Friday 12th April 2019
Its 2pm and I am sat in my air conditioned cabin drinking a cold beer and thinking that I haven’t done a diary for a few days so I’m sorry you missed out on a couple of ports.
I’ll start from yesterday, Thursday, a day at sea, my day like most on this cruise ship was spent in our cabin writing, but Florie, my wife, met up early with two Indian ladies who are wives of officers on the ship and they spent most of the day doing exercises or walking around the top deck, or talking. Florie grabbed me out of the cabin for lunch where I met the two ladies; they are about 40 years of age, judging by what they said about children and getting married. Anyway one is a lovely lady with a bob cut and a bubbly personality that borders on a volcano erupting, her personality hides her intellect, she teaches 15 and 16 year olds maths and science, that takes some doing! She is a really happy lady with a ready smile and giggles a lot. She and Florie really hit it off when they met a few days ago. The other lady was from a different part of India and did not speak the same language, so she appears to be quieter. This lady is taller than the first and has a mass of long black hair, she is slower to smile, I think partly because she cannot speak English. She does not understand the quick conversation that happens when there are four of us at the lunch table. She has dark brown eyes that smoulder and a warm smile that pulls your heart right out of your chest. She was the quietest of the four of us. Considering she did not get much in the way of translation that wasn’t surprising. She was quiet but picked up on odd things and then she would smile a wide bright smile. In the evening we met again at dinner and things got a little easier for the four of us. Though I was the odd one out and got the worst of it. Both the ladies asked about my writing, which isn’t exciting at all. The lady with the long hair turned out to be a poet in her own language. I felt she would like to have talked more about that but our lack of communication and time prevented it.
I wake up at 5am because the clocks keep being put back an hour or the last two half an hour, so we wake up earlier. When I looked out of the cabin window our ship was slowly approaching the port of Mumbai. I could see about a dozen disused oil rigs in the early morning light. A while later our ship was worried by two tugs that pushed us into our berth. Opposite our window we could see about 60 odd oil rig support vessels all laid at anchor, they stayed there all day, either this is a resource, or their oil industry expansion has collapsed.
Outside the temperature was climbing towards 36°C. After a light breakfast we donned the lightest clothes we owned and silly looking hats that covered our necks as well and we went and looked for a taxi to take us from the port to The Gateway of India a beautiful edifice that draws thousands of tourists from all over India as well as Europe indeed worldwide tourists alike.
A Taxi ride in India is unlike anywhere else in the world, it is both exciting and horrific at the same time. The little old man who approached us as we passed through the port gates looked over 80, thin as a rake, “Taxi” he offered, $5 US to the Gateway of India, the old battered black and yellow cab was clean with the usual open window air conditioning. When he started the cab it sounded like someone shaking a box of old nuts and bolts and the gears crunched until he finally forced them into submission.
“Where are you from?” He asked, turning to us in the back seat, as he turned the cab right into a line of traffic all blaring their horns at him. My heart-bypass being tested to the limits. “England.” We shouted back as he blew his horn at the motorist who had just dared to push in front of him.
“Too many cars, not enough roads,” he said forcing the delicate black and yellow cab into a higher gear, where it obviously didn’t want to go. Florie and I are in the back saying The Lord’s Prayer in unison, as a moment or two later he veers out into a main road full of four lanes of traffic on a two lane road. The six or seven cars and buses behind; all have their horns blaring, from the little horns of the taxis to the deeper blaring of the lorries and trucks all using this main road next to the port. We are now taking in toxic traffic fumes from the air conditioning.
“Too many cars, you should have come out later,” the old man says, looking back at us again, and slamming the little cab into gear and moving off into a space I would not have taken on a push bike. “About 2pm the roads have the right amount of traffic,” he said, eventually turning round to look at where he is going. I ask Florie to look to see if he has an extra eye on that side of his head. By the way the old man drives I assume he has led a full and happy life and has nothing left to live for.
Fifteen minutes later in an unexpected surprise we arrive, hearts pounding, at The Gateway of India, with my hands still shaking I give the old man the $5 and $1 to put into the collection box next time he goes to pray to whichever God is protecting him. I stagger to a recently vacated seat to recover and take deep breaths.
I realise Florie and I have chosen the most popular sight in India after the Taj Mahal. Coaches from two ships are discharging 50 people a time one after the other in quick succession in a line of coaches, the London rush hour doesn’t come near to this congestion. As we sit there enjoying the diesel fumes from the coaches moving at a snail’s pace past us, trying to encourage the two coaches at the front; still discharging their loads. The horns of the coaches sounding like a herd of elephants along with the taxis horns squeaking like a herd of gazelles.
“Come on Florie let’s get out of here!” I utter and because I’m big and ugly I push my way through half the population of India to get close enough to The Gateway of India to take a picture of it and after pushing some people out of the way I get a shot of the Taj Mahal Hotel next to it
The next bit was more difficult as we tried walking past the shops around there. As we approached, the owners appeared asleep in their chairs outside. Woke up one by one and invited us into their emporium, some in quite an aggressive manner. We ran out of shops to look in and changed direction and ending up on the Collabra Causeway; a main road with a large market down one side. About a mile long this market starts about 10am and is quite something to walk in. Rivalled only by the Arab Souks, it is noisy with the traffic honking on the road and the stall holders all vying for your business. You have to walk up a narrow passageway, that, back home, would be wide enough for one, but here, two and three people walk up and down. As we walked the smells were amazing, we passed shops selling handbags, some selling spices, we also past an open sewer, somewhere we passed a leather shop, a perfume shop, some of the stalls sold material and these gave off a delicate smell I can’t describe. This was all mixed with the constant smell of diesel and petrol fumes. By far the greatest numbers of customers were Indians, yes there were westerners from the two ships in the port, but we only saw a few people there.
We did find a great restaurant/cafe/bar, in an old colonial building with high ceilings and fans going at full belt, it is called The Leopold Cafe and they served us ice cold beer and mango drink and two delicious blueberry cheesecakes which were light as a feather to eat and tasted gorgeous. I just wish we hadn’t eaten a cooked breakfast as the main course dishes looked really good on other people’s tables, the place was very busy, it opened in 1871 and with the look of things it should be good for many years to come.
After going up and down the market we were tired in the heat and as if by magic when I happened to say to Florie “do you want to go back now?” a little wizened old man appeared from nowhere and cried “Taxi!” He asked, “To the port?” To me he looked suspiciously like the older brother of the chap that brought us. No sooner had I shut my door then he blew on the horn and pulled out into the busy main road. “Where are you from?” he asked us as he took a 90° left turn missing two people and a motor bike by inches.
“England,” we answered together holding each other’s hands for comfort, I am sure they only ask that so they know what country to return the bodies to.
He wove his way in and out of the traffic as if he hadn’t got long to live, so it didn’t matter. Every single car on the road I saw had scrapes and bangs all around them, I wonder if they do this in the showroom, when they deliver the car so that they can fit four cars across the two lane roads! At one point I thought the old man was going to get out of the car and push someone off the road, as he shouted out of the air conditioning at someone who wasn’t moving fast enough. At this point there was a motorbike trying to get in my door, the man looked down at me with a scowl as if it was my fault we were in his way. I gave him a weak smile and pointed to the driver and raised my shoulders, then there was a slight movement in the traffic then he shot in front much to the consternation of our driver who leaned on the horn.
By this time I had worked out how The Highway Code works in Mumbai, ‘He who is in front is king.’
I noticed a large white car appear in the right hand window overtaking us, then our little old driver turned in front of him, Florie and I were deafened by the horn that the angry driver kept honking under the bonnet of his shiny new car, our driver I suspect, is deaf to all of this, due to all the honking he has endured, I think he would make a good chariot driver and could have given Ben Hur a run for his money.
We are in the right had lane ready to turn right at the junction to the port, the shiny white car still honking behind us, the lights changed against us and I braced myself for stopping, but NO! Our little old man, white beard flapping in the wind, accelerated as four lanes of traffic started to cross the junction towards our little taxi, all honking their horns in unison. I closed my eyes picturing the Mumbai fire and rescue men standing round our battered little taxi, three dead bodies inside, each of the rescuers holding an old can opener that had a spike that you punched through the metalwork and opened it up in a rocking action peeling back what’s left of the roof and trying to sort out where one body ended and another one starts.
Then I was thrown forward and hit my head on the back of the front seat, “we’re here” Florie said, “Heavens be praised” we were at the dock gates. I got out of the tiny yellow and black vehicle, my legs hardly able to support me after my ordeal. When I realised there is a little girl maybe eight or nine years old holding her baby sister in her arms pushing the child at my crutch, I am trapped between her and my cab behind me, the cab races away taking a layer of clothing and skin from my buttocks with him. I nearly fell backwards without the cab there, “stop messing about” Florie shouts, “get those landing cards out, we need them to get into the port!” These landing cards are actually an A4 sheet of paper with our personal details on and are not to be creased!
Meanwhile, this little girl is still trying to put the baby in my pocket with one hand and holding her other hand out for money; her big sorrowful eyes have tears in them. A guard at the gate says something in Hindi to the little girl and child and she scurries away. “I need the form to get in now!” Florie bellows at me. The security guard is scowling at me, I’m, trying to unzip my backpack. Florie moves off and the scowling guard is now towering over me with his hand out for my and Flories papers. The day is not going well in all this heat. I feel like a pig about to be slaughtered in this tiny pillbox.
“I think he needs this,” Florie says to the guard, he gives her a beaming smile and takes the papers, and then turns to me with a scowl and points for me to go. I can tell you I was never so relieved to be in the cool of the air conditioned ship and after a bite to eat and a shower picked up my pen to tell you all about it.