Mar 28 – Sitting in Salalah
Today was another sea-day-in-port. We had no tour scheduled ad gave scant thought to exploring. Valentina had told us that there was a shopping area including a Carrefour store right at the port, so we took the port shuttle to the main gate, saw nothing and came back without getting off the bus. The Salalah port is strictly a freight facility with large overhead cranes used for stacking containers. The grounds have large mounds of gravel and there seems to be some renovation/expansion going on. The ride to the gate made the area look like a moonscape.
The city of Salalah is about 18 miles away according to Port Person Barbara with a taxi ride costing about $50. In her talk about the port, she did not mention any highlights worth that much money. We did not need to do any shopping for gifts or snacks and we did not feel that we had missed much. Listening to returning passengers simply reinforced out position.
Instead of touring, we slept in and went to the movies after checking out the port. Today, we saw The Theory of Everything, the recent film about the life of Stephen Hawking. We both enjoyed the movie and especially the performance of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, a performance which won him an Oscar.
After lunch we finished the NYT crossword puzzle and then to trivia. From trivia we went to the Lido to grab a table early for this afternoon’s sailaway party. With the offer of free snacks and free drinks, it was not to be missed. The fancy sailaway parties are always well-attended, but normally, when there is a cash bar, very few people show up, us included. Since no one cared or counted, we and Ken & Lois used the occasion to replenish our soda supplies. Between today’s haul and what we have left from our purchase in Singapore, we have enough diet soda to last until Ft. Lauderdale.
TOMORROW AND TOMORROW…. -- Sea days as we sail toward Jordan
Mar 29 -- Aiming for Aqaba
Today was a sea day at sea. In addition to the regular stuff, we attended Kate’s lecture on the presence of Islam around the Arabian and South China Seas. The short version -- Islam was not a proselytizing religion, but it spread as trade routes expanded all the way to Indonesia on the East to the Horn of Africa on the West.
The highlight of the day was talking via Skype to Jon, Carter and Caiden in NC and Emily and Harper in Baltimore. Now that we are 8 hours ahead of the East Coast, it is much easier to schedule a little family time.
TOMORROW – Still at sea
Mar 30 – Yumping Yemeni
We were still steaming toward Aqaba today and passed through the strait which separates Yemen in the Middle East from Sudan in Africa. At one point, we could see both. D took pictures of Yemen but we don’t think that qualifies for a pin in the map at home. We were going full speed because of the continuing threat of pirates and the political unrest in Yemen. [Someone with a good telephoto lens claimed to have seen tanks under camouflage nets on the beach] We were much closer today than when we were in Salalah on Saturday and were collectively glad when we cleared the straits and had left both dangers behind. We went from Yemeni waters to Saudi Arabian waters and actually felt better [No pin for Saudi Arabia, either]. We will feel even better when we finally arrive at Aqaba on Thursday.
Today’s scheduled activities included Rappin’ with the Rabbi in the morning and a lecture by Kate this afternoon. Today she spoke about the mysteries surrounding King Tut and the discovery of his grave by Howard Carter in 1928. She also reported on recent research which leans toward the opinion that he had scoliosis and epilepsy and may have died, at age 19, of an infection brought on by a broken leg.
TOMORROW -- Still at Sea
Mar 31 – An Ordinary Day
We are racing past the three-quarter pole with just a month to go before returning to reality.
Today was another quiet sea day interspersed with activity, especially in the morning. We started with the penultimate Cruise Critic meeting in the Crow’s Nest. When we arrived around 9:30, several members were already there, but the refreshments were not. Normally, HAL provides us with the cookies, fruit, veggies and coffee D requested when he scheduled the meetings; the Beverage Manager, Willie, has provided mimosas and champagne as a courtesy. Today, there was nothing, so D went to Willie’s office to inquire about the missing goodies. Willie was embarrassed and checked his computer only to discover that it had not been scheduled by the Events Manager, Nikki. Willie promised to send the drinks ASAP and D told him not to bother with the coffee service. A trip to Nikki’s office produced no apology or surprise although D had spoken to Nikki yesterday. He reminded her that we have our last meeting on April 28 and he would appreciate her placing it in the schedule.
By the time D returned to the Crow’s Nest, the drinks were being prepared and passed around. The world was saved! The meeting itself went off without any problems perhaps because everyone was drinking. D made a short speech reminding everyone that CC does not sponsor private tours and that they should be careful how they speak about them. There have been several instances of passengers asking about “Cruise Critic tours.” He reminded everyone that HAL provides the room and drinks as a courtesy and that they could and would stop the practice if CC members advertise that CC is in competition with the Shore Excursions Office, a profit center for HAL.
We had a drawing for Grand Dollars and camp stools using raffle tickets provided by the Shops on Board. We were hoping for a donation from them, but Nikki let us down again by not sending them an e-mail verifying our group’s legitimacy. No one else knew about this attempt, so no one else was disappointed. Everyone got Grand Dollars just for attending. These things are being distributed so wildly that they have lost any value they might have had. The prizes available for Dollars are a bit chintzy, too. We have almost 1000 left even after “buying” a few things last week. With another month of Trivia, we could pass 1200 Dollars but won’t know what to do with them.
Before the official end of the meeting, we left to attend Kate’s lecture. Today she spoke on differing types of intelligence. Using recent research, she explained the theory that everyone has more than one type of intelligence. Among the types were language and writing; math and logic; music; spatial; and visual, to name just some of the eight. Actually, it seemed to us that everyone exhibits all of the intelligences in one way or another; some are stronger and more dominant. We stayed as long as we could, but Team Trivia rules the ship, so we left before she was completely finished.
Tonight was another formal night and we joined Barbara and Roger Siefert at their table. They have eaten at ours, so we were retaliating, at their insistence. Yes, escargots and lobster again. It’s a tough life.
Tomorrow – April Fool’s Day at Sea
Apr 1 – Foolin’ Around
Another sea day, another dollar. Grand Dollar, that is. Because of April Fool’s, the Daily Program was filled with folly. The Dry Watercolor class met as did Barefoot Line Dancing. There was a ship-wide toilet flush scheduled for 6 a.m. which wasn’t far from reality. Everyone was invited to kiss Marcel, one of the Cruise staff, at 4 a.m. on the bow of the ship. He swore to us later that no one came. And there was Underwater Pub Trivia for which we were supposed to wear shower caps. Pub Trivia Marianne went back to her cabin steward and secured 6 shower caps and we wore them for the whole game [and got extra Grand Dollars and a lot of laughs].
Kate’s afternoon lecture was on ancient and present-day lost cities, those that have disappeared and those that are in the process. The ancient ones were Troy, Carthage Pompeii; the modern cities on the verge of extinction are Detroit, Chernobyl [and the surrounding towns] and Fukushima.
Detroit is dying because of drugs, crime and economic pressure. It is being shrunk in order to make it manageable. Whole swaths of blight are being bought by the bankrupt city and turned into green space while the people are moved into smaller areas to maximize services.
The Chernobyl area has already become a wasteland as a result of the nuclear reactor failure 25 years ago. The population of surrounding towns was moved out with little notice and none of their “stuff” which sits exactly where it was when they were told to leave two full days after the accident. Slowly, the area is becoming a greenspace as trees and plants take over and the buildings crumble. To make matters worse, the concrete sarcophagus surrounding the damaged reactor is starting to degrade, increasing the ambient radiation levels. Repairs to the concrete bunker are ongoing.
Fukushima and its neighboring towns face the same dilemma. The area will not be habitable for another 200 years at the earliest thanks to the tsunami and resultant failure at the nuclear power plant.
The ancient cities have been rediscovered and excavated some by archeologists and others by well-meaning amateurs who caused untold damage. Before archeology became a “modern science,” people just dug without restraint or knowledge. Like the story of Humpty Dumpty, historians will never be able to put all of the pieces together again.
Kate’s lecture was fascinating but Underwater Pub Trivia was way more fun.
Dinner tonight was at the Pinnacle Grille, a pay-as-you-go steak house which normally costs $30 per person. As 4-Star Mariners, we can go for half-price but choose not to, but Ken and Lois invited us to join them as their guests. As 5-Star Mariners, they each get two free dinners at the Pinnacle [or Pineapple, as we call it] and wanted to share them with us; as a result, dinner was free for everyone. Under those circumstances, we forced ourselves to accept. MA had lobster bisque and pumpkin risotto while D had steak tartare and lamb chops. Dessert was a soufflé for her and a chocolate lava cake for him. The food was good and the atmosphere sophisticated, but we still didn’t think it would have been worth the extra money. Besides, we have too much fun with our regular waiters.
TOMORROW – We finally arrive in Aqaba, Jordan
Apr 2 – Welcome to Wadi Rum
Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaport and it occupies a strategic position on the Gulf of Aqaba, a branch of the Red Sea. This narrow piece of Jordan borders both Israel and Saudi Arabia and is not far from Egypt. At the moment, these four nations have tolerant if not excellent relations. Aqaba serves as a trading hub for several other Mid-East countries including Iraq. Jordanian exports include phosphate, potash and cement, but it serves as a transit point for oil and other imports and exports from the region.
Despite the fact that Aqaba is an old port city, it is relatively modern; little of historic Aqaba remains other than the skeletons of a palace and some housing. It is well-planned with clearly defined residential, commercial and industrial areas [including the large port]. The housing in central Aqaba may not exceed three floors so that as many people as possible can see the Gulf. The government is building new housing on the outskirts of the city to relieve the pressure of too many people in a confined area.
Streets are well-paved in the city as well as the arterials leading to it. Many of the city’s main streets are divided with plants and shrubs in the medians, and there seemed to be a number of public parks along with public beaches for the residents’ use. The souk area was really just a crowded shopping district in the downtown and was packed with locals and tourists when we drove through at the end of our tour.
We have been exchanging messages with Waleed for more than 2 years, first about a visit from a cruise we decided to cancel and then for this one. We heard about him from the tour operator we used in Israel in 2011 whom we are using when we return in a few days. He has been very accommodating especially when HAL changed the date of our arrival.
We were all ready and waiting well before our appointed time and Speaker Kate and D actually saw Waleed pull into the car park by the ship without realizing who he was. As soon as we left the gangway, though, we spotted him and the sign with the group’s name and followed him to the car. Our group today was small, just us, Kate and her friend Gwen.
As we drove, Waleed kept up a running monologue out Aqaba, Jordan and Wadi Rum. Prior to this, we had thought that a wadi was a gully or dry creek, but he told us it means valley. Thus, Wadi Rum is simply the Rum Valley. We drove through canyon walls which rose over us in a variety of colors. Waleed explained that the cliffs we saw and the mountains they were part of were made of granite and that the colors we saw were determined by the mineral content of the rock. Black seams were iron, yellow were sulfur and so on.
According to Waleed, the valley we first drove through was part of the Rift Valley of Africa. The fault lines run from Africa, with which we associate the Rift Valley, through Jordan and beyond. We could see some evidence of tectonic shifts in the angled seams of rock which had been shoved upward by the movement of the earth’s crust.
Eventually the walls receded and then the granite mountains disappeared completely to be replaced by lower sandstone rock formations. We were approaching the Rum Valley. As we drove, we were reminded of the road from Ashdod to the Dead Sea which winds down a canyon to the lowest place on Earth. There, the rock was dun-colored, a bit lighter than the browns we saw in the Rum Valley. We knew s we drove that this was some place special.
We stopped for pictures as we drove, especially when we passed a herd of camels grazing on the sparse grass. They ignored us. We also crossed railroad tracks which did not surprise us; we have seen lots of tracks in this part of the trip, much of it inherited from the British. The Jordanian tracks are different because they are strictly for freight. Other countries rely on rail for passenger travel [India, especially], but here the trains are used to move Jordan’s mineral wealth to Aqaba’s port. What remains of the “old” rail system is available for passenger service by reservation for groups of 15 or more. It is strictly a tourist operation and doesn’t really go anywhere.
All the driving up to this point was on good roads. Even when we left Aqaba, the roads were four lanes wide although no longer divided. We encountered some truck traffic as goods were carried toward Amman, the capital, and passed a truck stop where the 16-wheelers wait until their cargo is ready for them [This keeps them out of Aqaba until they are needed]. We had turned off onto two-lane roadways which were smooth but broken up with some regularity by speed bumps. Even the road where we saw the camels was blacktop.
The road changed when we entered the Wadi Rum tourist center. From here, our journey would be in 4-wheel-drive vehicles which could manage the sand dunes. The Visitor Center had several shops run by a women’s collective, all selling locally-made goods, and a small stand selling cold drinks and snacks. There were also passably clean bathrooms and a lookout point from which one could get a good photo of The Seven Pillars.
The Seven Pillars was named by T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. An archeologist by training, he became a legend in the area and beyond, his story being told in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. His book was titled The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And the massif he named was right in front of us. The Flat Grandchildren had their pictures taken with the formation in the background before we began our trek through the desert.
Wadi Rum is as stark in its beauty as the Grand Canyon is colorful. Shaped by water earlier and wind most recently, it is a collection of massive rock formations in the middle of the desert. The desert itself had many faces – some areas had hard packed sand where walking and driving were comparatively easy [if uneven] while others had the loose sand we associate with dunes. Walking on the loose sand was like walking through snow; the driving experience was similar, too. Even with 4-wheel drive, vehicles sometimes have difficulties as we saw after lunch when several men had to push a truck out of the sand in the parking lot.
The rock formations were exquisite but indescribable. Some were rounded, some were jagged and some looked as it pieces had been carved off with surgical precision. In some, the rocks looked like melted candles and reminded us of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. Waleed has seen the Gaudi Cathedral and agreed with our comparison. The formations went in every direction, often close together but at other times far apart granting wide vistas into the valley.
We entered on section which was surrounded on two sides by sheer rock walls and were told that this section had been used as a Bedouin prison because it was open only at the two ends, making it easy to guard. It was here that Waleed and the driver gathered some brush and made a little campfire. Once the fire caught, they produced a coffee pot and made Bedouin tea for us. It included cinnamon and sage and we drank it hot out of cardboard coffee cups which they had brought.
We made other stops, too. We stopped first at the top of a sand dune and just admired the view. Waleed talked about the flora and fauna of the desert and we watched beetles as they scampered across the sand. Waleed identified the tracks we saw as those of a fox and then he and the driver used their hands to make images of other animals’ tracks.
This area has been inhabited for centuries and we were able to see petrolglyphs carved into the stone thousands of years ago. Images included men and readily identifiable animals such as ostriches and camels. This particular spot was a tourist magnet and was overrun with passengers from the Pacific Princess which was in port today, too. Camels rides were available [we all declined] but eh Flats had their pictures taken with the camels.
The last stop before we left the Wadi Rum protected area was at a boulder which had two portraits carved into it. The first one was of T. E. Lawrence and the second was of the first King, the grandfather [great-grandfather?] of the current king. It was outside a rest area/restaurant that was attracting a crowd of tourists just as we were ready to leave.
The vehicles used in Wadi Rum were not what we anticipated. Instead of 4x4 jeeps, modified pick-up trucks were used to haul tourists through the area. We were lucky because our group was so small and MA, Kate and Gwen were able to sit in the cab of the truck while D and Waleed road on padded benched in the body. However, we saw HAL passengers being packed into similar trucks with six or maybe even eight people in the back of the truck. Many of them had more than a little difficulty getting in and out. Riding in the truck bed must not be much different than riding in a buckboard in the Old West.
After about 2-1/2 hours roaming around the wadi, it was time for lunch for us and mid-day prayers for Waleed. Although observant, he is not fanatical and explained that while his wife covers her head [but not her face], she also wears jeans. They are Modern Muslim. Waleed and his wife have two children and she is very pregnant with their third child. Their son is 10 and their daughter is almost 3 and both are adorable. That he has a second child at all – much less a third one on the way – is almost a miracle because Waleed is a cancer survivor. A victim of liver cancer, he had to have a liver transplant 4 years ago and now has half of his brother’s liver.
He grew up in nearby Petra and lived with his family in a cave until he was seven. At that point, the government began encouraging the families to move out as Petra became more of a tourist attraction. His father moved voluntarily but the last residents had to be bribed with free housing before they would go. Waleed still lives in Petra. When we compared driving in sand to driving in deep snow, thinking he might not understand, he produced a photo of snow-laden trees in Petra from earlier this year. He said they have had as much as a meter of snow on the ground. This is a desert?
Lunch was included in the cost of the trip, so Waleed took us to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Since we were in the middle of the desert to begin with, there was a lot of “nowhere” to be in the middle of. Adjoining the restaurant was a little tent motel used by tourists who wanted more than a two-hour exposure to Wadi Rum. With tenting overhead, we sat on low sofas and feasted on hummus and pita as well as an assortment of other salads while we awaited the main dish. Waleed told us that it was a traditional Jordanian meal, upside down chicken. It was the international favorite, chicken and rice, and it was delicious. It was accompanied by a tomato and okra sauce which was velvety and flavorful; the okra was soft and tasty and not the least bit mushy. Between the four of us and Waleed, we ate every bit of it.
We relaxed over lunch, in no hurry to return to the ship. When it was time to go, we walked to the car and discovered that a freight train was rushing down the narrow-gauge tracks beside the restaurant so we hurried to take pictures. The train was heading north toward the mines to collect more phosphate to deliver to the port.
The lowlight of our return was the radar trap which clocked Waleed at 92 kmh in an 80kmh zone. We don’t know if he got a ticket, paid his fine on the spot or bribed the officers manning the traffic stop, but we were on the road shortly after he had a chat with the officer in the police car.
As we returned to Aqaba, Waleed continued to show us new things, at least new to us, including the runs of the old town and the palace, the new construction for high-end housing and resorts, and what passes for the souk. We were “home” around 3:45, well before our self-imposed curfew. We were happy and tired and very dusty.
TOMORROW – Surprising Suez