Our first stop in India was Cochin and Marian and I were booked on a tour to see the backwaters of Alappuzha by houseboat. We left the ship early as the drive to join the boat took almost 2 hours, but in the end it was absolutely worth it.
The houseboat was quite big and offered seating space on 2 levels, I opted to stay downstairs as everyone else went upstairs. It meant I could wander around and take my pictures without getting in the way of anyone else. Alappuzha is referred to as the Venice of the East and it has always had an important place in the maritime history of Kerala. Although the houseboats you see now are predominantly for tourism purposes, they are actually a reworked version of the Kettuvallams of olden times.These boats used to carry rice and spices.
Our cruise along the backwaters lasted just over 2 hours and it was very good. The scenery was stunning and we watched numerous women washing clothes along the banks, cleaning fish and even washing their hair. We passed a few religious sites, small local stores and people that were just going around doing what they would usually do. There were a lot of other boats on the river, some of them were beautiful and very big, while others were small and more modest. I even spotted one that had tinted windows.
Once the boat tour came to an end, we made our way towards a local resort for lunch. It was an Indian buffet and it was delicious. You have to have Indian food when in India, so I was very happy. I had dhal with Kerala rice and lightly spiced squid. I also grabbed a few popadoms which were to die for. Incredibly tasty and very light. After lunch we began the drive back to the ship. It was a good tour and definitely something worth thinking about if you’re ever in Cochin. As we sailed, I also managed to see the famous Chinese fishing nets, they were quite impressive and as I’d been told by several people that they were a “must see” I was happy that I spotted them on the starboard side.
Mumbai was our next and final port in India. Here we had a tour booked with a local company called Reality Tours. They are all about responsible tourism and the tour we opted for would take us to the Dharavi slum and Dhobi Ghat in the morning, and then sightseeing in the afternoon.
We met our guide and driver (Jitu and Pradeep) outside the port gate and off we went. Our first stop was Dhobi Ghat. This is a massive open air laundromat that that was built during the British Raj in 1890. Every day, 7000 workers scrub, bleach, dry and press thousands of items of clothing and other linens, mostly for hotels and restaurants in the area. It’s right next to the Mahalaxmi train station. I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life. I think I stood for a good few minutes with my mouth ajar because I just couldn’t take in what I was looking at. The workers, or dhobis as they are called, hold the world record for most people hand-washing clothes in a single location.
Our next stop was Dharavi, the reason we had booked the tour. Marian and I both like to experience the real side of the places that we visit and I know for a fact that she and I were the only 2 people from our ship that came back and said we had walked the streets of Dharavi. I know it’s not for everyone, it was quite hard to swallow at times, but I think it is so important to experience real life when you travel, instead of sticking to the main tourist routes, resorts and whatever else they throw at you. We stopped at several businesses within the slum, including a recycling area, soap making shed, plastic shredding factory and a pastry factory. Now, when I say factory, I mean a very small space where everything is at a bare minimum. We also walked through some residential areas and in places the gaps between buildings was less than 2 feet. It was so difficult to navigate, the paths were slippery, covered in mud, rubbish and there were people coming in all directions. It was a HUGE reality check. The people were very friendly, especially the children, and there was a real sense of community.
Dharavi is the largest slum in India (3rd largest in Asia) and is home to 1 million people. The people living there share a space that is roughly half the size of New York City’s Central Park and 1,400 people share 1 toilet seat. They have water for only 1 hour per day and up to 8 people often live in a house that’s smaller than the average inside cabin. It is very cramped (one of the densest areas in the world) and not very sanitary, but this is life for all of those people. India has approx 2000 slums and 42% of the population live in them. I left Dharavi feeling like I’d been punched in the face. If you’re interested, you can book tours with Reality Tours online (and for various locations across India) and 80% of what you pay goes right back into the community. Donations can also be made online.
We walked through Dharavi for 2 hours and when we left, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant that our guide knew very well. We wanted to sample the kind of food that people living in Mumbai eat every day, so we ended up at Shree Thaker which is on Dadisheth Agyari Lane. I’d give you directions but I have no idea where to start, Google it. The food was incredible. We enjoyed a delicious Indian Thali that was never-ending and the cost was just 500 rupees per person. That’s about £6. The restaurant has won many awards, including ‘Best Gujarati Thali’ for the last 11 years and TripAdvisors Certificate of Excellence. I can’t really tell you what I ate, I was just lost in the aroma and flavours of all the food, but it was all vegetarian and the puree bread was as light as a feather! I also lost myself in the dhal and the sweet curry that had a subtle coconut taste.
For the rest of the afternoon we visited a few temples, stopped at Chowpatty Beach, several markets and the Bombay Panjrapole. The latter is a cow sanctuary that is right in the heart of Bhuleshwar, which is a local market. The cow is a sacred animal in India and it is believed that the Gods live within the cow, so for a small donation you can feed the cows and calves and by doing so you are actually feeding the Gods. It’s all about good karma.
India was absolutely fascinating. I enjoyed it so much and I hope I get the chance to go back again one day. I’d love to experience other parts of the country and just have more time to immerse myself in all the things I really enjoyed there, especially the food! The people were incredibly friendly and it just felt like a nice place to be. I also loved all the colours, everything was bright and that’s because they believe bright colours bring happiness and create more positive energy.
We’re sailing for Jordan at the moment and the ships security team and the additional security team we picked up off the coast of Sri Lanka have been on pirate watch 24/7 for the last few days. It’s all very exciting. I’ve never experienced anything like it and I love sitting on deck in the dark every night – it’s much easier to see the stars. It’s very rare for cruise ships to be approached by pirates, but it never hurts to take precautions and, like our captain said, we’re probably in the safest place in the world right now and I absolutely believe him.