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A Christmas Serendipity

Having departed Oman, we spent a couple of days delightfully at sea, and at leisure. Lazy breakfasts to start, a bit of sport baiting the birdman with feigned sightings of wildlife, thrashing all comers in the trivia quiz, Bloody Marys at the shooting of the midday gun, lunch on the mizzen deck, scrabble and chatter for the afternoon, beautiful sunsets and balmy evenings dining on the mizzen deck with no land in sight. Plus a good session of waspish fun selecting and wrapping Christmas presents, which Phyl had brought, for favourite and not-so members of the crew.

Mumbai, Goodbye. But first we had to say hello to this ‘rich meltingpot’ of the sub-continent.

We were moored at the gateway to the port, and the dockside was teeming with locals. Just getting the gangplank down – an exercise that normally takes a few minutes and makes very little noise – took on the proportions of a national disaster exercise. Captain Magic was looking snarly. I asked him what was going on and he replied “we’ll have to give every one of those bastards a carton of cigarettes or a bottle of booze if we’re to get clearance out of port tonight”. Apparently payola starts as soon as the rope drops over the bollard in India.

The shoddy-droppers were teeming even before we’d cleared the customs hall, with gold dross, rugs and pashminas being clear favourites in the tourist rip-off trade.

We boarded a rather grubby luxury bus and set out for our morning tour. Hillman taxis, dogs, cows, bicycles, oxen, carts, pigeons, kids selling Santa hats, a travel agency run from a box on the pavement, teeming hordes, no road rules. Mumbai was the name adopted by the first settlers, Koli fisherfolk, in honour of their patron goddess, Mumbadevi, which was corrupted to Bom Bahia, hence Bombay, meaning ‘good bay’ (or goodbye, for my preference) by the Portuguese, who arrived, having been given directions by the stupid Muscateer Achmed, in 1534. The swampland was offloaded to the Brits courtesy of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married Charles II in 1661 and subsequently leased to the East India Company for the fee of 10 pounds in gold per year. As per everywhere else, the EIC/British Raj made a killing.

Marigold, our guide, gave us a lightning runthrough of India/Bombay 101. Bollywood makes 865 movies each year, each of 3-4 hours running time, in 14 regional languages. The plot’s always the same. Boy meets girl – cultural difficulties between families – happy ending. A vast billboard proclaimed the physical delights of wearing jockey underwear. Bombay harvests 64 varieties of seafood. Bombay duck is so-called because a fisherman worked as a postman and the word for ‘post’ sounds like ‘duck’. The national sport is field hockey, but nobody plays it, the entire population being fanatical about cricket. 80% of the cosmetics spend is on skin whiteners, as the dusky maids with beautiful cocoa skins attempt to become pallid milk coffee coloured. The locals start work at 10am, have tea after work and dinner at 11pm. A woman can’t enter a temple if she has her period. A sari comprises 5.5m of cloth and there are 26 ways of wearing one, all of which are a mystery to me. For a respectable wedding, 500 guests is the minimum, but up to 5,000 guests is better. 75% of marriages are arranged. Of the 36 points on the horoscope, 17 should match. The girl’s family send a written invitation to the boy’s family to meet for a ‘Gangs of New York’-like negotiation. Background research is conducted on the opposite party, covering everything from smoking to blood and money – this can take 3-5 days. The wife has to prove herself with the family, but the divorce rate is low.

Popular rhetoric recognises the ‘fine architectural legacy’, embodied in the Gateway to India, which is Mumbai’s main landmark and popular emblem, in the absence of anything to call their own. It was built to commemorate King George V’s visit to India in 1911. The railway station (Victoria Terminus) is another acclaimed feature on every tourist’s must-see list; but I would have been far more interested to check out the Towers of Silence, which are hidden behind the Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill, where the Parasis lay out their dead in the open, to be stripped to the bone by those wonders of God’s creatures, the vultures. Apparently Zoroastrianism, their religion, holds earth, water and fire sacred, and therefore has no sympathy for burial or cremation of mortal remains. Afterlife doesn’t seem to get much of a run either.

The next highlight was the Prince of Wales Museum. I put my physical and mental wellbeing to the test by visiting the dunnies, and escaped relatively unscathed. After a high speed circuit of the subcontinent’s cultural relics, I checked out the wildlife taxidermy in the annex with much greater interest. Himalayan bearded vulture, leopard cat, fishing cat, striped hyena, mongoose, civet (i.e. rat), takin, jungle cat, kashmiri stag, pangolin, rhino, marmot, giant squirrel, antelope, tiger, Nicobar tree shrew, lemur, long-eared hedgehog, bison, ape, slender lonis, rhesus monkey, wild goat and sheep, great Indian bustard, fulvous fruit bat, black roped hare – to name a few.

Among the multitude of street vendors, a deformed urchin set upon us on the way back to the bus, attempting to offload postcards and sundry timber tat. The pursuit continued, with him bashing on the bus window until we pulled away from the kerb. We headed for the Crawford Market, which assailed our noses some time before we entered its portals featuring bas reliefs by Rudyard Kipling’s dad. This was fairly convenient work for Lockwood Kipling, given that he lived in a humpy across the road, now lauded as Kipling’s Cottage. The market itself was surprisingly appealing, with beautiful architectural displays of gorgeous fruits and vegetables. There was one stall dedicated to multiple varieties of bananas, and I was particularly taken with “The Bald and the Beautiful”, a fake hairpiece stand.

Beggars (illegal) are treated with contempt inside the market, with one sad soul in filthy rags, with a deformed foot, and limping on a home hewn crutch, being sprayed with coloured foam until he fled the premises. Outside on the busted pavement, a man crouched guarding his treasure of a huge basket of flawless pomegranates.

We passed (thankfully at high speed), the street where antiques are made, then ‘Fashion Street’, where you can purchase a t-shirt that, after washing, is a different size and colour.

The tiffin industry is a wonder of Bombay life. Every day 3 million home-cooked, boxed lunches are delivered to male officeworkers in the city. The couriers, Dobi Wallers, operate a relay system that is simulatanously simple and sophisticated, as follows:

  1. picks up lunchbox from front doorstep, and takes to the nearest station;

  2. looks after all the boxes on the train

  3. sorts the boxes, which are identified on an alphanumeric+colour scheme, identifying which town/street/building/floor/desk

  4. delivers 35-40 boxes by bicycle by 1pm.

An hour later, Dobi Waller #4 collects the boxes and the whole process is reversed so that the chap’s lunchbox is home before he is. The service costs between 350-700 rupees and provides an economical way for workers to enjoy a hot lunch. The Head of the Dobi Wallers lectures at Business Schools on how to organise teams.

After lunch back on deck, we set off again, firstly to a military church, which was fascinating for all the commemoration of regiments that one thinks of as being fictional (e.g., the Bengal Lancers), thence for the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal hotel opposite, which promised good shopping and an exceedingly boring afternoon tea. We took our life in our hands crossing the road to the Gateway. Any attempt to take photos devoid of people in India is useless. The Gateway is a great favourite with the natives and the plaza was a seething mass of humanity in which our white skins stood out like dogs’ balls, with ‘wood duck’ written across our foreheads. We were set upon by legions of tat-traders, like a swarm of blowflies and impossible to brush off. Our training in the customary ‘JINA’ (sic, aka bugger off), accentuated with a cutting downward hand gesture had zero effect. Before a blink of an eye, a fragrant floral chain had been snapped on my wrist, no charge, large grin also complementary. Close to an anxiety attack, I raced across the road, almost being run down by a horse drawing a carriage shaped as a silver swan, undoubtedly for the purpose of extracting silver from the touristicals.

Inside the sanctuary of the Taj hotel, we cruised the avenues of shops radiating from the foyer. I suddenly remembered an urgent need for a carpet and we stormed into a rather lovely shop with all the requisite merchandise. Kashmiri silk and cashmere was the speciality of the house, so Ruth’s negotiation skills were engaged at high speed to do a deal on a rather lovely 6’X4’ silk carpet of penultimate quality plus a cashmere throw hand-embroidered in silk thread for Jane’s 88 th birthday present and various other lovely pashmina presents. Because of Ruth’s ruthless negotiating, the owner was keen to have some cash, so the assistant took me out into the backblocks of the hotel to an automatic teller to extract funds from my account. It was a terrifying experience.

We also came across an excellent line of embroidered and beaded handbags from Bhopal (more famous for nuclear explosions than for handbags, which is unfair) that we purchased as presents for our cabin stewardesses and unsuspecting friends at home. Had we been inclined, we could have had a silk suit run up in the space of an hour at the various respectable shops within the hotel complex, but we were headed shipward instead.

After sailing all morning we arrived to anchor off Goa. After lunch we were assaulted by a boarding party of local entrepreneurs and their troupe of children, all dressed up to entertain us with their rendering of assorted carols and nativity acts. After much amusement at the expense of the inept soundman and the little chap designated as Baby Jesus, who had the attention span of a cabbage moth on heat, I retired to my cabin for a quiet afternoon. There was some temptation to go to Midnight Mass, but this was quickly dispelled when we found out that it was a half hour drive after taking the tender ashore, then the service would be at least an hour and everyone in Goa would be there. Phyl got together with Peter the Perfect Purser, and we had a lovely little 10 minute service at midnight, with candles, which pleased everyone. Even our New York Jewish friends, Joe and Lynne, came to enjoy it. Luckily we made the right decision, because when the troop returned, they were miffed, describing it as one and a half hours’ of happy-clappy, and were put out by the failure to recognise a single tune, let alone a carol.

Christmas Day dawned bright and sunny and humid, as usual. We five met at breakfast, all with festive headdress. Little Duck (Phyl) wore a $2 tiara with matching diamante wand topped with a star. The rest of our celebratory outfits were more obvious and even less stylish. Captain Magic walked through the mizzen deck doors to greet the occupants with “Good Morning, Merry Christmas, Oh My God” – the latter as he caught sight of us is all our loveliness. Darren had made mango sorbet, as requested, so we started with the (Aussie) traditional mangoes and champagne. Tim the Twitcher appeared on deck in the first of several appearances fully togged out as Father Christmas – he must have been boiling alive inside that garb.

We’d missed the morning service, in the same way we’d missed the Midnight Mass, and had no interest in going into town. Lynne and Joe arrived back having bought an emerald and diamond necklace, Lynn having oddly refused Joe’s offer of a 17ct emerald at very good price. (Joe’s son is a jeweller in New York, so one assumes Joe knows his onions.)

Dinner was to be a formal affair with a few large tables. We had Nick the Chief Engineer as our host, and it was a pleasant evening. Alison had arranged with Andrew (the Food and Beverage Manager) to place all the silly presents we’d wrapped at the appropriate places. Captain Magic tried every ruse to avoid opening his, but to no avail, and ended up sporting a rather fetching crown.

Unbeknownst to us, World War Three had broken out across the room, at a table with an unfortunate seating combination of Sir Whosoever, an arsehole former Hussars officer, and his uppity vague wife; Viola the Hun and husband, Conrad the goosing cocksparrow and spouse, and Joe and Lynn. Viola, the immovable object, had made some proclamation to the effect of ‘you British are so stupid’ (‘re’ not going with the Euro), Christopher had faced Joe with “You people…” to which Joe answered “you mean Jewish people?” and things went rapidly downhill to a level where Christopher called his dinner partners “fucking Germans” and Viola answered in kind and promptly left the table! I ran into Viola and her lovely husband outside the dining room and apologised for the rest of the English-speaking world.

Unfortunately, upstairs on the mizzen deck a bit later, Viola collared me, and, feeling sorry for her, I put up with a lecture on everything wrong with the world, covering vast territory. She kept berating ‘you British’ and I had to constantly remind her that WE are Australian, from the other side of the world, but to no avail. However, I was riveted by her explanation that World Trade Centre couldn’t possibly have collapsed in line with the commonly espoused theory because a) the towers had a steel core that was engineered to withstand double the temperature at which they had collapsed; b) they way they fell was in accordance with the physical dynamics of base-detonated demolition. Her version of the conspiracy theory was that the buildings were full of asbestos, but no amount of engineering design over many years had come up with a way to safely demolish them. I was intrigued to hear her out, as her stated profession is CEO of a steel company. She was also still in shock and rage at having had her handbag snatched during check-in at Dusseldorf airport, so I expect the German security giants got a right dressing down on her return.

There was no avoiding it any longer – we had to go ashore for the mandatory tour of Old Goa. Optimistically, I’d anticipated this would be a five minute drive from the pier. However, we disembarked into a boilover of humanity that constituted the Boxing Day shindig and had to negotiate safe passage to the top of the market where our buses were waiting. The Goan metropolis of choice is now Panaji, and this area is home to some ritzy resorts. I wouldn’t know, perhaps I missed them while being fixated by the small domesticated piggies and poultry running around the humpies by the roadside.

Old Goa is supposed to be six miles east of Panaji. It seemed like thirty. En route, we were educated on its history, which is variously epidemically infused and colonially quaint. ‘Once’ features prominently; as in “once a splendid city of several thousands” (originally known as Goa Dorado). Once a great trading port. Once the best example of what cholera and malaria can do to a community, as in, wipe it out completely and cause the capitalist lords to move all the new development into a new site by 1853. More than 130 years later, UNESCO declared Oncetown a World Heritage Site.

We shambled off our bus to be shepherded through the narrow gates and into the grounds of the Renaissance Cathedral of St Catherine de Se, arguably the largest church in Asia. By this time (11-ish) it was stinking hot and humid and the first impressions were of multiple dogs lying in the shade and beautiful, strangely contorted (by wind) trees. I wanted to start carolling ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen” but it was too hot to bother.

OK, back to St Catherine, who was converted to Christianity as a girl and beheaded on the day that the Portuguese took Old Goa from the Muslims on 25 November, 1510. With its Tuscan façade and Corinthian columns, the cathedral took 75 years to build and was consecrated in 1640.

Opposite the cathedral, or a long march on a hot day, is the Basilica of Bom (good) Jesus, built between 1594 and 1604. Coming in from the blazing sunshine and oppressive heat, we were temporarily blinded by the darkness, which was not a bad thing, as once our eyes accustomed to the gloom, we were confronted with a cathedralscape of seething masses, intent on catching a glimpse of the dessicated miniaturised corpse unseemingly displayed in its transparent coffin in the transept. The object of worship and voyeurism was one St Francis Xavier or Goencho Saib, a Jesuit priest who popped by Goa in 1542 to enlighten the natives on the joys of Christianity. Francis X liked the malaria infested locale so much he used it as a base for his prolific travels – Macao, Japan, Philippines – before he carked it on the island of Sancian in the South China Seas in 1552. The corpse was returned to Goa, which promptly adopted him as its patron saint. Bom Jesus’ cathedral was the first church in India to be afforded the status of Minor Basilica, in 1946.

Back on board we happily took leave of Goa and headed off into the hideous wet heat of the Indian Ocean in winter. Our after dinner digestif on the top deck was going swimmingly until Graeme the vet sidled up and asked for a cigarette. We were all happily rabbiting on when Graeme paled as his wife, the guest lecturer on all things Indian, came thundering through the door and had an extremely virulent hissy fit, which ended in her abusing me for giving her husband a cigarette. I calmly reminded her that I was not her husband’s keeper and that he was of an age to make his own decisions in life, which gave me a great deal of pleasure because I’d decided early on that she was tedious in the extreme, and neither her constant self-righteous cultural lectures nor her wardrobe of Indian cotton’n’bead drapery had improved my opinion.

Next morning. Hot. Steamy. Fort. The principal attractions of a coastal holiday in the sub-continent are unrelenting. To-day it was Janjira – an island fort, or a fort which is also an island. Ruth and Little Duck stayed put, as this was regarded as a more challenging outing. Alison and I took the tender, which stopped some way off Janjira in the centre of a throng of hodi boats, onto which we were transferred for passage to the fort. As we sailed to the fort, a couple of large wooden boats filled with Indian schoolchildren (girls in one, boys in the other), sailed close by, laughing and chirruping with delight at their adventure.

The Arabic Parsi word for island is jazira, of which Janjira is a corruption, and this fort was the only impregnable defence on 450 miles of fortified coastline to withstand the progressive onslaughts from the Marathas, Portuguese and British. Janjira was built by African Abyssinians, who had fared well in the area as warriors and sailors, and, after their conversion to Islam as the Siddhis. These guys served as security forces for the Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, and were the forefathers of the Nawab of Janjira. The fort was built in the mid-16th century and covers the entire island of 22 acres, just off the coast and the pretty fishing town of Murud. It took 22 years to build. Its walls are 15ft thick, rising sheer from the water to 40ft, punctuated with 19 bastions. 256 of the original 500 cannons survive. The main entrance to the fort is decorated with stone carvings of six elephants trapped by a tiger (the Siddhis symbol of bravery).

Once inside, the fort is in ruins and it was rough going in parts. Surprisingly, there are two enormous reservoirs full of sweet water, fed from springs, reputedly 50ft deep. They looked like green slime ponds to me, but perhaps it was just the heat and the green algae playing tricks. There are also four mosques and the Queen’s quarters, a ruined, roofless palace four storeys high and massive in every respect. A tourist from North America was overheard to ponder “Was this a special room?” At several locations around the site we came across Tim the Twitcher, armed with telescope, diving around to get a better look at an ignominious little bird called a green bee eater. At other points we were collared by our triple-toothed guide, who entreated us to note the ‘phenomic’ views.

We decided on dinner on deck, rather than in the Dining Room. Our table was set next to Ken Bates, erstwhile Chairman of Hebridean, and still the largest shareholder. He used to own Chelsea Football Club, but sold it to the Russian oligarchy, pocketing a cool profit of sixty million quid. He came over to our group, which at this stage included Dave from Deerborn (USA), and proceeded to unleash of barrage of vulgar sallies in relation to Dave’s slacks, his ability to service mares (us), methods of scoring (us) and access to room keys (ours). His party, which had evolved to include the gay landowner, a rather cool, unamused lady coroner from Vancouver, and Sir Arsehole and his wife, had been slurping since lunchtime and were well away.

We settled down for dinner al fresco, along with Joe and Lynne, but it was almost impossible to have a conversation at our table, due to the volume and vulgarity of Bates’ table. However, we struggled on, and, as the moon came up over the Arabian Sea, we started gently singing songs with a ‘moon’ theme (Harvest Moon, Moonlight Becomes You, Blue Moon, Moon River, etc.). After about the third, Bates called out “Shut up”, his wife “keep going, ladies”. Shifting to the football genre, we started provocatively on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Liverpool’s theme song), whereupon Bates and Sir Arsehole leapt to their feet, with Nazi salutes, screeching the Horstwessel Song, whereupon all hell broke loose!

Next morning at breakfast, there was a pungent smell of diesel, tempered by stinking fish. One look over the side confirmed that yes, the customs officials and all their relatives had arrived and were helping themselves to the ship’s lounge facilities. Svetlana, our stunningly beautiful (Ukrainian) chief purser, saw them off in no uncertain manner. Alison and I headed down to board the tenders, which were having difficulty because the locals were milling around in filthy boats like vultures around a newly delivered corpse. Captain Magic was losing his cool as they sped past at close quarters, thereby causing a wash that hurled the tenders against the ship.

For the second day running we kicked off with a fort. This one was Sindhudurg. It’s quite pleasant from a distance, with its ramparts topped with swaying coconut palms (what else?), and we did another boat transfer – this time into what looked like Polynesian-style outriggers. Ours was upmarket, with the slats covered in dark pink and white checked cloth to protect our clothing. A pity that, when I got off, my pristine white shorts had pink circles on the buttocks. This is really crow-fort, and it would have served Hitchcock well as an alternative setting for “The Birds”. When the crows weren’t deafening us, the Indian tourists were. Usually, one has to ask permission of the locals to take photos. Here, we were the photo-prey, and they signalled us to wave and smile while they shutter-bugged.

We were then taken by small rickety bus from Malvan to Takhali Beach resort for a seafood barbeque lunch under canopies on the beach, which was carpeted for the occasion. Green lobster, prawn curry, excellent lime pickles and sundry other dishes made for a pleasant lunch, washed down with icy cold beer. A cow rambled along the beach to add to the local colour. We retraced our journey back to the port two hours ahead of schedule. We still had to endure several problematic reverses to let tuk-tuks or buses pass, and the usual small pigs wandered across the road, and there were plenty of scruffy goats and sleeping dogs. It reminded me of Bali, but without the chicken roadkill. The English translation of ‘Malvan’ is ‘Dump’. By this stage I was sorry I wasted fifteen quid on getting a small amount of rupee. I might just as well have rolled them up and smoked them, for all the use they were.

Next morning, I headed off to the spa to see Carolanne for a fix – a body scrub and facial. By this stage we were headed for Cochin, and Carolanne warned me not to have a massage at the hotel, near the quay, where we are able to use the pool. She’d made that mistake, as part of reconnaissance in the interests of guests, and reckoned she stank for three days. When she entered the spa, a large dusky maid told her to take all her clothes off, but stayed to watch and eyeballed every part of her anatomy as it was revealed. (Carolanne is blond, so perhaps it was a case of discovery.). The masseuse then dragged a shred of fabric between her legs and dropped her on a bed of wooden slats, poured oil all over her, including her hair, rotated her breasts in directions previously unheard of, and proceeded to pummel the bejesus out of her – her bones cracking against the slats. After this treat, she was taken to the shower and seated on a stool. Indira then slapped foul smelling mud all over her, exited the stall, then returned to hurl buckets of water all over her. When she then attempted to wash the remains of the debris off by hand, Carolanne had had enough. She returned to the ship defeated, only to be told by all the crew “Phor, you stink”! Three days and ten showers and hair washes later, the stench had mitigated.

Being a lazy afternoon, we then went on to the Musical Quiz. As “The Famous Five” (apologies to Enid Blyton), we’d previously blitzed the rest of the field in the first history/geography trivia, and were just pipped on the second, by a team which included the Chief Purser and the Birdman.

I went to find something on which to rest my scoring paper, and opted for the daily news folder. Scanning the contents, I came across a wonderful article about Princess Anne’s Bull Terrier, Dotty, having savaged one of the Queen’s corgis, Pharos, who had to be destroyed. Dotty was given the death sentence, and Stella chipped in with “she was probably beheaded”. There were 28 questions in the musical quiz, and we only failed to get a perfect score through opting for the wrong decade for a music hall tune. The next best score was a distant second. Part of our competitive advantage was that our team ranged in age from 50 to 80; so we covered a large span of education and experience. Jolly good fun and most amusing to flabbergast Martin, the resident entertainer, who was really put off his game by our performance. In the afternoon, we played Chicken Feet dominoes, which has the potential to be a good game, provided you’re not playing with cheats, which we were.

Early morning saw us sailing into Cochin, and past the city’s iconic cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. After disembarkation, we walked past about 200m of warehouses in order to join our ferry for our morning tour. The warehouses were painted with gratuitous, if somewhat obtuse, advice on how to get a better life working on the docks, such as “Careless does more harm than want of knowledge”, “Momentary overloading may permanently put you out of services”, “spittoons provided – punishable”, “breaking cargo with wharf crane strictly prohibited”. After being escorted by brown river dolphin, our ferry dropped us near the Chinese fishing nets, and we then boarded tuk-tuks to take us to the Bishops house and museum, but first we passed by the port (Fort Cochin) with its wonderful intelligence on how to use the “Comfort Room” facilities “ toilet 2 rupees/ urination 0.50 rupee, cloakroom (sic) 5rp/piece”.

Cochin, or Kochi, may have been named by the Chinese traders after their homeland and sea trade has always played a large part in the city’s history and economy. Cochin was the principal exporter for centuries of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, which attracted the usual suspects – Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British bandits (aka merchants). 80% of the world’s pepper was sourced from here; sold in Europe at 600 times the local cost of production. No wonder it was the original ‘black gold’. Vasco de Gama lobbed here in 1502, and Alphonso d’Albuquerque dropped off his mortal coil here in 1524. Some of the 1985 statistics on the cultural legacy of the western world impress: 1377 monasteries, 17,330 mission stations, 1252 orphanages, zero social work centres.

After the Bishop’s house, we reconnoitred with the tuk-tuk brigade, with our lovely young man, Fabian, waiting for his ‘special ladies’. Next stop: St Francis Church – reputedly the first European-style church in India, originally built of wood by the Portuguese Franciscan friars in 1503, which was replaced by a stone building in 1546. Vasco was originally buried here, but his remains were relocated to Lisbon several years later. The inside of the church was pleasantly cool, with huge swathes of fabric across the breadth of the interior. These, it transpired, were the Punka Wallah fans, whereby the whities worshipped indoors and the local lads lay outside pulling on the cords to move the fans and cool the lucky chaps indoors. The expert Punka Wallahs could lie down, loop the cord around their big toe, and rhythmically work the fans on autopilot whilst snoozing in the midday sun. From the church, we strolled down the road to the fish market, but not before encountering a genuine snake charmer, with a couple of compliant cobras in a coiled basket, and several vendors armed (literally) with swathes of pretty beaded necklaces. Joe and Lynne sensibly bought about 10 as gifts for no more than a pittance.

The fish market was something else again. Hygiene and refrigeration were foreign concepts here, but it didn’t seem to matter, even in the heat, given that the fish were so fresh. One vendor dropped a plateful of fish onto the dirt pavement, only to pick them up, dust them off, and pop them back into the pile for sale. There were several roadside lean-to’s offering ‘restaurant’ service – choose your fish and we’ll cook it for you on a makeshift grill/steamer over a 44 gallon drum full of coals. Perhaps some other time.

After lunch, I decided to join the tour of Mattancherry Palace, where several small elephants were chomping on the garden goodies, and the Paradesi Synagogue, which was built in 1568 and is the oldest in the Commonwealth. The interior decorators had a field day, using a combination of intricate woodcarvings, hand-painted willow pattern tiles from China and Belgian chandeliers in order to house the Giant Scrolls of the Old Testament and 1600 years old copper plates bearing the community charter of independence.

We followed this cultural experience up by shopping in the old city. We had a couple of local ‘guides’ to help us shop “no commission”, a claim that beggared belief. These guys had eyes in the back of their heads, and miraculously appeared at your elbow the instant you ever hesitated or took a second look at anything, either vouchsafing the moral credentials of the vendors, or suggesting a ‘better’ place to buy. How they kept track of thirty individuals in three streets with 100 shops was extraordinary. I tried many and devious ploys to give them the slip, but to no avail.

Back on deck for a restorative gin and tonic, Joe asked for a table to be set up on “our” corner of the deck for dinner, in order to catch what little breeze there was. However, when we arrived, we found we’d been gazumped by the Bates set. Joe was somewhat annoyed, but decided on a perfect payback. While they were enjoying their cheese and port, he lit his largest and most pungent cigar, sidled over to inquire as to their collective health, and, oozing bonhomie, blew cigar smoke all over them. Petty? yes, fun? definitely!

The last day of the year, and a lazy day was had by all on the sea passage to Galle. New Year’s Eve was dress-up time, with masks feathers and a lovely custom of the oldest person on board ringing out the old year, and the youngest ringing in the new. There was much Auld Lang Syne-ing, dancing and kissing and plenty of laughter.

Our final landfall was Sri Lanka. The only time I’d heard Galle mentioned was in relation to hosting one of the Indian test matches. The Galle cricket ground is small, with seating for about 1000 at a guess. Galle is the oldest port on Sri Lanka, with a fine natural harbour. Being the stopping off point between the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Asia, centuries of traders from Morocco, China and Europe, including Marco Polo, dropped by to barter their goods for spices, gems and pearls. King Solomon is reputed to have sent merchants here to collect ivory, before the Greeks arrived in the first century AD, followed by the Arabs in C6. Galle was for centuries a Muslim settlement, but their luck ran out in 1505 when the fleet of Lorenzo de Almeida (the Viceroy of Goa’s son) was blown off course en route to the Maldives for his summer holiday. True to form, he captured the port, practised the Portuguese art of conquer, and was in turn ousted by the equally pernicious Dutch in 1640, then the British took their turn in the colonial plunder industry in 1796. The old city, a world heritage site of 89 acres, is surrounded by high ramparts, with three bastions providing excellent views of the peninsula. The city houses a charming assemblage of Dutch colonial architecture, a Dutch Reform Church, a Buddhist temple and a mosque, plus a pleasant Dutch Museum set amidst beautiful grounds.

A new phenomenon in shoddy-dropping stakes awaited us on our stroll around the ramparts – dozens of men draped in white embroidered tablecloths “very good price”. There were also small herds of goats and several cows strolling the ramparts and nibbling on the odd shred of grass or flowers. Sari makers and jewellery shops abounded, with local sapphires taking centre stage in the tourist-fleecing stakes.

Next morning, our trip was to the Tagaswella Plantation, for a run through the process of Ceylon tea making, then a curry lunch. I’d had a wobbly tummy for a couple of days, but it seemed to have settled down, so I boarded the bus at 9.30. Alison had succumbed to the dreaded lurgy, and Ruth and Little Duck had decided to take the later bus, to arrive in time for lunch. We set off, with Lynn and Brenda my companions so we could catch up on all the gossip. This included the fact that one of the gay landowner’s friends, a Prince, had promised to take him to a jeweller where he would organize a great discount. “Now you tell me!” said Lynn, who had snaffled a sapphire and diamond necklace in Galle to add to the emerald and diamond piece she had bought in Goa. She’s a serial offender who is insisting Joe cough up with a present for each of the twelve days of Hanuka. When she was twenty-five (she’s now 52) she had been burgled and lost US$1m in jewellery and 13 furs. I asked he why she had 13 furs, to which she replied “because you can”. No argument. Her then lover said he replace them over a few years, to which she replied “No deal, I mightn’t like you that long, why should I lose out because you’re tight?”

Our bus convoy took a wrong turn and we had to backtrack a few kilometres. Then a curious process kicked in, with the bus grinding to a halt for no apparent reason. (As in India, you have to have three staff on a bus – one to drive, one to navigate and do guide duty, and one to watch and do runner duty for passengers.) The runner jumped out, climbed a frangipani tree and picked a dozen flowers to show the passengers, which he handed to the guide who promptly sped down the bus handing out the said largesse. We all promptly slapped the flowers to out nostrils to mask out the pungency of his body odour. Lovely lad, but decidedly smelly. A little further on we stopped to get leaves from a cinnamon tree, which was a useless effort as they have no scent; then again for coffee beans, pepper vines. About an hour out, I was seized by an attack of the dreaded gripe, which abated and reoccurred with renewed vigour a few minutes later. Sphincter exercises in spades. I looked at my watch and thought, I’ll make it, should be only twenty minutes or so. Some chance. The detour and constant stoppages had eaten almost an hour out of our time at the destination, so I spent the next eternity gritting my teeth, unable to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

My worst nightmare bore fruit when we got to the plantation and there was only one toilet for ladies. The other two buses were ahead of us, so twenty people had precedence.

I crabbed my way over to ship’s doctor Harvey, also known as Dr Death, to ask if he had some Imodeom, but of course the silly old fart had only brought bandages, and they were a distant second in solutions in this instance. While I waited I decided on a cup of tea. It was Dilmah tea bags, with additives of ginger pieces and lime. Very nice, but I was in no mood to be generous at this stage. I’d just spent two and a half hours on a crummy bus, over potholed roads through padi fields, swamps, rickety townships and constant reversing to let other buses pass; with my nether reaches on fire, in order to drink stuff which I reject at the local supermarket two minutes walking distance from my bathroom. By now Melbourne was taking on all the attributes of paradise.

By the time I’d cleared the bathroom, the rest of the group had evacuated in favour of the factory tour, so I had the place to myself in order to recuperate from my ordeal. Luckily, there was an early bus back, so I only had to endure an hour at the tea plantation before returning to the ship.

Ruth arrived with the lunch group, and, joy oh joy, had brought Imodeon with her, so at least I could start my cure there and then.

Back on a minibus for the drive to Galle. I was feeling pretty happy about this, until I realised our young driver was stopping to ask directions at every intersection. I hadn’t been taking too much notice of our bearings on the way up, but even I knew that some of the pathways we were taking bore no relationship to the terrain on our outbound journey. For a start, I wouldn’t have missed a shop with the rather encouraging name of “Good Luck”. Nor did I recognise the sleeping dogs and giant lizards in rice fields.

Driving in Sri Lanka is a sport in itself. The roads are full of potholes, only wide enough for one decent vehicle, and are used simultaneously by buses (the main form of transport), home-made vehicles propelled by motor mower parts, tuk tuks, motor cycles carrying layers of passengers, bikes, pedestrians, dogs and buffalo. One thing struck me – the vast majority of homes, no matter how humble, were well kept, with the earthen pathways freshly swept. Almost all the women carry umbrellas, to keep their skin as pale as possible. The fact that they’re the pretty colour of milk coffee to start with seems to have eluded them.

We made good time on the sail to Colombo, and arrived at 9pm. Many of the guest were on the early morning flight to London, necessitating a 3am rising. Ruth and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then called a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Galle Face, prior to flying out in the late evening.

We reckoned without the Port Authority, who decided our papers were not in order, so we had to return to the ship to collect further proof that we weren’t international terrorists bent on destroying the local way of life. Finally cleared, we arrived at the hotel, which Ruth decided hadn’t changed since she last visited there thirty years ago. There were testimonials from former guests littering the place, masquerading as décor, but one would have to question the quality of an establishment that considers a former mayor of Brisbane a celebrity.

We headed out onto the verandah for a cooling midday aperitif. At the table next to us, reclining in his wicker chaise, was the perfect pink gin/cucumber sandwiches Englishman – tall, blonde, slender, handsome in a rakish manner, dark circles under his eyes, beautifully dressed in whites, casually nursing a cocktail and an elegant cigarette. He looked for all the world like Anthony Andrews out of Brideshead Revisited – the perfect dissolute. Except for the giveaway glimpse of a white singlet under his linen shirt.

Lunch was a curry buffet, which was suitably ghastly; then we hired a driver to take us to the “wonderful” shopping outlets. Colombo manufactures for many of the big names, so knock-offs and “extras” are the main retail fodder.

My plane was leaving at around midnight, and we’d been advised to allow two hours to get to the airport, and to be there three hours in advance of flight time. The trip out took forever, and when I finally arrived, my luggage was screened before entry. Then I had to queue to have my ticket inspected, before entering a hall crammed with thousands of people, all attempting to get through the next luggage check before being allowed to check in. After 10 minutes and zero movement, I collared a passing porter and said “I’m travelling first class with Singapore – how to I get through to check-in”? He replied “two dollar”. I handed him US$10 and said “you fix, please”, whereupon he grabbed my luggage cart and dragged me through the throngs, yelled at one of his mates who invoked the secret service to make way for me. Then he lifted my luggage onto the inspection desk, which the security chap opened and immediately closed and slapped a ‘cleared’ sticker on it. My new best friend then escorted me to the head of the line, placed my luggage on the conveyor, then walked me through Customs, finally leaving me once I was safely inside the departure area. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better $10, but it was certainly the first and last time I ever see Colombo airport, if I have any choice in the matter.

The best thing about Colombo is the plane out and, luckily, I was on it.

December '03-January '04

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