Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Cruise to Lakshadweep: In the unmuddled waters

It started with a desire to explore new areas and seek out new experiences and adventures. The cruise package to Lakshadweep offered by SPORTS fitted the bill perfectly. Although the schedule of cruise meant Aditya had to miss his school for the entire one week. But we decided that the learning experience on a cruise was worth the pain.

Cruise to Lakshadweep

While almost everybody has plans on visiting Andamans, it is baffling to note almost complete ignorance about the Lakshadweep cruise and the unique experience it offers. A little search on the Google and one is presented
with the fairly informative site of Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) which manages the tourist packages to Lakshadweep off Kochi in Kerala.

A rather bureaucratic system of booking and minimal communication comes as a bit of shock in this day and age of instant communication and information overload. One has to first file a request to book a seat on the preferred tour package and then one is notified about the funds transfer for confirmation of booking. One needs to be a little persistent to extract the relevant information about where and when to report for boarding, things to know, things to carry with you, etc. Hopefully, this post will fill that gap in "Things to Know" about the cruise package. Pack adequate supplies of swim wear and accessories. The entire tour is designed around sea and water sports.

Fast forward to the D-day, we embark on our journey from the cold climes of Roorkee on December 02, 2016 covered with heavy woollens. The 12688 Dehradun-Madurai Super Fast Express leaving Roorkee at 09:30 Hrs.
seemed to be a safe bet for boarding the AI-048 flight to Kochi at 18:05 Hrs. However, one should never plan a connecting itinerary based on
expected/normal operation timings of trains in the northern parts of India during winter season. The fog related delays are too frequent and are rather unpredictable. The train eventually reached Hazrat Nizamuddin
station at 16:00 Hrs after covering a distance of about 200 km in 6 Hrs in daytime. At Hazrat Nizamuddin station, I was in for another shock. There is no pre-paid taxi counter and one is literally at the mercy of taxi operators. We were fortunate enough to get a good taxi (black and yellow (or, kaali-peeli)) and reached I.G.I. Airport Terminal 3 at around 17:00 Hrs. We were rushed through the check-in queue to allow for security check before boarding and managed to reach the designated Gate for boarding just in time for the scheduled departure (18:05 Hrs). However, just as we were getting ready for boarding, the departure schedule was revised to 19:15 and eventually the flight could take off at 20:30 Hrs -- you guessed it right -- due to bad weather and poor visibility earlier
in the day, all flights had been affected.

By the time we touched down at Kochi at 23:15 Hrs., we were all too tired and sleepy and not to mention, eager to get rid of the woollens! I patted myself for making the smart choice for arranging night stay in a hotel near Airport (Quality Airport Hotel, Nedumbassery, Kochi).
The only downside was that the Hotel staff did not pay heed to my request for Airport pickup and we had to request for a Uber cab to drop at the Hotel roughly 2 km from the airport. The check-in was a breeze and we retired for the day almost immediately.

Day 1: December 3, 2016

The breakfast at the hotel restaurant was delightful and sumptuous with a blend of continental and south Indian preparations. One particular mention is a sweet ball called Sugiyan, which I had never tasted before. We were to report at the Lakshadweep wharf in Willingdon Island about 35 km from the hotel and once again UberGo came to our rescue and we reached the destination by 10:15 Hrs. and had to pay Rs. 775 in cash for the ride. A princely sum indeed in these times of currency crunch post demonetization! And a valuable lesson learned -- always cross-check the mode of payment before booking the ride!

The scene at
Lakshadweep wharf was chaotic at best and it took some time to make sense of it. It so turned out that the chaos on ground floor was because of the regular passengers between Kochi and Lakshadweep islands. The tourists' affairs were handled by the SPORTS office at the first floor. The staff at the desk enquired about the the identities and handed over the boarding pass for the ship M.V. Kavaratti along with a set of complimentary T-shirt and cap! After the standard security checks by CISF, we were then taken to Ernakulam wharf where M.V. Kavaratti was berthed.


We were allotted cabin number 581 on the fifth deck (top most) of the ship. The first class (air conditioned) twin occupancy cabin had everything that one could ask for -- a two tier bunk bed, a writing desk (for typing this log), two cupboards, a hot water bath and the water closet. No eatables were allowed
inside the cabin and everybody had to follow the schedule of the ship for morning tea, breakfast, and dinner. Lunch and evening tea were arranged by the SPORTS at their resorts in different islands on different days with the exception of the first and last days of the cruise when the lunch and evening tea were also served on the ship. The food quality is nothing to write home about but it served the basic purpose of providing adequate nutrition and satiate hunger.


Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the SPORTS provided decent vegetarian meals in a mostly non-vegetarian region. Shortly after lunch, there was a briefing by the programme manager from SPORTS about the SAMUDRAM package and dos and don'ts of living in a ship. M.V. Kavaratti is a small passenger ship with a total capacity of about 800 persons on board including 100 crew. The ship is also equipped with a functional hospital with a resident doctor on-board. The ship was to sail overnight for about 400 kms to reach Minicoy next day morning.

Day 2: December 4, 2016

The day started early with morning tea served in the cafetaria/dining hall during 6:00-6:30 Hrs. followed by a simple breakfast of bread-butter-jam and tea/coffee and we were instructed to reach the embarkation gate on the first deck to disembark onto smaller boats for taking us to Minicoy shores. This business of going to embarkation gate to disembark reminded me of the most common idiosyncrasies of today's world -- click on "Start" tab to "Stop/Shutdown" the (M$-Window$) computer. From the jetty, we were taken to a tour of an old
light house of 1885 vintage which is still operational although the petroleum-vapour lamp has given way to elecric lamp powered by a huge battery bank. The complimentary welcome drink of coconut water was a pleasant surprise for us and a smart arrangement by the SPORTS given the abundance of coconut growing in the wild. It is indeed amazing that in spite of so much vegetation around, people in these parts are predominantly non-vegetarians.
Kayaking
After the tour of lighthouse, the next stop was the SPORTS resort at Minicoy for a wonderful kayaking experience. Snorkeling and scuba diving were also available on additional payment. The lunch was arranged at the resort along the beach and then after a bit of lazying around in the Sun shade, we were taken through a round of the village life at Falissery village. The evening tea with masala wada and a sweet made of rice powder was arranged at the village madarsa. We were then shipped back to the
M.V. Kavaratti at around 17:30 Hrs.
The snake boat ready for race

Day 3: December 5, 2016





The second day of the cruise took us to Kalpeni island with snorkeling, kayaking and swimming on offer as part of the standard package. We were taken to a small island in shallow waters for these activities. Sorkelling allows a view of  the marine life from close quarters and it is spell-binding. Spent the entire day there till lunchtime. After lunch at the Tourist Centre, it was time for folk dance performance by the members of Priyadarshini Club of Kalpeni using props similar to Dandia and also something similar to a wooden sword and shield. Subsequently, a tour was organized through the village and cottage industry for coconut processing. The heaps of used coconut shells looked eerily similar to the imagery of skull heap of Khmer Rouge era. It is amazing to see how the subconscious mind relates geometrical shapes to dig old memories - Bayesian engine at work! The small scale coconut processing unit was doing a brisk business selling coconut oil, desiccated coconut powder, laddoos (sweet balls), etc. to the tourists eager to take home souvenirs from this island. We were taken back to the Tourist Centre for evening tea/coffee with light snacks.  The beauty of the marine life and corals is to be seen to believe. Snorkeling is a must-have experience and I would consider it as one of the most memorable event of the trip.
The lighthouse of Kalpeni island as seen from the ship M.V. Kavaratti

Day 4: December 6, 2016

Temporary jetty for boarding glass bottom boat
The last day of the tour was earmarked for the beautiful beach side resort at Kavaratti -- the administrative HQ of the union territory. The day's activities included a ride in the glass bottomed boat to look at the fishes and corals after a welcome coconut drink. Snorkeling and scuba diving was also available on additional payment. Its a beautiful beach with a lot of scope for fun and frolic and water sports. The lunch was arranged at the beach and after lazing in the beach, it was time to visit the Marine museum and aquarium and shark pool in the city. The museum has various specimen from marine life on display while the aquarium houses several fishes, lobsters and octopus in pools. A major attraction is a pair of big sharks in the shark pool in the annexe of the aquarium. It was back to the beach after the museum visit for a cup of hot tea/coffee with samosa. Yes! Samosa is served in Kavaratti as well! A couple of young girls from the village performed a few folk dances till the boats were ready to ferry us back to the ship - M.V. Kavaratti. This being the last night on the ship a small musical
event was arranged at the deck after dinner for the tourists' farewell. We retired for the day with the news of Ms. J. Jaylalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu being ciritically ill and the dreadful news was confirmed during the breakfast next morning.



Sun and sands - the beach at Kavaratti

Corals colony as seen from the glass bottom boat

The dining area of the Tourist Centre

Crab getting into the hole!

Kavaratti beach

Crab trying to come out of the shell

Day 5: December 7, 2016

The ship docked at the Ernakulam wharf at around 11:15 Hrs. and we collected our baggage and bid adieu to the Tour manager thanking him for a wonderful experience. We had a booking at the Sara Hotels and Apartments at the airport road about 35 km from the wharf and checked in to the hotel by 14:00 Hrs. It is a new hotel and the room is just adequate and furnished rather spartanly. We had our lunch in the restaurant downstairs and we encountered our first instance of language hurdle during the trip. The hotel staff had difficulty in communicating either in English or Hindi and none of us could speak Malayalam! The menu did not have much to choose from in the vegetarian section and we just made our way with the standard Dal-Roti-Sabzi staple and retired to catch up with the extended siesta. The evening was spent in taking a stroll in the neighbourhood followed by a delicious dinner at the Quality Airport Hotel, which is just a walking distance from Sara Hotels. Post-dinner walk towards the Airport road saw us looking at a wonderful collection of confectioneries at the AJFAN's.

Day 6: December 8, 2016

The day set aside exclusively for shopping. We made our way to the
main shopping area of M.G. Road about 30 km from the airport road and
bought Kerala sarees and handicraft items. An amazing array of ethnic wear is available at KasavuKada and we could also get some change for Rs. 2000 note in lower denomination notes. The 20th Kochi International Book Festival was also going on and we dropped in to have a look -- and the first sight greeting us was the mobile ATM van which was disbursing upto Rs. 1000/-. I immediately withdrew 10 x 100 Rs. notes without any fuss or queue. Another ATM on the M.G. road had a display of "Only 2000 Rs. notes" and there was no queue. I withdrew Rs. 2000 from that ATM as well - just to feel secure with a little real cash in the wallet. The lunch at Dwarka Hotel offered a taste of the authentic Kerala cuisine. Another round of souvenir hunting followed the lunch session before we retired to our cozy little room at Sara Hotels.

Day 7: December  9, 2016

The day started early - at 4:00 Hrs. to get ready to depart for the airport at 5:00 Hrs. The flight to Delhi was scheduled at 07:20 Hrs. The flight took off on time and reached Delhi on the scheduled time as well. We took the Airport Express Metro to reach New Delhi Railway station and checked into the IRCTC Lounge on the Ajmeri Gate side to relax and have lunch. Subsequently, we boarding the  Jan Shatabdi Express at 15:15 Hrs. which eventually left Delhi at 17:00 Hrs. and we got down at Roorkee at 20:30 Hrs.

End of an interesting and refreshing trip! In the end I can say, "If alcohol and casinos are not on your agenda then Lakshadweep offers a much better deal than Goa!"

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Kizuna Project: the grand Japanese plan to revitalise the economy of 2011 tsunami affected area

We were invited by the Japanese government to visit the area affected by tsunami in March 2011 under the banner of Kizuna Project. It is the Japanese version of rural employment guarantee scheme: to bring in about 10000 international visitors to visit the tsunami ravaged area, pumping in money in the aviation sector, hotel/hospitality sector, and boost tourism and help revive local economy from the sale of local souvenirs to the visitors and at the same time to convey the message to international community that it is safe to visit these areas - the Fukushima disaster notwithstanding. Ours was the third batch from India comprising of students and faculty supervisors from IITs to visit Sendai, Onagawa and Minamisanriku during Feb. 4-13, 2013.

Apart from other obvious take aways, one lasting impression is that of taking due diligence to the extreme - the Japanese go into minute details on everything they do whether it is planning an excursion or going out to dinner! I post some of the pictures from the visit here. I'll add my notes as and when I can - have been postponing this post for that very reason!



Yukata - the Japanese night dress
Prevention is better than cure! Most of the Japanese can be seen with such masks in public places.
Bullet train station at Tokyo
The bullet train
Bullet train station at Tokyo

The bullet train

Snow fall at Sendai

Snow fall at Sendai