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A PASSAGE AROUND INDIA Colorful variety of East greets passengers on tour of seldom-visited ports CRUISES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was 7 a.m. when we hurried to an upper deck on the Ocean Pearl. Our ship had just docked, and we wanted a bird's-eye view of the commotion on the pier. A trio was turning out a whining tune that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

There, too, a dozen women, all clad in royal blue saris, were sweeping the pier with twig brooms. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man walking toward the trio, carrying a basket and horn. He opened the basket. Here was the local snake charmer!

Good morning and welcome to Madras, a peppy city in southern India (the country's fourth-largest at 5 million) that makes plaid cloth like nobody's business.

Madras was the halfway point in our 24-day "Jewels of India" itinerary with Pearl Cruises. India is a 5,000-year-old land, a country so exotic and mysterious you keep rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Every day something strange would happen to remind me: India is on the other side of the world.

Such moments took place on land as well as sea, thanks to a program Pearl Cruises has put together called a "CruiseTour" -- a combination of hotel stays in major cities and a cruise to seldom-visited ports.

So before the cruise began, we spent five days on the land segment of "CruiseTour," getting our first tastes of India in Delhi, Agra and the romantic desert realm of Rajasthan. We visited bazaars in Old Delhi and gazed at the Taj Mahal. We rode elephants up to a medieval hilltop fort and spent the night in a maharajah's former palace.

We soon discovered that our hotels (all first-class) furnished numerous exotic amenities, such as in-house astrologers. The sign outside the hotel chambers of one of the seers read: "Renowned astro-palmist, tells everything about you -- past, present, future! Consultation: 200 rupiah [about $11]."

Even a drive down the road could be high adventure in India. Our cars had to fight for road space with an endless parade of life of every kind. Cranky camels and donkeys pulled carts. Cows, considered sacred in the country, lounged in the middle of over-congested roads. Peacocks, water buffalo and bears ambled smack into the paths of full-tilt traffic. Drivers of motorized rickshaws piloted them like bumper cars. Trucks never stopped blasting their horns at the millions of pedestrians who make up the world's second-largest country (845 million).

The Latin touch

By the time I boarded the ship in Bombay, where the cruise began, I had begun to suspect that India might be a three-ring circus. But I hadn't seen the half of it yet.

After an overnight sail down the western coast of India, we found ourselves docked in Goa, in a tropical downpour. One of the first clues that this was an India of a different stripe was in eatery with the name of Fernandez Restaurant.

Our guide had a ready explanation: "Goa was a Portuguese colony for 450 years, until 1961."

The Latin beat still echoes in jungly Goa. As our bus bounced along the second-bumpiest road I've ever traveled on, we passed white churches and imposing cathedrals, stucco Portuguese homes with red tile roofs and a town called Vasco da Gama where billboards shouted: "Stray Cattle Causes Accidents."

Two days later, we awoke in Cochin, near the southern tip of India, to find one of the big welcoming officials waiting on the dock: a temple elephant decked out in a gold headdress that towered (and teetered) over its head. Waiting also was Abraham, our guide, who immediately remarked, "You can see many different lives here in Cochin."

Under a brilliant sun, we set off to see goodness knows what. Before long, we were staring at a United Nations' worth of sights: the 435-year-old Mattancherry Palace (built by the Portuguese, restored by the Dutch), a synagogue (1568) and the Portuguese church of St. Francis (1503), where Vasco de Gama once was buried. (The explorer died there in 1524; 14 years later, his remains were moved to Portugal.)

Outside the church, children were playing cricket. Along the shoreline, fishermen still used traditional Chinese fishing nets introduced by traders from Kublai Khan's court.

How right our guide had been! One couldn't help but see many ways of life here. But why such a cosmopolitan past? It was the lure of spices that drew major European traders to this region, home of the world's best pepper, known as "black gold."

One thing was becoming clear about this trip: Because of India's vast size and amazing diversity, a cruise is the most relaxing and efficient way to tackle a good-sized portion of the subcontinent. Traveling by ship, we could depend on the food and water being safe for Western stomachs -- more than that, the food was exquisite.

Paradise on a beach

The next day, our ship continued farther and farther south, beyond the "toe" of India and deep into the Indian Ocean. We were bound for the Republic of the Maldives, a cluster of 1,200 coral islands about 300 miles south of India.

Two days later, we scanned the sea to find our ship surrounded by tiny, pancake-flat islands. Fleecy clouds and an 84-degree temperature filled the bluest sky imaginable.

For some beach play and a sumptuous barbecue, passengers were transported by boat to Kuda Bandos, a speck that fits to a T the Hollywood image of the perfect beachcomber island: It featured crystal water, talcum sand and great snorkeling, and was so teeny you can circle the island in 10 minutes, walking slowly. As one passenger put it, "You half expect the folks from 'Fantasy Island' to greet you when you arrive."

After the beach, we couldn't wait for some people-watching, so we headed for the island called Male (population 75,000), the spick-and-span capital of the Maldives.

In one shop, an old man demonstrated the use of a coconut hollowing tool when we asked about the baffling device. Another shopkeeper gave me free seashells. Near a golden-domed mosque, two girls on a motorbike smiled at us as they buzzed past, then turned around and came back to chat.

The next day, we were sailing north, back to India, when at 3 p.m., the captain, Derrick Kemp, announced: "Dolphins on the port side!" Passengers lined the rails, as dolphins raced with the ship, leaping and diving for nearly a half-hour.

It was the next morning that we met up with the snake charmer on the Madras dock. "Photo? Photo? he asked, slipping into his best snake charmer's pose, complete with cobra and mongoose on a leash. "No? OK. Then nice cobra wallet? Two dollars."

Nearby, a bazaar-in-a-tent was being set up on the dock, filled with saris, pith helmets and, of course, madras shirts. (Inside the collars, the labels read "Levi's" and "Made in India.")

Soon we were on a bad bus (no springs or shocks) on a bad road, undergoing the bumpiest ride of our lives. We were heading south of Madras and through the countryside of Tamil Nadu, a state in India that, as the people who live there will tell you, is the "most Indian" or "true Indian" part of the country. Why? Unlike northern India, I was told, Tamil Nadu has been little touched by foreigh invaders.

Thirty-five bone-crushing miles later, we found ourselves in the ancient kingdom of Mahabalipuram and gawking at seventh century rock temples and sculptures, among the most photographed sights in India. As I toured the temples, persistent but polite boys stayed on my heels, trying every pitch in the book to sell small stone sculptures of Hindu gods they had carved.

After a hot and dusty day touring on shore, it was always seventh heaven to return to the air-conditioned luxury of the 480-passenger Ocean Pearl with its pools (outdoor and indoor), sauna, massages, three bars, theater, entertainment, disco, well-stocked shop, gym, library and casino.

On to the islands

Two days later, we were about 750 miles east of Madras, in the Bay of Bengal, sailing among India's tropical Andaman Islands. Captain Kemp told us over the public-address system: "All these islands [total of 320] are protected and you're not allowed to visit" without special permission.

On some of these islands, the captain continued, "headhunters are here and they still use bows and arrows. And if you land on them you will probably be killed."

Oh.

But not to worry. South Andaman Island, where we're bound, is a tame island, we are assured. This particular island even has resorts. "Lots of Russian tourists there," the captain added.

The captain, who had visited South Andaman a few weeks earlier, went on: "Very few cruise chips have been here. It's a very interesting place to see."

Our first close encounter with the locals was pretty comforting. Some children were smiling and waving to us on the dock.

Before long, we were seeing the telltale sign that we were still in India: Cows were everywhere, on the loose and going their own ways.

We hooked up with a guide named Govi, a young fellow who told us that his grandfather was one of Mahatma Gandhi's freedom fighters and for that was sent to the island as a political prisoner.

It turned out that the old British penal colony there, the notorious Cellular Jail, had given the island its claim to fame -- and major tourist attraction.

At the massive jail (now a national memorial), Govi pointed out the gallows and horrible cells, saying, "my grandfather spent 25 years in one of these. Many of the island's residents are descendants of political prisoners. My father was born here."

After a peek at the anthropological museum and the marine museum, Govi dropped us off at Aberdeen Bazaar, the island's lively market area and general hangout, a place that's as photogenic as you can get. Clearly, the fierce folks were not on this island. When I took photos, no one asked for money. What did they do? They thanked me! These folks could teach classes in manners and civility.

Soon we would be leaving the lands of India. But before the

cruise would end, we had two more stops: the resort of Phuket, Thailand, and the temples town (1,000 of them!) of Penang, Malaysia. Then the voyage would wind up in Singapore.

NB But I was sad to be leaving India. I always did love a circus.

If you go . . .

Pearl Cruises next will offer its "Jewels of India" program during the fall and winter of 1992. The 23-day program includes a 14-day cruise aboard the 12,500-ton Ocean Pearl, a three-night land package in Delhi, a two-night overland tour to Agra (for the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri), plus a two-night land package in Singapore. Hotels are all first-class, such as the Mughal Sheraton in Agra.

For the 1992 season, the cruise will run between Bombay and Singapore, and include the Indian ports of Goa, Cochin and Madras. Also included: a call at Phuket, Thailand, as well as a two-day port call at Rangoon, Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Prices run from $3,995 to $8,750, per person, double occupancy.

Also available, as a pre- or post-cruise extension, are two optional "Vacation Stretchers": a two-night excursion to Jaipur, India's "Pink City" ($425, per person, double occupancy) and a four-night air excursion to Nepal's capital of Katmandu ($1,195, per person, double).

For more information about Pearl Cruises' India programs, see a travel agent or write the cruise line at 1510 S.E. 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33316; telephone (800) 426-3588.

Other lines offering India cruises:

*Cunard will be offering 13-day cruises between Bombay and Singapore aboard Sea Goddess II; telephone (800) 458-9000. Two sailings -- Nov. 10, 1991, and April 11, 1992 -- will be offered. The cruise price of $7,100 (rate is per person, double occupancy) includes shore excursions.

Royal Cruise Line -- (800) 227-5628 -- will be offering two sailings of "Empires of Asia & India," Jan. 1 and Feb 8, 1992. Prices for the 12-day cruise run from $2,738 to $6,758, per person, double occupancy. Optional two-night pre- or post-cruise hotel programs are available in Hong Kong or Delhi for the Taj Mahal.

For those who do decide to take this cruise, the cruise lines will provide much information. Pearl Cruises provides brochures detailing just about everything, from visas and health information, to clothes and a list of recommended readings.

I would add:

Bring lots of sunscreen. The higher sun-protection numbers aren't always available in India.

Bring much more film than you think you'll need. And moist towelettes are most refreshing during long, dusty shore excursions.

The 931-page "India: a Travel Survival Kit" (Lonely Planet, $19.95) is probably the best single guide to the country. A good companion guide is the beautifully illustrated, 359-page "India" (Insight Guides, $19.95).

For more information write the Government of India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 15 North Mezzanine, New York, N.Y. 10112; telephone (212) 586-4901.

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