The third time around

We had one day in Singapore – enough time for some revisits and a couple of new things. After gawking at the luxury shops on Orchard Street we headed to a Malaysian restaurant Wilf had read about. Found it without trouble, waited in line and then discovered that the cafeteria style service was all in Malay, served by people who didn’t speak English. So – we pointed at things that looked good and settled in.

I think western tourists are not that common. We attracted a fair amount of friendly attention, and comments about the spicy food. In fact one gal stopped to chat, looked at Wilf’s plate and told him to be very careful of the bones in the fish. Then she saw the chili sauce. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘That is not for English people. Too hot’ and took the spoon out of his hand and scraped it to one side where it would not hurt him. We had a whole fish, some skate, some calimari, unknown to us green veg, coconut milk soup, rice and iced coffees for about $20.00. We considered it a great success.

After lunch we walked a bit and then took a cab to Little India. We must have looked particularly sweaty and disheveled because as we getting out of the cab the driver was calling after us ‘ Walk slowly! Drink water! We walked a bit and looked at the gold jewelry on offer.

What do you think – just the thing for coffee in Sidney?

Both previous visits to Singapore included trips to the Gardens by the Bay but we had never been at night. Now we’ve done that. Very impressive light show with music. People pretty much lay anywhere to watch. We were glad to find a spot to sit – even in my grubby sweaty state I wasn’t prepared to lay down on the walkway. Besides – what if I couldn’t get up again?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes Sharon and Wilf’s adventures across the Indian Ocean. Over 8000km, 35 days on board. It has been a blast. A long day of travel tomorrow and we’ll be home again.

An intelligent city?

We stopped in Malaysia at Port Klang. Kuala Lumpur is about 90 minutes inland. We’d been there before and decided to see what other options were available. Around 20years ago the government decided to move its administrative offices out of the crazy of KL, and built themselves a new city. It is called Putrajaya and is heralded as an intelligent city, designed to be Green and well planned. The kind of place people would want to live in.

We visited the very impressive botanical gardens. It was really really hot, so we were rather skulking through the shrubberies trying to avoid heatstroke.

We then went to see the main square, which is where the main mosque is located. Everything is beautifully landscaped, and there are a series of man made lakes, which makes for lovely vistas.

Faced with the choice between visiting the mosque and:

We went for the durian ice cream.

While the city and its buildings were very beautiful and dramatic the city seemed to suffer from the problem not uncommon to cities designed to impress- they are more lovely than liveable. The streets are so wide, the buildings so big and widely spaced that there are no people out and about. And it’s not just a question of the heat. Kuala Lumpur may be noisy, crowded and dirty – but it is alive!

A golden city

Myanmar – a mysterious and controversial country. When we passed this way five years ago it seemed like the country was just beginning to open to tourism on a larger scale. This time we stopped for three days/two nights. There are several crew members from Myanmar on board who were excited to have a day off at home. And a new fellow joined the restaurant crew – his first time away from home. He admits to being a bit homesick.

We sailed up the Yangon River to the port of Thanylin. The river has a tidal drop of almost 20 feet. The port can handle big ships, but there is a lot of time spent making adjustments to the boat’s position. For us that meant moving the gangway every three hours or so. The people on deck three spent a lot of time looking at the side of the pier as they were below the level of the pier when the tide was out. The port is about 10years old and has no facilities for passenger ships, so on the bus for us. The port is not that far from the city, but the ride can vary from 60 to 90 minutes. For us it was 90 minutes – busy Friday morning.

Our first stop was the Shwedagon pagoda complex. Turns out ‘shwe’ means golden in the Myanmar language. Good description.

Each country we visit has a different expression of Buddhism- things seem quite complex here. The pagoda complex is huge with stupas and temples and miles of marble walkways. No shoes, no socks. It was good that we were there before it got really hot (topped out over 40C that day)

So many things to see :

After visiting the golden pagoda we went to see another Buddha- this one a giant reclining Buddha who lives in a huge house, surrounded by hundreds of smaller golden Buddhas.

We had time on our own on our second day, so back on the bus (being the weekend it was only an hour each way!)

With the help of a local lady we managed to cross that sea of traffic.

The combination of the heat and humidity mixed with the pollution means that the buildings very quickly start to look beaten down. The air quality was very poor- when we got back on the bus after our touring we were given damp cloths to cool ourselves. It was shocking how dirty we were just from walking around in that air. And sweating. A lot!

We shopped at the big market

But mostly we wandered and saw what the local people were buying and eating. We didn’t think street food was a good idea, but we did have a very good noodle lunch in a tiny little restaurant.

I think we may have to go back.

Hello again Cochi

Five years ago we cruised the Indian Ocean, and one of the highlights of that trip was the excursion we took out from Cochi, India. The river that empties into the ocean at Cochi takes a long and wandering path across the flats and we took a boat tour of the meandering waterway. It was a long and interesting day and we remember it fondly. This time around we decided to visit the city. The Portuguese came this way in the 1500’s and found a small Jewish population in place back then. Over the many centuries the western powers have passed this area amongst themselves until Indian independence. This has meant that there is a higher than usual percentage of Christians in this state, both RC and Anglican. And many churches that day way way back. There is also a collection of synagogues. And in a typically Indian way they are all scrambled together, so the churchyard over looks the temple and the mosque is in the background.

Our tour began in the historic Jew Town. Writing that makes me uncomfortable – couldn’t we call it the Jewish Quarter? As you can see the streets are narrow and lined with little shops. There was a lot of pent up shopping demand regarding Cochi – the word was this was the place to buy clothing. And everyone is getting pretty sick of their own clothes by now. The round the world people must be really feeling it. (Dinner that night was a bit of a fashion show!)

There is a very old synagogue in this area. There are no longer enough people to constitute an congregation, but the synagogue is endowed and is used for special occasions.

As we walked along the street members of our group would be darting in and out of the shops, emerging with bags.

We were the first customer of the day and he had our purchase bagged and ready to go before the picture was taken. And no, I didn’t buy another pashmina! A tea cozy shaped like an elephant to remind of us our trip.

Aren’t these two statues great? No way to get them in the checked luggage, however.

The second part of the tour involved a walk along the shore to see the fishermen, their nets and stalls, ending with a boat ride in the harbour.

There were hundreds and hundreds of these boats. It was Sunday, so many of the fishermen were in port. Apparently there are 4000 or so of these small boats in this area. And the fish processing plants and ice plants that support them. A large part of what makes this area work.

Both Mangalore and Cochi did not look like the scenes of poverty and despair that we often associate with parts of India. Both states have over 90% literacy and are relatively prosperous. One thing that we didn’t see in either place was begging. Of course we didn’t see everything and life is very difficult for the rural ( and urban) poor. These two ‘small’ states (each of which has a population greater than Canada!) do seem to be making progress.

City of industry

It is entertaining to wake up, open the curtains, and see what new place we have arrived in. Sometimes we are far from the action, other times we are in the thick of it. When we opened the curtains in Mangalore, India we were greeted with – industry. Piles of coal. Steel mill. Cement factory. And of course any time you have piles of coal around – dust. Things looked rather grubby and beat down.

We had a tour booked – a short one. Usually when the tours in a big city are all short that means there is nowhere that the cruise line feels is acceptable to take us for lunch. In this heat we’re feeling that shorter is better, so we were good with a short visit.

Mangalore is a busy place. There were the usual vendors at the port, but once we were out and about very little obvious tourist infrastructure. The city looked better than the port.

Our first stop was a house from the English colonial period. Somehow the house has survived and has been lovingly restored and tended by the current family, who raised their family there. We had a chance to meet the owners and tour the house. It was very nice and very interesting. Especially the kitchen. When they bought it after the war there was a hearth and fire in the floor. Now it has all the mod cons. As you know Indian cuisine requires the preparation of many spices into blends. Someone has to grind grind grind with a mortar and pestle. This house had a mechanized version:

There’s a burr on the top – he is holding a coconut in place. Once the meat is ground out he puts it into the bottom portion where the coconut and spices are ground round and round and round into a paste.

Back on the bus and off to the fruit and vegetable market. We passed the fish market but our guide said we wouldn’t be stopping ‘Odour is very bad’. Hard to argue with that!

It was interesting to walk through the market – so many unfamiliar and interesting fruits and vegs. And so many kinds of bananas!

The souvenir sellers in India can be very aggressive. It is hard as a tourist to be in refusal mode most of the time. This was a tour where I felt like we met more of the naturally open, friendly, kind people of India. They knew we weren’t going to buy 25lbs of bananas and a durian fruit. They welcomed us, asked where we were from and tried to make connections. A good memory!

Malé is a mystery

Of all the places I never expected to visit once, let alone twice Malé, Maldives may be at the top of the list. And yet, there we were. The island is less than 1 kilometre square and sits on a coral atoll that has been added to over time. Officially around 60,000 people live there, but apparently everyone has a brother or a cousin staying so the number may be as high as 100,000. How does this work?

Since we were by last they have added a lot of high rise buildings and way more scooters. There are not that many trucks or cars, but thousands of scooters. In a place that is 1km at its widest point.

Most tourists beat it to the other islands where the resorts are – there’s not a huge amount to see and do in the city. Fish market….

But as we were walking around we kept wondering about things. Where does the water come from? Where is the sewage treated? How and where do they generate electricity’s? The next island over has the airport and industrial concerns. I assume that is where the infrastructure is and stuff is piped to the other islands – there were blue pipes along the curbs on most of the tiny twisty streets carrying something. I gather that the country is a transhipping port as it lays in the big shipping lanes – east west ships drop off and pick up cargo that is travelling north, so that is one way they make money. And tourism, of course.

Behind the national museum there was a park – the Sultan’s Park. I don’t remember it as being anything special, but in a concrete island it was one speck of green. In the ensuing 5 years it has been completely redone and is quite spectacular. I was particularly intrigued by this structure:

This looks like the work of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, a Canadian based Japanese textile artist. I could find no attribution, however. Looks like fun, though. There was also this sculpture – a dying tree from the old park was re-purposed.

The sign for the park said it was free for Maldivians. The equivalent of USD5.00 for expats. I didn’t think to much of it – a foreign aid contribution. Reading later I discovered that charge is controversial. Side benefit is making money from foreign tourists. The real target is labourers from India. The old park was apparently where those workers met on their day off. Now they can’t afford the entrance fee and have nowhere to go on their day off. Mine, mine, mine – the same the world over.

If it is good enough for Will and Kate.

Our first stop after leaving Africa was the island of Mahe, one of the Seychelles. What a beautiful place! It is different from many tropical islands in that it is not a volcanic remnant, nor is it an atoll. In their long dance across the eons the continents once met here, and when they wandered off again there remained a chunk of granite that has eroded away over the millennia to be the chain of islands that is the Seychelles. There is not the red soil of a volcanic island, nor the flatness of an atoll. Rather the land rises up into huge granitic outcrops, which are draped in lush jungle vegetation. On Mahe there has been a lot of land reclamation to make flat areas – otherwise there is a lot of going either up or down.

Beautiful coral sand beaches, but with granite!

Our first stop was at a spice farm. Where we saw a tree that produced these flowers.

They don’t even look real!

There were some resident tortoises for us to observe, including this somewhat confused guy.

The lady tortoise was in the pond and this guy was climbing aboard anything that had a shell. Guy on the bottom didn’t seem too impressed.

This trip also included a bit of snorkeling – which meant walking into the Indian Ocean to board a zodiac.

Once on the catamaran I deployed the mask and fins.

A few years back a spell of warm weather raised the water temperature and killed off a lot of the coral. The big resorts and deeper areas weren’t as affected. In this little bay apparently the damage was extensive, but there are signs of regrowth. Where we swam the coral was dead but it was covered in a thick layer of sea grasses and there were fish everywhere. So – not a pristine coral experience but fun snorkeling.

Out of Africa

Back in the day, in the early 1980’s I was very interested in Karen Blixen, her life and the lives of the people around her. I read Out of Africa, and Judith Thurman’s bio of Blixen, along with biographies and auto biographies of her contemporaries. I was thrilled when the movie was made (even if Robert Redford was just wrong wrong wrong for the movie) and couldn’t wait to go see it. Wilf and I went with our friend Elizabeth. A few minutes into the movie Streep recites the opening line of the book I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills and the tears began. By the end Wilf said he had to wring his socks out with two weeping women on his hands. But – the story, the music, the cinematography!

We arrived in Mombasa and immediately transferred to the airport for a very special excursion. We flew to the foothills of Kilimanjaro to Ambolesi National Park.

12 person planes

As much of Kilimanjaro as we would see:



Enough water comes down from the mountain to make permanent water places in the midst of the near desert. As we were coming in to the air strip I realized that what I was seeing below was elephants standing in the water. The flight up was so wonderful and so interesting that I could have turned around and gone straight back. But there was more.

We’ve been so busy looking at the ‘charismatic megafauna ‘ that I haven’t really talked about the beautiful birds. Like the crown bird:

Or the maribou stork

Or all the fast moving little birds. And then there was this guy – who is not beautiful.

Jackal sitting right beside the road, licking its paws. We couldn’t figure out why it was staying put. We moved onto a bridge over a small culvert and then we knew. It’s very dead lunch was tucked away in the culvert. Bad smell.

After a lunch and an afternoon drive (it’s kind of embarrassing how quickly ‘oh, another zebra’ sets in) we flew back down to the coast.

It was a wonderful day and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have seen it all.

The next day the afternoon movie was Out of Africa. I was a little worried – what if it didn’t stand the test of time?

I needn’t have worried. When the lights went up there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Front row seats

I, for some reason, am interested in container ports. I like the look – the repeating patterns of the stacks of containers, the lines made by the cranes, the colours, all of it. Usually container ports are busy but quiet, things happening without commotion but with intention as trucks come in and out, containers are loaded and unloaded and everything happens as it should. When we opened the curtains in Zanzibar, however we hardly knew what we were seeing. Chaos. Confusion. Mess. People. Shouting. But we had a tour to take so off we went. When we returned, slayed by the heat, we went up to have lunch. We found a table by the window and tried to sort out what was going on.

We’re on deck 9, looking over the container port itself at what appears to be a ferry landing. I won’t call it a terminal because as you can see the people, the many hundreds of people, are wading into the water to board the boats. The tide is falling, so they are wading further and further out and the moored vessels are leaning more and more. In the second picture you can see that a boat appears to be on fire. At first we were a bit excited, but no on out there seemed concerned. At least there was no running around. A Viking funeral? The old ‘you owe me money and I’m going to burn your boat down’ story? Eventually we could see that the flames were moving around the bottom of the boat from front to back. After the second and third of this (the further the tide went out the more flaming boats happened) we decided they were sealing the outside of the boat with tar and after the flames went out they would go in and smooth the now liquid tar out on the boat hull. That would also explain the prevailing smell and haze. Having sorted that we returned to our cabin to consider the scene night in front of us.

In this part of the port the containers are arranged in streets and a being emptied right there. The active containers are the second level – the easier to drop things down to the waiting truck. The guys emptying the container of drywall board were at it all day (36C), loading little trucks with frightening quantities of board. When a truck would pull away guys would hustle broken and damaged pieces of wall board into one of the ground level containers. Further back (truck with bright yellow containers in the back) they were unloading big plastic containers of cooking oil, which they would drop from the second story onto a pad on the truck bed. Which meant that some bounced right out of the truck, some rattled around the truck bed. The truck bed was slick with oil so there had been some breakage. It was amazing that no one got hurt by a flying container. Across the ‘street’ an entire container of ‘ Super Mama’ laundry detergent was being loaded bag by bag into a series of waiting trucks. And closest to us was a container that appeared to be huge bundles of second hand clothes. Some were addressed to people, some had a series of codes. Some had oops ‘broken’ open and the unloaders were pulling things out and putting them in their own bags. You can get a lot of bundles of clothes in a shipping container.

The other parts of the port seemed to be more like a regular container port with trucks in and out and cranes moving round stacks of boxes. Not everything was arriving by container ship :

No one seemed terribly fussed by the lean on this boat as they were off loading it.

It was really hot:

It took a long time and a quantity of beer before we could even rouse ourselves to get out of our touring clothes (long pants, long sleeves to keep the sun and bugs off and to respect the local sensibilities) It was a very entertaining afternoon and someday when I have enough bandwidth I’ll post a little video so you can see and hear what it was like.

Zanzibar – the spice island

We were told that so many spices were grown on Zanzibar that we would smell them as we sailed in. The previous day, as we arrived at Dar Es Salam we woke up and both said ‘What’s that smell?’ Something burnt – but not a fire. Not electrical. Sort of petrochemical. We eventually settled on burning tires. Same thing in Zanzibar. We eventually found out what it was, but that is another post. We had booked a private tour for Zanzibar and Jackson was waiting for us at the dock. Off we went to a spice farm. Once upon a time the tourists would be taken first to a cinnamon farm, then cloves, then nutmeg…..until someone said maybe we should put a few of all the plants in one place and then not have to haul the tourists all over the island. So that is where we went – a demonstration farm that does produce spices but is set up to show us some of everything. It felt sort of like being back at school, as we were handed leaf after leaf to identify by smell.

Jackson is quizzing me. Ibrahim, in the background, works on the farm. He has made me a little cup out of a leaf that I am holding – to hold all the things they are giving me.

Ibrahim demonstrates usage of the lipstick plants. He also climbs trees to retrieve specimens when required.

Vanilla beans and pepper berries:

Nutmeg (and mace)

You can probably tell by my pink face that it is HOT! 36C that day and the humidity at OMG%. We discovered where on board we could get bottles of Gatorade, so in addition to the bottles of water they hand us as we leave the ship my bag is full of Gatorade. What really saved us on this tour that pretty much all of it was under the trees and out of the direct sun. Of course the farm operators know their pale pasty visitors are prone to keeling over, so we stopped while one of their guys ran up a palm tree(!), sang a song, came down and opened the coconut for us to drink.

Our guide in Dar, when he would run out of things to say, would burst out with the same song. Now I know a few Swahili words jambo for hello, asante for thank you, karibu for welcome and hakuna matata- no problem!

While we were walking Ibrahim was picking up palm fronds and weaving, and at the end of the tour we were presented with our finery:

Crowns, jewellery and a tie. Of course, being us we wore them. Even when we were dropped at the gate to the port and walked through the very busy port – much to the amusement of the port workers. Once on board we had to surrender our finery. The nightly newsletter has note saying that wooden and plant material souvenirs would be collected at boarding, inspected, fumigated and then returned to us to prevent bringing spiders (and other things) onboard. Hard to argue with that.

So, we were back at the ship by 11:30 am after what felt like a very busy morning. And then things got interesting.