March 26-28, 2015 – Oman.

March 26: Muscat, Oman.

Early this morning, our ship docked in the town of Muscat, which is in the Sultanate of Oman, which is around the corner from Dubai on the Gulf of Oman, which is at the northern end of the Arabian Sea. From the 8th deck of the ship this morning, I found the view of the harbor in Muscat to be very impressive. The buildings are white, punctuated by minarets in shades of blue or green, and the town is confined along the water by rugged desert mountains immediately behind in shades of dark, medium, and light grey-brown. There were a few boats in the harbor, and on the other side of the ship we could see the breakwater and then the open ocean beyond. Our first impression that this would be a neat, clean, and orderly place was never challenged as we toured the area on our excursion.

Our guide for today was an Omani man of 22 who is studying tourism management at a local university. Ameer was personable, friendly, and well-versed in the customs and culture of Oman. And he spoke English very well. Like our guides for other locations, he gave us some facts about his country: Muscat is the capital city; Oman’s population is 4 million, of whom 98% are Muslim; Arabic is the first language, English is the second (this is reflected in signage throughout the city which is almost completely bilingual); the leader is Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970 and is very popular with his people; the country of Oman has no enemies – they get along with everybody; the government provides education, health care, and often housing for its citizens; there are no taxes; Omanis must marry only citizens of Oman or one of five other Arabic countries or risk losing the advantages of Omani citizenship; the economy is based on the export of oil (70%), fishing, gold, and diamonds; gasoline costs less than water; the favorite cars are Japanese because parts are more readily available for repairs; low-level jobs are done by the foreign population.

We drove inland a few miles over a completely modern highway to our first stop, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Along the way we drove past the same kinds of highway scenery we would encounter in the U.S.: car dealers, retail establishments of all sorts, apartment complexes set back a few blocks from the roadway, gas stations, government buildings, etc., etc. Also, we passed the biggest opera house in the Middle East! When we reached the mosque, we were immediately impressed. Normally, a mosque may not be visited by non-Muslims, but for some reason this one is open at certain times, so being able to walk around inside was a real treat. It was completed in 2001 and is organized in several sections. We entered through a gateway (here, we women had to cover our heads with scarves) into a lovely courtyard, with carefully tended lawns and flower beds, fountains and running water, and polished marble pathways. We proceeded up a few steps, removed our shoes (not socks), put them into numbered cubbyholes, and entered the women’s prayer room. This is a large room, maybe two or three stories high, with no furniture whatsoever but fully carpeted. Intricately carved wainscoting, ornate chandeliers, Rolex clocks high on the walls, stained glass windows, wooden beamed ceilings, and full air conditioning were some of the features of this room. We stayed here a few minutes while our guide explained the significance of what we were seeing, and then we went outside again and walked to the men’s washroom. It’s a room without doors and with a couple of dozen places with faucets where men prepare themselves for prayer by engaging in a washing ritual. Ameer showed us what has to be done as he washed his face, arms, and feet. Women do the same ritual but in a different building. Next, we walked into the main building, the men’s prayer room. This one had everything present in the women’s prayer room but on an even greater scale. It was actually breathtaking. I’ve never seen a more beautiful chandelier. It was made by Swarovski and weighed six tons. The entire floor was covered by one piece of carpeting, which had been woven in place by 400 weavers over the course of two years. Ameer opened for us a copy of the Koran and read one of the prayers. As we left the building, I tried not to be overcome by sadness that the beauties of Islamic culture cannot be more appreciated in the West. We returned to our shoe cubbies, retrieved our shoes, and returned to the bus, not much older but considerably wiser. [At least, some of us were wiser.]

Our next stop was a complete contrast. We drove back to town and got off the bus in front of the Muttrah Souq. A souq is a market, and this was one of the better open-air shopping experiences we’ve had on our cruise. As usual, stalls were set one next to the other along a pathway, and you could not take two steps without having someone imploring you to stop and look at a great bargain. We ran into several people from the ship, saw many local families with children, and even bought a couple of pieces of fabric (my idea of a perfect souvenir).

The last two stops were a few blocks away. First, we went to the Bait Al Zubair Museum, a privately owned and funded museum of Omani historical artifacts. It’s not a big museum, but the collection is thoughtfully and tastefully arranged in several themed rooms. I especially liked a display of wedding costumes, each with luxurious fabrics and incredibly intricate embroidery. The tour program allowed only 15 minutes at this museum, unfortunately. After a short drive, we visited the grounds of one of the palaces of Sultan Qaboos. When foreign heads of state visit Oman and Sultan Qaboos is in the country, they all reside in this palace. We, of course, could not go inside, but we were impressed by the location next to the mountains, the well-manicured grounds, and the colorful façade on one of the buildings (see Denise’s picture). When the bus brought us back to the ship, we briefly considered returning to the souq via shuttle bus but didn’t after all because we realized we’d had enough heat and walking for one day.

March 27: At Sea Day.

During breakfast as I was watching the sun on the water, I noticed that the ship had suddenly changed its orientation to the sun. Soon after, the Captain announced that he had changed course to avoid colliding with a pod of whales and that we should look to starboard to see them. I rushed over and actually saw them, not jumping out of the water and making a spectacle, however. Several of them were just swimming along the surface, blowing out of their spouts from time to time. Aside from flying fish, sea birds, and a sea snake, this is the first sea life I’ve seen since being on the ship.

March 28: Salalah, Oman.

After sailing all night in the Arabian Sea, we docked this morning in the port of Salalah, which is in the southern end of the Sultanate of Oman. This is definitely a commercial port: stacks of containers, four-wheeled cranes, pyramids of white limestone gravel, dump trucks thundering by, storage tanks, and no sign of a cruise terminal. The title of our excursion today was Leisurely Salalah, which perfectly describes our morning. Our bus drove us to the ocean, to the mountains, and around the city itself, as the tour guide, who is from here, explained to us the significance of what we were looking at. Before we had gone very far, the guide told us all about the Sultan of Oman, who was born in Salalah and who has a summer palace here, so he’s the local boy who made good. Having received some of his education in Britain and Germany, Sultan Qaboos returned to Oman in 1970, when he was 30 years old, took control of the government somehow (not explained), and started modernizing the country. He’s done a great job, from what we can see. Salalah is not quite as neat and modern as Muscat in the north, but it seems to have good infrastructure, and lots of construction projects are underway.

As we left the port area, we observed the countryside of south Oman from the comfort of the bus. The highway was modern, although the bus sometimes had a hard time negotiating the hills. The scenery was mountainous desert, sometimes with long views into nearby valleys. Occasionally, wall-enclosed houses appeared set back from the highway, some still under construction, but none with any greenery at all. Often, we saw camels walking in the distance or even next to the roadway; there was always a shepherd nearby because these are not wild animals; they’re too valuable. In many places where the road bed had been cut through the mountains, the cuts showed the pure white limestone which forms the mountains. Evidently, this limestone is a valuable commodity which is exported to India and other countries and is used in making cement, among other things.

Our first stop, strange as it may seem, was to experience a frankincense tree. Frankincense is a resin taken from this tree. It is burned in a little container and produces a fragrance which seems to be important for worship in certain religions (I assume Islam and Hindu, but there may be others). It has been a fixture in the spice trade for centuries, and our guide seemed to think that the tree originated in south Oman. [Not having good internet access, I can’t vouch for that statement.] At any rate, our bus stopped at what was evidently a well-frequented turnaround on the highway, where everyone got out and traipsed a short distance over a dirt path into a gully to see the tree that he wanted to show us. I noticed that passengers in other buses were led to different trees.

Next, we drove back along the way we had come and stopped at Mughsail Beach, which we had passed earlier. Our destination was at the far end of the beach, where high cliffs hung over a promontory on which walking paths and a ramp had been built to provide public access to blowholes generated by the action of the waves. We never saw any blowhole activity, but the views of the ocean and the cliffs from the pathways were stunning. The beach itself was beautiful, with a few amenities such as trash cans and shelters, but no people. Not one soul was on the beach. I don’t know why. A few minutes after the bus took off again, the passengers asked the driver to stop so they could take pictures of some camels which were wandering around near the beach. Being mostly Americans, they were thrilled to see real, live camels up close and not in a zoo. The guide told us that they are free to roam around on the beach during the day but that they come home to their owner at night for food. Nice life.

Our next stop was to be at Job’s tomb. As you might imagine, there is some disagreement about whether this is really Job’s tomb (not to mention whether there was someone named Job in the first place), but we decided to get what we could out of the experience. The location of the tomb was high up in the mountains above Salalah, and the drive up there through the mountain desert was beautiful. Just past the parking lot on the way to the tomb, bougainvillea had been planted and was in full flower – spectacular pinks and reds and oranges. Along the way up and down the mountain, we saw rural homesteads, more camels, power lines (the guide was proud that electricity has been provided everywhere), schools, and a number of infrastructure construction projects.

The rest of the tour we spent in Salalah, a community of 300,000 inhabitants and 200,000 camels. It’s on a flat plain between the mountains and the ocean. Other than coconuts and bananas there are few trees and little shrubbery. Landscaping around the sultan’s summer palace and, interestingly, in the middle of the roundabouts was beautifully done. That’s about it for greenery. In the residential areas, the houses seemed pretty big, and the guide pointed out that one house typically is home to multiple generations and to one’s extended family as well. The most common style seemed to be a two or three story box with a flat roof. All houses are fully enclosed by a high wall (to give women of the house some privacy). Stained glass window panels and arched windows and doorways are the norm. The commercial district of Salalah had a small-town look, but there were the hotels, car dealers, government and commercial buildings, mosques, and malls that one would expect. Many construction projects were also active. One of the nicer areas of town is near the royal palace, which has dozens of beautiful yellow limestone buildings which are used for the sultan’s business when he is in town.

We stopped at a row of fruit stands just on the edge of town which were offering several different kinds of fruit grown in the area, notably, coconuts, bananas, and papayas. I had a couple of the bananas, which are tiny, only about three inches long, and very flavorful. The fruit crop here is not seasonal. The climate is such that the trees can produce all year long. Our last stop was at a souq near the town center. They had many stalls selling frankincense and other spices, as well as souvenirs, perfumes, Islamic head wear for men (caps and turban cloth), and pashminas. We didn’t need anything there.

On our drive back to the ship, our guide told us a little about himself and stated that he’s very proud of his home town. I’m sure that’s true of anyone who has been there through the recent modernization efforts. South Oman and Salalah in particular seem to be prosperous and ready to take a place in the modern world.

At the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

At the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Inside Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat

Inside Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat

 

Sultan's Palace in Muscat

Sultan’s Palace in Muscat

Viewpoint at Mughsail Beach near Salalah

Viewpoint at Mughsail Beach near Salalah

 

Camels on the Highway near Salalah

Camels on the Highway near Salalah

Camels on Mughsail Beach near Salalah

Camels on Mughsail Beach near Salalah

 

Baby Camel Having Lunch

Baby Camel Having Lunch

Flowers near Job's Tomb

Flowers near Job’s Tomb

 

Main Street in Salalah

Main Street in Salalah

Sultan's Summer Palace in Salalah

Sultan’s Summer Palace in Salalah

 

March 23-25, 2015 – Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

March 23-24: Dubai.

This post will be a little different from our others because I’m going to write about what we learned while staying in Dubai for two days, not just about the excursions we took. Our sources of information were our tour guides and our observations. I have transcribed my notes from our excursions, but I’m not willing to say that my information is 100% accurate. Someone on the ship reminded me that free speech is not a given in this country, so we may have heard only the politically correct “facts.”

History

Fifty years ago, Dubai was a small fishing village, with no infrastructure and no cars, only camels. The first oil was exported from Dubai in 1966. The British, who had been using Dubai as a military base, left in 1969; their presence may explain why English is the second language here. On December 2, 1971, seven sheikhdoms unified and created a new nation, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). Modernization started in the 1970s; as money from oil started being made available to the ruling family, they decided to develop the country’s infrastructure. Other countries involved in the modernization efforts were Germany and the United Kingdom. Architects from many other countries designed the skyscrapers which characterize today’s skyline.

Currently

Dubai is a leading center for business and tourism in the Middle East, with a population of more than two million inhabitants. Of these, 20% are Emirati citizens and 80% are foreigners, who represent more than 200 countries. More than once, the guides pointed out that everyone lives in harmony in Dubai, and we never saw anything to contradict such a statement.

Why Dubai is popular:

  • The country is very safe; there is very little crime
  • It combines sensibilities of both East and West
  • All signage is written in both Arabic and English
  • There are no taxes
  • Society is more open than in many other Islamic countries

Dubai has two seasons: hot and hotter. During the month of February, the jet setters come to Dubai.

City Life

The rulers understand that greenery is needed in order for a country to appear modern; therefore, 10,000 gardeners are employed in Dubai. Water for irrigation is from desalinization plants or recycled wastewater. This is clearly still desert, but trees and bushes are flourishing, and in many public spaces, such as in front of malls or along traffic intersections, beds of petunias are providing welcome spots of color. Dates are one of the most popular foods in Arabic countries, and there are 50 million date trees in the U.A.E.

The metro is totally automatic; no drivers are needed. Two metro lines plus several bus routes serve the city, but clearly the most popular means of travel is the one-person auto, just like in the U.S. Traffic was very heavy every time we were on the roads. Gas is cheap ($.30 per liter). Highways are modern, and retaining walls and walls of underpasses are often beautifully tiled with scenes of sand and sea.

In the financial district, skyscrapers with unusual designs display the names of familiar global companies, such as Accenture, Microsoft, Canon, IBM, Oracle, and Honeywell.

Government

Dubai is ruled by a sheikh, who is an absolute monarch and who is very popular because he takes care of the people and keeps them happy. These are some of the social services available for Emiratis: free education; free medical care; a new home and $20,000 for newlyweds (purpose is to provide financial incentives to enable locals to remain in Dubai when starting married life). Foreigners, however, have to pay for the social services. Although Islamic law allows men to have four wives, most have only one because of the expense and headaches involved.

Dubai law, unlike the legal system in other Arab countries, is a mixture of Islamic law and Western law.

The seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates live in harmony. Abu Dhabi is the capital and the richest sheikdom and provides financing as needed to other sheikhdoms, which have less or no income from oil reserves. For Dubai, most of its oil is found in the desert, with a smaller amount in its ocean waters. It is expected that Dubai’s reserves will be totally depleted within the next ten years.

Women

Muslim women all wear the distinctive black robes and head scarf, but they also form the majority of college students, participate in government, and work in business. We saw several signs for “Ladies Clubs.” These seem to be organizations with facilities which cater to women, allowing them to be unencumbered in a male-free environment. There’s probably more to this idea than we realize, but we’ve no one to ask about it.

Clothing

The clothing worn by men and women is based upon tradition, rather than religion. We did see some people in Western clothing, but there was no way to tell where they were from. So here are some general observations:

Muslim clothing

  • Men – long white robe, with or without a head scarf
  • Women – completely covered with a black flowing robe and with a head covering: the face may be showing, only the eyes may be showing, or the face may be completely veiled

Clothing worn by foreigners

  • Men and women: long shirt with matching pants; garments made from ethnic fabrics, for example, from Africa and India; Western clothing, such as t-shirts, shorts, jeans, hiking pants
  • Men: long robe in subdued colors such as tan or blue

Sights We Visited

Burj Khalifa: This is the tallest building in the world (at the moment). As we were driving from the ship towards the city, it was the most striking feature of the skyline. It’s a narrow, sharply pointed tower which is almost twice as tall as any of the buildings nearby. Our tour took us to the observation deck, which is on the 124th floor. The elevator ride took one minute and was actually comfortable except for a little ear pressure adjustment. This was the first stop on our first day’s excursion, so while we were looking at the objects far, far below, we didn’t really know where to focus our attention since we had not been to see anything yet. Nevertheless, we loved seeing the buildings, streets, desert, and ocean from that high vantage point. Access to the tower is via the Dubai Mall (see below), where we shopped and had dinner later in the day.

Jumeirah: This is a section of Dubai with 2-story residences and many important hotels. One is shaped like the dhow (Arabian open sailing vessel), one like a wave. These are 5-star hotels with every possible amenity [not that we saw any of them – tourists are not allowed inside unless they’re guests]. The room rate is $5,000 to $15,000 per night. Also in this part of Dubai is Palm Jumeirah Island. This is a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree with trunk and fronds, which are lined with residences and hotels. We also drove by the Atlantis Hotel, I believe the largest hotel in the area, with more than 1,000 rooms. Nearby is a public beach – breakers, clean sand, not crowded, a few surfers; but I saw no facilities for bathers, such as restrooms, snack bars, or equipment rentals.

Mall of the Emirates: This is one of the 52 malls in Dubai. It is huge, and its main attraction seems to be Ski Dubai, a 400 meter ski run, complete with ski lift, places to play in the snow, a luge run, and equipment rentals. We were surprised to see so many American chain restaurants in the mall, such as Fridays, California Pizza Kitchen, and the Cheesecake Factory.

Driving around town: We saw the monorail, many malls, car dealers, home furnishing stores, all kinds of services and businesses, and new construction everywhere. Many tracts of land were totally flat and barren, with construction activity nearby. The skyline is very impressive. The skyscrapers have varied silhouettes. I don’t recall any straight-up-and-down buildings; rather, they feature spiral shapes, open spaces that look like cutouts, curved lines, pointy tops. One even looks like the Big Ben tower in London.

Dubai Mall: This is world’s largest mall, with more than 1,200 retail outlets. We came here both days we were in Dubai via shuttle bus service from the ship. The stores in the mall are arranged by type of merchandise, for example, fashion, electronics, sports, jewelry. This mall was always very crowded, even during the day and early evening. Actually, people didn’t seem to be shopping that much. They were just walking back and forth, often with their children, sitting in cafes, and socializing as if the mall was really the gathering point of the community. It has many, many attractions to keep people entertained: outdoor fountain shows which flow nightly accompanied by either Eastern or Western music; a waterfall; an ice rink (the Zamboni was operating when we walked by there); movie theaters; an aquarium; prayer rooms; broadcasts of the Muslim call to prayer; global brands; many American restaurant chains (we ate at Rosa Mexicano and P.F. Chang’s); a great bookstore, Kinokuniya, with mostly English books; ATM machines; etc., etc. Since I’m not a great shopper, my only criticism was that there were not enough places to sit and watch the people, unless you wanted to sit in a café and have something to eat or drink (at great cost).

Jumeirah Mosque: An example of modern Islamic architecture built in 1979, this mosque was one of our tour stops, but Islamic rules do not allow non-Muslims to go inside. It’s a beautiful building, sandy in color, with domes topped by gold finials, and a grassy space in front. In an attempt to foster understanding among people of different faiths, the ruling sheikh has ordered this mosque to offer to the community tours of the interior and the opportunity to make reservations for shared meals and cultural events. (There are 500 mosques in Dubai.)

Dubai Museum: From the outside, this museum looks like a desert fort, but most of its collection of artifacts is underground, many in rooms with very detailed dioramas depicting village residents of the past, such as blacksmith, herbalist, spice purveyor, and carpenter. The exhibits were very interesting, but the rooms and passageways were very dark, which detracted from the presentation, as did the great number of tourists milling about.

Dubai Creek: Rather than being a real creek, Dubai Creek a long and skinny ocean inlet, from which in historical times, dhows left for trading journeys throughout Arabia. We walked from the Dubai Museum to a water taxi through a street full of textile vendors, where we were unfortunately not able to stop. On the other side of the creek, we walked through the spice souq and then through the gold souk, where Denise shopped and I sat on a comfortable bench and watched the people, who seemed to be from every ethnicity. (The souqs are like department stores but each stall has its own vendor, each vendor very intent upon attracting one’s attention.)

This is a fascinating city. How it has developed over the past fifty years from a fishing village to a modern metropolis is truly amazing. Dubai reminded us of a spread-out Las Vegas, a man-made spectacle with lots of glitz and glamour. Whether it will be able to diversify its economy and maintain a balanced society as its oil reserves are depleted remains to be seen. Let’s hope it can.

Dubai Skyline

Dubai Skyline

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

 

View from the Burj Khalifa

View from the Burj Khalifa

Mall of the Emirates - Cheesecake Factory

Mall of the Emirates – Cheesecake Factory

 

Wave and Dhow Hotels at Jumeirah Beach

Wave and Dhow Hotels at Jumeirah Beach

Jumeirah Mosque

Jumeirah Mosque

 

Dubai Museum

Dubai Museum

Textile Souq in Dubai

Textile Souq in Dubai

 

Water Taxi on Dubai Creek

Water Taxi on Dubai Creek

Waterfall in Dubai Mall

Waterfall in Dubai Mall

 

March 19-22, 2015 – Mumbai (Bombay), India.

March 19: Mumbai, India.

Our destination for the next two days is Mumbai (formerly Bombay), in the state of Maharashtra, India. We had scheduled an excursion for today, Marvels of Mumbai, but just as we had experienced in Cochin, we had to pass through Indian immigration procedures in order to leave the ship. Then, in order to walk on the dock, we had to show our recently inspected documents to certain officials. Then, while we were on the tour bus and before the bus could leave the port area, we had to show these same documents again to a different security officer. As today’s guide Heena pointed out, the key word in dealing with India is “patience.”

The purpose of our tour was to allow us to experience the highlights of Mumbai. [NOTE: the name change from Bombay to Mumbai happened in the 1990s, and our guide said that most locals still use both names.] Our drive started in South Mumbai, in the heart of the business district, where streets and sidewalks were crowded with folks attending to their daily business. Along streets planted with many, many trees, we passed parks and all sorts of public buildings, such as police headquarters, an art museum, naval dockyards, banks, the mint, and government offices. As we drove along, the neighborhood changed and the sidewalks became filled with one small business after another. They occupied a few square feet at the base of many of the buildings and sold every imaginable kind of product. The traffic was heavy on every street we traveled, but with liberal use of the horn, the bus driver just kept on going. Here’s a quote from Heena, who lived in the United States for a couple of years but who has been a guide here for 25 years: “There is some kind of order in the chaos.” She loves her city, is not intimidated by it, and finds it exciting.

Our first stop was at the Gateway to India, an archway built in 1911 to honor the current British monarch, King George V. There is a large plaza in front of the monument, and nearby are the striking Taj Mahal Hotel and a small park with a statue of a famous person (don’t know his name). Next we drove to the Victoria Terminus railway station, “an extraordinary conglomeration of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets” which was built to honor Queen Victoria and through which today millions and millions of commuters pass on their way to and from the city. Our next stop was at the small, three-story home of India’s famous hero Mohandas Gandhi. This museum and memorial contains his personal library and all books ever written about him, dioramas which depict the major events of his life, and the room where he slept, complete with his bed, writing desk, and bookshelves. We had a little difficulty in leaving this building because two or three other tour buses arrived after us, and all these tourists made passage up and down the narrow stairway quite a challenge.

Next, we drove to Dhobi Ghat, a huge open-air laundry where washing from all over Mumbai is brought to be soaped, soaked, boiled, and beaten into cleanliness. We could see water-filled stone troughs, workers beating the pieces of cloth against the sinks, and clotheslines full of colorful clothes drying in the sun. The guide told us that nothing ever gets lost despite what looks to us like complete disorder. As we left here, we heard about what is evidently another aspect of life in India – bribes. To wit – The viewpoint for seeing the laundry was on a highway bridge. No parking is allowed on the bridge. But in order for the tourists to see the laundry, the buses must park on the bridge anyway. So the bus driver has to give the local official a bribe or risk being given a ticket. If he refuses to give the bribe and takes the ticket, he must take a day off work to resolve the ticket. So it’s just easier and cheaper to pay the bribe, which is about 100 rupees, or $2. Heena was very philosophical about the situation and implied that it’s just a part of life here. Hmmmmm.

On the way to our next stop, an Indian-made goods emporium, Neena pointed out how new and expensive apartment buildings are being erected right next to neighborhoods which surely must be regarded as poor. She said that this juxtaposition of rich and poor is possible because there’s no crime in Mumbai. And there’s no crime because family ties and religion are important to everyone and they do not tolerate criminal activity. I wonder if she’s right. Our final stop was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales Museum, which featured artifacts of India’s history in a beautiful domed building. We also found that the museum shop had a nice collection of hand-crafted pieces by India’s master craftspeople.

March 20: Mumbai, India.

For today, we had selected an excursion to the markets of Mumbai, but our tablemates Juliana and Roger had found the excursion disappointing when they did it yesterday. Also, I didn’t feel like being on a tour bus for the second day in a row, so we decided last night that we would skip the excursion and go off this morning with our friend Jim, who had been told of a shopping area that we wanted to investigate. Once we made it through port security – two times because of two different checkpoints where two sets of officers looked at the exact same documents – we started on our walk towards Fashion Street with two other friends whom we had asked to join us, Sobie and Al. We had heard that Fashion Street was only a few blocks away from the ship and that it was easily walkable. What we had not heard was that its shops wouldn’t be open until 11:30. Well, it was easily walkable for us since we like to walk in cities, but when we got there and found that nothing was open yet, we decided to walk “a little further” and go to the main train station for Mumbai, Victoria Terminus, an amazing architectural wonder that all of us had wanted to see anyway. As the morning wore on and as the sun got hotter, we were thankful that Mumbai is a city of trees: we walked in their shade most of the way. We were not prepared with decent maps, so we weren’t really aware of the significance of the buildings we were passing, but we were getting a definite sense of what Mumbai is like on the ground, complete with crowds of people, vendor stalls lining all available sidewalks, cows munching on a pile of grass at the curb, lots of smells (like garbage, flowers, incense), and sounds of heavy traffic (engines, but especially honking horns). As we walked in the direction of the train station, we kept asking people if we were going the right way, and they were always happy to help our little group of tourists.

When we approached the Victoria Terminus station, we were across a wide and very busy street from it but noticed an underground passageway leading in the correct direction. After taking a few pictures, we took the stairs down and found ourselves in a shopping area with small shops selling all sorts of things. Our friend Sobie saw a shop she wanted to check out so all five of us went in, totally filling the store, especially since there were already four or five employees there. It was a shop which specialized in the salwar kameez. This is the outfit that many Indian women wear which consists of a long, loosely fitting tunic, long pants, and a matching scarf. On the ship we’re having an Indian theme night coming up in a few days, and Sobie and Denise wanted to have a non-sari garment which reflected our experiences in India. So all three of us eventually chose something that we thought would work and in the meantime had a pleasant time chatting with the male employees, who were very helpful and friendly. Jim and Al maintained their patience throughout, helped along perhaps by the air conditioning in the shop. Next, Jim wanted to try a men’s shirt store across the way but was less successful, so we continued on our way to the train station. Once back upstairs, we entered the huge cavernous space, as train stations usually are, and looked around for a while. Jim, who knows London very well, said it reminded him of Victoria Station in London, but less clean. Not surprisingly, trains were coming and going and commuters were rushing about, but there was also a man there who was trying to polish the floors. He was spreading some liquid on the floor and then pushing a mop back and forth, at the same time that people were walking around on all sides.

When we finished the train station experience, it was getting close to lunch time, and since we had no idea where to go, we decided to go back to our shop friends and ask for a recommendation. They knew of a restaurant, and one of them agreed to take us there. We walked a couple of blocks, thanked our guide, and went up a flight of stairs to the dining area. But after we were there, we thought better of our decision to eat at a non-hotel restaurant, so we left and started walking towards the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was about two miles away and which had been highly recommended as a place to refresh and eat lunch. Jim decided to go in a different direction, so he left us, and we saw him later when we returned to the ship. Our walk to the Taj was in the same direction that we had come from the ship but on different streets, so we saw different buildings and sights but saw the same amount of traffic, perhaps more since it was later in the day. When we reached the hotel, Denise and I were ready for lunch, but Sobie and Al were not, so they went their own way, and we went to the café in the hotel for a lovely Indian lunch. I even had an Indian dessert (gulab jamun) and realized that the food I get at my favorite Indian restaurant at home is comparable to what this hotel offers.

After lunch, I sat in the lobby and watched the people while Denise looked into the hotel shops, which had very nice jewelry, clothing, fabrics, books, shoes, etc. This hotel break revived us, and we decided that we would prefer to walk back to the ship rather than take a taxi. But our walk back had another challenge for us. For much of our route, there was no sidewalk, so we, and many other walkers, were having to squeeze into an eighteen-inch wide space between a wall and the oncoming cars, bikes, and motorbikes. So why not cross to the other side of the street, one might ask. Well, we tried that a couple of times, but the traffic was so heavy in both directions that it seemed safer not to attempt to cross. Eventually, sidewalks appeared again, and we made it back OK.

In India we were hot, crowded, and sometimes uncomfortable, but we met many lovely people and feel enriched by having experienced some of India’s contributions to the history of humankind.

Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai

Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai

Home of Mohandas Gandhi

Home of Mohandas Gandhi

 

Dhobi Ghat - Mumbai Laundry

Dhobi Ghat – Mumbai Laundry

Prince of Wales Museum

Prince of Wales Museum

 

Mumbai Street Scene

Mumbai Street Scene

Cows Munching Grass

Cows Munching Grass

 

Inside Salwar Kameez Shop

Inside Salwar Kameez Shop

In Front of Salwar Kameez Shop

In Front of Salwar Kameez Shop

 

Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai

Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai

Indian Formal Night

Indian Formal Night

 

March 17-18, 2015 – Cochin, India.

March 17: Cochin, India.

We docked this morning in the port of Cochin, in the state of Kerala, on the southwestern coast of India. Before we could leave the ship, we had to be processed through the very detailed Indian immigration procedures. Then once we had reached the pier, we had to have another inspection of the same documents which we had just produced for the officials inside. We had been counseled to have patience during this procedure, so I tried to remember that and not be annoyed.

We boarded our bus for a panoramic tour of Cochin, and our guide told us a little about India, the state of Kerala, and the city of Cochin.

  • Just as in Sri Lanka, this area was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British and was important in the spice trade.
  • Cochin is the oldest European settlement in India.
  • Compared to the rest of India, Kerala has a higher literacy rate (95%) and its citizens have a longer life span (72 years for women; 71 years for men).
  • The three major religions are represented approximately equally: Hindu 40%, Muslim 30%, Christian 30%. Our guide emphasized that religious tolerance is practiced here and that everyone has learned to get along. He must have told us that five times, so I guess it was important to him to get that point across to us.

Our first stop was at a Hindu temple, which was located a short walk past a massive gate. We had a good lesson here in Indian traffic etiquette. The bus had to park across the road from the temple gate, so all of us had to cross the road in order to enter the temple grounds. We had a traffic person on the bus with us who was supposed to help, but he had the devil of a time getting the vehicles to stop for us. He held up his hand, stepped out into the road when the traffic had cleared a little, and beckoned us to follow, but the vehicles kept coming, darting in front of us until we had filled the street and they had to stop or run over someone. No one was injured, and there seemed to be no hard feelings among the drivers, but we learned something about Indian driving habits.

After driving through some neighborhoods and villages, we stopped for a break at a fancy western hotel, Le Meridian. The port agent had set up tea/coffee/cookies for us in the conference center, which was a starkly modern facility unlike every other building we had seen on our tour. Back on the bus, we continued driving through villages and towards what our guide called a “model village.” In this area, most dwellings were single-family homes with quarter-acre fenced lots, many with a porch on the roof where laundry was drying or people were relaxing. Many homes also had businesses at street level which kept the streets from feeling particularly residential. This was a Catholic neighborhood where preparations were underway for a “free food” festival honoring St. Joseph’s Day on March 19. Temporary outdoor shelters and strings of shiny garland appeared every few blocks. Again, the guide mentioned several times how people of all faiths would be welcome at the festival.

Our next stop was at an access point for the ocean where fishing nets leftover from Chinese activities hundreds of years ago lined the shore. Still in use today, these cantilevered nets are powered by men pulling on ropes to raise and lower them into the water. The weight of the nets is balanced by rocks which are tied to ropes like beads on strings. Not surprisingly, there’s a fish market in this area with a variety of really fresh-looking fish. Next on our tour was a neighborhood of Dutch and British homes built during the colonial era, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Very substantial and still impressive, they were all two story homes with large yards and spacious verandahs. Another feature of this neighborhood was the number of huge old trees called Rain Trees. They are evidently a tourist attraction because our guide called our attention to several of them as we drove by. Our last stop was at a so-called department store, which was nothing like Macy’s or Nordstrom. It was a two story building with expensive Indian products (jewelry, carpets, textiles, wooden ware, furniture) arranged into different “departments.” They had some nice things, but we managed not to buy anything.

As I mentioned above, the state of Kerala has achieved a higher quality of life than other parts of India, so that may explain why our impression of Cochin was more of prosperity than of poverty. The most glaring problem that we noticed was the lack of an infrastructure for garbage pickup. But as our port lecturer has warned us, we must not impose western values on the countries we visit. So we’re working on that way of responding to what we see.

Inside Hindu Temple

Inside Hindu Temple

Cantilevered Fishing Net

Cantilevered Fishing Net

 

Rain Tree

Rain Tree

 

March 15-16, 2015 – Sri Lanka.

March 15: Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This morning, we docked in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. This is a vibrant port city at the crossroads of many religions and cultures: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian. During the morning, we went down to the pier to see what the vendors there had to offer. We were not impressed with the quality of their goods, and the temperature was quite hot in the sun, more comfortable in the shade. There was no need to stay outside in the heat since walking anywhere in the port area was out of the question, so we went back on board. Our excursion today was our first afternoon tour, and we wondered if we’d made a mistake because of the heat. But we were OK. It turned out to be a great tour, with among the best guides we’ve ever had. Mark and Ruvi Forbes, husband and wife, were residents of Sri Lanka, knew the history well, and were committed to making us tourists new fans of their country. I think they succeeded. Our walking tour encompassed only a small area of the city, but we got to see the main market area, Pettah, and the downtown business and shopping area built on the remains of a Portuguese fort from the 16th century.

In Pettah, we walked through narrow streets lined with stalls that were selling everything from textiles and electronics to dish detergent and spices. It was a lively space, and everyone seemed to be busy doing something. The vegetable market was amazing. Vendors were sitting next to piles and bins of every possible kind of vegetable, from shallots to kohlrabi to potatoes to cucumbers. Even though it was Sunday, the guide said, everything would be gone by the end of the day, ready for the next shipments from the growers early Monday morning. Making these shipments possible was a fleet of fantastically painted and decorated trucks (see Denise’s picture). Along the way, we stepped into the Old Dutch Museum, a colonial-era mansion with a quiet courtyard decorated with cinnamon and cardamom plants, which were so important when this country was involved in the spice trade.

In the old fort area, which had been settled (after the indigenous people, of course) by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, we walked along wide streets with colonial-era buildings which are gradually being restored. A terrorist bombing in the 1990s damaged a few buildings and killed 300 people and caused businesses to abandon this area for a number of years. However, the government has commissioned the armed forces to be in charge of doing renovations in the district, and so far everyone thinks they’re doing a great job. [Make buildings, not war: what a concept !] We had a break in a wonderful old hotel, the Grand Oriental Hotel, which had a great view of the harbor where our ship was docked. Of particular note were the wooden stairs made of some rich dark wood, I presume teak. When we continued our walk through the old business district full of these majestic, old buildings, we peeked into Cargill’s, a 19th century version of a department store, and walked past a Lloyds of London building, an abandoned Bank of India building with massive pillars, a renovated HSBC building, and a former lighthouse which now holds a clock and marks the zero mile for Sri Lanka. As we were walking, our guide told us stories from both colonial and modern history and made us feel that Sri Lanka is a country well on its way to developing what’s needed to reach its full potential as a modern nation.

We ended the tour at the Old Dutch Hospital complex. This was a functioning hospital in the 17th century, but today it holds nice restaurants, bars, and shops. One shop featured high-quality, locally made products and gave me the opportunity to buy a t-shirt (as if I needed another one) with pictures of tuk-tuks on the front. By the way, I haven’t mentioned traffic in today’s post, but it wasn’t like what we’ve been seeing in other countries. It was Sunday, so that would have made a difference, but cars and tuk-tuks were the dominant vehicles, not too many motorbikes or even taxis. The explanation may be that we were in a less busy part of town, but being able to cross a street without fearing for your life was something we haven’t felt for a while.

Back at the ship just before all-aboard time, we had a short nap, then prepared for our evening activities. There were no cocktails tonight because the evening was so busy. At 7 we had the Amsterdam Singers and Dancers in a terrific show. Their moves and precision and energy are extraordinary. It’s hard to believe that Broadway could have anything better. At dinner with our tablemates, we shared the experiences of our day. At 9:15 in the Piano Bar, we listened to our pianist’s program of war songs, starting with early English ones, through the American Civil War and then the 20th century wars. At the end of the program, after honoring the veterans by playing songs for each of the armed forces, she played The Star Spangled Banner, and we all stood up. After that, we went back to the show lounge for a ballroom dance program, featuring dancers from Belarus with “inventive choreography, dramatic dancing, and spectacular costuming.” It was quite a busy day for us, and we returned to our room exhausted.

Vegetable Market Scene in Pettah

Vegetable Market Scene in Pettah

Vegetable Market Trucks

Vegetable Market Trucks

 

Street Scene in Pettah

Street Scene in Pettah

Cart Piled with Fabric in Pettah

Cart Piled with Fabric in Pettah

 

A Nice Tuk-Tuk

A Nice Tuk-Tuk

Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo

Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo

 

Cargills

Cargill’s Department Store

Elephant Decoration on Business Building

Elephant Decoration on Business Building

 

 

 

March 10-14, 2015 – Myanmar and Towards Sri Lanka.

March 10: Yangon, Myanmar.

This morning we docked at the port of Thilawa, about an hour’s drive from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), in the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). We were greeted by musicians and dancers and other people who waved to us as the ship eased into her berth. The cruise terminal seemed to be two shipping containers stacked one on top of the other, with a canopy erected in the front. We boarded the bus for our tour, Introduction to Yangon, and were told that the buses would be traveling together with a police escort, again for traffic control. Unlike our previous experience, this police escort did little to get us through the thick of the traffic, which was heavy no matter when or where we were driving.

During the tour, we stopped at three sites: the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Scott Market, and the square in city center. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the major tourist attraction in Yangon, not only for cruise passengers but for faithful Buddhists as well. The pagoda is the resting place for relics of various Buddhas and was first built about 2,500 years ago. It has undergone renovations over the centuries, and today the pagoda complex contains numerous temples each with its own statue of Buddha or something else used in worship. The grounds were crowded with Buddhists and tourists today, and since we all had to remove our shoes and socks before entering (there was no efficient method of coping with so many people and their shoes and socks), we spent quite some time waiting before we could enter. Inside, the gold structures and statues, the LED light displays in some of the temples, the incense, the heat, and the crowds of people and monks made a feast for the senses.

Our next tour stop was at the Scott Market, a 70-year-old market featuring more than 2,000 stalls. Denise braved the heat and the crowds and said it had a lot of attractive goods, especially jewelry, textiles, and lacquerware. The market is frequented by both locals and tourists. The bus tour continued to the square in the center of the city, where we made a photo stop. An imposing city hall, another Buddhist temple, and an independence monument were three of the attractions. On the way out of the city, we stopped at the Strand Hotel, built in 1901, which is said to be one of the “grand hotels” of Asia. It might have been interesting to see inside, but we weren’t given the opportunity.

Additional notes about Yangon:

-Both men and women wear sarongs, including road workers, children, taxi drivers, almost everyone. The style is different, depending upon gender. The men’s generally are tied together in the front, making an obvious knot. The women’s must fasten differently because the fabric around the waist is smooth. Flip flops are the most common footwear, for both men and women.

-Road traffic is dominated by cars, especially taxis. There are also motorbikes (few helmets), bicycles (no helmets, few lights at night), horse-drawn carts, hand carts, bicycle rickshaws, and buses (not air conditioned and generally packed with riders). They drive on the right, unlike Thailand and Malaysia, but cars can have either right-hand or left-hand steering. And there are all different makes: Toyota, Lexus, Ford, Honda, Nissan, and many others that I didn’t recognize. Jaywalking is the common practice, even on busy highways.

-Ornately decorated Buddhist temples seem to be in every block of the city. Generally, there’s an imposing gateway which leads down a road (often dirt) to the temple complex. We often saw robed monks walking along the roadways carrying their alms bowl, which they use in begging for food.

-English and other languages are not seen much. The language script used here is incomprehensible to me, but I did see a few words I knew, such as BANK, TOYOTA, TAXI, and TOURIST POLICE.

-Even though we went to the center of the city on our tour, there were no skyscrapers, not even any apartment buildings over ten stories, and no one was wearing what I would call business-appropriate clothing. So I don’t know where business is done.

-During our drive today, we saw several construction sites, but there was no machinery in evidence. Moving dirt or rocks was done with a shovel, sometimes into a cart, sometimes into a dump truck; digging was also done with a shovel; fist-size rocks were being carried by hand from one place to another, sometimes by women or children.

-We found the level of poverty to be almost overwhelming. Substandard housing, unsafe living and working conditions, uncontrolled garbage, crumbling public buildings, and traffic chaos seemed to be the norm.

Our understanding is that Myanmar is just now coming onto the world scene. While it’s true that emerging countries often have difficulties in bringing their infrastructure and social programs up to date, the guides and other people that we spoke to were lovely, and everyone seems to want tourism to become an increasingly important element in their economy. Myanmar has had a long and distinguished history and can offer the Western tourist a unique perspective on life in Southeast Asia.

March 11: Yangon, Myanmar.

We had a relaxing day today on the ship, but for dinner, we had an excursion to a restaurant in Yangon, Le Planteur. Supposedly an extraordinary French restaurant, we thought the food was not so great. The building is the former Australian embassy, so the setting was pleasant enough: tables set up on artificial grass by a lake, Burmese dance show (very similar to one we saw on the ship last night), a warm and lovely night. One of the highlights of the evening was the women’s restroom (see Denise’s picture). But the ride to and from the restaurant was like yesterday’s: bumpy, with too much traffic, and too much poverty.

Shwedagon Buddhist Pagoda

Shwedagon Buddhist Pagoda

Shwedagon Buddhist Pagoda Complex

Shwedagon Buddhist Pagoda Complex

 

 

Buddha in Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Buddha in Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Buddha Illuminated by LED Lights

Buddha Illuminated by LED Lights

 

Main Aisle at Scott Market

Main Aisle at Scott Market

Strand Hotel

Strand Hotel

 

Dinner at French Restaurant in Yangon

Dinner at French Restaurant in Yangon

Bathroom Fixtures at French Restaurant

Elephant Bathroom Fixtures at French Restaurant

 

March 8-9, 2015 – Thailand.

March 8: Phuket, Thailand.

We docked this morning at the Phuket Deep Sea Port, which is located near Phuket Town, in the island and province of Phuket, in the country of Thailand. This is another non-commercial port, with nothing there but our cruise ship, a few fishing boats, and a number of vendor stalls which had already been set up by the time we docked. Our excursion today was a bus tour around the island, featuring temples, beaches, rubber trees, and a cashew nut factory. One notable characteristic of this island is the ubiquitous “spirit house,” which is a small temple in the shape of a very ornate house which is placed on top of a pole. These little structures appear outside most homes and even many business properties. Evidently, the faithful say prayers or make offerings before them in order to assure happiness or something for the inhabitants.

After we left the traffic in Phuket Town, we drove to the Chalong Temple, Phuket’s most sacred place of worship (the majority of the populace is Buddhist). This temple complex contained several buildings, in addition to the main temple. They were all extremely ornately decorated, with open sides and tiled steps leading up to places where worshipers could leave their shoes before entering. Statues of elephants were in prominent places, and there were little kiosks where incense sticks could be obtained. In addition to the tourists, many local people and even a wedding party were present in the complex.

As our drive around the island continued, we traversed a hilly and winding coastal road which often gave us great views of the ocean and nearby islands. We drove through a number of beach towns, each with its own take on recreation and consumerism. Karon Beach and Patong Beach were resort areas with lots of hotels, restaurants with outside seating, and shops selling every possible type of doodad for going to the beach. We also passed through the communities of Kalim Beach and Kamala Beach. In the middle of a roundabout, we saw the Two Heroines Monument, a statue which commemorates two Thai women who saved Phuket from a Burmese invasion in the 18th century. In Bangtao Village, we stopped briefly in front of the biggest mosque in Phuket, which featured green tiled domes topped with gold crescent ornaments. Further along our route, the guide pointed out the plantations of rubber trees which have been planted in rows and which provide a significant source of income for Thailand. Our final stop was at a cashew nut factory, where we were able to sample all different flavors of cashew nuts and dried fruits and also to shop for souvenirs, of course. Before returning to the ship, we drove through some of the neighborhood areas of Phuket Town, a Chinese section in particular, where we saw older homes and businesses and a Chinese temple. After we left town, we also left the traffic for the short ride back to the ship. We made a pass through the vendor stalls at the dock to see if anything appealed to us, but the heat of the afternoon was so intense that we could only think of getting back to the air-conditioned ship.

Buddhist Temple1 in Chalong, Thailand

Buddhist Temple1 in Chalong, Thailand

Buddhist Temple2 in Chalong, Thailand

Buddhist Temple2 in Chalong, Thailand

 

 

Elephant Statuary at Chalong Buddhist Temple

Elephant Statuary at Chalong Buddhist Temple

Two Heroines Monument in Roundabout

Two Heroines Monument in Roundabout

 

 

 

March 6-7, 2015 – Malaysia.

March 6: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The ship arrived this morning in Port Klang, Malaysia, the cruise port for Kuala Lumpur. Unlike many of the ports we’ve visited, this one seems to be located in the middle of nowhere. The cruise terminal is a multi-story stark white building (almost empty), and there’s a very large parking lot (also almost empty). The surrounding area has not been developed at all: it’s just bushes and trees. Off in the distance, we could see the blue cranes characteristic of container ports, which would be indicative of commercial activity, but none of that was present at the cruise port.

On our bus tour today, we saw the highlights of Kuala Lumpur, a modern city which is somewhat more prosperous than Jakarta. During the hour’s drive from the ship to the city, we first noticed community after community of two-story apartment buildings. As we got closer to the city, more and more multi-story apartments appeared. Our guide explained how the high cost of living in the city has driven workers out into the suburbs and that government policies have made it possible for everyone to have a place to live. They’re also working on a light rail transportation system which is supposed to be completed in 2017 and which should help with traffic congestion. On the modern highway into the city, the traffic was dominated by trucks and commercial vehicles, suggesting prosperity, as did the large number of construction projects within the city.

Our tour included photo stops which allowed us to see some of the contrasts between colonial and modern Malaysia.

  • The Old Railway Station is a dramatic building of British-Malay design from 1910. Today, there’s a new transit hub, but this building is now being used for the railway’s administrative offices.
  • Nearby is Independence Square with Tudor-style architecture and an exclusive social club. Once these buildings were for the use of the British population, but when independence from Britain was achieved in 1957, this area became open to everyone. Public events are now held on the former cricket field (the Malaysians prefer soccer).
  • The National Monument is a war memorial honoring those who died in 20th century Malaysian wars. It’s in a big park with a cenotaph, a reflecting pool, and an Iwo-Jima type sculpture.
  • The National Mosque is a huge white structure which covers a city block and holds 15,000 worshipers at a time. It has an imposing minaret and a bright blue roof dome.
  • The King’s Palace is a particularly ornate building set on a hill surrounded by gardens. This is not a hereditary office but is occupied by the sultans of Malaysian states, rotated every five years.
  • The Petronas Towers are the tallest twin buildings in the world. Like many of the other skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, they are beautiful to look at.

March 7: Penang, Malaysia.

This morning our ship anchored off the coast of Georgetown, island state of Penang, country of Malaysia. The purpose of our excursion today was to introduce us to some of the sights and attractions of the island of Penang. From the tender dock, we walked directly into the bus parking lot, and therefore didn’t see anything of Georgetown on foot. From the bus, though, we saw traffic, many tall apartment buildings, and lots of construction sites. Our first stop was at the Thai Buddhist temple, with the 4th largest reclining Buddha in the world. I noted yesterday that the King’s palace in Kuala Lumpur was ornate. It was nothing compared to this temple. Thousands and thousands of ½-inch mirrored, colored tiles covered the façade of the building, the dragons and other figures which guard the entrance, and the other shrines on the grounds. Across the street was another temple garden, from the Burmese ethnic group. This was more like a garden, with an arcade, fish pond, shrines, food-preparation building, and a three story temple with an ornate façade and a cool, peaceful interior space. The fragrance of incense was inescapable.

From Georgetown, we drove up into the mountains as we continued our circumnavigation of the island. The road was narrow and winding, and for most of the time we were driving through deep tropical forest. Our next stop was at a batik factory. Our Chinese guide assured us that the batik we’ll find in Penang would be more beautiful and of better quality than any found in Indonesia. I attributed that statement to local pride. I’ve now dealt with batiks from several different areas and don’t feel the need to say one is better than another. But they’re certainly all different. At this factory we had the opportunity to watch the craftspeople at work or to shop right away. I chose to shop because we had only 30 minutes to spend there. They had a very large collection of ready-made clothing, and I did get a top, but my main focus was on the intricately patterned batik yardage. We purchased lengths for 3 shirts, at what I thought was a very reasonable price.

A short way down the road was the Penang Butterfly Farm. It was a relatively small screened-in space filled with plants and butterflies flitting about. They were colorful and graceful, and it was fun to watch them light on the visitors. We shuffled through this space with all the other tourists, were grossed out by a pen full of huge worms, and walked quickly through a room filled with close-up photographs of scary insect parts. According to the guide, this place is doing such good business that they’re having to close for renovations in order to make their display space several times larger. Our next stop was at a roadside market selling local fruits and spices. Back on the bus, the guide passed around some of the different products he had gathered there and then explained their significance in Malaysia: cloves, nutmeg, betel nut, and cocoa. The historical spice trade was important in this area; in fact, our road was originally built by the British as a means of bringing the Malaysian spices to the port for export to Europe. Our final stop was out of the mountains and back down by the ocean, where we had a view of two important bridges which link Penang to the mainland. The drive to the ship was through heavily populated areas with lots of traffic.

Our most vivid impression of Indonesia and Malaysia has been of their melting pot character. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, in terms of religions, and Malaysians, Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans have been able to create a society which seems to be working. As tourists, we didn’t see all the social and economic problems, but we did see invariably lovely people who live and love and have their being in a part of the world which until now has been a blank space on the map.

Palace of Malaysian King in Kuala Lumpur

Palace of Malaysian King in Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur

 

 

In Front of the Thai Temple in Penang

In Front of the Thai Temple in Penang

Thai Buddhist Temple in Penang, Malaysia

Thai Buddhist Temple in Penang, Malaysia

 

 

Burmese Buddhist Temple in Penang

Burmese Buddhist Temple in Penang

 

 

March 3-5, 2015 – Singapore.

March 3: At Sea Day-Crossing the Equator.

This morning, we witnessed the Crossing the Equator ceremony on the Lido deck. Crew members who have not crossed the equator before are put through a trial which is supposed to humiliate them, thereby making them fit to be on a ship, I suppose. First, they were paraded through the audience of passengers on the Lido, then placed behind bars, then forced to kneel before the ship’s officers, then massaged with a disgusting egg-white substance, then tossed into the pool. It was all great fun, for the spectators, at least, and was topped off by the Captain and senior officers jumping into the pool as well. We have heard of this “initiation” being applied to passengers, but that would never work with the ones on this ship. We all just got a nice certificate.

March 4: Singapore.

We are blown away by Singapore. Together with our next-door neighbor Janice, we toured the city today on the Hop-on-Hop-off bus, taking two of the three routes during the morning and afternoon. Aside from the bus ride, our main activity was to shop in Arab Street, which Janice was kind enough to do with us. Here are some of our impressions of Singapore:

  • What a beautiful city. Most amazing is the architecture: so many skyscrapers, each with a different take on what it means to be a tall building. They were of different shapes, with different exterior materials, different roof lines, different relationships to each other. The landscaping also impressed me. Trees, bushes, hedges, lawns, flowers, waterways, sculptures were all well-tended and contributed to an overall feeling of competence and of attention to human comfort. The older buildings and homes seemed particularly substantial and were also well kept – and were worth millions of dollars!
  • Automobile traffic in the city seems to be completely under control. The bus tour commentary explained how the government has been able to keep vehicles from ruining the city – with punishing taxes and environmental regulations. As a result, most cars are new, there are few motor bikes on the roads, public transportation is given a high priority, and rush hour was not a traffic nightmare.
  • Arab Street is a fabric mecca. It’s like the Garment District in New York: one fabric store after another for several blocks. We spent a couple of hours there buying fabric and pashminas. In one store, we talked for a while with the proprietor, a Muslim lady whose son is getting his master’s degree at Yale. She loved the idea of our cruise and said we should look for each other on our next one. We felt a little connected with this person who lives a life entirely different from our own.

March 5: Singapore.

We got a relatively early start today because we had to be back on the ship by 3pm and wanted another full day of sightseeing in Singapore. At the tourist information desk in the cruise terminal, we found out how to use the metro and took off for our day’s excursion. When we were out yesterday, we drove by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, which looks like three towers with a platform across the top (see Denise’s pictures). Close to this hotel was a park called Gardens by the Bay. So our plan for today was to visit these sights, and the metro made it easy.

First, we went into the hotel and were totally amazed by the interior spaces – so open and filled with light. The exposed infrastructure and artwork kept us looking up. We walked the length of the hotel to signs for the Skywalk, which is the name for the platform at the top. An elevator ride to the 56th floor brought us to the public observation deck from which we could see the entire city of Singapore. The skyscrapers seemed to go on forever – at least as far as we could see on this very hot and hazy day. Descriptive panels in several different languages identified the highlights, including some of the pre-modern buildings, which were dwarfed by the skyscrapers.

We would have stayed overlooking the city longer, but we wanted to make sure we allowed enough time to visit the Gardens by the Bay, so we left the Skywalk and made our way across to the park. Given the small amount of time we had, we picked only three features to explore: the Supertree Grove, the Cloud Forest, and the Flower Dome.

  • Supertree Grove. The Supertrees are vertical plant displays which have the shape and branching effect of trees (see Denise’s pictures). Ten to fifteen of these “trees” are grouped together, and a walkway is provided about 70 feet off the ground for strolling among them. One “tree” even has a restaurant inside, but we didn’t go there. Maybe next time we’re in Singapore we will.
  • Cloud Forest. This is a domed structure (like a conservatory) containing plants which thrive in a cool-mist tropical forest. They are living on a man-made mountain from which flows a 113-foot waterfall. I’ve never seen so many orchids in one place, not to mention other tropical plants from all over the world. How they brought everything here – and how they’re all still alive – is but one of the mysteries of this remarkable place.
  • Flower Dome. This is another domed structure; this one has a cool-dry subtropical climate, with flowers, bushes, and trees from everywhere. My favorites were the beobab trees. I have always wanted to see one but didn’t think I’d ever get to Madagascar. Now, I don’t have to go there.

Our time at the Gardens by the Bay was way too short. When we come to Singapore again, we’ll plan to spend at least a day here. For me, this is the most interesting and thought-provoking aspect of this park: When will some of the technology used in building these structures be needed as we humans continue to make our existing ecosystems uninhabitable?

Singapore Skyline

Singapore Skyline

Interesting Building in Singapore

Interesting Building in Singapore

 

Raffles Hotel in Singapore

Raffles Hotel in Singapore

Interesting Building in Singapore

Interesting Building in Singapore

 

 

Interesting Building in Singapore

Interesting Building in Singapore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Marina Bay Sands Hotel

 

 

On Top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

On Top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

View of Gardens by the Bay

View of Gardens by the Bay

 

 

Supertrees and Walkway in Gardens by the Bay

Supertrees and Walkway in Gardens by the Bay

Elevated Walkway in the Cloud Forest Dome

Elevated Walkway in the Cloud Forest Dome

 

 

With Plants in the Cloud Forest Dome

With Plants in the Cloud Forest Dome

 

 

March 1-2, 2015 – Java, Indonesia.

March 1: Semarang, Indonesia.

Our port today was Semarang, which is on the island of Java, in Indonesia. As we walked off the ship, we were greeted by Indonesian dancers and musicians and a purple dragon. The port city Semarang is in central Java, but we saw nothing of it, only the highway which headed up into the highlands, where our destination Borobudur is located. We were in a caravan of at least six tour buses and traveled with a police escort – for traffic control not military protection, fortunately. We made one rest stop along the way. Rest stop, in fact, any stop means vendors selling stuff to the tourists. I found a nice batik, however, and did my part to support the local economy. Borobudur, we were told, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and was built in 750. Evidently, it was swallowed up by the jungle for hundreds of years but was rediscovered when Europeans started coming into the region. It has been restored a couple of times and today stands by itself on the top of a mountain. Rather than trying to describe it (as a big pile of dark stones), I will refer you to Denise’s pictures. Our guide was very considerate of our capabilities, although he couldn’t really do much about the heat. This temple is built in several levels, and visitors (worshipers) are supposed to receive some particular benefit from climbing to each level and walking completely around the monument several times at each level. The steps were very steep, and hand rails were available for only some of the stairways. Our guide brought us to each level and allowed us to rest between each one as he explained to us the stories about Buddha which were carved in bas relief at each level. We eventually made it to the top level, which contained a number of bell-shaped structures which have some significance which escapes me. Considering the time when this monument was built as well as its workmanship and unity of design, it’s really very impressive. But as we have found with other sites of this type, the huge number of other visitors gets in the way of any kind of meaningful communion with its spirit. When we had completed our tour, we walked over to a nearby restaurant where we were served a “typical” Indonesian buffet lunch. The food was good and plentiful, and we afterwards had the opportunity to do a little shopping for Indonesian handicrafts – dealing with the annoyingly aggressive local vendors as usual. Our next stop was a handicrafts center, where the vendors were easier to deal with, so we bought a nice piece of batik fabric for Denise. The bus ride both to and from Borobudur deserves a paragraph of its own. Having a police escort in Java evidently means that the bus can drive with no regard whatsoever for normal traffic rules, such as keeping to your own side of the road, not running red lights, and not traveling at a breakneck speed. Throughout the ride, people who could see in front of the bus frequently gasped or otherwise expressed shock and disbelief at what the driver was doing. But the police were in the car ahead leading the way, and after all, we did return to the ship in one piece. One passenger said it all: “This is the longest carnival thrill ride I’ve ever been on.”

March 2: Jakarta, Indonesia.

The ship docked this morning in the port of Tanjung Priok, near the city of Jakarta, on the island of Java, in the country of Indonesia. We were greeted by beautifully costumed Indonesian dancers accompanied by musicians playing various types of drums and one amplified stringed instrument which created a particularly discordant sound. Since we have a large number of Indonesian crew members, the ship had also set up a family waiting area for them under a big tent in order to facilitate family reunions. Our excursion today was entitled Jakarta Highlights, so we had a driving tour of the city with a few stops. The driving part we found somewhat depressing. We had been told to expect a lot of traffic, which there was. As in other cities we’ve seen, the number of motor bikes is astounding. But what floored us was the poverty. In one section near the port, homes were made of non-construction materials such as corrugated metal, sticks, and burlap. The downtown business district has an impressive skyline with skyscrapers for world class hotels and global companies, but almost every other building was in need of some type of repair, some in need of a lot of repair. Broken and uneven sidewalks, litter and even garbage, a smelly and polluted river with people fishing, and men sitting idle along the roadsides were some of the other “highlights” we noticed. One positive thing I saw, however, was that in certain areas along our route, the landscaping was totally fine. Several times, I saw workers pulling weeds, raking up leaves, and making public areas tidy. We understand that Jakarta has a huge problem because it’s sinking and is ripe for a major flooding disaster. I doubt that fine landscaping is going to help with that issue. The bus tour of Jakarta was supposed to provide a high-level introduction to the city and Indonesian culture. Our first stop was for taking photos of an obelisk celebrating Indonesian independence and the presidential palace. Next, we had a 45-minute stop at the national museum, where we found displays and objects relevant to the history of Indonesia. I found this to be a comfortable museum with interesting subjects and artifacts, and its display text was often written in English as well as in Indonesian. Perhaps significantly, our next stop was for one hour – at the main tourist mall in the city. We would have liked more time there because they had extensive collections of the work of Indonesian artisans and the Indonesian textile industry. The last stop on our tour was the Museum Wayang, celebrating the tradition of puppet making and performance which Indonesia is known for. Our guide in this museum was an actual puppet-maker, who explained how he makes the puppets and how his work has led him to relationships with UNESCO and other world organizations. Both his father and grandfather were puppet-makers, and he currently has hundreds of students from all over the world who want to learn his craft. During this museum stop, we could hear that a driving rainstorm had started, so we got soaked walking back to the bus. By the time we reached the ship, there were only sprinkles. I wish I could say that the rain had left Jakarta clean and sparkling. Not a chance.

Borobudur Buddhist Monument

Borobudur Buddhist Monument

Top of Borobudur

Top of Borobudur

 

View from Top of Borobudur

View from Top of Borobudur

Model of Borobudur Monument

Model of Borobudur Monument

 

Jakarta National Museum

Jakarta National Museum

 

Jakarta Puppet Museum

Jakarta Puppet Museum