Today we are in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. The late arrival of the pilot and the customs officials meant we missed our noon arrival and tours left later than expected. We are doing a full day tour of Mumbai tomorrow with Fabian from Tours by Locals after we get off the ship. Today we are visiting the Elephnata caves on an island off the coast with a ship’s tour.
We once again had to undergo a face-to-face inspection with customs officials before getting off the ship. Then our landing cards were checked as we exited the ship and checked again when we went through metal detectors in the customs building that we completely ignored when they went off. After boarding the bus, we stopped at the green gate (the tourist departure gate) and an officer got on and once again checked the landing cards.
We drove through the fort area and came to the Gateway of India, an iconic landmark erected in 1932. The park outside is inundated with vendors and families, but the beautiful banyan trees are what capture your attention. Looking towards the harbor, you are struck by the size of the massive Gateway arch and number of colorful boats in the water. After the opportunity to take a few pictures, we went to the waterside of the Gateway to board our boat.
What followed was a 45-minute ordeal with 4 men yelling to different boats-to come in, not come in, dock here, don’t dock here, etc.-while we waited in the sun. We had been the first group to arrive, but the CME group had left first and had been the first expected. The boat that docked was too large for our group. After all three of the smaller tour groups arrived, CME finally showed up. Then it was determined that the large boat was too high a step given the tide level so another boat was sandwiched between it and the dock. Then the CME group boarded the large boat through the smaller one anchored. This situation was not going to be good for Boris whose greatest difficulty in touring since the accident has been getting in and out of small moving boats and tenders.
As expected, it was very difficult for Boris when we finally did our pass through from boat to boat. One of the bumper tires he was expected to plant his foot on gave way. It was pretty scary, but we finally got underway to the island.
Elefanta Island is named for the elephant statute that was found there. The statute is now displayed outside the Cultural museum in Mumbai. Dropped in transit, it had to be rebuilt. Today, there are actually no elephant carvings (expect the elephant head on one of the popular Hindu gods) on the island. It is known for the impressive Hindu shrines carved into the rocks. There are several islands with religious rock carvings, but mostly with Buddhist depictions. Depending on who was in power, different oppressed groups built their shrines off the mainland.
Depending on the conditions, it is a 60-90 minute ride to the island from the Gateway of India. We got a little sea spray near the island, but it was otherwise a smooth ride. Once course when we tied up, we had to pass to multiple boats to reach the dock, another tough journey for Boris. There is a long concrete dock to reach the island, but there is also a small gage train you can ride. We all hopped on and I was reminded of the miniature train near the Hermann Park Zoo in Houston. Upon reaching the land, we were immediately approached by vendors. We traveled down the newly paved sidewalk to the climb up to the caves. (I know it was newly paved because we actually saw the work in progress.)
The 130 widely spaced stairs and platforms pose quite a challenge. Like most of the guests, I chose to make the climb. A few, like Boris, wisely chose the sedan chairs. It was grueling, but not of nearly the length of our climb at the Great Wall of China. Of course it was incredibly hot which was the main problem. I am not sure how some of the older guests made it. Riding a sedan chair posed other problems, as the bearers constantly asked you for tips, complained of your weight, and tried to stop midway up saying it was as far as they go. Make sure you don’t pay them until the very top where there is no more stairs and you see the security building for the caves.
There are vendors all along the staircase up. Mercifully, many have added coverings in some places to help reduce the heat. Do your shopping (if any) on the way down. Once you get to the top, women with water jars on their heads approach you for a picture. Unless you want to pay, politely refuse. There are also lots of mischievous monkeys in this area, so watch your belongs. They will also snatch water bottles and snacks.
The cave entrance draws you in and you are immediately stunned by the size, detail, and preservation of the shrines. I would not have understood much of what was going on, but are guide gave us a detailed description of each panel. It was much cooler in the caves that enjoy a wonderful ocean breeze. The good news is that we were the first group to arrive on the island besides the Indian tourists so we probably had the best opportunity to see each shrine.
Some of the Indian tourists were as curious about us, as we were in the shrines. It had already been determined that Boris was the rock star. One group asked Boris to pose in pictures with their family at the Gateway of India. Our guide said that it was the children’s summer vacation so many of the people visiting were from the countryside where they rarely, if ever, see western tourists. (The experience reminded me of our visit in T Square in Beijing where visitors to Mao’s tomb from the Chinese provinces looked at us like we were aliens; they would not even acknowledge a greeting.) The curious Indian families were actually quite friendly, unlike the Indian urbanites who were unfriendly and disrespectful to women.
I love the caves and as a bonus the walk down was not difficult. I followed Boris down. He was riding; I was walking. I wanted to be able to get a picture. On the way down, they carried him backwards. They had stopped midway up with him, but he had insisted on the full ride. This time they didn’t even try not to take him all the way down. We got a cool drink at a bar at the bottom and waited for the rest of our group. Cows and goats roamed freely among the visitors. As most of you know, cows are sacred in India and are not disturbed. You’ll even see them on the streets of Mumbai.
With more people waiting for the train, it was a scramble to get on, but Boris could not have made that walk. Fortunately there were no pass-through and we were able to board the boat directly from the dock. The sea was rougher, so our guide suggested riding on the top to avoid getting wet. The steps up were treacherous, so Boris wisely chose to stay downstairs. I enjoyed the cool breeze and the receding sun from the top of the boat and enjoyed a visit with a couple from Minnesota.
On the boat ride in, we got a wonderful view of the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel next door. The iconic hotel was built in 1903 after an Indian was refused accommodations in a local European-run hotel and he decided to build his own, even more impressive hotel. It was the site of terrorist attacks in 2008 and is now under heavy security. Taj hotels are now a chain and we had snacks at one in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Back to the boat for our last evening on board…