Friday, March 27, 2015

Mar 23 – The Wonders of Old Dubai

To see Dubai and the Burj Kalifah rise out of the water is to believe in magic.  The Burj Kalifah, the world’s tallest building at over 2200 feet, looks like a finger pointing to God as if to say, “Here I am!”  It towers over everything including some of the other tallest buildings on the planet.  It dwarfs and dominates everything.

We were concerned about the weather because it was raining on the ship several hours before we docked, but the Weather Gods smiled on us once again and we had partly cloudy skies but only 6 raindrops all day.  We were lucky in other ways, too.

Our guide in Dubai is Shahnaaz, a South African émigré who has been in Dubai for fifteen years.  Both she and Port Lecturer Barbara emphasized the fact that only 12 – 15 per cent of Dubai’s residents are native to the area.  They are the direct descendants of the Bedouins who have lived here for thousands of years and, as such, have tremendous wealth.  The Emirati [citizens of the United Arab Emirates] are entitled to free housing, medical care, education and citizenship.  The housing ranges from the luxurious to the outrageous.  The non-Emirati population does all of the heavy lifting in the country; they are the laborers, merchants and teachers who make up the middle and lower classes.

For the immigrants, life is a balancing act.  In order to stay in Dubai [or any of the other six Emirates in the UAE], they must have and keep jobs.  If they lose their jobs, for any reason, they must find new ones in 30 days or leave the country.  They will never be allowed to become Emirati citizens.  Even if they marry citizens, they are required to keep their original passports; their children, however, will be full citizens when they reach the age of 18.

Life is also difficult for the “worker bees” because the cost of living is so high.  Rent is payable a full year in advance and landlords [read Emirati owners] may raise rents at any time.  Shahnaaz said her rent has risen 40% in the past year and is so high that she has to move farther out of the city.  She has moved 8 times in 15 years.  Because there is almost no arable land here [it’s a desert!], most produce and other groceries must be imported.  Gasoline is inexpensive because the government subsidizes the oil industry.  In a land of no taxes, gas sells for about $2 per gallon.

Speaking of oil…It is the driving force behind the economy of Abu Dhabi, the neighboring Emirate and capital of the UAE, but plays only a minor role in Dubai.  Think of the Emirates as states in the US except the governors are called sheikhs and they rule for life and their word is absolute.  Each Emirate is independent yet there are national laws, agreed to by the Sheikhs as well as compulsory military service for Emirati.  Dubai’s economy is driven by international commerce, tourism and spices.  This was once a center for pearl fishing but the Japanese scuttled the market for pearls with the introduction of cultured pearls in the 1930s.

Dubai is the financial hub of the UAE and is more liberal than its neighbors.  Although most of the women and a large number of men still wear traditional Bedouin garb [loose robes and head-coverings], the choice of dress is theirs.  Because Dubai has so many ex-pats working for large international firms, there is a mixture of Western styles, too, from the conservative to the extreme.  Women in shorts may be tolerated in Dubai, but it would not be in the neighboring states; in one mall in another Emirate, women are required to wear robes and head-coverings which are provided to them if they arrive dressed inappropriately.

Despite the unofficial dress code, women are revered and respected.  They wear the concealing dress for both modesty and comfort.  The robes, head gear and even the face-coverings are throwbacks to their nomadic roots and offered great protection from sun and sand.  If one remembers what sanitation was like in the desert, it is no wonder that black robes for women are popular because they do not show dirt and stains.

Although the UAE and Dubai are Muslim countries, there is no apparent discord or discrimination against any of the many races, religions or cultures represented here.  Even Jews are welcome with one exception – Anyone with an Israeli passport is refused entry.  But, as the guide said, that’s politics, not religion.  Muslims are expected to pray 5 times a day and allowances are made by employers to facilitate this.

The lecture is over; on to the tour.

We began at the Omar Farouk Mosque.  This mosque is not as well-known as the Jumeirah Mosque which is a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and is the one which most tours include.  Alas, the Jumeirah Mosque was not open when we were available, so Shahnaaz arranged a visit to Omar Farouk.  Set in a residential area near the “Beverly Hills” of Dubai, it is unassuming.  Unlike larger mosques we have seen, it was small and plain where others were large and colorful.

The prayer hall was enough to accommodate 2000 men.  Women could use a screened-off area on the second floor, but their attendance at the mosque is not required.  It is thought that they are too busy at home to leave for prayers and there are no children allowed in the women’s section.  The entire prayer hall is carpeted in a linear pattern so that the men [and women upstairs] stay aligned with Mecca.  Opposite the main entrance was the mirhab which indicates the direction of Mecca; Muslims always face Mecca, their Holy City, in order to direct their prayers to God.

After the women in the group were suitably robed, we met a representative of the mosque who, we decided later, could be thought of as the Director of Education.  He spent an hour explaining the architectural and religious details of the mosque and Islam itself and was both engaging and erudite.  We were encouraged to ask questions and received straight-forward answers.  Like Shahnaaz, was appalled by the political Muslims who, he said, are not observing the tenets of Islam or its Five Pillars.

Another stop at the mosque was the Ablution Room.  There are two, naturally, one for each gender.  Muslims must be clean before they pray, so they wash their faces, hands and feet before praying in the mosque.  It is sort of like the Orthodox Jewish mikvah without the immersion.  The women also had a chance to climb the stairs to see the women’s prayer hall.

From the Omar Farouk Mosque, we drove across the main road and past all of the office and apartment towers of Dubai.  We had seen them on the way from the ship and they were just as jaw-dropping on the way back.  Our stop was at the Bastikiya area, one of the oldest in Dubai.  The old mud-and-sand dwellings have been renovated and now serve as museums and cultural centers including a calligraphy center and a philately center.  The main feature of the architecture here is copied in many Arab buildings even today – the wind tower.  As a precursor to air-conditioning, it was ingenious.  An open four-sided tower was constructed above the house.  Inside the open tower, baffles ran at right-angles from the corners, making a large X pattern.  This arrangement allowed breezes from any direction to be captured and the moving, and hopefully cool, air to be directed into the house.  Today’s wind towers are just ornamentation, of course, but the exterior design is the same.

Around the corner from the Bastikiya is the Dubai Museum.  It is housed in the old Al Fahidi fort and includes relics and reproductions to illustrate life in Dubai before it was Dubai.  The Bedouins and nomads are shown in dioramas as is the rise of towns and trades.  In the courtyard of the fort is the well – long since dried up – which the fort defended [It is interesting to note that Bastikiya was so close to the fort and the water].  The museum is actually underground, reached by a descending spiral which is matched at the far end, just past the gift shop, by an ascending spiral.

We drove from the museum to Dubai Creek in the old town.  The creek is an extension of the Arabian Sea, not a real creek, but it divides the old town nonetheless.  We boarded an abra, the traditional water taxi for the trip to the other side of the creek.  The boat was a bit tricky to board because the space was narrow and the seats were not far above the floor.  Anyone with knee problems – and that was a large part of our group – was uncomfortable sitting and unbalanced trying to stand.  It was not a fun trip, but, fortunately, it was very short.

Once we disembarked from that floating torture chamber, we crossed the street to get to the Spice Market.  We had envisioned a tented area with merchants selling spices from open sacks, weighing them on balance scales with tiny weights.  Instead we found a concentration of shops selling both loose and packaged spices, candies and nuts.  We sampled chocolate-covered dates with almonds inside and ending up buying them in the hope that some make it back to Florida.  We also bought a jar of assorted nuts arranged in layers and submerged in honey.  Vanilla ice cream, anyone?  Others bought things, too, so we did not have to look at the other shops which were probably selling the same products for the same prices.  The Flat Grandchildren had their pictures taken sitting in bags of spices and one [who shall remain nameless so as not to cause fights] had a picture taken with one of the salesmen at his request.

Several blocks away was the Gold Market.  Again, it did not match our image of a souk.  More interesting than the gaudy displays in the windows of the gold and jewelry stores, there were stalls and shabbier stores on the side streets.  Ahh!  Our kind of people!  We wandered a bit and found a T-shirt MA liked.  The merchant wouldn’t bargain, but we bought the shirt anyway.  When Shahnaaz saw it, she was furious and dragged us back to the shop demanding a refund for what appeared to be damaged goods.  The shop people made all kinds of excuses as to why they could neither return the money nor issue a refund for the overcharge they had made on the currency conversion.  MA picked out a different shirt and we all went away indignant.

Our free time completed, we drove to the Sheikh’s palace.  Like all the others we have seen, it was fronted by a long driveway guarded by heavy gates.  The palace was also protected by roaming peacocks which strolled outside the gate but which were expected to raise an alarm if there were some danger.  They paid little heed of the locals or the camera-wielding tourists.  We took pictures of the distant palace, the gates and the peacocks while Shahnaaz explained that the Sheikh has two wives.  The first wife bore 13 children and the second one only one.  The eldest son [Crown Sheikh?] lives in his own palace across the street and is not expected to move when he ascends the throne.  As with almost every other location in Dubai, the Burj Kalifah was clearly visible from the palace driveway.

The day was waning so we drove next, and last, to see the Burj Kalifah up close and personal.  Shahnaaz knew a short cut to get outside right in front of the building and, not coincidentally, got us prime spots from which to watch the fountain performance.  As with everything in Dubai, this display had to be the biggest outdoor water show in the world.  Like the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, these fountains made water dance and keep time to music but on a much larger scale.  Because of their size on the narrow canal, it was not possible for us to see to the end of the fountains.  The shows are presented every 30 minutes starting at 6 p.m. plus shows at 1 and 1:30.  Shahnaaz said that some, like the one we saw at 6:30, last several minutes but that others last less than a minute.  Just as we had been lucky in having a good guide, so we were lucky to get a long water show.

We returned to the van for the drive home through the lights of Dubai, arriving at the ship at 7:30, just in time to clean up for dinner.  After dinner, we attended an alleged folkloric show with tribal dances, a whirling dervish and a belly dancer.  Belly dancing is an Egyptian art form; the whirling dervishes are Turkish; and the tribal dances were perhaps Lebanese.  We were tired and left early.

TOMORROW – Another Day in Dubai

Mar 24 – The Wonders of New Dubai

Yesterday’s tour concentrated on old Dubai geographically and culturally.  Today we were immersed in the new Dubai.  We went literally from one end of town to the other.

The city was still hazy this morning, but the cause was different.  Yesterday, we encountered morning fog following the rain we had experienced at sea.  Today, we saw dust in the air blown in from the surrounding desert.  This is not a good place to live for asthmatics.

We started with skyscrapers and new construction.  Of course, all of Dubai is new construction since most of it did not exist as anything but sand 15 years ago.  Today it is in the forefront of architectural design.  We started in the financial district with a photo stop in front of the Dubai Twin Towers and the Stock Exchange.  The Stock Exchange is built like a modern, squared-off version of the Arc de Triumph in Paris.  It is clean and utilitarian but like its Parisian comparison, it is hollow in the middle so a photo of it also shows all of the buildings behind it.  The Twin Towers were built to resemble Toblerone chocolate bars – triangular with indentations to simulate the sections of the candy.  There other unique towers in the area, but none were identified by name; there were all gorgeous.

From here we drove to the Dubai Mall.  Of course, it is the world’s largest and includes the world’s largest indoor salt-water aquarium.  The aquarium includes a marine zoo as well as a walk-through so visitors are surrounded by water and fish.  We stayed on the outside of the aquarium where the Mall has a viewing plate [probably the world’s largest piece of Plexiglas] so shoppers can see the fish and rays while spending their money.  The viewing area is opposite the world’s largest candy store where we resisted the temptation to buy various American and international confections.  Question – If you buy a chocolate camel, do you eat the hump first or the legs?

Fashion Avenue had all of the world’s high-end clothing stores and the Gold Souk was filled with jewelry several cuts and price ranges above the gold market we visited yesterday.  Shahnaaz took D on a side trip because his camera’s batteries died when he went to take the first photos in the Mall.  We did not observe the ice-skating rink before we left.

Keeping to the theme, we went to the Mall of the Emirates, a much smaller version of the Dubai Mall.  The stores seemed to be geared more to average shoppers rather than the luxury shoppers.  We saw Starbucks and Modell’s Sports and felt right at home.  Still, it was opulent.  Instead of an ice rink, Mall of the Emirates had Ski Dubai.  With real snow made fresh each night.  The viewing area on the second level was crowded but we were able to see, if not photograph, skiers in the distance on the way down and others on the lift going up the slope. 

D suggested to Shahnaaz that we grab lunch at the next stop. But she suggested we use the food court at the mall.  MA and D got falafel sandwiches and the others went to a variety of places, even KFC.  We enjoyed our lunch, which was accompanied by lemon-lime juice infused with crushed mint.  It reminded D of mint tea in Morocco.  Before leaving, we went to Starbucks to get Starbucks Dubai mugs.

Even more skyscrapers and new architecture awaited us at Dubai Marina, another man-made wonder.  The marina is 11 km [about 6.5 miles] long in an area which had been desert before the engineers arrived.  Now it is a mixture of offices and apartments along with the requisite cafes at ground level.  Of course, there were plenty of boats in our particular inlet and lots of foot traffic, too.  We walked and gawked especially at the building with the 90 degree twist.  On the way out, a local couple in full Bedouin attire allowed us to take their picture [or, rather, he allowed us to take their picture].  This was very unusual and we were very appreciative.

So much work touring forced us to take a break, so we battled the traffic to get to Jumeirah Beach.  The JBR, Jumeirah Beach Residence, faces the beach with wonderful vistas, high rents and bad traffic.  The Residence is only three years old, considered ripe for remodeling and renovation here.  Dubai years are like dog years in some ways.  Once we left the bus, we were in an area of food shops and restaurants all right on the beach.

The beach was not wide, but it was not overly crowded.  Of course, we were there in the middle of the week and very late in the tourist season.  It must be mobbed on the weekends.  Shahnaaz said that the young men come here on the weekends to show off their cars and attract girls.  Some things are the same all over.  There were plenty of activities for children and even camel rides were available.

The biggest surprise was the mixture of traditional garb and Western apparel.  We had seen this at Ski Dubai earlier but there were no bikinis at Ski Dubai; there were plenty at The Beach.  Topless sunbathing is not allowed and if the security forces do not see and stop it, the other beach-goers will report it.  It is tasteless on several levels in this observant country. 

We could look across the water to the Atlantis hotel on the end of The Palms development, our next destination.  The Palms is a man-made archipelago made in the shape of a palm tree.  Its topography can’t be seen from ground level, only from the air.  Nearby is another development called The World, a series of 300-plus islets representing countries on a globe.  The Palms’ house sold out in just a few days whereas The World’s developers sold just the empty islets and left construction up to the buyers.  The only way to The World is by water or helicopter, but The Palms is connected to the mainland by a causeway.

At the end of the causeway is the Atlantis.  It is identical to the one in the Bahamas with one exception – there is no casino because gambling, like alcohol, is forbidden.  [Even though the Dubai Stakes is the richest horse race in the world [of course!], no one in the Emirates can place a bet on it even through the internet.]  The Atlantis boasts a suite which is available in the archway connecting its two wings.  Michael Jackson and other big names have stayed in it despite its price of $48000 per night.  We took pictures from the outside because visitors cannot enter unless they have reservations or have been “called in” by other guests.

On to the Madinat Jumeirah and the Souk Jumeirah.  Just as anything with Kalifah in its name is owned by the President of the UAE [who is the Sheik of Abu Dhabi], anything with Jumeirah in its name is owned by the royal family of Dubai.  Madinat Jumeirah is another housing and office complex built on artificial canals.  Residents of many of the units can get to them by riding in abras much classier than the one we rode in yesterday and visitors can take a 15-minute ride for 50 dirham, about $15USD.

The pseudo-souk had high-end stores, restaurants and even fast food.  There were pushcart vendors in the open areas as well.  We all did some tchotchke shopping and MA found something for The Table.  The highlight for most people, us included, was the view of the Burj Al Arab.  “Burj” means tower, so this was the Tower of Arabia or the Arabian Tower.  Likewise, Burj Kalifah in downtown is the Kalifah Tower which was named after the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who bailed out the developers when they ran short of money to complete the project.

The Burj Al Arab is designed to look like the sail of an ancient catamaran.  It is unique among the other unique buildings here as has become the symbol of Dubai, even more than the Burj Kalifah.  Frankly, it is prettier and more graceful.  Burj Al Arab is touted as a 7-star hotel where each suite has its own butler and admission is by reservation.  Non-residents can book the afternoon tea or even drinks, but the tea costs almost $200 per person.  The people from the ship who did this, some through HAL and others independently, were treated to a 7-course presentation according to Shahnaaz.  We were not that thirsty and settled for a Moolatta from the Cinnabon/Seattle’s Best Coffee store while we waited for the group to reassemble after free time.

On the way back to the ship, we made a quick stop at the Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai’s most photographed mosque.  It is named Jumeirah Mosque not because the royals own it but because the area around it is called Jumeirah filled as it is with Emirati housing.  It was time for evening prayers and we watched as several men came to pray by the front door.  And then it was time to go home.

TOMORROW – A sea day

Mar 24 – Approaching Oman

Today’s agenda included a mandatory boat drill for all passengers.  While we have been alert because of the threat of pirates, the boat drill is required every 30 days or so even for passengers who have participated earlier on the cruise.  We added some new passengers in Dubai, so this sea day was a good time to get the drill out of the way.

We attended Kate Ross’s lecture on Islamic art this morning.  Kate is an old cruise friend whom we met on the 2011 Grand Med.  We have kept in touch with her in the interval and have especially enjoyed trading book recommendations.  Her presentation this morning was the first of 9 she is scheduled to give in the next 18 days.  She will spend some of her days off on tour with us.  We are glad she is finally on board.

After dinner, we found the latest pillow gift in the cabin.  This time, we were surprised with solar-powered battery chargers for electronics.  These are perfect for people who let their phone and camera batteries deplete but are only good if the people remember to charge the charger.  The chargers even carry the Grand World Voyage logo.

TOMORROW -- More of the Middle East

Mar 26 – Muscat Ramble

Although both Muscat and the Dubai are in the Mid-East, they are as unlike as they can be.  Dubai is the bustling center of capitalism in the region, aglitter with buildings that seem to defy gravity and the other laws of physics.  It barely rises above the sea, a flat desert country prone to a haze of sand.  Muscat is none of that.  The mountains come right down to the Arabian Sea and make a dramatic backdrop for the low white houses of much of the population.  We saw no buildings taller than 10 stories high as we visited some of the tourist highlights.  It is a city with a history which goes back centuries, practically the dawn of time when compared to Dubai’s fifteen year rise into the desert sky.

The Weather Gods continued to smile on us today as we explored some of Muscat, Oman.  Unlike the UAE which is a federation of independent states, Oman is an absolute monarchy.  There is a parliament, housed in a beautiful large building, but nothing happens in Oman unless His Majesty Sultan Qaboos approves.  Despite his autocratic rule, the people seem happy with their government and country in general.  Qaboos has spent billions to improve the infrastructure.  According to our guide, Valentina, there were fewer than 20 miles of paved roads in the entire country when Qaboos came to power in the mid-1970s.  Today there is a national road system with paved highways even in the remote parts of the country.  We passed the unfinished airport being built literally right next to the current airport.  The hope is that it will rival Dubai and Abu Dhabi for passengers.

Another sign that Qaboos is serious in investing in the country is the Royal Opera House.  This was our first stop today.  Although it was not on the original itinerary, it was worth the time.  The courtyards are marble, the interior is marble and teak and the whole complex was designed to resemble the Portuguese forts which dominate the landscape.  The Opera House serves as a venue for all kinds of visiting performers from ballet recitals to symphony concerts to jazz musicians.  The Hall holds about 1500 concertgoers and there did not seem to be a bad seat in the house.  Of course, there is a reserved seat for Sultan Qaboos, who has his own private entrance, and a special section of seats for VIPs.  Other than that, any seat is available to anyone who can afford it.  Valentina loves ballet and opera and has even bought a special formal dress to wear to the Opera House.

The Opera House had two innovations we had not seen elsewhere.  Approaching the concert hall from the lobby, concert-goers pass through a “silence box,” a special room which completely deadens any outside noises and prevents them from interfering with the program.  Several of us made impertinent references to the Cone of Silence from the old Get Smart television show.  The second innovation was just as ingenious.   On the back of each seat was a display screen on which opera patrons could select a language to translate the opera’s original language; once they select their language of preference, they can plug headphones into the arms of the their seats to hear the translation thereby eliminating the distracting surtitles projected over the stage in many opera venues.

After taking the official tour of the Opera House, we continued our cultural tour.  Once again, we were in a mosque.  This is to be expected in the Mid-East and we have seen our share of them.  One of the women in our group of 4 couples wore shorts despite being reminded of proper dress and could only be admitted if she borrowed appropriate robes from the mosque.  She declined and had to wait for us outside while we went in.

The Grand Mosque is, indeed, grand.  Set in a park-like setting and surrounded by gardens and fountains, it was relaxing just to walk the paths to the prayer halls.  Where the Omar Farouk Mosque in Dubai had a balcony for female worshippers, the Grand Mosque has a separate building which could hold 650 women.  The Friday “sermons” given in the men’s prayer hall are broadcast via closed-circuit to the women’s area.  The women’s prayer hall was rather plain because, Valentina explained, women would be distracted by the outside beauty and not be able to concentrate on their prayers.

The men’s prayer hall, of course, was ornate because it is thought that men are so single-minded that they would not be distracted.  The carpets are hand-woven silk and the chandeliers have Swarovski crystals.  The walls and pillars are decorated with mosaic tiles and the domes are magnificent when seen from below.  This venue can accommodate 6500 worshippers at one time; if needed, the services can be broadcast outside where there is room for thousands more. Eventually, we had to leave the peace and quiet of the mosque and return to the warmth and sunshine of Muscat.

Another stop not on the itinerary was at the Amouage perfumery.  A working factory and salesroom, Amouage offered us coffee and dates while we [mostly the women] sample the scents available.  After enough time had passed, Valentina took us on a quick tour of the factory as seen through plate glass.  Many of the workers were women which should not have surprised us; there were dressed in traditional garb including the headdress.  Valentina told us that women are equal to men in the work force and do not suffer discrimination on the job.  Equal pay for equal work is the norm.  Our exit from Amouage took us through the sales area but no one tried to sell us anything.  Some of the group sniffed more samples and most of us used the bathrooms before we left for our next destination.

Finally, we were going to what we hoped would be a real souk.  The Gold and Spice Markets in Dubai had been interesting but disappointing, so we were looking forward to the Muttrah Souk.  We were not too disappointed.  The floor was done in mosaic stone, not dirt, and the building was roofed, not a tent, but otherwise it was a souk.  The actual path through it was a small wadi which floods every time there is a downpour which isn’t often.  As a result, the stores themselves [for they cannot be called stalls] were raised several steps above the pedestrian walkway.

Goods were displayed at “street” level, though, and there were invitations to browse and bargain.  We did both and before we left had taken possession of The Box and a burner with a 6-pack of frankincense.  The vendor wanted $9USD for the box but finally let us have it for $5 and the burner set ended up costing $20 but we made him give us a bigger, covered burner.  Others bought the burner sets, postcards and, almost, a pair of shoes.  The only drawback was seeing all of the ship’s passengers crowding, pushing and blocking the aisle.

We emerged from the souk ready for lunch.  Valentina was able to find us a second floor walk-up which served what would pass as local food.  Luckily for us, there was no goat on the menu although she said it is an Omani favorite.  Rather than try to order individually, we/she settled on the fixed menu served for the 9 of us.  Food would be delivered to the table to be eaten family style.  And so it was.

We feasted on a vegetable appetizer which we thought was mostly fried potatoes in a tomato sauce; hummus; and pita bread.  Our shared entrees included chicken curry; vegetable curry; fried fish; and the ever-present rice.  All of this was accompanied by our new favorite, lemon-lime juice with mint.  This was fresh, not bottled, and it was the best part of the meal.  This was even better than the communal meal we ate in Kuala Lumpur because the food was better and the place was clean – no one worried about getting sick today.

We trooped back to the van and drove over the mountains to the old town of Muscat where we could see forts in the distance.  Fort Mirani and Fort Jalali surround the palace of Qaboos.  Both are working forts since they house active military even though their role as protectors of the city may just be an historical footnote now.  They date to the 16th Century when the Portuguese controlled the area.  The Portuguese architectural style shows in many buildings and other fortifications in and around Muscat.

The palace was large and impressive.  Like the Grand Mosque, it is surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Set behind two sets of iron gates, it is elegant without being gaudy.  We could not go past the closed gates, of course, but we have become used to this.  We have seen more palaces on this trip than we ever thought imaginable and not one has had a princess in distress in the tower; actually, none of them has had a tower.  We took pictures of the forts and the palace from in front of the gates and may have captured images of HAL passengers coming from their tour bus.  We laughed because we had parked at the gate.

It was getting late from our perspective.  “All aboard” was posted as 4:30 but we try to be back an hour early especially after our experience in Melbourne when there was some doubt that we would make it home on time.  We still had plenty of time since we had scraped two museum stops from the itinerary.

As a way to unwind from a hard day’s travels, Valentina took us to a local hotel.  Its full name was written on the front in Arabic, but we referred to it simply as the Ritz-Carlton.  The hotel is owned by Qaboos [as so much is] but is managed by the Ritz-Carlton chain.  We were only in the lobby and the washrooms, but it is sumptuous.  High ceilings, crystal chandeliers and a fountain stood out when we entered.  There were small conversation areas around the lobby and several had table linen on them for visitors who wanted tea.  In fact, we saw some other HAL passengers who were there specifically for the afternoon tea.

We were there for the harpist.  A member of the Muscat Symphony, this young man moonlights for 3 hours most afternoons playing in the lobby.  We had to wait while he took a break but stayed through 2 or 3 pieces after he returned.  The music was soothing and we were all a bit mellow when we returned to the van for the last time and headed home.

TOMORROW --  Speeding Toward Salalah







Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mar 18 – At Sea

We are approaching Mumbai, India, formerly known as Bombay.  Like so many cities and countries, Mumbai has reverted to its traditional name, forsaking the one given to it by the British. 

It was a typical sea day with Trivia and reading plus a 2 hour nap.  Travel is exhausting even when one does nothing.  We did go to the show after dinner for a change.  Tonight’s production was by the ship’s singers and dancers and while it was better than many we have seen, it was still just fair.  The sound system was better than any we have seen in a long time, though, and the band did not drown out the singing.

The gastro-intestinal problems on the ship have not abated.  The captain made an impassioned plea today for anyone suffering any kind of GI upset to go to the medical suite with the assurance that there would be no charge for the visit or any medications dispensed.  The ship has been in and out of “code red” for two weeks now and the captain said that new cases are being reported every day.  Obviously, some passengers who are having symptoms are not cooperating and continue to spread the illness throughout the ship.  There is added pressure to put a stop to the problem because higher-ups from the Seattle office are due on board when we reach Haifa.  In the meanwhile, most of us are washing our hands constantly and using the Purel stations located throughout the ship.  So far, the only result has been the deterioration of women’s finger nails.

TOMORROW – Day 1 in Mumbai

Mar 19 – Mumbai Madness

We are still in India but in a different state than we were in Kochi [Cochin].  For reasons we do not understand, we had to do the Dance of the Passports again today, going face-to-face with Immigration officials.  They looked at our passports, the copies of the passports we received from the ship and the entry cards we filled out before Kochi.  Once everything was stamped, we turned our passports back to the ship’s staff and kept the copies and the entry cards in case we wanted to leave the ship.

We had no plans for today.  Originally, we had signed up for two HAL tours, the first we can recall since 2006; we started arranging our own in 208.  Once we were aboard, Ma realized that the two tours had about an 80% overlap, so we canceled the first day’s excursion in favor of the second one.  While other passengers went on tour or hired taxis to navigate Mumbai, we were content to stay on board the ship and enjoy the peace and quiet.

We did venture forth for about 5 minutes.  Once the crowds had left, we walked off the ship, through the inspection of our documents and into the deserted terminal.  There were no stores, no services and no wi-fi, so we turned around and went back to the ship.  After that, we spent the day reading.  Temperatures were predicted to be in the upper 90s today and it was hot by the Lido pool, even in the shade, so after eating in the air-conditioned dining area, we went to the cabin to read some more. 

Afternoon and Pub Trivia rounded out the day as we prepared to brave the heat and smog on tomorrow’s tour.

TOMORROW – Our Second Day in Mumbai Even Though It Is Our First

Mar 20 – Great Expectations

Mumbai was not exactly what we had expected.  After hearing horror stories about living conditions, abject poverty and filth, we were surprised to see very little of any of that.  Perhaps we missed the downside of Mumbai because of our tour itinerary.  What we saw was a sprawling metropolis with modern high-rise buildings, Colonial architecture and street markets. To be sure, the side streets were crowded and dirty, but they are in most large cities.  “Our” Mumbai was no worse than any of the other SE Asian cities we have seen.

In previous ports, we were inundated with Buddhist temples.  The few Hindu temples we saw were intricately carved and colorfully painted both inside and out.  The temples we saw today were not.

Our tour today was a ship’s tour, our only one on this cruise and the first one in many years.  Our guide attempted to explain the different Hindu gods but concentrated on the three major deities – Vishnu, Brahma, and Siva.  After a while, however, they all blended together.

The approach to the first temple involved walking through an alley past food stalls and flower sellers.  It became an uphill climb with a few small shrines along the way.  We stopped at an elevator for the final ascent although we could have walked up an endless flight of steps; tourists from the Pacific Princess climbed the stairs instead of waiting for the lift.  Once we exited the left, we removed out shoes but were allowed to keep our socks on.

We were in a small courtyard in front of the temple.  We were able to see some statues and carved pillars, but, for the most part, the buildings were unadorned.  Because they were marble, they were not painted.  We were forbidden to take photographs in the sanctuary itself, but there wasn’t much to see.  Outside the inner sanctum was a carved elephant and worshippers would ring bells hung near it and then douse it with water much as we had done to Buddhas at Shwe Dagon Pagoda.  As a consequence, the floor was wet and we and others declined the opportunity to climb a few more steps to peek inside where a monk was blessing worshippers.

We took a few minutes to look at the carved pillars and other displays outside the sanctuary.  The displays looked like department store windows with Hindu gods behind glass.  We trooped from here across the courtyard to retrieve our shoes and then descend in the elevator.

Although the next temple was described as “across the street” by the guide, we took the bus around the corner to get to it.  This temple was a Krishna temple and was quite unadorned.  We climbed to the second floor where we saw women plaiting flowers for worshippers to leave as offerings.  Beyond them was a large open room with a colorful diorama at the far end.  There was a monk praying and performing his duties at the diorama.

Around the walls were paintings of the Hindu gods, but there was nothing in the middle of the room except bare floor with two large inlaid circular designs.  Close to the ceiling were what appeared to be inward-facing parapets which we were told were balconies that women once used.  We saw and spoke to several monks in saffron robes.  Their English was good and they answered questions from our group.

The highlight of this stop, though, was the school field trip which brought 40 – 50 bubbly kindergarten children to the temple.  Their teachers had a difficult job keeping them in check and we laughed at the children’s energy.  If nothing else, their visit showed that kids are kids regardless of their differences.

We never made it to the third temple on the itinerary.  The guide and some of the other passengers made it, but 5 of us refused to climb another 50 steep stairs in bare feet.  We came to this impasse after going through another alleyway, up steps and then down even more.  At that point, we were in another alley lined with tchotchke stalls and flower sellers [The worshippers are very particular about the source of their flowers and will not by them from another temple’s supplier]. 

When we saw the stairs, we balked.  The guide said there just a dozen or so, but we could see them in front of us and knew how to count.  One member of the group had already decided not to go down that last flight of steps, and the guide ran to and fro to see if the ship’s escort was with her and then back to us and then insisted on walking with us to be sure we did not get lost, all the while keeping the other 8 people standing around waiting. 

We climbed the stairs and met the woman who was smarter than we.  While we waited, D went back down to the street and bought something for the Table of Boxes and a small mask for The Wall.  Total purchase, $1.25.When everyone was back from this third temple, we schlepped back to the bus.

We also visited a house where Gandhi lived from around 1917 until 1934.  It was here that he was arrested by the British and there is a plaque in the backyard indicating the spot.  The house contained his extensive library as well as posters of his sayings and photographs from his life.  We were intrigued by the physical changes in Gandhi over the years.  Trained as a lawyer in Britain, he did not really like the practice of law.  Still, there was a picture of him in 1917 dressed in a suit and tie like all the other lawyers.  Nearby was another photo taken 17 years later in which he is depicted as we usually picture him, emaciated and wearing only a white sheet.

Our final stop was at Dhobi Ghat, the famous outdoor laundry of Mumbai.  The guide told us that the workers all belong to a caste whose life mission is to be cleaners; some are janitors, some are barbers, but whatever they do has some connection to cleaning.  Rather than thinking of themselves as downtrodden, they feel that they are fulfilling their destinies. [Many of their children, however, have taken advantage of India’s educational opportunities and are moving into other fields]

Just as the washers have their own work area, so, too, do they have their own territories.  The trade is highly organized and unionized and every address in Mubai is assigned to a specific laundry.  There is no poaching of customers and no way to change laundrymen.  The guide said she would sooner fight with her husband than with the laundry person; she can always find another husband.

The washers specialize in flat items such as sheets, bedspreads and scarves.  Everyday items – shirts, pants, etc. – are done at home.  Most of the laundry’s customers are hotels, restaurants and hospitals.  Laundry marks peculiar to each washer guarantee that everyone gets the right finished product.  D took pictures of the guide and the Flat Grandchildren here and bought a decorative elephant from a hawker with the guide’s assistance; she made the hawkers come to the bus and deal with her for fear that we would be robbed reaching for our wallets.  D negotiated with one hawker over an elephant tapestry but he would not lower his price enough although he did continue to shout through the bus window before we pulled away.

On our travels today, we passed a number of other landmarks including the train station which is modeled after [copied from?] the St. Pancras station in London; the main Post Office; and Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach.

We returned to a ship decked out for war.  There was razor wire strung below the railings on Deck 3, the walk-around deck, and fire hoses positioned to repel boarders.  We are approaching pirate territory and are preparing “just in case.”  There will be a crew drill tomorrow so everyone knows what to do.  Passengers were instructed to vacate their rooms and sit in the hallways, but we think we will be safer in our inside cabin than in the hall.  Since we have no window, we have no fear of flying glass.  Better safe than sorry.

TOMORROW – On the way to Dubai

Mar 21 – Flying to Dubai

The captain has once again put the pedal to the floor and we are flying across the Arabian Gulf heading for Dubai.  He thinks we will dock about an hour earlier than anticipated but that will not interfere with our tour on Monday.

The crew drill went off without a hitch at 9:30 and several passengers said their cabin stewards made them leave their rooms and wait in the hall for the all-clear.  That may have been a bit excessive, but the captain is taking this all very seriously.

Today was just another sea day, and there was nothing else which was out of the ordinary.

TOMORROW – Closer and closer to Dubai

Mar 22 – Letters from the Captain

The big news today was that the captain is going to stay in Dubai later than originally scheduled and then dash to Muscat, Oman, at twice the planned speed, 18 knots instead of 9 knots.  We will arrive in Muscat at about the same time but will be a less-inviting target for pirates if we are traveling at high speed.  One wonders why this wasn’t built into the schedule a year or more ago.  No passenger ship has been taken by the Somali pirates and Captain Mercer does not want to be the first.  His letter this morning was reassuring and the new schedule was met with cheers since the mammoth Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, stays open until midnight and the ship will be providing a shuttle to and from it.

The second letter dealt with the gastrointestinal [GIS] virus which has been plaguing the ship.  Tomorrow, whilst we are in port, the staff is going to perform what he termed a “super-sanitization” of the staterooms.  In order to facilitate this, we have to clear all of the flat surfaces in the cabin and hide electronics so they will not be sprayed [and fried] during the cleansing.  This gave us the opportunity to dispose of all the extraneous papers which had accumulated.  Once we were done, the room looked naked – the desk and night tables are empty; the grandchildren’s pictures are off the walls; the tour materials have been taken down; and all of the chargers have been hidden out of range of spray sanitizer.

There is not much left that the staff can do.  We are told repeatedly to wash our hands and to use the Purel dispensers.  MA has used the Purel so much that her nails are cracking.  Even so, there are people like the fool on our Mumbai tour who argued that he didn’t have to use the Purel offered by the escort because he had used some earlier.  He finally relented when we all yelled at him.  And there are passengers whose spouses or companions have been quarantined until their symptoms disappear but who continue to go about their business as if they could not possibly carry the virus.  One such idiot was on Ken’s tour in Cochin.  We don’t know why the roommates are not isolated, too, or put into empty cabins to prevent the further spread.

Today was pay-out day in Team Trivia and we think we placed second to a team which claimed to have scored more points than mathematically possible.  We may love our Grand Dollars, but we are not that desperate.

Formal night tonight is also Sari Night but we forgot to pack ours, so we went in our regular party clothes.

TOMORROW – Day 1/2 in Dubai








Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mar 15 – Colombo, Sri Lanka

Like all the recent ports, Colombo was hot and humid.  Also like many of them, driving through town to get to the tourist and religious sites brought home the reality that we were still in a third world country.  The storefronts we saw were, for the most part, dark and dirty, and the goods for sale similar to every other shop on the block.  Viewed from a Western perspective, it is horrible, but we have the luxury of that perspective; to the people who live here and in similar circumstances, this is the reality of daily living.

Ruwan, our guide today, said that there have been some improvements in the infrastructure, especially the road system, but that much that we saw is what remains of the work done by the British before they left in the 1970s.  Even the commuter rail system, as overcrowded as India’s, is left from Colonial days and has not changed much.

We drove first to the Kalaniya Buddhist Temple, another complex of structures built around the temple itself. Once again, we had to remove our shoes but were allowed to keep our socks on.  Unlike the other temples we have visited, the ground at Kalaniya was not paved or covered with tile; it was unadorned dirt.  Before climbing up to the temple area [a matter of maybe a dozen steps], we were accosted by merchants trying to sell us flowers to use as offerings.  Ruwan bought some for us and then explained that these particular flowers [a lily variety perhaps] had been grown specifically for use as offerings.  There were lotus flowers available as well.

Once up to the temple level, we were struck by the presence of Hindu images on the exterior of the Buddhist temple.  Ruwan told of a mixed marriage between an Buddhist prince and a Hindu princess.  As a matter of respect for his bride’s beliefs, the prince vowed that there would be religious freedom in the kingdom and that Hindu images would be present in all of the temples.  Thus, there were elephants and swans in relief.  In the courtyard area outside the temple proper, we saw many worshippers in their Sunday whites.  Although Buddhists can pray on any day of the week, Sunday is still the favorite and whole families were present.

Incense filled the air as people lit joss sticks and placed them in containers.  In one area, the smoke was almost too thick to see through.  We placed our flower offerings on long tables in booths like the ones seen at street fairs and green markets.  On the top facing people had hung cloth messages asking for healing for the sick or others in need.  It was reminiscent in a way of people placing messages in the Western Wall in Jerusalem [which we hope to do again soon]. 

Inside the temple, we viewed both old and new art work.  The old wall paintings were several hundred years old and the new ones dated from the 1940s.  New is relative.  The highlight, though, was watching the “baptism” of a new-born baby.  A monk recited prayers over the baby and may even have sprinkled her[?] with water.  Later, he would have placed a string bracelet on her wrist to show that she was part of the Buddhist community although the bracelet would have been removed after three days.  On the other hand, literally, Ken is still wearing the one he received from a monk at Phuket’s Big Buddha ten days ago.

In an effort to continue our ecumenical trip around the world, we went next to the Wolvandaal Dutch Reform Church.  Most of the congregants are locals, but there are expats who worship here as well.  Although we were here on a Sunday during services, there were only a few people present and there was no service in progress other than a pianist playing quietly.  If there had been a service, it would have been conducted in Sri Lanka’s three official languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English. 

The church was built in 1749 with the assistance of the V.O.C. Company, a forerunner of the Dutch East India Company.  The floor is filled with memorial slabs which cover the crypts of some of the earliest congregants.  Some of these memorials dated from 1780 and earlier and gave not only biographical information but also the cause of death; there were symbols on the memorials to indicate, for example, whether the deceased had died from disease or accident.  If we could have read the Dutch, we would have learned even more. 

The church itself was very plain, almost ascetic.  There were no stained-glass windows, no iconography of any sort.  The pulpit was raised above the congregation and reached by a spiral staircase like many we have seen in New England.  The current seating is on cane-backed benches although the original slaves’ seating is still present as a reminder of the past.  Life was short and not always pleasant.

We continued on to the Old City Hall which is now a fire station.  Outside is a display of equipment used in Colombo in the past.  There was road paving equipment, delivery trucks and even old gas mains on display.  Unfortunately, there was no real explanation of any of the items, so we did not stay there very long.

Inside was not much better.  The fire personnel occupied the first floor [although we did not see any trucks or equipment].  The second floor housed conference rooms and only Chuck and Ada cared enough to climb the long staircase to the second floor.  When they took longer than the rest of us felt necessary, D went after them to hurry them and Ruwan along.  He caught a glimpse of a room with life-size figures surrounding the table as if they were conducting city business.  When we returned later [see below], the door was closed and locked.

Leaving the City Hall, we embarked on what turned out to be a walk around the block, well, several blocks.  The most prominent building we saw was the Red and White Mosque, not its official name.  Barbara, the port lecturer, showed slides of this mosque during her presentation and explained that visitors would not be allowed beyond the door.  She was almost correct. 

Our first view of the mosque showed it covered with scaffolding.  It is undergoing renovations both inside and out.  We all took pictures despite the scaffolding because we did not realize that Ruwan was going to take us around the corner and into the building itself.  We were able to get as far as an interior courtyard where we all took way too many pictures, but the building was imposing.  The entire mosque complex was made with red and white bricks in contrasting stripes.  It is vaguely similar to the Butchers’ Guild Hall in Antwerp but is much brighter.  The mosque was designed in 1908 and has been a landmark ever since.

As we continued our foray into central Colombo, we passed a Hindu temple with an intricately carved and painted façade.  We have seen similar temples on this trip; the most memorable was the one in Kuala Lumpur just around the corner from Chinatown.  Several of us went in to see the temple, but some did not want to remove their shoes again and stayed outside in the heat.  No photos were allowed in the temple and the illegal ones D tried to take were too blurry to keep.  As temples go, it was not as ornate inside as out, and the constant ringing of a bell reverberated throughout the neighborhood.

Our walk continued through rutted roads and crammed sidewalks through a commercial area filled with all manner of storefronts.  Many were selling construction materials, some were selling spices.  As we have seen elsewhere, they seemed to be grouped by product so that spice sellers were all in one area, etc.  We passed a number of vegetable sellers as well as we made our way back to City Hall and its allegedly Western-style plumbing.  What we did not know at the time was that we were on the edge of the Pettah area, the large open-air market where everyone, locals and tourists alike, comes to shop and bargain.  Like many of the markets we have seen elsewhere, it is not a place to go without a guide to help you find your way out.

We all climbed the long flight of stairs to the second floor of the old City Hall and most used the facilities.  While the toilet may have been Western in style, it was so low to the ground [How low was it?] that some of the women in the group had difficulty getting up when they were finished using it.  To add insult to possible injury, there was no toilet paper and the toilet did not flush.

We told Ruwan to have the van meet us at City Hall, but that did not work, so we trekked past some of the vegetable market again to reach the relative cool of the air-conditioned van.  Ruwan pointed out buildings old and new as we drove through town, but it was almost impossible to see them from the back of the van.

Our drive brought us to the Ganagarama Buddhist Temple, a complex unlike any we have seen – and we have seen plenty in the past week or so.  We removed both shoes and socks here, but the ground surface was paved outside and tiled inside so we did not get quite as dirty as we had at Kalaniya.  The Ganagarama temple contained the sanctuary itself, but it housed a collection of items brought as gift and resembled a second-hand store as well as a temple.  Items ranged from the smallest Buddha in the world to menorahs[!].  There were silver and bronze platters, busts of the Buddha and statues.  It was amazing but strange.

Walking from the sanctuary to the collection, we passed a display of Buddha heads which reminded some in the group of Borobudur.  There were rows and rows and most seemed to be different.  And then there was the elephant which was led through the complex trailed by laughing, happy children.  The elephant just put the exclamation mark on Ganagarama.

We were scheduled to eat lunch at Barefoot Garden Café, but when Ruwan asked if we wanted curry or a quick bakery-style lunch, Arthur said a quick lunch because he did not want to spend an hour and a half at lunch.  No one spoke up in opposition, so Ruwan had the driver take us to the National Museum café for what was probably the worst lunch we have had, or will have, on a tour.  Selections were very limited and everything had to be heated up in the back room.  There was only one of practically everything including bottled water.

We each got wraps and MA’s was so spicy that she would not eat it.  After her recent experiences with curry, it was a wise decision and she and D switched lunches leaving him with the hot-and-spicy.  We shared that last bottle of water.  The others ordered and several of the women went into the museum gift shop to browse and buy.  Their orders were ready eventually, but we still ended up spending an hour on lunch.  There were no tables in the air-conditioned café area, so we went outside to a table where we enjoyed plenty of shade and a good breeze.  The others stayed inside.  After enough time had passed, MA went inside and told everyone that it was time to leave.  Some had just gotten their food, so we had to wait some more.  Then Ada decided to shop but she was quick about it and was done before Arthur and Linda finished eating and checking their e-mail.  Ironically, they were the last to come outside even though they were the ones who wanted a quick lunch.

Since some people wanted to do some shopping, Ruwan took us The Arcade, a shopping venue behind the new City Hall.  The shops were set in a quadrangle of buildings surrounding a large green space.  We found jewelry and tea in the first building and restaurants, a coffee shop and more tea in the second.  We could have/should have eaten here, a mistake on Ruwan’s part.  D told him we were not happy with his choice for lunch especially after seeing The Arcade.  We did not explore buildings 3 and 4 and never found out what they contained.

For more shopping, we went to Odel, a mall of sorts.  It appeared to have separate stores but when we bought things, we had to go to a central register.  The credit card worked its magic and we had more presents for the grandchildren and two new polo shirts for D.  He has joked about bringing only five shirts for daytime wear but is now up to 8 polos plus 3 batiks.  Mukti and Yulianti gave him a 4th batik but it is way to small in every direction.

There were only two items left on the itinerary.  The first was a stop at Galle Face Green.  This is a moderate-sized park right on the water in downtown Colombo.  The water is too rough for swimming and there is no beach to speak of, but there is a large flat area which is now more brown than green.  It is used as playing fields for sports; today it was being used for kite-flying.  A public park, it is popular with the residents who use it year round.  Once the rainy season starts, it will probably be green again.

Near the park and even closer to the ship was the Grand Oriental Hotel.  Over 100 years old, it was probably quite elegant once.  It is still quaint but old-fashioned.  We were here for our final activity, afternoon tea.  We rode elevators to the fourth floor and entered a large dining area which hosted Amsterdam tours before we arrived; members of the Shore Excursion staff were still there when we walked in.  Ruwan took us outside to a small balcony where we were able to take pictures of the harbor, our ship and even the top of the Red and White Mosque.

When we went inside, we were given a table by the door to the balcony right by the windows.  It was then that we saw the signs posted forbidding the taking of pictures, so we stopped, almost. D and perhaps others took photos of a crow sitting outside on the window ledge watching us watch him.

The afternoon tea was surprisingly pleasant.  We were each served a large rectangular piece of chocolate cake and the requisite Ceylon tea.  Both were very good although the cake would have been even better with a glass of milk. Even D, who does not normally drink tea, finished his.

With tea finished, it was time to go home, and, five minutes later, we were.

TOMORROW – Relaxing at Sea

Mar 16 – Captain Kiddo

Call us crazy, but we were up at 4:30 this morning in order to Skype with Emily and Harper.  We had offered to call before HJ went to school, but Emily preferred visiting before Harper went to bed.  With the time difference, our 4:30 a.m. was their 7:00 p.m.  We had a nice chat and a good connection since no one else on the ship was using the system.  Soon after we said our goodbyes, we were back in bed.

When we got up later, the MDR was already closed, so we went to the Lido for a light breakfast before returning to the room to tackle the Sunday NYT puzzle.  With the time difference, we get the times a day late, so the Sunday Times is delivered on our Monday even though it is still Sunday in the States.  The rest of the day was the normal sea day routine.

We were invited to a formal dinner in the Pinnacle Grill with the captain and officers tonight.  This was, we were told, the sixteenth such dinner so far.  Everyone who has booked the entire 114 days will be invited to a similar dinner before we return to Florida.  We sat with Ken and Lois and were joined at the table by the ship’s purser, a delightful Englishman who now makes his home in Philadelphia, his wife’s home town.  We talked about cruises, sports and ships as well as discussing his duties aboard the Amsterdam. 

He wears many hats in his capacity as chief financial officer.  He is responsible for the payroll, much of which is delivered electronically to crew members’ homes.  As put it, he is responsible for all of the ship’s money but not for purchasing & payment of supplies which is handled by the Seattle office.  He also serves as the ship’s accountant and, more importantly for us, as the legal officer; he is the one who has to oversee the clearing of the ship and all of the negotiations with port authorities before anyone can leave the ship.  We all complained about the Dance of the Passports we will have to do tomorrow and then again in three days’ time [read on for details].  The evening was very pleasant filled, as it was, with good food, good service and lively conversation.

TOMORROW – Kochi, India


Mar 17 – The Dance of the Passports and Other Things

Sure and it’s St. Patrick’s Day in Cochin, India, on the Good Ship Lollipop. It would have been a good day to start off with a Guinness to keep us calm.

The Indian authorities make it as difficult as possible to actually visit their country.  The visa process was tedious, complicated and expensive.  Some passengers had to go through it three times before getting their visas.  To add insult to injury, the purser told us last night that India requires the visa only for people who are going ashore; it was HAL who insisted that we have them and said it would deny boarding to anyone who didn’t.  The rule, he said, is no visa, no gangway. [Last night that led to a whole discussion of why India is on the itinerary at all].

Today, every passenger on the ship had to present his/her passport and entry card in person to Indian officials.  The process went smoothly but was still time-consuming.  We had docked later than planned and the Passport Dance took almost 90 minutes.  Once we were cleared by the Dance hosts, we could leave the ship.  However, at the gangway, we had to present our stamped entry cards and passport copies.  This took even more time and raised the collective blood pressure of everyone.  What is worse is that we will have to repeat all of this when we get to Mumbai in 2 days.  Mumbai and Cochin are in different states and each has to clear to ship and all of the passengers.  As our guide said today, “When India became an independent nation, all the British left behind was the tradition of bureaucracy.”

Today’s tour, arranged by Ken, got off to a late start, so late, in fact, that the touring part was canceled.  We supposed to visit Ft. Kochi, a neighborhood, not a real fort.  We were especially interested in the area known officially as Jew Town as well as the local synagogue.  We missed the one in Sri Lanka [and even forgot to ask if Ruwan had arranged for us to see it], so we were really disappointed to skip the synagogue in Cochin.

Today’s guide, who had no name, did give us some background on the Jewish community.  Apparently, the first Jews arrived before the birth of Jesus and continued peacefully until the late 1400s when there was an influx of Sephardic Jews who had left Spain.  At this point, there were “local” Jews whose roots went back centuries and the refugees.  The two groups intermarried and had no trouble absorbing European Jews who came to escape persecution prior to and during WWII.  The turning point for Cochin’s Jews came in 1948 when the State of Israel was created.  Many of the Jews left for Israel and the Cochin congregation now has just 7 members ranging in age from 46 to 98.  The future is not promising.

Instead of exploring Cochin [or Kochi as the locals call it], we stayed on the bus for over 2 hours as we made our way to Alleppa and lunch on a houseboat.  Traffic was terrible and we had at least one detour [politely referred to as a “disturbance” on the sign].  As we neared Lake Alappuhza, we came to a complete stop and then backed up for a half-mile or so because of a hole in the road so big that the bus could not go around it.  We went to an alternate pick-up point and waited until the houseboat came to us.

This really was a houseboat in a neighborhood of houseboats.  Most of these boats, and there several dozen at least, are rented out to vacationers; the rental includes a cook/housekeeper and the pilot.  In our case, it included enough staff to cook and serve lunch to 38 weary travelers.  Our boat had 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms plus an upper deck where we ate and a place for relaxing by the skipper.  We saw others on the water on which the renters were sitting on lounge furniture just behind the pilot or on the upper deck when there was one.

The shade offered by the roof combined with the breeze caused by the boat’s movement to make the experience very comfortable.  We had roasted while waiting for the boat to appear but were immediately comfortable once on board.  The boat spent almost 2 hours plying the waters of the lake and we spent that time watching the people on shore as well as on other houseboats.  We saw folks fishing, bathing and doing laundry.  Workmen were dredging mud from the lake bottom and using it to make seawalls to protect the land and the rice paddies which stretched behind the homes we saw.  The lake is tidal and flows into the ocean, so there is a series of locks to prevent too much water from entering the lake.  During the rainy season, the water level will rise of its own accord, so the locks can be used to lower the lake level, too.  According to the guide, the lake is 16 feet below sea level.

Lunch included fried fish which looked like a piranha but wasn’t; it was very bony and had little edible flesh.  We had potatoes, lentils, other vegetables, chicken curry, a salad made from onions and cucumbers which had been peeled and marinated, and a fried bread which resembled a large potato chip.  Dessert was fresh pineapple.  Bottled water was available, but many of us had brought our own.  We drank from our bottle rather than risk some bio-hazard from the glasses provided.  By the time we were finished, we were all quite happy.

The return trip took only 90 minutes and we were back at the dock by 4 o’clock.  The ride itself was a bit rough and the bus swayed from side to side as the driver, hand on the horn, sped home.  Several of the passengers in the back were a bit queasy when we got off but there were no real problems.

We rested for a bit and then headed for Pub Trivia where we double yesterday’s score and were still around 6th place.

At dinner tonight, the waiters had green hats and bow ties as well as pale green vests.  Most wore pins proclaiming their Irish heritage which was funny since they are all Indonesian.  As usual, our guys gave D a green hat like their and he wore it proudly for the rest of the evening.  Ginger and Dave came to visit at dessert time to show us their headgear.  It was indescribable but very green.

TOMORROW – Resting up for Mumbai