Travelogue No. 14 Singapore and Malaysia

An uninhabited swamp until 1819, 227 square mile Singapore, on the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, has more than 5 million residents who speak 54 languages, English being the official one.  It is one of the cleanest, most modern cities in the world.   Not surprising in a country where chewing gum was once illegal, smoking in public is still illegal (though you wouldn’t know it looking at the sidewalks in parks), and there is a fine if you don’t flush the toilet—I wonder who checks on that.   Caning is still a punishment for some offenses, which is hard to reconcile with such an ultramodern city.

 

But the charm lies not in the new, but in the older sections such as Chinatown and the Arab and Muslim areas, as well as the famed hotel Raffles.  We wandered the photogenic streets and alleyways of Chinatown prior to lunch at a little restaurant on aptly named Food Street.  In the past, we’ve eaten at one of the Hawker food courts, but on a hot, humid day, a rare air-conditioned eatery that served dim sum seemed just right.  And while the others enjoyed their lunch, I was happy to have a plate of the Singapore noodles I prefer here.

 

Back to the ship for a rest before venturing out to another Peking Duck dinner.  The taxi driver didn’t like our choice, saying it was far from the ship, a long, expensive ride, and taxis would be hard to find after dinner.  He wanted us to enjoy our dinner without worrying about missing the ship (which he hadn’t done until then).  Instead, he suggested a restaurant in the hotel five minutes from the ship, also known for Peking Duck, and he deposited us there instead.  After entering the lobby which was also connected to a massive luxury mall sporting an artificial river complete with small boats in it, we were baffled which way to turn, when our driver came running up to us with the exact location of the restaurant written out for us.   Best cab driver ever, and they don’t take tips here—probably punishable by a fine!

 

The restaurant was at the top level of the atrium style building, and as I looked over the half wall, I told Elton I was looking down at the largest, busiest food court I’d ever seen, wall to wall large oval green tables, all filled with people.   Oops, turns out I was looking down at a casino, a very, very busy one.  Oh, well.

 

Tables at the Imperial Treasure restaurant, like others in Asia are set for three or five, never four, which represents death.  The beautifully presented, delicious duck, was not quite as tender as the previous one in Hong Kong—we are becoming overly picky about our ducks–but not a scrap was left behind.   Still hot and humid outside, we took a stroll in the mall of ultra expensive, fancy shops—and made a purchase: black shoelaces for Elton—one lace had broken on his dress shoes.

 

That was April 4th, and the following day, we were in Malacca (or Melaka), Malaysia.   Its strategic location on the spice trade route was important to its existence since it has no natural resources.  From the ship one sees only a few tall buildings in the distance, and it has a bit of a look of a place time has left behind.  As this was the second of three hot, humid consecutive days ashore, and the mile-long walk into town would be on bumpy roads with traffic impervious to those crossing streets, Elton opted to stay on board, and I wandered into town.

 

The fun way to get around is on tri-shaws were available, bicycles attached to the sides of carts of the sort used in rickshaws, and these look like they were made for Disneyland!  When I am able, I will send a photo, because words alone cannot describe these ‘vehicles’ covered with big stuffed animals attached to the fronts, seats and tops—Hello Kitty, Minions, Disney characters, and streamers, artificial flowers, giant butterfly wings flapping over some tops, all sorts of shiny objects—and to top it off, they are all blaring loud music from boom-boxes unless you beg them to turn it lower.

 

I walked up and down the famous Jonker Street that supposedly had wonderful antique stores, but in reality, it had more of a flea market feel.  The one that said Antique Paintings and Art Supplies, of course was closed.  There were shops selling traditional clothing, souvenirs, toys, some cafes, and occasionally one was air-conditioned which warranted a quick reviving visit, no matter what it sold.

 

Every so often a putrid odor wafted through the air—rotting food or sewage, I couldn’t tell which it was.  And then I discovered the source—Durian.  I had heard about this large, ugly green fruit that is illegal to bring onto public transportation in Singapore, had seen in the past before I knew what it was, but had never before smelled it.   The smells were coming from fruit stands and, of all places, ice cream stands that sell Durian flavor.  I was not even tempted to try it.

 

After a colorful few hours on shore, a hot shower to remove any Durian smells that might have clung to me, and it was time for the evening’s entertainment of the most remarkable acrobats—she did a one arm hand-stand on his head while he was sitting, and then he stood up with her still balancing there—on a moving ship.  We intended to try this, but I couldn’t remember which arm to use, so we abandoned the effort!

 

Onto our next port, Gerogetown, the capitol of the island of Penang, Malaysia.   We had hired a guide for the day—King Bee Chen, his given name so he claims.  And spending a day with King Bee proved to be most interesting.   His vehicle was an air-conditioned van complete with a driver–Score one for the King!  We visited an elaborately gaudy Thai Buddhist Temple with a Reclining Buddha, and an equally gaudy and gilded Burmese one across the street.  The Thai temple is older but has more land area, so the Burmese made certain their temple would be taller!   One building at the Burmese compound was the monks’ living quarters, and their laundry, consisting of socks and various lengths of orange and rust color fabrics, were hanging on clothes lines.

 

Lunch was at King’s favorite  ‘Zim Sum’ (as it’s called here) food court, one only frequented by locals.  As happened in Shanghai, a table magically cleared for five of us, and a waitress approached with glasses and bowls of various colored liquids to drink, leaving her disappointed we preferred tea and sodas.  On one side of the massive hall was a long counter brimming with plates, bowls, covered baskets, and trays of every sort of ‘zim sum’ imaginable.  One takes a tray, points to your choices, and the next thing you know, it is filled with aromatic little plates and bowls.   I am not ashamed to admit that since I could not finish all I selected (the weather was too hot to eat much), I had the remains packed into little baggies I took back to the ship for my dinner.   The cost of lunch for five people, a total of 16 or 17 dishes came to $15 US!

 

Following lunch, a ride out to see fishing boats was a welcome relief from the heat of the day.  Passing beautiful beaches, King Bee pointed out a small Hindu temple on one of them.  The huge tsunami several years ago that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, had also hit the beaches on this side of Penang.  It was a weekend day and Hindu families were enjoying the beach when suddenly the water receded.   The people were at first happily excited and ran out to gather up the grounded fish to take home for dinner.   Then the wave roared in and 67 died, many never recovered.   King Bee had been at work when the tsunami struck and thought the noise was from thunder.

 

He told another story which possibly has some apocryphal aspects to it, of a baby on a mattress who was sleeping when the first wave rolled out, taking the child with it.   When the wave rolled back in, the mattress returned with the baby, still sleeping, safe and sound.  She’s considered a miracle child, and all her private schooling, including college, is paid for by the government.

 

Of the 740,000 residents, most live in the capital, which is 90% Chinese.  Ethnic groups including Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems and Christians live in their own neighborhoods with their own schools.  King Bee also pointed out the island once had a few dozen Jewish people, but the last one died in June, 2013—he mentioned it like he was talking about the last of a vanishing species.  People get along with one another but certain unwritten rules are respected.  This became apparent during our visit to the afternoon ‘wet’ market, and the floor in the area with the morning’s fish catch was quite wet.  There were the usual rows of fruits and vegetables, and in one corner, an area was set apart by cardboard walls.  That was the Moslem Halal meat area, and only Moslems go in there—just something other people know they cannot do.

 

Returning to the ship we passed an area on the water of Clan Jetty          houses.   These are homes and warehouses built at least a hundred years on stilts over the water. Storefronts face the road.  In the past they were owned by various Chinese families who controlled waterfront crime, and if a person from one family walked onto another’s jetty, they became fish food.   While today there are little coffeehouses and shops in some of the street-facing buildings to service the tourist trade, one cannot walk into the ‘neighborhoods’ where 2000 members of the Lim and Chew clans still live.   In response to being asked if they still engage in illegal activity, King Bee said ‘One never knows.”  And with that we parted from King Bee and sailed toward Colombo, Sri Lanka, our final Asian port.

 

I would much rather tell you about our Trivia-playing friends who took a 4 hour bus ride each way to Kandy to see one of Buddha’s teeth (it’s kept in a small casket so you have to have faith it is there).  At a typical Sri Lankan lunch, Paula found a cooked chicken head on her plate, and Bill had a bowl of snake curry. Our neighbors across the corridor took a white-knuckle ride in a little tuk-tuk taxi that resembles a tin can and is probably no stronger than that– and saw a snake charmer whose snake might end up in the man’s soup bowl by dinner.

 

A day with snakes, both alive and served as dinner could actually have been preferable to our tour, the highlight of which was—returning to the ship!!   Our tour of the city of Colombo in 96 degree heat started out on a bus with no working air-conditioning, and after a near-riot from the passengers, a replacement bus arrive.   And this was before we’d even left the port.  There were some interesting sights—temples, mosques, colonial era buildings, partially visible through the dirt- streaked windows as the bus sped past.  And the bus did speed and weave as much as possible in bumper-to-bumper traffic where cars, tuk-tuks, busses and trucks often drive on which ever side of the narrow roads suit their fancy.

 

We saw none of the gemstones, exotic spices or elephants for which Sri Lanka is famous, but a stop at the National Museum boasted a women’s bathroom with the following two signs: “Please do not wash Feet;” and  “Sit like a Lady!”  A gift shop (nothing interesting) attached to a coffee shop with Wi-Fi kept Elton happily entertained while I trudged through a hot cobbled courtyard to the museum proper.  A guard in each gallery sat in front of the only fan.   I rushed through due to the heat, passing statuary of Buddhas, elephants, and some rusty jewelry, but one area in particular was quite humorous—a display of urinals used by Buddhist Monks.  Looking like stone doormats with foot shaped rises where one stood in the direction of an appropriately placed hole, there were designs carved into them.   A placard on the wall sang the virtues of how the monks valued sanitation.  These particular stones belonged to country monks who chose a sparse, ascetic life, and the designs on the stones showed contempt for comfort-loving city monks.  I have nothing else to add to that!

 

After the A/C on the second bus stopped working while we were at a Buddhist shrine, we spent another fifteen minutes on it before we could meet yet another replacement bus.  Somehow it came back on as 40 wilted people could think of only one thing–showers and cold drinks on the ship.

 

Looking back at Colombo from the comfort of the ship, it is an old, tired city being torn apart with dozens of construction sites and cranes dotting the skyline.  Signs around the sites boast luxury hotel/condo/shopping complexes being erected—Ritz Carlton and Shangri-La among them.  A huge hotel/shopping complex is going up near the pier.  How the obviously wealthy residents of the buildings will access them in the congested roads where people drive on whatever side of the narrow roads these choose, I can’t imagine.  Our guide said that the goal for Colombo not only to compete with, but surpass, Singapore, seems unrealistic.

 

Yet one never knows since, as in all the places we’ve visited since Shanghai, almost all the building projects are being done by the Chinese.   It seems like these places are all pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle they are piecing together.  Marvelous cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong are the corner pieces, cities like Xiamen, Penang, and Colombo are going to be fitted together easily, and small places like Malacca are those annoying little one color pieces that take a while to put into the puzzle.  The Chinese think in the long-term and are very patient, and if they were to assemble the puzzle now, one piece would still be missing, the same one we missed on this World Cruise, and that is Taiwan!

 

Today we are off the coast of Somalia in pirate territory.   Though not visible to us, Coast Guard boats from the US and Great Britain are sailing nearby, and we have been given instructions in what to do should a pirate boat approach!  As I’ve said many times, this is an adventure!

 

Our next report will be from Africa after our safari!

Elton and Susan

Travelogue No. 13. Hong Kong

When we embarked on this incredible world journey that has now taken us almost 25,000 miles, I anticipated six places as highlights.  Our two-day visit to Hong Kong is the fourth of these highlights, and like the others, it surpassed our expectations.

 

Our first day’s plan was to meet for lunch with Henry Wo, my 90 year old my Chinese art teacher, and his wife Margaret. Getting to where the Wos live from Kai Tak terminal was itself a challenge, and we felt like contestants in the Amazing Race reality television show.  A shuttle brought us to a hotel near Tsim Sha Tsui subway station, but on the wrong side of the divided highway.  We couldn’t climb the pedestrian bridge with a wheelchair but found an elevator to partway up to the  plaza level, then walked up  a ramp, down another elevator, crossed a second street and into the subway. Down another elevator to purchase tickets, but the wheelchair couldn’t go through the turnstile.  Up another elevator, cross a lobby to still another elevator, and back down to the other side of the original turnstile.   Still with me?  Then down a long corridor to yet one more elevator down to the tracks.

 

And that is how traveling in Hong Kong went for two days. Perhaps most frustrating was the second day when we planned lunch overlooking the harbor at the splendid four story new mall that covers an area of several city blocks.  Mall entrances are at the second floor level—and accessed only by escalators.  We finally found a service elevator—after 15 minutes of inquiries—and that only went to the second level, not where we had hoped to eat, so after learning at a bakery there were no elevators within the mall for shoppers, we turned around and left (with  one delicious, but tiny, $5 cupcake!)

 

Returning to our first day, the Wos treated us to some of the best dim sum we’ve ever eaten.    Each dish presented was fresh and hot, and extremely tasty.  The restaurant was in a mall attached to the MTR station, and the station was connected to the neighborhood by walkways over the street, and this is the route we walked to their home.

 

Visiting their home, which was unexpected, was particularly interesting because they live in one of those thousands of apartment buildings we’d seen from a distance. The public transportation system in Hong Kong is called the MTR, and this company built the 47 building complex where the Wos live.  They consider themselves fortunate because their corner unit is in an end building, and they overlook the river facing toward the center of the city, not other buildings.  Their apartment on the 18th floor is just 600 square feet: a living room/dining area, small kitchen, a bedroom, office, Henry’s studio, and two bathrooms, one with a washer and dryer.  Small, but well-planned and water views from most rooms.

 

On the walls were either framed paintings—all Henry’s—or paintings in various sages of progress, hanging from clothes lines he’s put on the walls.

 

His art studio is one of these tiny rooms—a large table covered with dishes of paints, small bookcase, and a bit of room to walk around it.  Despite this, he teaches fifteen students here—all at once, somehow—and he gave me a private lesson on painting kingfishers.   Elton at first sat quietly (taking a video), but he was so entranced watching a colorful bird come to life from Henry’s brush, that he too came to the table to watch the lesson.

 

Later, we all took a taxi to Man Luen Choon, the marvelous art store I’ve been to twice in the past, and Henry helped me pick out some new brushes and a couple other items I needed/wanted.  Then it was time for us to once again tackle the MTR to return to the ship and prepare for the big gala dinner.

 

This was a big deal to Cunard because the Queen Mary was also in port, and we would be celebrating together at the new Kerry Hotel, part of the luxury Chinese Shangri La chain     700 of us trooped out of the terminal in formal wear at once –long lines, poor planning—to board busses that would take us to the party.

 

While having drinks and hors d’oeuvres, a group of musicians played traditional instruments, a calligrapher personalized silk fans, someone was tying silk knots with designs we could choose—and one woman who seemed to be dressed like a giant lotus was flitting about for purposes I never quite understood.

 

Inside the dining venue, after the inevitable patting themselves on the back speeches from the Captains and Cunard’s VP, there were Chinese dancers as we waited for meal to be served.  I had chosen risotto for my dinner (alas, no Chinese food) and for some reason this seemed to indicate to the waitstaff I was a vegetarian.  I had to beg for a lobster appetizer, and when dessert came, I almost didn’t get one—who knew vegetarians don’t eat chocolate—but I grabbed it from a waiter.

 

After dinner, there were Chinese acrobats and a man in a remarkable red and black opera style costume who kept spinning quickly, each time appearing with a new mask.  How he did it so fast, and where he put the old masks, we never figured out.  A  speaker came to the podium  announcing it was time for the ‘loyalty’ toast.  I never heard of loyalty to a cruise line, but turns out it meant loyalty to the Queen…and that was our cue to leave before the dancing began, on the first bus back to the ship.

 

A few people later complained the dinner portions weren’t large enough—they seemed fine to us—but that wasn’t a problem with the wine, which flowed freely all night.  So freely that a few people were unable to stand after dinner and needed wheelchairs to get to the busses, others made it back to the busses but needed wheelchairs to get back  onto the ship—and three people fell down the escalator in the terminal, one woman also having her gown stuck in the escalator grate.

 

A few hours sleep, and it was day two when we ventured into the heart of old Hong Kong.  Walking up Nathan Road, we passed  from new and fashionable into the older traditional shops and the Jade Market.  The Jade Market is in two rather rickety old one story buildings, table after table filled with bracelets, necklaces and knick knacks of amber, rose quartz, amethyst, and of course jade.  And probably some of it is actually real!  It is fun to poke around, bargain and come away with a treasure—and who cares if it’s real!

 

Little bag of goodies in hand, we next walked through local open air  markets—fruits, veggies, fish, meats, pastries, food stalls, tee shirts and women’s underwear!  Traditional medicine shops had snakes, lizards and all sorts o dead and dried creatures for sale.  Elton was a good sport through it all as I snapped photo after photo, probably because he knew we were heading toward air-conditioning in the afore-mentioned modern mall- but first we had to find the MTR station.   Elton is a master with maps, and despite the inaccuracies on ours, we managed to find the station—but of course we had to ask for the elevator entrance.

 

So I popped into the nearest store which turned out to be a great decision because a) it was air-conditioned; b) it had western-style bathrooms; and c) it had two floors of beautiful Chinese art and crafts.  I am not the only shopper in the family, and was happy when Elton found a beautiful pair of jade lions (the type often mistakenly called Fu Dogs) that will grace his desk in Florida.

 

With our wrapped purchase, we took the MTR to the disastrous mall encounter, walked to a hotel a block from where we were to meet our friends for dinner, and had a relaxing hour, a drink for Elton and gelato for me!  And half a cupcake and gelato were all I ate since breakfast and did not spoil my dinner!

 

If you are ever in Hong Kong, eat dinner at Spring Deer restaurant—and be sure to have reservations.  Elton had thoroughly researched where to have Peking Duck, and this was his choice—even before we knew it was just one block from where the ship shuttle bus drops passengers.   The sign is hard to see, and the restaurant is on the second floor of an old building—but it actually had an elevator, old and small, but it worked!  All good auspicious signs.

 

We can say without a doubt  (including having had Peking Duck twice since then) that this is the best duck we have ever eaten, including in Beijing, and various places known for Peking duck in Boston and Washington, DC.  The skin was crisp, the meat tender and flavorful, and a perfect exclamation point for our two days in Hong Kong.

 

Until next time and our Singapore and beyond travelogue,

Susan and Elton

Travelogue 12 China! Shanghai and Xiamen

The Chinese have a saying:  The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  That visual image seems to sum up the attitude toward individualism and free thought in this country.
 Driving from the pier into Shanghai, population 24 million,–the largest city in China is 35,000,000– we passed hundreds, if not thousands of high-rise apartment buildings, stretching as far as could be seen in every direction.  Cranes hover over building sites, and futuristic skyscrapers are rising in the center of the city as fast as old areas can be torn down.   The effect is both overwhelming and strangely anonymous at the same time, and one can comprehend how conforming to social norms is the best way to survive.
Our walking tour from old to new Shanghai, however, reduced the city to a more human level.   We began at a large, beautifully manicured sculpture park, itself once the site of a neighborhood that was razed.  Trees were beginning to flower, gardens were blooming, children were playing with parents and grandparents nearby—China is a very family-oriented country.
 One city block away, it was a stark contrast as we entered a world unchanged in more than 100 years—with the exception of the cellphones in everyone’s hands.    Our guide, Dawn, a young American woman of Chinese descent, took us to alleyways of tightly packed two and three story crumbling buildings, many of them empty as they are waiting to be torn down so the future can replace them.   Originally built in the 1830s as single family homes for foreigners who later moved into the French Concession, their owners sold them to Chinese who found it profitable to rent them out to multiple families.   Each narrow building houses up to nine families who have just 9 square metres of living space in their only room.  Communal kitchens are on the roof, a stone or porcelain sink is on the outside in the alleyway.  There are no bathrooms. Electric wires that would never pass any type of building code snake up the sides.  Millions in China still live in these conditions.   Laundry hangs off poles outside windows, occasionally a sickly plant or a mop is on a window sill, old shoes sit beside doorways, and a miserably sad-looking dog sits in a cage on an old blanket.   On the walls hang CCTV cameras to monitor human activity in this decaying street, and there is a small police substation in one doorway to guard against  squatters who apparently find this a desirable place to live temporarily.
At the end of the alleyway is an incongruous, brightly painted wall decorated with Winnie the Pooh and friends, Disney characters and zoo animals.  Seemingly out of place, it is the outside of the neighborhood elementary school.  The school’s existence is what has saved the area from total demolition up until now since nobody knows where the children in the area will go to school once it is gone.
Generations of families have lived in these alleyways, called Hutangs, and while being moved into more modern high-rises means indoor plumbing, kitchens and possibly air-conditioning, appeals to most people, especially for the elderly it is the end of a way of life.   In Beijing in 2005, we were told that while it is regrettable to displace people, where one was relocated depended on their jobs and incomes—the better off one is, the better the housing and the nearer to the city.
This time, asking the same question, the answer was that every effort is made to move all the people who live in an alleyway into the same building.   I have no idea if this is true, but one hopes so.
Two blocks further on, we came upon an open stall market area selling fruits, vegetables, meat, rather ‘fragrant’ fish, flowers and household items, along with stands for noodles, pastries, cooked ducks and dumplings.   The vendors were quite tolerant of people taking photos, and one suspects that this is a path used daily by this tour company, and the friendliness of the sellers might be related to being compensated for our intrusion.  It is always interesting, though, to see the foods people eat on a daily basis, and this market ultimately gets high marks since there wasn’t a fly or any sort of vermin to be seen, (unlike in Xiamen), the produce looked fresh and it was generally a jovial atmosphere.
We were all quite hungry when we arrived at a local restaurant serving the Shanghai specialty of soup-filled buns.  While our group was clearly expected, because we were 90 minutes late arriving, the area where we were to eat was no longer set aside.  But somehow the locals, with one exception, managed to melt into the walls, so quickly did they disappear.   We sat at three long tables waiting for bowls of soup (which I did not eat since it tasted strongly of cilantro) and our buns.   We each received six with different fillings and soup inside them—none of them octopus, thank goodness–and they were delicious.  For those of you who eat Dim Sum, these were fried buns, or else the liquid soup part would have seeped out of the dough, and only the solid filling would have remained inside.
Bellies happily filled, we headed to our next stop at a nearby hotel to use the western-style bathrooms.  We had been advised by Dawn to not even think about going into ones at the restaurant, and all our bodies obeyed the command. (Ever notice that in books, TV, movies, people eat, drink, sleep and work, but nobody ever uses a bathroom!)
Having started with Old Shanghai, we now were walking past historic hotels, more modern shops and apartment buildings, heading toward the Bund and Nanking Road, the huge pedestrian and fancy shopping area of the city.  Shanghai has become a modern city that would align itself with Paris or New York, and we arrived the day before the start of Fashion Week.  It is hard to retain all the guide was telling us while clicking cameras and watching the world go by, yet little bits stick with me—I’m sure the notes I made are jotted down somewhere on this desk!
Our final destination was the waterfront park over-looking Pearl Tower,  magnificent skyscrapers…and brides–at least a half dozen brides and their entourages.   Each bride had a professional photographer, someone holding lights, what looked to be a bridal organizer and perhaps some friends or family.   Two sets of photos were being taken, some that are typical wedding types we would recognize; others were done while two people were waving large pieces of semi-transparent silk over the bride’s head.  According to Dawn, the photos are traditionally taken approximately one month before the weddings.
And these were very brave brides. By then the weather had turned cold and windy, rain was beginning to fall, and still they stood posing as if it was a lovely day in June while we rushed to board our coach before we got soaked.
Farewell to Shanghai and on to Xiamen, the replacement for our original destination of Taiwan.   We have been trying to guess why China did not want us to go to Taiwan, but after reading one of the little international news summaries we get on the ship, there is a Taiwanese finalist for a prestigious award who is dismayed because the organization—at the request of China– has identified him as a resident of “Taiwan, China”–as opposed to Taiwan– against his wishes.  It is possible that China might have insisted that in order for us to visit Taiwan, they wanted Cunard to identify it in a similar manner in order for us to visit.  Seems as good a possibility as any other reason.
 Xiamen, a city on five islands, is known as the Gateway to China, the beginning of both the inland and maritime Silk Roads.  Shiny new skyscrapers, apartment buildings and office buildings of all shapes and sizes grace the beautiful harbor, and this city of 7.3 million will reach 10 million by 2025.  While there doesn’t seem to be any heavy industry,  there was definitely smog—from the exhaust of all the automobiles.  I have no idea what these people do other than they must be working in the skyscrapers.  Despite how modern the city is, and signage in both English and Chinese, tourism is quite new; English is not spoken or understood.
Exiting the shuttle bus that took us into the heart of the city, we discovered that none of the lovely young college students who were there to provide information to us could actually understand or speak more than a few words of the language.  But with a few gestures and words, we figured out how to reach the picturesque area of shops, restaurants and parks on a wide pedestrian-only street.
With wide sidewalks and no large crowds like those in the past few cities, it was relaxing meandering in and out of tea shops, jewelry stores, bookshops, traditional medicine ‘pharmacies’ and clothing stores—all intended for the residents—not an ‘I Heart Xiamen’ tee shirt in sight.   Elton decided he needed to find a bathroom facility, and that proved to be quite a challenge in a town where nobody speaks English.  Sign language didn’t seem to work, but finally we found one salesman with an English to Chinese hand-held translator. Elton typed in: Where is a toilet?”  The salesman read the translation, nodded appreciatively and gestured Elton to follow him—to the belt department, not exactly the objective.   Fifteen minutes later we were passing a building that had an outdoor elevator at street level with symbols for elderly and wheelchairs.  He bravely ventured into the elevator and emerged a few minutes later a much happier man.   I might point out that in China I drink as little as possible!
We had thought it might be fun to have lunch at one of several rather nice looking dim sum restaurants we had passed—until we saw two cockroaches the size of army tanks staggering out of one of our possible choices.   New plan: skip lunch.
Walking to another part of the city with a couple we had met on the ship, we decided it might be interesting to walk through the local market area.   This neighborhood resembled the hutangs in Shanghai, though the buildings were probably less than a hundred years old, and the markets were darker and dingier, no fresh-looking produce here.  Yet I managed to find objects of interest to photograph: beautiful patterned sea creatures I couldn’t identify in a fishmonger’s booth—I was later told they were sea slugs; songbirds and white rabbits; unusual varieties of mushrooms; giant sheets of seaweed. fruits that resembled red peppers.  The alleys were narrow and packed with pedestrians with shopping carts, motor scooters, bicycles and one woman who shall remain nameless pushing a wheelchair rather successfully through all this.
 Oh yes, and there were also large rats—not too many—scurrying along the gutters.   While we are repelled by this, these people live this way, and the rats didn’t seem to bother anyone—there certainly was enough in the way of food waste for them to eat without having to bother the residents.   But it was clearly time to leave.  Backtracking would have been hard, so we turned a corner and were suddenly surrounded by throngs of children in uniforms.  Lunch hour over, they were returning to their schools, and found us as amusing as we found them.  These are poor children, carrying books in their arms and not a single cellphone, but they were as animated and exuberant as children anywhere else.
Before I end this, I would like to suggest not losing a cellphone or any other object you cherish in Xiamen.  I realized my phone was gone while we were walking in the city, and realized it could only be in one of two places, the shuttle bus or the terminal.  Returning to the terminal, I asked a guide for Lost and Found, she understood nothing, but eventually we saw a sign that said “Information.”  Nobody spoke English, but we sign language similar to Charades got us steered in the direction of a sign for Guest Services.   No English there either, but using a hand-held translator to describe our problem, the woman signaled for us to wait.  Two phone calls and ten minutes later, a young woman arrived who spoke a bit of English.  She asked us where the phone might have been lost.  I pointed to the sign where I had opened my bag to remove Elton’s phone for him, she asked when and I said five hours ago, and she walked back with us through the massive terminal building (why they need such a huge building I can’t imagine) to the place I indicated.
She then said :Is this the place?  I responded Yes.  She then said, and I kid you not,  “It’s not here.”  And that was the end of that…unless we wanted her to call the police which we definitely did not.
As it turned out, the phone was found on the shuttle bus by a passenger who returned it to Security on the ship, not by the port authorities as we thought at first.
All’s well that ends well.
I have amazingly written this in one day!   Next time: Hong Kong and the World Cruise Gala Dinner!
From the South China Sea,
Susan and Elton
Elton’s Corner!!
I wanted to add a thought about our general impression of China:
With all the growth and modernization, it is easy to see how China is likely to become the predominant country in the world before too long—economically and technologically.  Their challenge will be whether they can keep such a large country united under an authoritarian system as their people are increasingly exposed to the benefits of free societies in other parts of the world.

Kochi, Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Ohayu Gozaimasu!  (Good Morning!)
I could tell you that my Kochi tour included a rain-swept walk up, and back down, a steep hill to a shrine, lunch on one’s own at what turned out to be a cramped little market (I found yummy croissants on the street instead), an outdoor visit to Kochi Castle which abutted the market—I skipped that since I was already cold and damp from the shrine.  Plus when I escaped the market, I discovered a lovely covered arcade of shops where I could spend time while the others walked around at the Castle.   As a bonus, I found a great Japanese art book at the arcade.  Last stop on the tour on this cold, windy day that now was only occasional drizzle, was a beach!  A quick run up a hill to take photos looking down at the beach, then back to the warm bus!   As soon as we discovered how hilly the tour was going to be, Elton had cancelled his ticket and wisely spent the day on the warm, cozy ship.
But instead I am going to talk about our tour guide, Yoshiko, a woman who turned out to be four weeks older than me, born three days before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945.   Unlike most guides, she liked to talk more about herself than the spots we would be visiting in between our various stops. First we learned how much she and her mother-in-law disliked one another from the very beginning.  Yoshiko was one of four daughters at a time of arranged marriages and she showed us the photograph of her as a young woman in a beautiful kimono that, together with details of her family and life, were presented to her prospective husband’s family before they could ever meet.
 She was a free spirit (still is, I think) and was concerned about her mother-in-law to be, a woman who was a master of the tea ceremony.  A proper tea ceremony is not placing a tea bag in a cup of water and placing it into the microwave for 60 seconds.   Rather it is a complex, ritualistic process that takes up to four hours, which tells one of the patience and sense of propriety needed to become a master of this art.   Nervous that her husband-to-be’s mother would turn out to be a strict, rigid woman, she was led to believe she actually was quite lovely by her prospective husband.  One wonders if the father who had four daughters to marry off readily agreed with that, but poor Yoshiko soon learned the truth.   At one point when their sons were older, her husband’s job required him to move back to Hiroshima for five years.  His mother suggested he move in with her, and Yoshiko stay in Tokyo for that period.  Yoshiko stayed in Tokyo and the mother-in-law said it was the best five years of her life.  Now Yoshiko is struggling with the fact that when she dies she will be placed with her husband’s ancestors, and she doesn’t want to spend eternity with her mother-in-law!
At the time of our second ride between stops, Yoshiko opened a large plastic box to show us her hobby, pointing out that at her age she feels it is important to have a job (tour guide) and a hobby to keep from becoming senile!  Funny, I don’t feel at all old.  A former member of the Tokyo Origami Society, she showed us some of her folded paper creations, and they were indeed masterpieces.  Not just one peace Crane, but several attached in a sunflower shape.  Not just a rose, but camellias, irises, sunflowers, violets and many varieties of flowers.  There were samurais, horses, sheep, elephants and penguins.  Also a Japanese-style prince and princess.
Most interesting was the ride back to the ship when she talked about what it means to her life to be from Hiroshima.   Three days after she was born, her grandfather was standing on the hill where the family lived (I assume her unmentioned father was a soldier) and saw the mushroom cloud rise over Hiroshima. It had never even occurred to me that in my life I would hear someone say that, and I found it quite profound.  I wish there had been more time so I could have asked her to talk about how that affected him.
Because of Yoshiko’s birth, the family could not leave, and they stayed in their hometown.  Yoshiko’s husband is eight months older than her, and he was born in the city of Hiroshima.  Japanese are very wary of marrying someone from Hiroshima who might have been affected by the radioactive fallout in a way that could cause birth defects in future generations.   However, the future husband and in-laws reassured Yoshiko’s parents that he had been brought into the countryside after his birth and had not been returned until after the war was over, similar to what occurred with European children at the time.
Only after their first child was born with blood running from his mouth was Yoshiko told that the family had lied, and he had never been taken from the city of Hiroshima.  She says her sons appear to be fine, but still she worries about them and any children they may have.
I have read books mentioning how young women especially have moved and said they were not from Hiroshima, fearing they would be considered not suitable wives and mothers, but to meet such a person is much more poignant.
With Yoshiko still in my mind, we docked the next day in Hiroshima, where we took a taxi to the Atomic Bomb Dome and Museum.
I want to add here that I either did not know or had forgotten that the bomb did not explode on the ground, but in the air as it was intended to do.  I think I had expected the park to sit in a bomb crater area, which of course it did not do.
The B-22 Bomber Enola Gay carried the bomb, Little Boy, to Hiroshima, where it exploded on August 6th at 8:16 in the morning.  It weighed over 10,000 pounds.   Three days later Bock’s Car dropped Fat Man, a similarly sized bomb on Nagasaki.  Because Hiroshima is located in a flat valley, and Nagasaki is in a mountainous area, twice as many people died, approximately 150,000, in Hiroshima, half of them on the first day.  There is no residual radiation on the land itself because the bomb exploded in the air, but like Yoshiko, the people worry about the aftereffects for future generations in their DNA.
Walking to the dome, we first stopped at a memorial to a young girl, Sadako, who is a symbol of the children who died or were injured.  Contracting leukemia as a result of the blast, she believed that by folding 1000 origami paper cranes, she would recover.  She died before she could finish the project but her plan is the basis of the untold numbers of chains of 1000 cranes hanging from memorials to the victims.
There are dozens of chains of 1000 paper cranes hanging at various memorial sites in the park that add color and warmth, but the stark concrete structures of both this bell, the Cenotaph and the Peace Bell are quite somber.
We were here on St. Patrick’s Day, and it was quite an odd sensation to find on the banks of the river near the Atomic Dome a jazz band of Japanese men dressed in Irish Green outfits celebrating this holiday quite boisterously in a place that deserves quiet and reflection.
Passing by them, we caught our first sight of the Dome.  For those of you who might not know, this is the only surviving building near the epicenter of the bomb that was dropped August 6th, 1945, at 8:02 am, in Hiroshima, forever changing how the world would view war.   All that remains of the mangled building are a few walls and the skeleton of the dome, and it is a bit hard to imagine how it looked at the time with the beautiful park, the river and the rebuilt city surrounding it.
However, a visit to the museum rectifies that.  Inside is a display lighted from beneath shows what the city looked like early that fateful morning, then there is a bright flash and the display then shows a totally devastated city.  One second of nuclear devastation changed everything in Hiroshima and the world.
You might pause a moment to think about that.
While this museum has few exhibits and the main building was closed, the smaller Nagasaki Museum displayed photos, relics dug from the ruins, a replica of the bomb, and moving testimonies of survivors.  And in the lobby again, dozens and dozens of strands of 1000 cranes left by visitors.   Some framed art works of doves, hearts or peace signs—and one replica of Picasso’s Guernica painting– were made from thousands of tiny folded paper cranes.
On one wall is a partially melted clock, with the hands pointing eerily at the time the bomb was dropped.  Nagasaki was not the intended target, but the smaller island of Kokura was hidden by fog.
The Peace Park at Nagasaki is built on a site near ground zero that was a prison housing mainly Chinese and Asian prisoners of war as well as forced laborers.  Guards and prisoners alike all died from the blast.   The message the park strongly delivers is Never Again, and the area is dominated by a massive sculpture of a man whose nationality cannot be identified, an Everyman, with eyes closed, one arm pointed to the sky where the bomb was dropped from, and the other pointing to the side, in a symbol of peace, according to the sculptor.
There are shrines and sculptures donated by various nations of the world throughout the Park, beautiful flowering trees, gardens and a fountain of Peace.  It is a place of beauty, reflection and hope.
As I was starting to write this two days ago, I watched the Washington March For Our Lives on TV (our timemidnight to 2 AM!) and listened to the young speakers.   I was impressed by their maturity, their suffering, and how the world has changed since we were young.  These kids were raised after the Columbine shooting, and they are no longer the generation who could walk to school by themselves carrying a nickel for the ice cream man and marbles in an old sock to play with in the schoolyard like I did.  My biggest worry was because an older boy told me he could tell if my apple had a worm in it, and on the occasions he thought they did, I gladly handed it over to him—no comments please, this is true.
No longer having young children, I never realized how so many go to school now worrying that someone with a gun could come into their classrooms.   We had unrealistic Duck and Cover drills hiding underneath our desks, which were to somehow protect us from a bomb like those dropped in Japan.  Today’s kids practice hiding in closets of locked rooms because one of their classmates might have a gun and shoot them.
I would be most interested in knowing what you, our family and friends, thought of the March, if any of you participated, and how your children and grandchildren have felt about school safety even before this happened.
I would also be interested if any of you remember the bombings in Japan.
This has been a rather serious Travelogue, but visiting the world does not mean escaping from it!
Peace, Love and Health—what we all wish for!
Susan and Elton

Turning Japanese Cruise!

Good Morning, Japanese time, from the Inland Sea,   I had not anticipating sending more Emails until after we left Japan, but following Kagoshima, there was a massive storm with up to 60 mph winds and 25 foot or higher waves if we went to Busan, South Korea, and the Captain chose wisely to head back for Osaka.   So instead of one sea day,  we are now having the second of two, sitting at anchor near the Osaka harbor, on the leeward side of a mountain to protect us –successfully—from the wind.   The most disappointed people about missing Busan are the Japanese who took this cruise mainly to shop as there is no sales tax in South Korea.   I imagine they planned on doing lots of shopping to offset the price of the cruise!

 

And now for the intended Email………

 

Our cruise is broken into several segments, and a new one started in Osaka on March 15th .  We offloaded 900 passengers, replacing them with 900 new ones, mostly Japanese, for our weeklong Osaka to Osaka segment.   It says a lot about the relationship between most of Japan and Okinawa that we docked in Naha, Okinawa, prior to what is considered the Japanese segment.

 

Part of the Ryuku Island chain, in ancient times Okinawa was its own kingdom.   With strong ties to China as well as Japan, it only became part of Japan in 1879.  The dialect, food and culture are still quite distinct.   The final serious battle of the Pacific War took place in Okinawa,  and Americans administered the Island from 1945 to 1972, when control was returned to Japan.   The US still maintains a controversial Air Force base here.

 

Naha was reduced to rubble during the spring of 1945, but we arrived on a sunny day to a large city of mainly low-rise, white and tan, flat roof buildings.  Unlike other parts of Japan which are mountainous and volcanic in nature giving rise to frequent volcanoes, Okinawa arose slowly from the sea, and sandstone is the main building material, making for a pleasing, uniform look—not that I espouse uniformity.

 

The symbols of the island, a pair of male and female Chinese-style lions, sit on either side of entrance ways.  We have seen similar statues many times in China, but never realized the lions were different from one another—so much for me being observant!  The male has a closed mouth, and represents good luck and welcome.  The female has an open mouth and wards off the evil spirits.   The major souvenir items, unsurprisingly, are ceramic pairs of the lions.

 

As Okinawa was our first port in Japan, we went through customs here.   Our passports were kept by the Purser’s Office upon leaving  Australia, and while some passengers were annoyed at this, the result was we each received neatly typed entry cards for Japan with all the relevant personal information entered for us—we just had to sign the cards.  Our fingerprints were recorded and photos taken—much more thorough than in the past.  Personal bags were inspected, and we are required to have passports with us at all times in the country.  As a reward for going through all this, a lovely little sticker was placed in the passports exempting us from sales tax in Japan!

 

I chose to go to a Bingata workshop in the morning.  Bingata is similar to batik, but made by a different technique, and for some odd reason Elton expressed no interest in participating.  Our guide described a complicated process of several steps, but arriving at the workshop, all the hard work had been done for us, the glue (as opposed to wax in batik) had been applied, and what remained was to pick a little canvas tote bag with a pattern we each liked and paint in the design—a bit like Paint-by-Number

 

Everyone else followed directions precisely, but that seemed a bit boring, so I started adding shading and little dabs of other colors here and there.  My instructor was not amused—apparently individuality is not appreciated. The paint is absorbed into the fabric where there is no glue, and the piece needs to dry for a week before the glue is soaked off in a warm sink for four hours.   I still have a few days to go, but I am certain the ship will be thrilled to find 40 sinks and towels covered with gluey colors!  Will keep you posted on what happens.

 

As every tour of the island to historic sites or castles involved hills, steps and climbing, Elton spent the morning on the ship.  We debated going into the city center on the shuttle later in the day, but riding past anonymous buildings with little character to a shopping area—that I managed to explore a bit after the workshop– did not seem a good use of our time, so we relaxed on the ship in the afternoon.

 

(I should add here that while it was great fun planning adventures in the months prior to the trip, in reality one can only do so much in a day and truly enjoy the experience, so we are now carefully making choices, especially when there are several port days in a row.)

 

Another sea day of wind and rain and we arrived on the 15th to sunny Osaka with great fanfare and Taiko drummers.  Literally looming over our ship was the Osaka version of the London Eye Ferris wheel.   On one side of the ship is an aquarium, on the other Legoland, as well as a Marketplace and restaurants.   We explored none of it as we left to meet Mitsuyuki, our private guide for a day in Kyoto.

 

Outside the terminal was a line of shiny black taxis and vans with sharply dressed drivers holding placards awaiting their passengers.  None held our name.  Hmm.  Then around the corner came a man wearing corduroy slacks, a plaid shirt and waving furiously in our direction, and that was our driver.  No shiny black car for us, a rather old Honda van, but it was neat, clean and he spoke perfect English.  He had a list of historic sites for us to visit, but as we had been to almost all of them on previous visits, we presented him with a list of our own, which he was happy to accommodate.   When Sue and I used to travel to New York to buy beads, we said it would be fun to have a limo drive us anywhere we wanted, let us shop, eat  or visit a museum, and wait for us to return to repeat the process as we wished.

 

That is exactly what happened in Kyoto as we passed a shop where I saw a beautiful blue shawl hanging in the window.  I turned to Elton and said I wish I could have looked in that shop, and Mitsu-san pulled to the curb, out I popped, and returned ten minutes later with the shawl in a nicely wrapped package, which itself  is a Japanese art form.   We stopped to look at early-blooming cherry blossoms, and once at a stoplight in the Gion district, a man standing beside our car opened a ring box to the shock and delight of the woman with him.  Once again, Mitsu-san stopped on a dime and let me out to ask the couple if I could snap a photo, as they were dressed in kimonos for the occasion.  If diamond size is an indication of happiness, they will have a long, successful marriage!!

 

Elton and I then walked through the Gion district, famous for its geishas.  None were apparent today but women were dressed in kimonos, a tradition in this area of the city.  There were also young lovers strolling, as getting engaged in Gion is considered  romantic.  And it is indeed a beautiful area of old low wooden buildings with bamboo screens and tile roofs, a small stream lined with cherry and other flowering trees, and an exotic history to match the environment.

 

Mitsu-san took us to one remarkable Buddhist shrine that is a National Treasure,  Sanjusangen-do. 1000 life size gilded cypress wood statues of the deity Kannon, along with one massive statue in the center of the hall, are  protected by 30 wooden deities spaced at inter`vals to protect the Kannon in the 13th Century building.  One does not have to be religious to appreciate the spirituality of the shrine, the surroundings, or gardens with the first cherry blossoms of the season in bloom.

 

Returning to the ship, a bottle of sparkling sake and a small bag with the Japanese sweets called ‘O-Kashi” that I like were waiting in our stateroom   Four Japanese chefs are onboard for a week and there are various workshops and dinners—most at a price, of course.    We’ve chosen to attend the Bento Box dinner, and I am going to the sweets making workshop. One day the sushi chef will be making sushi for lunch in the Lido at no cost.  There will be workshops for origami, calligraphy, sake and soy sauce, and special events and speakers.

 

First that night was a Japanese Lion dance, complete with a Shinto priest blessing the stage.  While we assumed that like other local performers, this was a similar performance, apparently the priest (monk?) was the real deal, and the blessing and pre-dance ceremony lasted so long there was less than five minutes available for the dance before it was time for the next activity.

 

That turned out to be a demonstration by a master Japanese calligrapher.  He laid out paper, bushes and trays of paint and water on a mat on the dance floor in the Queen’s Room. There were four large pieces of paper spread on the floor, so I anticipated four calligraphies, but I was quite wrong.

 

The calligrapher announced he was going to be painting his interpretation of the sea.  When someone says they are painting an ‘interpretation’, it implies abstract, not what I was hoping for, and my expectations fell significantly once he began.   All hope was gone when he first filled a giant brush with black ink and then walked past all four panels, letting paint drip onto them in a random manner.  Next he picked up a small  tree branch, put black ink on that and dragged it across the four papers.  This was followed by a brush that looked more like a feather duster dripping some blue paint, and last a watery grey liquid was spread around.  The applause he received was quite restrained, and any resemblance to the sea was in his own mind.

 

Placing down four new pieces of paper, he asked for passenger participation.  .  I was one of several volunteers, filled a brush with ink and proceded to paint an orchid in my little area.  All of us were working diligently and along comes Mr. Famous with his branch making scratch strokes over our individual masterpieces.. Readjusting my plan, I started splattering my corner, added pink dabs, as along came Mr. Artist and his brushes again, dripping water onto the passenger project.  At that, I decided I would add more blobs and spatters—and for that I got a compliment—maybe he is partially blind?

 

The final event involved Asahi brewing company launching their newest sake on the ship—the reason we each received a bottle in our staterooms.   The ceremony involved exchanging of gifts between ship officers and Japanese official guests, and breaking open a barrel of the sake with wooden mallets.  Passengers were well-behaved and polite—until the announcement of free sake for all!  You would think a Brinks truck had just spilled its cargo into the center of the room as the hordes surged forward.  The distressed Social Hostess asked people to sit, sake would be brought to them, but to no avail.  Sake doesn’t appeal to either of us, so we watched in amusement as we learned that the normal reserved British and the polite, orderly Japanese behave like people anywhere when free alcohol is offered!

 

So now it was time for us to head for bed as the ship pulled up anchor and headed to Kochi.

 

Sayonara,  Susan and Elton

How deep is the ocean? Take a cruise and See!

As I write this, we are sailing near the Mariana Trench, at over 35,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.   This was first discovered by a British naval ship named Challenger in 1830—they must have used a very, very long length of rope, and amazing with thousands and thousands of miles of seas and oceans that they found this exact spot.    For me, once the water reaches a depth over my nostrils standing on tiptoe, it no longer matters how deep the seas are!

When I learned we were going to be visiting Papua New Guinea, I was very excited because of the amazing birdlife.  I realized the birds mostly live in remote mountain areas, not in the small port city of Rabaul, pronounced ra-bahl, but still was disappointed that the only ones we saw were black swallows.

That was hardly surprising considering the lonely Planet Guide describes Rabaul in these words:
“Walking the forlorn streets of Rabaul is like stepping into an apocalyptic film.”
Which makes it an unusual choice as a cruise destination as the description is most accurate.   Apparently it had once been a lovely city of 50,000 homes, but was totally destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1994.   While mostly abandoned afterwards, a small part of the city was untouched by the ash, and a scattering of hillside homes, a few shops and the market area still exists.

So on a hot, humid Wednesday we docked at the small commercial harbor, keeping our verandah door closed against the slightly sulfurous smell of the still smoldering volcano that occasionally belches into the air.   The distant view is of lush green mountains; the town itself, or what remains of it, looks like a Caribbean island from the 1930s—time has stood still here.

The town is flat, and it seemed possible that it would be manageable for Elton, but a quick view through binoculars showed roads so pitted they looked like they had been bombed.  How cars drive on them is a miracle.

So armed with bottles of water, I set off for a walk to the local market, which is a series of covered and open outdoor stalls.   We had been informed that the markets are where the locals shop, and not to expect many souvenirs or tourist items.   It was also suggested it would be nice to make small purchases which would be helpful to the impoverished people of the area.  And most of all, don’t drink the water!!

First shock was walking through the large metal warehouse which doubles as the ship’s ‘terminal’.    There were massive stacks of some brown-colored shells which emitted the most noxious odor, and all the passengers passing through the building walked as quickly as possible with noses covered by hands or tissues, much to the amusement of the natives.  Even if the streets were walkable, Elton would have turned back here!

Exiting the terminal we came upon people offering tours, something typical of most islands, but on a more primitive scale with handmade signs.   A bit of an aside here.  Prior to the cruise, I had booked several private tours, one of them in Rabaul.   But after a talk with a Guest Lecturer who had lived here in the 1970s and visits frequently, we chose to cancel the tour—among other issues was the fact the van was both unlikely to be air-conditioned but likely to be old and uncomfortable.   A very wise decision as I watched a woman sitting at a small table, advertising on another homemade sign the very tour we cancelled.

Lining both sides of the road—lightly dusted with ash as every ground surface seems to be– that led to the market, women sat on colorful blankets laden with trinkets and small souvenirs: shell necklaces, large shells, baseball caps (there seems to be only one design), odd bits of European porcelain that must have been traded with past tourists for local goods, carvings and little lava sculptures.   Locally made fabrics and ‘bilums” (brightly patterned string and woolen bags the women make) hung on fences behind them. Large beach umbrellas provided a bit of relief against the heat and oppressive humidity apparent even early in the morning.   It appears that everyone knew the ship was coming to town. (School must have been in session as only small children and babies sat with parents.)

At the market, there was a limited variety of fruits and vegetables available, but those appeared in large quantities; two types of bananas, leafy greens of various sorts, peanuts, beans and betel nuts.  Almost half the tables in the market area were covered with betel nuts which are chewed for their drug-like effects.  Many of the women had red teeth and lips from chewing, and the few who smiled displayed teeth that were worn down from the habit.   The small fish market was closed, a blessing in this heat!

What was impressive was that with the exception of one small boy, nobody asked for money when I asked if I could take a photo.  While few people smiled when sitting alone,, they all said smiled and said hello to us—in perfect English. Everyone I met and talked with spoke English, and if there is a local dialect, I did not hear it.   And when I say everyone, I mean it.  People in the minivans and open-sided trucks that were the only apparent transportation would stop to wave and say hi.  Men walking in groups on the side street would say hello, a family waved down from a second floor porch and posed for a photo before I even asked.   Mothers with babies would proudly hold them up for a photo.  And nobody asked for a cent-so unlike other places in the world.

I had brought ashore with me small denominations of Australian money, which is accepted here, and I did give coins to several children who thanked me, and paper money to moms who let me photograph their babies.    I also bought several small souvenirs–a shell, a volcanic rock and an old refrigerator magnet which I never expected to find– partially as a contribution to the poor people who live in the remnants of this accurately-described forlorn town.

A bit about New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, after Greenland.  It is divided into two sections, New Guinea—which is part of Indonesia—and Papua New Guinea–which has been an independent country since 1975.   In PNG alone, over 850 languages are spoken, and the peoples of the entire island speak one fifth of the world’s languages.

During WW2, more troops died here than on any other Pacific island, 250,000 soldiers, US, Allied, and Japanese, something we did not know previously.  Most tours visit war sites and Japanese caves, but that must wait until another visit when it might be cooler—if that ever happens.

The most important fact (at least for me) is that bananas, my favorite fruit, originated in New Guinea!.  And here is a bit of trivia—bananas are actually an herb, though of course they are more commonly recognized as fruit.   The oldest known agricultural society existed on New Guinea, and it is also the original source of sugar cane.   Islanders eat something called ‘marita’, some sort of a root vegetable which I had never heard of, but might be destined to be the world’s next superfood.

In the past people here were known for other culinary tastes—cannibalism.  Officially ended in the 1950s, a tribe was discovered in the 1970s that still practiced the ritual, a tribe so remote that they did not know there were other people in the world when they were discovered—or so they claim.  And despite denials to the contrary, there are cults that still eat human flesh, though the government works hard to discover and abolish them.

On a cheerier note, the national bird is the Bird of Paradise, and it is interesting to know how it acquired its name.  In 1522, Dutch traders brought the body and feathers of these exotic birds back to the Netherlands.   Native PNG taxidermists had been so skilled in preparing the birds (from shrinking heads?) that the Dutch couldn’t find any evidence of their wings.  Believing, therefore, the birds only used their magnificent tail feathers for flying, the Dutch named them Birds of Paradise!

Also of interest, the world’s only poisonous bird, the Hooded Patohui, resides in the mountains, and like poisonous colorful frogs in South America, toxin is not inherent to the bird, but stems from its food.

Returning once again to cannibalism, I had been warned by the young woman from Mauritius who makes my egg white omelets each morning, that I should be careful because when she had been here previously, she was certain that the local people looked at her like she was a possible food source—unlikely since she’s thin.    When I returned in late morning, I assured her I had managed the outing—two hours was all the heat I could tolerate even with water and a wide-brimmed hat—quite well, and didn’t feel in fear of becoming dinner.  I had to be careful because she was quite serious.

I later asked my cabin stewardess, Abie, (pronounced Abbey), who is from the Philipines, what she thought about the island’s past cannibalism, and to my surprise, she also has qualms about the people in the town.  I said it was broad daylight and there were hundreds of tourists walking safely, but she pointed out that the locals might look normal, but you never know where in the island they came from or what (or who) they might still want to eat.   Point taken.

Then she pointed out one other local tradition (later confirmed by a passenger who watched the same National Geographic special as Abie.)   Apparently many tribes circumcise boys as a rite of passage into adulthood at the age of twelve.   This is sometimes done at home by a parent, but in some tribes there is a ritual rather like the old-fashioned method of pulling out a tooth: tie one end of string around the offending object, the other to a door handle, and close the door fast!

Sailing out at dusk, we passed the smoking black mountain, embers glowing, with the collapsed caldera that erupted 24 years ago, stark against the nearby green mountains that themselves gave birth to the island eons ago.  We had never seen a totally black mountain before in our travels and it resembled a mountain of coal on steroids.

Whatever local demons dwell in the island are still making their presence known–at midnight after we sailed away, the island experienced its second earthquake in two weeks.

Would I come here again?—definitely.  There was a dignity and warmth to the people despite the poverty that surrounds not just their town but hangs over each of them as well.  While young people know only this, way of life, it must be tough for older residents who remember their colonial city.  One has to wonder what they thought of all of us, cameras around our necks, well-dressed, and with white teeth and obviously well-fed  (must be tempting to the  former cannibals!.)    They have endured the horrors of WW2, in only 24 years foliage has covered 50,000 buried homes, and still they smile, say hello and wave to each of us, never knowing when or if the mountain will again erupt and cover their town, perhaps forever.

As I finish this, the Captain has announced we have a fresh water leak, and all the water will be turned off for the next couple of hours.   The people on Rabaul would laugh at this small inconvenience.

Until next time,
Susan and Elton

The Down Under Cruise – Always A G’Day Mate!

Travelogue No. 7—Australia

I will start this Email with a bit of Australian history.  You are welcome to look up the usual historical facts about the places we are visiting on your own, but this story concerns Mary Bryant, one of the original prisoners to settle Australia—as well as the first to leave—perhaps the first person in the #Me Too movement!

Mary at age 18 was one of three young women who robbed and beat another woman.   They stole a bit of money and a silk bonnet, and for this she was sentenced to death by hanging which was commuted to seven years of removal from England.  Past prisoners had been sent to the American colonies–no longer possible now that they had their independence; Nova Scotia—which didn’t want any more; Jamaica—which now used slave labor; or Africa—where the soldiers guarding them didn’t want to go.

Enter Captain James Cook who thought that Botany Bay in Australia, which he had visited two years earlier, would be a perfect location for a settlement.   Prisons were overflowing and many, including Mary, were sent to live in deplorable conditions on a leaky, rat-infested former warship, rife with disease.   She was spared what might have been an inevitable death by being part of the first fleet consisting of six ships of prisoners and five ships of agricultural and other supplies to set sail for Australia.   So tattered was the clothing of the women prisoners—essentially only shreds of fabric—that the humanely  intentioned captain made landfall in Rio de Janeiro and bought cloth sacks for the women to stitch into garments.   Prisoners ranged in age from an 82 year old woman to a nine year old chimney sweep boy.

Eventually the ships reached the intended goal of Botany Bay, and finding it uninhabitable, the fleet decided to make their new colony in Sydney.  Of the 1350 prisoners who left England, only 717 were alive when they arrived.   Immediately there were problems.   The prisoners’ skills lay in areas such as brick-making, tailoring and other skills.  They were not useful for setting up a farming community.  Only two men knew anything of agriculture, and there was only one fisherman.

Rules were established, one of which was that any couples who had engaged in sex on the ships were to marry one another.  Mary, who had been pregnant when they left England, gave birth to a daughter on the ship, and married Thomas Bryant, the fisherman prisoner.

Life in the penal colony was hard, food scarce, and after three years, Bryant and Mary hatched an escape plan.   City dwellers did not like to eat fish, but apparently the Dutch traders did, and Bryant seems to have run a little black market in fish sales, accumulating enough money to buy a musket, a compass, and a chart of the waters from a Dutch ship.  He, Mary, their two young children and seven other men snuck away in the middle of the night in the Governor’s small personal boat.  Six at a time, they rowed for 69 days and nights until they reached East Timor, existing on the fish that Bryant caught.   Reports of survivors say that only Mary’s urging and encouragement kept them going when they wanted to give up.

It is hard to imagine, but following (though they didn’t know it) the path of the expert seaman Captain Bligh, these nine adults and two children in a tiny boat were guided correctly to land by a man whose only ocean experience had been catching fish off the English coast., and a woman determined to have a better life for her family.

Upon reaching land, they concocted a story that they were castaways from a shipwreck.  They might have lived happily ever after, but Bryant was drunk one night a year or so later, spilled the beans and the group was arrested to be returned to England.

Of the group, only Mary and four men survived .  They went on trial at the Old Bailey, and were depicted in the press almost as heroes for what they survived.  Woever, the law is the law, and they were made to complete their sentences in Newgate Prison.   All that has ever been known of Mary Bryant came from the diaries of others, and among those was Samuel Johnson’s friend James Boswell.   He not only took on their case, but provided financial assistance to the five.   Even the King took pity on the group for their hardships, and granted them pardons when their sentences were completed.

Upon Boswell’s death, his family members withdrew any aid, and Mary is no longer mentioned anywhere.  She was still in her 20s, and one hopes she eventually found happiness in her hometown of Fowey, England.

If those who remained were as clever, strong-minded and enterprising as Mary and Bryant, it is easy to see how the group pooled their individual talents and skills to give rise to the independent-minded, spirited Australians of today!

Back to the present.   While most of our first day in Sydney was given over to preparing for, as well as the actual Bridge Climb, the second day was devoted to birdwatching.   We were outside and waiting for Greg, our guide, bright and early, and his first words- –after Hello—were “Sorry, I hope you don’t mind, but I spilled some fish oil in the car a few days ago and there’s a bit of a smell.”  And with that and the windows rolled down, we were off.   Probably like most visitors, we tend to think of Sydney as only the spectacular harbor area, but a 45 minute ride in to Olympic Park passed through mile after mile of anonymous looking  shops and homes that would belong in almost any city—not a single skyscraper among them.  In fact, the epicenter of the city is approximately 20 miles inland.

Between Olympic Park (where the Sydney Olympics were held in 2000) and Centennial Park near the harbor, we saw 45 species, the most elegant being the massive Powerful Owl, the most colorful the Rainbow Lorikeet, and the best-named the Superb Fairy-wren!

Bidding a fond farewell to Sydney as we sailed around the Opera House late at night, we headed toward our next port of Newcastle, Australia.

Newcastle is not well-known, and for good reason.  There is not much to it, but the small city is trying to improve its image as a tourist destination.   Their main industry centers around the large commercial port, and the shuttle ride into town has a recorded message telling of future changes and improvements, including building a cruise terminal, more restaurants and other amenities to augment its lovely harbor walk.

There are mostly discount shops on its main street—clothes, shoes, sundries (I love that word) and, what do you know,  a bookstore where no book is more than $10.    While he had little hope of finding anything of interest, Elton has never been known to pass by a bookstore without checking what’s inside.   And to his great surprised, this store had treasures one would expect to find near Harvard, not in a discount bookshop in Newcastle, Australia.

What kind of treasures, you may ask.   He came away with two wonderful books.   First is William Cooper’s Town, a history of Cooperstown, New York and early America.   According to Elton it won the Bancroft Prize for Best History Book the year it was published, as well as the Pulitzer Prize.   The second book is Lincoln’s Boys, about John Hay and John Nicolay, President Lincoln’s two closest advisors, creators of his public image.  How they ended up in a shop with cookbooks detailing recipes for kangaroo meat and children’s books about wallaby babies, we don’t know, but Elton is the happier for it.

Having taken the best Newcastle has to offer back on the ship with us, we set sail for our final Australia destination, Brisbane.   We had made advance reservations for a cruise up the Brisbane River to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary at 10 o’clock.  The ship would be moored five minutes from the Miramar catamaran to the Sanctuary.   Only one problem—we did not dock in Brisbane because our ship could not fit underneath the bridges.  Instead we were once again at a commercial pier—45 minutes out of the city with no hope of making our river cruise.   A taxi would cost $96, and still could not guarantee arrival on time.   And because our cruise ticket included entry to the Sanctuary, we could not go there either without paying another entry fee.   But we are up to the task of confronting these minor setbacks and obstacles.   A telephone call to Miramar said they were aware of our circumstances and we could take the 11 o’clock cruise instead.

We boarded the free shuttle for the 45 minute ride into the city, walked to the City Hall where there was a taxi stand, and gave the driver the address of our destination.   Of course, he dropped us at the wrong pier!   A passerby told us to keep walking along the docks and we would reach the correct pier eventually, but all we came upon was a large motorboat tied up at a dock.   Another quick call, and we were assured that the motorboat was indeed waiting there just for the two of us as there is no actual 11 o’clock cruise, and a minute later the captain appeared.

Talk about making lemons into lemonade.   While the skies were a bit overcast, the weather was warm with a nice breeze as we motored in our little “speed boat”15 miles up the river.   The entire length of the river once we left the center of the city was fronted by mansion after estate after mega house, all with beautiful gardens and docks.   There must be lots and lots of wealth in Brisbane, which is a beautiful city with a mix of colonial and modern buildings and skyscrapers.

Arriving at the Koala Sanctuary, a nice young man from Miramar carried the wheelchair up the 28 stairs while Elton climbed a mini-version of the Great Wall to reach the top.  We were then escorted past long lines of people waiting to purchase tickets into the Sanctuary through the exit doors!  Whatever works.

Reading a sign that gave the hours for holding a koala, that was our first destination.  We arrived at the end of another long line to find an employee turning away people until two hours later.   Pleading that I didn’t want to push the chair up that hill again, I asked if he could make an exception, and to our surprise, he not only let us join the line, he let us circumvent it, skip paying, and go straight to the koala and its handler.   And they even have someone who used my smartphone to take a photograph.

Unfortunately ‘holding’ the koala actually meant standing next to it—our koala was named Tali—but I didn’t truly mind.  Seeing all those people waiting, it seemed unfair to the koala to let it be passed from person to person, and who knows what germs it might pick up or how gentle people would be with it.

Then it was time for lunch—two ice cream bars—and we went to the koala ‘forest’.  This is a large space with rows of fake eucalyptus  trees with two or more koalas clinging to the branches.   One thing you might not know about large numbers of koalas is that they smell.   But they are so darned cute, it is soon forgotten: mamas with babies clinging to them and staring over mom’s shoulders or peeking out from under her arms; sleepy ones draped over the ends of branches; adults hugging one another.  Each one is cuter than the next.  And while the adults rarely moved except to use a paw to scratch at an itch, the little ones seemed alert, curious and much more mobile.

We made a last stop before we left at the Kangaroo area, a wide open park setting with a few emus and lots of kangaroos and wallabies.  While Elton waited in the shade, I clutched my $2 bag of kangaroo food pellets, and gingerly walked, avoiding droppings like they were land mines.  I saw the emus, but where were the kangaroos?  Two were lying on the ground ignoring the pellets being placed in front of them by visitors.   The others, and there were dozens and dozens of them, were in the furthest corner area beyond a sign that said if the kangaroos were in that corner, they were resting and having—I kid you not—kangaroo dreams!   Clearly the kangaroos chose to go there of their own volition, but did it have to be during our visit?   However, they were close enough to pet and feed, though none of them seem to like kangaroo pellets.   So I took photographs, gave my remaining pellets to a little boy who might have better luck, and we taxied back to the city, shuttled back to the ship and set sail yesterday for our next port, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

We know very little about Rabaul, so we will be listening to lectures for the three day transit.   What we have heard is not to wear light colored clothing because, depending on the weather, we will either be walking in dust or mud!  Another adventure awaits!!

Until next time, from Susan who is typing, and Elton who is reading one of his new books!

Tales of a Mesoamerican Adventure!

Greetings from Mexico!   Actually, greetings from the ship as we are opting to stay aboard during our two Mexican stops, Acapulco today and Cabo San Lucas on Wednesday.    Seeing the armed soldiers with drug-sniffing dogs outside our ship, and with the temperature today expected to reach 100 degrees,  at least for today, this seems like a wise decision.

 

I don’t usually devote an entire travelogue to one port, especially one we’ve visited previously, but the day in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, on Saturday was so interesting that I am making an exception.    Before I go further, the minimum wage in Guatemala is three times that of Nicaragua, $300 US$ a month, but the illiteracy is a surprising 23%, mostly for people living in the mountains.

 

And what was so interesting, you may ask.   The tour to see the Pre-Olmec era pot-bellied stone figures was interesting, despite the fact there were only a few.  Created by the earliest civilization in Guartemala,  they were removed from their place of origin to sit in the town square of Democracia, surrounded by locals eating their lunches on the statues’ bases.   Being shaded under a pavilion, the statues offered the only shade on an extremely hot day.   The guide told us in advance the locals who have little to no tourism, would have as much fun watching us as we would looking at them, and that proved to be the case.

 

Our second stop was at a private museum in the tiny town of Baul.  Let me preface this by saying when I was around ten years old, I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Egypt was my first choice, and I would discover mummies, pots and gold jewelry.   The unfortunate part was that I couldn’t keep it.  That would not be true in Guatemala where anything found on a person’s property belongs to the landowner.   In a country where there are artificial mounds scattered apparently everywhere, representing many indigenous cultures, this is significant.   The museum we visited was on the property of a sugar plantation owner.  His father had uncovered  ruins for decades, received a grant in the 60s as well as help from an American archaeologist to catalog his finds, and built a two room museum open to the public to display most of them.   These were not just bits of pots and arrowheads, but serious museum type finds including an altar with a jaguar entry, and four pillars representing the directions of the earth and its energies.   The largest object is an 80 ton giant plaque, if one can call it that, that tells a story of warriors, historical figures, a dwarf and even a puppeteer.   The original remains in the ground where it was discovered, hidden from view by sugar cane stalks, but is represented by a giant plaster cast along with photos of how the cast was made.   A second casting is in another museum.

 

While most people were inside the family’s chapel—also the local church—I was taking photos of some of the stone statuary outside, when a woman and her two daughters in traditional dress came walking down the dirt street, carrying bottles of Coca Cola.  They stopped and said hello in English, and I asked if they would mind if I took their photos.  They were happy to oblige, and I showed them their pictures in the back of the camera, which made the smaller girl especially happy.  I have a Kipling little shoulder bag with a monkey hanging from it, and she was petting it with her hand, so I decided to remove it and give it to her, which brought me a hug.  Surprised me, but sweet.   Also surprised they all spoke English.

 

Part of the tour was a visit inside the owner’s family home, and standing outside were the mother, two daughters, plus an older brother, uncle and grandparents, all displaying textiles and trinkets to sell to our group.   We were told they come down from the city of Antiqua, and the owner does not charge them to sell to us—it appears to be another of his charitable acts—which he can afford owning miles and miles of sugar plantations which he leases to the largest sugar processor in Central America, located conveniently next to his property.

 

(More precisely he is one of six brothers, each of which has a large bedroom in the home shared by parents, children and large screen televisions!  Most of the brothers live in cities now, and come to Baul mainly for holidays.  )

 

Returning to my saga, the older sister has now spotted I have a second money hanging from my backpack, and she asks for it.   I was a bit ambivalent about parting with this one, but I have the feeling the smaller girl is always favored, so I gave her monkey number two, also bringing me a hug.   Two minutes later, she reappeared—did I have anything to give the brother?—who looked to be about fifteen, much older than the girls—and this time I said no.   Tight about now grandma appears, thanks me for being so nice, and says I can have a discount on anything I buy.   I thank her but say today I don’t need anything, though all the textiles are lovely.   She walks away, but reappears a minute later with a small corn husk doll.  I tell her I really don’t need a doll, but she says this is a gift to thank me for my kindness.  I say that is nice, but I cannot accept a gift, but the woman is insistent, so I finally take the little doll.   You are all smarter than me, and know that something else is coming, right?   The older woman waits two heartbeats, looks me in the eye and says “Can I have your hat?”  I look right back at her, say” No, It’s my only hat” and walk away.   Fortunately for me, there were enough people making purchases that I escaped further scrutiny.

 

I started with an act of kindness, though Elton thinks I fell into a trap.   I think the little girls will enjoy their monkeys for a long time, and I have a great story.

 

And I am only now reaching the most interesting part of my day.   Our journey from the ship to the two towns is approximately ninety minutes, and the entire distance is sugar plantations, the number one export crop I might add.   Actually the journey is ninety minutes—unless you get stopped in serious traffic jams, one going in each direction!

 

The first one was caused by a traffic accident, and took almost ¾ of an hour to crawl past, giving the 14 of us on our small bus the opportunity to get a close look at the vehicles nearby.  Most interesting was an open-sided Coca Cola truck, filled with cartons of soda.  A guard standing on the back,  had a cell phone in one hand and a double-barreled shotgun in the other, and I imagine the driver was similarly armed.   The driver of ne truck slowly rolling along  was using both hands to assemble his lunch—one hand was holding the sandwich open and the other was squirting ketchup on it.   There were open pickups filled with plantains, oranges and watermelons, entire families in battered sedans, and brightly colored ‘chicken’ buses.   For those of you unfamiliar with ‘chicken buses’, they are used throughout the Caribbean as local transportation.   The gaily-painted buses started life as US school buses,  resold at auctions to private owners who decorate and care for them with as much care as Jay Leno does with his car collection.  In Guatemala, the buses are too long to turn corners in the towns, so they are sawed in half, two rows of seats removed, and then taped, glued and welded back together.   They are government regulated, have routes and proide inexpensive transport for locals except during Easter Week and New Year’s Eve.  Each bus has a driver and an assistant who climbs to the roof at each stop to throw down the parcels (including chickens and occasional pigs) for departing passengers, and safely stow the new packages of those boarding.

 

After our guide (Karen) finished amusing us with tales of sugar and chicken buses, and unable to determine how long we would be stuck , she played  Marimba music to amuse us—appropriate mood music for this situation.   And we were indeed stuck since between the ship and out destination, there were no other roads.

 

But we would not starve!  Traffic tie-ups like this must be common since soon the vendors appeared.   Walking between the rows of cars and trucks were men selling bags of fruit and carrying buckets with bottles of cold water.  Our guide hopped out and bought several bags of freshly baked plantain chips from one young woman, which we all shared.

 

Traffic accidents are also a form of local entertainment.  While we were travelling at a snail’s pace, (did you know snails can halve 2500 teeth?) many young motorcyclists zipped between the cars, and when we finally reached the accident (two semi-trucks had collided) at least 60 motorcyclists and probably 100 onlookers had gathered.

 

Not to worry, the guide assured us, it would all be cleared up by the time we returned.  As it turns out, she was correct—but now there was another jam, and this time our little bus did not move for almost an hour.   More Marimba music, more stories of local lore (did you know the volcanic Mt. Fuego has been belching puffs of toxic smoke constantly since the year 1616?  We even saw the puffs emerge!)—she really was an excellent guide—and this time we each had to tell something about why we like where we live.  For most of the hour, we were next to a pick-up carrying oranges, and eventually Karen left the bus to purchase oranges for everyone from the driver.  One vendor knocked on our door to offer soda and beer.   We were one of three buses from the ship, and the guide from one of the two bigger buses about a quarter mile behind ours came walking down the road to announce his bus had a bathroom if anyone needed it.  We all were relaxed and enjoying this local slice of life.

 

What we noticed was that no traffic was coming in the opposite direction.   This is a four lane road, two in each direction, and our two lanes weren’t moving at all.  However, the occasional truck would go zipping past us down on the wrong side of the road, as would the chicken buses with the assistants always hanging out the doors.   Soon that lane was filled with trucks as well, and we could see the chicken buses and other vehicles now zipping down the fourth lane.   Our driver, with his precious cargo of tourists, clearly was wedged in and wouldn’t have dared drive on the wrong side of the road.   An hour passed, the oranges were devoured, people were looking hungrily at other trucks near ours, wondering what food goodies might be in those.  It was three o’clock and nobody had eaten since breakfast—when someone spots a  truck we think is filled with bananas, but unfortunately the guide says they are plantains and too green to eat.

 

Just then there is tremendous honking, and a chicken bus in lane four is driving backward, almost being pushed that way by the driver of a huge semi-tractor whose horn would be swearing at the bus if horns could utter obsecenities.  Traffic starts to first crawl, then move at the relatively fast speed of ten miles an hour until we pass the problem.  Lane one on our side is blocked by a broken down tow truck that had come to remove a broken down car.   Trying to get around it, the vehicles on our side had managed to totally block the road so that all the lanes funneled into a single lane going toward the port, and no lanes could pass in the opposite direction until the huge truck decided to finally push into the jumble to free the fourth lane.   As we cleared the mess, we could see the opposite side backed up for miles.

 

What was amazing was the calm and acceptance of the drivers and passengers, eating, talking with one another, sitting on top of their vehicles (often while moving), and the vendors who were selling food and drinks between the lanes.   No road rage, no horn-honking or fights breaking out, just people having a good time in a traffic jam!

 

 

Susan and Elton

The people you will meet at Sea

We all have friends from our personal life and friends from our work life, but for those of us who sail the seas, we also have Cruise friends.  What makes these friends so unique is that we first meet as sea, away from our everyday comfort zones.   And chances are we would never have met under any other circumstances.

 

Many of these people are fascinating, with occupations and interests I might never have known of otherwise.

 

There was the Englishman whose usual occupation is  chauffering tourists.   However, when the Queen is in his area of southern England, his job is to open the automobile door when she exits, and open it again for her return.  Only that, nothing else.

 

There was a Scotsman who creates the formulas for the paint on the outside of cruise ships.  This also includes guarding the secret recipe for Cunard Red.

 

Have you ever sat on the deck of a ship in an industrial area and watched the machines that resemble Star Wars characters attach giant magnets to the tops of shipping containers and then move them from one stack to another or delicately and precisely drop them onto a flatbed truck?  I met a man who does the computer programming in container ports that allows that to happen accurately.

 

One of my all-time favorite moments was sitting on deck with the late mystery writer, P.D.  James.  When I asked her how she became interested in what the British call ‘crime writing’, and Americans call mystery books, she said “When I was young and learned about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, my first thought was ‘Who pushed him?’”

 

We dined for a week with an elderly woman who was Paul Newman’s babysitter and taught him how to swim.   And another time, shared a table with a honeymooning couple in their late 80s who were late  to dinner most nights for, in their own words, “the same reason any honeymooners are late to dinner!”   More power to them.

 

On a two month South American cruise, developed a friendship with  a doctor from Taiwan who had been a personal physician to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

 

On the same cruise, we met a Guest Chef on a an excursion to a hacienda in Ecuador that grows cocoa beans.   That grew into a holiday card friendship.  But after we met again two years later at sea and discovered we both love the same brand of French shoes, we truly bonded .

 

A shore excursion to watch penguins in the Falkland Islands led to a longstanding friendship with a First Officer and his wife.  We have promised to sail on his ship when he becomes Captain.

 

And a game of bridge became a twenty year relationship with a British judge at the Old Bailey and his wife.  Never did I think I would watch someone don a powdered wig!

 

My husband entered a cooking competition with two women, one from Arizona and one from Sweden.   We have been on three subsequent cruises with each couple, and we will be sailing around the World in January with our Swedish friends.

 

We have even become friendly with a travel agent and his wife, and now I am happy to collaborate with him to enhance the cruise experience of his clients.  You guessed, that is Ken!

Traveling with Friends

We are going on a World Cruise, and we will be travelling with friends.   One hundred days is a long time to be vacationing other people, but we met this couple on a cruise originally, have now travelled with them coincidentally three times, and planned this fourth cruise together. We know by now we are compatible travel companions.   What people find a bit surprising is that we have chosen to each eat dinner at separate tables for two most nights.   We will have dinners together on formal nights only.   It works well for us.

 

On past cruises, three of us have breakfast together, read what passes for the daily newspaper on a ship, do the crossword puzzles and plan our day’s activities, either separately or together, once number four finally arrives late! And the late person, incredibly, is not me!   That pattern is not set in stone, but the one definite activity we do share on sea days is playing on a Trivia team, which is how we originally met ten years ago.

 

Once every year or two, my oldest (not by age) and closest friend and I leave our husbands behind, and take a one week cruise.  On those occasions, we eat dinner together but during the day we often don’t cross paths.   She will participate in every lecture and activity available, and I will sit and read or paint for hours at a time.   She’s a very early riser, and I am not.   It works well for us.

 

While other people have had bad experiences cruising with friends—something to discuss another time—there is one category that can be most harrowing: travelling with relatives!  Our four-generation family cruise took eighteen months of negotiating to finally come up with a date and location suitable for all.  And I can’t imagine how long it would have taken if we weren’t financing everyone!!

 

Our family cruise rules were simple—dinner together, and other than that everyone was on his or her own to make plans.   With seven adults and two little children on a seven day cruise, each night a different adult would stay in the stateroom with the children after dinner, and the others were free to enjoy the evening.   For our crowd, that meant Trivia and the evening show.   Since six seems to be the universal number allowed on a Trivia team, our rotating group was the perfect number.  One night when great grandma was watching the children, the Trivia topic was ‘Show tunes of the 30s and 40s.’   Instantly, one of the younger adults ran up to the stateroom to swap places with great grandma—who knew all the songs, and we won that night!

 

The friend I sometimes travel with also went on a cruise with her family.   Her three-generation brood totaled seventeen, a more formidable group for arranging dinner seating and activities on shore and aboard ship.    Her solution was to give each grandchild a set amount of money (they were all teenagers) for shore excursions and spending money.   That was great fun as some bought souvenirs, some bought shore excursions, and one of them decided to keep the money and just relax!    For my friends, as was true for us, the family photos are a happy memory for all.

 

Of course, there can often be unanticipated issues that arise.  We took our nineteen-year-old granddaughter on a cruise as a graduation gift.   While that is below the legal drinking age for Americans, it was not for the European teenagers on the ship.  Fortunately the parents had said she could have a glass of wine with dinner each night (ordered by me).   As for whatever happened after we were in bed and she was with the other young people, she points out  “What happens on the ship, stays on the ship!”    And while we did not have the same rule about eating together each night, she chose to have dinners (not just for the wine), and spend time ashore with us in every port.    At the end of the week, her modern version of the family photo was a Facebook post!

 

So whether you travel with family or friends, the best way to assure a great cruise is careful planning; a ship with activities that everyone will enjoy, an itinerary to ports of interest, and agreements in advance about time spent together or on one’s own.

 

If you need assistance, advice or suggestions, we are here and ready to help!