January 23, 2010 (Security Report – Gulf of Aden)

JANUARY 23 – AT SEA (Security Report)

It is 5 PM my time (9 AM – EST) and later this evening we will leave the Red Sea between Yemen and Somalia and travel in the Gulf of Aden for the next two days; an area well documented in the media for piracy.

My Mom asked me about security precautions taken by the ship, so I thought it would be prudent to share my response with all of you.

First of all, let me put your mind at ease about the QM2 as a viable target. We are not. Why? Many reasons…

1- We will be traveling through the area at about 28 Knots, which is way to fast for the pirates to catch us. The fastest ship they have successfully boarded was traveling at 14 Knots.

2- Even if they could catch up, they wouldn’t be able to climb onto the ship. Our lowest deck is 20 feet higher then their dinky ladders can reach.

3 – We will have the Royal Navy shadowing us during our transit through the Gulf, as well as ships from other countries who are there to protect vessels from pirates. Assuredly, they will all want the bragging rights of “Protecting the Queen Mary”. Plus, we have a “big wig” from the Royal Navy on board with us right now.

4 – Look who showed up to say hello this morning (see photo below)! How cool is that?!? A US Warship – that steamed up our starboard side to greet us (and take pictures of course). Steve held up a MAINE sign from our balcony – and we were treated to whistles and cheers! TOTALLY AWESOME. Perhaps we will be on the news! Look for us!

5 – And, here is the comical reason we are an unlikely target. The last thing the Somali Pirates want to deal with is all the ancient people on board. Heart attacks, diabetes, dementia, constipation, Alzheimer, wheelchairs, glaucoma, prostate problems, and general “old fart” orneriness. The slower moving vessels with small crews are much easier to manage, and the pirates are opportunists.

So there you have it.

From tonight through January 25th when we leave the Gulf of Aden – no one will be allowed on the outside decks between sunset and sunrise. Only essential open deck lights will be lit. We have been instructed to close our drapes at night to eliminate the light emanating from the upper decks. It will be very difficult to spot us from a distance.

We had a “Guest and Crew Drill” a few days ago and were given explicit instructions on what to do if there is a threat. Close and lock our balcony door. Close the drapes and sit in the hallway until all is clear.

So, no worries here.

The US Navy keeps us safe in the Gulf of Aden.

January 22-25, 2010 (At Sea)

JANUARY 22-25 – AT SEA

We successfully outran the pirates and are cruising along the placid coast of Oman today (25th) in the Arabian Sea on our way to Muscat. Quite frankly, I was looking for a little more drama. At least a sighting, something. Steve calls me an action junkie. I call it “a good read”. Steve was much more concerned about the Yemen terrorists shooting a missile at us. A gapping hole in the ship followed by a life boat adventure and rescue? Nah. There is too much winter left in Maine to go home just yet.

Yesterday, we were checked out by 3 war ships from Turkey, Canada, and Saudi Arabia during our transit through the Gulf of Aden. We were buzzed by a Japanese fighter jet. But guess who was a “no show”, at great embarrassment to the 1,800 british passengers and “upper echelon” officers? The Royal Navy was conspicuously absent. We must assume they were tied up drinking tea or watching cricket… but still, no visit to The Queen? How lame is that? Especially after the Royal treatment from the US Warship! I will make a snide comment to the Commodore and that Royal Navy Officer the next time I see them, you can count on it.

Let’s talk food. We went on a Galley Tour this morning and learned how much our ship consumes. The numbers are mind boggling. As a collective whole, we consume 16,000 meals a day (guests and crew). Below are the daily quantities.

4,000 pounds of meat
3,000 pounds of poultry
5,000 pounds of fish and seafood
100,000 pounds of fresh fruits and veggies
400 pounds of cheese
380 pounds of sugar
900 gallons of milk
6,500 eggs

8,000 cups of tea are served each day. The coffee is retched, and clearly part of the Brits devious master plan to convert the World to tea drinkers. Its working. I’ll need to wait for South America to get a good cuppah Joe.

87,000 pieces of china and glassware are used and washed each day along with 8,000 linen napkins. The main restaurant serves over 1,000 three course meals in one hour at dinnertime. That’s impressive.

We will be away from the ship for 4 nights coming up on a “Cunard Overland Trip” – to explore more of India including the Taj Mahal, Agra, Dehli, and Mumbai. We will depart in Dubai on January 27th and rejoin the ship on January 31st in Cochin, India. We have several flights and need to travel light, so the laptop is staying behind. No travelogues until after we return from our journey. I promise to keep notes the old fashioned way.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned waves lately. There are none. It’s been calm since half way through the Mediterranean Sea. The Dramamine has been tucked safely away… for now.

Chocolate Anyone?

January 26, 2010 (Muscat, Oman)

JANUARY 26 – MUSCAT, OMAN

Be honest, do you know where Oman is? I didn’t, until I saw the itinerary for this voyage. Take a look at your atlas or google it. It borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea). All the military ships streaming towards the Persian Gulf right now need to pass by this peaceful country on the way.

Oman is the oldest of the Gulf States with settlements dating back 5,000 years. The region was important when Frankincense (sap from the native Boswellia tree) was a popular religious tool. The resin was believed to cure illness and was valued like gold in the early Christian era. At the height of trade, Frankincense was exported as far away as Rome. Oman was independent until 16th century Portuguese traders established forts. They retained control for over 100 years before being driven out in 1650. Two of the forts still dominate the Muscat shoreline and are in use today by the local military. Over 95% of the country is desert.

We pulled into the harbor just after sunrise, and I was blown away by the jagged mountains that loomed above the city like parched guardians. Two tug boats greeted us with a Water Canon Salute as we glided towards our berth at the container port. The 1.2 million residents are crammed into a seaside community that cannot expand vertically (due to traditional islamic building codes) or horizontally (you can see why). The Omani people cling to their traditional roots and decided not to become “another Dubai” even though the spectacular location on the Gulf of Oman could easily become a tourist infested Mecca.

We were lectured to respect local customs, or, possibly end up in jail (we saw one, believe me, that’s incentive enough not to “sin”). It is against the law to wear tight clothing that reveals “one’s shape”, and elbows and knees must be covered. The temperature at 9 AM was already 92F, so I was devilishly tempted to test the convictions of tradition by flamboyantly revealing my arm and leg joints… but alas, Steve was my voice of reason. There were many women leaving the ship in skin tight pants and I grumbled about how disrespectful they were, that they deserved to end up in chains… until I realized that before they got on the ship (100+ gourmet meals ago) their clothes probably were loose. You need to ask permission before taking photos of anyone. As in many cultures, there is a belief that the camera steals part of the soul. Smoking is not against the law, but smoking in public is a major no no. Alcohol is illegal so we left our Bloody Mary’s on the gangway and headed into town via shuttle.

We were deposited outside the Mutrah Souk; a bustling central market at the heart of the city with over 1,000 stalls lining both sides of narrow passageways. Most men wore bright white full length cotton dresses (for lack of a better word) with a head covering. The outfits looked light weight, cool, and comfortable. Others had on boring “western style” clothing like us. Conversely, when a woman steps out of her home, she is required to wear a full length black dress (it looked suspiciously synthetic and airtight) with her head and hair completely covered. Black? In that heat? In the summer (June-Sept) the temperature soars to 120F but there is no “summer weight” option. I whine when it reaches 80F. Many women decorate their shrouds with sequined lace trim, providing some sense of individuality in public. They have “clothing freedom” at home, and I was thrilled to see shops laden with fabrics exploding with color and pattern. “One Man” Ladies Tailoring Shops on every block were bustling with hunch backed sewing machinists; laps covered in silky cloth waiting to be transformed into a “sequestered joy”.

We meandered through neighborhoods as curious onlookers stared at our blue eyed faces and pointed at our hiking shoes; shaking their heads in wonder. Everyone wears sandals here. Kids dared each other to touch us, before racing away in fits of giggles. We were beckoned to share in an outdoor feast of fruit with several locals lounging around a makeshift table. We politely declined… rubbing our tummies to indicate we had just eaten. Sampling fresh fruit on the street, rinsed off from a pipe that emits beige water is not a good idea.

Besides… we had a mission back at the souk. I burn Frankincense incense at home and I was psyched to have an opportunity to take home the “real stuff” in it’s raw form (hopefully the custom officers in New York will share my bliss). Steve was pumped up for haggling – so I set him to the task. He bargained with two separate merchants before buying a 2 pound bag of white pebbly soft pieces. You put a chunk on a small square of smokeless coal to release the scent. It’s heavenly. You can also chew it like gum. Steve was very happy with the deal he got, that is, until he saw the satisfied smile on the merchant in the picture I took after the transaction…. perhaps he could have knocked off a little more… we’ll never know, will we?

Steve and Frankincense Merchant in Muscat Souk

As we left Muscat, the oppressive heat had softened and the townspeople lined the shoreline to wave goodbye to the Queen. The now, wealthier merchants, pockets bulging with US dollars and Euros, rested in the shade.

Fort al-Jalali in Muscat, Oman. Built by the Portuguese in 1580.
Muscat Harbor, Oman
Muscat and the Queen Mary 2

January 27, 2010 (Dubai, United Emirates)

JANUARY 27 – DUBAI

“Pre Oil” Dubai was broiling desert where nomadic pearl divers made a modest living. Modern Dubai is a ginormous phallic symbol that screams “look at me, look at me!”

This is the morning we flew to Dehli, India. But first, we were treated to a panoramic bus tour of this fantastical city of “over-doneness”. Our guide followed the scripted spiel by rote, and repeatedly emphasized the sanctioned accomplishments, hoping for orgasmic “ohs and ahs”. Not so. Eye rolling under hooded lids to escape detection abounded. The guide pointed out every Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Rolls Royce that sped by to make sure we didn’t miss one. This is a city that lives in the moment.

Dubai holds Guinness Book of World Records for…

The most expensive Cocktail in the world. $6,000 USD. You get to keep the glass.

Tallest building (just completed).

The only 7 STAR hotel in the world is here. Really? Who gave them that rating? Not Triple A… they max out at “5”.

Other Interesting facts…

The bus stops are air conditioned. It reaches 130F in the summer, they should be.

There is one female pilot working for Dubai’s airline. That is progress.

42 million palm trees have been planted over the past 10 years.

So who lives here? Dubai is completely multinational. Workers from around the world are there on a “contracted basis” – with banks, real estate, construction, etc… and can be let go at any time (with no obligations) – based on how business is going.

We spent most of our time zipping around in a bus (while not standing still in traffic) – so I did not get a solid impression of “every day life”. The women I did see dressed in both extremes… the all black garb (I described in my Muscat piece) to western dress and short shorts. I saw many “european” looking people, Indians and Asians. Men also dressed in all styles.

There seemed to be a lack of cohesiveness… that’s the best word I can come up with. If we had the chance to explore on foot… I”m sure I would have found pockets of life that followed some type of traditional existence.

The developers of Palm Island bought the Queen Elizabeth 2, decommissioned in 2008 after 40 years of service for $100 Million (nice sale Cunard, and just in the nick of time!). She was supposed to be gutted and turned into a luxury hotel. We docked behind her in Dubai, where she sits… and has sat… completely untouched since being purchased. Her future, now, is uncertain.

There are no taxes on imported goods. None.

We flew coach class to India on Dubai based Emirates Airlines. A 4 course meal was offered on the 3 hour flight along with a choice of 6 free movies and an open bar. On US airlines, you can’t even get a measly coke for free anymore. The shapely flight attendants flashed perfect teeth rimmed by radiant smiles. Their uniforms were modern “Sheik” with new age turbans.

Dubai’s oil fields are expected to run dry in 10 years. What happens then? The city is already in dismal financial shape due to the real estate crisis, and tourists burst into flames between April and November. Half finished sky scrapers pose like emaciated skeletons under the withering sun. Will the city be reclaimed by the desert? Swallowed by shifting sands as the last drop of oil is wrung?

Burj al-Arab – Luxury hotel in Dubai (4th tallest hotel in the world)

The Burj al-Arab is home to the $6,000 cocktail. It’s on the water (hence the sail shape) – and rooms start at $2,000 a night (2010).

January 27-31, 2010 (India – Photos of Street Scenes)

Here are some photos I took on the trip from New Delhi to Agra (Taj Mahal) of “everyday life on the streets”.  They were all taken from inside the bus.  Please excuse the unavoidable glass reflections in some of them.  Enjoy!

What Smiles!
Monkey Man
Catching a Ride
Book Store
Sidewalk Snake Charmer
Happy! Happy! Happy!
The naturally whitest teeth I have every seen!
Rush Hour
Three Generations of Street Vendors
Outdoor Market
Leading the Herd
Hitchhiker
How many can fit in a jeep?
On the Move

January 27-31, 2010 (India – Overland Journey & Taj Mahal)

JANURY 27 – ARRIVAL IN DELHI

I had to distance myself from India before writing about it. I made an attempt shortly after returning to the ship… but my tears threatened to short circuit the keyboard. I am now ready to make a valiant stab at “bringing you there”… but need to caution you first. Some of the images I describe may offend your delicate sensibilities. Here goes…

We flew from Dubai to Delhi which is in the northern part of India. Check out your Atlas. Delhi has a population of 14 million people – which encompasses a 18 mile radius. That’s right, 14 million.

There were 28 people in our group and we were split between two spotlessly clean buses after we met our guides outside of immigration. 14 people per bus with tons of space to move around. We were psyched! I had envisioned being crammed into a minibus with a rattling air conditioner that died 10 years ago… bouncing over rutted roads shoulder to shoulder with the one person who chose not to wear deodorant as a way to fully immerse themselves in the Indian Experience.

I liked our guide the moment I met him. Hem Singh sported a handle bar mustache, cowboy hat, oddly proportioned jodhpurs, lizard skin boots, and a scarf around his neck. He looked like he belonged in a cheesy mexican movie. His english was perfect and he is a native of Delhi. Unlike our Dubai guide… there was no “company sanctioned” script. He made no excuses or apologies for what we saw over the next 2 days. He did not try to impress us or portray the people and condition of India in a rosy light.

It was 8 PM when we left the airport for the 10 mile ride to our hotel via a major highway. It was utter pandemonium. We learned instantly that “painted lines” mean nothing in India. 3 “proper lanes” became 6 as every inch of empty space was filled by a moving object. City buses were packed so tight that surplus riders clung to the roof. Bicycles carrying 3 people darted between cars…, tiny motor scooters ferried entire families with an infant sandwiched between the 3rd and 4th person… food vendors pushed their carts in the fast lane…, dogs trotted along the shoulder looking for scraps of food…, a caravan of camels plodded through construction material on the potholed shoulder… and then the one image that zapped a few brain cells by it’s utter incongruity… 2 cows standing in the middle of the highway, completely unfazed by the chaos as all the drivers were forced to maneuver around them. Every vehicle that had a “noise making device” exercised it continuously. It took us 1.5 hours to get to our destination (the Oberoi). I was a babbling idiot by the time we checked in, that is… after we had our bus searched by the armed guards at the gate, went through a metal detector at the front door, had our bodies “wanded” and our belongings scanned. On the heels of the Mumbai bombings in 2008, all of the “high end” Indian hotels have become very cautious.

As we lied in bed that first night, our journey barely begun, completely overstimulated, ears ringing with phantom honking… we decided that we were very very happy to be on a big shinny bus and not behind the wheel of a rental car.

JANUARY 28 – DELHI TO AGRA (TAJ MAHAL)

We left for Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) at 8 AM. Its only 100 miles south… but it would take us 5 hours to get there, on the one multipurpose road.

Within the first 10 minutes of leaving the hotel, I was shaken by what my eyes were recording. Thousands of people were going somewhere… the same chaos as last night. It never stops. But now I could see beyond the veil of smog, smoke, and filth, into daily life.

The first shocker was all the garbage, everywhere. I mean massive piles steaming in the hot sun. Hem told us that people’s homes are spotlessly clean (even those that live in one room shanties) … but they throw their trash on the street. They feel it is the government’s responsibility to pick it up. Problem is… the piles are never picked up, and they just continue to grow.

We saw hundreds of emaciated animals wandering listlessly through the streets. Apparently, after a cow or bull gets too old and stops “producing” … the owner cut them loose, not wanting to feed them any longer. Cows are sacred to Hindus, so they will not kill them. Ever. It would be a blessing if they did, to end the suffering. Instead, these pathetic animals stumble through piles of rancid garbage scavenging for something to eat, or begging for handouts, and eventually die of starvation. The same goes for old goats and hundreds of stray dogs. It was gut wrenching to witness.

People use the street gutters and sidewalks as a toilet. They just squat and go. Can you imagine the stench and disease? Later on… I saw a women washing clothes in the same gutter where some errant stream of water was trickling. The traffic was whizzing past her frail frame. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the the screech of tires.

Just off the road, women were molding piles of fresh cow dung into saucer shaped discs (this is where the term “cow pies” come from) with their bare hands . They were left to dry in the open air before being stored in thatched huts. They are used for “cooking fuel” and are purchased by villagers when needed. Further down the alley, a young man lead a herd of skeletal buffalo down a side street trying to sell them off, one by one.

Everything happens inches from the street. Sidewalk barbers set up a single battered chair and beckoned men to come for a shave. Customers stuck their finger in the “Milk Man’s” jug to see if the product was rancid, before committing to a pitcher-full. We passed by an “open air” used book store. Snake charmers performed for the bus as we stopped to pay a toll.

It all seemed so dismal and depressing to us. But… here’s the thing… most people we observed were smiling and downright jovial… living in conditions that we would consider to be an abomination.

When we reached Agra, the traffic was at a stand still. So, what did our bus driver do? Well he backed up, of course, for over a mile in the oncoming traffic. He did it without pause. I said that “lanes” mean nothing… well, apparently, they side of the road you drive on doesn’t mean a whole lot either. We often had vehicles speeding towards us on the shoulder because they had a short distance to go, and didn’t want to be bothered with crossing traffic to get to the proper side. It’s just the way it is.

After lunch at the Oberoi Hotel in Agra we headed to the Taj Mahal. By far the most spectacular hotel I have ever stayed in. If you are curious… look up their website.

The Taj Mahal is considered to be the most brilliant Monument to Love. Built for Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of emperor Shah Jehan, after she died in childbirth. It was built in the late 1,600’s by 22,000 skilled craftsman and it took 22 years to complete. It is a study in perfection. We spent three hours marveling in the magnificence of this place.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

JANUARY 29 – AGRA TO DELHI

We retraced our steps back to Delhi along the same road that entranced and sickened our senses yesterday.

JANUARY 30 – DELHI TO MUMBAI (formally Bombay)

We left this morning on our 2 hour flight to Mumbai. Before touching down… we passed over huge tracts of “shanty towns” that extended all the way to the edge of the runways… inches from where the jets touch down. There are 18 million that live in the metropolitan area. 18 Million. We headed downtown and checked into the Trident hotel. We did not stay at the “higher end” Oberoi (next door) … because it was bombed along with the Taj Hotel in 2008 by terrorists, and is still under construction. We had a brief city tour, that highlighted the fascinating “Public Laundry”. Here, you can drop off your clothes, have them beaten to death in dirty water, and returned to you a week later. The clothing is segregated “by neighborhood”, and they make it back to the rightful owner 98% of the time (which seems impossible). I have never seen anything like it. The cost of washing “a bed sheet” is about 35 cents. A shirt, about 5 cents.

We were pretty wiped out by the time we got to Mumbai… so didn’t really spend much time wandering round. We just couldn’t absorb anymore. Plus, it was smoggy, over 95F with 100% humidity.

Mumbai Public Laundry
Mumbai Public Laundry

JANUARY 31 – MUMBAI TO COCHIN

This morning our 2 hour flight deposited us in Cochin to rejoin the Queen Mary II. I was not feeling well, at all. I ate something questionable and barely held it together before getting back to the ship. When we got to Cochin, it was close to 100F, and after a 2 hour bumpy bus ride to the Port, we had to sit for an hour in a broiling cement hut while waiting for the immigration officer to call us in “one by one” to stamp our passports. My tummy was gurgling dangerously and I was drenched in sweat. Thank god for Imodium and two days at sea to recover.

Sorry this was so long… but it had to be “birthed”. I feel much better after expunging this experience, although the cows are still haunting me.

February 1-5, 2010 (At Sea & Southeast Asia – Part 1 of 3)

FEBRUARY 1-2 (AT SEA)

SOUTHEAST ASIA (Part 1 of 3)

After rejoining the ship in Cochin, India on January 31st, we headed towards SouthEast Asia for several “back to back” landings in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. There is one theme that holds all of these stops together. Ungodly HOT and HUMID. Temps in the high 90‘s each day with 100% humidity. We were two slugs dragging our cumbersome bodies through the thick air, drenched in sweat from the moment we “walked the plank” (that’s how it felt)… until we got back to our blessedly air-conditioned ship. We dressed as sparingly as the law would allow but it did no good. We couldn’t even find relief in the shade. Most of the locals didn’t even sweat! And, many had on long sleeve shirts and thick jeans! Darwin would have been proud. We were very close to the equator, so the temperatures only very slightly throughout the year. In the summer (May-Sept), the monsoon rains bring malaria-toting mosquitoes out in force. I won’t be changing my citizenship any time soon.

I know that all of you back home are freezing your tushies off and can’t believe I have the gall to complain about heat. Before you start reading… conquer up the hottest, most miserably humid summer day you can imagine, and you will be right there with us.

That being said. Here we go…

FEBRUARY 3 – PHUKET ISLAND, THAILAND (Maiden Call)

Phuket is an island off Peninsular Thailand where most residents are descendants of Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indonesian, and Indian immigrants that came to work in the booming 19th century tin mines.

We anchored off shore and rode tenders to Patong Beach. This is a town pumped up on testosterone in the form of white males looking for action (to put it delicately), and there was plenty of it. Seedy massage parlors with shadowy doorways partially concealed exotic women… demurely batted their dark eyes at potential customers. Massages start at 10 bucks an hour, with “fringe benefits” on an a la carte basis.

Steve hung out in town absorbing all the “culture”, while I toured the Wat Chalong Buddhist Monastery in the less developed central part of the island. The compound houses the most ornately decorated temples in Thailand (pics below). It is best known for 3 monks who were pioneers in advancing herbal medicine. It was awesome. Except that “out of respect”, I had to take my sandals off and cross over 20 feet of searing hot marble tiles before enter the building. I left a few layers of skin behind.

When I got back to town, Steve showed me a brochure he picked up for a “Prawn Fishing Park” where you fish using a bamboo pole to catch prawns in a huge manmade tank. Challenging huh? And sanitary too… as dinner is frolicking in the feces of a million or so of it’s closest friends. He was tempted to pop into the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not Wax Museum” – but decided to pass. A few hours here was plenty of time.

Wat Chalong Buddhist Monastery – Phuket Island, Thailand
Wat Chalong Buddhist Monastery – Phuket Island, Thailand
Wat Chalong Buddhist Monastery – Phuket Island, Thailand
Wat Chalong Buddhist Monastery – Phuket Island, Thailand

FEBRUARY 4 – GEORGETOWN, PENANG ISLAND, MALAYSIA

Continuing down the east coast we arrived at Penang Island, Malaysia early this morning. The island is 110 square miles with a population of 770,000. We docked in the capital city of Georgetown. Penang was largely independent until 1786 when it was purchased by the British East India Company who established a “free trade” port.

In modern day, the city is an eclectic muddle of colonial mansions and buddhist temples from Burmese, Thai, and Chinese traditions. Motorbikes, cars, rickshaws, bicyclists and pedestrians all compete for space on the narrow streets. Our highlight today was a visit to the Khoo Kongsi clan home (pics below). It is a vibrant temple filled with etched stone, gold leaf sculptures, and mythical creatures, seen through a haze of fragrant incense. Confucian traditions dictate that immigrants must unify and strengthen their communities. These structures were erected to welcome families with the same name to their new country. Pics attached. Gorgeous, isn’t it? We only lasted a few hours here before succumbing to the heat.

Khoo Kongsi Clan Home
Khoo Kongsi Clan Home
Khoo Kongsi Clan Home

FEBRUARY 5 – KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

Continuing further down the east coast, we arrived at Port Kelang on mainland Malaysia this morning. This is the port for Kuala Lumpur (known as KL) which is inland – about 2 hours away by bus. The name which sounds so mysteriously exotic in Malaysian, translates for us into a mundane “Murky Creek”. We had mixed feelings about all the “bus time” required to see the city – but since it is the Capital – decided to make the trip. We rather wish we hadn’t.

KL is an unplanned, cosmopolitan city choking on pollution from motorbike, car, and bus traffic. By unplanned, I mean that the street map we were given was completely useless. We would walk one block and the road name would change to something else that was not on the map. We spent most of our time trying to figure out where we were. It was loud, HOT, and frustrating.

We wound up in the part of Chinatown that tourists aren’t supposed to find… just in time to see a tiny women with a big cleaver lop off the head of a live chicken. WUMP! It’s legs twitching as she adeptly plucked the carcass clean of feathers with lightening speed. I didn’t want to watch… but was physically unable to avert my gaze. As we regained consciousness and backed away, Steve narrowly missed stepping on the biggest rat I’ve ever seen. It looked accusingly at him before waddling into the abyss behind a dumpster.

And yet, everywhere we looked, people were happily shoveling unidentifiable food into their mouths. Nothing is refrigerated, even in the extreme heat. Meat hanging on hooks, coated in exhaust fumes. Cartons of eggs baking in full sun. Which makes you wonder about our Super Sanitized Society. Are we too cautious with food? Perhaps we could boost our immune systems naturally if we exposed our bodies to more culinary challenges. Food for thought… but not a theory we wanted to test before hoping on a bus with no toilet.

We finally found our way back to the “pick up” spot and the ultimate reward. Up ahead… an oasis in the desert of fatigue, befuddlement, and grumpiness… a bright shining pair of golden arches… McDonald’s! Clean bathrooms, plentiful toilet paper, and cool artificial air… Nirvana. We staggered towards the door, tongues coated with dust, as a life sized “Ronald” greeted us with palms together in a traditional “Namaste” buddhist greeting. While we sat here sipping diet Coke and waiting for our ride, we noticed again how delightfully multicultural Malaysia is. The tables were full of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians peacefully coexisting as they munched on french fries.

 

February 6-9, 2010 (Southeast Asia – Part 2 of 3)

SOUTHEAST ASIA (PART 2 of 3)

FEBRUARY 6 – SINGAPORE

Do you remember a true story about a american college kid visiting Singapore in 1994? He was arrested for spitting on the street. The penalty for this crime is flogging. His parents were outraged and appealed to the US Consulate to stop this outlandish punishment! I believe he was reluctantly “let off” … and told never to return to the country. Singapore’s rules are tough but clear. If you don’t like them, live somewhere else. Jaywalkers are fined on the spot. Drug peddlers earn a death sentence. Media is scanned at the state level for content and “inappropriate” websites are blocked. There is no denying the system’s icy effectiveness. You can walk fearlessly at any time, day or night.

So when the sign in the shuttle bus warned that littering carried a $1,500 fine, smoking – $1,000 and eating/drinking – $500… we paid attention. I didn’t stick my gum under the seat, fearing that a camera might record my indiscretion.

This tiny, completely independent country consists of the large island of Singapore and 63 smaller islands at the tip of the slender Malay Peninsula, just 90 miles north of the equator… and the hottest of the hot. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 and quickly claimed it for the British East India Company. Due to it’s strategic position, it continues to be the largest and most active shipping port in the world.

This city is very easy to navigate and we explored it using the spotlessly clean subway system. Our first stop was Little India where we visited the Sri Veeramakalimman Temple (pics below). We happened to arrive during services and had the amazing opportunity to be blessed by one of the holy men. I left with a big red smudge on my forehead and a bigger smile on my face. Next, it was onto Chinatown. Chinese New Year is on February 14th – so the market was buzzing with excited people scanning the stalls for festive decorations. A traditional treat for New Year’s is…. wait for it….. COD FISH JERKY CUBES. Yes, you read that right. And… it comes in about 50 different flavors, including; wasabi, sesame, orange, ginger, and peach to name a few. The pieces are bit sized and come four to a pack. It was a carnival atmosphere as competing vendors shouted their offers for “Jerky Deals” over microphones Okay, I couldn’t understand what they were saying… but I’m sure it was “buy 3, get 1 free!”. How about some tasty duck that has been pressed flat? See the unbelievable pics below…

Sri Veeramakalimman Temple – Singapore

Sri Veeramakalimman Temple – Singapore
Sri Veeramakalimman Temple – Singapore

Pressed Duck Anyone?

Color Coordinated!
What a Deal!
Cod Jerky Hawker

FEBRUARY 7 – AT SEA

After leaving Singapore, we headed up the east coast of Malaysia and Thailand on our way to Pattaya.

FEBRUARY 8 – PATTAYA, THAILAND

You can get to Bangkok from here via a 2.5 hour bus ride each way – depending on traffic – it could take much longer. We opted not to. Instead, we hung out in Pattaya, which is a seedier version of Patong Beach in Phuket, if that’s possible. This is where the hard core “party animals” migrated to, when Singapore cleansed their raunchy beach areas. One of the stranger sights amidst all the bars, massage parlors, and tacky tourist shops were beautiful miniature street temples filled with sticks of incense you could light for a coin or two, and place in a golden pot as an offering to Buddha. Perhaps it is an Eastern version of a roadside “Confessional” – so your sins don’t have a chance to build up. Bizarre. The resulting “melting pot” of street aromas included stale beer, urine, vomit, sage, and lavender.

We arrived mid morning, when most of the town was still fast asleep or cleaning up from the night before. My goal today was to get a traditional Thai Massage. We walked around until I found a business that was not actively soliciting men and looked legitimate. I made an excellent choice. The place was spotless and the therapists dressed conservatively in black pants and bright yellow tee shirts. For this type of massage, I dressed in a hospital-type gown and lied on a thick mat on the floor. I was separated from the other victims by a curtained partition. Then, a petite Thai woman who looked weak and weighed about 100 pounds, bowed in greeting and proceeded to beat me up. She walked on my back while digging her impossibly flexible toes into the muscles lining my spine. Copious cracks issued from my spinal netherworld. She smiled, knowingly. About 5 minutes into it she asked “you okay?”… but I knew the response would be ignored. She was on a mission. She tugged, twisted, and contorted my limbs while digging her elbows, knees, and bony knuckles into the deep recesses of my tissues. It was a torturous hour that left me, somehow, deeply relaxed, barely able to make it down the stairs, and more flexible then I have been in a very long time. All for 10 bucks! What a deal! Steve was a big chicken, and decided to opt out when he saw me lurch towards him on the street…

Make sure to read the FISH MASSAGE poster below in it’s entirety. It’s worth it.

Fish Foot Massage and Cleaning

FEBRUARY 9TH – AT SEA

A day at sea as we left Thailand and traveled southeast towards Vietnam.

February 10, 2010 (Southeast Asia – Part 3 of 3)

SOUTHEAST ASIA – Part 3 of 3

FEBRUARY 10TH – VUNG TAU, VIETNAM

Steve was 17 years old in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended. One more year of battle, and he could have been drafted. As we approached the port of Phu My on the southeast coast we traveled up the McKong Delta passing miles of impenetrable bog that swallowed the sunlight and stretched on forever. I remember seeing pictures of this forbidding landscape on TV during the war… but traveling up the same river as all those men destined to fight the spread of communism and reflecting back on the staggering loss of life was so very sad.

From the port we took the shuttle to visit Vung Tau. Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon) was over 2 hours away – so we opted for less bus time. Because of the Queen Mary’s size, she often has to dock at (out of the way) container ports as most cities do not have facilities to accommodate her in “downtown” settings. We knew this before taking the trip, but it does get frustrating when some of the “major” sights tend to be really far away. It’s a Catch 22. Living on a big ship means less (or almost no) movement in seas that would toss around smaller ships. Remember my description of crossing the North Atlantic? Plus, we have a large stateroom, big balcony with comfy chaise loungers and a full bath. All of these features are really important to us, given the length of our stay. Not to mention the planetarium, movie theater, gym, etc…

When we really want to go somewhere, we bit the bullet and opt for the longer journey. In this case, we were perfectly content bathing in the local flavor of a seaside city. On the drive into town, we were shocked to see mile after mile of beautifully landscaped center median. Chocked full of ornamental trees, exotic flowering plants, and perfectly trimmed grass. Not one single weed dared to grow. It was absolutely perfect.

Vung Tau really surprised us. It was a sleepy and peaceful place. And, compared to the craziness of our last few stops, a welcome respite. Tourism is in it’s infancy here. The only aggressive sales people were the ubiquitous taxi drivers who swarmed around us every time we pulled out our street map or stopped on the sidewalk to glance around. I swear they had a tourist radar system. Or more likely, we stood out like sweaty white beacons pulsating under the blazing sun. Multiple “No Thank You’s” were never enough. We were usually followed for at least a block, providing plenty of time to change our mind and/or come to our senses.

Throughout Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, most of the road signs and business names were written in the local language and english – due to the long history of british trade. No so in Vietnam. We did not find an english word written anywhere, and very few people spoke our language. We asked at the front desk of a hotel where the “fishing boats” were docked, and the receptionist handed me a piece of paper to write down the words. After looking up a translation through Google, he directed us to the waterfront.

Hundreds of colorful fishing boats haphazardly at anchor jammed the harbor. Here, we saw an ancient mode of transportation that was new to us. The “water taxi” that ferried fishermen to their vessels was a man in an elongated row boat that powered the oars with his feet instead of his hands! His back was supported by a wooded board, and his legs did all the work. Very smart design, and much easier on the body. Perhaps this is where the makers of the fist recumbent bicycle got the idea.

This area along the coast is mountainous and we spent the afternoon hiking along the trails. We passed by the 100 foot high sculpture of “Madonna and Child” that US Soldiers erected in 1970; perched on a bluff, greeting the sea.

Vung Tau Fishing Boats
Vung Tau Fishing Boats
Vung Tau Fishing Boats
Fishing in the Mekong Delta
Flooded Rice Patties
MeKong Delta Cargo Boats
Recycled Tire Artist
Vung Tau Load

February 11-15, 2010 (At Sea & China)

FEBRUARY 11 – AT SEA

We left Vietnam last night and spent today sailing northeast in the South China Sea towards Hong Kong. We were quite thankful for the precipitous drop in temperature during the journey from 97F to 50F in 24 hours. No more sweating while merely standing still. Yee Haa! Fun fact… we have now sailed 17,784 miles from New York.

FEBRUARY 12 – HONG KONG, CHINA

Around noon today, we groped our way towards Hong Kong harbor through a menacing fog that gobbled up the multitude of ships around us. A symphony of deep throated horns, high pitched whistles, and bells, alerted us to the presence of our ghostly neighbors. I kept waiting for the sound of splintering timber as we crunched over the small fishing boats that seemed to materialize through the gray curtain, just inches from our bow. They all escaped unscathed, this time… (cue the evil laugh).

“Hong Kong” consists of Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories, and a collection of 262 islands in the South China Sea. “Hong Kong” translates into “Fragrant Harbor”, referring to the time when wood products and incense were traded. It was also the opium capital of the world back when the British Empire emerged. These drug dealers promoted addiction by making sure the supply of opium (from the Indian Poppy Harvest) never ran out, and in doing so prolonged the need for continued foreign presence. They would have promptly been put to death in modern day Singapore!

We “overnighted” at the port – so we didn’t have to worry about deadlines. It was 60F at 2 PM and the fog had loosened it’s grip. With only a few hours of daylight left, we hightailed it over to Lantau Island via the spotless commuter rail system to visit with the 100 foot high bronze Tian Tan Buddha Statue, nestled in the mountains above the Po Lin Monastery. Most of the island is lush and rugged… for now. I say that, because Disneyland Hong Kong recently opened up a theme park on the other side of the island… so who knows what other development is on the docket. I was very grateful that a roller coaster was not the backdrop for Buddha and that the monks own a huge parcel of land. We opted to take the half hour gondola ride to the edge of the village and walk to the monastery. A smart option, until I saw that the floor was solid glass, and it felt like we were going to plunge to our deaths hundreds of feet below. The Asian preteens sharing the ride with us decided to test the cracking tolerance by forcefully jumping up and down. That is, until they saw my horrified grimace. Damn kids.

The monks raised the money for the gondola along with the statue, knowing how important this destination would be for tourists and buddhists from around the world. It virtually eliminates the need for buses and taxis, keeping the village area free of choking fumes and noise. Now that’s forward thinking. The monks built the statue for the “Stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, for the well-being of the nation and the people, for the perpetuation of the Buddha Light, the ever-turning of the Dharma-wheel, and the peace of the world”. The statue is solemn and serene. The misty weather and chilly breeze were atmospherically perfect. We spent a few hours here soaking up the wisdom, before heading into the frenzied city.

Gondola Ride to Lantau Island
Tian Tan Buddha Statue – Lantau Island
Tian Tan Buddha Statue – Lantau Island

Tian Tan Buddha Statue (background) and the Po Lin Monastery (foreground) – Lantau Island

Po Lin Monastery

Without question, the most spectacular visual treat Hong Kong offers is the skyline after dark, when the buildings turn into undulating sculptures of color. Every night, there is an eye popping “Symphony of Lights” show that involves 30 office buildings over a one mile stretch of waterfront. We ferried across the bay to watch the spectacle from the Kowloon Promenade, which offers the best view. Instrumental music erupted through hidden speakers as dancing lights sprang from the structures across the bay. How is it done? Ah, the magic of technology.

Hong King Skyline – Light Show
Hong Kong Skyline – Light Show

FEBRUARY 13 – HONG KONG

We woke early and shuttled back downtown at 8 AM. We were dropped off in thick fog that truncated the buildings and coated every surface in thick dew. Today is New Year’s Eve. The Year of the Tiger starts tomorrow. Another “must do” is taking the tram (originally built in 1888) to the top of the 1,800 foot Victoria peak to see the “famous” view of the city below. We saw nothing, but enjoyed the thrill ride to the top as the tram climbed at a 45 degree angle. I couldn’t help but fantasize about the breaks giving way, and how long it would take to hit bottom….

Next, we rode the 1/2 mile series of “Mid Level Escalators”; currently the Guinness World Record holder for the longest covered escalator. It whisks 35,000 people uphill per day to homes and businesses, and has several places to get on or off. Hong Kong has mastered the art of moving people safely and effectively. Elevated walkways criss cross the city high above the traffic, complete with street signs and pedestrian “traffic circles”.

We spent the rest of our time strolling through the markets and watching the locals gather up their holiday meal. I had to turn my back on the fish market after seeing live fish tossed into plastic bags where they slowly suffocated among beets and turnip greens. At least the meat wasn’t moving.

Open Air Meat Market – Hong Kong

FEBRUARY 14 – AT SEA (China Thoughts)

Britain returned Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. Some residents who made fortunes fled to other parts of the world just prior to the event. Others, more confident in the future stayed, hoping that the area would maintain it’s entrepreneurial spirit – which so far it has. Hong Kong continues to be considered a “Special Zone”, operating under a “one country, two systems policy” to help ease the transition and keep the economy thriving.

We thought ahead and exchanged $300 USD into local currency when we got to Hong Kong to cover us for purchases on the China portion of this trip – knowing that when we got to Shanghai – it was would be Saturday and the banks closed. Smart thinking, huh? Well, guess what? You can’t spend Hong Kong bucks in the rest of China! It is a completely different currency! It’s been 13 years since the reunification, and they still haven’t merged the money? What are they waiting for?

Today, every passenger had to fill out a “health declaration” form, noting any symptoms of a cold or flu and submit to an individual visual inspection by the chinese authorities on board. They reserved the right to take a passenger’s temperature if they suspected a fever. High temp? No passport stamp for you! Steve and I continue in robust health, and were barely glanced at as we handed in our forms. Others weren’t so lucky. So here’s the question… why weren’t we subjected to this scrutiny before entering Hong Kong? Doesn’t the chinese government care if we infect Hong Kongians with swine flu or worse?

The East China Sea delivered 15 foot waves overnight. Big enough to remind us we were on a ship, not big enough to lose Steve. We hadn’t had any significant movement since the Bay of Biscayne after leaving Lisbon, Portugal over a month ago.

FEBRUARY 15 – SHANGHAI, CHINA

We had to skedaddle from Hong Kong at 2 PM, much earlier then we would have liked, to “make the tide” in Shanghai today. We were to pick up the local Pilot at 4 AM and be docked by 7. This had been prearranged a year in advance with the port authorities. Yesterday afternoon, the Captain was informed that our time slot had been changed to 2 AM. Why? Just because. It was impossible to shave two hours off our schedule, without cranking the Queen up to 33 knots, resulting in a tremendous strain on the engines. So, we had no choice but to wait 10 hours for the next opening.

The dismal weather intensified and followed us. We finally docked at 2 PM in torrential rain, 40 MPH winds, and near freezing temperatures at a container port about 30 minutes outside the city. With only a few hours of daylight left, we almost bagged going downtown, but did anyway. At the very least… we would take a bus ride and see some of the city. We walked a few blocks from our drop off point and knew the chances of getting lost were about 95%. Unlike Hong Kong, none of the street names have english translations and no one understood our questions. We tried valiantly to match up the symbols with our quickly disintegrating map. While being pelted with sleet we decided we’d rather be… Shanghaied! Well not quite… but I’m sure you are intensely curious about the meaning of the term, aren’t you? It originated here in 1871 and means to “force someone to join a vessel lacking hands by drugging or otherwise rendering them insensible”. Must have been a really relaxing place to hang out back then. Perhaps we will have to clean toilets in exchange for our Baked Alaska.