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







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