At the Singapore Cruise Centre you will find a couple of very big white ships, brightly lit shops and hordes of wide-eyed Indians There are women in salwar suits in newly acquired branded sneakers, hairy, pot-bellied men in new sneakers too, coy honeymooning couples, and dozens of children zigzagging through luggage trolleys piled high with suitcases and bags of various colours and sizes.
The Agarwals from Raipur, Singhs from Bathinda, the Shahs from Surat and the Bhattacharyas from Burdwan — all part of a booming travel circus — jabber away in myriad languages and call out for children left behind at the taxi stand. “Arre, yeh Bittoo kahan chala gaya? Preeeeeti, zara udhar dekh na, jahaz nikal jaayega,” a man screams. It’s like the lawns of India Gate. It’s like you never left home!
The cruise centre is where we set sail from, on the Great Indian Vegetarian Cruise that not only offers “Jain food” — a phrase that envelops moong ki dal, aloo ki sabzi, papad, raita, achaar and kheer — but also topless dancers, magic shows, an unending supply of other cuisine, a glittering casino where Chinese dowagers shake their bewildered heads at slot machines, shopping and an opportunity to visit three countries in three days!
Bitten by the travel bug
Indians are travelling big and far. They travel with friends, family and strangers. And a lot of them travel to Singapore where they shop and then board cruise ships that take them to Malaysia and Thailand. Singapore is all about order; the cruise centre and the ship about the usual Indian chaos.
Indians make up the third-biggest tourist force after Indonesians and Chinese that invades Singapore every year. Last year, more than 6,58,000 of them travelled to the island. In 2005, India was Singapore’s top cruise source market with 63,000 cruisers after Australia and Indonesia.
Vegetarian food and shopping seems to be a huge attraction, not only on the cruise liner but also in places where it docks. “There are now vegetarian restaurants in Kuala Lumpur,” Mr Shah from Surat told me proudly on one of my trips, as he dragged his two teenage sons on a bus ride from Port Klang to Malaysia’s capital to see the twin Petronas tower. His bored wife followed.
Malay food — satay, nasi lemak, rendang, roti canai, murtabak, laksa — is fantastic, but imagine digging into daal parantha and kadhi around the Merdeka Square or somewhere on the bustling Pataling Street?
Mr Agarwal, with a heavy gold chain adorning his neck, told me on another of my several cruises that he and his three friends were traveling with their families as he eyed a jacuzzi next to the pool on the top deck of the mammoth vessel. The next afternoon he, his wife and daughter immersed themselves gleefully in its swirling warm water and splashed happily.
The son found a bottle of shampoo in the shower next to the pool. "Papa," he screamed, “is mein anda to nahin hota?” For a young vegetarian lad that seemed to be a perplexing issue, which was quickly settled when his father said no, it didn’t. The fellow then went on to dab a large handful on his head and enjoyed himself thoroughly.
I am a fan of these cruises. Not only do you get to ride in a floating five-star hotel, the all-inclusive fare offers you and the family an opportunity to eat all you can all day long, immerse yourself in the pool, sit on a roulette table and watch others blow away their hard-earned money, get an invigorating massage, jog on the top deck, read a book in the library or just sit in the cabin balcony and watch the sea.
It can be extremely relaxing with a few irritating breaks when you get to hear somebody shout, “ Oye Baljit, ithe aajaa” or “Yaar, saare papad khatam ho gaye” in the dining hall as the ship rolls into Phuket, the third of the three countries in three days. That’s where you go shopping, the ultimate orgasm for an Indian tourist.
Indians are not well liked in Phuket, a place famous for its beaches, mostly due to their desire to bargain for everything. The Thai boys manning rows of umbrella-covered chairs on the beach swear incessantly as they watch women in ballooning saris trying to stay afloat and mortified husbands taking their last shot at a James Bond style adventure — paragliding over the warm waters of the Andaman Sea. The hair-raising ride meets a watery end as excited friends and kids run to fish them out from the water.
A small suggestion for Indians landing from the cruise on the Patong beach — look for shopping opportunities on the road that runs behind the one along the beach. That’s where you might find better bargains and slightly temperate shopkeepers willing to strike bargains in the afternoon heat.
Once done, you can hop into one of the massage shops lining the streets for a good, clean hour-long knead for about 200 baht. By then it would be time to get back to the ship, dabble in serious vegetarianism and start the journey back to Singapore.