive, and by the time I reached the nearby beach,  I was ready for an all-to-ambitious day of walking through this ancient city  famed in history books as the burial place of  the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. The area holds claim to being the oldest European settlement in India.  The Portuguese flag was first raised here in 1500;  Da Gama arrived in Cochin in 1502 and died here in 1524.

We visited his gravestone in St. Francis church near the beach that day, though his remains were shipped back to Portugal in 1538. Just as interesting as encountering the references to this American school-book explorer is the fact that in 1503, a different little-known Portuguese explorer, Alfonso de Albuquerque, arrived with a half dozen ships full of settlers and built Fort Cochin as well as India’s first European church, St. Francis, where his more famous countryman,  da Gama, was buried.  (I’m sure not many people in New Mexico know of  their capitol city namesake, Albuquerque’s conquests. I had never heard of him.)

Cochin is one of the oldest ports on India’s west coast, and the streets behind the docks present colorful images of old godowns (warehouses), and open courtyards piled with betel nuts and fragrant with the scent of  cinnamon, ginger, pepper, and coffee.

Reaching the beach, I wandered along, carefully eyeing aging fishermen raising their enormous Chinese fishing nets held together by huge bamboo poles. These fishing nets arrived here in the time of Kubla Khan and were first traded for rich spices Cochin offered in exchange for the Chinese fishing nets. These fisherman are the direct descendants of those original Indian fishermen, and as I climbed up carefully onto a rickety dock and smiled, nodded and gestured for a photo op, I was welcomed by the friendly fishermen.  For rupees.

This was an early start to an indescribably hot walking tour through this colorful city. I learned again it was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch in 1602, and eventually taken over by the British in 1795—a familiar pattern of European governance we had already encountered earlier in Malaysia.

The narrow winding streets of Cochin are lined with tiny stalls and vendors hawking their wares. Walking slowly in the heat, our guide led us first to the Dutch Palace and then to the historic synagogue of Cochin.  The Dutch palace was built by the Portuguese in the middle of the 16th century, but was taken over in 1663 by the Dutch. It is filled with some of the best  murals in India, and particularly in the bedchambers you can see entire stories of the Ramayana--along with erotic depictions of Lord Krishna and his female devotees.  Much as we appreciated the murals, we didn’t linger.  Heat and hunger were  overtaking us so we retrieved our shoes, and kept on hiking.  Some of our colleagues were beginning to drop off in the heat and return to the ship, but the boldest and bravest of us were determined to stick it out.

From the Dutch Palace to the famous Patradeshi Synagogue was a short walk through a dusty street lined with clay pots, wooden carvings and  brilliant hanging silks and cotton skirts and saris. The story of the Jewish settlement in Kerala (the state where Cochin is located), is a fascinating tale of acceptance of the Jews in the 6th century BC, followed by a larger wave of immigrants in the 1st century AD when Jews fleeing Roman persecution in Jerusalem settled on the faraway Cochin coast. This island remained a haven and the Jewish colony flourished until the 16th Century when the Portuguese leader Albuquerque destroyed their community.  The synagogue, one of the oldest in the world, had been built in 1568; when the Dutch came along in 1663 replacing the Portuguese, the colony again lived without fear. Today, only two or three Jewish families remain but still worship in the historic building. The synagogue contains impressive floor of hand-painted blue willow tiles, each one different, from China, beautiful 4th century copper plates depicting a decree showing the  4th century Jewish community’s right to the nearby land of Cranganore, and lovely blue and green blown glass globes suspended from the two story ceiling..

By now it was early afternoon, the heat was oppressive, and the long walk back to the busses wore us out. Only the principle of shop till you drop kept some of the heartier souls on shore until their rupees were gone. I returned to the ship.

This, my first day in India, left me eager for the next morning to dawn.  I planned to skip the mysterious-sounding  ports of New Mangalore, Mormugao, and Goa and the initial port arrival in Mumbai (Bombay) in favor of a journey to what I have dreamed of for a lifetime----a visit to the majestic Taj Mahal.

Never mind the heat.  Never mind the cost.  Never mind the prospect of a trip so exhausting that it threatened to  ruin us for the rest of the cruise while giving us just a few hours to sample just a taste of this monument to love called the most beautiful building in the world.

My friends on the ship told me I was crazy to undertake such a hurried trip.

They were wrong.

So, before breakfast on our second day in India, we fearless souls gathered for a morning flight to Delhi.  The capital city of India inland and north would be our base for a three-day adventure to see parts of India I would never otherwise be able to see. Indeed, it was a bone-wearying trip, but very exhausting moment was worth the effort.

The bus ride to the airport showed us the first fascinating glimpses of what we were to observe many times over the next several days— hordes of people and animals, crowds everywhere--village women drawing water from the well, young and aged men sitting, standing, arguing, selling, meditating in front of tiny cubicle dwelling and  stalls with hanging wares of every sort imaginable, sacred cows everywhere--ambling down streets, foraging for food in the dirt,  tied to  wooden stakes, or more often wandering freely in fields or rummaging through trash heaps. And pigs and piglets standing in the trash heaps or wandering along the back alleys of the shacks.  And hordes of children, often alone, joining the crowds of “pavement dwellers,” homeless people sitting, sleeping, or lying along roads, gutters, fences, or in dirt fields or grassy areas-- sometimes sifting through trash heaps, or digging in the dirt, washing their feet and bodies or drinking from the communal water pump, huddled in the shade of wooden shacks or stick and plastic shelters. These were the working class or the untouchables, the poorest of the poor, but also many of the middle class who can’t afford homes also live in the slums, our guides told us.

The paradox of India is that at the same time that you travel through mile after mile of slums,  you also see women in colorful saris, others in the two-piece casual dress and pants outfit called salwar-kameez, striding purposefully along the streets on their way to work, men in Western wear or more traditional outfits carrying cell phones and briefcases, and children of the wealthy in sparkling school uniforms. Bombay, where we arrived two days later, is the third costliest city in the world, just after Hong Kong and New York, we were told.)

This was our introduction to India, even before boarding the plane in New Mangalore.

At that airport, and even more intensely in Delhi, we went through several extensive security checks, with thorough searches not only of our baggage and handbags, but of our bodies as well. Lipstick in my pocket was my undoing through the four searches that morning in Mangalore airport, and when I did not hang a tag on my purse returning home in the Delhi airport, the guard sent me all the way back to the beginning security search site and made me go through all four stamp procedures all over. There is no doubt India is very serious about catching potential bomb threats, and we, the tourists, certainly agreed with the tight security we encountered.

Arriving late afternoon, we headed toward our five-star hotel on the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital city, by now beginning to better expect the immense crush of crowds in this huge city, which joins Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras as one of the four largest cities in India.

Rose petals, soothing pools of cascading water dropping from fountains, and lovely sand inscriptions greeted us in the lobby of our elegant hotel. I had a glorious private room replete with marble bathroom, king-size bed, cold bottled water, everything one could desire –and feel guilty about- in the midst of the indescribably poverty surrounding the gates of the hotel. This disparity of wealth overwhelmed us at every moment, but we vowed to accept and try to understand what we were experiencing and attempt to digest and respect all sides of Indian culture.

Three of us, Mary, Jean and I, decided to hop into a taxi and head for an early evening excursion into the heart of Delhi to the Cottage Industries Center where government-sponsored handicrafts of India were available---that’s shopping to all the uninitiated!

As one guidebook says, “Only people with nerves of steel should ride a taxi in Delhi.”

Truer words were never spoken!

We weren’t sufficiently prepared for the wildest taxi ride any of us had ever suffered through. Mohammed, the name apparently of all the craziest taxi drivers in India—was intent on getting us to the center of town fifteen miles away-- dead or alive--and several times we were sure it would be the former.  He careened in and out of masses of moving and stationary bikes, tut-tuts, (the ubiquitous motorized bike/autos), motorcycles, cars, busses, and horse drawn carriages.  Ignoring arm-waving policemen, cows, chickens and goats in the road, red lights, pedestrians, women and babies, ragged children jumping out in front of us and begging at every median strip, dirt road obstacles and deep potholes, on  his taxi careened, carrying three terrorized customers.  He actually hit the rear of one small vehicle stopped at a light, backed off and kept going, pounding the roof with one hand, honking wildly at every corner, yelling at other taxi drivers, and cutting off oncoming traffic whenever he could. This was a typical taxi ride in Delhi, we soon learned.

The ride cost us each exactly two dollars—and ten years off our life.

Our second day in Delhi was bound to be a killer—in fact, more of one than we even expected when we received our wake up call at 4 a.m. the next morning. The plan was to have juice and coffee, board busses to haul us to the Delhi railroad station, and then board the so-called sleek Shatabdi Express at 5 a.m. bound for Agra.  After a three-hour train ride, we would arrive at Agra, head for the Mughal Sheraton Hotel for breakfast, and then it we’d be off for a memorable day of sightseeing culminating in our afternoon destination-- the Taj Mahal.

After dinner we would transfer again to the Agra Railroad  Station, receive box dinners to eat aboard the train for our three- hour trip back Delhi around 10:15 p.m., returning to our hotel until our early morning flight back to Bombay and the ship.

This was intended to be about a 19-hour day of touring.  But it didn’t turn out to be a 19-hour day at all! It would be an unexpected 21-hour day by the time it was over.

But we didn’t know that the morning of March 8.