Friday, April 11, 2014

April 10th - Crew Idol

We have 4 days at sea sailing along the pirate infested waters from Oman to Jordan. We've seen no signs of pirates, and the days at sea have whizzed by with loads of excellent lectures (not including mine of course), and lots of entertainment.

The best of the lot has been Crew Idol tonight, where 6 incredibly talented Filipino crew members entertained us with some wonderful singing performances. These people work so hard, yet have been rehearsing like crazy.

A wonderful night that was loved by an absolutely packed theatre.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

April 7th – On The Frankincense Trail in Salalah

Other than rhyming with Tra-lah-lah, the southern Omani port of Salalah doesn't have a huge amount of attractions for the tourist. Its main claim to fame is that the Frankincense tree grows uniquely in this region, which meant that the was (and still is) the centre of the frankincense trade – a trade that brought enormous wealth to this part of the world from the ancient times until the Middle Ages. Sadly for Salalah, frankincense isn't worth its weight in gold any more, so the town has had to find other ways to make its cash.

So, the Omani government has invested heavily in the port here, which has became a major container terminal and refuelling point for shipping passing from the Suez Canal to the East – something that explains why a destination backed by barren desert with as few attractions as this, managed to have three cruise ships in port today. Our guide told us that Salalah's port has been developed to this extent, to allow for the closure of the vital Straits of Hormuz, through which all shipping (and much of the oil) that passes from the Persian Gulf must pass. So, if Iran (or someone else) decides to shut it down the Straits, then Salalah has developed transport links with the rest of the Gulf States to keep them connected with the outside world.

So, Salalah is now going through a bit of a growth spurt – there are plenty of building sites around town, but that does mean that there's a dusty, rather soulless feel to many parts of town. We visited the new Grand Mosque built by the Sultan, which was closed to visitors; then we went to the Al Balid Frankincense Museum – an excellent museum which details the impact of the Frankincense trade on the region.

Having learnt so much about Frankincense, it was time to go to the place where you can buy the stuff – Salalah's souk. The souk is a lot less slick than Muscat's, and the people a bit less friendly; however, the atmosphere was thick with aromatic smoke from the omnipresent incense burners, and there was frankincense galore on sale. As we wandered around looking to pick some incense up, I suddenly came to the conclusion that I really didn't actually need any – what am I going to do with incense once I get home?

So, instead we resisted the souk's pungent charms, and wandered down to Salalah's beautiful white sand beach. The beach was totally deserted – if it had been in Europe or the Americas, it would have been busy with swimmers and sun-worshippers. This place has those vital tourist ingredients of sun, sea and sand (in abundance), but I don't think it's going to become a tourist centre just yet.

April 5th – Spotless Muscat

Even though I may have thought that Mumbai has got marginally cleaner, it just can't compare to the spotless streets of Oman's super-sanitised capital, Muscat. On a quiet Saturday morning, the empty roads, manicured lawns, and the bright white dress of the locals, were a huge contrast to what we'd left behind in India.

We first went to Muscat's huge Grand Mosque – the second largest mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia. The scale of the building is the thing that impresses – depending on who you believe, it boasts the largest (or second largest) carpet in the world, while the massive 8-ton Swarovski crystal chandelier in the centre, glitters brilliantly like New York at Christmas.

We then paid a visit to the souk – a much less raucous affair than most Arab souks. Sadly, we weren't in the market for gold, frankincense and myrrh, nor Omani daggers, pashminas, dishdashas, jelibayahs, so we didn't inject any cash into the local economy (which appears to be doing pretty well without us).

After a brief visit to a museum, our tour ended by visiting the Palace of Oman's popular ruler, Sultan Qaboos. You can't go inside, but from the outside, his Palace seems almost like it's from the set of a science fiction movie – the fact that you don't see anyone other than us few tourists in the whole complex, gave it quite an unreal atmosphere.

As ever, Muscat was clean and efficient, while its people were polite and friendly – one of the easiest places in the Arab world to visit.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Taj Mahal!

While I was labouring away onboard, Tracy left me for four days as she was lucky enough to be joining the ship's tour to the Taj Mahal and Jaipur.

The sights were utterly overwhelming, the hotels unbelievably opulent, and the Taj itself simply magnificent. She says that this is the best trip she's ever done.

I am only ever so slightly jealous!

Friday, April 4, 2014

April 2nd - The Temples of Mumbai

Is it just me, or has Mumbai got a bit cleaner? All things are relative of course, and Mumbai was coming from a fairly filthy base, but to me, this chaotic, breathless, teeming city seems a little bit cleaner and less frenetic.

Having said that, the city is in the middle of a bus strike, so by mid-day, the streets were even more gridlocked than normal. However, in the early morning, we zoomed down the streets without too much problem, heading away from the city centre to one of the city's incredibly colourful flower markets. Here, in a busily chaotic but friendly atmosphere, there were baskets full to the brim with bright marigolds, roses and other flowers, which were being sold off to the garland makers, who in turn sell them to the worshippers at the Hindu temples – even I couldn't take a bad picture of this one!

We then drove through the Worli district, which was formerly home to Mumbai's massive cotton mills, which all closed down en-masse in the 1980s after a disastrous strike. This used to be a run-down, depressed part of town, but now that Mumbai is on the rise economically, it's become prime real estate, home to rows of muscular skyscrapers and countless building sites. In a couple of years, this could easily look like the business districts of Bangkok or Shanghai.

We then went to one of the city's most popular Hindu temples - the Shri Siddhivinayak Temple (where you're not allowed to take in cameras due to the extensive security measures here). We joined the masses of worshippers queuing up to get our garlands blessed, and then it was all over – for somewhere that people are willing to queue 3 hours to get in at peak times, I was expecting a little bit more inside, but I guess that it's the religious power of the place that's the attraction, rather than the architecture of statuary.

We then headed to Mumbai's main Hare Krishna Temple, which had a really relaxed atmosphere, where the worshippers were all happily chanting away to themselves – it was interesting to see that most of them were just ordinary people, rather than the shaven-headed orange-wearing devotees that I'd expected to see.

Finally, we drove back through the city, stopping to see the Dabba-Wallahs sorting out thousands of packed lunches at the Churchgate Station. These dabba-wallahs collect 100,000 lunches for Mumbai's workers from their wives out in the suburbs, then deliver them to each individual worker in the centre of town. It's an amazing logistical exercise that apparently rarely ever goes wrong. For me, this summed up one of Mumbai's charms – it combines things that are on a huge scale with an endearingly personal element, in a city that always seems like it's on the verge of chaos, but where somehow things always work out.

Mumbai may be getting more modern and cleaner, but it's timeless charms remain.