Ever since we left India we have been travelling in what has been identified as “high risk” seas. In the last ten years there have been a number of attacks on ships from pirates out of Somalia. From a high of more than 200 attacks annually to last year when there were only a handful, ships need to take additional precautions when transiting this region. The Amsterdam is no exception.
We are now travelling between Somalia and Yemen. The ship has now been rigged with high pressure water hoses every 20-30 feet along the third floor promenade. The hoses are charged and ready to go. Crew assigned to the hoses lie on their stomachs and direct the water spray along the sides of the ship in order to sweep any potential pirate back into the sea. In addition to the high pressure hoses, a series of high intensity sound generators have now appeared on the upper levels. The highly directional sound generators also act to repel any approaching pirates. Additional security with night visions goggles are patrolling the decks around the clock. Guests are asked to keep all outside windows covered from sundown to sun up and any outside lights are covered including the curtains in the dining room and in the lido (casual dining).
While the risk is considered low the captain is taking all precautions. He noted in a letter to all passengers that while unseen by passengers, we were being shadowed by naval ships from coalition countries. He also added that the best deterrent we had was our speed and therefore through the risk area we would be travelling at our maximum speed of about 25 knots. In a drill for all passengers and crew we had to come out of our cabins, sit on the floor away from any windows while the crew manned the high pressure hoses. Sitting on the floor is necessary as passengers might be toppled if the ship had to make any evasive moves at such a high speed.
We come out of the high risk areas midway up the Red Sea. The greeting on the ship for these days has been……Seen any pirates?
After much anticipation, Muscat did not disappoint. The scenery was spectacular and after what we saw in India and Indonesia there was just no comparison.
Muscat is perched on the water’s edge with mountains directly behind the city. Streets were paved, there was absolutely no litter and the grass was green and trimmed as if it was on a putting green. Cars were modern with every type of luxury vehicle on the road beside you.
We saw beautiful buildings, one after another with marble and granite walkways that you could eat off. There is virtually no crime here and anyone who is out of work for more than a short period of time is placed in the armed forces or the police department. In other words, everyone has a job and the country provides land and homes for all. Also interesting was the continuing tradition that marriages are arranged and the family unit consists of the children, their parents and their grandparents. They live and eat together in the family home. Children who achieve more than 85% in high school at graduation are automatically sent to schools of higher learning abroad with room, board and tuition paid by the country. How is this all possible in this day and age?
Oman is governed by a Sultan who has absolute authority. He is the commander of the armed forces, chief magistrate and country treasurer among other titles. He assumed power when he deposed his father in 1970. Also of interest to us was the fact that the sultan has two super yachts (picture below) and they were both in port. He uses them as floating palaces when he goes outside the country for meetings. We also visited the royal palace, only to learn the sultan has six residences and not all of them are in Oman. One is in Germany and he maintains another one in Great Britain. The wealth is staggering and it is all from gas and oil exports and an expanding tourism business. Another cruise ship was in port while we were there. It had 3500 passengers on board. Even the port was spotless and appeared to have been washed prior to our arrival. You have to ask yourself how all this can be accomplished—is it the fact that it is a monarchy or could this be accomplished in a democracy?
More pictures of Muscat in the next posting.
As I said previously there is so much to see in Mumbai. Fortunately one of our two days was a Sunday and the streets were less crowded than normal. Mumbai has no subway system but the combination of a railway that brings everyone in and out of the city and a collection of taxis, with and without air conditioning make for traffic jams you would not believe.
A visit to Dhobi Ghat was a highlight of Mumbai. There for more than a hundred years, laundry is brought to this central city location to be soaped, soaked, boiled and beaten and then ironed. The scene is a rainbow of colour and there is no laundry ticket. How they keep individual orders for laundry separate is a mystery to this day as there is no paper record. Today the majority of the laundry processed here is commercial but not exclusively as the pictures demonstrate. Around the laundry are some of the worst slums you can ever imagine. An interesting anecdote is that only men work in the laundry.
In contrast to the laundry there is the arch known as the Gateway to India. Built in 1911 under British control, the monument sits on the waterfront to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. Originally it was the entrance to India for steamers arriving from Great Britain and was also the location for the final departure of the British in 1948. A central square immediately in front of it overflows with visitors while the backside of the arch is the ferry terminal.
As we leave Mumbai, we enter pirate waters. The next blog will detail the ship’s precautions to prevent an attack by pirates as we cross the Arabian Sea. Many of the passengers are not sure of what to make of the threat.
After weeks of speculation about what we were about to see in Mumbai, the city did not disappoint. While it is hard to suggest we saw everything there was to see in two days, we certainly got to experience this port city at its best and at its worst.
Our ship the Amsterdam could not have been in a safer location as we were docked next door to the Indian Naval Headquarters. Alongside us at the various docks were frigates, destroyers, an aircraft carrier and six submarines. From our deck and cabin we could peer down and watch the activity. Flag raising and flag lowering on those ships is still a formal ceremony which we were able to witness both days.
Mumbai has a rich history. British rule ended in 1947 but the traditions continue. British architecture is seen everywhere. Victoria station, the main railroad stop in Mumbai sees 6 million passengers a day pass through those gates. Cattle still wander through the main streets seemingly oblivious to the traffic that knows nothing about lanes or right of way.
In a matter of a few minutes you can travel from the opulent Taj Palace Hotel on the waterfront to the slums of Mumbai. Begging is everywhere and families seem to camp out on street corners waiting for a handout.
We were fortunate to visit the home of Ghandi and see where lived and hear of the early beginnings of his life and leadership. He was a lawyer by profession and started his campaign for human rights when he like so many other countrymen was asked to leave a railway car that was deemed to be ”white only”. His teachings were basic human rights yet even today, seem too advanced for major sectors of the population. A surprise was the predominance of elections signs promoting the communist party and the use of the hammer and sickle emblem on those posters.
In spite of the poverty, our tour guide was quick to point out the significance of medical tourism where individuals come from around the world for medical procedures where they can pay for faster service or obtain services unavailable in their place of residence. We also learned, that the one number one export of India was not a fruit, vegetable or spice but registered nurses. Who would have thought!
Certainly two days isn’t enough to truly see the city but then again it was enough. More on Mumbai in the next post.
After Sri Lanka we headed west and then south around the tip of India. I think the cruise line decided to introduce India to the passengers in a very gentle way and to give us a small taste of what is to come when we arrive in Mumbai or Bombay as it was originally called.
Cochin is a coastal city midway between the southern tip of India and Mumbai, the capital. Cochin for thousands of years has drawn sailors and their trade to Cochin’s multiple canals and waterways. Pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves were shipped from here for centuries, first by the Chinese, the Romans, then the Dutch and finally the British.
The world famous Chinese fishing nets welcome you to the harbour and have come to symbolize the city. Our tour took us inland to visit the town of Alleppey, known as the Venice of the East. Alleppey is nestled amid a thick tangle of lush tropical vegetation and dense palm groves. House boats travel the extensive network of rivers, lakes, canals and lagoons of this area. LIfe on the river is very different here when compared to the big cities and our houseboat excursion provided a great glimpse of family life, commerce and traditions that have remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Villagers bathe in the waters, clean their dishes, wash their clothes and animals, all at the same time raising and lowering the water levels for their extensive rice fields. Boat building is traditional and there were literally hundreds of houseboats plying the water. Tourists charter these boats for 22 hours. They come complete with bedrooms, a dining room, three crew members and large generators powering air conditioning and all the latest in electronic gadgets that guests may wish to power. The bathrooms (washrooms) were modern but I still cannot figure out how and where the shower and bath water is discharged.
From the cruise ship port to this backwater area was about two hours by bus and it is apparent garbage is disposed by simply throwing it out of your residence window to be piled high along the streets. We were told it is a generational issue with reform coming slowly but only from a younger generation. The smells, the filth and the density of the people and traffic make a stark contrast to the first class resort where we were treated to an amazing lunch cooked before our eyes of fresh Indian seafood, fresh fruit and local desserts.
On to Mumbai for two days.
Sri Lanka is an island off the south-west coast of India. Originally a Dutch colony and then a British colony, the name of this country was changed from Ceylon in the mid 1970’s. Since that time the government has attempted to eliminate the name “Ceylon” and has been relatively successful with the exception of its number one export—Ceylon Tea. They have decided from a marketing standpoint it would be a mistake to change the brand name.
The capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo and that is where we docked for our one day stay. The population of Colombo is greater than 5 million so you can imagine how busy it was. The Chinese, interestingly enough are investing billions of dollars here, especially along the waterfront and in the industrial port. As an aside the Captain of the Amsterdam noted that the Australian navy had two large naval vessels in port. Their purpose is seems is to “fly the flag” and make the point that there are countries other than China that can be relied upon to support Sri Lanka.
A highlight of our stop was a trip to the market and the classic shot of the local butcher. The dry fish merchants have an unbelievable collection of products as do the vegetable merchants. The colonial buildings are stunning. Our mode of transportation was the “tuk tuk” which is a two person cab fitted over a standard motorcycle. For less than $5. American they scoot you back and forth around the city. You can literally reach out the side of the vehicle and touch whatever is passing you—cars, buses, trucks, other tuk tuks and motorcycles. It is quite an experience and everyone was talking about it at dinner.
Next up are the two stops in India. (The temperature today in Colombo is 95 degrees)
Singapore is in some respects like Hong Kong. You are not sure how the two distinct locations have developed to the point where they are both examples of the best of the best. How did this happen and what type of government control exists so that so much could be accomplished in such a short period of time? In Toronto we build a mile of subway in ten years. Here in Singapore they are building daily and for the most part it is all underground and very expensive. The cruise ship terminal where we docked has its own subway station called Harbourfront. You never go outside from the ship to get there as it is all under cover. In addition to the direct subway connection you are in two high end shopping and commercial malls built as part of the docks. Commercial shipping does not share these docks and is in a totally different part of Singapore. You cannot smoke outside in Singapore and no chewing gum is allowed. Our visa to enter Singapore states that “death” is the penalty for selling drugs.
Singapore as stated in an earlier post is totally cosmopolitan much in the way Toronto is. We visited Chinatown, Little Italy and Little India with no fear for our security and in each community the streets were vibrant with activity. Here are a few more pictures.
No matter where you go in Singapore everything appears perfect. If there was a negative it had to be the extreme heat and humidity which according to everyone, never lets up.
Singapore is an island without any natural resources (no fresh water either), and has only been a country since 1965. An amazing amount has been done since that time to turn the country into an economic powerhouse—and it shows. The transit system, for example is high speed, goes everywhere and is totally automated, cheap to use, on time and spotless in all aspects.
The harbour, the business district, and the shopping centres are something to behold. The city is also a total mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay and those of us called “other”. The city is in constant motion and the sheer number of shopping malls and blue ribbon companies is mind boggling. As there is no empty space on the island, construction is either down below ground or high as in skyscrapers. The Marina Bay Hotel seen in one of the pics has got to be one of the world’s most amazing hotels. Some of the ship’s passengers elected to spend a night there to experience the setting and to swim in the pool that graces the roof and its 360 degree view. Because there is very little open space, gardens and greenery are frequently planted and found growing on rooftops and in pods on various, higher levels of buildings. It makes for a very attractive city.
In Singapore we visited the Sultan Mosque, located in the centre of Little India where we learned the 5 pillars of Islam. Once again we heard the electronic “call to prayer” and witnessed first hand the importance of the mosque in the centre of town. Unknown to me was also the significance of the Singapore River which winds through the island. We had an opportunity to take a river boat cruise and seem many of the original market homes that line the river and now sell for millions of dollars and rent for almost the same price. The realistic sculpture below, affixed to the side of the Singapore river, depicts five youngsters jumping into the river—a scene we have all seen at our local harbour.
After the negative reviews of some of our past island experiences in Java, Singapore was a welcome relief and another location where we ran out of time for our explorations. As we head out we are now part of an armada of ships of all sizes and shapes making their way along the most crowded waterway (Straights of Malacca) in the world.
By tonight we will be in the Indian Ocean as we head to Sri Lanka.
Semarang Is Easy to Forget!
Semarang, Indonesia will not be a place to rush back to. In spite of having one of the most ancient temples in the world, the traffic, the state of the roads and bridges and appalling poverty makes it a forgettable city.
Needing almost eight hours to travel less than 60 miles made it an easy decision to avoid the ship tour and travel only into the centre of the city. Even that was an adventure in itself. While other Indonesian cities have a mix of cars, trucks, bicycles and scooters, here it seems everyone has a motorized scooter. There are no lines marking lanes on the roads and there is another roundabout coming up at the next turn.
Highly illegal in North America, it was not uncommon to see a mother, father and two children on a scooter carrying the shopping of the day. While the parents wore helmets, the kids do not—go figure.
The majority of the residents live in shacks alongside the roads. Women, for the most part have their heads covered. As distinct from Bali where 85% of the population is Hindu, in Semarang the majority is Moslem. As the ship was leaving we could clearly hear the “call to prayer” being broadcast over tower loudspeakers across the city.
We did, however, visit a very modern and exclusive mall for some retail therapy. In the midst of all this poverty, someone has built a shopping mall with every high end shop you could imagine. Ships’ passengers seemed to love the batik shop as most passengers that night seemed to be wearing traditional patterned Indonesian designs.
Tomorrow is a sea day and then we enter the busiest shipping channel in the world as we dock in Singapore.