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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
Latitude at Singapore 1.16 degrees North, Longitude 103.46 degrees East
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.