After I sent my last journal entry, I had a long conversation with our stateroom stewardess, a young woman from Montenegro who is dating another crew member, a young man from Mumbai. She said that her initial impressions of Mumbai were like ours, but that when she visited her boyfriend’s parents at their home an hour outside the center of the city, she saw quite a different picture: nicely maintained homes and gardens, relatively clean streets, new apartment buildings, and much less crowding and noise. So perhaps we would have seen a different aspect of the city if we’d had more time there.
That being said, we were surprised and dismayed to find such poverty and ignorance in a country that has gone in the last twenty years from being a third-world nation to one of the fastest developing in the world, with an annual economic growth rate of7% (according to an economist we heard recently). Virtually no attention is paid to preserving and maintaining the historic buildings that are India’s heritage and her principal draw for western tourists, and the country’s infrastructure is crumbling by the minute. Streets and sidewalks are full of potholes, with missing or uneven pavers making walking hazardous even for the young and sure-footed. Filth, trash,and garbage are everywhere – we saw not a single trash receptacle in the city,so we carried our empty water bottles and Kleenex back to the ship. The only effort at street cleaning we saw was one man in a uniform wielding a straw broom to clear leaves off the sidewalk in front of the University of Mumbai. Stray dogs run free, even on the docks, and India’s famous sacred cows go wherever they like, leaving little reminders of their progress on the pavement for us to step in. The contrast between the uniformed schoolchildren we saw each day and the beggar and peddler children who dogged our footsteps (and who don’t attend school) was heartbreaking.
We know there are many wealthy Indians, in addition to a thriving middle class, but the prosperity of the fortunate hasn’t seemed to do much for the country’s teeming masses. (We saw an eerie similarity to what is occurring in our own country, with a shrinking middle class sliding toward poverty as the disparity between the extremely wealthy and the rest of the population widens and deepens.) Despite free public education, literacy rates in much of the country are low; and although the caste system has been abolished by law, it still holds sway in social situations and stands as a barrier to upward mobility. Maybe the immensity of the problems involved in modernizing India makes them seem too daunting for its leaders to attack, but we’d expected them to have made a better start by now.
Goa, on the other hand, presented quite a different picture of India. Only a day’s sail down the coast, this state is mountainous, green, and very tropical in feel, with several beaches and clean air. Colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, it has many Catholic churches from the colonial period, and its population is still 35% Christian. We visited two of those churches, which together comprise one of India’s only World Heritage Sites: the basilica of Bom Jesus, containing the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, constructed in 1605; and Se Cathedral, dedicated to St. Catherine, which took 80 years to build and was consecrated in 1640.
We’ve seen a lot of churches in our travels, but these two were memorable, especially Se Cathedral, imposing in size but even more impressive in its elegant simplicity. An outdoor Mass was being celebrated on the grounds of Bom Jesus under a massive tent during our tour, attended by at least 400 worshippers, and the choral music was wonderful. Incidentally, this site was an exception to our observations about the lack of maintenance of historical buildings: the churches were in excellent condition and clearly well maintained, and the interiors and grounds were impeccably kept.
The only Hindu temple we visited in India was the famous Mahalsa Temple, set in the mountains, where services were in progress when we arrived and non-Hindus were not permitted to enter. As we waited outside, one of the celebrants stood at the base of the steps with a big mirror on a stand. Near the end of the service,the temple doors were opened and he caught the sun’s reflection in the mirror and directed it all the way to the back wall of the temple, where it illuminated a huge colored glass image. Drums and gongs sounded, and we could see dancers twirling torches in front of the image as worshippers chanted. It was all very exotic and impressive.
Outside the temple, our guide pointed out a honeymoon couple to us. The young woman, six feet tall and glamorous, wore dozens of bangles on each arm. A Hindu bride is supposed to wear those bracelets for forty days after her wedding, when she takes them off and throws them into the river (not gold and diamonds, but cheap plastic and glitter, I hasten to add). Even though this bride was clearly very modern and non-traditional in many ways, she chose to follow this tradition.
It was a very long – and very hot – tour, involving a lot of driving on narrow mountain roads in a tour bus that groaned and strained to make it up the steeper inclines. Speaking of roads, Goa’s highways are two-lane roads built years ago to accommodate the small cars and buses used by the mostly rural population, whose only evidence of updating was the installation of occasional roundabouts designed by someone with a bizarre sense of humor. For example, a road will divide and angle off in two directions, and then in a few yards it will reconnect at a roundabout that requires the cars to shoot across each other’s path at dizzying speeds to make their turnoff. And if in Mumbai traffic laws are only suggestions, in Goa they are merely hints. What is ostensibly a two-lane road frequently contains four lanes of traffic, if you count motorcycles (which are apparently invisible to Goan drivers of cars and trucks,since they pull out to pass with no consideration for the motor scooter heading straight for them in its own proper lane). Our main source of excitement all day was watching the kind of stunt driving that goes on all over India and wondering if we would make it back to the ship without witnessing a massacre on the road . Oh, and the cows – they walk along (and across) the road as calmly as if they were grazing in a pasture, and no one ever hits them – we think.
Goa is a largely rural state, with 400 small villages scattered among the mountains, and the houses of the inhabitants are generally little more than shanties with tin roofs and dirt yards, plus a few decaying structures from several decades back. But amazingly, every now and then we came across a beautiful modern house that would not have been out of place in an upscale neighborhood in America – or, more fittingly, in the best neighborhood in St. Barts. Our guide told us that these were second homes built by wealthy Indians from other parts of the country, mostly the landlocked interior, who wanted to have a vacation home near the sea. The land is apparently very expensive in buildable areas in Goa, so these large houses occupy every square inch of their property and are literally cheek-by-jowl with tumbledown shacks and auto body repair shops and all kinds of commercial development. Land use planning and zoning codes don’t seem to be common in Goa, whose citizens appear quite poor and marginally employed.
Our day finished on a high note, however, with a visit to the Sahakari Spice Farm, where we were greeted by pretty young girls showering us with flower petals and performing native songs and dances. After an excellent lunch of traditional dishes (and a taste of the local equivalent of grappa, made from the cashew apple), we were given a tour of the grounds and learned to identify cinnamon, turmeric, piri-piri, curry leaves, vanilla, betel nuts, and pineapple during our walk. The tour guide, a very knowledgeable young man who works for the spice farm, was informative and entertaining and made us forget how hot and tired we were by then. Do you know how to harvest betel nuts? They grow at the top of a palm-like tree and must be picked by hand as soon as they are ripe or the monkeys will invade and eat them and everything else on the farm. So “Tarzans” are employed, men who train from childhood to do this difficult task: they climb a tree using a rag looped around their feet for purchase, get to the top, cut the bunch of betel nuts and drop it, and then make the tree sway from side to side so they can clamber from one tree to another without returning to the ground. It’s quite a spectacle, especially since the guy performing it is sixty feet up without a net.
Cashews are one of the principal agricultural products of this part of India, and in every market we saw golden heaps of nuts at market stalls. Interestingly, cashew trees are not native, but were brought by the Portuguese to their Indian colonies, where they flourished. Cashews have to be picked by hand (fruit above, nut below) and then separated into their two parts, which explains why they are more expensive than, say, peanuts. The cashew “apple” is then fermented to produce cashew feni, a highly potent liqueur very popular in India (see note above about grappa). Cashews come in several levels of quality, which we didn’t know, some much more costly than others. The next time you buy cashews, take a look at the label and see where they came from.
Now for why we came to India and didn’t see the Taj Mahal: We had booked the ship’s tour, which was a whirlwind trip from Mumbai by air to Agra, two nights at a hotel near the Taj, two visits to the site, tours in and around Agra, and a flight from Agra to Goa to reboard the ship late in the afternoon of the third day. Very expensive, but we felt it was worth the money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then a month before we left home, our travel agent called with the news that the Agra airport was closed to all air traffic except military flights during runway resurfacing. So the trip would have consisted of six hours on a bus from Mumbai, much less time to see the Taj Mahal, a four-hour bus trip to the nearest airport, and a flight to Goa. We hadn’t even experienced the traffic on Indian roads yet, but we decided that spending the equivalent of one day on a bus and half a day in an airport for what amounted to one day in Agra wasn’t something we really wanted to do, so we canceled. We heard later that most of the people who made the trip anyway were glad they’d gone, but it was extremely exhausting. We regret having missed the chance, but we’re not sorry we chose to stay with the ship and see Mumbai and Goa. Maybe in our next life, we’ll fly to Agra,stay at the best hotel overlooking the Taj Mahal, spend a couple of days, and fly home. Or not.
Next time:Cochin and some history of the British experience in India. We’re having the best time!
Laurie and Gerry