On the World Cruise last year I had the opportunity to go to India. As a US citizen I needed to get an Indian visitors visa which was a bit of a challenging online process due both to ship internet as well as their website crashing. You can do the whole visa process (or you could before COVID-19) online. After a bit of frustration, a hundred bucks, and a little under a week of waiting I had my Indian visa and would be able to go ashore.
We stopped at two Indian ports, Cochin and Mumbai.
At our first stop, in Cochin, there was a little market right off the ship. While walking around the little market there would be taxi drivers offering to give you a tour. They were fairly persistent and it was definitely obnoxious. Saying “no” firmly and directly seemed to work best. Offering any hint that you might be interested was an amateur mistake. As a general rule when you are in a port where people are consistently approaching you that method works. It goes against your feelings of inner niceness and wanting to please people. As you say it you hear a voice coming from a version of yourself that has been hardened over the years by people’s lack of ability or willingness to accept the response of “No, thank you.”
I was invited to go with a group of girls that wanted to go look for a sari (the traditional Indian dress). They had looked up the address for two different places and had downloaded a map onto their phone of how to get there. I certainly wasn’t going to go out and about on my own and this seemed like a good opportunity to go explore a bit.
Now, we were faced with trying to figure out which of all of the taxi drivers that had been pestering us earlier seemed the most trustworthy and honest. We end up talking with someone and agreeing on a price. What we hadn’t realized was that to be allowed into the market as a taxi driver you had to be a licensed taxi driver, to get to his car though we had to walk through at least 20 non-licensed taxi drivers. This was the closest to feeling like a celebrity walking through a crowd of paparazzi and reporters that I will probably get. Our taxi driver walked through all of the other taxi drivers like it was a normal day and I grabbed hold of my friends hands tight to get through the crowd without any of us getting separated.
Once we made it to our taxi we once again went over where we wanted to go. We took a picture of the license plate of the car we were in, the badge number for our driver, and sent both of those pictures as well as a map of where we were planning on going and when we were planning on returning to a friend that was staying on the ship as well as one of my friends mom’s. The driver we were with seemed like he would be honest, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. He didn’t take offense to any of these precautions, and again, I’d rather slightly offend someone and protect my safety than not for the sake of niceties.
This is where this story gets far less thrilling (which is good). Everything went totally fine. He took us to the sari store that my friends had looked up. We saw a place for lunch and asked if, even though it would take longer than we originally planned if he’d wait for us. He said that was fine, and what’s more, he actually did wait. We drove by another sari place and asked if he’d be willing to stop there. He did, he waited for us. Everything went totally fine. We bought some lovely sari’s, I bought a bit of material as well as some pillow cases. He brought us back to the ship in plenty of time for all aboard, we looked around the little market a bit, and it was all okay. In a lot of foreign countries having a taxi wait for you and having the same driver throughout the day is pretty common. This was certainly one of those times.
I was glad that I went out with the girls that day. Right off the ship in the port it seemed like a pretty negative place – the mass of taxi drivers shouting at you would certainly not make you want to go out and explore – but, after going out and exploring for a bit we found that the people at the various stores we went to and everyone at the restaurant were really happy we were there and very excited for our business. Much like there is more to a book than what is on it’s cover, there is more to a place than just what you see in port.
We head back on the ship and a couple days later find ourselves in Mumbai, India. This happens to also be my 30th birthday. Never in a million years did I think I would be spending my 30th birthday exploring Mumbai. Mumbai wasn’t even really on my bucket list. That’s part of why I like being able to travel on a cruise ship. While I might not have put India towards the top of my vacation list, I was still able to go and explore the place and the culture without committing the time and resources to go on vacation there. Cruises are a great way to “get your feet wet” in different countries and cultures, and then later decide where you want to go back to vacation.
So, here we are in Mumbai. Get ready for an adventure!
We are there for two days. On the first day my friend Christina and I decide to go adventure together. We have a slight timeline as she wants to get back to the ship for when her boyfriend got off work because they were going to go explore a bit together. That is fine though, one of our other friends would be getting off work around then and she wanted someone to go out with as well. Ships are all a balance of maximizing the time that you have but also coordinating what free time ashore your friends will have. Some places we visit – like Alaska for instance – you don’t mind going ashore on your own, a lot of times it’s actually quite nice to have a little alone time – but, a place like Mumbai is somewhere that you want to go with friends.
Christina and I go to set off on our adventure when we end up with two extra travel companions. The first is a passenger that about a week before had seen me wanting to go ashore in Sri Lanka but nervous to head out on my own (I had been on tour in the morning but had heard wonderful things about all of the fabric stores), so she offered to go into town with me. The second was a sound technician for the show lounge that I’m not sure I’d ever even spoken to before that day. We just all happened to get off the ship together, looked around for a minute, and then said, “well, what are you guys doing today?” and decided to start walking together.
Our main goal was to get to the “Gateway to India”, or the big arch right outside the fancy Taj Mahal hotel. The first thing that I noticed as we left the cruise ship port (other than all the taxi drivers trying to get us to go with them) was how beautiful the architecture is. We were there on a Sunday and the streets were quiet of cars and instead filled with people out playing cricket. Aside from the differences in architecture and trees, and the fact they were playing cricket instead of baseball, it could have easily been a lazy summer day on a street in the US. Based on my experience a few days earlier this pleasantly surprised me and definitely started to broaden my view as to what life in India must be like.
There were relatively wide sidewalks. It was hot, humid, and the air had a bit of a pungent odor to it that was breaking up the very peaceful image of the cricketeers. This area opened up into a busier set of streets and while following along on the maps app on my friends phone we needed up walking by a street where the were filming a Bollywood movie involving a lot of people and horses. We stopped to watch them film the scene. Later in the day we would walk back by that area and they were still filming and trying to get it to come out just right. In retrospect I would have tried to sneak into the back of one of the scenes but I guess that will have to wait for my next visit.
We eventually made it to the Gateway to India. Getting in was slightly confusing. You had to go through a security check but it wasn’t obvious how to get into the security check. The solution seemed to be to follow the big yellow fence towards the left (if you were looking at it) and away from the hotel and eventually you’ll find the opening that leads to the security screening.
There are various ferries from here and while we were looking at the ferries it would be impossible to miss the incredible amount of garbage in the water.
After taking the obligatory pictures we decided to walk through a different area. So often who you travel with is as important as where you travel. There are people that want to know exactly where they’re going all the time and there are people that are okay seeing where the day takes them. The hodgepodge of people that I was wandering around with that day were great travel companions for that day. None of us were too concerned about seeing “everything” and instead were up for a little adventure.
It’s at this point, as we left the arch and are meandering along, that we hear some fabulous and joyful music, decide to follow it, and end up crashing a wedding.
In India though there are multiple days of a wedding ceremony, so we really only crashed day one of it where the couple are paraded in to their reception hall and then go through a variety of prayers with their families and religious leader.
When we heard the music it was during the processional of their families leading them into the reception hall. After watching them brought into the reception hall with such a-do we were naturally curious and as they saw us peaking in very kindly asked if we’d like to join. That’s the thing about people – more often they are nice – and we were welcomed to this celebration very warmly.
After the couple got to the front of the hall it was clear that there was work to be done getting it ready for the coming days events. The passenger went over to help the ladies cook, and Christina and I sat down to help string flowers together to create lovely marigold strands that would hang both at the entrance and around the hall. They offered us water and appreciated our help. They asked us about ourselves and seemed almost honored that we were joining them. It was colorful and joyful and welcoming.
After spending about an hour at the wedding we decided to meander our way back to the ship. I was a little bit hungry and stopped at a small stand to buy a bag of potato chips. After adjusting for the exchange rate it was all of 10 cents. I would have bought 15 bags if I hadn’t had to carry them with me.
A bit after this we found ourselves walking by a large cricket pitch. As we were walking by, stopping at various times to take pictures or to watch, the cricket player or their friends would come up and ask if we would take a picture with them. It’s not because we were famous or anything, but throughout my travels it is something that I have found happens somewhat regularly. So, we take our pictures with these excited cricket players and make their day.
As we make our way back the passenger says that she’d like to stop at a Starbucks to get a coffee mug for her sister I think it was. The lighting tech decides he’s like to wander a bit more on his own, Christina looks up how to get to Starbucks and the three of us forge on.
We get slightly turned around, maybe take a wrong turn, but eventually get heading the right way. We end up walking through a very busy intersection that has cows both on the sidewalk and wandering through the middle of the traffic. Honestly they don’t look that healthy and we see one stop to eat some trash from the side of the street. People are honking noisily but unlike in the US when people are honking no one is particularly aggressive. It’s more like a, “Hi, there! Just want you to know I’m here, I’m in a bit of a hurry so would you mind moving it along?”. You don’t hear people cursing aggressively, giving each other the finger, and in spite of the fact that nearly every car is dented from what seems like the endless game of bumper cars they play, I don’t feel scared that the situation will escalate like I would at home (yes, even at home in Vermont.) It’s an interesting phenomenon to witness and was a sobering and sad realization to have about my own culture.
We make it to a beautiful Starbucks with terrible Wi-Fi and then go to head back to the ship. At this point we were tired, it is hot, and we’re not entirely sure how to get to the ship from there.
This is when we saw a lovely couple wearing a “Sydney, Australia” shirt. We had been in Sydney just a couple weeks before and Lori goes, “Oh, hi! Are you folks on the cruise, too?” On a World Cruise you typically know all of the guests pretty well a few weeks in, or at least know what they look like, but in Sydney a few new ones came on so I think she thought this might be some of them.
“No, no, our son goes to University in Sydney and we went to visit him earlier this year,” they politely responded.
They were in fact, locals, but their son was studying to be a doctor and they were very nice and happy to chat with us. We then asked them if they knew how to get back to the cruise ship terminal. They responded that, “Well, it’s just over that way a bit, but… why don’t you just take our car? Our driver would be happy to take you.” The husband looks at the wife and she says, “Yes, we were planning on doing a bit of shopping and maybe grab some food, we can always call him when we’re done. Yes, that’s a great idea.”
Earlier in this I wrote about car safety while traveling. Ensuring that you were taking pictures of license plates and who was driving you and what not. There is also something about trusting your gut, evaluating the situation, and believing that there are good people in the world.
The three of us look at each other for a minute, see that it’s a nice car with air conditioning (air conditioning!!) and agree – let’s go for it.
The husband in the couple leans in through the passenger window and starts talking to his driver in Hindi. Apparently their driver didn’t speak English, not a problem, not a problem, we can use our translation apps on our phone if we need to.
As we all pile in and get our seatbelts on the husband knocks on my window and I roll it down, he says, “You know, in India you should never do this. It’s okay right now, but if anyone else offers you a car you shouldn’t take it.” And, on that really hopeful note, we set out with our Hindi speaking driver to get back to our ship.
Christina had pulled up a map on her phone, and after I’m pretty sure more than one wrong turn, a bit of quick attempts at translating between Hindi and English we ended up going by the movie set and knew we were going the right way. Maybe five minutes later we ended up just outside the cruise port. He dropped us off, gave us a bit of a nod, and that was the end of that. There are good people in the world and that day we were smart enough to trust our guts and also trust them and their driver to get us to the ship safe and sound.
Alright, back to the ship we go. Time to switch it up. I’m going to head out with a different friend and Christina is going to head out and about with her boyfriend.
Due to time constraints this time is not going to strictly be a wander and we decide to get a taxi. We negotiate a price, find one that we feel comfortable in, and we’re off.
Our first stop was actually back to the Gateway to India. She hadn’t ever seen it and wanted to so, back we went. This was a relatively quick stop though and soon we were off to the Kamala Nehru Park, home of the famous “boot” and the Hanging Gardens Park. It certainly makes you think of the “woman that lives in the shoe”. The accompanying park area, as well as the drive to it were quite beautiful. Peaceful. The kind of place you’d go for a run or a nice easy walk, take a book and sit on a park bench and read. We walked around here for a little while, then returned to our taxi driver and made our way to our next stop.
Our next stop is the famous “laundry”. It is a sight to behold and is not what I would expect. This is the first bit of the more “real” side of India that I am seeing and it’s not even the actual slums. It seems like acres of laundry is getting done by dipping it in seemingly dirty water, drying it, beating it out. Nearby a train goes by with more people on it that can fit, practically hanging out of the doors. Just as realizing the road rage that people back home have that people here seem to be immune to was sobering, so was what I was seeing right then. A young girl came up to us selling pocket books. They do this sometimes – send their kids to appeal to the sympathy in you. We make the mistake of showing some interest and end up swarmed. At least 10 people – some women, some children – were shoving their goods at us, speaking progressively louder and more desperately to see if we would buy the little bags that they were selling.
We escape from them and then end up buying two little change purses with elephants on them. We get back in our taxi and head to our next stop.
The next stop was the most eye-opening as we asked our driver to show us the slums. He had us stop to buy a bag of candy. This is to hand out to the children that will see the taxi driving through. There were children everywhere. Small huts stacked on top of each other. With no plumbing inside these small buildings it became apparent where the rather pungent smell was coming from. They say a picture says 1,000 words. I think in this case I will let it.
After this we made our way back to the ship as we were all meeting up to go out to dinner (remember, it was my birthday).
We get changed and meet up. The same taxi driver that had taken my friend and I around earlier in the day was there and we asked if he would drive us to the restaurant. He was happy to oblige. Interestingly the hardest part of the dinner process was figuring out how to get into the restaurant. We had to enter the hotel through their swanky entrance – go through some basic security – and then head in from there. As we were in India we opted to go to the fancy Indian restaurant. Anyone that knows me knows that this is a stretch as I have never developed a taste for Indian food. This is partially because I had a mild allergic reaction to a curry in England once years ago, and also because no one in my family really likes it and there just aren’t many Indian restaurants in Vermont. When in Rome though… or in this case Mumbai.
Even without a reservation we didn’t have a hard time getting a table. It was classy and elegant and the servers were so careful and aware of my allergy that it really put my mind at ease. We were there for probably two hours and it was wonderful. My best ship friends and my future husband and I at a fancy restaurant in Mumbai. It’s not even a bit of what I thought my 30th birthday would be. And, while I certainly missed celebrating it with my mom, grandma, and brother, it was a pretty special and magical way to spend it.
We all shared a taxi back to the ship and called it a night.
The next day, Christina and I were debating what to do. Should we go ashore again? Were we too exhausted from the previous day? The deciding factor was getting a t-shirt for my brother. I get my brother a t-shirt from every country that I go to and I hadn’t gotten him one from India yet.
So, Christina and I head out to find my brother a t-shirt. We get outside of the gates of the port (where they check that you have the proper visa) and once again the trusty taxi driver of the day before was there. The saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and in our particular case, “if you find a taxi driver that is honest and you’re comfortable with, don’t switch taxi drivers”. We told him what we wanted to do, had an idea of where we should go, and off we went.
He was under a different impression of what we were looking for though. He thought we wanted fancy clothes… not a basic t-shirt. The first place he brought us to was full of gorgeous clothing and fancy shoes and purses. He seemed so disappointed when we told him it wasn’t what we were looking for – like he had failed as our impromptu tour guide. He then said, “I know a place!” and off we went.
This is when we found ourselves being led down a dark hallway and up a staircase in what seemed to be an abandoned building. We looked at each other, whispered, “what is happening and where are we?”, and just about the time we had freaked ourselves out and thought that our time in India had switched from fun adventure to maybe-not-so-great our taxi driver opened up the door to what must have been one of his friend’s shops. It was filled from floor to ceiling with t-shirts and various other souvenir type things. Our trust hadn’t been misplaced, and after buying several t-shirts and a small clock we made our way out of the super sketchy building and back to our taxi and back to our ship.
All in all, my time in India was fantastic. It was eye-opening. It was an adventure in trusting your intuition and the good in people. It was enjoying the warmth of other cultures welcoming you in. And, it made me more aware of how much we have – even when it doesn’t feel like you have much. It made me so aware of how clean even the dirtiest areas of where I live are.
For all of the challenges that exist in the lives of the people that I encountered they were all kind. Regardless of if they had the wealth to have a personal driver like that couple with the son at school in Sydney, or if they were the kids, still smiling, in the slums.