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Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage – Part 1

Great Adventure Travelogue

 Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage

Part 1: Hong Kong to Penang, Malaysia

March 25-26, 2016

Dateline:  Hong Kong

Latitude at Hong Kong 22.39 Degrees North, Longitude 114.12 Degrees East

Refreshments on the Cathay Pacific Flight

Refreshments on the Cathay Pacific Flight

We got up at 3:00 a.m. to get ready for a 4:15 car service pick up to take us to catch our flight from Atlanta to Hong Kong via Chicago. Since we were going to be gone for 45 days, we packed like it was going to be several years – 3 bags weighing about 50 pounds each were checked, then I had a monster purse and roll-aboard and Gary had his Man Purse (a.k.a. messenger bag)  and backpack.  We flew American to Chicago, a flight of just over 2 hours and had a long layover in O’Hare, but we booked it that way on purpose to avoid stress in case of late flights and/or blizzards. We got some Hong Kong currency at O’Hare and got 680 Hong Kong Dollars for $100. US.  We had a 3:00 p.m. flight on Cathay Pacific, legendary for their food and service, and had decided to splurge on business class.  Cathay is an alternative name for Northern China dating back to medieval times. It sounds much more exotic than just plain old China. We would take an “Over the Pole” route which took us 15 hours and 50 minutes.   So by the time we return, we will have gone around the world, except this is a shortcut so we don’t have to cross the Pacific at its widest point, so that around the world may be debatable. The distance from Atlanta to Hong Kong is 8,380 miles, a mere 1/3 of the way around the world.

To get in the mood for Orient, we ate lunch at O’Hare at a place called Wow Bao (the two words rhyme). We ate dumplings (called “bao’s”) and a Thai rice bowl to get our taste buds ready. The plane and the flight were both wonderful . There were fresh orchids in a little wall mounted vase at every seat (although I suspect in coach the held off on the flowers). Each passenger in Business Class had a private cubicle and a seat that reclined flat for sleeping. We were served champagne to celebrate our departure, a great steak to rival Ruth’s Chris (part of the best airline food ever), watched a few movies and went to sleep. We were awakened for breakfast an hour out of Hong Kong. This was easily the best flight we have ever taken, but we regret that we slept through most of it. Total travel time was 27 hours including the layover, but it seemed way too easy. We are really going to be whining when we come home from England on Delta coach, but then its half the distance and a fraction of the cost.

Hong Kong Skyline

Hong Kong Skyline

We arrived at 8:00 p.m. at night on the following day – exactly 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time so we didn’t have to change our watches. For purposes of clarity, I will express time in terms of UTC which is Universal Time Coordinated, formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time since Longitude Zero passes through Greenwich, England. Hong Kong is at UTC plus 8 hours and Eastern Daylight is at UTC minus 4.

We took a taxi from the airport which is actually on a separate island from Hong Kong Island, across Lantau Island, and across a bridge that reminded us of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco We were briefly in Kowloon, which is part of the mainland and then traveled through two tunnels to Hong Kong Island. We had reservations at the Renaissance Harbor View across the street from the Convention Center in the Wan Chai district. Our cab driver got lost and had to ask for directions a few times, but we knew we were closing in on the hotel when the Convention Center kept appearing. We knew that there was such a thing as an Octopus Pass which we could have used for the mass transit system, but we never bought one, despite good advice from friends who had lived there. It seemed like we were either in the wrong place to buy it, or had no time to buy it. Next time we will know.

A Chinese Junk

A Chinese Junk

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. When it was turned over to China from the British in 1997, they were wise enough to leave it pretty much as it, instead of dragging it back fifty years to align with mainland China. There is a deep natural harbor here which made it a natural place for trade. It became a British Colony after the First Opium War in 1842 with China.

Originally just Hong Kong Island was settled, but the colonization expanded to include Kowloon in 1860, and then further expansion took in the New Territories on the Chinese Mainland in 1898. The colony was overrun by the Japanese during WWII, but after the Japanese surrender, the British came back in full force. After the turnover giving Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the area is now one country with two systems. China is Communist with severe restrictions on just about everything, and Hong Kong is pro-capitalism, operating with minimal government interference, lower taxes, and free trade. It is the world’s leading financial center with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. While the land mass is small, it is getting larger every day with massive land reclamation projects. It is described as the world’s most vertical city with hundreds of high rise residential and commercial buildings. An estimated 90% of people use public transportation and this keeps traffic jams at a minimum.

Kowloon Skyline

Kowloon Skyline

Fully rested and eager to explore, we set out on foot from the hotel to see what had changed since our last visit 10 years ago.  The major change was to the harbor area itself. Developers have reclaimed acres of Hong Kong Harbor to build the Convention Center and now they are reclaiming land on either side of it. The waterway between Kowloon and Hong Kong has become so narrow that many ships no longer transverse it. One of the highlights of our 2006 trip on the QE2 was to steam between the impressive skylines of Kowloon and Hong Kong. Ships now are not making the same passage. We were wondering if the intent was to join the two with landfill. We certainly hope not, it is still perfectly charming, but without the Star Ferries shuttling back and forth it wouldn’t be the same.

Hong Kong Waterfront at the Convention Center

Hong Kong Waterfront at the Convention Center

We did see a family of mice that startled us, especially the daddy who was quite large, as we walked along the landfill projects, but thankfully they were the only rodents we saw. Hong Kong appears spotlessly clean and mostly rodent free – although we think they could use a few working cats to clean up the area. We were looking for a quaint harbor side eatery, but decided we are ahead of the times. On our next visit the waterfront should be developed. We could have walked a block or two in the other direction (away from the water) and found hundreds of restaurants, but we only learned this once we consulted our notes from our friends who used to live here. We did have a nice walk and noted that Hong Kong and Kowloon are still glittery and sparkly and can out-Vegas even Vegas itself with  neon and lasers galore.

We had a small appetizer at the hotel and found it to be quite pricey and thus resolved that we would check out where the locals have their noodles and dumplings, perhaps for lunch. We did see a steady stream of locals coming out of the local 7-11 stores with steaming bowls of noodles. The 7-11 stores seem to be different here in many respects: no hot dogs, no fountain drinks and no robberies, the latter of which we found appealing. We had thought we would be seriously out of kilter with the 12 hour time difference and be totally wide-eyed at bedtime, but a hot shower, a great bed and an Ambien worked wonders and we slept a full 8 hours.

March 27, 2016

Menu at the Super Super Cafe

Menu at the Super Super Cafe

We awoke early on this Easter Sunday, 12 hours off of Eastern Daylight Time, but that meant our watches had the correct time anyway. We decided to forego the hotel brunch at $70. US. It is hard to eat $70 dollars worth of food at any meal, much less at breakfast. Besides, we thought we should go native – maybe find the Hong Kong version of Waffle House, not fully realizing what that might mean. We found a place called the Super Super, as best we could tell since the name was written in the Chinese Alphabet and these were the only words we saw in English on the sign, but the menu had pictures along with English translations, and it was only $27 HK dollars, or about $5 US per person. There were some really interesting things we passed on – like the one that featured pork liver and one with fish bellies. We saw a particularly unattractive dish called “congee” that looked suspiciously like wallpaper paste, but they say it is rice porridge.  They offered a side of turnip paste (no hash browns here). I ordered eggs with a bun, which I thought should be pretty safe (as long as the egg in question was a chicken egg – here you never know. What I got was a boiled egg sliced with Spam-like lunch meat, along with a bowl of macaroni that had a few kernels of corn along with a few slivers of the same faux Spam in it. They also offered a steamed rice roll, in which rice was the only thing we recognized. And the sausage, you don’t even ask what might be in there – This place could turn you into a vegetarian overnight, but it was billed as the Happy Sausage Breakfast and the sausage was shaped like a big smile.  Gary ordered a coffee – big mistake. It was instant and he proclaimed it dreadful.  I ordered lemon tea which should have been safe, except they put around half a dozen lemon slices in it that sort of overpowered the tea taste. We resolved to shop around a little before breakfast time tomorrow.

Gloucester Road Hong Kong

Gloucester Road Hong Kong

We decided to locate a restaurant called the Chili Club that friends had recommended in the Wan Chai district only a few blocks from our hotel on Lockhart Street. We found the street, but not the number, but a helpful local man Googled it on his cell phone and got us the address. The restaurant, along with other businesses along this street, was closed, but we turned right by the Hay Hay Barbershop (we learned that if it supposed to be good they use the word twice – don’t know how this went wrong with the Super Super, this morning’s restaurant) and went over one street to Gloucester Road and stumbled upon Starbucks and swooped down on it as if we had been lost in the desert for days. They had great coffee, identifiable breakfast items and even Free Wi-Fi. At this point Gary discovered that the camera on his IPAD was no longer working. We were able to Google an Apple Store and found one in Kowloon across the harbor.

Today we were going to explore Kowloon on foot, but first hoped to find the Apple Hospital to see if Gary’s IPAD could be doctored. We took the Star Ferry and located an Apple Store next to the Harbour City Mall on Canton Road. The prognosis was not good and we were referred to the Critical Care guys on the second floor. The prognosis was not good there either –   repair for $300 or buy new for $1,000. Gary decided to rough it and we would take pictures the old fashioned way – with a camera or on our cell phones.  During the diagnosis process, the technician wiped out all the apps including email and Facebook, so Gary had to spend some time recovering those later in the day back in our hotel, so as to not go into this trip totally Cold Turkey.

Bargains on Nathan Road

Bargains on Nathan Road

In the meantime, we had some exploring to do. We walked up Canton Road, which is sort of the 5th Avenue of Kowloon, with block upon block of designer stores – Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Valentino and so forth. What is so ironic is that just a few blocks over on Nathan Road, there is ten times as much merchandise at a tiny fraction of the price in the knock-off markets for the same brands, with a letter changed here or there,(e.g. Prada might become Prado, or a slight alteration in the logo where the LV on a Louis Vuitton bag might become VV)  but at a glance it could pass for the real deal. Sometimes that glance needs to be from further away than others.

 

Orange Shopping in Kowloon

Orange Shopping in Kowloon

We walked up Nathan Road for what seemed like miles, stumbling across a number of markets including the jade market. There were great deals, but we are at a point in our lives where we are trying to simplify versus acquire “stuff” so we left the many bargains behind. We mostly marveled at all the commerce, but we did buy a wonderfully luscious orange to consume on the spot that we discovered to our chagrin was from California.

There was a whole “technology” market – open air just like the fish market where they sold everything from drones to ancient cell phones. We wondered who buys this stuff? I could see how you might want a knock off purse, but do you trust a knock off drone? We must have seen a billion watches for sale – and wondered how do watch sellers ever make a living?

Open Air Dried Octopus and Other Delights

Open Air Dried Octopus and Other Delights

At the fish market we were amazed that they do not refrigerate fresh fish as it sits in a stall for hours. We know because we often got lost and traveled in circles and recognized a fish here and there from a previous circuit. We estimated we logged 8 to 10 miles just meandering though stalls and stalls of everything imaginable. We took the MTR (Mass transit train) from Nathan Road back to the Admiralty stop in Hong Kong. If we had been more transportation savvy , we could have taken a transfer to Wan Chai near our hotel, but we would have missed many memorable moments experienced  as we walked  instead. We were continuously entertained by exotic sights such as:

People were picnicking on the pavement like under an overpass or in the shelter of a building where homeless people might be if this were a different country. We wondered if it is illegal to spread your table cloth on the grass in some of these places since people were on the pavement instead.

People practicing tai chi in groups – no music  and no audible instruction that we could hear. We wondered how  they know when it’s time to go to the next move?

People hanging their birdcages in a park to give the birds some fresh air, or so we assume. It must be kind of like people walking their dogs in a Doggy Park in the US.

Seven-Eleven stores here seem to be  social gathering places. People will buy a can of beer and hang out on the sidewalk and drink it. We ourselves bought a little treat there in the form of a $5 ( US money) ice cream bar.  Clearly we are going to need to go local on the desserts too.

The Star Ferry Coming from Kowloon

The Star Ferry Coming from Kowloon

We had thought to look out of place (or be identified as tourists) in our jeans and sneakers, but all of the local young people are wearing them now. I think we are busted as tourists though because we are the ones eating the $5.00 ice cream bars.

We had a short restorative nap and walked to the Chili Club on Lockhart Road where we enjoyed excellent prawn tempura. The pork neck was recommended to us, but unfortunately, as appetizing as it sounds, we somehow missed it on the menu. Besides we had already had all the exotic dishes we could face that morning at the Super Super.

 

 

March 28, 2016

Cheung Chau Harbor

Cheung Chau Harbor

Today it was cool and overcast as we walked to the Starbucks on Gloucester Road to plan our day.  We decided to explore Cheung Chau Island and take the Rickshaw Bus tour of Hong Kong. We walked from our hotel to the Ferry terminal (a good hike of a few miles) and found the ferry leaving immediately for Cheung Chau and the tour bus nowhere in sight, nor could we find where to even buy tickets or see a schedule for a tour bus, and so we hopped on the ferry  for Cheung Chau after some minor confusion over how to purchase tickets.  (We wished we had that Octopus Pass). We had a thirty minute ride and found ourselves on a delightful tiny island with a tiny fishing village. The waterfront was lined with restaurants, many of which offered you the opportunity to pick out your fish (swimming happily in their pens until their death sentence came from a passing tourist stopping for lunch) but since it was too early for lunch, we decided to explore first and lunch later.

Spiral Fries on Cheung Chau

Spiral Fries on Cheung Chau

We noticed that there were hordes of tourists, but only a few Caucasians, as we strolled the main streets – two streets to be exact – the waterfront street that circled the island and a street through town parallel to the shore which seemed to be the equivalent of Main Street. We did find a delicious treat which was thinly spiral sliced potatoes on a skewer.  We met a gentleman whom we assumed was local, but he told us he had grown up in Hong Kong, and moved to America and worked in Las Vegas for a number of years. He was now retired and has come back for a visit.

 

Incense Burning at the Temple at Cheung Chau

Incense Burning at the Temple at Cheung Chau

The walk across the island was very short with many side streets  with laundry hanging out to dry from the windows – sort of like the back streets of Naples (Italy – not Florida of course). There were a number of shops selling dried fish and produce all along our route. Cheung Chau on the back side of the island (also waterfront) seemed to be a Chinese Coney Island. We encountered an interesting construction project which we learned was an attempt to build a traditional house from bamboo. The temple itself could use a little maintenance work, e.g. the Fu Dog statuary (those chunky little pug looking creatures) guarding the entrance to the temple were missing some teeth.  At one point all 4 of them had a free rolling ball in their mouths, but with the teeth gone in 3, there was only one ball left.

Lunch at the Chew Fat

Lunch at the Chew Fat

We had lunch at restaurant called Chui Fat (as in chew the fat). Since we were getting low on cash, Gary asked if they take credit cards. They said yes, but the answer was really no when we got to the end of the meal and presented the card. We found that they said yes to everything – no matter what the question and since they really didn’t understand the question in the first place – yes  must have seemed to be the best answer. Lunch was a modest 37 Hong Kong Dollars per person – roughly 6 dollars. We had to ask for napkins by miming wiping our faces, which no one seemed to be using, and we absolutely cracked up when they brought a roll of toilet paper. We wondered if they were insulting us by suggesting that one end looked like the other, but we didn’t take offense.  We took the ferry back to Hong Kong and located the Rickshaw Bus.

We found the same payment  issue with the Rickshaw bus, and not only would they not accept credit cards, but you had to have exact change. We had to go to a money changer to get Hong Kong dollars and get them in the correct denominations. The fare was $66 Hong Kong dollars per person, or about $10 per person on US dollars. After this minor stumble, we got in the bus and all went smoothly after that.

The Bauhina - Hong Kong Convention Center

The Bauhina – Hong Kong Convention Center

The bus ride provided an excellent tour – it was a double-decker and we sat outside. We left from the Star Ferry Terminal and went inland to see Old Hong Kong east of Central Station – a stark contrast to the skyscrapers and condo towers that could have been featured in the Jetsons. It was very reminiscent of San Francisco with steep streets, and damp cool jacket weather. There were seed markets, side by side with art galleries, bars, restaurants, open produce markets. We made a note to come back and explore here. This is our third visit to Hong Kong and we can’t believe we are just now discovering it. We were really tempted to hop off and mingle, but we only had a few hours left in our afternoon and wanted to see what else the Rickshaw Tour might turn up. We had a great time seeing the sights from the vantage point of the top of the bus. Our tour even took us  through the Cross Harbor Tunnel to Kowloon, revisiting a lot of the places we walked yesterday, and back through that same tunnel to return us to our starting point. We decided to walk back to the hotel on a slightly different route this time since we had seen so many interesting things yesterday.

A City Park in Kowloon

A City Park in Kowloon

We saw a lot of families out together in parks and on sidewalks. In one sunny waterfront spot, we saw a father reading to a group of kids about 4 years old and using a hand puppet . They were spellbound and so cute.  There was also an enclosed doggy park where adults and kids can come to play with their pets.

We have found obesity to be practically non-existent here among the Chinese, and even being overweight is rare. The city is not particularly handicap friendly, but is very clean and well cared for.  The economy seems to be booming here. In addition to the huge land reclamation projects, there is also massive construction with very avant garde design.  My favorite was the Kowloon building with numbers cascading helter-skelter from the top, interspersed with hearts and clouds and other graphics.

We had planned the same routine a nap and then dinner, but we went down for a nap a 5:00 p.m., awoke at 8:00 p.m. briefly,  and went back to sleep until the next morning. Some tourists we are!

 

March 29, 2016

Queen Victoria at her Berth in Kowloon

Queen Victoria at her Berth in Kowloon

Today we boarded Cunard’s Queen Victoria for a 42 day cruise across the Indian Ocean, around Cape Horn and up the coast of Africa to dock at Southampton, home port to the Cunard Line. The Queen Victoria was built and launched 2007 and is registered  in Bermuda.  She can accommodate 1,997 passengers, with a crew of 981. She has 12 decks and is 965 feet long (she can fit through the Panama Canal with 35 feet to spare) and 106 feet wide. From the waterline to the top of the mast is 181 feet. From the bottom of the hull to the top of the mast is 207 feet. Her maximum speed is 24.3 knots (28 miles per hour). She has six diesel generators for both on board power and propulsion for the twin electrical engines called azipods. These are like giant (really giant at 185 tons apiece) trolling motors than can spin in any direction. This capability, along with the bow thrusters, essentially eliminates the need for tug boats, but a lot of ports require them anyway.  To deal with side-to side- roll, the Queen Victoria has two vertical stabilizer fins that can be deployed in rough seas (each about 22 feet long and 10 feet wide).When not in use they slide inside the hull.  She has the capacity for almost 900,000 gallons of water, replenished daily with on board desalinization plants and over 900,000 gallons of fuel, replenished in various ports as needed.

After a mere 12 hours of sleep, we woke up at the hotel early, eager to get on board. In need of some protein, but leery of the offerings at the Super Super, and looking for something substantial (we hadn’t eaten since noon yesterday after all) , we opted for (guilty confession time) McDonalds Egg McMuffins which we wolfed down with great gusto. We followed this up with coffee and hot chocolate at Starbucks. We returned to the hotel to check out and get a taxi to the cruise terminal in Kowloon.  There was so much construction around the hotel and around the pier, it was two hours before we were checked in and on board the ship.

The Atrium of the Queen Victoria

The Atrium of the Queen Victoria

We checked out our table assignment – having requested a table for two in a quiet corner and we got just that – it was perfect. We were eating at the first sitting which was a little early at 6:00 p.m., but the second sitting was not until 8:30. We usually eat around 6:30 or 7:00 so the earlier time looked to be best for us, especially since we were not yet cured of jet lag. Our room was on Deck 4, starboard side so we were perfectly positioned to see the nightly light show on the buildings of Hong Kong from our balcony. There are a few lasers, but it is mostly neon, as glitzy and showy as imaginable. The buildings are typically headquarters for banks and major corporations, each responsible for their own lighting.

Celebratory Champagne on board the Queen Victoria

Celebratory Champagne on board the Queen Victoria

We left at midnight and we watched the departure from our balcony. There were 3 blasts from the ship’s whistle (which is the nautical term used – it is actually a very deep sounding horn). We were actually watching in pajamas (well I was – Gary was in his “pajama” underwear, and realized too late that our balcony is one of several on our deck that sticks out further than those on the decks above us, so we were in full view of many of our fellow passengers who were also watching the departure. My pajamas can pass for Capri pants, but Gary’s undies are very clearly just that , so we were definitely flaunting the dress code. We haven’t seen anything in writing about balcony dress rules, but are pretty sure underwear would be considered unacceptable.

 

March 30, 2016

Dateline: South China Sea

Latitude at Noon UTC +8, 19.6 Degrees North, Longitude 112.8 East

The Commodore Club Lounge

The Commodore Club Lounge

Today is our first full day at sea, cruising southward in the South China Sea.  We awoke early and had a leisurely breakfast, did a little reading and played cribbage. We decided to start with a best of 10 series and you have to win by two.  We attended a lecture on the history of China in the late 19th and early 20th Century, which I must admit I dozed off in, but fortunately I was familiar enough with the material that I don’t think I missed a whole lot of enlightenment.  However I did finally learn what the deal was with the Opium Wars. That is the British wanted tea from China, but had nothing to trade that the Chinese wanted since they were such an insular society. So the British introduced them to Turkish Opium and as it turned out, they wanted that a lot. War broke out because the opium trade was so profitable that the British wanted access to all Chinese ports. The Chinese for their part, resisted at first, but then got to liking the opium so much that they didn’t much care one way or the other after a while, and the British dominated their country for the next several decades, or in the case of Hong Kong, the next century and a half.

I also learned about the Boxer Rebellion. I had heard of it and wondered if the Boxers involved were dogs, or pugilists. Apparently it was neither.  There was a rebellion of a segment of the population against Western influence from 1899 to 1901, which took on the rather cumbersome name of “The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist”. In Chinese this is still a lengthy name, and thus the Brits shortened it to “Boxer”. We also learned that China, despite popular myth, is a long way from dominating the world in most ways that really matter.  One striking figure was that average income per person in US dollars in US is 42k, in Australia it is 56k, in China it is 7K. Now why do we want those offshore jobs back?

From the Stern of Queen Victoria in the South China Sea

From the Stern of Queen Victoria in the South China Sea

We then sat in on an interview with the Commodore, Christopher Rynd, who has had a very interesting career and is a charismatic speaker (not in the preacher sense of the word) and held our full attention the whole time. He said the most challenging port in the world is Cunard’s home port of Southampton, England due to tides, current, wind, narrow channels and tight spaces. He reported his scariest moments at sea were on a small freighter going from Australia to Asia in extremely rough seas. It was a stiff vessel with no flex to it, pounding in 20 foot seas for several days. He said that weather is the biggest threat to any seagoing vessel and thus there is a need to be vigilant 24 x 7. His 3 favorite ports in terms of scenery and overall ambiance are  Istanbul, Venice  and  Sydney.  Gary and I have been blessed enough to have been to all 3 and we have to agree with; his assessment. He says the one place he has not been that he wants to go to is Antarctica. We have been there, but only small ships can go there now so he will either have to go as a passenger or take a downgrade to a smaller ship.  He was asked if they ever leave passengers behind and he said absolutely. He told us that once they left 200 passengers behind in Cannes because a mistral, a strong cold wind coming out of the northwest across southern France and into the Mediterranean, came up. The ship had to get out to sea in a hurry to ride it out since winds can be in excess of 40 miles per hour and can climb up to hurricane force. In this instance, Cunard paid for hotel rooms and put the people on buses to take them to the next port, Pisa, Italy where they could  pick them up.

He also talked about the improvement of ships and the use of bow thrusters and azipods which allow the ships propellers to turn 360 degrees. This provided much more maneuverability than in the old days of propellers and shafts. We did have a tug assist leaving Hong Kong, but the Commodore said it is required by the Hong Kong Authorities, plus the Queen Victoria needs to do this regularly to keep the skills sharp in case of any system failure, even though she could easily have maneuvered herself out of the harbor.

We had actually met Commodore Rynd  in 2006 when he was a Captain on the Queen Elizabeth 2 for her World Voyage.  We chatted with him after the talk to see if he remembered our most exciting moment on board which was a cyclone hitting American Samoa the same day we docked there. The QE2 had 4 tugs pushing to keep us at the dock with our lines secure. The visit was cut short by several hours and we left at noon. The Commodore said he remembered it well.

At noon we were 120 miles east of the Chinese island of Hainan Dao, which looks like a large tear drop when viewed on a map. We were traveling at a speed of 18.3 knots in water about 650 feet deep. Both the air and water were a balmy 73 degrees F. We have traveled 205 miles from Hong Kong with 1,241 left to go to Singapore. We are only 12 miles from the Paracel Islands, which are currently being claimed by the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Filipinos with Malaysian and Brunei also claiming some of the territory.  There are ongoing “International Incidents” here – fortunately we were not a participant in one this trip.

Queen Victoria's Grand Staircase

Queen Victoria’s Grand Staircase

We had lunch in the Golden Lion, the ship’s pub.  Fish and chips and mushy peas are served daily along with other English specialties such as the ploughman’s Lunch and Yorkshire pudding.  The so called “mushy peas” are English peas mashed into a yukky slime. I don’t really like English peas when they look their best so I had to leave this on the plate.   And for dessert Gary ordered another English specialty called (no kidding) “Spotted Dick” which tastes as bad as it sounds.  It is a pudding-like cake with raisins in it with a vanilla sauce.  Just a personal observation in line with my own tastes,  I have found that British desserts often need more sugar, butter, flour, baking soda or baking powder(not necessarily all in the same dessert – but there is a deficiency detected in sampling an array of British desserts on a variety of Cunard Ships.  For example, the ice cream needs both more cream and sugar. I did have a good crème brulee and the cream puffs and éclairs are good, and so I expect they were following a French recipe.

In the afternoon there was more leisure  time for naps, reading, cribbage, but we did decide that for sea days, we would walk two miles on the Promenade deck which requires 6 laps and we began that regimen today.  We had a wonderful dinner – excellent food, (no mush peas here) which we learned would be true of every meal, served with excellent service.  The evening performance was one of the best we have ever seen anywhere. It was a one man show – an Australian named Danny Elliot who could sing, dance and play 12 instruments. He actually can play more; he just played 12 for us. We found ourselves looking forward to another sea day tomorrow to rest from the grueling schedule so far.

March 31, 2016

Dateline: South China Sea

Latitude at Noon UTC+ 8, 12.5 Degrees North, Longitude 110.8 Degrees East

Today was a super lazy day, both physically and intellectually, with the one redeeming factor of walking the two miles on the Promenade Deck. We awoke early, checked email and Facebook (on board wi-fi  is quite acceptable, if a little on the expensive side), had breakfast, did our usual cribbage and reading, but today we decided to lounge in the traditional wooden deck chairs on the Promenade Deck.  This was truly delightful and we would come to try to work this into our daily lounging routine. There is nothing like doing this to make you feel like you are on a ship – the sights – endless expanse of sapphire blue sea and pale blue sky laden with fluffy clouds- and the sound – the steady drone of the engines and the slap of water against the hull, and the continuous swells, rolling and breaking. We had an occasional sighting of a fishing boat or freighter and the occasional sea bird of some sort. We have not seen much land since Hong Kong, although we trust that it is out there relatively close, since the commodore has said so. Out on the Promenade Deck, it is every bit as relaxing as two martinis –  it is in a word, delightful.

We get a daily bulletin with scheduled activities and it often has little nautical tidbits to entertain us. We learned today about the Plimsoll Mark, (also known as the “Load Line” which is a special marking on ships to show the legal limit to which a ship may be loaded). If your Plimsoll mark is underwater, you could have big trouble, especially in rough water. There are 6 separate loading levels:  tropical fresh water, fresh water, tropical sea water, summer sea water and winter sea water and winter North Atlantic sea water. This mark was invented by Samuel Plimsoll in 1870. All commercial vessels today are permanently marked mid-ships with their appropriate mark.

Today at noon we were traveling at 19 knots in the South China Sea, north east of Nha Trang, Vietnam. We have traveled 629 miles from Hong Kong with 850 miles to go to Singapore. Our route will take us south, down the east coast of Vietnam to the Singapore Straits. There was a 7 knot wind and the seas were slight. The air temperature was 70 degrees F and the water was 82F.

At lunch today they served a potpourri of exotic Asian fruit, which we only discovered after we had eaten, and which perhaps may have been a good thing, but the Asians on board were really enjoying it.  There was mangosteen, rambutan ( a spiky thing that looked like sweet gum balls, only much larger), rose apples, dragon fruit, lychee, jackfruit, and finally one we recognized, the mandarin orange.  The omitted, no doubt on purpose the durian, which is said to have an awful smell – somewhere between skunk and rotting corpse.

And speaking of awful things, the bane of most passenger ships is the norovirus, which can be spread from passenger to passenger and is highly contagious, causing nausea, vomiting and frequent trips to the bathroom.  To combat this there is Purell, dispensed at every entrance to everyplace food is served and most where it is not. Purell flows more freely than wine here. So far, we are aware of no outbreaks, although the rumor mill has it that both the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary were having trouble as they visited Hong Kong the same day we left it.

Library Staircase on Board the Queen Victoria

Library Staircase on Board the Queen Victoria

We tried the Winter Garden after lunch, but since it is essentially a green house, we found it much too steamy for this climate and decided to return outdoors to the promenade deck for our afternoon lounge session. We had to work hard to rouse ourselves from our lethargy to put in our two miles of walking, followed by showers   and dinner. We are convinced that without the walking, we will both outgrow our clothes by the end of the cruise. However, we may still do that even with the walking – there is just too much temptation on board. One particular vice that we have adopted at dinner is eating two to three rolls, (crusty on the outside and soft on the inside) with probably the best butter I have ever eaten.  It is Irish and has to have an astronomical cream content. We will have to go through rehab when we get off the ship to get weaned off this stuff.

This evening we passed a series of offshore oil rigs off the coast of Vietnam. Apparently oil was recently discovered here. Adjacent to the oil fields, we will be crossing the Julia Shoal which runs for 20 miles and is only 30 meters deep, before a drop-off if several thousand meters.

April 1, 2016

Dateline: South China Sea

Latitude at Noon UTC+ 8, 6.3 Degrees North, Longitude 107.0 Degrees East

We are supposedly in Time Zone UTC Plus 8, but there is something hinky about that, unless our computers and phones are playing an April Fool’s trick. They wanted to spring forward an hour to UTC plus 7, but the ship’s clocks were having none of it and then when we arrived in Singapore our electronics agreed with ship’s time.  We found we have to be vigilant when covering so much ground so you are not late for anything, especially a meal. However since we are going west it is often earlier than we think. We later learned that the ship often is off by an hour or so in the interest of smooth running.

This is our last sea day before Singapore, where a number of passengers are disembarking, and we will take on some new ones. The ship is sailing full, so we assume that means the same number will get on that get off.  The sun at this latitude is almost directly overhead so we are casting only the tiniest of shadows today. The sun is also very strong and sunburns can happen in no time so we are strongly advised to apply our sunscreen liberally when outdoors.

A Favorite Hangout for Lounging

A Favorite Hangout for Lounging

We did our leisure thing until mid-morning on the Promenade Deck, when there was an interview of a British journalist, Jenny Bond, who was the Royal Correspondent for the BBC for over 14 years, and as such, she was very well acquainted with Princess Diana. Ms. Bond told us about how she got started in the business and ended up with the royal assignment, as well as lots of interesting tidbits, but nothing not already re-hashed in the press. Apparently she was something of a confidante of the princess, and many of those confidential talks were not and would not be shared.

Today at noon we were 120 miles off the coast of Saigon, Vietnam in just over 200 feet of water, pretty shallow as sea beds go.  The air temperature at noon was 83 degrees F and the sea was the same. We have traveled 1,080 miles from Hong Kong and have 366 miles to go to reach Singapore. We will be traveling through the Gulf of Thailand and will reach the Singapore Straits at 5:00 a.m.  The Singapore Straits feed into the Malacca Straits which we will also traverse. We are traveling at a sedate 16 knots since there is heavy traffic and at one point the Straits narrow to 1.5 miles across.  The straits were busy with ships – freighters, tankers, tugs, containers, auto carriers, fishing boats in every direction as far as the eye could see. We were told that 25% of all goods moved anywhere in the world by ship come through these straits aboard an estimated 90,000vessels per year.  The captain had to repeated sound a blast on the ship’s horn (called a whistle harkening back to the old days when it actually was a whistle) to warn smaller ships that kept darting across our path.

Whenever we have sea days it provides the opportunity to check out our fellow passengers, and I must say there were some odd ducks on this voyage.

One character we saw almost daily was the Tom Selleck in his Magnum PI role look-alike, but with hair gel.  But some days, he seems to be more Geraldo Rivera, especially when he dons his reading glasses. He always appears in the Carinthia Lounge, the best place according to Gary to get a decent cup of American coffee. We would hit it every morning after breakfast so Gary could get his fix, and apparently so did Tom-Geraldo. Today he appeared in an off-white linen sports coat with a pocket square, matching his tasteful shirt,  linen trousers. I imagined his clothes to be all bespoke from Savile Row (or it could be a Hong Kong customized 24 hour job too – they are that good) Anyway, he appeared with his Mac laptop and had his cappuccino, chatting merrily with  two ladies of his acquaintance about such trivia as where to go in Singapore. He reports that tomorrow he is going to Little India (but being British he calls it “Inja”), an India Quarter of the most exotic kind, we assume, for the truly discerning.

On our daily brisk walk around the Promenade Deck, we would see a lady moving out right smartly on her own deck walk, but without the benefit of an appropriate foundation garment for her ample bosom. It looked like she has little animals under her T-shirt trying to get out. While a more supportive foundation garment would be in order, I did not suggest it. She was brawny enough to snap me in half like a tooth pick. Gary, on the other hand, she might have to snap in half like a piece of kindling.

The Promenade Deck Just Below the Life Boats

The Promenade Deck Just Below the Life Boats

Also on the Promenade Deck, we often saw the man whom we thought had on a brown wrinkled shirt until he got closer and saw he had on no shirt at all, but sported  a deep tan as if he often walked about outdoors so scantily clad. I must report that if he did have a T-shirt on, he too would have looked like he had little animals under his shirt. In the words of Kramer from Seinfeld when speaking of foundation garments– he could have used a Man-zier.

Taking a break from contemplating fellow passengers, I had to go to retrieve our passports from the Purser’s Office since we had to have them to go ashore in Singapore. Gary played a round of Bingo and went to a Chinese Wine Tasting from the Changyu Vineyards. I thought it sounded like you’d have some really bad wine to taste there.  (It just seems like some things are never going to be good ideas (like having Mexican food in Bangkok, or ordering a margarita in Nairobi, or having Chinese food in Ecuador – all of which, to our dismay, we have tried). Gary reported that it was pretty good and even ordered a bottle for dinner. Once we finished up a nice South African Wine, the Chinese was served next and he concluded that perhaps he had overrated the Chinese wine and decided to strike it from future consideration.

April 2, 2016

Dateline: Singapore

Latitude at Singapore 1.3 Degrees North, Longitude 103.8 Degrees East

Approaching Singapore - the View from the Commodore Club

Approaching Singapore – the View from the Commodore Club

Overnight we passed the Anambas Islands, belonging to Indonesia, which is the site of a number of shipwrecks in shallow water – a haven for scuba divers.  We entered the Straits of Singapore in the wee hours, passing just over 7 miles from the island of Bintan.  At one time Bintan was known as Pirate Island, because it was a base for the Malay Pirates who looted sailing vessels passing through the area. The Straits are 40 miles long and quite narrow, with land close on both sides. We stopped at 8:00 a.m. to pick up a harbor pilot and continued north to our berth. Taking on a Harbor Pilot is standard procedure at every port to utilize local knowledge regarding individual ports when docking to avoid such inconveniences as running aground or the embarrassment of docking at the wrong pier.  Taking on board a harbor pilot involves a small vessel coming along side and boarding through an access door in the hull of the ship.

Singapore gets is name from the Sanskrit words “singa” which means lion and “pura” which means city or village, but the British changed it, as they were wont to do back in colonial days, to Singapore.  Folklore attributes the name to a 14th Century Sumatran prince who landed here and saw what came to be interpreted as a lion, but in all likelihood was a tiger, since they don’t have any lions in these parts.  Malay is the national language of Singapore, but after the British colonization, a Creole version of a Malay and English developed which is referred to as

Marina Bay Singapore

Marina Bay Singapore

“Singlish”. British colonization began here when Thomas Stamford Raffles, employed by the East India Trading Company, established a settlement on the Singapore River to conduct trade, primarily for the exporting of tea, silk and spices. He signed a trade agreement with the local sultan on behalf of the British East India Company in 1819. The sultan, of course, didn’t think he was agreeing to a takeover, but that evolved quickly in the ensuing years.  Back in colonial days, the old town had “go-downs”  warehouses),  all along the river, while most of the people lived in large extended families in “shop houses” where there was a shop on the first floor and living quarters in the floor or floors above it.

Singapore was the property of the East India Company until 1856. In 1857 it became a Crown Colony of Great Britain, and the floodgates opened for immigrants from China, Indonesian, Malaya and India. As a result there are now 54 languages spoken here.  Today’s residents are primarily of Chinese descent (76 %) and Malay (15%).  Singapore finally declared independence from Britain in 1963. There are still very distinct ethnic neighborhoods here such as Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street.

Singapore Skylilne

Singapore Skylilne

Today Singapore, officially called The Republic of Singapore, consists of 63 islands, including the main island of Singapore  (or Pulau Ujong in Malay).  Singapore now has an elected Prime Minister  (head of government) and a President (head of state) and Parliament, but this is a fairly recent development.   Singapore was taken over by the Japanese in WWII in 1942 and occupied until 1945, and suffered thousands of civilian casualties. There is a bit of a discrepancy between the figure at which the Japanese assess the number (5k) and the figure that the locals believe it to be (30 to 50k).  After the war, the British came back and went about running the colony as before, but granted them self rule in 1959 with Lee Kwan Yew as the Prime Minister. Singapore joined a loose federation that was Malaysia for a time, but they were expelled in 1965 because the Malaysians felt Singapore’s large Chinese population threatened their own country’s culture. It was considered a very sad event, by Yew, but he turned things around in a major way. Singapore was for a long time, quite the din of iniquity (drugs, prostitution and general mayhem) until Yew’s prime minister role became more that of a dictator and his “dictates” really cleaned the place up. All the iniquity migrated to places such Pataya, Thailand, and such minor infractions such as littering and gum chewing became major offenses.  There was a bit of a flap several years back when a young American offender was sentenced to “caning” (that is a spanking (or a beating – all a matter of perspective) with a cane for vandalism.  Apparently he survived it with no permanent scars and we’ve all moved on.

Singapore lies 85 miles north of the Equator, in the most southerly part of Asia.  The nation is comprised of 227 square miles on several islands, with a population of around 3.8 million. We were here 10 years ago, but only got to spend one day, so we were glad to have the opportunity for a city tour this time. We had some spare time as the ship eased up to the dock so we had a game of deck quoits before disembarking. We still had some time so we took  stroll around the deck and saw that a fuel boat had pulled alongside to fill us up, which given the size of our ship’s tanks, would take a good part of the day. We did puzzle over a sign that said “No naked light”, until we finally figured out that this translated into American English as “No open flame”.  The pier where we docked,  Marina Bay Cruise Terminal was fairly new. Ten years ago we docked across the harbor among the container ships. The skyline rising from the morning mist was also radically different from the one we last saw in 2006. I say mist – it was really just pure humidity. Singapore is billed as the “cleanest and greenest” city in the world. We can certainly agree on the clean part, but there is a lot of concrete here where trees used to be.

Ship Traffic in Sigapore's Harbor

Ship Traffic in Sigapore’s Harbor

Today Singapore is home to 130 banks, an oil refining and distribution center, a ship building center and several makers of electronic components. Singapore last year also received twice as many tourists (6 million) as it has residents.  We learned that the currency here is 1.13 Singapore Dollars to the U.S. Dollar. The primary language is English and the second is Chinese. The English language rose to prominence first because there are so many different nationalities and cultures here, that they need a common language and the British were here long enough to ensure that language is English. The official size at one point was 277 square miles, although they have added many more with reclaimed land. There are 5.7 million residents and millions of guest workers. Of the residents 75% are Chinese, 10% are Malay, 9% Indian, the rest European or Eurasian.

On the Singapore River

On the Singapore River

There are strict laws, rules and procedures here. Singapore considered a prime target of terrorists since it represents capitalism with a capital “C”. We had to take our passports, and go through a screening process which included having our bags checked.  One of the “checkers” asked Gary if he has a pacemaker. Gary usually loads his backpack up to about 40 pounds and it was quite warm (88F) at 10:00 a.m., and so he was sweating buckets by the time we got to security so perhaps he did look a bit like a cardiac arrest about to happen. We learned there are still strict rules (with serious fines) for such offenses as littering, smoking in prohibited places and failure to flush a public toilet. (We were wondering how that last one is enforced).

We took a bus to Clarke’s Quay and via Orchard Road – the Fifth Avenue of Singapore, where every designer who has any sort of reputation in the world has a storefront. It gets its name from the fact that it used to lead to a nutmeg orchard, now no doubt covered by high rise buildings.

Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands

One of the most striking features of the Singapore Skyline is the MBS (Marina Bay Sands) Complex which is a casino and a hotel, with 3 towers, each with 55 floors connected only at the top by at 332,000 square foot roof terrace. The structure is visible for miles. It looks like a ship at a distance, but once up close you can see that it is curved and looks more like a streamlined whale or other massive sea creature.  There is a Sky Garden on Top where trees and shrubs have been planted. The property gained some notoriety when Katy Perry came to town and stayed there. She was in one of the pools surrounded by reporters and said she would only be interviewed by those who joined her in the pool – and so everyone did en masse, business suits, designer dresses and all.

The Fullerton Hotel

The Fullerton Hotel

We stopped at Clarke’s Quay, named after a British governor of Singapore back in colonial days, for a boat tour on a vessel called a “twakow” or “bum boat” on the Singapore River in the heart of what was Old Singapore, with “was” being the operative word. Today the go-downs are gone and the waterways are lined with skyscrapers, each more architecturally avant garde than the next.  Back in colonial times the India emigrants occupied the north side of the Singapore River and the Chinese occupied the south side. We embarked from Clarke Quay and proceeded downriver to the newly built Marina Bay – newly built with the massive landfill mentioned earlier. A couple of familiar sights from our previous visit were the Merlion Sculpture and Fountain and the Fullerton Hotel, which in colonial days was the Post Office.  It is a huge edifice, but back in colonial days – mail was the only way to stay in touch and so it was key to the colonial lifestyle.  The Esplanade, a park like area where people (British Colonial types) was also key to the Colonial lifestyle, providing a place to stroll in the afternoon and see and be seen, only today the ancient trees are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the business district which

The Merlion

The Merlion

tower over the old town.  Back in the days when promenading was all the rage, the Esplanade was lined with fine homes where the wealthy British merchants and civil servants lived.  The Palladian Window became all the rage here to adapt to the tropical climate and has since been incorporated in structures all over the world. A portion of the Esplanade was preserved in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and has been named in her honor. The Merlion was added in 1972 and has been spewing water from its mouth ever since. It is half lion (the top half) and half fish with the lion symbolizing the city and the fish symbolizing the sea, which supports the city.

The Singapore Flyer

The Singapore Flyer

Another prominent feature of the Singapore skyline is the Singapore Flyer, a 165 meter high Ferris wheel of sorts, but with compartments the size of city busses that makes one revolution every 32 minutes, very similar to the London Eye.  It was built in 2012 and is one of the world’s largest. This was the next stop on our tour. The wheel never stops moving and so the passengers load into the air-conditioned (blessed relief) and UV protected capsules as it creeps along. We were told that on a clear day, the visitors can see for28 miles. Despite the visibility not being nearly that good, the view was indeed spectacular. We were able to take in all the quirky new buildings, including one that resembles two halves of the local durian fruit (tasty to some, stinky to all) which is an Arts Center. It is round with hexagonal divisions on its surface with little spiky things emerging. We also got a good view of the Formula 1 Race Course starting positions and pit area. The race takes place every September.

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

They also have a park called Gardens by the Bay that we could see from the Flyer, but it is a strange park.  They have installed massive tree-like sculptures that were striking, but odd in that they are bare of leaves. Singapore is tropical, they don’t really have any deciduous trees, no one living around here can identify with them, and they don’t provide any shade from the equatorial sun. They are made of stainless steel which can only add heat to the already sweltering  landscape, but perhaps they are “Art” and I am just a philistine. I do firmly believe, however, that God’s trees are a much better design and are also more beautiful.

 

The Floating Soccer Field

The Floating Soccer Field

From the Flyer we saw a floating soccer field that is used for that and other sporting events, particularly cricket which is still big here. They also celebrate Chinese New Year with fireworks that are staged here. And locals traditionally give each other oranges as a gift. We were told that the Chinese palate typically favors sour things so this is a precious gift. We also  saw the memorial to the civilians lost in WWII with its  4 spires of white granite,  with each spire representing one segment of the population (Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Eurasian) While the British suffered some losses, most of them were evacuated by their government ahead of time.  The locals call the monument “the Chopsticks” because they are long and tapered.

Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel

Our next stop was at the historic Raffles Hotel established in 1887. It is on Beach Road (which used to be adjacent to the beach,) but with land reclamation, it is now several miles inland. The hotel doormen are Sikhs from the Punjab region of India and they dress the part. Per our guide they are traditionally all named Singh (like Smith in America) to make calling to them simple. The hotel in the past has been  ultra traditional. We visited 10 years ago and were not allowed inside in shorts and so we changed in order to have our Singapore Sling cocktail at the Long Bar. The drink was invented here, originally for ladies in the Victorian Era who were not allowed to drink. The bartender surreptitiously added liquor and the ladies loved it. Today the place seemed over run with tourists in shorts , so we fear that tradition is crumbling, but still it is a magnificent place and you can just imagine the way it was 100 years ago. In addition to the Long Bar, there is the Writer’s Bar, just off the lobby where writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham used to hang out.  We did some more driving in the Colonial Section to see the Old and the New Supreme court buildings. The old one is a stately, domed Victorian Building, and  the new one is well, interesting . It is quite a block, angular sort of structure and has what is referred to as the Flying Saucer sitting atop it, although I thought it looked more like a hamburger) and it seems to have no charm what so ever.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Our last stop was in China town and en route we went down a street where we passed a Christian Church, a Muslim mosque,  a Hindu Temple and stopped at a Buddhist Temple.  This city and country is a great testament to multiple religions and ethnicities peacefully coexisting for centuries, proving it can be done. Our final stop was the temple named the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, whose claim to fame is that it is purported to have one of the teeth of Buddha. The temple is a 4 story elaborate pagoda-like affair painted red. The relic is on the 4th floor behind a glass wall, which keeps the tourists at a safe distance from the treasure.  Inside the glass is a solid gold stupa (burial chamber) that is said to house the tooth. The floor is covered in gold tiles that are available for purchase/ sponsorship for $5,000 US. You can have you name put on them, kind of like the bricks at Centennial Park in Atlanta only a lot more expensive and fancy. You can also purchase smaller

The Shrine Containing the Relic of the Tooth

The Shrine Containing the Relic of the Tooth

“mini-buddhas that sit in little niches along the wall that get blessed by the monks on a regular basis.  They do display a photo of the tooth, but it looks far too large for a human – but then who are we to question the faith of others.  The faithful burn incense sticks (also known as joss sticks) by lighting them and sticking them upright into an urn full of sand. They look like skinny sparklers, but don’t put off sparks.  The temple provides the sticks and our guide says normally you burn 3 – one for God, one for the Earth and one for humanity. However in the interest of economy, the temple requests we keep it to one per person.

Gary and I decided to make a stop at Raffles on the way back to the hotel so I could visit their gift shop.  We contemplated walking since it was not that far, but by this time the temperature was 36C which is  97 F). I had bought a bag from Raffles 10 years ago – still in perfect shape and I had it with me and I wanted to get another one. We found an amiable cab driver named Richard Ong (or Dave Ong) we couldn’t tell by the business card, who drove a big black

Mr. Singh and Mr. Singh on Duty at Raffles

Mr. Singh and Mr. Singh on Duty at Raffles

Chrysler in perfect condition.  We asked him to wait for us. He was concerned he would not be able to wait in front of the hotel so he gave us a cell phone with instructions to call him when we were through shopping. We both looked at each other like two deer in the headlights and he patiently demonstrated how we might make this call and insisted Gary could leave his backpack in the taxi. Once his demo worked and once it didn’t, so we hopped out with his card in hand knowing the concierge at Raffles (Mr. Singh of course) would help us out if need be. Fortunately he was allowed to park just outside and amazingly we were reunited with him and Gary’s backpack.

Richard/Dave told us about the reclamation project on the way back to the ship. Gary wanted to know where they got all the dirt and he said it came from Vietnam. He said their nearest neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have plenty of dirt, but they are their business competitors and do not want them to succeed.  Richard had stated his price was $50 per hour, but we only used 45 minutes and only had $45 and some change in Singapore money and so we all agreed to call it even. Richard offered some sightseeing stops, but we were pretty hot and tired and so we passed on that.

We opted for a late lunch on the ship followed by reading, cribbage and naps and came out on deck to watch our departure, but finally had to give that up since there were delays and we had another grueling sea day tomorrow.

April 3, 2016

Dateline: Malacca Straits

Latitude at Noon, UTC + 8 ,2.2 Degrees North,  Longitude 101.9 Degrees East

We left Singapore at 1:40 a.m. last night, with red tape taking longer than expected due to the high amount of ship traffic trying to get into and out of the port while we were sound asleep. We disembarked our pilot during the early hours of the morning before entering the Main Strait  (we were not awake for this event either) and continued our course parallel to the Western Coast of Malaysia, working our way through the Malacca Straits, which at 500 miles long  is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Thousands of vessels per year, travel thorough these Straits, but not all ships can be accommodated. The term “Malacca Max” refers to limits of depth where the water is too shallow for the largest oil tankers and certain other ships. These ships have to detour to the Straits of Lombok in Indonesia, adding days to their voyage.  In addition to shallow water, the tides flow alternately north and south here, creating another navigational shallow water factor to consider. The Straits are named after a town on the Malaysian coast. There was a long forgotten Malaccan sultanate here from 1400 to 1511. Once we cleared  the straits, we turned northwest to reach Penang.

The Promenade Deck on Our Daily Promenade

The Promenade Deck on Our Daily Promenade

We had a most leisurely day with breakfast, followed by cribbage, reading on deck, journal writing (me) napping (Gary). We then had lunch and repeat the activities until it was time for our daily constitutional – a two mile walk around the Promenade Deck. We had dinner and attended a Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party hosted by our Commodore. We happened to meet the Chief Engineer, a young man (44) who is the Chief Engineer for the ship, and who invited us to be his guest for dinner the following week. He had over 20 years in the business, with P&O and Cunard and worked his way up from the bottom, now supervising several hundred people. His job is to make sure everything works correctly, from stage lighting to toilets, to galley equipment, to life boats (a.k.a. ship’s tenders).

At noon today we were 8 miles off the coast of Malaysia and 37 miles of the northern tip of Sumatra, traveling  at 15.2 knots in waters 90 feet deep and we were mostly clear of the heavy traffic.  The air temperature was 85 degrees F and the sea was 88.We are following what is called the “Traffic Separation Scheme” which is an international “rules of the road” guideline.  At noon, we were 144 miles from Singapore, with 250 miles to go to reach Penang, Malaysia, where we were to pick up another Harbor Pilot at 5:00 a.m. and planned to dock at 7:00 a.m. In the late afternoon we passed Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, not quite visible due to the distance and the haze.

Church Services were held today with the Commodore officiating and collections were made for Marine  Charities. We continued our people watching and listening over dinner. We noticed the common use by British people throughout the ship of the word “whilst”, where as we would only say “while” – it seems very Shakespearean of them I think. They also eat kippers (stinky fish) and pork and beans for breakfast – very unappetizing I think – well at least the stinky fish. I could do the beans at lunch or dinner. We Americans have a lot in common with the British, but language and eating habits are not always among those things.

Our evening entertainment was two brothers from Scotland, the MacDonald brothers who were very talented and entertaining, playing a wide variety of instruments. They were finalist in Britain’s talent program called the X Factor, comparable to our American Idol or The Vocalist. It was good that they were so entertaining since these sea days just wear us out.

 




Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage – Part 2

Great Adventure Travelogue

Part 2: Penang, Malaysia to The Seychelles

April 4, 2016

Dateline: Penang, Malaysia

Latitude at Penang 5.25 Degrees North, Longitude 100.21 Degrees East

Docked in Penang

Docked in Penang

Today we were up early to watch as we docked in Penang at the port of Georgetown, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, located on an island off the coast of mainland Malaysia. In the old town you can see the fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures which have brought both their architecture and cuisines to the region. The island itself is quite scenic with mountains and sandy beaches. We had visited here in 2006, and did an around the island tour which involved a life-threatening ride on a trishaw ( a bicycle rickshaw where the passenger is in the front and the guy pedaling is in the back). We were assured that trishaws have the right of way and indeed oncoming traffic did part for us as we hurtled down the bustling streets of Penang, inches away from  approaching car bumpers (right at eye level) and certain doom. I may be exaggerating a bit here, but it certainly kept me on the edge of my seat. Georgetown is still full of scooters and cars, but the tri-shaw traffic seems much lighter. We couldn’t help but wonder if that is because so many have been wiped out with tourists aboard since we last visited. Another feature that has diminished since our last visit is the presence of jetty houses that were built out over the water. Most were destroyed, giving way to condos and other high rise buildings. Only 4 of the old jetty houses have survived “progress”.

The island takes its name from the phrase ”pulau penang” which means “island of the betel nut”, which sounds nowhere near as exotic once translated,  and perhaps that’s why they started referring to it as “the Pearl of the Orient”.  Penang was once ruled by Sultan Abdullah of Kedah, but a British sea captain named Francis Light decided it would make a perfect trading port since it was on the valuable sea routes between Asia and India, and Britain set about colonizing with a vengeance – part of the “Sun Never Sets on the British Empire” lore. (And the Scottish say that is so because even God doesn’t trust the British in the dark – but that’s another story.) It was ceded to the British in 1786.

Trade here primarily was in tea and opium, the former sent to England, and the latter sent all over Asia to keep the natives subdued.  In fact, Captain Light gave Sultan Abdullah, in exchange for the island of Penang, an offer of protection against  Siam (modern day Thailand), however the promised weapons for his war somehow never arrived. Instead, Light sent the sultan twenty chests full of opium and a sum of money annually, and soon the sultan even forgot he was waging a war.

Modern Penang

Modern Penang

The captain was also quite ingenious in his plan for clearing the land of jungle around the newly constructed Fort Cornwallis. He had a cannon filled with silver coins and fired it into the jungle. The local people cleared a wide swath surrounding the fort looking for the coins. That cannon, named Seri Rambai is still on the grounds of the fort. In a strange turn of events, today, childless women who wish to become pregnant place flowers inside the barrel of Seri Rambai in order to be blessed with children. It is unclear how they got that idea and started the trend, but I guess they figured if it had sufficient magic to clear the forest, it might have enough magic leftover for other happy events.

The British Colony of Penang thrived as a tax and duty free port and it created an ethnically diverse culture of races, religions and nationalities. In World War II the Japanese invaded the island and stayed for four years. After the war it became independent and in 1963 it became an independent state of Malaysia. Today it is joined to mainland Malaysia by bridges. The capital of Penang is Georgetown, named in honor of the King George on the throne at the time. He was one of a series of King Georges over the years.

The Chinese are a major ethnic group of Penang and have made some of the most interesting buildings. There are the Shop Houses, common in Asia, where there is a shop on one floor, with multi generations of the family owning it in residence, usually above or behind. Even more interesting are the clan houses (that is clan with a “c” not a “k”), called kongsi. These houses are meeting places for members of a family (clan) sharing a last name, such as Lim or Chew. Members of other families are not welcome and there have been feuds and hostilities between the clans to varying degrees over the years.

One tourist site we are going to miss on this trip is the Snake Temple, formally known as the Temple of the Azure Cloud. It was built in 1873 in honor of a Buddhist priest who reportedly had healing powers. The temple is inhabited by a species of snake called Wagler’s pit viper. The snakes feast on a diet of eggs brought by worshipers of the Tao god, Choor Soo Kong. Local wisdom says the incense burned in the temple makes the snakes harmless, and they say, so far so good. Apparently if anyone has been bitten, they didn’t survive to report it.

Our guide, Lo, told us that there are three categories of condos that you can distinguish by appearance and location.  Low income housing has no balconies, whereas middle income housing has balconies. All have giant satellite dishes pointing skyward.  These are intermingled, but out toward the Penang Bridge, one you reach the TESCO store ( a supermarket chain) , the expensive homes can be found and they typically are compounds or low rise condos. The big spenders here are reportedly Chinese and Japanese. The local currency is the ringit, but we chose not to convert any US dollars, since they are widely accepted in Malaysia.

Pulau Orangutan Sanctuary

Pulau Orangutan Sanctuary

Today we opted for a tour of the orangutan sanctuary which is intended for the conservation of and research on orangutans. Leaving the ship, we felt a blast of steam, likely due to the 70 to 80 per cent humidity here. They say they don’t have excessively high temperatures here, but you certainly can get that impression from the rivers of perspiration flowing from head to toe as soon as you leave any decent air conditioning.

Penang today has annexed part of the mainland of the Malaysian Peninsula, which is a booming industrial area. We would be traveling to the province of Perak to the Orangutan Island Sanctuary, about an hour from Georgetown. We crossed the 8 mile long Penang Bridge to get to the mainland. On either side of the bridge there were acres and acres of fish farms, both for eating and for aquariums.  Lo explained that Penang is on a major migratory flyway for birds so fish farmers have to defend their fish accordingly. Lo said they have a number of birds that fly non-stop from Penang to New Zealand – a 9 day trip, knowledge gained apparently through tagging them.

The Island Orangutan Refuge Headquarters

The Island Orangutan Refuge Headquarters

The Penang Bridge links the island to an Industrial Zone called Butterworth which is home to many multinational manufacturers.  The bridge was built by the Koreans in 1985. They have another bridge called the Second Penang Bridge (but its real name is the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge), built by the Chinese that is 15 miles long. The quid pro quo here is that they have unfettered access to Malaysian markets and can set up plants here.  The Chinese bridge was built with a crook in it to keep drivers alert, according to Lo. In our hour long drive, Lo came up with any  number of tidbits such as this. Once on the mainland we were about 4.5 hours from Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia) and 2 hours from the Thai border. The countryside was lush and green with palms (used for palm oil), rice paddies and pineapple fields. The primary agricultural exports are sugarcane and tropical fruit. Their major import is actually garbage – they have huge recycling centers and take trash from Europe.

Small Life Jacket on a Large Man

Small Life Jacket on a Large Man

The orangutan sanctuary is located in the Bukit Merah Resort (using the term “resort” loosely – it had definitely seen better days). It was billed as a water theme park, but everything appeared to be closed. However, we took a boat out to the sanctuary and it was an amazing experience. The Center is funded by several foreign governments and universities studying primates, as well as tourist dollars. And a funny thing happened on the way to the sanctuary. They issued life jackets for all of us. I had an okay fit with mine, but Gary’s (probably a Malaysian XL) barely covered his back, and would be about as helpful in maintaining flotation for him as a styrofoam cup.

Keeping the Tourists in Captivity

Keeping the Tourists in Captivity

Once we landed on the island our hilarity was replaced with awe. The orangutans roam free on the island (well they do have an electric fence to keep them out of trouble with the tourists). We, however, were caged, on a 328 foot walkway through the habitat. These are Borneo orangutans, versus the other species, Sumatran orangutans.  The primary difference between the two is that the Borneo alpha males grow enormous cheeks and are a brownish color. Other males that are in the group, but do not breed, do not grow these cheeks.  Sumatran alpha males, on the other hand, instead of the big cheeks have long sideburns and “Taliban length beards” to quote our guide, Lo. In fact, the Sumatra females have little beards going as well, but far more modest.  The Sumatran species is more of an orange color than the Borneo, as seen in the 1978 Clint Eastwood classic, Every Which Way But Loose.   . Both species are endangered with only 15 thousand Borneo orangutans left in the wild and only 8 thousand Sumatran orangutans.  They do not interbreed since they live on separate islands.

Borneo Alpha Male

Borneo Alpha Male

As an interesting geographical note, we learned that the southern 2/3 of  the island of Borneo belongs to Indonesia and the northern 1/3 belongs to Malaysia, with the Kingdom of Brunei carved out of the North Shore in the Malaysia part. Lo told us that the Sultan of Brunei is extremely wealth, as sultans tend to be, and also a little eccentric, building a billion dollar theme park in this tiny kingdom.  They say when you are wealthy you can be described as “eccentric”, when you are poor, you will be described as “crazy”.  Most eccentric activity reported out of Brunei was that the prince, son of the sultan booked Whitney Houston to sing at his sister’s wedding. He is said to have given her a blank check and told her to fill in whatever amount she felt she was worth.  But enough of these human antics – back to the orangutans.

Using a Stick as a Tool

Using a Stick as a Tool

We learned that orangutans share 98% of human DNA so it is no wonder that so many of their gestures look so familiar. They are the only primates other than humans which have opposable thumbs that actually work like ours. (E.G. on some other primates, the thumb is there, but they don’t use it for much). They also use tools, such as sticks, to retrieve things out of their reach. The handlers encourage them to do this by placing food items just beyond their reach. Because the fence is electrified they will use a stick to either move the fence or bring whatever they want inside it.   They are one of those creatures that when they look into your eyes, it looks like someone is home (like dolphins, and elephants). The

Making Eye Contact

Making Eye Contact

name comes from the Malay words “orang”, (meaning “man” and “utan”, meaning jungle).  Orangutans at the sanctuary are hand fed as babies, and they can be given human formula or even human breast milk since our DNA is so close. Lo, quite the comedian, told of a translation issue with a German tourist,  who had only  a smattering of English, and upon hearing this comment about breast milk, exclaimed to his fellow countrymen that how extraordinary it is,  and not to mention creepy,  that human women breast feed orangutan babies. A fellow German with a much better grasp of English set the record straight, cracking up the whole bus in the process.

Big Hands with Opposable Thumbs

Big Hands with Opposable Thumbs

Orangutans are much larger animals than we expected. The adult females are smaller, usually under 4 feet tall when standing and weighing about 100 pounds. The alpha male is about 5 feet tall can weighs an average of 180 pounds, but the largest on record was a whopping 265 pounds. We were told they have the strength of 10 human men and can rip open things for which we have to use a knife. They can also open a coconut with their teeth.  We had hoped to be able to pet and hold an orangutan baby or two, as we did with a koala in Australia, however this is a far different beast.  It is not that they are malicious, they are just oblivious to how strong they are and how frail humans are and they can easily snap a bone (or neck) or two. A second reason for allowing no contact is that we could give them germs that they cannot cope with.  The reason the fence around all human areas is electrified on the orangutan side is that they are so strong, that they could easily rip any fencing material apart. The electric fence is one of the first things they learn about and they learn very quickly. The island is almost 10 acre, so they have plenty of room to roam.

Young Female

Young Female

They have many human ailments such as heart problems, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.  In the wild the average lifespan is 30 years, but in captivity it is 60 since their health is better monitored and they are separated to keep from fighting Mothers and babies are in one area, toddlers and little kids in another area, and adolescents in a third area.  The alpha male lives with 4 females and there are other males present, but they know better than to mess with one of the alpha male’s  “wives”. We were told that the non-dominant males do occasionally borrow one of the females for some fun, but never in the presence of the alpha male, and always on the sly. In the wild, they are not restricted to 4 mates, but the Center finds this number to be manageable. In the wild an alpha male will not kill the baby of another male (unlike lions for example). Part of the reason the species is endangered is that a female only has a newborn about every 5 years. They are trying to speed this up at the sanctuary, but at the same time have to manage the threat of in-breeding  by keeping the gene pool diversified.

BG - the Current Alpha Male

Alpha Male in Waiting

Alpha males are not born as such, but develop in that absence of another strong male.  Orangutans are not vegetarian, although much of their diet is fruit and greenery.  Even though they have huge fingers, they are quite dexterous with them and can peel fruit and pick out seeds.  Their arms are also quite long  in proportion to their torsos. A  grown male can have an arm span of about 7 feet, and given their stature, it makes their distinctive “knuckle walk” quite practical.  Because they make a new nest every night or else bring more branches and leaves to spruce up an old nest, these long arms are useful in swinging through the trees and gathering up suitable material.

Gary and Mike

Gary and Mike

There is a sculpted likeness of Mike, an alpha male who died in 2014, that we perched next to on a bench to get an idea of how massive alpha males can be.  They also have a young orangutan named Harry Potter, but we didn’t get to meet him.  We did get to meet Hiroshi, named after the Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia, an honor bestowed in recognition of the funding his government provides to the sanctuary.  B.G. (short for Big Guy is my guess) is the new alpha male and we did encounter him sitting under a tree looking regal, if somewhat in a stupor, although we were told he is a bit on the bi-polar side, and capable of suddenly launching attacks on offending trees and limbs. No word on whether he is abusive to the “wives”.

Snack Time

Snack Time

The favorite food of the orangutans is the durian fruit, which the locals say smells like hell, tastes like heaven.   Another fruit called rambutan is a favorite as well. Durian was not in season at this time, but we are told when it is, it drops from the tree and needs to be consumed within 24 hours or it will go bad – or literally from bad to worse. It already starts out bad, so we were told.

The goal of the sanctuary is to re-introduce the oldest generation back into the wild once a new generation becomes adults and produce offspring. The center started with 9 orangutans and today has 21.  The occasional

Neo Natal Unit in the Orangutan Nursery

Neo Natal Unit in the Orangutan Nursery

negligent mothers require that babies be taught (if not by their mothers, then the staff) the essentials to survival such as nest building, and finding water and food. And the center often takes in orphans and so this is essential for them as well. They even have a nursery with aneo-natal unit and cribs.   The problem is that the orangutans get so attached to human handlers and often get spoiled. One in particular named Adam (the first born in captivity) got so spoiled that he is lazy and wants his handlers to put food in his mouth. We also saw handlers pouring milk into the waiting mouths of a couple of youngsters, and are not sure how this will work once they are released into the wilds of Borneo.

 

Lucky, Looking to Impress the Onlookers

Lucky, Looking to Impress the Onlookers

We also met Lucky, who was something of a show-off, entertaining us with his trapeze act, and we got to see baby Shasha with her mother Nicky. Shasha is an adorable little bald thing. I just wanted to scoop her up and snuggle her close (just before her mom ripped my face off I think . We saw Hiroshi, a 9 year old,  play wrestling with a 7 year old having all kinds of fun. Then we saw another one that they explained had bonded with a handler and whenever he saw her he would run to the fence and follow her (just like Mary and her little lamb. )

 

We were supposed to sail at 5:30 p.m. but were delayed by a mechanical problem with a steam fitting. Since we don’t have steam engines or generators, we decided it must be the espresso machine in the Café Carinthia. The delay was fortuitous in two respects (1) a passenger had a medical emergency at 6:00 p.m. and  (2)of much less importance in the grand scheme of things, I had left my Kindle on the tour bus and the staff had time to retrieve it before we sailed.  This retrieval involved my reporting it to the Purser’s Office, who called the ship’s tour manager, who called the local tour operator, who called the bus company who called the bus driver, who went back to the bus garage and searched the bus.  I was amazed that it was recovered, and in fact I had already resigned myself to its loss and stopped by the ship’s library and checked out a few books before I was notified it had been returned. Kudos to Cunard’s and Penang Tourism’s Customer Service!

Leaving Penang

Leaving Penang

We had dinner and watched the ships departure around 7:30 with a fine sunset where the mountains of the Malaysian Peninsula met the sea. The evening’s entertainment was a Classical Flautist ( I never understood why it is ‘flautist” instead of” flutist” – after all she was not playing the “flaut”), but we decided to skip it in favor of reading and catching up on email. As it turns out, we are one floor above the theater where the performance was held and the notes were so piercing we could hear them in our stateroom, so we had a bit of culture injected into our Facebook time.

April 5, 2016

Dateline: Eastern Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon, UTC + 7  6.3 Degrees North, 94.4 Degrees East

At Sea in Bay of Bengal

At Sea in Bay of Bengal

Today is a sea day as we cruise from Penang, Malaysia to Colombo, Sri Lanka, a journey of two days across the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world. We are 68 miles from the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The ship is currently moving at 21 knots as we cross the Great Channel which is around 6,000 feet deep.  Early this morning we passed within 30 miles of the Nicobar Islands to the north, some of the most isolated in the world. We left them isolated and kept going. As of noon today, we have traveled 360 miles from Penang and have 919 to go to Colombo. The weather is fair and the captain says we are transitioning from the Northeast Monsoon (where the weather is the best) to the Southeast, where they have torrential rain.  Monsoon often has the connotation of being descriptive of a torrential downpour, but here it is used to refer to seasons (wet and not so wet, hot and hotter).  The air temperature here is 81 degrees F and the sea temperature is 90 degrees F.

With a full day of leisure ahead of us, we had our breakfast, followed by coffee and cribbage in the Carinthia Café and spent some time lounging on the Promenade Deck chatting with Mick and Anne, a couple from London. Then the next thing we knew it was lunch time and then a little more reading until the afternoon movie – an excellent one called Everest, based on the book by Jon Krakauer. We barely had time for our two mile walk around the deck before it was time to shower for dinner. We watched the evening performance of a comedienne, and then Gary concluded our first cribbage match with a victory bringing the score to 10 games to 8.  I was surging there in the end, but could not catch up.  We plan to start another round tomorrow.

We were told that there will be an emergency drill tomorrow since we will be sailing into waters with reported pirate activity once we leave Sri Lanka, so we decided we better get rested up for that in case we are called on for some rappelling or confronting swashbucklers who may be boarding.

 

April 6, 2016

Dateline: Western  Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon, UTC + 6  6.9 Degrees  North, 85.4 Degrees East

Container Ship off the Malacca Straits

Container Ship off the Malacca Straits

Today was our second sea day between Penang and Colombo. During the night we passed over the Ninety East Ridge, dividing the Indian Ocean into East and West, so named because it is an actual ocean ridge than runs right along the line of 90 degrees Longitude. There is also an 85 Degree ridge with the same characteristic at Longitude 85 East. At noon we are 260 miles east of Sri Lanka. We have traveled 538 miles from Penang and have 382 to go to reach Colombo. Skies were overcast with gentle winds from the west.  The sea was as flat as glass this morning, but has “freshened” as they say in “nautical speak” in the afternoon to create swells. For the uninitiated in nautical terms, a swell is a wave that does not break, but just rises and falls.) The sea was so calm that we were able to see dolphins on our two mile power walk this afternoon.

There were crew and passenger drills today for potential pirate attacks and for fire and/or sinking. The area west of the Maldives to the Seychelles is considered an area of concern. There is no land close by on this route and Somalia is a long ways away, but pirates could operate out of a “mother ship”, just like in the movie, Captain Phillips, and could be anywhere. We were to take the precautions from sundown April 9 to sunrise April 11. The ship has advised the UK Maritime Trade Organization (for this part of the world it is based in Dubai) of our route so they will know our exact co-ordinates at any given time.  The Queen Victoria has a security team, supplemented by private security team (I am envisioning Blackwater, the over-eager security guys from Iraq Ops, but perhaps my imagination is over-active).  Nevertheless, I keep looking for them to see if I can spot them skulking about the ship. I guess it would be quite alarming if I could. We also have had on board since Singapore a Royal Navy liaison to the Coalition Maritime Force in case we have to call in the Big Guys.  The ship will go dark with the order “Darken Ship” and sundown each day. We aren’t truly going dark – it’s just that the curtains will be pulled and most exterior lights will be off to make it harder for any pirate-types to see us.

Speaking of Pirates - You can have the look with Knock off Oakleys

Speaking of Pirates – You can have the look with Knock off Oakleys

This morning at 10:00 a.m. we had back to back drills to deal with two types of emergency: Pirate attacks and fire and/or sinking. There were two separate sets of instructions, so if one were followed by the other, there could be pure pandemonium.  It sounds like it would make a good movie, but I don’t want it to be based on any personal experiences of mine.  We got up early so we had time for breakfast, cribbage and deck time before we had to proceed with the drills.

In case of piracy, we would hear a loud speaker announcement broadcast throughout the ship that says “Security Threat” three consecutive times in a most serious voice.  Today we heard it just for practice and proceeded as if it were real.  The ship increased to its maximum speed of 24 knots. The response team appeared on deck dressed in bullet proof vests and helmets.  All passengers were to go to their staterooms – if you had an inside room, you were to  go in it and stay in it until further notice.  If you had a balcony cabin, as we did, we had to go sit in the corridor, away from stateroom doors to avoid potential machine gun fire.

In case of fire or sinking (or a collision where we aren’t sinking for that matter), we will hear 7 sharp long blasts followed by one short one. If we hear that, we are to go to our rooms and get our life jackets and report to our muster stations.  Ours happens to be in the Royal Court Theater with around 900 other passengers who are moving at about the speed of cold molasses.  From there we would be directed to life boats if necessary. I don’t think it worked this way on the Costa Concordia, but perhaps so.  They did say that in the event there is no time to “muster” , we would be directed to proceed directly to the lifeboats, but that still does not address the issue of the spry and the not-so-spry.   Ever since the Titanic disaster, all passenger ships are required to have enough lifeboats on either side of the ship for all passengers and ship’s company. The issue is that many of the passengers are not capable of “moving out right smartly” and can create bottlenecks. It would be interesting to see what happened in the event of a true emergency, but I would rather imagine it, or see a movie where someone else imagined it, than have the experience myself.

Pool Time at Sea

Pool Time at Sea

We had a leisurely afternoon lunch, and then it was a darts tournament for Gary. He reported it got quite hazardous as some of the dart participants were new to the sport and were bouncing darts off the windows and floor. I spent the time on journal work and then there was some pool time for us both. It was breezy out, and dangerous sunburn weather since we were so close to the equator.  There was a movie on which I wanted to see, but pool time won out over a darkened theater for 2 hours. We followed this lazy activity with our ritual two mile walk and got ready for another Formal Night. We did manage to stay awake though dinner, but decided to skip the theater production in favor of reading and going to sleep at a ridiculously early hour.  We do, however, get up early so we are not entirely slugs.

Days at sea always provide the opportunity to observe and document some of the strange characters on Board. Here are a few more from the gallery of characters.

There is a man whom we came to call Streak, who wears a visor with a shock of fake salt and pepper gel-drenched hair sprouting from the opening on top..  He otherwise dresses normally, and in fact looks downright stodgy.  He has Prince Charles ears, but don’t believe he is any relation since his headgear is far from regal. We have not seen him at night (that we know of) and so we don’t know whether he wears the visor to dinner, but of course we would not recognize him if he did not.

Today we saw a woman who we came to call Caitlyn since she bears a striking resemblance to Caitlyn (formerly known as Bruce ) Jenner, and is a chum of Tom-Geraldo. She stands out in his crowd because he usually is in the company of dowagers, conservatively dressed, conservatively bejeweled with upper class accents and Caitlyn is far from looking the role of dowager.  She swept into the Carinthia Café to join Tom-Geraldo and his lady friends this morning with huge Texas size auburn hair fanning out from her head like the headdress on a Vegas show girl, but this was hair not feathers. She wore a flowing white lace outfit with sparkly rhinestones all over it and silver spike heeled sandals that make your average stilettos look sawed off. And this was at 9:00 a.m. this morning.  When she entered, wearing white sunglasses (indoors) the conversation was about the royal family and succession of Charles to the throne (or not), but once Caitlyn arrived, they switched to hair and nails, and then to food when Caitlyn was overheard to say “the cod would “simply melt in one’s mouth”. Grammatically correct but sooo awkward, and she made lavish gestures with each proclamation.  We couldn’t help ourselves – we were riveted to eavesdropping, but had to cease since we risked missing lunch of all things.

We saw Caitlyn with a man we assumed to be her husband in the elevator later, dressed for dinner, hair even bigger and more triangular and wing-like, (similar to the female co-worker in the Dilbert cartoons) but her hair was brown this time.  The shocking thing was her her eye make-up when viewed  up close.  I was thinking it was kohl, like the Egyptians used to use, but the foundation make-up seemed to be more like modern day spackle for drywall. With the triangular hair and kohl, I felt she was channeling King Tut.

There was to be stargazing tonight at 10:00 p.m. with Commodore Rynd, who would have shown us a thing or two about celestial navigation, but it had to be postponed due to cloudy skies. Gary and I are both having trouble staying up that late – we think our body clocks are synched up with a time zone somewhere east of Hong Kong.

April 7, 2016

Dateline: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Latitude at Colombo 6.5 Degrees  North, Longitude 79.5 Degrees East

Docked in Columbo, Sri Lanka

Docked in Columbo, Sri Lanka

We arrived dockside in Colombo at 7:00 a.m. local time which is an interesting UTC plus 5.5 hours. We were not told why they are on the half hour, but we’re flexible and will just go with it.  We were told that it was going to be a high of 91 degrees today so we stocked up on our water accordingly. I would describe it as a scorcher, but that implies dry air. With the humidity in this city, a steamer might be more appropriate.

We had visited Sri Lanka ten years ago on another cruise and had a wonderful experience at the Pinnawela  Elephant Refuge where they take wounded, orphaned and retired working elephants to live out their days. Sri Lanka had a very brutal civil war and many land mines were laid at the time and it took a large toll on the native elephant population.  We considered going back to the same refuge, but decided to see the city of Colombo itself since we missed it last time.

Buddha at the Ashokaraymaya Temple

Buddha at the Ashokaraymaya Temple

We read about a nearby town called Kandy which has the Festival of the Tooth ( Esala Perahera) every year, which involves all kinds of dancing and  the elaborate painting and bejeweling of elephants and parading them through town. That also would have been a good tour, but our timing was off.  Kandy has the intriguingly named Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which like the one we saw in Singapore, claims to have a relic that is one of the Buddha’s actual teeth. It was believed that the tooth would bring rain. The king who brought it here was King Sri Megha Varna (translation is “resplendent one whose complexion is that of the rain cloud ). Then the tooth more or less evolved to become a symbol of power and whoever had the tooth, had the right to rule the country. Consequently the tooth was moved around a lot to ensure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. We had to wonder what caused Buddha to leave teeth scattered all over Asia and beyond. We chose to skip this tour too in favor of a shorter one closer to the ship.

Traces of Colonial Trading Days in Downtown Colombo

Traces of Colonial Trading Days in Downtown Colombo

The island nation of Sri Lanka, about the size of Ireland, was formerly known as Ceylon when it was a British Colony. It lies only 18 miles from the southern tip of India. Today it is home to 2 million people,  a quarter of which live in the capital city of Columbo.  It is a mostly flat island with a few mountains at the southern tip. On a map it looks like a giant tear drop that just fell from India to the north – kind of round on the bottom and pointed on the top. The natural harbor, used for centuries by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and Persians, was enhanced with the building  of breakwaters at Colombo, Sri Lanka largest city, and  reclaiming land from the sea.  The nation’s capital is actually Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, adjacent to Colombo, but it doesn’t seem to be much of tourist spot. The name alone would scare people off. The port of Colombo is a busy scene of “straddle” cranes, so named for straddling containers to pick them up and move them from ship to shore, and vice versa. Colombo itself is filled with colorful bazaars, temples and colonial buildings and many interesting, if not totally aesthetically pleasing features.

The majority of the earliest inhabitants were Sinhalese, coming from Northern India around the 4th Century BC. There were invasions from other people, including the Tamil of Southern India. There were conflicts between the two groups, which erupted in violence in the 1980’s when the Tamils tried to establish a separate state. This long running war finally ended in 2009, but only after 70,000 people had died, and in the 2004 tsunami, they lost more than 30,000 people.

In 1505 the Portuguese landed and soon controlled the west coast and expanded their territory, followed by the Dutch and then the English who made it a colony in 1802, as the English were wont to do in those days. They established coffee plantations, which were destroyed by disease, so they planted tea which has thrived there ever since and it is often called the finest tea in the world. Independence was granted in 1948 and in 1972 the name was changed back to the traditional name, Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese Script

Sinhalese Script

We had a guide for our tour, but I had trouble understanding him due to a very pronounced accent that gave his English a musical lilt that was nice to listen to, but hard to glean information from. There were a number of public building such as the lotus shaped building that was a theater, the usual government edifices, banks and business towers, but the really interesting things were what was going on in the streets, which were bustling. The shops sold such an odd assortment of goods – toilet brushes, onions, cigarettes, concrete, brooms, paint, and Pepsi – all in the same shop. The local people are slim and small, typically very dark skinned like those of Southern India.  The Moors were here years ago and there are still many signs of their influence in architecture and skin tones. They also derive much of their culture from nearby India, including the use  of the Sinhalese alphabet, which looks very much like the Thai alphabet – beautiful script, but not easy for westerners to comprehend.

A Tuk tuk Competing Head to Head with a Bus

A Tuk tuk Competing Head to Head with a Bus

There was a combination lighthouse and clock tower built in 1951, which replaced an old one from 1857. It used to be ocean front, but is now in the middle of town due to land reclamation. The city has a very Indian flavor – full of litter, crowds, tuk tuks, saris, accents, colonial-era buildings, unwieldy and seemingly impossible loads on bikes, cars, scooters, trucks and humans. The Pettah is the bazaar area , and it is quite a bizarre bazaar   There is much crumbling concrete going bad, lots of rusted rebar sticking up from delayed or abandoned construction projects, and corrugated tin used with reckless abandon atop grimy buildings.  Walls read “stick no bills” meaning do not paste anything to these walls, but it is rarely heeded. There is a new International Conference Hall built to resemble a lotus petals, which stands in stark contrast to the crumbling neighborhoods surrounding it.  In nearby Victoria Park workers were using crudely fashioned brooms to rake leaves.

Near the Ashokaraymaya Temple

Near the Ashokaraymaya Temple

The British established a tennis association and brought cricket to the island, and continuing in the colonial tradition, police still direct cars with white gloved hands despite the heat. It is good they are there since there were many street lights that were not working, The YMCA and the Salvation Army are both present here and seemed to be bustling. We drove by the army and air force barracks, and didn’t see much to indicate a high degree of readiness in case trouble breaks out, but perhaps there is more going on behind the grimy walls than we would observe.  In stark contrast to the grimy aspect, we saw just a few blocks away, a  park –like area with street artists, hanging paintings on fences and easels on the streets.

New Addition to Colombo's Skyline

New Addition to Colombo’s Skyline

Columbo is not without modern buildings and structures, often funded and built by foreign countries. For example, they have a conference hall built by the Chinese. We have visited a number of countries where foreign countries have invested. It is typically to ensure themselves friendly export markets for their goods, or in some cases to influence their votes  at the UN. It seems to be working well for them.  They have a World Trade Center here, also with twin towers, but quite a bit shorter than the ones in New York. The Old Dutch Hospital is now a shopping and dining complex.  If it’s not third world – it is definitely second, but the city still has some charm with a host of mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples and Christian churches.  We saw a single street with a Jewish temple, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist Temple, all within a few blocks of each other and all peacefully co-existing for centuries,  so there is the proof that it can be done.

Remnants of Colonialism

Remnants of Colonialism

Sri Lanka has been termed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, (Penang claims the Pearl of the Orient title) per our guide, and maybe that was the case back in the British Colonial tea plantation days but the luster seems to have worn off.  There is much evidence of this – a former horse race track, now just the grounds where it used to be and former polo fields and tennis courts, cricket pitches, and other remnants of a bygone, and grander era when British brought their lifestyle to the colonies they occupied. While many of the sporting venues are still there, they have largely gone to seed with patchy grass and untamed shrubbery. Cricket is still big here, but the facilities seem to need a facelift, at least the public ones we saw. Our guide told us that there were several private clubs where the serious cricketers played, but that volleyball was really the national sport.

Asokarmayara Temple

Asokaraymaya Temple

In any event, you would never confuse Colombo with any place in the Western World or Europe. It has a very unique flavor. It is similar to India, but not as crowded or poverty stricken and there don’t seem to be any wandering cows. There are thousands of bicycles, laden with some really bizarre payloads – like chickens, or building supplies.   We stopped at a temple named Asokaraymaya and we had to take our shoes off to go inside, a common thing in visiting temples. It is a hundred years old (new by temple standards) with murals of 20th Century Buddhist art cast in concrete and beautifully painted.

The Stupa at Asokaraymaya Temple

The Stupa at Asokaraymaya Temple

Just before we entered, we saw a toothless beggar, who we assumed was collecting “protection money” so you can make sure you leave with the same number and same pair of shoes you arrived in. The pavement is very hot so barefoot walking is not feasible, so his business model seems to work. Across the street was a huge standing Buddha in concrete patterned after one in Thailand. On the grounds there is a large stupa ( a structure containing the remains of priests and nuns) also built of concrete.

 

Independence Square

Independence Square

We stopped at Independence Square to see the National War Memorial, a national monument with pillars built in what is called “Kandy style”. We weren’t sure what Kandy style was, but it looked a whole lot like Russian Cold War architecture (gray and grim).  It did have a bright red tiled roof, so maybe that was the Kandy part, or maybe it was those concrete lions on guard out front. Across the street is the Parliament Building, built in the distinctive British Colonial style which could look natural on any London street. It seems every place we visit that was ever a British colony, has at least one of these trademark structures.

A Resident Snake Charmer Greets a Tour Bus

A Resident Snake Charmer Greets a Tour Bus

Our bus was met by an assortment of snake charmers, complete with cobra and basket, and guys with little monkeys, both of whom would pose with you for a small donation. The wardrobes were an interesting mix of stripes, plaids and prints, sometimes all worn together with reckless abandon. One snake charmer had added a vividly striped sarong, (a length of fabric wrapped around the lower body) to accent his plaid shirt. The women also wear a wrap around skirt-like garment that is called a “redda”.

Colombo National Museum(and Sauna  – a name I might add to the title) was housed in an old colonial building. It was built in 1877 and was occupied by the Dutch, but later it was the residence of the British Governor of the colony.  It would have been interesting  to see if it were not so hot. Plus they kept it dark trying to keep it cooler. It is hard to concentrate on historical

Former British Governor's Palace Now Combination Museum and Sauna

Former British Governor’s Palace Now Combination Museum and Sauna

treasures when you feel as if you are being poached like an egg in a darkened kitchen. We looked around as best we could considering that heat stroke was imminent.  We did see a little water feature that farmers used to scare mice.  A gourd would fill up with water and a clapper would crash into a rock every few minutes in sort of  a scarecrow effect, but we were really fantasizing about having that water land on us instead.  Outside it was somewhat cooler, and there were more (or were they the same?) snake charmers and monkey handlers.  The only air conditioner was in the gift shop and it was packed with panting tourists. On our way back to the ship we noticed a number of apartment buildings that are using the occasional window unit for air conditioning. We think a big opportunity awaits here for Trane or Carrier or any other manufacturer of central air conditioning – they need to get those salesmen over here.

April 8, 2016

Dateline: Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 5.5 hours,  5.5 Degrees North, Longitude 75.3 Degrees  East

The Ship's Wake from the Stern

The Ship’s Wake from the Stern

We were at sea today on a southwesterly course for the Seychelles, having proceeded overnight through the Lakshadweep Sea, a body of water bordering India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The water is as smooth as glass, so much so that we can see clouds reflected on the water’s surface – an uncommon sight at sea. It makes you want to jump in for a swim. We changed our exercise routine today and took our 2 mile walk right after breakfast since Gary has the Behind the Scenes Tour this afternoon. We had a double reward for our early morning effort: it was much cooler and we saw several pods of dolphins, as well as what some termed “flying fish” but they may have only been flying since the dolphins were after them – we weren’t close enough to tell if they actually had the little fish-wings. We were advised to be on the lookout for Blue Whales that are fairly common in these waters, but had no luck in that regard. We spent the morning on the Promenade Deck, as we love to do with a wonderful  sense of relaxation – reading, napping, watching for sea life, reflecting and counting our blessings.

As of noon today we have covered 289 miles since Sri Lanka and have 1,335 miles to go to reach Port Victoria in the Seychelles. We passed through the Maldives today at around 5:00 p.m. through the Kardiva Channel. The locals call the channel Kaashidhoo Kandu, but Kardiva seems to work for us who are English speakers.  This passage was used as part of the “Spice Route” for hundreds of years and there was also a big pearl business that flourished for 2,000 years, but has since been replaced with pearl farming. .  We could see a few of the islands in the distance, but since the highest point in the Maldives (the world’s lowest county) is only about 1.5 meters above sea level, we couldn’t see much.  We have visited the Maldives on a previous trip and they are lovely with coral atolls, turquoise waters and sandy beaches – all things the Queen Victoria needs to avoid. And tonight we are able to advance our clocks by another half hour so we will be in synch with the rest of the world.  The air temperature is 91 degrees F and the sea is 90F.

I listened to a historical lecture called Britain’s Greatest Defeat: Malay and Singapore, February 1942. I knew the bare bones of the story from a previous visit to Singapore, but didn’t realize how devastating a loss it was. The speaker said this was the first time Great Britain had been trounced so badly since the Battle of Yorktown and the American Revolution. That time, they lost a colony to the people living there; this time they lost to the Japanese and the people living there suffered horribly. When the British evacuated, they took British citizens first, leaving the locals behind to be slaughtered by the thousands, which made for not so warm a welcome when they came back They did get Singapore and Malyasia  back after the Japanese surrender, but things were never the same. It was only a matter of years before they surrendered the colony a second time under much more peaceable circumstances to become independent.

Gary took the ship’s Behind the Scenes tour today and got to wear the Commodore’s hat and sit in the Commodore’s chair on the bridge. He was not allowed to take any pictures (we think not so much out of fear of terrorist take-over of the kitchen as the desire that he purchase pictures taken by the ship’s photographer.)

The first stop behind the scenes was hosted by entertainment director. In  the theater, they went back stage to see how the  sound and light worked, saw costumes and props, visited  dressing rooms, and talked to performers. The next stop was the bow, where  they went into the anchor closet where lines, anchors, chain, and capstans are stowed.  The Deputy Captain hosted this segment and explained how all worked. There are  three anchors – 2 hanging in place on the hull and one spare.  We docked in all the ports we have visited, but they will anchor occasionally if dock facilities are not available and use the tenders to take people ashore.  The next stop was the Engine Control room where there were dozens of monitors for on board systems – water, fuel consumption, RPM’s, etc. They did not go into the actual compartments where the engines were operating – far too hot and noisy.

The ship’s doctor hosted them in the medical facility which is called the Surgery. Despite the name, they perform no surgeries in the surgery. They mostly medicate and evacuate if necessary, and they only do that if it is a matter of life and death and they must be within 100 miles of shore in order to evacuate.  They have an “ambulance” equipped just like a 911 vehicle, which is essentially a cart and they say they can be anywhere on the vessel within 6 minutes.

The next stop was the Print Shop – where the gazillion photos taken by the ship’s photographers are printed to put up in photo galleries and offered for sale. Gary asked about all the wasted paper and chemicals  and they said will eventually phase out  the current process and go to terminals and print to order.  The next exotic stop was the Recycle Center. The ship recycles all plastic, paper, aluminum, etc. Extra food is incinerated. Ships have come a long way from an environmental perspective. On our first cruise in 1972 they used to throw garbage overboard and flush  sewage called black water directly into the ocean. Now it is treated and released based on maritime guidelines

In the galley the Assistant Chef showed them around.  On board there are 140 chefs who work under the Executive Chef, the Sous Chef and four Chefs de Cuisine.  There are 70 “utility hands” that do the cleanup work in the kitchen (such as washing all the dishes and mopping the floors).  The ship employs two full time fruit and ice carvers, whom I assume must just cut up fruit or have other duties in their spare time since otherwise I would hardly think they would be fully employed. In the bakery, running 24 hours a day, all bread and pastry is made fresh on board daily, including 2500 dinner rolls a day.

Doing our Part to Consume our Share of Ship's Stores

Doing our Part to Consume our Share of Ship’s Stores

The Queen Victoria has a staff of 11 for provisions management which loads fresh food in every port of call in 17 refrigerated or freezer rooms, plus they keep track of all that and all non-perishables as they are used. In a tour of the vast storage units, Gary noticed potatoes from Pasco Washington,  which is not too far from where he grew up. Curious about how they got on this ship, (he assumed maybe in San Francisco), he was told they were loaded in Singapore. It’s good to know we as a nation are exporting.

Here is the typical consumption on a fourteen day voyage: 70 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, 18 tons of meat, 12 tons of fish and seafood, 30 tons of dairy products, (does not include 67,850 pints of milk),  3 tons of sugar, 4,666 eggs, 8 tons of flour, 3 tons of rice. Almost 6,500 meals each day are prepared and consumed as well as 120 pizzas. Eight thousand linen napkins are laundered daily, 70,000 pieces of china and glassware are used daily, 5,000 cups of tea are served each day. And in the course of a year, the galley uses 610 miles of cling wrap.

Gary on the Bridge with Commodor Rynd

Gary on the Bridge with Commodore Rynd

The last stop was the bridge where Gary was hoping for the opportunity to drive a bit, or at least blow the whistle, but that didn’t happen. He did get photo op, and the chance to sit in the Commodore’s chair. Unfortunately as he posed for the captain, he was photo bombed by a woman with frizzy hair and a clueless man bumbling about in the background. It does make the photo a more interesting keepsake though.

 

 

April 9, 2016

Dateline: Northwestern Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 5 hours,   2.2 Degrees North, Longitude  67.9 Degrees East

We were traveling across the Arabian Sea and having a rainy and an unusually lazy (a.k.a. slothful) morning. After breakfast we went out by the Pavilion Pool which has little cabanas and enjoyed the rain and a game of cribbage. We were joined by a matronly lady (hope she doesn’t

The Pavilion Pool

The Pavilion Pool

describe me in the same way) from England who fancied a bit of a chat. She was already stereotypical – stout, iron grey hair, lined face, lively eyes – but when she took out her knitting and told us she was knitting a “tea cozy” that just added icing to the stereotype cake. I had to explain to Gary the function of a tea cozy (i.e. a sweater for your teapot to keep the tea warm). Unfortunately we had to cut our chat short since torrential rains arrived and we were getting wet. We first went to the Winter Garden (an indoor atrium) but it was way too muggy in there and so we went to the Commodore’s Lounge just below the bridge with its windows with panoramic views on a clear day, but today they were getting pelted with rain, but it was so cozy (nothing to do with tea in this case) sitting there listening to the rain and watching it sheet down the windows, while we read our respective books. We were snug and dry and it was soothing, so of course we both nodded off until lunch-time.

Today at noon we were 660 miles from the southernmost tip of India, crossing one of the world’s major tectonic plates and a massive underwater mountain range known as the Carlsberg Ridge, named after the sponsoring company of the Dana Expedition, which discovered and charted the ridge between 1928 and 1930. The water depth difference created by the ridge is between 5900 feet and 11,800 feet. Our speed was 19 knots and there was 9,500 feet of water under the keel. We have traveled 770 miles from Colombo and have 867 left to reach Port Victoria in the Seychelles.  We have been and continue traveling on a “rhumb line” (nautical term for straight line) with no change in our heading, ever since we cleared the Maldives. The air temperature is 81 degrees F and the sea is 89 degrees F.

Cornwall Style Scones and Jam at Tea Time

Cornwall Style Scones and Jam at Tea Time

We had burgers at the Lido pool for lunch and had the opportunity to meet our RNLO – that is our Royal Navy Liaison Officer. He is assigned to our ship to call up the Royal Navy in case of piracy threats. He would later give talks on security measures. He really had a delightful and self-deprecating sense of humor that we really enjoyed.  He explained the difference in tea time scones in Devon (where he lives when not at sea) and Cornwall. In Devon they put the cream on the scone first and then the jam. In Cornwall it is just the opposite. He favors the Cornish method, as do we since putting cream on a warm scone tends to make it run all over.

Enjoying the Hot Tub at the Lido Pool

Enjoying the Hot Tub at the Lido Pool

We spent some time in the hot tub at the Lido Pool and played a game of music trivia, but did not fare so well. Much of the music was British or too recent for us to identify. We decided we had better stick to our normal pursuits – cribbage, writing time, nap time, walking, showering and eating. We noticed as we walked today that the crew had set up LRAD (Long Range Acoustical Device) equipment on the Promenade Deck  and there was one person with a portable on his chest, plus there were people with binoculars scanning the horizon.  The LRAD are capable of broadcasting in frequencies very unpleasant to the human ear and is used for crowd control with much more frequency than pirate control. The crew had also laid fire hoses along the railing with the nozzles fixed and pointed at the sides of the ship, recalling scenes from the movie, Captain Phillips, which according to some ship’s officers we chatted with, was supposedly a very accurate portrayal of the incident.

With Tim, the Ship's Engineer

With Tim, the Ship’s Engineer

This evening we were invited to dinner with The Chief Engineer, who told us that since the Maersk Alabama incident, they do have weapons on board, as do most ships – thus the rapid decrease in piracy. He also told us that casting call for extras for the movie went out in maritime trade press, but he took a pass. Tonight we will cross the Equator in the wee hours at a longitude of 63 degrees and we  will also start our “Dark Ship” mode.

 

 

April 10, 2016

Dateline: Southern  Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 5 hours,  1.1 Degrees South, Longitude  60.9 Degrees East

After an unusually late night for us last night (11:00 bedtime) we had an unusually long “lie –in” (the British term for sleeping “in” as we would call it. We decided to have breakfast in the Britannia Grill with table linens and waiters and all the finery this morning, since the Lido gets a little hectic for those who “lie in”. We went back to our regular routine with coffee and cribbage in the Café Carinthia, and had the added bonus of seeing a vegetable carving demonstration, where Bobby Cadic, a talented sous chef creates little animals out of vegetables. It sounds a little wacky, but it was really entertaining, but then it is probably something we will not be trying at home.

Cruising in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean from the Promenade Deck

We went out on the Promenade Deck where it was warm but breezy and mostly enjoyed just watching the ocean roll by with a bit or reading an napping interspersed with sessions of staring off into space (or staring off into water might be more accurate). We both agree that this is the place to be in order to really feel like you are where you are – that is in the middle of a vast ocean. Inside, you could believe you were in a really nice hotel with great service.

We were now in the Southern Hemisphere, having crossed the Equator at 3:00 a.m. this morning. Our position at noon is 1,140 miles off the coast of Kenya and the water is 14,760 feet deep. We have traveled 1,235 miles from Colombo, Sri Lanka and have 411 to go to reach Port Victoria in the Seychelles.  We are making 18.2 knots, somewhat slowed by a 2 knot current called the Counter Equatorial Current. The weather is overcast, but bright with light seas and 20 knot winds. The air temperature is 84 Degrees F and the water temperature is 90F. There are a number of sea mounts and ridges in this area which cause depths to decrease to as shallow as 600 feet.

We roused ourselves to go to lunch at 1:00 p.m. in the Lido and encountered the masses which heretofore we had avoided by lunching at noon. It was just another reminder that the early bird does indeed get the choice pieces of pizza. After lunch – I want to work on my journal , writing in our stateroom where I can look out our balcony window for inspiration. I brought a keyboard since my lightning fingers far outpace the keyboard speed of my laptop. (Thank you high school typing teacher). The downside of the lighting speed is copious error correcting.  Gary has gone off to (I am not kidding) a lecture on the Evolution of the Harp) I am a little worried

Stress Free Days at the Lido Pool

Stress Free Days at the Lido Pool

that this Equatorial sun is getting to him. He is planning to follow that up with an activity called Float Your Boat, which is a competition among passengers to design and construct a small boat (suitable for a bathtub size).   The vessel would be judged on seaworthiness (i.e. does it float?), appearance (visual appeal and decorative elements) and cargo capacity (it must be able to carry six 12 ounce cans of beer). Sea trials were to be held in one week in the Pavilion Swimming Pool. The size could not exceed 3 feet by 3 feet and be no taller than 2 feet from the keel to the tallest point. Guests had to scrounge around the ship for their materials, but could also use anything they find ashore.  Gary seriously thought about entering, but decided it would be way too stressful and we are all about keeping our days stress free.

The alternative entertainment this afternoon that we are both passing on, having seen it several times in previous cruises is the ritual “Crossing the Line” Ceremony where all persons who are crossing the Equator for the First time attend the Court of Neptune and his Queen and  the Seaweed Court of Mermaids. By undergoing the ritual (which involves being christened with all sorts of foodstuff and sauces), “newbies” will graduate from the status of “Pollywog” to “Shellback”. This is an age old seafaring tradition. I am not sure how they make the leap from frog to turtle here, but Cunard keeps the tradition going.

I did the deck walking alone today since Gary has pulled up lame and has taken on the role of lap counter (since there are only six this isn’t too stressful for him). We are crossing an area known as the Somali Basin (and thus the piracy precautions.) I did see one fishing vessel looking like it was approaching us off the starboard bow, but it veered off. It certainly garnered a lot of attention prior to that since this is one of the favorite disguises of pirates, but sometimes a fishing boat is just as fishing boat, as was the case here.

Tonight we have a wine pairing dinner in the Verandah, the gourmet restaurant on board that we have no yet patronized on this voyage.   The dinner was outstanding, and with only 16 couples, we had exceptional service.  We had seven courses, each paired with a selected wine. We were first were served a tiny appetizer called “amuse boche”, a French phrase roughly translating as an amusement for the mouth. This particular one was a latke (a.k.a. potato pancake with a scallop atop it). My mouth was indeed amused and wanted more. This was accompanied by a glass of fine champagne. Then came the soup with a Riesling, and the fish course with Pouilly Fume. The fish was delicious and the portion was huge and by this point we were getting full, but still had several courses to go. The next course was just to cleanse our palate and was an “espuma”, which was a foamy drink in a tiny glass made with apples and Calvados. This paved the way for the main dish, Beef Tenderloin, served with Cabernet Sauvignon. Then came the cheese course served with a St. Emilion Grand Cru, and then we finished up with desert and brandy.  Needless to say, we had to waddle back to our room.  It was too much of a fantastic thing.

 

 

 

 




Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage – Part 4

 

Great Adventure Travelogue

Part 4: Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Ascension Island

 

April 20, 2016

Dateline: South Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 2, 34.8 Degrees South, Longitude 21.7 Degrees East

 Today we enjoyed a sea day between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town as we transit the site where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. En route we will cross the Agulhas Bank, part of the African Continental Shelf, where water is a mere 270 feet deep , and  go past the light house at Cape St. Francis where we will pass as close to the Continent of Africa as 28 miles. Later in the day we will pass a lighthouse built in 1864 at Cape Blaize. At noon today we had traveled 222 miles from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with 210 to go to reach Cape Town. We have slowed to 12 knots in order to arrive at Cape Town first thing tomorrow morning.  The air temperature was 68 F and the water was 70F. We spent quite a bit of time on deck where we found it to be cool and breezy.

Queen Victoria’s Stack

There was quite a bit of shipping traffic here. With significantly lower fuel rates and increasingly higher fees to transit the Suez Canal, many ships find it is more cost effective to take the extra days to go around Africa rather than take the Mediterranean and the Suez route. This is hurting Egypt, which collects the Suez Canal fees. That coupled with the dramatic drop in tourism due to fears of terrorism has crippled the country’s economy..

English is the official language along with Afrikaans – pronounced Ahf-ree-kahns), which was derived from the Dutch spoken by the first European settlers. There are also 9 Bantu languages of the indigenous people spoken here.

We had some interesting lectures to attend today.  Cunard often has lecturers scheduled who address topics related to areas visited. On this leg of the journey, it was focused on the geography, culture, politics and wildlife of Africa.  The first we attended was by the plastic surgeon, Dr. Alastair Lamont.  who explained how he has performed plastic surgery on rhinos in a lecture entitled (pun fully intended): Rhinoplasty for Rhinos – Surgery in the Veld. Reconstructive surgeons often cooperate with veterinarians in the bush to save wildlife.  He was actually called by his son who is a big game vet to perform skin grafts on a female rhino injured by poachers taking her horns, but not killing her.  Dr. Lamont was able to take skin grafts from the rhino’s belly and apply them to her face. He used tar to close the wounds until the grafts could be made, since conventional  methods were out of the question. The bottom line is the rhino is still ugly, but alive. This particular female not only survived, but had a baby.

Rhino horn is actually like a claw or nail. It is a myth that it is made from hair and a myth that it will increase male potency, but Asian cultures, particularly the Chinese are frantic for it and willing to pay thousands for it.  There has been some work with “Dehorning rhinos to keep poachers from killing them, but they will grow back unless removed at the root. It is a cumbersome process, but one they have started doing at birth.  The down side of this is that many poachers will kill them anyway just to avoid tracking them for days, only to discover their horn is gone. Rhinos should have a 50 to 60 year life-span. Chips are often inserted into the horn to be able to track them, but often they are already dead by the time they can get to them. They can often catch the poachers, but there are hundreds waiting to take their place because the trade is so lucrative. Rhinos are endangered, only a handful left in the wild and they often have armed guards.  With over-population and under-employment of humans, this continues to be a major threat to their existence.

The skin thickness on a human is 5 ml., but on a rhino it is 1525 ml. With humans you can peel a piece of skin  off by using a device like a cheese slicer. With rhinos there are many contours so shaving is not an option, so they have to go deep and use a medical sheet for a deep graft. Today there was a “graphic photo” warning since we had one passenger pass out at an earlier lecture with lots of gory images.

After a leisurely lunch, we attended a second lecture by Gavin Robinson about the myths surrounding crocodiles.  Many people confuse crocodiles with alligators – the primary differences are that alligators are typically smaller with rounded snouts, darker hide, and with eyes that can see up as well as out, but not down and they have 76 teeth. They are found in freshwater only in climates with consistently warm temperatures. Crocodiles have a more pointed snout and grow significantly larger with specimens averaging 12 feet. The largest crocodile ever recorded weighed in at 2,370 pound and measured over 20 feet. The largest alligator ever recorded was just over 15 feet, weighing a little over 1,000 pounds. Crocodiles can see below them as well as above so it makes for useful trolling for prey in the water and above it while looking for lunch. They can be found in any body of water where the temperatures range from 77 to 90 F throughout South Africa.

Crocodiles were once found in the Nile, but have since retreated southward. The early Egyptians believed they brought good luck and later generations used various parts for a sort of witch craft. Today it is still believed that a crocodile tooth will bring good luck. Crocodiles also played a role in ancient justice systems. If a person were to be accused of a crime, he would be thrown into a crocodile infested river. If he safely swam across, he was ruled innocent. If consumed, he was considered guilty as charged and then , of course, the execution was taken care of too – judgment and punishment all rolled into one.  Hopefully no one had to go this route for petty crimes.

Crocodiles actually eat small stones to help them digest their food (sort of like the craw in a chicken) since they tend to take rather large bites and don’t chew much. Unlike some reptiles, they do not hide their food and eat it later. They gorge themselves and nibble stones to help it go down. To kill their prey, they snatch it and take it underwater and rip pieces of it off by rolling over and over with it. This is termed the “death roll”. They surface to eat however since they cannot eat underwater because they would drown. They store fat in their tails and can live off it for long periods of time in lean times.

They are often portrayed as villains, but they are essential to maintaining the ecological balance of their environment.

Crocodiles’ eyes do make tears to keep their eyes moist. They actually have two eyelids, one for water and one for land. It is believed that the phrase, “crocodile tears”, that has come to mean insincere sorrow, is perhaps attributable to the sorrow a crocodile feels for killing its prey. Only 1% of crocodiles hatched actually mature – the rest are eaten by other predators,  so perhaps this is Nature’s way of generating payback. A crocodile sheds his skin up to 3,000 times in his lifetime, allowing him to grow to his impressive size. His bite pressure can range from 3,000 to 5,000 psi, which explains the serious damage to his prey.

Crocodiles can swim at an impressive 35 miles per hour, getting their power from their enormous tail, which they also move back and forth for buoyancy. The females are somewhat fast and loose with multiple sex partners. The female takes the initiative and returns to those males she likes best (not sure what the criteria here is). The males are called bulls and the females cows, but this is quite reversed from the mammalian world in terms of aggression. The temperature of the water determines the sex of the offspring. If it is higher, they will be female, if lower they will be male.  The female takes care of the young for 3 weeks, often carrying them in her mouth, but after that they are on their own and she will eat them if they come back to her – the ultimate in Tough Love from a parent.

They have been known to walk long distances, where they actually lift their cumbersome bodies and walk with their feet under them as a mammal would , rather than dragging them in sort of a belly walk, which they do around their water hole or river. They also have a belly power walk where they use their bodies in a snake-like motion if they need to move quickly. They can also launch themselves at prey in a rather explosive fashion, but cannot sustain the speed to pursue it so if they miss on the first try, they have pretty much lost it.

Hippos and crocodiles tolerate each other with sort of a grudging respect.  A hippo bite with those giant teeth is no small thing for even the largest crocodile and they have an abundance of much better targets, for which they don’t have to worry about those giant teeth and  a bunch of leftovers.  At one point crocodiles were over hunted and almost became extinct. Now there are really too many in the wild.  Lake crocs tend to be fat and lazy , but  River crocs are more fit.

The Fashion Alerts continue – we actually saw what appear to be pajama bottoms on passengers in the public areas of the ship. I don’t think they simply got locked out of their cabins while picking up a copy of the daily news in their message box in the hallway.  These people must believe they actually are dressed.

April 21, 2016

Dateline: Cape Town, South Africa

Latitude at Cape Town, 33.54 South, Longitude 18.25 East

Cape Town, a city of 4 million people,  has been described in many ways and probably most accurately a “world in one country”. We were told it is also called the Mother City, but that doesn’t seem to fit as well. Cape Town, a key  to re-provision,  also gained the nickname as the Tavern of the Seas with a thriving red light district and it was a favorite port of sailors.

It is 40 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. It is neither the southernmost point of the African Continent, nor the place where the where two powerful currents from the two oceans – the Atlantic and the Indian meet. That is at Cape Argulhas (90 miles to the east-southeast from Cape Town). The Cape of Good Hope is a navigational point where ships begin to travel a more easterly direction, than a southerly one as they round the Cape.  The first to do this were the Portuguese in 1488, and who apparently had a bad experience because they called it the Cape of Storms originally. It became an anchorage for fresh water for ships bound for the Far East, thus offering “good hope to crews” that they could actually make it that far. A Dutch ship foundered in the bay in 1647 and the stranded sailors began to grow vegetables and barter with the local people called the Hottentots for meat. Hottentot was a generic name given by the Europeans so they wouldn’t have to deal with the pronunciation of their real tribe names, but today it is considered a derogatory name. The Dutch East India Company set up a permanent station in 1652. The first slaves were imported shortly thereafter from Indonesia, West Africa and Malaysia and trade became brisk.

In 1795 the British realized the strategic importance of the Cape and decided, like Gibraltar on the Mediterranean, that from this point they could control a vital trade route They took control after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, when the Dutch backed the loser in that battle – Napoleon.  The Afrikaaners, also called Boers – the Dutch word for farmers, were descendants of the first Dutch settlers. They were dissatisfied with the British rule, particularly after diamonds and gold were discovered in Kimberley in the 1870’s. A bitter feud erupted ending in two Boer Wars 1899-1902. Self rule was granted to all provinces, but only whites could rule in Parliament and apartheid was the policy of the land.

We arrived at Duncan Dock, Berth E at the Cape Town Cruise Terminal early in the morning, awaking to overcast skies, 68 degrees F and cool breezes, a welcome change from the heat of the tropical Indian Ocean. This is the Queen Victoria’s maiden call in Cape Town, the third most populous city in South Africa. It is the provincial capital of the Western Cape. Notable natural landmarks are Table Mountain and Cape Point which provides a natural harbor.

Bad Weather in Capetown

We had planned to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain today, but the skies are so low you can’t even see this iconic landmark, rising almost 3600 feet above sea level , forming what in the American West it would be called a mesa. It is estimated to have risen from the sea floor 300 million years ago so it has plenty of time for the elements to level off the distinctive top of the peak. However, the cable car was closed because it was too windy, and so we settled for a half day city tour.  The cable car itself is something to see, with each car holding as many as 65 people for the 4 minute trip.  The highest point of the mountain is called Maclears Beacon. There is not a beacon in the traditional sense (emitting powerful light) but is a surveyor’s waypoint in the form of a stone cairn, set there by Thomas Maclear in the 19th Century. When clouds settle on Table Mountain, they are referred to locally as the “table cloth”. Today the table cloth totally smothered any sign of the mountain. Another sight we missed were the feral goats call “tahrs”, which are originally from Himalaya, but they flourished  here and became feral by escaping from the local zoo and multiplying.

Beach East of Capetown

Since the Dutch set up the first permanent European settlement in 1652, Cape Town has become a Creole melting pot in a multi-cultural, multi-racial city and multi-religion. Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus all worship here. There are beautiful golden beaches and flourishing vineyards against a backdrop of   mountains, and lush greenery in parks and public spaces.   The famous Stellenbosch and Franschoek wine regions are a short drive away.

 

Robben Island on the Horizon

As the fog lifted a little, were able to see Robben Island, eight miles away. It the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 17 of the 27 years he was imprisoned by the government. The name means “Seal Island” in Dutch, but it served as a leper colony and prison even in colonial times. It is much like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay – a “doable” swim in normal water, but the pounding surf and great white sharks tended to keep everyone on dry land. There have also been a number of shipwrecks including a ship carrying gold, but the waters are way too treacherous to attempt salvage. Supposedly the odd gold coin washes up from time to time so that keeps the beachcombers working. And speaking of working – the prisoners on Robben Island broke big rocks into little rocks all day – they were never used for anything, but it kept prisoners from lounging about all day  and perhaps enjoying themselves.

Victorian Clock Tower

Our tour took us to Strand Street, once the waterfront main drag, but there has been so much reclamation, it is now in the middle of the old colonial town.  We had hoped to be able to take a walking tour to see the gardens and the old buildings, but the rain discouraged that idea. The original town is very San Francisco like with steep narrow streets, and the climate is comparable as well. The small area formed between the mountains and the sea is referred to as the “City Bowl”.  There are 57 million people in South Africa and the country is 70% black.  There is 25% unemployment here and there are a lot of people standing around hoping for a day’s casual labor. For those who actually have some money, it is the rand (once the Krugerrand which was a gold coin, but they have since gone to more traditional currency).

Houses of Bo Kap

Our first stop was the former township of Bo Kaap. Back in the days of apartheid (forced segregation, in a country ruled by whites) this area was occupied by the Malaysian Muslim population. People living here were descendants of Malay slaves brought here from the Far East by the Dutch.  The National Party which ran the all white government under apartheid law, the residents here were classified as Malays and characterized as “exotic”. They had very few rights. While others have now moved in, they are struggling to keep the character of the place with brightly colored flat roofed houses and cobbled streets. Most of the houses have a “voorstep” or porch like terrace in front with wrought iron rails. The government pays them to keep their houses painted in the traditional style.

Every day at noon a cannon is fired from Signal Hill , a smaller  mountain adjacent to Table Mountain which has been a tradition since colonial times. The hill was used to send signals (e.g. storm warnings) via flags and to indicate the time for ships in the harbor. The ships could also put up flags to send signals (e.g.” help we are sinking”) . In the event a ship was in trouble, the cannon would be fired 3 times with an answering shot from another nearby battery.  This was sort of an all hands on deck signal.  At the far end of Signal Hill is a rocky promontory called the Lion’s Head although, the likeness didn’t seem readily apparent to us.

We drove up Tafelburg Road to the base of Table Mountain, and were impressed by the lush green of the parks and open land, and were struck by how wind-swept everything seems to be. With the fog as thick as cotton wool,  the visibility was reduced to about 40 feet. We were told that the cable car still operated in the fog and that up the mountain a ways the fog was cleared by strong winds, but those winds are what kept us from traveling up in the cable cars.

Jaws and the Tourist

The weather here is largely formed by the clash of two oceans – the warm Indian Ocean meeting the cold Atlantic Ocean and the landscape is generally wind-swept. Seals are very fond of the abundant fish in the colder water and sharks are very fond of seals so that adds some extra excitement to the surrounding waters.   Researchers have tagged great white sharks and have learned that they roam as far as Australia from these waters.  Our guide pointed out Whale Rock to us. It does look like a whale and they do have whales here including the much sought after Right Whale, so called  because it yielded the most oil of any of the whales.

 

Beach at Camp Bay

The tour operator substituted a drive and some museum visits instead of our cable car trip and so we were bussed through the exclusive Camps Bay Area, which was quite reminiscent of Malibu in Southern California, with mega-mansions clinging to rocks above a beach.  We made a photo stop at Maiden’s Cove to look back on an area they call Little Monte Carlo so maybe that is more apt than Malibu, with all the buildings stuck onto rocks jutting out in every direction. This area is protected from the wind by the mountains. There was a nude beach ( a.k.a. naked tanning facility) for men only (our guide said it is a virtual sea of bums and willies) and it was banned due to popular outrage from people owning hillside homes that could see down into it.  One woman complained that they were right there under her nose when she stood on a chair in her garden.

We drove by the Castle of Good Hope which has a museum in what used to be the Granary. It is the oldest surviving building in Cape Town, built between 1666 and 1679, for use by the Dutch East India Company to protect their re-provisioning stop.  It was built in a pentagonal shape with 5 triangular bastions added on to give it the star shape it has today. The castle was never attacked, so it seems the trade route stop was safe after all, but perhaps it was a deterrent. It later served as a prison and army headquarters. It was once on the waterfront, but the waterfront moved with subsequent land reclamation.

We did a drive by of District 6 – a black slum that was bulldozed 25 years ago. People from here were relocated to townships such as Soweto so whites could use the land during apartheid rule. Pressure from the international community changed this. South Africa had no exporting due to world-wide boycotts and thus there was massive unemployment and their economy tanked.. It is still not developed today – no one of any race wants anything to do with it and it is owned by the government. We also saw the  former Slave Lodge which is now a museum. The Slave lodge was the place where slaves were housed until they were sent to the white people who “ordered” them.  They could be ordered with specialized skills such a “cook” or “lady’s maid.” There is a piece of the Berlin Wall here that was a gift to Nelson Mandela.

At the Botanical Gardens

Pretoria is the capital of South Africa, but Cape Town has the Parliament , housed in a big white building. We visited the natural history museum where we saw whales, native animals and ancient prehistoric animals as well as the biggest set of shark’s teeth I have ever seen.  From there we went to the botanical gardens and had a pleasant stroll amid hibiscus higher than our heads that had been pruned into trees. In the garden we met Shandra who was selling crafts that she makes to raise money to send her daughter to school. She had recently moved to Cape Town from a small town in the country to look for a job. Or Option B was that she would sing a song for you for about 40 rand which was the equivalent of $3.00. We had her sing to us a song that she wrote herself. We enjoyed meeting her, but feel that Beyonce’s career is quite secure – no threat here.  Shandra asked where we were from and was quite surprised to have US visitors in her country out walking around the city. She said I could pass for a South African – well she had the southern part right anyway. I don’t think she had ever met any Americans before.

Table Mountain as Seen from Victoria and Albert Wharf.

Upon returning to the Queen Victoria, we took the ship’s shuttle to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.  (Albert was the Queen’s husband, Alfred was her son). Work on the docks began in 1860 and Prince Alfred laid the first foundation stone. There are two main basins built later, once called the Alfred Basin, the other the Victoria, with a number of quays and jetties on each.  All the old commercial and industrial buildings from the old days have been converted into shops, museums and restaurants. We had margaritas wine and a cheese plate at a waterfront restaurant called Meloncino on Quay 4.  As we were enjoying the view – the skies cleared with beautiful views over Table Mountain and out to sea.  Just as we were reconsidering an attempt to get up to Table Mountain, the skies darkened once again and the winds picked up so there was nothing to be done, but to order another bottle of wine and watch the seals and dolphins gliding around the wharves and piers.

We took the shuttle back to the ship. Once back on board we had cocktails and  dinner. In the bar we saw Caitlyn Jenner’s double, but her hairdo was pure Dilbert Office Worker Woman. It literally stood out from her head in a triangle.  Also while at cocktails we observed that Americans might say something was” cool” or “great” but some of the Brits we have met  say “brilliant”.  For example if you say  “Let’s meet at 6 for cocktails”  – their response might be “brilliant” as in brilliant plan.  I’m not sure what word they might use for a bright light or an exceptionally bright scientist for example. We also learned that today is Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. She has attended the launching all 3  of Cunard ships named Queen Elizabeth, the first in 1938 named for her mother, then the QE2 in 1967 and the Queen Elizabeth in 2010 named for herself.

April 22, 2016

Local Penguins

Today was our second and final day in Cape Town and we awoke to a chilly rainy day. We again took the shuttle to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to confirm what we already suspected, which was our boat trip to Robben Island was cancelled. We instead visited a coffee shop for a leisurely breakfast and then went to the local aquarium and also saw a 1942 warship the SAS Somerset. We had to be back at the ship by 2:30 and we had to clear South African Immigration on shore prior to departure.  There was quite a bit of confusion among those passengers who did not understand that they had to go ashore and clear even if they never got off the ship. This delayed our departure to some extent, but the big delaying factor was the weather which grew increasingly worse. The harbor was closed to inbound and outbound traffic and none of the cranes were working in offloading ships at the pier. It was a good day to stay snugly inside and watch the weather through the windows of the ships lounges. We finally were okayed for departure at 7:30 and were warned that we would be encountering significant seas (up to 40 feet) once we cleared the harbor and so we readied our sea legs..

 

April 23, 2016

Dateline: South Atlantic Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC +, 2 29.3 South, Longitude 15.8 East

This morning was much calmer after a raucous night with 30 foot swells, coming abeam (that would be to the side for anyone non-nautical). Well actually not so raucous for us – we both slept like babies in a cradle being rocked to sleep and the ship’s deployment of the vertical stabilizer – two large outrigger- like things that can be utilized when the ship rolls- helped to some extent. Still those awake for it say it was a thrilling to mildly terrifying ride. Today was bright and sunny, quite welcome after the deluge in Cape Town yesterday. The weather was a cool 50 degrees F, but we were rapidly approaching tropical waters that would warm us up nicely. We stopped by the Purser’s Office to collect our new Ship’s ID and key cards, since with the completion of this last segment, we had achieved Diamond Status, the top tier for Cunard cruisers, since we had exceeded over 150 days.

We had a leisurely morning and listened to a lecture by a former Secret Intelligence officer which should have had us on the edge of our seats, but actually has us on the edge of comatose since he droned in such a monotone and  his topic was about 40 years out of date (Cold War espionage – but not the cloak and dagger stuff – his group eavesdropped – no cyber intelligence here – and they mostly eavesdropped on Morse Code messages– slightly more modern than hieroglyphics, but not all that much. The ship was still rocking and so it was really hard to stay awake.

We noticed the rolling of the ocean is much like a narcotic or an alcoholic beverage. It makes you walk funny and nod off at odd times. We had so much enjoyed deck time, but today was much too windy so we stayed inside and played cribbage and read. At noon today we were making 20 knots – not the top speed of 24 the commodore had hoped for since we were battling a heavy wind and large swells.

Bundled up for Leisure Time

Today at noon we were traveling 15 miles off the coast of South Africa and would cross to Namibian waters at 2:00 p.m. We were traveling over the continental shelf of Africa in 560 feet of water. We have traveled 310 miles from Cape Town with 405 miles to go to reach Walvis Bay, Namibia. Swells of approximately 18 feet were rolling from the southwest, but because we had no white capping,  the seas are said to be slight. The air temperature was 63 degrees F and so was the water. The cold Benguela Current welling up from the ocean depths and flowing northward was cooling down the water quite dramatically.

After lunch we listened to a classical guitar and violin duo playing Spanish music.  They were very talented and entertaining. It put us in the mood to get back to Spain on our next trip. Since it was cold and windy on deck, I went to the gym for my miles (or should I say kilometers – I needed to do about 3.3 to equal 2 miles) using a treadmill.  These treadmills have games to play while you “tread” so I had time for a few games of Solitaire and Sudoku –  which makes the kilometers fly by.  We went to the evening performance which showcased The Definitive Rat Pack. They were a trio out of London’s West End who perfom  Dean  Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.  songs. They were excellent – Dean and Frank were dead ringers, but this Sammy was much better looking than the original. By bedtime a fog had rolled in and we had to slow down considerably and sound our ship’s whistle periodically. This meant we were not able to make up all the time from our delayed departure from Capetown so there would be quite a bit bustling about for tomorrow’s arrival and tours in Walvis Bay, Namibia.

April 24, 2016

Dateline: Walvis Bay, Namibia

Latitude at Walvis Bay, 22.5 South, Longitude 14.3 East

During the night we had travelled up the southwestern coast of Africa in Namibian waters to Walvis Bay, the only natural, sheltered deep water port on what is called the Skeleton Coast. We awoke to pea soup fog and an announcement from the bridge advising that our arrival would be delayed due to the foggy weather and that all tours would take place, but departure times were being rescheduled. Before anyone could disembark every passenger would have to clear Namibian Immigration which was being set up in the Queen’s Room ( a large ball room) by bringing in 8 or so Immigration agents.  Since there are over 1800 passengers, anyone doing the math could see that this was going to be a long and drawn out process. We got there early ( I am married to Gary Palmer after all – late is never an option)  and still we were waiting for over an hour for the ship to get docked and the Namibians boarded and set up. Our tour was moved from 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. so we had time for leisurely breakfast after clearing Immigration, which involved turning in a card filled out in advance with all the same information that was on the passport, presenting the passport which was stamped twice and handed back.

By the time we finished and ambled off to breakfast, the line stretched the length of the ship and was starting to double back. Fortunately the bulk of the passengers are British and they comprise the world’s best queue-makers and so in general fisticuffs were avoided, but we did witness one grumpy lady on an electric scooter who was threatening to run amok in the crowd. She may have been American, but her voice was too shrill to tell. If the passenger list had been Italian, Greek or any variety of Latin American, this queuing business could have turned ugly.

Fortunately, by 10:00 a.m. the sun had burned off the fog (which we would learn is a daily occurrence caused by the Benguela Current which introduces really cold water into warmer air on a daily basis). We finally got off the ship and allowed ourselves to be herded to a 4×4 vehicle where we met our driver, Simpson. Simpson was supposed to be both driver and guide, but he was really sketchy on the guiding part. He said he was from the Damara tribe and we figured they must not be much on talking because we asked him all sorts of touristy questions, but it was pretty much like playing ping pong by yourself.  Even Gary, the most gregarious of people had to give it up, since Simpson got stumped on a softball question like how many people live in Namibia.  (The answer to that according to Google is 2.3 million and this is in a country bigger than Texas so it is pretty sparsely populated). Simpson took a guess at the population of Walvis Bay at 5,000 and we later learned he was off by 80,000, but after all he said it was just a guess. He did point out the airport and the local KFC,  so he did know a thing or two (or maybe only two) about Walvis Bay. Gary saw what looked like a golf course with brown fairways and brown greens and asked Simpson about it. He confirmed with 3 words “yes, golf course”.  We asked if they got many cruise ships into Walvis Bay and Simpson said yes there were many ships – they had one just last month.  We figured Simpson must not get out much.

Our shipboard information told us that Walvis Bay was discovered as early as 1487 by a Portuguese explorer, but no one thought to colonize it until the Dutch did in 1793. That was a short lived colony because the British took over two years later. In 1910 Namibia became part of the South African Union. Once Namibia became independent in 1990, Walvis Bay remained the property of South Africa. It was considered valuable because it has a deep water port. It was finally given to Namibia in 1994. It is one of the largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the least populated.  Much of the country is arid, with two major deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari. There are high plateaus in the interior of the country ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 feet.  The country was occupied by bushmen for thousands of years before the Portuguese arrived for a look-see.  The climate was so harsh that even the European settlers were slow to converge on the scene (like 350 years slow). Finally in 1842 a German settlement called Swakopmund was established and Germany claimed sovereignty over the area, however the British had already said dibs on the Walvis Bay area, so it was part of South Africa for a time.  With the discovery of valuable minerals, some real controversy erupted. South Africa became free from Great Britain, but they wanted to keep the parts of Namibia around Walvis Bay.. It was not until 1989 that free elections were held and not until 1990 that independence was declared.  South Africa finally gave it up in 1994.

We set off with low expectations, but fortunately the scenery would soon speak for itself. We did have to show Simpson how to turn on the air conditioner in the vehicle. We think it may be his first air conditioned ride. We traveled in convoy with several other 4×4’s, which was a good thing because we suspected Simpson had no idea where we were going.

Dune 7

Our first stop was in an area called Sossusvlei , whose landscape was hard salt pan desert, surrounded by giant sand dunes, including the famous Dune 7. Gary asked about Dunes 1 through 6, and this pretty much stumped Simpson. Finally he said that Dune 7 is just a name that’s all (and so we assumed it could just as easily have been called Fred). Later research into the matter gave an explanation that it is the 7th dune from the Tsauchab River (which still begs the question of the missing Dunes 1-6 unless they go unheralded and unappreciated). The other explanation is that it is the 7th highest dune in the world; however, it is actually the 6th highest at 1,256 feet and a rival dune in Namibia called Big Daddy is the 7th highest at 1,066 feet. Another mystery is that these dunes are referred to as “star” dunes when they actually have a pyramidal shape. They have multiple faces molded by the wind that radiate out from a central peak. These faces are formed by multi-directional winds which actual serve to keep the dune stable.

Rich Mining Area of Namibia

In the name “Soussusvlei”,  (vlei means marsh, so this is the Soussus marsh – which is something of a stretch – maybe when it rains there is a marsh – right now it is mostly hardpan.) It  is part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, home to one of the oldest deserts in the world.  We noticed a number of mining operations. Simpson said he thought they were granite mines, but we later learned they were uranium mines – we were not sure if he has a language issue or a knowledge issue, but suspect it may be the latter. There were small mounds of green here and there and mirages that look like water on the horizons.  Power poles look to be marching off in the distance and water pipes parallel them offering a point of reference for those who may be wandering in the desert.

Simpson Staying Close to the Lead Van

We visited two national parks, Namib Maukluft and Dorob, which means dry land,  and which something of an understatement. We did not visit the  town called Swampkomund – it didn’t even sound enticing, but we understood  it to be the site of a German settlement from the early days that was built on the site of an underground spring, which would make it pretty valuable real estate in these parts. They do have some deadly critters here, including the infamous puff adder. Simpson has to stay close to the other drivers because he has no idea where we are going (or how to find it if he did know. So in addition to looking out for puff adders, we all kept a sharp lookout for the other vehicles disappearing ahead in a cloud of dust.

The famous Welwitschia Plant

We drove into an area nicknamed “Moon Landscape and found it to be quite appropriate. We stopped to see the famous plant called welwitschia (also known as tree tumbo) in a valley by the same name, although some of our fellow travelers were “underwhelmed” and decided to stay in the sweltering vehicle. We chose to get out and try to catch a little desert breeze and see the plant.  It looked mostly dead, but we were assured it was not.  The noteworthy thing about these plants is their age and their botanical strangeness. The average plant here is between 500 and 600 years old, with the oldest known specimen estimated at 2,000 years old. It only produces 2 leaves, long leathery strap-like things that grow larger over the years, which get shredded into ribbons by the wind. They have male and female plants (distinguished by the shape of their cones), a short stem base and roots. And that’s pretty much the whole plant.  At this same stop, there was lichen viewing – now that was a little underwhelming.

En Route to the Oasis

From there we were to go to the Goanikontes Oasis where we were to have lunch. En route we saw more uranium mines way in the distance. We wondered if the area might be radioactive – if so we may not have needed those night lights in the bathrooms.   The landscape seemed to be a blend of other places we have been – a little Wadi Rum in Jordan, a little Moroccan Sahara and a little Texas Big Ben.  An incredibly blue sky stretched from horizon to horizon, with the bare earth shown in shades of brown and tan, with deep shadows on the hillside ravines a dark chocolate.

Lunch Break at the Oasis

At the oasis, lunch was a buffet sort of affair with fruit hidden under nets to keep the swarms of flies at bay. It wasn’t particularly picturesque, but it was a splash of green (yellow green, but at least green). There was an old hotel there, still hosting guests, whose front desk sported a rotary dial phone – not a display – this was in use. The oasis slogan was “Where the road ends, our journey starts”. This was indeed where the road ended, but as for the journey, all I could think of was the Grateful Dead lyrics about “what a long strange trip it’s been”.

 

 

Making Music at the Singing Rocks

Our next stop was at a group of rocky hills called the Singing Rocks. We trekked up one of them to reach a collection of boulders and our guides showed us how to play them. There was not much melody involved, but you did get different notes from striking different boulders with smaller rocks in certain places, with tones ranging somewhere between a gong and xylophone. The “sweet spots” were very apparent by the hollows worn in the boulders where people had been making music there for years.

 

 

Flamingos in Walvis Bay

While scanning the horizon for wildlife, we finally spotted a springbok on the way home right outside the city of Walvis Bay. Our biggest wildlife sighting was at our last stop, the Walvis Bay Lagoon that is part of the Walvis Bay nature Reserve, which is home to thousands of flamingoes and other coastal bird such as pelicans,  and Arctic terns There can be as many as 60,000 at any given time. As we exited the van  at the pier to board our ship, I noticed the tagline for our tour operator which was called Abenture Afrika Safari (rough translation is Africa Safari Adventure). The tagline said “the coolest experience in the hottest destination”.  We had to agreed – cool experience on a hot desert.

 

April 25, 2016

Dateline:  South Atlantic Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC +1 21.1 South, Longitude 9.4 East

Navigating in the Fog

Today we are traveling on the first of eight sea days to reach our next port of the Cape Verde Islands which are located off the  Cap Vert peninsula in Senegal, the westernmost point in Africa.  We are now officially in tropical waters, having crossed Latitude 23.5 South which marks the Tropic of Capricorn. A corresponding latitude, 23.5 degrees North marks the Tropic of Cancer, and so between these two latitudes, you would expect warm weather.  The air temperature is warmer, but there is a 20 mile an hour wind blowing. These are the famed  trade wind which in the days of sail, would propel ships westward   to trade their goods. Our course is West Northwest and the winds are following out of the Southeast.  We are only  making 18 knots, due to the rough seas whipped up by the winds slowing us down. We are gradually pulling away from the coast of Namibia (also known as the Skeleton Coast since so many ships have wrecked there), which is 230 miles away. We have traveled 307 miles from Walvis Bay with 897 to go to the Island of St. Helena, where we will only do a cruise by.  The water here is  well over two miles deep. We escaped the Benguela Current and its fog making tendencies and now have bright blue skies.

We had contemplated a little deck time, but it was still too chilly out on deck and so we stayed inside and read and listened to a slate of guest lecturers that we really enjoyed.First up was Peter Hawthorne, who spent many years as a reporter in Africa, dating back to the 60’s when Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Uganda were all one country. He traveled and covered all of sub-Sahara Africa back in the days before the genocide of in Rwanda which killed over a million people in the 1990’s. It was the Tutsis (very tall people) versus the Hutus (very short people )versus a pygmy tribe called the Twa (really short people in a very ugly conflict.  These height differences made easy to figure out who was the “ enemy” in case anyone was trying to blend in.

Then there was a slew of unsuitable people that unfortunately headed up various governments. There were the crazies,( e.g. Idi Amin), the thugs (e.g. Robert Mugabe) and the  assorted  tyrants  that came on the scene as colonialism collapsed.  Amid the political chaos, there was a slew of name changes – Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe,  Nyasaland became Malawi, and the Congo went from the Belgian Congo, to the Congo to Zaire.

In 1952 there was some major news for colonials. Princess Elizabeth was visiting a game lodge in Kenya when she got the news that her father, King George had died and she was now Queen. Hawthorne was too young to cover this story but he remembered it well. He went to Africa as a young man and never left. He covered both the imprisonment and the release of Nelson Mandela 27 years later, and his election to the Presidency in 1994.

He covered the building of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe and the massive project undertaken by Rupert Fothergill to save the wild animals from the ensuing flood. They hauled out and relocated thousands,   but had a problem with chafing since they had to bind their legs together. Someone came up with the idea to tie them with ladies’ silk stockings and that worked so well that the call went out for donations via the media.  They were flooded (no pun intended) with enough silk stockings for just about every animal in Africa to have a pair.

Mr. Hawthorne had some great datelines in his reporting, such as the exotic Timbuktu, which was once a great trading center on the camel routes across Africa. Today it is a center of Islamic Culture located in the country which is now know as Mali, and unfortunately there is a civil war going on there today so travel to Timbuktu is risky at present  and you might want to move it to the bottom of your bucket list.

He has also covered stories in Liberia where war also broke out, but seems to be more peaceable now. They have a Harvard educated woman president so she may have gotten things straightened out. An ironic note: this country once welcomed freed African slaves (and thus its name), and named its capital, Monrovia, after our President James Monroe. However, war broke out here when the freed slaves and their descendents became the elite class and oppressed the other people. That one is hard to figure out.

A favorite dateline of his was in the country of Swaziland in the town named “Sheba’s Breasts” and in fact there are two mountain peaks somewhat resembling two perky little boobs. And those breasts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this being an intriguing place. In Swaziland, the country is very polygamous – men can take as many wives as they want, but the reverse is not true for women. It appears to be no coincidence that there is the highest incidence of AIDS in Africa here. The King of Swaziland, currently with too many wives to count, still regularly takes a new one that he chooses from a pool of nubile young maidens.

Another favorite dateline of his was the village of Banana, Congo, where he and several other bored journalists when to on a whim and found they had no bananas there, and a whole team of journalists could not find out why it was so named.

He also covered stories in Mozambique and Angola, neither strangers to violence in recent years.Angola had a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1995, killing over a million people and there are still land mines everywhere.

The great change factors that led to so much chaos in Africa were the end of colonialism, the end of apartheid and strangely, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once the latter happened there was a steady stream of Russian made weapons coming into Africa to sell to the highest bidder, which sometimes was not so high. Mr. Hawthorne reports that in Ethiopia,the last time he was there, he saw an AK47  with ammunition being traded for two chickens.

The second speaker, Jane Corbin, quite famous in the UK,  was the host of a BBC program called Panorama and she was an investigative journalist. Today’s talk was about how she and other journalists followed Osama Bin Ladin over the years, (pre 9-11 and up to his killing) and like so many analysts believed that he was holed up in Pakistan. She believes that the government of Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent in his ability to hide in plain sight for so long.  Problem: The killing of Osama Bin Laden has created a thousand Osama Bin Ladens, and thus we have ISIS today. An interesting point that she made  was that of all the countries who have suffered from al Qaeda, Pakistan – the country who sheltered him, has suffered the most.

We had a quick lunch and then back to the theater for a very light hearted topic – the use of color in your wardrobe and how it makes you look. Three factors in your style – colors you wear, your shape and your personality.  It was both entertaining and insightful and we were hoping she would talk to people about wearing socks with sandals, or stripes with plaids, but unfortunately the people who really needed the talk were not there. So it remains up the Fashion Police to stop this horror (whomever they, the FP may be – I only observe, I do not enforce)

In the afternoon we watched a movie, The Revenant, which we had heard many good things about. For us, knowing bit about hypothermia, we agreed, it certainly stretched the limits of credulity that this man survived for the number of days this supposedly covered. Not only that, to ride one’s horse over a cliff and into a tree and dust yourself off and gut the horse and . . . I think I will leave it right there.   There were so many far-fetched things – his avoiding deadly infection for one, but then there was the horse with a dead man on it leading the other horse. You had to wonder, how was he supposed to have made him giddy-up in a straight line?  Gary summed it up best: I sure am glad we didn’t pay for this movie. Other things we pondered were did Leonardo di Caprio have his pay cut since he never had to speak any intelligible lines and what does grunting pay in Hollywood now days?

We had dinner and went to bed early, worn out and cold from watching that movie, despite being in the tropics and sitting on our fannies all that time.

April 26, 2016

Dateline: South Atlantic Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC+ 1 18.7 degrees South, Longitude 2.3 degrees East

Hot tub time

This is the second of eight days at sea and since we are moving through the tropics, it is getting warmer. We used the hot tub after breakfast since it is still cool enough to be appealing, and there we planned our day to spend some journal time and will hear more speakers.

While perusing the ship’s daily bulletin we learned this nautical fact: Tonnage is a measure of the size of the cargo carrying capacity of a ship, not the weight of the ship. The term is derived from the taxation paid on “tuns” or casks of wine and was later used in reference to the weight of a ship’s cargo, however in modern times it has come to mean the volume or cargo volume of a ship.  Gross tonnage is the measure of the volume of all the ship’s enclosed spaces.  Net tonnage is a measure of the volume all the ship’s cargo spaces.

Today we heard a lecture by the former US Ambassador to South Africa, Earl Irving, on what is referred to as the “Great Trek to the Transvaal”. Once the Dutch were defeated, along with their French allies in the wars with Napoleon, control of the Western Cape fell to England. In the 1830’s and 1840’s, many of herdsmen, farmers and craftsmen, collectively referred to as Boers , decided to move into territory to the northeast. They just sort of pushed the people on the land, the Zulus, aside, and more or less homesteaded and created new republics. The term Transvaal means beyond the Vaal River. The people who made the journey were called Voortrekkers – a term roughly equivalent to that of pioneer.  All went fairly well until the so called Boer Wars. The first one started in 1880 and only lasted 3 months when the British tried to annex some territory of the newly formed republics and were quickly dispatched.  The second one, for which they were better prepared, lasted from 1899 to 1902 and the Boers were defeated and were absorbed into the British Empire. Gold was discovered in this area of South Africa in 1886 so there was no way the British were going to let go of it.

After the Boer War the male prisoners of war were sent to the remote island of St Helena (the place where Napoleon was imprisoned almost a century earlier). Women and children were sent to concentration camps. Times were hard back then – with the average life expectancy at 53 for men and 54 for women.

At noon today we were inside the Tropic of Capricorn making almost 18 knots. We were 480 miles from the nearest landfall, the Island of St. Helena, having traveled 365 miles since noon yesterday.  We are crossing the Angola Basin with a maximum depth of approximately 3.7 miles. It is one of the deepest in the world, but the Puerto Rico Trench which is over 5 miles deep has the distinction of being the deepest.  However the Angola Basin is located on top of a fracture zone and continues to grow in depth as the tectonic plates shift and break apart.  We will arrive at St. Helena tomorrow and will cruise past without stopping at their port. Winds are at 20 knots and the seas are moderate to rough. The air temperature was a very pleasant 76 degrees F and the sea was 68F.

In the afternoon the winds lessened and we attended a second lecture, this one by Peter Hawthorne, the journalist who wrote a number of pieces for Time magazine on African topics and also did work for the BBC. Today’s lecture was on the life of Nelson Mandela and his auto-biography called The Long Walk to Freedom.

Mandela was born into the Xhosa (pronounced Cosa with a click or two added) in a small village called Mvezo and was one of 11 children. He became part of the African National Congress (ANC), which was banned by the government and this was how he ended up imprisoned for most of his life.His original name Rolihlahla, but when he went to a British Methodist Missionary School,  they did him the huge favor of calling him Nelson, as well as teaching him to speak English.  He grew up amid a mix of Christian and tribal traditions. It was the custom at the time for the parents to pick out a wife for their sons. Nelson must have not liked their choice since he took off for Johannesburg and never came back to live in the village. He worked as a night watchman, and socialized in the few places where blacks could drink alcohol. He did attend a college for black men, where he was labeled a poor student and was eventually kicked out. He obtained most of his education, including a B.A. and a Law Degree as an adult while imprisoned.

Apartheid had been introduced in 1848 as officially the law of the land. Mandela, an admirer of Gandhi, embraced a policy of passive resistance to combat it. It was a crime for example for black people to go through a door marked for whites.  Mandela was convicted of treason along with 150 other ANC members. In 1964 he was sent to Robben Island where he spent 18 years and was allowed one 30 minute visit per year with family or friends.  While in prison it was said that he changed everyone he met, even the wardens.

When he was released, this slogan “One Man, One vote” came into use all over South Africa, propelling him to the Presidency of the country.  Today South Africa is referred to as the Rainbow Nation, with the focus on equality of all colors, diversity and charity.

We attended another concert by the classical Violin and guitar duo, whom we enjoyed earlier in the voyage. He is Greek and she is Spanish and They met at the Royal Academy of Music and have traveled all over the world playing all sorts of music. Today’s selection was Classical including Bach, Mozart and Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which you hardly ever get to hear unless someone is getting married.  It was truly beautiful music in a great setting, the grand ballroom of the Queen Victoria,  with the Atlantic Ocean rising and falling just outside the huge windows.

With sea days, we always have time to observe shipboard oddities  which is always fun. We have sighted several Santas. The most Frequently  sighted  is the one I call Shakespeare Santa. He has snow white hair, bald on top with long sides just like the Bard of Avon.  Also we keep seeing a woman pushing a wheel chair with no one in it. Now it could be that she is using it instead of a walker and then can sit in it when she wants, but I think the better story is that she has left her passenger somewhere and hasn’t noticed he’s missing.

We also have a dead ringer for George Washington, the powdery pony tail, the hawkish nose, the steely eyes, the stature – however this one is a woman.  No word on a spouse who may or may not resemble Martha W.

Tomorrow we will have a “sail by” (although we are not a sailing vessel – it’s just a term they use) of St. Helena Island, one of the most remote in the world and the former “home” to Napoleon when he was in exile. Although he lived in a house,  he was a prisoner for all intents and purposes with no way off the island.

April 27, 2016

Dateline: South Atlantic, St. Helena Island

Latitude at Noon UTC+0, 16.2 South, Longitude 5.1 West

Overnight we crossed into the Western Hemisphere at Zero Degrees Latitude. We will be going further west to clear the western cape of Africa, before turning back east to finish up our cruise in the port of Southampton, England. We again set our clocks back and managed to sleep that hour away, just like we have the other five times we have set our clocks back. I had a pedicure scheduled and so I went to breakfast early, and met Gary for a cribbage game before going in to hear two of the morning lectures. The morning was gray and overcast. We have traveled 448 miles since noon yesterday and are in water that is over 14,000 feet deep. At noon we would be  20 miles from the island of St. Helena and would sail by it from about 2:00 to 3:00. We were traveling at a speed of 18 knots and had a following wind of 15 to 20 knots. The air temperature was a balmy 75 degrees F and the sea was 77 degrees F.

The first lecturer was the style consultant we had seen two days ago, today talking about self image and our tendency to see the most negative things about ourselves when we look in a mirror. She also talked about body types for both men and women and a few pointers on how to make a part of your body look smaller (if you want too).  Hint: Never, ever wear flowered prints on that body part that are any bigger than the width of your hand. I should go without saying that this is especially true if you are going to wear plaid someplace else on your body, but we’ve pretty much seen it all on this cruise.

The next speaker, on a much more serious note was Jane Corbin, the BBC correspondent. She talked about the Arab Spring, its causes and consequences and how events in the Middle East gave rise to Al Qaeda. We were thinking wishfully that if only this 20/20 hindsight could have been foresight for those in political power at the time.

On Deck for the Cruise By

In the early afternoon we  went out on the deck for “the sail” by of St. Helena Island. At first the clouds hung low and the visibility was poor, but as we rounded the west side, the sun came out and we were able to see the port of Jamestown on the northeast side of the island. St. Helena was the place of the exile and imprisonment of Napoleon Bonaparte, which given the fact that this is one of the most isolated islands in the world, it certainly took him off the board for military “hijinks” for a while.  St. Helena was Great Britain’s version of Guantanamo Bay. They put Napoleon there so he could raise no more ruckus in Europe for a while. He was defeated in 1814 and sort of demoted , and sent to the island of Elba just off the coast of Italy, of which he was designated ruler along with a thousand troops. Not satisfied with that, he led them in battle against Britain once again, where was defeated at Waterloo, which is in current day Belgium. Since the demotion to Elba didn’t seem to dissuade him from warfare, the British decided they needed him to be even more remote and sent him to St. Helena, the British “Gitmo”.

St. Helena Island

We had a “goose bumps” moment when our ship saluted the island with several long blasts and a few short ones of the ships whislte. We got a salute back from a supply vessel anchored in the harbor and two little orange pilot boats came out to ride along side us for a ways. As we cruised by we saw hundreds of flying fish (swimming and flying for their lives) and a number of dolphins playing right by the ship. The sun came out about then and created a magical afternoon – one of those serendipity moments to remember.  We continued on our northwesterly course toward our next “drive by”, Ascension Island.

The world being a small one, as everyone acknowledges, we ran into a gentleman  from a small town in Yorkshire England, whom we had met on the QE2 ten years ago. He invited us to his 80th Birthday Party to be held on board. He is the founder of the Duckling Club, a social organization among Cunard passengers. The official greeting from one member to another is  two quacks and so is the response. It all got started in Darwin in 2001 when he met an Australian also traveling solo. Neither man knew the city so they agreed to explore together ,  and then a single woman joined them, and soon more single travelers were tagging along. Someone commented they followed him like ducks and thus the club was formed. He is still collecting friends and organizing trips ashore but he has to limit it to 8 to be able to manage it. There are 1700 members and he invited us to join and to come to his birthday party. He has over 2000 days cruising with Cunard and has amassed a large circle of friends..

April 28, 2016

Dateline: South Atlantic between the Islands of St. Helena and Ascension

 Latitude at Noon UTC + 0, 11.9 South, Longitude 10.1 West.

We had another leisurely morning and afternoon, as sea days tend to be, including time on the Promenade Deck prior to a couple of lectures. The first was a very interesting lecture on the Afrikaaners, mostly descendants of Dutch settlers who both created and ended, along with Nelson Mandela, apartheid, the system and laws of segregation, with substantial benefit to whites and deprivation to black.

Afrikaaners ( pronounced “Ahh-Free-Kah-ners” with emphasis on “kah”) were a white “tribe” of former Dutch Colonists who came to South Africa 350 years ago from Holland to work for the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multi-national trading company which essentially held employees in bondage. These employees and their children gained their independence from the company and became farmers, called free burghers. The French Huguenots, Protestants fleeing oppression in France by the Catholic Church, expanded inland and introduced vineyards in the countryside in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas. The aboriginal people, the Khoikhoi (pronounced “koikoi”), were essentially pushed aside by the colonists, taking the land in the name of the Dutch East India Company.  Afrikaaners touted themselves as the superior race. Mixed race people were referred to as colored, but today it does not take on the pejorative aspect that the word has in the US. Seventy percent of African family had a black relative in the 1970’s, yet the notion of white superiority still held sway.

In the second Boer War, the Boers lost 4,000, and the British lost 23,000, but the eventual result was a British victory. A young Winston Churchill was captured by the Boers, but escaped.  Eight years later the British declared that South Africa would be a self governing dominion of Great Britain and more or less washed their hands of non-whites. The British were focused on gold and diamonds and the best way to ensure they could hang on to as much of it as possible.

The South African whites fully embraced apartheid and became an international pariah as their treatment of blacks became known world-wide. Apartheid policies included such atrocities as banning physical contact between blacks and whites during sporting events, white only restaurants and shops, making sex between white and other races a violation of the law. Whites could be kicked out of the Commonwealth for associating with a colored people. Frederik DeKlerk was the president in power from 1989 t o 1994 when South Africa first started backing away from many of the apartheid rules and a move toward the policy of one man, one vote. Then Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 and South Africa  dramatically changed for the better for good.

The second talk was by the style consultant who talked about much more frivolous things such as how different body shapes should dress. In addition to the typical Apple, (she called inverted triangle), Pear (Triangle) and Hourglass (same size top and bottom with smaller waist), she added Diamond (small top, small bottom, weight around the middle at the waistline and Round (large all over). She also did the color thing and determined that I am a spring and so must rush home and throw away all the black and brown that my closet is full of – or just wear a scarf with it in the right colors.

At noon today our speed was 17 knots. Since noon yesterday we have traveled 408 miles. We have another 350 to go to reach Ascension Island where we will do a cruise by, taking us off our course for about 15 miles. We have had increased cloudiness and periods of rain with the convergence of the Southeast Trade Winds and the Northeast Trade Winds in what is called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zones. Seas were moderate with low swells. The air temperature was 79F and the Sea was 81F.

This afternoon we enjoyed some deck time, the Country Fayre and lunch, followed by our usual brisk walk, shower and dinner. The “fayre” is a charity event put on by passengers and crew to raise money for selected Cunard Charities including  the RNLI (the Royal Navy Lifeboat Institute) which provides rescue services for the British Isles. It is a combination rummage sale (jumble sale they call it) where people can donate clothing items, costume jewelry, handicrafts made by on-board knitters. There were also   guessing games (how many jelly beans are in the jar, what does the cake weigh, which gemstone is the fake and so forth. A favorite was Splat the Rat whereby contestants attempt to hit a carrot shot out of a tube with a rubber hammer. There was a silent auction for ship memorabilia, one minute seated massages offered,  and smoothies and pastries to buy.  Gary and I both donated a pair of shoes we did not love and did not care to haul back home. We were not sure if they sold, but in any event we did donate, plus we bought some tickets for the games of chance, so we feel we have done our bit for the RNLI.

Tomorrow we will arrive at Ascension Island, another out of the way spot we have never visited. The adventure continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage – Part 5

Great Adventure Travelogue

Part 5: Ascension Island to Southampton, England

 

April 29, 2016

Dateline: Georgetown, Ascension Island

Latitude at Georgetown   7.5 South, Longitude 14.2 West

Ascension Island

We awoke to a bright sunny and quite breezy morning as we made our approach to Ascension Island, so named because it was discovered by the Portuguese on Ascension Day.  In the 1960’s NASA established a tracking station  and the base is still here and is used to track GPS satellites, and is also used as a radar base. It is primarily staffed by the BBC. It is strategically located, halfway between South American and Africa and the North Pole and  South Pole.

 

Passengers buying Ascension Islanders “stuff”

We stopped at Georgetown about a mile offshore so local people could board the ship and sell their “stuff”, such as hats and shirts and stamps and postcards, mostly to support the Ascension Island Conservancy. Their primary focus is on endangered species, such as green turtles and sea birds that have almost gone extinct due to the introduction of cats on the island. They also work to protect native plant species from introduced plants and marine life in the area waters.  Land crabs are the only native land animals here Ascension Island, like St. Helena, is a British Overseas Territory. They get 4 to 6 cruise ships per year and there is a flight here only every two weeks, so they have to be fairly self-sufficient on their tiny island of 34 square miles.  The US Military built the runway here and had to relocate terns and other sea birds. For power they have wind powered turbines and they have 2 desalinization plants to provide fresh water.

A Small Village on Ascension Islands

We did a cruise by at a speed of 12 knots, 20 miles one way and then 20 miles the other so each side of the ship could get a good look at the island. The air temperature was a mild 86F. We were treated to the sight of hundreds of dolphins in several pods, racing thorough the water to keep pace with the ship. On the return trip, we dropped the islanders off. Most of the people on the island are not actually islanders. Out of the 800 who live here, there are fewer than 50 who are native to the island. NASA employs 800 and the BBC several hundred more, and there are several hundred conservancy and research personnel. The landscape is dry and lunar-like on the east end where many of the tracking and communications stations are located. The highest peak is Green Mountain, which is lush and vegetated. This was not always the case. Like St. Helena, arriving people imported non-native plants and they have spread on the slopes of the peaks of the island.  Plants have been introduced that have actually changed the environment, creating rain forest and jungle  greenery on a previously desolate mountain.

In the afternoon we listened to a lecture by Peter Hawthorne on the Scotsman David Livingstone, the African missionary and explorer who “discovered” Victoria Falls, which the local people, the Kololo Tribe,  knew was there all along, of course.  Their name for it was “Mosi-oa-tunya”, which translates as “the smoke that thunders”. Livingstone named it for his Queen.  His goal was to further the 3 C’s: Civilization, Christianity and Commerce for the British Empire.  He started  his career in Scotland as a millworker, but became a doctor and traveled to Africa on behalf of the London Missionary Society.  He was sent to what was then called Bechuanaland, now Botswana. He was tough, resourceful and capable of surviving any number of hardships,  as many Scots were back in the day. Livingstone survived both a lion attack and malaria, the latter with the help of a warm bath and a purgative called the Zambezi Rouser, which apparently had a quantity of quinine in it.

The native people were in awe of what they called his “magic stick”, or more commonly known as a rifle. When he cured the chief’s son of some unnamed illness, he then became effective as a missionary. During the years 1849 to 1856, he set about exploring on foot and was not seen by other whites for 10 to 12 years.  He conducted another second  trek to Mozambique, also on foot. His third trek of exploration was to the watersheds of Central Africa where he was seeking the source of the Nile. He mistakenly thought he had found it, but he actually found the source of the Congo River. He mapped the Zambezi River from Victoria Falls to the Indian ocean, which was no mean feat. In his spare time he fought against the slave trade, a major source of income for Arab slavers. His goal was realized with the help of the sultans from Zanzibar who blockaded the ports being used by the slavers.

It was Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist for the NY Herald on assignment in Africa that “found” Dr. Livingstone at one point and uttered the famous words: “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” in 1871.  Dr. Livingstone died in 1873 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Lunch Poolside on the Queen Victoria

We had burgers and margaritas for lunch by the Lido Pool as Ascension Island faded in the distance. We spent the afternoon by the pool and had a Betty Boop sighting.  This is a young lady traveling with her mother who wears her hair in the 1940’s style of Betty Boop and sports some pretty fair sized tattoos that we are sure Betty would not have approved of unless they were adorning a sailor.  She wore a dress with a full gathered skirt which made Betty’s Bottom look quite imposing. She also carried a geisha girl sort of parasol to keep the sun off her heavily made up face, including lashes thick enough to be formed out of fringe.  Her hair color was a shade of red not found in nature.   I snapped a few photos to make sure I was not hallucinating due to being over served with margaritas. We encountered another passenger on board who bears a remarkable resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock in profile. We noted that he seems to need an “ear lift” since his ears seem to be a half mast.  These sea days we have much more time to be observant of fellow passengers. We wonder what they are writing about us.

April 30, 2016

Dateline: Near the Equator, South Atlantic

Latitude at Noon UTC +0  1.5 South, Longitude 17.3 West

Today we are on our first of 3 sea days to reach the Cape Verde Islands. We had our usual leisurely breakfast and spent the morning on the Promenade Deck in lounge chairs watching the ocean go by.  At noon today we have traveled 422 miles since Ascension Island, 2, 404 from

Cruising in the South Atlantic

Walvis Bay, Namibia with  1,197 miles to go to the Cape Verde islands. We are traveling at a speed of 18.9 knots on a North by Northwest heading. The closest land mass, aside from Ascension Island is Liberia on the African mainland at a distance of 600 miles to the east. The weather is sunny and 77 degrees F with a cool breeze blowing. The water temperature is 82 degrees F, and is always warmer than the air here near the equator due to the equatorial current, traveling in the same direction as the sun, provided extra heating time. Today we will cross the Equator and be traveling once again in the Northern Hemisphere.  We will be traveling over the Romanche Fracture Zone which reaches a maximum depth of 25, 453 feet. The zone is actually a trench, one of the world’s deepest,  12 miles wide and 186 miles long.

I listened to a lecture from a style consultant on how to part with stuff in your closet. Her theory is that clothes have a use-by date and if you don’t wear them after a certain period of time, they need to go. I think this applies to me, but I am not sure I am going to rush home and start throwing things away, although it does sound tremendously appealing.

We listened to a fascinating presentation today by reporter, Peter Hawthorne, who talked about Cecil  Rhodes (American say Cee-sil with the accent on “Cee”, the British and South Africans say “Sess-s il” with the accent on “Sess”)  His name was essentially meaningless to us prior to the lecture, but he is quite well known in the UK. The no longer existing country of Rhodesia was named for him (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). He had tuberculosis as a child and his family sent him to live with his brother in South Africa for his health when he was only a teenager. He was the consummate champion of British Colonialism – and in fact he was even in favor of trying to take America back some 100 years after the American Revolution.  His idea was that if all the world were British Colonies, there would be no more wars.

He proved to be quite a businessman, making a fortune in the Kimberly Diamond mines and later heading up the DeBeers Diamond enterprise. He also made money in the gold fields of the Transvaal Region, snapping up a claim for next to nothing which yielded the largest vein of gold ever found called The Gold Reef  in the Wittwatersrand region. He reportedly bought out a rival diamond merchant for a bucket of diamonds over lunch

He died at 49 in 1902, but amassed not only a fortune, but also a lot of colorful history in his life, including being stalked by a Polish Princess with a colorful history of her own which included debt and forgery. He was involved in the  Jameson Raid, a botched attack on South African Republic which had become free from the British. He remained an unapologetic nationalist – all things British were, in his view, superior to all things that were anything else.

His residence, called Grote Schurr , at the foot of Table Mountain today is the residence of the Prime Minister of South Africa. He funded the University of South Africa with donated land and established the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. Each year 36 people are selected to study at Oxford for a year. Bill Clinton had the privilege back in the 1960’s

We spent the afternoon lounging by the Lido pool and  taking a swim. We crossed the equator at 5:30 p.m. today.

May 1, 2016

Dateline: North Atlantic

Latitude at Noon UTC 0 5.2 Degrees North, Longitude 20.2 Degrees West

We are now in the Northern Hemisphere and awoke to cloudy and rainy skies, but the rain cleared just after breakfast, so we decided to take advantage of some decadent deck time – that is spending the day lounging in deck chairs. We are at UTC Zero, meaning we are in the Greenwich Meridian Time Zone, aligned with the place in England by the same name on which all world time zones are based. The temperature is a perfect 82 degrees F and the sea water is slightly warmer at 86F. The ship’s whistle gives two long blasts at noon which is loud enough to awaken any on deck nappers so they will know it is time to rouse themselves to go have lunch.  The captain announced our position and that we have traveled 439 miles since noon yesterday, with 760 to go to reach the Cape Verde Islands (which they pronounce “Verd” as if the “e” on the end does not exist).  We are 3,000 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone on the African continent.   There is a slight swell, but it is just enough to create a narcotic effect to rock us to sleep as we plow through tranquil seas on a northwesterly course.

Avoiding the Doldrums on Board

In fact the waters here are so tranquil, that this area was named The Doldrums, back in the days of sail. It is an area along the Equator where the southern and northern hemisphere trade winds converge (also known as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone where  winds become light and sailors run the risk of becoming becalmed  for days.  If the becalming lasted a long time, they would start to run short of water and food. This of course was very depressing and resulted in depression, or doldrums. Or the area could produce terrifying storms ripping sails apart, creating the same shortages and mental state. We were very slothful –  but we are in the Doldrums after all so we have good reason to be.

There is another sometimes becalmed area we are traveling through that can extend as much as 30 to 38 degrees beyond the Equator , both to the north and the south called the Horse Latitudes. The calm waters are caused by a ridge of high pressure that tends to develop over these regions from time to time. Where the name comes from is disputed – some say that in the sailing days when a ship became becalmed and water would become in short supply, horses and cattle would be tossed overboard to lighten the load so the ships wouldn’t need so much wind to get moving. Some scholars scoff at this saying most ships didn’t carry horses and wouldn’t throw away a potential food source in lean times if they did. A third explanation is that ships taking horses to the Canary Islands from Spain, did often find themselves becalmed and tossed the horses and other cargo off in order to save themselves.   So if your sailing vessel had been in the Doldrums and got lucky enough to escape that, then the Horse Latitudes might be waiting for you. It could be altogether depressing to be a sailor in the olden days. We, on the other hand, continued motoring toward the Cape Verde Islands in the lap of luxury.

May 2, 2016

Dateline: North Atlantic, 350 miles off the Coast of Senegal

Position at Noon UTC 0 12.0 Degrees North, Longitude 22.8 Degrees West

Our course actually takes us in and out of two different time zones, but for the sake of passenger sanity, the ship will stay on the same time throughout the day. A note on noting the time: outside we have two long blasts on the ships whistle, but inside we have eight bells. This harkens back to the sailing tradition when ships crews did not have watches, but were expected to “stand watch” and perform whatever duties were assigned for a period of 4 hours also called a “watch”. At half hour intervals, the ship’s bell would be rung. Once indicated the first half hour, two for the second and so forth until the end of the watch would be eight bells. The crew would change and the process would start anew.

Deck Time at Sea

We awoke to sunny skies and cooler weather as we continue to travel to the northwest. We spent a little time on the promenade deck, but as the day progressed, a 15 knot Northeast trade wind developed, which with the ships speed factored in, has the effect of a 30 knot wind on the open decks, so it was far too brisk for the comfortable deck lounging that we did yesterday. The air is 75F and the water is 77F

We were traveling at 18 knots, having traveled 437 miles since noon yesterday, with 350 miles to go to Mindelo, Cape Verde Islands.  We are passing by the Islands of Santiago and Fogo, part of the leeward Cape Verde Archipelago. Our port tomorrow will be St. Vincent, part of the northern windward island chain.

We attended a lecture by Peter Hawthorne, the Time magazine journalist, whose topic today was entitled “An African Love Story” taking place in what was Bechuanaland (pronounced Bet-you-ah-nah-land) which is now Botswana. This was the story of Sir Seretse Khama, from a royal tribal family and a white British girl named Ruth Williams, whom he met in the 1940’s while going to college in England. Things really started looking up for the country when DeBeers came to mine diamonds, which certainly kept the British eager to keep it as a colony. There are fewer than 10,000 people of native tribes.  The interracial marriage took place in 1948, and it caused a huge controversy both in England in and Africa. Khama was exiled from his country for 5 years, but this only served to make him very popular at home and upon his return, he was elected the first president of Botswana, and his white wife became largely accepted there.

We heard an amusing anecdote from Mr. Hawthorne. He told a story of a local acquaintance who taught himself  English by listening to BBC broadcasts. Unfortunately he incorporated the static that came across the air waves into his speech, not realizing that it was static and his speaking Great Britain’s Mother Tongue created quite a bit of hilarity.

May 3, 2016

Dateline: Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands

Latitude at Mindelo, 16.87 Degrees  North, Longitude 24.98 Degrees West

Dockside at Mindelo, Cape Verde Islands

Today we arrived at Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. with half a day to spend in port.  While the island is on UTC Minus 1 time, we are staying on UTC Zero to avoid confusion because we will be undergoing another time change as we head northeast toward the Canary Islands.  It was kind of tricky since we used our cell phones to set our alarm, but they didn’t stick to ship’s time and fell back an hour. Fortunately there was plenty of noise to awake us as we docked.  We took on our local harbor pilot at 6:00 a.m.

 

Port of Mindelo on Sao Vicente

The Cape Verde Islands are a group of 10 volcanic islands, 350 miles off the coast of North Africa. The islands cover an area of roughly 1,500 Square miles. The name comes from its location which is 400 miles west of Cape Verde, Sengal on the continent of Africa. There are 9 main islands, 5 in the Windward (Barloventa) group, and 4 in the Leeward (Sotavento) group. The capital of the islands is Praia on the island of Sao Tiago, but Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente  has the deep water port. In the days of sail, due to the prevailing winds, almost every ship going anywhere in the Atlantic would go by these islands, and thus they became a source for provisioning, the most common commodity being salted goat meat. The islands are situated in the tropics and have a mild temperature in the 70’s all year round.

Sao Vicente was discovered on St. Vincent’s Day in 1462 by Portuguese explorers, and became the property of the King of Portugal. The islands were uninhabited, but  a few Portuguese settlers moved here. Most of Cape Verde’s prosperity was based on the slave trade and the money they made, left them ripe for pirate attacks. When the slave trade was outlawed and sail was replaced with steam, the British established a coaling station here, but that did not restore the former prosperity to the islands, which were further afflicted by drought and famine in the mid 20th Century. All island residents were given Portuguese citizenship in 1961, but it was not until 1975 that they were granted independence.

Volcanic Rock on Sao Vicente

Sao Vicente is only 88 square miles in size. The natural deep water port, Porto Grande was originally the crater of a volcano, whose north side caved in, allowing the sea to create the harbor. Mindelo is the cultural capital of the Cape Verde Islands. The island has surfing and sun bathing beaches with sand blown here off the Sahara over the centuries. They still have occasional sand clouds called “haboobs” in Arabic, which blow in from the east and often will blot out the sun.  Another prominent feature on the island is the Monte de Cara (Mountain of the Face). Depending on your nationality, you may be told that it is a likeness of George Washington, Napoleon, or Lord Nelson to name a few.

Colorful Houses in mindelo

Three quarters of the population of the islands is under 30 with a mere 2% over seventy. Education has  been largely neglected in the past. As recently as 15 years ago half the population was illiterate and almost 90% of the people over 25 had no formal schooling. Formal schooling is now compulsory, but it apparently there are a lot of loopholes.

The terrain is dry, rocky and mountainous. The easternmost islands are the only ones with any flat land to speak of.  They get so little rainfall that not much grows here and only 10 % of the land has sufficient moisture for grazing.  On the sotavento island of Fogo, they still have an active volcano called “Pico de Fogo” which means fire peak in Portuguese, which last erupted 3 years ago.. It is the official language although most speak a dialect called “Criulo” (creole). Seventy per cent of the inhabitants are themselves creole, a mix of European and African blood.

We had only heard of Cape Verde from weather forecasts in the US when they talked about hurricanes forming off the coast of Africa. It rains here only 2 months (August, September) and for only 2 weeks out of those months and not every day.   They get water from gathering it in aquifers underground that have to refill with annual rains and they pump it out with windmills. They do limited corn farming with the little water they have and there are little huts for farmers to live in that come to the farms during the season.

In the Fog with Willy atop Monte Verde

Our tour started with a drive through the capital city of Mindelo with quick glimpses of the colonial architecture and local markets along the main street called the Rua Lisboa.  We had Williy as our guide and Domingo at the wheel. Willy played rather static-ridden samples of local music for us on a recording device of some sort. We left the town behind and began a rather harrowing climb, along with 3 other tour buses, to the peak of Monte Verde (Green Mountain). Ideally we would see amazing vistas for miles in every direction, but what we mostly saw was fog at the higher elevations. What we had read about the islands indicated that the island of St. Vincent would be like a moonscape with volcanic rock, steep mountains, in an extremely arid climate, so that is what we surmised was behind the fog. Coming down from the mountain, we saw terraced hillsides with stone walls, and a place called Hope Plantation – they hope for rain, but it never comes.  They are better off using the windmills and aquifers in the valley.

The Dunes of Praia Grande Beach

Once off the mountainside, we proceeded to the Praia Grande Beach. It is surrounded by black volcanic mountains and yet the beach is a golden tan with soft fine sand. Our guide told us that is because this beach is one of the ones where the sand blew here from the African Sahara.  Only 3 of the 10 Cape Verde Islands have these golden beaches – the ones closest to the African continent and they only have it on the east side  facing Africa. Upon dipping in our toes, we found the water was surprisingly warm.

We call the Cape Verde (pronouncing it in the Spanish manner “Ver-day”, however our guide advised us it is pronounced “Cape Verd” . Willy referred to the olden days as “back in the time”. For example, he showed us the town square and back in the time, you were not allowed to walk in it unless you had shoes on – guess that kept the riffraff out.  They have 3 big celebrations:  (1) Carnival – a.k.a. Mardi Gras (2) a Music Festival (3) a New Year’s Celebration,

The population of the Cape Verde Islands is 500,000. Our guide’s ( Willy’s) grandfather had 48 children with 8 different women. So he made quite a contribution to the population all by himself. Many more Cape Verde people live abroad than live here.  They have a president and a prime minister, gaining full independence in the 1990’s.

Cape Verde has a serious water problem. They have a golf course with sort of a lunar landscape, but no grass so we were not sure how playable that might be. There are a number of buildings that are made of unfinished concrete and concrete blocks and not painted. Willy said many people’s need is so basic, they only want shelter from the wind and rain. There are people living in what looks like ruins, sort of an amalgamation of scrap material and rock.

Farms of Cape Verde

Average income is 15k escudos per year (around $150.00 in US dollars) and there is 16 per cent unemployment.  Many of the wealthier people moved from Mindelo out into the country and built colonial-style homes there to get away from the troubles in town (like poverty for example). When they have a funeral here it is in 4 stages – (1) the funeral itself (2) a week of comfort to the family  (a Jewish  shiva of sorts) (3) a remembrance at one month and (4) another remembrance at one year.

We finished up our tour by driving through the agricultural valley called the Ribeira de Calhau. This part of the island is reminiscent of Morocco, where they have little wells every so often to draw water up for irrigation and drinking. When the water from a particular underground cavity is exhausted (or as Willy says it is “over”), they have to wait for the rains to refill them.  Farms and palm trees are clustered around making it look like an oasis.  One major bonus is there are no insects here.

Old Boats on the Beach at Mindelo

We took the shuttle bus after our tour to go back to the town of Mindelo to walk around a bit and take some pictures and perhaps find a treasure for our library, which we did at a local crafts market. Mindelo is a pleasant village with bright colorful buildings, really nice people and the weather was perfect. We liked the docking situation here where we could walk to and from the ship from the town. So many ports (especially the larger cities) have cruise ship terminals that are several miles from the city center, often in the midst of commercial shipping operations.

 

Leaving Sao Vicente

Back on board, the chefs had prepared a barbecue for us by the Lido Deck Pool with reggae music and rock and roll oldies. This is the only sail away we have done in the middle of the day and it was great to see us leaving Mindelo and the Cape Verde Islands slipping away behind us.  We spent the entire afternoon by the pool and have the sunburn in the spots we missed with sunscreen to prove it. This was sort of our tropical swan song because we are heading north and the weather is going to get cooler every day – not cold, but not swimming weather either.  The temperature isn’t the only thing – once we left, the wind was at 28 knots and we were doing twenty so it was plenty breezy on the open decks. We had to leave Cape Verde early (1:00 p.m.) and go full speed tomorrow and tomorrow night to get to our next destination – the Canary Islands by early morning.

We saw a very entertaining comedian tonight named Kev Orkian. I didn’t think the name was a co-incidence, but perhaps the Suicide Doctor Kevorkian is too obscure now and this is purely a coincidence. He billed himself as only a poor Armenian comic, but we learned he was British born from Armenian parents and the accent is strictly a gag.

May 4, 2016

Dateline: Atlantic Ocean, Tropic of Cancer

Latitude at Noon UTC +1 22.8 North, Longitude 20.5 West

Last Night in the Tropics

Just after noon today we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, Latitude 23.5 North , that is the northern border of the tropical zone – the Southern Border is defined by the Tropic of Capricorn, the same latitude, but it is south not north. We have noticed that once we left the tropical zone, it was not nearly as pleasant on the deck and not comfortable without bundling up a bit. We moved into the Temperate Zone with the air temperature at 72 degrees F, as was the sea temperature, but we were moving at 21 knots and the wind was blowing out of the north at a pretty good clip as well. The depth of water under the keel  was 13,779 feet  as we travel over the Cape Verde Abyssal Plain, with the Canary Current keeping the water cool.  The terrain on the ocean floor at this point has no mountains, and is relatively flat but really deep.  We have traveled 434 miles from the Cape Verde Islands with 409 to go to reach the Canary Islands.  We are 260 miles from the coast of Morocco.

We had a lazy morning, but roused ourselves for breakfast and a lecture by journalist Peter Hawthorne, whom we have listened to several times before. Today was his final lecture and his topic was “Winds of Change” and he talked about his 40 plus years covering Africa. Many of his articles have appeared in Time magazine and he is a fascinating speaker as well as a talented journalist.  In 1950 the continent of Africa only had 4 independent countries: Egypt, Liberia, South Africa and Ethiopia, although South Africa did not become a republic until 1961. Today there are 56, and it has not been a simple path to independence, much less democracy for any of them.

Mr. Hawthorne sketched out some of the highlights of this path.  Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, was the source of the majority of slaves brought to the Americas,. Kenya, whose first leader as an independent country, Jomo Kenyatta, had been jailed for his radical views and there had been the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule with brutality on both sides.

In what was the Belgian Congo, the Belgians simply fled, leaving the country in turmoil. Patrice Lumumba, a radical Marxist backed by the Russians ruled for a while, but. He was replaced in a coup by Mobutu and then he was arrested and executed Today the country is called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but there is Continued chaos involving mercenaries and indiscriminate killing. To add to the chaos, there are 200 different languages spoken  in the Congo, not dialects, but  languages.

There were assorted other atrocities throughout Africa including the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, the genocide in Rwanda and the totally corrupt Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Then there was the 25 year civil war in Angola, spurred on by foreign interests, all vying for oil.

Africa has been riddled with problems with armed conflict everywhere, and corrupt and incompetent leaders who were radicals, tyrants, predators and crazies. There is AIDS and other diseases, climate issues such as drought and flooding, not to mention political turmoil.  At any given time there are 2 million refugees in Africa. Currently the largest camp is 200k between Uganda and Rwanda.

On the upside, there is rapidly growing tourism and immense natural resources. Today’s population is 1 billion, projected to be 2 Billion by 2015, but the land is vast and can still not be crowded, unlike China and India. Cell phones and PC’s and the Internet have made Africa part of the global society.

After this heavy lecture we decided we better do something decadent. So we went to the pool for burgers and pina coladas. It was a little too breezy for swimming and sunbathing so we played cribbage. We made an observation: something about drinking pina coladas in the middle of the afternoon makes the day disappear as if by magic.  We had dinner and watched the evening’s performance – Hollywood Rocks by the Cunard singers and dancers who are always good. Tonight we set our clocks forward by one hour. We have been spoiled by going the other way. Normally we could make up the 1 hour, but we are in port tomorrow, so we may have to work in a have a compensatory nap.

 

May 5, 2016

Dateline: Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands

Latitude at Santa Cruz, 28.2 North, Longitude 16.12 West

Queen Victoria Docked at Tenerife

Tenerife is the largest of the 7 Canary Islands and is a province of Spain, and its peak of El Teide at over 12,000 feet is highest in all the Atlantic islands. Like the Cape Verde islands, Tenerife was created by volcanoes, but it gets much more rainfall, and is therefore very lush and green. The island got its name not from the song birds, but from ferocious dogs that a Berber king’s expedition found there (canis is Latin for dog. The islands were known to the Romans in ancient times and they called them the Fortunate Isles. The original inhabitants were the Guanaches who came from North Africa in the first or second century B.C., but no one is sure how they made the crossing.  They were cave dwellers and like the Egyptians they mummified their dead. The Spanish conquered them in 1495 and established a colony. From then until 1936 things were pretty tame on Tenerife, with only the occasional attack by the British Royal Navy.  In 1657 they destroyed a Spanish treasure fleet, and in 1706 there was another  attack that failed to capture the island.  The final attack was in 1797 led by  British Naval Hero Horatio Nelson, and left the islands to return home, minus one arm lost in battle.  There is a cannon in the local military museum called El Tigre (the Tiger) which is credited with firing the shot that hit Admiral Nelson) and is treasured for this unusual achievement.

In 1788 the HMS Bounty called here under the command of Captain Bligh for repairs and provisions, including 863 gallons of wine. When Captain Bligh returned home, he was minus one whole ship after the famous mutiny took place in the South Pacific.  1936 was an historic year with Francisco Franco meeting here with senior officers to plan the military coup which led to the Spanish Civil War.  Happily nowadays, it’s the tourists who do all the invading, with Tenerife being a major holiday destination for Europeans.

There are 9 islands that make up the Canary Islands, 7 major and 2 minor comprising two provinces of Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife,  and both are provinces of Spain, as are the 3 Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. There are 800,000 people on the island of Tenerife and they get 8.9 million visitors a year. It is only a 4 hour flight at the most from Western Europe, so this is a favored holiday destination with a lot of European “snow birds” coming here to escape harsh winters at home.

Funky Artwork in Tenerife

We found the cities on the island to be very clean and reminiscent of Barcelona, with the mix of dramatic new modernistic architecture and the older historic buildings.   The concert hall here was designed by the same architect who is doing the transportation hub for the World Trade Center.  They have all the seasons here and sometimes all  in the same day.  Mount Teide which had a record 6 feet of snow this past winter. The lower parts of the island don’t really have winter, but the climate is so variable, they say they always have sunshine somewhere. The average temperature is 72F all year round and it never drops below 68F. Today it was quite foggy and cloudy up on the mountain top, but we were told the peak is actually showing above the clouds.

Porto de la Cruz

Today we chose to do some exploring on our own in the resort town of Puerto de la Cruz, an old colonial port town. We took a bus that the ship had arranged (although the British call them “coaches” and the local people on the island here call them “wah wahs”). After the desolate landscape of the Cape Verde Islands, we were surprised at how green and forested the mountains were as we drove from the port city of Santa Cruz on the northeast coast across the mountains to the resort city of Puerto de la Cruz.  In the lush Orotava Valley, there were farms, banana plantations and vineyards on the hillsides along the winding road. We were told that 40% of the wine production of these islands comes from Tenerife.  The landscape was picturesque in itself, but there were flowering trees, shrubs and plants seemingly everywhere we looked.

The Waterfront at Porto de la Cruz

We found an ATM to stock up on Euros and spent the morning strolling the streets and enjoying  the waterfront.  The town has shady squares, narrow winding streets, a fascinating waterfront with stone breakwaters for anchorages and swimming and a few blocks away there are dramatic waves crashing on volcanic rock. There were a number of colorful fishing boats in the harbor with crews readying them to go out at more of a saunter than a bustle. There was a tremendous amount of renovation going on in this area.This is one of two major resort areas, with the other being on the southern tip of the island.

Our drop off and pick up spot for our bus ride was at an internationally known landmark, McDonalds. Gary had wanted a restroom break and so this was perfect, but being wise to the influx of tourists, this McDonalds had a keypad and you had to know the code, which would be printed on a receipt of a purchase. So we bought a Diet Coke to get the secret password. However, this clever stratagem of the local McDonald’s was easily thwarted by crafty tourists with full bladders. They simply wait for someone to come up with the code and then “tailgate” into the bathroom with the code holder, or else catch the door on the way out.  They need a potty marshal here, but it might be easier just to let the people go.

“Coarse” Sand on the Black Beach

 

We walked the  Lido Martianez  area and took a stroll on their black sand beach (no Saharan sand here). We were told that the resorts in the south imported Saharan sand to pretty up their beaches and make them more appealing to tourists. Black sand is quite coarse, but its major drawback is that it gets really hot when it’s sunny out and not conducive to barefoot strolls.

 

 

Seawall at Porto de la Cruz

Walking through the village of Puerto de la Cruz, we were reminded of so many different places – San Juan Puerto Rico, Cinque Terre, Mallorca, Capri and even Monte Carlo with the steep mountains looming over the beach – although it must be said it would be a poor man’s Monte Carlo with nary a Lamborghini or Bentley in sight. The climate here is absolutely delightful, short sleeve weather, but not muggy or hot with a gentle breeze off the water. We stopped for wine and tapas at a local sidewalk café called Columbus where we could hear music from local street performers (the British call them “buskers”) and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks. It was totally idyllic, and then Dennis, the Cuban caricature artist, showed up and it became totally hysterical.

Admiring the Work of Dennis the Cuban Caricaturist

Dennis came up to our table with a caricature sketch of Gary that he had just made while watching us sip our wine. It was interesting that we were sitting two rows back from the street with perhaps 40 people between us and Dennis, but he picked Gary out of the herd to sketch and to receive his sales pitch.  This happens a lot to him and I think he puts out some sort of “sucker” pheromone because he always gets singled out by people hawking merchandise and services. Or it may be that he can’t shake the habit of making eye contact, but since he had sunglasses on, I am going with the pheromone theory.

 

Dennis at Work

We had a good chuckle over the caricature, for while it featured an outsized neck, nose and chin – it was indeed  and undoubtedly him. Dennis was himself sort of a walking caricature – skinny as a rail, one prominent silver tooth, grimy baseball cap and pigtail, carrying a clipboard. When he found out we were Americans, he proudly showed us the back of his clipboard which prominently featured an American and a Cuban flag. Well it wasn’t quite an American flag, in that it was about 30 stars short, but he had the right idea. He said he dreams of going to America one day.  Gary commissioned Dennis to draw the two of us and for a mere $5 euros – just over 5 dollars US- , he did one. Again, there was no mistaking the identity of those fabulous tourists in the sunglasses, but I had to wonder if my neck really is that skinny and my chin that pointy.

Before our encounter with Dennis, we had ordered a toasted Panini for a snack and it was very slow in arriving. We wondered if there was same day service on the food here. It was so slow in fact that Gary theorized that they may have had a power failure to the toaster and were toasting it with matches. But we had to remind ourselves, we are not aboard the Queen Victoria and are no longer getting Cunard White Star Service and we need to adjust our thinking and our watches to European tempo, which is relaxed and slow. When it arrived it was delicious and we really wanted to order another one, but we had to meet our bus for the ride back to Santa Cruz in two hours and were afraid we would miss it if we waited, even if we ordered it to go.

Church of San Telmo

We took our extra time further exploring the town and found it absolutely delightful, with quaint old colonial houses with shutters and narrow wooden balconies , old churches, parks with ancient trees, fishing boats bobbing in the harbor – just perfect.  We took some time to promenade by the oldest structures in town, the Chruch of San Telmo and the Casa de la Real Aduana. But too soon our wah-wah had arrived and it was time to go back to Santa Cruz.

 

At the Tasca Robotica in Santa Cruz

Once back at the ship,  we had extra time in the afternoon so we walked from the ship into town, perhaps a half a mile walk to the Plaza de Espana, whose chief feature is the Monumento de las Caidos (literal translation is Monument of the Fallen) which commemorates the dead from the Spanish Civil War which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and resulted in Franco becoming the dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Santa Cruz has around 300,000 inhabitants and is quite easy to explore on foot. There were several interesting museums which will have to be saved for a future visit. We walked around the old part of Santa Cruz, much as we had Puerto de la Cruz and found it almost as charming, but the waterfront here is mostly commercial and so we went inland a few blocks. We were able to see the Iglesia del Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, the city’s oldest church, originally built in 1502, but only from the outside. Clearly we had too little time here and would have to come back, so in light of that we decided to again stop for wine and tapas at an outdoor restaurant on Plaza de Principe de Asturias  (translation is the Prince of Asturias – a region in Spain. The restaurant was called Tasca La Rebotica (translation is the Back Room Pub). As we drank our wine, we gazed out on the square which has a statue of Jose Murphy, an unusual moniker, but through the power of Google, we learned he was a real person of note. His father was Irish and his mother was from the Canary Islands and he is the individual credited with getting the Spanish Government to allow the Canary Islands to be a free trade port. Jose Murphy is not the subject of the joke that goes like this:

Man to woman he just met:  What nationality of men do you think make the best lovers?

She: I think maybe the Irish or the Spanish

He: Well allow me to introduce myself. I am Jose Murphy.

We had a leisurely, if long, stroll back to the ship, arriving in time for dinner of course, and resolved to visit the Canary Islands again at a more leisurely pace.

May 6, 2016

Dateline: Funchal, Madeira

Latitude at Funchal  32. 3 Degrees North, Longitude 16.54 Degrees West

Docked at the Port of Funchal, Madeira

Today we docked at the port of Funchal, Madeira, 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. We had an overnight trip of 251 miles from Tenerife. There are seven islands in the group, but only 2 are inhabited. The word, “madeira” means wood in Portuguese and it was a fitting name since the entire island was covered in timber in the olden days. There is archaeological evidence that it was visited by the Vikings prior to discovery by the Portuguese, who claimed it for their own in 1419. In the period from 1415 to 1542, the Portuguese did a lot of “discovering” and claiming. Madeira was found by a Portuguese ship traveling down the coast of Africa which was blown off course. Today it is an autonomous region of Portugal.

Clouds Gathering Above Funchal

The island, volcanic in origin is approximately 309 square miles, but it is old enough to have vegetation take over centuries ago. The climate only varies by 10 degrees between summer and winter and is in the temperate zone so it is not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too humid – in short it is a delightful climate, famous for its wine and flowers. It is mountainous, with the highest point being Pico Ruivo at just over 6,000 feet. The population of the island is around 267,000. Funchal gets its name from the fennel plant (funcho in Portuguese) that was found growing wild here.  The city has three main parts – the Lido a beach area with 5 star hotels, the old town with colonial era buildings and the city center with street after street of shops

Tourism is their major business, but they also have farming and fishing. Bananas and flowers are exported, as well as tuna and other fish, as well as the famous fortified wine named after the island (Madeira). The city of Funchal sits in a natural amphitheater below the mountain slope.

Toboggan Drivers Getting Sleds Ready

Our adventure ashore today was called “Cable Car and Toboggan, which would lead you to believe we were going someplace snowy, but this was a toboggan ride like no other.  We rode a cable car called the Teleferico which  takes passengers to the top of a peak called Monte (about 4,000 feet) in a 15 minute ride, but in the old days it was slower on a rack and pinion railway. The trip down is in a wicker sleigh basket sort of contrivance, and has not changed in the last 100 years. It is a brisk 10 minute, 2 kilometer (about 1.2 miles) thrill ride. And the interesting thing about this ride is that it is on a public street with vehicles going down it which sort of mix in with the sleds. Then there are cross streets where cars are supposed to stop and look uphill for approaching toboggans at various intersections.

The Shrine at the Spring

But before we embarked on our downhill adventure, we had a few minutes at the top in the Parish of Monte (formal name is Nossa Senhora do Monte – translation is Our Lady of the Mountain). We walked to the Monte Square where there was a shrine at a spring where a miracle took place. This spring has never run dry even during droughts. The miracle involved a little girl whose mother was very ill. Her father observed her as she retrieved water every day for their household and she seemed to be talking to someone he could not see. The little girl told him that she saw a “lady” and asked her to cure her mother. The mother was cured, and a Church was built on the top of the mountain and called Our Lady of the Mountain. The apparition was given the same name and she became the patron saint of Funchal. We walked up the 120 steps to reach it and it was well worth it. It was very simple on the outside and surprisingly ornate on the inside.  Here at the top of the mountain the last Emperor of Austria was  buried in 1922, who had been living in exile in Madeira.

Our Lady of the Mountain Church

Surrounding the shrine of the Fountain of our Lady of the Mountain, were giant sycamore trees, said to be over 400 years old. Just below the fountain there is a garden with exotic plants and a series of waterfalls cascading down a ravine of mossy rocks and fern covered ledges. The exotic plants  we see at home, small and grown in pots, we saw here, but they were taller than my head in many cases and they seemed to be growing wild – calla lilies, bird of paradise, orchids, fuchsia and on and on.  I have pony tail plants growing at home in pots, whereas the same plants are called elephants foot and grow into trees with huge circumferences. We did learn that while pineapple plants and olive trees will flourish here, they will not produce any fruit.

Laughing All the Way

For the ride down Monte, we got into a wicker sled with hardwood ski-like runners, called a carro de cesto (basket car). Passengers go two by two, unless there are 3 skinny ones which will fit. Then the fun begins. The sled is powered by gravity and the course is a very steep and winding street (kind of a bobsled course without the ice). The steering and braking is handled by two sled runners referred to as pilots who steer with ropes and brake with their rubber soled feet from behind.  They pull, run alongside and hop on the back like dogsled mushers as the situation calls for.  The sled runners also pull the ropes to spin us this way and that, adding some extra excitement to the ride. We the passengers are alternately laughing and screaming – not so much terrified as elated I think. We think it was like the line in “Jingle Bells” – we were laughing all the way.

At the bottom of the toboggan ride there was a photo of us in mid-scream about halfway down, printed and ready for purchase the minute we unloaded from the sled. We are not sure how they pulled that off in the five minutes or so they had, but they had photos ready for sale of every passenger on every sled as they arrived. We marveled at the wonders of wireless technology.

Overlook at Pico Dos Barcelos

We stopped at Pico Dos Barcelos, a scenic spot that overlooks the city of Funchal  far below. The houses all have red tile roofs and seem to spill down the hillside, amid hundreds of flower gardens, and blooming trees – this time of year it was the orange flame tree and the lavender jacaranda amid a riot of green, with the deep blue of the ocean as a backdrop. It was truly stunning to see. The Se, the old cathedral, built between 1485 and 1515, was visible in the distance, as well as the Colegio (formally known as the Collegiat Church of St. John the Baptist and the Convento de Santa Clara, built in the 17th Century.  One sight we wanted to see but simply did not have time for was the Mercado dos Lavradores, (the Worker’s Market),an open air market with stalls selling meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, clothing, wicker items and flowers.

The Mountains of Madeira from Dos Barcelos

We did have a good laugh here at the scenic overlook. There was a beautiful vista that I wanted to take a picture of, but on a bench right at the edge of the overlook there was a couple facing each other and she unfortunately had a shirt that was not long enough and pants that were not high enough and the result was a plumber’s butt crack, which would have been right in the middle of my picture. I don’t know if there is a Photo Shop app for that or not. In any event, I took the picture with the subtitle in mind – instead of Madeira , it would be  Derriere in Madeira.

 

 

Sampling the Goods at Blandy’s Wine Lodge

Back in town we stopped at Blandy’s Wine Lodge, essentially a tasting room to sample the local product, Madeira fortified wine. Fortified wine is wine to which a distilled liquor has been added and allowed to ferment.  Regular wine had been produced on the island for quite a while, when fortified wine was discovered quite by accident on a sea voyage when wine from Madeira was stored in barrels and got too hot and became fermented, but they drank it anyway and it tasted pretty good so they started doing it on purpose. Today there are several types of Madeira including Malmsey – a full bodied sweet wine, Boal, a semi-sweet dessert wine, Verdelho, a medium dry wine and Sercial, the driest wine and closest in taste to sherry. The people of Madeira have the British to thank for making it know world-wide as Madeira.

Strolling the Avenues of Funchal

After the tour we were on our own so we did our favorite thing, stroll about a new city and explore the sights and mingle (if not blend) with the locals. We walked down the Avienda Arriaga, taking in the sights. It was a beautiful avenue with decorative sidewalks with patterns in black and white stones – reminiscent of the Copa Cabana in Rio de Janeiro, but this was on every street in the area. The street was a broad boulevard with sycamores and jacarandas overarching it, with a fountain at one end and the Se Cathedral at the other. A crowd was gathered in front of the church watching a street band – not too far out of the ordinary, except they had a percussion instrument with long pipes made of what looked like PVC corrugated irrigation pipe like you would have in your landscaping.

The Street Band Plays at the Cathedral.

We stopped the Café Apolo for a bite of lunch and some non-fortified wine, where we could still hear the music, but we also had other unexpected entertainment. There was what appeared to be a street person – a man of maybe 50 (or he could have been 30 and had a hard life) dressed in a trench coat, with floppy shirt and trousers, combat boots like Bill Murray had in Caddy Shack and a pork pie hat. He has spread a few table cloths out on the pavement with some fake flowers and a few doggy toys,  and he had 3 black non-descript dogs with him – all mutts,  including a puppy and its mother. We weren’t sure if the other adult dog was the daddy or just a friend. Our street-side diagnosis was that the man had OCD. He meticulously cleaned the mother dog off after nursing the puppy, and repeatedly wiped the faces of all three dogs. The puppy piddled and he got out a cloth and cleaned it up. He left the dogs and came back a few minutes later with food and a bowl of water. People continuously stopped by to pet the dogs and hold the puppy.  He left again and came back with antiseptic wipes. He would wipe down every animal after each encounter.  Then he would comb through their fur looking, we assumed,for fleas) He had a baby stroller and so when he decided it was time to move, he loaded up all 3 dogs in it and made the rounds of the crowd and people in the restaurants for donations. Then he folded up his table cloths, wiped down the whole area and moved on. We saw him later at a different place, puppy worn out and sound asleep, but mom getting further “flea grooming”.

On Board the Queen Victoria, Leaving Madeira

We took some side streets into some local neighborhoods and those too were charming, stone patterned sidewalks, colorful buildings, spotlessly clean. We bought some local oranges for a snack and they were excellent. We walked back to the ship which proved to be quite a hike, but it was an enjoyable one and included a stop for gelato. We were docked at great location which allowed us to sit by the Lido pool at the stern of the ship and watch the sunset and see the lights of Funchal twinkle on.  We were not set to leave until 11:30, but we decided to not go back into the city for dinner, since we were still full from lunch and tired out from all the excitement and even more so, all the walking.  Instead we listened to an on board concert by a Sixties tribute band. It was great, and we knew every song and all the words. Our favorite line was “Remember the 1960’s when you wore flowers in your hair and you still had hair to wear flowers in?”

May 7, 2016

Dateline:  Eastern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal

Latitude at Noon  UTC + 1, 35.7 North, Longitude14.8.West

Gloomy Skies in the North Atlantic

Today we awoke to a rolling sea and gloomy skies on our first sea day out of Madeira, after sleeping much later than usual. We think it’s that rocking motion that keeps us snoozing. We were cruising about 200 miles off the coast of Portugal today. We will be traveling over the Josephine Bank which rises from a depth of close to 9,000 feet to about 557 feet. At this point we were 400 miles west of the Strait of Gibraltar. At noon today we had traveled 220 miles from Madeira with 1,094 to go to Southampton. Our noon position was 288 miles off the coast of Portugal, traveling at 17.8 knots. The wind was a brisk 25 knots out of the west at noon, but increased to 30 by mid-afternoon, creating moderate to rough seas with waves of 12 to 15 feet. The water temperature was considerably cooler at 63 F, and the air temperature was the same and we had afternoon and evening rain showers. Today was the day to seek out a cozy retreat and we spent a good bit of the morning in our favorite on board lounge, the Carintha on Deck 3 where we could watch the raging ocean and sip our tea and coffee.

We attended an interesting lecture by Jonathan Dimbleby, a noted journalist and author of WWII history, who talked about the Battle for the Atlantic and the terrible cost to human life, as well has how close the Allies came to defeat based on key decisions and actions of politicians and admirals. His lecture started with the historic events of 1939 and how things unfolded from there.  The war took a terrible toll on both sides, but was especially deadly in the German Navy where 30,000 out of a navy of 38,000 died. Thousands of ships (both merchant and military) were sunk. The US East Coast was especially hazardous for Allies since the ships leaving for Europe were backlit by the city lights, making perfect targets for German u-boats. Unfortunately it took several ships being sunk before they came up with the blackout idea.

In the afternoon we listened to an amazing concert by one of the orchestra musicians who has collected musical instruments from all over the world, including bagpipes and he played them all beautifully. Well almost all – there was a kazoo in the collection that wasn’t too musical, but everything else was wonderful. We continued to be amazed at the talent of the musicians on board.  We chatted a few minutes with someone we were sure we had never seen before, who unfortunately seemed to have only one sort of fang-like tooth. Not to try to second guess anyone too much, but it seemed that she might have wanted to spend some money on dentistry and forego her annual trip on a Cunard ship. Call me crazy, but that seems to be where my priorities are.

We learned a nautical fact today –  the word “port hole” originated in 1485 in England during the reign of Henry VI who wanted to use guns too large for traditional deck mounting since it would make the ship too top heavy and a French shipbuilder was commissioned to solve the problem. He ordered the cannon mounted inside the ship below decks and he put small doors on the sides of the ship that could be opened when the cannon was to be used. The French word for door is “porte” and thus the name. It later came to mean any opening in the ship’s hull.

Decadent Shipboard Desserts

 

The ship has a specialty restaurant which switches from Italian, to steak, to Indian and to Chinese, the latter being called Bamboo. We ate there this night and enjoyed every morsel, even the sushi which neither of us are wild about and the shrimp tempura was outstanding. There was a great night of sleeping with endless rocking as the ship moved through rough seas.

 

 

May 8, 2016

Dateline:  Eastern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Vigo, Spain

Latitude at Noon  UTC + 1, 42.1 North, Latitude 11.1 West

This is our second sea day out of Madeira. We awoke to a sunny and cool day, making 18 knots. We treated ourselves to a fancy breakfast in the dining room, lured their by promises on the menu of maple syrup. However, I was sad to learn that they only have imitation maple and no one was even the least bit concerned about the false advertising. I do not believe the British are aware of the sublime taste of true maple syrup from the “colonies”.  Just try giving them Nestea instead of brewed tea and you would have a riot on your hands – but syrup – that’s a different matter and totally inconsequential. We did manage to choke down the pancakes nevertheless. It was chilly and windy out on the open decks, a brisk 24 knots, so we were afforded another day to seek cozy spaces inside for reading and snoozing.

On Deck for our Last Full Sea Day

We had traveled 418 miles since yesterday at noon, with 674 to go to reach our final port of Southampton. The closest point of land is Cabo Finisterre, (translation is Land’s End Cape) Portugal, the northwestern most point of Europe. We had been in very deep water, over 7,000 feet, but as we entered the shallower Bay of Biscay, the seas got even rougher and the swells even higher. The bay is notorious for fierce storms and unpredictable weather, but it is the widest inlet to Europe from the Atlantic and so ships traverse it regularly.

While the Indian Ocean that we crossed traveling from Hong Kong to South Africa was huge, the Atlantic is even more vast at 41 million square miles, second only to the Pacific in size, but instead of crossing what is referred to jokingly as “The Pond”, we are traveling south to north. Its deepest point is off the coast of Puerto Rico, measured at 12,232 feet

We learned a little Cunard history today. An early  liner, the Britannia launched in 1840 and powered by steam, carried 115 passengers and 89 crew and 600 tons of coal. It took the mail to and from America. They kept on board chickens to eat and a cow to provide fresh milk. They also had 3 cats to keep the rats under control and it was strictly forbidden to feed them lest they get lazy and fail to hunt down the rats. She had a sister vessel called  the Caledonia. Both carried a full set of sails in case of engine trouble.  There was some fear of steam powered vessels in the early days and one minister is recorded denouncing them as “the work of the Devil”.

We had an incredibly decadent day – eating, drinking, napping, reading and playing cribbage, but we did manage to rouse ourselves enough to take our brisk two walk around the Promenade Deck, aided with a tailwind in one direction and hindered by a headwind in the other. A brisk walk in very brisk weather!

May 9, 2016

Dateline:  Bay of Biscay, 19 miles from the French island of Ushant

Latitude at Noon UTC + 1, 48.2 Degrees North, Longitude 5.6 Degrees West

Sunset on the North Atlantic

Today, sadly, is our last day at sea and our last full day on the ship. Traveling from Hong Kong (where we boarded to Southampton where we will disembark) the ship will have covered 12,841 nautical miles in 42 Days. We finished our crossing of the Bay of Biscay in the late afternoon and continued our approach to the English Channel. We are to pick up a local pilot around 3:00 a.m. and will slow our speed to time our arrival for the rendezvous.

We decided to enrich our minds a bit and attended an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, the British broadcast journalist, who is quite distinguished looking with his silver hair and linen suit. His father was the BBC’s first reporter. It was founded in 1922 and by the 1930’s, was broadcasting across Europe. He covered WWII including the atrocities of Hitler’s death camps.

Mr. Dimbleby’s  (the son’s)fame came from his coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in 1983-85, in which an estimated million people died, much of it concealed by the Ethiopian government. He has also covered the royal family a great deal, including the 1997 turnover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. He was aboard the royal yacht, the Britannia with Prince Charles, for the ceremony. The pageantry included a host of navy ships sailing by in salute and an RAF flyover as the band played “God Save the Queen” ( a bit of trivia here – it is the same melody as “My Country Tis of Thee” which was no doubt borrowed from the Brits since they were singing it when we were still a colony).

Another highlight came at the 1989 meeting between Margaret Thatcher, then the Prime Minister of England and Mikhail Gorachev, then the Premier of Russia. Mr. Dimbleby  says his worst moment was when he was on the air and his mobile phone started ringing. He could not seem to make it stop so he tossed it over his shoulder into the wings where finally someone backstage was able to silence it.

Tax payers actually fund the BBC (sort of like our NPR, but on the scale of CNN) which has some good points, chief of which is to not be beholden to private investors, (e.g. like Rupert Murdoch) or advertisers. This allows them to be more impartial and accurate, but they have to depend on taxpayers to buy programming and on air talent and it is hard to be competitive. Now there is great competition from social media which has the problem (in Mr. Dimbleby’s words) that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on”. He says it is crucial the broadcast journalism be kept independent from politicians.

Today at noon we were traveling at 17 knots, having traveled 438 miles since noon yesterday, with 234 miles to go to reach Southampton. The Queen Mary is 28 miles behind us, traveling at 20 knots and the Queen Elizabeth is 55 miles behind us traveling at 20 knots.   The other two “Queens” will also be approaching the port and will be docking tomorrow morning as well.

We spent our last evening packing and stopped for a short dance to Jimmy Buffet on my IPOD singing “It’s Been a Lovely Cruise” which has become sort of a family tradition.

 

May 10, 2016

Dateline:  Mayflower Terminal, Southampton, England

Latitude at Noon  UTC + 1, 50.9 Degrees North, Longitude 1.4 Degrees West

The Queen Victoria at her Berth

With around 10,000 passengers and crew disembarking, with 20,000 to 30,000 pieces of luggage we figured it was going to be hectic and indeed it was.  We had hired a car to take us to a hotel near Heathrow Airport, and the driver, despite being local, got snarled in traffic and went to the wrong terminal a time or two, but with the help of a porter and his cell phone, we managed to talk him in to the Mayflower terminal where we were.

We had an uneventful ride to the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow , but the traffic was heavy and it was raining. We had originally thought we would take the train into London and have one more adventure for this trip, but with the miserable weather, we decided we had plenty of adventures and had dinner at the hotel and called this adventure concluded – and what a satisfying adventure it was.  We flew 8,380 miles from Atlanta to Hong Kong and traveled 12,841 miles on the Queen Victoria from Hong Kong to Southampton. Tomorrow we will  fly 4,204 miles from London to Atlanta and thus completing a truly memorable trip around the world.

 

 

 




Hong Kong to Southampton Voyage – Part 3

 

Great Adventure Travelogue

Part 3: The Seychelles to Port Elizabeth, South Africa

April 11, 2016

Dateline: Port  Victoria, Mahe, The Seychelles

Latitude at Port Victoria 4.31 Degrees South, Longitude 55.30 Degrees East

Docked at Port Victoria

We arrived and docked at Port Victoria on the island of Mahe early, but not early enough to beat the heat. At 8:30 it was 92F. We had a catamaran sail and snorkeling planned for the afternoon so we set off to walk into the town of Port Victoria to do some exploring. The Seychelles are scattered over 175 square miles and consist of a group of  115 islands  – a mix of flat coralline atolls and mountainous islands,  which  reminded us so much of the Virgin Islands that we were getting, if not homesick for them, then visit sick – bottom line is we need a VI fix).  While the scenery is the same, the temperatures are not. The Virgin Islands are all around Latitude 18 degrees North, while the Seychelles are all around 4 degrees off the Equator, and those 14 degrees make a big difference. The coast of Kenya lies 1,000 miles to the west

Harbor at Port Victoria

The city of Port Victoria was first established as the seat of British Colonial government (the British  were more or less everywhere back then). Principal exports today  are vanilla, coconuts and coconut oil, fish and guano. The local people are called Seychellois (pronounced “Say shell wah” with the accent on “wah”). There is evidence that the Arabs had been here around the 9th Century, but the first European explorer to find the islands, Vasco de Gama, was Portuguese,. The islands were claimed for France by a French explorer who landed on Mahe in 1742 and the island group was named for the French Finance Minister, Jean Moreau de Sechelles. Settlers came in after that but not in droves and  by 1791 there were only 572 people and 487 of them were slaves, and the capital city of Victoria was a crocodile infested swamp. The crocodiles are now extinct as are the giant tortoises which were

Port Victoria Town Square

killed off and eaten by the early settlers.  The British took over the island in 1794 and it was officially ceded to them in 1814 with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo as part of the spoils of war. Once slavery was abolished in 1835, the islands went into a decline. It was finally rescued by tourism in the 20th Century, but there have been a series of coups and attempted coups over the years. The last one was in 1986 and the country has been stable since then. They have a law that all warships calling on Port Victoria must be nuclear free – not a bad idea since they never know who might want to use a nuke in a coup attempt.

Victoria is one of the world’s smallest capitals with only just over 26,000 inhabitants and the island of Mahe is only 17 x 8 miles. The walk to the center of  town, not much more than a mile,

The Queen Victoria docked in Port Victoria

was a hot and steamy affair with our trying to take in water faster than we sweated it out.  En route to town there was a park with inviting shade trees that we cut through and did enjoy a brief respite. We noticed that it bordered a small harbor and we could see the Queen Victoria at the quayside, beautifully framed by palm trees, and so we strolled over to snap a picture. We discovered that others had enjoyed this view before us, but then looking at the ground, we concluded that they were apparently enjoying more than the view.  It was littered with used bright pink condoms. Or as Gary said “So now we know what the locals do when they are not swimming and snorkeling”.

We slogged on to town to find a square of sorts with a small clock tower and a few shops selling this and that. There were some museums we could have visited but as best we could tell, they were not air conditioned and we are too wimpy (or didn’t have sufficient interest) to visit them without it.  There are pretty slim pickings as far as tourism goes here in town, but the main attractions are the beaches and the water, of course. Gary had been in the market for a pair of flip flops since Hong Kong, since he forgot to pack his, and strangely enough, here in the Seychelles, they had his size. Prior to this, he was a little like Cinderella’s prince trying to find a fit. We concluded there are not many Size 12 feet in the Indian Ocean countries.

 

Docked in the Seychelles

We did a little reading on the Seychelles and learned that one of their chief exports is palm oil from a type of palm tree they call “coco de mer” – that is sea coconut, which has the distinction of being the world’s largest nut.. They can get quite large and rather than bring one home, we bought a small carved replica to remember our visit to Port Victoria – should the size 12 flip flops fail to remind us, or perhaps suffer a “Margaritaville” style blowout.  Our original thought was to explore Port Victoria until time to meet our catamaran dockside, but we quickly determined that said exploration could in no way occupy the full 4 hours time we had available. And since it had been a couple of hours since we had been fed, we went back to the ship for lunch and a general cooling off.

The Catamaran Atami

We boarded the catamaran with 78 other people, and set off for the National Marine Park of Moyenne Island,  where we were promised a reef with an opportunity to snorkel, as well as a glass bottom boat ride to preview the delights below.  It didn’t seem all that crowded at first – as we took half the boat on the first glass bottom excursion and half on the second. We actually were seated on little benches 2 by 2 by a glass window below the deck of the boat in the hull. It was a great idea in theory, as long as you are not too claustrophobic, but in practice, the windows needed a good scrubbing, and the tide was out, the wind was blowing and the water was really churned up, making the visibility quite murky. We did see a few quite common fish called sergeant majors (due to their stripes) but the experience failed to thrill even the most novice aquatic people among us. It was however quite effectively air conditioned so we didn’t mind it so much. We were, however, looking forward to getting into the water. Once everyone queued (a British word used on board for lining up) to get masks and snorkels, the boat seemed extremely crowded. We decided to bag the snorkeling opportunity and go swimming, which I am happy to report was absolutely delightful.

Turquoise Waters

The water was a turquoise blue and so refreshing, and being in the water, we saw a great show with first time snorkelers trying to come down the steps with fins on, masks askew, snorkels upside down and so on.  There was only one ladder on the catamaran so many people going back up to get a different mask, a different set of fins, or some basic instruction were trying to go up, while others were coming down. Because there was a fairly good current, we just hung out on the anchor line to stay close to the boat, while snorkelers took off at a pretty good clip, whether they intended to do so or not. The net effect was that snorkelers were scattered over several hundred yards, and so the boat crew deployed a chase boat (an inflatable dinghy) to round them up and in several cases, haul them aboard to get back to the

Scattered Snorkelers

boat. Looking at the scene from the deck of the catamaran once we got out of the water, it was very reminiscent of one of the final scenes of the movie, Titanic, with people in lifejackets scattered for miles calling out for help (It was similar minus the frozen part of course – these victims were in 90 degree water.) I was wondering whether we missed a good opportunity since we both love diving and snorkeling, but I was told by a fellow passenger who did go snorkeling that the scenery was the same as inside the glass bottom boat, but you were wet and getting a sunburn while you watched it.

Musical Waters of the Seychelles

 

At 4:00 p.m. when we returned to the ship, the temperature was 38C or 100 F. Despite the heat and the dysfunctional snorkel trip, it was lovely being on the water in a crisp breeze and in the water in these beautiful islands. A fellow passenger had a T-shirt on with a slogan I liked that read “The Earth is filled with music for those who will listen”.  I felt like we listened to the music of the waters of the Seychelles today.

 

April 12, 2016

Dateline: Southern Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 4 hours, 9.7 Degrees South, Longitude  56.1 Degrees East

Today is our first day out of the Seychelles on a course for Mauritius. We had another strenuous round of breakfast and cribbage, followed by deck time, which involves sitting on the Promenade Deck and watching the ocean roll by, with the occasional passenger or deck workman strolling by. This watching is very Zen like and can induce a trance or a nap, whichever comes first, and we also read, which may be interspersed with a nap or trance.

At noon (and we know it is noon because the ship sounds two long and two short blasts of the whistle, a.k.a. horn, and then the captain makes the navigational announcement . We were 410 miles northeast of the northernmost point of Madagascar and 46 miles from the Agalega Islands, two small islands belonging to Mauritius, which engage in the coconut trade. We were traveling at 16.7 knots, somewhat slowed by the equatorial current and 15 knot winds.  We have traveled 360 miles from Port Victoria, Seychelles with 626 miles to go to Port Louis, Mauritius. We are traveling along the edge of the Mascarene Plateau. The water depth is over 10,000 feet  but the depths can get as shallow as 26 to 500 feet and then can plunge at the edge of the plateau to a depth of about two and half miles). We have mild seas with 6 foot swells. The air temperature is 86 degrees F and the water is 90F. The captain advises that if we have seen a weather forecast, we will know that there is a cyclone well to the east of us, but we will be long gone before it reaches these waters.

Ice Carving On Board

We of course had lunch, afterward taking time to watch Bobby Cadic, the carving specialist who had dazzled us with vegetable carving a few days ago work his magic on a big block of ice. We were amazed that he could A – carve anything out of a 200 pound block of ice and B – carve it before it melted since he was performing this feat poolside in full equatorial sun.  He did both, carving a beautiful and intricately detailed swan. He also told us something we did not know which is that ice melts at exactly the same rate so the sculpture will shrink in size, but not lose its detail as it melts.

We made a point of seeing the on board movie, a very funny comedy called This is Where I Leave You. I had read the book and think the movie was equally good – something not usually the case.  After the movie, we lounged most the afternoon away, (something different) but at tea time (a British ritual) a formal tea is served in the Queen’s Room, but an informal tea is served in the Lido Buffett. There I introduced Gary to a new vice – the Cream Tea.  Well to be honest, we both skip the tea, but we do partake of hot scones with cream and jam.  We learned that there is the Devon tradition whereby you apply the cream and then the jam, and the

Scones in the Cornwall Tradition

Cornwall tradition where you apply the jam and then the cream. The Cornish tradition works best with hot scones, and we were told you should not be served them any other way. In fact – they should be consumed within 10 minutes of leaving the oven so they don’t turn into hockey pucks. I have talked to some fellow passengers of the British persuasion that told me that there is no baking powder used to make scones – thus differentiating them from their American cousins – biscuits. I am thinking they might want to consider some baking powder to add a little fluff to the scone, but I think that is not likely – they are big on tradition.

I am doing the two mile circuit in the afternoons on my own since Gary has pulled up lame, complaining of a bad knee. He thinks he pulled a tendon on one of the turns on previous sprints (or perhaps strolls) is more accurate around the deck.  He is going to be taking it easy for a few days so he hopes the scones don’t tip him over from a calories burned, calories consumed perspective.

We learned some Indian Ocean facts today, such as  it is the third largest body of water on earth, covering about 20% of the earth’s surface. It is bounded on the north by south Asia, the west by the Arabian Peninsula, on the east by the Maylay Peninsula and Australia, and on the south by the Southern Ocean. It is separated from the Atlantic at Longitude 20 degrees East (Cape of Good Hope South Africa) and from the Pacific at 147 degrees East. Its northernmost point is in the Persian Gulf. The ocean is 6,200 miles wide at the southern tips of Africa and Australia, and covers  an area of 28.4 m. square miles.

We had an early dinner and fully intended to go see the evening’s entertainment – a dance extravaganza, however this did not happen. We would blame the time change for that, but we actually gained an hour and went to bed earlier. It must be the salt air. In any event, we are not suffering from a lack of sleep.

April 13, 2016

Dateline: Southern Indian Ocean

Latitude at Noon UTC + 4 hours, 16.2 Degrees South, Longitude  56.9 Degrees East

Today we were at sea between the Seychelles and the island of Mauritius. The weather is windy and cooler, but still tropical. We can tell that we are nearing the end of a segment of the cruise with all the fashion alerts that are being observed – that is plaid with plaid, plaid with strips, plaid with flowers.  It seems people nearing the end of their cruise either have to wash some laundry, wear dirty clothes or make do with what remains in their suitcase, and fashion be damned.

Today we listened to a lecture by our Royal Navy liaison, who is a lieutenant commander in the British Navy, although many Brits still use the pronunciation, “Leftenant”. No one seems to be quite sure of the origin of that pronunciation, but as has been pointed out, with the American pronunciation, “loo tenant”, you could be calling your superior officer a toilet dweller.   He talked about counter piracy measures for maritime security. The goal is to deter aggression with presence and projection of strength so the pirates will decide to look for softer targets. There are 9 choke points world-wide that are prime piracy areas (i.e. a lot of ships in a small area, slowing down for traffic and navigational hazards) that include the Straits of Hormuz, the Bosporus, the Straits of Singapore, the Straits of Malacca, Gibraltar, Bab el. Mandeb at the Horn of Africa? The other three are the Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Cape Horn. The Lieutenant Commander said that his and everyone else’s favorite duty is the Caribbean. One of the toughest is the Nuclear Sub Deterrent group where servicemen and service women are at sea for weeks and weeks. In addition to military protection, the Royal Navy also has responsibilities for SOLAS (Safety of Lives at Sea) and respond to SOS signals received, as well as providing humanitarian relief around the globe. Ships and shippers use Just in Time delivery so any ship detained affects commerce, and often it is world-wide and thus part of their job is keeping commodities, including oil and gas moving. The Royal Navy is also involved in enforcing fishing grounds protection and dismantling mines left over for WW I and II.  National Security is at stake here because globe is shrinking and there is inter-global dependency.

The Royal Navy is very small by US Standards with just over 30,000 people. The US Navy has around 326,000 with another 100,000 reserves.   Carnival Cruise Lines, the parent company of Cunard,  have 94,000 employees and Boots the Chemist Shop, a British chain drug store has has 40,000.  The bottom line is that the Royal Navy is a Small group with a big job. As a note of protocol, the Union Jack does not become the Union jack until it is up the flagpole. Until then it is the Union flag. He closed his presentation with this “benediction”:   “May you have a fair wind and following sea”.

A Good Breeze on Deck

At noon today we were 400 miles from the east coast of Madagascar, traveling at 15.6 knots. We have traveled 709 miles from Port Victoria in the Seychelles with 234 to go to Port Louis, Mauritius.  We continued traveling across the Mascarene Plain with the water depth at 14,500 feet. The skies were partly cloudy and the seas  moderate with 8 to 12 foot swells.  The trade winds were blowing so things are blessedly cooler  with the air temperature at 84F and the sea at 86 F. We passed some small islands called Cargados Carajos, belonging to Mauritius with a population of 63 people, mostly fishermen.

A note on trade winds:  The Southeast trades blow steadily toward the Equator. The heat causes a high pressure dome that draws winds toward it. This was very important in the days of sail.  In the Caribbean they utilized the Northeast Trades, which also blow steadily.

Relaxing on the Promenade Deck

We had some Promenade Deck time to rest our brains up which included some napping. We happened to notice the ladders to get up to lifeboats and saw that they were covered with a lock. We speculated that this would have been a great place to stow away – and you could eat at the Lido or consume emergency rations, and wash your clothes at the launderette. There may be a book plot here. And for  characters for the book, we saw a lot of candidates to pull from, such as the strange walker – a guy pulling himself along with an invisible rope, or the bare-chested octogenarian, bent over almost double but plugging along, matching many of the young whippersnappers stride for stride.   On the Promenade Deck, there are a few “Wide-uns” who block more effectively than NFL players, who we feel must have studied the Flying Wedge play from Notre Dame.

Gary went to a wine tasting and determined that yes, he still likes it. The evening performance included band members from the olden days –  10CC, Cliff Richard, and the Moody Blues. The show was called the Rewind Project. In case your wonder what happens to band members of defunct bands – if they don’t overdose – they could appear on a cruise ship.  We also learned the origin of the term “Three Sheets to the Wind”.  In the days of sailing ships “sheets” were what the lines that controlled the sails were called. When those sheets are cast to the wind or let go, it would cause the ship to shudder and stagger, just like a drunken sailor out of control.

We are to arrive at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow for Immigration Inspection so we have an excuse to go to bed early, which we always do anyway.  We are amazed at how much and how soundly we sleep. We love the quiet and the roll of the ship to rock us to sleep and keep us there at good 10 hours or so.

April 14, 2016

Dateline: Port Louis, Mauritius

Latitude at Port Louis 20.9 Degrees South, Longitude 57.2 Degrees East

Port Louis

This morning we docked in Port Louis on the island of Mauritius, located due east of Madagascar on what was once believed to be a land bridge between Asia and Africa. The closest port of any size is Mombasa, Kenya, over a thousand miles away. The island covers about 720 square miles and is home to over a million people. It is mountainous with steep gorges slicing through vast fields of sugar cane. Mauritius was known to the Arabs, but it is so remote, it remained uninhabited until the late 16th Century.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, and found the resident dodo bird, much to their liking as an entrée, and proceeded with the extinction between the years of 1681 and 1693. They named the island after a Dutch Prince named

Turquoise Waters of Mauritius

Maurice. Their settlements never took hold and they gave it up in 1710, leaving behind two notorious legacies– one the extinction of the dodo and two the introduction of slavery, but on a positive note, they did introduce beer.  The French came along and re-established the sugar plantations and used the island as a base for their corsairs – sort of authorized pirates who could raid British ships with the blessing of their government. The British had a similar arrangement, but theirs were called privateers.  Nevertheless, they took action to eliminate the corsair activity and took over Mauritius in 1810. Once slavery was abolished in 1835, they had to bring in indentured servants from India to work the sugar cane fields. Sugar is still a major export, but now tourism is an important industry as well.

Our Welcome to Mauritius

Port Louis, so named by the French after King Louis XV, is the capital, as well as the economic center of Mauritius.  There is a bustle of traffic and activity in this multi-cultural country. You can see a mix of western dress, Indian saris and Muslim veils on the women. Men and children also dress in their own styles, as they choose, sometimes with style seeming to be totally absent.  The streets are very crowded around the local markets with vehicles and pedestrians. You can tell the British were here – at least when cars came to be used since they drive on the left.  As in Great Britain,  in Mauritius the people elect the Prime Minister as head of the Parliamentary Republic. Mauritius gained independence in 1968, but did not become a republic until 1992. There are plenty of places to explore in town: markets, forts, a mosque and a cathedral, but we were headed for the beach. We cleared immigration on board and went out to find our bus.

Our transport to the Catamaran

We met our local guide Laeticia, who was totally thrilled to meet two Americans – her first ever. She says she loves the way we talk, but she couldn’t tell the difference between my Southern and Gary’s Pacific Northwest. She just knew we weren’t British, South African or European where most of her tourists come from. Today’s temperature is 79F and would be pleasant, but the humidity is around 70% so we are glad to be going out on a catamaran today.  English is the official language, but they use French “to be polite”,  according Laeticia, but we were not sure what she meant by this – maybe as a courtesy to non English speakers. The most  widelyspoken language is Creole – a mixture of French and English which sounds very lilting.

The drive was through smallish pointy mountains formed by volcanoes, worn down over the eons, changing to  green hills, covered with sugarcane and pineapple. Higher up there were forests turning to jungle with riotous undergrowth of flowers, vines, and shrubs. The soil is extremely fertile and just about everything grows here – a veritable Eden. Mark Twain visited here and wrote that “Mauritius was created before paradise came into being and served as an example for the latter.” January and February are the hurricane (cyclone) season, so Eden occasionally has some rough weather.

Lush Vegetation of Mauritius

Tropical plants that we have to get at a nursery and tend to with utmost care absolutely flourish here – hibiscus, ixora, mandevilla, bougainvillea, oleander and many more I couldn’t identify. Trees are also bountiful –  banyan, palm, rosewood, avocado, papaya, mango  all along the roadway, and then there were casuarina trees lining the coves.  There are a number of ruins here from plantation days, many with only chimneys remaining. Our guide told us that if they are square, they were French, if they are round, they were British. Mauritius has a problem with “morons” (a.ka. more-on), similar to what we saw in the Seychelles. People don’t have enough money to complete a house as large as they want so they add a little more on each year – sometimes just leaving unfinished concrete with iron rebar sticking up for months or even years.

Sharp Peaks of Mauritius

They have no insects here and consequently few birds, but that seems a relatively small price to pay. There are also no snakes and no sharks since the island is almost encircled by shallow coral reefs and the channel for the harbor had to be dredged. There are only 3 types of wild mammals here – wild boar, monkeys and mongoose. The local diet is largely fish and chicken and they have to import meat and cheese from South Africa. Their chief exports are sugar, flowers and a few textiles and they have recently introduced call centers. Our guide told us that cows are not raised here because they could not be slaughtered due to a Hindu belief that consider s them sacred, and they don’t want to have them roaming around.

The Waterfall on the Rain-Swollen Grand River

We had about an hour ride to catch our catamaran and were greeted with rum and coke as soon as we arrived. Someone on the ship had said there would be rum and coke after snorkeling, but somehow the boat crew didn’t get the message so we had continuous rum.  It was a fun trip and we stopped for swimming and snorkeling in really shallow water, but it was fun anyway.  There was a side trip to a waterfall in a smaller boat so we went on that too. It was sort of a short waterfall with a long name (the Grand River South East Waterfall), but the rum was flowing and of course that made everything much grander.  It was pretty windy on the return trip and I lost my hat (Chattahoochee Country Club) and one of the ship’s beach towels as well – there in the ocean off the beach for some intrepid snorkeler to find at a future date) They were serving some little snacks that looked like cheese straws, but did not have any of the flavor of cheese straws. We asked the boat crew what they were and they were sort of stumped to come up with the right words in English and they finally settled on “flour” and sure enough, they did taste like flour – and not much else. But the rum was good and all in all, it was a great afternoon.

April 15, 2016

Dateline: Le Port, Reunion Island

Latitude at Le Port 20.4 Degrees South, Longitude 55.2 Degrees East

Entering the Harbor at Le Port

Watching our approach to Reunion Island this morning, we could see the peak of the Pieton des Nieges (Snowy Peak), which is over 10,000 feet above sea level and is the highest point on the Indian Ocean. This mountain is 27,000 feet above the sea floor, and is only 2,000 feet shorter than Mt. Everest if you measure it that way.  We docked at 8:00 a.m. and had a tour planned for the morning which would take us to the top of the peak. The temperature was a pleasant 78 degrees, which was way cooler than Mauritius was yesterday.

Reunion is a Department of France, way out in the middle of nowhere with the nearest land mass of any size being Madagascar, 500 miles to the west. We saw a teeny Eiffel tower – perhaps 6 foot high, at a local residence, homage we assumed to the mother country. The total population of the island is around 700,000, a third of which live in the capital of St. Denis.   Reunion was briefly visited by the Portuguese,  prior to 1642 when the French East India Company established a layover station for their ships to re-provision. The island has only been settled for 360 years. In the early days, seafarers would drop off pigs and goats and let them live off the land so they would have a source of fresh meat on future trips. In 1663 the first people arrived,  landing near what is today the village of St. Paul.

The first settlers were actually a group of mutineers who had been deported from Mauritius, and who took up residence in a cave where they stayed for 3 years. The French officially set up a colony in 1668 at St. Denis. In the years 1805-06, attempts were made to grow coffee, but regular cyclones discouraged that effort.  From 1810 to 1815 the British took over and replaced coffee plantations which were struggling, with sugar cane. They started sugar cane and rum production to facilitate trade. The French returned in 1815 and continued successfully with the sugar plantations. The most prominent family on the island at this time was named Desbassyns, and  they published the Black Code, which was a book on how to manage slaves. Successful plantations were largely made possible through slave labor, but after slavery was abolished in 1848, they used indentured servants from China and India.  Today sugar still accounts for 85% of the island’s exports, and over half of the current population of Reunion is of mixed race (Creole), descendants of former slaves and indentured servants.

Dramatic Vistas of Reunion Island

From north to south the Reunion Island is 62 miles long and from east to west it is 44 miles wide. Reunion is very scenic with mountains and forests and over 300 waterfalls, as well as 17 miles of beach. The swimming conditions are not ideal since the ocean floor drops sharply, creating undertows and creating an inviting environment for sharks,  but they still have beach resorts nonetheless.  The island has an extinct volcano, Pieton des Nieges,  approximately 2,000 years old, and an active one called Pieton Fournaise, (8, 631 feet.) which is one of the most active in the world. It erupted 4 times in 2015. On the slopes of the Pieton des Nieges are 3 dramatically beautiful “cirques”, or craters, one of which, the Cirque de Mafate, was our destination for today.

As we left the ship today we saw a gentleman with a set of golf clubs. He told us that he has been around the world so many times that there is nothing new for him to see and so his mission this year is to play golf in every port. We understand Reunion Island has some lovely courses and it’s a beautiful day, so it should be good golfing today. There are also lots of activities here for the intrepid – paragliding, ultra-light aircraft, trekking, mountain biking and then for the regular people  there is, in addition to golf, scuba diving, 4 wheeling fishing, and beach going. We also understand they have a luge facility here – iceless we assume.

Rugged Mountains of Reunion

e wish we had booked a helicopter tour, which today would have been magnificent , flying over the jungle and craters, the beaches and reefs, the vanilla and coffee plantations, and the water falls.  The island is very lush and green now, but they are just ending the wet season and we were told things will brown quite a bit.

As we left the quayside at Le Port (not really a village in itself – just “the port”), our guide told us that there was a dockworker and construction worker strike today, which is why there was so little traffic and so little activity. They have 845,000 people and 500,000 cars, so there normally would be a lot of traffic on the narrow roads. We set off with our guide Myriam and our driver Jean Michel. Driving though town we saw a rather strange combination cemetery and vegetable garden. It seemed strange, but with land with good topsoil at a premium, I guess they have to do what they have to do.  Another local oddity, Myriam gave us a map of the island and I spotted a village called Le Tampon, but I have no report on this since we didn’t visit it. Reunion Claim to fame seems to be that Roland Garros was born here. He was a famous WWI aviator,  and the namesake of a tennis complex in Paris.

Windswept Trees along the Mountain Road

Heading up into the mountains we were shocked at the lack of guard rails and shoulders on some very narrow and winding roads. Instead of shoulders there were concrete drainage ditches about 3 feet deep. The tow truck business must be booming here.   Cars often had to back up to give us room to get past them on hairpin curves. The slopes were lined with what they call gorse and what we would call scotch broom, brilliant yellow blossoms cascading down the hillsides. The trees were short and looked windswept, much like the Monterey Pines on the California coast. We spotted roadside vendors selling vanilla and coffee, reportedly quite tasty and quite expensive if bought as an export.

The Cirque to Mafate Crater

We would be traveling inland to Piton Maido, a mountaintop park that overlooks the  Cirque de Mafate crater, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, perhaps the most remote we have ever visited.  The name Maido means burned land. We crossed a wide river bed with a shallow river called the River of Pebbles, but I must say these were big pebbles, many of Volkswagen size. We stopped to view the Cirque de Mafate (Crater of Mafate) named after a locally famous runaway slave. Slave catchers were brutal back in those days and often did not bring slaves back, but would kill them and bring the owners their scalp to collect their bounty. The owners, while losing valuable “property , used this as a method to discourage other runaways.

Village in the Mafate Crater

We did not expect to see such dramatic scenery here and found it so reminiscent of Machu Picchu, minus the Incan ruins. We were further surprised to see small villages in the crater. Our guide told us about 800 people live here in 3 villages, but they get sometimes as many as 200 trekkers per day on hiking trips.  The only way they can get in or out of the village is on foot. Residents and trekkers alike hike up (or down) the River of Pebbles, which originates in the crater. Or in case of emergencies or lazy trekkers, you can go in by helicopter. The people are apparently self sufficient and raise their own food, and earn money from offering room and board to hikers.

The island is very tidy, but our guide told us they have a dumping problem with people putting their garbage into ravines and it washes out to sea shore during the rainy season, causing health and pollution problems.  They also have graffiti here and there, but it is not too pervasive. We saw only one stray dog – a dingo looking thing with great big ears.

Clouds Settling on the Peaks

Reunion Island was one of those serendipity things we like to experience. We knew next to nothing about it, had low expectations and it was a total delight with a wonderful climate and beautiful scenery with no insects and all kinds of plants  – a little slice Garden of Eden out in the Indian Ocean. Of course with no insects there are a limited number of birds, but this is a small sacrifice. The plants are not always welcome and most species have been introduced – some are downright invasive such as lantana and cryptomeria. The latter was introduced due to a lumber shortage on the island for home building. It filled and exceeded that particular need and is crowding out native trees, including the Highland Tamarind and acacia. They, like the American south, also have a kudzu problem. Someone had the bright idea to introduce flies to control the kudzu somehow.  We didn’t hear how that was supposed to work, but in any event, it was not a good idea.  We have often seen in our travels many attempts by humans to try to fix nature, only to suffer unintended consequences .

High Altitude Picnic Sites

The views from the mountain slopes were incredible. There were dozens of picnic tables with every one affording a scenic overlook spot.  It is the season for humpback whales but we didn’t get to spot any, despite the wide swaths of ocean we could see.  From the slopes of the mountains, the Queen Victoria is a tiny speck far below us.

Our guide told us that Reunion was often visited by the French Pirate, Olivier Levasseur, who lived from 1688 to 1730. His nicknames were La Buse (the Buzzard) and La Bouche (the mouth) because he so voraciously attacked his enemies.  His big score was a ship laden with treasure that had stopped in the shallow waters of Reunion for repairs. The ship had dumped all its cannon trying to stay afloat during a storm and so it made easy pickings for la Buse and crew. Exactly what happened to the estimated billion dollars in treasure is unknown, but just before he was hanged for piracy in 1730, Le Buse reportedly tossed a cryptogram on a piece of paper with clues to the treasure to the spectators telling them to find it. He wore and eye patch and is believed to be the prototype for Long John Silver in Treasure Island.  The Island where he left the treasure is believed to be either Reunion, or nearby Mahe Island, so there are always treasure hunters about trying to find it.

Both vanilla and geranium oil are produced commercially here, but in very limited quantities. Vanilla has flourished with the introduction of manual pollination techniques. Unlike Mexico, which has a host of bees that fulfill this function, Reunion has to use manual pollination and there is a 6 year period between planting and harvesting, and thus the expense of the finished product.

On our way back to the ship, we visited La Maison de Geranium, a local distillery and producer of geranium oil .  As our guide Myriam explains. It is an essential oil sort of a cure all  for mosquito bites and all sorts of other skin problems.   It took a minute to catch on since she pronounces it, “zha rah nee um”.

Once back on the ship. We opted for some pool time,  which turned out to be a very decadent interlude of margaritas and then scones with cream and jam at tea time, and we visited with new friends we met from South Africa that we met at the Chief Engineer’s Dinner.

The Lido Pool

We had some pool entertainment in the form of a passenger kerfuffle. One Indian gentleman was swimming laps and splashing a German woman every time he went by. She told him he should not be splashing. Then an English woman stepped in and told the German woman off to the effect that the swimming pool is for swimming and there is no rule against splashing and she can’t boss everyone around and besides, she was rude to her two days ago.  The poor Indian man had fled, fearing bloodshed. About this time the deck stewards came over to referee in case it came to fisticuffs, but with a few stink eyes exchanged, both glowering women retreated to their respective corners of the pool and the drama wound down. We don’t’ know if hostilities were resumed since we had to retreat ourselves to get ready for dinner

We watched the evening entertainment, David Copperfield, not the famous illusionist, and not nearly as entertaining as the poolside dust-up. He bills himself as an “unusualist” – and he was unusual and funny, although I have to say much of the British humor is lost on us – we just don’t have the background to get all the jokes.

We thought the exciting day was over when we came back to our stateroom, but this was not the case. We had been told that our balcony would be power washed sometime during the day (we thought day meant before the sun went down).  We had a little tap-tap on our door about 10:00 p.m. and it was Ray, our cabin steward. We were up reading emails, and tried to let him in, but he said sorry no problem and he left. A few minutes later, we hear someone on our balcony, leaped up to throw open the curtains to see Ray with power washer in hand, busily scrubbing away. I was horrified to think he had gone through a neighboring cabin and in a daring maneuver, climbed from their balcony to ours on the exterior of the ship, at sea at night with the ship underway,   but Gary showed me a little partition they could move to have access from one balcony to another.  Nevertheless, Ray is one very hard working individual – making beds and cleaning toilets all day, power washing at night. We can only hope he gets hazardous duty pay for the night work.

April 16, 2016

Dateline:  Indian Ocean, off the Coast of Madagascar

Latitude at Noon UTC +4 24.1 Degrees South, Longitude 49.0 Degrees East

Since leaving Reunion Island yesterday we are headed on a westerly course traveling over the Madagascar Basin, recorded to be as deep as19,000 feet. We would pass within 16 miles of the island of Madagascar this evening. We are sorry not to be visiting it – it is one of those exotic names that fires up your imagination – even before the movie came out.   At noon today we had traveled 380 miles from Reunion Island  and this is the first of 3 sea days  to reach Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

After breakfast, we retired to the Carinthia Lounge to read and play cribbage and had the opportunity to further absorb fashion wear of our fellow passengers.  We sadly noted that today even the sartorial splendor of Reginald (the Tom Selleck, Geraldo Rivera look alike)  has succumbed to fashion alert status. Today he wore a pin strip linen jacket  in off white with a plaid shirt which was  borderline clashing in my fashion book. We have noticed that as the cruise wore on, people were getting to the bottom of their suitcases and were putting together whatever garments are clean, regardless of color or pattern. We are seeing more and more plaid with flowers, stripes with plaid and every other eyesore combination. A long held travel maxim of mine is thus reinforced and that is :  Pack only neutral solid colors.

We attended two lectures today. The first was entitled the Myths and Magic of Plastic Surgery and it was accompanied by a bit of unplanned medical melodrama, with one of the spectators fainting dead away at the graphic images of the reconstructive cosmetic surgery photos. The doctor conducting the talk said it happens all the time with new interns in surgery so he wasn’t too alarmed, but we still had a Code Alpha where the medical team responded, just in case it was more serious and all the blood and gore actually caused someone a heart attack. The doctor said it is called vasovagal response, a common response of interns seeing live surgery for the first time and fainting dead away. The man’s poor wife looked so stricken we thought she may have needed a little resuscitation too. However, just like an injured football player, when he stood up and was escorted out by medics, he got a round of applause from the audience.  We think the doctor may want to reconsider the audiovisual element of his talk.

And speaking of the photos, we wondered if showing several hundred people on a cruise ship before and after pictures and discussing the cases was a violation of HIPA laws that we have in the US, but this doctor is South African so maybe the same rules don’t apply. He talked about the differences between reconstructive and cosmetic surgery and the pitfalls of popular “surgical safaris” whereby you can disappear for several weeks and have a vacation at the same time. The doctor reports that a major pitfall of this practice that  you need to rest while recovering and not driving around looking for wild animals.

Impala Herd of South Africa

The second speaker, was  Gavin Robinson, a wildlife consultant who has spent his life working with animal conservancies in Africa. Today’s talk dealt with techniques for relocating game from areas of danger or over population. One of the primary methods for relocation of herds is to create a corral of sorts (called a “boma”) and create a funnel with sheeting and then herd the animals through the tunnel created.  They originally used white sheeting, but learned brown worked better. Wild animals are not used to seeing white things in their day to day life. They sometimes use a helicopter if the animals are dangerous and will load them into a waiting vehicle or in some cases a boat. Individual animals, especially large ones, are often darted from a helicopter and are sometimes transported suspended from the helicopter. Gavin tells us that the animals are given an antidote and can wake up rather quickly, so they designate the fastest runner to administer the wake-up shot.

Once animals have been darted they are tested for diseases, such as tuberculosis. This is such an infectious disease, they will destroy infected animals. When an animal has been darted, they cover the eyes because they are still open and they stuff cotton in the ears because they can still hear Rhinos in particular are endangered due to poachers selling to a huge market in Asia for rhino horn, which is believed to be an aphrodisiac. At one time there was an effort to cut their horns cut off with a chain saw to prevent poaching. It is like a claw or toenail, completely painless, but it will grow back if not surgically removed at the base and they found that poachers will kill an animal whose horns have been removed anyway so they don’t waste time tracking an animal with no horn to “harvest”.   Consequently, this is not widely practiced any more.

Resting Rhino

Rhinos are still tracked, and trackers used to paint a number on their sides but rhinos would rub against trees to get it off so now they have gone to ear tags that can be radio tracked.  There are both black and white rhino species, however they are the same color.  The white rhino got its name from the Dutch word “weid” which means wide, and which was used to describe their mouths.  The black rhino has a pointed hook shaped lip. They have different shaped mouths to accommodate their eating habits – the black rhino browses in the brush where the white rhino eats grass.

Elephants are also often relocated. Since can only breathe through their trunk, not their mouths, teams have to be careful when they dart them to ensure they don’t go down in the wrong position. Their sheer weight can cause their lungs to collapse.  They also have to be mindful of body temperature since elephants would normally flap their ears to cool off.  They have to be moved with cranes and flatbed trucks if they are relocated.

Giraffe in the Wild

To move giraffes it is important to keep them upright since they are twenty two feet tall and their circulation is impaired when they are down.   Typically the catchers, will lasso the legs and guide them to a truck. Females can be identified by their spindly horns with fur on them.  The males have thicker horns with no fur.

When horned animals like impala are transported, their horns are covered to protect the other animals being transported. They are much better at moving animals today.  When they first started they had a 95% mortality rate. Today it is 1%. Another thing they learned is to leave  the truck running when they stop since it seems to soothe the animals.

We had  a leisurely afternoon, with a late lunch, some reading and journal writing.  I walked solo today Gary back on injured list with a knee strain.  We set our clocks forward tonight, but will still managed to sleep the extra hour. We have been sleeping like babies on this trip, especially on the days at sea.

April 17, 2016

Dateline:  Off the Coast of Madagascar

Latitude at Noon UTC +3 28.0 Degrees South, Longitude 48.7 Degrees East

Today we continued on our southwesterly course toward South Africa, passing over the Mozambique Basin which is over 400 miles wide and 800 miles long. We were told to be on the lookout for large marine animals, but unfortunately did not spot any. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we took up lounge chairs at the pool and were like a couple of lizards all morning, soaking up the sun. We also spent some time in the hot tub (a.k.a. spa)

Hot Tub at the Pavilion Pool

We are struck by how many of the elderly and the goofy seemed to gravitate toward the pool and of course we fit right in. There are a few with obvious dementia, and they can be understood and compassion extended, but some don’t seem to fit into that category – or into any other we are familiar with.  For example, there is the 90 pound woman who is at the pool every day, putting on sunscreen and then fidgeting with items in her beach bag. She has that thousand yard stare that they talk about in soldiers who come home with traumatic stress disorder. We’re not sure what hers situation is, but I have noticed she has her Kindle on the very largest font possible with about 10 words to a page and she stares at it for minutes at a time and never turns the page. Now she does nod off every so often, which I have been known to do myself so I can’t get too critical in that regard.

At noon we were 240 miles off Cape St. Marie in Madagascar, traveling at a speed of 21.3 knots with a following wind at 16 knots. We have traveled 520 miles since noon yesterday with 852 to go to Port Elizabeth. The air temperature was 77F and the water temperature was 82F.

An elephant Reaching for the Good Stuff Up HIgh

In the afternoon we went to a presentation by Gavin Robinson, a naturalist who we heard speak yesterday. Today’s topic is conservancies –organizations trying to save Africa’s wildlife in the wild. They also take a very strong position that animals should not be made into pets.There are only 3 conservancies in Zimbabwe now. They have to decide when to intercede in the natural flow of events. One project they undertake is to try to ensure that there is no more than a mile or so walk to the waterhole.    A problem that they encounter is that elephants can smell water in the pipe they installed and instead of following it to the waterhole, they just rip it out of the ground. They also  build” man-hide” huts at the water holes so they can count animals.

After lunch we ran into someone Gary recognized from our World Cruise on the QE2 10 years ago, a gentleman from Yorkshire, who told us he has over 2,000 days on Cunard cruises (and we thought we were well traveled with 150 days). He is having two separate 80th birthday parties on board and invited us to both.

Gary went to a wine tasting and watched the float your boat races (where the passengers had built their own miniature ships and raced them in the pool. He was impressed by the ingenuity of the designers  which were tasked with building a boat that could carry a six pack of beer as cargo and float and make headway. It was a daunting task. I, on the other hand, was busy reading and writing in my journal, with perhaps a tiny nap thrown in.

We had dinner with the new friends we made from South Africa, Zoe and Paddy, but first there were drinks in the Commodore Club, the Commodore’s Cocktail Party.  It was out latest night ever and we slipped off to go to bed around midnight.

April 18, 2016

Dateline:  Mozambique Basin, Off the Coast of South Africa

Latitude at Noon UTC +3 – 31.5 Degrees South, Longitude 32.3 Degrees East

Cloudy and Cool at the Pavilion Pool

We awoke to a rainy and windy morning, finding it much cooler than the previous days. The sea was slate blue, with foaming whitecaps, giving us a gentle roll. When you look to the horizon day after day on a ship traversing an ocean, you can easily believe the fact that the earth is comprised of 70 percent water. Our speed was 20 knots and at noon we were 103 miles off the coast of South Africa. The water under the keel was almost 10,000 feet deep. We had traveled 503 miles since noon yesterday, with 367 miles to go to reach Port Elizabeth. Seas were slight with a moderate swell (a swell is a wave that does not break).  The air temperature was 75 degrees F. and the water was 72 F. We are in the Agellas Current which flows from north to south along the African Coast line.  This area is one of several places in the world  where rogue waves (a strong , extreme surface wave, significantly higher than other waves, with 60 feet to over 100 feet having been recorded) can develop. In this area it is the most dangerous when there is a strong southerly gale with a ship approaching the continental shelf.

Today was a good day to be in the Winter Garden which is like a giant atrium and is often too warm when the sun is out, but perfect today. We read and chatted with other passengers. The afternoon cleared and we spent some time on our balcony which was sheltered from the wind.  We had an opportunity to see the boat-builders handiwork and to admire the competition champion.

We went to another lecture by Lieutenant Commander Campbell-Baldwin.  Although many pirates were land based in Somalia in the early days (at least in modern times) of raids on ships, they got more sophisticated and could range much further by having a “mother ship” that could take them miles offshore to launch their attacks.

Most piracy work is in international waters, and the occurrence has been greatly reduced. So far this year there have only been 4 incidents of suspicious activity and no attacks. A lot of this is attributed to vigilance and preparedness on the part of commercial ships. They are more interested in deterrence rather than engagement. One of the main tools of deterrence is armed security personnel on board. The Queen Victoria employed the services of a private firm called Solis.  We had 3 ex-marines on board, who were armed. Such arming was only recently widely utilized starting in 2011 after the 2009 Maersk Alabama incident. There was a movie about this called Captain Phillips, released in 2013, starring Tom Hanks)

Another tool which we saw deployed on both sides of the ship was LRAD – long range acoustical device, which can be pointed at oncoming attackers and cranked up to painful levels.  It operates at ultra high frequency – human conversation 60 decibels, level of pain and ear damage is 85 and LRAD puts out 160, which is much more effective than high pressure water hoses, although they put those out too.

We also attended a lecture by the plastic surgeon, Dr. Alastain Lamont, who had wowed the audience a few days earlier with audio-visual aids so graphic that one audience member passed out.  Today there was a warning that there might be some “unsettling’ photos.  The last lecture covered traumatic injury reconstruction, and today’s covered elective surgery.  I guess patient confidentiality is not an issue in South Africa since we saw photos of a number of before and after breast enhancements. It was still graphic, but sexually so, rather than blood and guts type stuff.  All in all it was very interesting to understand how this is done.  The number one female cosmetic surgery in South Africa is pretty much a tie between face lifts and breast enhancements for women’ however, the number one male surgery is calf implants.  It seems that no amount of working out at the gym can build those calves up – unlike skinny arms which can be developed at the gym, if you have bird legs, you will always have them since they are inherited.

Today we learned another nautical tidbit:  Wind on board ships is measured on the Beaufort Scale – an empirical measure that relates wind speed to observed conditions on the sea (or land).It was devised in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort, a Royal Navy Officer and was first used in Darwin’s voyage to South America and the Galapagos. The initial scale of zero to twelve did not reference wind speeds, but rather relative effects on sails on war ships. The scale ranged from “just sufficient to give steerage” to “that which no canvas sails could withstand” so at zero all the sales were up, at 6 about half would be up and at 12 all would be taken down.

Sea days always give us the chance to observe our fellow passengers and today we realized we have 3 potential Santas on board in addition to Shakespeare Santa with the Bard’s hairdo of bald on top and thin and stringy on the sides with a full beard, whom we have frequently seen around the ship. There is also Shaq  Santa –  who is slick bald like Shaquille O’Neal, but with a full white beard.  He will need a wig or a weave in order to have the snow white wavy hair flowing from under his cap if he is to play the role. There is also Skinny Santa, who has the hair and beard, but  he is going to need a pillow to pull it off We turned in early tonight – nothing new about that – to get ready for an adventure tomorrow when we dock in Port Elizabeth where we plan to  go on a day safari at a game reserve.

April 19, 2016

Dateline:  Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Latitude at Port Elizabeth, 33.71 Degrees South, Longitude 25.52 Degrees East

Docked at Port Elizabeth

Today dawned cool and rainy as we cruised into Nelson Mandela Bay and docked in Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We had set our clocks back an hour overnight so we are only 2 hours ahead of what used to be called Greenwich Mean Time, but is now called Universal Time Coordinated or UTC. As of today we were half way through our 42 day voyage. Port Elizabeth is the 5th largest city in South Africa,  and the 3rd largest port, but it has the largest bay in the country called Algoa Bay, which is an arm of the Indian Ocean. The currency here is the rand, as in krugerrand, but the gold coins are no longer used in day to day transactions since the value of an individual coin is over a thousand dollars and up. Today one rand is equal to 7 cents in US currency.

The area was first occupied by the San tribe of bushmen, then the Khoisan (also with the intriguing name of the Hottentots), followed by the Xhosa, (pronounced Coh-sah with a clicking noise added to the front of the word,  which are the dominate native people there today. The first Europeans were the Portuguese of course – they seemed to get out in front of all the good exploring that was done. The first Europeans to actually live in what is termed the Eastern Cape were the Dutch farmers who came up from the Cape of Good Hope in what is called the Southern Cape. The British came along and built a fort here in 1799 and then in 1820 came the 4,000 settlers that would help keep it British. Before that it was just a fresh water stop on the sea trade route between Europe and India and the Far East.  The town was named after the wife of the acting governor, Sir Rufane Donkin. Today Port Elizabeth has 1.3 million people. While the area is the center of South African auto manufacturing, the old center city retains much of its charm and several places of interests which we will have to save for a future trip.

Our plan today was to bypass the city of Port Elizabeth and head out to a game preserve where we would be able perhaps to spot the Big Five – lion, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard and elephant. We were told that the area actually advertises the Big Seven – the original five plus great white sharks and southern right whales which inhabit the waters just off-shore.

We had a face to face immigration process on board and went ashore for our planned tour which was a safari to the Shamwari Game Camp. There was a bit of a mix-up and our bus was missing in action with the driver apparently lost, first in the town and then inside the Ship Terminal – not a good sign since it was not all that big a place, and the ship is far from inconspicuous.  Finally when he did arrive, he was coming the wrong way from all the other busses and causing traffic congestion.  Then there was an issue with bus numbers and tour numbers missing from some busses so inevitably people were getting on the wrong busses. The name on our bus was the Blunden Coach Company, which we decided must be an Afrikaans word for “blundering”.  Additionally there were some musicians and dancers, who were supposed to perform to welcome us to South Africa, but they showed up late and only a few cruise passengers were left on the dock to see them.  We came up two people short so they may have been left at the dock or on the wrong bus.  In spite of the mix-ups, we boarded our bus and set off for our adventure.

Open Country of the Eastern Cape

Our drive took us north along the coast line where breakwaters had been build using barricades shaped like jacks( from the child’s game) fabricated from concrete to keep the waves off the road.  We were told there are over 26,000 of these barricades along this stretch of highway. We passed Blue Water Bay and the Port of Coega, a deep water industrial port that recently opened to relieve port congestion in Port Elizabeth. They primarily service container ships and car carriers.  We also passed vast stretches of salt pans, where salt is commercially mined.  There were sand dunes along the beach in many places along the estuary of the Sundays River, which is a major recreational area for local people. We were told that sand surfing is a big sport here. The Sundays River Valley is also a large citrus growing region.  An interesting note on Sundays River – it flows underground for much of its journey to the Indian Ocean.  The tide was out  as we passed through and we saw people out on the tidal flats digging clams.

There were several “feather markets” or what we would call flea markets along the route.   The “feather” designation came from the days when ostrich feathers were a major South African Export. That may seem strange, but no stranger than the origin of the term “flea” market.  That term actually comes from a market in Paris where shabby second hand goods (the kind you might expect to find fleas in) were sold.  And whereas we have deer cautions on our highways, they had signs cautioning that drivers should be on the lookout for springbok leaping out onto the roadway.

We passed signs for the Elephant Project, which we were told is a reserve for elephants. Apparently, these are ocean loving elephants and the government had to provide a means for them to get across the 4 lane highway so they can frolic in the sea and return to their food sources. We continued on to grassy rolling plains, now yellowing in their autumn season,  with cattle dotting the hillsides. Plumbago, a plant with lavender blooms that I buy in small pots for big bucks was growing wild along the roadside.  We eventually passed through the “town” of Patterson, using the term loosely – the main features were 6 grain silos.

Rhino in the Bush

We continued on north with the landscape growing greener and brushier  as we emerged onto  what is termed the veld (pronounced “velt”) and we could see mountains in the distance as we  continued to travel along the coast to the Shamwari  Game Reserve (Shamwari translates as “my friend” in ). South Africa has a number of these reserves dedicated to conserving their national treasure – the wild animals, plus they have the Kruger National Park further north still which is a huge tract of land filled with reserves. For our purposes, we needed one within a few hours’ drive of Port Elizabeth. Shamwari was only  an hour and half so we were wondering how wild could it be.  Since we were so close to town, our   expectations were low, but we were quite pleasantly surprised, and in fact we saw two rhino before we even got off the bus.

Shamwari Manor House

Shamwari was established in 1992 on 25 thousand hectares of land (almost 62,000 acres) on what was once a cattle farm. They stocked the wild game taking in many orphaned and displaced animals requiring a place to live and thrive. There are a few shabby, but colorful houses on the reserve and all roads are unpaved and dusty. The local tribes people are the Xhosa (pronounced “Cosa” ) of the Bantu group. Amid all this, there is a sharp contrast of the Long Lee House, an Edwardian Manor house set in the middle of the reserve that serves as headquarters, restaurant and guest quarters for visitors.

Tourist Protector at Shamwari

We boarded safari vehicles, open jeeps with an armed driver, just in case any predatory animals got to frisky with the tourists.  We drove out into the reserve on dirt roads and encountered all sorts of creatures from the antelope family –  from tiny duikers to the graceful impalas and bounding springbok, who do an interesting maneuver called “pronking” where they jump straight up on all four feet. Scientists studying them are not sure whether they do this to impress the females with their agility, or if they do it just for fun. Impalas are also impressive athletes capable of leaping up about 10 feet and forward around 33 feet.  They do this to escape predators, but sometime appear to just do it to have fun. Consequently, it’s not always easy being a predator. In fact we were told that even the lonely warthogs sometimes attack cheetahs.   Female warthogs have the big warts around their eyes to protect them against predators whereas the males have the big curved tusks. With their small mouths, cheetahs can’t really inflict much damage on a big warthog, but lions are a different story. Running is the key strategy in encounters with them.

A Waterbuck at Shamwari

Then there were also many species we saw from the antelope family that are much larger and less frisky than the prancing and pronking ones, such as the kudu, bushbuck, oryx, hartebeest and  waterbuck  (the latter’s distinctive marking is seen on his behind). Our guide told us they think the white ring of  waterbuck fur seen as the animal departs resembles a toilet seat. We were fortunate to see the largest of the antelope family, the eland which is about as large as an elk or moose.

We saw a huge fish eagle soaring over one of the water holes looking for lunch. We also saw ibis wading in the water holes and herons perched and staring motionless, waiting for something interesting to swim by.  Guinea fowl , looking much like pheasants, were pecking away in the grassy areas. We also saw

Giraffe Snacking on Acacia

giraffes, but just from the neck up – their bodies  were concealed in dense brush. Giraffes feed primarily on acacia leaves (shaped much like those of a mimosa) but with some serious thorns, which the giraffes don’t even seem to notice. Our guide showed us a few thorns 4 to 6 inches long that had been hollowed out by wasps, which then move in and take up residence. They don’t seem to bother the giraffes either. They are easily the most serene creatures on the veld.

 

Elephants at the River

Close to the end of our trip, we were treated to a herd of elephants at the river, eating mass quantities of trees, bark and all.  Elephants eat for up to 18 hours per day.  Lions on the other hand nap up to 20 hours a day. We saw a napping lion and got to examine lion paw prints which were easily 8 or 9 inches across. We also found lion leftovers (an unfortunate zebra), but gave this area a wide berth since we weren’t sure he might be in the area to guard his kill to snack on later. We saw other zebra nonchalantly grazing, not sure if they even missed their unfortunate herd member who became the lion’s lunch. We also

A Leopadr Tortoise

got a glimpse of a caracal, a small member of the cat family – well small relative to lions, but still much larger than a domestic cat. It was padding along by a waterhole. We also saw what the guide called a yellow mongoose, but it is better known in the US as a meerkat (as seen in The Lion King). Just as we were heading back to the manor house, we saw a leopard tortoise and our guide got out and picked him up to let us touch him. He was similar to a box turtle but about 8 times as big.

In the “so ugly they are cute category” we saw wart hogs with their babies, whose cow-like plumed tail seems to wave at you as they trot away. We were

Warthogs on the Lawn of the Manor House

delighted to see them on the lawn of the manor house when we stopped for lunch, just grazing away. We had a buffet lunch, not too memorable, but amused ourselves strolling the grounds of this very magical place – where else can you have lunch where there are warthogs on your lawn and rhinos in your road?

We got back to the ship in the late afternoon, just in time for scones and tea and some time in the hot tub as we pulled out of Port Elizabeth.  Our next  port is Cape Town and we are eagerly storing up energy (in the form of rest and calories) in anticipation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 1: Northern Thailand

Southeast Asia
Part One: Northern Thailand

February 7, 2012
Dateline: Atlanta, GA
Latitude at Atlanta: 33.75 degrees North, Longitude 84.39 degrees West

We drove to the Comfort Suites on Virginia Avenue near the airport to spend the night since our connecting flight to Bangkok via Dallas left at 6:00 a.m. It was a good deal on the room, but the great deal was that it included parking for 30 days at the hotel. In the La Fiesta Restaurant attached to the hotel we had excellent margaritas and Mexican food. We suspected this would be our last chance at it for the next month or so –and the excellent part – well that would indeed prove to be true, and we should have known since we do have some faux Mexican experience in foreign countries. Rule of Thumb: One should not order Mexican food in Bangkok – more on that later.

February 8, 2012
Dateline: International Dateline

The Route to Bangkok

The Route to Bangkok

We had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch the airport shuttle and we departed from Atlanta on American Airlines on February 8, but crossed the international dateline (Longitude 180 degrees and the dividing line between East and West) and so during the night and we lost at day. We would get a day back on our return trip to the US. The flight from Atlanta to Dallas was a little over 2 hours and then we had a 2 hour layover. The flight from Dallas to Tokyo was 13 hours and 30 minutes and we were thankful to be in Business Class. The flight was made a little better with 3 movies and some light sleeping, but it was long no matter what we were doing. Upon arriving in Bangkok, we would be about 10,000 miles from home with a 14 hour time difference. We would have another layover of 4 hours in Tokyo and then a relatively short hop to Bangkok – just over 7 hours on JAL.

February 9, 2012
Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand
Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 degrees North, Longitude 100.46 degrees East

We arrived in Tokyo’s Narita Airport seriously bleary eyed and stumbled to the Admiral’s Club where we were able to ascertain what time it was (12 hours ahead of Atlanta), when our next flight was leaving and from which gate. This would be our second time in Tokyo, but both timeswe were just passing through so we can’t really cross that off our “Been There Done That List”.

Orchids Everywhere you Turn

Orchids Everywhere you Turn

We arrived in Bangkok at 11:00 p.m., which was not in time to catch a flight to Chiang Mai, and thus our plan was to spend the night in Bangkok. While it was on our itinerary to tour Bangkok, it was to be at the end of our trip. This visit was just for transit purposes. We got our bags and found the shuttle to our hotel, the Novotel Suvarnabhumi at the airport. Suvarnabhumi is also the name of the airport and its pronunciation sounds something like “Soo-Var-Nah-Boo-ME” . The hotel lobby was a grand affair with orchids and ficus trees, market umbrellas and soaring ceilings and marble everywhere. A quick tooth brushing revived us and we enjoyed a great meal of pad Thai, (one of many to come) in the hotel restaurant for around 1400 baht ($46.00). The exchange rate is roughly 30 baht to the dollar. The baht is divisible into 100 satang. Bills come in denominations of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10.

The Suvarnabumhay

The Novotel Suvarnabhumi

Our room was enormous and had the interesting feature of not only a glass enclosed shower, but also a glass enclosed toilet. We decided this was so you can make sure your spouse/traveling companion has not fallen asleep on the toilet, nor is reading War and Peace waiting for Nature to call. We then collapsed into bed at 1:00 a.m. with a dose of Ambien to deal with the jet lag.

The area that is the Kingdom of Thailand was formerly called Siam (as portrayed to some extent – in the old 1956 movie The King and I). Thailand today is a constitutional monarchy. The king was in his 80’s when we were there, but the frequently seen pictures of him around the country are of him in his much younger days – kind of like those you see sometimes in obituary pictures in the U.S. They do have elections here but with you have to try not to titter when they have trouble with “l”s and “r”s and call them erections.

February 10, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Mai 18.79 degrees North, Longitude 98.99 East
We awoke around 8:00 a.m. and adjusted our watches to 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and so from a time zone perspective, we found we were half way around the world. We had a quick buffet breakfast and took the shuttle to the airport to fly on Thai Airlines to Chiang Mai. (pronounced “ching-my”). It is the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. There we met our delightful guide, Nikki, who greeted us with jasmine leis, and our driver Lak (pronounced “lake”). Later we would be joined by our friends Stu and Sharon who had a direct flight to Chiang Mai and would be arriving in the wee hours.

 

The Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai

The Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai

We checked into the Bodhi Serene Hotel in the heart of Chiang Mai, where we could step outside and become totally immersed in a different culture from our own. Chiang Mai is an ancient city built in1296. The name means New City and it was the capitol of the kingdom of Lanna. (whose name means 1,000 rice fields. The city was once walled and surrounded by a moat. There is little left of either. Most of the remaining walls are in the corners and there are 5 surviving gates. The city was built on the Ping River which is a tributary of the Mekong.
There are 44 temples within the 4 square kilometers of the city and it is not unusual to see the orange robed monks everywhere. Sometimes the setting is a little incongruous, like our sighting of a dozen of them riding in the back of a battered pick-up truck, but it keeps touring interesting.

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Nikki, like many of the locals, carries a parasol to keep the sun off her face. Tourists on the other hand wear hats and sunscreen – and of course with Western tourists, the dead giveaway is we are the big people looming over the crowd by about a foot taller and several inches wider. Nikki told us that darker skin is more prevalent in the south of Thailand (Indian influence) and lighter skin in the north (Chinese influence). The lighter skin is considered more desirable.
We had a short nap and then walked down the street with Nikki for a massage at a local place called Lilli’s for the modest price of $12.00 for a two hour massage, plus a tip of $1.30.
Nikki told us that Lilli hires ex-cons to train and work as masseuses, but that we should not be alarmed. These are drug offenders trying to go straight. Apparently Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is their Mexico with regard to illegal drugs and Thailand has very strict laws regarding drug use. Lilli’s salon is part of a parole program to provide jobs for parolees.

There was no massage table – the patrons are expected to stretch out on mats on the floor with a teeny pillow for the head. Patrons first don some pajama like garments, sort of resembling medical scrubs. The bottoms which have a drawstring they call fisherman’s pants. The top is a button-up loose fitting shirt, orange for me and blue for Gary. Once we were attired, the masseuses more or less climbed aboard our bodies and went to work. The masseuses were tiny women, as agile as gymnasts who sort of climbed over our prone bodies using their knees and elbows to work out the kinks. I could not stop thinking about Gulliver and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels. It sounds painful, but it was really very relaxing – you can get a lot of knots and kinks in your muscles from that marathon plane ride to get here. Amid the thumping and kneading of my muscles by these very strong women, I figured they would have been very tough in a prison fight.

Gary, Nikki and a Tuk-Tuk

Gary, Nikki and a Tuk-Tuk

There is an abundance of what they call tuk-tuks here. They are called that because that is the noise it makes at it putts down the streets. It is essentially at a three wheeled vehicle – sort of like a motor scooter with a backseat cab with a bench – like a motor scooter attached to a horse buggy. There are also a lot of pedicabs – where a person on a bicycle replaces the motor scooter, but we chose to walk, so as to better to take in the sights, of which there were many. We stopped en route for some refreshments and Gary pronounced the local beer, Chiang, to be good. We also made a stop at an ATM to refresh our supply of baht.

 

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Open Air market Chiang Mai

We seemed to experience an exotic sensory overload as we walked. Orchids abound everywhere on the streets. The colors seemed brighter, the scents were stronger and even the frogs are louder that we are accustomed to. Nikki explained some local customs to us such as: The head is considered a sacred part of the body – you should not touch anyone on their head, even small children. Feet are the dirtiest part of the body. You should not touch or point at anything with them, although since few of us are nimble enough to point with our feet we were safe on this point of etiquette. You should remove your shoes before entering a temple. You should never raise your voice, even in a disagreement. You should always dress conservatively – especially in temples. You should never pass in front of someone kneeling in a temple – in other words, don’t walk between them and the Buddha.

 

Nikki also showed us the “Wai”, that is the gesture of bowing slightly with your hands together – a sign of thanks and politeness. The older or more important the person you are greeting, the higher your hands should be. Hello is “sawatdee” and you add “ca” or cha” depending on whether you are addressing a man or a woman. It also means goodbye – kind of like their version of aloha.

 

Fish Therapy

Fish Therapy

We took a tuk-tuk to the night market of Chiang Mai, which proved to be an absolute assault on the senses – people, merchandise, food, crafts, brilliant colors. We took the plunge and sampled a few exotic food items. We tasted dried bamboo worms which we found tasteless, but silk worms were slightly salty and looked like noodles. Feeling really adventurous now, we decided to try the much touted fish pedicure and chose an establishment called Garra Fish Therapy. The process is this: You have your feet thoroughly washed and scrubbed and then you sit on a bench to immerse them into an aquarium with a few dozen goldfish, which nibble away at the dead skin on your feet. This replaces (or so they say) the need to use a loofah or pumice stone to soften your feet. You can dangle your feet for about $3.00 for half an hour. The sensation is sort of a tickle – you can’t feel a “bite” at all.

 

After the fish spa, Nikki took us to a local noodle shop, where we were the only non-locals there. We were looking for authentic and found it. I had pad thai and Gary and Nikki had a noodle dish. The name of the place was written only in the Thai alphabet (very different from ours) so I didn’t get a record of the name, but Nikki told me is translates something like “Rich Fat Lady” which is also the Thai name for water chestnuts. We shared an icy sort of dessert topped with lotus, condensed milk, coconut and lychees. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but suffice it to say I didn’t ask for the recipe.

 

The Rolling Bar at the Night Market

The Rolling Bar at the Night Market

We went back to the night market (a.k.a. night bazaar, but it could just as easily be called the night “bizarre”) for one more pass before going to the hotel and the scene had changed a bit from PG 13 to R. There were a number of transvestites dressed like Vegas showgirls working for tips from tourists. We suspected they might be trying to get enough money for some implants since their cleavage was practically non-existent. We even saw a cocktail truck – sort of like a food truck in the U.S., but here the truck pulls up, the bar folds out and patrons climb on stools to be served a beverage. We would later see a variation on this – a mobile cocktail truck where the bar stools are equipped with bicycle pedals. Assuming the patrons can peddle in unison, the whole thing can be propelled down the street. The method of actually steering it was unclear to us. It was clear, however, that this is a novelty for tourists – no locals were seen taking part.

 

Shopping at the NIght Market

Shopping at the NIght Market

We bought a teak carving of a Buddha face for our library – one of many purchases to come. We have found the craftsmanship of the artisans here to be extraordinary and the prices are well below reasonable. We then walked back to the hotel avoiding puddles from a rain shower and a flock of hookers – young attractive girls propositioning older Caucasian guys. My husband Gary fit the profile so Nikki and I sandwiched him between us as we walked to indicate he was already taken.
February 11, 2012

 

The National Museum

The National Museum

We met our friends, Stu and Sharon, for breakfast and began our first full day of touring. Our first stop was an old colonial building that housed the Chiang Mai National Museum. The city of Chiang Mai was founded by King Manga Rei in the 12th Century here in what was believed to be an auspicious place, with the mountains to the west and the river to the east ( in accordance with feng shui principles). In this case the river is the Ping River. There are a lot of myths and stories around the city’s founding which I largely missed the gist of. There was something about an albino deer and fawn spotted here and then something about rats the size of cart axles and their offspring. I much preferred the deer story to the rat story since we were spending several days here.

 

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

Chiang Mai was the capital of what is termed the Lanna Kingdom from the 12th to the 18th Century which at that point covered parts of what is today Burma (or Myanmar) and Northern Thailand. The architecture and culture of Burma and Northern Thailand today are much more similar than that of Northern and Southern Thailand. Today it is the capital of one of Thailand’s 77 provinces and home to the largest number of expatriates in the country. Chiang Mai is a walled city which boasts a number of wats (or temple complexes). Wats typically have a stupa which is a type of pagoda built like a step pyramid. The stupa is also sometimes referred to as a chedi. Its purpose was to house religious relics (such as the ashes of the Buddha or royal families), a temple with sometimes multiple Buddha statues, cloisters where the monks live and meeting rooms.

 

Wat Phra Sing

Wat Phra Sing

We visited a temple called Wat Phra Sing the largest in Chiang Mai which was begun in 1345, whose highlight was the revered Phra Buddha Sing. We were instructed to take off our shoes, but we could take all the photos we wanted. Surrounding the Buddha was incense and flowers, gold leaf and dragons, elephants and bells and all manner of decoration. We walked to another temple called the Chedi Luang, where within the temple compound, there is a monument to a king who was struck by lightning while riding his elephant to the market. The king died – no word on the elephant. The most notable sight here is a replica of the

Buddha in Wat Phra Sing

Buddha in Wat Phra Sing

priceless Emerald Buddha, which we would see later in Bangkok. We walked by several lesser temples which included one which boasted the oldest stupa in Chiang Mai. Thailand is 90 per cent Buddhist, 4% Muslim, 1% Christian. The other 5% are listed as “none” and” other”.
The local university has a program called “Monk Chat,” where they encourage English speaking tourists to spend some time chatting with a local monk enrolled in the school. The idea is that they can give us information about his life, religion, country and so forth and we can give them practice with English and make them more fluent. They are all self-taught and are actually easier to understand than many who have taken English lessons, attributable, they say, to the daily practice with native speakers such as ourselves.

 

Monk Chat with Supot

Monk Chat with Supot

The monks take turns (or shifts) sitting at an outdoor table and the tourists come up and plop down for a chat. We met the very delightful Supot Hongsa, a young man of 20, who told us that many young boys become monks in order to get an education. They can choose to stay a monk or go into private life, to work, marry and have a family. He said there is a 50% dropout rate of boys who enter monk training.

 

 

Monks leaving the Seminary

Monks leaving the Seminary

We learned several things from Supot, including that the goal of Buddhism is happiness. They are tolerant of all religions and do not proselytize. They wear no jewelry or watches. We asked how they get to class on time and Supot reached into his robe and produced a cell phone. We had a little chuckle with him over that and asked where he keeps it. He showed us a plain white tee shirt under his orange robe with a chest pocket . I guess it’s a good thing that when the rules were made up for monks, there were no cell phones or they would likely be banned as well. The whole idea behind the ban on watches was to keep them focused on spiritual matters, but then they can always Google religious topics. For his other necessities, such as books, he carries a simple cloth bag.The primary courses of study at the University are sociology, philosophy and religion, but there are courses that prepare them for medicine and engineering in colleges elsewhere.

 

A Young Monk with his Homework

A Young Monk with his Homework

They have very strict rules regarding contact with women – there is to be none, including family members. He told us that when he visits his mother and sisters, he cannot touch them which we must have gawked at because he sort of shrugged and explained that zero contact is easier to manage than making rules for family and non family. When we sat down, Nikki had told us where to sit so that the two men in our group sat on either side of him instead of one of the women. He said he is on Facebook and offered to give his email address to Gary to “Friend” him. I was the one with the pen and paper, but I could not hand it directly to him. Stu took it from me and handed it to him. Odd we thought, but we always like to discover the odd things, the exotic things. I couldn’t resist asking what they do on a crowded bus when we see people wedged in like sardines. Supot said this is a minor offense and is no big deal.

 

Abundance at the Local Markets

Abundance at the Local Markets

We ate a lunch of local food at a local place. It was sticky rice (we love it) and noodles and chicken soup– family style. Nikki shared some local points of dining etiquette with us such as:
If you are dining in a private home, you should wait for the host to invite you to eat before starting. Eat all on your plate so the host is not insulted. When at a restaurant, the person perceived to be the wealthiest is presented with the bill. If someone else is paying, one should not offer to help, or the person paying will lose “face”. If there are elderly women in the group, you let them order food for group (a tradition). Serve yourself from dishes on the table. Do not pass them and take only as much as you can eat in 2 or 3 mouthfuls. Use a fork only to push food onto your spoon. Never put the fork directly in your mouth. Eat slowly. We noticed restaurants bring food when it is ready and you are expected to eat it while it is hot. No need to wait for others to get their orders. And finally, do not leave chopsticks in your bowl – it is considered bad luck since it symbolizes death. Having told us that, she told us to do whatever we like – Thais are very indulgent of foreigners with a special soft spot for Americans.

 

We are surrounded by the exotic and are just soaking it in. We loved the incongruity of it all – it delights, amuses and amazes. Here are just a few examples:

 

A Spirit House

A Spirit House

Small Spirit Houses – people keep these in their homes and their places of business with the same detailed features as the larger ones seen in temple complexes. They are used as a shrine to ancestors and people will leave small offerings such as flowers and seeds and in one place I saw cupcakes. Nikki told us that it is not unusual for people to leave favorite foods of their deceased relatives at the spirit house shrines and temples.
Transportation here is always interesting. In addition to the tuk-tuks and pedicabs, there are thousands of bicycles, motor scooters and few motorcycles, but always small – no full dress Harleys here. We saw a German Shepherd sized dog riding in front of a gentleman on a mo-ped. We saw a pickup truck bed full of monks. We saw a motorcycle with a side car loaded with eggs, we saw a broom seller on a bicycle. People here drive on the left – a holdover from British occupation.
Electrical wiring here is quite a nightmare. There doesn’t seem to be any conduit and very few electrical poles here and there. The wires mostly just hang from the eaves in snarled clumps. There is a lot of visual pollution which can be charming at times, unsightly at times, but always interesting.
We saw massages being performed out in the streets, particularly at the night markets, where patrons recline on lawn chairs. This is a $4 per hour service or you can splurge on the mats on the ground for $6. There were eating enterprises everywhere, some commonplace such as sticky rice and some exotic such as quail eggs cooked to order in little fry pans with a side of little crunchy worms.
Toilets are referred to as the Happy Room. We were glad that our guide knew the kind that made us happy, i.e. those with a toilet seat, toilet paper, sinks, soap and towels, because the locals are not so picky.

 

The Virtual Dressing Room at the Waworot Market

The Virtual Dressing Room at the Waworot Market

We visited the Warorot Day market which is the grocery store for locals since they do not have supermarkets, but it also sells crafts and clothing. Gary decided he could use another pair of shorts and found a pair he thought would work (which was no small feat given the diminutive stature of Thai men) and he proceeded to search for a dressing room to try them on. Apparently they only have dressing rooms on demand here at the Warorot, since two Thai men whipped out a large sheet and held it up for him to hide behind to try on the shorts. He ended up not purchasing them since he discovered that XL in Thailand is not what it is in the USA. Crafts sold here include wood carving, lacquer work, weaving, textiles, antiques and jewelry. We went back to the night market so Stu and Sharon could enjoy the Fish Therapy and then to a local restaurant. Gary ordered a whole fish and I stuck with the dependably good – no surprises Pad Thai.

 

A Naga Guarding a Temple

A Naga Guarding a Temple

Today we had learned about “nagas” which are mythical protective serpents – looking sort of like a snake crossed with a dragon. They adorn many of the temples and palaces throughout Southeast Asia and are believed to protect against bad spirits, and they are significant in both the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The way the story goes is that a “garuda” (a mythical bird) attacks and subdues a naga that is trying to harm the Buddha. After this attack the naga goes over to the other side and becomes protective of Buddha and the king of the nagas, the improbably named Mucilinda, grows several heads in order to shelter the Buddha from a thunderstorm. Nagas are also believed to control rainfall and provide water for crops when appropriately worshiped.
February 12, 2012

 

 

Shopping for the Monks

Shopping for the Monks

Today we arose and left the hotel before sunrise in order to “make merit” with the monks from the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Monastery as they began their walk on the streets of Chiang Mai. To do this we had to stop by the local market and buy fresh produce. Part of their daily duties is to go forth among the people every morning seeking offerings of food. The do not grow food or buy food – they only eat what is provided in their bowls, in a Trick or Treat sort of fashion although they do pool their gatherings, plus the senior monks who do not go out share in the food as well.

Making Merit

Making Merit

The ritual is this: we would kneel on a blanket and ask them for permission to give them food. They graciously accept our offer and offer us a blessing to us in return. In this manner we “make merit”, i.e. receive blessings. The blessing is chanted and asking that we have Long Life, Happiness and Energy. The monks are all male – ranging in age from 6 to their early 20’s. They always look down and there is to be no talking. They all wear orange robes and have shaved heads. They walk barefoot so to be aware of where they are placing their feet in order to avoid injuring any living thing such as even the tiniest insect (of which there are multitudes) The female counterpart of the monks are the nuns who wear white. Novices don’t get to talk until they turn 20 – prior to that they are to listen and learn. Children in Thailand only complete school through Grade 9. If anyone wants any education past that, boys can become monks, girls can leave the country. It is not uncommon for monks to leave the monastery if they decide it is not for them.

 

Trekkers in the Jungle

Trekkers in the Jungle

We had a short drive out in the country for a scenic hike in the Doi Suthep Doi Pui National Park. The hike was only 3 kilometers (just short of 2 miles), but it was all uphill and it took us 4 hours to reach the summit. We had a park guide who cut bamboo walking sticks for us to use en route.
We saw several waterfalls and so many tropical plants only seen in nurseries at home growing and going wild. There were also figs and bananas growing wild and a fruit we had never seen before called jackfruit which tastes sort of like a lemon flavored pear. There was a lodge at the top where we had a picnic lunch with some of the ubiquitous, but always delicious sticky rice, along with chicken, delicious mangoes and a rice caramel dessert.

 

The Stupa at Doi al Suthep

The Chedi at Wat Doi Suthep

There is a temple founded in the 14th Century at the very top of a the highest peak (5,250 feet) called Wat Doi Suthep, where the monks we made merit with yesterday live. We took the funicular up and walked back down via the elaborate Naga Staircase of 304 steps. While we were there, a few of the monks were touching up the paint job on the nagas on either side of the entrance. The wat’s central chedi is a multi-tiered dome-like structure, embellished with filigree and gold leaf, which is lovingly applied by pilgrims who come here to worship. It is said to enshrine sacred relics, in this case some of what are believed to be some of the ashes of Buddha, which  appear to be very widely spread given the number of temples that claim them. A chedi somewhat resembles the US capitol dome without

Bells of Wat Doi suthep

Bells of Wat Doi suthep

the rounded edges and without the building underneath it. There is a bell tower called at ho rakang used to toll the hour and with a row of small bell used to call the monks and people to worship, which today visitors ring for good luck. There is also a wihan, or assembly hall where there are multiple Buddhas.
Among the numerous Buddhas, we found our personal Buddhas, based on the day of the week we were born. Gary’s was the Monday Buddha who is standing with one hand raised. Mine was the Thursday Buddha who sits and meditates.There are other assembly halls reserved for monks called bots ,which are demarcated by bai semas (sacred stones) used to identify consecrated ground. There are also

Young Dancers at the Temple

Young Dancers at the Temple

the cloisters which are the monks living quarters and various “salas” for pilgrims to gather and religious lectures to be held. We also saw the White Elephant Monument at the temple which was comprised of a life-size elephant who was said to be the personal transportation of King Ku Na. The elephant so the story goes, in 1390 charged up the hill and selected this site as the appropriate place to build a temple. In some versions of the story, Buddha was aboard the elephant at the time. He reportedly trumpeted loudly on his arrival at the summit and turned 3 times – so there was their sign to build right there.

 

Shoes of the worshipers

Shoes of the worshipers

The temple was bustling with activity in some apparent celebration with dancers and acrobats performing in the courtyard. There were also plenty of worshipers as evidenced by the mounds of shoes around the door since shoes are always taken off before entering a temple or shrine, as well as the mounds of offerings at the various shrines.

 

 

Massage Outfits

Massage Outfits

We enjoyed our massage yesterday so much, the 4 of us , plus our guide Nikki, decided to go back for a group massage in the afternoon for a price roughly equal to $6.00 for two hours. We were given those same pajama like outfits to wear for the massage and laid on the cushioned mats on the floor – all 5 of us in a row. The masseuses would kneel either next to us either on on or astride our backs, but they were so tiny, we hardly felt that there were there. I must confess I did peek at the others stretched out beside me with their tiny jockey-masseuses and I had to choke back a snort of laughter when I conjured up images of Seabiscuit in the big race.

 

The Night Market on Walking Street

The Night Market on Walking Street

Since today was Sunday, we were treated to a special Sunday Market lasting from 4 p.m. to midnight. There were hundreds of stalls with hand made goods and food, drink and entertainment. Chiang Mai seems to be a continuous stream of markets – e.g. Night Market, Day Market, Sunday Market . The latter was to be found along Walking Street, where we strolled and marveled. There were a number of blind musicians who were very young men, but who had worked as welders without the benefit of eye protection and consequently became blind at a young age – just a widely accepted occupational hazard here so Nikki told us. We had earlier noticed a business called Pooh Trek – which recycled dung into paper and it also doubled as a massage shop called Pooh Massage Therapy. They advertised that their massage therapists are blind (former welders no doubt). We would hope they don’t get their therapeutic mud mixed up with any elephant or other animal by-products since it is all under one roof.

 

Night Market Massages

Night Market Massages

We also saw row after row of outdoor massage chairs – not what you see in the US where seated massages are offered, at airports for example. These could double as lawn chairs with cushions and there were rows of them, filled with customers. The going rate here was only a dollar or two depending on the service desired. We also saw people selling eels and birds, which Nikki told us are sold to provide as offerings to Buddha, but rather than being prepared to be eaten, they are turned loose.
We had dinner at the Tamarind Village Restaurant where almost everyone enjoyed a local exotic dish – so exotic in fact a few meals got mixed up and no one knew the difference. I was the one exception and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich with French Fries since my palate needed to give the Thai food a rest. Tomorrow I would be prepared to attack it anew.
February 13, 2012

 

 

A Mahout with the Moms and Babies

A Mahout with the Moms and Babies

Today I proclaimed to be one of the best days of my life – and I certainly have been blessed enough to have some good ones. This proclamation was issued while perched on the back of my own elephant for the day, a hulking guy named Bun Pak, as part of what is known locally as the Mahout for a Day program. A mahout is essentially an elephant trainer and caretaker. Usually they are assigned to an elephant at a very young age and remain with him throughout his working life. Elephants in Asia, as opposed to Africa, have been used for work in logging, hauling and transportation for centuries and are quite docile by comparison to their African counterparts. Elephants were used in hunting in previous centuries since they can run at about 12 miles and hour. Elephants also figure largely in the Buddhist and Hindu religions and white elephants are held in particular regard and were considered sacred

Ganesh

Ganesh

and only the king could own them. There is also a god in the Hindu religion called Ganesh, who is the Hindu God of knowledge, as well as the creator and remover of obstacles in life. He has the body of a boy and the head of an elephant which can certainly make you do a double take while touring a temple. An elephant did not have to be solid white, but certain parts had to be close to white to qualify as a white elephant. The origins of labeling something a white elephant come from this tradition. Since only kings could own elephants, they were of no use to anyone else – thus the label “white elephant” is applied to things perceived to be large and useless.

The 9 Month Old

The 9 Month Old

The experience of this day was one of the best ever – there simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. As a mahout for the day, our task was to do all the things for our assigned elephant that their mahout would do which included, feeding, bathing, exercising, checking their health which involved looking at their dung for signs of illness. It sounds worse than it was. Interesting enough elephant dung smells like fresh hay. They told us that you can tell the age of an elephant by examining its dung, but we didn’t delve too much into that research.

 

Happy Mahouts for the Day

Happy Mahouts for the Day

Our day started by driving about an hour out of Chiang Mai into the countryside to a place called Patara (pronounced Pah Ta Rah with the accent on “Pah”) Elephant Camp. Their goal is to preserve elephants in Thailand by having tourists come to experience them and spread the word while spreading the dollars. They are not trained to do tricks, but are trained to accept humans. They have been protected by law since 1921, but with continuing deforestation, their numbers have been reduced to just a few thousand. We started our elephant experience by having the opportunity to play with baby elephants. There were 5 there with their mothers. It was a very wise move on the camp manager’s part because we needed to get our ” elephant awe” under control so we could perhaps pay attention to our guides and listen and learn.

Elephant Wrestling

Elephant Wrestling

Surprisingly the elephant moms were not the least concerned about us swarming around their babies – well swarming is probably hyperbole – there were only 6 of us “mahout wannabes” that day. One baby in particular that they told us was 9 months old was the youngest and the most playful. His favorite play seemed to be wrestling. He would use his trunk and one leg to try to take down any challenger. Gary fared the best since he was more in this little guy’s weight class. The rest of us had to be rescued by the handlers to keep from getting pinned. All of the elephants seemed so affectionate – leaning against us, stretching out their trunks for a greeting, calmly looking at us with those big liquid eyes, seeming to invite us to come closer (and of course if you had a treat like a banana, they were extra friendly). We didn’t see any of the protectiveness that makes animal mothers in the wild so dangerous (e.g. a bear with a cub). It seems the elephants were watchful, but trusting with the confidence that they can easily address any threat we puny humans might present. Elephants have a two year gestation period so even that process is laid back.

 

Feeding and Bonding

Open Wide!

After baby elephant recess, we proceeded to the serious business of mahout training. We were given special clothes to wear, and as we would learn later, they were not just for ornamentation. The shirts were pullover colorful hill tribe weaves made by the Karen Tribe. The pants were heavy canvas “fisherman’s pants” – very loose fitting, and very unflattering.
Our first step was to bond with our assigned elephant. We did the bonding by feeding our charge a bushel basket full of bananas by hand. We didn’t hand them to them to take with their trunks, but rather we stood beside them, with a cluster of 6 or so unpeeled bananas in hand and gave the command, “bon”, which means something roughly equivalent to “open wide”. The elephant would then obey the command and we were to place the bananas in its mouth, which is quite large, wet and squishy. The real mahout would watch to see if the elephant bonded with us. That is, would the elephant, obey commands from us. As

Bonding with Bun Pak over Bananans

Bonding with Bun Pak over Bananans

a test we were to address the elephant by name to see how the elephant responded. A good response would be acknowledgement with the elephant making a small trumpeting sound and/or gently flapping of its ears and swinging its of tail. Or it might make a gentle rumbling sound, roughly equivalent to a cat purring, although sounding more like a dog growling. Our instructor told us that sometimes elephants don’t like people and won’t even take bananas from them. A big time elephant rejection of a potential mahout for the day is marked by rapid flapping of ears and loud trumpeting, in which time a full retreat is in order by the would-be mahout. Fortunately for us, all elephants liked all potential mahouts and we could proceed.

 

Bun Pak the Elephant

Bun Pak the Elephant

I was assigned to a male elephant named Bun Pak which means handsome man and Gary was assigned a female elephant named Maha Pak which means beautiful flower. With Asian elephants, only the males have tusks and Bun Pak had quite an impressive set of them. Both elephants were young by elephant standards, and among the largest in the herd. Bun Pak was 16 and Maha Pak was 32. Elephants have longevity comparable to those of humans with an average life span of 85 years. Bun Pak and Maha Pak both wolfed down an entire basket of bananas apiece and then frisked our pockets and private places for more that might be hidden. Once the mahouts indicated we were compatible, we were ready for our next step – the health check.

 

Pooh Check

Pooh Check

Elephant health issues mostly center around their feet, which are prone to infection if injured and digestive issues if they have over-eaten or eaten something not good for them. The feet are visually inspected and the poop is as well, where you are looking for firmness and straw content. Elephants can also suffer from loneliness and depression and so there is constant attention paid to the elephants’ mental well being. We also learned that elephants sweat only around their toenails so that is something to be watched to make sure they are not getting over-heated. We also learned to check for sleep patterns – healthy elephants lie down alternating sides about every 30 minutes and will have dirt evenly distributed on both sides. A sick elephant will sleep standing up, as will elephants desiring only a quick nap.

 

Dusting off Maha Pak

Dusting off Maha Pak

We were told we need to bathe our elephants in a four-step process. The first step was to dust them off. Elephants throw dust on their back to act as a natural sunscreen and so we were given “dusters” made from thin tree branches with leaves still attached and we set to work. We all had to have some remedial work here. We started out like we were dusting Waterford Crystal, but the mahouts showed us we need to used the dusters more like flyswatters and really slap them against their hides, sort of like you would beat a contrary mule. They assured us that unlike horses, they would not bolt and trample us into the dirt in the process. With their thick hides, they don’t even notice and in fact, they kneeled on the ground so we could reach their backs more easily.

 

Hosing Down Bun Pak

Hosing Down Bun Pak

Step Two involved rinsing them off with a garden hose and they really had fun with that. Bun Pak insisted on drinking his rinsing water directly from the hose, but after a few dozen gallons, he let me have it back to spray on him.
Step Three was perhaps the most amazing thing of this amazing day. These elephants are entirely unrestrained – no chains, no hooks, no hobbles. They operate strictly on verbal commands. Our job was to walk our elephants down to the river ( a distance of maybe 500 yards) and go into the water with them and give them a good scrub. Walkng

Wlaking Bun Pak

Wlaking Bun Pak

them to the river involved grabbing the elephant by the ear and issuing the command “Mah” which means “ come” or in dog language “heel”. When you consider the size of the elephant – 21 feet long, 10 feet tall and 11,000 pounds, it totally blew me away that this creature would allow me to hold onto his ear and amble down a path with me like an extremely well trained dog, simply because I told him “mah”. But “mah” he did, and we proceeded down the trail.

 

A Good Rinse Cycle

A Good Rinse Cycle

Arriving at the river, we began Step 4. There was a waist deep pool below a waterfall and all the elephants knew the drill and they plunged right in and squatted down in the water so we would have full access to them. We were given a bucket with a scrub brush and got to work with a one way brushing motion which the elephants liked best. To the elephants this seemed to be the equivalent of a dog having his ears scratched. I was a little concerned that in that dark water, one of these creatures would step on my foot and crush it to mush, but they were amazingly careful with their feet. The mahouts told us they have very sensitive feet and when they step where they can’t see, they feel around to make sure of their footing. They walk on rocky areas to wear their toenails down to keep them short.

 

 Mahouts for the Day Get a Shower

Mahouts for the Day Get a Shower

Since I had the only male elephant in the group, he required some special tusk cleaning, and so Gary helped me gather sand from the river bottom to polish them up. The mahouts had some fun with all of us, posing us by the waterfall for picture taking and then having one of the more playful elephants named Lucky to give us a good surprise shower from her trunk. We had the opportunity for a little rinse off in the upper pool (above the elephant’s bathtub) before our lunch break.

 

 

 

Lunch on Banana Leaves

Lunch on Banana Leaves

The mahouts took the elephants away to dry and have their lunch and we sat down to ours – no chairs, we sat on the floor of the porch of a hut. Our table cloth was a series of banana leaves with a veritable feast of fresh fruit, sticky rice and fried chicken laid out before us. After we ate, we were offered special hill tribe coffee which was brewed in a section of bamboo (which we learned has individual chambers) over a camp fire. The coffee mugs were also made from a single section of bamboo. We were responsible for cleaning up after lunch which involved discarding chicken bones and rolling up everything else into the bamboo leaves to feed to our elephants.

 

Ready to Ride

Ready to Ride

After lunch we were reunited with our elephants, so we gave them their snack and it was time to go for a ride. When most tourists go for an elephant ride in Asia, they generally ride in a “howdah”. This is a contrivance with a seat and raised sides, which is strapped on the elephant’s back like a saddle , only it is a saddle that will hold two people seated on a bench. In olden times, the howdah’s size and decoration would reflect the status of the riders, with the king having the most elaborate of all howdahs with a roof or at the very least a parasol. Our ride was to be sitting directly on the elephant, right where his neck joined his shoulders, just like in the circus. The first task was to get on board. They told us there are

Climbing Aboard Maha Pak

Climbing Aboard Maha Pak

three ways to do this. The elephant can lower its trunk and sort of flip you up there (not recommended for males due to tusk interference), the elephant can be commanded to go belly down on the ground and you can climb up or the elephant can be commanded to raise one leg any you can step on the bent leg, grab an ear and haul yourself up. We both chose option 3, but I have to admit I did have to have some serious boosting assistance from the mahouts, who I am sure were having a good chuckle.

 

On the Trail

On the Trail

Once we were on board, it became apparent why we needed the canvas pants. Elephants have sparse hair on their bodies, that feels like little toothpicks poking into your skin when you apply pressure to them. The canvas pants assure a more comfortable ride, comfort being relative since the elephant’s back is so broad that even the tallest of riders cannot avoid having his or her knees stick out at right angles, which does get tiring after a while.
Before we set off, we had to learn the basic commands to use on our ride. The mahouts very ingeniously wrote them out on our forearms with magic marker to ensure we could access them easily to remain in control. The commands are not in Thai, but in Hindi, one of the languages of India. The reasoning is that they don’t want the elephant to hear a couple of locals talking and think they are talking to him, and thus perhaps pay no attention to his mahout or rider.

 

The Command Cheat Sheet

The Command Cheat Sheet

The commands were:
Pai (pronounced Pie) which means go (or in cowboy parlance “giddyup”. You could give a few “pai’s” strung together to offer more encouragement)
How which is pronounced just like it sounds and means stop
Non Long – which means down and is key for a non-disastrous dismount
Look – which means is up – the command opposite “non long”
Toy – which is the command to back up
Yana – which means no, in case you have occasion to scold a naughty elephant – maybe one who wants to graze instead of giddyup.
Didi – which means “good elephant” , always useful praise for good behavior
We took a ride into the jungle, with our real mahouts trailing not too far away in case any of our elephants decided to go rogue and run off with us. We were told the best way to ride is sitting on the neck with our legs drawn up so our feet are just behind the ears. Easy for them to say since the tallest of them is probably 5 foot nothing. We taller people found it more comfortable to have our legs dangle and the elephants didn’t seem to mind.

 

Pai Pai

Pai Pai

To start moving, we were to simply tap on the elephant’s ears and utter “pai-pai” and off we went. I did have to give Bun Pak a few “Yanas” since he was tempted to graze, but we moved pretty well. My mahout caught up with us and gave me some treats he had picked to give to Bun Pak, who somehow knew I had them since he kept lifting his trunk up to get some. He also knew when they were gone and went back to the occasional foray into the bush. We rode for around two hours which was both wonderful and tiring, very hard on the thighs and knees at that 90 degree angle. We had nothing to hold on to but the ears and a rope behind us encircling the elephants girth, but the elephant’s back was so broad, and he moved so slowly, you’re really have to work at it to fall off, no matter how steep the trail got.

 

Farewell to our Elephants and their real Mahouts

Farewell to our Elephants and their real Mahouts

We had a short rest and the elephants were given an afternoon snack of bamboo and then we had a second ride. This time I told Bun Pak he needed to “non long” (come down) so I could get on. For this ride, the mahouts suggested we sit on the elephant’s head for a different experience. This was a much narrower and more precipitous perch, especially when Bun Pak wanted to detour for a snack. Fortunately we were on a flat trail along a lake so it wasn’t as conducive to a spill as the steeper trek earlier in the day. We had to take care to have our legs positioned to hang between their eyes so as not to obstruct their vision. With great sadness, we said goodbye to our elephants and their real mahouts and rode back to Chiang Mai.

 

A Dancer at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

A Dancer at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Local wisdom says mankind would do well to be more like elephants in the way we proceed forward and eat. That is, take each step carefully, and only eat vegetables. We promptly ignored this and went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to pamper ourselves with a luxurious carnivorous evening after an exhausting exhilarating day of “mahouting”. It was a beautiful hotel, but we much preferred staying in town at the Bodhi Serene with real life right outside your door. At the Mandarin Oriental, real Thai life was kept at bay with a high fence, luxurious gardens and guards at the entrance.
February 14, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Rai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Rai 19.90 degrees North, 99.82 degrees East

 

Countryside of Northern Thailand

Countryside of Northern Thailand

Today we started our anti-Malaria medications since we would be going to the lowland areas of Southeast Asia in a few days time. We left Chiang Mai early to drive to Chiang Rai via the scenic route in the northernmost provinces of Thailand and an area called The Golden Triangle. This area borders Burma and Laos and the point where the Mekong River flows out of China to Thailand’s borders. The first Thai settlements were also here. The ride afforded us some really exotic scenes – mountains, rice paddies, jungle – as we shared the road with what the locals jokingly refer to as Japanese Water Buffalo – that is, Yamaha and Honda motorbikes. Nikki explained to us that the local people here train monkeys to

In the Golden Triangle

In the Golden Triangle

harvest their coconuts and we told her we would like to see that , to which she gave here standard response of “that is possible” no matter what we asked to see or do.
We took route 107 north paralleling the border with Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). Our route would take us through the villages of Mae Rim, Mai Taeng, Chiang Dao, Fang, Mai Ai and Mai Chan before stopping for the night in Chiag Rai. All of them sounded ultra exotic, but I was particularly interested in seeing what Fang looked like. It turned out to be a tiny market town, with no hint of violence one would associate with “fang”.

 

The Orchid Farm

The Orchid Farm

We stopped at an Orchid Farm just outside of Chiang Mai where we saw the most beautiful collection I have ever seen of truly wonderful specimens. The orchids are grown from tiny seeds and are put into a growing medium such as agar in a bottle to germinate. Their roots thrive in air and require little or no soil. There were acres and acres of them in every size, shape and color and it was quite lovely to see. Orchids grow wild in many parts of Thailand, but are also largely cultivated and orchid poaching is not uncommon since some of the varieties are extremely valuable and the local people are extremely poor. We had a snack on the grounds in very serene garden setting. Our snacking would continue throughout the drive to Chiang Rai.

 

Pooh Recycling

Pooh Recycling

Our next stop was not so lovely, but really interesting and not on our itinerary, but Nikki made it possible. We had been told that Thai people waste nothing including elephant poop and we made this stop to see just what was being done with it. We met an older gentleman who was in charge (at least he looked older) and he showed us aground with great pride. We noticed he had on a tee shirt proclaiming the superiority of the Purdue Boilermakers. He had no idea what either one was since he got the shirt at a flea market, so we proceeded to try to explain through Nikki as our translator. He got the University part, but we weren’t sure Nikki was able to adequately explain what a “boiler maker” was.
So here is the scoop on the poop, elephant poop that is. At this facility, it is recycled into paper in a multi-step process that goes something like this: It is bleached, boiled and cooked down to a thick gravy-like substance that is spread on a screen to dry out in the yard. Once dry it is dyed and cut and fabricated into boxes, paper, albums and so forth. They do make stationery, but it makes for pretty lumpy writing.

Sticky Rice cooking over an Open Fire

Sticky Rice cooking over an Open Fire

We also made a sticky rice stop at a roadside place near the village of Chiang Dao that Nikki told us makes the very best in the country. The place is nothing fancy and it is strictly stand and eat or take it out. The workers either squat or seat themselves on low plastic chairs – very low like they came from a kindergarten class room. To make the sticky rice they add the desired ingredients to the rice to make it sweet, spicy or whatever . The ones we had were sweet. They place the rice mixture in bamboo stalks and soak it overnight. They then cut it into sections and make a stopper out of coconut fibers and cook it over an open fire. The tough outer part of the bamboo is then cut away, leaving only a thin membrane-like lining that can be peeled like a banana when you are ready to eat it. It was as advertised – delicious and the price was a mere 30 baht which was less than a dollar. Nikki says we would make good Thais since we always enjoy eating. Nikki did tell us that the new generations of Thai people are growing bigger as they have more access to protein and calcium supplied by Western food. She said pretty soon no one in Thailand will fit on an elephant any more.

 

Trees in Flower near Chiang Rai

Trees in Flower near Chiang Rai

The countryside became more scenic and more mountainous as we progressed toward Chiang Rai. We passed teak wood groves, prosperous-looking farms, and verdant fields of lychee, garlic and lavender. There was also a profusion of wild blooming trees and shrubs such as jacaranda (lavender color), golden shower (yellow gold),  and bauhinia (purple). The mountains are largely limestone karsts that formed interesting silhouettes on either side of the road.
Nikki told us about the opium trade that once flourished here and how the government is implementing programs to try to stamp out addiction and production. Programs include farm assistance in getting alternative crops established. The king’s mother travels here frequently by helicopter since redirecting the efforts of the former opium farmers is one of her pet projects. We were told that the locals call her “Mother From the Sky”. Nikki has a really delightful expression in English to describe any number of rule breakers and that is that they are “naughty”. Naughty can apply to drug smugglers, orchid poachers, corrupt government officials, pedophiles, pickpockets, monks texting during prayers and illegal aliens. We found it really charming that Nikki hasn’t lapsed into English slang and expletives to describe wrong-doers. There is something so kind and gentle about the word “naughty”.

A Hmong Market

A Hmong Market

Smog is a problem in the area, but it is not from automobiles, but rather from farmers burning the fields to get rid of stubble from crops already harvested. Most of the native people in this area are Hmong (prononouced “mong”), who are believed to have migrated from China. Another prominent hill tribe is the Karen people who are noted for their custom of using brass bands ( as much as 16 pounds of them) to elongate the necks of their young women, from Age 5 through 25. It was considered a sign of wealth to have the women in your family stretch their necks in this manner. A long swan-like neck was also considered beautiful back in the day, but the health problems associated with this practice (atrophy of neck muscles and strain on shoulder muscles) and influence from the outside world have made it far less popular today and women typically only do it to make money from tourists for photo opportunities.

Game Cocks at the Market

Game Cocks at the Market

There is a third tribe quite populous here called the Akha who hold holistic beliefs about their relationship with the natural world. Collectively, the hill tribes do not have a religion as the Western world knows it, but many have been converted to Christianity. We stopped at a couple of Hmong roadside markets to sample some of the local products including other types of sticky rice, jackfruit, custard, dragon fruit, tapioca, peaches and mango. They are also noted for raising fighting cocks, of which we saw a plentiful supply in cages at the market place. They are very resourceful here. We saw a strange contraption that looked sort of like a Smart Car pickup that had a tiny truck bed, a seat atop motorcycle engine, and some handlebars, all sort of haphazardly welded together with a family of 4 driving off with the day’s shopping done at the market. This was just a few yards from a farmer turning into the market on his mo-ped dressed in baggy pants and shirt, flip flops and a straw hat with a hoe over his shoulder. We stopped at a noodle shop for lunch and our tab came to a whopping $9.00 for 6 people.

 

The Tea Plantation

The Doi Maesalong Nok Tea Plantation

Just before Chiang Rai we stopped at the Doi Maesalong Nok tea plantation for a tea tasting, very similar to a wine tasting in a tasting room set upon a mountain top overlooking the vast acreage of cultivated fields. The land was immaculately groomed and terraced and we saw temples on just about every hill top. Nikki told us that tea grows well in this climate, but there is a constant battle with naughty caterpillars. Each plant is hand trimmed and harvested and different flowers and spices are combined with the tea leaves to create special blends. This was such a tasteful, serene, and tranquil retreat, but we have learned to expect contrast here and were not disappointed. Upon leaving the tasteful serenity of the tea

Enjoying the Tea Tasting

Enjoying the Tea Tasting

room, we saw a koi pond which we also thought to be tranquil, serene, until we noticed that the fountain supplying water to the pond was coming from a tea-pot which had two bare boobs on the side with water coming from the nipples and splashing into the pond. So much for tasteful I guess.
We stopped at a market that Nikki said was run by Chinese from Yunnan province and immediately became aware of the difference in sales styles between the Hmong and the Chinese – on the one hand a shy smile and a nod (Thai) and on the other hand an all out hawking and stalking (Chinese). We did buy some roasted peanuts at this market to keep our feeding frenzy going, but we then beat a hasty retreat to the safety of our van. Nikki says 10% of the population in this area is Chinese and many are naughty illegal immigrants.

 

Tiny Sweet Pineapples at a Roadside Market

Tiny Sweet Pineapples at a Roadside Market

And speaking of naughty – we had to go through a road block where Thai drug enforcement was stopping cars looking for drugs being smuggled in from Burma. They just took one peek at our Caucasian faces and waved us through. Apparently we did not fit the profile, but there were plenty of pat-downs being conducted on locals and those who could pass for local.
We had one more stop before Chiang Rai for another, you guessed it, snack. This time it was tiny pineapples at a roadside stand that were so sweet, you would swear they had sugar sprinkled on them. They were also selling tiny little sweet bananas which we sampled too. We asked Nikki if there was anything not grown here and she said they had to import cotton – it’s not dry enough here and also crops that like cold weather such as apples and pears don’t do well here. There used to be acres and acres of rubber plantations and few do still exist, but they have been largely replaced by petroleum products. Nikki says the biggest problem the farmers face in this region are naughty rats who eat their crops.

 

Gardens Near Chiang Rai

Gardens Near Chiang Rai

We drove into Chiang Rai at almost dusk and were struck by the number of 7-11 stores – just one more incongruity in a day that continued to be filled with them. There were cars driving around with Las Vegas Style Lights – enough to make you want to put your sunglasses on.. Then there was a billboard in English encouraging people to log onto www.DEArewards.com to snitch on opium growers we presume. It sounds like the DEA needs to get some of those naughty rats to start eating opium poppies. Then we saw a billboard advertising a doctor who would perform sex change operations at a very reasonable price, complete with before and after pictures. Nicky told us that this is really a big business here, along with plastic surgery for breast and other implants and almost all of the customers are foreigners. We speculated on how that would work with the visa and passport system. If you come in with your gender designated “F” and you leave as a man, do you have to change it? There were rows and rows of roadside business selling rattan products. Nikki told us these merchants are mostly parolees who learned this trade while in prison for drug trafficking and now have a new line of work.

 

Dinner at the Night Market

Dinner at the Night Market

We checked into our hotel, the Legend Chiang Rai Resort situated on the picturesque Kok River. We just dropped off our suitcases and rejoined Nikki to visit Chiang Rai’s Night Market. There were dozens of food stalls – sort of a Thai Food Court and we each picked our own food – shrimp for me and a whole fish for Gary, along with mounds of French fries (which is what they call them here too).

 

Looking around at the tables we commented on the large number of Caucasians, but on second glance we saw a marked absence of Caucasian women, and for that matter, young Caucasian males. All the Caucasians seemed to be portly balding men over 55. Their companions were local young women in their twenties and thirties. Nikki told us it is very common here for foreign men to move here and take a much younger wife or mistress. They can live like kings on $12,000 per year. Quite often the woman in question is a single mother. Apparently there is no such thing as child support in Thailand and the woman is totally responsible for any children she may bear and a child’s father can just walk away, which they apparently do in droves. While our Western sensibilities were telling us this was wrong in so many ways, we had to adjust our thinking. Nikki explained to us that while we might feel the men are taking advantage of the young girls, that it is actually an arrangement to benefit both. There is no public school for girls in Thailand for the most part. With no education and no skills, they can choose protection (male expat) or prostitution. Thus the man gets a trophy wife he could never afford back home, and the woman gets a life-style far beyond her wildest dreams and her children have more opportunity than they would otherwise. When seen from that perspective– it forces you to step back and be a little less judgmental, which is never a bad thing.

February 15, 2012

 

We used Chiang Rai as our base to explore the Golden Triangle where the countries of Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. The town was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai who made it the capital of his Lanna Kingdom, but the capital was moved to Chiang Mai after only 34 years. We found it interesting that Thailand was never colonized, not even by the British. Instead a series of kings ruled kingdoms of varying names and territory for many centuries until democratic elections were held in 1988. Monarchy in Thailand continues, it just doesn’t rule. There were at least 5 tourist-worthy wats (temples) in Chiang Rai, but we were close to suffering from “temple overload” and so we set off exploring the countryside instead of these particular temples.

 

Shawan Duchanee Gallery

Thawan Duchanee Gallery

Our first stop was the home (and now museum) of Thailand’s most famous artist, Thawan Duchanee. His art was known for his use of things from the natural world – shells, animal bones, skins, and horns and the extensive use of teakwood. There was a gallery of his paintings where the colors he used were almost exclusively red, black and white. The grounds of his house were filled with gardens, temples and various buildings that house his collections and his work which included painting, sculpture and applied art such as drums and baskets.

 

Old Buddha at Wat Jeedhalong

Old Buddha at Wat Jeedhelhoung

We did make one temple exception due to its historic significance in the complex called Wat Jedeelhoung, which was largely in ruins, understandably so since it dates back to the 13th Century . The complex is set among centuries old teak and banyan trees. At one time it was a walled city on the Mekong River with Laos on the other side, but the river has since changed course. We found ourselves some sticky rice vendors on the grounds (sesame sticky rice this time) and some salted pineapple which was unexpectedly tasty. We also bought a small spirit house here to take home – about the size of a birdhouse, but very elaborately detailed like a miniature pagoda. They are used in Thai homes as a shrine to the protective spirit of a place.

 

The Mekong at the Golden Triangle

The Mekong at the Golden Triangle

The Mekong River originates in Tibet, flows though China and then to Southeast Asia, creating the border between Thailand and Laos before continuing south through Cambodia and Vietnam. There is an ongoing battle with the Chinese, who have been building dams on it and causing low water levels to the other countries. We stopped at the point where the 3 countries meet (Thailand, Myanmar or Burma and Laos) to take in the view and then we continued to a spot on the riverbank to see the largest Buddha in Thailand, built to honor the Queen of Thailand. We have seen a number of statuary images of Buddha in many different poses. Today we learned that each pose has its own significance. There are four basic postures: standing, sitting, walking and reclining. The first 3 are associated with Buddha’s life on earth and the 4th, the reclining position represents his final moments on earth when he has achieved nirvana (ultimate wisdom). The four postures are combined with hand and feet positions to create a variety of “mudras” or attitudes. One king had written up a manual of sorts identifying 40 of these, but most sculptors employed only a dozen or so.

 

Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha Touching the Earth

The seated image referred to as “touching the earth” is the most common one. In it Buddha sits under a tree with his legs cross in the lotus position, his left hand on his lap and his right resting on his leg pointing downward toward the earth. However if he is seated with legs in the lotus position with both hands palms up, the right over the left, this symbolizes meditation. Another fairly common one is Buddha standing, touching a thumb and forefinger to make a circle which is said to represent the: turning of the wheel of law” . Buddhists believe is perpetual reincarnation, where each life is influenced by the actions and deeds of the previous one. This cause and effect philosophy is called karma and is symbolized by the wheel of law depicted in the flag of Buddhism. When Buddha has one hand extended palm facing you (like The Supremes performing “Stop in the Name of Love” it is intended to convey reassurance. However if both palms are extended forward, it refers to Buddha restraining the flood waters.

 

Face of Buddha by the Mekong

Face of Buddha by the Mekong

Enlightenment (nirvana) is the final state of evolving when the pinnacle is reached and the cycle of rebirth is ended. The goal of Buddhists is to develop the 3 pillars of their belief: morality, meditation and wisdom. They do this by following a code of behavior in each of their reincarnated lives, utilizing the virtues of tolerance and non-violence. Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism, which originated in India and incorporates many beliefs of other religions. As for Buddha’s time on Earth, he was born a prince in India in the 6th Century BC. He gave up his riches to seek Enlightenment, and after 10 lives, he achieved Nirvana. His teachings from those lives are followed by Buddhists today.

 

Gates Leading to the Giant Buddha on the Mekong

Gates Leading to the Giant Buddha on the Mekong

From there we went to the House of Opium, a $10 million dollar museum built by donations from the Japanese and is dedicated to telling the story of opium and how it has crippled generations and almost destroyed the country. There are hundreds of artifacts, photographs and articles telling the stories. Opium was first grown in the highlands of Thailand in the late 19th century by the hill tribes and became a major cash crop. It was outlawed in 1959, but continued to flourish well into the 20th Century in the Golden Triangle. There were many bloody power struggles for control of the poppy fields in the century prior to its being outlawed, including the Opium Wars with the British for control of the drug trade in the mid-19th Century. The British won giving them control of trade in China. Opium was legalized in China and opium dens sprouted up across Southeast Asia and addiction ran rampant. It seems the Chinese partook of the drug and British didn’t and thus the Brits achieved domination of China while the Chinese they were fighting mostly got too stoned to either care or notice.
More recently the Kuomintang Army from China fought a local drug lord in 1967, giving the Golden Triangle further notoriety. The drug lord retreated to Burma and the victory here eventually allowed the government to gain the upper hand and begin the long process of eradication of both growing and using. Since the 1980’s the hill tribes have been incented by the government under the rule of King Bhumibol to grow other crops, but the area remains active in the trading, if not the growing, of opium.

 

Thailand-Myanmar Border

Thailand-Myanmar Border

After lunch Nikki gave us the option of crossing a short bridge and briefly visiting Myanmar which we thought was just the thing to do. To get to Myanmar, we drove to the Thai border town of Mae Sai, separated from Burma by the Sai River. The town was bustling with trade, the main street lined with food vendors and all manner of goods for locals and for tourists, with most of the merchandise coming from across the river in Myanmar. We stopped at Thai immigration and got the necessary paperwork done to walk across the bridge. Then we stopped at Myanmar immigration on the other side of the bridge to do the same. However we had to leave our passports with them which caused a little frisson of alarm, but Nikki assured us all would be well.

A Young Burmese Boy

A Young Burmese Boy

Myanmar is actually the old name for the country, which means strong health and happiness. The name Burma came about, as so often happened when the British came to colonize. In 1989 it was changed back officially to Myanmar, which is much closer to the historical name in the local language The capital city was originally Yangon, which the British changed to Rangoon for whatever reason. Now it is back to Yangon.

 

 

Streets of Tachilek

Streets of Tachilek

The town on the Myanmar side is Tachilek and like its Thai counterpart on the other side of the bridge, it too is bustling with trade. A major difference is that in Tachilek there is a thriving black market for pirated goods and knock-offs which Nikki advised us will be promptly seized when a person re-enters Thailand, a nation which has partnered with the West to try to protect patents, copyrights and trademarks. There are no such niceties observed in Myanmar where it is open season on Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Oakley, Viagra, Marlboros and a host of other name brands. whose pirated or knock-off products can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.

 

The Little Tuk-tuk that Could Not

The Little Tuk-tuk that Could Not

The main attraction in Tachilek is a massive temple called the Tachilek Shwedagon Pagoda, sitting upon a hill overlooking the town. We hired two tuk-tuks (small vehicles that are like a powered rickshaw – a motor scooter in the front attached to a small truck bed with a seat) to take us up to the temple. They don’t haul much of a payload since at one point we had to get out and push to get up a hill. It seems these tuk-tuks don’t have much horsepower, but then again, we Americans present quite a payload for hauling. We decided it would be a good idea to pick the skinniest of the skinny drivers and maybe put one passesnger per tuk-tuk to avoid having to push. We could easily have been in the music video for Salt-N-Pepa’s song, “Push It Real Good”. We definitely had to push it real good going up that hill.

 

The Stupa at the Tachilek Swegdon Pagoda

The Stupa at the Tachilek Swegdon Pagoda

The temple and its setting were beautiful , so we left our shoes at the entrance and enjoyed a walk around the grounds. We bought incense and flowers from local sellers to pay our respects at the temple, whose stupa (chedi) was a replica of one in Yangon. Here we had the opportunity to locate the statue of our personal Buddha, based on the day of the week we were born. Each of the 7 sites has a large statue of Buddha, with flower vases and incense burners on either side. In front of that there is a basin full of water with a small standing Buddha statue in the center of it. Below that is another basin with an animal, a different one representing each day of the week. We each sought out our birthday Buddha, and Nikki showed us the appropriate process for paying our respects.

Paying Respects to the Thursday Buddha

Paying Respects to the Thursday Buddha

Here were the instructions:
1) Stand before the Buddha and bow 3 times with hands together in a Wai position
2) Put incense in the jar and flowers in a pot provided
3) Dip out 3 cups of water and pour on the little Buddha
4) Dip out 2 cups of water to put on the hands of the Big Buddha who is holding a shell
5) Dip out one cup of water and pour on your Burmese Zodiac animal – in my case it was the rat, and Gary’s was a tiger.

 

Jolly Monks

Jolly Monks

We also had out picture taken with what is sometimes called the Double Buddha, but it is actually larger than life sculptures of two jolly and seemingly frolicking monks. This is said to bring good luck and if that wouldn’t do it, we also rang the large gong to bring even more. You can’t have too much good luck.
We were besieged by postcard sellers who insisted we must buy their product so we gave them a dollar or two just to go away, but this only produced more post card sellers who not only wanted to sell postcards, but they also said were also hungry to boot. Gary offered to buy them something to eat, but they declined that offer and went back to hawking postcards. We beat a hasty retreat to our tuk-tuk for the trip back to town with no pushing since it was all down-hill.

 

Tacilek's Thriving Markets - Black and Otherwise

Tachilek’s Thriving Markets – Black and Otherwise

We retraced our steps and retrieved our passports at the Myanmar Immigration office. They passed each passport out individually, carefully studying the face of the claimant to make sure some Burmese peasant was not trying to pull a fast one. It was quite interesting since most of us strive to not look like our passport pictures since they are usually so unflattering. We also had an interesting time at Thai customs where they looked through all our possessions to make sure we were not bringing back any contraband cigarettes, designer bags or erectile dysfunction meds. I am glad to say we were declared innocent on all counts and allowed back into Thailand.

 

Relaxing by the Kok River

Relaxing by the Kok River

We had a little free time before dinner so we enjoyed some relaxation at our hotel where they had set up lounge chairs along the River Kwok to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the evening. After dealing with the tuk-tuk pushing, the respect paying and the hungry post card sellers, it was nice to relax. We noticed that everyone here is busy – no loitering, no lollygagging. Aside from taking time for a massage or meditation, hardly any locals sit still for any length of time. Everyone appears to be industrious and creative, which may be a reaction to the bad old days when everyone was almost comatose on opium. There is a genuine warmth and graciousness of the Thai people that we have come to admire during our stay here and we had time as we lollygagged by the river to reflect on it. Tomorrow we will bid farewell to Thailand and cross the Mekong River to begin our tour of Laos.




Southeast Asia Part 2: Laos

Southeast Asia

Part Two: Laos

February 16, 2012

Dateline:  Pakbeng, Laos

Latitude at Pakbeng 14.85 Degrees North, Longitude 101.55 Degrees East

The Ferry Across the Mekong

The Ferry Across the Mekong

Today we explored by road some beautiful country of the upper Mekong  in Northernmost Thailand as we made our way to the river, where we would leave Nikki behind and cross into Laos. We went from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Houei Say, Laos, which was originally a French fortress built on the river in 1939.  We officially entered Laos where the Pak Tha River empties into the Mekong.   At Houei Say the river drops 8 meters in the “dry” season of  April and May and this is  when they catch gigantic  catfish called “plabuk” (which I may or may not have spelled correctly) It is supposedly the  largest freshwater fish in the world at  9 feet long and around 660 pounds. They live in deep holes and can be netted (with a very sturdy net of course) in shallow water season. The fish sells for around $5.00 per pound (US) so this is a major payday for the locals. There is a big competition between Chiang Khong  and Houei Say which is sort of an Asian Fish Rodeo.

Longboats Ready for the Voyage Downriver

Longboats Ready for the Voyage Downriver

We had quite a kerfuffle at Laos customs with Stu’s passport stamp, (we had to present passport photos and $35.00 in cash) due to an erroneous date stamped on it on the Thailand side of the Mekong. We were first told he had to go back across the river to get it straightened out, but eventually higher management at Immigration ruled he could proceed. We considered getting some local money,   but we were told that US dollars and Thai baht are widely accepted here. Their currency is the Kip which was trading at about 8,000 to the dollar so we decided to keep it simple and use dollars. We took some local transportation (tuk-tuks) with our bags to the local docks where we were to board our vessel,  a 38 passenger long boat,  and motor downriver to Pak Beng where we would spend the night.  Our trip would take 2 days and this first leg would cover 140 km in 7 hours on the river.

In a Hmong Village

In a Hmong Village

We had a very tranquil cruise down the Mekong’s mist shrouded hills, enjoying a very peaceful and relaxing ride on the river, whose water was olive green flecked with gold.  There were actually people panning for gold, although undoubtedly all we saw that “glittered was not gold”, but actually pyrite or fool’s gold. We stopped at a Hmong (pronounced Ha-mong with the accent on “mong”) village perched up high on a sand dune. The moment we disembarked, we were swarmed by small children selling hand made goods (woven bracelets and bags, and cross stitched tribal designs. There was lush foliage despite the dry

Along the Mekong

Along the Mekong

season and the shade looked inviting, but with the humidity, there was very little respite from the heat there. The river is approximately 300 yards wide here. Most villages along the river have no roads and they depend on the river for transportation. The boats were an odd assortment, many of which had seats that had once been in cars or at a kitchen table. There seemed to be no two alike which made for a very interesting ride. Our Laotian guide, using our Thai guide, Nikki’s, phrasing, said that sometimes the Chinese are “naughty” and dam up the river and won’t let enough water flow downstream, which causes problems, significantly impeding  transportation and commerce.

Docking at the Sand Dunes Along the Mekong

Docking at the Sand Dunes on the Mekong

We found an interesting phenomenon in the village – there are wooden huts with no windows and dirt floors, but each has electricity running to it on a single wire. They have one outlet per house and in that outlet is plugged a cell phone charger and we marveled at this. The houses had the campfire inside.They say the smoke keeps the insects out and I could feel the insects’ aversion – it certainly kept me out. The Hmong elect a chief who is sometimes a woman.  and they also have a village shaman who offers herbal remedies.

 

A Hmong Grandma and Grandson

A Hmong Grandma and Grandson

Here women build the houses and men work in the fields. The soil varies from sand dunes to hard packed clay, presenting a real challenge in the rainy season.  There was an abundance of pigs, chickens and dogs and we understood that all could be on the menu on any given day. The older people in the village wore traditional clothes, but the young ones wore western clothes – but quite rag tag Western clothes. Kee, our guide said we should not give gifts, candy or money, or any other handouts to the children, since  the local people do not want to raise a generation of beggars.  We could buy anything they have to sell but we should pay the exact price and no more. And we should not pay to take photos. Kee says they do not want to set expectations for children that they can ever get something for nothing since everyone is striving to teach them good work ethics.

Motoring Down the Mekong

Motoring Down the Mekong

From the village we had 3 more hours of cruising to reach the Luang Say lodge near the village of Pak Beng. En route we were served a hot lunch of beef, rice and eggplant which way too spicy for me (although Gary pronounced it tasty) and so I had to hit my stash of cheese and crackers.  Kee told us that  local people grow teak as an investment for their kids. We saw no males between the ages of 15 and 40, neither in the villages nor on the river and were told most leave the village to earn money, leaving older workers, women and children here. There were many babies and toddlers in the village, so we knew the younger men had to visit here from time to time.  We were told that people here are not sure of their ages and that birthdays are not considered important.

Hmong Fishing Boats on the Mekong

Hmong Fishing Boats on the Mekong

The terrain grew mountainous as we made our way east and the river had a few rapids, but nothing too challenging. The most precipitous was a vertical drop of 1,000 feet over 350 meters at one point with several sets of rapids. We were told the lodge we were going to would be rustic and we were hoping that would not mean no indoor toilets. You could get some serious insect bites here in some undignified locations if you had to go outside.  We noticed quite a few water buffalo and were told that in addition to using them in farming, the locals here eat water buffalo. They are “free range” and often they have to do a roundup including across the river into Thailand.

There were a number of bamboo houses on the beach, but we were told they will wash away with the rainy season. They are only intended to be temporary and will have to be rebuilt after the floods of the rainy season.

The View from the Luang Say Lodge

The View from the Luang Say Lodge

We arrived at our overnight stop a few hours before sunset and found we had quite a trek to make up the hill to the Luang Say Lodge high above the river. We were supposed to pack a light bag and leave our larger one behind, but some tourists apparently didn’t get the memo and the hotel porters struggled up the hill with suitcases weighing at least half a much as they did. The most amazing thing was they always had a smile too.  They also held up poles to form a safety rail for the tourists since there were no permanent structures and if you tripped you would wind up in the river. OSHA would find this lodge quite naughty in the safety department.  We found it to be beautiful with great views up and down the river, surrounded by mountains. The lodge was built out of teak and oozed charm and authenticity (as authentic as you can get and still satisfy Western tourists that is). The rooms were not air conditioned, but the evening cooled off rapidly and we were very comfortable with just a fan.

Maintenance Person at the Luang Say Lodge

Maintenance Person at the Luang Say Lodge

Our rooms were quite nice with en suite bathrooms and mosquito canopy netting tied over the bed like something out of a Bogart movie. In our room Gary pulled on the chain of the release cord a little too vigorously and broke it. We had wanted to get it in place over the bed before the dusk mosquito onslaught began and so we called the front desk for help.  We expected a guy with a ladder. What we got were two house girls about 70 pounds each, about 4’6” and no ladder. They just shinnied up the posts and scampered across the rafters to take it down, fix it and put it back up.

 

Evening on the Mekong from the Luang Say Lodge

Evening on the Mekong from the Luang Say Lodge

There was a dinner show with dancers from Pak Beng – both tiny and charming but a little of the music goes a long way – sort of like a violin lesson gone bad – real bad. We had good French wine and a good dinner. We were told the Thais tried to conquer Laos at one time, but the French ran them off and apparently left an appreciation for their wines behind as their legacy. I enjoyed the food, but desserts here almost always involve rice and rarely involve chocolate, which makes them easy for me to resist.  The sleeping in the cool mountain air was really a treat.

 

 

February 17, 2012

Dateline: Luang Prabang, Laos

Latitude at Luang Prabang 19.88 Degrees North, Longitude 102.13 Degrees East

Morning Mist on the Mekong

Morning Mist on the Mekong

Today we awoke at the Luang Say Lodge to continue our trip down the Mekong to the port of Luang Prabang, a distance of 160 kilometers, which would take us 7 hours. We had fabulous produce for our breakfast – mangos, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, all eaten at an open air terrace at the lodge overlooking the river. The weather was very cool with a heavy mist on the hills above the river, and the boat crew provided capes for us (sort of serape like things) so we all suited up and found that they warmed us perfectly, along with the hot tea served to us. At this point the river is pristine with steep

 

Capes to Keep the Chill Off

Capes to Keep the Chill Off

mountains and heavy vegetation coming right down to the river amid jagged rocks and sandy beaches. There were countless small waterfalls and rivulets feeding the river from hidden springs. We did see the occasional pig or two on the beach which was a little jarring – we weren’t sure Shangri-La was supposed to have pigs in the picture. Our pace was slow and languid except when we went through rapids where we needed speed to maintain steering. The boat we were on was 34 meters long and was essentially a river barge, built of teak with a hardened steel hull.

 

A Longboat on the Mekong

A Longboat on the Mekong

We learned that name Laos come from the phrase “Lane Xiang” which means a million elephants, which may or may not be historically accurate. Laos had a lot of elephants back in the day, but whether it was a million is debatable.  Laos, unlike Thailand, was conquered quite a bit, in more recent times by the French, whose colonizing stopped at the Mekong border with Thailand. The French declared Laos a protectorate in 1893 and kept the Thais from taking it back during colonial times. The Mekong River was the west boundary of the French empire and the Thai Border was the east Boundary of the British colony of Burma. The Japanese briefly occupied Laos late in WWII, but found themselves needing all their resources to fight off the Allies in the Pacific and withdrew. At the end of WWII the French resumed their protectorate until 1954 when they granted Laos independence under a constitutional monarchy.  This led to a civil war between Royalists and Communists (the Pathet Lao) which continued for a number of years including during the Vietnam War when the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than they had during the entirety of WWII in a effort to destroy the supply line know as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong often scurried across into Laos after a raid in Vietnam. Laos became a refuge for Anti-Communists escaping Vietnam, until it fell to the Communists as well.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Laos became a communist nation, but it has evolved over the years to be sort of “Communist Lite”. The ruling party is communist, mostly in name. They have elections here, but there is only one party, so it’s not so democratic that anyone would notice.  Their economy is built on capitalism and the US lifted a 20 year trade embargo in 1995, which helped greatly in the cause of capitalism, including tourism. They have really seen tourism skyrocket up from 300 tourists in 1990 to hundreds of thousands today. Schools in Laos are paid for by the Vietnamese government. No one seemed quite  sure as to what the quid pro quo is on that – most likely the Vietnamese  are seeking markets  among the 8 million people who live in Laos for their burgeoning economy.

Making our Way West on the Melong

Making our Way West on the Melong

The Mekong is 4, 180 kilometers long, the 10th longest river in the world, and there are very few bridges across it. It is called both the Artery of Life and the Mother of Waters. Rice whiskey is distilled along the banks in scattered villages and teak logging is still a major source of income. The Mekong starts in Tibet and runs through Yunnan Province in China, then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.   There are 3 seasons here. December-January are  the Cold Season (a relative term) and February – April are the  Dry Season  (also a relative term). May-September are the Rainy Season by anyone’s standards.

The Hmong tribes are traditionally mountain farmers who grow rice in the wet season and corn and other hardy crops in the dry season. They are semi-nomadic and clear the land of old crops by burning. They plant crops and stay a few years until the soil is depleted and then move on. When the river is down they plant peanuts in the sand banks.

Laos is very culturally diverse with 130 different ethnic groups in 4 major categories which the Laotian government is now trying to unite. They are:

Lowland Thai – the most powerful and influential group with ethnic roots in Thailand and the Shan people of Burma.

Highland Khmer – Australian- Asiatic influence by way of India and Indonesia. They are the group who built Angor Wat. They were powerful at one time, but now are the poorest group in Laos.

Mountain People – the Sino-Tibetan people of Chinese descent from tribes from Tibet and the Himalayas. These people are now traders and refugees.

Typical Hmong Home

Typical Hmong Home

Hmong – the Hill tribes which are dominant in Northern Laos.  They have written the “Bible” of Animism, their religion, which is believed to be the oldest religion in the world. Animists believe in sentient (feeling) spirit in all things in the world. They have a priest/shaman to communicate with the spirit world and with the spirits of ancestors. Their goal is harmonious existence through sacrifices and prayers. Hmong Animists typically have a shrine in each home of wood and paper decorated with the feathers of a sacrificed rooster (cockerel). Actual animals in the wild are scarce. Birds, squirrels, monkeys, wild boar, and deer have been hunted to the point of vanishing from the countryside. Hmong houses are made of wood or bamboo planks, with steep thatched roofs that extend nearly to the ground.

As we made our way east down the Mekong, we saw Hmong villagers panning for gold and we passed the village of Houri Sangaeh which is gold panning center of sorts. Our guide, Kee, told us that the streams feeding the Mekong can provide gold worth $100 US per month to a family, which goes a long way here.  The French built a gold mine, but it didn’t product enough gold for it to be worth it. The best time for panning is January through May when the river is at its lowest. The locals look for characteristics in the mud that signify “pay dirt”.

A Weaver Selling her Crafts

A Weaver Selling her Crafts

We stopped at a weaving village of 200 people of the Yao tribe whose real name has permanently escaped me, but is sounded something like “Gon D-turn”. We actually visited a “suburb” of this village, which was set up to sell goods to tourists arriving by river. An interesting side note – they offer jet boat rentals as a tourist attraction and  what a contrast that provided. We much preferred the weaving by hand and passed on the jet boat experience.

 

 

 

Sampling the Local Whiskey

Sampling the Local Whiskey

We visited another weaving village called Ban Baw ( pronounced  more like “beau”) where we bought scarves an had the opportunity to sample some Laotian moonshine – clear rice whiskey – aged 3 to 5 minutes. They also make a  home brew beer. Both  were pretty awful. The whiskey is called Lao Khao. It is strong stuff, but not exactly smooth – Jack Daniels has nothing to worry about here. Here is the process:

A large oil drum is filled with small cake of ground rice. Water is added and the natural yeast in the rice cakes creates fermentation. After 1 to 2 weeks the cream colored  liquid is collected to make rice wine called Sara. It tastes a little like fizzy lemonade. To make the whiskey, the container is heated on a wood or charcoal fire and covered with a metal lid. Cool water flows over the lid and the alcohol condenses on the bottom of the lid. From there it flows through a small pipe to a bottle ( although ours had a rope and bowl.)

The Caves of Pak Ou

The Caves of Pak Ou

We stopped at Pak Ou,  where there are two caves in a rock wall containing literally thousands of Buddha statues and images. (Estimated at 4,000.) The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper is called Tham Theung.  Anyone can come and bring a Buddha statue and leave it, and apparently thousands have.  The caves were originally used by Animists to worship Phi, the God of Nature and the Mekong River Spirit, which they believe was housed here.  The statues are made from all sorts of materials including concrete, bronze and wood although due to termites, the latter has not fared so well. Inside the caves there are Buddhas on every available surface, some 1 to 2 meters high, some in gold leaf, some just painted and flaking. There is a washing ceremony where the Buddhas are washed in a long

The Buddhas of Pak Ou

The Buddhas of Pak Ou

wooden vessel in the shape of a naga (snake dragon) The King and Queen used to come and wash the Buddhas back in the day on the Laotian New Year, but in those times, they were far fewer in number. The last king was deposed in 1975 and the washing isn’t really manageable any more. Today only Buddhists and Animists live in this area.  The Catholic Church in Luang Prabang which was built by the French  is now a police station.  The only Christians in Laos today are in the capital, Ventiane, in the southern part of Laos,.

Crime is practically non-existent here (practically because there is some). The two main offenses involve taking and selling drugs and speaking out against the deceased king or the current government.  The Laotians say they have Freedom of Speech as long as you don’t say the wrong thing.

We continued downriver to Luang Prabang, situated between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, and we met our two hosts, Ek and Paan. where we learned more Laotian history on our way to check into the Kiridara Hotel.

Luang Prabang Mass Transit

Luang Prabang Mass Transit

In the mid 13th Century a number of small states in Northern Laos united to form the Kingdom of Lang Chang which evolved into the name Luang Prabang. The founder was a Thai chief who married a Khmer princess. Two hundred years later they waged war against the Lanna Kingdom in what is today northern Thailand and lost and so those two kingdoms more or less merged (or reunited as the Thais saw it). In 1707 there was a war of succession that split the kingdom into two parts – Ventiane in the south and Luang Prabang in the north.  Luang Prabang fell to the Burmese, and were ruled by them in the 1700’s, but finally got rid of them and became a dependency of Siam (Thailand). But this only occurred after a large massacre.  Luang Prabang was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.

We had some relaxation time by the pool which was really welcome after our hectic touring and then shortly after 4:00 p.m. we met with Paan who would guide us the next few days since Ek was developing a cold. She took us to a market to get a new suitcase since Sharon’s had a blowout and she also ordered a custom made skirt out of Laotian silk.

Parasols on Sale in the Night Market in Luang Prabang

Parasols on Sale in the Night Market in Luang Prabang

That evening we went to the night market in old town Luang Prabang where there were a lot of crafts, specifically weaving and carving. We bought an elephant head (a small one) for our library at home carved in teak wood. We enjoyed sightseeing (not eating) some of the local delicacies such as Frog snout (we dubbed it the Kermit Special), but they did have some tasty looking things like donuts, fried chicken and grilled fish.) There was something labeled “Half-Brain Stew”  that we saw, (well truthfully we averted our eyes) and passed on the offer of a free sample. It sort of makes you wonder what they put in their donuts too – that frogs and brains business just casts suspicion on everything  and we figured the donuts would not be  your typical Krispy Kreme.

We had dinner at a restaurant called the Three Nagas and were served Laotian fare, which seemed very much identical to Thai food. By this point we were all getting pretty desperate for some Western food, except for Gary, who could eat Asian food at every meal. In fact, our Thai guide Nikki commented that Gary must have some Thai ancestors, because he has the typical ravenous Thai appetite, but apparently he did not get the Thai metabolism or physique with that inheritance

 

February 18, 2012

We skipped making merit this morning and “slept in”, and yet we were still ready at 7:30 for breakfast. Our guide, Ek, met us  to  explore Luang Prabang, whose name means “Capital of Holy Buddhas”. We also took a pass on seeing local singers and dancers perform. At the risk of being narrow-minded and culturally shallow, I have to say that to these Western ears a little of this goes a long, long way. There are some huge gaps in some basic musical concepts between what Western cultures appreciate and what Asians appreciate in terms of melody, pitch and tone.  There are hundreds of wonderful things about Asia, but music is not one of them.

Vat Visounnarath Temple

Vat Visounnarath Temple

Today we would visit several temples, though not all since that would mean 33 temples and this is overload in anybody’s book. There were once 66 temples in the olden days, but 33 more are now in ruins or replaced by other structures. We were picked up by Ek and our driver Olay. We had to chuckle upon seeing (not making this up) a plastic Buddha on the dashboard of our tour vehicle.  He was a very nice man, if a little unskilled with the clutch from time to time, injecting a little lurching movement in our ride at random intervals.

Before we started our touring, we took advantage of a local laundry (being advised to avoid the pricy hotel laundry service).  They do it here for $2.50 per kilo, which is roughly 2.2 pounds.  The bad news is, your clothes might shrink a bit, but hey the price is right and clothing is so cheap here, you can buy more.

We had learned a little local etiquette which included much of what was true in Thailand, such as the prohibition of touching another person on the head.  Also conservative dress is observed here, particularly in temples and includes, for both sexes, covering knees and shoulders. We read that public displays of affection are taboo as is littering, so no kissing or squeezing allowed. Also we were cautioned to be aware of eye contact which is a Western, not an Eastern value. Lao people believe that staring affects a person’s soul (khwan).  And we should ask permission before photographing anyone since  there is a lot of both shyness and superstition among local people.

Buddha in the Temple

Buddha at Vat Visounnarath

Once in the temples there should be no touching of Buddha statues and in some temples even posing with them is considered disrespectful. One rule that we found a challenge was to keep our heads lower than Buddhas and monks when speaking with them. The Buddhas were almost always elevated, so this was not a problem, but those monks were really, really short. We concluded that they give  most Western tourists a pass on this one.  They are strict that women may not touch a monk. If a woman wants to give something to a monk, she hands it to a man who hands it to him.

En route to the temples, Ek gave us some more background on the Buddhist religion

Everyone Loves an Ipad

Everyone Loves an Ipad

We learned that there are 10 basic Rules for Novice monks (starter monks) to  keep it really simple, and they may spend 5 to 6 years at that level.  If a man enters the monkhood as an older man, he may be called Father Novice. A man can actually drop out and rejoin multiple times. Once monks are ordained, they have to observe 328 rules which include no jumping, no jewelry, no driving. They take a test – sort of like Monk boards.  We wondered if that is going to be expanded to include “no cell phones, no IPAD, no Fitbit, etc. to accommodate advances in technology. Here monks typically shave their heads at every full moon, although this practice varies with different Buddhist sects.   This is a tradition which is said to symbolize a renunciation of earthly desires,   Also it creates uniformity in the monkhood and eliminates distractions to their focus on their religious duties.  No primping in the mirror here, and in fact even looking at yourself in a mirror is not permitted. Monks often play the role of marriage counselor and spiritual adviser to lay people.

The Watermelon Stupa

The Watermelon Stupa

Our first stop was at the oldest temple in Luang Prabang called Vat Visounnarath  built in 1512-15 by the King at the time.  The banyan trees in the courtyard were said to be 2,000 years old and so they predate the temple.  On the grounds of the temple compound is the equally ancient (1503) That Makmo  (a.k.a. the “Watermelon Stupa,”  so named because of the big round shape.  A stupa  was a religious monument that served as a tomb for important kings and royalty and are often on the grounds of the temples.  The That Makmo dome  was designed to look like a lotus blossom – that was the intent anyway, but  it looks more like an artichoke to me.  It may have been more lotus-like before the pillaging in 1887 by a Chinese militia and the coating of grey concrete applied in 1932 to keep it from crumbling.

Laundry Day at the Monks' Quarters

Laundry Day at the Monks’ Quarters

There are also a number of cabin- like buildings housing the temple’s monks, complete with laundry (orange robes mostly) flapping in the breeze on the porches. Signs with Buddhist teachings (obviously hand painted) are scattered throughout the grounds. There are quite a few similarities to Christian teachings. The signs provide kind of a thought for the day sort of thing including the 7 rules for Talking.  For example, one sign indicated your should “Speak Truth, not Untruth” and another noted you should “Speak pleasant words, not unpleasant ones” – both excellent ideas.  Key parts of their teaching involve listening more than speaking, that the self is not as important as others, and that you should always seek enlightenment,, and you can’t learn while you are talking. Also a big one is that giving is better than receiving, which should sound quite familiar to Christians.  A ceremonial drum is sounded at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to mark prayer time.

A Spirt House at Vat

A Spirit House at Vat Visounnarath

Inside the temple there were murals, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno depicting different “hells” and  punishments for various offenses.  For example one particularly graphic depiction illustrated the punishment for an adulterer which showed a very unhappy fellow being pierced by stakes, impaled on thorns and bitten by dogs. There were other hells for more minor offenses such as  illicit eating (monks have to fast after noon) or lying or hunting (they don’t believe in killing things).  We were told that illicit eating is the number one cause of monk-school washout among young boys and young men.

As we continued our sightseeing in the historic area, it immediately became apparent why Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site.  There seemed to be ancient monasteries and temples on every block. Our next stop was the temple of Vat Xieng Tong. The translation of the name is the Monastery of the Golden City, and it is the most historically significant temple in the city.  They practice Theravada  (pronounced Ter rah vah dah with the accent on “ter” and “vah”) Buddhism here, as they do in Thailand which is based on the Tipitaka, which is the earliest teachings of Buddha. “Vat” means temple here, whereas in Thailand and Cambodia, it

The Temple at Vat Xieng Thong

The Temple at Vat Xieng Tong

is “wat”. The temple (called the sim) is actually just one part of the complex that is Vat Xieng Tong. There are also monks’ quarters (called kuti), pavilions, gardens and shrines. It was built in 1560 and was embellished over the years. It is considered to be the religious emblem of Laos.  The temple complex served as the entrance to the city – the first stop when crossing either the Mekong or the Nam Khan to get to Luang Prabang. The temple itself has a striking 3 tiered roof which almost reaches the ground on each side.  There was some extensive restoration complete with scaffolding going on while we were there, but we could still see the beauty of it and could imagine it as the site of coronations of Laotian kings and religious festivals. Temple styles here originated from India, but in Laos they evolved to be higher and more pointed rooflines with finials.

Open Air Markets Surrounding a Temple

Open Air Markets Surrounding a Temple

As we walked about we learned a few more monk rules such as no novice can sit in a position higher than a monk,  no one can point the soles of their feet toward Buddha and you should never point with a single finger (a scolding position) as this is considered rude, but rather use your whole hand. Also you should not step on the raised door frame of a temple. This is where the spirit of the naga dwells and so you should step over it.  Gary kept forgetting about doing the pointing thing – naughty tourist.

We also learned that monks only have to go barefoot when collecting alms. Otherwise they wear flip-flops.  While they cannot drive even a motorbike – you often see them on the back of one with someone else driving. They are allowed a few vices such as smoking and getting tattoos. All Laotians (not just monks) do not touch another without permission.   The biggest taboos seem to be sex, lying, stealing, killing, and eating during fast.  We were told that monks have to taste at least one bite of whatever they are given to eat. If not they will go blind (we didn’t think it seemly to share that in our country common folklore tells us that something else causes that.)

Meditating Buddha

Meditating Buddha

Buddha statues may have different poses called asanas. We learned about the different hand positions seen in statues of Buddha that are called “mudras”. Buddha always has the same serene expression, but his body and hands convey a message. For example if his hands at his side with all fingers down he is calling for rain.

Also each day of the week has a different Buddha asana or mudra  and there are many for individual messages  Here are a few examples:

Monday is Peace Buddha – Buddha is standing with one hand extended like Diana Ross admonishing you to  “STOP” in the name of love.

Tuesday Buddha is reclining – Buddha is lying on his side, body perfectly straight with his head resting on one hand propped up on an elbow.

Wednesday Buddha has a bowl and is asking for Alms. This is only the Wednesday morning Buddha, the afternoon Buddha is doing something else.

Thursday Buddha is meditating / thumbs touch with fingers slightly overlapping

Friday Buddha is thinking deeply with this palms crossed over his chest

There is a mudra to expel negativity that looks a little like the NC State Wolfpack sign with the thumb and middle finger together.  A mudra called Namaskar is with the hands together as if praying. It is a welcoming greeting and is the same gesture made from one person to another, which the Thais call the “wai”, and  Laotians call it the “nop”.

Drying Rice Cakes on Foreigner Street

Drying Rice Cakes on Foreigner Street

From the temples we walked to Foreigner Street, so called because this is the area where Caucasians used to live.  Today the street   is lined with various forms of low-tech food production. We saw racks of sticky rice cakes drying in the sun made by the monks that are intended for the poor.  They rehydrate them and heat  them. Also people bring other food throughout the day for both the monks and the poor since giving to others is a key part of their religion.  We also saw women and children making papadam (originally from India) which is a tortilla like food item made from tapioca root instead of corn or wheat. It was also being dried on racks outside on the street.  We were told it will last for years, but no word on how tasty it would be by then.  Also on drying racks we saw jerky, algae (which they grind up and use as a seasoning) and there was the odd batch of laundry thrown in.  We commented that it would seem birds, dogs and cats would steal a snack.  Apparently this country is so honest that not even the animals steal – except the occasional “naughty” bird, and even then they don’t take much.

For building materials in the old days before cement, (which Ek called “semen”, which gave us pause until we figured it out), they used bamboo and water buffalo poop for a binder.  It must have been a very happy event when they were introduced to plaster and cement.

The Naga Staircase of Mount Phousy

The Naga Staircase of Mount Phousy

We walked (or climbed is more apt description since there were an estimated 400  steps) at dusk up to Mount Phousy, a hill in the center of town where the Vat Tham Mothayaram Temple offers an excellent view of the area. It is sort of a ritual to go up there for the sunset, which seems to sink into the hills above the Mekong . We explored the mountain top with its countless Buddhas, set in serene grottos and niches, with floral offerings of orange and yellow flowers (marigolds are big here) as the sound of the chanting of the monks in the temples below drifted up to create a really spiritual moment.

 

Just a Guy Not Buddha

Just a Guy Not Buddha

A word on Buddha likenesses. There is an abundance of statuary of a jolly pudgy guy grinning ear to ear which is often mistaken for Buddha. This is not the case.  He was a person who at one point in his life was wealthy, thin and handsome and always in trouble with the ladies. He knew there was no way he was going to become “Enlightened” (the ultimate goal of  the faithful) with those attributes so he asked Buddha to make him broke, fat and ugly to allow him to escape from temptations like chasing wealth and women. He was granted his wish and became fat, broke, and ugly, but also happy as depicted in the numerous images of him.

The View from Mount Phousy

The View from Mount Phousy

On our way down we did peek into one of the temples where the Buddhist were at prayer.  With the dusk upon us and the almost celestial chanting, it was easy to be drawn into a sense of spirituality. Until that is,  we noticed with some amusement that a young monk on the back row seemed to have concealed a cell phone inside his prayer book and was texting away.  He looked back and saw us looking at him and slammed his book shut looking contrite.  We didn’t tell on him, so his secret is safe with us, but we did think that he may be a monkhood washout in the coming years.

 

Monks at the Festival

Monks at the Festival

Our guide attempted to educate us about temple and festival  lore – but it was somewhat hard to follow. It seemed at times to be a sequence of non-sequiturs and strange illogical plot development – sort of like a child relating a story (or making one up from whole cloth).  Such was the case for the festival in progress that is held once a year to celebrate the last day of the last life of Buddha. It was very carnival like although there was no midway. It was a chance for the monks to let their hair down – that is if they actually had any hair. We understood  that Buddha’s last hurrah as a mortal  his imminent immortality to be

Monks Letting Their Hair Down (so to speak)

Monks Letting Their Hair Down (so to speak)

the cause of the celebration.  There were a lot of games of chance, which we were surprised at (no jumping, but it’s okay to throw a ball  or a dart. Most of the people playing were young boys and old tourists and the proceeds would go to the monasteries.  Not too different, we thought, from the Catholic bingo nights.  They had balloons to burst with a dart, dart roulette where you pick three numbers and spin a wheel. If your dart lands on one of your numbers you win.  There was also a dice game where you would roll to match 3 dice. We concluded it must not be considered as sinful here as it is in the Christian world to be shooting dice.

We finished off our evening with dinner at the hotel by the pool and called it a day – a very long temple-filled day at that.

February 19, 2012

The Pool at the Kiridari

The Pool at the Kiridari

We had a very lovely poolside breakfast at the hotel with the distinctive smell of charcoal in the air and so we knew there were mighty preparations underway to get the day’s supply of sticky rice ready. The mist was just rising off the river when we heard the sound of a gong in the distance, and we imagined the monks making their way among the people wishing to “make merit” by offering them food.

We were picked up at the hotel in order to have an elephant experience at the Xieng Lom Elephant Camp which is 17 kilometers up the Nam Khan River from Luang Prabang, mostly on a dirt road. Unlike our adventure in Thailand, this proved to be pretty tame because we sat in the box called a “howdah”” on the elephant’s back, but it was fun anyway, and certainly much more comfortable than sitting “spread eagle” on the elephant’s very broad back.

En route we learned more about a monk’s life. He is allowed to hold and play with children (such as nieces and nephews) of both sexes until the children are four years old. After that, they can touch the nephews only.  The belief is that they shave not only their heads but also their eyebrows in order  to keep desire away, which is one of those logic-defying things that we keep struggling with. But it’s interesting – always interesting, as was a local crematorium that our guide pointed out– an open air affair built like a gazebo – teakwood painted white, but the top was blackened from all the smoke

Elephants of Xieng Lom

Elephants of Xieng Lom

When we arrived, we saw the elephants placidly munching on bamboo and banana palm leaves. All of the elephants they use here are older females which are much more docile and easy to work with than their feisty male counterparts. Our assigned elephant was Cam Dee – a 44 year old matronly type. Our mahout was Jai who was 24,  and who looked to be about 10. He told us he was working on his English.  From what we understood our elephant’s name meant Good Gold, although with his English and our grasp of the Lao language, it could have been Raging Maniac. We climbed up a set a stairs to a tower

Riding in the Howdahs

Riding in the Howdahs

that would permit us easy entry into the howdah. After riding bareback in Thailand, this seemed liked a limousine. We learned that Sang Dee is how you say “Good Elephant” and we lavished this praise on Cam Dee at every opportunity, lest she decide to go rogue – but that was thankfully not the case.  “Pai Pai”,  as it does in Thailand, means “giddy-up”.  Elephants here, as in Thailand, are trained in a foreign language, in this case Hindi. The benefit of that is that no one will give a command by accident that might confuse the elephant or otherwise cause a problem.

 

Jai, Cam Dee's Mahout

Jai, Cam Dee’s Mahout

Many of the elephants here have been rescued as orphans or from abusive environments.  Jai pointed out an unfortunate elephant whose tail had been chopped off. He said local people make jewelry out of elephant hair, and think nothing of chopping off the tail for easier access,  but at least they don’t kill them  which is little consolation to us animal lovers, which brings me to the topic of ivory. The elephants here are Asian elephants which are smaller than their African counterparts, and unlike the African Elephant, only the male Asian elephants have tusks.  So the female elephants are at least safe in that regard.

A Laotian Laundromat

A Laotian Laundromat

We set off down a trail to the river and saw local women washing their clothes. We didn’t know we were being stealthy until one of the women shrieked in surprise as Cam Dee blew hot bamboo breath on her. We noticed that this Laotian “ Laundromat” is down-river from the elephant crossing,  which we perceived to be poor planning on their part.

The camp manager told us in his briefing that the elephants seem to favor tourists over local people. Tourists as he described as tall and wide (and compared to them we all certainly are – even the shortest and the skinniest among us). We speculated that the Laotians are so small and nimble they can climb all over the elephant and no doubt irritate her to no end.  We tourists are quite placid by comparison, as well as being respectful and quite in awe of them.

Silkworms Working Away

Silkworms Working Away

After our elephant ride, we visited a weaving village called Xangkhong, accessible across a bamboo bridge. We were told that the weavers relocated here during the Vietnam War when their villages in Northern Laos were bombed. Here they raise their own silkworms, dye and weave the silk. They also make their own dyes using such products as indigo and other natural substances.  Some of the designs are so intricate, they take months to complete. They had a showroom and workshop and very reasonable prices – $16 for a hand woven silk scarf.

We returned to Luang Prabang for lunch and sat on a balcony overlooking the street at a restaurant called The View Pavilion.  It was near the temple of Vat Sop Sickharam, so our view included watching the monks coming and going.

Near theRoyal Palace

Near the Royal Palace

After lunch we went to the National Museum in the palace of a former King, but the palace was built by the French in 1904. Apparently they found the king was living in a bamboo hut and thought he needed better lodging. It was very plain on the outside, but quite nice on the inside – perhaps not sumptuous but definitely an upgrade for bamboo. The throne room is simple colonial in style, with lavishly portrayed scenes in mosaic from Laotian life using mirrors and bright colors.

The king died in 1975 and the monks set up an elaborate coronation ceremony for the son, but he was never crowned.  The Communists abolished the monarchy and sent the would be king to a “Re-education Camp” to get him indoctrinated into the joys of Communism.

The highest ranking monk always did the Coronation of the king. Interesting note:  since women are present at the coronation, the monk uses what is termed a “mask” but actually looks like one of those funeral home fans (the kind made out of paper and glued to a  stick) so he could avoid eye contact with the women. Monks also preside at ordinations but there are no women there, so there was no need  to hide from them.

Since Communism has waned, the Japanese have provided a lot of development money that Laos cannot possibly repay, but we were told the Japanese don’t care, they just don’t want to be held accountable for all those invasion related atrocities perpetrated on the people here during World War II.

Paan, our other guide,  told us that her grandfather once  owned a farm in Northern Laos on the border with Vietnam. He told her of almost a year of daily carpet bombing by Americans during the Vietnam War, attacking Viet Cong trying to slip over the border. He said the family and workers would run and hide in caves when they heard the bombers coming and that every structure on their farm was bombed and burned.  Interestingly enough, she says her grandfather and family bear no ill will toward the US for that.  He said something to the effect that Laos has seen all manner of invasions and so much devastation, but at least the Americans were trying to do something good (as opposed to other invaders who came to plunder and conquer). She cited an example of when the Japanese invaded and confiscated every piece of metal to make it into swords and machetes. Apparently it was very brutal.

The CIA was very active in Laos during the Vietnam War and the US was backed by the Royal Army of Laos to fight against Communism. When Saigon fell,  Laos actually was a quasi-Democracy in that they practiced capitalism and could own property and businesses, but they were closed to the outside world until 1999. The US gave 2 Lincolns and an Edsel to the King of Laos during the 1960’s but no one seems to know what happened to them.

At the Royal Palace, we were told another mangled and strange Naga Saga. This particularly long story involved a transvestite man and a captured and caged cat and that somehow this brought rain.  One the rain came, the cat was turned loose and the man went back to his own clothes. We wondered if we were missing something.

One thing we did resonate with is the various simple Buddhist Teachings we have heard. Two of my favorites  heard hear in Luang Prabang are:

“ Anger is a hot coal you hold in your hand. You intend to throw it at others, but it burns you the most.”

“If  you cannot find anything you like, then you need to like what you have” ( a variation on the Stephen Stills song “ Love the One You’re With”.

We called it a day fairly early and prepared for our departure tomorrow afternoon for Vietnam.

 

February 20, 2012

The Children of Ban

The Children of Ban Naoun

We had a new driver today whose name is so complicated, our guide suggested we call him Mr. Driver. We would fly to Hanoi later today, but this morning’s plan called for a visit with children at a school in the Laotian countryside at a Hmong village called Ban Naoun (pronounced “bohn ooh en” with the accent on “ooh”). The Hmong migrated here from Mongolia and several of the children have the lighter hair and eyes apparently passed down from their Mongol ancestors. Today the more wealthy Laotians are the ones who left during the communist era (on the CIA payroll so they say) from 1975 to 1985 and then came back to live in luxury. You can still see the old Communist “Hammer and Sickle” flying around town, but their heart just isn’t in it any more. It’s more symbolic  and romanticized now – perhaps like the Confederate Flag – a symbol of a bygone era.

Village Boys Admiring their Selfie

Village Boys Admiring their Selfie

Armed with candy for the kids, we set out for the village. Unfortunately, the school was closed for a holiday, but still hordes of children, seeing our van, streamed down the hillsides toward the school to greet us. Even young boys playing a game of soccer (Paan pronounced it “Shocker”, but we are sure they get as many chuckles from our pronunciation of their language as we do theirs). There were also many boys armed with slingshots who helped spread the word of tourists bearing candy arriving at the schoolhouse. Soon we were surrounded by very orderly and well mannered children.

We learned that there are only two grades taught here and unfortunately that is all the education parents can afford. Although the schools are public, they are not free. The children were both dirty and adorable. They were fascinated by us and we were fascinated right back.

Just a Boy and his Pet

Just a Boy and his Pet

We saw men smoking tobacco with a water pipe (they say it’s better for your lungs) and were trailed through the village by a young boy with a pet rooster tucked under his arm like a puppy. The kids sang The Chicken Song for us in their language (which was a little hard to get the gist of until they added the sound effects and dance moves) and Happy Birthday which was the only song they knew in English – performed just for us.  The kids had some very basic toys – like sticks, and a defunct bicycle tire. Young girls sold woven bracelets and wood carvers were selling their crafts as well. They typically sell them wholesale to merchants in Luang Prabang, but we bought a carved Naga (sort of a snake lizard, dragon combo –a long body like a snake, but with lizard like feet and  the head of a fire-breathing dragon) directly from the man who carved it.

A Village Woodcarver

A Village Woodcarver

We were told the village shaman often uses the heads of animals on a stick to keep away evil spirits – including pigs, chickens and dogs – we were okay with this until we heard the dog part. Some cultural divides are just too wide to be bridged. We were thankful the shaman wasn’t dealing with evil spirits while we were there.

 

 

 

In the Village of Ban Naoun

In the Village of Ban Naoun

We learned that 90% of business in Laos is tourism related and we were glad to see that UNESCO seems to be at work everywhere to preserve it.  Since the country was Communist for so long, we expected to see the same drab structures we have seen in China, but this was not the case – the village was both quaint and charming, with only a slight vestige of technology placed there in 2011 in the form of electricity to each home provided by an extension cord which provided a plug, which provided electricity to a cell phone charger.  The electricity is only on a few hours a day, so battery management is important – not that there is much of a cell signal in these parts.

Kouang Si Waterfalls

Kouang Si Waterfalls

From the village we took a short hike to a beautiful waterfall and series of pools deep in the jungle at a park called Kouang Si (pronounced Kwang See.  The name has something to do with a legend involving deer drilling the earth with their hooves and creating the waterfalls, which were absolutely beautiful. (we nicknamed it Shangri-Laos).  There were pools at 5 different levels, an otherworldly celadon green, cascading from one level to the next over limestone with hundreds of tiny waterfalls stretching for 80 meters. The top pool was clear, the rest shaded green from the limestone. Along the paths growing wild were

River Cascades at Kouang Si

River Cascades at Kouang Si

every tropical flower and plant normally seen in nurseries and greenhouses here in the US – hibiscus, periwinkle, lantana, poinsettias just to name a few. There were a few brave souls swimming, but the water was ice cold and most just looked on. We did see (in captivity) a local bear, which is almost extinct now, but they are trying to bring them back

We saw a motorbike pulling a bicycle up the hill with two people holding hands serving as the connection between the two. The motorbike had saddlebags the size of small refrigerators and we speculated what they might be for, but the possibilities were endless.  Everything is open air here – cooking, manufacturing,  and services such as haircuts. Transportation locally ranges from the open bed of a pickup truck (no F 150’s here – we are talking tiny Toyotas),  to tuktuks, jitneys, bicycles, motorbikes and cars.  One of the most bizarre sights was 5 guys on one motor bike, each with a container of soup with plastic over it –we assumed destined for a picnic at the park.  Then there was a motorbike with a side car which was a modified  shopping cart, and another  with a sidecar made of a buggy seat with wheels.

A Rice Paddy Near Luang Prabang

A Rice Paddy Near Luang Prabang

We had lunch at a local noodle shop which was quite good – the best in town so we were told. We had a choice of noodles  –  skinny  (like spaghetti) or wide (like lasagna) served with tomatoes, pork broth, scallions, garlic, bean sprouts and spices – all really fresh.   There were small dishes of cilantro, watercress, green beans, and butter lettuce for us to add what we wanted to our noodle dish. While we ate, we learned some Lao etiquette such as for locals, there are no rules on time and tardiness or showing up unannounced. When our guide set a time he/ she would specify Western which mean the exact time. Unlike in China, chopsticks are used for noodles only. It is fingers, spoon or fork for the other items in your noodles.  Locals also avoid using their left hand when eating since that is reserved for less sanitary business. If you are in a Lao home and offered a drink, it is considered rude not to take it and at least sip it. If you invite Lao people to join you for dinner – you pay.  If they invite you, then they will pay. They apparently make exceptions for tourists since we always split the check.

We had time for a shower and change, thanks to our late check out and caught a 4:50 p.m. flight to Hanoi .

 

 

 

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 3: North Vietnam and Hue

Southeast Asia

Part Three:  North Vietnam to Hue

February 20, 2012

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam

Latitude at Hanoi 21.02 Degrees North, Longitude 105.85 Degrees East

On the Streets in Old Town Hanoi

On the Streets in Old Town Hanoi

Today we flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines on a late afternoon flight, having gotten our visas ahead of time. We assumed that this would mean a swift and efficient pass through Immigration, but this was not the case. Our entrance into Laos (rhymes with and synonymous with chaos) was as smooth as a NASA launch compared to what awaited us in Hanoi. Our journey through Immigration involved surrendering our passports at one window, which we found to be quite alarming) and then joining a throng of people to await our name to be called, which involved a total mangling of the names at another window. This was followed by an attempt to  match a passport picture and a face – dicey at best since to Asians, all Caucasians look alike.  In any event we eventually were reunited with both our passports and our bags, and we met our North Vietnamese guide, Lily, who greeted us with xin chao (pronounced “sin chow”) , the Vietnamese word for hello.

Hanoi Traffic Free-for-All

Hanoi Traffic Free-for-All

It was foggy and cool for our one hour drive into the city, where we found Vietnamese Immigration to be a model of organization compared to the traffic encountered, not just on the roads but on paths and sidewalks as well, which seemed to be used indiscriminately by pedestrians, animals, animals pulling wheeled contraptions, bicycles and bicycles pulling wheeled contraptions, motorbikes carrying   people and pulling wheeled contraptions, livestock and cargo and  assorted vehicles, which might be hauling anything imaginable.

We got some local money (called the dong which gave us a chuckle) and learned that there are 20,800 dong to the dollar and it comes in denomination of up to 5,000) and has both bills and coins. Vietnamese currency is actually printed in Australia to avoid having government employees conspire to print off a few extra thousand dong and pocket it. It takes a lot of dong to buy anything, but US dollars are accepted in cities so that makes it easier to buy things. Vietnam has compulsory education through Grade 12 and has a 93% literacy rate, which has contributed greatly to their emerging economy.

Young Vietnamese Children

Young Vietnamese Children

We learned that Hanoi has around 7 million people of the 39 million who live in Vietnam.  Fifty-five percent of those 39 million are under the age of 35. But the statistic that really shocked us was that there are an estimated 28 million motorbikes, which are at the heart of the craziness here. There seem to be few rules of the road,  and headlights and taillights are optional. Horns can be substituted for turn signals, brakes and headlights. It is comparable to a New York City sidewalk at rush hour, but there are motorbikes instead of pedestrians. There are a host of traffic rules, but they are largely disregarded.

One unwritten rule that is observed by pedestrians is that you should not stop or change directions once you start to cross a street. The motorists are judging your speed and distance and can only successfully avoid you if you maintain speed and distance. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was rear ended by a bicycle when I paused to avoid being run over (or I thought so anyway) by a taxi.

No Hugging, but Fist Bumps are Okay

No Hugging, but Fist Bumps are Okay

There are no public displays of affection here (PDA) such as handholding or kissing, no matter how innocently. Except for babies and toddlers, the locals pretty much don’t touch each other, so when we tourists come to town with our touchy-feely ways, it has to be a culture shock for them.

The economy here is sort of Communist Light – that is they talk like Communists, but they conduct business like capitalists. They did a major overhaul of their way of life in 1986 with economic reforms called the “doi moi” in which they allowed free market enterprise, abolished collective farming and set about to

 

 

 Capitalism works for Feather Duster Sellers Too

Capitalism works for Feather Duster Sellers Too

liberalize politics in general . Today US companies are the largest investors in the country.  Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1996, they have really blossomed. Ironically the world is doing more to defeat Communism with trade than we could have ever hoped for with war. There is a 200% tax on buying vehicles, unless you buy one from China, which will generally self-destruct in three years, thus keeping the demand strong.

We were given information on local customs that we reviewed on the way and found many are the same as in Thailand and Laos. For example you should not touch the head of another person and you should remove your shoes at temples and private homes. If there is a family altar in a private home, do not sit with your feet pointing toward it. You should take a small gift to someone’s home if invited, but do not bring handkerchiefs, yellow flowers,  chrysanthemums or anything black since those have bad luck or religious meanings attached.  You should wait until you are instructed where to sit and the oldest person is seated first. Do not drink before everyone has a beverage and “clink” glasses in a toast.

Combination Sidewalk Fruit Stand and Barber Shop

Combination Sidewalk Fruit Stand and Barber Shop

When eating, these things should be observed (although they make exceptions for Westerners. You should pass dishes using both hands, place chopsticks on the table between bites and when finished place them on your bowl.  In Vietnam you hold your spoon in your left hand to eat soup, whereas in Laos you don’t use your left hand at all.

We were cautioned to ask permission to take photos of individuals, which is a good practice anywhere, and to not photography military personnel.  We are also told we should avoid any discussion of the Vietnam War ( which they call it the American War) with locals. From their perspective it is over and done with and there don’t seem to be any hard feelings.

The Opera House in the French Quarter

The Opera House in the French Quarter

Vietnam is long and narrow with two thousand miles of coastline and a width of only 31 miles at its narrowest point.  There are 59 provinces called “tinhs” and 5 municipalities called “thu do”.  The biggest holiday in Vietnam is “Tet”, or the Lunar New Year. It is a day of thanksgiving and a time to pay homage to ancestors.  The Vietnamese also believe that on this day, the deceased may visit the living. Hanoi is the oldest city in Southeast Asia, recently celebrating in 2010 its 1,000 years of existence. It was built on the Red River in the center of a long gone citadel.  The North and South split in Vietnam came into being in 1954 when the 4 great world powers at the time (the victors of WWII – The US, Great Britain, France and Russia) decided to partition the country at the 17th Parallel prior to having general elections.  The elections never took place and the division remained permanent with two separate warring leaders emerging – HO Chi Minh in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem in the South.  This set the stage for the 15 year war that the Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War.  The country was not reunited until 1975 with the fall of Saigon.

Mobile Flower Market - Peddler Pedaling Petals

Mobile Flower Market – Peddler Pedaling Petals

Lilly gave us some practical advice while in Hanoi.  That is when paying cash, we should pay for something with the correct change or it is likely you will get counterfeit bills in return. Also we should avoid eating street vendor food due to some serious hygiene issues and be on guard for modern day “cutpurses” (sounds like in Victorian times) whereby thieves will slash the strap to a purse or back pack and make off with it and its contents. When buying beer we should not buy draft, since the bartender will substitute their own home brew for a name brand and if buying liquor, you may ask for Jack Daniels, and it may even be in a Jack Daniels bottle, but you will be getting Vietnamese moonshine.

We checked into the Silk Path Hotel, which we found had very little charm – just a business hotel in a big city – but it was very centrally located in the Old Quarter. We set out on foot to find a nearby restaurant that Lily recommend and discovered that, as in the rest of the city traffic is absolutely crazy. It is a life-threatening experience to cross a street. We did have a nice meal and then darted in and out of traffic to get back to the safety of the hotel.

February 21, 2012

Street Scene in Hanoi

Street Scene in Hanoi

Today we explored Hanoi and left our hotel on a cool and cloudy, still foggy morning. One of the first things we saw was a Vietnamese peasant right out of Central Casting. She had on the black pajama like outfit with a pole over her shoulders with a basket hanging from each end full of produce.  There were motorbikes whizzing around her in all directions, but she kept her course and pace steady and thus avoided disaster. Another incongruous sight we beheld just down the street in a park was a bride posing in her elaborate white wedding gown. Lily told us that Vietnamese are quite taken with American-style weddings and they usually have as big a blowout as can be afforded by whoever foots the bill.

Ba Dinh Square

Ba Dinh Square

Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (who is their George Washington of sorts in that he is considered the Father of the Country, but with very different thoughts on personal freedom and he was not at all bothered by the idea of himself as a dictator for life).  Also he is referred to as Uncle Ho, rather than father. He is accorded quite heroic stature here, but much of it seems overdone and contrived puffery. The local people don’t quite seem to observe the required deference.  The mausoleum is made from marble from the Marble Mountains near Danang and as the guidebook tactfully puts it – it stands out as “an exception to the graceful architectural environment of Hanoi” – translation: this is one ugly building. The local lady in line ahead of us recognized my Hmong scarf and smiled and nodded enthusiastically at my patronage of local crafts, and we made extremely limited small talk with many smiles and gestures. Her small grandson peeked shyly at Gary from his hoodie, in awe of his relative size, but by the time we advance to the entrance they were exchanging high fives.  The Mausoleum is surrounded by a very plain, depressing, and even foreboding looking square called Ba Dinh. While it was a dreary day, I am not sure sunshine would improve things much. Rules were posted in several languages and our favorite was the one that forbade “frolicking” – What? No frolicking at Mao’s tomb? What a buzz killer this place was.

Tomb of ho Chi Minh

Tomb of ho Chi Minh

Despite Ho Chi Minh’s request in writing to be cremated, and that no money be spent on any monuments – his requests were thoroughly ignored. Instead they followed the trend in Communist countries where the bodies of the leaders are preserved and there is a daily viewing so the people can see the physical remains of their esteemed leader. (Lenin in Moscow, Chairman Mao in Beijing, and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi) Unfortunately, Ho died and something went awry with the preservation process. We were told that this is the commonly known story – although the official story is that body you see is really him. If that is the case, it is truly stunning that he died at 79, yet his rosy cheeks and stern face had nary a wrinkle. We think maybe Madame Tussaud’s had staged an intervention and substituted a wax figure for the real thing.  We also learned (again this might just be vile gossip) that Ho’s real body was shipped off to Russia several times for some remedial work, but with no success. He died in 1969 during what they call the American War, so he might not have been stored properly to facilitate successful preservation and this climate had to have taken its toll.

The Lake at Mao's Stilt House

The Lake at Mao’s Stilt House

In any event, we didn’t have long to personally observe his features. Guards dressed in white were spaced every few feet. The line moved smartly along and we were instructed to walk 2 by 2 (just like Noah’s ark),  keep our eyes straight ahead, to not cross our arms or put our hands in our pockets – not sure whether this was for security purposes or a show of respect.  I did think they could have used some of the guards posted every few yards to work on traffic detail – maybe save some lives or something amid the bedlam, but I kept that suggestion to myself.  But sure enough, they raised Ho (or the surrogate Ho) up out of the basement freezer and into a darkened room with all the lights trained on him for all to see.  He was quite short and small, and he looked harmlessly cherubic for a man with such a fierce reputation in the Western World

Ho Chi Minh means “Bringer of Light” but this is not the name he was born with, Nguyen Sinh Cung – but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ho was a world traveler in his younger days and even lived in Brooklyn for a while. He never married and lived a very simple life, preferring his humble cottage to the palace left by the French.

The French Built Presidential Palace

The French Built Presidential Palace

We walked by the French built Presidential Palace, a mustard yellow building with dark green trim and shutters. We also saw two other beautiful French colonial buildings, the Opera House and the State Guest house which was once the residence of the French governor. It is now used for state receptions and special events. The French structures are really a contrast to the grim graceless tomb. Many have been converted into museums.

 

 

The Stilt House

The Stilt House

We did take the short walk to Ho’s Cottage, also called the Stilt House, on a nearby lake, passing a number of Jumbotron sort of signs that touted the virtues of Communism and the greatness of their leaders, past and present. Ho Chi Minh lived in this cottage from 1958 until his death in 1969, preferring the simple life to the nearby palaces left by the French.  The guides told us that no changes have been made since he died. It is a very simple structure on stilts, as the name suggests, with small rooms and minimal furnishings. Ho used two simple rooms, a study and a bedroom, both spartanly furnished. His bedroom contained a narrow bed, a clock, a telephone and a radio.  His study had a desk, a typewriter and a bookcase full of books in the several languages in which he was fluent.  They said Ho liked to fish in the lake when he needed to chill out. The house is surrounded by informal gardens with weeping willows, mango and frangipani trees.  A hospital was built on the grounds in his later years when he was very ill. We also saw his automobiles, two Russian behemoths that look like they came out of the 1940’s and French Peugeot. Ho is remembered as a gentle and modest man dedicated to the nation, although he was reputedly quite a womanizer.

We passed on seeing the Ho Chi Minh Museum which was supposed to be shaped like a lotus blossom, but it looked pretty grim and graceless too.  We also passed on the History and Army Museum which the same tactful guidebook described as “a bit stiff on the social rhetoric – translation: you will be awash in propaganda”.

Main Gate to the "Hanoi HiIton" (Hoa Lo Prison -

Main Gate to the “Hanoi HiIton” (Hoa Lo Prison –

Our next stop was the so called “Hanoi Hilton”, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, which was only a few blocks from our hotel in the Old Quarter. We were surprised in that we expected it to be in some remote jungle. It was originally a French prison built in 1896 and used in colonial times when it was called Maison Centrale (central house in French), as indicated by the original sign that hangs over the entrance.  It was designed to hold 450 prisoners, but there have been as many as 2,000 in the ensuing years. This is the infamous prison where John McCain and a number of other American pilots were held for years, in McCain’s case from 1967 to 1973. The Northern Vietnamese learned that he was the son of an American Admiral and tried to use him as a bargaining chip, but his father refused to consider it.  When McCain’s plane went down, he was injured and crashed into West Lake which borders the city. A local fisherman saved him from drowning, but did turn him over to the authorities. His flight suit from that time is one of the museum’s exhibits, amid shackles and whips and more grisly torture devices as well as a still working guillotine. The slant on the torture implements is that the French used them on the Vietnamese. – no mention of any use on Americans.  Senator McCain visited Hanoi in the 1990’s and returned to the prison to see it. He also had the opportunity to thank the man who saved his life. Both the Admiral and Senator were stand-up guys back then. Most of the prison was demolished in 1997, but a portion was saved for the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.

An Exhibit Showing Prisoner Quarters

An Exhibit Showing Prisoner Quarters

Other Americans have had a very different experience from Senator McCain’s, most notably, President George W. Bush visited Hanoi and brought with him around one thousand security people as well as his own cars, food and helicopter. The entourage rented the entire Sheraton Hotel for the visit.

The museum is pretty heavily laden with propaganda such as photos of Americans playing ping pong and getting letters from home and it portrays only the most humane treatment.  While the North Vietnamese can claim victory in what they call the American War, with the final US withdrawal in 1975, it was a bitter victory.  The country lost an estimated 3 to 6 million people, plus 3 generations were plagued with disease and birth defects caused by Agent Orange.

the House of Ceremonies

the House of Ceremonies at the Confucian Temp[le

 

There are four religions here: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Our next stop was at the Confucian Temple in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is also called the Temple of Literature or the Van Mieu. It was established in 1070 and founded in honor of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius and it served as a center for higher learning for centuries. We entered through the historic Van Mieu  Gate to find a series of 5 courtyards..  Khue Van Cac (an ornate gate built in 1805) opens onto the courtyard of the Well of Heavenly Clarity which occupies the third of five courtyards.  The well is actually a rectangular pond with  82 surviving stele (short little tombstone like things) out of an original 112 lining the garden walks around the pond, with the names  and brief histories of those who passed the rigorous exams and achieved scholastic greatness. The most interesting was called the Tortoise stele because it is mounted on a pedestal shaped like a tortoise. Among the other highlights were the Human Chess board where people dress as chess pieces and move according to directions given by players.

The Altar inside the House of Ceremonies

The Altar inside the House of Ceremonies

We also saw the Bai Dong (the House of Ceremonies) which has an altar with huge cranes (birds, not mechanical) standing on top of tortoises.  We learned that in Chinese mythology there was a dragon King with 9 sons, one of them named Bixi who took  the form of a tortoise. I believe our guide said that cranes were auspicious creatures bringing good fortune, but I could be making this part up. Behind the Bai Dong was the Temple of Confucius with statuary of him and four of his disciples, dressed in elaborate robes, wrought in elaborate gilt and red paint.  We were at the temple at the same time as a gazillion school kids which undermined the tranquility of the place, quite a bit, so we had to imagine that the Temple of Literature as the tranquil place it was intended to be.

The Chua Mot Cot Pagoda

The Chua Mot Cot Pagoda

We also saw the Chua Mot Cot Pagoda, built on a single pillar, by the Emperor in 1049. It is built of wood, but the pillar supporting it is stone and is sitting on a lotus pond. It was built because the king, who had no heir at the time, was visited by the Goddess of Mercy sitting on t lotus flower and she presented him with a baby boy. Shortly after the dream, he married a young queen who gave birth to a boy, so this pagoda was built in her honor.  It has suffered a lot of destruction and much reconstruction over the centuries, including being burned by the French in 1954, which seemed to be mostly an act of spite.

 

Shoe Street in the Old Quarter

Shoe Street in the Old Quarter

In the Old Quarter there are 36 Streets that are named after the merchandise the shops feature. This tradition dates back to the 13th Century when shops were built to cater to the palaces of the royalty and nobility. For example Hang Gai Street (literal translation is the Street of Hemp – rope, not marijuana) sold rope. Today stores are filled with silk embroidery and silver as well as bootleg CD’s and DVD’s  that sold for about $2 US (no guarantees on quality). Another street is Hang Quat (the Street of Fans) which today offers not only fans but religious items and funeral and festival flags. Hang Buom Street which back in the day was “Sailmaker’s Street, but today, all along the street there are shops selling candy, coffee and tobacco products.   There are also streets in the old quarter named after trades or crafts including Leather, Silk, Paper Products, Hardware, and Shoes. One of our favorites was called Hang Mam (hang being the word for street, mam being the word for pickled fish – and thus it was called Pickled Fish Street, but with the shrinking demand for pickled fish, today the stores are selling headstones carved with likenesses of the deceased

We had lunch at the Pho 24 Noodle Shop (a chain owned by a Vietnamese who left and came back). Most of the wealthy and merchant class are returned ex-pats.  The locals who stayed and tried to make communism work are typically the laborers.  One area where Communism is trying to keep Capitalism at Bay is in land ownership.  You cannot own land, but the government will lease it to you for 50 years.  By modifying the Communist rules, the country is able to prosper. We had cam pho, which is rice and noodles in a tasty broth.

A the Lacquer Workship

A the Lacquer Workship

After lunch we visited a lacquer workshop and gallery called Minh Thu, selling lacquer artwork, silk and pearls. The lacquer artwork is made with an 18 step process starting with a teak board on which the design is drawn. Then various materials are glued on such as crushed eggshell, mother or pearl and gold inlays which are hand cut in very delicate shapes to form the materials for the mosaic. Then there is a process of lacquering and sanding and lacquering that is repeated to achieve a high gloss. We bought one for our home from a tiny sales girl who looked to be about 14, but who told us she was 24. It was shipped to us and arrived in about 4 months as promised.

Start of the Trishaw Adventure

Start of the Trishaw Adventure

Our next adventure was a cyclo (trishaw) ride where were pedaled by a man sitting behind us down wide avenues in the French Quarter where we were surprised to find  high-end designer  luxury stores.  We didn’t think Prada and Gucci were part of Ho’s plan. We asked Lily who buys from these shops and she said it the Vietnamese who left in 70’s and came back with money. They were actually welcomed back after some time had gone by. Other patrons are tourists from other countries.  Once we left the French Quarter and entered the old Quarter, there was an increasing cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.

 

Sidewalk "Cafes" in Old Town Hanoi

Sidewalk “Cafes” in Old Town Hanoi

Sidewalks are the responsibility of the stores they border and many are loaded up with locals doing their cooking and running their various service businesses such as hair cutting, sewing alterations and shoe shining. These enterprises are fronted with rows of parked motorbikes and lounging people, who are sitting on plastic” kiddie chairs” having a beer. We weren’t sure why they have such small chairs, but perhaps they are a better fit given their small stature. The shop with the most intriguing  name (in English anyway) was the Half Man Half Noodle. We had no time to explore and so it will have to remain a mystery.

 

The Water Puppets in Actin

The Water Puppets in Action

Our last stop for today was at the Water Puppet Theater called the Thang Long (translation “Soaring Dragon ) Theater presenting the art of water puppetry called “roi nuoc”.  The performance is a highly ritualized folk play based on beliefs and legends, with a mix of buffoonery and morality, accompanied by melodramatic music featuring a 4 stringed instrument called the “ty ba”. There were also special effects including smoke, firecrackers and a water-spewing dragon. The puppets were operated on the surface of a pond,which served as the stage.  The puppets were manipulated by puppeteers with sticks on the sidelines behind a curtain. We had a program in sort of fractured English to guide us through the plot (such as it was).  The play opened with the “Drumming”, followed by the “Dragon Dance” and the “Buffoon Tea”.  The next segment was called “Buffalo Fighting” which was not really fighting, but more a show of strength in sort of a frolicking scenario performed by assorted water buffalos to underscore the slogan, “the peasant’s wealth starts with a buffalo”. Then we had a segment glorifying farm work and a segment called the Village Guardian.  Worship of the Village Guardian god has to be done just right or he will get angry and cause all manner of grief. The next exciting segment was called Van Singing which included songs in praise of the deities including one they call the Holy Mother, but this is not the Holy Mother in the Catholic sense.  This was followed by a horse race, more singing called Quan Ho singing which is intended as sort of a romantic musical exchange between a man and a woman, followed by “Coconut Picking”.

The Puppeteers Take a Bow

The Puppeteers Take a Bow

The grand finale was the changing of a carp into a dragon, which was the basis for the legend of the first emperor of the country they called Thang Long at the time.  At the end of the performance, a curtain was raised to reveal the puppeteers, in waist deep water.  It was a very odd performance, odd plot, with live and really irritating music, but actually entertaining as it was such a unique experience – we can check that one off.

In the course of our afternoon, we learned a lot more about modern day Vietnam.  Regarding government and laws, we learned that they have elections (which many mispronounce in English as “erections” which makes us titter), but there is only one candidate, selected by the Communist Party.  As for traffic laws, speeders are fined, when they get caught, but that seems to be the only moving traffic violation that raises an eyebrow.  Their most drastic punishment is death and that is reserved for drug dealers, and in fact that is about the only crime in the country of any consequence (aside from speaking out against the Communist Party). At one time it was estimated that 45% of the Hmong Tribesmen were opium addicts and so they are really trying to reverse that with really draconian measures.

Incense Burning at the Temple

Incense Burning at the Temple

We also learned more about social customs. They have funerals where they cremate mostly now, but for burials – they bury the body for 10 years, then dig it up, clean the bones and take them up into the hills. The Wedding Season is March to November when the weather is the best (that is not as wet and not as hot), but they do have them in other seasons in case of an emergency, such as a pregnant bride. Another emergency would be a sick relative.  Local tradition says that you should not marry within 3 years of the death of a family member. So if grandma starts to feel a little poorly, an engaged couple may decide to move up the wedding day so they don’t have to wait so long. English is mandatory in schools – it is the language of commerce and anyone who wants to be successful in Vietnam needs to be fluent. There are 6 tones in the Vietnamese language, but not nearly as many words as in English. One word (e.g. “ma”) can have 6 different meanings and thus it is easy to get into trouble here trying to speak the local language

Dental clinics are big here – overuse of antibiotics and drugs has made many people’s teeth soft and dark so cosmetic dentistry is big business. Also plastic surgery and weight loss surgery are big, the latter mostly for foreigners.  Locals typically want western looking eyes and a bridged nose. As a rule, Vietnamese are very appearance and weight conscious. They think an over-weight person is one heavier than 50 kilograms which is about 110 pounds, so they must really think we foreigners are grossly obese. We were told that since the trade embargo was lifted in 1995, Vietnamese women spend 50% of their income on clothes. Shopping was doubtlessly pretty limited in the old days prior to that with drab colors with a baggy fit, so it is understandably if they went a little crazy when they got merchandise from the outside world.

A Street in Old town Hanoi

A Street in Old town Hanoi

As for public utilities, they have the most bizarre rat’s nest of electrical wiring hanging on the outside of the buildings. When they have a problem, they don’t trouble shoot, they just run more wire.  The City of Hanoi was built on the Red River and a dam was built, but not operational. They are forced to buy power from China.

In addition to all the motorbikes, cars, cyclos and buses, trains run the 1800 kilometers between Hanoi and the Port of Haiphong to Ho Chi Minh City – once known as Saigon. The Chinese ruled here for over 1,000 years with brief interruptions for the French Colonial Period of about 150 years and the Japanese invasion for 2 years during World War II. The Vietnamese are still experimenting with this independence business.

Mobile Broom Store

Mobile Broom Store Old Town Hanoi

Their houses throughout the city are tall and narrow, with multiple generations per dwelling. Typically the elders live on the first floor, their adult children on the second floor, and the grandchildren on the third floor with any great grandchildren.  Vietnamese women marry and go to live with the husband’s family, often in a very crowded household.  This has given rise to the so called “love hotels” which rent by the hour by couples who desire some privacy. They have snake wine here which is essential truly awful tasking wine with a snake inside the bottle, sort of like the worm in a bottle of mescal. They call it the Vietnamese Viagra and is very popular with those seeking out an assignation in one of the Love Hotels.

Lilly told us a story from her family in which a new bride and groom were in their honeymoon bed eating candy that was given to them at the wedding. However the mother-in –law was sleeping on a cot in the same room, separated by only a curtain and stuck her hand through a part in the curtains to demand that they share with her.  There are only 2 nursing homes in all of Hanoi since families are expected to care for their aged until they die.  Those nursing homes are only for those with no family.

We had dinner at a local restaurant specializing in French Vietnamese cuisine called Indochine (a.k.a. Dong Duong), which was a short walk from the hotel with the added advantage of having a crosswalk to get to it – and  a lot of good that did – but the food was great and we returned to our hotel unscathed by the evening.

February 22, 2012

Dateline: Halong Bay, Vietnam

Latitude at Halong Bay 20.84 Degrees North, Longitude 107.21 Degrees East

A Sampan in Halong Bay

A Sampan in Halong Bay

Today we drove the 3 hour trip (170 km) by car to Halong Bay to board the Bhaya, our sampan-type vessel for exploring the scenic bay and our overnight accommodation.  Halong Bay is just off the Gulf of Tonkin, which is part of the larger South China Sea.  The Gulf of Tonkin is the place where in 1964 two American destroyers reported being fired on by North Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Congress which gave then President Lyndon Johnson the power to increase US military forces in Southeast Asia, which we all know didn’t end well.  But the very peaceful Halong Bay has been designated at UNESCO World Heritage site and remains tranquil. It stretches for 580 square miles, with more than 2,000 limestone and dolomite pinnacles rising up out of the sea. These pinnacles (called karst) are made of sediment that settled on the sea floor in prehistoric times, but it subsequently rose to the surface through geographic upheaval and formed into spectacular shapes due to erosion by warm slightly acidic rain over the millennia.

These Little Piggies Going to Market

These Little Piggies Going to Market

En route along the highway, we noticed many people carrying baguettes in a plastic bag – apparently a hold-over from French Colonial times, although the Vietnamese add a twist of their own – they like to hollow them out and fill them with ice cream.  The drive was also extremely entertaining in the wide variety of cargo spotted on motorbikes and in small cars. We saw chickens coops stacked on the back of a moped, a live pig (hog-tied if you’ll pardon the pun, on the back of a motorcycle, as well as a piggy we saw on his way to market in a small trailer towed by a motor cycle.  Our favorite, a water buffalo stuffed into the backseat of a tiny sedan – his head sticking our one window, his rump out the other.  We also marveled at a live goose trussed and hanging by his feet from the handlebars of a motor-bike – talk about vertigo!

Exotic Birds with Exotic Transportation

Exotic Birds with Exotic Transportation

There were a large number of see-through buildings that had been intended as factories and apartment homes for factory workers built by foreign investors who worked on the premise that if you build it, they will come.  However, they did not come and there are blocks of empty structures in mile after mile of abandoned projects. The primary investors were the Japanese and there is an abandoned high speed rail project and many “bridges to nowhere” that they funded.  In the old days of Communism, they called Cuba Little Brother, Russia was Big Brother and East Germany was just Brother. Japan didn’t really come into the picture until the economic reforms of 1986.

Rice Paddies of North Vietnam

Rice Paddies of North Vietnam

All guides in Vietnam are young and fluent in English – non- English speakers are all older and rapidly dying off.   There were a number of rice paddies scattered in among the abandoned projects and occasionally we would see the hammer and sickle flag, although the national flag is red with a yellow star. We were amazed to see that they really do wear the conical straw hats to work in, and when  seen with a water buffalo in a rice paddy, it requires a photo op stop. Instead of scarecrows, they use flags in the fields to scare off birds from the rice seedlings.  Homes in Hanoi tended to be shotgun style, built behind a shop in the same narrow style. They are accessed by a narrow path or sidewalk, just wide enough for a bicycle and everyone takes their bicycles inside at night since they are extremely valuable in this country and tend to disappear if left unattended.

A Floating Village in Halong Bay

A Floating Village in Halong Bay

Monks in this part of Vietnam live in temple complexes and do not go out seeking food donations, as we saw in Thailand and Laos.  Instead food is brought to them. Here they practice Mahayana Buddhism, not the Theravada of Thailand and Laos. Monks are not very much in evidence here either – in fact we didn’t see any out and about.  There are two other main sects of Buddhism, Vajrayana and the more familiarly known, Zen, which is a derivative of Mahayana and which focuses on meditation as way to attain Enlightenment.  The Mahayana sect focuses on compassion, with their central devotional being the bodhisattvas, spiritual beings who work to free other beings from their suffering.  The image of a  bodhisattva  is often portrayed with multiple eyes and arms, ( 1,000 eyes and arms according to their beliefs) which makes for interesting sight-seeing.

Limestone Formations of Halong Bay

Limestone Formations of Halong Bay

We stopped at a village called Hai Dong about half way to Halong Bay to visit a government sponsored ceramics factory.  This area is known for its white clay, which is in much demand for ceramic production. At this facility, the government is training the disabled to take away skills that they can teach in remote villages. The place was called Chan Thien My – but is sounded strangely like “ca-ching” when it is pronounced.  We passed a village called Duc Phuc, and had to suppress an immature snicker.  We didn’t ask Lily about it – some things just get lost in translation (as well they should).

 

Fish Traps at Halong Bay

Fish Traps at Halong Bay

En route Lily told us about some of the wedding customs in Vietnam. The bride and groom are required to keep lists of who gave them what, and they are required to give a gift of equal value to weddings in the gifting family or else risk “losing face”.  We also saw the “market train” (not the high speed version that  the Japanese envisioned). This train is strictly local and carries animals and produce, as well as passengers.

 

 

Oyster Farms in Halong Bay

Oyster Farms in Halong Bay

Once we reached the coast we saw oyster farms, which were essentially shacks build on poles. These are intended to be pearl farms, but the oysters themselves are edible as well.  The beaches here were both muddy and rocky and we were told the much more scenic beaches were to the south.   Lily also pointed out the summer residence of Ho Chi Minh, which has been turned into an international resort for tourists. We were thinking that Uncle Ho would have been horrified at the commercialism of it all. Interestingly enough, we found they don’t much like the Chinese here or the Russians. They say that hey ship shoddy merchandise and do poor work. The port of Haiphong, a common bombing target during the Vietnam War, has since silted up and is no longer much used. They have built a new deepwater port to replace it.

The Bhaya

The Bhaya

At last we arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our sampan, the Bhaya, in a cold wet fog. We could tell right away we would not be seeing the turquoise waters and emerald islands as advertised in the guide books.  We saw the limestone karsts that rise up out of the bay, stunning on a sunny day, but still beautiful as ghostly shapes rising up out of the mist in mirror calm water. Along with the sampans gliding along, there were also traditional sailing junks with rough cotton hand-made sails shaped like fans. They are dipped in vegetable dye to protect them from the elements, giving them a yellowish ochre tone.

Humps of the Dragon at Halong Bay

Humps of the Dragon at Halong Bay

The name Ha Long means descending dragon. Halong Bay according to legend is where a dragon descended into the sea and left stone ramparts that are the dramatic limestone pinnacles visible today.   We fancied that someone once thought all these rounded formations rising out of the mist might just be the humps of a dragon.

 

 

 

At the Village of Vong Vien

At the Village of Vong Vieng

We visited a floating fishing village called Vong Vieng, transported there by a woman who rowed to our vessel to pick us up and then took us to the village where all the houses, the one room school house and a sort of community house are located, all built on poles over the water.  They also had a structure called the “Babysitting House” which was their version of day care. We were alarmed to see that toddlers and older small children play by the water with no railings and no life jackets, and we could only hope that adult supervision was immediately at hand. There are also floating fuel stations, herb gardens, kennels and pig pens. The main industry here is pearl farming and they do laundry for the commercial boats as a sideline, and of course they bring the tourists to see the village. The pearl farms are roped off in squares and rows of oysters that have had a grain of sand introduced between their shells.  They will each form a pearl and dangle from ropes until they are harvested.

Cooking Class on the Bhaya

Cooking Class on the Bhaya

Back on board we had cocktails at the Bhaya’s bar and again had to learn we need to keep it simple when ordering cocktails.  A martini is not known to them and while they will make an effort, it is not usually drinkable.  To entertain us as evening approached they held a cooking class to learn to make egg rolls. We did roll a few and ate a few that were quite tasty.  They also showed us how to make flowers from vegetables and the prize for that went to an Italian surgeon, who created a masterpiece with carrots and a tomato, but we figured he had an unfair advantage since he knew a few things about knives and scalpels.

 

A local Junk with Laundry Flying

A local Junk with Laundry Flying

We had a good dinner of fresh fish which was toned down considerably in the spice department for our Western palates.  The locals tend to like it hot – real hot.  The guests were a mix of Australians, British, Canadian, and American, with a few Germans, Italians and Japanese thrown in, but all tours and demonstrations were in English. For those non English speakers, there was typically a guide who did speak English so all information was conveyed by a Vietnamese speaking English to a German (for example) who then translated that into German.  There is no telling how this turned out. We did notice the non-native English speakers walking around looking a little dazed, and we ourselves were often at a loss to understand what we were being told– and this was with only one step – Vietnamese to English.

The Way Halong Bay Should Look on a Sunny Day

The Way Halong Bay Should Look on a Sunny Day

The ships that take tourists around Halong Bay are of varying sizes.  Ours was in the medium range with 16 guest cabins. It was advertised as a luxury vessel, but it was fairly rustic by our standards. There were no chandeliers, but we did get rose petals sprinkled on us when we arrived and they did use silverware and cloth napkins.

 

 

 

 

February 23, 2012

Dateline: Hue, Vietnam

Latitude at Hue 16.46 Degrees North, 107.58 Degrees East

The View from Surprise Cave

The View from Surprise Cave

Awakening on board the Bhaya on Halong Bay, we learned there was a sunrise Tai Chi lesson on deck (we only watched) at 6:30 a.m. although there was so much fog and clouds that the sunrise was totally obscured. Then we departed in smaller boats to explore more of Halong Bay, including Surprise Cave Hang Sung Sot (also known as Cave of Awe).  We noticed a number of rules posted in English, including one that advised that we should not throw dust or engage in other non-hygienic behavior. The cave was sort of a smallish version or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and like those American explorers, the Vietnamese tended to see a lot of images in the stalactites and stalagmites including, a chicken and Buddha, and most notably, in this cave a Giant Phallus believed to be a fertility symbol. .  They do have an appreciation for a good sized belly on men here – it is viewed a status symbol (actually better than a Rolex since there are so many watch  knockoffs here) and sign of good luck and they think nothing of giving it a rub, even if you are a perfect stranger. Our cruise director, Ronald felt that he had a Buddha belly, but it was quite paltry compared to the Western men’s profiles.

Water Buffalo on the Buddy Seat

Water Buffalo on the Buddy Seat

We came back to a hearty breakfast (the better to build your status symbol belly) and motored back to port, arriving at 10:30. We met Lily and Mr. Driver and drove back to the Hanoi Airport to catch our flight to Hue.  Our drive back to Hanoi was every bit as entertaining as the trip out in terms of strange sightings and information about the customs culture of Vietnam. On the trip out, we saw a water buffalo in the backseat of a car, on our return we saw a slightly smaller version strapped to the buddy seat of a motor bike. We saw a motorbike hauling 6 people – dad driving with one child in front, 3 children in the middle and mom hanging by a fingernail on the last 2 inches of the seat. We found it interesting that only the dad wore a helmet.

A Field of Lettuce near Halong Bay

A Field of Butter Lettuce near Halong Bay

En route we learned more about weddings. As a dowry, the groom’s family used to give the bride’s family gifts. Now everyone just gives money since it is more practical. Also people often live together before marriage and select their own spouses – unheard of in the old days. We actually saw a wedding in progress right off the highway.  They had erected a tent in front of a row of houses and businesses, which served as the wedding pavilion and party room. Lily explained that this is a modest income wedding.  The wealthier rent hotel ballrooms or use their own homes.  The parents of the bride and groom conduct the marriage ceremony after having gone to the town hall to get the license. Wedding guests put stickers on the car windows to bring “double happiness”.  Among the Hmong people, a man can have 3 wives, but we were told nowadays, most men forego the extra spouses and just have a mistress or two that they take to their local “love hotel”. Having a mistress is actually illegal here, but like helmets and traffic lights, it is a law largely ignored. We were also told that the man having the illicit affair often buys tiger balm (a blend of camphor and menthol used topically as a pain reliever) to mask the smell of perfume after a romantic interlude.

A Floating Grocery Store

A Floating Grocery Store

We had heard many rumors about Vietnamese dining on Fido and Kitty – Lily told us that yes, the local people sometimes eat dog meat called cho) and cat meat (meo) but not regularly. It is more of a specialty item on a menu for good luck at certain times of the year. The word for meat is “thit”. Once Lily told us this, we began seeing it advertised quite a bit along our route and no longer assumed it involved cursing with a lisp.  Many of their rituals are attuned to the calendar, in particular the new moon and full moon and they always look for auspicious dates, and numbers.  Lily told us of a Vietnamese saying which may sound like good advice, but may not suit all palates :  Eat everything with 4 legs but the table. Eat everything with wings but an airplane”. Going through the towns is endlessly entertaining, and occasionally disturbing to our Western sensibilities.

 

Farm Worker Having Lunch Along the Highway to Hanoi

Farm Worker Having Lunch Along the Highway to Hanoi

The highway we are traveling on is two-lane with a passing lane of sorts. It is not really a separate lane, but is sort of squeezed out of the middle and it is not infrequent to see cars traveling 3 abreast. The trick is to make sure you are not passing when someone coming the other way is passing.  There is not much in the way of highway stripes here so it is pretty much a free-for-all.  We also noticed that motorbikes have little or no status on the highways. They are expected to yield to cars and trucks. We noticed that no orange cones are used here.  For a truck breakdown, the locals will place a large tree branch or even a stump in the road.

We stopped for a pineapple tasting at a road side stand. It was delicious, as were the tiny “two-bite” bananas they call “lady fingers”.  We also stopped at a farmers’ market and saw many familiar types of produce including fennel, dill, basil , butter lettuce and onions.

Ovens for Firing Ceramic Pottery

Ovens for Firing Ceramic Pottery

We skipped the optional butcher shop tour, not sure of what offensive sights we might see, but we did see the Snake Village Restaurant where you can order live cobra. The blood is mixed in with your wine and the meat is chopped up and cooked. This is one of those things we decide we could skip without irreparably damaging our Vietnamese experience. We made a stop at a much more mundane ceramic pottery center, which was pretty dull after the Snake Village. Mr. Driver kept up a steady stream of chatter either to Lily or to himself (we weren’t sure which or perhaps it was both) when she was not talking to us, but since it was in Vietnamese, we had no idea what was on his mind. We suspected he could have been laughing at how we turned green at the Snake Village when we saw the menu. We were also told that many of the locals fish with electricity – again not legal, but not enforced. The catch is not used commercially, but for personal consumption.  There are not many environmentalists in these parts.

Laundry Day for Lingerie and Teddy Bears

Laundry Day for Lingerie and Teddy Bears

Lily told us that abortion is legal here.  By law they are only supposed to have two children or risk fines, and due to traditions, families prefer boys. It is not uncommon for when an ultrasound indicates a girl, an abortion ensues. Because girls are frequently aborted, consequently there is today a shortage of wives for all those boys. All along our route there were children smiling and waving, and as soon as we stopped anywhere, they would rush over to practice their English on us.

 

 

Nguyen Temple

Nguyen Temple

Our last stop before the airport was a temple and a pagoda dedicated to a national hero Nguyen   who died in the 14th Century. Many symbols were incorporated into the structure, such as the phoenix for peace, the turtle for long life, the unicorn for kindness and wisdom and the dragon for power and intelligence.  The phoenix is the queen’s symbol and the dragon is the king’s. There was sort of a carnival atmosphere here – in stark contrast to Ho’s tomb. There was much frolicking going on  including water pistol fights.  Inside the pagoda you could leave your shoes on. People burned paper moons and left offerings

Temple Offerings

Temple Offerings

and they also made wishes in a wishing well.  One of the most interesting offerings was a can of Coke. We wondered  why would a guy who had been dead for centuries think a Coke would be just the thing?  We supposed it to be easier to get a can of Coke, than a cup of mead or whatever they drank back in Nguyen’s day. Gary and Stu were offered a ride on a motorbike for $1.00 so they took a spin around the complex. The drivers asked if they spoke American or English so they said both.

 

Grounds of the Nguyen Temple

Grounds of the Nguyen Temple

The Vietnamese are a very superstitious people. Lily says most do not believe, but they hedge their bets with observing old customs just in case.  Fortunes are told here as revealed in the face and hand.  Fortune tellers are often consulted with pregnancies to answer questions such as will it be a boy or girl? With questions on whether a couple should marry give their astrological signs. Some couples will have a second wedding to make sure they have an auspicious date.  Bodies are buried in the fetal position so that reincarnation is easier (i.e. it can simulate birth).

 

Plowing in the Rice Paddies

Plowing in the Rice Paddies

They go through all sorts of contortions and expense to offset bad luck with good.  For example, Lily’s mother- in – law died in the year month and hour of the tiger which is very bad ju-ju.  So the family spent over 5 thousand dollars to pay monks and soothsayers to undo this bad luck. The fortuneteller told them that they must pray for one and one half days non-stop to reverse this. They had no sleep and very short breaks to eat quickly and go to the bathroom, praying the whole time. A dark freckle or mole is commonly removed because it is bad luck.  A light colored one is okay.

 

Farm Worker's Lunch Break

Farm Worker’s Lunch Break

We did see quite a bit of the traditional clothing   worn by women- a cheongsam which is a sleek tightly fitting dress or an aio dai, which is a long tunic with side slits worn over pants, also a very sleek look.  These are so iconic to Southeast Asia, we were always glad to see them – much more so than the Viet Cong Pajamas or even more ho-hum, jeans and T-shirts.

We had a fairly long wait at the Hanoi Airport since our flight was not until 8:00 p.m., so we had dinner there.  Despite its cavernous ceilings and vast spaces, we remarked on how quiet it was.  Vietnamese people rarely raise their voices, something we also noticed in Laos and Thailand.  We felt it makes for a much more relaxing environment. When they travel to the West, the cacophony of our airports must be overwhelming.

Downtown Hue

Downtown Hue

The airport at Hue is called Phu Bai Airport, and was the former US military base at Danang. We met our guide for Central Vietnam whose name was Ngoc (pronounced “knock”) and our driver Thinh (pronounced “tin”).   Hue gives the appearance sleepy provincial town, although a million people live there. We noticed that people were not spilling out into the streets as they were in Hanoi., and thus giving the appearance of a small city.

Hue was once the religious, economic and cultural center of Vietnam and the Imperial headquarters and political capital until 1945. It was largely reduced to rubble in the course of the Vietnam War. Aside from loss of life there was an immense loss of architectural treasure. Thirteen Nguyen Dynasty Emperors ruled from here in a fortress built around the ancient city. The citadel was modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City with walls 30 feet thick, which proved quite useless in Tet Offensive in 1968.

Inside the Citadel at Hue

Inside the Citadel at Hue

During the “Tet” Offensive, the North Vietnamese launched attacks on over 100 targets, taking the US and the south Vietnamese by surprise. Both Hue and the US Army base Khe Sahn, fell during that offensive. It took a month to re-take Hue (while reducing it to rubble) and two months to re-take Khe Sahn.  It was a huge wake-up call for Americans, who had been led to believe the North Vietnamese were incapable of such attacks.  The destruction of Hue had started over the centuries due to floods and monsoons due to typhoons, but the Viet Cong holed up there during the fighting and the bombing by Americans was the final blow.  Today most of the Citadel walls stand, and there are still a few remaining French colonial houses and outlying tombs and pagodas, but much of the art and architecture have been lost.

La Residence Hotel - Hue

La Residence Hotel – Hue

Ngoc and our driver took us to a beautiful Hotel called La Residence Hotel and Spa overlooking the ancient Citadel and the Perfume River. It was the former residence of the French Governor and thus the beauty and grace of the architecture.  The lobby and hallways were filled with fresh flowers and oil paintings and décor was quite elegant, and tastefully so.  We sank gratefully into our cushy four poster bed and slept soundly in the blissful cool quiet.

 

 

February 24, 2012

The Perfume River at Hue

The Perfume River at Hue

Hue is situated on the narrow strip of land between mountains and coastline that comprises Central Vietnam. The northernmost point of this area was the site of the Demilitarized Zone during the Vietnam War, which separated North from South Vietnam.  Today we would tour Hue, including the huge citadel and royal tombs.  Hue is situated on the so called Perfume River. It got its name from the frangipani trees that once lined its banks.  They are still growing at tombs and temples along the river but there was far too much boat traffic to smell any perfume that nature might offer.

Hue is just south of the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Hue is pronounced “way”, as in way too hot here. Even in the early morning hours, it was steamy hot – a major change from Hanoi.  Actually the temperature was moderate at 88 degrees, but the humidity was in the 95% range.

Offerings at the Thien Mu Pagoda Altar

Offerings at the Thien Mu Pagoda Altar

Hue was the capital of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, when the last Nguyen emperor,   Bao Dai who had no children, surrendered the throne  and moved to France and the power vacuum created by that became the source of much contention, setting the seeds for partitioning and the Vietnam War.  The first Nguyen emperor had one wife and 500 concubines so he was quite a busy man. The king was served by eunuchs who volunteered for service (and surgery) at the age of 17. They did all the matchmaking for the king – e.g. finding concubine candidates.  The Mandarins (coming originally from China) were the nobility and thus the leaders in both the military and civilian life. The mandarins wore an interesting headpiece with prominent ear flaps that did not flap, but rather stuck out from the head at 90 degree angles, sort of giving the appearance of literally a “propeller head”.

Dragon Boat on the Perfume River at Hue

Dragon Boat on the Perfume River at Hue

The city of Hue is 90% Buddhist, 5 % Catholic and 5% Tao, Confucian  or other religions. Buddhist Monks here do not enter and leave the monkhood, as they are free to do in Thailand. Here monkhood is a commitment for life, (but perhaps, not as great a commitment as that of the palace eunuchs of the olden days). The monks wear 3 different colors of robes to signify their status. Brown is for novice monks and they also have their heads shaven except for one long hank of hair (sort of like a very long Mohawk haircut). The intermediate monks wear gray and the highest level wear yellow. Ho Chi Minh went to high school here which was taught in French at the time. We learned a new term – “Bamboo Dragon”, which indicates one who curries favor with whoever appears to be strongest on any given day. Of course, given his power, Uncle Ho had a host of Bamboo Dragons around him, who, while still paying Communism lip service, have since evolved to the more pragmatic approach of capitalism.

A River Boat Cradle

A River Boat Cradle

We took a cruise on the Perfume River in a dragon boat, which afforded us a slight breeze while underway, and we also had the opportunity to do some shopping since there were dragon boat vendors assaulting our tourist dragon boat from all sides, plus our dragon boat crew had dry goods of their own.  Our hosts had their very cute baby in a hammock  swing of sorts accompanying Mom and Dad to work.  We were again saw the conical hats worn by working people in the fields, planting rice by hand all along the river banks. The countryside was luxuriant with foliage and vegetation, but a haze of humidity, coupled with the blazing sun, seemed to cast a yellowish tint to the scenery.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda

We disembarked our dragon boat to pay a visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda, built on a bluff above the river, and the oldest of over 300 pagodas in the city. The name Thien Mu translates as “beautiful lady”.  The pagoda was built in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang.  It has a 7 story tower whose name means the “source of happiness” and a pavilion with a bronze bell, which can reportedly be heard 6 miles away.  Inside the main shrine is a statue of a Laughing Buddha in bronze , along with those of other kings and disciples. This site is a working monastery as well and the lodgings and gardens for the monks are on the property. A monk from this order named Thich Quang Duc, made history in June of 1963 when he drove a blue Austin Healey to Saigon to protest against the Diem regime. He carried out his protest by sitting down in a city square and setting himself on fire. The images of this were publicized world-wide, but  his message was widely ignored.  The car he drove is on display in a garage here at the monastery as sort of an historical footnote.

The Ngo Mon Gate to Citadel at Hue

The Ngo Mon Gate to Citadel at Hue

After our boat ride we visited the old Imperial City (also called Da Noi, or the Great Enclosure) within the walls of the Citadel, built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805. We entered through the elaborate Ngo Mon Gate, with its ornate watchtower where the emperor often sat on state occasions. From there we went across a bridge to the Thai Hoa Palace, which was the grand throne palace of the emperors, awash in red lacquer and dragons, the symbol of the Nguyen dynasty.  An open courtyard overlooks what was once the Forbidden City, now essentially a vacant lot.

 

The Mieu and the Empty Field that was Once theForbidden Purple City

The Mieu and the Empty Field that was Once the Forbidden Purple City

There were originally 3 concentric enclosures here- the Civic, the Imperial and at the heart of the complex, the Forbidden Purple City. The Forbidden Purple City housed the Emperor’s personal quarters, comprised of courtyards and approximately 60 buildings, but there is little that survived the 1968 Tet Offensive bombings. Today there is not much left to see – more of where things used to be, although the Royal Theater and Royal Library are still there. The Forbidden Palace was forbidden to all men except the emperor, the queen and 9 separate ranks of concubines and female servants and eunuchs. Entry to this area was only allowed to those who had a pass with the king’s stamp, and, the penalty for unlawful entry was taken seriously and generally resulted  in a beheading.

Ngoc at One of the Nine Dynastic Urns

Ngoc at One of the Nine Dynastic Urns

On the other side of the open area where the Forbidden Purple City used to be, we found the Hien Lam pavilion, built by another Nguyen Emperor in 1824 to honor those who built the Nguyen dynasty and provided its power. Nearby was the Mieu, (the Temple of Generations,) an elaborately decorated temple honoring the Nguyen dynasty, again in gilt and red lacquer.  We were told that the altars were once stacked with gold ingots which, have understandably, have long since disappeared. Between the Mieu and the Hien Lam Pavilion, we saw the Cuu Dinh, the famous nine  dynastic  urns, each of which commemorates a particular Nguyen emperor and weighs around 2 ¾ tons. They are decorated with symbols in bas-relief and are filled to the brim with water to provide striking reflections. They are called funerary urns, but do not contain ashes. Instead they are meant to stand as symbols of the power of the emperors they represent.

Decorative Roof Line Restored at the Citadel.

Decorative Roof Line Restored at the Citadel.

The highest point of the citadel is the Cot Co (Flag Tower) which at 120 feet dominates the skyline of the Citadel and the city itself. Its claim to fame in recent times is that on January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong overran Hue and erected their flag. It took a great deal of bloody fighting for the US and allies to recapture the city to take it down.

 

 

 

 

The Dong Ba Market

The Dong Ba Market

Upon leaving the Citadel, we visited the Dong Ba Market, just outside the Imperial City where I bought a hand held fan to fend off a heat stroke. We noticed an abundance of face masks in the city- the little white disposable ones that some have termed the “ear brassiere”.  And then there were some who had bandanas worn “bandito” style, looking like they were ready to ambush the stagecoach. Ngoc told us they are primarily worn for protection against air pollution from the exhaust of the zillion motor bikes darting around the city. Since we had an air conditioned van, we didn’t have to don masks, but we did dab on some eucalyptus oil to be applied topically to fend off mosquitoes.

At The Royal Tombs

At The Royal Tombs

We had the option to do a bike tour of the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Emperors, but it was way too hot for that.  Instead we opted for a driving tour with brief stops. The tombs are scattered across a wide area just to the south of Hue. While 13 emperors ruled on the imperial throne from 1802 t0 1945, only 7 were given their own lang (mausoleum)   We stopped at the Tomb Khai Dinh, one of the 7 tombs for a little exploration, including one for a emperor named Duc Duc (loved the name), one of the more modest tombs. Khai Dinh was the last emperor to be entombed in his own mausoleum  in 1925 and it is the grandest. It is sort of a mishmash of Vietnamese and European styles, built into a hillside on three separate levels, with a bust of the emperor at the top. This exploration just about did us in, so we settled for a drive by of the other tombs.

Cocktails at La Residence after a Grueling Day

Cocktails at La Residence after a Grueling Day

We had lunch at the Mandarin Café – going native ordering noodles and eating them with chopsticks. In the afternoon we returned to our cool and elegant hotel to drink gin and tonic and retire to our rooms for a nap. We had hoped for a swim, but the pool was closed (we suspect due to the fact that the water in it was probably coming to a slow boil by then) so we had to make do with drinks and naps.  We had experienced a problem with the water in our bathroom (e.g. there was none) earlier in the day and the management  had not only seen to its prompt restoration, but also sent an arrangement of orchids to our room with a handwritten note of apology from the hotel manager, confirming our impression that this was indeed a fine hotel.

Evening om the Perfume River

Evening om the Perfume River

We had a great noodle-free dinner at a French restaurant across the Perfume River from the Citadel called Le Parfum.  We have really enjoyed our many meals with Asian food, but I don’t think I have ever been so thankful to see steak and potatoes.   We know that we left much left unseen here – we would come back when it was cooler, but since we were there in February and it’s the northern hemisphere we aren’t sure exactly when that cool time might be.

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 4: Hoi An and South Vietnam

 

Southeast Asia

Part Four:  Hoi An to South Vietnam

 

February 25, 2012

Dateline: Hoi An, Vietnam

Latitude at Hoi An 15.88 Degrees North, 108.33 East

Beaches of Vietnam on the South China Sea

Beaches of Vietnam on the South China Sea

Today we drove a scenic route, south on Route 1 from Hue via Danang, through dramatic mountain passes,  past the Marble Mountains and several beautiful beaches stretching for miles, including the famous China Beach , where many US servicemen spent time in the evacuation hospital or on R&R. We also saw the equally beautiful Lang Co Beach.

The morning was cooler, but foggy from all the moisture still in the air from yesterday. We took the old road over the Pass of the Clouds (Hai Van), climbing to a blissfully cool 5,000 feet near the Bach Ma National Park. Our final destination today was to be the old fishing village of Hoi Ann. We noticed that there are countless little markets lining the road selling produce and the local beer, Huda, seemingly oblivious of the dust the traffic generates. Ngoc pointed out that while no one obeys traffic rules, it works out okay because if they did, it would create massive traffic jams.  I am thinking there is something profound there if I could just put my finger on it.

A Common Sight in Rural Vietnam

A Common Sight in Rural Vietnam

On the ride Ngoc entertained us with a discussion of how all Asians do not look alike.  Take the eyes for instance.  In Westerners, Africans and Indians the eyes tend to be round or almond shaped. Indonesians have a teardrop shaped eye, with the point next to the nose.  Chinese have a lidded eye with a fold of skin at the top so the eye looks flat on the top and round on the bottom.  Mongols have just the opposite shape with eyes appearing round on the top and flat across the bottom. Then there are faces –Westerners have a mixed bag of face shapes, but Chinese are almost always round and Melanesian, Indian and Indonesian are almost always oval.  And then there is the matter of the nose.  Caucasians tend to have a big honker (relatively speaking) with a pronounced bridge. Chinese have a very flat nose with no bridge and just a slight protrusion for the nostrils.  Melanesians and Indians tend to have a small dainty nose with a small dainty bridge.  As for skin color – if it is light – the owner of it is probably a Westerner or Chinese, if it is dark, they are likely Indian or Malaysian.  Hair of Asians  is almost universally black, except for the occasional person with Mongol blood who may have light brown hair.

Rice Paddy with a Farmer and his Water Buffalo

Rice Paddy with a Farmer and his Water Buffalo

From this discussion Ngoc proceeded to give us information on various and sundry topics such as  farming. Central Vietnam is able to have 2 crops a year and in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam they can have three.  Farmers typically wear long sleeves in the fields to protect them from the sun and from leeches. Local wisdom says that wherever you find water buffalo, you will find leeches. Ngoc told us that rice is best grown on mudflats in shallow water with a consistent depth. The water helps keep the weeds down, but it has to be drained for the harvest.

On the topic of social media, Ngoc told us that sometimes Facebook is blocked and sometimes it is not, since the technology is easily able to outstrip those who want to restrict it. They must think there is something subversive about it, but they do not restrict email, texting or cell phones. They have made huge strides in education since today 70% of Vietnamese children go to school whereas 20 years ago it was only 15%.  Ngoc also cautioned us, and I quote “do not flash your dong in public or you may encourage ‘tieves’  (thieves)”.  Of course here the currency is called dong, but still it sent us into a fit of snickering.  Ngoc, of course, was quite puzzled, but we decided it should remain lost in translation.

We drove around the Bach Ma National Park rather than through it since a recent monsoon had washed out the road. It is a wildlife refuge with some of the most rugged countryside in Southeast Asia. We took Route 1 all the way from Danang to Hoi An. Much of what is today the National Park was sprayed with defoliants during the war including Agent Orange, but it had a negligible and limited effect in this part of the country where vegetation grows rampant.

Lang Co Beach

Lang Co Beach

We stopped to see Lang Co Beach, with its small fishing village in the distance with its pastel buildings on a spit of land between the lagoon and the open ocean.  There were pristine sandy beaches below heavily forested mountains in the background with long rollers coming in. We had left much of the humidity behind and were enjoying the welcome change of sunny skies and a brisk breeze. Off the coast we saw fishing sampans that look like a canoe with an igloo shaped cover on it. Fisherman go out around 4 in the afternoon and will fish all night We had heard about resorts being developed and saw first-hand the reasoning behind that.

Old Fortifications on the Mountain Pass

Old Fortifications on the Mountain Pass

In front of us was Cloudy Mountain which we would have to traverse. There is a 6 kilometer tunnel going through it, but since it was a beautiful day, we went over the mountain pass. We first drove into the clouds and then we were above them. From the top of the pass, the clouds lifted and we had a wonderful view, hemmed in by the sea on one side and the Truong Son Mountains on the other. There were a number of bunkers and military materiel used by both the French and the south Vietnamese that was still there, but the real attraction was the view.  From the pass we could see the peninsula, village and beach of Lang Co and its saltwater lagoon with the South China Sea beyond.

As we made our way to Danang, we noticed many family altars along the roadside. Some of the most interesting had a touch of Vegas with neon lights on Buddha accompanied by flower and cigarette offerings. We also saw a real assortment of shade devices as local people worked hard at keeping the sun off. Ngoc tells us that the Vietnamese value pale skin, much more than dark, and to maintain the palest skin possible they always try to find shade or provide it somehow. To that end we saw (in addition to hats) books and magazines, parasols, dish cloths and assorted items of clothing, all being used to provide shade to heads and faces.

Vietnam War Era Quonset Huts at Danang

Vietnam War Era Quonset Huts at Danang

At Danang, now a large industrial city of 2 million people, we saw rows and rows of Quonset huts left by American troops during the Vietnam war.  Near a village called Dong Hoi, we visited the Marble Mountains where we found the Xa Loi Temple and the Tang Chon Cave where the Viet Cong set up hidden artillery positions to fire on the Danang Air Base, set up by the Marines in 1965, which had to be defended on a daily basis.The Viet Cong however, had a totally different way of fighting – guerilla warfare. They would strike and move with no bases.

 

In Danang we visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture, also called Bao Tan Dieu Khak Champa. The Cham Empire existed in Vietnam for around 1,600 years until 1832 when the last principalities of the Kingdom were wiped out. Today there are still Cham people, but no empire. The artifacts at the museum were gathered from nearby sites in order to preserve them.

Pagoda at Xa Loi

Pagoda at Xa Loi

The sculptures here date from the 7th to the 13th Century and include altars, and busts of Hindu gods including Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma , as well as scenes from the Ramayana, an epic poem in Sanskrit that is one of the foundations of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. It is intended as a historical account of events in India around 1000 A.D. and offers up stories of dharma – the principles of cosmic order and the teachings of Buddha. The art from this collection rin addition to Hindu deities, also has demons and dancing girls, which are called apsara (a celestial nymph, where elaborate jewelry and hairstyles and/or headgear were the order of the day. The demons included mythical sea creatures called makara and  an eagle/dragon combo called a garuda. One of the more interesting artifacts was an altar pediment sculpted with a circle of female breasts, which were said to represent the Hindu mother goddess, Uma. There were also beautiful altar friezes in both marble and sandstone depicting detailed sculptures of mortals in their daily pursuits such as riding a horse or playing a flute. All the sculptures came from sites nearby and tomorrow, we have a visit planned to My Son, one of these sites. It was kind of jarring to see that they were selling American dog tags and cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War era in the museum gift shop.  We could only hope they were knock-offs and not taken from dead soldiers.

Getting Acquainted with Ganesh - Cham Museum

Getting Acquainted with Ganesh – Cham Museum

Perhaps one of the most interesting, certainly from an appearance perspective is the deity Ganesh, who has the body of man and the head of an elephant which creates an arresting visual. There are several stories of how Ganesh came to be and some of these tales get a little convoluted, but as we understood it (at least in  this version), there was a woman named Parvati who was the mother of a small boy. She took a shower and told her son to guard the door. The dad who happened to be the god, Shiva, came home and demanded that Ganesh open the door. He refused in order to keep his word to his mother and his dad chopped his head off. Mom insisted that he fix it, so Dad went out and got an elephant head and attached it and Ganesh came back to life. This is only one of several versions of how Ganesh came into being, but they are all equally bizarre. Today he is venerated by the Hindus as the god of wisdom and learning and his statue can be found throughout Hindu communities and shrines.

The Cham people came from India centuries ago to settle in what is today the Danang and Central Vietnam.  There are only about 70,000 of the Cham left today.  The Vietnamese drove them south and then in turn drove the Cambodians out to occupy this land. When the US left Vietnam, they buried tons of war materiel used at the Danang Airbase to keep it from the Viet Cong.  Later the locals dug it up to sell for scrap metal. Today there is a casino across the street from where the base was and a Hyatt Regency, although many of the hangars and bunkers still remain. According to Ngoc – the turning point in the Vietnam War for the local people was when American planes starting bombing temples. That tipped the balance and made them regard the US as the enemy.  Before that they were indifferent.

Water Buffalo on Break

Water Buffalo on Break

We drove past the scenic China Beach which has perfectly white sand and a line of causuarina trees along the beach with the mountains looming behind it. Today China Beach is catering to golf resorts (including one just built by Greg Norman) and sun-seeking tourists. There is a bridge to a small island called Monkey Island, however the locals during hard times apparently ate all the monkeys so they are now monkey-less.  From April to August it is jellyfish season so there is not much ocean swimming going on during those months. Vietnamese who left the country after the fall of Saigon were denounced as traitors at the time, but have since been welcomed back with open arms to spend some of that money they made and the can be found at these resorts, alongside prominent Communists who choose to sample a bit of the good life that capitalism has to offer. Given the difficulty Vietnamese have with certain consonants grouped together Communist sometimes becomes “communik” and so those could have been “communiks” under those beach umbrellas at China Beach. It seems that the Israeli leader, Moshe Dayan, was correct when he said “the best way to defeat Communism is to let it win first”.

Along the coast we saw a Boat Temple where fishermen go to pray for a good catch. It was also interesting to see their boats which are round and made of bamboo, about the size of a large bathtub. They are supposedly easier to steer in the waves than a long boat. The seawall was lined with a dozen of these little bowl shaped vessels. In the lagoons there are fish and oyster farms tended by squatters on stilt houses. They have fished the streams using electric shock to the point of depletion so now almost all fish comes from farms.

Two of the Five Marble Mountains.

Two of the Five Marble Mountains.

Our next stop was for a tour of the Marble Mountains just south of the old Danang airbase. They are made up of five rocky outcrops that are believed to represent 5 natural elements and are the source for many legends.  There are huge caverns within the mountains that have in the past housed temples, an army hospital and hidden artillery positions used by the North Vietnamese. At the time of the Vietnam War, the river at Danang was still navigable and thus provided a valuable port for military operations. It was both heavily attacked and heavily defended, as was the air base, the latter quite often from the Marble Mountains.

Buddha in the Xia Loa Temple

Buddha in the Xa Loi Temple

n the past the mountains have also provided high quality marble for statues and construction, but today it is a venerated site with a Buddhist temple, the Xa Loi, at its summit so marble is quarried mostly elsewhere. In the heart of the mountain is the Tang Chon Cave which today is a grotto with all sorts of shrines and statuary, but back during the Vietnam War, it was used to conceal Viet Cong soldiers who could fire on Danang and then seemingly melt into the jungle.  Finally American gunships figured out where they were and would bomb the cave trying to eliminate enemy positions. There is only one pagoda left that dates prior to the Vietnam War.  The rest are shrines and memorials built since then.  There is a great deal of marble statuary and other gewgaws for sale along the hundreds of steps up to the top of the mountain and down into the cave.

Pagodas in the Xa Loi Gardens

Pagodas in the Xa Loi Gardens

The guards here were the only camera shy people we met and we thought that perhaps it’s a security thing. They sat in groups of two or three eating the tiniest of little ant-sized oysters. They picked them out of the shell with toothpicks and ate them, smiling and nodding the whole time. They did offer to share with us, but we declined as graciously as we could. We have found throughout Vietnam that the local people are unfailing polite and friendly. Being kind to other people is part of their religion (just as we Christians are taught) however they seem much more frequently to put it into practice.

 

Streets of Hoi An

Streets of Hoi An

We ended our travels for the day in the delightful little village of Hoi An, (pronounced “hoy ann”),  where we found a nice breeze from the ocean, but it was still so humid we needed to change clothes twice a day. Hoi An is on the banks of the Thu Bon River and was an important trading post for several centuries before the river silted up and the ships went elsewhere.  There were Japanese, Chinese and European traders here from the 16th to the 18th Century who have left their imprint on the village including Chinese pagodas, a Japanese covered bridge and the so called “tube” houses which feature a shop in the front, two courtyards in the middle (one just for women) with living quarters and a kitchen and bathroom areas in the back. They are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and French design. They could be as narrow as 6 ½  feet wide and as deep as 262 feet, and thus the “tube” moniker. These houses were the forerunners of the “rocket buildings” we saw in Hanoi, which were limited in ground area by original deeds, and so the only place to expand was up.

The covered bridge was built in 1593 by the Japanese Trading community who needed it to access the Chinese Quarter in the old town . However in 1663 the Japanese Shogun decreed that Japan would no longer trade with foreigners and the Japanese community here ceased to exist, but the bridge and its Japanese character were maintained. Hoi An has remained untouched by modern warfare, which enabled us to enjoy it as it has been for centuries.

In its prime, Hoi An was a trading center along the lines of Macau, and an international melting pot.   In the Old Town there is still a specific Chinese Section and a Japanese Section. We took a walking tour of the Old Town which still has almost 850 ancient structures.  Today 2,000 people live here – a much smaller population than in the olden days when it had a deep water port. The city used to be called Faifo and it reached its peak prominence during the 16th Century. The houses were largely built by Chinese, Thai, Portuguese and Dutch who needed “trading houses” to wait out monsoons and storms. Wares from India and Europe were traded in the old Chinese Quarter. It has narrow streets, two story shops with elaborately carved pillars and facades.

We had a stroll though the village and walked through some of the houses and community halls that were open to the public. We stopped at the Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong) which was built in 1786 by seafaring merchants. We had a short walk through to see the elaborate carvings on the altar and the wall hangings. The altar is dedicated to a Chinese Warrior named Quan Cong, identifiable by his red painted face. The Chinese Dragon, symbolic of power, stability and prosperity is prominently featured in the majority of the ancient buildings.

 Beaches of Hoi An

Beach at Hoi An

We also visited the the Quan Kong Temple and the Central Market. At the Fish Market we missed the action since it starts at 5:30 a.m. and the market closes when the fish are all sold.  Chinese specialties in the Old Town today are tailoring and cooking classes.  No cars are allowed in the old part of city, which is about 30 kilometers and 100 years away from Danang.

We had lunch at a Restaurant called the Morning Glory, which we understand is a flower that the locals actually eat.  For certain hours the streets of Old Town are pedestrian only which makes for very nice leisurely strolling. As we walked we found that there is stiff competition for laundry business here and the ladies, extolling both their skills and affordability, clamor loudly for business. We gave our business to an enterprising woman who met us at the gates of our hotel hawking the superiority of her enterprise called the #1 Laundry.

We checked into the Life Resort Hoi An, a beautiful garden oasis of tranquility amid the hubbub of the village of Hoi An. There is an abundance of flowering trees and shrubs that make the hotel grounds spectacular such as frangipani, hibiscus, oleander and gardenia. We were thoroughly pampered at the hotel with cold towel and tea, flower arrangements in our room and rose petals scattered across out bed.

Life Resort at Hoi An

Life Resort at Hoi An

By the pool with flowering vines dangling over the water, we enjoyed cool cocktails, followed by more drinks at happy hour at the bar.  We walked into town for dinner at the Brothers Café and had a great meal beside a waterfall with a table overlooking the river.  The weather had cooled to perfect and we enjoyed the tropical gardens and ponds with lily pads. The ponds had big brown frogs that have a croak that is something of a cross between a dog barking and a duck quacking.  On our walk back it was very quiet with no motorbikes allowed, but we did see a few renegades furtively sneaking down the deserted streets.

 

February 26, 2012

 

Woods at My Son

Woods at My Son

We were to start our day with a tour of My Son (pronounced my sohn), one of the principle centers of the Cham civilization. We continued to see strange vehicular sightings – today’s highlight was two men and two dogs on a single scooter.  We thought it was really sweet until we remembered that it is not unusual for Vietnamese to eat dogs (they put the dog in hot dogs literally), but we chose to believe these are just two guys and their pets going to the dog park. In other strange vehicular sightings, we also saw a guy balancing a big pegboard full of cheap sunglasses on his motorbike and a woman on the back of a scooter, balancing a laundry basked full of plucked chickens heading into town.

Motorbike Mania Every Day

Motorbike Mania Every Day

We were told that corruption among traffic police is quite rampant and payoffs are openly and frequently made to them.  Motorbikes do not legally have any sort of right of way here, but they seem to just take it, and the traffic cops, if properly incented, turn a blind eye. There is a law against vagrancy here, so to avoid detection, the unemployed often erect ramshackle shops full of useless stuff they’ve gathered and advertise it for sale.  This provides a front to allow loitering by the would-be proprietor and would-be customers.  Apparently the government wants to give the illusion that everyone is happily employed.

As we drove the 1 kilometer to My Son, we had time for a quick refresher in Vietnamese. Hello is xin chow (pronounced seen chow). Thank you is cam on (pronounced cum un), yes is vang (pronounced vung) and no is khong (pronounced comb). Good is tot (pronounced tote) and bad is khong tot (or no good).  Thus armed, we were ready to mingle with the locals.

There were stands along the road selling sticky rice which the local people buy for special occasions such as a full moon or an offering at a temple or shrine, hopefully in exchange for a blessing. Shrines are often in incongruous places, often seen in the middle of rice paddies. We followed the course of the Thu Bon River, which gets its start in the mountains of Laos and proceeds to the sea at the village of Hoi An.

Ruins at My Son

Ruins at My Son

The translation of the name My Son is Beautiful Mountain and it is indeed beautiful here.  There were at one time 70 classic Cham monuments dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries set in the valley below Cat Tooth Mountain. They were made of bricks with tree resin used as mortar and adorned with sandstone carvings. It was the center of the Champa (a.k.a. Cham) Kingdom from the 2nd to the 15th Century A.D., and it actually predates the more famous Angor Wat in Cambodia by several centuries.

 

 

Bomb Crater at My Son

Bomb Crater at My Son

Until August of 1968 they were in relatively good condition, but American B52 Bombers destroyed many of the structures when My Son became a battle zone in “The American War”.   Large craters are still in evidence today and only 20 buildings were able to be restored. The rest have just a few vestiges of rubble and foundation to suggest their presence. The Viet Cong had been operating bases out of My Son and other historic sites, thinking they would be safe from American bombs, due to our regard for historical treasure.  Unfortunately for that historical treasure, this was not always the case. My Son is only 30 kilometers, less than 20 miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After efforts by archaeologists to intervene, the US State Department in January of 1971 ordered that all possible measure would be taken to protect what was left of My Son. The French had left behind detailed architectural drawings so some efforts at restoration are achieving results, but much of the site was simply obliterated.

The Alar in a Hindu Temple featuring Bodhisattva of the Many Arms

The Alar in a Hindu Temple featuring Bodhisattva of the Many Arms

Throughout our journey through Vietnam, we saw people making offerings of money to whatever spirit from which they seek blessings. They burn this at the pagoda, but it is only copies of paper money (they aren’t crazy, after all), but it was interesting to note they are paper copies of US Currency. The idea is that the smoke will drift to departed loved ones in the afterlife and provide wealth for their next re-incarnation, but then if they are reincarnated as a gold fish for example, they would have no use for money – but of course faith is not always logical – that’s why they call if faith. Other offerings we saw included Marlboro cigarettes (or the box anyway), Coca Colas (or the cans anyway), flowers, incense, rice cakes, fruit and photos of ancestors.

Ruins of the Temple Complex at My Son

Ruins of the Temple Complex at My Son

We walked the paths of the ancient complex, which is still impressive, despite the destruction.  The Hindus have sacred cows as they do in India and so it was not uncommon to see them grazing amid the ruins.  (We wondered if the phrase “holy cow” come from the Hindu religion).  A short Hindu-style dance performance was staged for us, which seemed to have a lot of Middle Eastern touches. For the second number, a guy playing what sounded like a kazoo came out to serenade (a.k.a. toture ) us in a tune that sounded like the one you here when the snake charmer is coaxing the cobra out of the basket.  We found that a little of this music goes a long, long way.  But after that there was story telling which Ngoc translated for us which went something like this.  The brother of Ganesh (the god with the elephant head) had a brother named Skanda, and while Ganesh represented good and peaceful things, Skanda represented war and other bad things.  Their mother set up a competition to see which of her two sons could run the fastest. Skanda tried to cheat and to ride a peacock and took off. Ganesh simply walked behind her and then appeared before her coming from the opposite direction and declared himself the returned winner. We were wondering if Ganesh’s mom was a little slow not to pick up this small deception.

Remnants of the Cham Culture at My Son

Remnants of the Cham Culture at My Son

In My Son, the statues and sculptures were created by building brickwork and then carving relief forms into the brick. My Son was not known to the outside world until the late 1890’s when the French found it, although it had been a religious center for centuries.   The 70 original temples are divided into 11 groups, named after letters of the alphabet.  Some of the distinctions between groups are based on influence and time frame. For example the deities portrayed in a structure designated C1 seem to show Javanese influence, demonstrating a link to Indonesia. All the Cham towers are divided into 3 parts – the base represents the earth, the center is the spiritual world and the top is the realm between earth and heaven. Temples contained sanctuaries called kalan, and were dedicated to one of the gods, typically Shiva. The Shiva Lingam is a phallic symbol and the yoni is the symbol of the goddess. In a ceremonial ritual water would be poured over the lingam through a spout in the yoni to symbolize creation. Typical embellishments were stone pillars, religious carved images, and ornately decorated false doors. There were also causeways and meditation chambers called mandapa. Typical carvings might include figures of Dancing Shiva, Shiva, Nandi ( a mythical bull) and a stone Garuda (a large mythical bird).

In the Hindu Religion there is a triumvirate of gods:  Brahma is the Creator of the universe, Vishnu is the Preserver of the Universe and Shiva is the Destoryer of the Universe. This is a continuous process, but the destruction is not necessarily a bad thing in that much that is evil or impure is what is destroyed and the world and people are continually improved.

On Site Museum - My Son

On Site Museum – My Son

In Structure D2 there is a small museum showing sculptures including apsaras (dancers) salvaged after the bombing, with a modern roof with skylights added. Structures in Groups E,F,G,H are heavily  damaged with only fragments surviving.  Much of the sculpture in the Cham Museum that we saw in Danang has been rescued from these sections.  The structure designated B6 is mostly noted for  its image of the Hindu god Vishnu being sheltered by a 13 headed naga (dragon). Group A was almost totally obliterated by the bombings of 1969, but it once had a very striking tower and sanctuary.  Almost all Cham temples have a door facing east. The one here had a west door to associated with death – facing complexes B,C, and D which are believed to hold tombs of Cham kings.

The Cham had dark curly hair and it  is believed that they came from Java.  They are one of 54 minorities in Vietnam today and interestingly enough, they all seem to get along today. There was once a huge number of Cham people, but the Dai Viet tribes from the north started encroaching on the Kingdom of Champa and eventually their society was wiped out.

Bikers Visit the Countryside Near Hoi An

Bikers Visit the Countryside Near Hoi An

We had lunch and relaxed by the pool at the hotel, and then in the late afternoon, Ngoc came to get us for a bicycle ride through the rice paddies and into the countryside. It was a leisurely ride of only 3 to 5 miles, with many stops to see rural Vietnam. Notable sights that we chuckled  at en route were – a bike repair shop called Hung Manh, a laundry service called the Dung Laundry and a shop run by a family named Thit ( we laughed about this and then Ngoc told us the “h” was silent and we tittered anew). Leaving town we noticed a gas pump, not as at a typical gas station, but in a portable tank with a hose set up on the sidewalk under an umbrella, with a steady stream of motor bikes stopping in to fuel up.

 

Young Water Buffalo on a Family Farm

Young Water Buffalo on a Family Farm

In a more educational vein, we stopped to watch a family working a field with their water buffaloes, and then turning them out to pasture for the night. The pasture was about the size of a postage stamp so it is a good thing it is quite the jungle here so they could have enough to eat.  We saw many of the local people with conical hats and baskets balanced on poles to haul goods that we have grown accustomed to here. We also saw our first Vietnamese scare crow which entailed bamboo poles with plastic bags wired to them to simulate a farmer flapping his arms and legs.

 

 

Good Luck Rub on a Buddha Belly - Hoi An Beach

Good Luck Rub on a Buddha Belly – Hoi An Beach

We stopped at a beautiful beach, just steps from out hotel and a young girl selling fans and chop sticks gave her sales pitch to Gary, and he promptly bought a pair of her top of the line chopsticks.  When she learned that today was his birthday, she gave him a complimentary vial of tiger balm (which is eucalyptus oil) which is good she said for headaches and mosquito bites.  She then pronounced him “Happy Buddha and rubbed his belly for good luck, and” as the locals often feel free to do for good luck when they see a large man.

After our bike ride we retrieved and paid for our laundry, which was a considerable bargain of $25 for 10 kilos, washed, ironed and folded, but alas a few garments were also made significantly smaller in the process. It is a good thing clothing is cheap here.

Relaxing at the Life Hotel

Relaxing at the Life Resort

At dusk we had drinks at the Heritage Bar at our hotel, outside under trees hung with lanterns. Gary was presented with a gift of a bag of peanuts by the waitress when she learned that today was his birthday. And of course she took the liberty of the requisite belly rub as well. We asked her to teach us how to toast in Vietnamese and it was something like “Moi Hai Bai Yo”. There is no telling how badly we mangled this toast, and the staff probably did some tittering of their own.  The hotel brought out birthday cake (of sorts) and the staff sang a mangled version of the birthday song, something starting out “hop burse dai to ooh). Then there were roses presented to the ladies and matchbooks for the gentlemen.  All in all it was a really special birthday for Gary.

We walked into town and had dinner at the Good Morning Vietnam restaurant (apparently they liked the movie here – it never would have flown in Hanoi). It was Italian food instead of American, but we were glad to have it since we were getting “noodled out” at this stage of the trip.

February 27, 2012

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City

Latitude at Ho Chi Minh City 10.75 Degrees North, 106.66 Degrees East

Saigon Rush Hour 24 x 7

Saigon Rush Hour 24 x 7

Today we caught a Vietnam Airlines flight out of Danang and flew to Ho Chi Minh City known during the Vietnam War  as Saigon. Here the Vietnam War is called  by government propaganda the War of American Aggression, but more commonly, when mentioned at all, it s called the American War,  and nobody seems to be bearing a grudge. We arrived at the former Tahn Sa Nhut Air Base, which is now their commercial airport. We were met by our local host for Saigon, the lovely and vivacious Mandy who said that Hanoi thinks of Saigon as  a crazy place full of naughty people too immersed in capitalism for too long – straying far for the ideals of Communism. Mandy told us that she learned English by listening to Voice Of America Radio Broadcasts.

The city is home to 11 million people.  Government people call it Ho Chi Minh City, locals call it Saigon (which has a much more exotic ring to it). We saw the Korean Volleyball team at the airport baggage – we just knew they were Asian, but Mandy recognized them as Korean by their appearance – she says Koreans are tall people (by her standards, not ours) with flat faces and a more pronounce fold above their eyes.

Tree-lined Streets of Saigon

Tree-lined Streets of Saigon

We arrived in 35 C degree heat  (about 95 Fahrenheit), and while this is winter and the dry season, the humidity combined with the heat was close to suffocating. And so we decided cocktails at the hotel would be just the thing to revive us, but we did have one military museum to visit first.

Mandy told us they have “military museums” all over the country, even in small rural villages, but most often they are just war left-overs stuck on a parking lot, but it passes for culture here, since the powers in Hanoi tend to micro-manage culture and strive to keep it non-Western. Saigon tends to resist this sequestration from things Western and is consequently much more sophisticated than Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam.

There are many parks here and a lot of traffic with vehicles everywhere – mostly motorcycles, taxis, bicycles, but it seems more sane than in Hanoi with its kamikaze drivers. There are still propaganda posters everywhere that are so stereotypical, that they are almost parodies of themselves – except nobody local who might see the humor is actually allowed to laugh – at least in public.  We tourists can, but locals can’t because Big Brother is indeed watching. Saigon is much more westernized than Hanoi and not nearly as grim looking. They say it is hard to get people to live anywhere else once they have seen Saigon (along the lines of “how do you keep them down on the farm, once they have seen the bright lights of the city) and seems obviously true. Vietnamese pay a 10% Income tax and a tax on luxury items, but not on food. Government workers make very low wages and it is a common practice to peddle influence and insider information to supplement their income.

The Old Post Office

The Old Post Office

The heart of in Saigon is a street called Dong Khoi, now lined with shops, restaurants and museums, along with leftovers from the colonial era such as the Post Office, the 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral and the Municipal Theater (also known as the Opera House, which was once the center of French Society). During the colonial era it was known as the Rue Catinat. Back in those days the street had elegant shops that co-existed with bars and brothels, although the communist regime pretty much cleaned up the sinful stuff. They also renamed the beautiful Hotel De Ville (essentially City Hall) with the name “People’s Committee Building”, which sounds like it would be a drab blocky structure, but they had the good sense to keep the building intact. After the economic liberalization of 1986, the glitz came back, minus the sleaze factor.   The Jade Pagoda, the most renowned in the city is nearby, as is the district called Cholon, or China Town. Ethnic Chinese are known as “Hoa” and they sell all sorts of traditional medicines and other Chinese goods.  Some of the most ancient pagodas are found here.  A popular way to explore is the motorbike taxi called “om”, but this looked a little too death defying to us, so we stuck to our Mercedes van.

A View of Saigon from the Presidential Palace Entrance

A View of Saigon from the Presidential Palace Entrance

We drove to the Grand Hotel down wide tree line boulevards (Saigon has been called the Paris of the East, as well as Pearl of the East) and since these boulevards and many structures were constructed during colonial times, the similarity is no co-incidence. In 1855 the French selected Saigon as the capital of what they called Indochine. At that time the French were the top of the pecking order, but with today’s oligarchy, the Communist Party members comprise the aristocracy.

There are two seasons here – Hot and hotter and even now in the so called dry season it rains around twice a day for around 30 minutes.  In the wet season if there is to be any contrast,  it must rain all day.

Office workers get a 2 hour lunch break from 11:30 to 1:30 to allow time for lunch and a nap and people actually take pillows and mats to work. They work late, from 7 until 10 p.m. in some cases.  In 1975 the Communists tried to introduce commercial farms (collectives) which involved sending city people out to farm, which proved to be a monumental failure.  The city people lacked the skills and the will to do farm work and there were widespread food shortages. Vietnam ended up buying food from China and Russia, who had already pretty much arrived at the conclusion that the collectives were not such a good idea.  In 1985, the government leaders agreed on capitalism for farms and they have been largely self-sufficient ever since and even have leftovers for export.  With that came added wealth, which led to Western business invited in. It seems somehow that once McDonald’s and KFC infiltrate, Communism is doomed.  It has continued to slide downhill ever since.  Retirement age in Saigon is 50 for women and 60 for men and in Hanoi, it is 60 for women and 65 for men which gives Hanoi more reason to discount the value of their Southern countrymen.

We are finding that South Vietnam doesn’t seem to be as thrilled with the Reunification of the country as the north is.  There seems to be a lot of civil liberty abuse and Big Brother activity, and of course the seat of power is now in Hanoi, which seems to be an irritant

We saw the Continental Hotel, steeped in history, where most of the Western journalists stayed during the Vietnam War and had cocktails at their sidewalk café. We had an excellent lunch at the Vietnam House and briefly visited City Hall and the Rex Hotel – another popular place for westerners during the war.

The Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace

Our stop after lunch was the former Presidential Palace which is now a museum called Reunification Hall. It was first home to the French Governor General and called Norodom Palace.  Then after the French left, President Diem moved in to take up a rather tumultuous reign, along with his Vice President who happened to be is little brother. The little brother was married to a woman known as Madam Nhu , who virtually ran the country, made possible by the ineptitude of the two brothers. In 1962 Diem’s own air force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt. That particular attempt failed and the palace was rebuilt, but then there was a successful assassination in 1963 before Diem was able to move back in, masterminded by Vietnam’s military generals.  Diem was succeeded by a series of leaders until they settled on President Thieu. It was here at the palace that President Thieu

State Dining Room in the Presidential Palace

State Dining Room in the Presidential Palace

received a steady stream of dignitaries, until, seeing the writing on the wall, he resigned,  leaving the country to his Vice President named Huong (as in Huong out to dry). Thieu boarded a helicopter at the American Embassy, and fled Saigon, as the city was falling to the North Vietnamese. There is an iconic photo of a North Vietnamese Tank breaking down the Embassy gates that has furnished no end of propaganda to the Communist regimes.  President Huong was only in power for one day before he fled, and left it up to his top General Minh (no relation to Ho Chi Minh) back at the palace to surrender.

 

 

President's Bedroom - Presidential Palace

President’s Bedroom – Presidential Palace

They have kept the palace just as it was in 1975. (They say it “fell” here in the south, but they say it was “liberated” in the North). The palace looks very much the part of a 1960’s building, sort of an art deco vibe with lots of wood paneling and marble floors and really uncomfortable looking furniture. It is not an enduring architecture for the ages, but quite evocative of the time.

Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, located in the former US Information Service Building. Mandy sent us into the museum and cautioned us to be careful about what we say. We would not get into trouble, but she would. She said guides have been disciplined and lectured and re-indoctrinated if they should stray from the script, so she chose to not provide a script.

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

The museum was filled with pretty much one-side propaganda, but they did lose an estimated 3 to 5 million people in the war and there were some awful things that happened in a lot of places, and so this is the spot where they choose to point out the horror of it all. They didn’t spare any grisly details including a human fetus deformed by Agent Orange which we chose to skip looking at. The most interesting display was a collection of war photos of the 134 journalists who were killed in both the Indochina War (the French) and the American War. The journalists were from all over the world.

There was a lot of US military materiel in a large parking lot adjoining the museum which was rounded up from around the country including Huey and Chinook helicopters, downed planes and so-forth. Of course in 1975 when Saigon fell, anything that could fly did fly so they only have the disabled equipment to display.  It wasn’t a particularly well organized museum, given the number of odd historical juxtapositions, such as a French guillotine next to an Army tank.

A US Tank Left Over from the Vietnam War

A US Tank Left Over from the Vietnam War

For those who may wonder or have forgotten or never known just how the US got embroiled in the war, here it is in a nutshell. The French were defeated by the Vietnamese in a decisive battle in 1954, leaving a power vacuum. World powers at the time came together and came up with the Geneva Treaty, splitting the country into North and South.  The treaty said they should hold elections and reunite the country under whomever was elected. Ho Chi Minh, a Communist was the candidate in the North. Supposedly the South, without a strong candidate and backed by fervent anti-communist French and American influences, reneged on the treaty and established what was supposed to be a democracy, but it looked, smelled and tasted like a monarchy under Diem. At this point the French pulled out and over the course of 10 years the Americans pulled in, largely out of fear of the Communist Domino theory that was prevalent at the time, i.e. if one country falls to the Communists, they will all follow suit. (If they had only known to send in our burger joints and fast food places, maybe along with some headliner entertainers, things might have been vastly different. Instead thousands of US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese were killed, Communism took over and failed miserably.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

We stopped by the Notre Dame Cathedral, (called Nha Tho Duc Ba),  built in 1880 by the French. It is built of locally quarried stone and ceramic tiles imported from Marseilles, France and was the tallest structure in the city at that time. A statue of Virgin Mary outside erected in 1959 with the hope that she would bring peace – which eventually did happen, but only after a lot of bloodshed. Religion  struggled here under the Communist regime, but today  10% of the population is Catholic. Mass is held 3 times a week, with one service each in Vietnamese, French and English.  Buddhism and Hinduism both are waning here. Buddhist in Vietnam are not allowed to ask for food in exchange for blessings as they do in Thailand. Mandy told lazy people would dress up like monks to get free food ( a big news story exposed by journalists) and also it looked bad for the Communist Party ( like maybe their system was not working so well).

Inside the Old Post Office

Inside the Old Post Office

We also visited the Post Office, which sounds like a yawner, but this is a most unusual post office with a beautiful French Colonial exterior and interior. It is a salmon colored building, with elaborate carvings of western philosophers an scientists. Inside it is reminiscent of a train station with intricate tile floors and columns.  In the midst of all this spendor however is a larger than life portrait of Ho Chi Minh which somewhat detracts from the overall ambiance.It still functions as a post office but there is also a souvenir shop What used to be banks of telephones are now ATM’s. There are benches inside and it is blissfully cooled by air conditioning.

We did a drive by of the old US Embassy which was turned back over to the US and demolished. Today there is a US Consulate there and the US Embassy now is in Hanoi.  Pictures are strictly forbidden, but there were so many trees it was hard to see anything in the first place. This was the scene in 1968 of an attack during the Tet Offensive and also in 1975 of the chaotic evacuation where so many Vietnamese desperate to get out had to be left behind.

The Opera House from the French Colonial Era

The Opera House from the French Colonial Era

We also drove by the Municipal Theater ( Nha Hat Thanh Pho), also called the Opera House. It was built in 1899 as a concert hall for the French.  It has a sweeping staircase, fountains and statuary that you would expect from the French, and another refreshing change from the austerity of Hanoi.  It served in 1956 as a government legislative building, but today, it is back hosting performances.

After 1975 a new urban zone was created and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The zone encompasses former towns and districts into one zone, so names like Saigon Cholon and Bien Wa are still used.  In French Colonial times, Saigon was sort of an outpost, and it gained all of its sophistication once it was the capital of South Vietnam.

Make Your Own Martinis at the Rooftop Bar

Make Your Own Martinis at the Rooftop Bar

Back at the hotel, we went to the rooftop bar at our hotel where journalists used to congregate during the days of the Vietnam War. We decided there must be a new generation of bar tenders since when Gary ordered a martini, they brought him a glass full of Martini & Rossi. He tried to explain how to make a martini and ended up going behind the bar to make his own and to make them for other customers who wanted one. It was quite an evening, concluded with a quick supper.

There are two things among many that we will have to save for next time – a walk around Cholon (the Chinese District) and a tour of the Jade Pagoda. We were out of time and energy at this point and since we still had Cambodia and Bangkok to visit, we figured we might get overloaded with pagodas.

February 28, 2012

At breakfast we were talking about a CNN news story and Stu and Sharon said they did not get CNN. Mandy had to explain that at the hotels they have rooms for westerners with all the news channels and rooms for locals with no outside media. It appears we had a western room and Stu and Sharon had a local room. We chalked it up to “Big Brother trying to maintain control of the locals and still cater to tourists and business people from abroad.

Market Boats in the Mekong Delta

Market Boats in the Mekong Delta

Today we had our choice of seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war or to go the Mekong Delta. We chose the delta, thinking it would be the cooler of the two, both literally and figuratively. We drove south from Saigon in madhouse traffic, resembling a motocross race with a new adventure at every intersection. As they were in Hanoi, suburban Saigon buildings and houses were narrow with very little road frontage and none of the French charm we found in the older parts of the city. Twenty million people live in the 11 cities and departments in the Mekong, so it is by no means a rural outpost.

We passed a lotus farm that looked remarkably like a swamp from the road, but on closer inspection you could see the blossoms. Lotus is both cultivated and grown wild. It is a water plant with big round leaves resembling lily pads. The blooms are held up by pods that hold seeds and are quite decorative in their own right.  All available real estate is used for agriculture. We saw people planting grass by hand in the medians to feed their animals.

No Helmets Required for Children Under 6 - Very Strange

No Helmets Required for Children Under 6 – Very Strange

We were told that helmets are compulsory for motor bike riders over the age of 6.  We didn’t  quite get that logic, but maybe they figure younger ones will be okay in a collision.  Mandy’s husband and daughter are members of the communist party because – he is an engineer and that is the only way he can win bids for projects and the daughter wanted to go to one of the best schools and you have to be Communist to get into it. Mandy is not a member, but nevertheless has to toe the party line.There are a wealth of billboards leaving the city, the government ones clearly evident with their  self congratulatory propaganda that we wonder if anyone believes.

Once the Communists in power learned that people do not work well on land they do not own (and it took them 10 years to figure this out), here in the Mekong Delta each little farm has a family plot that is owned by the farm workers. We also saw grave markers in the rice fields so they make multiple uses of the land.  The rice fields we saw were a pea green color and we were told the rice had two more months to ripen (it is a 3 month process).

A Lotus Blossom

A Lotus Blossom

We were told that they are building an amusement park here – sort of a Disney knock-off which is another interesting venture into capitalism We stopped at a rest stop – similar in some ways to those in the US in that they offer restrooms and things to it, but different in other ways – you can nap in a hammock out back by a lotus pond under the coconut palms and almond trees. Motor bikers often use these and they can sleep as long as they want at no charge. Mandy says these only exist in the south.  In North Vietnamese, this would be considered naughty and slothful.

 

Stilt Houses on the the Mekkong

Stilt Houses on the the Mekkong

The name Mekong comes (a.k.a. Song Cuu Long meaning the River of 9 Dragons) It is named for the 9 estuaries of the river that flow through the province of Vinh Long. There are two main channels,  the Mekong and Co Chien, creating islands with canals crisscrossing them. The river has its origins in Tibet and  it transits China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before entering Vietnam. The delta is called the Rice Basket and the Fruit Basket of the nation, covered with coconut, mango and longan trees (a relative of the lychee) growing in the rich alluvial soil from the thousands of years of silt brought on the 2,800 mile journey from Tibet. This area has long been the center of conflict with occupation and wars including the Vietnam War with a liberal dousing of Agent Orange, and a bloody 1978 massacre and takeover attempt by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Today if you knew nothing of the history – there is nothing here to give it away.  There are numerous pagodas throughout the delta belonging to the Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese that reflect the ethnic diversity and all seem to peacefully coexist now. There are beautiful beaches and islands to see here, but our focus would be on the busy river itself.

Village of Cai Be

Village of Tay Ninh

We stopped at the Mekong Delta town of Tay Ninh, home of the Great Temple of the Cao Dai sect, established in the 1920’s. Cao Dai has attempted to create a synthesis of all the great world religions. The sect uses spiritual mediums who channel spirits of the dead, and this is an essential part of its worship practices. The religion was codified (written down) in 1926, largely based on spiritual séances conducted by the founders, channeling such notables as Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, Pasteur and Lenin. Entrances to the temple are separated by gender.  We passed on the temple in order to take a Mekong Cruise.

Low Tech Candy Factory

Low Tech Candy Factory

We met up with our boat, a private sampan, in the village of Cai Be, a 3 hour drive from Saigon. Our boat guide was Su An. Our first stop was the land market and factory complex called Cuu Long where they made candy, rice cakes, popcorn treats, crackers and other snacks that we sampled.  Our guide here was named Phuc (no tittering – the “h” is silent, and it is pronounced “puck”). We encountered a hat salesman who convinced Gary that he need one to keep the sun off – a fine idea, but this one had a distinct Gilligan look that was not the least flattering so I think it might not have been worn since the day of its purchase.

The Mekong is a fascinating place.  A wide brown river the color of yellow tinged chocolate milk flows lazily through dense jungles in various shades of green, and if you ignore the fact of gasoline engines powering the sampans, you can imagine they way of life has it has been for hundreds of years.

Cang Rai Floating Market

Cang Rai Floating Market

We saw the Cai Rang floating market that has been in operation for over a thousand years. Farmers sell to merchants who use their boats to reach their customers who come shopping in their own boats, or in some cases,  the seller’s boats go house to house along the river.  They advertise what they are selling by hoisting it up like a flag.  E.g. a man selling, onions, garlic and cabbage will display those on a bamboo pole. The fish sellers have live wells to keep their fish river fresh, except for the unlucky display specimen.   And the chicken salesmen – yep they hoist up a chicken, protesting all the way.  We learned that his way of life is actually endangered.  Well intentioned Americans built a bridge, and investors built grocery stores and imported vehicles. We felt fortunate to experience it before it is gone.

We had a delicious lunch at a home stay Bed and Breakfast call Ba Linh. To reach it, our sampan had to plow through water hyacinths to get us close to a dock. From there we had a short trek through shacks and jungle to get to our restaurant – feeling somewhat skeptical about the whole thing

Fabulous Fresh Fish for our Wraps

Fabulous Fresh Fish for our Wraps

We made our own fish wraps (called, we thought, something that sounded like “yum” – or maybe we just thought it was the name since they were “yum” indeed. We later saw they were called bahn trang and weren’t sure how we derived yum from that. They brought out a whole fish and showed us how to flake the meat off to make our wraps and this was some of the best fish we have ever had anywhere, chocolate milk colored water notwithstanding. We started with what they call rice paper, but it is totally edible made from a thin batter of rice flour and water. It is stretched over a pot of simmering water. The steam cooks the wrapper in a matter of seconds. It is not that different from a flour tortilla, but it is thinner. Included in the wrap were the fish, lettuce, mint, cucumber – all wrapped in rice paper. We also had chicken soup with noodles and the best eggrolls ever along with prawns, pork sticky rice and local fruit – papaya, jack fruit, guava and pomelo.  We all agreed that this was the best meal we have had on this trip, and interestingly enough, it was in the most humble surroundings.

Cruising the Mekong

Cruising the Mekong

There are two types of houses here – stilt (fixed on bamboo poles above the river and floating (drifting on pontoons which in many cases are 55 gallon drums). Bridges here connecting houses to the shore are often what they call “monkey bridges” – not that different from the monkey bars from American playgrounds only more rickety. Along with the floating homes there are often floating villages offering all sorts of goods and services Roofs of both houses used to be thatch, but almost all have converted to corrugated metal since it is cooler and lasts longer. Many floating house have fish traps and thus many residents of the river rarely have to set foot on land.   There is a covered hole in the floor of the floating house, under which is suspended a large net. Fish caught here are stored live until they are ready to be eaten. The area is also used an in incubator for fertilized fish eggs.

In the Gardens at our Lunch Stop

In the Gardens at our Lunch Stop

We had a tour of the restaurants gardens and orchard where they showed us how they grow just about everything they serve. Then we had a little local music and some folk dancing,  involving hoes and brooms, which was intended, so we gathered,  to represent local history and customs, but I have to say it was a little hard to follow. Local music still sounded quite tinny to us, but they finished off with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and Freres Jacques so we could all sing along and make our own awful music. All in all – it was a fun day.

 

 

Sampans among the Water Hyacinths

Sampans among the Water Hyacinths

Then it was back to the dock and through water hyacinths to get back to open water.  We were told that water hyacinths can be a menace because they grow so quickly, but he locals use them for weaving and erosion control. As we made our way back to the dock, our local guide provided individual foot massages – truly a full service operation.

We started back to Saigon in the late afternoon.  On the way home Mandy pointed out a kite flying park jam packed with both children and adults flying kits. Saigon is too congested  (including traffic and  low strung power lines) for kite flying, so families come here and bring a picnic and make a day of it. Mandy said sometimes people will put a flute-like on the kites to make “music”.  Saigon also has an annual kite competition with Hue, but we weren’t quite sure how the judging went.

Sometimes attendees will have sort of rolling picnic, eating en route, such as the family we saw, each with a bowl of rice on the back of a motor bike, eating away at 40 MPH. The driver thankfully was not joining in the meal on wheels while they were underway. Mandy said that in addition to kite clubs, Vietnamese also have goldfish clubs, nightingale clubs, bonsai, stamp collectors – all on the tame side and then on the wild side they have motorbike clubs.

Fishermen going up the Mekong

Fishermen going up the Mekong

It is also common for people to work as volunteers. Mandy does this herself to work with the monks taking care of abandoned babies, some of which are just a few days old by unwed mothers. Such abandonment is common since there is no such thing as child support in Vietnam and many babies are adopted overseas. She said that some mothers come back to the agency saying they want to meet with the adoptive parents, but often it is just a scam to shake them down for money, and  so that is not allowed.

We returned to the city close to dusk and decided to visit some of the hotels made famous by journalists during the Vietnam War for rooftop cocktails. Our hotel, the Grand was another one frequented by journalists and westerners was built in the 1930’s, but we had visited its rooftop the night before. Three other hotels prominent during the Vietnam War included the Caravelle, the Rex and the Continental. The 10 story Caravelle Hotel (with its bullet proof glass), was built in 1959 and became popular with journalist and diplomats

The Rex Hotel

The Rex Hotel

The Rex, built in the 1950’s was the tallest building in Saigon during the Vietnam War, topped by the much patronized rooftop Garden Bar where journalists also used to hang out. Many famous journalists stayed here, most notably Walter Cronkite, whose candid reporting convinced then President Lyndon Johnson that support for the Vietnam War at home was evaporating. This report generated the famous Nixon quote: “If we have lost Cronkite, we have lost the nation”.  The Rex was also the hub of US and social and military activity. It was from here that US military officers gave the daily press briefings that became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” which were blatantly misleading and self serving.  These are the briefings that Cronkite largely debunked after his visit.  The hotel is once again a hub of social activity today.

The Continental Hotel

The Continental Hotel

The Continental, built during French colonial times, has an elegant atrium which is popular for afternoon tea. The rooftop terrace bar on top of the Continental Hotel was dubbed the Continental Shelf.  Prior to the war it was popular with writers such as Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. All the major American Newspapers established news bureaus in Saigon.  Reporters joked that they could cover the whole war and never leave the rooftop bars. Of course all this glamorous hotel and war correspondent business ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Mandy had told us about a Tex-Mex place that is really popular. We did a walk by but kept on walking – it was way too popular and had too many menu items that were neither Tex nor Mex.  Finding it was a challenge because street addresses were never numbered sequentially. People kept their original house number so you might have 112 next door to 114 or you might find a lot of other numbers in between.  There was no odd-even numbering either.  We asked Mandy how fire or policemen find an address if someone calls for help.  She said every neighborhood has someone who knows every person in every house and quite a bit about them so they can do double duty (1) they can direct the emergency crews to a specific house (2) they can report to the government if there is anything that might be unapproved going on.  (like having foreign guests in your house). They also can keep an eye on suspected criminal elements and drug addicts so they can be rounded up and sent to a rehab center to be reformed. Mandy also told us that many Vietnamese would like to travel to the US, but visas are hard to get.  The government of their country and ours are afraid they won’t come back. She says the best way to visit the west is to escort a tour group, but you are under constant scrutiny to make sure you don’t defect. We thought it was interesting that so many structures are said to belong to the people (e.g. The People’s Committee Building) but they are not open to the people.

Our Last Evening in Vietnam with Mandy

Our Last Evening in Vietnam with Mandy

We have had a wonderful and fascinating visit to Vietnam, far exceeding our expectations .Tomorrow we fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia to continue our adventure. One of the key lessons learned here was that the Vietnamese seem to bear no ill will toward Americans. We were told that the Vietnamese feel that Russians, the French, the Chinese all came to take. The Americans came to try to give something of value – democracy, and that is why they like and welcome Americans so much today.

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 5: Cambodia and Bangkok

 Southeast Asia

Part Five: Cambodia and Bangkok

 

February 29, 2012

Dateline: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Latitude at Siem Reap 13.36 Degrees North, 103.86 Degrees East

Today we had a one hour flight from Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) to Siem Reap , Cambodia  on Vietnam Airlines. We paid $51 in excess baggage fees – that’s $5 per kilo so we apparently acquired a lot of heavy treasure in Vietnam.  Upon arrival, we got our visas at the airport – again providing pictures and $20 in cash and then we learned we would be paying another $25 when we leave.  The currency here is the rial (pronounced ree-all) and it takes 1000 of them to be worth 24 cents in US currency. However, the US dollar is widely used here and can even be dispensed in local ATM machines.  They don’t like any US bills with any sort of tear, crease or marking on them. The Thai Baht is also accepted in most areas.

We met our guide Sophai  (with the interesting pronunciation of “Soap-Eye”).  Sophai told us that he is one of 2,000 English speaking guides in the area. The name Siem Reap literally means “Siam defeated” and the city was named to celebrate the 17th Century victory of the Khmer people over Siam, which is current day Thailand.

Lotus Blossoms on Display

Lotus Blossoms on Display

Cambodia is a small country of about 69,500 square miles, bounded by Thailand to the north and west, Laos on the north and Vietnam to the east. The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh today, but in ancient times it was a city called Angkor. From 802 A.D. to 1432 A.D. it was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire and covered a much larger area than Cambodia does today.  The remains of that city now cover approximately 77 square miles. Much of the old city was comprised of wooden structures, long since rotted away, but what remains are the stone temples. tombs and other ruins.

The Khmer Empire was founded  in 802 A.D. when Jayavarman II declared himself to be the divine king (or devaraja as they called it) of all the land.  Ancient Cambodia was primarily Hindu at the outset, but during the 10th Century under the reign of Jayavarman VII, Buddhism began to spread and is the predominant religion today. Jayavarman II was a follower of the Hindu god Shiva and built in the town of Roulous, a temple-mountain  in his honor, representing Mount Meru, the sacred mythical home of the Hindu gods. This was the first in a series of grand temples and structures of staggering proportions, but the capital was moved to Angkor in 900 A.D. and all subsequent building took place there. Following Jayavarman VII’s death, the area entered into a long decline, hastened by four different attacks from the then Kingdom of Siam from 1352 to 1431.

Our visit here was during what they call a cool dry season with winds from the Northeast (November to March), but we found it to be neither cool, nor dry, nor breezy. It didn’t rain, but it didn’t need too to get us wet since the air was already saturated.

Mandevilla

Mandevilla

Cambodia, like the other countries we visited had some interested rules of etiquette. For example:

-Do not raise your voice. It is considered unseemly to show too much emotion. One should stay calm and not lose one’s temper. This will result in a loss of “face” or respect by others.

-When negotiating prices, allow the other party to save face by letting the final price favor them a bit more

-When someone offers a gift, decline the first time and then accept, taking the gift with both hands.

-Never use the  left hand to touch, eat or give something to someone. This hand is reserved for “private duties”

-Avoid discussion of Khmer Rouge

-Do not touch anyone on the head and do not display the soles of your feet for another to see.  This is considered disrespectful.

-Wai or Nop (the gesture of putting your hands together below your chin in greeting )here is called “Som Pas”

-If you give a gift for the home  –  give no hankies, no knives and don’t wrap it in white. You should pass  gifts and any object using two hands.

-Monks get more respect than even the most elderly. No women can touch a monk. If a monk is sitting, you should sit before beginning a conversation with him. Be respectful of a monk’s food restrictions (no eating after Noon) and do not snack in their presence.

Ancient Carvings at Ta Prohm Temple

Ancient Carvings at the Ta Prohm Temple

Ninety percent of the population of Cambodia are farmers. The rice fields were dry this time of year. They only have one crop a year during the rainy season, called the monsoon season.  Technically the monsoon is the name of the wind that brings the rain, which can create serious flooding here and lasts from May to October.  Fishing was once a major occupation and Tonle Sap Lake was once home to quaint fishing villages, but it was fished out so there was a 2 year moratorium placed on fishing to allow replenishment.

Ninety percent of the people are of Khmer (pronounced Ka-mare” with the accent on “mare”) descent and that is also the name of their language.  Ninety percent of Cambodians practice Theraveda Buddhism. The other 10 per cent are made up of ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  The hill tribes here are called Khmer Leu.  Elections are fairly new here, with the UN coming here in 1993 to monitor the first elections.

Sophai pointed out an interesting photo phenomenon showing cultural differences between East and West.  He said Americans and Europeans typically want to shoot a photo with scenery or monuments with no people, whereas Asians favor people over scenery and monuments. That is why we so often have seen Asian tourists mugging for the camera while obliterating a lovely sight. Riddle solved!  But we did observe a world-wide commonality, perhaps with the influence of social media, that there is a plethora of teens, not just Asian, who take on a fashion model slouch and simper and vamp for the camera, tossing their hair this way and that, while the splendors of a beautiful structure such as Angor Wat just become so much backdrop. While the girls tend to go for a Britney or Kim Kardashian look, the boys tend to go for the Justin Beber’s  disheveled but cool look, accompanied by the most ludicrous expression they can manage.

Weddings here are a two day event, typically at the bride’s house if there is enough space.  The groom’s family pays the bride’s parents 3 to 5 thousand dollars for entertaining expenses. (In india it is just the opposite).  They typically will consult a fortune teller to determine the most auspicious date for the ceremony.

Borei Angkor Resort and Spa

Borei Angkor Resort and Spa

We checked into the Borei Angkor Resort and Spa and had lunch and then Sophai picked us up at 3:00 p.m. for some touring.  We would see the main attraction here, the Temple at Angkor Wat tomorrow. We saw the countryside, whether temple ruins or open fields, dotted with termite mounds which they leave alone.  Sophai says it is considered bad luck to break up a termite mound, because that will let the evil spirits out.  Who knew that’s where all those evil spirits lived?

We had a basic language lesson – hello is a word that sounds like” suhr-sdei “.  Good is la oh, yes is ba, no is tee.  We didn’t quite pick up the phrase for “get outta my face” but we could certainly have used it. We found some of the most persistent children sales people marketing post cards and trinkets that we have ever encountered anywhere, except perhaps in India.  With adults, politely saying no thank you and holding up a hand palm extended seems to do the trick. But with the little kids – they are more persistent, probably like kids everywhere, although these are selling trinkets versus wanting to buy them. They are little shy on the math angle of their marketing though. We were offered one bracelet for a dollar of three for 5 dollars so we suspected it might behoove them to curtail the selling sessions and get back into math class at school.

West Baray at Angkor Thom

West Baray at Angkor Thom

Siem Reap is home to 4 temple complexes:  East Baray, West Baray, Angor Thom (thom means big) and Angor Wat. (Angkor means city and Wat means temple or monarchy) Barays are large reservoirs, hand dug, whose waters were intended to give the illusion that the temples beside them are floating.  The belief is that the moat at Angkor Wat was created to simulate Mt. Meru where Buddha dwells.  Today only the West Baray has water. We saw an ancient wall defaced by a Hindu king who Sophai described as greedy and lazy. He systematically ordered all faces on all Buddhas obliterated from the thousands of statues in the area, including the wall which had a Buddha every few feet house in a lotus petal shaped shell.

 

Ta Promh Temple as seen in Lara Croft Tomb raider

Ta Promh Temple

We had a short drive to our first stop, a tomb and temple called Ta Prohm, (the name means Ancestor of Brahma) built in the early 13th Century. It was the filming site of the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider movie, starring Angelina Jolie. It is a fascinating tangle of giant cotton silk trees ( also known as kapok) that have grown up around the tomb, which was neglected for centuries and only rediscovered in the 19th Century.   The trees range in age from 400 to 700 years old and today they actually hold the temple together.  It was sort of like the movie,  Little Shop of Horrors on steroids.

 

Buddha Enveloped by a Kapok Tree

Buddha Enveloped by a Kapok Tree

There is a Sanskrit inscription that states 79, 365 people were required to maintain the complex.  It goes on to list 18 priests, 2, 740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 apsara dancers. ( recognizable by their pointy headdresses, with hands and feet pointed away from the body at right angles, the feet often  in what would be second  position in classic ballet – apart and pointed in opposite directions). The remainder were monks, workers and villagers.  The mortality rate among workers was around 50% so they needed a steady supply of people to get it built.  Today workers are trying to preserve and restore the complex, earning about $350 per month. Married couples working here typically do not live together – they live with their parents to save money, but fortunately there is a free children’s hospital provided by private funding which also funds restoration.  Much of the funding comes from Germany, Japan and India.

Most of Cambodia has been deforested for agriculture, but at this temple complex, the jungle has been preserved.  On the grounds we saw wild green parakeets with long tails flitting about.  It was quite exotic, but still hot as blue blazes.  It was a steamy heat, which even in the shade seemed excessive.

Pro Rup Temple at Sunset

Pre Rup Temple at Sunset

Our next stop, called Pre Rup, was a temple complex built in 961 A.D.  made of red sandstone that really radiated heat with no shade at all.  It is sort of a combination temple and man-made mountain, again intended to symbolize Mount Meru. It is built in what is called a quincunx – that is a central tower surrounded by 4 other towers at each corner.  It was the state temple of the first Khmer capital at Angkor. It is a high, abruptly rising,  5 level structure with square  terraces  steep steps, that are spaced more like the rungs of a ladder instead of a staircase that give access (if you can climb it) to the 5 sanctuary towers. It was used as a cremation site for royalty in ancient times and the name Pre Rup translates as “Turn the body”, as in turn the body to ash.  It provided a good place to see the sunset, which allowed the temperature to cool slightly from broil to bake.

Nightlife in Siem Reap

Nightlife in Siem Reap

We had a chance to shower and change at the hotel before going out to dinner on our own. Here the motorized tuk-tuks (essentially a motor-bike with room for passengers in a small compartment)  are called “remorks”  and the motorbike tows a buggy-like carriage which holds two people.  We took remorks to the Angor Palm Restaurant, located in the center of the old town where the Siem Reap River meanders along and enjoyed a great meal on a balcony overlooking the festivities in Pub Street, which like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, is closed off at night for pedestrians.   It was actually a little reminiscent of Bourbon Street, minus the booze and the strippers. Instead we saw market stalls, massage places where massages versus sex for hire takes place and the fish tanks we saw in Chiang Mai where you can have little goldfish nibble the dead skin off your feet.  We took a leisurely stroll (you have to be leisurely in this heat) around the town and found remorks to take us back to the hotel.

 

March 1, 2012

In 1979, with military resources freed from battling the United States,  the Vietnamese toppled one of the most brutal regimes in world history, the Khmer Rouge, and installed a communist government.  Hun Sen became Prime Minister in 1985 after the death of the prime minister. They had free elections in 1993 in which Hun Sen was defeated, but he refused to leave office. He reformed the election system to only have one candidate running which would of course be himself.   He is still in power and Cambodia is run by one party under a constitution.

Elaborate Carvings at Amgkor Thom

Elaborate Carvings at Angkor Thom

Cambodia has an ancient and bloody history In the First Century A.D. an Indian Brahmin ( a nobleman) married a local princess and founded a kingdom called the Phnom. He introduced the Sanskrit language and Hindu customs into law. In 800 A.D. the king named Jayavarman II – a Khmer king united all of the Khmer people into one Hindu Kingdom called Kampuchea. It was during his reign and in subsequent years that the fabulous structures we would see today were built.

In 1863 The French Established a Protectorate which morphed, as protectorates tend to do, into a French Colony, but the French left the area along with Vietnam after a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the locals in 1954. Cambodia became independent from France and in 1955 Prince Sihanouk became the prime minister. In 1969 the Vietnam war spilled over into Cambodia and in 1970 Lon Nol led a successful coup against the king, and Cambodia was invaded by the US chasing Viet Cong across the border. The U.S. carpet bombed the northern part of the country in a failed attempt to drive them out.

In 1975 the Khmer rouge took over, led by Pol Pot ( a puppet of the Chinese Government). During the period of 1975 to 1979 as many as 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in a purge of intellectuals, handicapped people and anyone suspected of opposing the Khmer Rouge.  The movie The Killing Fields documents this horror of what is among the worst acts of genocide in history. Surviving Khmer rouge leaders were tried in a United Nations tribunal in 2005. However, it is interesting that the current prime minister, Hun Sen, served with the Khmer Rouge.

Angkor Thom Tour by Elephant

Angkor Thom Tour by Elephant

Today we were to explore several temples within the complexes at Siem Reap, the most celebrated being Angkor Wat. Our first stop was Angkor Thom ( which means Great City) which had 54 towers with 216 faces of Buddha . French archaeologists. When the Khmer Rouge came into power, they burned as much of it as they could and what we were able to see was what was left. It was essentially a temple with a town around it and it served as a religious and administrative center for the Khmer people.  (Angkor Wat, although more famous, is smaller and is only a temple). The central temple in Angkor Thom is called the Temple Bayon and it is built on top of an earlier monument. The French during colonial times had undertaken restoration with  documenting numbering  around 36,000 pieces  of the temple complex and trying to figure out how to put it back together.  This process continued until they fled in 1975 just ahead of the Khmer Rouge, who found the documents left behind and used them for rolling papers for their cigarettes.

Causeway at Angkor Thom

Causeway at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is believed at its zenith to have a population of over 1 million people.  The royals, priests and military officials lived inside the inner walls and the laborers and everyone else lived outside.  It is said that they suffered a 50% mortality rate in the 5 years it took to build the structure. The wat of Angor Thom is still relatively intact, as is the South Gate with its stone causeway across what is now a dry moat. The Bridge is decorated with a row of 54 gods and demons on each side, who, it was believed, would be able to untangle the naga (mythical dragon) from the mountain. Each figure has a section of the 7 headed naga under his arm. We weren’t quite clear on how the naga got into this dilemma in the first place.

Tower with Faces at Agkor Thom

Tower with Faces at Agkor Thom

Temple of Bayon is part of the Angkor Thom complex.  It was built later than Angkor Wat and has much more Buddhist and less Hindu influence.  It is also considered to be of much less quality, e.g. it is chunkier without as many of the fine sandstone carvings.  The south gate has  one of the most interesting aspects of Angor Thom which are the larger than life faces of Buddha  that are constructed on each of the  4 sides of each tower out of stone blocks, one face looking in each direction.  You sometimes have to look hard to see the face there. It was built by King Jayavarman  VII   and there was  some rebuilding and modifying over the years by subsequent rulers. The kings were considered to be devarajas  (god kings descended from the Hindu god Siva).

Singhas on Guard

Singhas on Guard

Stone lions called singhas  are also prominently featured. (It is also the name of a local beer). As are a number of chedis (also called prangs) which are  pagoda-like structures for the ashes or royal and noble remains. Everywhere we went here we were struck by the height and steepness of the stairs. The Cham and other people back in the day were not tall people, nor are their descendents, yet they have these monster stairs that are not the least be ergonomically friendly.  We were told that the idea was to project an image of grandeur out of respect for the deities.

We saw a structure called the Baphuon which was a grand temple built in the middle of the 11th Century. Which was constructed just outside the walls of Angkor Thom. Unfortunately it was in shambles.  An effort was made to reconstruct it, but this was abandoned in 1972 when war came to Cambodia.

Elephant in the Restoration Workshop

Elephant in the Restoration Workshop

We also saw the Phimeanakas , another temple from the early 11th Century where the king worshiped (and only the king was allowed to worship). It was described by a Chinese visitor in ancient times as having  a tower of gold (but it was only a covering of gold leaf.  The legend is that the temple was associated with a legendary tower where a magical serpent/spirit with 9 heads lived. The spirit appeared as a woman who said he (the king) had to sleep with her every night before he could have sex with his wives and concubines back at the palace.  If he missed a single night, he would be dead and the royal lineage would die along with him.  Apparently he didn’t miss any nights since there were many kings after him

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

We exited Angor Thom at the Terrace of Elephants, so called because there are so many statues (full scale) of elephants.  It was added to the complex at the end of the 12th Century and further modified in the 13th.  There are 3 long 300 meter terraces for the king and his retinue to observe whatever festivities might be taking place.  These are not regular elephants, but are 3 headed and are gathering lotus flowers with their trunks. They are accompanied by lions and garudas (a mythical bird) carved in bas relief on the walls. Festivities according to Sophai included a sort of elephant polo, with riders playing a game whose rules seem to have been lost in time.

Land Mine Museum Display

Land Mine Museum Display

From Angkor Thom we went to the Land Mine Museum. During the 1980’s Cambodia became the most heavily mined war zone in the world. Today there are several organizations who are attempting to locate and dismantle land mines and his museum was created by one of them. This has been a painstaking process that has taken decades so far and continues to be necessary.

After lunch  we spent the afternoon exploring  Angkor Wat, the largest, most intact and most elaborately decorated temple in Cambodia, and by far the most famous. It was built in the second half of the 12th Century with construction begun under the reign of Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150 A.D.  The building took thirty years to complete.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the single largest religious monument in the world. The literal translation is “the City which is a temple”.  It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the Protector of Creation. The layout is based on the design of the Hindu cosmos called a mandala.  The central sanctuary of the temple has a large tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers and, like the temples at Angkor Thom, they are intended to represent a lotus bud and the celestial home of the gods, as well as the center of the universe,  Mount Meru. The outer walls represent the Edge of the Universe and the moat the cosmic sea.  The sanctuary has four entrances, each with images of Buddha, reflecting that Buddhism eventually replaced Hinduism in Cambodia.

Monks on the Causeway at Angkor Wat

Monks on the Causeway at Angkor Wat

The temple is accessed by a wide causeway which once crossed a moat,  which now is largely dry. The balustrades of the causeway are carved with nagas (the mythical serpent dragon type creatures) which line both sides of the causeway. The walls are covered in intricate carvings, a single 1,970 foot panel along has 2,000 individual carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls).  The apsaras are said to be alluring with their suggestive smiles and poses. They are typically adorned with elaborate jewelry and headdresses. Another panel features scenes from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The carvings here depict warriors engaged in combat.  Other panels portray the king on his throne surrounded by courtiers complete with fans and parasols, with princesses being carried on palanquins. There is also one of the king on a war elephant, which were actually used in battles.

The temple faces west which is unusual for Khmer temples since it was believed that the West represents death. It is an interesting parallel with the Egyptian beliefs a half a world and several centuries apart.  With the sun getting low in the western sky, we took this as our signal to return to the hotel for a refreshing swim in the pool and to get ready for dinner.

Remorks for Hire

Remorks for Hire

We took a tuk tuk to  a restaurant called Viroths for dinner,  which was billed as a French restaurant, but we found it to be no more French than French fries, yet still tasty. Tuk-tuks here are called touristic remorks and differ slightly from a regular tuk tuk which has room for passengers in a buggy seat mounted on the back of a motorbike.  The remorks have a buggy that is towed by a motorbike. We took a stroll around the Night Market. Tomorrow will be an early day and a long one so we went back to the hotel  and collapsed in our beds, heads spinning with visions of  nagas and garudas.

 

 

March 2, 2012

Dateline Bangkok

Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 Degrees North, Longitude, 100.5 Degrees East

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Today we had the truly sublime and  wonderful experience  of seeing  sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We found it to be mystical, magical and spiritual – one of those defining moments that are imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life. We watched beside a small pond that was at one time part of a moat with the towers silhouetted against the delicate pink and orange sky, created by the rising sun and reflected in the still water, turning first mauve and then lavender. We had skipped the morning ceremony with the monks rising at 4:15 a.m. which including chanting and blessings, but were glad not to miss the sunrise because it was stunning.

Sunrise Spectators at Angkor Wat

Sunrise Spectators at Angkor Wat

We were picked up at our hotel at 5:15 a.m. and arrived in total darkness at the temple at 6:00 a.m., using small flashlights to make our way across the causeway with other visitors, so numerous their flashlights looked like mid-summer fireflies. We settled on a small rise,which Sophai assured us was the prime viewing spot, which we learned when the sun arose that we were sharing with perhaps a thousand like-minded souls, including tourists as well as local people. But meanwhile in the darkness, just as the sky to the east began to glow, we heard the chanting and the drumbeats from the monastery, as the silhouette of Angkor Wat emerged from the blackness and the cicadas took up their “song” if it can be called that – something akin to a drill bit grinding into metal, but only making fleeting contact. It was amazing to us how quiet the amassed humans were, even after the sun was up. The whole crowd seemed to be awed into contemplation (well, maybe if you discount all the cell phone photos being snapped) you could see it.

Strange Cargo in Siem reap

Strange Cargo in Siem reap

We went back to the hotel for breakfast before catching our 35 minute morning flight to Bangkok on Bangkok Airways.  En route to the airport we found that Cambodia still had plenty of sights to turn our heads. We saw one of the strangest cargoes yet on a tuk-tuk –  towing a trailer holding a coffin – we assumed it was empty since there didn’t seem to be any sort of funeral procession. We saw a remork which normally carries two passengers, but  which had four orange robed monks jammed into two seats on a four lane highway with robes flapping. We saw a broom salesman on a bicycle hawking his hand-made brooms as he pedaled down the street, weaving in and out of traffic.

Gary went to the men’s room at the airport and came out to report a man filling his rice cooker with water. In the ladies room we saw a woman washing her rice bowl and chopsticks so apparently the line between bathroom and kitchen is often blurred.  So, apparently, is the idea of privacy in these bathrooms since Stu reported using a urinal while a woman right next to him cleaned out the adjacent one.

Modern Bangkok

Modern Bangkok

Upon arriving in Bangkok, we learned that the guide we were supposed to have had a conflict and so we got “Bob” (or something similar – we never quite got the spelling so he was Bob to us.) and drove into Bangkok to check into the Rembrandt Hotel and Towers. To say hello in Thai you use the word “sawadee and add “ka” if you are addressing a woman and “ kob” if you are addressing  a man.  However, given the number of transvestites and transsexuals here (surgeons specializing in this particular operation advertise on billboards to a degree that would put American ambulance chasers to shame), you are always safe with a plain greeting of “sawadee”. The palms pressed together here called the wai  and is a polite way to greet others. It  is said to copy the shape of the lotus bud. The higher you hold your hands the more respect you are offering to the person you are greeting.

The City of Bangkok, we learned, has 10 million people. It is a very modern-looking city, complete with skyscrapers, especially in the section we were staying in called the Sukhumvit. This area is comprised of a series of small alleys off the main road the Sukhumvit Road which stretches from the center of Bangkok to the Cambodian border. The small side streets off of it are  called Soi (pronounced “soy”).

Shuttle Service at the Rembrandt

Shuttle Service at the Rembrandt

We checked into the Rembrandt hotel just off Sukhumvit Roadand  and had lunch at a restaurant across the street called the Lean on Tree, but never quite got the meaning behind the name, although there were a lot of trees around it that one could supposedly lean upon. We all had delicious Thai food and suspect we may be going native here.  We did note they have what must be the smallest napkins in the world, single ply, maybe two inches squares, about the texture of really cheap and ineffective toilet paper, which was surprising since people eat with their hands here much of the time, but they do employ the practice of dedicating one hand to eating and one to “other” tasks so maybe that explains the hygiene issue.

On the River in a Longtail Boat

On the River in a Longtail Boat

From there we walked to Sukhumvit to catch the Sky Way train to the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) which runs through the center of Bangkok out into the Gulf of Siam (a.k.a. Gulf of Thailand) only 12 miles away. We met Bob, the guide, at the train station, who showed us how to buy tickets. The fare was 40 baht (about $1.30) each way.  We all journeyed together to find our long-tailed boat that would take us on a two hour cruise on the Chao Phraya and its tributaries and canals called (khlongs).  The long-tailed boats are so named because they use motors salvaged from WWII Japanese vehicles which have a long drive shaft in order to advance the rear wheels. The boats are long and skinny with the engine mounted on the very back and thus the motor is separated from the propeller by that same long drive shaft.  It would appear to me that some modification could be made to shorten this, but if so, no one seems to have come up with it.  The solution may be that they should buy a motor designed for a boat, but then that would have a negative impact on the charm of it all.

Smal temple on one of the klongs of Bangkok

Small temple on One of the Klongs of Bangkok

We went by a temple with monks feeding river catfish and there was quite a feeding frenzy.  The monks do this several times a day every day and so the catfish are huge to gigantic. Bob wasn’t clear on if anyone catches and eats them, but the monks are vegetarian so they certainly don’t.  And speaking of frenzies, we were assaulted by boats in a steady stream, participating in what is called the Floating Market.  It seems to be not so much as place of business , as a free-for all. Gary did buy a carved and homely  little wooden frog with the added attraction of having a stick to be struck along his back to make a distinctive “ribbet” sound.

We learned quite a bit about Buddhist rituals and practices throughout our journey, including these gems:

Streetside delicacies

Streetside delicacies

The daily alms round, called bintabat, takes place shortly after dawn when the monks leave their temples to search for their daily meal. Giving food to the monks is a way for lay pepole to make merit and practice generosity (the act itself is called dana). Monks eat only food given to them, they share it among themselves and it must be eaten before noon. Merit making is based on the belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes either in this life or the next. It is a way to take responsibility for your own karma (destiny).

Offerings for Buddha are usually symbolic.. Lotus buds represent the purity of the Buddha’s thoughts.  Incense sticks are burned in groups of 3 and symbolize the Buddha, (the dharma or teachings) and the sangha, (the monkhood), whereas candles stand for the light of understanding.

Meditation purifies the mind and clears it of distractions. Monks practice it regularly as do many lay people. Monks have their heads shaved monthly on the day of the full moon

People buy and apply gold leaf to a Buddha image to honor his teachings. Most people visit their wat once a week but there are no set services

On the Chao Phraya River

On the Chao Phraya River

The city of Bangkok is only 5 feet above sea level, so it is no wonder that waterways are key to its existence. The name Bangkok translates into Krung Thep, or City of Angels. The Chao Phraya River and the khlongs are key transportation and commerce hubs, with its many ferries and all manner of vessels, rafts and barges. Water borne vendors still market their wares from long tail boats that cruise the khlongs., or really from anything else that will float. Bangkok was once actually a floating city with stilt houses and houses built on rafts. Roads have replaced many waterways but the Thon Buri district remains much as it was.

 

Wat Arun

Wat Arun Temple

In Bangkok an estimated 2 million people (of the 10 million population) l live on the river. The city also has 30,000 Buddhist temples, but we were only going to visit a few. We stopped at the Temple of Dawn called Wat Arun – named for the Indian God of Dawn. According to history, in 1767 King Taksin arrived here at sunrise and decided it to be the appropriate spot to build a temple. The first one was tiny but it was enlarged and expanded over the years by Rama I and Rama II. Rama IV added the ornamentation created with broken pieces of porcelain which sets it apart from other temples.  The central design of the temple symbolizes Hindu Buddhist cosmology – sort of a wedding cake looking structure (big cake!)The central prang (tower) represents Mount Meru (roughly equivalent to Heaven, but with a lot more detail) and its ornamental tiers depict worlds within worlds.  The top tier called the Devaphum is the peak of Mt. Meru . It has six heavens within seven realms of happiness.

Royal Temple Complex from the River

Royal Temple Complex from the River

The next level is the Tavatimsa Heaven where all desires are fulfilled and is guarded at all 4 cardinal compass points by  the Hindu God Indra who is a God of Heaven, also in charge of rain and thunder.  This layer also has small coves or niches with are kinnari, mythical creatures half bird, half human. The third layer (or base layer)  is called the Traiphum and it represents 31 realms of existence across 3 worlds of Desire, Form and Formless of the Buddhist Universe. There are stairs ascending the Central prang but they are very steep, intended no doubt to signify how difficult it is to reach the summit of the highest levels of existence.

Small Buddha at the Wat Arun Tenple

Small Buddha at the Wat Arun Tenple

There are 4 minor prangs in each of the four corners all with niches and statues of Nayu, the god of the winds on horseback.  Interesting note – there are demon statues made of the broken porcelain lining the walls of the central prang, symbolizing the constant threat of evil against goodness. There are statues of Chinese guards at the entrance. We have seen this blending of Chinese, Indian and Thai religions and cultures in several temples we have visited.

We walked around and took pictures and found that they are strict about ladies knees and shoulders being exposed (in 100 degrees soggy heat no less) so they loan pashmina like wraps for those daring hussies who show up with offending body parts exposed.  Just the thing you want to do is to add a layer of clothing to an already over-heated body. Despite the strictures of the temple regarding modesty, the three P’s of immoral behavior are rampant here  in Bangkok– Prostitution, Pedophilia and Pornography, but while at the temple you’d never guess that to be true.

The garuda ( mythical bird) is now used as the seal of the country and is  symbol of the king. Its shape resembles the US Eagle with wings spread, but this bird has a very stylized outfit and headdress that are unmistakably Asian.  However today, it seems that a different symbol of the king is quite prevalent and can be found on giant billboards with photographs of him forty years younger.  They sort of alternate with billboards advertising cosmetic surgery and sex change operations in a general blur of visual pollution.

Thai Mexican - not recommended

Thai Mexican – not recommended

It was jam packed in the Skyway as we made our way back to the hotel since we were hitting it at peak rush hour.  By the time we reached the Rembrandt we were ready for some cocktails and discovered a Mexican Restaurant of all things, called Senor Pico’s. Now normally we would be quite cautious about mixing cultures like this so radically, particularly in a non melting pot like the US or Canada. However the margaritas, the chips and guacamole, the salsa were excellent.  If only we had stopped there. But no, we ordered enchiladas and tacos.  The tacos had a distinctive flavor, but not a Mexican flavor, more like what you’d find in a Bolognaise sauce over spaghetti.  The enchiladas had nutmeg or some other spice would expect in a pumpkin pie, which we found to be more than a little off-putting.  We went to our rooms wishing we had called it a night with just drinks and appetizers, but we did learn (once again same lesson, over and over) you should not order Mexican food just anywhere.

March 3, 2012

Delivery Tuk Tuks in the Old City

Delivery Tuk Tuks in the Old City

Today we  spent  the entire day exploring  Bangkok , (whose name we learned means “Village of the Wild Plum or Krung Thup as they call it) which we found to be not nearly as wacky as other metropolises we have visited in the region in terms of both vehicular traffic and cargoes. Taxis in the city are vivid shades of hot pink and lime green and are called Taxi Meters (what we would call metered taxis). They replaced the old system of gypsy cabs and predatory charging, making it much more attractive to foreign tourists and investors. Traffic is just as bad as anywhere we have been, but we were told that most accidents are caused by people obeying the rules. We did have to ensure that we wore clothing that would cover both ankles and knees since we would be visiting some temples with strict dress codes (no high water pants – no Capri pants) and feet should also be covered. It was a day filled with fabulous sights and the most impressive Buddhas we have seen, and we have seen a bunch of them.

Solid Gold Buddha in Wat Traimit

Solid Gold Buddha in Wat Traimit

Our first stop was a temple called Wat Traimit which had an interesting sign indicating parking for foreigners only.  Another interesting sign inside the temple cautioned that we should beware of non-Thai pickpockets  (and so,  we wondered,  were Thai pickpockets considered okay?), but of course the implication was that any thieves must be from outside the country.  The Wat Traimit is also called the Temple of the Golden Buddha and of course there are thousands of golden Buddhas throughout Southeast Asia, but this Buddha was quite the most imposing of them all – It is 13 feet high and made of solid  18 karat gold and weighs 5 tons. It was sculpted in the 13th Century and was discovered quite by accident  when the port facilities of Bangkok were being expanded. At the time it was covered in stucco and was tucked away at the Temple Wat Traimint for 20 years. A crane dropped it while attempting to move it, revealing the gold treasure beneath. Scholarly thinking is that it had been covered in stucco to hide it from Burmese marauders centuries ago and somewhere along the line, those who knew the secret, died before revealing it.

Gongs at Wat Traimit

Gongs at Wat Traimit

The temple walls are equally impressive with gold leaf and elaborate carving and paintings. The Chinese who live here come to “make merit” by applying golf leaf on the temple’s smaller Buddha images. They also burn what is jokingly referred to as “hell’s banknotes” , which serve as kong tek – that is paper replicas of real objects which are burned to provide for the dead in the next life. They are way too practical to burn real money.

Today the Chinese typically are 5th generation and have assimilated quite well and it seems everyone gets along. Right next to China town is India town where Indian immigrants originally settled and have pretty much kept to their neighborhoods – not too different from the melting pot that New York City was and is. As in old New York, the family quite often lives in rooms above their family business. These structures are called “Shop Houses”. They also paint elaborate signs in gold on a red background to ward off evil and sickness. Thais (including Chinese Thais) are very superstitious people.  Almost everyone wears some sort of protective amulet. They are sold in specialty markets, often near a shrine or other spiritually auspicious sites. Many are religious, but many are of a baser, more practical nature such as a phallus to guarantee potency. Fortune telling is an industry in its own right in Thailand as well. No major decisions are made without consulting a fortune teller.

Pak x Market

Pak Khlong Market

After being dazzled by the Golden Buddha, we walked the streets of nearby Chinatown to visit the vast markets including the Pak Khlong Market, where there are blocks and blocks of vendors selling fresh flowers and produce, both grabbed up by the armload by people heading to the temples to make an offering. The market is open 24 hours a day. Deliveries arrive by 1:00 a.m. every night and by 9:00 a.m. the most diverse selections in the world are on view.

After China town we visited the Temple of Wat Pho which is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. It as built in the 1780’s by Rama I on the grounds of a 16th century temple.  In 1832 Rama III built the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha and turned the temple into a palace of learning. Traditional Thai massage is one of the key areas of study. Thai massage is quite vigorous and involves pulling and stretching limbs and torso in sometimes quite strenuous ways.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

In the wihan (translation is chapel)  of the  Wat Pho Temple we saw the famous Reclining Buddha which is truly enormous. Buddha is lying on his side with his head resting on his hand and propped elbow. The statue is 150 feet long , built of brick and covered in gilded plaster. The statue totally fills up the wihan. His feet are quite interesting in themselves with mother of pearl images on the soles which represent the 108 lashanas (auspicious signs) of the true Buddha.

 

They had large statuary “guards” here are called farang at the inner gates of the compound. They have big noses, beards and top hats that created a distinct Charlie Chaplin look. The word “farang” means one of European ancestry – which would sort of explain the big nose. But we never did find out why foreigners are doing the guarding, but they were quite common here. There is an entire quarter in Bangkok called the Farang Quarter which at one time was the hub for commerce with foreigners.

 

Complex

Wat Phra Kaeo Temple Complex

Our next stop was the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaeo temple complex, built in 1782, by King Rama I, (one of his many titles) as his residence and, in fact it was a self sufficient city. The wat is actually a sub-complex within the Grand Palace complex. Unlike other wats, it has no resident monks.  It is massive, (around 538 acres) walled on every side with elaborate gates. It has ornate with temples and bejeweled Budddhas and nagas everywhere. The Grand Palace was so grand in fact that the Rama VII  decided to move into a the more modest Chitrlada Palace in the Dusit section of the city in 1925 and just use the Grand Palace complex for ceremonial and religious purposes.

 

A Gallery of Buddhas

A Gallery of Buddhas

This was the palace for which we had to do our modest dressing, and we noted with interest all manner of rental enterprises lining the streets around the palace offering suitable clothing. We saw some remarkable transformations such as a gentleman with a perfectly respectable looking striped golf shirt with khaki shorts with sandals become covered with a loud sarong in colors and garish patterns totally at odds with his golf shirt. It came to about mid-calf. Then he rented socks to wear with his sandals (still another color from the garish palette) with his hairy legs showing above.  Somehow I had to think Buddha would be laughing  – I know we certainly were.

 

Phra Si Rattana Chedi

Phra Si Rattana Chedi

When approaching the grounds from a distance you can see the extensive walls and inside the soaring spires of the various structures and steep roof lines of the complex. Once inside we found so much more. There was the way over the top ornate Audience Hall where the king received guests and held State Visits amid mother-of-pearl inlaid art covered walls.  Nearby was the king’s private chapel with exquisitely painted murals showing scenes from Buddhist life, ancient legends and proverbs. There was also the king’s library called the Phra Mondop which was a repository for scriptures.

Mural in Ramakien Gallery

Mural in Ramakien Gallery

One of the more impressive sights in terms or artwork was the Ramakien Gallery, which surrounded the temple complex, much like a cloister. It is decorated with lavishly detailed painted murals that depict the legend of the Ramkien which tells the story of Rama  (the good king) and how he defeats Tosakan (the demon king). The Ramakien originated in India, but has become Thailand’s national epic,

There were 8 prangs (small elaborate tower like spires) inside the complex intended to represent the 8 elements of the Buddhist religion which lead to Nivana – the ultimate enlightenment. We also saw the Phra Si Rattana  Chedi  (a chedi is a repository for funeral ashes) where the ashes of royals are interred, and this one supposedly contains a piece of the breast bone of Buddha.

Demons on Guard to Ward off Evil Spirits

Demons on Guard to Ward off Evil Spirits

There was an abundance of mythical creatures, both in the painting and sculpture throughout the grounds. We were familiar with many such as the Naga – dragon serpents and the Garuda- half man, half bird, but we also learned of some new ones, such as the Apsonsi – half woman, half lion that adorn the upper terrace of the Wat Phra Kaeo and the Yakshas – demons who protect the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits. To us this seemed to be odd to have demons warding off evil spirits, but it might be one of those subtleties that we Western cultures can’t grasp.

 

The most important structure in the temple complex is the Bot of the Emerald Buddha. A Bot is a sanctuary, whereas a wat is a temple complex. The doors to the bot are inlaid with mother of pearl, and marble. It is guarded by gilt bronze garudas and tone lions called singhas. The walls depict various scenes of Buddha’s triumphs and his separate lives called jatakas.  Originally there was a monastery on site, but there are no monks at the temple of the Emerald Buddha anymore.

The Bot of the Emerald Buddha

The Bot of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha, the most famous Buddha in Thailand, is quite small, but highly revered and receives the highest volume of wishes by worshipers. It is considered the most holy Buddha in the land As a testament to its importance, one of the titles of King Rama I was Royal Monarch of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is not actually made of emerald, but of a single piece of green jade.  The Buddha itself is smallish, only 26 inches tall and 19 inches wide, sitting in a glass case on a very high altar of gilded carved wood.  Buddha actually gets 3 costume changes per year – summer, winter and rainy season and his costumes are changed in a ceremony presided over by the king. His summer outfit is a crown and jewelry and in the winter he wears a shawl, In the rainy season he wears a gilded monastic robe and a headdress.

Ho Phra Nak - the Royal Mausoleum

Ho Phra Nak – the Royal Mausoleum

The Emerald  Buddha was first discovered in Chiang Rai covered with plaster. According to the story, the chedi that housed it in Chiang Rai was struck by lightning in 1434 and the plaster flaked off to reveal the jade. The abbot at the time mistook it for emerald and thus it got its name. Upon learning of the discovery, the King of Chiang Mai sent an army riding elephants to retrieve it. It was retrieved, but the elephant which was carrying it refused to take the road to Chaing Mai and thus the entourage took that as a sign it should not go there.  It had several homes over the years and was taken to Laos to a royal wedding where it stayed for 226 years until 1778 when the Thai Army invaded and took it back.

A Funeral We Mistook for a Flower Shop

A Funeral We Mistook for a Flower Shop

The visit to the Emerald Buddha concluded our tour here so we made our way out of the complex. Unbeknownst to us there was a funeral in progress at one of the pavilions, and we more or less that   stumbled into thinking they were selling flowers. We bowed using the wai gesture and nodded as politely as possible and edged our way out of the middle of things and to the nearest exit.

We stopped for lunch at a place near the Elephant Pier where in the olden days royal elephants were brought down to the river for a bath. Our restaurant was the Khun Kung Kitchen in an expansive area that the Thais refer to as their Champs Elysee, with a Hall of Justice and monuments to their constitutional monarchs scattered about.  Having seen the Champs Elysee multiple times, I have to say I was not struck by the resemblance myself, but perhaps from another angle it might jump out at you.

The V Palace

The Vimmanmek Mansion

After lunch we left downtown and drove out in the Dusit section of Bangkok where the current King of Thailand actually resides in the Chitrlada Palce. We didn’t drop in on His Majesty, but continued on to the Vimmanmek Mansion, also known as the Teak Palace. It is a Victorian structure built in 1900’s intended as a retreat for the King Rama V who attended and graduated from Oxford  in 1903. The palace was constructed entirely without nails and is the world’s largest golden teak building. It was reassembled here in 1901 after being moved from the Thai Coast to the south.   The palace was the first structure in Thailand to have both electricity and indoor plumbing. We noticed they had some interesting rules posted in the public restrooms, e.g. no standing on the toilet and no sprinkling water (urine?) on the floor.

The palace became a favorite retreat for King Rama V and his many concubines.  He reportedly loved to have his photo taken and there are many of them displayed throughout the palace in which he looks like a kid with a fake mustache. He also had many pictures taken of his many concubines, who in the photos look very much  like men with pompadours from the 1950’s.  Apart from the King, the mansion could be visited by women only. It was closed in 1935 and fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 1982.

Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson’s House

Our last stop of the day was Jim Thomspson’s House. He was an American expatriate with a very interesting life.   He was born in 1906 and fought in WWII in Europe where he became part of the OSS, which evolved into the CIA. He worked as a CIA operative in the post WWII years in Thailand. His claim to fame however was taking the cottage industry of silk weaving global after its demise during WWII and making a fortune at it.

The style of the house is traditional Thai, but he dismantled 6 traditional teak houses and brought them together to create his own house,   which was complete in 1959. Some of the walls were reversed so that exterior carvings would face the interior.  Each building is elevated, per the Thai custom to deal with periodic flooding

He assembled his “house” in the Ban Khrua district of Bangkok, noted for silk weaving.   He followed the Thai custom of selecting a day to move in that was favorable per an astrologist. Reportedly this same astrologist told him he would die at age 61 which apparently he did when he disappeared in the Malaysian Highlands in 1967 and was never found. There is speculation that the CIA was somehow involved, but nothing was ever proven.

Thai GirlDemonstrating Local crafts at Jim Thompson's House

Thai GirlDemonstrating Local crafts at Jim Thompson’s House

He was an avid collector of antiquities spanning 14 centuries, including paintings, porcelain and carvings. His collection of memorabilia was quite unusual, brought from all over Thailand. Instead of having a television for entertainment, he had a mouse maze, adding the Chinese custom where you could wager on the mice. He had a chamber pot in the shape of a cat where a guest could lift the head off and pee and then the servants would empty it the next morning.  He also had an open air toilet in the shape of a frog. He also collected broken antiquities that Thais gave to him. They didn’t want to keep them thinking they were bad luck.  There may have been something to that since he disappeared so mysteriously at such a young age.

Exhausted from the full day of touring, perhaps our busiest and most wonder-filled yet, we rode the Skytrain back to our stop on Sukhumvit Road and walked the few blocks to our hotel.

March 4, 2012

A Curry- free Taste of Home for the Desperate

A Curry- free Taste of Home for the Desperate

This was our last day in Southeast Asia and we would depart this evening for the airport and the long flight home, so  we chose a massage and some pool time to be followed by naps and packing.  We did have an all American indulgence – lunch at Burger King. Our taste buds were ready for a change from Thai food.We had an overnight flight leaving at 11:15 p.m., with connections in Tokyo and Dallas. We got back the day we lost when we came here so we were able to arrive in Atlanta at 1:00 p.m. on March 5. It was a wonderful and a wonder filled trip and so culturally enriching it remains among our favorite adventures.