India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Oh My!

The last week or so has been exciting.  My previous update on la vie at sea was surrounding the joys and mysteries of ‘sea days,’ the days where more time is spent in the ninth deck fitness center and rear deck for sunbathing.  (Yes, my friends, I am getting fit AND tan!)  But by the time our vessel reaches land, there is a noticeable difference amongst the guests and crew… a teeming anxiety to step aboard land and EXPLORE the wilderness beyond!

After our two days at sea following our departure from Oman, this itch was beginning to work its magic on yours truly, and the curiosity of what was to come in India was only amplified by my excitement to meet up with my good friend Josh upon our arrival in Mumbai.  I woke up very early the morning we came into port on this curious subcontinent, and tried to catch some pictures through the hazy, humid sunrise.  I had no idea what to expect, but the port’s tagine boldly exclaimed, “INCREDIBLE !NDIA”

Incredible !ndia

I was ready to leave the ship before we had even received our clearance from the officials, and upon being approved to disembark, I confidently walked out and beyond the throngs of taxi drivers, each claiming to offer the best day tours of the city.  I finally found a taxi driver named George who assured me that he could drive me straight to the Taj Hotel without delay or added sightseeing.  After George explained to me that he is 79 years old and loves his job, he kept insisting that I go with him to his favorite shop to “buy souvenirs.”  There seemed to be no dissuading him of this plan, so I reluctantly went along to the shop and was awkwardly greeted by a few men who immediately began their pitches to sell me “real pashminas,” silk scarves and saris.  I would normally not have had a problem with this detour, but I was eager to get to the Taj Hotel to meet Josh and get our sightseeing started together.  After a few minutes of chatting and explaining to the shop owners that I am not one of the wealthy guests of the ship, and rather just a crew member, I finally got away with purchasing just two silk scarves.  Back in the taxi, George finally dropped me at my final location of the hotel, and shortly thereafter, Josh and I set off on our tour of Mumbai.  The term that Josh kept referring to was cracking me up, “the blind leading the blind.”  He had just arrived in Mumbai the night before and was staying with a friend in India for a few weeks for his friend’s wedding.  The timing was so perfect for us to meet up in Mumbai and wander around the city together.

Lost in Mumbai

We tried to hit up the most notable sights, but found that we were not the only ones that had a hard time navigating the city – in fact, most of the taxi drivers seemed to be lost as they drove us around!  We first visited the “Gateway to India,” where we were blessed by a couple of Hindu monks, but then were forced to make a donation.  We then asked a taxi driver to take us to the Ghandi museum, which is at the actual home where Ghandi lived.  After the taxi driver dropped us off in a random location (and I kept refusing to use Josh’s iPhone to guide us via the map application), we worked our way to visit the beach, and then spent a good hour or more wandering the streets to find the location of the museum.  We finally broke down and exhausted Josh’s international data plan to find Ghandi’s house – very interesting exhibit!  I was glad to visit, but a little ashamed that I didn’t know more about Ghandi and his life.  After this visit, we walked aimlessly for another hour or so until we found the Hindu temple we were looking for, situated just above Ghandi’s home on a hill overlooking South Mumbai.  Our walk through the back ways of Mumbai housing was actually a fruitful photography opportunity, so I was pleased to become a little lost.  And when we finally arrived at the temple, we had the opportunity to experience a ten-minute ceremony as the monks rhythmically hit bells and chanted as a prelude to the offering of fresh water and flowers inside the temple.  What most fascinated me were the throngs of crows around the temple that also made their ‘caw-ing’ noises in rhythmwith the clanging of the bells.  I couldn’t believe it and even pointed it out to Josh.  It was a very surreal, very unique experience to view.  After leaving the temple, it was my goal to find the ____ Bazaar, which promised to deliver unique “curios,” useless antiques and original gifts.  This was something I had been most looking forward to – being the kind of person that loves to be lost in flea markets and antique stores, a quality I most certainly picked up from my father.  Well, after our taxi driver dropped us off at the supposed location of the bazaar, we realized we were NOT in the place we were expecting.  Rather than the silver jewelry, old brass fixtures and vintage fabrics I had been expecting, we found that we were in the middle of what seemed to be an Islamic slum, complete with burning stacks of rubbish and angry roosters chasing goats.  You can’t make this shit up, folks.  Of course, behind the lens of a camera, I lost myself completely in this landscape and had to be reminded by Josh that we should probably leave, I should probably put something on to cover my arms, that we should PROBABLY find a taxi driver who knew what he was talking about.

Blind leading the Blind

But that baby goat jumping on a moped is just too cute!  Okay, okay, I was convinced to leave after putting my camera away and facing reality, and we headed off to the more “downtown” district to find a bank and some retail stores.  At that point, I made the most “Incredible !ndia” discovery… I felt like a modern Vasco de Gama (the explorer on which I did my fourth grade explorer report, and about whom I’ve learned a lot in the last week)… a store in Mumbai called “Fabindia.”  And it was fabulous.  Josh and I spent over an hour there, picking out our choice Indian fashions in the signature cotton fabric of this store.  Such beautiful clothes and SO affordable!  After this, we realized it was nearly time for me to head back to the ship, and as we left, we remarked how nice it would be to have a quick afternoon beer.  As we turned the corner, we saw an almost mirage-like sign reading: “CERVEZA: Beers of the World and More.”  Could this day be any more perfect?  Yes, it could.  What kind of beer did I drink?  Brooklyn freaking India Pale Ale.  Seriously.

Fun times in a Mumbai taxi

After the pleasant afternoon buzz of one beer, we said our goodbyes and I hopped into a taxi to head back to the Port.  Did I yet mention how precarious the taxis are?  Not only are you off-put by driving along the left side of the road, but the drivers relentlessly speed through red lights, narrowly miss hitting cows and children, and again, HAVE NO IDEA WHERE THEY ARE GOING.  My lovely driver ended up dropping me off at the Navy Yard.  Panic began to sink it quickly as I realized I had absolutely no clue where I was supposed to be.  The sun was starting to go down, time was running out, lepers were taking their shelter in the middle of the sidewalk for the night (I wish this was a joke), and I started absolutely freaking out.  For those of you that have had the pleasure of seeing me in the middle of an anxiety attack, this was a particularly special one, because the risk was so dire.  Stuck in Mumbai as my ship departed for South India?  Not exactly something I could handle.  I asked several people on the main road if they knew where the cruise ships port, but no one seemed to speak English, and only kept mishearing my words as the “Fort.”  No, thank you, I have no effing desire to see the FORT right now.  After I had been aimlessly speed walking for 2-3 kilometers (yes, I speak metric system now), a private taxi drove up to me and the driver shouted, “Hey!  You work on the Silver Wind, right?  Come on in, I’ll give you a ride!”  I couldn’t be more relieved.  The driver explained that he had seen me in the morning speed past all the other taxi drivers and get in the taxi with “the old guy.”  He explained he’d be happy to drive me back to the port entrance.  After getting in to the air-conditioned, insect-free vehicle, with my Fabindia bag intact, I let out a huge sigh of relief and forced myself to not cry in front of my rescuer.  Of course, this “hero” then demanded from me $20 for the five-minute ride.  Pretty much a huge rip-off as I had been taking taxi rides all day for less that $1 a pop.  But, happy to be in the right place, I parted with my money and made my way back to the ship.  Mumbai was an experience, to say the least.


Our next stop was in South India, a city that is known as “Kochi,” “Cochin” and “Kochin.”  For the purposes of my blog, I’ll stick with “Kochin.”  I again woke up very early on this day to view our surroundings as we came into port.  (I have come to love the experience of coming into port – I actually am writing this now from the Observation Lounge of the ship as we all pulling into Praslin in the Seychelles!)  I had read about the famous Chinese Fishing Nets that flock the entrance to the small bay of Kochin, and I wanted to get a closer look from the ship. Apparently, these fishing nets had been put there over 500 years ago and are still used daily for fishing.  It was absolutely a sight to see.  We were also accompanied into the harbor by the escort of a pod of dolphins.

My first time seeing dolphins on the ship!  After we ported, I left the ship with Peter, Kathleen and Krystle as we set out in search of another Fabindia store (I had of course been on the website and found all five locations in Kochin).  After deciding that the signature two person cabs, called “tuk-tuks,” we not for us, we met a taxi driver who said he would drive us around all day for $25, and left the port to experience Fort Kochin and some of the old-world beauty of the previously Dutch-occupied city.  Our driver took us first to see a famous church, an old graveyard, a fish market… then the Chinese fishing nets up close!  This was our “experience” moment – some of the fisherman at one of the nets beckoned us over to their contraption, so Kathleen, Krystle and I went down to meet them.

Pulling up the Chinese Fishing Nets

They asked us to help them pull up the net (of course, I knew this would end up with them asking for money – especially when one of the fishermen offered to take pictures of us with my camera) and they taught us a chant that meant “strength.”  Forgive the spelling, but it sounded like, “Hey-jalla!  Hey-jalla!  Hey-jalla!”  The net has a system of pulleys that are then held down by giant stones.  It was great fun to pull up the net, but it was quite obviously notfishing time and we didn’t catch anything in our net.  But at the end of the day, it was absolutely worth the $2 each.  At this point, our driver pulled the elusive and ever more common, “Let me take you to my friend’s shop – great souvenirs!” I was dreading a similar experience to what I had in Mumbai, but we were pleasantly surprised by a beautiful shop with nice people, great fabrics and treasures, and decent prices.  I ended up walking away with a wall hanging made of old bridal saris (grey and red and will look great in my bedroom in NYC) and two silk pillowcases.  Peter and Krystle both bought beautiful silk bedspreads and Krystle bought a purple sari (this was the beginning of sari madness).  Krystle’s highlight of the day was when she needed to get fitted for her matching top to go with her sari, so one of the shopkeepers drove her on the back of his moped to the tailor in town.  We were told to come back in one-hour and her sari would be ready. We then asked our driver to take us somewhere great for a lunch and…. boy, did he take us to the right place.  Naan, raita, curries, freshly caught local seafood and Kingfisher beer.  It was a fantastic, and very cheap, lunch.  We went back to pick up our goods from the shopkeeper and then convinced our driver to drive us all the way across the city to the biggest Fabindia store.  There we found more cotton clothing and bedspreads, then we finally made our way back to the ship.  It was an incredibly fantastic experience; my only regret was that I had been hoping to buy a sari at Fabindia (the saris at the store in Mumbai were beautiful) but the Kochin store was lacking in options, so I went home empty-handed.  No worries, everyone assured me, there would be options in Sri Lanka.

I got the happy news about Sri Lanka the afternoon before we ported in Colombo.  “Ashley, you got the elephant tour!”  The words to me were better than a Christmas present.  I was on the schedule to escort the tour group to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage for the day!  I went to bed early the night before the tour, in lieu of the open bar at the crew party (I am increasingly disinclined to go the crew bar these days – the cigarette smoke in there is unbearable).  Up early at 6:30am, I rallied my tour group and we set off in buses to the train station in Colombo, where we boarded a private chartered train to take us to Pinnawela, just over two hours away.  It was the most incredible experience to ride the old-school train through the Sri Lankan countryside, sipping Ceylon tea and learning about the country’s history from our tour guide.  The one thing I learned that I found really interesting was the story of a man who had killed over 3,000 elephants back in the day, and who had ultimately been killed by lightning strike.  Got what he deserved, right?  It gets better – his tomb was then struck by lightning…. twice.  So these days, the elephants of Sri Lanka are very special and well protected at this reserve.  Once we arrived, we took another short bus ride to the main river in Pinnawela where the elephants bathe, and had over an hour of free time to observe the elephants and explore the tourism-fueled stretch of shops.  I took WAY too many pictures of elephants, had an elephant come up and touch me with her trunk, about twelve different men offer to take my picture for me (no, thank you, I would rather not give you my money) and one “fortune-teller” come up to read my palm and then demand money.  I then explored the shops, bought myself a sari (yes!), and headed back to the river towards our meeting place of the restaurant for lunch. My trek back was interrupted by the parade of elephants headed back to the orphanage, so I got a great video of the creatures making their way.  The ending is really special.

Lunch was obviously fantastic – I opted for the “local-style” on the buffet, much spicier.  Then our tour group walked to the orphanage and viewed bottle-feeding of some of the younger elephants, as well as another opportunity to view the elephants in their habitat.  The landscape where the elephants live was absolutely breathtaking.  Again, I took far too many pictures.  The air-conditioned train ride back was a welcome distraction from the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, and I even caught a few short minutes of rest in between cups of tea.  When we got back to the cruise terminal in Colombo, I caved and bought yet another silk sari (only $20 so it’s hard to say no.) That night we had our deck show, but because of the tropical, stormy weather outside, it was moved into our main theater.  I sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” which was a huge hit.  I love singing that song!  A side-note from the pages of reality:  I’m so glad that the production of Funny Girl was delayed (LA and then Broadway-bound), because I really need to be in it!  Finishing that show with the positive comments from our guests was the end of an absolutely amazing day.

One more sea day ended with a phone call around 6pm, asking if I was interested in being a tour escort in the Maldives for a group headed to a private resort island.  Do you really need to ask if I said yes?  So my morning in Mahe in the Maldives began early yet again, with gathering our tour group in the main lounge as we prepared to head to shore in a tender boat.  I was set and prepared with my bikini, my sunscreen and my sense of adventure.  It also helped that a number of the guests on this tour had become my friends, and so our sense of excitement was palpable as we discussed snorkeling and the adventures that lay ahead.  We arrived in Mahe, the main city of the Maldives, and then immediately boarded a private boat to take us to the island of Bandos for our free time there.  The boat ride was exquisite. Being able to see the number of tiny islands that make up the archipelago of the Maldives was a great treat.  We finally arrived at Bandos just in time for a short rainstorm, then I rented some snorkeling gear and head for the reef.  I had not been snorkeling in YEARS, so this was a great experience for me.  And the fish!  So many fish, all colors, shapes and sizes.  I was submerged face-first for about an hour, just taking it all in.  I was a little nervous, hearing from some of the guests that just a few weeks ago, a couple was killed by a Great White Shark while snorkeling in the Seychelles (where we are currently just pulling up to).  But I stayed along the edge of the reef, right where it drops off to a dark ominous blue, just making sure there was always someone else just a bit beyond me.  You only need to be the second slowest to survive, right?  The experience of snorkeling was altogether fantastic, and I did manage to see my shark, a tiny reef shark that actually came almost all the way up to the edge of the beach to terrorize a huge school of silver fish hovering above the white sand.   My day was rounded out by a much-needed cup of coffee after snorkeling, and then we headed back in our boat towards Mahe and tendered back to the Silver Wind.  It was only a few hours in this curious island nation, but it was a much needed trip – my first ocean swim since being on the ship!  I can’t wait to get back in the water and think I am actually going to buy my own snorkeling equipment if it’s the right price – because I think I have quite a few great snorkeling locations ahead of me.  Let’s just keep those Great White Sharks away.  And more dolphins.  Bring on the dolphins!

In other, on-board news, some exciting things have happened.  A couple nights ago, I gave my first ever solo-show with guitar, which I called “On My Own: an intimate acoustic set with Ashley Harrell.”  It was immediately following a sort of comedy show called “The Liar’s Club”  (think a presentational form of Balderdash), which I naturally participated in.  I had a great time making up lies on the panel, and it helped to relieve some of the nerves that were building inside me before my set.  Luckily, this group of passengers on the Wind have really become like a new set of friends and family, so I felt very relaxed to play in front of the group of fifty or so that had come to support me.  I got some questions on Facebook about what songs I played, so here was my set list: “Come to my Window,” “You’re So Vain,” “Crazy” (by Gnarls Barkley), “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Fever” (which I changed up to play in 6/8 time – and was the highlight of my show according to the guests), “Heartbeats” (a song by The Knife that I knew no one had ever heard but I love), and then “Dock of the Bay.”  I prefaced the last song by saying it is the song I plan for my father-daughter dance at my eventual future wedding, and also gave the audience little snippets of dialogue between the songs so they got to know me a little better.  Peter tried to get a video of Fever, but my camera unfortunately died and I have nothing to show.  I’ll definitely charge it up before the next time I perform it, because it’s something I’d love to share.  Getting through that set was a huge personal accomplishment. Playing the guitar has never been something I thought was performance-worthy, but I’m improving and I’m happy to take on new challenges and show that I’m rounded as a performer.

Yesterday was something else quite interesting.  As we crossed the Equator late on Friday night, Saturday afternoon marked the special occasion of our “Neptune’s Crossing Ceremony,” which basically inducts newbies who have never crossed the equator (aka “pollywogs”).  Luckily, our cruise director had other plans for this pollywog, and I instead played “Neptunia” – Neptune’s wife that I basically modified into a caricature of a Disney princess.  The various pollywog’s were treated to the disgusting ritual of kissing a dead fish, being doused with flour, colored whipped cream, spaghetti and tomato sauce, then thrown in the pool by pirates.  Meanwhile, Peter laid on the pool deck in a silver sequined mermaid costume and blonde wig.  The entire thing was surreal, bizarre, unsettling and… wonderful.  So here’s a “Happy Holidays” from Cabin 333:

The last thing I wanted to update on is the fact that there are numerous opportunities on this ship to learn about…. COOKING!  Our guest chef David has been wonderful in instructing the guests through cooking demonstrations and educating us all on Middle-Eastern desserts, Indian appetizers and the best methods to de-bone ducks.  He’s been a great person to speak with about the regional cuisines and even gave me a stack of the old recipes from his previous cooking demonstrations.  This morning, he and the executive chef of the ship challenged each other to a “Chopped”-like cooking competition in the main theater.  It’s really something else to see these chefs work!  He even made BACON ice cream today during the competition.  I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming.  This afternoon I was invited to join in on his knife skills course, since most of the guests opted out in favor of going ashore.  Going to the class will only delay my embarkation by a couple hours, so I’m happy to participate before soaking up a few last rays of sunshine in the day.  Tonight is the ABBA show, and I know the guests are eagerly anticipating our performance, especially the costumes.

Life is good, life is weird, life is fast, life is vibrant.  And I’m making the most of it!