It was 7 a.m. when we hurried to an upper deck on the Ocean Pearl. Our ship had just docked, and we wanted a bird's-eye view of the commotion on the pier. A trio was turning out a whining tune that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
There, too, a dozen women, all clad in royal blue saris, were sweeping the pier with twig brooms. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man walking toward the trio, carrying a basket and horn. He opened the basket. Here was the local snake charmer!
Good morning and welcome to Madras, a peppy city in southern India (the country's fourth-largest at 5 million) that makes plaid cloth like nobody's business.
Madras was the halfway point in our 24-day "Jewels of India" itinerary with Pearl Cruises. India is a 5,000-year-old land, a country so exotic and mysterious you keep rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Every day something strange would happen to remind me: India is on the other side of the world.
Such moments took place on land as well as sea, thanks to a program Pearl Cruises has put together called a "CruiseTour" -- a combination of hotel stays in major cities and a cruise to seldom-visited ports.
So before the cruise began, we spent five days on the land segment of "CruiseTour," getting our first tastes of India in Delhi, Agra and the romantic desert realm of Rajasthan. We visited bazaars in Old Delhi and gazed at the Taj Mahal. We rode elephants up to a medieval hilltop fort and spent the night in a maharajah's former palace.
We soon discovered that our hotels (all first-class) furnished numerous exotic amenities, such as in-house astrologers. The sign outside the hotel chambers of one of the seers read: "Renowned astro-palmist, tells everything about you -- past, present, future! Consultation: 200 rupiah [about $11]."
Even a drive down the road could be high adventure in India. Our cars had to fight for road space with an endless parade of life of every kind. Cranky camels and donkeys pulled carts. Cows, considered sacred in the country, lounged in the middle of over-congested roads. Peacocks, water buffalo and bears ambled smack into the paths of full-tilt traffic. Drivers of motorized rickshaws piloted them like bumper cars. Trucks never stopped blasting their horns at the millions of pedestrians who make up the world's second-largest country (845 million).
The Latin touch
By the time I boarded the ship in Bombay, where the cruise began, I had begun to suspect that India might be a three-ring circus. But I hadn't seen the half of it yet.
After an overnight sail down the western coast of India, we found ourselves docked in Goa, in a tropical downpour. One of the first clues that this was an India of a different stripe was in eatery with the name of Fernandez Restaurant.
Our guide had a ready explanation: "Goa was a Portuguese colony for 450 years, until 1961."
The Latin beat still echoes in jungly Goa. As our bus bounced along the second-bumpiest road I've ever traveled on, we passed white churches and imposing cathedrals, stucco Portuguese homes with red tile roofs and a town called Vasco da Gama where billboards shouted: "Stray Cattle Causes Accidents."
Two days later, we awoke in Cochin, near the southern tip of India, to find one of the big welcoming officials waiting on the dock: a temple elephant decked out in a gold headdress that towered (and teetered) over its head. Waiting also was Abraham, our guide, who immediately remarked, "You can see many different lives here in Cochin."
Under a brilliant sun, we set off to see goodness knows what. Before long, we were staring at a United Nations' worth of sights: the 435-year-old Mattancherry Palace (built by the Portuguese, restored by the Dutch), a synagogue (1568) and the Portuguese church of St. Francis (1503), where Vasco de Gama once was buried. (The explorer died there in 1524; 14 years later, his remains were moved to Portugal.)
Outside the church, children were playing cricket. Along the shoreline, fishermen still used traditional Chinese fishing nets introduced by traders from Kublai Khan's court.
How right our guide had been! One couldn't help but see many ways of life here. But why such a cosmopolitan past? It was the lure of spices that drew major European traders to this region, home of the world's best pepper, known as "black gold."
One thing was becoming clear about this trip: Because of India's vast size and amazing diversity, a cruise is the most relaxing and efficient way to tackle a good-sized portion of the subcontinent. Traveling by ship, we could depend on the food and water being safe for Western stomachs -- more than that, the food was exquisite.
Paradise on a beach
The next day, our ship continued farther and farther south, beyond the "toe" of India and deep into the Indian Ocean. We were bound for the Republic of the Maldives, a cluster of 1,200 coral islands about 300 miles south of India.