Asia,  India,  Travel

In Vasco da Gama’s footsteps – St. Mary’s Islands

It was a dark stormy night on the high seas in A.D. 1498. The waves were strong, splashing hard against the sides of the ship, sending its inhabitants into a frenzy. To make things worse, torrential rains poured down upon them. Months and months had past sailing on the oceans and now these mariners desperately needed to find land.

Hours later, the waves calmed down, the clouds cleared and it was dawn. The sun was at the horizon now, the sky a medley of dreamy colours.

And then a scream from the heavens pierced the air. “Land ahoy!” Sure enough, after nights and nights on the stormy Arabian sea, Vasco da Gama’s crew had finally reached the land they’d been in search for ages – India.

And no, it wasn’t Calicut. It was a small, modest group of islands off the coast of Karnataka.

While I made that story up (like some of us writers are wont to do out of a want to create intrigue) da Gama really did dock at the St. Mary’s Islands. And on a hot September afternoon, my best friend Bhavya and I were about to do it too.

It was da Gama who gave the islands their name when he erected a cross there and christened them “O Padrão de Santa Maria”, a dedication to Mother Mary, before heading off to the mainland.

To get to these islands, one must brave a journey on the ‘high seas’ much like da Gama’s. St. Mary’s Islands are a few miles off the coast of Malpe Beach in Karnataka. When it’s not raining, boat services to the main island from Malpe run every half hour – or rather when there are ‘enough people to fill a boat’.

Leaving Malpe behind

After you get over the initial shock of getting into the unstable dinghy – hardly the grand vessel that da Gama alighted from – there is the topsy-turvy motion of the waves accompanied with the unsettling visual of ten-odd men playing with tug of war with the raft that you have to endure until many sputterings of the motor (precariously hanging on to the boat) later it is finally out into the sea.

The sun bore down on the boat, the sea spray stung my face, the wind howled in my ears and whipped my hair back. Out in the distance I noticed a seagull swoop down to catch silvery fish and drop it time and again. I squinted at it until I could see it no more. Across the bow of the boat a few coconut trees swayed in the distance – we were about to dock.

“Meet here, boat go back in 45 minutes,” said our skipper, hurriedly disembarking us. Unfair since we just spent fifteen getting here, we thought as we dodged a jellyfish marooned on the shore in a race to get to the most secluded spot on the island.

The island was not unlike the one in TinTin’s The Shooting Star – slightly eerie with its tall, queer cuboidal columns of granite rock, covered with sharp crab eggs and its shore with its enormous hard shells, hard to walk on.

It was quite the hike jumping from column to another, dodging crab eggs and hard shells in our flip flops but after five minutes of labouring in the hot sun, we had found our bay!

This little alcove was a perfect spot to swim

It was everything.

Until we were disturbed by passers-by who had never seen girls in their bathing suits before. Nevertheless, it was absolutely serene there in the stark blue waters, the sunlight dancing off the waves and the never ending blue sky above.

And just like that it was time to go. We bundled ourselves on the boat and sailed off – more like ‘bobbed off’ – as the islands disappeared into oblivion.

I believe there is a plaque there that speaks of Vasco da Gama’s arrival for which I reserve a special hike during another 45  minutes of some other day.

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