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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




World Cruise Part 1: Georgia to American Samoa

The World Cruise

Part 1:  Georgia to Pago Pago, American Samoa

 Miles Traveled this leg:  11,998

 

Monday, January 9, 2006

Dateline: Gainesville, Georgia

 

My husband, Gary, and I started our adventure in Gainesville, Georgia at Latitude 34.17 degrees North, and Longitude 83.53 degrees West at 5:00 a.m. in the morning, when of course our personal positions were mostly horizontal and snoring as the alarm went off. We had long dreamed of a trip around the world, but of course when we were still working, our employers more or less expected us to show up every day, and so it was a dream postponed until retirement, and we wasted little time in booking it once that occurred. We had a limo pick us up at 6:00 a.m. and were anticipating seeing our neighbors outside, standing at the end of their respective driveways waving white hankies to see us off, but it was quite dark out and we could easily have missed them. We had an uneventful flight, which is always the best kind, and flew to New York City with our 8 bags of “essential stuff” – 2 checked and 2 carry on apiece. We had hoped Delta would be forgiving and excuse the overweight bags, but this was not to be. We had to pay an extra $25 apiece for 3 of the 4, and the 4th was so close, the skycap at curbside gave us a break.

 

 

Dateline: Pier 92,  New York, NY

Latitude at New York,40.45 degrees North, Longitude 74.0 degrees West.

 

QE2 - An Iconic Luxury Liner

QE2 – An Iconic Luxury Liner

We arrived in New York to find a mild winter day and were taken to our ship, the Queen Elizabeth 2.  Although seasoned travelers that we perceive ourselves to be, we still both uttered a simultaneous “wow” as we pulled up to the dock. The ship was quite regal, in her berth at Pier 92 on the Hudson River in Manhattan.  This is her 24th World Cruise and will be the last time she sails from Pier 92.  Future cruises will be from a new dock in Brooklyn, but somehow this will not be the same. This is a cruise of tradition and nostalgia for the luxury of a bygone era.

 

The Start of a Great Adventure

The Start of a Great Adventure

Our scheduled departure of 4:45 was moved to 6:00 p.m. since we were still taking on fuel at departure time. As it turned out, this was actually good since we were able to see the lights of the city blink on and sparkle as we cruised by. New York is one of those cities that seem to look more glamorous in the dark. (Like those women in the country song, “I Never Went to Bed with an Ugly Woman, but I Sure Woke Up with Some”.)  Our trip downriver and through New York Harbor was the first of many “goosebumps moments”. We were bundled up and out on deck so as not to miss any of it. We had our escort of two tugboats, but we also had a New York Harbor Fireboat with all five onboard pumps shooting jets of water high into the

Leaving the Manhattan Skyline Behind

Leaving the Manhattan Skyline Behind

air saluting our departure. The captain acknowledged the fireboat with several blasts from the ship’s horn, which for some reason is called a whistle. With the glittering lights to our port and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to starboard, it was definitely misty-eyed moment.  Now this would seem a real nostalgic time, leaving America’s shores for a long journey, but we were saved from outright blubbering by the knowledge that we would be in Florida with all the snowbirds in two days’ time, and besides a gourmet dinner awaited us.

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dateline: Atlantic Ocean

Position at Noon EST Latitude 33 degrees North, 74.9 degrees West, 155 miles east of Cape Fear, NC

 

Our First Day at Sea Off the North Carolina Coast

Our First Day at Sea Off the North Carolina Coast

Today was an “at sea” day so it was time to put our much talked about and little acted upon intensive exercise program into effect. Ten laps around the boat deck are equal to 2 miles so we donned our “tennies” and shorts and walked briskly around. It was quite breezy, but warm enough to shed jackets and sweatpants after 3 laps.  Given the ratio of anticipated calorie intake to calories burned, we think we may have to up our distance to 400 laps per day. So far the clothes will still zip, and the shirt buttons will still button, but there are a lot of miles and a lot of food between us and the finish line. We are prepared to move to all lycra formal wear by mid-cruise unless we are able to figure out this metabolism thing.

 

A Nice Welcome in Our Stateroom

A Nice Welcome in Our Stateroom

We did a lot of exploring of the ship, between our meals, naps and reading. The QE2 was built in Scotland and made her maiden voyage in 1969. She is 963 feet long and has a beam of 105 feet so there’s not much pitching and yawing going on at sea (at least so far, although two of us occasionally do some individual pitching and yawing after a few cocktails.) Gross tonnage is 70,327 tons (of course at the end of the cruise with all the passengers porking it up at the Midnight Buffet, this could increase substantially). Full capacity is 1800 passengers, but we are carrying around 1600. All rooms are full since some passengers are traveling solo.  Just over 600 are American, with slightly fewer UK residents.  The only other nationality of any size is about 100 Germans. Approximately 1/3 of the passengers on board will do the full world cruise.  The demographics of passengers are overwhelmingly Caucasians who are old to very old with a scattering of partly old. Youngsters like Gary and me are so rare as to be an endangered species, especially those of the high mobility persuasion.  However this in no way cramps our style and actually has several advantages. E.G., there is always plenty of room in the bars and lounges after 8:00 p.m. and the stairwells, unlike the elevators, are never crowded. The crew to passenger ratio is 1:1.5, so as you can imagine, the service is excellent. For those interested in such things, the ship has 9 B&W diesel engines, 5 propellers which are each 6 meters in diameter and a top cruising speed of 32 knots, which according to QE2 propaganda makes her faster than the QM2 which is touted as the fastest in the world. We typically cruise closer to 28 knots on long stretches.

 

Today’s activities included getting registered for the Internet (they have wireless, but there is no free lunch here. You have to use a logon ID which is associated with your room number).  I take it their Internet Service is as good a profit center as the casino since they charge anywhere from 30 to 50 cents a minute depending on which package you buy.  We think we shall defeat the system, however, by using Internet Cafes when in port.  Other activities included signing up for some of the tours we wanted to make sure we could get on (Petra in Jordan, Taj Mahal in India, Kyoto, Japan to name a few) More on these later.  We also had to work in 3 meals, naps, a movie, reading and catching up on email.  Gary also played bingo and in a poker tournament. He was aced out by a little old lady at bingo. He won a T-shirt at poker with the same little old bingo lady snagging all the cash there too. What a grueling schedule! We’ll have to get some rest soon.

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dateline: Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Latitude at Ft. Lauderdale 26.05 degrees North, Longitude 80.06 degrees West.

 

When we awoke (crack of 8:30) the ship was already docked so we did our 10 laps, had breakfast, showered and went ashore.  We didn’t plan any activities for today except shopping for some special items.  Many of our shipmates headed to the Galleria Mall, but we hopped in a cab and headed for the liquor store and a grocery store for wine, booze, diet Coke and an extension cord.  We have a small refrigerator in our room and decided we should do our own sunset cocktails (more money for the Internet that way). The extension cord is to accommodate the various appliances we brought that require 110V and there are only two outlets in our room on either side of the bed. However, this minor inconvenience was easily solved with the $3.00 extension cord.  We had lunch on board (more on meals later) and spent the afternoon lolling about on deck.  We left around 5:30, delayed this time by arriving passengers who weren’t arriving on time, but again, it gave us a chance to enjoy our wine on the sun deck and watch the comings and goings in Port Everglades.  We loosed our lines and headed out to sea just about sunset for our run to Curacao.

 

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dateline: Bahamas Banks

Position at Noon, EST 21.5 degrees North, 76.5 degrees West, 15 miles off the coast of Cuba  (no sign of Fidel, but we can see his mountains)

 

Life is Good at Sea

Life is Good at Sea

Today was another day at sea and we observed our sea routine – eat breakfast, do our two miles, find a good deck chair and relax until lunch. Then our paths diverged since Gary decided to attend a few special events.  He attended a lecture on Astronomy which he says put him to sleep, a lecture on Curacao which he said was interesting,  and then he played bingo with a gaggle of little old ladies and suffered a serious drubbing, as the Brits like to say. It was so serious, he had to drown his sorrows at a wine tasting.  I believe I was in the old napping, reading rut for the afternoon, but I did take time to build my address book in Webmail so I could send my travelogue out easily (if not quickly, given the data speeds on board).  But there are always the deck chairs in which to lounge while you wait.  The QE2 had the old teak chairs that have foot rests and really comfy cushions.  The crew puts them out every morning and puts them away every evening.  They also have some of the dreadful plastic ones in the pool area, but these are a poor second choice for those of us who spend enough time lounging to deem ourselves expert in these matters. By the way I don’t think I ever used the word “dreadful” before coming on this cruise. I must be going native.  The next thing you know I’ll be saying “lovely” instead of “great” – but the language barrier – that’s another story. It’s true everyone speaks English, but those accents and some of those expressions take some getting used to.  You never hear things like “hunker down”, “fixing to” or “git ‘er done” around here since there aren’t many “bubbas” on board.

 

 

Friday, January 13, 2006

Dateline: Caribbean Sea

Position 16.2 degrees North, 72.9 degrees West, 110 Miles south of Haiti

 

Today was another day at sea so our routine is somewhat the same, but somehow is never dull.  We did mix in a movie in the ship’s theater to our usual reading, napping routine. I also have been working on a Sudoku puzzles.  They tend to drive me crazy (which is a fairly short trip), but I can’t quite leave this one unsolved. I seem to get a lot of mileage from it since I haven’t solved it in almost a whole week.  I eventually abandoned the effort – it’s too much like work.

 

Rather than go on and on about napping and reading, fascinating though it may be, let me write briefly about service on board.  We had the good fortune to be upgraded to the next level above what we paid for, which gives us dining privileges in a truly excellent restaurant. Unlike many other cruise lines, Cunard continues to firmly embrace the class system. To put it into perspective, out of 1600 passengers, approximately 1,000 dine in two sittings in the Mauretania Dining Room. (these would be the common folk). Out of the remaining 600, approximately 300 dine in the Caronia Grill, which is the level for which we paid (these would be the merchant class) and the remaining 300 are spread over 3 really intimate restaurants with truly 5 star service and gourmet menus (these would be the nobility) Since we were upgraded to this level far above our “station”, we have to try to blend with the gentry. I must confess that we haven’t achieved the true pinnacle –  that would be the Royalty – those Highnesses who dine in the Queen’s Grill. However, we are allowed Queen’s lounge privileges where have elbow-rubbing privileges with Royalty and, we can look into their windows as they dine – sort of like in Elizabethan times when courtiers would go to the palace to watch the Queen dine.  I’ll provide more details later about the actual food which is fantastic even by my nit-picky standards. As for Gary, he never met a meal he didn’t like, so his fantastic and mine sometimes are not the same.

 

Since we have been so fortuitously elevated to the “Nobility” we found it necessary to put our egalitarian leanings aside and play the role of Duke and Duchess to match the treatment we are receiving. We have a reserved table for two for every meal with no fewer than 4 waiters buzzing about at any given time.  The china is Wedgwood, the silver is Sheffield,  the crystal is Waterford.  We don’t have to take our meals there, but we are so spoiled by all the folderol, we can’t enjoy lunch anymore without the sterling silver chargers, snowy linen tablecloths and napkins folded a different way at every meal, not to mention the little crumb removing thingies that I don’t know the proper name of. (You know the little things they rake crumbs off the table with?  I mean a Duchess should know these things) Also when we dine with the masses, we find no one shows us to our table and offers us a wine list.  All we can say is that we hope the Red Neck Yacht Club of Lake Lanier will take note of these fine touches for our upcoming summer outings. We can’t help but wonder who will bring the cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed? Who will be making the hand dipped chocolates? Who will unfold our napkins for us?

 

Seriously speaking, I would say the service on board compares to the best Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons. Cunard calls it White Star Service, and like the Ritz they have a list of rules posted to which all staff adhere. And, speaking of adhering to the rules, being the Duke and Duchess also requires we maintain a certain level of decorum which, as you know, is not at all natural for us. We and only hope we are not found out by those born to the silver spoon.

 

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Dateline: Willemstad, Curacao, Dutch Antilles

Latitude at Willemstad, 12.06 degrees North, Longitude 68.56 degrees West

 

Willemstead, CuracaoWe docked around 8:00 a.m. this morning and would be in port until 5:00 p.m.  Since Gary and I had been here a few times before (although it was in the late 70’s), we decided to free lance.  The island has changed a lot in 30 years – 3 cruise ships in port, small shops, sidewalk cafes everywhere, a lot of renovation taking it the way of the US Virgin Islands.  It is not as commercial as St. Thomas today, but more like the St. Thomas of 30 years ago.  Curacao is one of 3 islands in this section of the Dutch Antilles – Aruba and Bonaire are the other two.  The Netherlands also has 3 other islands further north in the Caribbean – St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatia.

 

Musicians on the Streets of Curacao

Musicians on the Streets of Curacao

The town of Willemstad has retained, and even improved on with extensive renovation, its traditional Dutch charm.  The structures are reminiscent of Amsterdam (tall and narrow), but are painted in rich pastels rather than earth tones. We were told that originally the buildings were all painted white to reflect the heat of the sun, but that one of the governors had severe migraine headaches exacerbated by the glare of hot sun on white stucco, so he decreed pastels to be law.  Curacao (the Brits call it Cure-Ah-Sew,  and the Americans and the locals call it Coor-A-Sow) has a large natural harbor and a huge Shell refinery. Since the island is only 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it’s a natural place to refine and export their oil.  In addition to the architecture, another point of interest is the Floating Market.  The climate in Curacao is too dry to farm, so farmers from Venezuela bring over all sorts of produce and sell it from their boats (using the term loosely – they hardly look seaworthy.)

 

At the Floating Market

At the Floating Market

We walked around the town, admired jewels (me more so than Gary) in the local shops, bought some limes from the Venezuelans for mix-it-ourselves gin and tonics, bought a hand-made mask for our collection at home, checked email at an Internet Café,  and had lunch on the waterfront before returning to the ship. It seemed no one in Willemstad recognized the Duke and Duchess and gave us our due so we were glad to return to the QE2 where white gloved waiters serving afternoon tea welcomed us back with just the right touch of deference (i.e. stopping just short of sucking up). We watched our departure

The QE2 Docked in Curacao

The QE2 Docked in Curacao

from Curacao shortly after 5:00 on the boat deck promenade as we sailed off into the sunset heading for Panama, bidding Ciao  to Curacao, as a Duke or Duchess might say –  (although I was well into adulthood before I knew it was pronounced “chow” like the dog or the dog food).

 

 

 

 

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Dateline: Caribbean Sea

Position at Noon Atlantic Standard Time, Latitude 11.32 degrees North, Longitude 74.56 degrees West, 25 miles North of Baranquilla, Columbia

 

Today was another full day at sea traveling west across the Caribbean Sea to the eastern entrance to the Panama Canal, which actually faces north. We had a leisurely day today (another one), more eating, drinking, reading, napping, playing cards, etc. and of course we did our laps on deck. We are traveling with the wind now so there is no sea breeze to speak of, so it is quite warm outside on deck when walking briskly, so we’ve resolved to walk in the late afternoon when it’s cooler.

 

Since meal taking seems to consume up to 4 hours of our day, it seems appropriate to spend a few lines on food and food service. It doesn’t have to take all that long since we could always grab a quick bite in a restaurant called the Lido, but we’ve grown accustomed to the coddling by the staff in our own restaurant, the Britannia, and we get downright snippy at the thought of having to stand in line for food. We’re going to milk this Duke and Duchess gig for as long as we can.  I also should take a moment to identify the “crumb raker thingy” mentioned earlier. One our wait staff tells me it is called a “crumber”, although I have it on good authority that Fuller Brush has this product advertised as a crumb scraper. I’ll have to get one for use at home, if I can get Gary to figure out how to run the thing. Anyway, back to the food – it’s really, really good and is always well-presented, and what’s supposed to be hot is hot and what’s supposed to be cold is cold. I’m sure “Jimmy” our maitre’d would order lashes applied to any wait staff who failed to ensure appropriate temperatures.  There are reportedly 120 chefs on board, each with several sous chefs/assistants .

 

Breakfast in the Britannia is always from the menu and essentially the same, but again, comparable to a 5 Star hotel’s restaurant.  Juices are freshly squeezed, bread and pastries are freshly baked and there is a selection of hot and cold cereals (they even offer grits here), as well as omelets, eggs any style, all sorts of breakfast meats, and all sorts of fresh fruit including raspberries, blackberries, mango, etc. They also offer pancakes and waffles, but alas not real maple syrup so in that regard they don’t have a thing on Waffle House. My only other disappointment here is I regret to disclose  that they have inferior peanut butter – too dry – but I’ll just have to learn to cope.

 

Lunch is a full blown meal with a different menu each day with appetizer, soup, salad (served American style before the entrée or Continental style after the entrée, depending on your preference), entrée and dessert. Each menu offers 6-8 appetizers, 2-3 soups and salads, 6 entrées, and 4-5 desserts. Plus if you want anything else, just ask and you will receive if it’s on board. In fact our assistant maitre’d (Sanjay) and our wine steward (Balu) are both from India and they frequently order selected Indian delights for Gary as a side dish (samosas, Chicken Masala, and other curry dishes.) Something about Gary just makes people want to feed him.

 

Dinner is beyond full blown with all of the above, plus a cheese course. Gary has had a different soup every day and reports them all to be excellent. Of course he reports everything he has eaten as excellent, with some he admits, more excellent than others.

 

Sunset at Sea

Sunset at Sea

The wine cellars on board are really first rate with an outstanding selection. The wine list is more the size of a wine book – novel length. We are told that the ship serves 1,000 bottles of wine a day. We are only drinking 1 or 2, so I don’t know who all those other heavy consumers are. If we don’t finish a bottle, they will re-cork it for us to have at our next meal (except when the next meal is breakfast – our rule, not theirs).  As I write, I think I smell the Pork Cutlet stuffed with Stilton and Cheddar, served with Cider Gravy and Roasted Apple Slices wafting down the corridor. Dinner is served.

 

 

Monday, January 16, 2005

Dateline: Panama Canal, Gatun Locks

Position at Noon, Eastern Standard Time, 9.11 degrees North, 79.5 degrees West

 

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Today we bounded out of bed really early (early for us anyway, not for working people) at 6:00 a.m. to watch our approach to the entrance to the Panama Canal, (a.k.a. The Big Ditch). At only 9 degrees from the equator and with the ship moving very slowly, it was already pretty steamy on deck. Per Panamanian law, we took on a pilot for the entire journey through the canal, a distance of 50 miles, and learned that this is one of the few instances where the captain of a vessel surrenders the helm to a non-crew member. The entire transiting process took about 7 hours, and then there we were in a totally different ocean.  The canal is

 

A Tight Squeeze in the Gatun Locks

A Tight Squeeze in the Gatun Locks

made up of 3 sets of locks with two chambers each, a man made lake and a “cut” which is a narrow canal. We were in the first locks with a giant container ship in the other chamber going the same direction we were.   Reservations are available for a limited number of ships and are made as much as a year in advance. Big ships typically go through in the morning. Smaller vessels typically “queue” up and go in as space is available. The first locks are called the Gatun locks and there are a series of 3 that raise the ship approximately 85 feet to Gatun Lake.  This is a man made lake created from a river that was flooded to save an

 

Entering Gatun Lake After Clearing the Gatun Locks

Entering Gatun Lake After Clearing the Gatun Locks

enormous amount of manual labor. Ships follow the old river channel which the dam has made deep enough to accommodate them.  The locks themselves are 108 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. At 105 feet wide, QE2 fits in the locks with an extra 3 feet total on both sides to spare, and then at 963 feet long, we have a whopping 37 feet to spare length-wise. From the lake we entered the Gaillard Cut (also called the Culebra Cut). This cut was originally only 275 feet wide, but was widened to 460 feet  in 1963 which allows large ships to pass each other. On the Cut we passed only one village, Gamboa, and also crossed the

 

Ships Going 2 by 2 through the Locks

Ships Going 2 by 2 through the Locks

Continental Divide. We also crossed a river which provides all the water to the Canal and Gatun Lake, and in fact, the entire Canal is fresh water. From the Cut, we entered the Pedro Miguel Locks (it is only 1 lock) to start our descent toward the Pacific and then proceeded to the Miraflores Locks, comprised of 2 locks to take us to sea level.  From there we entered the Pacific and anchored just off Panama City where we took on fuel from a tanker.

 

 

The Canal is now administered solely by Panama, turned over by the US in 1999, and it is a great economic boon to them.  Ships pay tolls based on weight (by cash or bank transfer, no checks, no AMEX) based on weight. A large cruise ship will pay in the neighborhood of $250k per transit. Despite the seemingly astronomical cost, it is still more cost effective than going around Cape Horn which typically takes 2 weeks. The cheapest transit cost is reportedly $36.00 for a swimmer who transited the canal in 10 days in 1928.

 

A Mountain Cut Away to Make the Canal

A Mountain Cut Away to Make the Canal

The Panama Canal was started in 1904 and finished in 1914. The most sophisticated equipment they had back then were steam shovels. Most of the workers came from the West Indies, primarily from Barbados and neighboring islands. They did use dynamite, but often with disastrous results since they didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge in those days. The survivors of the dynamiting apparently benefited from a lot of on-the-job training.  The original attempt to dig a canal was made by the French in 1894. They had just successfully completed the Suez Canal, but the principles applied to that project, did not translate well in the

 

The French's Failed Attempt at the Canal Dig

The French’s Failed Attempt at the Canal Dig

isthmus of Panama, mainly due to topography. In Suez they were working with sand at sea level. In Panama they proposed digging a sea-level channel fifty miles long through a small mountain range. They would have to dig down 85 feet on over half the isthmus just to get to sea level and then dig another 30 to 40 feet to create a canal that would accommodate a ship’s keel. Plus this would need to be about 100 feet wide.  Now they didn’t have calculators in those days, but still it shouldn’t have taken them 18 miles of digging (which is what they accomplished) to figure out that this is a really bad idea.  Another hazard, in addition to the dynamite, was the mosquitoes carrying malaria. It is reported that the French lost 20,000 workers to the combination of accidents and disease – over 1,000 per mile. The United States bought the rights from the French to continue digging, sprayed for mosquitoes and changed the plan to a lock system which is still working today.

 

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dateline: Panama City, Panama

Latitude at Panama City 8.5 degrees North, Longitude 79.29 degrees West

 

The City of Panama from the Anchorage on the QE2

The City of Panama from the Anchorage on the QE2

Today we went ashore via “ship’s tenders” (a.k.a. lifeboats) since we anchored offshore. We are anchored at a different spot from where we were yesterday. Apparently the ship sort of cruised around Panama Bay during the night (probably more secure than sitting in one spot, or so we imagine).  We took a tour of the Miraflores Locks which we had transited yesterday.  It was really interesting to see the operation from shore.  We were treated to several large cargo ships heading from the Pacific to the Caribbean.  There is a virtual reality area which makes it look as you are at the helm of a container ship transiting the canal (very

 

The Miraflores Locks as Seen From Land

The Miraflores Locks as Seen From Land

interesting experience), and a lot on the history of the “dig”. There is also an area that shows how the locks work – it used to be gears operated by motors, but it is now hydraulic There is also a small museum showcasing the flora and fauna – fauna in this case includes some really large bugs e.g. cockroaches the size of little poodles. We visited a few sites of colonial Panama City and also drove by the now defunct Albrook Air Force Base. Panama is really a beautiful

 

 

A Panama Hat in Panama

A Panama Hat in Panama

place, reminiscent of Puerto Rico – very tropical, rain forest, Spanish speaking etc. We also had an opportunity to do a little shopping at a crafts market and bought a few treasures. Gary now has a genuine Panama hat and looks quite dashing in a Humphrey Bogart sort of way, although  you might have had to have been there and have had a rum punch or two to see the resemblance.  As Bogey and the Duchess headed to dinner, the scent of  Coq Au Vin with wild mushrooms and grilled potatoes filled the air.

 

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon, EST, 7.7 degrees North, 84.7 degrees West, 18 miles South of Costa Rica

 

Today, a sea day, was a frustrating exercise in trying to access the internet. They use satellite communication for connectivity at sea and so it is sometimes not as reliable as we have come to expect as our due with high speed access. Not willing to succumb to frustration or stress, we gave that up to pursue other sources of entertainment, which are quite plentiful.  Gary is much better at taking advantage of the offerings than I am and he is a man of many interests. (This sounds much better than saying he is easily entertained). Today he went to a cooking demonstration by two of the chefs and he has attended several different wine tastings, which they have at least twice a week.

 

For a flavor of the type of entertainment offered, here are a few highlights:

 

Movies – they have a “regulation size”  movie theater and show films usually twice a day.  There are also 4 channels showing movies continuously on our stateroom TV. Movies range from old classics such as North by Northwest, Casa Blanca and Strangers on a Train to more recent classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and Murder on the Orient Express to current releases.

 

Music – They have a nightly show with different performers each night – singers, pianists, etc. with a wide range of musical repertoires.  They are very professional and consistently and remarkably good.  Many of the performers have appeared and do appear on Broadway and in London theater venues.  The ship has a troupe of singers and dancers that perform 5 different shows (musical reviews) on a given segment of the cruise.  Performers typically are picked up in one port, give two performances (one early, one late) and get off at the next port. There are also various lounges featuring jazz, classical music, etc. with live performances.  Some of the performers are comedians who are also quite good.  We made the mistake of sitting in the front row for one who recruited Gary to be part of his act. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), he misunderstood Gary’s name to be Derek and called him that several times on stage. Now everywhere we go people want to chat with Derek.  I am usually the one to tell them, that’s only a stage name and persona. Gary says he didn’t correct the comedian after he’d called him Derek half a dozen times since he figured that would only make things worse.

 

A Leisurely Sea Day

A Leisurely Sea Day

Reading – The ship has an excellent library so maybe I didn’t need to bring the 15 paperback books I packed.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find so many current best sellers on their shelves.  So far I’ve read 4 books, two of mine and two of theirs. Gary is on his second book, but he keeps getting distracted by his other activities.  The ship has scores of great little “hidey holes” to get lost in a good book. If it’s not too windy, the boat deck has great lounge chairs where you can lie in the shade or sun yourself like a giant lizard.

 

Talks and Lectures – The QE2 also rotates speakers between ports so there is always a series of experts giving talks on everything from working in the White House, (this guy has a book out called At Ease in the While House) to how to buy precious gems, to astronomy, to destination talks on upcoming ports.

 

Games – there are all sorts of games on board to play individually, and of course many are  organized such as trivia, bridge, canasta, darts, deck games and of course bingo. (Gary got his bingo genes from his mother – she was a fanatic – and we know she would be proud that he’s carrying on the family tradition. They do have Scrabble which I do love to play, but I’m usually too busy writing this fascinating travelogue to dabble in Scrabble.  Gary and I had a running cribbage match going for the championship of the world.

 

Fitness – there is an excellent fitness center here and neither of us has used it. They have free weights, machines, water aerobics, dance lessons and also a spa with a full range of spa treatments to which I plan to treat myself one day when I have the time.   I am happy to report that we still walk 2 miles (minimum) each day around the boat deck.  As part of our Battle against the Bulge, we also have decided to forego using elevators on this trip and we climb no fewer than a zillion stairs each day. It’s 4 flights up to our restaurant, 5 flights up to the outside deck to walk, etc. Who needs a Stairmaster?

 

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon EST 11.5 degrees North, 94.0 degrees West, 290 miles south of Guatemala

 

Today was another day at sea and the roughest one so far.  Walking today both inside and out is a challenge.  We have all of the staggering of a serious bout of drinking with none of the buzz. We are, however getting our sea legs and have been little affected by the pitching and rolling, other than the occasional careening into walls. Swells are running about 15 feet. Our captain tells us that the rough water and unsettled weather is due to three strong currents coming together – the Humboldt from the south, the Equatorial from the west and the Northern Equatorial from the north.

 

A Stressful Voyage

A Stressful Voyage

Gary was at last victorious after repeated tries at bingo and won $50.00. He also enjoyed the sampling of 5 French wines today at the wine tasting. I seem to be in the travelogue writing and reading rut, but I am really enjoying myself.  I suppose I do need to get out more and take advantage of what’s being offered. On the other hand, I think I should do what I want to do, i.e. Eat, drink, read, write and repeat ad infinitum.

 

Also of note, is the hygiene program on board. Cunard is fanatical about preventing any outbreaks of bacteria borne disease on board (in particular the Norwalk Virus) and has little squirt bottles of Purell-like stuff everywhere,  and we dutifully extend our paws for the requisite dab of Purell before every meal and every time we re-board the ship, every time we use the onboard computers, etc. There is a really ludicrous aspect to this when we have formal nights and there is our maitre’d in his tuxedo (with tails no less) dispensing Purell to his bejeweled clientele.

 

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dateline: Acapulco, Mexico

Latitude at Acapulco 16.50 degrees North,  Longitude 99.53 degrees West

 

Taking the Tender Ashore in Acapulco

Taking the Tender Ashore in Acapulco

With the ship at anchor in Acapulco Bay, Gary and I had a quick breakfast and took a tender ashore and began exploring on our own, which is always fun. We always seem to manage to see both the highlights and the low lights in any given destination. We walked to Fort San Diego which was built by the Spaniards to defend their colony first from pirates and then by other imperialists (Holland, England, France, etc) trying to take over the town. The bay forms almost a complete circle and provides a natural harbor with only a narrow entrance on the Pacific. The fort was situated so that the cannon were trained on the entrance

 

Acapulco Beach

Acapulco Beach

and could blow up any ships that came in. Unfortunately, if you were a Spaniard defending the fort, there was an earthquake in 1776 that reduced the fort to rubble so it had to be rebuilt and Acapulco had no defenses for several years.  Nevertheless, Acapulco has never been successfully invaded (unless you count the tourists). We continued our walk around the harbor where Gary drooled over a few yachts and we toyed with the idea of chartering here and quickly decided, well maybe not.  Mexico being Mexico, those of you who have visited hear will appreciate the wisdom of foregoing a yacht charter here.

 

Cliffs of La Quebrada

Cliffs of La Quebrada

In the afternoon, given our elevated status to nobility rank, (they call us Grill passengers since we all dine in one of the 3 “Grill” restaurants) we were offered a special complimentary tour of Acapulco which included a private performance of the famous Cliff Divers of La Quebrada. For those of you who are old enough to remember, there was an Elvis Presley movie where Elvis (obviously the younger Elvis – not the one from the Jelly Doughnut Years) took the plunge himself.  Movie buffs will no doubt call the name to mind immediately. I want to say it was Acapulco Rock, but then again maybe not. For those of you who missed the movie and have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the drill.  There are some rocky cliffs here called La Quebrada (which I think translates into “ravine” or “broken” , perhaps referring to a crevice where waves crash with great force. Young Mexican men, and now a few women are doing it as well, climb up the cliffs (136 feet at the top) and dive off. Duly impressed tourists fork over the pesos in the form of a tip after the performance. We had margaritas from the terrace of the classic old hotel, El Mirador, which was here long before Elvis’s time.

 

Our Hostess at the Villa Arabesque

Our Hostess at the Villa Arabesque

From La Quebrada we were taken to a private residence called Villa Arabesque where we were treated to a really lavish cocktail hour (more like 2 hours) with a mariachi band, dancers, margaritas and other cocktails, but the real treat was the villa itself. It is way over the top in terms of gaudy, but nevertheless it still impresses. The Villa Arabesque is situated just south of the city past the Las Brisas area, built on a cliff side with stunning views of the bay.  The whole place is decorated (this is the part that’s way over the top  – think Vegas or Hollywood) in an Arab Oasis motif, including white kneeling camels that provide seating,

 

By the Pool at the Villa Arabesque

By the Pool at the Villa Arabesque

lush gardens with all sorts of blooming tropical plants, several infinity pools, waterfalls, and so forth.The villa has 9 guestrooms and 12 or so bathrooms, all decorated to look like a sultan’s private quarters. The villa was built back in the 1950’s when Acapulco was a mecca for Hollywood stars and foreign royalty.  The current owner inherited it from her sister-in-law who was an Italian baroness.  The owner actually hosted the event and mingled with guests making small talk. She is supposedly 75,  but she looks pretty young, thanks to the miracle of cosmetic surgery I suspect.  She did seem to have trouble with her lips. She must

 

The View of Acapulco Bay from the Villa Arabesque

The View of Acapulco Bay from the Villa Arabesque

have ordered up those Angelina Jolie pouty ones when she had her face done, but she seemed to have rather haphazardly applied her lipstick, coloring way outside the lines. She was nevertheless dressed with panache, a stylishly slim and petite person in an Arab get-up, but more of the harem belly-dancer than the modest Muslim matron variety.  In any event, it was a truly memorable evening, sipping cocktails and nibbling hors d’oeuvres with the “almost” baroness as the sun set over the infinity pool.  It’s good to be Duchess! (an almost duchess that is). It’s out to sea tonight for our trip to Los Angeles, our next port of call.

 

 

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon CST 20 degrees North, 106.5 degrees West, 48 miles off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

 

Today was a sea day and it’s a good thing we enjoy them so much because we have 3 between L.A. and Hawaii and 4 between Hawaii and American Samoa. The seas have calmed significantly and it is literally smooth sailing. Around noon today we passed Puerto Vallarta, 48 miles to the east. We’re a long way from home, getting further away every day.

I decided today I would take one of the many classes the ship offers and talked Gary into going with me. As unlikely as it may seem, I decided I wanted to learn more about Napkin Folding to enhance my entertaining at home. I didn’t get any of those Martha Stewart genes so I had to learn the hard way (I mean if you consider a cruise ship hard). In any event I felt I needed to impress friends for the upcoming season of boating with our local Red Neck Yacht Club (RNYC), with an upgrade to my usual contribution of chips in Tupperware and bottled salsa with wadded up paper napkins. As a point of clarification, the napkins are not actually in the salsa, at least not until later in the evening.  In any event, I felt Gary needed to go to this class with me because he is so good at tying knots and what is napkin folding, if not knot tying without the rope. This may be a stretch, but in any event he agreed to go, and he and 23 ladies took instruction in this fine art.  I must report Gary was the very best student by far and finished his assignments before anyone else and was indeed seen helping others subdue their damask napkins into the Tulip, the Bishop’s Hat and the piece d’resistance the Bird of Paradise.

 

The ship’s learning center offers computer classes in the basic Microsoft applications, email and web surfing that are always packed. The ship has wireless capability there and in a couple of the lounges, but I like to do most of my journal writing in our stateroom using an external mouse and keyboard where my fingers can keep up with my bright ideas that I hope my readers will find witty and charming. We have two good sized portholes in our stateroom so I can check on the view (water and sky have pretty much dominated the landscape so far today). Tommy, our cabin steward, who is from the Philippines, keeps our fruit basket full of fresh produce. Now I must confess that he does not peel my grapes, but I’m sure he would if I asked. His on-duty hours are from 7 a.m. to 11.pm, but he has a pager and is available to us 24/7 if we should desire any bonbons or pork rinds in the middle of the night. (Don’t think he could pull off the pork rinds, but I know Tommy would try). We also have a small refrigerator that we’ve stocked with Diet Coke and wine so we have it handy (and it’s cost effective too). The only thing missing so far is a microwave to make microwave popcorn, but I’m sure that has to violate some fire code somewhere. I’d hate to be microwaving a batch of Orville Reddenbacher and cause a ship-wide blackout. We may have to look for already popped popcorn in our next port of call, along with some real maple syrup and greasy (not dry) peanut butter.  I guess it would be way too gauche to take my own food into the Britannia restaurant though. Also I must report tasting inferior pecan pie. They used molasses instead of light corn syrup in it. And while I’m whining, they had turkey and dressing, but it wasn’t cornbread dressing. I think they could use a few bubbas on this ship.

 

 

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon – Mountain Standard Time, 27.5 degrees North, 115 degrees West, 21 miles off the coast of Cabo San Lazaro, Baja California Peninsula, Mexico

 

Afternoon Tea  Served Daily

Afternoon Tea Served Daily

Today was our last sea day before Los Angeles and tomorrow we will have been on the ship 2 weeks with only 13 more to go.  We can’t believe how the time has flown. We still are really loving the cruising life. Gary decided to branch out from his bingo games and entered a deck quoits tournament, in which he won second place. For those unfamiliar, it’s a tossing game sort of like horseshoes combined with shuffleboard except you use a small circle of rope instead of horseshoes, which is the “quoit”  and you try to land it on the highest number you can on a largish bulls-eye painted on the deck with concentric circles representing points of 5, 3 and 1. His prize was a certificate similar to “scrip” where you can cash little pieces of paper in for things in the on board shops. He’s going to have to start getting really busy and really successful to have enough for a bauble for me from the jewelry store. The $50 he won at bingo has already been consumed by the rapidly galloping, seriously out of control wine tab we are amassing. When we open a bottle at home, we always assumed it was some of those other people who drank all the wine, you know friends who drop by, friends on boat outings, family visiting etc. They must be the ones doing all the consuming. The harsh reality is – we have seen the true consumers and they are us (or is it more grammatically correct to say “we are they? That certainly sounds more like Cunard-Speak anyway.)

 

Another deck “sport” I should mention in passing is “golf”, using the term loosely.  They have a putting green, which isn’t too hard in port, but at sea, it gives a whole new meaning to the term “undulating green”. Then there’s also the “driving range”. This is set up so you tee a ball up and hit it into a net, so it’s not too close to the real thing. After a mighty swing your ball ends up about 5 feet in front of you (on the other hand, I guess it is like the real game, at least for us duffers.)

 

And of course there is the casino. They have the usual slot machines and video poker, but also have a craps table, blackjack and roulette.  They also run a daily Texas Hold’em or other type poker game.

 

We’ve both been doing a lot of reading which has been wonderful. I’m averaging a book every two days so I’m glad the library here is well stocked. I only have 13 of my own left, but there is some pretty heavy duty reading there including Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. I keep picking it up and putting it back down.  Gary is reading a book I bought him at home called Sunday Money which is about NASCAR racing. He’s going to donate it to the ship’s library when he’s through in case those bubbas we talked about actually materialize.

 

 

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dateline: Los Angeles, CA

Latitude at Los Angeles 33.43 degrees North,  Longitude 118.16 degrees West

 

San Pedro Harbor, Los Angeles

San Pedro Harbor, Los Angeles

We arrived shortly after 6:00 a.m. in San Pedro, California at Pier 93’s Cruise Ship Terminal. Disembarking today we found to be a drawn out process due to very tight security.  The entire ship, passengers and crew had to clear immigration. Unfortunately they only had 8 agents working and we were not able get off the ship until after 1:00 p.m. This port is a major “crew change port, with approximately 1/3 of the crew getting off the ship (about 300 people) and new crew members coming on board. We also had about 900 passengers leaving the ship and 900 new ones getting on. The bottom line was they had 8 immigration officers processing around 2600 people – (passengers and entire ship’s company, a.k.a. crew). When you do the math 2,600 people divided by 8 agents x 5 minutes per passenger = very, very slow. We don’t know why they didn’t have more people since the port has been on the QE2 schedule for over a year. It wasn’t like it was a stealth landing.  We also had all sorts of law enforcement officers on board and the LA Fire Department had divers suited up ready to (presumably) intercept any Rambo-like terrorists who may approach the ship underwater, and that was interesting to watch.

 

The San Pedro Trolley

The San Pedro Trolley

We were able to meet our friends, Stu and Sharon, who were in California for a visit, for a late lunch/early dinner this afternoon.  Gary and I had a glass of wine and watched container ships come into the harbor while we waited for them. We had an added treat of seeing seals swimming in the channel (or they could have been sea lions – we weren’t close enough to tell whether they had ears or not). We met Stu and Sharon at a place called the Crusty Crab and had a glass of wine. We decided to find someplace else because we were afraid the restaurant’s name described what was in the bathrooms more so than what was on the menu. In the town of San Pedro we found an excellent Mexican restaurant called Marias, with equally excellent margaritas.  They were so excellent, we found them to be nap-inducing and we skipped dinner on board (almost unheard of) to grab a quick 2 hour snooze when we got back to the ship. We watched preparations for our departure which was delayed, again by late arriving passengers, this time from London Heathrow. Around 10:00 p.m. Pacific time, the crew pulled up the gangway and cast off our lines and two tugs pulled us away from the pier, out of our slip and guided us into the channel. The tugs are essential since the channel is so narrow and heavily congested with other ships.  The San Pedro area is home to a huge container ship facility and a fishing fleet, as well as many pleasure craft. There’s no such thing as a minor fender-bender here.

 

Strolling around the ship tonight before departure, we noticed a radical shift in the demographics. Most of the passengers we observed getting on seem to be mere youngsters (like us) and some even younger.  This should bring the median age of the typical passenger down substantially. We actually have seen children in strollers, which was quite an oddity since all the other wheeled conveyances we have seen since leaving New York transported much, much older passengers.

 

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon (Pacific Standard Time minus 1 hour). 32.2 degrees North, 124.25 degrees West,  324 miles from Los Angeles.

 

We have a long stretch at sea in front of us, but the prospect of this is really pleasant since sea days are so relaxing and we typically have so much relaxation to accomplish in so little time. With the addition of the new young whippersnapper passengers, another stressful situation has arisen. All these youngsters are toting laptop computers and want to use the Wi-Fi network at the same time I do.  I learned from our on board geek, Richard, whom I’ve befriended that the ship has only licensed wireless internet access for 10 people to use at one time. With all those California yuppies that boarded in L.A., the system is seriously overloaded with users.  I thought I might have to set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night for access or else wait until we got to a port and go to an Internet Café.  Life is hard, but we will bravely carry on.

 

I branched out a little today and tried my hand at paddle tennis doubles. I was fortunate to draw an excellent partner and he and I were undefeated so I have two more “scrip” to go toward the purchase of something fabulous, I’m sure.   We also partook of high tea today.  It is served daily at 4:00 p.m. replete with harp, or similarly refined music, white-gloved waiters, the crustless sandwiches I alluded to earlier and dainty little assorted pastries. This begins with a rather elaborate processional of the wait staff bearing silver trays and china teapots to tables already set for the event with china, silver and damask.  As you may well imagine, bubbas at this event are conspicuously absent. Big bosomed matrons in pearls and brocade jackets with brooches on their lapels and chunky-heeled sensible shoes seem to dominate the High Tea scene. Unfortunately today Gary and I went to tea straight from our respective deck sports and in our windbreakers and shorts, we didn’t exactly blend, but we did give the British silver haired ladies something to “tut-tut” about.

 

The seas have been extremely calm, and in fact the captain announced when he gave our noon position that this is the calmest crossing he’s ever experienced.  Every sea day at noon the captain gives a long blast on the ship’s horn and a bell is rung 12 times. This is a long standing Cunard tradition. The QE2 bell was taken from an old Cunard liner called the Carinthia which sailed in the early 1900’s. The bell clanging is followed by information on our position, our speed and a weather forecast.  On days in port, positions are given by Gary and his trusty handheld Global Positioning System. The weather has been very chilly (highs in the 50’s) ever since leaving LA, so there isn’t much deck activity except for our brisk walk. We’re looking forward to getting into the tropical latitudes.

 

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon ( PST minus 2 hours) 29.1 degrees North, 137.4 degrees West, 1,030 miles from Los Angeles, 1,211 miles from Hawaii

 

 

Today is our second day at sea after leaving Los Angeles.  We are traveling what is called the “Great Circle Route” which interestingly enough means we actually travel north per the compass and make an arc following the curvature of the earth. The shortest distance as it would appear on a Mercator (flat) map is not truly the shortest distance. But since the world is not flat, despite some staunch believers insisting that it is, it is best to consult a globe to chart the course. The most direct route yields a heading for 257 degrees for part of the journey, changing over to 250 degrees and then 248 degrees for the final leg.

 

Gary was victorious at bingo today, winning 2 out of 4 games from the little old ladies and bringing his total winnings to about $250 dollars (a week’s supply of wine if you go with the lower end selections). He reports he was soundly booed when he announced “bingo” for the second time in a single session.

 

Today we both played paddle tennis.  Gary converted from deck quoits, having decided there is too little exercise and too much cut-throat competition from the little old ladies in that game.  There is an organized paddle tennis competition every afternoon put together by Lisa, whose job included getting teams together and refereeing. Unfortunately the skies opened up shortly after we started and those calm seas became rough. We did some serious pitching and rolling in the evening hours and through the night.

 

I decided to take advantage of the exercise facilities today and took a Pilates Class to help justify those tempting desserts that call my name every night.  The class was good, so in a fit of insanity I signed up for 9 more.

 

 

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon PST minus 2 hours, 24.58 degrees North, 149.10 degrees West, 450 miles Northeast of the Hawaiian Islands

 

Today is our last sea day before reaching Hawaii. We are scheduled to arrive in Honolulu at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. We should cross into the tropics around midnight tonight when we reach the Tropic of Cancer (20 degrees North latitude).

 

Unfortunately Pilates did not agree with me and today I awoke with a sore neck and back (must be my technique was off) Anyway, I used a bum back as an excuse to get a massage. This unquestionably was one of the best I’ve ever had. It made me think back and shudder at those Chinese girls in the Beijing Hotel, whom we thought were using broomsticks and pliers to work on us and may not have studied their craft as diligently as they should have. The massage I had was called a Sports Massage, which was a deep tissue massage which was pure bliss.  There were several really nice touches in the spa, like a room with subdued lighting, heated oil applied with just the right touch, a lavender scented mask for my eyes, very relaxing “New Age” type music playing, (you know the kind with the flutes, wave noises and dolphin clicks). With all this meditative ambiance, I had time to ponder this question:  Since New Age music has been around so long, is it now “Old Age” music? Anyway, it was indeed totally relaxing and I not so much walked out of the spa as oozed my way out.

 

Gary is played paddle tennis this afternoon while I wrote in my journal since the massage did not totally erase my back pain. I think a deck chair and a few cocktails are required for full recuperation. For those of you who aren’t familiar with paddle tennis, here’s how it works.  The court has a net the height of a tennis court and is laid out like a tennis court, but narrower than a singles court and much shorter, particularly between the baseline and service line.  You play with paddles (thus the name) that are shaped like, but slightly larger and heavier than ping pong paddles and perforated throughout (for those of you who are old enough, picture the perforations in the principal’s paddle at school before corporal punishment became outlawed). The ball used is a tennis ball. You only get 1 serve, not 2 and you play to 12 points and must win by 2. There are no “lets”, i.e. if a served ball hits the net and bounces in, it is to be played. No overhead serves are permitted. You are not allowed to volley the first two hits, (i.e. you must let it bounce). After that you can rush the net and terrorize your opposition. You typically play doubles and draw cards for partners.

 

We are looking forward to being in Honolulu tomorrow.  When we moved from Hawaii in 1972 we left on a P&O Lines cruise ship call the Orsova. It was fun to be going back now, 33 years later by cruise ship as well.

 

 

Friday, January 27, 2006

Dateline: Honolulu, Hawaii

Latitude at Honolulu 21.16 degrees North, Longitude 157.49 degrees West

 

Sunrise Over Diamond Head

Sunrise Over Diamond Head

Today was one of those serendipity-filled days where the planets must have been perfectly aligned. We got up early to watch our approach through Mamala Bay, heading toward Berths 10 and 11 below the Aloha Tower around 6:30 a.m. local time, with the sun just coming up over Diamond Head. It was a little misty out, nothing serious, with an occasional shower of what the Hawaiians term “liquid sunshine”. As we approached our berth next to the Aloha Tower, a local musical group began serenading us with Hawaiian songs accompanied by hula dancers.  This was another “goosebumps” moment, especially since we met and were

 

Approaching the Aloha Tower

Approaching the Aloha Tower

married here and lived here another year after we were married. We left Hawaii in August of 1972 on a P&O lines Cruise ship called the Orsova. Like the QE2 she was one of the grand old liners, filled with teak and mahogany and years of tradition. The night we left, we also had a Hawaiian band playing for us, wishing us aloha (which means both hello and goodbye, and which is handy for passengers who get confused and don’t know whether they are coming or going).

 

 

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach

We rented a car, and ended up with a convertible so we hopped in, put the top down and stepped back in time. Hawaii has perfect convertible weather, low 80’s, although you might get moistened with a little liquid sunshine from time to time.  The rental agency was in Waikiki (one of our old haunts), so we took a stroll down Kalakaua Avenue. (a.k.a. Memory Lane) and then on the beach. We both commented we felt like we were in our twenties again, although there seemed to be some much older people looking back at us from those reflective storefront windows.  But what storefronts they were! Waikiki has changed dramatically for the

 

 

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

better since were lived there – then it had some seedy places along with the eternally classic and tasteful hotels (Royal Hawaiian, Moana) and it needed a good face-lift. Today it is wall to wall glitz (tasteful glitz) with the likes of Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Armani, and Hermes lining the street.

 

We drove to our old apartment houses (his, mine and ours are all within a block of each other) and then to a Chinese restaurant we used to frequent called McCully Chop Sui, doing business at the corner of McCully and King Streets since 1940. There were a few changes such as the menu is now in English as well as Chinese – it was formerly only Chinese and you can get a fork now whereas formerly it was chopsticks or fingers only.  The fluorescent lights have been replaced by chandeliers (still tacky, but at least they are not fluorescent) and the formica tables now have linen tablecloths and napkins.) One thing that did not change from the early 70’s was that we were the only Caucasians in the place. In Hawaii, Caucasians are referred to as haoles (pronounced how-lees with the accent on the “how”).  Gary pronounced the food as good as he remembered (of course he only has two categories of food – good and fantastically good).

 

Punchbowl National Cememtery

Punchbowl National Cememtery

After lunch we drove by the University of Hawaii, one of my two alma maters, visited Punchbowl Cemetery and drove up to the mountains to the Pali Lookout. The scenery still is as dramatically beautiful to the mature me  as it was to the twenty-one year old version, despite having seen quite a few scenic vistas since then. We continued around to the east side of Oahu and stopped at my favorite Hawaiian beach at Bellows Field Beach Park.  Bellows was an airfield used in WWII and is now used as a Marine and National Guard training facility, but the beach is open to the public.  The sand there is much whiter and softer than other

 

Bellows Beach, Eastern Shore Oahu

Bellows Beach, Eastern Shore Oahu

island beaches (more powdered sugar, than granulated) and the water has that Caribbean turquoise-blue hue to it that comes from bright sunlight on clear shallow water over a bed of very white sand.  From there we stopped at Makapuu beach to watch the body surfers, and stopped at the Halona Blow Hole which is still blowing after all these years.  As point of interest t movie buffs, from this vantage point you can see the beach (named Sandy Beach) where the very steamy love scene in From Here to Eternity was filmed, the one where the couple  appear to wash up on the beach all entangled. Our next stop also was featured in a

 

Makapuu Beach

Makapuu Beach

film, another Elvis extravaganza, called Blue Hawaii.  The place where Elvis did most of his singing, as well as his dance gyrations, is called Hanauma Bay, which is formed by an extinct volcano with one side blown out, open to the sea.  There is also a fish sanctuary where Gary and I both learned to snorkel. We went to Hanauma Bay quite often back then, but alas, made no Elvis sightings. This might actually be a good thing since by 1972, Elvis wasn’t looking so good in his Speedo.

 

 

Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

Since sunset was rapidly approaching, we decided we’d like to watch it sipping a delicious cocktail from a nice beachfront table. We strolled into the Moana Hotel like the Duke and Duchess we are pretending to be and found a great table in the Banyan Court which faces west and is literally two steps from Waikiki beach with a view of Diamond Head to the left and the pink umbrellas of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to the right. We had MaiTai’s and ChiChi’s (a.k.a. Pina Coladas) and shared an order of nachos (the latter is nowhere to be found on the QE2 – we’re talking bubba food here). A Hawaiian band played as the sun set in the softest of pastel skies.

 

The Lion Dancer and Fireworks

The Lion Dancer and Fireworks

Just when we though the day’s allocation of serendipity was all used up, we decided to take a taxi to China Town. Our taxi driver told us he would try to get us close, but that tonight was Chinese New Year and the streets would be closed to traffic. The streets were indeed closed so we walked toward the noise – giant thumping drums, scores of people crowding around elaborately costumed lion dancers, there to welcome in the Year of the Dog. I only learned today that these dancers are supposed to be lions.  I had seen pictures of them before and figured them to be sort of goofy looking dragons (in a cute, whimsical way). The “lion”

 

Chinese New Year Celebrants

Chinese New Year Celebrants

involves two men and one costume, one to be the head and one to be the body.  Wearing the goofy lion costume has its perks, since people routinely feed the lion dollar bills as he prances around. There are also fireworks (roman candles and firecrackers mostly) that are set up in the streets and wired together to make a lot of noise. The lions have a little dance routine where they appear to be attacking the fireworks – sort of gobbling them up or beating them into submission.

 

We left the celebrants and walked back to the pier. We left Honolulu with a fond farewell around midnight, but unlike the 1972 departure where we watched the lights disappear on the horizon, we were soundly sleeping for this one. We’re not at all blasé about this, but we’re 33 and half years older than we were the last time we sailed away, so we decided we were entitled to a good night’s rest as we left this time.

 

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position  at noon Latitude 17.4 degrees North, Longitude 159.4 degres West

230 Miles southwest of the Island of Hawaii, 2,028 miles to American Samoa

 

Today is the first of our 4 day journey to Pago Pago, American Samoa. We are going on a southwesterly course, much more south than west at a compass heading of about 199 degrees. We have strong “Trade Winds” out of the east on our port side and seas are “heavy”, so there is some serious rocking and rolling going on today.

 

I decided I needed a pedicure, especially if my toes are to appear in any more photos, so I made an appointment, but little did I know I it would be with the Nail Technician from Hell, well maybe not from hell, but not from any accredited pedicure school either. She told me all about herself as she sterilized her implements of torture and began her fiendish work.  In brief, she is 25 years old, has an 8 year old who lives with her mother and left Jamaica for the first time in her life to go to work on the QE2 on this cruise. She told me, as she vigorously pushed my cuticles back to around the first joints of my toes with a little metal putty knife looking thing (no orange sticks for this girl) that she didn’t care about seeing the world, she just needed the money. She told me about her family as she filed my toenails in a most energetic fashion. It was so energetic in fact, that she was unable to restrict the file to just the nail.  She was going to town on the whole toe. Then as she got out her scalpel (I’m not exaggerating here) and proceeded to cut  “dead” skin (well most of it was dead – the rest she killed) off my big toe, she also told me that in addition to needing the money that “Things were not good in Jamaica and she needed to leave the island”. At this point, I told her no more cutting on the toes please, since I was pretty sure she must have left Jamaica on the lam, maybe under subpoena for a pedicure gone bad, real bad. With the ship pitching and rolling the way it was, I was getting very concerned about this scalpel business. Any way, she put the scalpel away and got out the pumice stone, and I relaxed since this is much more what I’m used to, but then she started sanding away and I had to look twice to make sure she hadn’t fired up a Black and Decker electric sander. About the point when my heel heated up to around 370 degrees from the friction, I had to ask her to suspend operations. Once the smoke cleared from the sanding (small exaggeration here) we both looked down to see about an inch of raw skin on my heel oozing just a smidgen of blood. Without even missing a beat, she slapped some salve on and concluded I must have had a blister there.  And I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well I guess I do now”, but I think the sarcasm was lost on her. Now on the upside, I must say she did a very good paint job on the toenails, and I could still walk and my limping was hardly noticeable.

 

I did decide to have a quiet word with the manager of the salon who was horrified. She had no idea that the hired help was torturing guests. Apparently she and her staff do their own toes.  I suggested that in the future she have pedicures performed on her own feet as part of her interview process. I’m afraid my young pedicurist is going to be leaving us soon, and I sincerely hope she finds another way to support her child. As for me, I did get a full refund and I hopefully have saved my fellow passengers from Pedi-Torture.

 

Gary had a very dull time compared to my adventure and skipped bingo in favor of a darts tournament. His partner was an Englishman we suspect to be from the area bordering Scotland or perhaps Yorkshire with a brogue so thick you can’t understand a word he’s saying most of the time. We did finally understand that he’s ex-pat living in Marbella, Spain. If we could understand him, we are sure he would prove to be a colorful character. We also think we may have been invited to Spain for a visit, but can’t be sure about that. Gary also played paddle tennis, but I could not comfortably wear a tennis shoe, so I held down the fort at our deck chairs, with a good book for company.

 

Calm Seas

Calm Seas

The weather is very pleasant now that we are in the tropical latitudes and so we spend a lot of time on deck reading and snoozing. We typically do our two mile deck walk at 5:30, shower and change and go to dinner at 7:00. Today however, we decided to have a bottle of wine and watch the sunset. Today’s setting sun was mostly obscured by rain clouds, but we celebrated its setting nevertheless.

 

 

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon Hawaiian Time Zone – Latitude 8.5 degrees  North, Longitude 162.7 degrees West, 500 miles northwest of Christmas Island, 814 miles from Honolulu, 1,463 miles to Pago Pago.

 

Today is our second day of sea travel to American Samoa. We again took to our deck chairs and read and napped, conceding that this routine is rather addictive. Gary again played paddle tennis and he really enjoyed it so I’m hoping he will want to graduate to real tennis when we get home. However, he does report that he will have to have the same sort slow moving opponents that the QE2 affords. I decided I needed to get out of the deck chair while I still could and went to my second Pilates class, hoping to get the hang of it.  This was much more successful and I am happy to report I am in no way incapacitated from it. Our Captain hosted a cocktail party tonight, (for about 500 people), but jaded travelers that we are, we decided to skip it and eat dinner earlier instead. This life at sea is just grueling.

 

Our sea days have afforded many hours of people watching, and what interesting people there are.  Here are just a few of the more memorable characters (nicknames bestowed by me)

 

Lady Astor – She’s not the genuine article, but she has the genuine attitude,and she has lived on the QE2 for the last 12 years. There must be some provision in the ticket purchase agreement that when you spend a certain amount of money on voyages, you get partial ownership of the QE2 and the right to boss other passengers around.  She certainly believes this to be her prerogative. She often sports little hats like the Queen herself wears and always has on makeup, a suit and matching sensible shoes.  When you think about it, it is really an ideal retirement community alternative. Where else can you have 1,000 servants (ship’s crew) at your beck and call and a fresh roster of 1600 new passengers to impress each year? This lady doesn’t have any carry-over friends from previous cruises I’m sure. She bemoans the current state of affairs onboard and is often heard complaining “this isn’t the way it used to be”.  She dislikes our captain for unspecified reasons, but we suspect she has taken her complaints to him in the past and he may have suggested an alternative mode of travel might be in order.

 

The Diva – this lady also lives on the ship, but not full time.  She is a retired professional singer who still likes to sing for her adoring fans, most of whom we suspect are hard of hearing.  She is reportedly 90 years old, a tiny little thing, and very sweet. She has written several books about her life, both as a singer and on the QE2 as an institution. The QE2 has a passenger talent show in which the Diva always performs.  Her voice quavers as you might expect, but you can tell it was once beautiful. She also dresses the part, performing in a full length ball gown and long white gloves with bracelets, chokers and dangly earrings. The gown is sleeveless (which takes guts at 90 – probably more so than getting up on the stage) and is constructed in sort of wedding cake tiers and flounces. The overall effect is a Little Bo Peep look, only this Bo Peep has been definitely been around the block a few times. Gary says they don’t let her carry the Bo Peep shepherd’s crook because they need it to pull her off stage.

 

Fang – We never learned his name so we just call him Fang, and since he disembarked in LA, he will probably remain anonymous to us. Fang got his name from the marked absence of dentition, which in North Georgia Walmarts, is not so uncommon, but here on the QE2, it is hard for him to blend. As if the missing teeth were not enough – at least 8 by our count, all in the front, he also favors the ultra-casual look (i.e. baggy shorts, flip flops and sleeveless tee shirts that the Brits call “singlets”, but in North Georgia, they’re called “wife-beaters” (you know how on TV when the police have been called to deal with a domestic dispute, the husband always shows up at the door unshaven, beer in hand, hairy belly exposed between his pants and the hem of his sleeveless tee shirt.) Given the dress code for dinner, we assume Fang either dines in the Lido, which is casual, because we really can’t picture him gussied up in formal wear, but stranger things have happened. Fang is from New Jersey and doesn’t like to fly, so when he got off in LA, he had plans to take the train back home. This was Fang’s 4th trip on the QE2 and before he left the ship, he booked passage on the 2007 World Cruise. We found Fang quite puzzling and he left us with many burning and unanswered questions. I.E., What happened to his original teeth? Why is this man spending all this money on cruises instead of getting dental work? Does he actually have teeth, but chooses to keep them in the dresser drawer? Does he wear these teeth (a minimum of two bridges would be required) on formal nights? Does he maintain that wearing his “wife beater” shirts to dinner as a constitutional right (i.e. confusing the Right to Bear Arms with the Right to Bare Arms?) We don’t know the answers to these and fear we never will. Fang has left the ship.

 

Monday, January 30, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon Hawaiian Time Zone– Latitude 00.05 degrees North, Longitude 165.7 Degrees West, At the Equator, 1,350 miles from Hawaii, 921 miles to Pago Pago

 

The QE2 Launderette

The QE2 Launderette

Today was the third day of our voyage to American Samoa.  We decided to get up early (5:30) and hit the “Launderette” since our dirty clothes bags are full. The ship has 12 combination washer-dryers for passengers to use.  Their idea is that the occasional passenger will do what the Brits term their “Smalls” which includes all manner of undergarments, in the launderette.  Unfortunately the demand for laundry facilities far exceeds the supply, so even us Dukes and Duchesses have to deal with lines at the launderette.  Of course we could send it out and we do send out shirts and dry cleaning, but we figured we can take care of our own “smalls”, and save the money for wine.

 

This big news today is crossing the Equator, which we did, as you can tell from our position above, just after noon today. I am able to confirm that our sink and tub now drain in the opposite direction than they did this morning. The ship also had an elaborate Crossing Ceremony which we chose to watch, rather than participate in.  This ceremony dates back to the 14th century and became widespread once mariners confirmed that the world indeed was round and there was no danger in falling off if you sailed too far. The ceremony has quasi-religious and mythological roots and is essentially a play involving King Neptune and his Seaweed Court who are “crossing the line” for the first time. In olden days those who have never crossed were called “Pollywogs” and would be coated with various nasty liquids from the bilge and were then suspended by the ankles and dunked into the sea. Once you have been initiated thusly, you become a “Shellback” and can help initiate the next batch of pollywogs.  The QE2 Ceremony involved the play (very funny performance) by crew members, followed by the coating of volunteer passengers in their swim suits with various substances from the kitchen including chocolate pudding, eggs, spaghetti, tomatoes, etc. Instead of a dunking, they would be pushed into the swimming pool.  Needless to say, the pool was drained and thoroughly scrubbed afterward.

 

There was also a call this afternoon for O positive blood donors to help in a medical emergency.  Gary and I figured my pedicurist had cornered another hapless passenger and there had been a major scalpel accident. Gary volunteered as a donor since his type is right, but they already had enough donations. They do have a surgeon on board we think maybe there was an emergency surgical procedure.  We have since heard that the patient is stable and does not require evacuation which is good because we are still out of helicopter range, nor do we have to go full speed ahead for the closest port which is also good since it would have been over 1,000 miles away as of yesterday afternoon.. We have noticed several new casts on arms and legs of fellow passengers and suspect some have not fared well in the rough seas (or else they had too much fun in the lounges one night) Who knows what kind of partying goes on after we go to bed?

 

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon, Hawaiian Time Zone (still), 8.1 degrees South, 168.3 degrees West)

180 miles northeast of the Tokelau Islands, 407 miles from Pago Pago

 

This is our fourth and final day at sea and we were starting our 4th week of the voyage and still we are not tired of it yet. Today has been a whirlwind for Gary – a cooking demonstration, bartending lessons, a talk by the Captain (and no Gary cannot be allowed to drive the ship), bingo and a wine tasting. My day has been somewhat less turbulent by choice.  Mine was breakfast, beat Gary at cribbage, reading, listen to a lecture by the mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark on where she gets her plots, lunch, reading, nap, writing in travelogue to be followed by deck walking, dinner and evening entertainment.  Gary and I had planned a 4 segment World Championship of Cribbage, with one segment per month.  He was soundly trounced for the January championship at 9 games to 4.

 

At this point we were getting very close to the International Dateline, which is at 180 degrees. We would actually cross it between American Samoa and Fiji. We will continue our course of 199 degrees to American Samoa which is taking us southwest, but not so far to the west as to have changed time zones in the last 4 days. A course due south would be 180 degrees and a course of due west would be 270 degrees.  The weather has gotten cloudy with occasional showers, as we are told is the norm for this area termed the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone. Little did we know what lay in store for us in the skies above Pago Pago.

 

 

 

 




World Cruise Part 2: American Samoa to Australia

 

The World Cruise

Part 2: Pago Pago, American Samoa to Adelaide, Australia

 Miles traveled this leg: 5,436 Cumulative Miles traveled to date:  17,434

 Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Dateline: Pago Pago, American Samoa

Latitude at Pago Pago,  14.21 degrees South, Longitude 170.39 degrees West  

Today we docked in the town of Pago Pago (pronounced Pain-go Pain-go with the accent on “pain”, which is on an island called Tutuila in American Samoa (which is made up of a number of islands) after traveling by sea for four days. Like the Fijians, the Samoans apparently like to insert “n”s into names that don’t contain the actual letter. A little known factoid: “Sa Moa” is an ancient Polynesian phrase that means “sacred chickens” and apparent there is an old belief by Samoans that their ancestors were actually very special poultry offspring of Lu, the son of Tagaloa, the God of Creation.  Why they decided on chickens, we don’t know. Samoa was first discovered by the western world in 1722 and Europeans came to be known as the “papalagi”(now shortened to “palagi”) which translates as “people who explode things in the sky”. Now, this is easier to understand since arriving Europeans were quite fond of firing cannons at the natives. The US began using Samoa as a coaling station in the 19th century, so when other colonial powers began carving up the South Pacific, we more or less declared “squatter’s rights” and stayed put.  

Docking in the Cyclone in Pago Pago

Docking in the Cyclone in Pago Pago

American Samoa is probably beautiful behind all those clouds, but it was really wet and really windy from our perspective, that perspective being coming into port on the fringes of a typhoon.  We were supposed to be in port for a full day, but the captain cancelled all tours and announced we would leave at noon. We arrived in a pouring rain, being driven horizontally by a howling wind, which we later learned was gusting over 50 miles per hour.  Gary had an opportunity to chat with the captain later, who told him if he had known how bad it was there, he would have kept us at sea. Nevertheless, since we (a) had been at sea for 4 days (b) had never set foot on American Samoa and (c) are sorely lacking good sense, we decided to brave the elements and go ashore. In the meantime, the captain ordered the two tugs that helped us get docked to stay up snug against the ship’s leeward side, pushing the ship against the wind to relieve pressure on the lines.

An Umbrella Wecking Storm in American Samoa

An Umbrella Wecking Storm in American Samoa

We took our two umbrellas which were quickly turned inside out, and became instantly soaked. After slogging through several rivers that used to be streets, we finally hopped on a little local bus, more to get out of the rain than anything else. We were told that we could find an internet access at a government building, which was almost true.  It turned out to be in the library across the street, and you could log on for all day for $5.00. It wasn’t as good a deal as you would think because the connection was so slow, it would take almost all day to get anything done.  However, we were able to send out GAT 4 successfully.

 

Local Transportation in Pago Pago

Local Transportation in Pago Pago

The rest of the time on shore, however, was a washout (literally). By the time we went outside to catch a bus, you couldn’t tell where the streets were since everything was covered in water, knee deep in places. We were able to hop another bus and get back to the ship.  We cleared the harbor in the early afternoon, but nasty weather stayed with us for the rest of the day and into the evening.  

 

 

Thursday, February 2, 2006 (the Lost Day)

Dateline: Southern Pacific Ocean

We knew time was going to fly on this trip, but this is ridiculous. When we went to bed it was Wednesday, but when we woke up, it was Friday. We lost a whole day and we weren’t even drinking, but that’s the price you pay when you cross the International Dateline (180 degrees Longitude). We crossed at approximately 16.5 degrees South latitude.  Once we crossed the Dateline, our longitude is expressed in degrees East rather than West, just as when we crossed the Equator it was expressed in degrees South versus North.

For this and future travelogues, I will use Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a reference.  For those not familiar on the subject, there are 24 time zones in the world each containing approximately 15 degrees of longitude each, for a total of 360 degrees. For each time zone west of GMT, you would subtract 1 hour to get the correct time. For each time zone east of the GMT, you would add one hour. Some examples are Eastern Standard Time is GMT minus 5, Pacific Standard Time is GMT minus 8, France’s time zone is GMT plus 1, and Fiji’s time zone is GMT plus 12. Although time zones are based roughly on longitudinal measurements, they are often altered for geo-political purposes.  For example, the Greenwich Meridian (0.00) runs through England and theoretically it would separate the country into 2 time zones, but for practical reasons, all of England was placed in the same time zone.

Friday, February 3, 2006

Dateline: Southern Pacific Ocean Position at Noon GMT+ 12 hours, 16.5 degrees South, 178.0 degrees West.

Today is a sea day, the only one we have between American Samoa and Fiji, and we spent most of the day getting clear of the tempest we encountered in Pago Pago.  You will note by today’s position at noon that we hadn’t actually crossed the International Dateline, although clocks were set ahead during the night as a matter of convenience to crew and passengers. We crossed around 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon with no fanfare to speak of.   We are in a comfortable sea day routine, with reading, a cribbage game, paddle tennis, etc. so this may be a good place to share some more colorful “characters”.

This edition’s candidates are: Brigette Bardot’s Great Grandma – We haven’t actually been introduced, but we determined she must be related to Ms. Bardot based on her scanty swim wear.  She is somewhere north, far north, of 75, but wears her bikini with all the reckless abandon of Brigitte back in the 60’s.  (I’ve heard it said on deck by strong men who have seen a lot of strange and terrible things in this world that it makes you want to stick a fork in your own eyeball so you don’t have to see it – small exaggeration here) She has pure white longish hair, which looks to be the consistency of cotton candy, and which she wears swept up in sort of a Katherine Hepburn messy bun. She is out sunbathing every day and as you can imagine, and is looking quite leathery by now. I’m not one to make fun of droopy boobs, but I swear she wears her bikini top so low it could double as a belt. But on the positive side, we are thus spared views of her navel.

Indiana Jones’ Uncool and Wimpy Brother, Trevor – Again we haven’t been formally introduced, but we have dubbed this gentleman Trevor, although we have since heard his voice and think that may be too manly a moniker for him.  He sounds suspiciously like Truman Capote. We haven’t drawn any conclusion about his life-style, but he is traveling with a much older man (his uncle or father perhaps?  No? We didn’t think so either). He is very small boned and thin (cadaverously so), but his most striking characteristics are he appears on deck (even in the steamy Canal Zone)  in a salmon pink linen sports coat, a starched shirt, sharply creased khaki pants, paisley socks, and tasseled loafers.  The Indiana Jones connection is that he sports aviator type sunglasses and carries a vintage (1930’s or so I imagine) binoculars case slung over his shoulder and can frequently be seen striking poses at the rail and scanning the horizon (looking for the Lost Ark perhaps).  Before you start picturing him as a Gentleman’s Quarterly type, I do have to tell you for some unknown reason, he always wears a Gilligan’s hat which tends to undermine the Indiana Jones look.

Samurai Line Dancer – This is a gentleman we know from our daily turns about the deck, but haven’t learned his name.  He is small but stocky and is of the Asian persuasion (an unintentional rhyme, but it would have been clever if I’d planned it, don’t you think?) He walks everyday at the same time we do, sometimes with a bandana-type wrap around his head, which on a Caucasian we would think “Biker”, but on an Asian with his muscular build, “Samurai” comes to mind. We have seen no evidence of swordplay, no slicing and dicing of exotic fruit a la John Belushi, and in fact he seems very amicable.  We were therefore very surprised to see him in the on-board talent show performing a line dance with approximately 10 ladies, not once but twice, and he is reputedly the darling of the daily dance class. Also he has started wearing headphones instead of the samurai warrior head gear. We suspect he’s listening to Cotton Eyed Joe, just waiting for his next opportunity to be in the spot light.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Dateline: Lautoka, Fiji

Latitude at Lautoka 17.36 degrees South, Longitude 177.26 degrees East

A Perfect Day in Fiji

A Perfect Day in Fiji

Today we docked at Lautoka, Fiji on the island of Viti Levu under cloudy skies, which began to clear shortly after our arrival. We happened to see a live-aboard dive boat, the Naia’a, that we had spent 10 days on several years ago, tied up at the pier next to us. She was in port having some work done in preparation for going out later in the week.  We didn’t see anyone we knew. Rob, the captain,was away for a few days and the crew there told us that one of our favorite crew members, Rusi,  had retired.

 

Making the Kava - en route to x

Making the Kava – en route to Tivua

We had signed up for an excursion to the island of Tivua, about 1 hour away on a motor-sailboat. It was an antique boat, all wood, about 80 years old and nicely refurbished. En route, the crew sang local songs for us, we had a “kava” ceremony and Gary was picked by the crew to be captain for the day.  It was a high honor, but it meant he had to drink the kava without flinching or spitting it out. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, “kava” is a local drink that looks like dirty water and tastes even worse.  If you have enough of it, it makes your mouth numb.  Unfortunately it does not disable your taste buds so it’s hard to get to that numbness state.

Tasting the Kava - Needs to be Chased with a Rum Punch (quickly)

Tasting the Kava – Needs to be Chased with a Rum Punch (quickly)

The island of Tivua is the typical tropical paradise you’d envision with beaches reminiscent of White Bay, Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands (no Soggy Dollar here, but they did serve rum punches, beer, etc.). We passed several small cays that looked much like Sandy Cay (between Jost Van Dyke and Cane Garden Bay, Tortola) We snorkeled the reef, took a nap in a hammock just like the one at the Soggy Dollar, in the shade of two huge almond trees. We had a buffet lunch with freshly grilled local fish and various salads and did our “large iguana in the sun” impressions until mid afternoon.  On the return trip, the crew sang more local songs for us including their traditional

 

Deserted Island - Fiji

Deserted Island – Fiji

“goodbye song called “Isa Lei” which is both beautiful and nostalgic and will raise goosebumps no matter how hot and sweaty you are. We decided to stay on deck and watch our departure from Lautoka and the sunset, both of which were quite memorable.  

 

 

 

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Dateline: South Pacific Position at Noon – GMT + 12 hours 20.5 degrees South, 172.1 degrees East, 120 miles east of Vanuatu, 320 miles from Fiji, 405 miles to New Caledonia  

A Delectable Seafood Dish in the Dining Room

A Delectable Seafood Dish in the Dining Room

Today we are continuing our westerly course toward New Caledonia and gingerly treating all those spots we missed with sunscreen yesterday with moisturizer.  We have a good group now playing paddle tennis, about 16 or so regulars and we had some fierce games today. And of course we continue to eat fabulous meals.

At this juncture, I would like to say a few words about fashion on board.  There is some high, some low and some no. The highs are not really interesting, and you all can picture these people. So let me spend a few moments on the low and the no fashion groups.  Black socks with sandals are so common here as to be looked at as the norm, so I’ll just keep the discussion to the truly bizarre.  So here are the looks that are big on the QE2 this season. If there were fashion police on board, they’d have to wear riot gear and deploy with pepper spray just to keep order. The Court Jester–to achieve this look you must wear wildly patterned hosiery with a big blousy shirt, cinched at the waist. If there is a skirt underneath, it is so short as to go unnoticed. If you really want to go over the top with this look, you can wear little pointy toed shoes with bells and a pointy cap. Harry Potter All grown up – this is best for cold climates, you have to have the round glasses and add a snap brim hat with a cashmere trench coat. To show this look off to best advantage you need to strike a pose on deck and hold for several seconds to ensure you are seen and appreciated. Bag Lady – for this look you can combine any number of wardrobe items as long as they are (a) patterned and (b) baggy.  Keds or other athletic shoes must be a lively plaid as well.  No solids allowed here.  For the most effective look, the skirt should be a “squaw” style with rickrack. This look is perfect for late-afternoon promenades. Also ensure head is covered with a scarf with a loud print in colors not found in nature. Captain of the Minnow – for you Gilligan’s Island fans, the Captain look is big on the QE2. All you need is a blue double breasted blazer with large gold buttons, white shirt, white pants, white socks and white hat with gold braid.  This look is best pulled off by those with a considerable paunch. Lean and trim persons may want to stick with Harry Potter in a trench coat.   I could go on, but I’ll leave you with these looks to ponder and master. I hope we will see some early adopters in Gainesville this spring.  Tomorrow we will dock in New Caledonia, which is uncharted territory for us. We plan to go on a bicycle tour of the island. The saga shall continue.

Monday, February 6, 2006

Dateline: Noumea, New Caledonia

Latitude at Noumea, 22.15 degrees South, Longitude 166.25 degrees East  

The Noumea Harbor - New Caledonia

The Noumea Harbor – New Caledonia

It was overcast and rainy when we pulled into Noumea (pronounced New-may-ah with the accent on the “may”). For those unfamiliar with the old Caledonia (this is pronounced Cal-eh-doan-yah with the accent on the “doan”) this was the name that the Romans gave to Scotland, back in the days when they ruled what is now Great Britain. So when James Cook (the British Explorer) sighted the island, he named it New Caledonia because he fancied it looked like the rugged Scottish landscape. He must have been there on a rainy day as well because the wet weather is the only similarity we saw. The British, however, did not

 

The Scooter Car

The Scooter Car

colonize the island, so the French must have said the 18th Century equivalent of  “dibs” and started establishing missions in the late 1790’s.  Due to the weather, our bicycle tour was cancelled. Undaunted, we took the shuttle into town and rented a “scooter car” to do our own tour. The Scooter Car is actually a motor scooter with maybe a leaf blower or weed eater size engine in it that has two seats and training wheels.

 

 

A Golf Course near Noumea

A Golf Course near Noumea

New Caledonia is still a French territory and Noumea is quite cosmopolitan considering its size and remote location. We did our own tour of the area – we couldn’t get too far away from town since this vehicle was seriously “hill challenged”, i.e. it was not inclined to go up any inclines. We never had more than a sprinkle or two, which is a good thing since our vehicle was very “alfresco”. We took the coast road and explored the bays and beaches which are truly lovely. The island is lushly tropical with all sorts of flowering shrubs and trees, most notably what they call “flame trees” and what gardeners will know as Royal

 

A Beach in New Caledonia

A Beach in New Caledonia

Poinciana and what Puerto Ricans call “Flamboyan”.  We also stopped at a golf course and checked out a few holes, but didn’t have time to play since our vehicle was due back at 12:30.  After we turned our scooter car in, we walked around the city and had lunch in an outdoor restaurant at a park.   It was really interesting to see all those tropical plants we buy in little pots at home in their native habitat (i.e. they use asparagus fern for ground cover beneath ficus trees that are as big as 50 year old oak trees. Bougainvillea, jacaranda, hibiscus, plumbago, ixora – you name it. If it’s tropical- they grow it.

 

Shopping in New Caledonia

Shopping in New Caledonia

We also stopped at a grocery store to replenish our own stash of wine and Diet Coke.  We made a very pleasant discovery in that the store had an outstanding selection of French wines, a French bakery with fresh baguettes, a French deli with freshly roasted chicken among other delights.  I must report here that Gary was so overwhelmed by the aroma of the freshly roasted chicken, he bought two drumsticks and ate them on the spot, much to the amusement of many of our shipmates watching from a nearby bus. Gary lifted a leg (a chicken leg that is) in acknowledgement of their attention to his afternoon snacking.   We got back on the ship just in time to see the closing moments of the Super Bowl and were glad to see the Steelers win. (Monday afternoon here is Sunday in the USA which is why we saw it live a day later than those of you in the USA) Leaving Noumea, we had a harbor pilot with us for a couple of hours because of the extensive reef system around the island. The sun was just going down when we cleared the last reef and began our trip south and east toward New Zealand.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Dateline: South Pacific Position at Noon – GMT +12, 28.24 degrees South, 170.9 degrees West 120 miles northeast of Norfolk Island, 489 miles from Noumea, 570 miles to Auckland, NZ

Today is a sea day and we are making our way to Auckland, New Zealand. You will notice from our position today, as compared to yesterday, that we are no longer going west, but south and east and we also set our clocks forward for a change. A side note to all gardeners on Norfolk Island, yes, this is the source of origin of the Norfolk Island Pine.

We deviated today from our standard read, nap, paddle tennis, walk punctuated by frequent eating. The ship has a guest lecturer program in which they present “Enrichment Lectures”. They are often interesting, as well as educational, so we decided to attend.  The speaker today was Doug Burgess, a very young (probably late 20’s) whipper-snapper just out of law school, but he was truly impressive.  Although he got a degree from Columbia University in International Law, he decided to become a scholar, researcher and historian instead of practicing law and his field of expertise is piracy – old and new.  Of course, some cynics may put tongue in cheek at this juncture and comment that from lawyer to piracy isn’t much of a leap. His morning talk was on pirates of old and then in the afternoon gave a talk on terrorists and drew parallels on how they are the pirates of our time.  Anyway, enough of that, you’ll have to buy the book he has out to find out more. We will arrive in New Zealand tomorrow around 1:00 p.m. and have hopes of finding an Internet Café with High Speed Access  As if we’re not confused enough, New Zealand is on daylight savings time since this is the middle of summer for the Southern Hemisphere so tomorrow we will be GMT + 13 hours.  I’m wearing the stem out on my watch.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Dateline: Auckland, New Zealand

Latitude at Auckland 36.50 degrees South, Longitude 174.45 degrees East

Auckland NZ

Auckland NZ

We cruised today to the Land of the Long White Cloud (so described by the earliest Polynesian explorers) commonly known as New Zealand. New Zealand was named by a Dutch Explorer, Abel Tasman of the Dutch East India Company, after Zeeland in Holland. It is reported that Mr. Tasman left the North Island in great haste after several crew members were captured and eaten by local Maori (pronounced Maow-ree with the accent on the first syllable) tribesmen in 1642. They must not have tasted too good because when Captain Cook came in the 1700’s, the Maoris were very friendly and invited him to dinner, not for dinner, and thus began a long relationship with England. New Zealand has two main islands, North and South, which total around 103,000 square miles, with a population of just over 4 million, 3 of which live on the North Island and 1.3 of which live in Auckland. There are supposedly 30 times as many sheep in New Zealand as people at “lambing” time. Auckland, our first of 3 ports of call in New Zealand, is called the City of Sails since there are so many sailboats here, and in fact Auckland has the highest ratio of boats per capita of any city in the world.  The climate is really delightful – very San Francisco like, but with smaller hills and without the fog. It’s the first “jacket weather” we’ve had since leaving New York.  

QE2 at her Berth - Auckland

QE2 at Prince’s Wharf  – Auckland

We entered the Hauraki Gulf this morning off New Zealand’s North Island and made our way into Waitemata Harbor and to our berth at Prince’s Wharf in Auckland. We docked just after noon, which here is GMT +13, since New Zealand is currently on Daylight Savings Time. Once they go back to standard time, they will be at GMT +12. So during Daylight Savings time, they have the same time of day (or night) as GMT – 12, but it’s 24 hours later than in the GMT – 12 zone. In a recent email, Martin Rist pointed out that in the discussion of time in the last GAT, we made no mention of Newfoundland’s quirky half hour time difference from the rest of the world. Yes it’s true, “Newfies” are a little off (some say in more ways than one) – but definitely half an hour time-wise, so they are GMT – 4.30. And speaking of a little off, we learned that on Chatham Island, (part of New Zealand, but several miles east of the North Island), their time is GMT + 12.45 all year round. It has been  suggested that we get a satellite watch which synch up with GPS satellites so we don’t have to keep changing our own watches.  We may just do just that in Shanghai. Since you can buy 5 “Rolexes” for $10, I’ll bet they have killer deals on satellite watches as well. We might even get one with Chairman Mao waving to us on it.

 A Touch of Vertigo on the Skytower

A Touch of Vertigo on the Skytower

Once we docked we had a complimentary tour (one of 5 that all us Dukes and Duchesses are offered).  The first of these was in Acapulco at the Villa Arabesque which I wrote about in a fair amount detail in a previous issue.  I regret to say there was no encore of the villa treatment here in Auckland, but nevertheless we had a wonderful day.  Our first stop was the Sky Tower which dominates the skyline at 1,076 feet. They have bungee jumpers who leap from the building every half hour or so, plus they have glass floor in both their elevators and on the walkway around the observation deck.  It’s really spooky to stand on the glass and see the ground a thousand feet directly below you – those with vertigo or agoraphobia should definitely stay on the bus.  Factoid:  Bungee jumping originated in New Zealand and seems to typify the stereotypic “Kiwi” – in a word – they’re nuts – fearless, but nevertheless, nuts.

 

Maori Art with Tongues Out

Maori Art with Tongues Out

From there we went to the National Museum which had a little bit of everything about New Zealand. We spent quite a bit of time on the Maori culture and how NZ came to be populated. In a nutshell, while the Polynesians who took up residence came by canoes, many of the British who took up residence came on prison ships.  If you want to say hello in the Maori language, just say “Kia Ora” – sounds just like it’s spelled.  We were running out of time so we had to breeze by New Zealand flora and fauna, but I want to insert a short note on each. There is a kiwi fruit as we all know and put into our fruit trays and there is a kiwi bird which is a large, chicken size, flightless bird who lays eggs almost half her own size.  Also New Zealanders are nicknamed kiwis – don’t know if it’s for the bird or the fruit. We also spent a few quick minutes on New Zealand’s WWI and WWII history. Because New Zealand was a British Colony and maintains close ties even after independence was granted in 1947, New Zealanders have gotten involved in every conflict that Great Britain has, as well as several of their own wars from time to time.  If you happen to visit military cemeteries around the world (as I tend to do), you will notice a disproportionate number of Kiwis (compared to their population) buried there. (e.g. Crete, Gallipoli Turkey, France, North Africa,) I guess if you’ve got the courage to bungee jump, taking a machine gun position looks easy by comparison.

Maori Carving at the National Museum

Maori Carving at the National Museum

Our final stop was at a cultural center where we were treated to Maori dancing and rituals which we found fascinating.  One of the most unusual aspects in their war dances is that they grimace and scowl while threatening life and limb of their enemies with spears and assorted sharp objects. However, their next move is to stick their tongues out, which is intended to strike fear into the hearts of the bad guys (apparently the Maori version of “shock and awe”), but I must confess, we did have to suppress a small chuckle.  In fact Gary thought they were injecting a little humor into their routine until I explained that he’s supposed to be afraid, very afraid. A final non Maori treat was singing by the “Three Waiters”. These were guys who pretended to be waiters, (as we all believed them to be since they were dressed the part and passing out champagne and canapés). However, these waiters burst into operatic song and did a great comedic skit.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Dateline: Auckland, New Zealand  

Today we have plans to freelance in Auckland which is made easy by the fact that we are docked right in the heart of the city.  We had a quick (non-Duchess type) breakfast ashore at a local bakery (donut and Diet Coke) and it felt sinfully decadent – sort of like “slumming” I suppose.  We spent quite a bit of time reading and sending emails – high speed connection Internet places are everywhere – it’s a beautiful thing.

We took a cab to an “ecology” park of sorts where they have a habitat for Emperor Penguins and a really unusual aquarium. They also have historical exhibits that showcase Antarctic Exploration artifacts. The penguin “encounter” was via a simulated “Snow Cat” which traveled through the penguin habitat. They were loose and we were locked in. They make tons of snow daily and have a large swimming area so you can see them going about their penguin-business. They are really fascinating creatures that made us decide we want to go to Antarctica someday to see them in the wild. There were a few babies peeking out from underneath parent’s feathers.  They apparently rest on top of their feet. But then those of you who have seen The March of the Penguins already know this.   They also had a great aquarium through which there is a pedestrian tunnel so the fish are above and around you. They have fantastic shark and stingray specimens. They feed the stingrays by hand, much to the delight of the viewers (ourselves included) and since the sides of their enclosures are glass, you really can see how they eat. Gary and I have been diving with manta rays in Mexico and stingrays in the Cayman Islands and this makes us want to schedule another trip.

Green Lipped Mussels

Green Lipped Mussels

We took a taxi back to the city and had a leisurely lunch at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the harbor. We got a kick out of the waitress who asked, instead of “Ya want fries wid dat?” asked if she could “organize” some French fries for us. Gary has become a New Zealand green lipped mussel zealot and ordered up a batch. (or in local parlance, he asked that she “organize” some for him). He had no idea that he would get 16 and they would be about the size of golf balls – the creature, not the shell.  He actually couldn’t finish them all.  To his credit (and just to keep the mystique surrounding his legendary appetite alive – he did help me eat my snapper tempura which (as they say in Georgia) was good enough to make you slap your grandma. We strolled around Queen Street and did a little shopping and also stopped by a wine store to replenish our sunset beverage stash.  We have had several excellent New Zealand wines on board so we bought a few to take with us. We always like to support local vineyards (not to mention the local economy.) We also spent over an hour at the New Zealand Maritime Museum which was excellent. They have 14 exhibition galleries covering boats through the years from Polynesian War Canoes to 20 meter yachts that competed for the America’s cup. Unfortunately, we had to cut this short since we were due back on board at 5:30 p.m.

New Zealand Tugboats

New Zealand Tugboats

We sailed at 6:00 tonight, but it had started to rain so we bundled up in rain jackets and went out on the deck for the farewell.  Every port we go into has tugboats to help get us docked, but NZ has the coolest ones yet.  They have an engine “pod”, rather than a fixed mount engine and this allows them to turn in any direction.  As a farewell salute, after they got us headed out to sea, they pulled alongside and did a series of “donuts” (360 degree spins) in the water for our entertainment.  As I said before, these Kiwis are nuts.

 

Friday, February 10, 2006

Dateline: Tauranga, New Zealand

Latitude at Tauranga 37.38 degrees South, Longitude176.10 degrees East  

Rough Weather in Tauranga

Rough Weather in Tauranga

We docked in Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand after an overnight cruise in the early morning hours in a pouring rain. It was not as bad as Pago Pago since there was not the same gale force wind blowing. We had planned a trip to a thermal reserve (a national park similar to Yellowstone but with smaller mountains), a Maori cultural center and a sheep shearing demonstration, so we set off in the rain, armed with umbrellas (mine was a replacement since I suffered a blowout in Pago Pago.) and rain jackets. Gary had heard the visit to the sheep farm referred to as a “Sheep Show”, but he misunderstood and thought people were saying we were going to see a “Peep Show”. However, to his credit, he hid his disappointment well when he found out it was a farm animal show with no kinkier content than sheep’s wool. En route we traveled through the town of Te Puke (pronounced Tah-Poo-Kay with the accent on the “Poo”) which is the kiwi fruit capital of the world. Kiwi is also known as Chinese Gooseberry and it grows on vines much like grapes. This is also a large avocado growing region and both types of crops are protected by thickly planted wind-breaks of Leyland Cypress, Cryptomeria, etc. Even though we were told how to pronounce “Puke”, we still had to snicker when we passed the Puke Restaurant and Bakery. If we had been faster with the camera and slower with the traffic light, we could have captured this image for the juvenile amusement of us all.

The Lake at Rotorua, NZ

The Lake at Rotorua, NZ

We drove inland and up into the mountains to the town of Rotorua (pronounced like Roto-Rooter, but instead of “rooter”, you say Rue-Ah.) This is a beautiful little town adjacent to a large lake with black swans paddling along the shoreline, ringed by mountain peaks, and on the few moments when the sun was out, surrounded by pasturelands and hillsides green enough to rival the Irish countryside. Unfortunately, the rain kept falling so we only had glimpses of the brilliant green.  We next drove to Whakarewarewa (which I have no idea how to pronounce and apparently neither do the locals since they call it Whaka for short)

 

Thermal Vents in the Rain Forest

Thermal Vents in the Rain Forest

Our first stop was at the Thermal Reserve where we saw live kiwi birds in a natural habitat-type enclosure. Of course the huge plate glass wall is not part of the natural habitat, but the birds were grubbing away in the dirt and don’t seem to mind it. They are both rare and nocturnal so they are almost never spotted in the wild. From there we went to see the boiling and bubbling mud pools (more exciting than it sounds, really – sort of like a witch’s cauldron for those familiar with witches’ cauldrons). There are a number of steaming vents and spouting geysers that erupt several times a day permeating the air with sulfurous

 

Thermal Mud - Rotorua

Thermal Mud – Rotorua

fumes. A side note on geysers:  There is a destination lecturer of the British persuasion on board who pronounces this word “geezers” which led several of us to comment that we could have stayed on board and seen plenty of “geezers” – no need to drive all the way out here in the rain for that. Apparently the ancient Maori used to cook food in these hot springs (average temperatures are just below boiling) and were also know to throw hostile warriors from rival tribes into the springs and to snack on them when they were done to perfection, whatever standard that might entail.

 

A Mineral Lake in Rotorua

A Mineral Lake in Rotorua

The Maori Cultural center is dedicating preserving the history and the culture of the Tuhourangi, a sub-tribe of the Maori, including wood carving and ceremonial costumes which are made from a type of flax plant, found naturally in the wild here. They also used this product to make ropes which was one of the first NZ exports. They have also reconstructed an ancient Maori village including the meeting house where the custom was for men to sit in the front and women in the back. This was explained to us that it was not intended to denigrate women, but to protect them in case fighting breaks out and some visitor turns hostile and needs to be tossed into the “geezers” or hot springs (probably easier to retrieve out of the springs in case they were on the menu for the evening meal.) One of the highlights of this segment of the tour was the performing of the “Haka” which is the Maori war dance that involves bulging eyes and protruding tongues I mentioned in the Auckland section of this issue.

The Sheep's Beauty Pageant

The Sheep’s Beauty Pageant

Our last stop was at the sheep farm for the sheepshow/peep show.  We sat in a large barn-like structure and were introduced to 19 different types of sheep some produced for their wool, and some for lamb chops, etc., but none of which smelled the least bit appetizing – they smelled like wet sheep – but they were cute in a sheep-like way. We saw a shearing demonstration, which neither of us had seen before. We learned that shearers get paid by the sheep (or should I say per sheep – the sheep do not issue payroll) and a good average time is 48 seconds per sheep in order to make top dollar at this.  Shearing involves grabbing the

 

A Prize Ram at the Sheep Show

A Prize Ram at the Sheep Show

creature with one hand and shearing with the other. Interestingly enough, when the sheep is right side up with its feet under it, it struggles. However, when it is sitting up its haunches, it’s almost comatose. (I guess it’s sort of like those hypnotized lobsters you see in the Caribbean.) We also saw an excellent herding demonstration and learned there are two different methods of dog herding. One breed such as the Australian cattle dog does it by– staring (no barking). He just gives the sheep what Southerners would call “the stink-eye” and they move right out.  The other type of herding is done by barking and these dogs look more like German Shepherds. The also move in a herd by jumping up and running across the backs of the sheep, who seem not to care or notice.

Checking the Lanolin in this Cuddly Model

Checking the Lanolin in this Cuddly Model

It was still raining when we left and although I grew up moisture-deprived in West Texas, and consequently I love things wet and green (except for mildew), this was even too much for me. We brought lots of sunscreen, but what we really need here is Rust-oleum.  We also learned that sheep have a natural oil called lanolin in their wool to repel water. This is a good thing; otherwise they’d be so water-logged they couldn’t move. In case all of this is just too bucolic for visitors, the farm also offers other activities for the more adventurous including Bungee jumping, freefall parachuting, helicoptering to an active volcano and something called Zorb which involves strapping yourself in a gigantic sphere and rolling downhill. You have the option of “dry”, “wet” and “zigzag” zorbing,  but oops, sorry we were out of time and had to pass.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dateline: Pacific Ocean Position at Noon GMT +13, Position 39.3 degrees South, 178.3 degrees East ,18 miles northeast of the Mahia Peninsula, North Island, New Zealand

Today was an at sea day for us as we cruised down the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand and we are still having fun.   We did have a special treat this afternoon when we were visited by two different species of albatross – the Wandering and the Sooty. These birds are so big they could have been the prototype for Big Bird. The mature Wandering Albatross have approximately 45 inch long bodies with up to a 138 inch wing spans. The Sooty is smaller with a 34 inch body with an 80 inch wingspan.  These types of albatross are found only in the Southern Hemisphere between 60 and 30 degrees latitude where there are strong winds. They spend almost all year flying (or more accurately gliding) only stopping by land to breed and nest twice a year and then they’re gone out to sea again. Both male and female albatross partake in this breeding and fleeing the scene, unlike human species where this behavior pattern is more predominately male (oops did I say that?)  For some reason, they like to follow ships for perhaps “drafting” on turbulent air we create, and thus further minimizing the amount of flapping required.

Formal Night on Deck

Formal Night on Deck

Tonight we attended the Chief Engineer’s cocktail party at the Funnel Bar (topmost deck).  It was beautiful balmy evening with a gorgeous pink and purple sunset with mauve water (or as Gary calls it Mo-ah-vey). Gary had hopes of cornering the Chief Engineer and getting an invitation to tour the engine room, but the party was very crowded, so he had to adjust his plans and will ambush him at a future date.

 

 

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dateline: Wellington, New Zealand

Latitude at Wellington 41.16  degrees South, Longitude 174.47 degrees East

Today on our way to Aotea Quay at Lambton Harbor in Wellington, the ship performed an exercise in the harbor to adjust our magnetic compass. There is nothing wrong with it per se; however during the course of a voyage the compass gets off kilter to a small degree from various other magnetic fields within the ship (with exception of magnetic personalities) and may vary slightly from magnetic north. If periodic adjustments are not made, it will increase in severity over time and could result in an untimely collision with a reef (not that they ever are timely, of course) or arrival at an undesired destination like Borneo or Madagascar.   The way this works is that we take on a person called a Compass Adjuster when the Wellington harbor pilot boards. The Compass Adjuster has the captain maneuver the ship in a full circle through 360 degrees and takes magnetic bearings on objects on shore to determine any deviations from “true” heading. Those errors which can be corrected are corrected and those that cannot are indicated on a deviation chart so the navigators will know if any given reading needs to be adjusted by one or two smidgens for example.

As we disembarked we again went through NZ customs where they are mainly looking for contraband in the form of fresh fruits, vegetables and cold cut sandwiches made up from the midnight buffet by passengers hoping to save a buck by bringing their lunch ashore.  Illegal drugs aren’t really the issue with this group. But instead of stern German Shepherds or slavering Dobermans, NZ uses friendly little beagles who are ace contraband sniffers. In fact, as we were leaving, a cute little doggie identified a suspect with a purse full of buffet booty and she was “busted”.  There is no hiding the salami from these dogs, so to speak.

The New Zealand Coastline near Wellington

The New Zealand Coastline near Wellington

Wellington, the capital of NZ, is nicknamed the Windy City and we found it aptly named. Sunny, but very windy, it also has a San Francisco-like climate, but unlike Auckland, it has the hills to go with it. )  Much of the current harbor front is built on landfill because the mountains come right down to the water’s edge – sort of like Juneau, Alaska, but without the glaciers or the cold.

 

 

 

 

Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens

Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens

We took a cable car to the Botanical Garden which was really lovely and calls to mind Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC. There are miles of walking trails with hundreds of agapanthus, hydrangea, and camellia (not in bloom at this time). February here is midsummer so the rose garden was in full bloom and their Begonia “house” was full of tuberous begonias the size of dinner plates in every shade of red, pink, orange, yellow and white imaginable.

 

 

The Movie Shoot (and Scoop)

The Movie Shoot (and Scoop)

We had lunch on the quayside (not smuggled from QE2) of fish and chips at the Loaded Hog microbrewery and further explored the city. We were entertained for quite a while by a film crew putting together a commercial to air in Scotland which today featured sheep in starring roles on streets of the city. Watching the sheep wranglers trying to get their flocks to “hit their marks” kept us quite amused. Picture fluffy sheep slipping their leashes and running amok on the streets being chased by director-types with bullhorns. The sheep wrangling crew included a “Pooper Scooper” who was kept busy keeping the sidewalks free of

 

Sheep Wranglers Herding the Stars

Sheep Wranglers Herding the Stars

hazardous waste. As you are probably aware, a lot of movies are filmed here, including The Piano, King Kong, Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. In fact you can do movie set tours for the Lord of the Rings locales.   We had a very picturesque departure with 3 bright red tugs pulling and pushing us out into the blue waters of Lambton Bay while on the quay, Bagpipers played for us. As dusk began to settle, we steamed out of the bay and into the Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands, and headed into the Tasman Sea toward Australia.

 

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dateline: Tasman Sea Position at Noon GMT +13, Position 38.9 degrees South, 168.5 degrees East, 240 miles southwest of Cape Egmont, North Island, NZ.  351 miles from Wellington, NZ, 883 miles to Sydney, Australia

Today we crossed the Tasman Sea which, while it has a reputation for rough water, is exceptionally calm with only the occasional big swell to cause lurching passengers. At this point, I feel compelled to share with you readers a most scandalous “incident” on board which happened several days ago, but the “dramedy” (combination of drama and comedy) continues to grow into folk legend with a number of rumors swirling about. I think in a previous issue, I wrote about the chaos at the launderette with a crush of people trying to wash and dry clothes at the same time on sea days. This chaos has burgeoned into what has come to be known as the “Donnybrook in the Launderette”, and QE2 has become a hotbed of rumors. I also mentioned a call for blood donors in an earlier edition which has also found its way into one version of the story, which goes as follows:   Supposedly, a woman had left her clothes in the dryer and left the launderette. Another woman who needed to use the dryer removed the other woman’s clothes from the dryer since they were dry and the owner was nowhere in sight. When the woman returned and saw her clothes in a pile, fisticuffs ensued. Then the two husbands joined in and the “donnybrook” was underway. In one version we heard that one woman stole a dress from the dryer load and was seen wearing it on board by the other.  In another version, one of the combatants had hemophilia (or perhaps was taking blood thinners) and a punch to his nose precipitated the call for blood donors. In any event all four combatants were put ashore at the next port and are no longer with us. We don’t know the exact truth, but it is a very good thing no one had guns or else we might have had a siege or hostage taking. We thought the launderette needed an attendant, but it seems a bouncer would be more in order. In almost every port we’ve been to, there is a hearse and/or ambulance to deal with deaths, injuries and illnesses at sea.  Now we’ve come to expect the paddy wagon as well.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Dateline: Tasman Sea Position at Noon GMT +12, Position 35.8  degrees South, 158.0 degrees East, 340 miles east of Australia. 886 miles from Wellington, 348 miles to Sydney  

Today is Valentine’s Day and is our last sea day before Australia so we are spending a quiet day reading and getting our laundry done and we spent an hour playing paddle tennis, hoping to keep pace with that calorie intake. As a safety measure we decided to send our laundry out since the launderette will probably be placed on the State Department’s Watch List of dangerous places for tourists, right up there with Bali and Syria.  So far we have not had any on board riots over offensive political cartoons, but that could always develop in a crazed crowd like those wacky QE2 passengers.

I must report more fashion gaffes are being committed on a daily basis. Dress for dinner is supposed to be “elegant casual” while in port – and for men this means a shirt with sports coat.  Apparently one man in our dining room had on a jacket over an undershirt and removed the jacket and caused a huge flap in the Britannia Restaurant. Unfortunately we missed this episode and heard it second hand. Several ladies felt faint and had to call for smelling salts. We are still trying to learn whether the man was just forgetful and forgot to put on a shirt or whether he was out of shirts and, fearing for his life, was afraid to go to the launderette. We personally witnessed a woman cavorting in the pool (okay, maybe not cavorting, but certainly splashing) in a white tee shirt, bra and panties. She obviously believed (a) the shirt is long enough to conceal fact that she’s in her panties (b) the black bra will go unnoticed. (c) the shirt is opaque when wet. This would be a most vehement “Negative” on all 3 counts. Tomorrow morning we’ll be docking in Sydney and hopefully find an Internet Cafe.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dateline: Sydney, Australia

Latitude at Sydney 33.51 degrees South, Longitude 151.12 degrees East

Backing into the Quay - Sydney Harbor

Backing into the Quay – Sydney Harbor

Today we got up early (before sunrise) to watch our arrival in Sydney Harbor. Our cruise director advised that there are certain great harbors in the world for which the approach should not be missed and Sydney is one of them.  He also mentioned in the same category, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Hong Kong and I would also add San Francisco to that list. In any event, it was as billed, a truly exhilarating experience to round the “heads” of the harbor just as the sun was striking the Opera House and Harbor Bridge. Well, in truth, we more or less had to imagine where the sun would have struck since it was raining a bit. We are told that Australia is the second driest continent in the world (only Antarctica is drier), but that distinction is due mostly to the Outback. The coastal areas are plenty wet.

QE2 and The "Coathanger"

QE2 and The “Coathanger”

We docked at the Circular Quay (this is pronounced “key” for those who aren’t familiar with the term) which is right downtown where all the ferries come in. Our berth was directly across from the Opera House and adjacent to the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which the locals also call the “Coathanger”, given its shape. We hadn’t booked any prearranged tours with the ship for Sydney since we are fairly familiar with the city so we decided to “go walkabout” This is a local expression and is not walk about ( but walkabout –  all one word as in “George has  gone walkabout for a few days” – i.e. George is out wandering around. I am taking liberties with the word, however, since it implies a wandering of several days duration. But of course this could have been true if we had gotten lost.

We did decide to do a tour of the Blue Mountains, a few hours west of Sydney and we also

Harley Davidson of Liverpool

Harley Davidson of Liverpool

decided to do the Bridge Climb on Friday before out 2:00 departure so we made a reservation for that as well.   Gary wanted to expand his Harley-Davidson wardrobe so we located a local dealership in a suburb called Liverpool and took a train west to fulfill his dream. We learned that Liverpool, Australia has all the considerable charm (or lack thereof) as we would imagine of it’s British counterpart, in that it’s a little on the dingy and industrialized side, but we made our purchase and took the train back.

 

Blending with the Aborigines on the Circular Quay

Blending with the Aborigines on the Circular Quay

We had lunch ashore at an outdoor restaurant on Circular Quay anddecided to continue our “walkabout” and proceeded to Darling Harbor. This area when we were here in 1990 was just starting to get a face lift, but now there are several miles of shops, museums and restaurants lining the harbor. We chose the Sydney Aquarium and spent a few hours with their excellent exhibits including a huge shark/stingray habitat with glass tunnels through the middle of it where you can get close enough to see whether or not they flossed that morning.

 

 

At the Circular Quay

At the Circular Quay

We also took a few moments at an Internet Café to send  out a travelogue along with a few photos. The day had turned sunny and so we continued walking around the city until after dark. Rather than go back to the ship for dinner, we decided to stay ashore and soak up the ambiance and had another meal outdoors at the Circular Quay.

 

 

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dateline: Sydney, Australia  

The Blue Mountains near Sydney

The Blue Mountains near Sydney

Today we took a tour of the Blue Mountains which are due west of Sydney and are part of the Great Dividing Range which runs from Queensland in the north to Victoria in the South. On the ocean side (east) of the range are lush green forests – tropical in the north and temperate in the south – with plentiful water and fertile farmland. On the interior side of the range is the Outback – a vast desert stretching across the continent (roughly the size of the continental US) to the Indian Ocean.

 

We made a stop in the foothills for morning tea and a quick boomerang lesson and were asked a key question: What do you call a boomerang which does not come back? Answer:  A crooked stick. We learned that there are left and right handed boomerangs. As with golf clubs, it does make a huge difference in

A Boomerang Lesson

A Boomerang Lesson

your success to ensure you have the correct piece of equipment.  Flight is made possible by the two sections of the boomerang being shaped like airplane wings with a thicker leading edge and a trailing thin edge which oppose each other on each “arm”. This is what provides loft and spin. You also have to achieve the correct angle of the throw with your arm at the 2 o’clock position in order for your boomerang to both take wing and to come back. A noon angle results in the “kangaroo” with your boomerang bouncing along the ground. A 3 o’clock angle results in the “helicopter” which makes the boomerang go straight up and come back down.   To throw properly, you need to cock your wrist back as if doing the Atlanta Braves’ Tomahawk Chop, snap your wrist, extend your arm and let it fly.  I was actually fairly successful at this and Gary has captured this on a video clip so prepare to be dazzled with my prowess when we get back.

Koala at Featherdale

Koala at Featherdale

From the boomerang lesson, we went to a wildlife sanctuary called the Featherdale Reserve – which is where we went in 1990, but it has greatly expanded through a successful koala breeding program. We had photo ops with koalas, and kangaroos and actually fed the “roos” with dried grass served up in an ice cream cone (sans ice cream). The “roos” gobbled up cones and all.  There were a few females that had joeys (babies) which were really cute. They would also eat the food we offered. I’ll have more on the animals in the Melbourne segment.

 

Blue Mountains Near Katoomba

Blue Mountains Near Katoomba

We continued into the Blue Mountains, which much like our own Blue Ridge Mountains, do indeed look blue, to the village of Katoomba.  We hiked down (and back up) to see Wentworth Falls and after lunch at a Country Club with a beautiful golf course, we continued to the Jamison Valley, which is called the Grand Canyon of Australia. It doesn’t really have the same “wow” factor as the Grand Canyon, but it still quite beautiful with a rich history as a coal mine location and a sacred site in aboriginal lore.

It seems the aborigines have their own version of the boogeyman which they call the “bunyip” and if anyone disturbs the bunyip there is hell to pay (i.e. he will wake from his slumbers and eat them). In fact there is a rock formation called the 3 Sisters which were daughters of a medicine man who had to cast a spell over them to turn them to stone so they bunyip would not eat them up. Unfortunately, he lost his magic “bone” (whatever that meant – something may be lost in translation) and was not able to change them back. He turned himself into a bird to fly away from the bunyip and dropped the “bone” on the forest floor. So, as the story goes, when we see birds rooting around on the ground, it could be the medicine man looking for the magic bone.   We rode down to the valley floor in a cable car and then back up in a modified coal cog railway car, both of which had

Lights of the QE2 Sydney Harbor

Lights of the QE2 Sydney Harbor

52 degree inclines, so the word “steep” is an understatement. This made the ride interesting to say the least. We made a quick stop in a village called Leura (reminiscent of Helen, GA for those of you who are familiar with it) but it was starting to rain so we didn’t dally.  We also did a “drive by shooting” – i.e. drive by-shoot photos –  of the Olympic venue (2000 Games were here) and went back to the Circular Quay on a ferry.

 

 

The QE2 Docked at the Circular Quay

The QE2 Docked at the Circular Quay

We had a significant turnover in passengers today since Sydney is the end of one of the voyage segments and the start of another.  We had made friends with a couple from England, quite a bit older than we are, but who were very well traveled and were, in their own parlance, “quite delightful”. He, John, had worked in the States for a few years with the British Embassy and they are QE2 regulars.  He invited us to come to London for a visit, but said we should make it sooner rather than later, since as he pragmatically pointed out, he and Audrey are getting on in years.

 

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dateline: Sydney, Australia  

Going Aussie to Get Ready for the Climb

Going Aussie to Get Ready for the Climb

Given the downpour yesterday evening, we were convinced that our bridge climb bid would be made in a driving rain (I threw the “bid” part in for dramatic purposes – makes us sound like Mt. Everest climbers, no?)  We awoke delighted to find a perfectly cloudless 72 degree day, with no wind. At 7:30, we made our way to the climb headquarters to get suited up and briefed on the rules of engagement, which are understandably very strict. First we had to sign a waiver that we understood all the risks and were going to do it anyway. Then we had to fill out a questionnaire about any potential medical problems (just like when you go to a new doctor) and then (I’m not kidding about this part) we had to take a breathalyzer test so they could be assured we hadn’t indulged in any Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, you know, maybe to calm our nerves or help us get over our fear of heights.

We got suited up in long-sleeved (but light-weight) jumpsuits – sort of like the astronauts, but without the life support systems.  Then we got into our climbing harness which was hooked onto the bridge at all times. We also had to leave anything loose (including our own camera) behind since we would be over the busiest strip of highway in Australia and even the tiniest digital camera could really distract a driver, especially if it went through his windshield. Then we did a test climb of perhaps 10 feet, up a steel ladder and onto a narrow catwalk. The purpose of this exercise was to weed out anyone who was going to (a) freak out or (b) become short of breath or (c) throw up – the idea being that any one of these symptoms would be a certain predictor of failure once the real climb started. Fortunately, no one in our group had any complications and we finally set out.

The hardest part of the climb was near the beginning. We did several flights of interior stairs which took us up even with the roadbed where we emerged outside and “clipped our safety harnesses in to a steel cable that runs the entire length (up and down) of the climb. Next we had to reach sets of ladders, and we had to negotiate a catwalk with several tight squeezes between girders. We then climbed 4 consecutive 25 foot sections of steel ladder. From there, we emerged onto the curved part of the bridge and took a catwalk to the top at the middle, just below the blinking red aircraft warning light that is called Blinking Billy, 134 meters (approximately 450 feet) above the water. At that height it would take 4.8 seconds to reach the water if you took a notion to jump.   The climb turned out to be spectacular, one of those defining moments we’ll always remember.

At the Top - the Sydney Bridge Climb with QE2 Far Below

At the Top – the Sydney Bridge Climb with QE2 Far Below

All of Sydney Harbor was spread out in front of us, the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay with the QE2 in her berth alongside, Darling Harbor, the downtown skyline, the harbor entrance to the Tasman Sea, Olympic stadium complex, and the Blue Mountains in the distance. There were literally hundreds of sailboats, dozens of ferries and countless other working boats which stood out in sharp contrast to the most cobalt blue water you can imagine. It was around 9:30 when we reached the top so the sun was well up in the sky making those little sparkling patterns on the water I always call the dancing diamonds.   Although we did not have our camera, our guide Alfie did have one and took pictures for us, for a small fee of course.

Leaving Sydney Harbor

Leaving Sydney Harbor

The QE2 left Sydney at 2:00 headed for Melbourne in grand style. We had three tugs working to get us away from the dock (the visual that comes to mind is 3 burly guys trying to get a fat lady off the couch – an elegantly dressed fat lady, but a big old girl nevertheless) and then they escorted us to the harbor entrance. We had a whole entourage of small boats following us out so the captain gave lots of blasts on the ships “whistle” which is actually the horn, but they call it a whistle, to acknowledge them, as well as to let them know that regardless of the fact that sailing vessels having right of way, they need to give way (fat

Escorts for the QE2

Escorts for the QE2

lady coming through) because we cannot stop on a dime (or even a whole boatload of dimes). It’s quite an event in Australia when the Grand Old Lady leaves port. And of course, the Duke and Duchess were up on deck sipping a cocktail waiving to the admiring masses on shore and in lesser vessels.

 

 

 

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dateline – Bass Strait, Tasman Sea Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 10, 38.7 degrees South, 145.1 degrees East, 7 miles south of Cape Schanc, Victoria, Australia, 515 miles from Sydney, 25 miles to Melbourne Pilot Station, Port Philip Bay

Another Closed Harley Davidson Shop[

Another Closed Harley Davidson Shop

We cruised most of the day, entering the Bay of Port Philip, the port for Melbourne, around 1:00 p.m. It took us another 4 hours to get alongside the quay and get docked. We left the ship to go exploring on our own and ran into our friends, John and Audrey, who had gotten off the QE2 in Sydney and come to Melbourne to visit their children. They came down to the pier to see the ship come in.  Having gotten a hot tip on a Harley Davidson dealership, we took the tram into the city and walked to the store to add a tee shirt to Gary’s collection. Unfortunately, we got there after closing time and since tomorrow is Sunday they are also closed then. Thus it seems Gary will have a gap in his tee shirt collection. We had the same problem in Wellington as well. And speaking of NZ, we have been told that the Kiwi people are nicknamed after the bird.  The kiwi fruit, only became so named in recent years (for those of us who think the 60’s were only yesterday, that is.) It seems its former name, the Chinese Gooseberry, lacked that certain marketing cachet.

Sunset at the Melbourne Waterfront

Sunset at the Melbourne Waterfront

We spent a lot of time walking around Melbourne, and especially enjoyed the riverfront which is filled with cafes, restaurants and a major Las Vegas style casino called the Crown. That is also the location of the Melbourne Exhibition Center and they were having a car show and auction.  We went in and looked at some of the old cars and thought of our many friends who would have loved to see them.  There is an auction house in Australia called Shannon’s hosting the auction that seems to be comparable to Barrett Jackson in the US.

 

Melbourne Harbour

Melbourne Harbour

All the restaurants were packed so we had a quick bite at the Crown Casino’s version of the food court, but we did have a truly unexpected treat. They have a Bellagio-like fountain with dancing waters, but they also have a fire show. Every hour there are a series of pillars that shoot giant flames into the air in a choreographed performance of about 10 minutes. We assume it’s refined natural gas since its very dramatic, but essentially odorless and smokeless.

 

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dateline: Melbourne, Australia

Latitude at Melbourne 37.50 degrees South,  Longitude 144.55 degrees East  

Puffing Billy on a Trestle near Belgrave

Puffing Billy on a Trestle near Belgrave

This morning we remain docked in Melbourne which lies in a large protected harbor called Port Philip Bay. We had booked a tour billed as a vintage train/wine tasting/animal preserve which pushed 2 of Gary’s buttons (Items 1&2) and one of mine (Item 3).   We drove up into the mountains above Melbourne to an area called the Yarra Valley and boarded a vintage steam train called Puffing Billy. (Australians are very fond of naming inanimate objects Billy – you’ll recall Blinking Billy lives atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge.)

 

The Lillydale Vineyard - Yarra Valley

The Lillydale Vineyard – Yarra Valley

We then visited the Lillydale Estate vineyard for lunch and a wine tasting. We learned that Melbourne was sponsoring a gigantic wine tasting festival called Grape Grazing whereby you buy a ticket and travel from vineyard to vineyard (a total of 23 in the Yarra Valley) sampling wines and eating hors d’oeuvres. Unfortunately this is an all day event and we had missed a good part of it while amusing ourselves with Puffing Billy, so we continued on the Wildlife Preserve where we learned more of the strange creatures which call “Down Under” home. Here’s a quick snapshot:

 

Mom and Joey Enjoying a Snack

Mom and Joey Enjoying a Snack

High Test or Unleaded?: The kangaroo is, of course, an odd creature from a visual perspective, but also has lots of  even more strange features that are not so obvious.  The female can take care of 3 different babies at three different ages at the same time, with each pregnancy lasting 9 weeks. When a baby (a.k.a. joey) is born, it exits the birth canal and crawls into the pouch and attaches itself to one of two nipples. The nipple will then inflate like a very small balloon to ensure the joey doesn’t fly out of the pouch when mom starts hopping around. As the joey grows and begins to add grass to its diet, the cream content of its nipple’s milk is reduced to an “unleaded” version, sort of like skim milk. But while this is happening, another joey is born, attaches himself to the other nipple and his nipple starts producing the high test cream.  And while this is happening, mom can have another baby in the womb which she can release at a time of her choosing. When she does, the oldest joey is weaned and his skim milk nipple goes back to high test for the new joey and now the second joey’s nipple starts dispensing unleaded. Although the baby is “fully baked” at 9 weeks, the female may choose not to release a joey into the birth canal if there is a drought or meager food supply, nor will she mate. So it behooves all male kangaroos who hope to score to hop over the river for a drink or two to find a mate. And speaking of hopping, kangaroos, when not hopping, use their tails to balance since they have no claws in the back. This means they only have one gear which is forward.

A Friendly Emu

A Friendly Emu

That’s why the Emu is a Tramp:  Emus are smaller versions of the ostrich, but not that much smaller. They are still around 6 feet tall. They have an interesting lifestyle – at least the female’s life is interesting. The male’s life is pretty bleak once the romance is over.  After mating, the female lays a rather large egg and the male sits on the egg, eating nothing for about 6 weeks until it hatches. After it is born, the male cares for it until it is self sufficient which takes several months. In the meantime the female, the hussy, is promiscuously seducing other male emus all over the outback and laying eggs with reckless abandon (abandon being the key word here.) She can leave a trail offspring across Australia without a backward glance. Like the kangaroo, the emu has no rear claw and thus only has forward gear as well.  Since the emu doesn’t have a tail, it has to lean forward to maintain balance when it’s in neutral. Both the emu and the kangaroo have appeared on several versions of the Australian flag. The locals say it was to indicate that Aussies don’t back down or retreat.

Mr. Wombat

Mr. Wombat

Excuse Me Sir, Isn’t Your Fur on Backwards?:  – Wombats are marsupials (carry babies in pouches) like kangaroos, but their pouch is on the backside, the idea being, we would assume that when they dig burrows, the dirt doesn’t cover up the baby (also called a joey). They resemble very large gophers, but sort of cute and cuddly gophers like the one in Caddy Shack, and like gophers are quite industrious. Unlike gophers, they have a thick pad of gristle and cartilage on their butt which comes in handy when predators (like dingos which are coyote-like dogs) try to get a bite as the wombats dive into their burrows. This pad extends up to their backs which they use to compact soil in their burrows to prevent cave-ins.

The Very Cuddly Koala

The Very Cuddly Koala

Home Brew: My favorite bush animal is definitely the koala He’s cute, he’s cuddly, and he’s always a little tipsy. He is able to achieve a somewhat continuous buzz from his steady diet of eucalyptus. Somehow his digestive system is a little mini-brewery, emitting just the right chemicals to create fermentation. It is no doubt a strange brew, but the koalas apparently like it so much, they won’t eat anything but eucalyptus leaves.  This alcohol induced stupor makes them extremely laid back so they don’t mind being gawked at and petted by tourists.  They spend almost all their lives in trees, which sounds dangerous given their level of intoxication, but they have learned to wedge themselves into forks of tree branches so they don’t fall out. The trees they pick happen to be eucalyptus of course so they don’t have to go anywhere else to eat. The koala, being tipsy most of the time, also has two thumbs on each paw, presumably to counteract the problem with drunken climbing. And apparently all this alcohol does not affect the koala libido since they are prolific parents, with only a 34 day gestation. The mother does not suspend the brewing and imbibing of alcohol during pregnancy, but at least they don’t smoke to boot.   Various zoologists have tried enticing the koalas with other tasty morsels (sort of like a Koalas Anonymous 12 Step program), but they are not having it. It’s eucalyptus or nothing. And no, before you rush out and start nibbling on the shrubbery, you should know that humans are not able to get the same buzz from chewing eucalyptus leaves.

Only the Strong (and Quick) Survive: The Tasmanian Devil delivers 30-40 tiny babies per pregnancy, the 4 fastest and smartest of which crawl under their own power to one of 4 nipples and attach themselves. For the other unfortunate 26 to 36, it’s like musical chairs and they don’t have a chair so they’re “out”. Being “out” here, of course, has serious consequences since they get no nourishment and die.  These animals are found only on the island of Tasmania in the wild. They are little “piggy” looking creatures from a body perspective, but have canine heads, faces and dentition.  They are covered in coarse black fur with touches of white and pointy ears that are bright red on the inside. Like hyenas, they get into ferocious fights over carrion and make ungodly noises, and thus the first Europeans gave them their name.

Mr. Echidna

Mr. Echidna

Oops, sorry, Mr. Echidna, I thought you were one of those bristly door mats:  The echidna (pronounced E-kid-nah – long E with the accent on the “kid”) – is a porcupine like creature with an “anteater-like snout” and they do indeed feed on ants and termites. When they feel threatened, they curl up into a ball and puff out the quills, which are shorter and thicker than the average porcupine, so they very much resemble those bristly mats at golf course to get the mud off your golf spikes.

 

The Triple Threat: The duck billed platypus has it all: (1) webbed feet for swimming that fold back to reveal (2) claws for digging and (3) a bill that can crush crustaceans (called “yabbies”) into crab cakes in no time. It is about the size of a duck, and swims like a duck, but doesn’t walk or talk like a duck (and ergo is not a duck). It is one of a few creatures in the world called a monotreme, which is a term used to define those creatures who both lay eggs and suckle their young. It is a very conflicted creature indeed.

Lyre, Lyre Pants on Fire: The Lyre Bird is so named because his tail feathers are shaped like the musical instrument, the lyre. The male can perfectly imitate almost any sound and can learn new ones introduced by humans including chain saws, hammers and human utterances. The male builds a mound-like nest on the ground and dances on top of it to attract a mate.  We envision the most successful are those who have mastered the Michael Jackson moonwalk and can warble a few bars of “Billie Jean”.

The Kookaburra

The Kookaburra

The Little Carnivore with the Big Appetite: One of the most distinctive sounds in Australia comes from the Kookaburra, whose song sounds something like a maniacal cackle, no doubt licking his chops (or in this case his beak) over some red juicy meat he has found and taken to his high perch in a tree.

 

 

 

 

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dateline: South Australia Sea Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 10, 39.0 degrees South, 141.9 degrees East, 34 miles south of Cape Nelson, Australia. 200 Miles from Melbourne, 336 miles to Adelaide

  We did not leave Melbourne until 11:00 p.m. last night and thus at noon today, we hadn’t put a lot of miles behind us. The albatrosses are with us again, smaller ones this time, but they seem willing to come closer than the last group we saw. We tried a few pictures with the telephoto, but they were hard to catch.

They had an Australian wine tasting on board today that Gary participated in and then we played our hour of paddle tennis which we sometimes substitute for walking.   While there have been no more laundry room incidents, there are other areas of potential violence that bear watching. There is a certain percentage of passengers who are prone to complain about anything and everything, if you can believe that. They are what Jimmy Buffett would call tourists not travelers. And although many of them are men, a large majority of them seem to be women. In fact a man we met a cattle rancher from a small town in Montana (and actually a tourist himself) who  calls these whining females “Wimmin’ Who Need to Go Swimmin”, but to our knowledge he hasn’t tossed one overboard yet. His chief complaint was that everything on this ship is too “dern” fancy. These waiters need to cut that ritual stuff out of their routine and get the food on the table quicker and deliver more of it. He disembarked in Sydney to return to the ranch, which was a good thing, a very good thing.

Much of the gossip on the ship after the laundry room incident seems to document incidents of “Boat Rage” – the nautical cousin of road rage. It seems when grouchy people spend too much time in a confined space, there is sometimes hostility. We’re glad they screen for firearms at every port.  Probably the most exciting event since the Donnybrook at the Laundromat is what I shall call the Escargot Brouhaha. Apparently one of the passengers in the “tourist class” dining room had seen a menu from the Grill restaurants and noticed escargot was being offered as an appetizer and she demanded that she be served some. Her waiter said they were only available in the Grill and at this point she reputedly hurled her wineglass at the wall and yelled at her waiter that she and her dining companions were being discriminated against. It is believed that she was either intoxicated or off her meds, but making every effort to please, escargot was offered to all passengers the next evening.

One of the biggest offenses on board is “Queue Jumping” (a.k.a. cutting in line). This action, if allowed to go unchecked, can foment a riot in no time, but fortunately the passengers so far have not formed any lynch mobs. Other offenses include saving of seats at performances,  which sometimes get met with mere mutterings and ill-humor with occasional foot stomping or cane thumping for emphasis.  We did have a threat of a good “throttling” (British version of kicking one’s ass) when a woman continued to yak with her neighbor during a live performance even after multiple “shushings”. We have noticed an increase in the number of plaster casts on arms and legs of passengers, and, as I mentioned in a previous issue, an ambulance and or hearse meets this ship in just about every port,  but  we do attribute that to rough seas and fragile bones rather than shipboard violence.




World Cruise Part 3: Australia to Shanghai

The World Cruise

Part 3: Adelaide, Australia to Shanghai, China

 

Miles Traveled this leg: 7, 221

Cumulative Miles Traveled:  24,655

 

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dateline –Adelaide, Australia

Latitude at Adelaide 34.46 degrees South, Longitude 138.28 degrees East

 

Downtown Adelaide

Downtown Adelaide

Overnight we cleared the Bass Straits which separate Australia from the island of Tasmania and we docked this morning in Adelaide in St. Vincent’s Harbor, the capital of the State of South Australia. Australia is a Federation of States, similar to the US in structure. The country is roughly the size of the continental U.S., but geographically speaking, their states are much larger since they have 7 instead of 50, each with its own capital – e.g. Melbourne is the capital of Victoria, Sydney the capital of New South Wales and so forth.) They also still have a close association with Great Britain and Her Majesty and they have a Parliament similar to that of the UK. They also have a Federal District, the City of Canberra, comparable to Washington DC, except a lot of the power resides elsewhere, (e.g. the current prime minister chooses to live in Sydney). Most tourists to Australia visit the East Coast on the Coral Sea where Sydney, the Gold Coast of New South Wales, the beaches of the State of Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef are located. The QE2, however is calling on ports on the south and west coasts on this trip so we’ll be on “roads less traveled” for the next several ports.

 

Yeldarra or Jacob's Creek Vineyard Barossa Valley

Yaldara Vineyard Barossa Valley

Adelaide is beautiful well manicured city with a very Napa Valley sort of feel, particularly with regard to the climate.  This impression was reinforced by our tour to one of Australia’s premiere wine making region, the Barossa Valley, which, if the people didn’t talk so funny, you’d swear you were in California Wine Country. We took a wine tasting tour and visited two vineyards, the Yaldara and Jacob’s Creek. Yaldara had the best wines by far and the most picturesque vineyards. They are known for both their port and their quirky labels such as Lucky Lizard and Crusty Crab, each with their own story (e.g. a lizard

 

Barossa Valley Vineyards

Barossa Valley Vineyards

actually lives in one of the grape crushers, but has so far avoided obliteration, and thus has had a wine named in his honor. Of course next year we may see “The Squashed Lizard” or “The Super-thin Reptile” label appear if this guy’s luck runs out.) Their wine is not marketed under the same labels in the US, but we do have one from here that we have seen at home called Fat Bastard. (I didn’t realize it was Australian) I didn’t get the story on this one or the Crusty Crab.  They also served some wonderful fruit, cheese and crusty bread. We are familiar with Jacob’s Creek and have had it from time to time at home, but we actually both really prefer a good Fat Bastard. It suits us somehow.

 

Leaving Adelaide

Leaving Adelaide

We noticed on our way back to the ship that in Adelaide, like Melbourne and several NZ ports, there is an abundance of  really big Norfolk Island Pines (80 to 100 feet), obviously planted around the harbors. Our guide told us that yes indeed they were planted, but not by the local garden club. Seafarers planted them in every port throughout Australia and NZ because they grow tall and straight with just the right circumference to use for mast replacements on sailing vessels, since storms would often snap the old masts into two or more pieces.

 

Departure time is always interesting because invariably, there will be names called over the ships loudspeakers looking for certain AWOL passengers who have not come back on board. Our Adelaide departure was no different. We never hear what happens to them, but we envision a scramble to the airport to try to catch the ship at the next port of call (with no passport and no luggage). At our sailing time, there were literally hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people from Adelaide lining the docks and breakwaters waving goodbye with bagpipes playing all the old heartwarming Scottish ballads as we pulled away from the pier. I guess we were the biggest thing happening in Adelaide for some time (or else they were just glad to get these tacky people out of their town).  In any event, they probably need to get out more.

 

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dateline: Great Australian Bight

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 35.5 degrees South, 130.5 degrees East

403 miles from Adelaide, 960 miles to Fremantle, Australia

 

We are at sea running due west (270 degrees) for several hundred miles across the Great Australian Bight with nothing between us and Antarctica but water to the south. We will stay on this course until late Thursday night when we round the southwest corner of Australia. Then we will enter the Indian Ocean and will have nothing but water between us and the coast of Africa to our west.

 

I have been squirreling away little factoids about the ship and have chosen some QE2 statistics to include in this travelogue concerning our conspicuous (and shameless) consumption of the earth’s resources.

 

Our cruising speed averages 28.5 knots or 33 mph which makes the QE2 one of the fastest (if not the fastest) cruise ships in the world. However, these are nautical miles which are equal to 1.15 statute miles. So the old girl can really go 34.5 statute mph, and even though she’s old and rather unwieldy in port, she is the fastest cruise ship afloat. Much of her speed is due to her hull design, which compared to more modern designs, is very sleek (versus boxy) and relatively small tonnage compared to the mega ships. Her top cruising speed can be maintained with only 7 of the 9 engines running, allowing for maintenance on any two engines at any time without affecting speed. She burns 83,160 gallons of diesel fuel per 24 hour day at cruising speed. One gallon will move the ship approximately 50 feet, and it takes 20 gallons to move the ship its own length, which gives it an MPG rating of 105 gallons per mile (which would give the EPA fits, but the petrochemical conglomerates all love it). The QE2 carries enough fuel for 12 days of continuous sailing at full speed, or if her speed is reduced to 20 knots, she could sail for 30 days before refueling.

 

In September of 2002, QE2 celebrated the milestone of 5 million miles sailed since first launched. By August of 2003, she had crossed the Atlantic 787 times since her initial launch. On a typical World Cruise, she will cover 50,000 miles. Next year, QE2 will embark upon her Silver Jubilee (25th) World Cruise. She is referred to as QE2, versus QEII, because the title with the Roman Numerals is reserved for the Queen of England.

 

Fresh water is made on board from seawater by 4 flash evaporators and a reverse osmosis unit. The ship produces approximately 1,000 gallons per day. It is then transferred to holding tanks and into the ship’s distribution system for use. Power is generated by the QE2’s diesel electric power plant and puts out 95 MW of power, enough to power 3,000 medium sized cars.

 

In addition to fuel and power, we are also prodigious consumers of food, as you can well imagine. It takes 170 waiters and 101 chefs just to feed us. Ships Stores (a.k.a. groceries) are typically restocked in every port. Here are a few highlights from the shopping list for a 6 day period:

 

43,000 fresh eggs

1,200 gallons milk

500 pound of coffee

1,200 pounds of bananas (the Brits pronounce this (Bah-Nah-Ahs)

2,400 pound of butter

5 tons of potatoes (a.k.a. Pah-Tah-Toes,)

500 pounds of strawberries

2,000 pound of rice

4,000 pounds of pork

2,400 pounds of beef

 

No wonder people gain weight on these cruises. However, Gary reports he is still buckling his belt in same hole and I have not yet had to resort to elastic waistbands, so we are bucking the trend.  It must be that we’re not getting our fair share of that butter, potatoes, beef and pork. We’ll have to remedy this inequity at once.

 

Thursday, February, 23, 2006

Dateline: Great Australian Bight

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 35. 5 degrees South, 119.7 degrees East,

90 miles south of Albany, South Australia, 445 miles to Fremantle, Australia

 

Today is our second and last sea day before Fremantle. There is a lecturing professor/historian/writer on board who gave a lecture today on Australian History which we both found really interesting and I thought I’d pass along a few tidbits including a translator of a few key Aussie phrases such as:

 

“Good On You” is an Aussie “attaboy” (This must be pronounced as one word with the accent on “Good”, with the last two words run together and pronounced “onya”.

 

“No Worries” is said in response to “Thank You” instead of “You’re welcome (This is so ubiquitous I think we all must look worried to these people).

 

“How are you going?” Is not really a question of how you plan to arrive at destination, but it’s used to inquire as to one’s health or state of mind such as the more familiar, “How are you?”

 

“I reckon” seems to be a filler of sorts – perhaps in place of “well” or “you know” or “uh” in our lexicon.

 

“Grazing the long paddock” refers to the practice of grazing your cattle or sheep on public land in the ditches along the roadsides after they have eaten everything green on the “station”.

 

Our professor gave us a local definition of the Outback which is “Further out there than you are at present”. Most maps will show it as the whole of Australia except for a strip a few hundred miles wide down the east and across the south coasts. Once you leave Perth and head north or northeast, you have to give up hope of any greenery and moisture. Other names for the Outback are the Dead Center, Never Never Country (not to be confused with either the property of Michael Jackson or the land of Peter Pan), the Back of Beyond,  and Beyond the Black Stump (this alludes to the fact that there are no trees to burn in the outback so when you pass the last blackened stump of one, you’ll know you’ve arrived). It is so dry in the Outback that evaporation exceeds rainfall so that even if they do get rain, it doesn’t serve to wet anything. Some recorded droughts have lasted 7 to 8 years. Daily temperatures in the Outback are in the 110F to 115F range daily.

 

We also learned the difference between “stations” and farms.  Farms are personally owned by individuals who can do as they please with the land including planting crops.  Stations are comprised of land that belongs to government and is leased. When someone is said to “own” a cattle or sheep station, what they actually own is a lease on the land. They are not allowed to plant or alter the land. Conditions are so harsh that the average acre to sheep ratio is 28 acres per sheep, and even more acres are required for cattle.  What water is there is brackish and in sheep affects the taste of the meat and thus sheep there are bred for shearing or their skins, not for lamb and mutton. For some reason, this water issue does not affect the taste of beef.

 

Early expeditions exploring Australia had expectations of finding rivers and lakes in the interior, just as their forbears had done in the Americas and in Africa and many of them even carried boats overland with them to paddle about on these inland waterways. However, as our professor wryly pointed out with his understated sense of humor, “they had little cause to use them“. In 1861 the Burke and Wills Expedition left the southern coast with the goal to cross Australia. They had already figured out there was no water so they took camels. They had limited success in that they didn’t see the ocean, but they tasted saltwater in the streams they found and declared victory. Unfortunately everyone but one man died of heat, thirst, or starvation,  on return trip so it wasn’t exactly the victory they had in mind.

 

We also learned about the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger. It was about the size of a cougar, with stripes, and unlike cougars and tigers who swish their tails, it reportedly carried its tail straight out behind it as if it were splinted.  Common belief was that the tail itself was actually stiff with no joint, and that if you grabbed it and held on, the tiger could not turn and bite you. And unfortunately, since news traveled so slowly in those days, it reportedly took several tail-grabbings to disabuse people of this particular notion.

 

Australia today has a fair number of wild camels which are not indigenous, but were brought here from Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 1800’s to use for transportation. They were more or less turned loose once trucks came along. They are now flourishing in Western Australia which covers 1/3 of the continent and has less than 10% of the population, so they have plenty of room to roam. They started out using them for pack animals, but then figured out that if they used them in teams of up to 8 to 10 camels with wagons they worked much like horses only were a lot funnier looking. (I keep trying to get the visual when they had to circle the wagons at night.) There are no descendants of the Burke Wills Expedition’s camels around since they appeared regularly on the menu at lunches and dinners on the ill-fated trip across the continent.

 

Along with trucks, came airplanes. Quantas Airlines started as Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service and provided basic transportation. Later the Flying Doctor Service and an Outback “School of The Air” came about to provide children living there access classroom teachers via radio with occasional in- person visits by a “circuit teacher” – sort of like a circuit judge. The first wireless radios were Pedal Radios and the radio operator pedaled (like a bicycle) to power it. They did have telegraph prior to the wireless, and doctors gave instructions for surgery to be performed remotely by whomever happened to be around using Morse Code (I am not making this up).  Several malpractice suits later, (I am probably making this up), they decided to fund the wireless Medical Service and the Flying Doctor Service in 1927. The flying medical and education services are still working today.

 

Two years ago the North-south Railway Line from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin on the north coast was completed. It’s very popular with Aussie retirees who take the trip once they retire. (The Aussies have dubbed these retirees the Gray Nomads) It is ironic that the Outback has in recent years become a great source of wealth, but not in the way early explorers envisioned. Today all sorts of mineral ore (zinc, copper, iron, silver, etc.) is mined, as well as opals and industrial grade diamonds. There are huge ports in Western Australia that handle nothing but ore being shipped out around the clock on a daily basis.

 

Friday, February, 24, 2006

Dateline:  Fremantle-Perth, Australia

Latitude at Freemantle 32.3 degrees South, Longitude 115.43 degrees East

 

The Emu Brewery in  Perth

The Emu Brewery in Perth

We docked at Fremantle, Australia, at the Victoria Quay which is the port city for Perth, the capital of the State of Western Australia. Fremantle’s claim to fame is that this is the site of the America’s Cup victory for the Aussies in 1987. Perth is one of the last cities on the south coast traveling east before the really dry hot, desolate climate of the Outback takes over. If you look at a map of Australia, it’s roughly shaped like a rectangle with Sydney on the lower right side bounded by the Tasman Sea. If you go around the southeast corner, you will find Melbourne tucked into the Bass Straits across from the island of Tasmania.  The Bass Straits lead into the Great Australian Bight and what is called the Southern Ocean which stretches across the whole southern coast of Australia. Heading east from Melbourne, you will come across Adelaide about midway across the continent. We rounded Cape Leeuwin at approximately 9:00 p.m. last night and entered the Indian Ocean. If you still have the visual of the rectangle in mind, we turned the southwest corner and were going up the west coast of Australia, headed north.

 

The Honey Eater

The Honey Eater

Just around the southwest corner, are Fremantle and Perth, Australia’s Twin Cities, situated on the Swan River and the last outpost for moisture for many, many miles. The Swan River is famous for its native black swans which still paddle around there today. Speaking of wild things, here we found wild parrots (bright green) and cockatoos (black versus the more common white sulphur-crested) in fairly large numbers, although the latter is becoming endangered. We also had the opportunity to see the colorful honey-eater, indigenous to Australia.

 

We were now at the “gateway” to the Outback where the wild things are and I need to write a few words on “Roo Bars”. These have nothing to do with liquor (unless of course you are driving under the influence and you may need them for other reasons). All vehicles around here (except motorcycles I suppose) have “Roo Bars”. These are metal bars attached to the front of cars, buses and trucks intendd to prevent (in local parlance) “the bloody roos from knocking your car to bits”, the idea being that you can just replace the roo bar, rather than your lights, radiator, windshield,  front teeth, etc. after you have had a collision with a kangaroo. They are nocturnal and, like deer, are quite dangerous from dusk to dawn. Of course like deer, it is usually more dangerous for animal than human in the event of a collision. When you have a “smash-up” (what the locals call a car wreck) you can take your vehicle to a “panel beater”, (the Aussie counterpart to the American body shop) who will repair the damage to your bumper, fenders, etc. We assume the name comes from the action beating the dents out of panels of the car or truck with a little rubber hammer.

 

Koala in the Wild - Perth

Koala in the Wild – Perth

Our plan for Perth was to take a 4-wheel-drive tour of the Yanchep National Park. This included the obligatory koala stop (they are still cute, even 3 ports later), limestone cavern exploration and a lobster lunch at a seaside pub called the Endeavor Tavern. (They call them crayfish instead of lobster, and crayfish they actually call bugs and the real bugs are so big here, I think they just call them “sir”). This was the first place where we were able to see both kangaroos and emus in the wild. Wild koalas are no longer in this region and experts can only conjecture the reasons why which include frequent draughts

The Dune Bus

The Dune Bus

which kill off eucalyptus, over-hunting by aborigines (much easier than even a sitting duck if you don’t mind killing really cute things), wild fire destroying habitat and so forth. The big thrill of this trip was 4-wheeling in the giant coastal sand dunes, some as high as 100 feet tall with 50+ degree slopes. We all screeched like pre-teens on a roller-coaster and kept asking to go back around for one more pass.  It made me feel just like I was back in West Texas, especially when the afternoon wind picked up, as long as I ignored the adjacent ocean that is. By the way, the locals call the afternoon wind the “Fremantle Doctor”, since it blows inland off the ocean every afternoon and makes people feel better (i.e. cooler). Perth is supposedly the 3rd windiest city in the world after Chicago and Wellington, NZ, but neither of these cities have the added fun of blowing sand which can blast away your skin like a Jamaican pedicurist.

 

Sand Surfing in Perth

Sand Surfing in Perth

After the 4-wheeling, I really felt like I was in a time warp, when our tour guides pulled out sand surfboards and those who wanted to participate could scoot down the dunes on them.  I surfed a dune for old-time’s sake and was rewarded with very fine sand in very uncomfortable places, reminding me of my misspent youth at the Monahans State Park in West Texas. Gary said he “didn’t know nuthin about no sand surfin” and planned to keep it that way, but it was so windy, he got as much sand in his private places as us surfer dudes and dudettes. Then as a special treat, probably because our bus was so much fun, our driver took us to an off the beaten track place where we could be assured of seeing wild kangaroos in large numbers, which proved to be, much to our surprise, the local cemetery. We were all a little skeptical, but it appears the local wild ’roos like to hop over the fence and munch on floral tributes to the dearly departed that family and friends leave on graves, not to mention the feast offered up by the thick carpet of grass.  Here they employ a different type of “Roo Bar”

Roos Paying Their Respects

Roos Paying Their Respects

– they put barred boxes over the flowers to keep the kangaroos out – at least the big ones with bigger snouts.  We were indeed rewarded with seeing a troop (also called a mob) of around 50 kangaroos of all sizes grazing on fresh green grass, assorted shrubs and those floral tributes without roo bars. The kangaroos we have seen are the smaller Western Grays which are about 5 feet standing up. Further out in the bush are the Reds which can be as tall a 7 feet, but we haven’t see any of those.

 

 

The Crowd Seeing Us Off at Perth

The Crowd Seeing Us Off at Perth

We had a great send-off around 6:00 p.m., complete with a brass band (fortunately they weren’t playing “Nearer My God to Thee” like the Titanic orchestra), and it seemed the combined population of Fremantle and Perth came down to the harbor to see us off.

 

 

 

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dateline:  Indian Ocean

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 26.9 degrees South, 112.9 degrees East

44 miles southeast of Point Inscription, Western Australia, furthermost west point of Australia

336 miles from Fremantle, 353 miles to Exmouth

 

A Sunny off the South Coast of Australia

A Sunny off the South Coast of Australia

Today was sunny sea day and we had both a following wind and a following sea which, with a topside temperature of 82 degrees, which resulted in a beautiful day for reading and snoozing in deck chairs. The wind was moving the same speed we were so it was very calm topside. Following seas create a surf-riding like motion (or at least they would on a small ship. If there were a wave big enough for the QE2 to surf on you’d hear about on the news). Instead for us they create quite a bit of side to side motion and we see the crew has strategically placed “motion sickness” bags up and down the corridors. The weather is definitely warmer and dryer in West Australia.

 

We attended another one of the lectures by the historian, who is also an Aborigine expert, today and learned more interesting stuff about their culture. We learned that anthropologists have found data and artifacts to indicate that the aborigines have lived in Australia for 50,000 years and have indeed thrived there without ever domesticating animals or growing anything. Today, aborigines account for only 1.6 percent of the Australian population.

 

The aborigines employ what is jokingly referred to as “Fire Stick Farming” which means they set fire to the bush to drive out the animals which they kill and eat. A side benefit of these bush fires is that they restore nutrients to the soil and since many plants hold their seeds until the heat releases them, it serves as a catalyst for plants to renew themselves. The plants also provide a source of food as well as medicine for the aborigines. Brush fires also serve to clear undergrowth for wildflowers to flourish and in fact there are 10 times more wildflower species in Australia than in the United States. On the downside, with no rain, these fires can burn out of control for months or even years. Most fires however are started by lightning storms that bear no rain, just the lightning. The plants themselves are not green as we know it, but more of an olive drab color.

 

We also learned that the aborigines were one of the few major cultures who did not invent a wheel of some sort. It’s not that they didn’t have the mental capacity (after all they figured out that lift over drag business to design the boomerang), but they simply didn’t need wheels. They have always done quite well as hunters and gatherers and are not caught up in acquisition of “things”. And logically speaking, if you don’t have “things” then you don’t need anything to haul them around in. Aborigines used boomerangs for wounding birds in flight so they could catch them, and research has also shown they used them to fight with each other (Anthropology CSI’s probably found blood and hair evidence) and stir the fire (CSI’s also probably found boomerangs charred on one end, I suppose).

 

No discussion of the Australian Outback is complete without a word or two on the National Irritant, the bush fly. These are small black flies that for some reason are attracted white clothing and are so thick that white can quickly become black before your very eyes. These flies are also attracted to white hair so the gray nomads in our ranks are particularly susceptible to attack. The locals try several different schemes to cope with the problem. One is that they wear broad brimmed hats with a line of corks dangling from strings   circling the brim.  The idea is that the motion of the bobbing corks will scare the flies away from your face. I would think the corks would drive you a little batty in the process, but since the locals supposedly get a little wacky from all that time out in the bush, maybe no one notices.  We have also heard the motion of rapidly waving one’s hand in front of one’s face is referred to as the “Aussie wave” and it doubles as a greeting and a fly chaser. The Aussies have also brought technology to bear on this problem. It has been determined that bush flies breed in animal dung – a resource in great abundance in these parts. However, unlike Africa and other similar climates, there are no dung beetles here to, uh, how shall I say this, deal with said dung. It is no wonder the Egyptians held scarabs in such high regard – after all they kept the flies in check and took care of any loose droppings around the pyramids. There were a lot of experiments in this regard since environmentalists are loath to introduce exotic species into any area, but finally colonies of dung beetles were imported to remove the bush fly birthing centers (a.k.a. dung) and hopefully decrease their numbers. The locals say it is working, however the dung beetles die off with the cold evenings in the winter and have to be re-introduced each year. Now there’s a business opportunity: Dung Beetle Breeder and Importer. Just send your business plans and resumes to Western Australia and save your wine corks for your hats.

 

 

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Dateline: Exmouth, Australia

Latitude at Exmouth  22.57 degrees South, Longitude 114.08 degrees East

 

An Emu out Strolling near Exmouth

An Emu out Strolling near Exmouth

You may be looking at the atlas and wondering where in the hell is Exmouth and what in the world are we doing here? After a few hours ashore, we were wondering the same thing. The brochures for this place look delightful, but in truth, most of the wonders that abound here are under water. They have an exceptional “fringing” reef (as opposed to the “barrier” reef on the eastern side of Australia). Fringing reefs encircle a lagoon, often the sunken cone of an extinct volcano. A barrier reef runs parallel to the shore line and creates a barrier between land and deep water.  Exmouth’s Ningaloo Reef is a haven for whale sharks and other large pelagics, but unfortunately we did not have time to arrange a dive.  Topside, I have to say it’s pretty bleak, but nevertheless it has sort of a rugged beauty, and after all the flies seem to like it so who are we to turn up our noses?  We set out to explore (it was a short trip), but in no way uneventful.

Tricky Tendering on and off the QE2

Tricky Tendering on and off the QE2

The first challenge came with boarding the tenders since there is no cruise ship pier here. The seas were in the 4 to 8 ft range so the captain advised only the agile should consider going ashore. He suggested an agility test which involves balancing on one foot for 5 seconds (while not under the influence of course). Apparently this suggestion fell on deaf ears since there were a number of passengers who took their canes and walkers, and yes even some oxygen tanks, and sauntered down to the platform on the side of the ship to make the leap into the tenders, which were rising and falling about 4 to 8 feet with each wave. I have to give them credit for tenacity, but do have to add, I don’t think the scenery was worth the risk for them.  Nevertheless, the deck crew got everyone loaded on and we set off. We did get a chuckle from one couple at the outset. They had on matching safari hats, safari jackets and safari boots, ready for the Outback. Of course once we got on the air-conditioned bus, they must have realized they were over-dressed since the only wildlife we saw were swarms of flies and the occasional seagull.

 

The Road to Exmouth

The Road to Exmouth

Out tour included the town, but many reportedly blinked and missed it. Apparently 2,600 people call Exmouth home for whatever reason they might have to live here.  The town was established in 1967 to support a US Navy Base to carry out Cold War missions, mainly listening to and tracking communications of the Soviet Union. Americans will be glad to know that forty years later, their tax dollars have helped launch another tourist mecca. Well, actually “mecca” is something of a stretch. But it would be a mecca if more people would come here and build resorts. After all, it’s got the same stuff going for it as Las Vegas has, plus an ocean and good beaches already in place. They do need to deal with those flies though – maybe get those dung beetles some warmer housing and get them working 24 x 7.

 

The Vlaming Head LIghthouse

The Vlaming Head LIghthouse

The tour of the town was quite brief, but with a few cups of coffee, a long wait to get on the tender and the bouncing bus, Gary was starting to make gurgling noises and was looking desperately for a pit stop. There was probably a john or two in the town, but we were through it before anyone could get the bus driver’s attention. Anyway, our first stop outside of town was a really picturesque hill, topped by the Vlaming Head Lighthouse, the headland being dubbed “Vlaming” by the Dutch who were the first Europeans to land here. ( I think “Vlaming” in Dutch may translate into “godforsaken rock pile” but I don’t know that for

 

Site of the WWII Radar Station

Site of the WWII Radar Station and Gunnery Platform

sure). Unlike a zillion other places they landed, Dutch sea captains did not claim this land for Holland, (and we now know why).  There is also an old gunnery platform left over from WWII, intended for coastal defense against Japan, but the structure itself had blown away in a cyclone in 1945. Anyway, while the rest of us were snapping away with our cameras, Gary slipped off toward some scrub brush (not much concealment here so you really had to look hard for a bush). Unfortunately, a woman on our bus, who I thought very much favored Granny Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies with a video camera, saw him go and thought he was off to see some little known beautiful vista and followed him wanting to know what he was looking at. Fortunately,  he saw her before she saw him (literally). He mumbled something to her and came back to the bus, still a desperate man.

 

WWII Fortifications Left Over from the 1940's

WWII Fortifications Left Over from the 1940’s

We proceeded to our next scenic spot, the Navy Pier, but we were not allowed to go close since it’s still a restricted area, so we were somewhat underwhelmed by this particular highlight and ditto for the Harold Holt Communication Station and the Solar Observatory (where we were allowed entry at neither).  By this time, other passengers were becoming desperadoes themselves and started asking for a bathroom stop. There was a 2 person outhouse sort of building at a beach parking lot and so the driver pulled over. This would have been good for

 

Limited Cover Around Exmouth for Taking Care of Urgent, but Private Matters

Limited Cover Around Exmouth for Taking Care of Urgent, but Private Matters

Gary, except about 20 women piled off the bus ahead of him. Casting almost all modesty aside, he hopped off the bus and more or less sprinted toward the dunes. I and several other passengers were watching from the bus as Granny Clampett spied him and damn if she didn’t think he was going out to look at the beach and she was sure she would want it on video.  He reports he was about halfway through his business when he saw her headed for his pit stop. Everyone on the bus was cracking up as he zipped up and dashed for the cover of a few scrubby bushes where other gentlemen feeling the call of nature had gone. Unfortunately, these bushes were so low, they didn’t conceal much, but the gentlemen just faced away from the bus and blithely carried on. Fortunately, Granny hadn’t figured out that Gary had left the area and was still out on the dunes stalking him, still trying to see what had caught his interest out there. She was finally rounded up and herded back on the bus, and so we headed off to our next stop.

 

Along the Rough Range Near Exmouth

Along the Rough Range Near Exmouth

We took a short drive up into what is call the Rough Range which  was scenic in an Arizona desert sort of way (not the Painted Desert, more like the road to Tucson kind of desert.) We learned that mining is quite big in these parts and a company originally called Broken Hill Properties, named after the Australian city (using the term loosely) by the same name and later renamed BHP is now the largest mining company in the world. Of course mining does not usually translate into exciting tourist destinations, but it was a sunny day and with the beaches a really pristine creamy white, the water a deep sapphire blue and the red rocky terrain, it was really very scenic, but I must stop short of calling it thoroughly entrancing.

 

And we had even more entertainment on the bus. At every stop, we were joined by what we came to call the Horde of the Flies. In self defense a “fly-thumping” competition developed among some of the passengers vying for the most “kills”. The winner had to be the portly gentleman in front of us, who unlike most of us who used improvised swatters fashioned from our chamber of commerce brochures, he caught them with his bare hands. I watched to see if he was going to pull the wings off and torture them, but thankfully he must have decided to forgo the pleasure which was greatly appreciated by all onlookers. I lost count of the number of his reported “kills” once he passed 30.

 

A Last  View of Exmouth from the Ship

A Last View of Exmouth from the Ship

Once back on the ship, we were told the true reason the QE2 calls on Exmouth is that it was felt the passengers would need a break from days at sea between Perth and Taipei. In days gone by, this stop or stops would have been made in Indonesia, but with local politics in such an uproar, the QE2 is bypassed the whole country. The only other option in between is the Philippines and that’s become a hotbed of intrigue (including tourist abductions) in recent years as well.  Exmouth, too is a hotbed, but mostly of rocks and sand.  I personally think the reason they stop in Exmouth is to make everyone really appreciate the ship for the 5 days at sea. Most passengers agreed they were happy to see Exmouth disappearing over the horizon, but we did manage to take a few stowaways since the flies managed to wing their way out to the ship and penetrate every available portal so those who stayed aboard could share in the ambiance of Exmouth.

 

 

Monday, February 27, 2006

Dateline: Eastern Indian Ocean, North Australia Basin

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 16.8 degrees South, 116.06 degrees East

240 miles north of Port Hedland, Western Australia

 

We are at sea today for the first of five sea days to reach Keelung, which is the port city for Taipei, Taiwan. We are on a northeasterly course of 7 degrees and will remain on this heading to pass between the islands of Bali and Lompok, Indonesia.  Since QE2 is not calling in Bali this year due to political unrest with fringe lunatics detonating the occasional backpack or car bomb at the beach resorts which tends to really alarm the tourist trade. And not only were we dodging said lunatics, we are also dodging a tropical storm trying to work up enough enthusiasm to become a cyclone (which would be called hurricane in the Atlantic) so it’s pretty exciting on the high seas this week (but not so exciting as to cause us miss a meal or nap). It was rainy and very overcast today since we were brushing by the tropical storm to the west about 110 miles away. There are also differences in the movement of storms in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In the north, they move in a counter-clockwise rotation and travel from the equator to the northwest, and as they lose strength over land, they are pushed back east by the jet stream or high pressure systems and into the Atlantic. In the Southern Hemisphere, they move clockwise and move to the southwest from the equator. There isn’t much land mass here north of Australia so they tend to linger longer. Even 100+ miles away, we still have a very rainy day on our hands and a good excuse to curl up with a good book (as if we need an excuse).

 

We decided our idle minds needed some exercise so we attended a lecture from an on board history professor this afternoon on WWII in Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, and the South Pacific. Historians currently are of the opinion that because Japan knew that those countries who had explored and colonized this area were otherwise occupied (in the case of France and Holland literally so) with the Germans, they would have little interest and few resources to defend their far-flung empires in the Pacific. And with England fighting off the Luftwaffe every night and struggling just to survive, the Japanese saw Hong Kong and Singapore ripe for the picking as well. Japan was also under a number of economic sanctions for some of their hostile takeovers of territory that belonged to other countries (e.g. Manchuria) and was concerned about its own economic health and well-being.

 

It is believed (at least by our professor) that the crucial error the Japanese made was to bomb Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into the war immediately. Japan had engaged in a very successful leap frog strategy (i.e. don’t take every island in succession, but jump ahead several islands and cut the others off) that took them all the way from Japan to New Guinea. The Allies used the same leap frog strategy taking it back, but they had a much harder time with it since, unlike the colonial defenders, Japan was not at all inclined to let go of it. Japan also took much of mainland China, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore in early 1942. The Japanese bombed Darwin, Australia a number times in February of 1942 using the same aircraft carrier based planes they had used at Pearl Harbor, but with much less success. Despite the fact that they dropped several times more ordnance on Darwin than they did at Pearl Harbor, there were only 245 killed in action.  They also destroyed 188 Aussie planes which just about every single one on the ground at the time. Japanese subs also did a lot of spying on Australian ports to try to inventory supplies and assess troop strengths. Australia had very few defenses at home since the war in Europe had been sucking up resources since 1939, and so they knew the subs were there, but couldn’t do much about it.   It is believed that Japan’s goal was not to take Australia, but to isolate it. (Which makes sense because, like the dog chasing the car, what could they do with it after they got it?) My personal belief was that the spies reported that the flies in Australia are more fearless their own kamikazes and they should have left well enough alone.

 

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dateline: Flores Sea, due east of Java, Indonesia

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 7.9 degrees South, 116.1 degrees East

26 miles north of Lombok Island, Indonesia

 

A Wistful Look at Bali

A Wistful Look at Bali

Today is our second of five sea days. We passed through the Flores Straits at around 9:00 a.m. this morning, and thus passed from the Indian Ocean into the Flores Gulf and the South Pacific. Off our port side we saw the island of Bali and the cone of its 9,000 ft volcanic peak poking through the clouds. To our starboard was the island of Lombok, both of which belong to Indonesia. We will be traveling for the next 1,000 miles through the Eastern Archipelago which includes both the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. Our route will take us from the Java Sea through Makassar Strait which separates the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi (a.k.a. Celebes) and into the Celebes Sea. From there we will go east into the South China Sea.

 

At this precise latitude the declination (the captain’s word, not mine – I’d just call it angle”) of the sun is directly overhead (that is if the sun were indeed out). We are currently passing through a series of tropical storms with a lot of rain, but not much wind. The stormy weather continues to hamper our deck activities and also wreaked havoc with satellite communications and internet access. I took advantage of the rainy day and calm water to have another pedicure, and I am pleased to report, it was completed without pain or melodrama. Apparently the sadistic pedicurist who maimed me the last time around, has, as I predicted, ended her time at Cunard (or had it ended for her) and has left the ship and gone back to Jamaica, where I think there may be a career in voodoo in her future since she already has the “torture with sharp objects” part down pat.

 

Although the pedicure melodrama has concluded, there is still more in store. Our captain advised that we will be exercising extreme caution for these next 1,000 miles. In the captain’s words “we are taking certain measures to ensure our safe passage, and we are taking all due precautions, just as you would lock your car doors whilst driving through a “dodgey” neighborhood”. “Dodgey” is a word the Brits seem especially fond of which can refer to any number of things from a high-crime neighborhood to a dishonest bloke. The “dodgey” neighborhood includes both Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia there are a few Muslim extremists who are always looking for something Western to blow up. In the Philippines, there seems to be fewer religious wackos, but more political nutcases (Communist Rebels) and gangster-type thieves. I was thinking things might settle down in the Philippines once Imelda Marcos took all of her shoes and moved away, but now it seems they’re rioting and kidnapping over something else. It’s always something.

 

The captain declined to provide any more information, just in case the passengers might blab to Islam Extremists or Mindanao kidnappers on nearby islands.  Ship scuttlebutt has it that there were over 700 documented piracy attempts in the world in the previous year.  We did get some inside scoop on security that seems pretty accurate. According to sources (deck crew), all the watertight doors on the ship were closed and locked (e.g. in case a torpedo or boatload of suicide bombers hit one section of the hull and pierced it, the other sections would not flood), Also each evening in these waters, the ship security crew mans special sound “dishes” to deter would-be hijackers with first a broadcast verbal warning and then high pitched, highly focused sound waves that would inflict pain and break ear drums, (like a laser beam, only it’s sound). We also heard that some of the deck crew members were assigned  to man fire hoses to repel boarders.  Happily, none of these things had to be used.

 

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Dateline: Makassar Strait, Celebes Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 0.45 degrees north, 119.26 degrees East

24 miles west of Sulawesi, Indonesia. 1,455 miles from Exmouth, Australia, 1,505 miles to Taipei

 

Today was our third straight day at sea. We awoke so late that we almost missed breakfast – as I have mentioned before life is hard on the high seas. It is another rainy day but this precipitation was due to a weather belt called the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone, which produces a lot of moisture, much like we encountered on our last equatorial crossing back on January 30th. We crossed the equator at 9:30 this morning and were back in the northern hemisphere with our drains draining and our toilets swirling counterclockwise again. The ship’s crew had planned another Crossing ceremony, complete with King Neptune and his court, but this was cancelled due to rain.

 

Sunset Through Our Porthole off the Coast of Indonesia

Sunset Through Our Porthole off the Coast of Indonesia

It became sunny during the afternoon so we went out on deck to play paddle tennis for a few hours. We were fortunate enough to see Pilot Whales about half an hour before sunset playing in the ship’s wake, or so we fancied. Sunsets here are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen. There is frequently pollution in the upper atmosphere due to volcanic dust and ash and the constant burning of fields that the Indonesians undertake in order to clear land for the next crop. It makes for poor visibility, but great sunsets.

 

Now you might think that since we have been at sea for so long, things are settling into the humdrum and routine. Au contraire. Just as the QE2 passengers thought things would get dull and predictable, there was once more Scandal in the Launderette. I guess we should have seen it coming. I mean there are always some passengers who will not enjoy days at sea filled with napping, reading, lectures, concerts, and so forth. I mean the pirates were a “no show” and we’d merely brushed by the cyclone, so what else should a couple looking for a little excitement do but engage in sex in the launderette? Or maybe I should say attempted sex since (a) they were interrupted and (b) the gentleman was quite advanced in years and was reported to be quite frail in appearance.

 

Gary and I have made friends with a couple from Liverpool, England and I got the full story from her over cocktails.   She made the sordid discovery this morning at 6:10 a.m. She had arisen early to do a load of laundry and iron a shirt or two, thinking she’d surely avoid the most serious belligerence and aggressive behavior at that hour. However, upon arrival at the launderette, she found the door locked. Since the launderette is supposed to open at 6:00 a.m., she flagged down a passing cabin steward and asked him to unlock the door, which he did. Since she had laundry in both arms, she gave the door a shove with her hip and the door swung wide to reveal the horrifying tableau. The steward took one look and fled immediately, leaving her to deal with the lustful couple, a man, appearing to be in his mid to upper 70’s, and a woman in her late 40’s. Our friend reported that both parties were still mostly dressed, she astride his lap as he sat in a plastic chair, and he with both hands up the front of her tee shirt. The man at least has the decency to blush, but per our friend ,the woman was “as bold as brass” and gave her a nasty look for intruding. She was trying to decide whether to retreat as the Filipino cabin boy had or stand her ground. But it was the launderette after all, and the site of many fierce battles, and she, like many before her defending their wet clothes, decided to stand her ground.  She put her clothes in the washer and started it and began ironing (albeit with shaking hands), but when she turned around, she saw the door was locked again and she was locked inside with the would be “Launderette Lovers” who were now sitting side by side, but the woman had one leg slung over the man’s legs, as if she intended to resume intimacy the minute our friend turned her back. She reports that she unlocked the door and told them it must remain unlocked for the other passengers that will be appearing at any moment (and none too soon for her liking). She was relieved to find they were gone when she went back to put her clothes in the dryer.  So now there is a mystery. Who are these people and why would they choose the launderette for such a dalliance? Are they actually married to each other and just looking for a cheap thrill since the pirate thing didn’t pan out?  Are they married to other people who happen to be snug in their bunks with no idea their mates are mating elsewhere? Is she a gold-digger of the Anna Nicole Smith variety and he’s taken in by her? Who would have guessed that the QE2 launderette is filled such melodrama? With sex and violence, can drugs and other mayhem be far behind?)

 

 

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Dateline: Sula Sea, Philippines

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 10.0 degrees North, 120.3 degrees East

47 miles Southeast of Palawan Island, Philippines. 2,030 miles from Exmouth, Australia, 984 miles to Taipei

 

Today was our fourth of five days at sea to reach Taipei, Taiwan and we had a beautiful sunny day with a light breeze.  Our route today takes us across the Sula Sea and then overnight we would pass through the Mindoro Strait between Mindoro Island and the Calania Island group (all belong to the Philippines) and into the South China Sea, at which point we should exit the “dodgey” territory.

 

Gathering on the Deck for the Crew Games

Gathering on the Deck for the Crew Games

Today’s main event was a Crew Tug of War to raise money for an organization called World Cruise Charities which includes a Seafarer’s Mission and housing for the poor in the Philippines. There were 3 categories – Men, Women and Mixed – with eight people on each team. Teams were comprised of various ship functional groups and were expected to wear costumes and have a theme, usually related to their jobs on board. For example, a group of kitchen workers called their team the Galley Slaves. While this is a game of strength and skill, some of the lightweights didn’t stand a chance. I.E. the Hairdryers and Hangovers team from the Salon and Spa, or the Queens of Passion, petite little waitresses from the Grill dining rooms lost without much of a struggle to the beefier Working Girls team and the Weapons of Mass Destruction team.  Both teams are restaurant waitresses with considerably more ballast than their opponents. The Working Girls beat WMD in the final.

 

The Entertainment Crew

The Entertainment Crew

In the men’s competition, in a surprise upset,  the Bridge Boys (guys who work on the bridge) won over the Technical Crew ( guys from the engine room), who advanced to the final round  after a surprisingly heroic, but losing effort, by a group calling themselves Officers and One Gentleman (Bartenders).

 

 

 

The Housekeeping Crew

The Housekeeping Crew

In the Mixed Division, the housekeeping team, What a Load of Rubbish, won first place, with the team being anchored with one tough cookie of a woman who dug in here heels and couldn’t be budged. They won the final over the Maury Twisters, who were waiters and waitresses for the Mauretania Dining Room.

 

Best Costume went to What a Load of Rubbish, although my personal favorite was the Convicts from the Purser’s Office, spoofing a recent bank heist in England that was quickly solved. The pursers however proved to be more brains that brawn, which is usually a good thing in an accounting group.

 

The Captain had a small cocktail parties (50 or so people) at a time to which he invites different guests and so we attended tonight. We happened to meet an assistant cruise director who lived on St. Maarten for a time and who was very familiar with the Get Wet Bar, noted for accommodating husbands whose wives have gone on a shopping spree.

 

Friday, March 3, 2006

Dateline: Luzon Strait, South China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 19.3 degrees North, 120.3 degrees East

48 miles northeast of Luzon, Philippines, 2,621 miles from Exmouth, 400 miles to Keelung, Taiwan

 

Today was our last day at sea before we reached Taiwan and it is a rough one. It was sunny, but windy, and seas are heavy and in fact a few times waves broke against Deck 3 portholes this afternoon. Deck 3, where we live, is at least 25 feet above the waterline so you can imagine the size of the waves.  As for the conditions on deck, our speed plus the wind speed creates a wind equivalent of 45 mph across the open decks. It’s another good day to stay inside.

 

Gary took advantage of an opportunity to hear an interview with Chief Engineer and shared some knowledge with me. The ship can burn diesel, but it usually burns a fuel called Bunker C oil which is substantially more cost effective. In and around ports we burn high grade diesel to meet environmental standards, but once out to sea, we switch to the cheaper stuff. Bunker C undergoes very little refining (not much different from crude oil right out of the ground) and thus it has to be filtered and heated (it’s too thick and gunky for consumption by the engines in its normal state). It also leaves a sludge residue which the QE2 has to offload for disposal when in port. Some of the newer ships can burn their sludge and thus dispose of it themselves.  And speaking of gunky things, the ship only has the capacity to hold sewage for a 32 hour period. When we are in a port for longer than that we have to hire “honey wagons” to haul it off. When we are at sea, it is treated and pumped out, but not within 12 miles of shore. Apparently this does not create problems for sea life, or so they contend. The ship itself however is a threat to whales since there are collisions from time to time. Scientist are certain that the whales sonar lets them know a ship is coming, but for some reason they apparently get curious, come up for a closer look and misjudge the speed. This does not turn out well for the whale.

 

We also cannot make large quantities of fresh water in port since the engines are not running, so when we are in a port for longer than approximately 12 hours, we have to purchase water as well. This probably explains why we are moving more than we are docked – it’s cheaper to burn the fuel than pay for the water and services. Although the QE2 has 9 engines housed in two engine rooms, she often runs on fewer, depending on speed desired. Today she is only running on 5, with one being rebuilt. (I suppose the other 3 are resting up.) Each engine is the size of a double-decker bus and drives electric generators which provide power for the 250 foot long propeller shafts. Ballast adjustments are made in the hull by pumping liquids (fuel, water, sludge, etc. from one side to the other to offset the effect of wind against the hull to keep the ship level.

 

QE2 was converted from a steamship (with the title RMS for Royal Mail Steamship) to combustion engine power in a 1987 retrofit. She will be going into dry dock for 12 days at the end of this cruise for a retrofit on a much smaller scale (more like a tune up) and for cosmetic repairs. So the old girl is going to get a facelift (although it will probably more like a facial than a facelift) when this trip is done and I’ll have so many miles on me, I can probably use one myself.

 

 

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Dateline: Keelung, Taiwan

Latitude at Keelung 25.08 degrees North, Longitude 121.44 degrees East

 

We arrived in Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa)  this morning after five fun-filled days at sea and were ready to go ashore and spend like drunken sailors (or at least we would if we could get any local money). The ship’s purser only has major currencies and the banks were closed since it was Saturday and the local ATM’s do not speak Cirrus, Plus or any other ATM networking language that would allow us to access our US bank account.

 

Above Keelung Harbor

Above Keelung Harbor

We had docked at Keelung, the port for the capital city of Taipei, and whose name means “chicken cage” in Chinese, purportedly because the surrounding mountains look like Chinese chicken cages. Taiwan, also called Formosa, is very mountainous with over 1000 peaks over 9,000 feet. The island is quite large as islands go, roughly 300 miles long,  and 33 million people (and probably 33 million scooters) live here, mostly concentrated in the Keelung-Taipei area. Surprisingly, Taiwan has many rural and wilderness areas which have significant numbers of bears and monkeys in the wild. The forests are dense, dominated by cypress, acacia, and camphor trees.  It is a temperate climate with fertile soil and they get buckets of rainfall (about a half a pail-full while we were there) – very much the other end of spectrum from the Outback.) They have the full range of tropical flowers, plus a dazzling array of azaleas which were in bloom while we were there. One of the main crops here is oolong tea, which is grown in terraced plantations on the mountain sides.

 

The Climb to Chuifen

The Climb to Chuifen

Our morning destination was Chiufen (pronounced Cho-Fen. Accent on Cho, which rhymes with Joe), which is an old ore and gold mining town built in mountains in the mid-19th Century.  The name Chiufen translates as “9 families”, since 9 families ran the mining operation. The old part of the town is comprised of streets of steps lined with shops, tea houses and restaurants, which were both quaint and picturesque.

 

 

A Taoist Temple

A Taoist Temple

Taoism is the dominant religion of Taiwan and on our morning outing up to Chiufen and surrounding mountains, we saw the elaborate temple-like dwellings for the dearly departed. Relatives of a deceased person (when they can afford it) build individual tombs that look like little houses on hillsides buried according to feng shui (i.e. proper alignment with wind and water, etc) and birth date (your site has to be in alignment with your date of birth or else there may be hell to pay, which in the Taoist sense means you’ll be out of balance in the afterlife). Descendants of the dead person are tasked with the frequent upkeep and

Our Tea Stop in Chuifen

Our Tea Stop in Chiufen

restoration of these houses.  If your family can’t afford a temple (or is too stingy to spring for one), you will be cremated and your remains stored in “ash towers” (some 7-10 stories high) with all the other unfortunates, but towers are still considered consecrated places.  The more affluent dearly departed often had their burial sites constructed from of a type of Taiwan concrete made from a mixture of rice, sugar and shells ground to powder. I don’t know how these fared in terms of withstanding the test of time. You’d think the rodents would have a field day, but then maybe those ground up shells kill the taste.

 

Chiufen Village Street

Chiufen Village Street

Politically Taiwan is independent and has been since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek retreated there to escape Mao Tse Tung’s Communist army. China considers Taiwan a renegade province since it has belonged to China since the 1600’s and they are now looking for reunification. Taiwan, however, is looking to maintain sovereignty.  The Taiwanese enjoy substantial prosperity (compared to China) and many freedoms they don’t want to give up.  The language here is a Fukien dialect (I’m not even going to attempt a pronunciation guide to that one) from an area in mainland China of the same name. Primary industries are ship-building, fish processing and mining.

 

A Break for American Junk Food

A Break for American Junk Food

This early morning tour of Taiwan that ended just before lunch and we were really hungry. Since we had no local money, Gary tried to buy a few burgers at a McDonalds first with US dollars and then with a credit card, but both efforts only produced giggles from the counter cashiers and no burgers.  We ending up running into a crew member we knew and mooched 600 Taiwan dollars which is about $20.00 US dollars, enough for a small feast at Micky D’s. Although we love the QE2 food, we believe the occasional junk-food fix is required to properly appreciate it.

 

A Big Stir Fry in the Keelung Market

A Big Stir Fry in the Keelung Market

We had a fascinating afternoon walking around Keelung including a stroll down several blocks of open air restaurants where an astonishing array of food was being prepared. (grilled octopus, giant prawns the size of a middle aged lobster, all sorts of glazed delicacies, including stuff I don’t want to think about before mealtime, but still fascinating).  Scooters are ubiquitous here for both transportation of whole families, as well as goods and services, e.g. we saw them towing trailers, hauling bricks, and even pulling hot dog stands (we have a don’t ask, don’t eat policy about the local food). Gary is usually pretty adventurous

 

Delicacies of the Keelung Market

Delicacies of the Keelung Market

with new culinary adventures, but has become a bit more leery since Taiwan. In Chiufen a street vendor offered him a sample which Gary assumed to be licorice, but which turned out to be seaweed. I had to give him some of my personal stash of M&M’s to get the taste out of his mouth. People we have met are generally so willing to please, the answer to any question is “yes”, whether they understand the question or not. We noticed lots of people wear surgical type masks, but are unclear whether they have something or are afraid they will get something (or given the things we saw at the market, they may be afraid they’ll throw up something).

 

Keelung Street Sweeper

Keelung Street Sweeper

We did find an internet at place with really high speed access, but were unable to use either an external “travel” drive or a CD to send pictures. This place was huge, about 300 computers, and on 299 of them we found teenagers smoking cigarettes and playing video games. We learned that this was only one of several floors in the building that had computers and only one of many buildings in the city.  The good news is for those of us who worry about the trade deficit, we should be comforted that Taiwan is a big importer of tobacco and Microsoft software, (although in reality, they probably have their own knockoffs for both).

 

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Dateline: North Pacific Ocean

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 29.0 degrees North, 129.1 degrees East

Tokiri Strait, Ryukyu Islands, Japan

 

Today was a sea day and we started out with a beautiful day, but it became rainy as we crossed from the South China Sea into the Pacific and into Japanese waters. We spent much of the morning on deck and have spotted several red cinder volcanic cones, as well greener mountain peaks on bigger islands in the Ryuku Chain which stretches from Taiwan to one the main islands of Japan called Kyushu. This chain is grouped (in what are called “shotos”) and include, from south to north, Sakashima, Okinawa, Amami and Nansei Osumi. For those who remember WWII history, some of these names may be familiar since the Allies fought the Japanese on many of these islands.

 

Once the rain set in it was a good afternoon for movies and reading, but we did have to interrupt our schedule for our temperature check.  At each port we have visited, the immigration and customs authorities have different requirements and it has been interesting to us to see how they vary. We are visiting a total of 40 ports in 27 countries. We only had to get visas ahead of time to visit India, China and Australia (although the latter could be done on line).The  purser’s office collected our passports at the beginning of our voyage and typically clears the whole ship at one time, so all we have to do is walk off and go about our touring. However in LA, US Immigration, made each of us present our own passport, which created 3 to 4 hour delays in disembarkation. There seem to be 3 distinct areas of concern in the various formalities. In Australia and New Zealand, we were questioned and screened to make sure we were not bringing any fruits, vegetables or animal products ashore that might in any way introduce exotic species or diseases (you may recall the description of the killer beagles who thoroughly sniffed everyone upon entry). In Japan, China and Taiwan they screen passengers for elevated temperature because they are concerned about flu and SARS. Japan requires an actual temperature check on two consecutive days.  In the US, of course, we screen for terrorists, drugs, weapons and explosives. There is probably something profound to be said about these differences, but I can’t quite come up with it.

 

We do believe there is copy editing work here in the Far East for those for whom English is the native tongue in the event times get hard in the USA. We got a chuckle out of several translations. In the questionnaire for entry into China they asked if we had symptoms of fever, breath difficulty (only when I forget my Listerine) or a snivel (only when I’m served seaweed for lunch.) And then there was a sign we saw at an internet café where we used their computers asking that we return the “mouth” to the attendant when we finished with our email.

 

Monday, March 6, 2006

Dateline: Kobe, Japan

Latitude at Kobe 34.4 degrees North, Longitude 135.12 degrees East

 

Captain of the QE2 and Crew on the Bridge at Kobe

Captain of the QE2 and Crew on the Bridge at Kobe

When Gary took a GPS reading this morning, we were surprised to learn that Kobe is the same approximate latitude as Gainesville (we are at 34.17 vs. Kobe’s 34.4), but longitude, of course,  is quite a different story since we are 14 time zones ahead of Georgia. Kobe is located on Honshu Island, which is the largest of 4 major islands that comprise most of the real estate of Japan. Japan also has 6 to 7 thousand minor islands, some so tiny as to not even have a name. However, the Pacific side of Honshu Island (which includes Tokyo) is home to the vast majority of Japanese. In total the Japanese islands stretch from just beyond Taiwan in the south to Siberia and Alaska in the north. Kobe is pronounced just like the name of the famous/notorious (take your pick) basketball player, Kobe Bryant. Kobe is famous for steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, sake brewing (pronounced sock-ey with the emphasis on the “sock”) which is Japanese wine made from rice and served hot, and Kobe beef. Kobe beef cattle are fed special diets and get daily massages in the weeks before they are slaughtered, which supposedly tenderizes the meat. Now there’s an occupation that would create interest on your resume – “Cow Masseuse”.

 

FireBboat Welcome to Kobe

Fire Boat Welcome to Kobe

We docked this morning in the early hours in a chilly misting rain. Despite the weather, we had a warm welcome from a fire boat spouting water and a marching band playing Sousa, interspersed with assorted American college fight songs. Kobe is the port city for Osaka and the historic city of Kyoto, which until 1781 was the capital of Japan.  The capital was then moved to Edo, which is today called Tokyo. This is the date that Japan transitioned from a feudal state with war lords and a shogun (a grand poohbah sort of person – roughly equivalent to an emperor). The samurai were the nobility and comprised approximately 10% of the population. Both men and women could be samurai and lived by the code, but the men had all the fun with the big swords. Women’s roles were mostly for making little samurai. Samurai who rebelled against their warlords and/or the shogun were called ronin (renegades) and they were often mercenary hit men, enforcers, and so forth. In 1781, Japan adopted (not without a lot of bloodshed) a centralized form of government under a single emperor (of the Meiji family line) which evolved into a virtual dictatorship of the WWII era and then into the democracy that exists today. Japan has also transitioned over the centuries from self-imposed isolation from the outside world under the shoguns to the wheeler-dealer society of today.

 

Kobe has literally risen from the ashes twice in the Twentieth Century. It was more or less leveled by air raids in 1945 in the closing months of WWII.  Then on January 17, 1995 a devastating earthquake struck the area killing 5,000 people and leveling 10% of the structures in central Kobe. Since then, the Japanese have rebuilt with a great deal of flare and have achieved a very vibrant look with a striking skyline and waterfront. They have also created several artificial islands with landfill from the earthquake which are still being developed. In Japan, they drive on the left, (some say it’s the British influence), but the more popular belief is that in olden days, samurais would walk on the left, leaving their sword arm (the right) in the right position to draw their sword (called a katana) and behead the approaching traveler as he passes by in the event the situation calls for it. Road Rage had a wholly different complexion in those days – it was up close and personal. Also no samurai (or anyone else if feudal Japan) could be left handed. It was interpreted as a sign of weirdness and was ruthlessly schooled (and beaten) out of the youngsters before they started school.  Also samurais do not walk like the rest of us (i.e. left foot and right hand extended and right foot and left hand extended – they walk left and left and right and right to ensure they are always in fighting position – it makes for an awkward walk, but apparently nobody ever made fun of them and got away with it.

 

At the Kyoto Temple

At the Kyoto Temple

We left for an all day tour in the morning in a misting rain and traveled by motor coach to the ancient city of Kyoto. Allied bombers were under strict orders from their commanders to avoid any damage to Kyoto, given its historic importance, and consequently, many old structures are still in place. Kyoto is also renowned for its hot springs. In olden times only the nobility could bathe in the hot springs. Today, anyone with the price of admittance can enjoy them, but it is a group activity– segregated by men and women and you are expected to shower before entering. Bathing suits are not an option. We visited the site of

Grounds of the Kyoto Temple

Grounds of the Kyoto Temple

an 8th Century palace occupied by the Shogun of Japan. It is called the Heian Jingu Shrine and is a re-creation since most Japanese structures were built of wood and between the fires and the termites, not much of the original structure remains today for tourists to look at. However, if you read the book, Memoirs of a Geisha, (pronounced gay-sha with the accent on “gay”), you would have a very good feel for this place (in fact some scenes from the movie were filmed here, as well as scenes from The Last Samurai). The gardens were hauntingly beautiful, with the deciduous trees, now bare of foliage, with their intricately shaped trunks and branches silhouetted in the mist. There were a lot of evergreens, particularly pine trees that resemble the umbrella pines around the Coliseum in Rome (with pompom type branches and twisty trunks) These seemed almost artistically contrived and of course, carefully pruned to appeal to the aesthete in all of us. All of Japan is very mountainous, but those around Kyoto are especially beautiful with the mist lying in the valleys and the peaks softened with a blanket of fog.

 

Fortune Trees at the Kyoto Temple

Fortune Trees at the Kyoto Temple

One of the most interesting things that caught our eyes were the tiny pieces of paper tied to trees and what looked like an abacus without the wooden beads. Our guide explained to us that the Japanese often come to the temples to get their fortune told, and instead of getting it in a cookie, they buy it for a small sum, with fortunes ranging from good fortune to misfortune.  The way it is supposed to work is that if they get a bad fortune, they can get rid of it by tying the paper to the “abacus”  which is what I’ll call it since I don’t know its name. However in recent times, a lot of fortunes are now left behind there since people don’t know they are supposed to take the good ones with them.plus overflow goes to the trees. Our guide attributed this cultural faux pas to the fact that since WWII, very few people follow any religion at all in Japan, so the old Buddhist traditions are falling by the wayside.  We also noticed thin strips of wood with writing on them which are tacked up to various walls.  These are prayers and wishes of one sort or the other – everything from hopes for a good crop to single white female looking for husband who likes to cook . It is interesting to note that they have to put their name, address and date so Buddha will know who to grant the wish to. Imagine if you just wanted a good rice crop and a man showed up at your door with his own wok and utensils looking for a single white female. You’d think that Buddha would be able to keep all this straight, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

 

Kyoto Tea House in Gion Kyoto

Kyoto Tea House in Gion Kyoto

From there we spent a few minutes at a local crafts center and made a few purchases and then proceeded to the old geisha quarter called the Gion for an authentic geisha experience. Our stop was a restaurant for a Japanese style lunch which involved taking off our shoes and sitting on tatami mats. Lunch was a boxed lunch, but the box was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It is called a bento and the box it came in was made of finely crafted wood with a lid and individual compartments and dishes inside. Unfortunately, the lunch was like nothing I’d ever seen before either. Included in the box were various delicacies which

 

Our Bento Box Meal

Our Bento Box Meal

involved sea weed, sea urchins, tofu and some unidentified fish which I think may have been guppies or minnows. There were lots of other things, some crunchy, some mushy, all either totally tasteless or totally disgusting. Except for the rice and the shrimp tempura, I passed on most of the treats and stealthily foraged around in the bottom my purse for any loose M&M’s leftover from our Taiwan adventure.  This stuff was so bad, even Gary wouldn’t eat it.  However, we really didn’t come for the food – the real treat was the 4 geishas who came out to entertain us.

 

Meeting the Geishas at the Tea House

Meeting the Geishas at the Tea House

Geishas don’t have exactly the same job description today that they had before WWII, i.e., they are no longer “working girls”, that is to say they are not expected to have sex with the patrons. They also no longer bind their feet (for some reason Japanese men liked tiny little feet on their women-folk), but they are still tiny compared to us robust Western women. What they do still do is sing, dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, arrange flowers and serve tea – all dressed in traditional kimono and sash (called an obi), complete with elaborate make-up and hair-do. There are only 200 to 250 geishas in the Kyoto area today

 

Koi Pond in the Tea House Gardens

Koi Pond in the Tea House Gardens

(and this area has the largest geisha population in Japan). They are trained from the age of 7 until they are 15 and are called mikos. Once they turn 15, they can become sort of apprentice geishas called “gaiko”. Then once they turn 20, they can be geishas. Only as a geisha do they ever get any spending money of their own, and even then, it’s not much. Some have compared it to a stable of exceptionally fine race horses. (i.e. they are well fed, well cared for and highly prized, but they are still treated as possessions, but at least it’s voluntary on their part).  As they get more experience, they are allowed more make up (e.g. a first year gaiko only paints a little rosebud mouth on her lower lip – a second year gaiko gets to paint both lips) and  she is permitted to perform more rituals. They cover their faces with white makeup (a Charlie Chaplin look), and use lots of black eyeliner tinged with red and red lip paint. They have only used the white makeup for the last few hundred years. It is believed that lighting was so poor in the old days they started using the makeup to stand out of the shadows.  They leave their necks bare of makeup (necks are supposed to be very sensual for the male patrons so they say). They also seem to tint their teeth red for some unknown reason (at least unknown to me). They have 12 kimonos, one for each month and the designs reflect the seasons and they are quite costly, reportedly in the range of $45k to $90k. The hair is swept up in a very elaborate set of “beehives” (my term not theirs) and decorated with small jeweled combs and clips and these vary with the seasons as well.

 

We have found Japan to be full of incongruities. Take the ladies room at the geisha restaurant. You have to leave you shoes at the front door, but you can climb onto some wooden clogs to clomp into the bathroom, where you will see three stalls. Inside two are porcelain covered holes in the ground (they do flush) where you are expected to squat to do your business. The third toilet is a conventional Western style toilet designed for sitting, complete with a heated toilet seat. Here’s another oddity: today religion plays a very minor role in Japanese life. Most are born into either Shinto or Buddhist families, and then they more or less drop the religion due to lack of interest, but increasingly, families are having Christian weddings with all the attendant hoopla. They don’t convert to Christianity – they just like the big wedding. Japan also has very little crime, very little public intoxication, and not much promiscuity; however, beer, condoms and cigarettes are sold on the streets in vending machines, no doubt taking all the thrill out of misbehaving.

 

The Kyoto to Kobe bullet Train

The Kyoto to Kobe bullet Train

Only 10% of the cars in Japan are imports and most of those are German luxury cars. Japan has 123 million people and 70 million cars. Given that the 4 major islands of Japan are roughly the size of California, this results in some pretty big traffic jams.  To beat the traffic, we left Kyoto to go back to Kobe on the Bullet Train which took about 30 minutes. As we exited the train, station personnel bowed to us as we passed, a civility we observed throughout Japan. We then took a quick drive around modern Kobe. There was still one more incongruity waiting for us. We saw 5 young men in sumo wrestling regalia and requisite haircuts stroll down the sidewalk, turn into a store that sells dinner cruises and cruise memorabilia and commence browsing. We couldn’t even begin to figure out this one.

 

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Dateline:  Northern Pacific

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9. 31.6 degrees North, 134.25 degrees East

100 miles south of Shikoku Island, Japan, 214 miles from Kobe, 231 miles to Kagoshima, Japan

 

Today is a sea day as we head into the Kuro Shio (Japan) Current, which sweeps up the coast of Japan from the equatorial waters. Morning skies were sunny and temperatures were mild, but rain developed later in the day. We are traveling relatively slowly since the distance to our next port, Kagoshima, Japan is too far to reach over night and too close to sail at normal speed.  This morning the ship was dedicated to drills and exercises required by an international maritime organization. This includes a man overboard exercise in which the ship doubles back in a figure 8 pattern to simulate going back for a man overboard. They did stop short of actually throwing someone in. It took 15 minutes to turn the ship and return to the point where the person would have “landed” in the water. Of course this exercise only works if someone on the ship knows the exact location where the overboard episode actually happened.  We have heard that there has been only one person lost overboard on the QE2 – a deck crew member who was never found and no one saw him go into the water. They did find his work boots at the rail, so speculation was that he was a voluntary man overboard. Since they had no chance of recovery, the ship continued onward.

 

And speaking of carrying on, we have heard reports of a feisty 92 year old aboard who is repeating the cruise since she missed part of it 2 years ago when her husband died and she got off the ship in Australia with his body.  She reportedly had him cremated and flew to Taipei where she rejoined the ship with his ashes and she doled him out to sea in little spoonfuls at various ports of call. Now she’s back on the QE2 (hopefully spending the insurance money) and is reportedly closing the bars down at night and waiting in line for the Pavilion to open to get her coffee at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. We’d like to meet her, but can’t seem to stay up late enough or get up early enough.

 

Our Captain, Captain Rynd, will be leaving the ship in Kagoshima and will turn over the helm to Captain Bates. We understand that Captain Rynd will take a brief vacation at his home in New Zealand and then assume command the Queen Mary 2. We couldn’t help but wonder if the recent grounding of the QM2 at Fort Lauderdale had anything to do with the QM2 getting a new captain. Cunard management could not have been pleased with that debacle since it cost them several million dollars and a lot of negative publicity. We would be coming back to New York on the QM2, leaving Southampton, England on April 23, but after this crossing, the QM2 will go into dry dock for more extensive repairs.

 

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Dateline: Kagoshima, Japan

Latitude at Kagoshima 31.3 degrees North, Longitude 130.31 degrees East

 

Kinko Harbor Kagoshima

Kinko Harbor Kagoshima

We arrived at Kagoshima, located on Kyushu Island, this morning in a dense fog which lifted to some extent around mid morning. Kinko Harbor, where we are docked, was once the caldera for a massive volcano that erupted 6,500 years ago. We had a tour set up to go to see the volcano at Sakurajima (which, strangely enough translates into “Cherry Blossom Island”) which is across the bay from the city. It is now a peninsula, but prior to a 1914 eruption, it was an island. Still the best way to get there is via ferry, which we boarded, bus and all. The volcano is listed as active –its last eruption was in 1946, but it puffs quite regularly,

The Ferry to K

The Ferry to Sakurajima

and did indeed perform for us. It is comprised of 3 separate peaks, the tallest being 1,040 meters, which is over 3,200 feet. Rising from sea level as it does, it is quite impressive. They have built people shelters which are scattered about in case the volcano erupts while tourists are touring. Our personal observation was that they don’t look too sturdy or too roomy for many tourists to take shelter.

 

 

A Volcano Shelter Sakurajima

A Volcano Shelter Sakurajima

Over the years, the volcano has provided extremely fertile soil and this area is known for its super-size vegetables, particularly radishes. Camellias, azaleas and yew flourish here and grow to hedge size quite quickly.  We also noticed large groves of trees with little white envelope looking things covering the ends of the branches. These are loquat trees (tasting like a cross between a peach and a mango so we were told) and the paper envelopes are to protect the trees from frost, birds and insects. There are beautiful beaches and sheltered coves along the route, but the fog and angle of the sun made good photos hard to capture. The landscape is very dramatic with lava formations and newly emerging pine forests.

 

Sakurajima Volcano

Sakurajima Volcano

Japan has 114 active volcanoes, which comprise 10% of those in the entire world, and it has only .02% of the world’s land mass, so you would think they would pose a great danger to the citizenry. However “active is defined as anything that has erupted within the last 10,000 years. Japan also has 30,000 kilometers of coastline, and is thus very susceptible to tsunamis. It also sits on the most active earthquake zone in the world. Kagoshima gets dusted with ash from the volcano on a regular basis and it’s very hard to remove. If you add water, it hardens and if you wipe it away, it’s very abrasive and scratches. You’d think that all of these drawbacks would make tourists anxious to leave, but it is so beautiful, it’s easy to overlook the hazards, especially while the volcano is sleeping.

 

We also learned how to distinguish written Chinese alphabet characters from Japanese. The Japanese have blunt ends (more geometric) to their characters, whereas the Chinese have curved ends. The Japanese language has 48 syllables with which they make words. Each character represents one syllable.

The Satsuma Ancestral Home

The Satsuma Ancestral Home

We spent a few more hours touring the city, in particular the ancestral home of the Satsuma family, who were the warlords of the area and quite famous in their time –that time being up until 1781 when General Saigo (a.k.a. The Last Samurai – portrayed in the movie of the same name) helped end the feudal system and set up the Prefecture System which is still in effect today. Instead of feudal kingdoms, Japan has 47 prefectures (similar to our states) which are ruled by elected governors. The grounds were really beautiful, landscaped to perfection and set against the backdrop of Sakurajima.

 

A Big Send-off

A Big Send-off

We had the best sendoff ever from Kagoshima. Thousands of people turned out to see us off and there were the giant drums (called kodo drums), dancing geisha impersonators, and a brass band of teenagers playing some of the best 1940’s music you ever heard.  They played Old Lang Syne as we pulled away from the dock and the crowd on board had collective goosebumps.  On a philosophical note, we reflected that we were in a Japanese port standing at the rail of a British ship flying the Union Jack, drinking French champagne chatting with some German friends from Munich about how wonderful the American WWII era music

A Bit of Bon Voyage Bubbly

A Bit of Bon Voyage Bubbly

played by Japanese School Children is. Sixty years ago, when this music was popular, this scene would have been unimaginable to our respective parents and grandparents. It sort of gives you hope for the state of the world sixty years from now.

 

 

 

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Dateline: East China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 9, 31.4 degrees North, 125.54 degrees East

220 miles west of Kagoshima, Japan

 

Today was another sea day as we slowly (at 15 knots) approached the Chinese coast and the mouth of the Yangtze River. We are scheduled to pick up a harbor pilot at midnight and dock at 3:00 a.m. when tide is most favorable. Shanghai does not have a cruise ship pier so we’re going to be at a container facility an hour out of Shanghai.

 

 

 

 

 

 




World Cruise Part 4: Shanghai to Sri Lanka

 The World Cruise

Part 4: Shanghai, China to Colombo, Sri Lanka

 

Sea Miles Traveled this Leg: 4,546 miles

Cumulative Miles Traveled: 29,201

 

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dateline: Shanghai, China

Latitude at Shanghai 31.22 degrees North, Longitude 121.35 degrees East

 

We docked in Shanghai in the middle of the night, having been advised by local authorities that they would need quite a bit of time to clear all the passengers. Shanghai was not really set up for cruise ships and the terminal where we were docked was actually for container ships, about an hour north of Shanghai on the Yangtse River in an area called Pudong. Shanghai proper, whose name means “on the sea” in Chinese, is built around the Huangpu River which flows into the Yangtse.  Shanghai began life as a fishing village over 1,200 years ago. By 1700, it had become an international trade center with an international “anything goes” reputation where everything is possible and available for a price, most notoriously opium from India and loose women from all over.

 

The British got control of Shanghai and Hong Kong by emerging as the victors over the Chinese War Lords in what was termed the Opium Wars, the first of which was in 1840. Back then opium was just as valuable as gold so whomever controlled the opium trade, controlled the wealth. The British occupation was called a “concession” which left the door open to turn the areas back to China at some future point if conditions warranted, i.e. they no longer served a useful purpose for Great Britain. This situation created huge wealth for foreign nations and private companies, but created intense poverty for the Chinese which ultimately contributed to the Communist

Bicycle Delivery Man

Bicycle Delivery Man

Revolution. Bicycles are everywhere in Shanghai and carry anything and everything – if you can conceive of it, you’ll find it hauled around on a bicycle. People are very friendly in Shanghai and are generally polite to each other. We witnessed a collision between a bicycle rider and a pedestrian, both of whom proceeded to apologize to each other (or so we assume since they were speaking in Chinese) and then they went their separate ways with a bow.

 

We decided against an organized tour in favor or our own disorganized tour since we had been here before, and in a drizzling rain, we took the shuttle into the city. With our currency problems in Taiwan fresh in our minds, we got some Chinese money right away. The money is called RMB which is an acronym for Renmibi which translates as the “people’s money”, and just to confuse the tourists and any other infiltrators, it is also called yuan. The exchange rate is approximately 7.9 RMB to the dollar.  Unfortunately from what we’ve seen, the people don’t have much of the people’s money here.  Big conglomerates and foreigners seem to have the lion’s share.

 

We walked first to the Shanghai Museum, which houses a collection of ancient Chinese artifacts from the various dynasties which are thousands of years old and spent an hour or so there. These are the originals from which all the gazillion copies sold all over the world are copied.

The Bund

The Bund

From there we walked to the Bund which is an area along the river where a lot of the buildings from the British Colonial era are, and which is today, very much the heart of the city. The Bund is a boulevard called Zhongshan Road and is lined on one side by an embankment on the Huangpu River with a walkway on top. There is a row of historical stone buildings from the 1800’s on the other side of the road that still house major world banks, as well the Old Customs House and the Peace Hotel. The hotel still operates – the customs house doesn’t. We had a light lunch on the rooftop terrace of the Peace Hotel (about 12 floors up overlooking the

Lunch at the Peace Hotel

Lunch at the Peace Hotel

Bund and the river) with classical music playing in the background, much as the British bigwigs must have done those many years ago. We also learned that, strangely enough, in the olden days, Chinese were not allowed in the hotel.

 

After lunch we took an underground (and under river) cable car to the Orient Pearl Tower. The tunnel is sort of a Tunnel of Love concept, but is lit more along the lines of Space Mountain at

The Orient Pearl Tower

The Orient Pearl Tower

Disney World, without the speed or the height.  We were thinking we would be enjoying the panoramic vista from 1,500 feet, atop the 3rd tallest broadcasting tower in the world, but our thinking was somewhat flawed. We did go all the way to the top, but regret to say that, between the rain and the air pollution, the visibility was not at all good. We could barely see across the river, even though the tower is built right on the on the edge of it and it’s not all that wide a river. China gets almost all of its energy from coal fired power plants and the skies over the major cities are much like Cleveland in the early 70’s much of the time. Undaunted, we left the tower and again crossed the river after some delay which was explained to us in Chinese and mimed with much smiling, but with little effect. We were, however serenaded while we waited with old songs from both Broadway and the 1960’s to 70’s Hit Parade. Once back on the Bund, we took a one hour boat tour from which we had a much better view of the city (the firefighters are right – when there is smoke, it’s better to stay low to the ground). The music for

Knockoff Watch Vendors Score Big

Knockoff Watch Vendors Score Big

this cruise was the Commodores and other bands of their era and genre. As on our previous trip to China, we were assaulted at every turn by vendors who had a special deal just for us. Gary, unfortunately, has not mastered the art of the “mean face”, and continues to get mobbed. Because of this handicap I told him he should put on his sunglasses because his eyes say yes even when his mouth says no and he should not under any circumstances smile at anyone. Also I advised he should not express any curiosity about, nor point at anything he sees, and under no circumstances should he utter the word “watch”, since he would risk an avalanche of “Rolex” coming at him from every direction.

 

By this time it was getting dark and we decided to find a place to eat, preferably (Gary’s preference anyway) Chinese. We were strolling along the Bund and passed the Peace Hotel again which offers a Western Restaurant and a traditional Chinese restaurant, so we picked the Eastern route. The menu was a little off-putting since there were lots of unappetizing things (eye of newt, tongue of toad or whatever else was in the witches brew in Macbeth). I think I spotted some of these dishes in the Taiwan open air market. We did manage to order some fried rice and enough other victuals we could recognize in order to sustain life. Actually, neither of us is in danger of fainting from hunger, but we had really burned off a lot of calories today and our calorie storage areas were demanding replenishment.  We decided to walk back to the

Nanjing Road

Nanjing Road

departure point for the shuttle bus and our route took us down Nanjing Road, a Times Square-Meets-Las Vegas sort of place about two miles long.  Being a quasi-tree hugger, my personal opinion is that they could burn less coal and clean up the air if they turned down the wattage on Nanjing Road, but since the Chinese government appears to be a little testy with regard to criticism (e.g. Tianamen Square 1989) I thought it wise to keep this observation to myself.

 

By this time, we felt like Cultural Sponges, who have absorbed everything possible for one day and our eyeballs were just as tired as our feet as we trudged back to the shuttle for the journey back to the ship. One little detail I don’t think I’ve shared concerns the toilets on board the ship. They do flush like those at home, but they operate with sea water. However, here in Shanghai we were docked on the Yangtse River, and so they used river water. Now in most rivers of the world, this would present no alarming symptoms in the toilet bowl, but the Yangtse is a latte mocha/milk chocolate shade of brown which means the water in our toilets had that same tint to it. We both flushed and re-flushed several times before we figured out that it’s the river sediment, not any sort of malfunction that makes the water that color.

 

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Dateline: Shanghai, China

 

At the Bazaar at the Yuen Gardens

At the Bazaar at the Yu Yuen Gardens

Today was our second and final day in Shanghai so we decided to revisit an area we really enjoyed which is the Old Bazaar around the Yu Yuan Gardens in the old section of Shanghai. Despite rain, heavy at times, we had fun walking around and looking. I suffered another umbrella malfunction and stuffed my second umbrella of this trip into a garbage can in Shanghai. My first umbrella, which turned pretzel-shaped on me in the gale force winds of a cyclone in American Samoa had ended its short life in a Samoan garbage can.

 

A Tailor Working on a Garment for the Hello Markets

A Tailor Working on a Garment for the Hello Markets

 For anyone who has not experienced China, the bazaars here are, well, bizarre. The tour guides call them  the “Hello Markets” since the proprietors call out “hello” to any likely looking customer (any non-Chinese is fair game) followed by the name of whatever they are hawking (i.e. Hello, Rolex or Hello, jade, Hello silk, and so forth. These markets are typically grouped in tourist areas and are particularly concentrated around the Yu Yuan Garden. The garden itself dates back to the Ming dynasty, and was started in 1559. It is very traditional with rock, plant and water arranged to please the eye, with several restored

 

Local Fast Food in Shanghai

Local Fast Food in Shanghai

structures to replicate what it looked like in the olden days. The hello markets of the Old Bazaar occupy a warren of narrow streets around the garden, coexisting with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Gary bought some ties from a Hello Silk vendor that aren’t really silk, but they were only $1.12 (cheaper than a cup of Starbucks coffee) and besides, “Hello, Polyester” just doesn’t have the same cachet. He also had to pay $1.75 to have it dry cleaned on board, so he’s got double the purchase price invested now. As we learned from our last visit, clothes here are cheaper to buy than to launder or dry clean.

 

Heavy Ship Traffic on the Yangtze

Heavy Ship Traffic on the Yangtze

We caught the shuttle bus back to the ship since we were scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. as the rain continued to intensify and a heavy fog settled in. We learned shortly before we were supposed to depart that the port authorities had closed the port to all shipping due to poor visibility. Shanghai is reportedly the busiest port in the world, followed by Singapore and Rotterdam and given the likelihood of a collision with another vessel, it was in our best interests for the QE2 to stay in her berth until the visibility improved.  Around 10:00 p.m. the rain let up a bit so we loosed our lines and the tugs turned us around and pointed us seaward.  Gary and I watched this from inside one of the lounges since it was still quite wet outside. The ship actually had to back up the river a ways because the tugs weren’t able to line us up with the harbor exit properly due to strong gusting winds. By this time the weather had further turned really nasty and the captain put on top speed to clear the harbor.

 

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dateline: East China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 27.37 degrees North, 121.50 degrees East,

33 miles off the coast of mainland China. 253 miles from Shanghai, 564 miles to Hong Kong

 

We awoke this morning to an announcement from our captain (who apologized for disturbing us in the event we were having a “bit of a lie-in” which is what the Brits call sleeping late). He told us that we had been forced to keep our local harbor pilot on board overnight due to weather conditions rapidly deteriorating after we pulled away from the dock. In his words, the weather was too “boisterous” to allow the pilot to disembark. Normally, once we clear the last marker buoys, we would slow down to a crawl and a small Pilot Boat would pull alongside and the Pilot would hop off. However, it was so rough last night, the QE2 Captain didn’t want to slow down, lose headway and risk being blown onto or into something unpleasant (like a sandbar or another ship) and besides,  the waves were too high for pilot boat to come alongside without getting smashed into kindling.

 

In olden times the word “shanghaied” that in olden times meant that someone was abducted to serve on ships (usually kidnapped while under the influence of liquor or opium).  By the time they sobered up, the ship would already be at sea. So here we are almost 200 years later, cruising the South China Sea with a shanghaied a Chinese citizen on board, taken away from China in the middle of the night on a British ship. And this guy didn’t even (we assume) get to have a drink or a smoke beforehand. The bottom lines was he’s stuck on the ship for two nights until it docked in Hong Kong, although we suspect his room on the QE2 is far more luxurious than his place in Shanghai. Cunard would arrange to get him back to Shanghai, but with no passport, visa, luggage, etc. we don’t know if China will let him in. There is a lot of be Red Tape in Red China and Chinese Immigration tends to have no sense of humor about these things. As for the harbor pilot, hopefully he has seen Tom Hanks in the movie, The Terminal so he will have some ideas for survival in case he has to live at the airport. Meanwhile, it is rumored that he likes to dance and has taken to the ball room floor with some of our own QE2 matrons. I’ve been watching the line dancing class to see if I can catch him doing the Achy Breaky or the Electric Slide, but so far with no success.

 

Our Captain is a very likable Irishman who frequently shares a little bit of wisdom from Patrick O’Shaughnessy or other Irish wits when he makes announcements. Today’s tidbit was this: “Before you criticize anyone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way you’ll be a mile away from them and you’ll have their shoes.” We also learned today that the English are referred to as “limeys” because the British were the first to figure out if that if they served limes (or any citrus actually) to their ship’s crew, they could prevent scurvy.

 

Rough Water in the South China Sea

Rough Water in the South China Sea

We reached the straits of Taiwan around 4:00 p.m. today and would dock in Hong Kong (whose name means “fragrant harbor”) at 10:00 a.m. which will be 2 hours behind schedule. We were only able to make up 2 hours of 4 hour delay due to rough seas, the roughest we have had by far on the whole trip, plus there is rain and a gale force wind. There was about a 12 hour period of things going bump in the night in our cabin with things rolling off countertops and smashing on the floor.   Our cabin steward came by to check on us just before midnight saying all stewards were instructed to do a room to room check to make sure that any injuries were taken care of. After a series of casualties with things falling from various surfaces in our room, we finally just put everything in the floor and went back to bed. The most serious injuries aboard the ship we were told was from a man falling out of his chair at the casino and a TV hitting a crew member, both victims requiring stitches.  We had 3 broken wine glasses (out of 4), but had wisely stowed away the liquor and wine at the first sign of rough water.

.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Dateline: Hong Kong

Latitude at Hong Kong 22.17 degrees North,  Longitude 114.09 degrees East

Kowloon Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong Harbor

 

Approaching Hong Kong

Approaching Hong Kong

We sailed into Hong Kong Harbor from the west, having circled Hong Kong Island in our approach from the east, clearing the Lamma Island Channel just as the sun was coming up. We docked at the Kowloon Ocean Terminal in very chilly and damp weather in Hong Kong Harbor in an area called Tsim Sha Tsui (as far as I can tell, words beginning with “ts” are pronounced just like words beginning with “s” by itself) which is directly across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, right next to the Star Ferry dock. Hong Kong, once a colony of Great Britain, is today both an island, and, since 1996, a Special Administrative District/ Zone of

A Fire Boat Salute to the QE2

A Fire Boat Salute to the QE2

China. China wisely decided to leave the Hong Kong government and economy in place. The Hong Kong District includes Hong Kong Island, 265 other islands, as well as Kowloon and the New Territories which are on a peninsula attached to mainland China. Hong Kong, considered the buying and selling capital of the world, got its start in the opium trade and flourished during the era of the Chinese Emperors. Opium use was reportedly widely encouraged by the colonial powers since is kept the locals continuously zonked and thus continuously subdued. Hong Kong, like many seaports in the early days, was also a haven for pirates, brigands and assorted seedy characters, as well as a very diverse group of immigrants.

 

At the Po Lin Monastery

At the Po Lin Monastery

Our first adventure this morning was to take the Star Ferry to Hong Kong (about a 10 minute ride) and then take a ferry to Lantau Island (about a 45 minute ride). We landed in the village of Mui Wo (not much going on there, but it was fun taking the hour bus ride to the Po Lin Monastery). Like Hong Kong Island, Lantau is very mountainous and the Buddhists chose a particularly steep peak above the monastery to place a giant brass Buddha, accessible by a few zillion steps, which we didn’t mind climbing because it was so cold you could see your breath and we needed to generate some body heat. This is the largest

 

The World's Largest Seated Buddah

The World’s Largest Seated Buddah

seated Buddha in the world and is quite impressive. We noticed with great curiosity that Buddha has a swastika on his chest which was obviously not graffiti. We learned that the swastika (this is the German word – I can neither remember, nor probably spell it if I did remember, the Indian word) originated in India several centuries before the Nazis used it and it is a symbol that means good fortune, when it’s shown clockwise. This obviously did not work for Nazi Germany. Sometimes it is displayed counterclockwise and has a different meaning, but its meaning is still along the lines of happiness and prosperity. We visited the

 

Temple at Lantau Island

Temple at Lantau Island

temple with the various Buddhas in various incarnations and it was truly lovely, but no photos were allowed inside. The Buddhas were elaborately costumed and covered in gold leaf. Flowers were everywhere, particularly orchids by the truckload. There were huge incense burners in front of the temple so worshipers can light incense sticks as part of their prayer rituals. They are just outside the open door and so the smell of incense permeates the temple. Monks were chanting just as we entered and it really was quite a mystical experience. People who come to worship at the temple often leave small offerings of food at

 

At the Shrine on Lantau Island

At the Shrine on Lantau Island

various altars such as oranges, nuts, grain and we did see one can of cooking oil. (This one I don’t quite get the point of, but it’s a very complicated and mysterious religion in many ways, and perhaps Buddha cooks from time to time). We also spent time in the beautifully tended gardens full of azaleas and camellias in bloom and they also had cascades of hothouse flowers such as mums and dahlias arranged around gurgling fountains. It was very tranquil and we would have lingered longer, but it was also very cold so we had to keep moving. At the monastery, we had a vegetarian lunch since they don’t believe in killing things (plants

 

A Vegetarian Lunch with the Monks

A Vegetarian Lunch with the Monks

don’t count) which was served with jasmine tea. The lunch was delicious, despite the lack of meat and MSG. There is a lot more to see on Lantau Island, not counting the international airport and regretfully Disneyland Hong Kong (somehow I think Micky and Minnie just don’t belong here), but we had a lot of other things we wanted to do so we took the bus and then the ferry back to Hong Kong to explore downtown, which we didn’t see much of on our last trip. There were two oddities I want to share about the bus trip. (1.) Both ways we saw a water buffalo ambling down the sidewalk, coming down from the mountain when we were going up and going up the mountain when we were coming down with no humans in sight (2) We saw this sign at a gas station “No Smoking- No Naked Lights”. After wrestling with this one for a while (e.g. we wondered if it means you have to keep the lights off when you’re naked) we figured out they meant “no open flame”.

 

The View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

The View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Once back in Hong Kong, we walked around the city a bit and then took the tramway up to Victoria Peak, which is about approximately 1200 feet above sea level and offers spectacular views of Hong Kong Harbor. We took the Star Ferry back to Kowloon and, despite the developing rain storm, we walked up Nathan Road, a very lively area indeed, to find a Chinese restaurant that advertised itself as modern Chinese, which I interpreted to mean no unsavory parts of bird or beast. The meal was okay for me (i.e. edible), but of course Gary loved it, especially the hot stuff, but which even he admitted, with sweat running out of his hair and onto the table, was just a smidgen too hot.

 

Shopping at the Night Market

Shopping at the Night Market

By this time I had purchased my third umbrella of the trip. I bought it at Marks and Spencer, the British Department Store and paid retail for it, hoping it would outlast the now defunct “hello market” models I had been forced to abandon along the way. So we set off again in the rain to find the famous “Night Market” on Temple Street. We did a lot of looking at merchandise, and made a few necessary purchases. I bought a turtleneck and a wool sweater because it was still really chilly and my cotton sweater and thin raincoat weren’t doing the job. They were so cheap ($10 for both of them) I didn’t even bother to negotiate. We were enjoying gawking so much, we decided to walk back to the ship and were there before we knew it, although our feet were fully aware.

 

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dateline: Hong Kong

 

We had met a couple from England who were former residents of Hong Kong and who gave us an itinerary for an off-the-beaten path tour of the hinterlands of the New Territory of Hong Kong. The itinerary called for a rather complicated series of trips on various modes of public transportation to some towns not on any tourist map we could find, but being the intrepid travelers we are, we got up bright and early to explore the New Territories. Instructions for the first leg were to find the local subway called the MTR (although here a “subway” is a walkway under a major road for pedestrians to avoid being flattened by tour buses and other vehicular traffic). The MTR is comparable the subway in DC or NY. For our first leg, we were to take the MTR from our neighborhood in Kowloon, where the QE2 is docked, to the town of Tsuen Wan. (pronounced Sue-N-Wan with the accent on “Sue”). This was fairly simple since all the signs were in English and Chinese. Little did we know that this would be the last English we would see for many, many miles and many, many hours.

 

Downtown Yen Long

Downtown Yen Long

Upon arrival in Tusuen Wan, we saw the bus station across the street from the terminal and since Leg 2 was to be by bus, we were feeling quite confident that there was nothing to this off-the-beaten path business. We did recognize the name of our next destination on what we thought was probably a bus schedule, which was called Yuen Long (pronounced You- N- Long with the accent on “you”) It had a 2 beside it so we deduced that we should take Bus number 2. There were about 50 buses in the terminal, none of which had the number 2 on them. We finally found someone who, although he didn’t speak English, he at least understood our pronunciation of Yuen Long, and he must have known how to count in English because he began drawing numbers on his palm with an imaginary pencil. We were calling out numbers like crazed Charades players, and he would nod or shake his head to steer us. We got the six part right away, but the 8 came slowly and we finally figured out we needed bus number 68. Yuen Long was supposed to be a destination where we should spend a few hours looking around, but our British friends hadn’t said what we should be looking for, so when the bus arrived, we hopped off and started strolling down the main street, more or less scratching our heads. And then we saw it – the local market called the Tai Kiu. It had every creature imaginable and every part of every creature imaginable, all for sale at a bargain price.

At the Tai Kui Market

At the Tai Kui Market

The Tai Kiu Market is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. We entered via the pork market and found it’s true what they say about the Chinese and the pig, i.e., that they eat everything but the oink, and it was all hanging there for us to see. I can’t honestly say it made me want to run out to the nearest restaurant and order a pork chop.  The fish market had a huge variety of fish, shellfish and the more lowly invertebrates on the food chain such as sea cucumbers and jellyfish. Also most of the sea creatures are sold alive. Given the lack of refrigeration in these parts – alive is a really good idea. In addition to the traditional pork, beef, chicken and assorted sea life, there were bags of toads and frogs and turtles. Gary hated this part since he often brakes for turtles in the road and takes them to safety. I had to talk him out of buying them and setting them free since I figured they’d end up on somebody’s dinner table before sundown anyway.

 

The Produce Maarket

The Produce Maarket

There were mounds and mounds of produce, some familiar, much of it not so familiar, but this area was much more appetizing and the fruit and vegetables looked pretty much like they do at U.S. supermarkets, probably even fresher since nothing is refrigerated and as far as we could tell the stuff goes straight from garden to market pretty quickly.

 

Leg Three of our trip called for catching the local tram which runs through the main street of Yuen Long to the coastal town of Tuen Mun, (pronounced Too-N-Mun, accent on the Too), a maneuver which we executed flawlessly. However, our next leg was to take the ferry from Tuen Mun back to Hong Kong where we could then take the Star Ferry back to Kowloon, our point or origination. This is where the plan began to crumble. We learned there is no ferry to Hong Kong or to Kowloon from Tuen Mun. We quickly formulated Plan B, and hopped into a cab and told him to take us directly to Kowloon. However, there was something lost in translation because we ended up in Hong Kong via the tunnel with instructions from the driver to take the Number 5 ferry. Fortunately we (a) at last knew where we were and (b) the signs again were in English because the Number 5 Ferry went to another island called Cheung Chau, which we wouldn’t mind visiting, but we had other plans for the afternoon which also involved lunch because by this time it was after 2:00 p.m.

 

Chinese Scaffolding Arrives at a Job Site on Hong Island

Chinese Scaffolding Arrives at a Job Site on Hong Island

We had planned to have lunch and go by bus to the town of Stanley on the other side of Hong Kong Island from the City of Hong Kong to visit the famous Stanley Market. Since we located the bus stop with a bus for Stanley idling there, we postponed lunch until Stanley, picturing gourmet dining at a quaint restaurant by the seashore. Reality was a cold slice of pizza at a deli, but again, food was not the highlight here. The Stanley Market is a labyrinth of narrow alleys with shops on both sides, manned by those “in your face” shopkeepers we’ve come to know and love in Hong Kong. We bought a couple of really nice signed prints from an artist’s son who was selling them on behalf of his dad (or so his story went – it could be a sales ploy) and a few other odds and ends.  There were really some great buys here, and it was still quite chilly out so I treated myself to 2 cashmere sweaters for $12.00 each. They say they are 100% cashmere on the label, but then Gary has an armful of watches that say Rolex from the Night Market too, so who knows?

 

Hong Kong as Seen From Kowloon

Hong Kong as Seen From Kowloon

By this time, we were pretty much wiped out, so we took the Star Ferry back to Kowloon and had dinner on board the QE2. We actually had a bonus because our dining room is on the starboard side which faces Hong Kong and so we great view of laser light display across the harbor on the Hong Kong waterfront skyscrapers, which is a nightly feature.

 

 

 

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dateline: Hong Kong

 

The Silk Market

The Silk Market

Today is our final day in port and we have designated this “Market Day”. Hong Kong has a number of specialty markets that rival any tourist attraction you can name in terms of entertainment and just eye-popping, jaw dropping weirdness, so we decided to dedicate the day to absorbing the ambiance of the various markets, focusing on the Kowloon area. We mapped out our course and took a cab to the one the farthest away and then we planned to work our way back to the ship on foot from there. This distance was only about 5 inches on a city map, but we later learned the scale is about 1 mile to the inch – and that’s if you walk in a straight line. So needless to say this was an ambitious project, but we were fully rested after an early to bed night the previous evening.

 

The Bird Market

The Bird Market

Our first stop is officially called the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden where locals go to “walk” their pet birds and to buy new ones. I have the word “walk” in parentheses since it’s actually the owner who does the walking – and no he does not have his bird on a leash. What the Chinese do (we saw this in Beijing as well) is to take their pet birds in their cages to a local park, hang the cage on a tree limb, lamp post or whatever to allow Tweetie to get some fresh air, while the owner reads the paper, does his Tai Chi routine or whatever. There are a number of different species of song birds for sale, as well as parrots and other colorful species. The cages are typically made from bamboo and are works of art in themselves. There are also live grasshopper sellers in various stalls (sort of like bait shops at home, but these were big suckers the size of your thumb so I’m thinking one grasshopper must be intended for a whole flock). There was also one vendor making “birdie biscuits” from scratch which he would then bake in a charcoal fired oven.

 

The Flower Market

The Flower Market

Adjacent to the Bird Garden is a series of streets that comprise the Flower Market. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many flowers for sale and for such bargain prices. I was salivating over the bargains- a dozen long stemmed, thorn-less, perfectly formed roses in every color that roses will grow in for $3., mature bonsai trees for under $10., cymbidium orchid plants for $2., and so forth.  I now understand why everywhere you go in Hong Kong, you will see the most luxuriant flower arrangements, no matter how humble the establishment.

 

The Goldfish Market

The Goldfish Market

Our third stop was an area along Tung Choi Street called the Goldfish Market, and so far of we have not bought anything since the US Department of Agriculture would frown upon bringing such merchandise home. This will change shortly, once Tung Choi Street transitions from the Goldfish Market to the Ladies Market, but in the meantime we admired the goods in store after store which included frogs and turtles (for pets this time versus for the table). From here we walked though a series of different markets collectively called Mong Kok in which you can find all of life’s necessities including pajamas, meat, alarm clocks, vegetables,

Mong Kok Market

Mong Kok Market

luggage, fruit, cell phones, bras, watches, silk purses and sows ears, and a knockoff of everything and anything that has ever had a label or a logo on it. Here at Mong Kok there is a knockoff hierarchy and all knockoffs are not created equal. The lesser quality knockoff products that might fool the uninitiated are on display, however each merchant has catalogs which you may browse through and select any item you like (e.g. they have Rolex catalogs, Louis Vuitton catalogs, Cartier catalogs, etc.). These are typically the better knockoffs, so to speak.  The process is, you thumb through the catalog and ask for a certain item which they will bring to you, or if you really penetrate into the VIP big spender category, they will take you to the “office” where the truly good fakes are under lock and key. These are the fakes that will supposedly pass muster when examined by jewelers and retailers who sell these luxury products.

 

After Mong Kok we worked our way down to the Jade Market where we found row upon row of merchants selling jade jewelry, jade carvings, and so forth. We made one small purchase for our library and decided it was time for lunch. We really didn’t find any restaurants in Mong Kok that looked like what we had in mind (I wanted something a little less alfresco, and a little more sanitary if you will). We wanted to use the Internet so we grabbed a quick sandwich at the Hard Rock Café where Internet use is free if you buy something.

 

From there we did some window shopping at a really unique shopping center called Harbour City which is adjacent to the pier where the QE2 was docked. Every luxury brand imaginable has a boutique here (even Harley Davidson), but in stark contrast to our morning jaunt, everything is sold at retail – no bargains to be had anywhere.

 

We returned to the ship for dinner and then went out to the deck to watch our departure which was really a moving sight as the ship glided gracefully past the lights of Hong Kong . Well to be honest, we weren’t too graceful until the tugs got the old lady away from the dock and turned her around, but once that happened we started doing the graceful gliding part. The two days we spent here were absolutely magical and we have added Hong Kong to our list of favorite cities in the world.

 

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dateline: South China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 16.21 degrees North, 113.02 degrees East,

34 miles southwest of Lincoln Island (Parcelon Group), 364 miles from Hong Kong. 1,161 miles to Laem Chabang, Thailand

 

Today is the first of two sea days before we reach Laem Chabang, Thailand, which is the port for Bangkok. Laem is pronounced as “Lem” and “Chabang” is pronounced the same way as our own “shebang” (as in the “whole shebang”, but I don’t think Laem translates as “whole”). It was chilly and overcast out on deck so we took in two excellent Enrichment Lectures today by noted authors in between meals and reading.  Sabin Robbins, a writer-editor for National Geographic, gave a very informative and interesting talk on that first world cruiser, Ferdinand Magellan. Unfortunately, for him, Ferdinand did not travel on a Cunard ship, nor complete the circumnavigation. He was killed by natives in the Philippines who did not want to go to church as he insisted they do, and vigorously opposed conversion to Catholicism at gun point. Fewer than 20 men out of the 250 he originally set out with from Spain actually completed the first World Cruise in a journey that took them 5 years. It is said that Magellan personally dispatched a number of potential mutineers himself, (they wanted to return to Spain in their lifetime, even if Ferdinand did leave a few natives unconverted) He seemed to have turned somewhat looney somewhere around what is today Cape Horn, so he wasn’t too sorely missed by the crew that survived him.

 

The second lecture was by Nigel West, an expert on security and intelligence, who has written over 30 books on spies and spying. He frequently lectures for U.S. security organizations including the CIA, FBI and NSA on how spies can succeed and how they can be detected. His talk today was about a double agent code named Garbo who supposedly “Saved D-Day” in that he gave the Germans disinformation that convinced them that the attack on Normandy was a diversion and that the real attack would be on June 7 at Calais. This was supported by aerial photographs the Germans had taken of the Dover area where the allies had built dummy tanks, had simulated hours of radio traffic, had placed (fake) stories in local newspapers about General Patton (who had no troops at that time and actually sat out D-Day), and so forth. This in spy lingo was called a “strategic deception”. Consequently the Germans held their Panzer Tank Division and several thousand troops in reserve, which allowed the beach head on Normandy to be established, thus turning the tide of the war.

 

Equally interesting was the “unmasking” of a double agent which Nigel West undertook. Garbo was actually a Spaniard named Juan Garcia who offered to spy for the British early on, but they turned him down. He made the same offer to the Germans who took him up on it, gave him money for his move to England, put him on the payroll and gave him money to pay off 19 agent subcontractors (for whom he totally fabricated identities, wrote reports, etc.) It is assumed he kept all the money himself. With “German Spy” on his resume, he took a gamble and went back to the British and made a second offer, knowing that they would either hire him or lock him up. Fortunately, they were wise enough to accept. Nigel West eventually found him living in Venezuela in 1984 and helped arrange for him to received the Order of the Empire from the Queen (even though he may have just been in it for the money) and to visit Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D Day. West reports Garcia was very moved by the anniversary events and very modestly downplayed his contribution.

 

Friday, March 17, 2006

Dateline: South China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 8, 7.30 degrees North, 106.17 degrees East

55 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly Saigon) Vietnam. 940 miles from Hong Kong, 585 miles to Laem Chabang

 

Today is our second of two sea days before reaching Thailand. It has been overcast, but warm so we’ve been able to be out on deck quite a bit, and we spent the day being lazy (intellectually and physically).  However, we did learn this from captain: When it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey, most people assume that this is an anatomical malfunction on a brass statue of a small primate. However, the real story is that on ships in the olden days they used a rectangular box made of brass, called a brass monkey, to hold the iron cannonballs stacked in a pyramid shape so they wouldn’t roll around the deck. When it got extremely cold, the brass would contract more than the iron, causing the stack to shift and thus the balls would roll off the brass monkey.

 

Leisurely days at sea are always good for people-watching, observing several different people we’ve run into out on deck, “different” being the operative word. We encountered:

 

The conductor –  this gentleman is probably in his late 60’s, of slight build,  with thinning grey wispy hair on the longish side and he wears a cardigan over his shirt, even when it’s hotter than blazes outside. He not only marches to a different drum, he is conducts  the playing of that drum, along with the rest of the Philharmonic as he strolls around the ship with his ear phones on, waving his arms like Arthur Fiedler on the 4th of July.

 

The referee – this character is actually a woman, probably late-fifties (a mere youngster here on the QE2 which many refer to as God’s Waiting Room) with salt and pepper hair, cropped close to her head in a no-nonsense cap that would be curly if not buzz cut every three weeks or so.  In the course of her stroll on deck, she is also listening to headphones, but we assume she has the NFL dialed in because she goes through a series of motions as she walks that in football stadiums in the USA would signal, “touchdown”, “first down” and “start the clock”, with a little “face mask” and “backfield in motion” action thrown in.  Now it could be that she’s just trying to exercise that upper arm hangy-down part of her upper torso that women have been battling for centuries, but I like the football theory better.

 

The ceiling thumpers – these are the serious joggers that circle the Boat Deck in their running gear every night about cocktail hour. This running business alone would make them an oddity on this cruise, but to make matters worse, the boat deck is directly above several of the lounges so when they go thumping by overhead, the light fixtures shake and we all have to cover our drinks in case something is jarred loose. We are thinking that the QE2 was designed at a time when people did not run unless being chased by thieves or persons intent on causing them bodily harm, and thus none of the ship architects envisioned this particular problem.

 

Lyle Lovett’s even stranger cousin – this gentleman wears sort of burnt orange Lyle Lovett-like toupee, (some days it’s even on straight), but he is much shorter than Lyle and with a swarthy complexion. Lyle’s skin runs from pale to pasty pink from what I’ve seen on the cover of the tabloids at the check-out counter at the grocery store.  As off-putting as the rakishly worn hairpiece is, his true weirdness come from his choice of clothes. He wears a silky leopard print jacket, not the traditional cut of a sports jacket, but more blousy like a windbreaker, a clashing tie, dark pants (at least, of those we’ve seen to date, they are not plaid) and white loafer style shoes (circa 1955) with white socks.

 

There is a message here and it is this: You don’t have to get off the ship to see unusual and exotic sights. We have met the weird ones and they are us, the QE2 passengers.

 

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Dateline:  Laem Chabang, Thailand

 Latitude at Laem Chabang 13.04 degrees North, Longitude 100.53 degrees East

 

 

Today we had more wisdom from the captain:  You should keep your words soft and tender in case you later have to eat them. We docked early this morning in Laem Chebang which is primarily a container terminal and will leave tomorrow evening. We had planned to go into Bangkok today, and spend the night, returning to the ship tomorrow night since it is a minimum 2 hour drive into the city. Unfortunately, the captain and staff made the decision to cancel all tours into Bangkok due to social unrest. There had been several protests and marches (it seems the locals want their president to resign) and they were concerned about it getting out of hand. Apparently one was planned for today and it was to center around the Grand Palace where all tours would go.  Canceling tours was probably an over-reaction, but Cunard tends to be very conservative in this regard. We could have hired a cab and gone on our own, but we decided we’d explore the seaside resort of nearby Pattaya (pronounced Pah-Tie-Yah with the

Main Street Pattaya

Main Street Pattaya

accent on “Pah”). We should have had a clue about Pattaya when we read that during the 1960’s it was converted from a sleepy fishing village to an R&R destination for American G.I.s in Vietnam. In fact the local airport was built with U.S. tax dollars to accommodate all the R&R activity.  Pattaya was probably pretty seedy then and hasn’t improved with age. It is sometimes referred to as “Patpong South”, Patpong being Bangkok’s most disreputable neighborhood.  Pattaya got another boost in the 1980’s (all the American GI’s and their money were long gone) when the government of Singapore closed down its notorious Bugis Street district. All the assorted perverts and regular sinners who had partied there just moved up the coast a bit and settled in Pattaya. This is not to say it isn’t interesting – it’s just over-the-top sleazy in a late-night Bourbon Street before Katrina sort of way. Another way to describe it is that it’s like Bike Week at Daytona – all the tackiness, with only a fraction of the horsepower (everyone here rides small scooters) and no laws that any one pays any attention to.

 

Marriott Resort Pattaya

Marriott Resort Pattaya

We converted some U.S. dollars to Thai bahts (300 baht to the dollar), took the shuttle provided by the ship to town and were dropped at a Marriott hotel on the waterfront. The hotel and grounds are gorgeous and we were feeling encouraged with our decision to spend the day at leisure in a charming seaside resort. As we exited the hotel grounds to get a glimpse of the pristine beach and swaying palm trees, we had the rudest of awakenings.  The palms were indeed swaying, but the beach was covered with people, the sidewalks were filled with street vendors and the street choked with scooter traffic. Little did we know that

Pattaya Beach Market

Pattaya Beach Market

we had arrived just in time to participate in the Pattaya Music Festival, that is it would have been a music festival if any musicians had been around. This didn’t seem to stop anyone from playing their own music, with or without headphones. Apparently there is a rule that no two people allowed to play the same CD on their boom boxes at the same time so you can imagine the cacophony. (I-Pods hadn’t really caught on here yet). We walked down the main street of town, Beach Road, and noted storefront after storefront of tailors, bars, strip joints, jewelry shops, and assorted “gitchee” stores (known to “gitchee” money in exchange for something relatively worthless). There was also an abundance of knockoff vendors,

Pattaya Beach Festival

Pattaya Beach Festival

but here they didn’t seem to be able to copy the haute couture (Or even haute Disney) very convincingly. I saw a Mickey Mouse backpack with the “I” missing in Mickey and the “e” missing in Mouse. There was a Louis Vuitton knockoff bag that had the colors and texture right, but the trademarkt “LV” was missing. Also there was the Versace knockoff scarf with Versacky on the label, but then what do you want for two bucks? We walked down to what we envisioned to be a pedestrian mall called “Walking Street” but another rude awakening was in store. After the first block we figured out “Walking Street” was a slight mistranslation in our view. The accurate translation would be Streetwalkers Street, but since it was close to noon, only a few of the working girls were out and about, the strip joints were closed and only the tailors and gitchee stores were hawking their merchandise.

 

This particular place on this particular day was the hottest either of us could recall. The temperature was in the high 90’s and so was the humidity with no breeze at all. Pattaya claims to have 3 seasons: November to February when it’s hot, March to May when it’s hot and humid, and June to October when it’s hot and wet.

Despite the climate, we were surprised to find a number of American and Western European expatriates living here. Even more unusual was they were all men who appeared to be in their 50’s to 70’s  who seemed to be hooked up with Thai women who were clearly 30 to 40 years younger than they are. We chatted with one such man (American expat) who left his teen-aged girl of choice by the pool and strolled over to chat with us. He said he can live like royalty in Thailand for a fraction of what it would cost at home. He has an apartment in Bangkok and one in Pattaya (probably teenaged companions in both places) and is very much the high roller here.

 

Pattaya Street Food Cart

Pattaya Street Food Cart

We enjoyed seeing the creative uses for motor scooters here.  There is a taxi service (not regulated in any way that we can see) where you just negotiate destination and fee and hop on. They also offer taxi service in these tiny little trucks called “tuk-tuks” (pronounced “tuck-tucks”) since the noise they make going down the street is “tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck (sounds sort of like Bogart’s boat in the African Queen). It’s about the size of a golf cart, but with only 3 wheels. There all types of delivery and cartage performed with scooters – pizza, bags of rice, ceiling fans, knockoff purses – you name it. We enjoyed seeing the rolling restaurants (better to look at than to dine at I suspect), where a scooter would be attached to a sidecar hot-dog stand sort of apparatus. When they wanted to open for business, they simply stopped, opened up various compartments and offered up all manner of appalling fare. Our personal favorite was the scooter that had a clothesline strung above his sidecar with dried squid clothes-pinned to it, flapping in the breeze as he rode down the street.

 

Music Festival at Pattaya

Music Festival at Pattaya

In the late afternoon, after we’d both lost about 2 gallons of sweat, we decided to catch a cab with two other couples back to the ship rather than take a shuttle bus. The concierge’s assistant at the Marriott translated for us and told our driver where we wanted to go. What we didn’t know was that our conveyance would be a Virgin Islands jitney type truck where the passengers climb in the back and sit on benches in the open air. It was fine when it was moving, but by this time, the music festival was building to a crescendo (or I should say the crowds were building; there was still no sign of the errant musicians) so it didn’t move a lot for the first 15 minutes.  We got back to the ship, somewhat underwhelmed by Pattaya, to blessed air conditioning, wondering what kind of adventure we would undertake tomorrow since the ship was in port until 6:00 p.m. and a return to Pattaya was not on our agenda. When we were back on board, we saw a new tour was being offered the next day that involved elephants, so of course we immediately signed up. After all, riding an elephant in Thailand is one of the 1,000 things you have to do before you die according to the book by the same name.

 

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Dateline: Laem Chabang, Thailand

 

At the Elephant Kraal

At the Elephant Kraal

Today dawned hot and humid, not that we were up at dawn, but we noticed our porthole was fogged over, so we dressed in the lightest clothing possible for or tour today which was billed as a visit to an “Elephant Kraal”, with “kraal” translating roughly a place where wild elephants are caught and trained. We took a motor coach to a place called the Pattaya Elephant Village. Elephants have long been used for domestic purposes in Thailand, primarily for logging and clearing land. However, since Caterpillar, John Deer, et. al., have arrived in Thailand, there are a lot of elephants out of work and getting into trouble with the law (i.e. raiding farms and eating crops and so forth.) The Elephant Village is devoted to providing shelter to these animals and preserving the traditions surrounding them, although they now earn their keep through tourism versus logging.

 

Elephants have traditionally been caught in the wild, tamed and trained for human purposes – everything from making war on other tribes to clearing land, to transportation, to entertainment. It is estimated that only 3,000 wild elephants remain in Thailand and the government is trying to ensure their continued survival. Money from the Elephant Village conservancy goes to that cause (or so they say). Logging with elephants is now banned in Thailand, but farms still use them for clearing fields and heavy lifting in lieu of tractors, front loaders and so forth. Elephants are still used for clearing land in neighboring Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia. When logging, elephants typically worked 4 days a week and were allowed to rest the other 3. An elephant’s working career lasts about 40 years and then they can retire, (however they don’t get to go live at the beach with a teen-aged girl elephant like their human counterparts).

 

We did see a few elephants in the fields on our way to the Elephant Village, as well as one at a gas station. We couldn’t figure out what his job might be – maybe they don’t have a hydraulic jack and use him to pick up cars they need to work on. Or maybe he just got off work and was hanging out. Anyway, back to the Elephant Village.

 

Getting Acquainted

Getting Acquainted

We were given an overview of elephants (no slide presentations thank goodness) where we learned that these are Indian elephants which differ from African elephants in that they are smaller and easier to domesticate. They also have smaller ears and frequently pinkish white markings with darker freckles. Unlike African elephants, only the males have tusks, which in working elephants are cut short to make them less lethal. They live to be between 80 and 100 years old and will typically have up to 3 different trainers, called “mahouts” (pronounced mah-hoot with the accent on “hoot”) in their lifetime.  The best workers are the female elephants because they work all year round, even when pregnant. The male elephants, however, have to be taken out of service when they are ready to mate or as they call it, “in must” (which probably means must find a girl elephant immediately or else) because they forget all their training and go a little bonkers looking for love in all the wrong places. Elephant kraals have a special area for the males in must to go (sort of a “time-out” for elephants) until they can come back and behave themselves. Must can last for as long as 3 months so the males only work 9 months out of the year (nice work if you can get it).  And speaking of pulling your own weight, elephants can’t do it. They can pull up to two tons (half of their weight), and pound for pound, are not as strong as a human, since humans, unless extremely wimpy, can usually manage to pull 100% of their own weight.  Elephants have 40,000 separate muscles in their trunk and it is so versatile it can lift logs weighing hundreds of pounds or pick up a small coin out of the dirt.

 

A typical elephant day at the kraal goes like this:

 

4 hours in the water cooling off. They have a lot of veins in their ears so they flap them to stay cool as well. The only sweat glands they have are around their eyes so when the get very hot, they give the impression that they are crying.

 

3 hours sleeping. Elephants can’t lie down any longer than 3 hours because their internal organs can’t support the weight.

 

Feeding the Elephants at Pattaya

Feeding the Elephants at Pattaya

16 hours eating. They eat around 440 pounds of food a day, mostly leaves and hay, with bananas, other fruit and coconuts for special treats. Obviously work cuts into their eating time so it is not usual to see them munching while they work. The only have 4 teeth, but they’re very powerful and can easily crack open coconuts. They prefer the coconut milk to the meat of the coconut and will open them with a loud “crack”, drink the milk and spit out the stem and shells

 

1 hour eliminating food. That 440 pounds of food has to go somewhere. The elephants poop about every forty-five minutes, leaving quite an impressive pile of elephant muffins in their wake. (Thai wisdom says a man should never stand behind an elephant longer than 44 minutes).

 

Females carry their first baby for about 18 months. For subsequent babies, the term is 18 to 20 months for females and 22 months for males. A female typically has 6 pregnancies during her life.  It is actually more economical for working elephants to be caught in the wild and trained to work than training domestically born elephants. Elephants have a long childhood and are not ready to learn work skills until they are about 12 years old. If they use wild elephants already 12 years old, they can have them fully trained in 5 years. They track elephants in the wild based on the some simple math. If they find a footprint and measure the circumference and double it,  this will tell them the height of the elephant which will indicate maturity (or not).

 

Ceremonial Re-enactment at the Elephant Village

Ceremonial Re-enactment at the Elephant Village

Our presentation was preceded by costumed Thais banging drums and tinny sounding cymbals, which, while not the least bit musical, were somehow very appropriate as approximately 15 elephants came out with their mahouts perched on their backs. We had the opportunity to feed them bananas which was great fun.  They do an exploratory “pat down” with their trunks if they think you might be withholding something. Then volunteers were solicited to ride the elephants down to their watering hole for their cooling off swim. I immediately volunteered and found myself clambering up a fence into the arms of a mahout who helped me

 

Climbing Aboard

Climbing Aboard

settle on top of his elephant whose name sounded something like Boom-Shakalaka (I’ll call her Boom for short)  The mahouts name was Niyat as best I could tell. I sat in front of him with my legs hanging down just behind Boom’s ears. Her skin was leathery and wrinkled and sparse sprouts of coarse hair stuck out all over. Anyway Nayat grabbed hold of the waistband of my shorts as we lurched along and assured me he would take care of me. We set off down a path with 14 other elephants and volunteer riders and upon reaching the river, which wasn’t moving nearly fast enough to suit me, knowing some elephants’ 45 minute timer had to go

 

At the Elephant Bath

At the Elephant Bath

off at their swimming pool. Sure enough, I saw at least a dozen elephant muffins floating on the surface. This didn’t faze Boom in the least as she plunged right in with the other girls. Some of the elephants actually submerged with only their trunks and their riders’ heads out of the water, but Niyat asked me if I wanted to “dip” and I answered with a most emphatic no, so I only got wet from the waist down, thankful I had no open cuts from my last pedicure. This dip in the elephant pool (or maybe I should call it pooh-all) was really a highlight. I loved it – poop and all. Gary took a shorter ride, just a quick lap around the arena, but he actually mounted mahout style which was to step on the elephant’s bent leg and have her raise him up as he crawled up on her back, However, I must report he did dismount tourist style, which was on a raised platform with steps to the ground.

 

A Big Advaneture

A Big Adventure

We also saw a number of demonstrations of the types of work the elephants used to do in agriculture, logging and even in war. One of the most widespread uses for elephants in the past was for transportation since Thailand has a number of poisonous snakes. They do not bite the elephants because they feel the ground trembling as they approach and slither away. Since humans are so much lighter, it is common for them to surprise a snake and thus get bitten.

 

 

The Elephants and their Mahouts

The Elephants and their Mahouts

Mahouts use a sharp hook on the end of a stick about 3 feet long to work with the elephants. Many view this as cruel, but in truth, elephant hide is over an inch thick and without the hook, she can’t feel the commands from the mahout. The hook is especially important when elephants are taken to town for parades, etc. because that reassures them that their mahout is there and in charge. They told us a story of one of their mahouts who took his elephant into the town of Pattaya and forgot his hook. He had the unfortunate experience of his elephant getting scared by loud music and running off, flattening the wall of a garage and crushing the BMW inside before he could be caught. He borrowed another mahout’s hook and the elephant calmed down immediately and followed his commands.

 

We left Thailand around sunset today with really fond memories, glad we didn’t judge the whole country based on our first day in Pattaya, and with a firm resolve to return.

 

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dateline: South China Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 7, 7.7 degrees North, 103.17 degrees East

85 miles northeast of the Malaysia- Thailand border. 391 Miles from Laem Chabang,  427 miles to Singapore

 

Today we had a sea day, the only one before we reach Singapore. We were in the Greenwich Mean Time + 7 time zone so when you figure Eastern Standard Time is GMT – 5, that makes us 12 time zones away from Georgia and thus half way around the world from a time perspective.  Geographically, this will not be the case until we reach longitude 83 East. Today was a lazy day and we are resting up for out freelance assault on Singapore.

 

We had some mid-day wisdom from the captain regarding the origin of the term “Hanky Panky”. It was the name of a drink popular years ago, particularly among seagoing men. Unfortunately, if they were “overserved” this particular libation while on shore leave, they would tend to get way too frisky with the girls and the bartenders would have to curtail their hanky panky beverage service. Somehow the beverage got associated with the resulting misconduct.

 

Permanent residents on the QE2 received the news today that they will have to live somewhere else for a 2 week period at the end of this World Cruise while QE2 undergoes a retrofit. The plan is to move them to one of the Princess ships (Carnival owns both Cunard and Princess, as well as Holland America), but there is talk of a mutiny. One cantankerous passenger we me swears she will live on QE2 until her money runs out.  Her children reportedly say when her money runs out, they’ll pay, just to keep her out at sea and out of their hair.

 

And speaking of little old ladies, we also became acquainted with one from Wilmington, Delaware, who was also a fixture on the QE2. She’s tiny thing, probably in her mid-80’s, about five foot nothing, with wild frizzy white hair and bright blue, if somewhat protruding, Marty Feldman eyes (you know the ones where they don’t both look in the same direction at the same time?). We first encountered her at a wine tasting where she somehow mooched a half a dozen open bottles from the sommelier at the end of the tasting (probably telling him that they would just go to waste), and she toddled off to her room with 3 bottles under each arm. When she gets a snoot-full, which is pretty much every day, she tends to get even more goggle-eyed with even less coordinated eye movement. The best place to be if you want to avoid her is directly in front of her.  She often uses her small stature to operate in stealth mode in long queues where she apparently believes herself to be invisible as she brazenly pops up at the head of the line. Despite the normal harsh treatment of queue jumpers,  she tends to get away with it, probably because, as she points out, she doesn’t take up much space.

 

I have one more note on strange ladies of the QE2. There is a woman on board, probably in her late-fifties of extremely large stature (over 6 feet and easily 250 pounds) whom we see from time to time at the evening entertainment. She has very thin hair, a bright carrot-orange color, which is curly and cut short. Gary has dubbed her “Carrot Top” (not to her face of course, since she could pin him and pummel him in a heart-beat). You do not want to sit behind this lady if you are interested in anything happening onstage since her neck is bigger around that a good sized man’s and her shoulders are of linebacker proportions. This, in itself, would not qualify her for the strange ladies list. What does qualify her is her rather bizarre public displays of affection for her mate. The mate is rather nondescript (compared to her), bald for all intents and purposes, and considerably smaller than his (we assume) wife.  During the evening entertainment, she alternately rubs his head (and vigorously so), back and forth, from collar to eyebrows. Then she inspects his ears, and actually from time to time can be observed plucking some sort of foreign matter out and disposing of it only God knows where. (It’s too unappetizing to think about). He seems to squirm a lot and doesn’t look as if he enjoys this grooming routine, but of course she’s way too big for him to point this out.

 

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dateline: Singapore

Latitude at Singapore   1.16 degrees North, Longitude 103.46 degrees East

 

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles on the Quay

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles on the Quay

Today we docked in Singapore  in Keppel Harbor which is an independent city-state-nation of 4 million people on an island of only 250 square miles off the southernmost tip of Malaysia, 90 miles north of the Equator. The city of Singapore itself covers 38 square miles.  It was founded in 1819 by an Englishman, Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company, to create a free-trade zone with commerce open to all nations while establishing a colony for Great Britain. Singa means lion in Sanskrit and Pore means island, or so our cab driver told us. The city’s symbol is the “Merlion” a mythical creature which is lion on the top-half, and

 

The Merlion

The Merlion

mermaid on the bottom half. I didn’t get the full story on this combo, but I made my own up which is the lion has long been the symbol of the British Empire. As for the bottom half, Singapore’s livelihood depends on sea trade and thus the mermaid part is homage to Neptune.  Singapore has always been a melting pot of cultures (British, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian) languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) and religions (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam).

 

 

Pristine Streets of Downtown Singapore

Pristine Streets of Downtown Singapore

Singapore is hands down the cleanest and most organized city in Asia and it rivals Japan in terms of the highest per capita income in Asia. Under British rule in Colonial times, there was the usual group of unsavory characters – pirates, slavers, drug lords, etc. Warehouses along the Singapore River called “go-downs” were plentiful and filled with all sorts of trade items, both legal and illegal. Go-downs were replaced with skyscrapers, gardens, high end shops and restaurants. Singapore took some really stringent measures to root out the unsavory and the criminal elements several years ago and while the individual freedoms we have are not all enjoyed here, they do have a beautiful city. Trees are planted along all the major streets to create magnificent tunnels of shade like you’d see at the great southern plantations, only instead of live oak, which they very much resemble, they have rain trees with those same graceful branches.

 

The Convention Center Singapore

The Convention Center Singapore

There are some really strict rules here, including major fines for offenses such as littering, graffiti writing and jay-walking (offenders are fined on the spot), so we resolved to stick to the straight and narrow and cross only when instructed by traffic lights. Caning is still on the books as a form of punishment for certain offenses. Drug dealers get the death penalty, so they don’t seem to have much of a problem there, either.

 

WWII brought radical change to colonial Singapore as the British and Malays tried to hold out against the Japanese, but with all the focus on defeating Hitler, they had insufficient troops and resources to do so. Japan, fearful of an international embargo, was concerned about having a sustainable source of rubber and tin for their war effort and apparently thought the Malay Peninsula would do quite nicely. Singapore fell to Japan in February of 1942 and a very brutal era followed until the Japanese surrender in 1945. After WWII Singapore, once again became a Crown Colony until independence in 1965, which brought on unprecedented modernization, driven by Lee Kuan Yew who ruled for several years.

 

Harley Davidson of Singapore

Harley Davidson of Singapore

We had decided to “do” Singapore on our own since English is spoken everywhere and we had a good idea of what we wanted to see.  Being a WWII history buff, I wanted to see some of the historic places from that era. We got some Singapore dollars ($1.44 Singapore to $1.00 US) and hired a cab driver to take us around for an hourly rate of $35 Singapore per hour. Our first stop was the Harley-Davidson dealership so Gary could add to his collection and from there we went to a place called Bukit Chandu (Bukit means “hill” and “chandu” means opium in Malay). It was the site of a 48 hour battle between a Malay regiment

 

Memorial Commemorating the Defense of Singapore

Memorial Commemorating the Defense of Singapore

defending Singapore and the Japanese. Singapore at that time had a lot of coastal defenses, but the Japanese invaded overland, using a causeway and paved roads that the British had built years before. One of the most unusual aspects of this invasion was that the Japanese invaded on bicycles and were able to overtake the British, Australian and Malay troops falling back on foot. There is a colonial era house at Bukit Chandu that served as Malay headquarters and today provides an interpretive center to explain the battle as it unfolded.

 

 

City Hall Singapore

City Hall Singapore

From Bukit Chandu we drove to the site of the prisoner of war camp that the Japanese created to house the captives once Singapore fell called Changi Prison. Many were rounded up and taken to City Hall Square and from there directly to prison This is a very interesting museum that tells the stories of several of the over 3,500 POW’s held here and how they coped during the Japanese occupation, which was by all accounts, unbelievably brutal. There was a total of over 85,000 POW’s in Malaysia and many died of starvation or disease, particularly those forced into labor to build the notorious Thai-Burma railroad. The Changi facility also includes replicas of a chapel built by the POW’s and their cells, along with letters and personal accounts. This place was very emotional for some of the QE2 passengers who were in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia during the war, but even for those of us who weren’t even born then, it’s hard to reconcile the horrors inflicted by the Japanese Army in those days with the Japan we just visited. I can’t imagine what Japanese tourists who come here must be thinking and feeling.

 

Raffles Courtyard Bar

Raffles Courtyard Bar

We decided we needed a lighter diversion after Changi so we had our driver take us to Raffles Hotel for lunch. What an experience that was. First of all we couldn’t get into the lobby in our shorts so we nipped into their restrooms off the courtyard and changed. (Fortunately, we had thought to put some respectable clothes in Gary’s backpack since Raffles does not recognize the “Right to Bare Arms” – or legs). The hotel is very elegant in a classic, colonial era sort of way (along the lines of Pinehurst or the Hotel del Coronado) with every surface sparkling, every blade of grass trimmed evenly to the millimeter.

The Long Bar Raffles Hotel

The Long Bar Raffles Hotel

The hotel buildings are a pristine white with plantation shutters (which were there long before plantation shutters were cool).  The rooms are built around courtyards with very elegant shops on the ground floor. The lobby is a rather grand affair in marble and mahogany, lit by elaborate chandeliers, with white gloved bellmen everywhere. We first went to the Long Bar to have the requisite Singapore Sling, which was invented here and that was so much fun, we decided to have lunch there instead of in the stuffier hotel lobby restaurant. The Long Bar is dark and cool with a lot of mahogany and the ceiling fans that have bamboo

 

Having A Singapore Sling i;n the Long Bar

Having A Singapore Sling in the Long Bar

paddles that are actually shaped like fans that swing back and forth.  This was the watering hole for anyone who was anyone traveling abroad in Asia, particularly British literary figures such as Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward.

 

 

 

We only had a few hours left before we had to be back on the ship for a 6:00 p.m. departure so we asked our cab driver to take us to a few places to do some drive-by shooting (with our

Clark Quay

Clark Quay

camera,that is). We saw the statue of the Merlion, spouting water into Marina Bay and bought a small replica for our library at home. We also saw the landing spot on the Singapore River where Sir Stamford Raffles first landed, which is marked by a statue of Sir Raffles himself. His statue is not adorned with the usual streaks of pigeon poop,  the city being much to fastidious to tolerate public poop, pigeon or otherwise. From this point we were able to see across the Singapore River where the go-downs along Clark Quay have been replaced by fashionable waterfront by condos, shops and restaurants for as far as the eye can see.

Bum Boats Ferry Service

Bum Boats Ferry Service

In the olden days they used small vessels called “bum boats” to ferry goods and people across the river, but today their cargo is tourists. We then drove by the famous City Hall and the adjacent open area called the Padang where after the British and their allies surrendered to the Japanese in 1942, prisoners were assembled and then marched off to prison at Changi. Ironically this same site was where Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

 

We left much of Singapore unexplored, but again, we plan to come back for another round. In addition to the shops and restaurants, there is an area called Little India where the descendents of the Indians (not American Indians, but the real Indians from India) who Sir Raffles brought with him to clear the jungle for his trading colony to be built. There are also other ethnic areas such as Arab Street, the Malay Quarter and Chinatown, which need to be explored on our next trip here.

 

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence (probably not) that so many of our ports of call are former British colonies. It has given us a very good sense of the size and scope of the then British Empire, thus awareness of the truth to the old saying about the sun never setting on the British Empire. A Scots friend of ours had a favorite twist on this. He says the sun never set on  the British Empire because even God doesn’t trust the English in the dark.

 

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dateline: Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Latitude at Penang 8, 5.25 degrees North,  Longitude 100.21 degrees East

 

We traveled overnight through the Strait of Malacca for the short trip to the island of Penang, Malaysia, one of 13 states within the nation of Malaysia, whose capital is Kuala Lumpur. We docked at Georgetown, the capital city of the State of Penang, at approximately noon and will be leaving at 10:00 p.m. tonight for our second Thai port, Phuket. Since the island is only 110 square miles, we decided on a tour around the island to get as much of the flavor for it as we can.  We’ve discovered that with the QE2’s itinerary, we often get just a taste of a place (sort of like a sampler platter versus an all-you-can-eat buffet), but this works out fine because we can decide on places we want to come back to.  So far nothing’s been crossed off our list (except maybe the town of Pattaya, Thailand). Penang proved to be another one to be added to the come-back list.

 

And, yup, the Brits were here too. In 1786 Captain Francis Light acquired the island of Penang from the local Sultan on behalf of the British East India Company to set up a free trade port, hoping to lure trade away from the Dutch who were doing the same sort of colonization in Indonesia. The quid pro quo was that the Sultan would have the protection of the British Navy against the Dutch, who, like the Brits, had a tendency to claim everything above sea level for their king and country.  Penang became part of Malaysia in 1957, as Malaysia became an independent nation. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, similar to Great Britain in that their head of government is the prime minister, who is elected every 5 years. They have the equivalent of British Parliament as well.  However four of the 13 states have governors appointed by the P.M. (Penang and Malacca are 2 of the 4), but the heads of the other 9 states still have the inherited and rather catchy title of Sultan (which I like almost as much as the title Grand Poobah, but which is not really used as far as I know.) Malaysia’s king is selected by the 9 sultans.

 

Today Georgetown has about 700,000 people, but has retained much of the colonial era architecture. And like every other place we’ve visited which were once British Colonies, they still drive on the left. Also like most other places, once the British left, they reverted to their previous names, which in the case of Penang is Pulau Pinang, but I’ll just stick to the British version (Penang) for travelogue purposes. Penang is named after the betel nut, a treat very popular with the locals.

 

The Kapitan Kelang Mosque

The Kapitan Kelang Mosque

Penang is predominately Muslim, but they aren’t strict about what people wear (the Right to Bare Arms is recognized here and thank God since it is quite toasty) and their clothes are very colorful. Muslim men are allowed to have 4 wives, although we were told that most of the locals think this is 3 wives too many and choose to stick with one. The population is an ethnic mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese. The petroleum industry here is government subsidized and controlled, and consequently gasoline is very inexpensive. Penang is also home to many multi-national corporations and there is an American School for the children of foreign nationals who live and work here.

 

Anyway, we exchanged some US money for some Malaysian “ringgits” at a rate of 3.67 ringgits to the dollar and hopped on the bus for our whirlwind tour. Our tour guide was a local who told us that Penang lost 64 people to the tsunami in December of 2004, but that thousands of homes were destroyed. He said he was riding his motorcycle into Georgetown along the beach road, which has a wide beach on one side and stores and hotels on the other, that day when he noticed the wave building. Since he was in heavy traffic, he jumped off his motor cycle and started running inland. There were two major waves of approximately 6 meters (18 feet) each that hit the first two stories of the buildings and the waves penetrated about 300 yards inland. He says he got wet, but was luckily not caught in the undertow. The Penang government built housing for the thousands of people who lost their homes and rented to them, and within a year, people once again had shelter.  Ironically, the U.S., with all our resources did not do nearly as well with the aftermath of a much smaller catastrophe, Hurricane Katrina.

 

The Penang Coastlilne

The Penang Coastlilne

Our route took us along the coast road, and although it was overcast, we could tell it was a beautiful island. It is both mountainous and tropical, with the highest peak at about 3,000 feet. The jungle is largely unsettled and is still home to wild boar and wild cats, although the elephants and tigers have long since decamped to the mainland of Malaysia. The coastline is strewn with big boulders and white sandy beaches, reminiscent of the Baths on Virgin Gorda. There are a number of elegant resort hotels at the northern tip which is called Batu Ferringhi which translates as Foreigner’s Rock. We didn’t have a chance to learn much of the language, but we did learn the word, awas, which means danger, since we saw it written on numerous signs along the curvy roads, which proved to be too narrow for buses to pass each other in many places. We also learned the word for welcome which is selamat dating, which we heard often. Penang is a veritable garden of Eden with all the standard tropical fruit,

Hand Painted Batik

Hand Painted Batik

plus three I had never heard of called (with no attempt to spell correctly) “durian” which looks like a pineapple, but without the little hexagonal marks and more round than cylindrical (smells bad, but supposedly tastes good), “ramutan” – a hairy kiwi fruit looking thing and a “mangosteen” which is plum shaped and purple, but has sections like oranges. It makes you wonder if these are mutant fruits created by nuclear fallout from years ago when everyone was testing bombs in the South Pacific – or maybe some Agent Orange drifted over here from Vietnam. Penang is also noted for hand painted batik and we got an opportunity to see that being crafted  while we were here.

 

Despite the perfect beaches, the locals don’t indulge much. Their favorite pastime is fighting, not with each other, but watching various critters fight and betting on the outcome They have the usual cockfights, bull fights, dog fights (yes, we’re talking redneck territory here – we even saw rump-sprung sofas and other indoor furniture on a few front porches), but the real bizarre competition is goldfish fights. This sounded like a snoozer to us, but apparently there is a species of belligerent goldfish that are ready to rumble on a moment’s notice, so they put them in a fish bowl together and the fun begins.

 

A Giant Moth - Butterfly Habitat

A Giant Moth – Butterfly Habitat

Penang, like the rest of Malaysia, was used to grow rubber trees, introduced by English colonial entrepreneurs in the 19th Century. The trees are tapped daily in the early morning hours, and yield 12 to 13 ounces of latex at a time.  They also grow rice, tapioca, cloves, allspice, mace, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and just about everything else in your spice cabinet, as well as cashews and betel nuts. While many people think cashews are addictive (because they taste so good), betel nuts really do have some sort of narcotic in them, plus they discolor your teeth so there’s another good reason to kick the betel nut habit. They also grow the tiniest bananas (a two-bite per banana maximum) which are much sweeter than the ones we get at home. A note on tapioca – it was grown instead of rice during WWII by many farmers because it grows and matures twice as fast. We stopped at a local fruit and spice market to see and sample the various local nuts and spices.

 

Many of the houses in rural Penang are built on stilts in villages called “kampongs”. This keeps them dry in times of flood and high tides, plus when it’s not flooding, they use the space to dry clothes or park cars. There are quite a few wild monkeys in Penang and often the locals will domesticate them and train them to climb palm trees to retrieve coconuts. They don’t like to let the ripe coconuts fall because it breaks the inner shell and can ruin the coconut meat. They also have tortoises (land based with legs) and turtles (sea based with flippers), the latter of which they eat. (I had not previously pondered the difference between tortoises and turtles. I guess I thought they were the same thing). But anyway, back to the circle Penang adventure.

Butterfly and Hibiscus at the Habitat

Butterfly and Hibiscus at the Habitat

Our next stop was a butterfly habitat which was a beautiful enclosed garden with literally thousands of butterflies and hundreds of species. We also had a brief stop at a batik factory where silk and cotton are still hand painted in the traditional fashion.

 

 

 

 

A Trishaw Adventure Begins

A Trishaw Adventure Begins

Our last major adventure before going back to the ship was a quick trishaw ride around Georgetown. Trishaws differ from rickshaws in that the locomotion for a rickshaw is in front of the passenger, whether it’s someone on foot or pedaling a bicycle, and in trishaws it’s in the rear. Gary and I had two separate trishaws since the seats are pretty small. In the trishaw, the passenger is up front which provides a whole new perspective on things, especially oncoming traffic. In Penang the trishaw drivers have total right of way (small comfort in the event of a collision with a motorized vehicle) and frequently assure passengers that

 

The View from the Trishaw in Heavy Traffic

The View from the Trishaw in Heavy Traffic

they are “king of the road” as we part oncoming traffic, hurtle down sidewalks and wheel through local markets scattering shoppers at will. We were pedaled through fascinating neighborhoods of Little India and Little China and visited the Kapitan Kelang Mosque and a place with really over the top ornamentation (carved and brightly painted  with different versions of the various Hindu gods.) called the Khoo Kongi Mansion. It is one of the few remaining “clan houses” in Georgetown, which in the olden days offered shelter, more required by tradition than law, to family members, whether just

 

The Khoo Kongi Hindu Temple

The Khoo Kongi Mansion

passing through or moving in.   Each of our trishaw drivers kept chanting the phrase “king of the road” like a mantra as we rode, presumably to reassure us, but we’re thinking it’s their version of “hail Mary full of grace” and they are praying we don’t get flattened by a tour bus. Unfortunately, our trishaw adventure was cut short by a deluge of rain, so we hopped out and caught a shuttle back to the ship, thankfully all in one piece.

 

 

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dateline: Phuket, Thailand

Latitude at Phuket 7.53 degrees North, Longitude 98.16 degrees East

 

The QE2 Anchored in Patong Bay - Phuket

The QE2 Anchored in Patong Bay – Phuket

Today we anchored off the island of Phuket (pronounced “poo-ket” with the accent on “ket”) in Patong Harbor. The plan for today was to travel north a bit to an area called Phang Nga Bay (pronounced pang-nah) where we were to take sea kayaks to explore off shore islands (or kohs – pronounced just  like it looks for a change) that are formed from limestone and have interior caves and caverns that can be explored.  One of these islands, Khao Ping Gun, was one the settings for the old James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun, and is now referred to as James Bond Island. Phuket is in the Andaman Sea and was hit very hard by the tsunami. Here it was approximately 18 meters high, swept inland for 300 meters and killed 10,000 people on the western coasts of Phuket and Phang Nga. There are still a few signs of the destruction, i.e. the occasional pile of rubble, but we found it remarkably recovered.

 

The Rather Rickety Pier at Phang Nga Bay

The Rather Rickety Pier at Phang Nga Bay

This adventure involved several modes of transportation– first the ship’s tender to shore where we disembarked on a beautiful palm-fringed beach on Patong Bay, lined with vendors selling every type of tour and trinket available. We took a chartered bus, catching only brief glimpses of what is billed as a charming old colonial town, (but it seems to be rapidly evolving into Tourist Central) for the hour long ride Phang Nga. Phang Nga is part of the Thai mainland, but is just across a short bridge from the island of Phuket.  Once there we walked out probably 50 yards on a very rickety pier to board long boats. Long boats are indeed

 

A Longtail Boat

A Longtail Boat

long – like gondolas only wider – but their most unusual feature is their means of propulsion. They use salvaged car engines which of course were designed to remain upright in order to function properly. So they compensate by attaching a drive shaft almost as long as the boat itself in order to have the propeller in the water. From the long boats we boarded our open air launch for the trip to the limestone rocks and sea caves. After about half an hour, they appeared out of a mist on the horizon, very reminiscent, we thought, of the hills along the Li River in China.

 

The Kohs (Limestone Islands)

The Kohs (Limestone Islands)

We took inflatable kayaks, 2 people and a local guide/paddler per kayak, to 3 different islands. The first was Hong Island which was reached by a short paddle up to what looked like an impenetrable rock face, but then we saw the small opening and ducked while our guide propelled us through. We were now inside the island in a cavern with steep walls covered with trees and vegetation clinging to the rock, but open to the sky. We traveled through several chambers like this, each a placid shallow lagoon, interconnected by narrow passages. We took a quick refreshing swim since it was quite steamy and then moved

 

Exploring by Sea Kayak

Exploring by Sea Kayak

to our next island named Phanak (drop the “h” and it sounds just like it looks). Like Hong, it had a small entranceway, but the next passage to the second cavern was even smaller and required our lying flat on our backs, exhaling and sucking everything in.  Those with extra large bellies and/or extra large hooters (nobody in our party) couldn’t fit through. This island featured several mangroves and we had some wildlife sightings as well. Here we saw a hornbill (big bird with an even bigger beak) and a monkey, although Gary swears the monkey was a tame one tied up there to amuse the tourists.  He thinks the last kayak out is supposed

Kohs of Phang Nga Bay

Kohs of Phang Nga Bay

to bring the monkey back to the boat. Our final stop was Bat Island which was more cave than cavern, pitch black in certain sections, and true to its name, full of bats, which you could smell long before you could see. Fortunately it wasn’t time for them to come out so they continued to hang out on the ceiling. We paddled back to the launch and were served a hot (temperature) lunch that wasn’t too hot (spicy) and retraced out steps to get back to Phuket. This is another destination we want to come back to, particularly for the resort life and the scuba diving, and of course there are hundreds of more limestone formations to be explored.

 

 

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dateline: Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 7, 7.26 degrees North, 92.26 degrees East

73 miles west of Great Nicobar Island, 346 miles from Phuket, Thailand, 838 miles to Colombo, Sri Lanka

 

Today is our first of two sea days to reach Sri Lanka from Thailand. Around 9:00 this morning in the midst of a rain storm, we passed the Nicobar Islands which separate the Andaman Sea from the Indian Ocean. It cleared this afternoon, but is still overcast. It is a perfect day for reading and inside activities. We went to another Nigel West lecture today on the code breaking efforts of MI5 in WWII, in a project code named Ultra and only in relatively recent years declassified. He talked specifically about how they did it and what they learned about German plans, troop strengths, etc. Most of it was done manually, although an analog computer was developed toward the end of the war. An interesting side note, and perhaps useful in Trivia competitions – one of the inventors of this computer later committed suicide by injecting an apple with cyanide and taking a bite. The Apple Computer logo with the missing bite of apple is believed to be a tribute to this early technologist.

 

Wisdom of the day from the captain: A fathom is a nautical unit of measure equal to 6 feet. The name comes from an Old English word, “fathem” meaning to embrace with one’s arms. In olden days when a man would take a fancy to a sassy wench, his enthusiastic embrace was equal to the length of his arms from fingertip to fingertip which is about 6 feet. This means of measurement is not accurate for the very short or the very tall.

 

 

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Dateline: Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 7, 5.56 degrees North, 83.55 degrees East,

135 miles east of Sri Lanka, 856 miles from Phuket, Thailand, 337 miles to Colombo, Sri Lanka

 

Today is our second of two sea days to reach Sri Lanka from Thailand. Our position at noon today marks the geographic halfway point in our trip around the world since we are at the same longitude as Gainesville, Georgia, only we are 83 degrees east vs. 83 degrees west. For the first time in our journey, we are starting to get closer to home rather than further away. We are approaching the island nation of Sri Lanka, previously know and Ceylon, which lies off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

 

Today’s trivia from the captain involves an expression with which I was not familiar. Apparently the Brits have an expression, “Pull your finger out” which is an admonishment to hurry up. (Americans have a variation on this involving the thumb and other parts of the body, but I won’t go into that). The British saying originated with the military in the olden days of loose gunpowder and cannons. The “powder monkey” was the man who poured gunpowder into a hole in the barrel of the cannon and had to hold his finger over a small vent to keep it from blowing out. The artillery man would then yell “Pull your finger out” and light the gunpowder with a torch. You can see how it would certainly behoove the powder monkey to move quickly.

 

The ship offered 3 excellent “enrichment” lectures today so we more or less frittered away the day with those (as opposed to those sea days where we fritter away the day with naps and reading). The first was a lecture by a noted British diplomat and former ambassador on Kashmir, explaining why India and Pakistan are always fighting over it. The short answer is because they always have and now no one knows who started it. There was also a lecture by our National Geographic expert on dolphins (not exactly the same as porpoises, but both are mammals – the dolphins have the pointy snouts and porpoises do not). Our third and best talk today, was by Tom Mintier, a former CNN correspondent for 24 years who talked about how CNN got started in 1981 and what life was like in the early days. He said they were hiring kids right out of college and putting them to work, on air and behind the camera. He said his first camera man had no related experience, and in fact his previous job was entertaining guests at Disney World in a Goofy costume. CNN critics may be of the opinion that Goofy is frequently now on camera, but according to Tom Mintier, they strive to tell the news in the most professional and unbiased fashion possible. He fielded a lot of pointed questions about news coverage and agreed that unfortunately in many cases the news is no longer the story and that stories are personality driven, but that this is a problem across all of the networks.

 

It is sunny, hot and humid here only about 5 degrees from the Equator so we didn’t spend much time on deck until late afternoon when we would meet several other people for paddle tennis. This is an interesting multi-national group. The core players are mostly late-fifties to late-sixties with an odd 30-something Canadian thrown in. We have, a retired executive of an insurance company from Germany. Then there’s a gentleman from England who is a 2 time cancer survivor and incredibly avid player. We had a middle aged man from Australia who owns a car dealership near Brisbane and since he has to get back to mind the store, he’s only on the ship for one segment.   We had a Frenchman from Provence, now living in Belgium, who was an excellent player and very tall so there’s no lobbing over this guy’s head. We had a Canadian from Vancouver who we couldn’t for the life of us figure out what he’s doing on this ship. He was in his 30’s and said he’s a slum-lord-entrepreneur, so we assume he owns real estate. But he is a single, straight, nice looking guy, traveling alone, and inquiring minds (a.k.a. nosey busybodies) continue to try to find out why. We love the shipboard intrigue.

 

 

 

 

 




World Cruise Part 5: Sri Lanka to Oman

 The World Cruise

Part 5: Colombo, Sri Lanka to Salalah, Oman

 

Sea Miles Traveled this Leg: 2,763 miles

Cumulative Miles Traveled: 31,964

 

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dateline: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Latitude at Colombo  6.57 degrees North, Longitude 79.51 degrees East

 

Today we docked at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It has had several names over the centuries including the name, Serendib, which was what the Arab traders called it. The English word, serendipity, meaning the gift of discovering pleasant or valuable things by accident, comes from this Arab name. And speaking of serendipity, the Portuguese stumbled on it by being blown off course and named it Celao, which they borrowed from the Chinese. I’m not sure what the word meant in Chinese, but I suspect it was something along the lines of “hotter than the hinges of Hell”.  The English came along and modified Celao to Ceylon. Once all the colonizing countries, (the last of which was England) lost interest and went back home, the island became independent in 1948. The locals stayed with the name Ceylon for a while, but then went back to the original name which was Lanka and added the prefix Sri which means beautiful. You can see the trend here in former British Colonies – Peking to Beijing, Siam to Thailand, Burma to Myanmar, Bombay to Mumbai, and so forth.

The Pinnawela Elephant Reserve

The Pinnawela Elephant Reserve

Our plan for today is to visit an elephant orphanage at Pinnawela (pronounced Pin-ah-way-la with the accent on “way”), which is home to approximately 60 elephants who were either injured or orphaned in the wild. The government has estimated that only about 2,000 remain in the wild and they are taking steps to preserve them and their habitat. We also were to have a buffet lunch on the veranda of the River View Restaurant which overlooks the river where the elephants are taken twice a day for their baths to drink and to cool themselves off (to chill out literally). We didn’t see much of the city of Columbo since Pinnawela is 2 hours away and we had no time to dawdle, but we did see quite a bit of the countryside which is pretty much hot and steamy jungle, clinging to steep mountains, above white sandy beaches. It really is beautiful once your sunglasses unfog in the transition from the air conditioned bus to the outside air. Our guide gave us a little background on Sri Lanka en route so I’ll share the highlights here.

 

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi religious island of approximately 65,600 square kilometers (slightly smaller than Ireland) with a population of over 19 million, 72% of which is rural. It was formerly colonized by the British (wasn’t everyone?) who established huge tea plantations and more or less moved in. There are still other vestiges of British colonialism here including much of the old architecture, Morris Minor taxis, and most importantly for tourism, the English language which is widely spoken.  Natives of Sri Lanka are called Sinhalese, and the national languages are Sinhala and Tamil.

 

A local tuk-tuk

A local tuk-tuk

Since the British left, there has been some upheaval in the government with a rebel group who call themselves the Tamil Tigers and who want to form a separate government of their own in the northern part of the island. Consequently, there has been bloodshed from time to time, which seems to be the norm when you’ve got that multi-ethnic, multi-religious thing going on. Since the peace talks of 2002, things have been pretty calm here, but the Tamils are still refusing to work on the tea plantation. This caused labor problems apparently, but tea is still one of Sri Lanka’s major exports.  Sri Lanka is also a major exporter of gem stones, particularly rubies and sapphires and has provided “bling” to royalty for years. In fact the sapphire in Princess Diana’s wedding ring came from here, as did the stones for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown.  The exchange rate is 30 Sri Lankan rupees to the dollar, so millions of rupees must have changed hands for those two baubles.

 

We were treated to all sorts of strange sights en route. A common pet for locals are porcupines which we saw (I kid you not) being walked on leashes on our way to Pinnawela. Cobras and pythons are also kept by the locals, but we imagine these to be more for photo ops with tourists than for companionship. The vehicles here seem to all have names which are displayed at the top of their windshields, everything from a tuk tuk named Jesus, to a dumptruck named Amal and a cab named Hare Krishna. Commerce is everywhere, and one of the most thriving forms of it seems to be in seats salvaged from buses and sold along the roadside for furniture. It is not at all uncommon to see water buffalo, both where you expect them – in the rice paddies and where you would not – tied to a telephone pole outside a hardware store.

 

Main Street Pinnawela

Main Street Pinnawela

When we arrived in Pinnawela the elephants had already trooped down to the Maha River for their morning ablutions, so we hurried down a narrow street lined with shops to see them and what a sight it was. The river was shallow and strewn with boulders that created small waterfalls and pools. Scattered up and down the river were about 50 elephants with their mahouts wading, splashing, dunking, spraying, cavorting and in general having a good time. About 10 of the elephants were babies which was a special treat.  We expected that we would be separated from the elephants by some sort of fence, but to our delight, the mahouts

Body Search at the River

Body Search at the River

sought us out to come up and pet their charges and have our pictures taken with them for a modest consideration of whatever you had in your pocket and were willing to part with. It was funny that they all started at $20.00 but usually settled for $1.00. There were so many cameras clicking away, they had trouble tracking down and collecting from everyone. We actually walked down to the river’s edge with a mahout who was tending a mother and a baby maybe 2 years old and perhaps 5 feet tall. We petted the mother and the baby, fed them treats of fruit and bananas (which the locals just happened to have for sale as well) and took pictures to our hearts’ content. This was definitely a highlight of the trip and such a memorable experience.

 

Elephants Recess on the Maha River Pinnawela

Elephants Recess on the Maha River Pinnawela

We were amazed at how intelligent the elephants are (Call me crazy, but I swear when you look them in the eye and they look back, you know somebody’s home in there). We were also impressed by how much sensitivity they have toward each other. While we were at the river gawking, we saw this demonstrated in real time. Some of the elephants that aren’t considered 100% trustworthy in terms of running off (or running amok) have on a leg chain which the mahouts usually wrap around their necks so they don’t step on it. But one elephant’s chain had come loose from around her neck and was dragging in the water. It got

 

Taking a Dip in the Maha

Taking a Dip in the Maha

caught between two rocks and she couldn’t get free. Another elephant saw the problem and came over and lifted the chain up and out of the crevice in the rocks where it was caught. There was also an elephant who had one of her front feet blown off by a land mine several years ago (presumably planted by the Tamil Tigers) and she’s accepted by the herd who seem to more or less look after her. The elephants also take turns looking after the babies. Just downriver from the 50 elephants, locals were doing their laundry in the river. I, personally, would have been upriver of the elephants for this chore, but then it was not my place to point this out to them.

 

A Stroll on Main Street

A Stroll on Main Street

We were supposed to have lunch, but it was time for the elephants to go back to their enclosure where their own lunch was being served, so I skipped the buffet in order to see the elephants parade through town, which proved to be quite a treat. The road to the river is quite narrow and lined with vendors selling all sorts of leather goods, carved wooden souvenirs, silk clothing, etc. They typically have this merchandise outside their shops, but when the elephants come through, preceded by a uniformed attendant cranking on a siren to warn the pedestrians to clear the street, the shopkeepers scurry around moving

An Amateur Mahout

An Amateur Mahout

everything inside. Apparently elephants are prone to pilfering anything that takes their fancy along their route and are quite adept at snagging merchandise with their trunks as they parade down the street. And of course once they have it, there is no convincing them to give it back. Gary did not skip lunch, but after I showed him the pictures, he sincerely wished he had.

 

 

After lunch we got to see the really small orphaned babies who are not yet weaned being fed their gallons and gallons of milk. There were five of them and each one more adorable than a basket full of puppies. The milk was kept in a 55 gallon drum and poured into what looked like a 2 gallon baby bottle. They get approximately 7 liters apiece 5 times a day.  The baby elephant we watched threw back his head and emptied the bottle in a matter of seconds.  We also had

Visiting with Raja

Visiting with Raja

the opportunity to go to the elephant enclosure and walk around with the elephants themselves which is where we met, Rajah, a 62 year old male elephant, who due to behaviorial problems we assume, did not get to go to the river. He is a huge male with tusks commensurate with his size, and despite being chained, was really quite friendly so we had out picture taken with him, using the last of our dollar bills for the privilege. Rajah had been shot by a poacher several years ago and was brought to Pinnawela to be nursed back to health. They are keeping him there because with those tusks, he would again be a big target for poachers in the wild.

 

A Roadside Snake Charmer Performs for Tourists

A Roadside Snake Charmer Performs for Tourists

We retraced out journey back to the ship with our only stop being at a local roadside market where we bought delicious fresh cashews. We are leaving Sri Lanka this evening with still much of it unexplored, so this too will have to be added to our list of places to re-visit. I am particularly intrigued by a city called Kandy where they have a temple called the Dalada Maligawa, also known as the Temple of the Tooth. Supposedly they have a religious relic there which is said to be a tooth which once belonged to Buddha in one of his many incarnations which ended in cremation. One of his teeth was supposedly rescued from the funeral pyre and brought to Kandy. Once a year they have the Esala Perahera Festival where an elaborately costumed elephant carries a replica of the shrine through the streets followed by a parade of hundreds dancers and of elephants in a Mardi Gras/Disney Electric Light Parade like extravaganza.

 

Monday, March 27, 2006

Dateline: Cochin, India

Latitude at Cochin 9.58 degrees North, Longitude 76.15 degrees East

 

The Port of Cochin

The Port of Cochin

Today we docked at the Ernakulum Wharf in Cochin, India which is the capital of the southern State of Kerala. (pronounced Care- a- la with the accent on “a” and set our clocks back half an hour. All of India is on the same time zone and since it’s so large that it covers what would be two time zones, we assumed that the “half” hour is their way of compromising between east and west.  Cochin still has an old fort and lot of colonial era buildings along the waterfront so it didn’t take much imagination to envision ourselves in a James Conrad novel as we entered the harbor teeming with activity. Time has stood still here in more ways than one. We docked next to a freighter where they were still using nets and ancient cranes to offload cargo (no containers here). In this case it was bags of something brown, perhaps tea or coffee, which was loaded into the net by hand, and taken from the net and loaded on a truck by hand, one bag at a time.

 

Laides in Saris Greet the QE2

Laides in Saris Greet the QE2

Since we did not dock until midmorning and we were to leave at 7:00 p.m., this is a very short visit, but one so packed with exotica (at least compared to our realm of experience), that I could go on and on. Our plan for today is to go on a tour to the backwaters of an area called Allepey. This part of India is laced with canals and streams that run for miles and miles (think bayou country in Louisiana). This is also one of the most populous areas of India and there is very little land that has no one living on it or cultivating it.  India, like Sri Lanka, has rupees, but the exchange rate for the Indian Rupee is 45 to $1.00.

 

Fishing Nets of Cochin

Fishing Nets of Cochin

Cochin was a key port in the spice trade between Arabia and Southeast Asia and consequently became populated with a wide range of ethnic groups and religions (always a recipe for trouble), but have somehow managed a fairly harmonious existence. The Chinese in the 14th Century introduced the trademark fishing nets of Cochin which involve a cantilevered contraption with long wooden arms that keep the nets spread out and pulleys and counter weights to raise and lower it. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama came here in 1498 and many Portuguese followed and built up the port with colonial style buildings and bridges and set up ferry systems. The Dutch came in and built up levees to create canals, which also created fingers of solid ground, and of course people quickly took up residence atop them. Two different sects of Jews settled here in two different eras, one in the 4th Century A.D. and one in the 15th Century A.D., but most of them emigrated to Israel once it was established as an independent nation after the British pulled out of Palestine in 1948. The British Empire was the last colonial power in India. As in so many other former colonies, they contributed a stable government, tea plantations, those ubiquitous Morris Minor taxis now well past their prime, driving on the left and the English language. India has 25 different languages spoken by over 200 million people each (Hindi is the most widely spoken). English has become the language to bridge the other 24, as well as the language of business and commerce.

 

A Dhoti Ensemble

A Dhoti Ensemble

The women here are very brightly bejeweled and dressed in colorful saris, walking with a graceful gait as they move seemingly effortlessly down the streets, even with thirty pounds of whatever balanced on their heads. The men wear western style clothes to some extent, but many have kept to the traditional “dhoti” which is the white sheet-like wrap they wear in lieu of trousers. However, they often wear a western style collared shirt with the dhoti. It is also common to see the dhoti (normally ankle length) tucked up at the waist to create a diaper-like pair of shorts. On special occasions men may wear a yellow or orange wrap which is called a “lunghi”(Sunday best, if you will).

 

Many of the houses we pass are set behind walls, perhaps four feet high. Very few of these walls are free of advertising, so we think maybe the owners subsidize their monthly mortgage with a little advertising revenue. There is also a scarcity of grass in Cochin. Almost every yard has Gary’s favorite landscape feature –bare dirt, with gas stations being the notable exception (we can’t quite figure this one out).  We were also surprised to learn that Kerala is a hotbed of Communists and has been long before Joseph McCarthy got his shorts in a wad over the Red Threat. Kerala does have elections and they do have a two party system, it’s just that one of the two parties is the Communist Party. Thus it seems that Kerala, along with Cuba, is one of the few places left in the world where the hammer and sickle still proudly wave.

 

Billboards are a prominent feature here, particularly those advertising movies. India has a movie industry actually bigger than Hollywood in terms of volume, (1,000 movies per year) if not quality. Most of the filming is done in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and thus it is referred to as Bollywood. The plots are very formulaic in the so called masala style, which translates as spice (along the lines of soap operas but without any steamy sex or bloody violence, so you may very well wonder how spicy can it be). These movies always conclude with a happy ending, which can sometimes take up to 4 hours to reach. The typical mustachioed male stars appear to be a little beefy side, resembling, I think, the Frito Bandito and the female stars all look like Penelope Cruz in a sari. Needless to say, a Bollywood production is not on our travel agenda.

 

We drove through Cochin in a bus that looked new and sounded old in that the brakes protested loudly at every stop and the windows rattled, and the air conditioner only occasionally emitted cool air. We were given little paper fans to cool ourselves as we drove, passing all sorts of interesting sights that had us gawking such as

 

–          Women washing their dishes and cookware, mostly made out of tin, under faucets of running water on the curbside every few blocks

–          Ragpickers sifting through garbage piles for recyclables, and we think, possibly a snack and change of clothing

–          Women in perfectly clean saris working at a construction site carrying loads of bricks on their heads and hauling away dirt by the bowlful (industrial size mixing bowls), also on their heads

–          A sign that says “No spitting” and a wall with a sign that says “Stick No Bill” (meaning don’t put up any Bollywood posters here) above a smoldering pile of trash (and so we wondered why it would  matter if anyone spit there)

–          A camel at a stoplight pulling a wooden cart full of building supplies outside the bus window looking in at the tourists

–          A sidewalk store advertising glass, fruit and plywood, with the one next to it selling plastic chairs, rice and shoes.

–          A small mountain of fresh coconuts being cracked by hand on a metal pipe with a wedge-shaped spike on the end. The inner coconut is placed in one pile to be processed into coconut oil and the stuff inside the husk (called coir) is placed in another to be trundled over to a coir factory where it is made into rope and coco mats for plant baskets

–          Al fresco everything – hammock weavers, brick makers, bakeries, rug sellers, used sink and toilet sellers – you name it, you can find it being made or sold out on the sidewalk

 

Typical Tour Boats - Alleypey

Typical Tour Boats – Alleypey

We were cranking our heads right and left so fast we probably would have had whiplash if the bus were going any faster. You would think with such overwhelming poverty, the people would be more or less bummed out, but this was not the case. Everywhere we went people were smiling and waving to us, talking and laughing. What is fascinating about India is that beyond the poverty and the overcrowded streets, there is a vibrancy and a diversity that’s captivating. It is a truly beautiful place with tropical plants (oleander, bougainvillea, lilies, ixora, hibiscus) and trees (the royal poincianas (red-orange), the golden rain (a rich yellow) and the jacaranda (lavender) growing everywhere, but despite its beauty, it is not for the squeamish.

 

Alleypey Kerala Province

Alleypey Kerala Province

Anyway, back to the backwaters tour. Just as we arrived in the village of Allepey, there were several loud bangs heard out on the river and one paranoid QE2 passenger wanted to know if the locals were shooting at us. The tour guide assured her that they were only testing fireworks (he called them pyrotechnics) for a celebration to be held that evening. The passenger was a little hard of hearing, so her companion repeated what the tour guide had said, only she told her, not to worry, they were only shooting fire-o-glyphics. I was still snorting into my paper fan over this one, when we boarded our boat which took us down a short canal, out

Quirky Landscaping at the Lake Palace Hotel

Quirky Landscaping at the Lake Palace Hotel

into a lake and to a very nice hotel called the Lake Palace Resort for lunch. This was something of a shock to our system after all we had seen en route. It was air conditioned, beautifully landscaped and tastefully appointed.  The best feature in my book was the western style toilets. India doesn’t have all that many places where you’d really want to go for a nature break, and in fact many only have “eastern” toilets, a.k.a., “squatty potties” (the latter is my term, not theirs) which is basically a hole in the floor, sometimes with porcelain around it, sometimes not, but never with toilet paper and never the least bit aromatic. So when we go adventuring in third world countries, I try to go into camel mode and drink very little liquid.

 

 Canals of Kerala

Canals of Kerala

After lunch we spent two truly fascinating hours cruising the canals of the backwater country. The State of Kerala has 77 rivers, many interconnected by canals, and is billed as the Venice of the East, but this is only true from a waterway perspective. Above the water it is a different world. Tiny houses line the canals, and there is vegetation, in Everglades profusion, but with Louisiana bayou sized trees that shade the canals. There are people everywhere, and again we went into gawk mode. The canals are fresh water (by that I mean they are not saltwater – they don’t stay fresh for long around here).

Doing the Dishes

Doing the Dishes

Everywhere you look people are washing clothes in it, washing dishes in it, washing themselves in it (no nudity here – they go in fully dressed and get their clothes and their bodies washed at the same time). Now this is just a hunch, but I don’t think this land would perk for septic tanks, and there is no evidence of city provided plumbing (although the city does pipe in fresh drinking water), so we’re thinking there are sanitation issues here, but since we’re only visitors here, I reserved comment.

 

Laundry Day

Laundry Day

The canals are used like roads with signs pointing to various communities indicating the distance and direction. We saw several villages that were 50 or more kilometers away, but which could be reached by boat via the canals. All along the way there were children playing  in the canals and running along the levee after our boat like we were the Pied Piper and they were the mice. They called to us asking for ball point pens of all things, which was sort of refreshing since most of the waifs we’ve encountered in other places were asking for money. Our guide told us that pen collecting and trading here is quite a fad (probably like trading baseball cards) and pens with logos from America are especially coveted.

 

A Luxury Cruiser

A Luxury Cruiser

The Allepey backwaters are also a prime vacation spot for well-to-do Indians. There are houseboats that can be rented out here by the day, week, month etc. with captain and staff. However these are far different from the houseboats on Lake Lanier. They are called kettu vallom and have a low-slung Chinese junk shape, but with a wide beam and shallow draft, and they are constructed of rattan, bamboo thatch, and teak wood. They vary from everything to the basic fixer-upper model to a luxurious Cleopatra’s barge type model, complete with sun deck and Palladian windows. The locals use a streamlined gondola-like

A Snake Boat

A Snake Boat

utility boat they call a snake boat, which can be paddled or for the more affluent, motorized. The locals often paddle out to the tour boats, who will throw them a line and tow them along for as long as they want (sort of hitch-hiking). When they get to where they want to go (or else the tour boat goes in a different direction than their destination), they untie themselves and resume paddling.

 

After our boat tour, we retraced out route, but the sights were anything but repetitious. We just had the opportunity to gawk at the opposite side of the street from on the outbound trip.

 

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dateline: Arabian Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) + 5 ½ , 15.39 degrees North, 74.09 degrees East

33 miles west of Karwar, India en route to Mumbai

 

Wisdom from the captain: The admonition to “mind your P’s and Q’s has a nautical origin in that sailors were issued their grog in either pints or quarts. If they happened to overindulge and got rowdy, they would be admonished to curtail their drinking (i.e. mind their pints and quarts, which was shortened to P’s and Q’s.) And while sailors might request their quart beverage in this shorthand fashion, i.e. “I want a Q, please” they usually did not request a pint in the same fashion, since that might confuse things.

 

Today is a sea day but we were traveling much more slowly than normal because we need to ensure we time our arrival in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) at high tide so we could get into the harbor. Cochin gave us a small dose of India, but I have a feeling that in  Mumbai, we’re going to get it with both barrels. We’ve heard it described in so many ways. One was that it’s morbidly fascinating (like a car wreck) in that it’s sometimes hard to watch, but you can’t look away. We also heard it described as like eating a delicious piece of cake in an outhouse. I.E. It is possible to enjoy it, but you will want to hold your nose. We’ve also been told there are not enough words, nor ink, nor film (or in our case digital memory cards), nor time to thoroughly capture Mumbai.

 

We did some homework about India today, including watching a travel film, hoping to learn more before we dock in Mumbai.  India has had a long history of occupation and every culture seems to have left its mark, with the British Colonization being the most recent and one of the longest lasting, starting in 1740 and only ending in 1947. As in Cochin, they were preceded by Dutch, the Portuguese, the Arabs and the Chinese, but also by a group called Aryans (not the blue eyed blond variety, but still much lighter skinned than most residents of India) who moved down to the Indian subcontinent from what is today Iran and Pakistan. Their contribution to India was the caste system, and they promptly proclaimed themselves at the top of the food chain. They were called Brahmins. The basic premise was that whatever caste you were born into, you remained there and furthermore, for males, whatever job their fathers had, they were forced to do the same job. At the bottom of the food chain were the “untouchables”, who got their name from the belief that if you touched them, you would become diseased. As it turned out, a lot of the untouchables were diseased because they had all the jobs and endured the living conditions that made them susceptible to catch all the latest diseases.

 

Forehead dots are not caste marks as I have long believed. They were used originally to represent wisdom, the dot symbolizing a “third” eye which would allow you to see more and thus understand more. It was most fashionable among the upper castes and this I suppose generated the belief  that the dot indicated upper level castes.  Nowadays it is worn primarily as a fashion statement (sort of like lipstick). I have always had trouble with the aesthetics of this dot, but it always suggest a bullet wound to me, or sometimes when the dot smears (relatively few people make them permanent anymore,) they look like a less like a bullet hole and more like a severe head injury, maybe blunt force trauma.

 

British Colonial Influence at  Victoria Station

British Colonial Influence at Victoria Station

Throughout history India was collection of separate kingdoms which happened to occupy the same subcontinent, each under the rule of a Rajah which means “king” in Hindi. When the British took over, they created the new title of Maharajah,  which is a step above rajah and means great king (you know how fond the British are of the class system), which meant some kings outranked other kings. Mumbai was originally built on a series of 7 islands, but the islands were linked through land reclamation and it became the peninsula that exists today. The name Bombay actually came from the Portuguese who called it Bom Baia which translates as “good bay” in their language. India is only about one-third the size of Europe, and yet its population is over 1 billion people. One in every six people on the planet lives in India. Mumbai has about 17 million of them.

 

We have read and heard about so many strange and the exotic things about Mumbai. Here are some samples of the more bizarre:

 

They have shopping malls as we know them, but they have guards to whom you have to show a credit card or cell phone to be admitted (the assumption being that if you have either, you may actually have money to buy something, as opposed to coming in from the heat to take up residence).

 

Mumbai has a number of laughing clubs, sort of like Pilates classes or bridge clubs, where people go for therapeutic laugh sessions. From what we understand, no jokes are told, but we assume everyone takes turns laughing (probably a little forced at first) or maybe there is a “laugh master” who kicks things off. Any way, by whatever means, the laughing begins and then everyone starts feeling better and forgets about their problems for a while.

 

There are groups of people whose job it is to deliver hot lunches to businessmen in town. This may not sound too exotic, but the lunches are made by the spouse at home and the delivery service picks them up from the home and takes them to a centralized point where they are sorted (sort of like UPS packages) and then taken to various office buildings for an on-time noon delivery. They supposedly never lose a lunch.

 

And speaking of losing a lunch, there is a place in the city called Towers of Silence where last rites are performed for members of the Parsi religious sect (descendents of Persians who migrated to India over 1,200 years ago and who follow the teachings of the philosopher, Zoroaster). Unlike the Hindus who cremate their dead, the Parsis believe that they should let nature take care of the business of corpse disposal. So they place the bodies of the dead on the roof of selected towers and the local vultures fly in for lunch. Thankfully, this place is closed to outsiders.

 

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Dateline:  Mumbai, India

Latitude at Mumbai 18.55 degrees North, Longitude 72.50 degrees East

 

Ballard Pier - Mumbai Cruise Terminal

Ballard Pier – Mumbai Cruise Terminal

We arrived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay and still Bombay to many Brits who are having trouble acknowledging the fact that India isn’t a British colony any more) at 11:00 a.m. on the incoming tide and docked at the Ballard Pier. Mumbai is the capital city of the State of Maharashtra (we think Maharashstra must mean 3 ring circus in Hindi) and is home to 17 million people, a number that is astonishing since there were 60,000 here only 200 years ago. We grabbed a quick bite of lunch on the ship, speculating that it would probably be safer from a gastro-intestinal perspective. A friend from our dining room, was going to go along with us since her husband wasn’t feeling well. Our plan was to grab a taxi and see some of the sights since we have a dinner tonight at the Taj Mahal Hotel and tomorrow we were scheduled to fly to Agra to see the real thing.

 

A Brass Band Welcome

A Brass Band Welcome

We were greeted on the pier by a brass band and young girls in saris giving us each a red rose, as we walked though the terminal and out into the chaos that is Mumbai. A dozen or more taxis were noisily vying for our business and we (foolishly) tried to shop around the fleet to find a taxi with air conditioning, but we had to settle for one whose windows went almost all the way down and whose driver almost spoke English we could understand. The taxis here are all identical, painted yellow and black and accented with dents of rust and paint scraped from other vehicles and fixed structures. The cars are a locally made

Taxis Abound on City Streets

Taxis Abound on City Streets

model called “Mahindra” but they look suspiciously like Morris Minors. Horns are the most important navigational feature on the taxis, and are essential to getting from Point A to Point B. In fact we puzzled over a sign we saw on the back of many vehicles which read “Horn O.K. Please”. We think the message is that it’s okay to honk if you are about to run into the vehicle. Or alternatively, if you get in my way, be prepared to be honked at. Per Rudyard Kipling “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, but he if he were alive today, he’d have to amend that verse to add “tourists” since it was noon, we were out and it was 96 degrees.

 

The Dhobi Ghat

The Dhobi Ghat

We had the foresight to write down the different sights we wanted to see, which was a good thing, because when we stated our first desired destination which was an Indian name, the cabbie was drawing a blank.  Our good fortune continued because the driver understood we wanted to hire him for 3-4 hours, but had to be back at the ship at 3:00. We pointed to our list, he nodded and we took off, horn blaring.  Our idea was to go to the place the farthest away from the ship and work our way back so our first stop was to be the Dhobi Ghat (both h’s are silent) and “ghat” means washing place, and Dhobi is the particular location. There are several “ghats around the city.  We were thinking that if the Dhobi Ghat had anywhere near the kind of action that the QE2 launderette had, we may need flak jackets.

 

A Camel is Pressed into Delivery Service

A Camel is Pressed into Delivery Service

The drive to the Dhobi Ghat was another one of those head-turning, jaw dropping, finger-pointing rides like we had in Cochin, but double or triple the volume of exotica. Diversity is too paltry a word, but will have to suffice. There is the most abject poverty and god-awful filth side by side with grandest Victorian buildings and the most beautiful gardens and temples you can imagine. The streets are a kaleidoscope of color and sound. There were straw mats on the sidewalk with freshly harvested peppers drying in the sun next to barefoot people and in rags stretched out on the concrete (with no mat) having a midday snooze. There were

 

Sacred Cows Everywhere

Sacred Cows Everywhere

all sorts of people on motor cycles (no Harleys) including families of 4 or 5, but my personal favorites were the women in head-to-toe Muslim dress, (sometimes called chadors, sometimes burqas – always black, always hot) who were driving their Hondas and Suzukis around town.   There were indeed cows loose on the streets as advertised – the big Brahmin type with the hump – meandering down sidewalks, nosing through litter looking (we assume) for something green to eat. Cows are considered sacred here (giving rise to the colloquial expression “sacred cow” and we assume, the exclamation, “Holy Cow”). Many of the city’s

 

UPS' Competition in Mumbai

UPS’ Competition in Mumbai

cows are those once owned by people who can no longer afford them and have just turned them loose. While they are never harmed, they are more or less ignored by the locals, who are often in the same boat (i.e. scrounging around town looking for food). The tourists, of course, are busy gawking and hanging out of taxi windows taking pictures, present company included. However, the cows are not purely decorative. There is a whole fuel industry that has evolved in that people collect the cow “pies”, shape them into large pancake-looking disks and set them out to dry on irrigation pipes or other convenient heat-retaining

 

Moving Goods in Mumbai

Moving Goods in Mumbai

surfaces. They then sell dried cow pies for fuel for cooking fires (camping style -no hibachi), which can be seen blazing away on the sidewalks pretty much around the clock.  Cow patties should not be confused with the name “Chowpatty” which we saw on this jaunt, which is the name of a local beach touted as Mumbai’s version of Hyde Park in London. Apparently people here are known to mount the virtual soap box and spout political views, recite poetry, break into song, and so forth at will. The beach itself is several miles long and has a promenade along Marine Drive where many of the more upscale of Bombay live and work

 

Human Powered Deliveries

Human Powered Deliveries

in an area called Malabar Hill. Chowpatty Beach is also the site where Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral was held since it was the only venue large enough to accommodate the masses. As a side note, “Mahatma” was not Gandhi’s given name. He was called Mahatma (which means “great soul”) as an honorary title by his followers. Several festivals are held at Chowpatty Beach including Coconut Day, a feast marking the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of fishing season. Thousands of locals toss thousands of coconuts into the surf as an offering to the fishing gods to ensure a good catch. Also at Chowpatty is one of several “Nana Nani” Parks which were created as havens for senior citizens of grandma and grandpa age only. Rowdy teenagers, noisy children, love-struck couples, homeless vagrants have to go elsewhere.

 

 

Hotel Laundry at Dhobi Ghat

Hotel Laundry at Dhobi Ghat

As it turned out, the Dhobi Ghat was a peaceful place, but was stranger than anything we could imagine (that is, as far as imagining laundry facilities goes) Dhobi Ghat is a 5 football field sized area, open in the middle and closed around the perimeter where the stadium seats would be (sort of shaped like Texas Stadium in Dallas only instead of sky boxes, there are make shift tin roofs held down by old car tires and other odds and ends). This is the laundry where people who can afford it (and actually own a change of clothes) send their laundry to be done. Viewing is achieved from a bridge overpass where you can look down and see the rows and rows of concrete sink-like basins with people scrubbing away by hand. Clotheslines are strung everywhere so once the soap is rinsed out, the workers hang up the day’s wash to dry in the sun. On rainy days, we assume they hang it under the tin roofed areas. We were told many hotels send their bed linens here to be washed, which makes us glad we’re sleeping on the QE2. And speaking of clothing, we saw even more diversity here than in Cochin. In addition to the dhotis I mentioned that the Cochin men wear (the wraps, that can be turned into loin cloth/diaper shorts), here they also wear sarongs called murdus and loose fitting non-collared shirts called kurtas.

 

The Substitute Tourist Stop with the Modest Name

The Substitute Tourist Stop with the Modest Name

From the Dhobi Ghat we told the driver we wanted to go to see the Haji Ali Mosque which is supposed to be reminiscent of Mont St. Michel in that it sits off-shore surrounded by water when the tide is in, but I think our cabdriver thought he could show us a nearby Buddhist temple and we wouldn’t know the difference. He was right. We only figured this out later when we re-read the guidebooks. Anyway, while our driver waited, we scurried across a narrow street buzzing with traffic to enter the gates of the Babu Amichang Panalal Adishwari Jain Temple (called the Jain temple for short) where we removed our shoes before

 

Another Use for Your Head

Another Use for Your Head

entering the temple. For a small fee a man offered to watch our shoes and make sure they were there when we came out which was a good investment in these parts – much cheaper than trying to buy them back on the street.  The temple was built of marble in 1904 and proved to be very interesting with ornately decorated elephants (statues, not the real thing) outside, incense burning and several worshippers inside praying at the altar where brightly painted idols representing various Hindu gods were displayed. We had to be careful to observe the rules which included the admonishment that we should not turn our backs on the idols once inside. While we thought this odd, the really strange rule was the one that prohibited and ladies having their menstrual cycle from going inside. I don’t know how this would matter or how they would know if you broke the rules, (or perhaps the idea would be that only Vishnu would know and bad fortune would befall you) The followers of Jainism (a sect of the Hindu religion) hold all life sacred and many wear veils so as to avoid inadvertently inhaling an insect and consequently killing it. (Strange, but true).

 

Victoria Station

Victoria Station

After the temple, we went to Victoria Station which is a huge palace-like train station with a wedding cake exterior built in 1888 and still in use today, although for some reason, its name has been changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji  Terminus, probably to confuse the tourists. The station was a beehive of activity with trains arriving and departing every few minutes from the many platforms with people hanging out of open doorways and some even riding on top.  Adjacent buildings, the Central Post Office and the Municipal Corporation building are built in the same Victorian style and create quite a spectacle in the heart of the city.

 

Gateway to India

Gateway to India

We also visited the Gateway to India which is a huge arch erected in 1924 (sort of a Muslim-Hindu take-off on the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris) which commemorates the visit to India of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. They were kind of slow getting the commemoration going, but there was a World War in the intervening years after all. The arch was used for a number of ceremonial events including the departure in 1948 of the last British troops, marking the end of the colonial era. Our driver was quite insistent that we stop for a looksee at a local crafts shop, despite our protests that we did not want to go. He finally confessed that he gets 100 rupees ( slightly over $2.00) for every taxi full of tourists he brings by, so to help the guy out we agreed to go and actually made a few purchases of treasures for the library at home.

 

Prince of Wales Museum

Prince of Wales Museum

That evening we had a cocktail reception at the Prince of Wales Museum which would have been a lot more enjoyable and interesting if it were air conditioned, but we maintained a stiff upper lip (the British Colonials would have been proud) and sipped our cocktails on the sweltering verandah as if we were born to the ruling class. After the reception we went to the Taj Mahal Hotel for dinner, which was build by a local family, the Tatas, whose dynasty goes back to colonial times. Mr. Tata reportedly wanted to create a fine hotel where locals would be allowed in. The British had built many posh hotels, but local

Taj Palace Hotel

Taj Palace Hotel

people could not darken the doorway. The NOKD (Not Our Kind, Dear) policy was in full force here, just as it was in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.  Several gentlemen from the QE2 broke out their all white tropical formal wear, having been, I suppose, schlepping it around all this time waiting for the appropriate venue. In my book they appeared more like Colonel Sanders than Somerset Maugham, but it’s hard to pull off that colonial look when you tend to be more beefy than svelte.

 

A Formal Dinner at the Taj Palace Hotel

A Formal Dinner at the Taj Palace Hotel

The hotel was lovely – quite grand, and quite elegant in the old colonial style with glittering crystal chandeliers, a grand foyer with a mahogany staircase, and polished brass and starched linen everywhere.  We had a western style meal, but with many Indian accents, Indian entertainment and so forth. As a special touch, they had created decorative and intricate designs on the floor with flower petals at the entrance to our dining room. The ladies toilets at the Taj Mahal Hotel were nothing short of palatial, but I found their Muzak (or whomever provided the background music) selections a little incongruous. An instrumental version of

 

Floral Art at the Taj Palace

Floral Art at the Taj Palace

“Blueberry Hill” was playing softly as I entered the bathroom. And as I finished my business an attendant dressed in an elegant sari dispensed perfumed soap, turned on the taps and provided a fluffy towel for drying my hands to the tune of an instrumental version of “Eleanor Rigby”.  We were given small mementos of our visit to The Taj Mahal Hotel which are small carvings of the Hindu god Ganesh, who happens to be a jolly sort elephant, often depicted playing various musical instruments or otherwise cavorting around. You can’t help but look at it and smile, which, in a country with so many problems, is perhaps the intent.

 

We are not leaving Mumbai until tomorrow night, but since we are flying to Agra to spend the day touring the Taj Mahal and other sights, much of Mumbai must remain unexplored, at least for this trip.

 

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dateline:  Mumbai, India

 

We arose in the wee hours to catch our 2 hour flight to Agra, the capital of the State of Uttar Pradesh to visit the Taj Mahal. We thought we had fully experienced weird and wacky Bombay, but we had only seen the sugar coated tourist version along Marine Drive at night. Our route to the airport took us through the real Mumbai. We at first thought we were imagining things, but quickly came to understand that those lumps on the sidewalks we kept seeing from the bus windows for mile after mile as we rode through the city were actually homeless people (estimated at 2 million) bedded down for the night. Well, actually bedded is a euphemism. They have no beds. We speculated on what they say to each other when they get sleepy. For example, we may say “I think I’ll go to bed now.” Do they say, “I think I’ll go to the sidewalk now?”

 

Mumbai also has hundreds of beggars who can spot a tourist up to five miles away. Most of them are women and children who have learned to mime the act of eating and holding out a grimy hand to sympathetic tourists. While it would be so easy to give them money, it would be a huge mistake because once you give one of them anything or look as if you might, they will multiply exponentially and literally swarm around you. Gary, being the easiest touch I know, really struggled with this, but he had to put his mean face on or as close mean as he could get, or else we’d probably still be on the streets of Mumbai surrounded by the masses and unable to move as our ship sailed away.

 

Cows Strolling through Agra

Cows Strolling through Agra

The airport was quite chaotic, but we eventually managed to get to our chartered plane, a 737, and take off for Agra, arriving just after 8:00 a.m.  Agra is in northern India, only about 150 miles from Nepal, but it was too hazy to see the Himalayas, even if they could be seen from there. Agra seemed to be a microcosm of Mumbai – farm animals roaming the streets, open air haircuts under a convenient tree, carts laden with all manner of “stuff” (propane tanks, shoes in their boxes, coconuts, fresh produce, cow pies, etc.) pulled or pushed by all manner of conveyance (donkey cart, camel cart, horse cart, human cart, trishaw, bicycle, motor scooter, tuk tuks, trucks, etc). As in Mumbai, “US dollar” and at least some English are spoken universally. As in Mumbai, despite the crowded living conditions and overwhelming poverty, the people were smiling and waving to us and the people seemed to get along with each other as well.

 

Lady Construction Workers

Lady Construction Workers

There is a tremendous amount of construction in Agra, but the methods are extremely crude – people carrying mud bricks and excavated dirt on their heads, and people digging manually with a shovel at the high tech sites and with crudely shaped scoops at the low tech sites. Scaffolding is made out of bamboo, lashed together with rope. And of course the “in your face” vendors were everywhere. We finally figured out the best way to shop was to look at the goods through the bus windows while it is parked and open the window and conduct business from there. It is also good to have dollar bills handy since everything goes on sale for $1.00 (whether it’s one item or ten for $1.00) once the bus looks like it’s pulling out, and under no circumstances should you expect change. We’ve been to some places where people want to sell you things in a rather aggressive show of tenacious salesmanship – Mexico, China, Egypt, Brazil, Thailand – but I have to say, India ranks up there with the best of them.

 

The Entrance Gate to the Taj Mahal

The Entrance Gate to the Taj Mahal

We drove to within 2 kilometers of the Taj Mahal, but then transferred to electric buses which supposedly prevent air pollution from damaging the Taj Mahal, which seems pretty naïve thinking, but we dutifully fought our way through the many vendors that mobbed us and hopped aboard. The word “Taj Mahal” means crown palace, but in this case it is actually a mausoleum, built by a Mughal (meaning descended from Mongols) Emperor named Shah Jehan in 1653 for his wife Mumtaz who died in childbirth at 39, giving birth to their 14th child. Interesting side note: Although his wife was much beloved

 

Navigating Through the Cows

Navigating Through the Cows

by Shah Jehan, like other emperors of the day he had a large harem, and thus we can only assume that the Shah must have been a very busy man indeed.

 

We got off the electric buses and weaved our way through a herd of a dozen or so water buffaloes ambling across our path at the high wall encircling the Taj. We approached the Taj Mahal on foot though the gates of a fortress-like battlement made of red

 

Working Cows

Working Cows

sandstone, and continued though a beautifully manicured garden from which we could just see the gold dome in the distance off to our right, but the rest of it was concealed by still another gate and battlement. In keeping with their pollution free environment (or maybe they just like to provide tourists something to photograph) we noticed their lawn mower was pulled by a pair of Brahmin cows, who were still taking a break in the shade at the end of our two hour visit.

 

 

First Look at the Taj Mahal

First Look at the Taj Mahal

As we crossed through the final gate, the Taj Mahal appeared directly before us, perfectly mirrored in a long reflecting pool, seeming to shimmer in the morning sun. Having it unveiled to us in such dramatic fashion was another moment of major-league goose-bumps.  It appears to be ephemeral, almost magical, and despite being made of marble and weigh however many zillion tons it must weigh, it gives the impression floating there just out of reach. The exterior is fine white marble, semi-translucent with inlaid semi-precious stones such as amethyst, jade, topaz, lapis lazuli, malachite and carnelian in elaborate patterns. Verses from

 

Inlays on the Taj Mahal

Inlays on the Taj Mahal

the Koran are also inscribed in Arabic, and rather than detract from the decorations, the curves and flourishes actually complement the design. There is a central gold (not just gold in color – it’s made of gold) dome with four smaller domes and four towers. We were issued shoe covers by our tour operator to actually go inside the building to protect the marble floors. Inside, there is a single room enclosed with decorative screens carved out of marble, but with openings large enough to see through. Directly below the large dome are the elaborately carved (also in marble) replicas of the tombs of the Emperor and Queen

The Reflecting Pool at the Taj Mahal

The Reflecting Pool at the Taj Mahal

Mumtaz. The actual tombs are directly below the replicas and are not open to the public. Shah Jehan died several years after Mumtaz, after having been deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned nearby. He didn’t seem to have committed any offense other than stand in the way of his son’s ambition to rule India himself, although prison is hardly the right term for where he was kept.

 

 

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

After lunch at a very nice hotel, the Mughal Sheraton, we toured the site of Shah Jehan’s imprisonment in what is called the Agra Fort or the Red Fort, since it is built of red sandstone, although calling it a fort is something of a misnomer. It is a fortress, but is also a complex of palaces built over the centuries by the Mughal rulers where they lived with their families, harems, staff, and soldiers protecting them. It was actually the seat of military and political power in those days and is somewhat reminiscent of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, but more elaborate with marble throne rooms, audience halls, harem quarters, courtyards with

Inside the Red Fort

Inside the Red Fort

formal gardens and perfumed fountains. It is a massive structure, situated on a hill overlooking the river. The rooms where Shah Jehan was imprisoned have a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal itself, just on the other side of the river.

 

We also visited one of the marble factories that inlay semi-precious stones in marble using the same materials and techniques used by the builders of the Taj Mahal. They actually carve out designs in the marble and then grind stones down to fit the shape required. They then stick the stones into the marble with a secret formula of resin that predates Crazy Glue by several centuries, but is supposedly just as effective.

 

Dockside Bon Voyage Party - Mumbai

Dockside Bon Voyage Party – Mumbai

We left Agra around 6:00 p.m. for the two hour flight back to Mumbai and arrived back at the ship just after 9:00 where Cunard had one more surprise for us. They had set up a welcome back party on the pier right next to the ship with champagne and one of the best rock and roll bands (locals from Mumbai) I’ve ever heard. I can’t describe how bizarre it was hearing the music (authentic renditions) of Roy Orbison, Shania Twain and the Rolling Stones, sipping champagne on Ballard Pier in Bombay  Harbor, India shortly before steaming off into the night across the Arabian Sea to Dubai. Actually steaming off is a figure of speech since the QE2 hasn’t steamed anywhere in the last twenty years since her retrofit to diesel engines, but somehow the expression, we “dieseled” off doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

 

Friday, March 31, 2006

Dateline – Arabian Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +5, 19.57 degrees North, 68.58 degrees East,

19 miles off Dwarka Point, Northwest India.  241 miles from Mumbai, India 919 miles to Dubai, U.A.E.

 

We crossed the Arabian Sea today, resting up after the whirlwind tour of India, and headed toward the Arabia peninsula to our next port of call, Dubai. Today we learned the origin of the nautical term “head”. In the olden days when ships had no interior plumbing and were sailing vessels, the wind was almost always astern. Thus when they had personal needs to attend to (i.e. call of nature), they would go to the rail at front of the ship to take care of it. Since ships in those days all had figureheads (a.k.a. maidenheads) people would shorten the name to “the head”, as in going to the head. We also learned the background of the expression, “melting pot”, e.g., Mumbai is a melting pot of different cultures. In the olden days when metal was scarce, countries going to war would often call upon their citizenry to contribute household metals (pots, pans, belt buckles, etc.) in order to make bullets. All this metal, regardless of origin, would be thrown together into a “melting pot” to form molten lead, iron, whatever and then be poured into bullet molds. I am sadly disillusioned by this since I always envisioned a melting pot having something to do with chocolate fondue.

 

Since today is a lazy day, this may be a good point to share just a couple of colorful character profiles, especially since we were just at the pool and ran into one of the oddest of the odd couples on board.  We have not been introduced so I will just refer to them by the names we’ve given them which is Mrs. Duck who we think is late 60-ish and Elmer Fudd who appears somewhere north of 90. This couple has been on the QE2 since New York and when we first saw her, we thought that perhaps we had just caught Mrs. Duck in some bad light – sort of a Bad Face Day instead of a Bad Hair Day, although she has those too. After almost 4 months, however, her Bad Face Day continues. We think she must have had a face lift gone bad (maybe got a group rate with Michael Jackson) combined with too many attempts at subsequent reconstruction. While her cheeks are stretched very tight, her lips are always in a Daffy Duck sort of pucker, particularly acute when viewed in profile. It is rumored that she is Italian, but she has uttered nothing remotely resembling any words or phrases in Italian. In fact, we thought she was speaking some little known Eastern European language, but sadly, I think it was indeed English, and she is somehow impaired (not in the physical sense, but in the pharmaceutical sense). She invariable wears orange to most events (not peach, but Halloween or Harley Davidson Orange. She wears Elvis-like jumpsuits with sequins or rhinestones for formal evenings and then jumpsuits with zippers for day wear. She isn’t seriously overweight, but what weight she has seems to have lumped together and succumbed to gravity, and it tends to roll around when she walks, giving the impression that there are some little animals inside the jumpsuit trying to get out.  Around the pool she favors animal prints (leopard, tiger, etc.) fashioned into bikinis way too small for her bulk. Elmer looks like a much older and more emaciated version of the cartoon character and much more lethargic. We suspect Elmer to be either heavily medicated or else intoxicated (i.e. maybe he looks at Mrs. Duck and then follows the words of the Country song, “I’m Gonna Drink Her Pretty”)

 

We haven’t actually met this next odd couple and they are actually an odd foursome. They definitely belong to that group of people who would be called crazy if they were broke, but since they are apparently quite affluent, they are just called eccentric. The mother and father we have dubbed Daddy and Mrs. Warbucks. They are accompanied by their son (we presume), who looks suspiciously like John Candy, so it could be that reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. Mrs. Candy, his presumptive spouse, isn’t at all a match – she’s more in the Angelina Jolie look-alike category. In fact she is such a mismatch,  that we suspect she may be a Bimbo-de jour. The Warbucks family has 3 suites reserved on the QE2 which go for around 200k per person each for the World Cruise. One of the suites is just for clothes and personal exercise equipment. We assume they get a bargain rate since they take 3 suites every year, but it’s still some serious money.  Daddy Warbucks has his own car on board (a Rolls of course) and it is offloaded for him in whatever ports he chooses. He also has over 70 suitcases in the baggage master’s store room which he needs because he brings his own bed linens and towels aboard and enough clothes for 4 months so he doesn’t have to send anything out to the ship’s laundry. His suitcases are brought up as required when he needs fresh towels, sheets or clothes and the old ones are packed away (presumably by his cabin steward). We were also told he dines regularly (and privately) with the captain. The Warbucks home, when they are home is on an island/tax haven country. I don’t know if he owns the whole island, but we will try to become chummy and see if he would like to put us into his will.

 

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Dateline: Arabian Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +5, 23.57 degrees North, 60.53 degrees East

Approaching the Gulf of Oman.  489 miles from Mumbai, India 450 miles to Dubai, U.A.E.

 

This was our second of two sea days before reaching Dubai and we would enter the Gulf of Oman shortly after noon today and then pass through the Straits of Hormuz to enter into the Persian Gulf. The captain announced this morning that due to Dubai’s displeasure with the U.S. policy of refusing to allow Dubai World Ports to take over from P&O the management of 6 major ports in the U.S., the resort in Dubai where a major wing-ding is planned for Cunard World Cruise passengers tomorrow night has been cancelled by the hotel.  The captain went on to say that they were able to pull together a dinner at another venue which is American owned, and while he isn’t sure they can provide the same level of luxury, he is sure that McDonalds will provide an very good meal. It was only then we realized that today April Fool’s Day and our captain, who does love a good joke or a prank, was “having us on” as the Brits say.

 

In other April Foolery, there is a video camera that is on the bow of the QE2 which broadcasts images to each cabin 24 hours a day. Some prankster on the captain’s staff put on footage of thunderstorms with howling winds and raging seas, making us think this is what we had to look forward to for our day at sea.

 

The captain made another announcement which wasn’t a joke and was very unpopular which was canceling our call at Aqaba, Jordan. The nervous nellies at Cunard have cancelled it (they did the same the last 2 years or so we’ve heard) over concern over potential terrorist acts. We understand that they have private security consultants (probably ones that the CIA let go who reported WMD in Iraq) who have advised against going there. Anyway the bottom line is, we will not be seeing Petra on this trip. To compensate for missing Aqaba, they are juggling the schedule a little and are substituting a call to Kusadasi, Turkey where we have already been. We are really bummed out about this since we were excited about the side trip to Petra, but have resolved we’ll come back with slightly less conspicuous transportation, and see it on our own (ditto for Bali and Bangkok). We suspect that they had the Kusadasi plan as backup for some time since it is no easy matter to make arrangements for docking, immigration, tours, etc. for over 3,000 passengers and crew on a few days notice, plus we are transiting the Suez Canal a day earlier than planned which requires a reservation, plus we will be in Alexandria Egypt a day earlier than planned so all the tours and a special event they have planned for Grill passengers had to be moved up a day. We jokingly made a comment after Cunard cancelled the call in Bali, then the tours in Bangkok, and now Jordan, that if this trend continues, the World Cruise in ten years time will be circling Great Britain.

 

Any way once we finished our ten minutes of venting with the other passengers, we attended the final enrichment lecture by Nigel West on a secret program code named “Venona”, which lasted from 1943, when cryptographers first figured out coded messages that the Russians were sending to 1979, when the Russians found out (from the British turncoat, Kim Philby) that we had figured out their codes and thus changed them. The actual code breaking was achieved by looking at bills of lading provided for the arms and goods we shipped to the Russians during WWII, which they then encoded and broadcast to their armies to let them know what arms and goods to expect. Since the Americans and the British already knew what the bills of lading said, they were able to reverse engineer the code. The Soviets, not realizing their code had been compromised, kept using it throughout much of the Cold War. Now if they could just get these same code breakers out of mothballs (and I suspect nursing homes), and get them working on terrorists communication, we might be able to go to some of these tourist destinations- turned- hotspots that Cunard is skipping this year.

 

The captain’s wisdom of the day is this quote:  May you have the hindsight to know where you have been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know where you are.

 

 

 Sunday, April 2, 2006

Dateline: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Latitude at Dubai 25.15 degrees North, Longitude 55.16 degrees East

 

Today we docked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) at Port Rashid, and were struck immediately by the stark contrast to our last port of call, Mumbai, which you would think would be on another planet altogether. Dubai is one of 7 emirates that chose to band together to form a nation. Bahrain and Qatar are two emirates that chose not to go with the alliance. The major stumbling block in forming the U.A.E. was the fact that each emirate had an emir (or sheik) and nobody wanted to be second fiddle. The way they solved the problem was that the various sheiks formed the Supreme Council of Rulers and they take turns being President, although sometimes they will trade away their turn for other things – like oil for example, which Abu Dhabi seems to have the most of, in addition to be being larger than all the other emirates put together.  Dubai, however, has become a world class power player with just a little oil and some really smart investments. The rulers of Dubai are the Maktoum family and the title of emir is handed down, typically from father to son, or other male relative if there is no son or he is somehow unsuitable. Nepotism is very common in the emirates and there are Maktoums in any number of important government positions.

 

The economy in Dubai is booming and its citizens have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world with only 10% of Dubai’s economy being petroleum based. Dubai has benefited from a visionary sheik over the last several years who died recently. He is credited with turning Dubai from a sleepy little sheikdom relying on pearls and fishing, with a splash of oil thrown in,  to a diversified economic powerhouse in trade, construction, service industries, and last but not least, tourism, which accounts for a whopping 40% to the economy. Now obviously these tourists are going to want something to tour, so Dubai has gone to work to out-Disney, out-Vegas, out-New York the rest of the world in essentially just the last 10 years. Dubai’s population is only around 1.2 million, and three quarters of that number are expatriates, either guest workers who can stay up to 3 years before renewing permits, or property owners who get 99 year permits. Residents of Dubai do not pay taxes, get free education including college and free medical care. Expats do not share in the bounty of the government, but Dubai has set up a number of free trade zones (no corporate taxes) to draw in business. Arabic is the official language, but English is the language of commerce and thus is the real language used. Crime is unheard of here. Locals have all the money they need and expats under the least suspicion of wrong doing get deported, no excuses, no trial.

 

Dockside Welcome

Dockside Welcome

We arrived in port around 8:00 a.m. and were greeted by men in the traditional dress (and in this case, dress does meant literally dress in that they are muu-muu like garments, typically white or light colors with long sleeves). In Egypt these are called “galabiyahs”, but I’m not sure what they’re called here. The men were playing drums (think bongos, not rock and roll or marching band) and doing what we assume were tribal dances that were more swaying than shucking and jiving (but then this is the desert after all – it’s hot out there.) They also had very skinny sticks with a crook on the end like a candy cane (also used to communicate

Dubai Bagpipers

Dubai Bagpipers

with camels) which they would tap on the ground and on each others shoulders in time to the drumming. The other dockside entertainment (they took turns) was really bizarre. Picture, if you will, 8 to 10 Arab men in white galabiyahs, playing “Scotland Forever on the Bagpipies” (something definitely wrong with this picture), but it was a nice tribute to the heritage of the QE2 since she was built and launched in Scotland.

 

 

Greeters at the Port of Dubai

Greeters at the Port of Dubai

The cruise terminal was sparkling new, built with steel and glass in the shape of a ship with a few shops and free high speed internet. Dubai is essentially a desert which has been subjected to an all out government funded “greening program”. They use desalinated sea water, which is a very expensive proposition, but here in Dubai money is no object. In fact water costs more per gallon that gasoline so they tell us. Everything is irrigated, manicured and plants are whisked away if they start to wilt or look as if they will shortly meet an untimely demise. The local currency is the dirham and the exchange rate is $3.56 dirhams to the dollar. However, dollars are accepted everywhere, no matter what you want to buy, and you will even get change in U.S. currency which is something of an anomaly in most parts of the world. If any building does not have covered parking, you will see open lots with rows of umbrellas for the cars to park under.

 

Dubai Marina

Dubai Marina

Our plan for today was to take a boat and leave from the Dubai Marina, home of mega-yachts galore, to tour around two of the artificial island projects that you may have read about. A Dubai development company called Nakheel is developing 4 different projects that involve creating man-made islands just off-shore which will be sold and developed into hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, marinas and residences. Dubai already has two of the main ingredients in plentiful supply – pure white sand and gin-clear water. Three of the projects are going to be a self-contained community in the shape of palm trees with the “trunk”

The Plan for the Palm Jumeirah

The Plan for the Palm Jumeirah

attached to shore with a causeway atop it. Each “frond” will fan out from the trunk and will be lined with the above mentioned homes and businesses. They are called The Palm, Jumeirah where Donald Trump is building a hotel, the Palm, Jebel Ali, a short distance from the city and The Palm, Deira, which is closest to Old Dubai and is the largest and most elaborate of the three. For example, the Jumeirah project has a total of 16 “fronds” while the Deira project has 40.  Construction just to create the islands takes about two years and the first one, Jumeirah was started in 2001. As fabulous as these “Palm” projects are, the real eye-

 

Gardens at the Nakeel Sales Center

Gardens at the Nakeel Sales Center

popper mind-blower is the 1.8 billion dollar “World” project. They are creating islands grouped together to form the continents of the world. They start by building a breakwater that forms the outline of a Mercator (i.e. the globe flattened) map of the world. Then the continents are built with several islands making up each one.

 

 

 

Downtown Dubai

Downtown Dubai

On the drive to the marina from Port Rashid, we drove down city streets that looked as if they were transplanted here directly from Callaway Gardens with carpets of grass you’d swear had to be fake, bordered with huge beds of flowers (not native – all imports). Our route took us down Sheik Zayed Road, which is the main street for glittery opulence and over the top skyscrapers. The glitteriest of them all currently are the Emirates Towers, but this will soon be overshadowed (literally when the sun hits just right) by the new Burj Dubai which was under construction. (not to be confused by the Burj Al Arab Hotel). The Burj Dubai was to be the tallest building in the world, rising out of a flower petal shaped base and will house all sorts of luxury apartments, businesses and services. We also drove past vast walled waterfront compounds, many of which were properties of the sheik, his family or his cohorts, where we could catch a glimpse of opulence beyond even the Beverly Hills scale.

 

Cranes on Dubai's Skylilne

Cranes on Dubai’s Skylilne

As for the boat tour, you can’t really see the shape of things from sea level and our boat was not allowed inside the breakwaters of the two Palms projects we visited, so what we saw was cloudy sky, clear water, a zillion cranes, dredgers, dump trucks, etc. However, we were on a very luxurious boat sipping wine and marveling at the fabulous Dubai skyline, so how bad could that be? The real treat was the visit to the Nakheel Sales center where we saw a mini-IMAX presentation and strolled the grounds around the center, which are fabulous in their own right

 

Atrium Burj Al Arab Hotel

Atrium Burj Al Arab Hotel

To wrap up our tour, we went to the Burj al Arab Hotel for tea. This is the famous hotel shaped like a sailboat with a really tall sail. The Burj is a gated hotel, meaning you have to have a reservation there for a meal or a room in order to be allowed in. If you reserve a room, you need to plan on anywhere from $1,000 to $35,000 per night. No photos are allowed in the restaurants since it annoys the celebrities. An open atrium soars upward from the lobby to the very top floor which is visible from the moment you enter the hotel. We got on the escalator to go to the mezzanine where the restaurant for our tea is located and we

The Lobby of the Burj Al Arab Hotel

The Lobby of the Burj Al Arab Hotel

were so in awe of the structure, we almost failed to notice the walls are actually salt water aquariums filled with exotic fish. There are a host of truly elegant shops in the hotel, including one which sells diamond encrusted abayas (the flowing robes that Muslim women wear) and veils that run between $40k and $50k each. White gloved waiters provide tea service amid the most unconventional, yet tasteful flower arrangements you can imagine. Tea was an elaborate affair with unctuous waiters serving scones, tiny sandwiches and pastries. Unfortunately we were running late and had to hurry back to the ship to change for dinner. Cunard was hosting a gala World Cruise Dinner at Madinat Jumeirah Resort and we were told it’s an event not to be missed under any circumstances. As it turned out – this was good advice.

 

An Elegant Evening at the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel

An Elegant Evening at the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel

We were driven to the Madinat Jumeirah resort where we were greeted by costumed hosts and hostesses in native dress. We were first showered with rose petals and then offered dates to nibble on as we proceeded into the hotel down a luxuriously carpeted (sink up to you ankles type carpet) to a bar area with waiters bearing champagne and delicious hot canapes. The bar was open to an outside terrace with a view of the sun setting on gardens and a canal. We did experience one moment of incongruity in seeing what we thought might be Pringles in the various areas of the bar. A closer inspection did confirm the

 

A Hunting Falcon at the Madinat Jumeirah

A Hunting Falcon at the Madinat Jumeirah

sighting. We did a tasting just to make sure and yup they were indeed Pringles, but the liquor was flowing freely and the canapés were to die for, so we figured we could forgive this lapse into the bourgeois. We took our champagne outside to see the old fashioned faux souk (market) that had been set up for us to fit in with the Arabian theme. There were live freshly shampooed camels, decked out in their Sunday best glad rags. They were both good tempered and good smelling, which is quite unusual in the real world of camels. The resort provided shishas, also known as water pipes, set up for our smoking pleasure, offering

 

Henna Tattoo Artists at the Reception

Henna Tattoo Artists at the Reception

both tobacco and apple wood. They had stalls with mounds of fresh spices, incense, figs, dates, and all the other items you might find on the trade route caravans from years ago. They also had falcons trained for hunting for us to admire and pose with, as well as Arabian horses, ready for us to mount and gallop off into the sunset on (however, since everyone was dressed in formal wear, the horses were just petted and admired for the most part). One horse showed an inordinate interest in my glass of champagne and actually got his lips around the rim while I was petting him, so I’m thinking, in addition to oats, he was especially fond of the bubbly. There were also tasseled silk tents with silk cushions to lounge upon while we nibbled our dates, sipped our champagne, considered getting henna tattoos and listened to various assorted musicians.

 

Gardens at the Madinat Jumeirah

Gardens at the Madinat Jumeirah

Dinner was an elaborate affair with a world renowned soprano to entertain us who sang several arias. We also had a welcome by the president of Cunard, who happened to be a woman, and one of the Emir’s relatives, Sheik so-and-so (sorry I didn’t get his name, but with 600 people in attendance, we weren’t introduced.) This evening was really one of the trip highlights, although, no disrespect to the Emir, our favorite part was the camels.

 

 

Monday, April 3, 2006

Dateline: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

 

The Gold Souk in Old Dubai

The Gold Souk in Old Dubai

Today we were to leave Dubai at 1:00 p.m. which gave us very little time for seeing the sights. We did have two specific destinations in mind. Gary wanted to visit the local Harley dealership and I wanted to visit the gold souk and see some of Old Dubai, which we did not visit yesterday. Old Dubai is centered around what is called Dubai Creek, which is really a salt water inlet, perhaps two miles long. We took a taxi, but arrived at the Harley dealership too early since it didn’t open until 10:30 and thus Gary was forced to order his Dubai Harley-wear on line. He was also quite distressed to learn we had missed Bike Week

 

Longshoremen at the Creek in Old Dubai

Longshoremen at the Creek in Old Dubai

in Dubai by only a single day since it ended day before we arrived. Because time was short, we decided to taxi back to Old Dubai where we made a surgical strike at the gold souk and I bought a small bauble. We then eyeballed the merchandise at the spice souk. We also spent some time walking around Dubai Creek and looking at the old boats and trading ships bound for Iran. This was a fascinating walk (and a fascinating contrast to the squeaky clean newness of Modern Dubai). There we saw the most dilapidated, paint-peeling, engine-coughing small freighters I’ve ever seen, none probably not more that 100 feet long, with

 

Abras Crossing Dubai Creek

Abras Crossing Dubai Creek

truly colorful characters loading all sorts of cargo – TV’s, rice, cooking oil, air conditioners, tires, shoes, cookware, etc. One captain we were chatting with said it takes these vessels two days to reach Iran and then they unload and come back empty (apparently there’s nothing in Iran that anyone it Dubai is anxious to purchase). We also enjoyed seeing the small local boats called “abras” that ferry people back and forth across the creek for less than 50 cents.

 

There is so much here and still so much under development. Here is a sample of what’s going on.

 

Business – Dubai is setting itself up as a high tech business hub, creating a financial and a physical environment to attract the best of the best in selected areas.  They have a business area called Knowledge Village, which is intended to be an education oriented R&D mecca. They also have Media City where all major news, media TV networks (e.g. Reuters, CNN, Al Jazeera, Showtime) and major ad agencies have offices.  They also have Internet City which hosts businesses for all things Internet.

 

Tourism and Leisure – Dubai’s goal seems to be to offer the visitors and residents everything under the sun and they seem to either already have it or are building it. Here’s a sampling:

 

Mall of the Emirates featuring 14 movie theaters with monstrous screens and a ski slope called Ski Dubai with fresh snow made daily.

 

Dubai Festival Park – a resort style city which will also host flagship stores for major retailers

 

Dozens of world class golf courses, with more springing up every few months.

 

All manner of water sports including whitewater rafting, water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, canoeing, etc.

 

Dubailand – which  has Disney type attractions,  and then some. They also have sports, plus spas and health retreats, shopping etc.

 

Dubai Mall – which will be largest shopping mall in the world and will be the size of 5 soccer fields. It will feature the world’s largest gold souk and will be connected to the Burj Al Arab Hotel by an 800 foot enclosed “travelator”

 

The city also has ice skating arenas, shooting clubs, hot air ballooning, and anything else you can think of.

 

Top restaurants of all cultures around the world are flocking to Dubai in droves.

 

And here’s my personal favorite – Camel Racing. We didn’t have time to see this, but we are told it is quite the event. Camels are raced with small boys as jockeys around an open track – open meaning the spectators are up close and personal and have to be prepared to move fast in case a camel veers off the track. This would seem to be very dangerous for the jockeys as well, but we learned they are actually stuck to the camel’s saddle with Velcro (one strip on the pants, one on the saddle) and after each race have to go to the paddock to get unstuck.

 

World Class Events – Dubai is busy building and throwing money at world class events to attract the elite in every sport or special event such as

 

Horse Racing – The Dubai World Cup is now the world’s richest horse race.

 

Auto Racing –  the Dubai Autodrome and Business Park – They have some racing now, but are hoping to attract the Formula 1 Grand Prix. The adjacent Business Park will host automotive industry corporations.

 

Golf – the Dubai Desert Classic is Emirates Golf Club has one of the largest purses on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods won it this year.

 

Needless to say, Dubai has easily made our “must revisit” list.

 

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Dateline: Arabian Sea

Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +4, 21.43 degrees North, 59.36 degrees East,

26 miles southeast of Ras al Hadd, Oman, Arabian Peninsula

 

We learned this morning of some high seas drama that took place yesterday evening around 7:00 p.m. as we passed through the Straits of Hormuz, which are very narrow (only a few miles across at the narrowest point) and all ships entering or leaving the Persian (Arabian) Gulf have to pass through this area. Until the Arabian pipeline was built, this was a huge area of concern for the Western World since all oil out of the Middle East had to pass through here and it would only take one sunken ship of any substantial size to plug up the works.

 

Anyway, our drama was this. We noticed as we went to dinner there were a number of small craft (Miami Vice Cigarette Boat types) running along beside us, which would veer off sharply from time to time. What we learned today was that these were actually smugglers of some sort, running between Oman and Iran, who were trying to use the QE2 as a shield from radar detection. On radar screens, the small fiberglass boats couldn’t be seen due to the bulk of the QE2 – they would simple look like scattered signals bouncing off our hull. What made them veer off was the stern warning from the ship’s LORAD – Long Range Acoustic Device. Apparently the QE2 crew gave them a verbal broadcast warning followed by the ultrasonic directed sound blast and the would-be smugglers decided to take their chances in open water.

 

The Captain also shared some more trivia. In the world of military statue sculpting, there are certain traditions that are observed when the hero being honored is on horseback. If the horse has all four feet on the ground, the person died a natural death. If the horse has one foot in the air, the person died of wounds received in battle. If the horse is rearing with two legs in the air, the person died in battle. However, if all 4 legs are in the air, this will signify a dead horse.

 

One of the enrichment lecturers today was Kate Adie, a well-known correspondent in the UK for the BBC. She is sort of the Christiane Amanpour of the BBC. She would be doing a series of lectures on her career in journalism over the next several days. Today her subject was “foundlings” – i.e. children not just abandoned by their parents, but turned over to someone for safekeeping. She is really spell-binding so we’re looking forward to her future talks.

 

We also were treated today to huge schools of dolphins – hundreds in each school who were apparently having some sort of dolphin jamboree and fish round up. Since it was a beautiful day out on deck, we spent most of the afternoon there and were able to see different schools over a period of several hours. We have to rest up for an exciting day in Salalah, Oman tomorrow.

 

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Dateline: Salalah, Oman

Latitude at Salalah 16.56 degrees North, Longitude 54.00 degrees East

 

A Frankincense Tree

A Frankincense Tree

Because we were at a loss as to what Oman offered, we had decided to take one of the ship’s tours entitled the Frankincense Trail. Frankincense was something else we weren’t knowledgeable about (beyond the Christmas story of the 3 Wise Men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh), so we decided it wouldn’t hurt to go get educated – and we were extremely well rewarded with a really fascinating experience, despite our first impressions. We docked around 8:00 a.m. and set off on the Frankincense Trail with our guide, Abdulluh, who spoke good English, having been educated in Wales and who told us a bit about Oman, all of which was news to us.

 

The Coastline of Oman

The Coastline of Oman

Oman occupies most of the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula on the Arabian Sea and is primarily desert and mountains. According to local legend, God divided the world into sea and settled lands with the leftover desolate area designated as the “Empty Quarter” which today is the Arabian Peninsula. Oman is ruled by a sultan, who since 1970 has had the title of King, and the title passes from father to son (no elections required) and the capital is in its largest city, Muscat. Salalah is the second largest city and is a provincial capital of Dhofur, but with only 120,000 people, it’s still pretty small.  This part of Oman is only 200 miles

The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter

from the Yemen border and they have a significant problem with illegal Yemeni immigrants (sound familiar?) who look at Oman as the promised land. (which proves it’s all relative). The local currency is the Omani rial which is exchanged at 3 rials to the dollar. We didn’t get any local money because “dollar” is spoken and understood everywhere, even out here in the middle of nowhere. We do make sure we have a lot of one dollar bills, because the concept of “change” for a $5, $10 or $20 is not understood at all. The terrain is desert with a backdrop of arid mountains – sort of a Baja California look. While everything was pretty brown by my standards, Abdullah assured us that when the monsoon season comes everything greens up beautifully and people from all over the Arabian Peninsula come to spend the summers here. He says it rains every day and to people who are rain-deprived, this is bliss. Our guide said that local people often move into tents in the summer and rent their houses out to people coming down to Salalah for the seasonal wet weather.

 

Oman is almost 100% Muslim, but not fanatically so. The men wear some western clothes, but most seem to favor the long white cotton shirts (long as in to the ankle) they call “dishdashas” with a draped or pleated turban for their heads, or in some cases a cap similar to what navy ensigns wear, but with elaborate embroidery. The women wear the Muslim abaya, sometimes with a veil covering their entire face, but increasingly with just a scarf for their heads.  Abdullah says this is by choice, not by law, since many of the women are shy. (I suspect they don’t get much focus on assertiveness and self-esteem building in these parts). Courtship is a difficult process since there is no dating here. At the mosque, men attend with men and women with women. At weddings, parties or other gatherings where there is music, men dance with men and women with women. Consequently arranged marriages still prevail although Abdullah says this custom slowly is changing. If you wanted to check a girl out, it’s okay to send your mother or sister to visit her to see if she’s marriage material since with those abayas you can’t really see the goods. The marriage age used to be 14, but now all girls have to finish school so it’s 17 or 18.

 

Frankincense for Sale in Salalah

Frankincense for Sale in Salalah

Frankincense, like myrhh, is a source of incense and it comes from the sap of the frankincense tree. There are 3 different qualities of incense in case you find yourself out shopping for it. The best is green and white, the next best is white and the poorest quality is brown. Frankincense only grows in a few places (Oman, Eritrea, Somalia) and requires serious heat in order to thrive. Our first stop on the bus was to see “the frankincense” tree which is a sad looking thing out in the middle of the desert, with the closest structure about 5 miles way, a combination mosque/grocery store. A note on stores here – they advertise groceries and luxuries, but don’t be thinking gold and precious stones. Luxuries here are things like soap, toilet paper, and toothpaste.  In the wild, frankincense trees are found in “wadis” which are dry creek beds, where they can occasionally get some moisture if it rains. Commercial trees are usually on plantations behind fences and are carefully tended and irrigated.  This token tree is for tourists to ogle and fondle. Fortunately the frankincense trail did not end with the sighting of the frankincense tree because we were feeling decidedly under-whelmed by it all at this point.

 

The Headland at Mugsail Beach

The Headland at Mugsail Beach

From the tree, we drove past some really beautiful beaches including Mugsail which has a Hilton Hotel and nothing else on it. From there we went to a rocky headland with breaking waves and scenic vistas along the coast. We saw a number of little pyramid shaped mounds on the beach about 6 inches tall and were told that these are crab dwellings, and thus the catching of crabs for supper proves pretty simple. Abdullah told us that we could hear the “music of the water” at a blowhole, however when we got there, the sea had calmed to the point that Abdullah broke the news to us that “the ocean, she is not playing the music today.”

 

In the Dhofar Mountains

In the Dhofar Mountains

Then we drove up into the mountains and this is where the fun started. There were loose camels every few miles which created a lot of entertainment for the busload of tourists. Our guide explained that there are no wild camels in Oman, but people turn them out in the mornings to forage for food and then round them up at night. Each camel has an ear marking to show ownership. Most of the camels are owned by Bedouins who have given up the nomadic life for the most part. They still keep camels, but they also have TV’s, houses and cars. Bedouins were granted large tracts of land in previous centuries which proved to have oil on it. There houses are all pretty modest and rustic, to say the least, but then it’s probably hard to have a nice subdivision when there are camels in the back yard. They also have large barbecues for which they dig a pit in front of their houses to roast goats, camels and other unlucky beasts at parties lasting far into the night. We had asked about wildlife but were told that other than Bedouin parties, there are only wild donkeys who are descendants of farm animals in times gone by. They also have canaries there and we saw their nests dangling from the rare tree here and there, but no birds.

 

The View from Job's Tomb

The View from Job’s Tomb

We continued higher up into the Dhofar Mountains to Job’s Tomb, which is supposedly the resting place of Job of the Old Testament, whose faith was tested by God with a series of hardships and disasters. As you will recall, Job never lost his faith, and thus we have the saying that someone has “the patience of Job”. The tomb is inside a very simple one room open air building made of stone and stucco and actually looks like a mound. It is covered with a decorative heavy silk cloth. To enter you must remove your shoes and women must cover their heads. An attendant is there to provide scarves for any woman who

 

The Garden at Job'sTomb

The Garden at Job’sTomb

does not have one. Job supposedly came to Salalah in either the 15th or 16 Century B.C. and then died here. The Queen of Sheba has also supposedly been here, but no one seems to have unearthed a tomb for her or any evidence of her passing through. There was also a purported footprint, made by Job, adjacent to his tomb, but it seems to be imprinted on a surface that looks suspiciously like concrete, a substance unknown in Biblical times, and thus there were a few skeptics in the crowd on this one. On our descent from the mountains, we saw still more camels, although they are very hard to see at any distance since they blend into the landscape. This observation gave rise to the pun that they are “camel-flaged”. We were greatly amused by that and got a further chuckle out of one sign that cautioned thusly: “Caution – Smiling camels make biting if scared”. We also saw a camel that had on a bag-like contraption around her udders. Abdullah told us that Omanis drink camel milk and the bag is to ensure that it doesn’t leak or any baby camel hangers-on who should be weaned already sneak a slurp or two. Abdullah reports it is very bland with little taste, so I think I’ll forego the opportunity if offered the chance for a sample. He also told us that animals are not allowed in the city and if one should stray there, the owner is fined.

 

Downtown Salalah

Downtown Salalah

And speaking of the city (loosely defining the word), we ended our tour there. Salalah is a very tidy city as third world countries go. All houses in are, by law, built in the same traditional Arabic style with one 20th Century improvement. Many of the windows are tinted blue to keep the hot sun out and allow the women inside to see out without being seen themselves. Each house typically is home to 2 or more married children and their families living with the parents since housing is expensive relative to income for those who aren’t Bedouins with oil money.  The town had a souk, which per our observation had two main products, incense and tailor shops – blocks and blocks of tailor shops. We decided to buy a locally made incense burner from a woman who wore the abaya, with only her eyes and hands showing – but what hands those were. She had her fingers painted black from the last knuckle forward and her long nails were thickly coated with a glittery gold polish. It’s a good thing she only wanted a few bucks for her incense burner since neither of us were about to quibble with her over the price. She was way too scary looking to bargain with.

 

The Sultan's Beach

The Sultan’s Beach

We had hoped to stroll around the grounds of the Sultan’s beachfront home here in Salalah, but he was in residence so we just had a quick peek of the outside. We also took a quick stroll on the beach which was totally empty. There is a lot of room for development should Oman decide to follow in Dubai’s footsteps, but we’ll have to wait and see on this one.