Monday, April 29, 2013

First two Emirates

So - here we are in the desert - and its raining! Go figure! In fact it has finally cooled down enough at night that the cruise director decided to have our first night time deck party. And then it rains....

We didn't join any shore excursions in Fujairah. The ship had a shuttle organized to a local mall, so we went along hoping for wi-fi. Sure enough, a Starbucks obliged and we had a chance to check in with the world. Not much to take pictures of - we kind of treated it as another at sea day. In fact we actually spent the afternoon on the pool deck and went for a swim. Usually it is so hot up there that I risk spontaneous combustion if I set foot on the deck.

Abu Dhabi was also rainy and overcast. And this really isn't a bad thing - it kept us from being just slayed by the sun. Again we decided against any shore excursions, and again a shuttle was laid on for a local shopping centre. While both Muscat and Oman were very low key cities, Abu Dhabi is hugely developed and full of skyscrapers. We went to the Marina Mall, which is huge. And being a Saturday it was packed - locals, expats, tourist. A blizzard of shopping. And of coffee drinking - because it was so chilly outside!

From the mall we could see the very big and very famous Emirates Palace Hotel - we thought we'd walk over for a look see. After about a 45 minute walk around the perimeter we approached the gate, only to be told that long pants were required - for Wilf. So, back to the mall we went.

And still everyone is saying - pffff. Wait til you see Dubai!

And after the lush and tropical part of the trip

then comes the desert. And I must admit when we arrived at Muscat, in Oman my first thought was 'Wow - they must be some tough people to live here'. The city itself is green enough, but it backs right up against the most desolate range of low mountains. Not a blade of grass to be seen. Until the early 1970's there was very little here, so the Sultan has gotten a lot done since he took charge.

One of the main things to see is the mosque. There seem to be many ways of measuring how big a mosque is - by some reckonings this one is the third largest in the world. When we saw the mosque in Casablanca it was the second largest - don't know if it still is. Anyhoo, the mosque in Muscat. Oman is a very conservative country, and we were told repeatedly that we would have to be covered up for this tour - long pants and sleeves for women, nothing low cut and our heads had to be covered. This did not stop many people from showing up on bus in crop pants, short sleeves, you name it. Before we got off the bus the bus driver inspected us and issue abayas (long sleeved, floor length black coats) and or head scarfs to those who didn't pass. Before being allowed into the grounds we were scrutinized again by a policeman - a few adjustments but no one was rejected.

Was it worth it? Yes, it was. A lovely lovely garden and building. Enormous crystal chandeliers, a huge rug, carvings, tile work - all just beautiful.

After the mosque we visited the souk - one of Oman's special items is frankincense. It smells fantastic. There was lots of tourist stuff, but it was also a souk for the Omanis, so it was fun to visit.

Even if it was 37C in the burning sun (and less than 30% humidity at the height of the day)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Old Bombay with lunch

Bombay is a huge city, and a city of contrasts. Our second day in the city was a long tour that stayed in the central part of they city. We had an opportunity to see the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the busy and the quiet. We have heard said that nothing really works the way you expect in India, but that it does, in the end, work and we saw some of that.

We were on the bus and underway by about 8:30. The shops and offices don't open until 10:00, so things were pretty quiet as we started out. We took a second look at the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Hotel (scene of the 2008 terrorist attacks, all back together now) and rode along the coast of the Arabian Sea on Marine Drive before diving into the business district. We were moving against the flow of traffic, so we could move along quite easily but the oncoming commuter traffic as pretty grim.

A note about the traffic. By North American standards it was un-frickin-believable. However, in the central city, at least, it did not live up to the chaos we've seen in Bangkok. Or Palermo, Italy, for that matter. No tuk-tuks allowed in the central part of Bombay, which is probably what keeps it all from unravelling.

Our first stop was at a Hindu temple called Babulnath. It is a temple devoted to Lord Shiva, and Monday is his special day so everything was super busy at the temple. The temple is located in area of small streets so the bus paused to dump us out in the middle of the action. Small stalls selling fruit and flowers for offerings. A couple of cows to provide milk for offerings (or buy it in bags from vendors). We walked up a small street past low apartment buildings, past the cow pen, past secondary shrines to other deities, past trees growing out of the side of buildings and electrical wires strung all over. We waited to take an elevator up to the temple itself - they piled us in in batches and we tried not to think about the wisdom riding in the very rickety looking set up. But - safe and sound we made it to the top.

Hindu worship is non-congregational. People arrive with offerings, ring a bell to announce their presence, approach the deity or his animal representation (a statue of a bull, in this case) make their offering, say their prayers and move on according to their own timetable. So everything is happening all at once - it is quite a scene of noise and confusion. So, that was a first for us.

Back onto the coach to continue our tour. Being in the big bus meant we had great sight lines above the traffic and could see really well. The train stations and the university and many of the government buildings are high Victorian and really spectacular. There are new high rises going up all over. We saw the 27 story 'house' of one very wealthy family (5 people and 600 staff live there....) as well as knocked together little shanty towns tucked in little corners.

We were supposed to go to the Crawford Market before lunch, but a whole group of the vendors there shut up shop and went out on a demonstration over a new tax, so the guides were busily re-routing the buses. We visited a the very beautiful Albert Museum, where we saw the elephant statue from Elephanta Island among many beautiful objects.

All the tour busses converged on the Khyber restaurant for a lunch of northern Indian food, which was excellent. After lunch we did get to the Crawford Market, which had reopened. Clearly, it is mango season but there was a huge selection of all manner of fruit and vegetable on display.

The tour was supposed to include a visit the Dabbawallahas, who deliver lunches all over the city of Bombay. But wouldn't you know it they go on a pilgrimage to their ancestral village one week of the year and guess which week it is..... I guess everyone in the city has to carry their lunch with them or eat out this week.

All told it was 8 hours of touring around the city, and I'm sure we hardly scratched the surface.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai

We arrived in Mumbai on a Sunday morning and were quickly off on our first tour. Rather than tackle the city itself we elected to take a tour to Elephanta Island. The island is about an hour by ferry from downtown Mumbai. Way back in the day the Portuguese arrived on the island and found a big stone statue of an elephant, which lent its name to the island. No actual elephants live there - just lots of macaque monkeys. The statue eventually was moved to a Mumbai museum, where we ran across it later.

What was on the island, at the top of a long hill, were a series of caves. The living rock of the caves has been carved into large rooms decorated with relief panels and statues. They are enormous and enormously detailed. The caves were carved in the 7th century but when the Portuguese were in the area in the late 1500's they used many of the statues for target practice. Fortunately they managed not to destroy them all.

When we arrived at the island we rode on a miniature train to the foot of the hill. I think the train was there so we could save our strength to walk up the 120 steps to the caves. I know, it doesn't sound like much, but even at 9:30 in the morning it was 35C. The stairs are lined on both sides with stalls of all sorts of souvenirs. The stall holders have thrown tarps over the steps all the way up. The good news - no sun beating on us. The bad news - no breeze, either. There were guys offering rides in a sedan chairs for those who weren't up for the climb. But - up we went and everyone made it.

Our guide was very good, and very patient explaining things to us. The cave complex is dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the three main Hindu gods. She explained the stories depicted in each panel or statue and showed us how to 'read' the sculptures - what various symbols and characters mean, who the players are and why they are represented the way they are.

As I mentioned it was Sunday. Our tour was underway early and we arrived in advance of the crowds. Oceania and the companies they hire to run the shore excursions have done a good job of managing things. On the popular excursions there can be 4 to 6 buses sent out from the ship, each with about 25 to 30 people. They can't have us all land at all the places at the same time, so lots of juggling occurs to make sure all the arrivals are timed correctly. This can be a bit more of a challenge if we do have to be at the same place and time for lunch. Lots of text messages between the guides and drivers to keep it all working. And on Elephanta Island we also had a huge crush of Sunday day trippers from the city. When we arrived the crowds had not arrived and the vendors were just getting going. By the time we headed down it was a steady stream of traffic coming up hill and the vendors were working hard to get our attention.

When we left Mumbai from the pier behind the Gateway to India the plaza was almost empty - some street children begging,some vendors getting set up. When we returned the change was incredible - thousands of people getting on and off of boats, taking pictures, shopping eating and hanging out.

We had thought we might venture out into the city after our tour but by the time they took us back to the ship we looked at our beautiful air conditioned ship and we looked at the city steaming under the tropical sun and......

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Venice of India

Our first stop in India was a great day, but not what we were expecting. The city of Cochin is in the state of Kerala ( a small state, only 33 million people!). Vasco de Gama came here on his first voyage to India, and over time the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have had a presence here. The architecture shows this long history. In a predominately Hindu country this area has a large Catholic presence. It is a prosperous and literate area, as well.

We took a tour out from Cochin itself. Many rivers come down from the nearby mountains and they drain our through a sort of delta, and maze of lakes and canals. The area is known as backwaters, and that is where we went. It took about 90 minutes by coach to get to the town of Aleppy, where we boarded big boats that took us to the backwaters. One of the features of the backwaters are houseboats. This is coconut palm land, and one of the big products is rope and mats made of the coconut fibres. The houseboats are covered with woven mats. They usually have three cabins and a forward lounge area. People hire the boat with a captain and a cook and putter about the lakes. They look really nice.

We toured through the canals, passing people who live along the way. People fishing and diving for mussels, doing their laundry, swimming and getting on with their lives. We had the opportunity to stop and visit one of the houses - a large two story house which appears to have most modern conveniences. But lots of people lived in small shacks.

We had lunch at a resort before heading back to Cochin. When we had left the ship it was early and not many shops were open. By afternoon everything was in full swing.

I said that Cochin was not what we expected. We have been warned so much about the abject poverty in India. Of the traffic and the noise and the chaos and the pollution. And I have no doubt that we will see that. But my impression of what we saw was that this is a busy and prosperous area. Are we talking about a North American standard of cleanliness - no. There was lots of trash and garbage around. Were some of the shops and houses a mere step about shacks - yes. But there were shops and industries and workshops full of people. Schools and churches and temples and shrines - all buzzing with activity. We didn't see beggars on the streets. When we stopped there were street vendors - they would show us their wares but they were not insistent.

I expect that Mumbai will be rather a slap in the face in comparison!

A scattering of islands

The Maldives are a collection of islands scattered in the ocean to the west of India. Our port was Male, the capital city. Male is a surprising place - it is an island (an atoll, to be precise) that is less than 2km square. It is built up from one edge to another, covered in buildings most of which are about 5 or 6 stories tall. The airport is on a separate island, which was augmented to make a runway. Its surprising to see the big jets come in and plunk down practically on the water. Another island is the commercial port. Needless to say there are lots of boats and seaplanes moving people and things around.

We had a short tender ride to the pier, where we picked up our walking tour. Considering that you literally cannot walk more than about 1.5 km in any direction without running into the ocean there is a surprising amount of traffic. Most of it is scooter traffic.

I keep talking about how hot it has been. Male may take the prize for the heat - we'll see, we still have some hot places to go. But man oh man.... it was brutal. With so many buildings there weren't may breezes. Our guide was good, though. He kept finding shady or air conditioned places to stash us so we could cool off. I'm sure he didn't want us tipping right over.

The Maldives is a Muslim country, quite conservative, so we were asked to keep our arms and legs covered. Sarongs were issued at the national mosque for those who weren't quite covered up enough (we're looking at you, Wilf Lambo!)

In a city so small it didn't take long to see the sights - the mosques, the national museum, the markets, the temples. Our guide took us to a restaurant where we could have juice or smoothies - no alcohol allowed in the city. A smoothie, the internet and air-conditioning - a great combination. I think our guide would have liked us to hire him for an afternoon of snorkelling, but by this time we were so totally wiped the heat and sun that all we could think of was getting back to the ship. And perhaps burning our clothes - thanks heavens for the on board laundrette! (I must say, however, that as we get into another week of the cruise the competition for the laundrette is getting pretty fierce. Not bringing out the best in people....)

A rainy day...

We didn't plan any shore excursions for Colombo, Sri Lanka. Most of what the ship was offering seem to involve long bus rides into the country to look at something - tea trees, elephants - and then a long drive back. Since we weren't even arriving to 11:00 a.m. we figured we'd just wing it.

In some ports we've been in a commercial port, but we've always been some distance from the container ship loading and unloading. Not so here in Colombo. There's the passenger area, with shops, but then there's a chain link fence and hello! Huge gantry cranes and all the rest of it. Being up on deck 7 we had a great view of it all. We could also see that it was a fairly long way to get out of the port and to the city itself.

While we considering our options a rain storm blew in. This was a torrentially torrential rainstorm of epic proportions. Complete with thunder and lightening. We went off to lunch to see what would happen. The vendors down on the pier threw plastic over their wares, but the containers continued to roll in and roll out on the other side of the fence.

After about an hour the rain stopped. Now it was only 94 degrees, but the humidity had climbed to 99%. Not only did we have the activities of the port to entertain us but the ship was being provisioned directly below us. The very excitable Italian executive chef was on the gangway inspecting every box of fruit and veg (and not everything was up to snuff)

We did decide to venture out and went down to the pier to see about a taxi. As it turns out it was a national holiday (Hindu New Year). Bad news - lots of things closed. Good news - no traffic! It was a good thing that we didn't decided to walk out to the city - it would have been a kilometre or more through the port, much of which kind of looked like an industrial wasteland. Our taxi driver gave us a tour around the city for an hour, taking in the colonial district, the business district, the big Central Park, many temples and shrines. We stopped at the Galle Face Hotel, a lovely old hotel on the ocean. It faces onto a park, and that was where began to see crowds of people, flying kites and enjoying their holiday.

It was so hot and humid that the taxi was all steamed up - on the outside. Same thing in our stateroom when we got back. Usually it is very pleasant to sit out in the evening at the Terrace Cafe on deck nine. With the heat and humidity tonight everyone wound up down on deck five in the main dining room. Better luck with the air conditioning down there!

The island of Phuket

Phuket was our second Thai island tour. It is bigger than Ko Samui and much more developed. Apparently it was hard hit during the tsunami of 2004, but that was not obvious on our tour.

Our coach tour took us to three areas - Promthep Cape, which is an outlook with beautiful views, a temple and a cultural show.

At the outlook there was - not a temple, but a Buddhist site. It was a huge collection of elephant statues from large to small. My understanding is that the elephant is one of the four manifestations of the Buddha, and that this particular site it special to businessmen. They come here to pray for blessings. If their prayer is answered they return and leave a statue of an elephant - big blessings get big elephants, smaller ones, smaller elephants. It was quite a collection.

From there we went to a large temple complex, filled with beautiful buildings and statues. At this location when prayers are answered people ignite fireworks in thanks. We could hear them going off in several locations - they have a special brick kiln like structures where they are fired off.

Our last stop was a Thai cultural show - music and dancing from the four main areas of Thailand. After the show the women were all asking our guides ' How do they get their fingers bent back so far?' The curved fingers are an important part of the look, and most Thai women can do it so a certain extent, but the professional dancers really work at it. We were all pushing on our fingers, but apparently you have to start very young!

A day in Kuala Lumpur

We had just a taste of Kuala Lumpur. Nautica docked at Port Klang, which is about an hour from the city. It is a huge port and is connected to the city by a big highway and the traffic was, thankfully, totally unlike the chaos of Bangkok. We didn't really have a tour - just transport. Once in the city proper we were on our own, with a time to meet the return bus.

As with each stop on our cruise it was staggeringly hot. Too hot to manage much enthusiasm for shopping. But, the shopping centres in this part of the world are part of huge entertainment complexes. We set off by monorail and subway to the Kuala Lumpur City Centre area, which is where the famous Petronas Towers are located (said our guide on the bus - Dubai may have a taller tower, but we have Two!)

The Petronas Towers sit atop a huge shopping centre. Wilf had the name of a restaurant on the top floor, and we managed to scoot in just ahead of the noon time crowd. It was Malay food from the Penang region - don't know what most of it was, but it was good. Next door was an enormous Kinokunya bookstore (a Japanese bookstore chain - we checked it out in Japan and they also have a branch in Seattle) where I was able to get a bookstore fix.

We walked around outside and admired the gardens before heading into another part of the complex to see their aquarium. Turns out is was school tour day, so it was Wilf, Sharon, school teachers and several hundred kids - all in uniform, girls in head coverings. It was a nice aquarium, but apparently Dubai has the one to see (this is turning into a theme for this cruise - everything is bigger in Dubai! I guess we'll see.)

Turns out Kuala Lumpur has an elevated walkway system that connects the City Centre complex to the main downtown shopping centre. Much like Calgary's Plus 15 system it had us back to our meeting place very quickly, where we were able to get a frappucino and some internet time before heading back to the port.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is that a boat up in the sky?

Not only are there impressive and innovative public projects in Singapore there are some interesting commercial buildings as well. One of the newer ones is the Marina Sands Hotel. It has three towers, and a big ship like structure balanced on the top. Guests of the hotel can use the infinity pool on the 57th floor, which gives the illusion that you would just float away over the roof edge.

If you aren't a guest of the hotel you can take an elevator to the 56th floor and enjoy the views of the city. Up there we were even way above the Singapore Flyer - the Ferris wheel across the river. We spent some time taking pictures and even could get a peek at the famous pool (from a vantage that shows no one is in danger of floating off the edge.)

Among other things Singapore is a city of shopping centres. Orchard Street, the high street is lined with them, luxury shop after luxury shop. The Marina Sands has an attached shopping and convention centre. Its not just that it is huge,nor that it has every luxury and mid-level shop you can think of. The scale is huge - it goes on for blocks and blocks. The interior spaces are vast. Oh - and there's a skating rink in the food court.

When we were in Japan we were impressed by the size and number of department stores. Here it is the shopping centres. And everyone is saying 'Hah! Wait until you see Dubai...'

In the Cloud Forest

Amazing stop number three at the Gardens by the Bay was the Cloud Forest Dome. When the doors opened we almost were blown back by the huge gust of cool damp air. We were facing a seven story mountain, covered in plants, from which waterfalls. All this under glass. It was so surprising! The idea of this dome was to replicate the cloud forest and the mountain before us was planted with the appropriate flora. We took an elevator to the top, where there were ponds and pitcher plants. A terrific view out over the park and the city in general. Besides the waterfalls pouring off the mountain there were big walkways shooting out from the sides, allowing us to walk out, several stories up, and look back at the mountain.

As we worked our way down the mountain the vegetation changed, and inside the mountain was a display about crystals - like being in a cave. Everywhere were orchids and flowering plants. And it was deliciously cool and damp - a real pleasure to be in. After days of tremendous heat and humidity it was a relief to actually feel a little bit chilled.

Once we left the park it was off to see yet another wonder - a hotel...

In the Flower Dome

After we left the trees in the Gardens by the bay we headed to two giant domes which contain gardens. Being that we are in a tropical city of heat and humidity it makes sense that the powers that be would create an enormous structure to house examples of Mediterranean climates and gardens - right?

The dome is constructed of a series of huge arches, from which the glass ceiling/walls are suspended. This allows for an enormous enclosed space with no pillars or supports - it alone is very impressive. First thing upon entering we saw a very impressive display of trees from the baobab family - examples from Argentina, Africa and Australia - all full grown. All interplanted with appropriate vegetation and supported with interesting pieces of art. Being the Easter season there were also seasonally appropriate flowers and decorations.

It was when we got to the area where they had olive trees that we were really stunned. Huge, ancient olive trees - hundreds of years old - a whole grove of them. Where did they get them and how did they get them here? The whole project is an example of what tons of money can do, I guess.

Given the staggering heat and humidity outside it was lovely inside, though I noticed many women huddled in shawls. Amazing and beautiful as it was - it was about to get even more so!