Monday, December 27, 2010

Merry Christmas - Back Travelling in February

I hope everyone has a happy and peaceful Holiday Season.

We're now back in the UK for around 2 months (with a week in Spain to thaw out for a bit) and won't be cruising again till February 20th, when we rejoin the Silver Wind in Cape Town. We'll be cruising round South Africa and Mozambique for 3 cruises, and then sailing up the West Coast of Africa to the Canaries and ending up in Lisbon in April.

See you then unless I can think of anything interesting to say in the meantime!

December 21st – Flying Home For Christmas (Hopefully)

We got up at 5am for what was always likely to be a stressful and frustrating day of will-we-won't-we be able to get home. At Dubai airport, Tracy decided to be cheeky and hunt out the BA desk to see if there was any way that we could avoid our trip to Jordan.

We found that the 2am BA flight to Jordan was actually flying, but it was so delayed that in fact there was tons of space on it, and she sweet-talked the lovely man into letting us sneak onto it, which would mean that we got back about 10 hours earlier than scheduled without any waiting around – hooray!!!!

Once we got back, it was straight to hospital for Tracy for them to confirm that she had indeed broken her wrist and she was put in a cast – so a Christmas of immobility for her and one of being a carer for me, but at least we were home.

December 20th – Unscheduled Break in Dubai

So, we don't really know when (or perhaps if) we'll get home, but seeing as the ship was moving on, we had to book ourselves into a hotel; however, if there's one thing Dubai does well, it's luxury hotels – there's an enormous choice of hotels, so we picked one at random – the Grand Hyatt (very nice indeed).

Seeing as the UK was locked in winter weather, we decided that we'd show solidarity by having the quintessential desert experience – iceskating!

Every time we've been to the Mall of the Emirates (the largest mall in the world), the ice rink there has been virtually empty, so we thought it would be nice to have a bit of space to perfect our ice skating skills ready for a skating experience we have booked in the UK for Christmas Eve (if we get back in time).

Unfortunately, an enormous party of ex-pat kids had also decided to get into the Christmas spirit too, so for once the rink was pretty busy. One particularly wobbly child flailed around too close for comfort and managed to spook Tracy into falling to the ice with a clatter. Unfortunately she landed very painfully on her wrist and it seems quite likely that it's broken – imagine the sympathy that she's going to get when she gets home. You were in Dubai, and you broke your wrist ice skating?

Anyway, she gritted her teeth through the pain, and after a soothing swim in the hotel pool, we went to one of the world's most expensive buffets at the over-the-top opulence of the 7 star Burj al Arab Hotel. This was a buffet like nowhere else I've been – enormous amounts of gorgeous Middle Eastern food. Resisting the temptation to "get our money's worth" in quantity consumed (impossible at these prices), and ignoring the eyewatering cost of drinks (£10 for a small bottle of water), and attempting to ignore the painful wrist – we had a lovely, frivolous and decadent dining experience that we are highly unlikely to ever repeat again.

December 19th – Finishing The Cruise on a High in Dubai

After 2 days sailing across the Indian Ocean and a day of relaxing in Muscat, we have reached our final destination and the end of the cruise – Dubai.

Unfortunately, our sail into the port wasn't as relaxing as we'd hoped, because overnight we'd got an email from British Airways to say that our flight home tomorrow was cancelled because of the snow chaos that's shut Britain down. So, after finding that their website was no use whatsoever, and trying to get through on the phone for an hour and a half, I finally got to speak to someone. The only alternative that they could offer us was a flight via Amman on Royal Jordanian, on the day after, so we would be spending at least one day extra in Dubai. As there is no way of guaranteeing that Heathrow airport would be open, it looks like we might be spending Christmas in Jordan!

Ignoring all these uncertainties, we carried on with our Dubai exploration as planned. We'd booked some tickets to go up the world's highest building, the phenomenally tall Buj Khalifa – at 160 storeys, it's half a mile high, and twice the height of the Empire State Building.

So, we virtually flew up to the world's highest observatory ("only" on the 124th floor) in the world's fastest elevator, and marvelled at the amazing views below us – it was literally like looking out of an aeroplane window. As you look down at the toytown city below you, you get an impression that Dubai is just a temporary city – everything is brand new or half-finished, and built on sand, with the desert stretching out for miles behind the sprawling skyline that hugs the coastline. Again, you can't help but be impressed at the scale and ambition of the city, even if you know that half of the office space in this building and in a lot of the newer buildings is unoccupied.

Then, we changed our perspective, and went to the bottom of this intimidating "superscraper" to gaze up at its hypodermic-needle-like profile as the sun set, and the dancing fountains display began. To a background of Arabic music and shoots of flames, the enormous jets of water swayed gracefully, splurted powerfully and took on beautiful organic shapes and movements.

Again, while you might question the taste of having these enormous fountains in a place of less than 100mm of rainfall a year, it made for a thrilling and ingenious spectacle.

December 15th – Mangalore

Mangalore in Karnataka province is not really on the tourist trail, so for us it was a place to try to delve into India's temple scene in a bit more depth, and to experience an environment where they're not fed up (or paranoid) of tourists taking photos.

Our first task was to negotiate with a taxi driver to get us from the unattractive port area at New Mangalore and into town. Once a price was agreed, as ever, you're left with the feeling that you were being totally overcharged; but I suppose you just have to make yourself feel better by thinking that a taxi in the West driving you around for 6 and a half hours would cost a whole lot more than $20.

So, we bounced into town along Mangalore's terrible pot-holed roads, and visited a few relics of European life – this is another place where Catholicism is fairly deeply ingrained from the century of Portuguese rule, 400 years ago, so there was an impressive array of colourful Catholic churches, Cathedrals and schools to explore.

But the best thing that we liked about Mangalore was the access to its atmospheric Hindu temples, without having to pass through oppressive security, and where the worshippers weren't at all camera shy – in fact they positively encouraged us to photograph them. It was fascinating to see the complex rituals going on at the huge Kadri Manjunatha Temple, where the worshippers chanted and rocked devoutly as they huddled together in little groups, and then threw cocoanuts at a rock and smashed them into smithereens with great aplomb. We then went up to the bathing pools above the temple, where groups of men and their boys washed themselves down before prayers – the little boys splashing around in the water were adorable. All-in-all, it was a very spiritual but welcoming atmosphere to experience – lovely to be in a relaxed and informal place of worship without a hint of fanaticism.

After visiting another impressive chapel attached to a Catholic high school, our taxi driver insisted that we went to modern Mangalore's pride and joy – a big multi-storey shopping mall. It was hardly anything to rival Dubai's malls, but the prices were much more reasonable, and the stuff on offer was more original and authentic.

Our verdict on cruising to Mangalore? Although quite a few people were put off by the ugly industrial docks, and also the fact that it was a place of few set pieces; we found it an interesting place to explore. an ordinary provincial town that was India in a microcosm – chaotic streets, predatory taxi drivers, a colourful cosmopolitan environment, atmospheric temples, friendly people, great food, increasingly modern and western yet without losing its exotic soul.

For once, the tourist board isn't exaggerating – "Incredible India" just about sums it up. We can't wait to come back to this incredible country.

December 14th – Cochin Day 2

When we went to catch the ferry to Mattancherry, even the tuk tuk drivers couldn't be bothered to repeat their lines about the ferry not working today or the shops we were headed to being shut for the day – we must now look like hardened India travelers. Instead, we chatted to them about cricket as we waited for the ferry – they told us that tourist numbers are down quite heavily this year (I don't think that this was a sob story).

When we got across, we peaked into the International Pepper Exchange – disappointingly the dealing rooms are calm affairs carried out on computers, rather than a sweaty mass of people shouting at each other. I guess that's progress.
Then we visited the beautiful old 16th century synagogue, its floor covered with hand-painted blue tiles imported from China in the 18th century. Once it was the centre of a vibrant Jewish community, now it's an almost obsolete relic of one of the most exotic journeys of the Jewish Diaspora.

Next we went to the "Dutch Palace", the former palace of the local Rajahs, built by the Portuguese as a bribe for trading rights, and then renovated and embellished by the Dutch who superseded them. It made for an interesting mix of styles between East and West, and summed up Cochin's cosmopolitan roots.

We were now getting worn down by the oppressive heat, so the only way to revive ourselves was to have a curry, and so we headed for a recommended restaurant, to try all our favourite dishes that we eat in the curry houses of England and see how they tasted in their genuine environment – delicious as it turned out (not too surprisingly).

From here, we wandered through Fort Cochin again, and caught the ferry across the harbour over to the mainland, where we suddenly realised that time was now running a bit tight, so we got the ferry back to Willingdon Island again, to enjoy some air conditioning back onboard.

December 13th – Cochin Day 1

Cochin in beautiful Kerala, is the most culturally rich part of India – within the space of an hour you can see so many influences from the East and the West. As well as Hindu temples, you can visit whitewashed Catholic Churches (from Portuguese times), gabled 18th century Dutch houses, an English Village Green (complete with cricket matches fought out by the locals), Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, and of course, the famous Chinese Fishing Nets that feature in any tourist brochure of Cochin.

We caught the ferry from Willingdon Island where we were docked to Fort Kochi, to explore its laid back historic streets. We passed the constant activity of the Chinese Fishing Nets, looking like giant alien spiders being lowered into the water, as a great team of men beaver away and pull the nets up to reveal a tiny catch of little silvery fish.
We visited St Francis Church, built back in 1502 by the Portuguese and adapted by the Dutch and then the English who followed them. The reason all these foreign powers were interested in this part of the world was because of the spices that came from here, so we perused the many fragrant spice stalls, mouths watering at the delicious curry smells – we will be cooking some classic curries when we get back.

We then headed over to Jew Town, the atmospheric part of Cochin which once had a thriving Jewish community, that has lived here for around 2,000 years – these days, after mass emigrations to Israel, only about 10 Jewish people still live here (most of them fairly old).

At the end of the day, we headed back to the ship for a colourful Kathakali performance – a dance form unique to Kerala that's hard to fully appreciate for Westerners, but obviously means a lot to the locals. The performers are made up with vivid colours (even the whites of their eyes and their tongues are dyed pink), and they perform a tragic-com of a soap opera full of illicit sexual advances and murder, to a background tune of wailing, drumming and singing. To me, it was all quite fun, but to many of the audience it was fairly impenetrable and slow moving – I guess that if you forced a bunch of Indians to sit through "The Bold and the Beautiful", or "The Marriage of Figaro", they might struggle to appreciate them too.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

December 12th – Lightning Raid on Goa

We had just over three hours to explore Goa's remarkable legacy of Portuguese relics – the result of 450 years of Portuguese rule here, and the domination of the Catholic Church in Goa.

From the port at Murmagao, we drove for about an hour to Old Goa, the former capital of Portugal's imperial possessions in the East, and once one of the largest and richest cities in the world. As a result, there's an amazing array of huge whitewashed churches to see here, but what makes it even more interesting is that this boom-town of a city was totally abandoned in the 18th century (because the river silted up, so no ships could land here and then the city was hit by plagues and diseases).

So, the city of Old Goa was taken over by the jungle, as most of its buildings either fell down, or were demolished for their building materials, leaving just a few ghostly relics of a once-great city. It's remarkable to walk around the cavernous churches that are left, and see no sign of the houses of the people who would have worshipped at the churches.

As time was very short, we had a fast-paced trail around three of the grandest churches, the Church of St Cajetan (modeled on St Peter's in Rome), the Se (this enormous Cathedral was once the largest church in Asia), and the baroque Church of Bom Jesus (the home of the powerful Jesuit order). Perhaps the most interesting was the Church of Bom Jesus, because it houses the tomb of the great missionary priest, St Francis Xavier – a man whose work is still going strong here in Goa, where about a third of the population are Catholic.

At the end of this whirlwind tour, you were left with the feeling that you wanted 3 weeks in Goa, ot three hours, but at least it was a good taster for a wonderful and incredibly culturally rich art of the world.

December 11th – Mumbai Day 2

On the way back to the port last night, a taxi driver got us to agree to let him drive us around for the day – he said his name was John, and he guaranteed his honesty. His car was just about held together by gaffer tape, you could see the road through the floor, the engine had all the power and the roar of a lawn mower, and it was very cramped in the back – but we entrusted our lives to him. He somehow managed to be totally laid back, whilst driving in the most incredibly aggressive manner. He cut people up with abandon, routinely ignored red lights, drove on the rong side of the road whenever he fancied it, and left a trail of disgruntled drivers hooting uriously in his wake. At first the constant feeling of being near death was alarming, but after a while it just felt normal, and we enjoyed the constant theatre going on outside, along Mumbai's incredibly busy streets.

We were heading for the Haji Ali Mosque, but on our way we stopped for a brief photo stop at the frenzied cleaning activity going on at the Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai's largest public laundry. In a city of 20 million people, then the laundry system is going to be on a large scale, but this is still a spectacular sight, as the Dhobi Wallahs thrash the clothes and hang them in colour coded groups on huge washing lines.

We then made it to the Haji Ali Mosque, Mumbai's most holy Muslim shrine. It sits out in the sea on the end of a causeway, which floods when the tide is in, and which makes its way over the mud flats when the tide is out. The tide was well and truly out today, which meant a pungent sulphurous stench was emanating from the mud, as a few people waded around knee deep in the stinky flats, looking for anything of any value. The peeling white domed mosque looked like it had seen better days, but it was still fascinating to see the religious devotion of the worshippers.

Next we headed to the colourful Mahalaxmi Temple to see how Mumbai's Hindu majority worship. There seemed a more relaxed atmosphere here than at the mosque, although you had to pass through fairly heavy security to get in, and it was great to watch the ceremonies and devout prayer rituals.

By the time we finished, Honest John's car was beginning to give up the ghost and refused to start, so he press-ganged a couple of passers by to give him a push start. He wouldn't let us help, or even get out of the car, so we had the embarrassing scenario of us weighing down the car that these poor people were trying to push start. Anyway, we got going and made our way to the Chor Bazaar, Mumbai's so-called "Thieves Market", a place where supposedly, if you buy anything there, it was probably stolen from you in the first place. Here, in this busy market, you could pretty much buy anything – bric-a-brac, antiques, souvenirs, car parts, machinery, anything you wanted (or mostly didn't want).

By now, the heat, dust and crowds had finally worn us down, so we told Honest John it was time to take us back to the ship; so more people were forced to give us our push start and off we weaved through the traffic again. Honest John sensed that it was time to start the campaign for weadling more money out of us, although he ignored the usual sob story of describing his poverty stricken enormous family, and instead went for the "I've just got a big parking fine while I was waiting for you while you took some pictures". This was done with such an apologetic look on his face that he didn't even argue when we told him that we knew it wasn't true, so we settled on a price of £10 for 6 hours of driving – everyone was happy.

As ever, we had a great time in Mumbai, it's a place which has so much energy that it drains your energy reserves, but it always leaves us wanting more.

December 10th – Mumbai Day 1

Getting out of Mumbai's port is always a trial, as you run the gauntlet of Mumbai's voracious taxi drivers, and try to negotiate a reasonable price to get into the city – they start at $40, when you know that if you can manage to get them to put it on the meter, it should be no more than $2.

So, we finally got someone to agree to take us to the Gateway of India, for us to catch the ferry to Elephanta Island, a peaceful island retreat about 6 miles away (an hour on the ferry) from the chaos of Mumbai's breathless streets. The Island is home to a wonderful Hindu temple carved into the caves, decorated with some of the best rock carvings in India. As you climb the many steps up to the caves, you again have a gauntlet to run, this time from the pushy souvenir
salesmen, but more alarmingly from the monkeys who run around the island like they own it. Tracy has a well documented monkey phobia, which wasn't helped by the fact that the first monkey we saw was sitting on the railing, looking directly at us while he nonchalantly pleasured himself – welcome to Elephanta Island!

Ignoring this lewd welcome, we explored the caves and marveled at the excellent quality of the statues of Shiva and fellow deities, which were around 1,500 years old. Then, we braved the monkeys on the way down, and found that the ferry that we were heading for had already gone (early…… in India…. really?!?), and so had to wait around for the next one. Trying to get information on timings was another reminder that it's virtually impossible to get a straight answer from anyone in Mumbai – either they don't really understand you and just tell you what they think you want to hear, or they just brazenly lie to you to get you to spend more money than you have to.

Having successfully made it back to the mainland, it was time for food – being away from the UK for a month meant that we were by now desperate for a curry, so we found a backstreet place to have a good feed. So, we stuffed ourselves with a delicious thali in a friendly place full of local workers where no-one spoke English. The bill came in at a massive $4, and it was way more than we could eat.

Scarcely able to move, we waddled over for a bit of culture at the Prince of Wales Museum – Mumbai's best museum, housed in a wonderfully grand Victorian building, topped with extravagant onion domes and Moorish features, and full of ancient artifacts and paintings. In a good example of Indian bureaucracy and overstaffing, our tickets were checked 4 times by different people on our way into the Museum, and our bags were checked 3 times.

Unfortunately, wandering around a non-air conditioned museum with a full stomach does not make for a body or mind totally receptive to culture, and so we maybe our lethargy didn't allow us to do the museum justice, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Undaunted by our lack of energy, we went across the road (never an easy undertaking in traffic-clogged Mumbai) to the Modern Art Museum, for a quick perusal of the post-colonial art scene in India – as you'd expect, the art was very colourful and full of energy. By now, we were in dire need of a shower, so we caught a taxi back to the port (the fifth one we hailed was finally able to
understand us – he even spoke enough English to try to rip us off).

Refreshed and rehydrated, we saw a show by a great show by a local dancing troupe who came onboard – so much energy and vitality – and then headed off to dinner in a restaurant that had been recommended to us, Khyber. This is an upscale restaurant, so none of the bargain basement prices you get in the grungier restaurants, but the quality of the food was excellent, although our lunchtime over-indulgence meant I didn't eat as much as I'd have liked – probably a good thing given my ever expanding waistline.

December 9th – Diu

In my lecture on Diu the day before, no-one had actually heard of this tiny former Portuguese colony in India. And this laid-back little island full of historic churches and forts, beautiful sandy beaches and wonderfully friendly people, has got to be one of India's best kept secrets. Diu is a tiny version of Goa, an island that was ruled by Portugal for 450 years up until 1961, and it retains something of the atmosphere of a Mediterranean town; but one that's been taken over by a population of friendly Indians who revel in a sense of unthreatening chaos.

In amongst the hooting traffic of mopeds and tuk tuks, Diu Town's charmingly run-down narrow streets are wandered by languid cows that look like they own the place, and untended herds of goats heading off purposefully to who knows where. It's a colourful place – women in bright saris wandering past multi-coloured houses painted in different pastel shades. As you explore, you come across centuries-old whitewashed Churches, whose tiny and impoverished Catholic population that remains, is out of all proportion with their sheer size and grandeur.

Diu's massive fort that guards the port, and the huge stone wall that encloses the town are potent reminders that this was once an incredibly important place 400 years ago – the West's first toe-hold on India, which briefly flared as one of the world's great boom towns, before the ports of Goa and then Bombay took over as the new gateways to India.

We had a wonderful time in Diu, a really charming relic of Portugal's once-great empire; and one the best things about it was that it was a gentle introduction to India, for a boat load of people that are likely to get blown away by the force of nature that is Mumbai tomorrow.

December 7th – Muscat’s Markets

Today was just a leisurely day of exploring Muscat's markets – many people rate the souks here as the best (or at least most genuine) souks in Arabia. We stopped in at the fish market to see more slicing up of bodies than Freddie Kruger could manage (even witnessing a fight on the way – presumably a rare sight in somewhere as peaceful as Muscat). Then we meandered around the main souk, which was an Aladdin's Cave of stuff I didn't want – but, if you wanted to buy some Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh for a Christening, then this is the place to do it.

Whilst I wasn't around, Tracy was chatted up by a charming local lothario. He introduced himself, "My name is Mohammed. What is your name?".

"I'm Tracy", she replied.
"Hello I'm Tracy, I am very pleased to meet you".

He's going to have to work on his chat up lines a bit more if he's going to have any success with Western women.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

December 6th – Exploring Beyond Muscat

Today I ventured into Oman's bleak interior, to visit the town of Nakhl – a green oasis of palms in a sea of barren gravely desert. The town is protected by yet another 17th century fortress – I'm endangered of getting "fortressed-out" on this cruise, but actually this was one was quite interesting, because it's very well preserved, and it has an imposing position, perched high up on a rock 200 feet up, dominating a view of the palm plantations and town spread out down below it.

On the way there, we visited the coastal town of Seeb, to visit its fish market. As soon as you get there, you get a good idea of how fertile the seas are off Oman – there was an amazing variety of fish on offer. The whole market made a good contrast to the sanitised atmosphere you find on the manicured streets of Muscat. Stinking piles of fish covered in flies were stacked up on the beach, while in the market itself, the floor ran with more blood than a Quentin Tarantino film, as the fishmongers hacked up their produce and scooped off the blood and guts into piles by their feet.

As ever in Oman, everyone was very friendly and welcoming – in my unofficial surveys of the passengers, almost everyone rated Oman as their favourite country in Arabia.