Boat trips are a holiday staple, and I consider any holiday that isn’t at least in part on the water to be incomplete. Our hotel in Mumbai was right next to The Gateway Of India, which is also where most of the city’s boat trips begin, so each morning as we headed out into town we had to run a gauntlet of hawkers trying to sell us tours of the harbour. Finally we plumped for the trip to Elephanta Island, which is about an hour’s boat ride away.
By the time we got to the island we realised that we’d left it a bit late in the day (not setting off until 3pm). As the passengers disembarked (or de-boated if you’re American) we were told that the last boat of the day would be setting off at 5.30. By this time it was alrready 4.30 so that gave us just an hour to tour the island’s caves: not as easy as it sounds.
The boat dock is at the end of a long and narrow concrete causeway, so to even reach the island you either have to walk the two hundred yards or pay 10 Rupees each for a return ticket on the narrow gauge railway. The train was one of those little ones with open carriages like you get at theme parks, only older, noisier, and bumpier. Being a 5 Star kind of guy I paid the 40 Rupees for the family to travel in style. The five minute journey was spent watching the half-dozen stray dogs that ran alongside hoping for tidbits and recovering from the whiplash injuries sustained from the train’s jerky start. Once we reached land the sheer folly of the task ahead was clear. Before us rose a long, twisting stone stairway leading up into the hills. The stairs were wet and slippery, lined on both sides by souvenir stalls and covered by sheets of blue plastic sheeting to keep the rain off. By the time we’d reached the top of the climb we were exhausted and sweaty, and had already used up a third of our available time.
We fast-walked to the first cave and took a couple of photos, then headed off in search of the second (there are five). Just short of the second cave we found a toilet block and I was starting to get anxious about missing the boat back, so Elliot went on to view cave #2 on our behalf while the rest of us powdered our noses. The trip back down the stairway was quicker, partly because we were now going down but also because the stall vendors had all shut up shop for the day–another danger sign that time was running out. At the bottom of the hill I bought some snacks and drinks–what with the heat, the exertion, and the anxiety, my blood sugar was running low–then boarded the rickety train back. Once again the train jerked into life without warning, and once again we had stray dog outriders. They looked at me with eternal hope in their eyes as I scoffed all the chocolate biscuits in the pack while staring blankly back.
We made it to the boat with a few minutes to spare and sat down facing four young Indian lads who had all bought large corn on the cobs. As we set off back to Mumbai across the grey, choppy waters we faced each other: I with my crisps and Coke and they with their corn. Further over to my right were two men with a small boy, sitting by the guard rail.
A little later I finished my crisps and looked around for a litter bin. On not finding one, I did what any law-abiding Brit would do and put the litter in my bag until I’d find a bin at the dock. The four Indian lads were less scrupulous, and one by one as they finished their corn they got up, walked over to where the two men and boy were sitting and threw their rubbish over the side. By this time we were about halfway back, and one of the two men–whom I took to be the boy’s father–was starting to look queasy. I’m not prone to seasickness myself but I could see how the boat’s rocking and tilting could set one off. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he jumped up and threw up over the side of the boat. The rest of us looked on, part in sympathy and part with worry about wind direction. He sat down again, looking pale, but was up and hurling again soon after. This second lot also stayed outside the boat, to group relief, and afterward he stood there leaning over the edge, trying to regain his composure. It was at this point that Abigail remembered the bottle of water she had in her bag. She’d brought it from the hotel room and it was still unopened. Thinking the sick man would appreciate some fresh water she walked over and gave the bottle to his friend/brother. He immediately and silently took it and dropped it over the side. We exchanged a few “what just happened there?” looks with our fellow passengers, all of whom had been on Vomit Alert this whole time, and so had been watching the proceedings carefully. The man quickly realised his error and smiled awkwardly, to muted titters. Sick Man, oblivious, remained with his back to us, gazing out to sea and wishing he had some water.