Friday, April 27, 2012

April 15th – Muscat

Quite a low-key day for us in Muscat – we've been here plenty of times and all the major sights have already been ticked off, so we set ourselves a mission of finding a local restaurant for some hummus and falafels. We failed.

We explored the atmospheric souk at Muttrah, but we weren't in the market for pashminas, slippers, Omani daggers, frankincense, myrrh or gold, so we weren't buying. We then went into the sun-bleached backstreets of the old town as the falafel hunt continued, but the only decent restaurant that we'd have considered eating in was a Pakistani one.

If I were to open a restaurant in Muscat, I'd definitely make it a Lebanese one!

We now have 5 days at sea sailing across the Gulf of Aden in the most dangerous pirate zone in the world – the ship is taking loads of security measures to avoid the pirates, so hopefully we won't see any skull and crossbones on the way.

Monday, April 16, 2012

April 14th – Dolphin Spotting Khasab

Khasab is one of the quietest cruise destinations I've been to. That's not meant as an insult, because it gives you access to some beautifully unspoilt and spectacular scenery that's about as off-the-beaten-track as it's possible to get.

Today, I took the best way to see the area - a boat trip on a dhow into the spectacular fjords of the Musandam Peninsula. The presence of the fjords have led the tourist brochures to rather optimistically call the Peninsula, "The Norway of Arabia" – which is stretching the poetic licence a little, seeing as these sun-baked and barren landscapes couldn't be much more different to Norway; but the fjords are pretty stunning nonetheless.

As you glide into the silent fjords, you're surrounded by sheer walls of brown and grey rock, marked by undulating stripes of different coloured stone – this most peaceful of places must once have been the scene of some very violent geological activity.

As we slowly cruised along, we spotted some humpback dolphins playing around in a cove, so we sailed over to see these beguiling creatures. They proved to be quite camera shy, because every time I had one lined up in my camera lens, he'd dive down and then reappear on the other side of the dhow, hanging around just long enough for me to rush over there, before disappearing again. So, I have about 100 pictures of empty sea, or a splash of white where a dolphin may once have been – I think I actually caught a tantalising glimpse of a dolphin on camera in only three pictures.

They must have been feeling guilty, because, later on, they decided that they'd put a proper show on for us, by riding along in our bow wave, just under the surface of the water as we gathered some speed – our dhow 's engine labouring and chugging away, while they effortlessly kept up with us, every now and then leaping out of the water to breathe.

We stopped off for a swim (not with the dolphins unfortunately) at Telegraph Island – one of the most remote and unforgiving parts of the British Empire in the 1860s, when servicemen were sent to this tiny island in the fjord to guard a new Telegraph cable that communicated with India. The heat and isolation would slowly send them mad, and led to the phrase "going round the bend" entering the English language – from the days when a posting round the bend of the Straits of Hormuz was enough to drive you mad.

So, as the wind got up we headed back to the port – unfortunately it was too windy for most of the Iranian smugglers who make the port such a hive of activity. You'd have to be round the bend to go through the Straits of Hormuz in high winds in such small boats.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 12th & 13th – 5 Star Dubai

You don't come to Dubai for history or culture. You come to be amazed by its ridiculous toytown architecture, and for shopping and 5 Star Hotels. Having done the architecture and shopping to death on previous visits, it was time to see the Hotel side of the Dubai experience.

Of course, this wasn't a totally altruistic fact-finding mission – a special offer from our credit card company had given us a free night at the Le Meridien Royal on Jumeirah Beach. Not being ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we gladly took them up on their kind offer and had a night off the ship.

As you'd expect of Dubai, the hotel was luxurious and the service impeccable, although we were coming for a slightly different experience than the rest of the guests, who were happily roasting themselves on the beautiful white beach or around one of the three large pools in the hotel complex. Instead, we set up camp in our room and used the hotel's wifi to do a million boring administrative tasks that had built up over the last 3 months at sea. We got a lot done and caught up with friends and family, so it was just what we needed.

In the evening we went out for a meal at Wagamama's – in Arabia, of course, you need to eat Japanese. It was a strange experience walking around "The Walk", a strip of restaurants that really couldn't be more Westernised, and to see all the holidaymakers walking around in their shorts, mini-skirts and skimpy clothing. Only the lack of booze in the pavement cafes told you that you were in a conservative Muslim country.

I guess that that air of unreality is part of the Dubai experience.

April 11th – Finding Some History in Fujairah

Fujairah is one of the least developed of the seven Emirates – its chief attraction (and possibly its biggest drawback too) was that it didn't try to compete with either the glitz and glamour, or the scale of building work of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But, even here, in a remote place without any oil wealth, the environment is beginning to change quickly. Fujairah's biggest advantage is that it's the only Emirate that's not on the Persian Gulf, so its location on the eastern side of the country means that ships calling in here don't have to pass through the narrow Straits of Hormuz and go face-to-face with Iran.

As a result of this, oil-rich Abu Dhabi has decided to build a pipeline to export 70% of its oil through Fujairah – bringing much-needed cash into the local economy, and now funding a bit of a building boom that's threatening to change the face of Fujairah. So, the dusty town is being turned into one big building site, as skyscrapers grow and a huge new landmark mosque is being built – following the development path of Abu Dhabi (albeit on a much smaller scale).

I joined the ship's East Coast Tour, which visited pretty much all that was historical in the Emirate. For a place which really doesn't have much history to discover, we packed quite a lot in – the imposing Fujairah Fort, the moderately interesting Fujairah Museum, the Bithna Fort overlooking an oasis, and the odd-looking Al-Badiyah Mosque (the oldest mosque in all the Emirates).

It will be interesting to see what other developments Fujairah decides to add to its low-key range of attractions in the future.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April 8th – Mumbai’s Slums

Today we went on an organised trip into Dharavi – Mumbai's largest slum. The tour company that we went with, organises community projects and education programmes in the slums, and all their profits go to charity, so a good proportion of our fee was hopefully going towards improving the conditions in the slums. The tours are run in conjunction with the slum dwellers, so no photos are allowed on the tour – it helps to stop the people feeling like exhibits, but it does mean that we haven't got any pictures to illustrate what we saw (

What we did see was in turns, heart-rending, stomach-churning, eye-watering and life-affirming, as we entered into the "other" Mumbai, away from the grandiose colonial architecture, the lines of skyscrapers and the teaming traffic. We entered into the most densely packed neighbourhood of one of the most densely populated cities in the world – around 1 million people live in Dharavi, in a 1.75 square kilometre area, in mostly one or two storey dwellings.

Our guide had told us that this was "a 5-Star Slum" – in that most of the houses had water and electricity, while there were public toilets in place (which served on average about 1,500 people each) – which means that the city's other slums have really got to be off the scale of grime and poverty.

We first went into the commercial district of the slum – I'd never expected the slum to be such a frantic hive of activity – workshops were churning out metalwork and carpentry in an atmosphere similar to what I imagined the early industrial revolution must have been like. While, the scale of the recycling going on was simply unbelievable – the plastic bottles, drinks cans and paint pots of a city of around 22 million people were gathered up and sent here, to be sorted, cleaned and melted down in little workshops, ready to be sent off to the plastics factories. Our guide told us that the official figures for the economic activity of the Dharavi Slum (based on tax returns) was in the region of $650million – not what you expect of a slum.

Next we went into the residential area of the slum – amazingly enough, even though you can scarcely move in central Mumbai for beggars, here no-one attempted to beg off us. Everyone just got on with their daily lives and scarcely paid any attention to us – as we walked around the narrow alleys, there was no sense of there being a threatening atmosphere. Actually, the guide told us that there were fairly low levels of crime in what's a very close-knit community, and that the "mafia" crime bosses that used to dominate the slums (à la Slumdog Millionnaire), had been cleared by the police, who were now the new unofficial crime bosses.

The size of the average dwelling in the slum was just 10 square metres, and each one would be occupied by a large family – most people washed with a bucket in the street, which ensured constantly muddy walkways (using the word "pavement" wouldn't convey the right image). There was something of a medieval atmosphere to the place, as people spilled out of their dwellings into the streets, and many of the muddy lanes between the houses were scarcely wider than a person with hardly any light filtering down to ground level.

At one point, we noticed a large open space behind a group of houses – how nice, I thought, the children have a place to play in. Wrong. The area was covered in stinking rubbish which the council is meant to collect but doesn't, and the children weren't "playing", they were squatting down and going to the toilet in the open air. The smell was rancid, and combined with the general mud, the fairly ever-present dog faeces, plus the odd dead rat, this was certainly not the tour for a clean freak.

It was boiling hot, so we'd been drinking plenty of water, so at one point I popped into one of the public toilets. Over the years, I've been to a lot of fairly disgusting toilets, but this one reached a new level. It didn't have running water to flush it, and the general level of germs in the slum must have caused hundreds of thousands of upset stomachs over the year – I could hardly breathe and didn't want to touch anything. I felt incredibly guilty for being disgusted at spending 10 seconds in a facility that these people have no choice but to use every day of life.

But, strangely enough, there wasn't a depressing atmosphere to the place – the children seemed very happy, and as playful and mischievous as children anywhere, while the ordinary people just got on with what life had dealt them. No one in there appeared to be starving, and the diligence with which people were busily cleaning their homes and their clothes, showed their pride in their environment and their appearance.

After two hours of sensory overload, the tour came to an end. I don't think that either of us has ever had a more eye-opening or thought-provoking tour on any of our travels. It certainly puts the rest of the city into context – when you think that around half of Mumbai's population lives in similar or worse conditions to this, it explains a lot of things. It explains the level of begging and grime in the centre, and it explains the sheer industriousness of the city.

We were dropped back in the city centre, and even though we had a new-found guilt about it, all we wanted to do was to go to a nice clean restaurant with air-conditioning for lunch, to clean off and cool down – we went to the lovely Delhi Darbar on Colaba Causeway and tried to make sense of what we'd just seen.

Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, we walked around the monumental Victorian buildings of the central area, and made our way to the Oval Maidan to watch some cricket - there must have been at least 50 games going on at the same time, and there was no way to tell where one game started and one game ended. This place was like India in microcosm - totally overcrowded; full of ingenuity (as cricket bats and stumps were improvised by those who couldn't afford them); and full of enthusiasm and vitality as we were constantly hounded by over-enthusiastic boys to take their photos.

But, at the end of an exhausting day, a fabulous tour had raised more questions than it had answered – can India ever become a major world power when it has social problems and social inequalities of that depth? How do people live with such pride and dignity in such conditions? What can we do to improve things? Will I ever look at India the same way again?

An inspiring and slightly disconcerting day.

April 7th – Goa

We didn't have too long a stay in Goa, so we got off the ship asap, and braved the taxi drivers to find one who would take us to Panjim, Goa's capital for a decent price. We eventually found a driver for $40 for the day, which I'm sure was way over the odds but we didn't have time to muck around.

He drove us there at top speed, weaving in and out of the traffic, saving all his overtaking manoeuvres for blind bends, but we got there in one piece in about 45 minutes. Of course, rather than the particular church that we'd requested to be taken to, we were dropped off at an obligatory souvenir shop where we had the usual argument that we didn't want to go there, while he said we'd only have to stay a couple of minutes until he was given his petrol tokens. For once, hard-nosed Tracy was the soft touch, and she pretended to be interested in buying stuff, while he hopped round to the back of the shop to get his backhander.

This cheered him up, so we got dropped off in the atmospheric Sao Tome district where, if you ignored the hooting traffic and smell of curry, could easily have been mistaken for a provincial Portuguese town. Panjim was the capital of the Portuguese colony of Goa from the 18th century, and so it's full of grand government buildings and colourful old mansions, many of which are now crumbling away.

As we explored, we popped our head into a building that said that it was a winery – this is not an area that you'd associate with wine production so we thought that it was worth further investigation. The owner was very friendly and told us that we probably wouldn't like the wine because the local market dictated that the taste and quality of the wine didn't really matter, as long as it was strong – "here, people only drink wine to get drunk, they just need it to be strong". It sounded a bit like our wine drinking criteria from University days, so we bought a (plastic) bottle for 80 rupees ($1.50) – not sure when we'll find an occasion to drink it.

Then we went to the town's centrepiece – the towering Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, tiered up like a gleaming white wedding cake, with a cascading set of stairs leading up to it. In spite of increasing Hindu influence and large numbers of Northern Indians moving to Goa, the province is still 30% Catholic, and there were lots of people praying in there.

From here, we struggled through the heat to the market, where the sights, sounds and smells of the frenetic fish and meat market were almost overwhelming. To a background theme tune of excitable shouts from the vendors, the floor was awash with fishy water and fishy body parts; while the chickens were weighed up alive, and then butchered up on the spot for any purchasers. There was blood literally spattered all over the walls – it was nearly enough to turn me vegetarian (nearly, but not quite).

Then we went to the covered fruit and vegetable market which smelt much better, but was just as frenetic. The people were overwhelmingly friendly though, and any smile from us, was returned with a smile from them.

Somehow, the stomach churning sights hadn't put us off our food, so we went to a restaurant which was picked on the basis of it a) being busy, and b) having air conditioning. The A/C section charged a 50% premium on your food, which pushed the prices up to $2 for a Thali, but again it was delicious – even if it was strange that many of the middle class Indians in the A/C section were actually eating sandwiches on white bread (reassuringly, in the sweaty working class section, everyone was eating curries).

After lunch, we did a bit more wandering, before our impatient taxi driver ushered us back to the port. Unbeknownst to him however, we weren't going straight back – we called in to see Henry, the lovely Goan barman on board, who was visiting his family and his one month-old daughter who'd been born while he was away at sea, and was seeing for the very first time. With typical Goan hospitality, he insisted that we eat some more food which has mother had prepared, so we politely ate as much as we could, before leaving him to his touching reunion.

Another lovely day.

April 5th – Cochin with Tweedledum and Tweedledummer

Today we'd booked an Indian cookery course for the evening, and the agency that we'd booked it through had offered to get us a guide and driver for the day – the price was so cheap that we thought, why not?

I guess you get what you pay for, because these guys were useless – they literally didn't know where they were going, so we constantly had to stop to ask for directions. To be fair to them, they were both nice guys, but I think that Tracy and I both knew Cochin better than our "local" experts. The driver actually spoke the better English and had more information than the "guide", who was pointless and unintelligible – we came to the theory that he may have had suffered some severe head trauma at some stage of his life.

Our programme was that they would first take us to the local market, so we could get an idea of the ingredients used in the local cuisine. We were fairly certain that there wasn't a market in Fort Cochin itself (the historic area), so we were surprised that this was where we were heading from the port. It then turned out that they were taking us to a clothes store – not the place you'd expect to see much fruit and veg.

Tracy displayed her usual patience and went mad at them, and insisted that they take us to the market – they took us to a lone fruit shop which they drove past quickly and pointed at and said "market?" hopefully. They then insisted on taking us to the Chinese Fishing Nets, where we helped to haul up the rocks and counter-weights that make up this ancient, but hugely inefficient fish-catching contraption. Apparently it wasn't the right season to catch much, but our haul of 5 tiny fish, a plastic bag and a coke can didn't seem a decent return on the labour of 6 men.

After wandering around Fort Cochin for a while, they'd managed to find out that the main market was on Ernakulam on the mainland (as we'd told them it would be), so finally we headed over there. On the way, we stopped for lunch at a fairly unprepossessing place – but, it was reassuringly busy with locals and the Tweedledums were willing to eat there, so we gave it a go. For $1 each, we had a lovely thali and set of chapattis – we will see tomorrow if this bargain was a good idea or not.

After lunch, as we walked to the market, they took us to a spice shop where we bought a few spices that would ensure our curry making back home will be delicious, and finally (after again having to ask for directions a couple more times), we made it to the market. It was pretty big and its narrow little lanes were full of exotic produce, much of which we (and our ever knowledgeable guides) didn't recognise, but unfortunately, by now we only had 5 minutes to explore.

Our next appointment was to take a boat trip on a Tourist Board operated boat, which went from Ernakulam back to exactly where we had just come from – Fort Cochin. This time we had a guide who actually knew what he was talking about, and inspite of having a tour party numbering around 60 people, he was unusually attentive to us (as the only non-Indians on board, he obviously saw us as a big tip in the making).

So, again we went to the fishing nets and did a bit more exploring of Fort Cochin, before we got on the boat again and headed to Matancherry where we explored Jew Town and visited the 17th century synagogue. By this time, the heat was wearing us down, so it was time for a much-needed cold beer before the cooking course.

The cooking course was decidedly low-tech when compared to what we'd done in Vietnam and Bangkok – it was in the small kitchen of local guest house, so the lady did the chopping and cooking while we watched, and we had to write down our notes rather than being given handouts. However, the food was just as delicious, as we were shown how to make our own curry pastes and taken through various mouth-watering recipes. Of course, the best bit was getting a chance to eat what had been prepared – lovely.

So, it was time to get back to the ship, which meant that there was just enough time for the Tweedledums to get lost again on the way back to the port – by now, this was totally expected and gave us a few laughs on the way.

Not the day we expected, but fun nonetheless.