Tuesday, April 22, 2014

27: Mauritius...emerging and intriguing...

The harbor area of Port Louis, Mauritius.

After the excitement of Neptune day (of which the shaved heads of both male and female students were a constant reminder), faculty and students turned their focus to three days of classes before our arrival in Mauritius.

We would be in Mauritius for only twelve hours. It is not always clear why the program chooses not to overnight at a particular port, but of course there are always rumors. More likely than not, the decision was a financial one (as are most ship related decisions). The costs of running a program like Semester At Sea are staggering (and definitely a conversation for another time...).

There was no Interport lecturer for Mauritius, but the overview of the island country given by faculty member Lewis Hinchman sparked my interest in learning more.

The physical setting of Port Louis (volcanic in origin) is stunning.
We were welcomed with dancing and drums.

Mauritius is a middle-income nation on par with Uruguay or Bulgaria, and has enjoyed a 5% - 6% growth rate since it gained independence in 1968. English is the language of government, but French and Creole are spoken as well. Life expectancy on par with the US (69 for men and 77 for women), and healthcare is free. The legal system is respected, the government generally transparent, and it is considered one of the easiest places to do business (according to the World Bank). And finally, the country appears to really work at honoring its diverse heritage. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society that seems to do more than just pay lip service to the concept.

Most of us know Mauritius as the the home of the Dodo bird, hunted to extinction by the Dutch who settled on the island in 1638 to 1710. An extremely large bird (50 pounds) that had no animal predators and had lost the ability to fly, the Dodo had no fear of humans and was easy prey for hungry settlers.

But before the Dutch, it was the Portuguese who first came across the uninhabited island on their way to India in 1507 but chose not stay to stay.

In 1715, five years after the Dutch left, the French came. They renamed the country Isle de France, set up sugar plantations and imported slaves to work on them. During their time here, the city of Port Louis became a naval base and ship building center. In 1810, the French surrendered Isle de France to the British, and the country was once again called Mauritius. Many of the French plantation owners chose to stay and when British abolished slavery in 1835, indentured servants, primarily from India were brought in to replace the slaves. In 1968, when independence came, the transition was surprisingly smooth, possibly due to a a stable clan of landowners (over the years, despite their low income, indentured servants were able to scrounge enough money to buy small parcels of land as they came up for sale) and an already educated population in the civil service (when administrators were needed, the ethnic Indians were sent to England for education, as was the case in India).

Interestingly, the island, which could have fragmented into opposing ethnic / religious groups, didn’t. Perhaps through smart leadership, the political parties managed to campaign on the issues, and to this day, candidates are recruited from a cross section of every constituency. Mauritius’ leadership has also managed to stay one step ahead on the economy as well.

Gary had been asked to lead one of the Field Programs in Mauritius – the Mauritius Ecosystem Tour. Our guide was an engaging young man whose ethnic heritage reflected the country itself: African, Indian, European and Chinese.

After traveling southeast across the island by bus, we waited on this shore for forty minutes, hoping
the driving rain would subside so we could take a boat to an small island preserve.

It was overcast as we climbed on the bus, and it started pouring in earnest just as we approached the beach where we were take a boat to a nature preserve. Fortunately our guide saved the day by modifying our itinerary and taking us to the Vanille Reserve des Mascareignes, Mauritius' park for Giant Tortoises and Crocodiles.

So we headed to our next stop, which totally captivated us....Giant Tortoises!

Giant Tortoises on the move! There is something so primordial and appealing about these lumbering creatures.

You feel compelled to touch them. Fortunately, that is allowed.
We were told we could feed them (but not get too close) and sit on them too....the kids loved it (as did the adults).

Some food is spotted...

Adolescent Giant Tortoises....they haven't yet learned that it's impolite to walk over each other during meals...

Crocodiles. After seeing these teeth, the crocodile on the lunch menu didn't phase us.

Despite the rain, we enjoyed the Park so much we chose to stay there to have lunch at Le Crocodile affamé Cafe and Restaurant. Prominent on the menu were crocodile burgers and crocodile curry. We had an adventurous group who tried both. No, it didn't taste like chicken, but more like a red meat.

After lunch we decided that our visit would be complete if we could visit a beach.

Windswept trees along the beach.

Touching the Indian Ocean...a beautiful pristine beach with clear and quite warm (!) water.

The many kids who came on the excursion kept it all lively...lot's of questions and lot's of laughter.

Monday, April 21, 2014

26: Neptune Day...

King Neptune's Court Torturer looks out to sea...
We said our goodbyes to Kochi and sadly, also to a wonderful faculty member who had to leave the voyage. While in Varanasi, she slipped, breaking her femur. While the Academic Dean scrambled to determine how best to cover her three classes, we turned our focus back to academics. It would take us six days to reach our next port, Mauritius - the longest stretch at we'd had since reaching Japan - plenty of time to re-establish the class routine and dig into the coursework. Or so Gary thought...

He had forgotten about the peculiar sea traditions associated with crossing the equator, which on Semester At Sea, was called Neptune Day. But it came back to him when he heard the cryptic announcement: “all shellbacks and emerald shellbacks to report to Glazer Lounge at 7am the next day”, which was a Study Day, and also, by coincidence, St Patrick’s Day.

Upon crossing the equator, a Pollywog becomes a Shellback. And if you are fortunate to cross hit 0 longitude and 0 latitude, you reach the exalted status of Emerald Shellback.

But it’s not just a matter of crossing the imaginary line. You have to go through a few trials first before being deemed worthy of the honor by King Neptune himself. The trials involve being doused with fish guts, diving into the cleansing pool, kissing a fish, and then kneeling before the King to pledge allegiance and ask permission to cross the equator.

The one final (and optional) way in which you could also commemorate the occasion was by shaving your head. The numbers of students (with a smattering of children and adults), both male and female, who made this choice was significant, and the royal barbers were kept busy into the afternoon, amid the chaos of celebration – with loud music and wild dancing, of course.

What a spectacle! There sure wasn’t a lot of “studying” being done on Study Day.

King Neptune's Army (our cabin crew) march through the hallways banging on drums
(and pots and pans...), rousing the pollywogs from their slumbers.

A lovely lady of King Neptune's Court (one of our Resident Directors).

Our Master of Ceremonies directs the pollywogs through their different trials
while our ship's Staff Captain looks on (to the left).

The unsuspecting pollywogs await their trials...

King Neptune and his Queen!

The Royal Fish Handlers.
Students line up, all smiles...

and get doused with fish guts! (or rather a blue-ish goo substitute...)

Faculty don't get a free pass...

And neither do staff or their families...

Or recently minted officers!

Diving into the cleansing pool...

Kissing the fish...yuck!

Kneeling before King Neptune to swear allegiance and kiss his ring....

It's all good...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

25: Munnar Tea Gardens, Kerala, India...

Lush rolling hills of the Munnar Tea Estates in Kerala, India

Kerala is sometimes referred to as “Gods own Country”. Once we left the congested roadways around Kochi and started climbing up to lush green rolling hills of the Munnar Hill Station’s tea estates, we could see why.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers: the Madhurapuzha, Nallanthanni and Kundaly, Munnar is about a six-hour drive from Kochi. More than half of our drive was on winding mountain roads best suited for a single lane of traffic rather an two. Curiously, our bus had not only a driver, but also a “spotter,” who helped the driver gauge clearances am provide a second pair of eyes on the road. The horn was used liberally.

We leave the city of Kochi behind as we head into the Munnar Hills.

We passed the Kerala "Backwaters" on our way. Vacationers can rent houseboats
 and spend time relaxing in this natural and peaceful setting.

One of the two waterfalls we encountered on the way.
We were to have lunch in Munnar. The small city wasn’t quite what I expected. The term “Hill Station” evoked images of a bygone era, of genteel English garden estates, rather than the haphazardly overbuilt, dusty and grungy commercial area we drove through. There were billboards everywhere. One billboard, which we had seen frequently on the drive and also here, mysteriously demanded, “Call Aishwarya xxx-xxxx.” And I wondered – why?

Once we got off the bus, we started walking uphill. Our surroundings transitioned slowly until we came to an imposing gate (including a gatekeeper). The gate opened into a resort hotel, set within manicured grounds. This was more like what I expected. Beyond the beautifully tended gardens, we could see the distinct landscape of tea on the surrounding hillside. Everyone was thoroughly captivated. My only quibble with lunch was that they didn’t serve masala chai. However, they did have ice cream, which for Gary and the forty or more students, was a fitting reward for our hours in the bus.

One of the resort's gardeners.

Lake created by a dam that was built by the British during their occupation of India.

After lunch we piled back on the bus and drove for another hour or more. The scenery was just beautiful. I could feel the collective anticipation spreading among us. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and start hiking!

The patterns and textures created by the paths navigating the gently rolling hills and the
individual tea bushes, was just breathtaking.

In the back of my mind, however, I had one nagging concern. How hard would it be for me to hike for two hours carrying my pack, taking photographs, AND manage to keep up with a bunch of 18 – 21 year olds? I breathed a sigh of relief when our guide told us that the bus would let us off and then proceed to a parking area that would be about a fifteen minute walk from our camp, so we could leave our packs on the bus if we preferred. I preferred! But interestingly, most of the students, including Gary, decided to carry their packs. I have no idea why.

We tumbled off the bus. It was just so beautiful – blue skies, puffy white clouds, clean mountain air. Even without my pack, I was often at the end of the procession. It’s amazing how far behind you can get when you stop for even a minute or two to take photographs every five minutes. Gary kept me company now and then, and fortunately, we had an additional guide at the rear, keeping track of all the photographer stragglers.

Off we go!

A single family home and vegetable garden carved out of the tea bush landscape.
We made it into camp as the sun was setting. The tents were all up, the crew was busy preparing dinner, and an area was reserved for a campfire with fifty folding chairs set in a circle around it.  One student – an eagle scout, no doubt – took it upon himself to scrounge for firewood and soon had a fire going. As we lost the sun, the temperature began to drop rapidly. The crew put out tea and snacks, and we sat around the fire and talked.

Our tents...
That night it got really cold. The zipper of my sleeping bag was broken. Our sleep was fitful. The camp toilets were, well, camp toilets.  We were roughing it! But the crew was earnest and wonderful. The multi-course dinner they prepared took a great deal of effort (and time…we didn’t get to eat until 8:30pm…but then an Indian dinner for almost fifty people is not like having a barbeque…) and was absolutely delicious.

We woke to a brilliant sunrise, and what promised to be a beautiful day. We had a full day of hiking ahead of us, and a picnic lunch.

What a brilliant morning!

We learned a little about tea bushes – that they could survive for a hundred years – and that the leaves were plucked almost every day by hand, or clipped with modified shears that pushed the leaves into an attached bag. The type of tea grown here is Nilgiri, an aromatic black tea.

Most of the “pluckers” were women – a cheerful bunch who responded easily to our greetings and smiled for our cameras, Though they didn’t make that much money by western standards, their employment benefits included free healthcare for the entire family and free education through high school for their children.

Women plucking the tea leaves in the mid morning.

Detail of the tea plant. Only one variety of tea, Nilgiiri (blue leaf), an aromatic black tea, is grown here.

One of the tea leaf clippers.

Around lunchtime the tea pluckers bring their harvest down from the hills to be weighed.

Then they bag it up again to load on the truck.

A village near our lunch spot.

A Shiva Temple perched on the hillside amid the tea bushes.
As often as we'd see a Hindu temple, we'd see a church or Christian shrine.

The village where our bus was waiting to take us back to camp.

As usual the hike downhill was more taxing than the climb uphill. Though the terrain was changing. We left the hillsides with tea behind and rolled into a village, creating a bit of diversion for the local children.

Children in the village are happy to pose together for a shot.

One last photo!
After a short ride in the air conditioned bus, we got back to camp, tired but content. Some of our group had the energy to strike out on their own for some additional hiking before dinner. The rest of us settled in for the evening. As the crew began preparations for dinner, our guide told us that we could get a lesson in making the Kerala Parathas that would accompany our meal.

Unlike the parathas I was used to (roll out, layer with ghee, fold over into triangular shapes), these were rolled and then twirled - a bit like a pizza, but not up in the air - and slapped on to the table over and over, until they achieved the correct thinness. then they were spread with ghee, cut in half, and rolled by hand to look like a cinnamon roll and left to sit. After half an hour or so, they were flattened - by hand and then with a rolling pin - and cooked on a grill. Finally, after four of them had been grilled, they were stacked up and "smushed" together so it separated into layers. They were truly delicious, as was the entire dinner.

The next morning we said our goodbyes and thank you's to the crew, then settled into our bus to enjoy the spectacular scenery of "God's own Country" one last time.